The Primal Mind

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Our selves are created by our social experiences

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By Peter Prontzos

Your “self” is composed of three fundamental elements: your brain, your body, and your relations with other people. This insight was one of the central themes in the keynote talk given by Dr. Daniel Siegel at the conclusion of University of British Columbia’s fourth Brain Development and Learning conference.
Siegel was not being poetic or metaphorical. As he explained, your mind (“your consciousness, which includes your ‘heart’)…is shaped by both the connections we have with others and by the connections we have within the synaptic structures of our embodied nervous system.”

As he put it: “The mind is within you and between you.”

Not surprisingly, the most important influences are those experiences that we have in our earliest years – including in the womb.

His talk, entitled, “Interpersonal Neurobiology of the Developing Mind”, explored how a “healthy” mind functions and can be nurtured.

The definition of a healthy mind is one in which “energy and information flow” freely in its three aspects: in your brain, through your body, and also between people.

When childhood or other trauma interferes with this flow, “chaos and/or rigidity result”, both of which “are reflections of impaired relational or neural integration.”

Throughout his talk, Siegel, who teaches at UCLA, emphasized how our increasing understanding of interpersonal neurobiology can greatly improve our treatment of children – in the home, in school, and in society in general.

Children need to be seen, to feel safe, and to be soothed when they are distressed, in order for healthy attachment to develop.

Siegel also stressed the monumental importance of how experience can affect the functioning of our genes, turning them on and off. Moreover, these “epigenetic” changes can be passed on to our children and grandchildren – and perhaps even further.

One question that came up in several of the talks this weekend was: can therapeutic intervention heal the epigenetic damage caused by trauma? Like some other presenters, Siegel believes that this approach is very promising.

Siegel explained the concepts of “implicit” (unconscious) and “explicit” (conscious) memory, and how our ideas and feelings can be shaped by past memories of which we are not only unaware, but which nevertheless feel like they are in the present.

The second part of Siegel’s talk focused how complex systems, like the mind, are both embodied and relational. It can self-organize and self-regulate. He defined a healthy mind as one in which “optimal self-organization depends on the linkage of differentiated parts to create integration and harmony.” (Siegel even got the some of the audience singing on-stage as an example of these principles!)

The take-away point was that, both within the individual and in groups: “Integration creates kindness and compassion.”

Siegel went on to explain that we need “to apply science to make the world a better place.” For instance, we know that when people feel threatened, they readily divide others into “in-group and out-group”. This is a natural legacy of our evolutionary history. Siegel stressed how “we have to rise above the tendencies of the human mind” that are dangerous and which have led to so much unnecessary suffering.

Echoing the insight of Socrates, that, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, Siegel said that becoming more mindfully aware is necessary for both mental and social health.

Finally, we need to go beyond the excessive individualism of our culture to emphasize our shared lives.

The cultivation of our natural empathy is another critical step toward a more humane world.
Siegel’s two hour talk – without notes or powerpoint – was relaxed, humorous, and extremely informative.



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By Peter G. Prontzos

Is hope a good thing? Many people think it is, but all depends….

It may help to remember the story of Pandora, the first woman and the one to whom the gods of Olympus gave a jar full of evils: old age, toil, insanity, greed, and so on. Pandora was warned not to open the jar, but her curiosity got the best of her, and when she lifted the lid, she unleashed those plagues on humankind. When she quickly closed the lid, only one evil remained: delusive hope.

Many who have interpreted the story of Pandora did not realize that even hope can be problematic – it all depends on the circumstances.

In The Optimism Bias, neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains that one of the unconscious biases that our brains produce is hope. She writes that the tendency to see the world through rose-tinted glasses evolved primarily because, “optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into
our most complex organism, the brain.”

Her basic argument is straightforward: that while this distortion of
reality can be dangerous in some situations, it generally pays off in the long
run. As Sharot explains, this “illusion” has a tendency to lower stress and
anxiety while increasing one’s motivation to act, thereby improving the chances
of a positive outcome.

