August 28, 2016

Democracy and control of Citizens

We have recognized that humans in groups larger than 150 require an external form of behavioral regulation that is ephemeral and must be renewed continuously. The invention and enforcement of rules occur within hierarchical organizations that, by their own nature are autocratic and self-serving. Citizens living in democracies must prevent subgroups with vested interests from achieving control over critical functions such as the money supply, police, courts and military forces. Subgroups are always competing for resources and control so that the freedom promised in an ideal democracy cannot be considered stable and enduring. The preservation of democracies requires an energetic and well educated population of activists who are prepared to defend freedoms and privileges on a daily basis. The preservation of freedom in democracies also depends on a well educated and dedicated population of civil servants who can administer complex infrastructures competently and honestly.

Elected politicians are seldom competent administrators and must depend on senior civil servants for management skills. One weakness of democratic governments is that personnel and policies are in constant flux because of the instability of political processes. This weakness is also strength since truly democratic elections can shuffle the deck so that power bases, among both elected official and civil servants are disrupted at regular intervals. The trade-off is less competent administration in favor of less dictatorial government. The greater evil is clearly the emergence of a powerful government that assumes dictatorial powers and cannot be opposed or displaced. 

Another weakness is that governments grow large and unmanageable. Bureaucratic inefficiency, indifference and incompetence is well known and tolerated only because there is no obvious alternative. In Canada, optimism and idealism is sometimes expressed as compassion for refugees and a willingness to welcome immigrants from all over the world. While the result has been mostly positive, newcomers are sometimes hostile to Canadian culture, disregard laws, engage in criminal activity and dream of taking over the country sometime in the future. Group identity and affiliations established early in life tend to endure and will often override later alliances established after immigration. The tendency in Canada is for immigrant groups to maintain their native language and traditions and to resist assimilation into Canadian culture. A host society has limited capacity to assimilate newcomers. When this capacity is exceeded, the newcomers change the society more that the society changes the newcomers.

Canada, like the USA and many European countries has become mosaic of different ethnic groups with the separate, sometimes incompatible, traditions, languages, beliefs, values and goals.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

July 26, 2016

Impermanence Often Wrongly Described as Plasticity

Everything changes. The largest chunk of uncertainly is impermanence. There are constant paradoxes and contradictions built into our brain function. We must be alert to notice and respond to changes but, at the same time, attempt to be stable and consistent. Our visual system is designed to notice minute changes but ignores most of the movement around us to create the illusion of a stable world in consciousness. Growth, development, and aging are the main expressions of predetermined impermanence that combines DNA programming with environmental opportunities and hazards. You could argue that brain growth and development changes are most vigorous in the first 20 years of life; later, after a brief period of relative stability, degenerative changes take over, accelerating with advancing age.

Too often, I am an unwilling victim of television news nonsense and plasticity is a current favorite topic. Brain damaged survivors are shown with plausible mental abilities, as if their example refuted neuroscience beliefs. The term plasticity has crept into neuroscience jargon and should be erased from the vocabulary. I am not aware of the source of plastic metaphor and can only assume that it refers to a material that can be coaxed into different shapes by heat and pressure using a variety of machines. I cannot see any connection between the malleability of plastic and the constant flux that characterize brain function.

Even smart, educated humans participate in these media delusions. For example, I was surprised to read a report by Allison Gandey from a meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine that revealed basic ignorance among a group of smart professionals. She stated: " Some suggest the discovery of neuroplasticity is the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since the revelation of the brain's basic anatomy. Proponents say the brain is pliable and can alter its structure and function. " One MD even admitted:" We used to think the brain was wired after about the first 3 years and what you had was what you got and you work within that because there was no chance of changing it. If on top of that the brain was damaged, you had to live with that damage. Neuroplasticity says that's not so — the brain is changing all the time."

It is true that the brain is changing all the time, but it is not true that this is a discovery or a breakthrough. It is also not true that lost function is easy to recover. While it might be true that limited recovery of function is possible after brain injury, it is more true that loss of function tends to be permanent after the initial recovery in the first few months. You might consider that some physicians are lost souls with erroneous assumptions and unrealistic fantasies, but then, I also read rather naïve comments about plasticity in the neuroscience literature.

A big problem we have is that while the world around us changes, we also change and the biggest changes occur in our brain. The idea of one personality remaining stable over many years is actually absurd, but we are tempted to believe in an enduring self. An astute observer will notice that each day brings forward a series of different personalities within one body. I call these personalities eigenstates. The self is not one entity but rather consists of a collection eigenstates that serve different needs, roles and capabilities. Some eigenstates are built it others are learned and remain open-ended, evolving with changing circumstances. '

Neurons and glial cells are the brain cells that a manifest all the properties of mind. The study of neurons could be considered ne plus ultra, the quantum mechanics of biology. Neurons come in different shapes and sizes but have the common property of constant changes receiving and sending information. Neurons conduct discrete signals as electro-chemical pulses, known as action potentials or “spikes.” The signal passes from one neuron to another by the secretion of chemical neurotransmitters in synapses. There are trillions of synaptic junctions in the human brain. Learning occurs at least in part by changes in the number, strength and kind of synaptic connections.

Learning, in the best case, is adaptive impermanence that requires changes to brain structure and function. We will consider, for example, that learned movements are generated from dynamic cortical maps based on fields of activity that converge and diverge in complex patterns. Over time, the pieces of the map change with learning and practice, so that the construction of cortical connections is always in flux. This impermanence allows us to learn at all stages of life, to adjust to changing environments and, to some extent, to work around disabilities that arise from brain injury and disease.

Sleep is a transformative time of day. Cortical neurons are active, reviewing events of the day. During slow-wave sleep, the cortex disconnects from other parts of the brain and concentrates on memory consolidation. The emergent properties of the sleeping brain are unpredictable. You could argue that the events of each day will alter the brain during sleep and a new person wakes in the morning.

