Saturday, 2 July 2016

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside

The 1985 Massey Lectures - by Doris Lessing

What can the individual do to salvage his or her freedom in a world dominated by the forces of mass emotions and group thinking?

The Massey Lectures were started by the CBC in 1961. They were established so that some of the world’s leading thinkers could present the result of original work in different areas of thought. The 1985 lectures were by Doris Lessing, who died in 2013. 

The topic of the 1985 lectures was “the predicament of the individual in a world that’s increasingly dominated by group thinking and mass emotions, as well as the inflammatory rhetoric that usually accompanies such displays of group behaviour.”

The title for the series was: Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. “An examination of our tendency to act and think according to patterns of group behaviour thus making it easier for us to fall victims to political rhetoric.”

Given what we are witnessing in the UK at the moment following the EU referendum, this all seems highly relevant, perhaps even more relevant than it was 30 years ago when these lectures were first broadcast by the CBC. You might say that the ‘volume’ on some of the phenomena Lessing discusses has been ‘turned up’.

Introduction by Doris Lessing

“This is what I want to talk about in these five lectures: how often, and how much, we are dominated by our savage past, as individuals and as groups. And yet, whilst sometimes it seems that we are helpless, we are gathering, and very rapidly - too rapidly to assimilate it - knowledge about ourselves, not only as individuals but as groups, nations and as members of society. This is a time when it is frightening to be alive, when it is hard to think of human beings as rational creatures. Everywhere we look we see brutality, stupidity, until it seems that there is nothing else to be seen but that - a descent into barbarism, everywhere, which we are unable to check. But what I think is that, while it is true there is a general worsening, it is precisely because things are so frightening that we become hypnotized, and do not notice - or if we notice, belittle - equally strong forces on the other side, the forces, in short, of reason, sanity, civilization..."

"The sad thing is, all these issues about human behaviour are so important, and so fundamental to why people get ill, anxious, sad and behave criminally, that they ought to be looked at calmly and scientifically by more people and talked about more widely. But these issues are not explored yet much on TV or in other media and yet they are far more important that politics or the 'arts'. That's why what you're doing in the Human Givens Journal is so valuable."


Click the link in each section header below to listen to the lecture on the CBC site. Each section contains a short synopsis or key point.

“I think when people look back at this time - the one we are living through - they will be amazed at one thing more than any other. It is this. That we do know more about ourselves now than people did in the past but that very little of it has been put into effect. There has been this great explosion of information about ourselves. The information is the result of our - of mankind’s still infant ability to look at itself objectively. It concerns our behaviour patterns… and is about how we function in groups, and as individuals. Not about how we may like to think we behave and function, which is often very flattering, but about how we can be observed to be behaving when observed as dispassionately as when we observe the behaviour of other species.”

“This business of seeing ourselves as in the right and others in the wrong; our cause as right, theirs as wrong-headed; our ideas as correct, theirs as nonsense (if not as downright evil). Well, all of us in our sober moments, our human moments, the time when we think, reflect and allow our rational minds to dominate us - we all of us suspect that this ‘I am right, your are wrong’ is, quite simply, nonsense.

Part 2: You Are Damned - We Are Saved

The political and personal implications of our tendency to think and act according to patterns of group psychology and mass morality - what Nietzsche called “the herd instinct”.

Politics, advertising, brainwashing and indoctrination - information about how society operates “which could, I believe, transform us - transform our lives and how we view ourselves.”

“We have now reached the stage where a political leader not only uses, skilfully, time-honoured rabble-rousing tricks (see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) but employs experts to make it all the more effective. But the antidote is that, in an open society, we may also examine these tricks being used on us. If, that is, we choose to examine them, if we don’t switch off to see Dallas, or whatever, instead.”

Part 4: Group Minds

We may be subject to pressures that make us considerably less individual, and free, than we would like to imagine. And this imaginary picture of ourselves makes us more vulnerable and less likely ever to achieve true freedom.

“But is it possible that all the bad things going on (and I don’t have to list them, for we all know what they are) are a reaction, a dragging undertow to a forward movement in the human social evolution that we can’t easily see? Perhaps looking back, let’s say in a century, or in two centuries, is it possible they will say ‘that was a time when extremes battled for supremacy. The human mind was developing very fast in the direction of self-knowledge, self-command. And as always happens, as always has to happen, this thrust forward aroused its opposite: the forces of stupidity, brutality, mob-thinking’? I think it possible. I think this is what is happening.”

