The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease

   Elissa Epel, PhD. (University of California, San Francisco) 

   Penguin Books.

   It wasn’t easy to find the time to read this book – in fact, it was getting a bit, well, stressful.

   However, as soon as I started, Dr. Epel’s [] words had a calming effect, for a number of reasons. For instance, she makes the point that stress, “will always be a part of life – anything worth doing will have aspects of stress…But what we can change is our response to stress.”  

   And when that happens, in addition to feeling more relaxed, we are likely to be more successful in our work, whether it is looking after our children, organizing for peace, or just enjoying a walk.

   To help the reader cope with life’s demands, Epel takes a comprehensive approach which focuses primarily on two themes: first, psychological insights that put the issues into a proper perspective; and second, specific practices that can help reduce stress on a day-to-day basis. 

   To do so, she does not simply recite a few obvious bromides, like, “Always look on the bright side of life”, or “Put on a happy face”. Instead, the reader is offered a thoughtful overview of the problem alongside practical and effective exercises based on a weekly schedule. 

   Epel, who co-authored, The Telomere Effect with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, begins by pointing out that having a hard-wired stress response is important because it can “deliver the physical and mental resources we need to meet a challenge.” She then makes the vital distinction between the occasional stressful situations that are inevitable but brief, and chronic stress, which, “can change the structure of our very cells, right down to our telomeres” – the “caps” that are at the ends of our chromosomes. “Chronic stress, the type that goes on for years and years, has a toxic effect on your body. It wears out your cells prematurely…Having short telomeres in our blood cells predicts earlier onset of diseases and death.”

   Chronic stress also makes us feel terrible and will often cause otherwise nice people to be mean to others. Indeed, constant anxiety from day-to-day plays a significant but usually unrecognized role in the growing tension and polarization in society. 

   What to do? Epel’s first point is to expect the unexpected, and to accept the Buddhist insight: “everything changes, and nothing lasts, including our own lives…” 

   She adds that we can change our minds and bodies for greater resilience, leading to, “longer, healthier lives that we can enjoy for the time that we’re here.” 

   Sounds good, eh? 

   That process begins with remembering to NOT be stressed if you do not have the time to jump right in and start practicing these exercises today, and/or if you don’t follow the plan every day. In other words, just do the best that you can without worrying about it. 

   The week-long program has a different theme every day, such as: do what you can and let go of the rest; training for resilience; and reconnecting with Nature as an effective way to relax. In the latter case, Epel recommends full immersion in a forest, a lake, or similarly soothing places. She suggests that you: “Walk in silence, slowly…let your senses be fully engaged…Listen for birds, breezes, movement, water.” 

   And remember that YOU are part of Nature too. 

   This approach is very effective in reducing what’s known as, “nature deficit disorder”, while also reminding us that it’s impossible to thrive, either as an individual or as a species, in an unhealthy environment. 

   Epel includes many insightful ideas with each daily theme, along with ways to make them part of one’s routine. The richness and variety of these suggestions allows every person to explore a wide range of options for each day, finding for themselves which are the most appropriate.

   Throughout, Epel weaves in stories about difficult times in her own life, and that of other people dealing with very serious problems. She recounts some of the situations when she found herself over-reacting to stressful challenges and how she needed to practice mindfulness, exercise, or other techniques that helped her to return her nervous system to its baseline – what she terms, “deep rest”.  

   To be clear, she does not suggest that these techniques and perspectives are the answer to some very distressing situations that so many people face, such as poverty, oppressive jobs, or the loss of a loved one. And Epel does mention some existential problems that we need to confront, the climate crisis being the most serious.

   The role of such problems in creating stress is profoundly illuminated in Dr. Gabor Maté’s latest book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture. []  

     Maté defines culture as: “the entire context of social structures, belief systems, assumptions, and values that surround us and necessarily pervade every aspect of our lives.”

     His book examines what exactly is “toxic” about our societies, and he stresses that the global health problems that we face, such as, “burgeoning stress, inequality, and climate catastrophe” have been created by a culture of “globalized capitalism” that condemns countless numbers of human beings, “to suffer illness born of stress, ignorance, inequality, environmental degradation, climate change, poverty, and social isolation.” 

    (It’s important to note that a number of studies have shown that, when people work together in a peaceful and respectful way to make a better world, they experience many positive feelings, including a real sense of connection and purpose). 

