January 29, 2011

The Sexual Kaleidoscope

Any discussion of human sexual behavior and mating must begin with two clarifying statements; one about the extraordinary variability of the human sexual response and the second about the strong effects of biological determinants on individual sexual behavior, effects that cannot be modified by nurturing techniques.

By in large, humans do not invent their sexual interests and behaviors. They manifest their sexual interests and behaviors. If you examine the range of sexual behaviors and aberrations in any society, you are looking through layers of evolutionary development and observing behaviors that originate in different times and places, in different animals, for different reasons.

The human mind appears to be a repository of preferences and behaviors that date back to reptilian hissing, biting and scratching. The most sublime maternal affection and devotion appears in warm-blooded, milk-feeding mammals. Modern career women will talk about the “dinosaurs” or “cave men” when describing suitors who are less than considerate and kind. They refer to old layers of the male mind that offend them. At the same time, women will be aroused by other primitive male qualities and seek sexual liaisons with exciting and “dangerous men”. Their love-making may include hissing, purring, growling, biting and scratching. DNA lays down general rules for body sex and mind sex, but leaves it up to the environment to select from a range of possible combinations. Innate preferences change over time.

The environmental determinants begin with effects directed toward sperm and eggs and continue in the maternal womb. When a baby is born, the external environment influences that disposition of neurons in the brain that direct sexual behavior and maturation. The net result of all the variables is not fully revealed until several years after puberty begins. At puberty three regions of the brain are reorganized to assume gender-specific reproductive behaviors: the prefrontal cortex and nucleus acumens (motivation); the hippocampus-amygdala complex (salience); hypothalamus, midbrain and spinal cord (performance).

Sisk and Foster suggested that: “…attainment of adult reproductive status involves both gonadal and behavioral maturation through a series of brain-driven, developmentally timed events, modulated by internal and external sensory cues… The brain initiates gonadal steroid hormone production at puberty; hormones activate neural circuits mediating reproductive behavior during adolescence.”

The best way to understand sexual preferences and behavior is assume that each person is adaptable but has a set of innate preferences that both guide and limit the choice of a long-term sexual partner. Preferences are built on a foundation that is enduring but not fixed and learning experiences can redirect these innate tendencies to some degree. These innate preferences begin with the bodybrainmind blueprint laid down in DNA, but it is wrong to say that innate sexual preferences are genetic.

A more correct description is to say that innate preferences are biologically determined by the interaction of DNA/RNA programming with the physical and social environment. Sexual development and expressions involve a predictable program sequence that takes an individual through childhood; transforms him or her during adolescence for reproduction; sustains reproductive interest for three decades and then retires each individual from reproductive duties. While aging humans may continue to have sex, their interest and ability usually declines and the frequency of sexual encounters decreases.

Fich and Dannenberg suggested that animal research revealed the basic patterns of hormone influence on the development of male and female behaviors. For example, they stated: "The manipulations of neonatal androgens affected adult sexual behavior. Female guinea pigs exposed to testosterone by various regimes during the prenatal period increased male-typical sexual behavior (mounting). These subjects also decreased female-typical behavior (lordosis) when, as adults, they were gonadectomized, primed with estrogen and progesterone, and tested for sexual receptivity. Similarly, male rats castrated at birth reduced male-typical sexual behaviors and increased feminine behaviors in adulthood. These same behavioral patterns were seen in adult male rodents exposed prenatally to stress or alcohol, which disrupts the prenatal testosterone surge in male fetuses. These effects are mediated by aromatization of testosterone to estrogen, since sexual behavior can be masculinized in females and reinstated in neonatally castrated males with early administration of a synthetic estrogen or high doses of estradiol. Estrogen has also been shown to act asymmetrically in the hypothalamus to modify reproductive behavior of the female rat.

The development of psychic gender identity is not an on and off affair but involves a mix of semi-independent variables with many possible combinations. Gay and lesbian hangouts tend to gather diverse individuals with many body-psyche gender variations. While each individual may feel that he or she or she-he is choosing a lover or mate, his or her choices, like all human choices, are directed and constrained by programs built into the brain and modified by hormones and environmental determinants. An increase in man-made estrogens in the environment, for example, interferes with male embryo development and promotes female behaviors in males. Females with more male hormone act like males. Males with more female hormone develop breasts and act more like females.

