Science of the Spirit


Feeling intense emotions doesn't mean you're crazy, it means you're human

"The thing about people who are truly and malignantly crazy: their real genius is for making the people around them think they themselves are crazy. In military science this is called Psy-Ops, for your info." - David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
When we utilize critical thinking and question whether what society tells us is true or not, we are called "paranoid." When a major tragedy strikes, we are conditioned to automatically accept what authority figures and the media tell us without question, lest we wish to be cast into the tainted demographic of society known as "conspiracy theorists" - basically, a manipulation of the term free-thinkers, insinuating a person's open mind is instead a psychologically deranged prison. When we feel sad, we put on brave faces like we were taught to do; and we certainly do not let others see us "break" down, as to do so would be socially unacceptable. We fail to realize this, in reality, is the very definition of weakness. The truly brave thing to do would be to embrace and listen to our feelings, otherwise known as embracing our innate human nature. Rarely do we consider that by repeatedly denying ourselves the opportunity to "break" down and feel our emotions in their entirety, we are simultaneously sealing our fate to break down on a chronic basis in the future, as the accumulated negative energies within us from our repressed emotions will eventually reach full capacity and burst.


Researchers show that dwelling on the past negatively impacts self control in the present

Fear, anger, uncertainty, discomfort, shame, guilt and many other emotions we perceive as negative are often our compass towards growth. It is our resistance to our past and our interpretation of how our experiences should have manifested which define our expectations for the future. How people remember past behavior affects their choices in the present, according to a new study that suggests the relationship between recall and self-control is more complicated than previously believed.

Research on self-control often suggests recollecting past mistakes as a way to avoid making them again. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people with food addictions reflect on past lapses to keep from overeating. But Vanderbilt University professor Kelly Haws thought there might be more to the story, so she and her team designed several studies to test the nuances of recall. Haws and colleagues found that focusing on past behaviors is not always a good idea.


Empathy: Being comfortable sitting with another persons pain

I learned something valuable this week that I would like to share it with you. But first, a little reflection on something I wrote last week, because it's connected to what I learned this week.

In a recent post on my blog I wrote about "How to respond to those we love when they are in pain." I've had a few people thank me for the words I suggested because they don't always know what to say to someone who's suffering.

In this same vein, I also recently watched a Dateline episode about newscaster Tom Brokaw, who shared his experience and what he learned through his recent battle with cancer. One thing he found upsetting was how people responded to him as he suffered with his disease. He said no one could empathize unless they'd also had cancer. I think what he was trying to say was that he felt people didn't understand what he was going through during his incredible challenge with the disease. I believe that he may have experienced people "trying to make someone feel better when they are suffering," which ultimately made him feel as if people did not understand what he was going through.


Evangelical Christianity - creating and manipulating low self-esteem

© Julian Stratenschulte/Archiv/dpa
Like most swimmers, I try to get in some laps almost every day, but there is only one health club with a pool within decent driving distance from where I live. It doesn't call itself a Christian gym, but it plays primarily Christian music overhead, holds prayer meetings and Bible studies, and incidentally it also leaves most of its hi-def televisions parked on the same 24-hour news network all the time.

Even though I don't intentionally listen to Christian music, I find it difficult to escape it where I live. My regular readers have already heard me gripe about how it's not this way only at a local health club but also at local restaurants, skating rinks, doctor's offices, gas stations, and just about any other place you can go around here. That means I get a decent feel for what messages my Christian friends and family are exposed to on a regular basis. I already knew that fare pretty well, of course, since I was a devoted Christian myself for twenty years. But this way I guess you could say it keeps me current.

And the songs we listen to matter. They help shape the way we think. Andrew Fletcher famously said, "If a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation." I would modify that to say that Sunday morning sermons can go in one ear and out the other, but the songs Christians hear replay over and over again several times a week, impacting them in their daily lives in a way no eloquent speech ever could. Back when I was a leader in my church group, I put a good deal of time into writing songs for our group (we often stole popular tunes and wrote our own lyrics for the group to learn and sing—loads of fun, by the way!) because I understood the weight that songs carry.

Teachers and preachers like to think they shape the theology of a congregation but they can't hold a candle to the music. The most forward-thinking leaders of Evangelicalism have known for years that if you can influence the music in people's earbuds, you can steer an entire generation in the direction you feel is best. Of course, if you can also commandeer control over the hiring and firing of Christian seminaries and universities, that can powerfully reshape a culture as well. But that's a topic for another day, perhaps.

Comment: Comment: Getting free of lifelong programming can be done, but it is hard work. Kudos to Mr. Carter.

Eye 2

New study suggests that psychopaths don't "catch" yawns

© iStock
People with psychopathic traits are less affected by others' yawns, a new study finds.

Contagious yawning has been linked to empathy levels in several studies, though not all research supports the association. However, new research in the journal Personality and Individual Differences finds that people with psychopathic traits—especially a lack of empathy—are not as susceptible to catching a case of the yawns ... at least among college students, the only group tested.

Researchers from Baylor University in Texas tried to provoke 135 students to yawn in reaction to someone else's yawn. Each of the participants also completed a questionnaire regarding their personality traits, measuring psychopathic characteristics like selfishness, tendency to be manipulative, impulsivity, and a lack of empathy. Then they sat at a computer and watched 10-second video clips of facial movements, including yawning. Electrodes were attached to their faces just under the lower eyelids, on their foreheads, on the outer corners of their eyes, and on their fingertips to measure their movements in reaction to the videos.


The US military and the myth that humanity is predisposed to violence

We have this tragic misperception that humanity is predisposed to violence.

The truth is that humanity is predisposed to peace. The default position for humanity is that of conscientious objector to war and violence.