From Neuroscience Notes by Stephen Gislason MD

July 25, 2016

Killing an Innate Tendency

The Clinton administration launched an attack on people in Texas because those people were religious nuts with guns. Hell, this country was founded by religious nuts with guns. Who does Bill Clinton think stepped ashore on Plymouth Rock? “ P. J. O'Rourke
Human males are predators and naturally express the skills and interest in hunting and killing prey.  Men in the United States commit 85.53 per cent of simple assaults, 87.31 percent of aggravated assaults and 88.5 percent of murders. Women may play a supportive role in by encouraging their men to hate and to kill. Women participate in the construction and maintenance of hatred and can play a decisive role in initiating and sustaining lethal conflicts among men.  Men compete over women and often kill each other to gain an advantage or to revenge sexual trespass. Men and women conspire together to attack and kill rivals to gain property, prestige and ostensibly to protect their lives and property. Anne Campbell observed: ”For males, status and toughness where this quality is a determinant of status is a route to desired resources, including females. Males seek public recognition of their status and  trivial altercations can result in homicide when an opponent's acts are interpreted as a public challenge to a man's honor and when to back down is to accept that dishonor.” 
Anthropologist, John Patton studied the Achuar, a tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon who have a high murder rate. In the 90’s after the introduction of guns, killings increased; 50% of the males die from shotgun blasts.  The Achuar associate killing with prestige. They value the warrior who has strategy, skill, valor, willingness to fight and lack of hesitation in battle. There is a striking similarity between an Aschaur tribe in the Amazon and a street gang in Los Angeles or New York and an army platoon in any country you choose. Patton suggests that men have a keen sense of whom they can and cannot trust in the event of a conflict: "You want to be part of a group that is big enough to beat the other guys or at least be a threat to them, yet not so big that you can't keep everyone fed. Friendships are forged according to who can offer whom or what, as a sort of insurance policy.” Herbert wrote: “Life in the United States is mind-bogglingly violent. But we should take particular notice of the violence brought down on the nation’s women and girls each and every day for no other reason than who they are. They are attacked because they are female.
 A girl or woman somewhere in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes or so. The number of seriously battered wives and girlfriends is beyond the ability of any agency to count. There were so many sexual attacks against women in the armed forces that the Defense Department had to revise its entire approach to the problem. We would become a saner, healthier society if we could acknowledge that misogyny is a serious and pervasive problem, and that the twisted way so many men feel about women, combined with the easy availability of guns, is a toxic mix of the most tragic proportions. 
Guns and killings are broadcast to everyone everyday in the USA. Children learn how and what to shoot, were and when to place bombs and practice their killing skills with video games. Bob Hebert, wrote in a New York Times review:” I do think that millions of American adults have lost all sense of what are appropriate forms of play for children and teenagers. And the country as a whole behaves as though there is no real-world price to pay for a culture that has so thoroughly desensitized us to violence that it takes a terror attack or a series of suburban sniper killings to really get our attention… The biggest-selling video game over the last couple of years has been a PlayStation 2 game called Grand Theft Auto III. It actually carries a voluntary "M" rating, which means it's not recommended for kids under 17. But younger teens have no problem buying "M"-rated games, and they love the various incarnations of Grand Theft Auto. This is a game in which all boundaries of civilized behavior have vanished. You get to shoot whomever you want, including cops. You get to beat women to death with baseball bats. You get to have sex with prostitutes and then kill them. (And get your money back.) The game is a phenomenal seller. At close to $50 each, millions of copies are sold annually.” 

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

April 25, 2016


Syrian refugees in 2015 are representative of refugee migrations occurring from many countries. An estimated 48 million refugees by 2014 were camped in squalid conditions without rights or privileges. Stewart summarized the appalling development in world affairs: "International organizations give every indication of being overwhelmed, and no wonder. Just compare this 48 million with one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history — when a shattered Europe at the end of the Second World War had to resettle a staggering 16 million displaced persons. A horrifying number certainly, but only a third as many as we have now. To make matters worse, the crisis is happening at a time when ever more countries are putting up new barriers and taking in fewer refugees. The result is that while over eight million newly displaced refugees are being added annually and barely one per cent of those seeking asylum are resettled in any given year. The average amount of time families live in refugee camps is a staggering 17 years." 

Citizens of relatively affluent countries are likely to have some compassion for displaced humans and will want to help individuals that they can identify and know. There are important limitations that constrain compassion.  We have recognized that humans act from self interest and group interest. Helping others in need satisfies a deep instinct for group survival, for mutual protection, food sharing and child care. The desire to help is short-lived and will often end in confusion and despair as newcomers fail to adapt and integrate. Membership in a supportive group is a privilege to be earned and defended. Altruistic acts are conditional and limited in scope and duration.

We have recognized that humans require an external form of behavioral regulation that is ephemeral and must be renewed continuously. The invention and enforcement of rules occurs within hierarchical organizations. Subgroups are always competing for resources and control so that the freedom promised in an ideal democracy cannot be considered stable and enduring. Any large migration of strangers into a community is a threat to the existing order. The preservation of freedom in democracies depends on well educated and culturally compatible humans who can maintain a civil order. Immigrating strangers are not likely to have the prerequisites required by the civil order. Indeed, the most obvious feature of mass migrations is the disruption of civic order. The opportunities are limited for large groups of refugees to settle in a new country and become constructive, contributing citizens. Everything we have learned about human nature suggests that big long-term problems will emerge from mass migrations. These problems do not have obvious solutions.

The UN List reasons for the plight of refugees:

"Conflicts are becoming more protracted, some dragging on for decades. There are currently 21 nations in ongoing conflicts with no clear end in sight. Think Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Central Africa, the Sudan and Congo. The UN refers to "the shrinking of humanitarian space" as more conflicts are being waged by non-state forces such as militias, insurgent groups, bands of religious fanatics and bandits who terrorize civilians and aid workers alike. As fewer rules are respected, even refugee camps are not safe from attack, and aid workers become prime targets. More terror means more refugees.Asylum itself is eroding as more countries put up barriers to block the mass movement of desperate people, a list that includes economic migrants and refugees alike as they search for haven alongside each other. 14 EU nations have refused Syrian refugees, often citing pressure from their own ultra-nationalistic parties during hard economic times."

The deep problem is human reproductive success is. Too many humans means that increasingly large numbers will have to migrate to avoid hunger, dehydration, natural and man-made disasters.  The problem of overpopulation cannot be appreciated only in terms of numbers alone, or the geographic distribution of populations, or even resources available to keep humans alive; the real problem is the disputatious and destructive aspects of human behavior. Increased population density creates increased social and economic problems that resist solution. Children are at risk when parents do not have the motivation, intelligence and resources needed to support them. Only thoughtful, well-educated and affluent parents have the opportunity to understand their responsibilities, to plan and allocate resources for an unborn child. All problems would decrease by increasing the competence of parents, reducing population size and limiting growth longterm.

The European Union countries have become the most desirable destinations for Syrian refugees. Their large numbers have produced consternation in Europe, a model for the future? "In the first seven months of 2014, more than 87,000 people arrived in Italy by sea, mainly from Eritrea and the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria). In an effort to reduce the risks linked to such journeys, in October 2013 the Italian Government launched the Mare Nostrum operation, which has rescued more than 100,000 people at sea. Greece and Spain also recorded an increase in arrivals. The economic situation in the region has had an impact on the capacity and readiness of many countries to strengthen their protection systems. Austerity measures have also hit civil-society organizations that provide services to asylum-seekers and refugees. Xenophobia and intolerance have led to incidents of discrimination and violence. States have responded by concentrating on curbing irregular movements, including through tighter border controls and detention, or penalization for illegal entry.”

Over 150,000 people seeking to enter Europe have reached Hungary in 2015, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban built a barbed wire fence on the border with Serbia to stop the huge flow of migrants. Orban declared his determination to stop the refugees: "Today we are talking about tens of thousands but next year we will be talking about millions and this has no end. We have to make it clear that we can't allow everyone in, because if we allow everyone in, Europe is finished. If you are rich and attractive to others, you also have to be strong because if not, they will take away what you have worked for and you will be poor, too."

The burden of the invading refugees has been unevenly distributed, with Germany taking in the most migrants a, projected 800,000 while Hungary, Sweden and tiny Montenegro have accepted the most per capita.  Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister stated:” The refugees are synonymous with formidable change. We must get used to the thought that our country is changing.” The Social Ministry expects the German government to spend 1.8 billion to 3.3 billion euros, about $2 billion to $3.7 billion, in 2016 to cover the refugees’ basic needs, language lessons and job training. As those costs mount, so might resentment. Already Germany has experienced a backlash against the migrants — the worst in Europe. Neo-Nazi and right-wing groups have seized on the issue, organizing demonstrations outside homes for asylum seekers. In the first six months of this year, there were more than 200 arson and other attacks on facilities for migrants, and on migrants themselves. One fear is that an open-door policy will make Germany more vulnerable to Islamic extremism and terrorism.  Free movement of people and goods through borders in the European Union was a precept of its cohesion. Austria was the first country to reactivate its border crossing controls and other countries are likely to follow.