Gender subtypes can be understood by allowing different mixes of six sexual identity and preference programs in the brain:

1 An inner sense of sexual identity - male or female or both

2. Sex-specific behavioral characteristics

3.Polarized sexual attraction

4.Falling-in-love - spontaneous preference for one sex

5. Sexual appetite preference for one sex

6. Aversion to intimacy with one sex

Preferences are built on a foundation that is enduring but not fixed. Learning experiences redirect these innate tendencies. Given the opportunity, most humans will experiment with a range of intimate contacts and will satisfy their sexual urges in a variety of ways. Some humans are more open and experimental than others. Some humans have more opportunity to have varied relationships and some are strictly limited by local rules to just one kind of relationship.

A straight heterosexual individual answers the ideal description of male gender: a person who has a male body, feels like a man, is attracted only to women and only has sex with women. He falls in love and marries a woman and has an aversion to the idea of having sex with a man. A true heterosexual woman has a reciprocal set of congruent characteristics.

A homosexual male has a man’s body, feels more or less like a man but displays a mix of male and female behavior and is attracted only to men. He falls in love with men, has sex with men and has an aversion to sex with women, although he enjoys female friends. Male homosexuality sometimes runs in families. Identical twins share more of their genes than regular siblings and one twin is more likely to be gay if his twin is. Homosexual men are more likely to have homosexual brothers even if they were not twins. There is a tendency for homosexuality to run in the female line — men whose mothers had gay brothers tended to be homosexual and studies have investigated the possibility that a gene in the X chromosome might be involved. Homosexual adolescents have paid a high price for their same-sex preference and if they were free to choose a lover or mate that was congruent with the wishes of their family and community they would not pursue the homosexual path. These adolescents simply discover what their preference is and can do nothing to change it.

Passion varies from human to human. Some humans are affectionate, erotic, fall in love easily and often. Some humans are easily aroused and love sex. Others are cold, aloof and have difficulty forming intimate ties with other humans. Some tend to be irritable and angry and are not affectionate; they tend to remain alone or become unhappily married prudes who criticize and often seek to punish more affectionate and erotic humans. Some require unusual or bizarre sexual stimulation. “Kinky sex” was invented, in part, for hard-to arouse individuals. Sexual arousal is sometimes linked to aggression and cruelty. Fortunately, most people who enjoy bondage and torture just play at sadomasochism and no-one is injured or killed as in real expressions of sexual cruelty. The formalized and ritualistic aspects of sadomasochistic sexuality appear in religious ceremonies world-wide and suggest that this is an innate tendency that is expressed in a variety of ways. Even the nicest humans are fascinated by sadomasochistic stories and will enjoy horrifying terror movies and news reports of unsavory sexual crimes. Some humans are missing the programs that create affection, love, intimacy and empathy. They remain cruel, dishonest and some are dangerous sexual predators.

From I and Thou, a book about close relationships by Stephen Gislason.

January 26, 2011

Religion, Politics and Control

Human societies began with small groups that were more or less self-regulating entities. Group myths and rules provided common ground for group members. Families lived in local clusters, forming clans which joined together to form bands. Tribes were larger organizations based on looser affiliations of bands that defined and defended larger geographic areas. As tribal groups enlarged and became more powerful, local group myths grew into larger group myths complete with symbols and rituals that played a vital role in tribal cohesion. In the cohesion stories, tribal leaders grew larger than life often with supernatural powers. This irregular and uncertain progression from small to large groups continues in human societies today.

Civilizations in every region for as long a history has been recorded, featured Kings, Queens, and Emperors who were supported by aristocratic classes of priests. These divine leaders promoted Gods and rituals that supported their claims. Their priests acted as custodians of royal privilege. In turn, royalty provided wealth and prestige, often building temples and comfortable accommodations for the priests. Artists and architects became key allies of the priestly classes, building the largest structures in town with art and sculptures depicting gods and rulers.

The wealth in every society has been controlled by rulers and priests. A typical society is ruled by a small elite group that controls a large peasant group. Poor people have always been uneducated, obedient and available to work for or fight for the elite classes. The arrangement was altered recently as more affluent democratic countries emerged with educated middle classes who demanded a bigger share of the nation’s wealth and working classes who formed unions to negotiate higher wages and more benefits for their workers. Even in the most enlightened societies, however, large numbers of followers continue to follow leaders in self-destructive, even suicidal adventures. The tendency for most humans to submit to authority appears to be a fixed feature of human nature.

