Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Bottom Half

I've listened to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion for years. One of my favorite parts is his tagline for the fictional town his radio character is from, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. He always says Lake Wobegon is "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." No mean feat, since average sort of implies some above and some below.

The idea of levels put me in mind of Maslow's Triangle, or Hierarchy of Needs. I first learned about this in a high school psychology class, many years ago. Here's an image of it, taken from the Wikipedia article on the subject:
Maslow theorized that people can only advance to a higher level of development and "self-actualization" when their lower needs are met. So basically we have to meet our survival-level needs of food, water, sleep, sex, etc., before we can begin to meet needs for security of body, employment, resources, etc. And those safety/security needs must be met before we can love and belong to a group of friends or family. Once we have love, we can then move on to self-esteem, confidence, respect, and the like. And finally, after we learn to love others and ourselves, we can become "self-actualized." The chart shows self-actualization to include "morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts." Sounds pretty nice, and pretty rare.

There's another perspective we can use to see how this works. It's called the "triune brain." Here's an image.

We actually have three brains, all rolled up in our heads. The first and lowest--barely more than a wide spot in the neurological road as an enlargement at the top of the spinal column--is called the Reptilian or R-Complex. It's called that because that part of our brain is very similar to the brains of reptiles. It's the surviving part of our brain-- the part that deals with instinct, survival needs, and aggression. The reptilian brain is the most primitive part; it can't go any higher than hunger, temperature control, fight-or-flight fear responses, defending territory, and keeping safe.

The only "emotion" used by the reptilian brain is fear. Fear of starving, fear of not reproducing, fear of cooking as you bask on the warm rock, fear of losing your territory, your mate, or the egg you just heisted from the chicken coop. On the triangle, the reptilian brain is the boss of the bottom two levels. All of the reptilian brain, and all of Levels 1 and 2, boils down to acquisition and security: getting enough to live, and keeping it.

The second brain is called the Limbic System. The word limbic comes from Latin, and means shell, arc, or girdle, so you can think of the limbic system as a shell or girdle surrounding the reptilian complex. It's the part of our brain that is similar to the brains of older mammals--dogs, cows, horses, even mice--basically all the other land mammals, except primates. It's the feeling part of the brain. On the triangle, the limbic system is responsible for the addition of Level 3--where we see friendship, family, and intimacy, not just in the protective or survival sense, but in a sense of actually valuing others for companionship, fondness, and love. It's where you stop hanging around with others because they can protect you or give you stuff, and stay because you like them. The limbic brain is what's working when a dog (an instinctive creature in many ways), will be excited and happy to see its owner who is mean to it or starves it, instead of trying to attack and eat him. The dog truly loves the beast, even to its own detriment.

The third brain, the neocortex, is the "highest" brain. It's thought to only exist in primates and and cetaceans like dolphins (although I personally believe that some other animals have developed at least a bit of its function). "Neo" comes from Greek and means new or recent, and neocortex is the most recent part of the brain to exist. The neocortex is the thinking part of the brain. It's responsible for "higher thought," such as storing and accessing complex memories, advance planning, abstract thought or making "connections" between unrelated things, critical thinking, consciousness, and imagination. On the triangle, this part of our brain is what we have to use to get above level 3. And it's where we, as average humans, are supposed to be, brain-development-wise. Above the dogs and cats and cows and mice.

But, unlike in Lake Wobegone, the vast, vast majority of people fall below average, and spend their time not in the "higher thinking" neocortex, not even in the "feeling" limbic system, but slumming in the "surviving, competing and securing" reptilian brain. Think about it.

For most people, the vast majority of time is occupied with work (Level 2 security)--and getting and taking care of our stuff (Level 1 survival or Level 2 security). Our "recreation" is often about shopping, dining, or social medial which is looking at, eating, or talking about getting more stuff. Frequently our recreation is watching and obsessing about sports, which is symbolic competition and survival struggles. All Levels 1 and 2.

Our other entertainment is popular media, like TV and video games. Probably 95 percent of what you see there is below level 3.

Reality shows? Levels 1 and 2. Some are about competition--outsmarting or out-scheming others to make yourself the winner and them the loser. Some are just garden-variety voyeurism where we watch other people who are "more messed up" than we are so that we can feel superior and less afraid of our own shortcomings. Dramas? Level 2. Cop and doctor and lawyer shows are about showing how everything from crime to illness to "justice" is all under control of the heroes, and not at all scary or uncertain--security. Fashion and home-fashion shows? Level 2. It's about having the right stuff to show yourself not to be inferior or an outsider--security. Documentaries? Well, once in awhile you might get an exception, but most are Level 2. Let's watch about the Holocaust, with no parallels drawn to anything happening now, and convince ourselves that this could happen "never again," then switch to the news to watch the vilification of Muslims or illegal immigrants. News? Level 2 on a good day. Ads? If you don't buy this, you won't be as good as everyone else--Level 2, tops. Video games are usually either searching for stuff, or shooting stuff. Level 1.5.