(She does not, however, accept the silly “secret” that one’s thoughts have the ultimate power to determine reality).

On the dark side, however, hope can be personally and socially a trap that leads to disaster.

The main problem is when hope is unrealistic, and that usually happens when it is an automatic – and usually unconscious – defense against painful feelings. As Arthur Janov and others have shown, we often cope with our traumas and fears, not by facing them, but by repressing them. This defense is very common in unhealthy relationships, when people don’t leave because they “hope” that – somehow – things will work out.

In the science fiction series “Dune”, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood use their, “Litany Against Fear” – a very Primal approach – to help focus their minds and calm themselves:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Unrealistic hope can also prevent people from combating the many political and ecological threats that we face today, such as militarism, patriarchy, racism and the climate crisis. Derrick Jensen explained that:

Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.
To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness.”

On the other hand, liberating oneself from false hopes is necessary to actually have any real hope of success. Jensen concludes that,

When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power. []

In one very important sense, hope may also be irrelevant. Even if optimism is not “realistic” – given the terrible state of the world – people still need to organize for progressive change. Indeed, the more desperate a situation appears to be, the more urgency there is in creating a healthy resistance.

To cite just one powerful example: secret White House tape recordings of Richard Nixon show that he was ready to drop nuclear bombs on the Vietnamese, until it was explained to him that the reaction of the peace movement – and of other people in the U.S. and around the world – would make such a war crime politically disastrous for him.

So, while we can never be sure that any situation is truly hopeless, we can be sure that our inaction will lead to disaster.

Note: Here is a link to an up-to-date discussion of hope and the climate crisis.

The Guardian 21 September 2017

Climate optimism has been a disaster. We need a new language – desperately


Written by Peter

September 25th, 2017 at 4:34 pm

Review: THE NEUROSCIENCE OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS. By Louis Cozolino (W.W. Norton & Co.)

