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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

[Our] unprecedented economic crisis, together with the social breakdown it has helped to engender, reflects a profound error of conception about human nature itself. For the levels of response elicited from human beings by the incentives of the prevailing order are not only inadequate, but seem almost irrelevant in the face of world events. We are being shown that, unless the development of society finds a purpose beyond the mere amelioration of material conditions, it will fail of attaining even these goals.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

I will be exploring his ideas about levels of consciousness in the next pair of posts. For the moment it is Emp Civilenough to spell out that Rifkin believes that in the West at least we have arrived at a level of consciousness that he terms ‘psychological’ (page 414). What does he mean by that exactly? This is perhaps best defined for present purposes by the examples he gives of its prevalence (ibid.):

The shift to psychological consciousness resulted in the greatest single empathic surge in history – a phenomenon that swept the world in the 1960s and 1970s at the demographic peak of the post-World War II baby boom.

He lists all the movements that flowered as a result: the anticolonial, Civil Rights, anti-war, antinuclear, peace, feminist, feminist, gay, disability, ecology, and animal rights movements. He feels (ibid) they ‘are all testimonials (at least in part) to the new psychological emphasis on intimate relationships, introspection, multicultural perspectives, and unconditional acceptance of others.’

This is where the pitfall mentioned earlier might be seen to be kicking in at least in places (page 417):

The countercultural movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was not without its own shortcomings. More than a few observers looked into the eyes of the young free spirits and saw not a new level of empathic sensibility but only a rampant, carefree narcissism.

He quotes an American sociologist, Philip Rieff (page 418):

Comparing theological consciousness with the new psychological consciousness, Rieff snorted that while ‘religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.’ . . . . [T]he evocation of feelings becomes the ultimate “turn on” and being a person of good character, accountable to immutable truths is replaced by an actor playing out various identities while engaged in pleasurable mind games.

Following these two threads of description to this point in the book has brought us to a consideration of what Rifkin (page 421) terms ‘the age of empathy.’

He begins to deal in more detail with what is, if we set entropy aside, our Achilles heel. I suppose, as we have two feet, we could extend the myth and say we have two weaknesses, one in each foot: entropy and (page 431) ‘the relationship between empathic and commercial bonds.’ He explains:

While commercial exchange would be impossible without empathic extension first establishing bonds of social trust, its utilitarian, instrumental, and exploitive nature can and often does deplete the social capital that makes its very operations possible.

Commercial exchange operates globally. This has a knock-on effect (page 432):

A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations span the planet. Cosmopolitans are the advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. [more of that in the next post]… I’m quite sure that a survey of cosmopolitan attitudes would find that the most cosmopolitan in attitudes leave behind them the largest entropic footprint.

So, he claims, not only is commercial exchange behind a possible erosion of the trust it depends upon, but also, because it operates to expand on a global basis, it is the godfather of an escalation in entropy. We’re really hobbling now.

He also stresses, as do Bahá’ís, the importance of having a universal language in which to communicate (page 446) though he is seeing this in primarily pragmatic terms, to facilitate this globalising process. Unfortunately, as he also points out, the cosmopolitan current is not carrying everyone with it to prosperity (page 452):

The surveys show that 83% of the high income countries have transitioned into a postmaterialist culture, but 74% of the poorest countries have sunk back into a survival-values culture. So while a minority of the world’s countries and populations are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan in their values, the majority is going the other way.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Chapter 12 examines the ‘entropic abyss’ yawning almost beneath our feet. A problem for me, in the light of Ehrenfeld’s concept of ‘flourishing,’ lies in the terms in which Rifkin poses his opening question (page 476):

The economic question every country and industry needs to ask is how to grow a sustainable global economy in the sunset decades of an energy regime whose rising externalities and deficiencies are beginning to outweigh what were once its vast potential benefits.

Growth may not be sustainable.

He is scathingly sceptical of the capacity of the nuclear industry to plug the gap (page 488):

To have even a ‘marginal impact on climate change, it would be necessary for nuclear power to generate at least 20% of the world’s energy. This would require replacing all 443 ageing power plants currently in use and constructing an additional 1,500 plants for a total of nearly 2,000 nuclear power plants – at a cost of approximately $5 trillion. To accomplish this Herculean task, we’d have to put under construction three nuclear power plants every 30 days for the next 60 years – a feat that even the power and utility companies believe is a pipe dream.

He spells out the problem in the starkest possible fashion (page 493):

First the good news. There is no doubt that at least a sizeable portion of the human race is beginning to take on a global cosmopolitan consciousness, with the extension of empathy to more diverse human and animal domains. Now the bad news. The new global sensibility has been made possible by the creation of more complex, dense, and interdependent social structures, which, in turn, rely on more intensive use of fossil fuels and other resources to maintain their scaffolding, supply chains, logistics, and services.

In other words, our lift in consciousness currently comes at far too high a price and may effectively see the end of us. There is an additional twist in this sorry tale. As the wealthy get richer they become less empathic, a concern that has already surfaced on this blog. He writes (page 498):

. . . .studies show that as personal wealth accumulates beyond the minimum level necessary to maintain one’s basic needs, the increasing preoccupation with the pursuit of wealth makes one less likely to be empathetic to others.

If we look simply at the energy deficit, Rifkin is looking towards the possibility of ‘distributed . . . . energies that are found in the backyard’ (page 518). He sees this as part of a Third Industrial Revolution (page 519):

Renewable forms of energy – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean waves, and biomass – make up the first of the four pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution.