A basic tenant of world order is state sovereignty and the right of countries to control immigration. The refugees entering Europe have no respect for state sovereignty and believe they have rights that they did not earn. While a sympathetic view of desperate people may forgive this lawlessness in the beginning, the attitude does not suggest respect and lawful conduct in the future.

Climate change is an important cause of conflict, economic distress, and increasing scarcity of essential human resources – water, food and shelter. Infectious disease also increases the human burden. Human survival in the past 200,000 years has been challenged by natural disasters and climate changes. Survival required migration away from unforgiving environments toward new habitats with more resources. The near future will bring more severe climate changes that force more mass migrations. The problems cannot be solved easily.  The altruistic impulse in more secure regions will face the threat of increasing world disorder. Orban’s declaration that millions of refugees without qualifications will seek to share the riches of affluent countries: ”... you also have to be strong because if not, they will take away what you have worked for and you will be poor, too."

Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is well known in Europe and North America even though it involves an obscure and difficult philosophy. Zen psychology contradicts common assumptions and doctrines. The practices found in Zen have evolved through several cultures in India, China and Japan. Zen can be considered a highly refined but tough and "bare bones" school of self-development that insists on a sustained and disciplined practice of meditation. Some would argue that Zen teaching is “pure Buddhism” as taught by the Buddha himself. In contrast to European philosophy and psychology, Zen discourages preoccupation with one's own story. If you keep a dairy, it could contain pictures of nature, little poems and drawings. Zen and science go well together.

Zen teaching takes a surgical approach to the cognitive lesions created by clinging to the past, egotism and the misuse of language: idle speculations, false story-telling, casemaking, memes and dualistic thinking. While dialectical processes of the brain appear to be built in and natural, a world view based on dualism distorts or conceals the seamless meshwork of events in the really real world. I would argue that paranoia is impossible in a proper Zen mind because there are no terrorists, there is no conspiracy, there is no blame, there is no danger, and there is no fear. Stories that blame others for the way you think and feel have no value and no one will listen to them. The government is not responsible. You are responsible. I am responsible. Everyone is responsible.

Zen developed in China and manifests the work ethic of Chinese peasants who were pragmatic and lived close to nature. Suzuki contrasted the Chinese as "the most practical people” with the Indians who tend to be “visionary and highly speculative... subtle in analysis and dazzling in poetic flight.” Suzuki stated: ”the Chinese are children of earthly life, they pod, till the soil, observing social duties and developing the most elaborate system of etiquette. He contrasted the Indian Mahayana Sutras that burst with multiple deities, kaleidoscopic colors, fantastic exaggeration and magical, supernatural powers attributed to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, with the more grounded Chinese Sutras that contain Confucian principles; the superior man never talks about his magical powers nor does he refer to supernatural events.

I first encountered Zen Buddhism as a teenager in the form of Alan Watts book, the Way of Zen.Watts had a lasting impact on my understanding. Watts introduced the idea that language determined thought and misrepresented what is really going on. Watts stated: “…man is always in danger of confusing his measures with the world so measured, of identifying money with wealth, fixed conventions with fluid reality. But to the degree he identifies himself and his life with these rigid and hollow frames of definition, he condemns himself to the perpetual frustration of one trying to catch water in a sieve.”

Watts also introduced the Tao, wu wei and the value of emptiness – all heretical concepts in the West. The Tao pointed to the natural way; the way of the natural mind and nature.The Taoist might be a sage in the forest who sat by a stream and conversed with birds. Wu wei means something like not doing, not acting, not making. Wu wei points to an insight into the way of the mind that is embedded deeply in Zen. Wu wei has at least two roots. The first root is a pragmatic assessment of the human condition. Human action is often un-necessary, wasteful and destructive. Why make hydrogen bombs when you could be sipping tea in a Zen garden?

Desires are often unattainable. Criticism and hate is invented and harmful. Ownership of things and people brings worry, frustration and ultimate loss. Why strive for all this stuff when happiness is your goal and sitting quietly by a stream brings happiness?

The second root is insight into the processes of the mind. All creativity is spontaneous and needs space; emptiness is valuable because it permits movement. The emergence of new forms of thought and experience require spaciousness in mind. Cluttered minds are not creative. So do nothing, empty the mind, be quiet and appreciate the natural world.

Zen is paradoxical, self-contradictory and iconoclastic, as exemplified in the following discourse:

Dako came to the Zen Master and said: I am seeking the truth. In what state of mind should I train myself to find the truth? The Zen master said:  There is no mind, so you cannot put it in any state.There is no truth so you cannot train yourself for it.
Dako asked: If there is no mind to train and no truth to find, why do you have these monks gather before you to study Zen?
The Master replied: But, I haven’t an inch of room here, so how could the monks gather? I have no tongue so how could I call them together or teach them?
Dako in frustration exclaimed: How can you lie like this?
But if I have no tongue to talk to others, how can I lie to you? asked the master.
Dako said sadly I cannot follow you. I cannot understand you.
 I cannot understand myself said the Zen master.

From Religion for the 21st Century by Stephen Gislason

April 15, 2016

Politics, Elections, Innate Behaviors

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.  P. J. O'Rourke
I have a self-imposed ban on US political news.  I have learned enough to conclude that elections are hopeless charades. My approach is to develop and apply some general rules of human nature to current events. There are no surprises, ancient patterns recur reliability. The names and places may change, but the underlying  patterns are innate and fixed in human DNA.
Elections are often thought to be the essence of democracy, but as human groups grow larger and social organization more complex, elections become media events that preclude the ideal of citizen involvement in government. In a simple analysis, increasing size and complexity of government makes ideal democracy impossible. Eventually, democratic rights might be restored by internet technologies that permit citizens to discuss and vote directly on policy issues and legislation.

The value of elections is not so much the selection of the right people to run governments since this result is seldom achieved. Elections invite the powerbrokers to spend increasing sums of money to elect candidates they chose. You could argue that candidate selection for elections is so inappropriate, so contrived that the real tasks facing the elected politicians will never be addressed. An election lottery choosing from thoughtfully selected, highly qualified citizens would do a better job of forming governments. An alert, well-informed citizenry and a politically independent judiciary are essential to the preservation of personal freedoms. A civil society develops multiple overlapping levels of dispute resolution with the right to appeal bad decisions that are common and inevitable when local tribunals and courts decide who is privileged and who is not.
The US Example
According to Posner,   in the US, the founding fathers did not want to set up a democracy but a mixed government. The presidency is the monarchical element, the Senate and Supreme Court are aristocratic elements and only the democratic element is the House of Representatives. This design has worked more or less to balance competing interests, but Bush and Cheney demonstrated that the design had become obsolete. The Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. The United States Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later ratified by conventions in each U.S. state in the name of "The People"; it has since been amended twenty-seven times, the first ten amendments being known as the Bill of Rights. None of the amendments change the infrastructure of governance.  The US is a totally different country in the 21st century. Corporations that do not evolve with changing circumstances tend to fail. So do countries with antiquated constitutions. Researchers at Princeton University have definitively concluded that America isn’t a democracy… instead, it’s an oligarchy in which power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.
In the US, government is a circus of competing interests, displaying their wares in a variety of venues. The real process of government is an endless series of negotiations. Negotiated deals tend to benefit the more aggressive, influential and wealthy participants. Government as a circus is arguably better than government as a monarch’s court, but it is not ideal and may not be sustainable. All governments are inefficient and are prone to corruption.  