     For his part, Albert Einstein was more than just the most famous physicist in the 20th century. He was also an astute observer of human nature, and he had a deep understanding of the importance of social and economic factors in shaping – and potentially damaging – human consciousness. In 1949, he wrote that: 

     …the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behavior. The abstract concept “society” means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual…depends so much upon society—in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence—that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is “society” which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought…” []

   In modern societies, almost everybody is traumatized to a greater or lesser extent. In Einstein’s view: “This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism.” (ibid)

   As individuals, the practices that Epel suggests can help make our bodies and minds more relaxed and improve the quality of our relationships, as well as making our lives more thoughtful, and perhaps even more meaningful. 

   And that’s a good start.  


   Note: I was introduced to Dr. Epel’s work in a powerful National Geographic documentary, “Stress: Portrait of a Killer”, which highlights the insights of Stanford neurobiologist, Robert Sapolsky: []


Change of Scene!

I decided to update our look to the Twenty-Seventeen theme because our old Journalist theme was getting pretty boring. I love the colourful header with the plants. How do you like it?



The Roots of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century – Part 2

by Peter Prontzos


We are the most social of all animals, and our individual consciousness is primarily shaped by our society in general, and by our culture and family in particular. Children need to be seen to feel safe and to be soothed when they are distressed so that healthy attachment can develop. Children with unhealthy attachments are vulnerable to a wide assortment of dysfunctions. “The most important aspect of early attachment relationships”, psychologist Louis Cozolino notes, “is the establishment of a sense of safety.”

Healthy relationships create secure attachments between infants and caregivers, which also helps children to learn emotional self-regulation, reducing the tendency to overreact to negative situations.

Daniel Goleman describes the neuroplasticity of our brains in his book, Social Intelligence, as: “…repeated experiences sculpt the shape, size, and number of our neurons and their synaptic connections…. Our key relationships can gradually mold certain neural circuitry. This openness to our social environment means that the kind of person that we eventually become is, to a very significant extent, the result of the quality of our relationships in the early years.”

Social practices and cultural beliefs of modern life are preventing healthy brain and emotional development in children, according to Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame professor of psychology who specializes in moral development in children and how early life experiences can influence brain development. She explains:“Studies show that responding to a baby’s needs (not letting a baby “cry it out”) has been shown to influence the development of conscience; positive touch affects stress reactivity, impulse control and empathy; free play in nature influences social capacities and aggression; and a set of supportive caregivers (beyond the mother alone) predicts IQ and ego resilience as well as empathy.  The United States has been on a downward trajectory on all of these care characteristics….”  A nourishing environment, Narvaez adds, leads to “communal imagination,” which includes love, “sympathetic action”, and “egalitarian respect” for others.

Continue reading “The Roots of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century – Part 2”


The Roots of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century – Part 1

by Peter Prontzos

The rise of authoritarian movements and leaders around the world, from the Philippines to India to the United States, is one of the most dangerous developments in modern times. Not only are they anti-democratic and often xenophobic, but they are one more significant obstacle to dealing with such other dangers as the climate crisis and war.

This danger is not trivial: a 2018 report by the democracy watchdog group Freedom House suggests that…”democracy is facing its ‘most serious crises in decades.’ Seventy-one countries experienced net declines in the guarantee of political and civil rights.” And this is not just an aberration. “For the 12th consecutive year, global freedom declined. Since 2006, 113 countries have reduced their commitments to individual and collective freedom.”

“France, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States have experienced the rise of extremist groups and rising intolerance toward ethnic minorities and immigrants. Germany and Italy have seen a resurgence of neo-fascism. Systematic measures to weaken the rule of law, attempts to eradicate judicial independence, curtail civil liberties, restrict voting rights and intimidate journalists have occurred in Poland, Hungary, Turkey and the United States.”

“The Great Recession of 2008 was the social and economic context for the emergence of contemporary autocracy in Europe and the United States. The reaction to the recession…reflects what Harvard economist Dani Rodrik calls the, “political trilemma of the global economy”: the incompatibility between democracy, national [self-]determination and economic globalization. Right-wing extremists were able to effectively link job loss, “uncontrolled” immigration and loss of national identity with globalization.