To make this work we need, as a second element, buildings that create some, if not all their own energy (page 519). On top of that (page 520) ‘it will be necessary to develop storage methods that facilitate the conversion of intermittent supplies of these energy sources into dependable assets.’ He sees hydrogen as a possible means of storing power (page 521). The last element of his four is the ‘reconfiguration of the power grid along the lines of the Internet, allowing businesses and homeowners to produce their own energy and share it with each other’ (ibid). He concludes (page 526-27s) ‘the ushering in of the Third Industrial Revolution will go a long way toward defusing the growing tensions over access to more limited supplies of fossil fuels and uranium and help facilitate biosphere politics based on a collective sense of responsibility for safeguarding the Earth’s ecosystems.’

For reasons that will become clearer in a later post when I examine the motivating factor he evokes, I find myself less than completely convinced we will be capable of using this escape route in time unless something even more radical changes in our approach. This scepticism holds even in the face of his expectation that open source practices will increasingly ‘speed up new life-saving medical discoveries, spur advances in agriculture, lead to breakthroughs in alternative clean energy, and pave the way to a new generation of sustainable construction materials’ (page 533) and, quoting Tapscott and Williams, of the claim that ‘the ability to pool the knowledge of millions (if not billions) of users in a self-organising fashion demonstrates how mass collaboration is turning the new Web into something not completely unlike a global brain’ (page 543).

He has caveats of his own to share towards the end of his book when he returns to the issue of narcissism (page 575):

The evidence suggests that the new dramaturgical consciousness emerging in the very early stages of the shift into a Third Industrial Revolution and a new distributed capitalism is leading both to a greater sense of relatedness and empathic extension as well as a more fractured sense of self, and increased narcissism.

Efforts are being made in child education to offset this self-centredness. I will be dealing with that in more detail in the post on raising our children. Next week we will explore his ideas about levels of consciousness.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

As the twentieth century draws to a close, it is no longer possible to maintain the belief that the approach to social and economic development to which the materialistic conception of life has given rise is capable of meeting humanity’s needs. Optimistic forecasts about the changes it would generate have vanished into the ever-widening abyss that separates the living standards of a small and relatively diminishing minority of the world’s inhabitants from the poverty experienced by the vast majority of the globe’s population.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

In the last post I shared a somewhat simplified summary of the moral and practical challenges that confront us at this point in humanity’s material ascent from isolated cave to interconnected commerce.

I am now seeking to convey more fully Rifkin’s position in his book The Empathic Civilization on the long-standing interaction he perceives between empathy and entropy in this scenario.

Right at the start he raises the question about whether we have, as the Bahá’í Faith would argue as well, a dual potential (page 18):

Is it possible that human beings are not inherently evil or intrinsically self-interested and materialistic, but are of a very different nature – an empathic one – and that all the other drives that we have considered to be primary – aggression, violence, selfish behaviour, inquisitiveness – are in fact secondary drives that flow from repression or denial of our most basic instinct?

If the answer is ‘Yes,’ as he believes then other things follow (page 24):

A heightened empathic sentiment… allows an increasingly individualised population to affiliate with one another in more interdependent, extended, and integrated social organisms. This is the process that characterises what we call civilisation. . . . . When we say to civilise, we mean to empathise.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

He argues (page 91) that Darwin himself came to recognise the inherent importance of ‘cooperation, symbiosis, and reciprocity’ in the survival of the fittest which, in terms of groups and societies, depends upon our forming ‘cooperative bonds’ with others. He adduces experimental evidence (pages 131-134) to support the idea that empathy is not self-serving in terms of looking good in the eyes of others, gaining brownie points to elicit future favours or even reducing discomfort at the sight of another’s suffering: ‘the primary motivation is pure altruism – that is, caring for the other rather than alleviating their own empathic distress.’

He extrapolates further to discern a possible connection between empathy and democracy (page 161). He acknowledges that effective empathy (page 173) needs to be balanced with a degree of detachment so that we do not end up in the quicksand unable to help either others or ourselves. Interestingly from a Bahá’í point of view, he places great emphasis (page 184) on dialogue, a process which may look essentially the same as consultation within the Bahá’í community, though lacking a spiritual foundation.

At the same time as he is developing this theme he begins to introduce evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):

The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.

He brings the Roman Empire into the frame later in support of his theory (pages 249-50) though as a psychologist I have always quite liked the lead-piping explanation for their eventually demise: I’m sure you know the gist – lead poisoning, cognitive deficits, military defeats – it’s quite neat really. He is unequivocal though about the way what actually happened confirms his view:

The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.

Shame about the lead hypothesis, but I have to agree that his version makes a lot more sense.

JK 1819

John Keats in July 1819 (image from Walter Jackson Bate’s biography – Hogarth Press 1992)

He continues to explore the nature of empathy, seeing it as rooted in ‘embodied experience’ (page 273) and fostered by the increasingly empathy inducing artistic creations of myth, epic and, more recently, the novel, which have become accessible to greater and greater numbers of people as time’s gone on (pages 310-12). He brings into the mix the idea, popular with the Romantics and which I have already explored in terms of the work of John Keats, of ‘imaginative identification’ (page 341). He quotes John Ruskin who observed that ‘people would instantly care for others as well for themselves if only they could imagine others as well as themselves.’

He links the development of this capacity to the existence of ‘complex urban environments’ (page 343). He describes the Romantics as extending this fellow feeling beyond human beings alone to include the world of nature and all living beings (page 344).

It is to the mid-nineteenth century that Rifkin dates the use of electricity as a metaphor for describing ‘nature, human nature and the workings of civilisation’ (page 368), something which develops the idea of empathy even further. Electricity was perceived as ‘neither material nor immaterial’ (page 369) and therefore, he extrapolates (page 370):

A new sense of a porous nature helped create a new sense of social fluidity. Bodies were no longer constrained by their corporeality. If the world is both material and immaterial at same time, then the idea of clear-cut boundaries between people is more a social contrivance than a scientific reality.