In many countries, the authority of religious organizations declined as the education and wealth of more “middle class” citizens increased. A relatively new idea is to separate the state from religious institutions. The shift from aristocratic control to democratic control requires new freedoms for citizens to become self-determining individuals who cannot be coerced by autocratic authority.

The US serves as an experiment in group dynamics. The US constitution formally declares the separation of state and religion. The US in the 20th century made slow but sure progress in achieving human rights for its citizens. Paradoxically, as other countries progress towards more individual freedoms and less religion, in the 21st century, the US appears to be regressing with increasing influence of fundamentalist Christian groups on politics. At the same time, scholarly investigation of the religion-political interface is alive and well. The American Political Science Association, for example, has a section devoted to the study of religion and politics. Topics of study include issues of church and state, law, morality, political behavior and social justice. The tendency for university educated people to study social and political movements and write books can, in the best case, lead politics in the direction of more civility rather than less.

The Scandinavian countries are among the most liberal and progressive despite the fact that Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark have constitutional links between church and state. In these countries, polls report the lowest levels of church attendance. Sweden disconnected Church and state as late as the year 2000. In my case, my Icelandic grandmother was a devout Lutheran. She told stories of her life in Iceland, taught me Icelandic songs and history, but little else about her Lutheran religion. I did recite the bedtime prayer she taught me: Now I lay me down to sleep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” My grandmother gave me the legacy of the good person. She was gentle, kind, and affectionate. She was a practical woman who raised nine children, worked hard all her life and knew suffering. As a result of all her life experiences, she was a good person.

Thanks to grandmother, I have no difficulty recognizing good people. I have no difficulty recognizing bad people, regardless of what they say, their social status, beliefs, or religious affiliation.

What continues to surprise me is how many bad people can hide in the disguise of a religious person.

From Religion for 21st Century by Stephen Gislason. Available as an eBook download form Persona Digital Online.

January 16, 2011

Aggression 2011

Aggression is best described as threatening or attacking another. The smallest aggressions occur with rude, insulting behaviors that may escalate into an attack.

While individuals clearly are aggressive, the most alarming and destructive aggressions are group activities. Groups define boundaries in spatial terms and also in ideological terms. I often read discussions of aggression that quickly focus on violence. Attacks are often violent, but aggression is a series of behaviors, most of which occur in daily social interactions without violence. The notion of aggression as an antisocial instinct has been replaced by the notion that aggression is a tool of competition and negotiation. Survival often depends on mutual assistance and aggression is constrained by the need to maintain beneficial relationships.

In families and schools, aggressive conflict is similarly constrained. It is only when social relationships are valued that one can expect a full complement of natural checks and balances. According to de Waal: “With the early provocative description of Australopithecus as a lustful killer and the appearance of Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression in 1967, the origins of violence became a central theme in debates about human social evolution . Popular authors explained inborn aggressiveness, as man the "killer ape." The horrors of World War II left everyone with little confidence in human nature.”

Investigation of aggression first focused on individual behavior rather than social phenomena. Primatologists came to study relationships as determinants of human behavior. De Waal described an incident that should be familiar to most humans. “In the chimpanzee colony at the Arnhem Zoo, in the Netherlands when an alpha male fiercely attacked a female, other apes came to her defense, causing prolonged screaming and chasing in the group. After the chimpanzees had calmed down, a tense silence followed, broken when the entire colony burst out hooting. In the midst of this pandemonium, two chimpanzees kissed with their arms wrapped around each other. These two turned out to be the same male and female in the fight.“

Observations of other primates often fit the human experience. De Wall suggested that conflict resolution had at least three elements: (1) indications of a calming function of grooming and other body contacts, (2) recognition of long-term social relationships and their survival value, and (3) demonstration of a connection between aggressive conflict and subsequent inter-opponent reunions, called "reconciliations."
In all primates, humans included, aggression is an aspect of social life that occurs in the best relationships. You could argue that understanding aggression important but understanding conflict resolution by reconciliation is more important.