March 9, 2016

Future of Human Rights

Michael Ignatieff in his essays about human rights reviewed the recent and not encouraging history of the human rights movement in the world. Human rights are abstract and largely invented. Analysis of the feasibility and the methodology of human rights needs to be grounded in a clear understanding of human nature. Ignatieff asks the question that lies at the heart of my philosophical inquiries: “If human beings are so special, why do we treat each other so badly?” 

Ignatieff argues that human rights is the language of defending one’s autonomy against the oppression of religion, state, family and group. The proper emergence of rights is from the bottom up, from individuals who insist that the group they belong to respect the rights of each member, as an individual. Almost by definition, rules imposed from the top-down, by a moral or political authority insisting that all obey the rules imposed is not human rights. He reminds us that “human rights come to authoritarian societies when activists risk their lives and create a popular and indigenous demand for these rights, and when their activism receives consistent and forthright support from influential nations abroad.”

Humans require regulation using a system of rules that are an external form of behavior coding. External regulation can evolve and improve by creating and maintaining stable social and political structures in a democratic infrastructure. Democracies are, however, unstable and vulnerable to internal dissolution as much as external attack. Democracies require elaborate internal rules and surveillance to prevent subgroups from achieving control over critical functions such as the money supply, police, courts and military forces. Subgroups are always competing for resources and control so that no civil society can be considered stable and enduring without an energetic and educated population of activists who are prepared to defend freedoms and privileges on a daily basis. Paranoid governments such as US administrations, develop elaborate spy networks inside the country that includes collecting data from phone calls, emails, and internet postings. In the worst case, governments imprison, torture, and kill citizens who are critical of the government and participate in protests.

To recall our fundamental truths: at the level of the largest organizations, small groups decide on policy and procedures that effect many nations, even the fate the entire species. The tendency to impose universal rules and policies from the top down is likely to fail because individuals and small groups cannot understand the diverse needs, values and beliefs of large numbers of humans. World-wide policies will tend to fail since they emerge from limited understanding, and ignore the tendency for humans to relate most strongly to the values and beliefs of their local group. World government is an oxymoron.

Whatever we value about civilized human existence - culture, knowledge, social justice, respect for human rights and dignity must be practiced anew and stored as modifications of each person's neocortex. Success at humanitarian efforts within a society reveals that portion of human attitudes, beliefs and behavior that can be modified and/or are supported by innate tendencies. Failure of moral authority reveals the extent to which innate negative tendencies prevail no matter how diligent the effort to modify or suppress them.

Human destiny as a species still lies with the programs in the old brain that offer only limited empathy and understanding and insist on the priority of survival at any cost. Individuals can transcend the old programs by diligent learning and practice but individual effort and learning does not change the genome, so that their can be no enduring human rights without the persistent and relentless initiation of new humans into a rational and compassionate world order. This, of course, is so far an impossible goal to achieve. You can then argue that if only 5% of the human population is not properly initiated they will have the power to destroy the civil order accomplished by the more reasonable 95% unless they are vigorously constrained, depriving them of their human rights.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

January 1, 2016

Selection, Competition and Survival

Every creature who is hatched or born on planet earth faces a series of tests to find out if he or she has the right stuff to survive. Nature is not kind to individuals who do not make the grade. Animal populations consist of healthy, smart members because everyone else died or was eaten. Humans have an unusual ability to protect their young, sick and disabled members so that strong, healthy members increasingly devote more of their time, money and energy helping the less fortunate.

This altruistic option in human groups, however, does not alter the tough and persistent competition among humans for resources, mates, money, prestige and security. In every aspect of human life, there is a selection process operating. The selection of members for special status or privilege involves tests to find out who has the right stuff.

Humans are constantly evaluating each other, constantly noticing differences in appearance and behavior, automatically sorting the people they meet into convenient categories. Humans respond strongly to physical characteristics and react negatively to humans who differ in appearance, size, shape sex or color. Humans are built to respond differently to different characteristics. This discriminatory tendency is innate, not a matter of choice or learning. The details may be learned but the tendency is innate and is not going to disappear.

The fantasy of egalitarian democracy is out of step with nature and the reality of human behavior. Every human society is a little prototype of evolution. Every group, large or small, invents selection processes to sort humans by age, gender, appearance, ancestry, intelligence, aptitudes, skills, accomplishment and other variables. You can invent rules against sorting, but sorting will continue because it is natural and important. In every human life, everyday, a selection process is at work. There is an odd discrepancy between the realities of rigorous, persistent selection processes in nature and the pretense that everyone has the same ability and should have the same opportunity to succeed at any endeavor they fancy. The Miss America pageant is not egalitarian and only one young beauty is selected from thousands of beautiful young woman who enter beauty contests in their own states.

The selection of one from many is basic to human society. Many-to-one is the rule of hierarchy and every society generates a hierarchal distribution of rights and privileges, even societies based on the principle of equal opportunity for all. We would like to believe that selection processes employed in business and education are fair and not discriminatory. There is an important distinction between discrimination before the fact of performance and after the fact of performance. If an individual is judged before he or she has a chance to take the test - that is unfair. If discrimination occurs after the tests based on performance measurements, then that is fair and necessary for a society to operate. The third possibility is that the test is unfair. Many debates arise when the fairness and appropriateness of tests is questioned. Schools generally have established tests and standards that sort students by intelligence, aptitude and accomplishment. IQ tests sort student by sampling their mental skills, which means sampling aspects of their brain function with specific tests of cognitive ability. Well-educated humans know about the distribution of qualities, characteristics, goods and privileges in human populations.

The main idea is that all human characteristics are distributed and, no matter what human feature you are considering, you will find some individuals with more and some with less. In medicine, two standard deviations from the mean on a test result is described as "normal" on the assumption that 98% of the population cannot be abnormal. This assumption is often reasonable but may be misleading if the distribution of a characteristic is skewed in a given population. For example, two thirds of adult Puma Indians in the southern states are obese and develop adult onset diabetes. If you limited your data collection to the Puma Indians, you might consider obesity to be normal. However, if you compare the Pumas with Harvard faculty, the Pumas have greater number of diabetics and you conclude that Puma normal is abnormal in Boston.

No one gets upset if a scientist reports more diabetes in Pumas, but some get upset if a scientist reports a lower average IQ in groups of US blacks compared with whites. The black and white classification of humans is, of course, inherently misleading. The simple fact is that humans have a range of IQ, skills and aptitudes. "Equal opportunity" does not mean equal ability or equal accomplishment.