The developments of first the telegraph, and then the telephone enabled ‘direct, instantaneous communication between millions of people’ (page 375). Interestingly, he adds (page 376): ‘The word “phony” emerged at the time to describe the experience of not believing the voice at the other end of the phone.’

It is in the 1890s that Rifkin perceives another pitfall than entropy emerging that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

The detailed idea of levels of consciousness that underpin these points is something I shall be returning to in more detail in the later posts on that subject. On Friday I will be digging a bit deeper into the entropy issue and its links with commerce.

Master and EmissaryPicking up from where we left off last time, McGilchrist goes on to explore what he calls a ‘conflict of asymmetries.’ Firstly, the right-hemisphere pre-empts the left in terms of more direct ‘interaction with whatever exists.’ Secondly, the left-hemisphere deals in representations, which need to be returned, prior to operating upon them, to the right-hemisphere for vetting/confirmation. Unfortunately in our culture, which gives undue priority to the left-hemisphere, this does not happen.

The left-hemisphere rules the roost where language tilts the balance in its favour. Consciousness listens to its concocted version of reality, to the detriment of our ability to tune in to the paradox and ambiguity of the real world. Also, left-hemisphere knowledge is easier to convey to others through language, where the right-hemisphere experience of the world can only be understood fully by those who have also experienced it. So, a culture such as ours sees left-hemisphere simulations go viral, while the subtler realities of the right-hemisphere become sidelined.

As McGilchrist puts it:

The existence of a system of thought dependent on language automatically devalues whenever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning. . . Once the system is set up it operates like a hall of mirrors in which we are reflexively imprisoned.

It’s perhaps appropriate here to include a statement that encapsulates the main theme of the book as a whole, as I think it may prove to have some relevance to our society’s take on psychosis:

The history of the last 100 years particularly . . . . contains many examples of the left hemisphere’s intemperate attacks on nature, art, religion and the body, the main routes to something beyond its power. In other words its behaviour looks suspiciously tyrannical – the Master’s emissary become [sic] a tyrant. . . . . . In the story I am to tell, the left hemisphere acts like a sorcerer’s apprentice that is blithely and aware that he is about to drown, a Faust that has no insight into his errors and the destruction they have brought about.

He sees a way out of this trap:

If we subject a work of art, say, or even the human body, to detached, analytic attention, we lose the sense of the thing itself, and its being in all its wholeness and otherness. But the result of such attention, provided it is then relinquished, so that we stand in a state of openness and receptivity before the thing once again, may be a deeper and richer ‘presencing’. The work of the left hemisphere done, the ‘thing’ returns to the right hemisphere positively enriched.

'Perspicacity' by René Magritte (adapted from 'Magritte' in the Taschen Edition

‘Perspicacity’ by René Magritte (adapted from ‘Magritte’ in the Taschen Edition

There is the risk that this will be blocked by the ‘arrogance’ of the left hemisphere, an example of which he illustrates from the stroke literature. When the right hemisphere is damaged, the left hemisphere will deny that the consequently paralysed left limb belongs to it: conversely, when the left hemisphere is damaged the right hemisphere has no problem accepting the paralysis of the right side. He quotes Ramachandran again: ‘it is the vehemence of the [left hemisphere’s] denial – not a mere indifference to paralysis – that cries out for an explanation.’

Ramachandran set up an experiment to prove that it was arrogance not just some kind of blindness. He pretended to a patient with left hemisphere damage that a saline injection would paralyse her arm. Under this illusion her left hemisphere was quite happy to recognize the paralysis, because, Ramachandran argued, it could not be blamed for the problem in a way that reflected badly upon it.

I am quoting this book so extensively because it seems to suggest that there is not only a filtering problem here, not just some automatic neurological process going on: there is also a deliberately chosen and unconsciously willed aspect to it as well. This implies that should there ever be a unstaunchable breakthrough from this other level of awareness, it will be experienced as deeply repugnant and unacceptable. It will be repudiated as grossly irrational. Does this sound familiar?

Other cultures that are more accepting of such phenomena have been shown to display a markedly better recovery rate for so-called schizophrenia than is the case in the ‘developed’ world. Is there just a faint trace of left hemisphere arrogance in that word ‘developed’?

mind-brain-relationshipChris Clarke, writing in 2012 (page 58-59 in Exploring the Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship), regards the Interactive Cognitive Subsystems model I described near the beginning,  and this hemispheric model as two ways of explaining basically the same phenomena:

It seems that, without too much over-simplification, the two models are different views of the same system of knowing, whose components I will refer to as rational (left-hemisphere based, propositional) and relational (right-hemisphere based, implicational).

This survey leaves us in no doubt that some kind of awareness-limiting or filtering process takes place in the brain. What these two models describe may not be the only kind of filter of course. Certainly, though, consciousness is being denied full access to a rich level of experience. Only in unusual circumstances does the filtering process break down and these other experiences come flooding in.

In the previous sequence of posts I quoted evidence to indicate that trauma negatively affects one kind of filtering at least. Grant Shields in The Psychology of Coping (pages 148-49) writes:

One classic and commonly discussed risk factor for psychosis is a head injury (Symonds, 1937). Although there are conflicting data (cf. David & Prince, 2005), there is good reason to believe that a traumatic brain injury does indeed predispose individuals to psychosis (Molloy, Conroy, Cotter, & Cannon, 2011). However, why and how traumatic brain injuries bring about the occurrence of psychosis is unknown. This paper proposes that this predisposition is due to damage of the lateral prefrontal cortex[1] (lPFC) or connectivity to it. The lPFC is responsible for suppressing unwanted thoughts and memories (Anderson et al., 2004). A consequence of this is that impairing the lPFC[2] entails a diminished ability to avoid dealing with unwanted thoughts and memories. Therefore, an individual who has incurred a head injury that damaged or impaired his or her lPFC cannot avoid dealing with unwanted thoughts or issues to the same degree that a healthy individual can. Because of that, when faced with existentially distressing issues, an individual with an injured lPFC who chooses to try to avoid these issues would suffer psychotic breaks when a healthy individual faced with the same issues would not – as the weight of these issues would not press down as hard on healthy individuals who can repress them. Concurrent with this idea, reduced functioning in this area of the brain seems to increase rates of psychopathology (Anderson & Levy, 2009). Indeed, one difference commonly observed in psychotic individuals is a functional reduction in lPFC activity (e.g., Andreasen et al., 1997; Dolan et al., 1993).