Even most people's "spiritual life" is Level 2. Going to church to be allowed to go to Heaven or to avoid Hell is survival-based Level 1, just on an eternal scale. Going to church to gossip about people's clothes or make business contacts is security-based Level 2. Going to church to enjoy how advanced you are and to condemn other people who aren't--I don't need to tell you what that is, do I?

In fact, I had a hard time coming up with activities that I understand "normal" people do on a regular, day-to-day basis that are even Level 3, much less above. Some examples I thought of: having a cuddle and a bedtime story with your kid, doing volunteer work without expecting any recognition or accolades for it, spending time with friends where you just enjoy their company (not compete over a sport, shop for more stuff, or other lower level activities). So there are some relatively common Level 3 activities, but they take a distant backseat, in terms of time spent, to our more reptilian pursuits.

So what's my point? Simply this: if our cosmic "job," if you will, is to be human--to use the equipment and advantages we have to their best use, we're not doing it. We're "higher mammals," and yet we spend almost all of our time in the reptilian part of our brains. We rarely muster a foray into the limbic, feeling, area of the older mammal, much less into the higher realms of the neo-cortex. We've allowed ourselves to be bogged down in the area of bare survival, mindless acquisition, and primitive competition to the point that we squander our spiritual and mental selves in the equivalent of the evolutionary primary grades, instead of graduating to the Level 3 limbic and beyond. And we need to stop it.

Of course there's always going to be some time we've got to spend in the mental and spiritual basement--just getting stuff done because it has to be done to get by. But we need to do it knowing that's what it is-- that it's the dregs, and not the meaning of life.

And then, in the time we have left, we need to do something better, not more of the same. Replace TV with conversation or gardening or woodworking or painting or singing or playing music or playing a board game with your family. Replace reptilian "sports religion" with individual or group fitness activities. Replace empty addictive behaviors like compulsive websurfing or social media with real life creativity and community,--maybe a hobby and joining a group to learn more about it. In short, spend more time exercising your mammal brain.

The biggest first step would be just to think often about which part of the brain is telling us something. If it causes anxiety, fear, worry, addiction, or obsession--if it demands more and better and is never satisfied, it definitely has a flicking, forked tongue. If it puts us in a place of contentment, happiness, or satisfaction, it's the warm blooded mammal brain we're hearing. And if it gives us a sense of creativity, accomplishment, spiritual wholeness, or healthy respect for ourselves and others--a feeling that "I'm great just like I am, and just where I am"-- we've hit the mother lode: the neocortex.

And then, once we can identify which brain is activated in us by the different things we do, think and say, we have a choice of where to spend most of our time and mental energy--whether we want to hang out in the bottom half, scratching and clawing, competing and acquiring, worrying and defending, or whether we'd rather put our focus on the things that make us experience fulfillment and satisfaction, love and compassion, creativity and pride of accomplishment.

In the end, everything we need to make the change to the top half is already in us. Three brains. We just have to choose: Lizard, Lassie, or Leonardo.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Answer

Many years ago, I first read the book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. It's the first of a series of books in a sort of sci-fi comedy genre--hilariously funny, very ironic. The Hitchhiker's series makes fun of just about every tradition, institution, and sacred cow we have in our western culture. If your exposure to it is by way of the TV series, or none at all, you should fix that.

My reason for bringing it up is that the premise of these books is that Earth was an experiment, basically a computer program set up by higher intelligence to come up with the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. After millions and millions and millions of years, it works, and the computer spits out the answer: 42. The trouble is, after all those millennia, no one remembers the Question.

I've been feeling a bit like that. For quite a long time, I've been changing, evolving, finding new bits of myself and discarding other bits along the side of the road. For a few weeks now, I've been feeling like I've "arrived" somewhere, since I don't feel a push to keep going somewhere else. But as I look around, I'm not sure where it is I've arrived. I'm pretty sure that there's a "point." There has always, no matter how stupid my life has been at times, been a point. So there must be one, but I'm danged if I can figure out what it's supposed to be.

I suppose that's why I've been writing less for the last month or two. The stuff I had been writing about--the stuff that ticked me off, the stuff that set an obsession in motion, even the stuff that made me smile--all seems to be strangely useless. My research has become more rare, less engaging, and strange enough that even when I find an "answer," that is, something that looks like an important thing, it has come to feel like no one remembers the question.