Ethologists linked aggression to territory. Every animal stakes out some space to call its own. The space has boundaries that are defined by the aggressive behavior of the animal. Many animals have elaborate systems of spacing themselves so that territorial claims are seldom disputed with violent attacks. Birds have the most creative system – they sing to each other. This is my territory chirp, chirp; please stay away from my space, chirp” Chemical secretions are good territory markers and are widely used in the animal kingdom. You can mark the boundaries of your territory with urine as cats, wolves and dogs do. You can secret chemical messengers from special glands and rub it on trees and rocks to let others know “this is my place.”

Territorial aggression has both a defensive and an offensive mode and sometimes they are the same behaviors. Every so often, an animal decides to challenge the territory of another – he wants to relocate, expend his space, or perhaps he does not have a space to call his own and wants some. You can capture another’s territory by frightening him away with warning calls and a fierce display. You might win by causing him to flee or you might kill him. He might win by getting angry and charging you with teeth and claws displayed convincingly. You lose your confidence, turn and run and he chases you, not just to his boundary but way down the street, just to let you know that his power extends beyond his domain. It may take months or years before you have the temerity to try another raid or you may go hunting for another animal who is more easily intimidated. If you do not flee from a more aggressive, stronger adversary, you will be injured or killed.

Humans have evolved elaborate territorial strategies and have replaced urine and odor markers with visual markers, constructions, rituals and rules. The function of well-defined boundaries is to minimize conflict. The regulation of territorial rights is a government task. Land registries and fences make good neighbors. High rock walls and moats patrolled by crocodiles make safer cities.

Property law reduces the frequency of dispute and courts replace violent aggression with negotiation and settlement. Nations confront each other with a variety of negotiating tools, but no nation relies on international law to secure its territories. Every nation relies on military force.
Since the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union and the United States of America combined ideological differences, technological ingenuity with a reptilian version of territorial defense that involved massive deployment of nuclear weapons, missile robots ready to launch at all times and satellite surveillance of the planet. The nicest way to summarize the human predicament is that territorial defense remains a dominant concern in the 21st century.

A more realistic statement would warn that a suicidal insanity threatens the survival of all humans in the 21st century. Russia and the USA are the two countries with insane stockpiles of nuclear weapons, aka weapons of mass destruction. Both countries are achieving modest aggreements to dismantle their weapons and adopt more reasonable and benevolent methods of resolving differences.

From Group Dynamics by Stephen Gislason. Available for download from Persona Digital Online.

January 3, 2011

Decisions & Discrimination

Discrimination refers to noticing differences and making choices based on evaluating differences. One of the trends in neuroscience involves understanding of how decisions are made. You could argue that detecting and responding to differences is the most universal strategy in animal brains.

Humans are good at detecting differences and make millisecond decisions that have a lasting influence on their subsequent decision making procedures. The kind and degree of difference is always in flux and depends on prior learning, context and social status. Discrimination is a deeply imbedded property of the human mind that is expressed in almost every human behavior we might consider. However, discrimination as a popular topic is often a misinterpretation of the normal activity of noticing and acting on differences.

In popular debates, discrimination is treated as an aberration. Terms that end in “ism” and “ist” are often used to describe discriminating people in a derogatory manner. Thus anyone with a different ancestry who disagrees with you becomes a racist.

This is not to argue that noticing differences is always positive. It is to argue that humans base a lot of their decisions on noticing differences. In a positive mode, the description “a discriminating shopper” identifies human who notices differences in design and quality of manufacture, choosing high quality products rather than cheap ones.

We have recognized that group membership is all important to humans. You recognize familiar humans who speak and act like yourself as members of your group. In a crowd you notice humans who display small differences in speech, costume and behavior. Most often these small differences are the basis for shunning or ignoring the “strange” humans. In the most rigid groups, everyone wears the same costume, repeats the same polite language, with the same intonation and behaves in a predicable, ritualistic manner.

We have recognized that racial and ethnic boundaries exist but obvious boundaries are not required for discrimination.

The ideal of an egalitarian society is to recognize the merit of individuals; to allow social mobility based on learning and achievement; and to protect individual expressions by social policy and law, but human nature does not change. Group preferences and boundaries that separate groups can always be identified.

This discussion is from Neuroscience Notes. The book places the human brain at the center of the universe. Since the brain is the organ of the mind, consciousness and all knowledge is contained within the brain. Neuroscience Notes is part of the Persona Digital Psychology and Philosophy Series of related books. The most closely related volumes are the Human Brain and Intelligence and Learning.

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