Despite the assertion in the US Declaration of Independence, not all men are “created equal.” Some men, for example, are women. The task for a humanitarian society is to treat all men and women equally despite obvious differences in shape, size, appearance, gender, color, mental abilities, aptitudes, beliefs and habits. This is a task for idealists and cannot be achieved except in an approximate manner with strict and relentless application of non-discrimination rules. Sorting, selection, discrimination, social stratification, economic differentials are as natural and inevitable as differences in gender, size, weight, blood pressure and lifespan. If the topic is IQ distribution, some get upset about population and individual differences based on genetic differences.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

September 29, 2015

Idealists and Pragmatists

Idealist are good at generating codes of conduct, rules of engagement and visions of the future when the good and true will prevail. The problem, of course, is that ideal human conduct is rare and when it does occur, it is temporary. Pragmatists focus on what actually happens and develop strategies to fix what is broken. World problems have proliferated at a feverish pitch. Everywhere you look, there are big problems that promise to get worse rather than better. A list of these problems discourage even the most optimistic of citizens.

If you take a God’s eye view of the planet, you have to notice one basic fact – that most humans generate problems on a daily basis and a smaller number try to catch up with solutions. You can supply AIDs drugs to the sick and poor in Africa, but the recovering patients suffer from malnutrition, water shortages and other diseases. Their social infrastructures are gone. If they survive their immediate adversities, warriors from neighboring tribes may arrive one day and kill them with machetes or automatic rifles, bought from US or Chinese weapon suppliers.

Even polite societies that have enjoyed periods of affluence and stability, a series of increasingly severe problems accumulate and undermine social order. In the US, a incompetent congress an ineffective administration, a failing economy, an aging infrastructure that needs reconstruction, destructive weather events and many layers of conflict within the society are serious problems with no obvious remedy. We have briefly considered the cumulative effects of resource depletion, habitat destruction, climate change and changing patterns of disease; these descriptions point to problems that do not have easy solutions.

A pragmatic approach to an overwhelming set of problems is to establish priorities and focus on achievable goals. Within every effective pragmatist is the hope that incremental problem solving will in the end produce a rational, enduring social order. There is also the hope that young, smart, well-informed people will join an enlarging group of problem solvers, hard at work every day in every country on the planet.

Smart people can break through old paradigms and recognize patterns in human nature. This is happening all the time. Good, new ideas always impress me and I always ask -why didn't I think of that? A new, good idea can spread from person to person and can make people smarter and more effective in the world. A good idea may seem obvious once you understand and accept it, but before someone comes up with the idea, you are ignorant. Humans who do not have access to new ideas and learn only a few of the old, worn-out and bad ideas are stuck with being ignorant; the natural and spontaneous level of human thought is crude and superstitious, often based on false beliefs and errors in judgment and attribution. Humans do well, even with marked cognitive limitations, because most transactions of life are carried out by innate, expert systems in their brain that do not require educated and rational thinking. Even though crude thinking dominates human society and will probably dominate for a long time to come, a small percentage of humans with especially clever minds will keep evolving toward some ultimate encounter with the really real. We can hope that smart and nice come together, since smart and evil is an undesirable combination. From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

August 16, 2015

Fossil Fuels Require Intelligent Use

The sun's energy is free, but methods of converting this energy into human wealth requires technical ingenuity and cost money. Plants are the most generous energy converters and humans supply labor and skills to grow the most useful plants. Some of the sun's energy has been stored  in the earth's crust as fossil fuels -- coal, oil and natural gas. The carbon in these deposits was captured by plants and animals. To make a complex story simple you can argue that  much of the wealth generated in the 20th century was an expression of the relatively cheap and abundant energy supplied by carbon deposits. Diesel and gasoline fuelled engines, allowed the creation of machines that work for humans, permitted industrial-scale, mechanized agriculture and worldwide transportation system at sea, on land and in the air.

The planet  has carbon stores in many forms and places. In ecological terms, the carbon cycle must be understood and properly managed if long term human survival is desirable. If too much of this carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, climates change and human populations are at risk.  Fossil fuels represent a valuable and finite resource that should be used with restraint and sophisticated understanding. The opposite occurred in the 20th century with the exploitation of fossil fuel in a reckless manner. A major challenge for 21st century humans is to better understand the proper uses of fossil fuels, restrain their use, and control the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere. 

Major changes in the identification of new gas and  oil  fields and changes in methods of extraction have occurred, giving the USA and Canada domestic sources of fossil fuel that may provide current levels of energy for  many more years – longer if use decreases with sensible conservation policies and more efficient energy use. China has a vast resource of shale gas and oil that remains in the ground. The International Energy Agency reported  that to meet the world’s growing need for energy will require more than a $48 trillion in investment between now and 2035. Current spending is $1.6 trillion per year.   The WEA estimate ignores climate change and may be completely wrong. In 2014 the supply of oil exceeded demand and world prices dropped dramatically. The OPEC suppliers  refused to reduce production, so that low prices would force competing countries to reduce their capital expenditures on new and expensive oil well development. Low oil prices means the more fossil fuels can be burned with increased climate change calamities.

Oil pricing has become a frantic interaction of countries with fossil fuels to sell, speculators driven by greed, and consumers who continue to buy petroleum products regardless of price. The consumers exercise little control over the supply and cost of fossil fuels; however, consumers are the only group that could adopt a sensible policy of fossil fuel consumption. Despite many protest groups attacking the oil and gas industry,  little has been accomplished. Protesters usually attack the producers and never accept the blame that the consumers deserve. The final solution to the problems that fossil fuel extraction creates is for consumers to use less. Every responsible citizen needs to pledge a 30% reduction in fossil fuel use immediately and further reductions as alternative energy sources become available.

Canada is a country with large deposit is of fossil fuels and an economy that depends of gas and oil revenues. A healthy debate   slows industrial devolvement with its threat of land and water pollution. The debate is mostly between Canadians who want more oil revenues by building pipelines and coastal ports needed to export gas and oil and Canadians who are committed to protecting the natural environment. Governments, corporations and their investors who receive oil and gas revenues continue to push for more development.

Horodelski stated: "And another worrisome note, some traders are looking at the derivative books and seeing negative signs when it comes to the plummet in oil. You may wish to spend the weekend brushing up on CLOs (collateral loan obligations), CDSs (credit default swaps) and other derivative instruments. Unfortunately, when you try to get some decent research on the size and issues associated with this market you find yourself in the dark, deep web of conspiracy theorists and doom-day seers." 

Reduced oil and gas production and increased cost worldwide would be a long-term benefit for all humans. Reduced consumption reduces air water and land pollution and is a perquisite of controlling climate change. The industrial arguments for providing the energy needs of  increasing populations and promoting economic growth are persuasive and pervasive. The real solution has three components:

1.  Reduced populations

2.  Non fossil fuel energy sources

3.  Economies with no dependence on oil and gas revenues

A  study funded by the UK Energy Research Centre  concluded that the world should forego extracting a third of its oil and half of its gas reserves before 2050…  The majority of the huge coal reserves in China, Russia and the United States should remain unused along with over 260 thousand million barrels oil reserves in the Middle East, equivalent to all of the oil reserves held by Saudi Arabia. The Middle East should also leave over 60% of its gas reserves in the ground. The development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil – oil of a poor quality which is hard to extract – are also found to be inconsistent with efforts to limit climate change. 