Continue reading “The Roots of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century – Part 1”


When Therapy Becomes a Defence

By Bruce Wilson

So you’ve started into primal therapy. Great. You are diligent with your feelings, you go to group every week and you have frequent individual sessions. When something triggers you, you are first to book a session with a therapist and “go for it” – feel the feelings, get the connections and insights. And week after week, month after month, year after year, you keep it up. Therapy, therapy and more therapy. And yet somehow the old issues don’t seem to resolve.

We are told that some feelings that take a very long time to complete, especially first-line feelings, but if you find yourself getting into the same old jams again and again, if you keep struggling with the boyfriend who erupts in anger and gives you no love, if you keep failing to do what you really want to do, or to get the job that want to get, or find a loving relationship instead of one with endless struggle, and then go back for endless therapy, you might be using the therapy as a defence.

I’ve seen this phenomenon and Arthur Janov wrote about it a long time ago. Primal therapy is about changing your life; it’s not about endless sessions after sessions for years or even decades. But many people can retreat into the “comfort” of primaling instead of changing their life because the latter is harder to do. These people can become “primal junkies,” addicted to therapy as sure as one can get addicted to alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or sex. Things just don’t feel right without your weekly session, your weekly fix. You get antsy; you “need to feel” just like clockwork.

And of course, if that is happening then you are probably not primaling but abreacting. In my abreaction article, I mentioned that one of the signs of abreaction is a life without changes:

If there is a sine qua non of abreaction, it is in the lack of life changes made by the person abreacting. Abreaction keeps you “stuck” –  no ventures are made, no risks are taken, no changes in jobs or career, no “going for it” in a real, healthy, meaningful way. Instead, one remains a prisoner of their pain, always reacting to circumstances, always triggered, always needing to “go down” to feel every few days, and always acting out.

This is not a fault of the therapy; it’s a fault in the way the patient is doing the therapy and a good therapist will catch this and address it, usually by telling you to do what you don’t want to do or what you are reluctant or scared to do. They will tell you to change your behavior and go for life in the way you want. If you want to play a musical instrument, play it. You want to write? Write! Don’t just think about it, and don’t try to be Shakespeare or Dickens on your first try. You will never be ready “someday when I’ve felt enough feelings.” Someday is TODAY. If the therapy is working then you’ll be thrown into a pot of feelings that you’ve been avoiding; the very feelings that have prevented you from doing what you want to do. It’s the primal dialectic. As Janov observed so many years ago, it’s far easier to “feel” another feeling rather than the feeling that is really there. That’s abreaction and it’s very sneaky.

So a little bit of behavioral therapy can help primal therapy go a long way, not by using head trips or conditioning, but by facing up to what you need and want to do and DO IT. A therapist I respect very much once said he would get his male patients who (for example) were scared to call a girl out for a date to do it right then and right there because it would immediately put them into the feelings they needed to feel. I’ve been there, not with arranging a date, but with needing to express to someone that I loved them. Pick up the telephone, get the voice message, and then WHAM! Up come the feelings. “I love you” becomes “I need you.”

So don’t be a primal junkie. Not only does it not work, but it costs a hell of a lot of money on useless therapy.



How Good People Turn Evil

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
Philip Zimbardo
New York: Random House, 2007
576 pp, $27.95 (hbk)

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide & Mass Killing (2nd ed.)
James Waller
New York: Oxford University Press, 2007
384 pp, $24.99 (pbk)

Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide
Barbara Coloroso
Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007
248 pp, C $30.00

