Psyched out—the mental barriers that prevent us from solving global problems

Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.
Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.

In 1969, Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book outlining five key steps in the grieving process. Decades later, these five steps have entrenched themselves almost ubiquitously into western society’s understanding of grief, with references to them occurring in everything from academic research to pop culture.

Flash-forward to 2015—another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, has published his own book that similarly proposes a five-step psychological process. But this one isn’t about grieving. In fact, it’s about not grieving—not grieving for the planet, that is. In his book, Stoknes describes five psychological barriers that prevent people from being concerned about, or taking action on, climate change.

The five barriers (distance from the problem, defeatism, internal dissonance, denial, and sense of identity) do indeed help explain why people in developed countries are largely ignoring not just climate change, but many other large-scale, high-risk challenges facing society and the environment. While each of these mental barriers relates to one another, I am particularly interested in the last—i.e., how our construct of personal identity (a.k.a. Ego) affects our perception of the world, and how that perception frames our values, connections, and resulting actions (or inaction, as the case may be).

“Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them,” Stoknes explains. “Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance.”

Personal identity, just like religion, has evolved to serve an important purpose in human society. It helps us cultivate a moral compass and allows us to interpret and filter the constant external information our minds are internalizing. However, as with religion, our sense of self can become a source of harm when it interferes with our ability to commiserate and connect with people or ideas different from our ‘own’. The ego grows by defining boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and by ignoring or outright denying any information that does not align with its self-cultivated identity.

We only have to look at neo-Nazi groups or extreme religious cults to see where the creation and defense of self-identity can go terribly, violently wrong. At the other extreme, philosophies such as yoga as well as many eastern religions emphasize the release from self-identity as the highest goal—i.e., moving beyond the ego to a place of enlightenment, or higher consciousness. For those of us in between those extremes, our sense of self is unavoidable, and crucial at least to some extent in our interactions with the day-to-day world. The goal then is how to maintain an identity without feeling threatened by other ways of seeing or explaining the world; an identity that is porous like sand on a beach, allowing ideas and knowledge to flow through it freely.

I believe that regardless of religious, philosophical, or cultural ties, our responsibility (and ideally, our ambition) as humans is to cultivate a sense of self that is pliable instead of rigid, that expands and evolves to accept new ideas and facts as they are made aware to us. Nothing on the planet, indeed in the universe, is unchanging, and neither is our Self, no matter how much we try to cling to whatever identity we’ve constructed over the years.

I Imagine, therefore I Am

One thing that we all are capable of to varying degrees is imagining. Imagining future scenarios, imagining alternative lives, or even imagining people or creatures that don’t ‘exist’ in our world. Whereas science-minded folks often exhibit high amounts of curiosity and openness to new ideas, its often religious people whose minds are more open to imagination.

As Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains in a TEDx talk, evangelical conceptions of God often involve people talking directly to God, hearing his voice direct them, or even seeing him. Her research has found that some people have an inherently vivid imagination, and these individuals are more likely to have these personal one-on-one interactions with God. Using brain scans, scientists can see that the same parts of the brain are active when someone is having a Godly experience as when they are asked to imagine various scenes.

Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries--new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.
Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries–new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.

Luhrmanns’ and others’ research also shows that we train our minds to be more imaginative—or more in tune with God, depending on how you interpret the results. The longer a person has been praying in the evangelical style, the more likely they are to experience God’s voice or image in their everyday routines.

These internal imaginative experiences highlight how adaptive and flexible our minds are. We can literally re-wire our brains by consciously changing and practicing new thought patterns. People are trained to do this to treat depression and anxiety, and we can even reduce chances of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by keeping our minds healthy and active.

Perhaps if we were to teach similar techniques on a wider level, our society would be better prepared for change, and more willing to make positive lifestyle choices to protect our health, environment, and wellbeing. Just as people are starting to advocate re-introducing children to gardening and real food at school, and some corporations are adopting socially and environmentally conscious guidelines that go beyond their financial bottom line, we do have it in us to expand our view about what values are important to cultivate.

It’s never easy to modify your identity or accept large-scale change, but we’ve done it as a species countless times before. Our identities will always be partially shaped by where we live, how we were raised, and to what cultures we were exposed. However, as a highly adaptive species, I have hope that we (at least some of us!) can yet evolve toward a higher collective consciousness in which differences are both respected and recognized as superficial compared to the larger sameness that we all share.

While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.
While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.

Bye Bye Bad Memories

Scientists are testing new biochemical techniques to 'erase' unwanted memories from the brain.
Scientists are testing new biochemical techniques to ‘erase’ unwanted memories from the brain.

You may not be able to erase the memory of bad relationships yet, but one day soon you may be able to kick that pesky meth habit with selective memory erasing technology.