The Economist argued that the fall in oil and gas prices is an opportunity for a new approach to fossil fuels:" Most of the time, economic policymaking is about tinkering at the edges. Politicians argue furiously about modest changes to taxes or spending. Once in a while, however, momentous shifts are possible. Bold politicians have seized propitious circumstances to push through reforms that transformed their countries. Such a once-in-a-generation opportunity exists today. The plunging price of oil, coupled with advances in clean energy and conservation, offers politicians around the world the chance to rationalize energy policy. They can get rid of billions of dollars of distorting subsidies, especially for dirty fuels, while shifting taxes towards carbon use. A cheaper, greener and more reliable energy future could be within reach… the reason for optimism is the plunge in energy costs. The price of cleaner forms of energy is also falling and new technology is allowing better management of the consumption of energy, especially electricity.  For decades the big question about energy was whether the world could produce enough of it, in any form and at any cost. Now, suddenly, the challenge should be one of managing abundance. Falling prices provide an opportunity for …cash-strapped developing countries such as India and Indonesia who have bravely begun to cut fuel subsidies, freeing up money to spend on hospitals and schools… That should be just the beginning. Politicians, for the most part, have refused to raise taxes on fossil fuels in recent years, on the grounds that making driving or heating homes more expensive would not only annoy voters but also hurt the economy. With petrol and natural gas getting cheaper by the day, that excuse has gone. Burning fossil fuels harms the health of both the planet and its inhabitants. Taxing carbon would nudge energy firms and consumers towards using cleaner fuels. As fuel prices fall, a carbon tax is becoming less politically daunting." 

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

August 15, 2015

Life and Death

All living creatures die. The way of death is of great interest to humans and in part determines the way of life. Birth is not a choice but dying can be elected as a free and rational choice for a number of reasons. In general, a healthy, modern human will opt for life and will imagine death as an appropriate, peaceful outcome of aging sometime in the distant future. Nevertheless, death may come abruptly, prematurely, unfairly, violently and sometimes cruelly. 

Humans are preoccupied with constructions, beliefs and rituals designed to appease spirits associated with death and provide guidance to survivors. Funeral rituals can be elaborate and prolonged, often specifying the behaviors that are expected of survivors. Death is the acknowledgement among the living often with confusion, fear, screaming and weeping. The crisis of death is that one human has vanished from the group and will never return. If the dead human was loved and valued, then the loss is great and the grief is painful and prolonged.

 Death is the gathering of the kin to grieve, to celebrate, and to fight over inheritance rights and kin status. Beliefs in destinations after death are common and, in the best case, reassure survivors that their loss will be redeemed.

Grief, like love, is a complex of feelings, emotions, memories and thoughts.  Grief inspires the deepest inquiries into the nature and meaning of existence. Even the distress of talking about grief reminds us that this complex of feeling, memories and thought is an important regulator of human affairs. As soon as you care about someone else, you incur the risk of losing him or her. If you become complacent over time, watching the suffering of others who have lost a loved one is a powerful reminder to be more careful. The prospect of grief is so daunting that humans who care for one another are more concerned and cautious in their custodial role, protecting loved ones.  People who have experienced a loss or near-loss will often declare that they became more appreciative of those around them. Pure, pristine grief is our response to death. There is an initial emotional state with "outpouring of emotion". The expression is unmistakable in many cultures - crying, wailing, self-injury and self-neglect. The passionate stage of grief tends to last hours to days.  When a loved one dies, grief is inevitable but the onset may be delayed. A sudden death is especially confusing, hard to believe and impossible to accept. A state of suspended disbelief may last for days or weeks, but sooner or later, grief explodes as the terrible truth is realized with clarity. The emotional expression of grief may be ritualized and dramatized as part of funeral observances. Grief often emerges overtime with sustained dysphoric feelings.

Sadness is a subdued expression of grief that may last for years or even a lifetime.  Sadness is both a feeling of loss and withdrawal from life involvements. There is a gradation of sadness from mildly uncomfortable feelings expressed by poems and little tears to despair. The deep, impenetrable sadness of someone grieving the loss of a person truly loved is one of the hallmarks of sentient life on earth. Some humans do not survive their grief because the sadness is so profound.

There is a tendency for humans to want to live forever when things are going well. The idea of immortality appeals to the young and healthy. Most observers stipulate that they would only want to live on as a youthful, healthy person. The idea of reaching 90 years of age and then extending life for another 100 years is not so appealing. Thus, younger people tend be more interested in immortality than older people, although there are always exceptions. Older people want to be rejuvenated. The grand view of life on earth does not place individual values first but the places the continuation and evolution of life first. Individuals die so that younger individuals can replace them. Life goes on. Living creatures are programmed to die. Individual cells die both in a programmed mode and an incidental or accidental mode. Programmed cell death is essential for the survival of whole organisms. Cells that become immortal run amok, proliferate relentlessly and kill the host. Immortal cell growth is referred to as cancer.

The longest lifespan is determined in advance and the challenge of survival is to live through the maximum time permitted. The slow deterioration, aging, proceeds in gradual steps. Aging and disease merge inevitably as the deterioration of the body provides more opportunity for disease processes to flourish. Because aging is programmed, there is some interest among life scientists to discover how to prolong life. There are tantalizing clues to the mechanisms behind the aging processes, but attempts to alter this process may have adverse consequences. Cancer cells, for example, have escaped aging and are immortal. The reason that cancer cells kill you is that they keep reproducing when they should stop. Programmed cell death is one of the basic strategies of getting trillions of cells to live together in a cooperative enterprise. You can extend this insight to populations of animals of planet earth. If all the humans and all the animals became longer lived, then you all have to stop reproducing or all would perish in an unprecedented population explosion.

 Death is understood as the cessation of breathing and of heart beating. Death is also understood as deep sleep, the lack of movement, the lack of response to words, gestures, and touches. Death is the distress that living people experience when they witness the cessation of living movements in another human and view the rigidity of a corpse. Death has become more abstract in hospitals where detailed measurements and monitoring of vital functions are available. Death can be anticipated by the measurement of body chemistry, by monitoring the function of vital organs and by applying statistics gathered about the natural course of diseases.  Information about disease processes is linked to individual and group concepts about the “quality of life.” The challenge is pursue treatments that promise improved quality and duration of life without accepting futile treatments that just prolong suffering.  Discussions about the inevitability of death are now more common and decisions about offering or withholding treatment are now linked to understanding disease processes and they way they cause death. Death can now be determined as brain damage with the permanent loss of consciousness. The rest of the body can be intact and functioning well. What every neurologist knows is that if a small lesion is made in the ascending reticular activating system of the medulla oblongata or midbrain, consciousness is lost and may never be regained.

This view is practical - consciousness can be destroyed by damage to specific and tiny areas of the old brain. The brain often swells in head-injured patients and compress its own blood supply. A patient may be an otherwise healthy, attractive teenager with a head injury who looks quite viable, but if perfusion scans of the brain show no blood supply to the cerebral hemispheres, the recovery of consciousness and sentient functions is unlikely and death is declared. The emergence of free, individualistic, affluent societies is associated with the disappearance of elaborate death rituals and well-specified roles for each community member to play. Funerals are often perfunctory or omitted and dead bodies pass through impersonal, professional hands leaving survivors with thoughts and feelings disconnected from any experience that might make the death of another more real and more acceptable.  Acceptance of death for what it is– the end of an individual life - is difficult to achieve but once there, we can more or less live peaceably with the idea. We have no obligation to like the truth. Acceptance is quite different from liking.