To prevent future genocides, we must understand the conditions and the forces that produced such unimaginable horrors. Unless and until we see past the myths about the causes of such slaughters, which have claimed the lives of fifty to sixty million people in the last century, they are certain to be repeated – especially given the numerous dangers which are now threatening to undermine social and political stability around the globe.
Three recent books have attempted just this task, with varying degrees of success: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo; Becoming Evil, by James Waller; and Barbara Coloroso’s Extraordinary Evil. While there is a fair amount of agreement among these authors, each approaches the subject of atrocity and its root causes from different angles.
The most powerful and insightful effort is by Zimbardo, who is, of course, the pioneering social psychologist most noted for his (in)famous “Stanford Prison Experiment” in 1971, in which male students were randomly assigned to take on the roles of either prisoners or guards in a study originally planned to last for two weeks. The experiment had to be terminated less than halfway through, because of the deleterious and dangerous changes that affected both groups of subjects. The power that the guards were given created a strong tendency for them to act brutally and sadistically towards their fellow classmates. Those assigned to the role of prisoner, on the other hand, became by and large passive, fearful, and subservient. In fact, half of them had to be released even before the “prison” was closed early.
About a third of Zimbardo’s book consists of his detailed analysis of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which is the starting point for his investigation of the forces that compel otherwise ordinary people to commits acts of extraordinary horror and brutality. He offers three fundamental explanations for human behavior. The first and most common approach he labels dispositional. This view focuses primarily on the level of the individual and his or her personality, experiences, genetic inheritance, abilities, and beliefs. It holds that, most of the time, the locus of control over actions is internal. By this psychological explanation, individuals are held to be usually, indeed almost completely, responsible for their actions – regardless of any other external explanations or forces. Nelson Mandela, for example, is a hero primarily because of the type of person that he is (compassionate, intelligent, and principled), while Saddam Hussein was a villain because of his personal vices (sadism, a hunger for power, vanity).
The problem with this focus is that most of the people who commit atrocities are not psychopaths, and individual variables alone can account for only a relatively small part of their actions. Indeed, after carrying out their crimes, most return to their “normal” lives and never again exhibit such pathological behaviour.  Zimbardo therefore offers a second level of explanation, based on situational variables outside of individuals that usually provide more robust and comprehensive answers about the sources of inhuman behavior. At this level of analysis, factors such as ideology, deindividuation, domination, socialization, and dehumanization contribute to producing irrational and cruel actions. This focus on social dynamics does not deny the role of personal qualities, but it assumes that on most occasions, there is an interaction between individual and their environment in which the latter is most salient for most people in most circumstances.
For all three authors considered here, this view is the most essential: that given the right “situational variables,” practically anyone will do terrible things to other human beings.  Zimbardo stresses the insight, also made by Waller and Coloroso, that mass slaughters can be committed by “normal” people because human behavior is extremely malleable, allowing contradictory behaviors to be manifested by the same person in different situations. He writes:  “Perhaps we are born with a full range of capacities, each of which is activated and developed depending on the social and cultural circumstances that govern our lives. I will argue that the potential for perversion is inherent in the very processes that make human beings do all the wonderful things that we do” (p. 229). In other words, the simplistic dualism of believing that “an unbridgeable chasm separates good people from bad people” ignores the reality that human behaviour is characterized by its variability, so that evil is “something of which we are all capable, depending on circumstances” (ibid).
The problems begin when socialization accentuates the negative potential present in us all. A telling example is the almost automatic tendency to divide people into categories of “us” and “them” – a function which can easily be exaggerated, so that those defined as the “Other” appear both threatening and less than human. In one telling study, subjects who “accidentally” overheard a remark that students in a test were “animals” gave them higher levels of electric shocks than subjects who did not hear the “animal” comment. Moreover, subjects who overheard a reference to the students as “nice guys” gave the mildest shocks of all (p. 308-9).
Another natural tendency that can be twisted is the need for community and for connections with nature (or “first nature” and “second nature,” as Murray Bookchin called it).  Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading researchers on primate behaviour, writes: “There was never a point at which we became social: descended from highly social ancestors – a long line of monkeys and apes – we have been group-living forever … life in groups is not an option, but a survival strategy.” As a result of this evolutionary heritage, de Waal explains, “sociality has become ever more deeply ingrained in primate biology and psychology.” In fact, the main reason for the large cortex in human brains is our need to associate in complex social groups.