Science constantly reminds us of how pliable our brains are. Whether its studies of addiction, memory, or identity, we are learning more and more about the inner workings of our brains—and perhaps our minds. But at the same time, we may be venturing into dangerous territories in which we presume to understand the mind—at least from a scientific standpoint—much better than we actually do, to our own detriment.

A scientific study published in September by the Scripps Research Institute claims to have selectively erased ‘unwanted’ memories while leaving benign memories intact. In rats, the researchers were able to block memory formation associated with objects or behaviors that trigger methamphetamine addiction, in effect eliminating withdrawal symptoms. It appears that methamphetamine-related memory formation is particularly fragile, which means memories associated with the chemical are easier to block than other types of memory formation (though the researchers are unsure why). Scientists from USC have previously performed similar experiments on marine snails, but rats obviously represent a much more complex–and human like–palette to work with.

It’s a far cry from selectively erasing (or for that matter, implanting) memories in human subjects, but the potential unintended consequences of such a procedure are many. The researchers state that no other memories appeared to be affected in the rats, implying that their personal ‘identities’ remained intact, simply minus the bad drug-associated ones. But how do you know for sure that absolutely no other memory-creating processes were affected? With such complex neural pathways and chemical interactions in mammals, how could such a procedure be completely isolated?

Obviously I am not an expert in the field, so my concerns are based on conjecture—perhaps it really is possible to remove negative memories in isolation, and if so, it surely could have therapeutic uses. The authors suggest using such procedures in the future for things like post-traumatic stress disorder. Using a memory-erasing process rather than long-term drug therapy may indeed be a superior option for a number of reasons, assuming nothing goes wrong.

I just wonder whether these types of technologies will follow the path of prescription drugs, in which industry decides that the few (scarcely) tested benefits far outweigh the myriad of potential side effects and long-term unknown effects on the body. Even if the scientists performing this initial study have the best of intentions, once such procedures are bought out by the medical or pharmaceutical industry, the motives typically turn to financial bottom lines and little else.

Nevertheless, from a purely scientific standpoint (i.e., in terms of what we learn about ourselves and the world), the idea that we can affect how our brain responds to various memory triggers by turning chemical cues on and off is admittedly fascinating, if not disconcerting. An escalation of such studies, in which we tinker with the brain’s memory creating functions from a microbiological standpoint, is nothing less than a manifestation of our indelible human curiosity—that irresistible urge to press the red button—just to see what happens.

Of Lab Rats and Men

Scientific research answers some questions–and raises many more–about brain function and consciousness

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Understanding the human brain is one of the last (or at least most challenging) frontiers of science. While the field of neurobiology has started to unravel the mystery of consciousness a strand at a time, we still don’t have a well-defined or agreed-upon theory as to how consciousness exists or how exactly it works. In that aspect, religion and philosophy have historically filled this knowledge void with more mystical interpretations of consciousness.

Today, I learned of two recent scientific breakthroughs in understanding brain function that, depending on your perspective, either work to demystify consciousness or simply serve to raise more questions about its origins. The first study used a mathematical model to analyze MRI brain scans of several test subjects and essentially ‘read’ the thought expressed in the scan. In this case, the thought was a particular letter of the alphabet that the test subject was looking at when the MRI scan was taken. Amazingly, the model was able to identify which letter the subject had looked at simply by reading the scan. The researchers who ran this study hope to develop similar models that will one day be able to re-construct and ‘read’ memories and even dreams! Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, anyone? Or maybe Total Recall? Not so far fetched anymore.

Of course the type of complex modeling required to reconstruct whole memories is awhile off yet, but each small step of progress or discovery has the potential to lead to eventual massive changes in technology and society. The most interesting aspect of the brain scan study (at least from my perspective) was that they programmed the model to ‘learn’ what letters look like, so it could better identify them. Just like by learning to read, a person is more likely to identify and remember a word than if it was just a series of random lines, the model was given ‘knowledge’ that helped it recall and correctly label letters from the scans. By using models and programs, we can actually gain a better understanding of how our own minds learn and retain information.

While the motives or implications of scientific research are sometimes ambiguous (if not morally questionable), it is undeniable that through science we are able to learn a great deal about ourselves as well as the workings of the world, at least through a particular lens. What science doesn’t necessarily provide is the appropriate frame for the lens. In other words, we may understand how neurons transmit signals to each other and which chemicals correspond to emotions of love, anger, and sadness. But we still do not know, from a scientific standpoint, how this all translates to self-awareness, or whether consciousness is firmly grounded in the physical body or can be found independent of it.  Science asks many questions, but doesn’t always consider whether these questions are the right questions, or whether we are pursuing knowledge in a positive, constructive way. Again, it has traditionally been through non-scientific perspectives that theories pertaining to consciousness and morality at a holistic level have permeated society, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

The second breakthrough that hit the news today confronts this duality head on: a team of researchers from the University of Michigan claims to have identified a neurological basis for near-death experiences. Several news sources picked up this story (it definitely made for more grabbing headlines than the brain scan study  above), and a read through a few of them makes for an interesting study in itself—a study of human nature, and how individuals can interpret science to fit the mold of their varying personal beliefs.