Since life involves suffering, there are times when death seems an attractive way out. The Japanese Samurai tradition advocated killing oneself in a deliberate ritualistic manner as an honorable and correct choice when adverse circumstances prevail.  Voluntary death becomes a noble act that requires courage and skill and a formal acknowledgement of the ephemeral essence of all life. In a less noble fashion, Japanese Kamikaze pilots during the Second World War volunteered for suicide missions just as suicide bombers today wear dynamite vests and kill others as they kill themselves.

In the romantic western tradition, killing oneself has sometimes been viewed as a legitimate lover's response to the loss of his or her beloved and an understandable response to a major loss of investment, power or prestige. Self-inflicted death is also acceptable to avoid capture, imprisonment or torture. Selecting the right time of death is also a freedom often denied to the terminally ill. A person with advanced cancer who suffers every day with no hope of recovery will decide that the experience is too unpleasant; it is time to leave. It is easy to argue that dying is a legitimate choice among choices for a free sentient being, but in many countries today, distant moral authorities and laws ban self-inflicted death under any circumstance. 

Acceptance, in part, comes from the full participation in the death of another, caring for the body, calling kin and friends together to share stories and ritual observances, crying, preparing the body for burial, and disposing of the body in a meaningful way. Anthropologists continue to discover evidence of hominin ritualistic burials thousands of years ago that show care and attention in placing the body, covering the body with flowers and leaving gifts and tools. The attention to burial is an expression of the survivors feeling of loss and their continuing need to care for themselves. Death in a group is a reminder to all that each person is vulnerable. Grieving, in the best case, enhances the survivor’s awareness of the value of others. In grief, there are intense moment of feeling the great paradox of being alone and yet, needing to be together.

From my selfish point of view, aging, sickness and death are bad ideas. If someone were responsible for these bad ideas, I would seek them out and complain.  I find it odd when people believe in an interactive God who kills a bunch of nice people in a plane crash and their relatives gather to address this "merciful god" and ask for his blessings. They sue the airline and praise God. If God had a known address, I think I would sue God as well.

Acceptance is realizing that there is no complaints department in the universe. I accept that death is the end of individual consciousness and the contents of one mind vanish. No personal biographical information is transmitted to another brain, young or old. No soul goes to heaven. There is no heaven. There is no hell. 

The person who dies lives on in the minds of the people who knew him or her. It is the survivors who create the stories that keep the deceased person alive. They archive letters, photos and other artifacts. Sometimes, the survivors say the person has been reborn and celebrate a child who will carry on in the mindset of the deceased. Sometimes, the survivors say that the person has gone for an extended vacation in an unknown location, all expenses paid by God, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses or some other philanthropist in the sky.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason MD

August 8, 2015

Misunderstanding Mind & Body

For forty years, I have been reading books and articles on how the “mind has limitless powers to heal.” Books, magazine articles and television reports recycle old material often presenting the same old stuff as new exciting discoveries. Forty years ago these ideas were more appealing to me and I pursued them in my professional and personal life. But they have become irrelevant fantasies and obstacles to understanding mind-body interactions. Ideas about the healing mind involve a set of misunderstandings, fantasy and human narcissism which leads people to claim more ability and more control than they actually have.

Life is difficult, and you can argue that a little fantasy and narcissism offers solace to people who might otherwise despair. I was browsing popular magazines in the local library and choose one example from a Canadian magazine directed to women. I am not citing the article because it is a generic repetition of similar articles published in many magazines. The article begins with a story of a woman who had a breast cancer removed and survived 20 years without a recurrence. Long term survivors of cancer are expected in the normal distribution of cancer outcomes. This survivor claims that positive thinking and meditation were responsible for her survival. This is a narcissistic claim that gives the survivor and her audience a feeling of security that cannot be substantiated. The article does not mention other women who practiced positive thinking and meditation who died of their cancers. They are more numerous than the survivors.

I advocate positive thinking and meditation but do not expect these strategies to cure diseases such as cancer. Cancers are abnormal growths of cells that have mutated genes and fail to respond to the usual controls over cell behavior and replication. Cell mutations are deeply imbedded in an ancient matrix of life determinants that cannot be easily altered. Some cancers do not progress because the mutated cells are not aggressive and may be destroyed by defenses that routinely destroy abnormal cells.

The survivors are lucky, not superior beings with superior mental abilities. The article talks about ‘using the mind to change body chemistry.” The problem with this talk is that there is no understanding of how body-mind works. You live inside your mind. It is incorrect to claim that you can use your mind as if you were outside of mind. It is more correct to state that your mind can use you. Since you are inside your mind, you experience a monitor image of your body that shrinks and expands in your consciousness, depending on what is going on inside. The connection between body and mind is the brain. The brain is the organ of the mind.

To be completely correct, we have to admit that brain is inside the mind. To speak pragmatically, we have to join bodybrainmind into the whole entity that it is. We can claim that body events are brain events are mind events.

The chemistry of bodybrainmind is implicit in mind. Every action, every reaction of bodybrainmind involves changes in the way the whole system works. Many of these changes can be understood in terms of physiology, chemistry and genetics. This is not news. Exercise, for example, changes bodybrainmind and some of these changes are beneficial. Women who exercise regularly have a lower incidence of breast cancer and depression; they tend to be both healthier and more successful in life endeavors. The human bodybrainmind evolved in natural environments where exercise was mandatory and physical fitness had survival value. In contrast, the modern woman who eats too much and exercises too little gains weight and may become anxious and depressed. She may develop many diseases, including breast cancer. She is not a survivor until she returns to the habits of her ancient ancestors. When she eats less food, changes food selection to fruits and vegetables and works physically everyday, she thinks, feels and acts better. At the same time, she decreases her risk of developing a fatal disease.

I have met people who practiced yoga and meditation and tried their best to think positively, but they ate too much food, exercised too little and developed food-related diseases. They failed to achieve the biological requirements for long-term health. While it may be true that meditation is a superb method of studying your own consciousness and can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate and generate a feeling of well-being, all the benefits can be reversed quickly – just drink some coffee, eat the wrong food and drive home through traffic.

From The Human Brain in Health and Disease by Stephen Gislason MD

August 3, 2015

Social Intelligence

Social organization is basic to animal life. Insect societies are remarkably coherent and suggest human organization even more than many mammalian societies. Coherent social organization is achieved by a meta-brain. Many individual brains are coordinated in a network of interacting individuals. Human invention is incremental and innovations spread from human to human because the two central tendencies of humans are to copy and compete. One of the functions of social organization is the distribution of individuals in spacetime and the regulation of their interactions. Humans are used to social regulation through speech and rules and tend to overlook the more basic and pervasive social controllers that operate from innate properties in the brain.

Animal societies are organized around activities such as mating, rearing the young, foraging, hunting, resting and seeking protection. Mammalian social organization varies with the habitat, food supply, and habits of the animal. In primate groups, individual animals are locked into in complex sets of social and kinship networks. The kin group is the most prevalent basic unit of organization and has a genetic basis. Intelligence is organized around interactions with others. Modern humans belong to many groups of different size and importance and will create a hierarchy of allegiance characterized by shifting loyalties and even reversals of allegiance. Tracking allegiances is a major task for intelligence and some people are obviously more gifted than others. Humans evaluate and compete with each other in a continuous negotiation that involves strategy, criticism, conflict, and overt battles.