Earlier in this sequence I quoted evidence of the proven way that the skunk form of marijuana can trigger psychosis by damaging the corpus callosum and inhibiting the filtering process:

Dr. Paola Dazzan, reader in neurobiology of psychosis from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, and senior researcher on the study, said in a statement: “We found that frequent use of high potency cannabis significantly affects the structure of white matter fibres in the brain, whether you have psychosis or not. This reflects a sliding scale where the more cannabis you smoke and the higher the potency, the worse the damage will be.”

White matter is made of large bundles of nerve cells called axons, which connect the grey matter in different regions of the brain, enabling fast communication between them. The corpus callosum, a band of nerve fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres, is the largest white matter structure within the brain. The corpus callosum is rich in cannabinoid receptors that are affected by the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis.

It is important to note at this point that (1) these are physical events causing damage, and (2) they are affecting different parts of the brain which have different functions. We’re not batting on an easy wicket here. There’s a lot of spin.

From this I feel it would be impossible to argue conclusively that all psychotic experiences are the result of threshold problems. It may also be difficult to demonstrate that threshold problems are in anyway systematically correlated with psychosis and therefore a constant contributer to the experience.

What is certain is that my attempt to tackle the problem of whether they predate any psychotic experience, and can therefore be fairly defined as partly or completely causative, will have to wait till later.

In the next post I will attempt to analyse where this leaves us – or perhaps just me, as everyone else has bailed out by now!

Footnote:

[1] For those desiring to know slightly more, a paper by Michael Petrides describes this aspect of lPFC functioning as follows: ‘The most caudal frontal region, the motor region on the precentral gyrus, is involved in fine motor control and direct sensorimotor mappings, whereas the caudal lateral prefrontal region is involved in higher order control processes that regulate the selection among multiple competing responses and stimuli based on conditional operations.’ You would have to pay for access to the full paper: this quote is from the abstract.

[2] There is an additional intriguing insight into what might affect the PFC in way conducive to strange experiences in Exploring the Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship. It is in the chapter dealing with mindfulness and meditation. During meditation, chemicals (NMDAr antagonists for the neurologically minded) are active in the brain, which might, as the writers put it (page 105) ‘produce a variety of states that may be characterized as either schizophrenomimetic or mystical, that is out-of-body and near-death experiences (Vollenweider et al 1997). These results suggest that a variety of neurochemicals may mediate some of the more intense experiences associated with meditation practices.’

There is a long history of warnings to novice meditators to ignore some of the intense hallucinatory experiences they may encounter along the way. The neurochemicals involved here protect cells from excitotoxic damage. This raises the question in my mind whether this effect might also pertain in other states of mind related to stress and the aftereffects of trauma. I need to explore this more.

History has thus far recorded principally the experience of tribes, cultures, classes, and nations. With the physical unification of the planet in this century and acknowledgement of the interdependence of all who live on it, the history of humanity as one people is now beginning. The long, slow civilizing of human character has been a sporadic development, uneven and admittedly inequitable in the material advantages it has conferred. Nevertheless, endowed with the wealth of all the genetic and cultural diversity that has evolved through past ages, the earth’s inhabitants are now challenged to draw on their collective inheritance to take up, consciously and systematically, the responsibility for the design of their future.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Throughout This Changes Everything, Klein describes the climate crisis as a confrontation between capitalism and the planet. It would be more accurate to describe the crisis as a clash between the expanding demands of humankind and a finite world, but however the conflict is framed there can be no doubt who the winner will be. The Earth is vastly older and stronger than the human animal. . . . . . The change that is under way is no more than the Earth returning to equilibrium – a process that will go on for centuries or millennia whatever anyone does. Rather than denying this irreversible shift, we’d be better off trying to find ways of living with it.

(From John Gray’s review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate)

Emp Civil

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

After something like four years I finally overcame the reservations and irritations recorded in a republished post and finished reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Such a time span is not unusual for me as I read books on rather the same principle as they make Russian dolls. Each book I start triggers me to start reading another until I have several books in progress nested one within the other. Often the one I started last is finished first before I trace my steps back to its predecessor (or not, as the case may be).

I very much want to record my response to this massive survey of the current state of our civilisation and its origins. However, it runs to more than 600 pages and tackles a number of major themes in the process. In the end, I have come to feel that my approach needs to be divided into at least four parts, some of them split into two, and even then I will be doing aspects of his thesis scant justice.

I need to start with an overview, otherwise my approach will be too confusing to be useful.

Then it seems best to tackle his ideas about how the widening circle of our empathy is expanding the reach of our civilisation and at the same time creating a potentially world-destroying level of entropy. This may not become completely clear until the second post.

It’s only then that it will make sense for me to explore his ideas about levels of civilisation. We’ve been here before with Ken Wilber and Jenny Wade. While his approach has echoes of theirs, it is very different. My caveats about his perspective on religion, through relevant at this point, will probably be dealt with in more detail at the very end of the whole sequence of posts.