The only thing that has been making my list of stuff to do on a consistent basis, besides the stuff that I really can't avoid, like paying the bills and keeping up the day to day household stuff, is working in my garden. Each morning, as I look out the window for the first time, as soon as it's light enough to see, I feel the call. And, as soon as possible, I'm out the door to water and feed, pluck spent blooms, pull weeds, pinch back leggy plants, rout out squash bugs, spread compost, eat tomatoes and strawberries and beans pulled straight off the plant without even washing them, and plant more 'rescues' from the garden center. Rescues are plants that are no longer pretty enough to entice the average consumer to buy them, so they sell them for just about nothing to co-dependent keepers of strays like me who are willing to fuss awhile to see the bloom again. I do best these days in my garden. The answers I'm getting there are pretty straightforward, just like the questions. The plants are drooping--water. The plants aren't blooming--more fish emulsion. The plants are being eaten by grasshoppers--buh-bye grasshoppers. There are too many tomatoes--make salsa.

Other answers are floating about as well:

-Leave each other the hell alone.

-Say a big, vehement NO to the people who spend their lives trying to scare us of e coli, or shingles, or erectile dysfunction, or nuclear holocaust, or illegal immigrants, or radical islamists, or whatever, so that they can cruise easily to more and more capricious, ridiculous power over our food, our health, our government, and our money.

-We are all part of the same organism: the earth. When we attack each other, we're attacking aspects of ourselves. Our obsession with hurting other people to relieve our fear about our circumstances is the same psychologically as a cutter, who feels better when their own blood runs.

When do you suppose folks are going to ask the questions?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Spirograph and How the World Works

Remember the Spirograph? I had one when I was a kid. For those of you too young or too deprived to have ever seen the critter, Spirograph was a set of different sizes plastic gears with holes in them. You put the gear on another piece with teeth on it that meshed with the gears, then stuck a pen in one of the holes in the gear, and move the gear around and around, drawing these cool shapes and geometric patterns without lifting the pen. You could use different colors of pen, and make very pretty designs. There was supposed to be all kinds of complicated geometry and stuff that went into it, but it was fun anyway. Here's a pic of the exact set I had:

They still make them, but the new ones are oddly unsatisfying to me. THIS is the Spirograph. The man who posted this pic is very proud of his Spirograph set--it's not even for sale. If you follow that link, you can see inside the box and some other versions of the set too.

Anyway, perhaps I was just easily amused, but it did amaze me how one continuous line could make all those designs, and you could draw pretty flowers just by putting stems and leaves on the shapes you made. It seemed somehow that everything was connected when you used it, and now of course, I know that's right.

Today, I ran across a chart that reminded me of a Spirograph drawing. It certainly shows how things are connected, and not in the happy way I felt when I was drawing flowers.

I might get a nasty letter from a lawyer if I post the actual image here, so click this link to see the article in Business Insider and the chart. It shows how fewer than two hundred people connect and conrol just about every major corporation, media outlet, government, central bank, 'charitable' foundation, think tank, policy-making organization, notable political campaign, and ice cream parlor. Well, no, that's hyperbole--ice cream is apparently still independent. But nearly everything else is run by these high-rolling masters of the universe. Make sure you think about Spirograph the next time you're wondering why everything always seems to take power away from regular folks and give it to the crazies who want to mine, drill, imprison, exploit, and/or bomb everything and everyone on the face of the planet.

Then, go get some ice cream.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Majority?

If you're still thinking that that you live in a democracy, you might want to watch this video. It shows how electronic voting can be manipulated with access to only the memory card of the scanner. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that we probably haven't had a clean election in years, and we're not gonna get one this year either.

Monday, June 4, 2012

American Ingenuity

Wow, who ever would have thought that stuff could be so simple? But leave it to an American. In light of the NDAA, the targeted killing of Americans abroad, without due process, just because someone says they're a terrorist (of course, recently the government also had a toddler on the terrorist no-fly list), and the drip-drip of erosion of our civil, human, and Constitutional rights, one might be excused if one thought that things are just too far down the road to do anything about. But one clever American has come up with a solution: a petition. And not just any petition, a Do Not Kill List.

It's real. It's on the White House Website. And it basically asks that signers be put on a list, kind of like the Do Not Call list, except it requests that there be a list of people who don't want our government to kill us without due process. Here's the actual text from the petition page at

The New York Times reports that President Obama has created an official “kill list” that he uses to personally order the assassination of American citizens. Considering that the government already has a “Do Not Call” list and a “No Fly” list, we hereby request that the White House create a “Do Not Kill” list in which American citizens can sign up to avoid being put on the president’s “kill list” and therefore avoid being executed without indictment, judge, jury, trial or due process of law.

The idea is already drawing coverage in the world media. It's a capital idea. I'm signing. I think you should too. And I think it would be just lovely if instead of 25,000 signatures by June 29, there were 25 million. Maybe our illustrious "leaders" would start to feel a little nervous about a few million peasants showing up outside their Washington apartments with pitchforks.