Visual information gathering is dominant in primates and specialized area of the cortex a devoted to evaluating what others are doing. Neurons in the inferotemporal cortex of macaques respond to faces and hand gestures and some neuronal groups are tuned to specific behaviors. The most basic intelligence modules identify individuals by appearance and behavior and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of association with other individuals. Smart people are better leaders because they are better evaluators of the behavior and intentions of other members of their group and are more accurate in responding strategically to challenges from their subordinates.

The brain systems that evaluate others are not used in self-evaluation. It is easy to argue that humans, like other primates, are mostly interactive creatures, pre-occupied with what others are doing; humans have little or no cognitive ability for self-evaluation. One human relies on others to evaluate behavior and therefore, human society has built in multiple and complex evaluative procedures that operate daily as external controls.

The innate rules of association built into the brain pertain to small groups and tend to become dysfunctional when individuals try to relate as members of large and anonymous groups. Large groups are still controlled by individuals and small groups with limited ability. Enlarging organizations rely on repeating modular structures controlled from above. A large corporation has many repeating subunits linked and administered by a central office that is controlled by a small group of executive officers and directors. As the corporation grows, the executive officers do not become more intelligent, better informed and more expansive. Indeed executives in growing corporations usually become isolated in their immediate social groups and have difficulty grasping issues beyond their immediate local group and self-interest. "IQ" is a handy short form for overall intelligence and IQ scores could be considered as approximate measurements of a number of underlying abilities. Comprehensive IQ testing would go far beyond the relatively selective IQ tests in common use.

Comprehensive testing would evaluate at least eight critical domains of mental ability:

The ability to live in a group, to cooperate with others and, at the same time, to compete successfully for status, privileges, resources and mates.

The ability to recognize what is really going on out there in diverse situations and to act appropriately.

Information processing ability including the ability to find, evaluate and apply knowledge relevant to completing real world tasks.
The ability to navigate through different environments and to move skillfully with minimal risk of injury or death.

The ability to send and receive communications with language and other expressive modalities such as mime, singing, dancing, rhythm, drawing, sculpture, model-making, playing musical instruments.

The ability to design, make and use tools effectively.

The ability to set goals, sequence, plan and implement strategies

The ability to self-evaluate and correct behavior, ideas and strategies when they are not working.

From Intelligence and Learning by Stephen Gislason

July 18, 2015


What about honesty and lies? While there is high value placed on honesty, a realistic look at human behavior reveals that deception is normal and story telling always involves dishonesty. Children learn quickly that there are advantages to lying. They are aware that adults lie routinely. Creative children are creative story tellers who are entertained by fictional stories and employ fiction-writing techniques in reporting events to parents and other adults. As children acquire more language skills and are held more accountable for their actions, they become increasingly skillful in their story inventions.

Each human projects the image of the honest one and denies taking part in any deception whatsoever. The root lie is “I am an honest man or woman”. This fundamental self-deception is practiced by all and usually believed by all. Even a when a liar is caught fabricating his or her story, he or she will usually persist in the claim “I am telling the truth”. The idea is that individuals in all groups compete for position and prestige; the drive is to at least maintain your social position or improve it if you can. The risk of losing your social position is so threatening that all means of protecting yourself arise spontaneously. Since humans use language as an important social tool, any use of language that protects or enhances social position is acceptable. A close examination of human behavior gives us the following precepts: 1. There is no absolute truth. 2. Memories are not accurate and factual. 3. Story telling is a small part fact and large part fiction. Stories always promote self-interest. 4. "No" and 'don't" are the two most important instructions for humans, young and old 5. Human problems can by solved by not repeating harmful behaviors. 6. Humans have a strong tendency to repeat harmful behaviors.

We admire people who deceive us professionally – magicians, movie directors, actors, psychics, faith healers, politicians, ministers and priests. We tell our children blatant lies about tooth fairies, Easter bunnies, Santa Claus, angels, heaven and yes, even God. The benevolent deception is designed in part to entertain, reassure and alleviate suffering. “Little white lies” involve omitting unpleasant information and changing small details that the story will be more acceptable: “… it will only hurt a little bit, dear.” Telling "little white lies" is not considered a moral crisis. Story telling merges with other forms of persuasion and negotiation in strategies of business and social success. Humans tell stories and make deals, all out of self-interest. The stories and deals are always tilted in someone's favor.

If you censored television ads and scripts to rule out displays of lying and systematic deception, the entertainment industry would all but disappear. If you believe you have benevolent motives, you will also believe that deception is a valid strategy when you negotiate with someone else, because you have to overcome their resistance, their prejudices and their ignorance to achieve a result that you desire. If you believe that the right deception will achieve the best outcome, you will lie with more confidence and soon believe your lies. The end justifies the means. Despite obvious ethical flaws in the ends justify means argument; human conduct is almost always based on this implicit assumption. Network television sitcoms depend on plots involving deception, lying and the consequences of being found out. The series, "Seinfeld" was popular, featuring characters who were inveterate liars. Seinfeld plots depended on the characters' inadequacies; their inability to form meaningful relationships or to cope well with the simplest of life problems. The main coping strategies were manipulation and deception. Laws are meant to be circumvented. The issues were petty and trivial and the characters’ dependence on deception both entertained and reflected life as the audience lived it.

From the book Children and Family by Stephen Gislason MD

June 12, 2015

Moral Distress

I discovered the term Moral Distress in the nursing literature. Hospitals are hot spots for important issues and engage diverse vested interests in daily interactions. Issues of life and death play out, often with conflicts among stakeholders who have different views of what is the right thing to do. Hospitals exist to serve the needs of sick or injured patients. Problems arise when hospitals grow larger, involve increasingly complex technologies, and employ different groups to fulfill the many functions that keep a hospital running. The logistics of managing such a complex institution have routinely overwhelmed patient care. You have armies of people running in all directions, attending meetings, conferences, generating and receiving reports but if you look in patients’ rooms, they are often alone and neglected.

Nurses remain the hospital group most directly involved in patient care. Epstein and Delegado summarized the nurses’ point of view: ”Moral distress occurs when one knows the ethically correct action to take but feels powerless to take that action. Research on moral distress among nurses has identified that the sources of moral distress are many and varied and that the experience of moral distress leads some nurses to leave their jobs, or the profession altogether.“

They and others identified the cognitive dissonance involved generated from several different sources; for example: power imbalances between members of the patient care team, lack of communication among team members, administrative pressure to reduce costs, fear of legal action and hospital policies that conflict with patient needs. Even greater issues arise when medical attitudes and methods are examined and questions are raised about medical prejudices, excessive drug use, inattention to patients, neglect of duty, technical errors and incompetence.

I have no doubt about the distresses nurses’ experience, but the description moral distress is less than accurate. We have understood the humans are critically disputatious and hyper critical of others so that conflict among interacting individuals is common and inevitable. Ethical questions gravitate toward the interfaces between individual freedoms and group discipline. Hospitals are interaction dense, so that anyone working in these institutions will be distressed by the actions of others, at least, some of the time. Coping mechanisms must involve submission to group interests and willingness to compromise, even when I am right and they are wrong. We have also recognized that there is no consensus about the common good, so if you claim superiority by having an ethical position better than others, be prepared for a debate, if not a dangerous fight.

From The Good Person, Morality and Ethics by Stephen Gislason