After the levels, though perhaps most importantly, I plan to look at his ideas on child rearing and education before attempting to express my own take on the issue, which is, of course, deeply influenced by the Bahá’í perspective.

The Overview

Perhaps perversely, my introduction will start with the last paragraph of his book. Don’t worry: I won’t be working backwards from there. He writes (page 616):

The Empathic Civilisation is emerging. We are fast extending our empathic embrace to the whole of humanity and the vast project of life that envelops the planet. But our rush to universal empathic connectivity is running up against a rapidly accelerating entropic juggernaut in the form of climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?

One of the most succinct though not necessarily the clearest passages in the book to unpack some of the implications of this comes on page 254. What follows is the main gist without clearly unpacking his six interconnected points.

He starts from what has come to seem an old chestnut: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. He sees it as an example of a recurring pattern throughout history ‘where the synergies created by a new energy and communications regime facilitate more complex social arrangements, which, in turn, provide the context for a qualitative change in human consciousness.’ Decoded more simply, this means that cooperative connections multiply in an organic fashion over fairly long periods of time and result in our seeing the world and other human beings differently. As he goes on to explain this is very much a double-edged sword (page 254-55):

The change in human consciousness is played out in a dialectic between a rising empathic surge and a growing entropy deficit. . . . . When [entropy] eventually exceed[s] the value of the energy flowing through the society’s infrastructure, the civilisation withers and even occasionally dies. . . . While the unfolding interplay between an empathic surge and an entropic deficit often – but not always – leads to collapse, what remains is a residue of the new consciousness that carries forward, if however tenuously, and becomes a memory lifeline to draw upon when new energy/communications regimes emerge.

What point does he feel we have now reached? First of all, there is the question of sheer size (page 424)

The world has shrunk and the human race finds itself nearly face-to-face in the world of cyberspace. Distances are becoming less relevant in the era of globalisation.

Secondly there is the complexity this brings in its wake (page 425):

A vast array of economic, social, and political institutions oversee the most complex civilisation ever conceived by human beings. The entire system is managed and maintained by billions of people, differentiated into thousands of professional talents and vocational skills, all working in specialised tasks in an interdependent global labyrinth.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Empathy has inevitably extended, in spite of the friction entailed (ibid.):

Brought together in an ever closer embrace, we are increasingly exposed to each other in ways that are without precedent. While the backlash of globalisation – xenophobia, political populism, and terrorist activity – is widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the growing empathic extension, as hundreds of millions of people come in contact with diverse others.

Now to one of his key points. This empathic growth comes at a price (page 452):

… the leap in empathic consciousness is made possible by the expropriation of vast amounts of the planet’s energy and other resources to attain the level of economic security necessary to allow people to shift from survival values to materialist values and finally to quality-of-life values. . . . Unfortunately, the leap in empathic consciousness rides atop the growing entropic stream that’s turning much of the planet into a wasteland and further impoverishing a large proportion of the human race. . . .

The question, then, is whether the minority of the human race that is undergoing an empathic surge, but at the expense of impoverishing the planet and a large portion of the human race, can translate their post-materialist values into a workable cultural, economic, and political game plan that can steer themselves and their communities to a more sustainable and equitable future in time to avoid the abyss.

This paves the way for his explanation of a critical set of challenges (page 510):

Half of the human race is using up more of the Earth’s fossil-fuel energy and natural resources than is necessary for a comfortable life and is becoming increasingly unhappy with each increment of additional wealth. The other half of the human race is digging its way out of poverty and becoming happier as it approaches the minimum level of comfort. But there isn’t enough oil and other fossil fuels – or uranium for nuclear power – to keep the wealthy in a luxurious lifestyle or elevate three billion poor people to a comfortable lifestyle.

He recognises that affluence tends to increase our attachment to acquiring additional material wealth and decrease our sensitivity to the plight of others – so empathy tends to go by the board. Our greatest challenge is (pages 510-11):

How, then, do we reorganise our relationships with each other and the Earth so the “haves” can tread more lightly and the “have-nots” establish a more firm footing with the environment, allowing each other to come together at the threshold of human comfort? It’s at the threshold that we optimise empathetic consciousness and create the conditions for a sustainable global society.

If we fail the price could be our survival (page 612):

We now have colonised virtually every square inch of the planet and established the scaffolding for a truly global civilisation that is connecting the human race in a single embrace, but at the expense of an entropic bill that is threatening our extinction.

His analysis of the problem is powerful and compelling.

As I have indicated at the start, the next post will dig more deeply into his exploration of the relationship between empathy and entropy. After that we will move on to considering that old chestnut – Levels of Consciousness – but in his rather different terms. At some point we will need to consider his concept of the biosphere as a motivator for collective action and a sense of transcendence, but first we need to examine his model of child rearing.

A thread that I will not be able to resist weaving into this scheme, probably in the final section, is his rationale for excluding religion from his model. We need to consider whether that makes or breaks his plan for a possible way forward.

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . . [I]t is not a project in which Bahá’ís engage apart from the rest of humanity.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality – page 48)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson.

As we saw in the previous post, Ray and Anderson’s book, The Cultural Creatives, tracks the way that the drops of personal aspiration from millions of separate individuals first combine into several different streams before beginning to converge into a massive river of increasing power.

They quote from many peoples’ diverse stories, illuminating what they have in common. This example is typical of many in its feeling of not belonging (page 101):

‘My family was so happy on the golf course, and gossiping round the pool, but I felt like I was in some plastic prison. I finally took my dad’s rental car and spent all of Sunday at the ocean. Sitting on the cliffs watching the white pelicans soar over the Pacific, I felt like I was finally crawling back inside my own skin, breathing the fresh air, at home.’