In our work at the Center on Conscience & War, this is proven to us daily, through our individual conscientious objectors. Science has proven it, too. This tendency for cooperation over competition is evident in daily life: on an average day, most people will witness countless acts of cooperation, kindness, and humanity towards one another, and not one act of violence or competition. And most of it is so commonplace, we barely even notice it. We take our nonviolence for granted.

And so does the news. What makes the news is violence, not cooperation. Particularly, on our local news programs, the top stories are the ones that depict street crimes and "home invasions." Seeing this interpersonal violence, I am convinced, leads us to believe that people are predisposed to acting violently toward one another. We all make decisions based on patterns we observe, and if the patterns we observe are highlighting violence, we are going to decide that humanity is violent.

How does this relate to war? If we believe that violence among humans is natural, we will believe that war is inevitable.

But violence is not natural. Our conscience tells us killing another human being is wrong. And it is the military that knows this better than anyone.

The military has taken notice that, over time, and through the history of war, the vast majority of individuals refuse to shoot to kill. That means, instead of firing directly at an "enemy," soldiers (used here to cover all members of the Armed Forces: soldiers, Marines, airmen and women, and sailors) would fire their weapons away from their "targets," or pretend to shoot. One investigation found -- and these studies have been replicated -- that in World War I only about 5% of people shot to kill; in World War II, about 15% of people shot to kill. By the US war in Vietnam, the rate at which soldiers were shooting to kill was found to be 90%. Today, that number could be even higher.

What happened? Training evolved to meet the military's goals.

There is a science of teaching soldiers to kill and it is called killology. It is the science of circumventing the conscience.

In order to get an otherwise psychologically healthy individual to kill, US military training has been developed to bypass the conscience and have the act of killing - the act of firing one's weapon with the intent to kill -- become reflexive.


Compassion and generosity are powerful habits

Three years ago, I set out to come up with a single sentence that could guide both my career and personal decisions. It turned out to be:
Be generous and expert, trustworthy and clear, open-minded and adaptable, persistent and present.
Only after months of living by these words did I realize that all these elements came down to a single powerful habit, which is to start every interaction by thinking: help this person. Let me explain...

Generous means to start every personal interaction with three words in your head: help this person. When you answer the phone, when someone knocks on your door, when you get introduced to a new colleague, your first instinct should be to help that person. Two years ago, I was driving my 14-year-old son back from a school event and I made an observation about the event that wasn't entirely positive. His response was, "How is that helping this person?"

That quick exchange taught me two things. It's not enough to say you are generous, you actually have to work hard every day to live that way. I'm trying hard, but it is challenging, I admit. But more importantly, I learned that my son now has these words in the front of his mind, and that is a very good thing.


How to get things done? Tap into the energy of a working group

© Unknown
I'm a freelance writer. Often when I tell people about what I do, I hear the Greek chorus: "What a luxury! How nice it must be to work from home." Except I can't. Or rather, I could, but I would be fending off a very needy cat and the desire to eat last night's takeout at 11 AM.

At present, I am writing this article at a cafe surrounded by the furious typing of other cafe patrons who I assume have similar petty distractions awaiting them in the dysfunctional solitude of their apartments. And, according to a recent study by Belgian psychologist Kobe Desender, there's a reason for my sneaking suspicion: Mental effort is contagious. So contagious that, when Desender and his team tested the human hive mind with a simple computer game that required varying levels of partner participation and difficulty, participants naturally gravitated toward matching the perceived effort of their harder-working partners — not the difficulty level of the task.

Desender and his team determined that partners were not "mimicking" each other, but the reasons why aren't clear. "Swarm theory" has fascinated scientists for decades: Mainly, why do humans work harder, better, faster when we are tapped into the energy of a group? In fact, brain scans of control groups of children show more activity in regions that recognize facial expressions, faces, and social signals versus groups of autistic children who have trouble interpreting basic human social cues. Even monkeys who are popular have bigger brains.

So is understanding group behavior really the way to understanding how to improve human efficiency and motivation? Working together could be hardwired in our DNA. We are descended from fish, after all.

Steven Kotler explains the neurochemical changes during flow states that strengthen motivation, creativity, and learning.

Heart - Black

Many animals can become mentally ill

We think of psychological disorders like anxiety and depression as uniquely human problems, but many other species could be suffering from them too

Flint was hit hard when his mother Flo passed away. He became withdrawn and stared into space. He also stopped eating and became weak. After a few days, Flint rested close to where his mother had lain, and died.

Flint was a chimpanzee living in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. His story was described by primatologist Jane Goodall in her 2010 book Through a Window. She contends that he was suffering from depression.

To our eyes, many animals seem to suffer from forms of mental illness. Whether they are pets, or animals kept in ill-managed zoos and circuses, they can become excessively sad, anxious, or even traumatised.

Alarm Clock

Are you addicted to stress?

© Benjamin Watson
Are you addicted to high stress? Your health and longevity hang in the balance of your honest response. What I've noticed in my 20 years as a specialist in integrative medicine is that cortisol has become the new crack: highly addictive yet flying below the radar of awareness.

Chronic stress, and its hormonal indicator, cortisol, can make you fat, cranky, and inflamed, or at minimum, age faster than necessary. Mastering stress as a form of energy, rather than being bullied by it into addictive patterns, is the key to health prosperity, longer life, and happier days. My mission is to offer novel ways to rehab your rhythm with stress so that there's a playful, hip-hop vibe to it, not the grim march through your 20s, 30s, and 40s of racing from one task to the next.

Cortisol is the "fight or flight" hormone and it has a simple job: to get you out of a jam. If a tiger is about to charge you, cortisol raises your blood sugar, heart rate, blood pressure, sending fresh blood to your muscles so you can either pick up a club and fight the tiger or run like crazy up the nearest tree.

Comment: How stress affects your mind and body