One problem, however, is that the fear of feeling isolated and alone, if combined with the mental categories of “us and them,” may be twisted into an unhealthy form of nationalism and arrogance, while dehumanizing the Other, whose life counts for little.
This polarization is much more likely to occur when people are fearful, a problem that is clearly illustrated by the changing relationship between Serbs and Croatians over the last sixty years. For centuries, the history of these two peoples was drenched in blood, and mutual hostility was part of their cultural legacy. After the Second World War, however, the new Yugoslav government under Tito designed political and social arrangements which stressed peaceful cooperation and unity among all peoples of Yugoslavia. The economic situation of the ordinary Yugoslav improved dramatically, and over a relatively short period of time the ancient hostility eased. Serbs and Croatians began to live together, work together, and even marry one another. Human nature did not change in these few decades, but the social environment did, and that made all the difference. Anger and hatred were replaced by empathy, friendship, and in some cases, love.
When economic and political conditions began to deteriorate in the 1980s, however, many people experienced insecurity and fear. Those feelings played a large part in nationalist appeals that led to the rebirth of communal violence, producing horrible atrocities and the genocide of “ethnic cleansing.” In some cases, the very same people who had been neighbours and friends just a few years earlier now turned on each other, committing violent and inhuman acts. Clearly, when people believe their very lives are at stake, they are more likely to do what they are told – including, if “necessary,” slaughtering other people.
The Yugoslav example points to a larger problem regarding the so-called “realist” view that human beings are innately aggressive and that war is in our genes. Zimbardo’s research leads him to inquire about the nature and origin of those situations that foster war and violence in general, and genocide in particular. He explains situational variables by reference to an even more fundamental factor, that of “systems of power” (p. 10) which create diverse situations and manipulate people in ways that benefit those in control – the “power elite,” to cite the concept advanced by the sociologist C. Wright Mills.

For Zimbardo, the “military-corporate-religious complex is the ultimate megasystem controlling much of the resources and quality of life of many Americans today.” (ibid.) To his credit, he is not afraid to name names. After examining the lies that spawned the illegal invasion of Iraq and the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo concludes that the blame rests with “the very top of the long chain of command – all the way up to Vice President Dick Cheney (‘the Vice President of Torture’) and President George W. Bush” (p. 432, quoting the Washington Post, October 26 2005).
In the second edition of his incisive work, Becoming Evil, James Waller takes a somewhat more general approach than Zimbardo. He makes a similar point, namely that it is mostly “ordinary people committing extraordinary evil,” and adds that it is not simply a matter of a person having a “pathological or faulty personality.” Among the evidence he adduces is the finding by half a dozen psychologists that the Nazi génocidaire Adolf Eichmann was normal, rather than diabolical. Throughout the book, Waller emphasizes the unsettling thought that, “given the right confluence of contributing factors, we are all capable of some terrible deeds” (p. 161).
Along the same lines, Waller effectively deconstructs the view that a given society must be pathological if it carries out mass murder and genocide. He accomplishes this by reviewing Daniel Goldhagen’s influential book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, the main thesis of which is that the Nazi Holocaust resulted from an especially virulent strain of antisemitism in German culture. On the contrary, Waller not only shows that “there is little evidence that the antisemitism of Germans was eliminationist” before the rise of Hitler, but also demonstrates that Goldhagen’s belief “that eliminationist anti-Semitism was the central motive of the Holocaust fares no better. The fixation on one over-arching explanation – rather than many overlapping, reinforcing, perhaps partially competing explanations – is too simplistic” (p. 52).
The heart of Waller’s study are the chapters devoted to examining the conditions that contribute to mass violence. At the cultural level, he considers such models as “authority orientation” and “social dominance,” which may help to construct ideologies that in turn serve to legitimize mass violence. Waller then studies the psychological factors that make it possible to dehumanize people as Others without rights – even the right to exist. Indeed, it helps psychologically to consider such Others as a threat to one’s own values. Finally, Waller examines the “social construction of cruelty,” in an analysis that, like Zimbardo’s, dissects the situational variables that allow people to commit atrocities, including deindividuation and peer pressure.
Finally, although Waller argues that “social conflict is ubiquitous” throughout human history (p. xiv), he is not referring to Marx’s view that history “is the history of class struggle.” Indeed, class plays almost no role in Waller’s explanation of mass killing and genocide. One wonders, though, if it is entirely irrelevant that the capitalist classes in Germany offered Hitler “their full support and cooperation” as the Nazis crushed the trade union movement and established an extremely profitable “military-industrial complex” as a preparation for war? Or that “The Fuehrer personally stressed time and again during talks with … industrial leaders … that he considered free enterprise and competition as absolutely necessary”? ii

Closer to home, is the lack of action by the United States, Canada, and other G-8 nations in Rwanda and Darfur connected to the lack of economic interest on the part of the business classes in those countries? In his postscript, Waller admits that “the UN and the United States have been very slow” to take any serious actions to halt the genocide in Darfur (p. 302). But there is little attempt to explain that inaction.
The relationship between bullying and genocide is the central metaphor in Barbara Coloroso’s, Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide. Coloroso argues that “the concept of genocide in general, and the Rwandan genocide in particular, are macrocosms of the drama known as bullying” (p. xx). She does a reasonable job of pointing out similarities between these phenomena, such as the social origins of much cruel behavior. But the metaphor is stretched thin at times.  Coloroso is at her best in describing some of the psychological aspects of violence, and especially the other side of the coin – when “ordinary” people perform extraordinary feats of bravery to help victims of mass violence. One famous example of mass heroism occurred in Denmark under Nazi occupation:

When the Nazis invaded Denmark in 1940, citizens of all ages united to form a strong resistance movement. Refusing to cooperate with the planned deportation of Jews, the Danes began spiriting their neighbors and relatives across the channel to Sweden in small fishing vessels. Scientists and fishermen worked together to come up with ways to numb the noses of dogs used by the Nazis to search the vessel for stowaways. The small boats, with their undetected human cargo, met up with larger Swedish ships in the channel. In all, 7,200 of the 7,800 Danish Jews and 700 or their non-Jewish relatives were smuggled safely out of Denmark (pp. 125-26).

On the other hand, there is a surprising void when it comes to considering the inaction of the United States, and President Clinton in particular, during the genocide in Rwanda. While Coloroso notes that Clinton eventually apologized to the survivors, she passes over the question of his guilt in silence. She does quote Canadian scholar Gerald Caplan, who argues that nothing “can substitute for political will among the powers-that-can” (p. 20). But there is no indication that Caplan has also pointed to “Five Culprits of Genocide” in Rwanda, including the UN, France, the Catholic Church, Belgium, and the United States. In fact, Caplan is the author of “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide”, a report of the international panel of eminent persons that investigated the 1994 slaughter. He later wrote:
During the genocide, it was the U.S.’s turn to betray Rwanda…the craven Clinton administration, under pressure from the Republicans, ensured that the UN Security Council would do nothing…Thanks entirely to contrived American stalling tactics…not a single reinforcement of man or machine from abroad had reached Rwanda. iii
In spite of the long litany of depressing and horrific stories of violence and cruelty, all these authors agree that things can be done to reduce mass violence. At the core of these prescriptions is the need for critical thought, compassion, and action. Ultimately, systems of power need to be democratized and every human being needs to be treated with respect.
There is another question that all three authors tackle, and on which all three are found wanting – the question of personal responsibility. For instance, while Zimbardo challenges “the rigid Fundamental Attribution Error that locates the inner qualities of people as the main source of their actions,” he adds that this position does not “negate the responsibility”of individuals, “nor their guilt” (p. 445).

For his part, Waller rightly warns of the danger of dealing with evil “from the heights of moral condemnation rather than the depths of human understanding,” but then declares that, nevertheless, “we are all responsible for our deeds – evil or otherwise” (pp. 18-19). In her insightful chapter, “Restoring Community,” Coloroso explores important ideas about necessity of forgiveness, restitution, and reconciliation, but insists that those “who have committed crimes against humanity” must “take full responsibility for their actions” (p. 208).
There are at least four major problems with the notion of individual moral responsibility and guilt. The first is that all three authors have done a very convincing job of showing how a multitude of forces beyond individual control – social, economic, cultural, situational, psychological, and so on – can combine to elicit very uncharacteristic behaviour from a person, behaviour they would never exhibit in less extreme circumstances. Therefore, is it logical or fair to assign “full responsibility” from “the heights of moral condemnation” to those hapless individuals? Is this not making the same “Fundamental Attribution Error”?
In addition, according to cognitive scientist George Lakoff, research has discovered that there is “a vast landscape of unconscious thought – the 98 percent of thinking your brain does that you’re not aware of.” iv Does it make sense, therefore, to condemn someone who – like all of us – is aware of only two percent of the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions?
Third, I believe it is arrogant to pretend to godlike omniscience and claim to fully understand the contributions of all of the above-cited variables to an individual’s actions. Human understanding is limited. Moreover, as the authors remind us many times, any one of us might do horrible things in the “wrong” situation.
Last, not only does a focus on individuals at the bottom of the chain of command obscure the responsibility of those at the top, but more importantly it diverts attention from the ultimate cause of most mass inhumanity – the systems of Power which Zimbardo emphasizes.
Perhaps the most desirable road is to focus more on the prevention of mass killing than to waste time in futile debates about “guilt.” As Coloroso wisely points out, forgiveness is a “gift” that victims can give to themselves, as part of the process of healing.
All three writers stress that there are always some people who are able to resist the inhumanity that takes place around them, and the authors provide many examples of such heroes – people who may have led “ordinary” lives until they found themselves in a situation that brought out the best in them. As critical as those actions may be, Zimbardo is right when he says that “disobedience by the individuals must get translated into systemic disobedience” if it is going to have a significant impact (p. 459). Such widespread disobedience on the part of US citizens – and within the armed forces – was one of the main reasons that Washington was forced to end its attack on Vietnam, and why Nixon could not carry out his threats to attack the Vietnamese with nuclear weapons.
Of all the stories of the heroic resistance to the Vietnam War, perhaps the most moving is that of the late Hugh Thompson, who was a US helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1968, when he came across the My Lai massacre while it was in progress. As Zimbardo relates the tale:

An estimated 504 Vietnamese civilians were rounded up and killed … the soldiers gathered up all the inhabitants of the village – elderly men, women, children, and babies – and machine gunned them to death (some they burned alive, raped, and scalped).
While the massacre was unfolding, a helicopter piloted by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr. set down to help a group of Vietnamese civilians … They saw Captain [Ernest] Medina and other soldiers running over to shoot the wounded. Thompson flew his helicopter back over My Lai village … ordered the massacre to stop and threatened to open fire with the helicopter’s heavy machine gun on any American soldier or officer who refused his order… He then ordered two other helicopters to fly in for medical evacuation of the eleven wounded Vietnamese. His plane returned to rescue a baby he had spotted still clinging to its dead mother (pp 475-75).

Thompson and his crew embodied the appeal made over a decade earlier by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, when they called on the people of the world to “Above all, remember your humanity.” v
Most acts of resistance to the evils demanded by systems of Power and the situations that they create will not be as heroic as that Hugh Thompson. But the most hopeful aspects of these studies are the examples they supply of individuals who in the most terrible situations, from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib, remembered their own humanity, as well as that of the people around them.

Notes and references:
i (de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. 2006, p. 4).
ii (Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. 1960, p. 201).
iii (Caplan, “A Ridiculously Brief History of Rwanda” in The Walrus, October 2004).
iv (Lakoff, The Political Mind. 2008, p.3).
v (Russell and Einstein, The Russell-Einstein Manifesto. 9 July 1955


Maternal Stress Shortens Fetal Telomeres and Programs Aging and Disease In Utero

by Bruce Wilson

Maternal stress during pregnancy is associated with shorter telomeres in newborns, according to researchers at the Universities of California at Irvine and San Francisco, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Telomeres are short strands of DNA at the end of each chromosome that protect the chromosomes from deterioration or from fusing with other chromosomes. After each cell division, the telomeres become shortened and an enzyme known as telomerase adds more DNA to keep the telomeres intact. But over time, the telomeres reach a critical short length and the cell ages and dies. For this reason, telomere length has long been established as a marker for human aging – the shorter the telomeres, the earlier you will die.

Studies in the past few years have shown that the telomeres are far more than a marker for aging; they also mediate epigenetic changes, preserve the overall structure of chromatin (the DNA and proteins in the cell nucleus), and regulate gene expression. In effect, the telomere/telomerase system is one of the major mediators of health and disease throughout the lifespan.

A number of landmark studies have shown that psychological stress in adults is associated with shortening of the telomeres and accelerated aging. More recently, Sonja Entringer, Elissa Epel, and colleagues demonstrated that maternal psychological stress during pregnancy correlates with shorter telomeres in young adulthood. [1] Now they’ve gone one step further to show that telomere shortening occurs in the fetus when the mother is psychologically stressed. [2] By measuring telomere length in leukocytes taken from the cord blood and assessing the mother’s stress during her pregnancy, they were able to correlate the length of the telomeres with the degree of stress experienced by the mothers. In the words of the authors, “it is plausible that in utero telomere biology represents a molecular mechanism whereby stress exposure in this critical period before birth can impact aging and subsequent disease susceptibility over the lifespan.”