When this feeling of isolation eventually gives way to a sense of common purpose with millions of others, an awsome power will be released. The authors retell a version of the myth of Amaterasu Omikami, the Great Mother Sun, who, because of a great hurt, hid herself in a cave and plunged the whole world into darkness until the spirits of all living things each brought a tiny fragment of a mirror with them as they danced and sang outside the cave. When she peeped out to see what was going on, they wanted to be able to lift up all their tiny mirrors at once to reflect back to her in all its glory the brilliance of her light to break her gloomy mood and return her to the heavens. The plan worked (pages 345-346):

The power that can be focused by a compound mirror is vast, while that reflected by uncoordinated individual actions has little effect. . . . [I]solated actions can’t make the kinds of changes that are needed now. . . . Our new story is one that requires ten thousand tellers and ten times more to be inspired by it. Our new face needs ten thousand mirrors, each with a unique angle of vision to catch the creative energy available now.

To achieve this kind of concerted action will not be easy even if we manage to achieve a strong clear sense of our need for it. It has always required great courage and huge sacrifices in the past, for groups of people to combine together to right even a single wrong or lift society to a higher level of understanding about one issue only. People have to do what they are afraid to do. The freedom movement in the States is not alone in providing innumerable examples of this heroism and the power of example is of central importance here (page 124):

You do not ask someone else to do what you aren’t willing to do yourself. But they did the things they feared most – they went to gaol, faced fire hoses and men with clubs, took responsibility for their friends and fellow protesters. It swept them into the deepest fear they  had ever known – but then it lifted them  beyond that fear into a strength and steadfastness they never expected.

The rewards of such courage are beyond price and its long term effects incalculable. Paul Begala testifies to that when he speaks of John Lewis (page 125):

‘I live and work in a place and a time when courage is defined as enduring a subpoena with dignity. So it is humbling to be in the presence of a man who aced down Bull Connor and his attack dogs, armed with nothing more than his courage, his conscience, and his convictions. If that ain’t a hero, I don’t know what is.

A key aspect of this kind of courage is practising what you preach (ibid):

‘Walking your talk.’ In the all-night meetings and councils of the freedom and peace movements, and the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement, this specific insight about social action evolved into an even more basic conviction about living authentically. What you believe in your heart has to match what you do in your life . . . .

There remain other significant problems which, the authors make clear, have dissipated the painstakingly accumulated rivulets of activity in many isolated places before they ever joined all the other brooks to make a stream. These problems pose key questions.

First of all, how do you build on the experience of others who are engaged in basically the same enterprise but in widely separated places. Networks, whose ability to operate is increasingly facilitated by the internet, are part of the answer (page 128):

Most social movements have two arms: the political and the cultural. . . . . . Contrary to the convictions of the political arm, the cultural arm is at least as important, and sometimes far more so, in its effects on the culture. . . . . But the spell-breaking power of the cultural arms takes place in submerged networks.

Secondly, how do you pass down what you have learned to those who come after you? Part of the answer to this second question lies in the power of persistency (page 203):

In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action. Those who need fast results and instant gratification had better go into some other line of work. As a number of Cultural Creatives told us, you have to enjoy the people and the process, and you need the maturity to work in a longer time frame.

Anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a break through, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics (page 109):

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough (page 154):

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.

They pinpoint the missing link (page 187):

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.

And why exactly, in their view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had do the trick (page 227)?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything (page 229): ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (page 246):

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.

Rainbow Bodhisattva by Vijali Hamilton

They strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell (page 299):

“You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.” . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of “the grounding mystery of all being,” he said, we have nothing we can really trust.

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton (page 311):

The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.”

This is so close to the idea that the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describes:

“O My servants!” Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, “The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.”

(Shoghi Effendi: The Promised Day is Come – page 16)

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. To use Will Keepin‘s words (page 279):

“The work I’m doing now,” he told us, “is all based on faith.” . . . The crises he went through “led to a whole new gift that I never would have guessed. It developed a quality of trusting in the unknown.”

From a Bahá’í point of view this all makes complete sense. Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed in this book (page 230): ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’ We believe that science and religion are not at odds. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can (page 318): ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’ Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well (page 302): ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’ Their conclusion is (page 314): ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’ (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book (ibid):

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

In our Writings Bahá’ís are described as ‘catalysts.’

What is called for is a spiritual revival, as a prerequisite to the  successful application of political, economic and technological  instruments. But there is a need for a catalyst. Be assured that,  in  spite  of  your  small  numbers,  you  are  the  channels  through which such a catalyst can be provided.

(Universal House of JusticeTurning Point – page 124)

(For more on what being a catalyst means for us see both links.) I think we could learn much from the Cultural Creatives about how to play that part more effectively. Bahá’ís on the other hand have a model of how a world wide network, possessing a clear vision of the oneness of humanity, can strengthen its influence and consolidate its learning with the help of an appropriate organisational structure. There is therefore something significant that Cultural Creatives can learn from us.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandize-ment against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.

(Universal House of Justice: The Promise of World Peace – 1985)

Just as I have drawn immense encouragement and inspiration from reading this account of the Cultural Creatives, which I wholeheartedly recommend, hopefully increasing numbers of people will draw similar inspiration from the Bahá’í community to which I belong. We have a model which contains a crucial missing dimension in the work of many Cultural Creatives – and I don’t mean a belief in God. Many Cultural Creatives share that perspective in their diverse ways. I mean an institutional framework, centred around a vision of unity in diversity, through which to disseminate and consolidate the gains that have been achieved through effortful experience in different places and at different times.

So, definitely read the book but don’t just stop at that. Come and have a look at what we are doing too. There are, almost certainly, Bahá’ís near where you live. We’ll all be immensely more effective working in synchrony.