The University of Michigan study used rats to study brain activity after cardiac arrest (i.e., after death). The researchers found that for up to 30 seconds after the heart has stopped beating, brain activity not only continued, but was actually heightened beyond normal levels. This data, according to the researchers, suggests that the near-death experiences many people claim to have are the result of the brain going into hyper-drive in a last ditch effort to ‘save’ itself, resulting in such things as tunnel vision (the white light at the end of the tunnel), unreliable sensory perception (out of body experiences), and abnormal brain activity associated with memory (reliving moments of one’s life).

Such strong conclusions are not without objections. From a purely scientific standpoint, many critics have argued that studying rats is not a reliable proxy for understanding the human brain, as we don’t even know if rats or other animals even experience anything like near-death experiences. Personally, I feel that there is enough congruence between human physiology and that of other mammals to gain insight about ourselves in this manner. What I find more troubling is the way in which we often choose to conduct scientific inquiry—in this case, by inducing cardiac arrest in rats (albeit only 9 for this particular study) through injection, drowning, or asphyxiation. Unfortunately, moral objection doesn’t always hold much weight in the realm of science, where studies on animals, for better or worse, have resulted in a myriad of medical and technological advancements.

Animal ethics aside, the results of the study have thus far only fueled the fire of controversy between those who believe in an afterlife and those who belief that consciousness is purely a manifestation of the physical brain. According to Aril Seth who covered this story for the The Guardian, the University of Michigan study provides further evidence against paranormal or supernatural explanations of consciousness. He seems to believe unquestionably that science holds the answer to all of life’s mysteries, arguing that this shouldn’t prevent us from admiring the beauty of how it all fits together.

On the other end of the spectrum lie people such as Dr. Persaud and Dr. Bruggen, whose blog in the Huffington Post argues that despite scientific evidence for a neurological basis for near-death experiences, there are still many unexplained and extraordinary accounts of such experiences that don’t fit in any current scientific models or theories. According to them,

The spiritual understanding of what happens to us differs from the scientific view because it places greater faith in human experience, and these death-bed stories. Science demands proof that comes from brain scanners, replication and precise measurement.

But because these extraordinary accounts will always exist, does that mean religion will forever survive the onslaught of science? Or could it be that our first proper glimpse of heaven will instead shortly arrive from a brain scan?

From these authors’ perspective, religion is currently filling a void in human experience that science is not, and until we can understand the mystical through a scientific lens, other worldviews will persist. But will science ever fulfill such a vast desire to understand not only the world, but also why it exists and why we are part of it? Perhaps not for everyone. There will likely always be those that prefer the mystical to the scientific, and this story proved no exception.

For many, the power of personal stories (or anecdotes, or however you want to label them) will always be stronger than impersonal scientific data, and of course there is no substitute for one’s own personal experience. But even through direct perception there is a margin of error—we all see and interpret events differently, and therefore cannot truly know the world through our eyes alone. We constantly rely on the accumulated knowledge of others, whether sourced from parents, friends, teachers, astrologists, or books and articles. In this sense, science tries to sift through accumulated knowledge, weed out the false or un-substantiated claims, and focus on evidence and repeatability to understand and organize the world. I personally value the structure and reputability that science offers.

That said, I do not fail to see the limitations and flaws of the scientific worldview, which seeks to explain so much of the world through probabilities and averages. Science is one of countless imperfect ways to try to understand the world. Besides, just because something is proven ‘scientifically’ does not mean that other understandings of said topic are rendered untrue. We are able, for example, to understand love from both a chemical/physiological standpoint, a philosophical standpoint, a psychological standpoint, a religious standpoint, or all of the above (at least in a democratic state).

Mathematics may arguably be closer to a ‘pure’ interpretation of how the universe works, but even math is based on human-constructed assumptions and rationalities that may not be congruent with the world beyond our perception. As Mark Twain wryly quoted, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Humans are imperfect; but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to better understand our world through multiple lenses. Having a partial understanding is not the same as living a lie, as long as each of us strives to find truth, and isn’t afraid to question the status quo. All of our varying perspectives may just add up to one holistic understanding of the nature of existence.