Short telomeres are also sign of oxidative stress in the womb, whether caused by maternal psychological stress or other stressors. In other words, womb stress causes senescence of fetal and placental tissues which can trigger preterm birth. One group at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston correlated short fetal leukocyte telomere length with preterm prelabor rupture of the membranes and characterized the phenomenon as a “placental membrane disease likely mediated by oxidative stress-induced senescence.” [3]

Findings like this emphasize how important it is to reduce maternal stress during pregnancy and especially in the critical period before birth. Once the telomeres are shortened, the damage is done, although there have been promising attempts to stimulate telomerase activity in adults through mindfulness meditation and lifestyle factors such as a healthy diet and nurturing relationships. [4]

However, even if such efforts are proved to reduce negative effects of stress from the primal period, it is obviously much better to prevent that damage in the first place, especially since problems in early stages of development might easily lead to a cascade of further harmful consequences.


1. Entringer S, Epel ES, Kumsta R, et al. Stress exposure in intrauterine life is associated with shorter telomere length in young adulthood. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108(33):E513-8.

2. Entringer S, Epel ES, Lin J, et al. Maternal psychosocial stress during pregnancy is associated with newborn leukocyte telomere length. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2013;208(2):134.e1-7.

3. Menon R, Yu J, Basanta-Henry P, et al. Short fetal leukocyte telomere length and preterm prelabor rupture of the membranes. PLoS One. 2012;7(2):e31136.

4. Daubenmier J, Lin J, Blackburn E, et al. Changes in stress, eating, and metabolic factors are related to changes in telomerase activity in a randomized mindfulness intervention pilot study. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012;37(7):917-28.


I need my pain!

by Bruce Wilson

One of my favorite movie scenes occurs in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. On a voyage to rescue hostages, the crew of the starship Enterprise encounters Spock’s half-brother, Sybok, who has the power to heal a person’s innermost pain through telepathy. Embracing emotion rather than logic, Sybok is obsessed with finding God who, he claims, lives in a mythical land called Sha Ra Kee at the center of the galaxy, beyond the Great Barrier. No probe that has gone beyond the barrier has ever returned. In an effort to hijack the Enterprise to carry him to the center of the galaxy, Sybok gains the cooperation of Spock and McCoy by healing their pain—or at least making them believe he had. But Kirk will have nothing to do with it.

To me, Sybok represents every religious guru and huckster who promises relief from suffering for eternal bliss and happiness. It’s the Maharishi, it’s Meher Baba (“don’t worry, be happy”), it’s Osho, the “sex guru” with his 93 Rolls Royces; it’s Jim Jones, it’s Adi Da, who lived on Fiji, surrounded by followers who treated him like a god; it’s a thousand other spiritual leaders who promise nirvana if only…if only… you “give up” your pain and follow them.

And Kirk? He’s the realist who asks, “What does God need with a starship?” He’s the hard-headed skeptic who tells McCoy that “pain and guilt can’t be taken away with the wave of a magic wand.” He’s the guy grounded in reality who knows that our pain is an essential part of us: “They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves.” He shouts at Sybok, “I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”

I too need my pain, just as I need love, hope and reality. And having the access to feel one’s pain deeply and fully, is what paridoxically opens the door to the latter. No need for cosmic debris. As John Lennon sang in his tenderest song, “love is real, real is love; love is feeling, feeling love.”


“I’ll have a cup of enlightenment, please.” “Will that be with or without feelings, sir?”

by Bruce

If you follow Art Janov’s blog, you may have read his scathing essay on mindfulness therapy. While I agree with his basic argument—that mindfulness therapy is too often a form of mindLESSness therapy—I’d like to provide a broader perspective. In short, mindfulness is not all that bad if you use it to be mindful of feelings, rather than detach from them.

Mindfulness meditation is the current zeitgeist in psychotherapy. Not surprisingly, it fits hand-in-hand with the other dominant therapeutic modality: cognitive behavioral therapy. In fact, there is now a hybrid of the two called MBCT – mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Both techniques are based on the same mechanism—detachment from feelings and thoughts. The “how” of mindfulness meditation can be summed up simply: sit still for 30 or 40 minutes, keep your eyes slightly open, follow your breath, and pay attention to whatever is going on in your mind and body but don’t do anything about it. Just sit there. When you catch your thoughts drifting, get back to the breath. There are variations on this theme, such as walking meditation and meditation while doing yoga or manual work. In a word, meditation is about paying attention. Be here now! Nothing more, nothing less.

Continue reading ““I’ll have a cup of enlightenment, please.” “Will that be with or without feelings, sir?””


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Dear Readers,

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Bruce and Peter