Separation from the Body

(freely adapted from Ken Ring: Lessons from the Light pages 286-91)

. . . . . the next thing – I’m standing in this dark room
there’s my body on the bed and a deep darkness
I’m here and I’m also over there
one whole wall in the room a dark forest
the sun rising behind it and a path out through the woods.

Ah!
I realise what’s happening.
If I go up that path to the edge of the woods into that light
I’ll be dead.
Yet it’s so peaceful.

I move up the path. The light grows massive. I see memories
of all my sadness. I urge, “Stop!”
Everything stops! I’m shocked. I realize
I can talk to the light and it responds!

I am rising into this tunnel of light.
I ask, “What is this light? What are you really?”
The light reveals itself directly, vividly, to my mind.
I can feel it, I can feel this light in me.
And the light unfolds its message in my mind:
“I could be Jesus, I could be Buddha,
I could be Krishna. It’s how you see me.”

But desperate for understanding
I insist, “But what are you really?”
The light changes into a mandala of souls
all our souls, our true selves, are fused,
we are one being,
we are the same being,
distinct aspects of the same Being.
I enter this mandala of human souls
white hot with all the love we’ve ever wanted,
a love that can heal everything, everyone

I’m desperate to know, really know

I am taken into the light and
instantly the world shrinks with distance
the solar system’s pinpricks
without moving I see galaxies upon galaxies
dancing across cold empty blackness
my consciousness is expanding so fast

here comes another light right at me
I hit this light
I dissolve
I disappear
I understand

I have passed the singularity
I have traversed the big bang
I went through that membrane into this –
the Void
I am aware of everything
that has ever been created
I’m looking out of God’s eyes
I know why every atom is

then everything reverses
I return through the singularity
I understand that everything since that first word
is actually the first vibration
there is a place before any vibration was

after the Void, I returned knowing
that God is not only there
God is here
everything is here – no need to search
while we are now God’s always

filter-spectrum-v2

As I indicated last time, after exploring some of the complexities of the transliminality concept,  I am just going to start from the brain and work my way up from there.

So, we need to answer some basic questions first.

psychosis-spiritualityWhat is the Threshold?

What might this threshold be that Claridge referred to and how does it operate? Note that he has mixed psychosis and magic into its effects (Psychosis and Spirituality – page 82):

As defined by Thalbourne, transliminality refers to a individual differences in the extent to which ideas, affects and other mental contents cross the threshold between subliminal and supraliminal: in some people, he argues, the barrier is simply more permeable. . . . . Quoting a range of psychometric, clinical and experimental evidence, he argues that a high degree of transliminality is associated with strong belief in and reporting of paranormal phenomena; enhanced creativity; a greater tendency to indulge in magical thinking; more frequent mystical experiences: and a susceptibility to psychotic and psychotic-like symptoms.

Isabel Clarke, in the same book, seeks to tackle this using Teasdale and Barnard’s model of interacting cognitive systems. She writes (pages 108-09 – my italics):

[The ICS model concerns two central subsystems of the brain with imperfect intercommunication]. The implicational subsystem communicates directly with, and is much influenced by, the various sense modalities and the body’s arousal system, whereas the propositional system is more removed from this emotional area, and indeed, the vital communication between the two systems, which makes good cognitive functioning possible, can become temporarily disabled by a state of high or low arousal.

She clarifies what she feels is the distinction between

. . . . the everyday, scientific state . . . where the propositional and implicational subsystems are working nicely together in balance, [and] the spiritual/psychotic state . . . where the two are disjointed, and the system is essentially driven by the implicational subsystem.

She spells out the core issue concerning shifts into the implicational mode:

For the person with psychosis, the barrier that makes this sort of experience hard to access for most of us, is dangerously loose. . . . . When the asynchrony persists and there is not a rapid reconnection of the two main subsystems, this will be followed by loss of bearings because of having drifted out of reach of the construct system, or the propositional system, which people rely on to make sense of their environment.

It is not just that the ‘barrier’ is ‘loose.’ There are times when:

. . .  the orderly return does not happen. The individual finds themselves stranded beyond the reach of their constructs or propositional subsystem, trying to operate in the world. Not surprisingly this is extraordinarily difficult. . . . . The desperate sufferer tries to make sense of the unfamiliar environment, clutching at whatever connections come to hand. In this way, delusions, which usually have their origin in the early stages of the breakdown, are born. In another dissolution of normal boundaries, internal concerns are experienced as external communication and the person hears voices. Normal thought is disrupted – or as the psychiatrist would say, disordered.

It is clear that what she is describing is captured entirely by the concept of filter or the process of filtering. I am probably tilting towards a process rather than a object word, so the idea of filtering is beginning to appeal more to me than the idea of a filter. I have found it frustrating that I cannot access primary sources very easily on this aspect of filtering. The nearest reference I have found summarises its use of the ICS model as follows (Gumley et al 1999 – An Interacting Cognitive Subsystems Model of Relapse and the Course of Psychosis – page 275):

The ICS [interacting cognitive systems] approach enables a detailed view of how multiple sources of information interact to establish self-organizing, self-perpetuating, processing configurations that act to maintain persistent cognitive-affective states. The model predicts that implicational meaning is critically involved in the processes of initiation, acceleration and maintenance of relapse in psychosis.

Master and Emissary

They make no mention of filters or thresholds.

Isabelle Clarke’s book, published in 2010, relies exclusively for its explanation of transliminality upon Teasdale and Barnard’s 1993 interacting cognitive subsystems model, being presumably unaware at that point of McGilchrist’s 2009 hemispheric model brilliantly explored in The Master & his Emissary. He has much to say that sheds further light on what might be going on here. The key passages for our purposes fall between pages 211-233.