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Review by Peter G. Prontzos

Although Buddha never claimed to be a neuroscientist, some insights which have been attributed to him resonate strongly with the findings of modern researchers. One of the most profound of these understandings is the idea that our deepest “self” is not a “thing”; rather, it is an on-going natural process, one which continues to evolve throughout one’s life.
In fact, it seems that a baby doesn’t have a substantial self when it is born. As Louis Cozolino explains in his remarkable book, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: “The awareness of being a separate and autonomous self appears to emerge gradually over the first decade of life…from how our brains construct our experience of others”.
He emphasizes how the quality of our relationships with our parents (and the other significant people in our lives) affects us more than we know. A primary reason that we are unaware of these most basic feelings about ourselves and the world is that they are formed when we are so young that they usually become unconscious “givens”. Nevertheless, they influence and guide “our moment-to-moment experiences” throughout our lives.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the survival and healthy development of infants and children depends, “on the abilities of their caretakers to detect the needs and intentions” of those who depend on them.
Cozolino, who is a clinical psychologist as well as a Professor at Pepperdine University, outlines how these early experiences also guide the construction of our brain and central nervous system. Our thoughts and feelings don’t just float around somewhere in our consciousness; rather, they are biologically embedded in the very structures and functions of our brain as it adapts to its environment – healthy or otherwise.
Hence his profoundly important point: “The brain is a social organ of adaptation built through interactions with others” [emphasis in original]. Nurturing connections create healthier brains in which the various areas are harmoniously integrated, while hormones, neurotransmitters, and other neurochemicals are present in the appropriate amounts. “This experience-dependent sculpting is accomplished through attunement and information exchange with the right hemispheres of the parents.”
This focus is based on the relatively new field of, “Interpersonal Neurobiology” (IPNB), in which the “social construction of the brain and the role of attachment relationships are particularly important…” The ramifications of this insight for our understanding of human nature in general, and the “self” in particular, are revolutionary; and they apply to adults as well as to children.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact of our early environment on the health of our growing brain. Indeed, that is one advantage to being born at a stage of development that is immature compared to other primates: it allows human infants more flexibility when it comes to adapting to their specific family situations.
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. “The most important aspect of early attachment relationships”, Cozolino notes, “is the establishment of a sense of safety”.
A baby (or child) will obviously feel safer to the extent that more of its needs are met: to be held, to be fed when hungry, to experience warm interactions with its parents, and so on. Providing for these needs is a concrete demonstration of love, and a baby will thrive in such a nurturing social environment.
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.
Findings such as these, which show how much we are shaped by our experiences, undermine the simplistic form of genetic determinism which claims that our fate is overwhelmingly decided by our DNA. The more complex reality is that, as Cozolino elegantly explains, “Our brains are built in the enigmatic interface between experience and genetics, where nature and nurture become one”.
The author also points out the vital but often overlooked corollary that: “there are no single human brains – brains only exist within networks of other brains.” More specifically, the self develops as reflection of the interactions of three factors: our brain, our body, and our relationships with other people – along with the rest of the natural world.
That’s why it is impossible to understand a person outside of the social contexts in which they matured: their family, community, culture, and nation. (Einstein held the same view. In his essay, “Why Socialism?” he wrote that: “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”).
Cozolino employs the metaphor of our, “social synapse” in conveying his view of the nature of our personal interrelations. Just as each individual brain cell communicates with others via the spaces between them and no neuron could survive by itself, people build families and communities across social spaces in order to communicate, survive, and flourish.
Our high level of openness and sensitivity towards other people is the reason that we are both the most social, and the most adaptive, of all species. Cozolino suggests that, “our social brains emerged during natural selection because being social enhances survival.”
On the other hand, “the radical individualism of the West is one reason why we experience a higher incidence of psychological distress, drug addiction, and violence”. Social pain (isolation, rejection, and so on) is far from a trivial matter. Like physical pain, it is a sign that something is wrong and that we may be in danger. Pain demands that we pay attention to a threat. It is extremely significant that both physical and emotional pain are processed by the same neuroanatomical systems. In other words, social pain can be so powerful precisely because toxic relationships and/or social isolation are also serious dangers to our physical health.
That’s why, as Daniel Kahneman has argued, avoiding (both kinds of) pain is a stronger motivation than the attraction to pleasure. Cozolino puts it this way: “Based on the way our brains operate, evolution appears to have been far more interested in keeping us alive than making us happy.”
The book also discusses such critical issues as epigenetics, mirror neurons, stress, interpersonal trauma, social phobia, autism, healing relationships, and – of course – love:
“There is no doubt that evolution has shaped us to love one another…Loving relationships help our brains to develop, integrate, and remain flexible….And when the drive to love is thwarted – when we are frightened, abused, or neglected – our mental health is compromised.”
He also provides a number of moving stories about some of his patients to illustrate how real people develop – and often resolve – old hurts.
There is a fair amount of sometimes technical neuroscience in the book, and while the reader may choose to skip some of the more detailed accounts, even the relatively simpler ones can deepen and enrich one’s understanding of both the brain and of our shared humanity.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit”, one of the characters declares that, “hell is other people.” No doubt that is often all-too-true. Cozolino not only provides valuable insights for treating old wounds, but, much more importantly, he describes the kind of nurturing social environments that can prevent such the damage in the first place.


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June 28th, 2014 at 4:23 pm

How Good People Turn Evil

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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


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March 17th, 2013 at 2:21 am

The Social Determinants of Health

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by Peter Prontzos

This post contains a portion of the talk that I gave last month at the 16th International Conference of the Association of Psychology and Psychiatry for Adults and Children in Athens. While I began with a short discussion of primal theory, I also wanted to stress how social and economic factors create the basis for much of the pain in our lives.

Research has now clearly established that economic, and social variables – more than individual or family behavior – are the most salient factors overall in determining a child’s well-being.

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June 1st, 2011 at 9:53 pm