He is looking at the problem from the point of view that the two hemispheres of the brain have two separate ways of operating. The left hemisphere, to be a touch simplistic, is predominantly linguistic and analytical, the right holistic and metaphorical. McGilchrist uses his book not only to illustrate how they work but also to argue that our culture is dangerously privileging the left hemisphere mode. I have dealt with that in more detail elsewhere. I will only say more on that aspect here where it is helpful.

McGilchrist is not arguing that the two hemispheres have to be in each other’s pockets all the time:

My thesis is that the hemispheres have complementary but conflicting tasks to fulfil, and need to maintain a high degree of mutual ignorance. At the same time they need to cooperate.

How does this work, he asks.

There is a communication bridge between them called the corpus callosum:

If one thinks of the relationship between the hemispheres as being like that between the two hands of the pianist . . . one can see that the task of the corpus callosum has to be as much to do with inhibition of process as it is with facilitation of information transfer, and cooperation requires the correct balance to be maintained

If the corpus callosum is damaged there is more information transfer between the hemispheres:

This apparently paradoxical finding makes sense if the main purpose of the corpus callosum is to maintain separation of the hemispheres.

We can already see that this is heading in the same direction as Clarke’s explanation of Teasdale and Barnard’s ICS model. There is a filter between one aspect of consciousness and another, which can break down.

This at least lends strength to the proven way that the skunk form of marijuana can trigger psychosis:

Dr. Paola Dazzan, reader in neurobiology of psychosis from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, and senior researcher on the study, said in a statement: “We found that frequent use of high potency cannabis significantly affects the structure of white matter fibres in the brain, whether you have psychosis or not. This reflects a sliding scale where the more cannabis you smoke and the higher the potency, the worse the damage will be.”

White matter is made of large bundles of nerve cells called axons, which connect the grey matter in different regions of the brain, enabling fast communication between them. The corpus callosum, a band of nerve fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres, is the largest white matter structure within the brain. The corpus callosum is rich in cannabinoid receptors that are affected by the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis.

Interestingly McGilchrist brings a quote from the Upanishads into the mix at this point:

All in all, my view is that the corpus callosum does act principally as the agent to differentiation rather than integration, though ultimately differentiation may be in the service of integration. . . . . . [The] Upanishads] say: “in the space within the heart lies the controller of all… He is the bridge that serves as a boundary to keep the different worlds apart.

Routinely we blunder along automatically at what McGilchrist refers to as level one. But that is not always enough:

In the discussion of level one, the emphasis was on the necessary inhibition of one hemisphere by the other, since they each need to work separately. However, at a higher level, and over a longer time span, they also need to work together, not just because some important human factors, such as imagination, appear to depend on the synthesis of the workings of both hemispheres.

Without getting embroiled in the detail, the key point is this:

The right hemisphere certainly needs the left, but the left hemisphere depends on the right. Much that marks us out, in the positive sense as well as the negative sense, as human beings requires the intervention of the left hemisphere, as long as it is acting in concert with the right hemisphere. Important human faculties depend on the synthesis of their activity. In the absence of such concerted action, the left hemisphere comes to believe its territory actually is the world.

As he sees it, ‘one field of consciousness’ has to ‘accommodate two wills.’

Given my Entish tendencies he quotes what for me is a brilliant and beautiful metaphor to convey a key aspect of his model. I need to start one step back though.

He writes: ‘. . . the core of the self, is affective and deep-lying: its roots lie at a level below the hemispheric divide, a level, however, with which each cognitively aware hemisphere at the highest level is still in touch.’

I need to emphasise, before anyone gets too mystical, he is still dealing with the brain here.

Later I will have cause to refer once more to the point he makes now. He goes on:

So much of our experience, and our sense of our self, comes from low down in the ‘tree’ of consciousness, below hemispheric level: ‘integration’ does not need to be achieved. All the corpus callosum has to do is to help maintain moment-to-moment independence of the hemispheres, not integration of the self.

Panksepp, whose description he is drawing on, sees consciousness as ‘not all or nothing, but has a continuous existence, transforming itself as it travels upwards, through the branches, to what he calls, by analogy with the forest canopy, the “cerebral canopy”, until in the frontal cortices it becomes high-level cognitive awareness.’ McGilchrist emphasises that he prefers this analogy as it makes clear that consciousness is not a bird but ‘a tree, its roots deep inside us.’ He spells out that for him it is not ‘an entity but a process.’

I’ve already made clear that this preference for process over reification is one I share.

McGilchrist makes a key point about this filtering process and the holistic mode of the right-hemisphere:

Most, if not all, of the ‘functions’ mediated by the right hemisphere fall into this category of what has to remain outside the focus of awareness – implicit, intuitive, unattended to.

psychotic-art

Painting by David Chuck of a psychotic experience (Image scanned from ‘The Master & his Emissary’ plate 2)

He adds something of relevance also to the issue of psychosis:

The idea that self-consciousness, in the sense of being aware of ourselves doing or being something, is the left hemisphere inspecting the right is supported by a number of observations. The attentional ‘spotlight’ . . . is a function of the left hemisphere. The casualties in self consciousness are all right hemisphere based, social or empathic skills. And schizophrenic subjects, whose psychopathology depends on a reflexive hyperconsciousness, and who often depict a detached observing eye in their paintings, show a relative hypofunction of the right hemisphere in relation to the left.

This has contrary implications for the psychosis/transliminality hypothesis. It implies the operation of a hypervigilant left-hemisphere rather than a leaking filter system. However, such hypervigilance would not rule a filter issue completely and the overall model McGilchrist is advocating supports the possibility of systemic cross pollination: he quotes Ramachandran as saying ‘[The brain’s] connections are extraordinarily labile and dynamic. Perceptions emerge as a result of reverberations of signals between different levels of the sensory hierarchy, indeed across different senses.’

We are not done with McGilchrist yet, but this seems a reasonably good place at which to pause.