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

How on Earth do we cool things down?

THIS HUFFINGTON POST ARTICLE ON INFLAMMATORY DISEASES seems like a metaphor for the increasing strife we are witnessing on our planet. Wherever you look, at every level, things appear to be becoming more toxic, more inflamed and deranged. Lost in a hot fog of emotion, members of the collective human family are failing to recognise one another and finding any old excuse to fall out - like the immune system attacking the very body of which it is an integral part.
"We are facing an epidemic of allergic (60 million people), asthmatic (30 million people) and autoimmune disorders (24 million people). Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, celiac disease, thyroid disease, and the many other hard-to-classify syndromes in the 21st century. These are all autoimmune conditions, and at their root they are connected by one central biochemical process: A runaway immune response also known as systemic inflammation that results in your body attacking its own tissues.
Not forgetting depression, also an inflammatory condition, which, at ~350 million people, may eclipse these other problems even when they are added together. And reductionist thinking is not the answer: 
"Medicine as it is practiced today is like taking the battery out of a smoke detector while a fire burns down your house!" 
Something more expansive is needed if we are to see what we are really dealing with.

Illustration of The Blind Men and The Elephant from A Thousand and One Nights
The stress caused by emotionally toxic environments - those in which it is difficult or impossible to meet innate human emotional needs - is, unsurprisingly, hardly touched on because the organising ideas necessary to perceive things in this way, at this level, are not yet present in the writer's mind. 

But stress for this reason is, maybe, the major factor, and its effects seem to go well beyond individual physical ailments to affect the entire human organism. 

New ways of seeing that help us make sense of what is happening, and cool the emotional temperature on planet Earth, have never been more necessary.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Reflections on the UK's EU referendum

The saddest thing about the EU referendum is how it has divided, and continues to divide, the people of the United Kingdom. To vote you needed to pick a side, and if you picked a side you risked alienating yourself from huge numbers of others - including old friends, colleagues, neighbours - who thought differently about what the best thing to do might be. The fact is that nobody really knew what the best thing to do would be. You can only really know this if you know what the consequences of an action will be, and we live in a world where making predictions based on yesterday’s weather just doesn't seem to work very well any more (if, indeed, it ever did). All any of us had to go on was opinions and hunches justified by varying amounts of variable quality information.

Possibly the most important vote of our lifetimes?

So here we all are on the flip-side of “possibly the most important vote of our lifetimes” and a small majority have decided we should leave the European Union: 17.4 vs 16.1 million people. The emotionality and ‘informational overload’ leading up to this decision caused immense stress and confusion for many. The obsolete ‘us’ vs ‘them’ (in-group vs out-group) survival instinct highlighted in this article about why we feel antipathy towards refugees has been provided with ideal conditions for its activation. It’s still raging, and finding a myriad of different ways of expressing itself - none of them very helpful.

The entire debate over the referendum was polluted by a need to polarise voters because of the very nature of the black and white decision they were facing, and all sorts of tactics were used that increased the emotion in an effort to herd sufficient numbers of human beings in the direction deemed correct by the argument makers. Passions were deliberately, and not so deliberately (because so many of the people involved know no better), stoked by all concerned.

A difficult choice for emotional brains

The ‘vote leave’ campaign may have been fractionally more successful because, with its “take back control” message, it tapped into our innate need for autonomy and control, which is frustrated by bureaucracy, rules and red tape. On the other hand, the remain campaign seemed to emphasise how leaving would, in a multitude of ways, make us all less safe and secure. Both sides seemed to have an intuitive grasp of what really matters to human beings (we are motivated by anything that promises to meet our innate needs) but, unfortunately, people were forced to choose between increasing their sense of autonomy whilst (potentially) becoming less secure, or maintaining their sense of security at the price of their sense of control. Neither option was wholly appealing hence, perhaps, the close margin. (It would have been extremely interesting to add an Emotional Needs Audit to the referendum so the results could have been correlated with how well participants felt their emotional needs are currently being met. But this opportunity was lost because it would never have occurred to the organisers - our rulers are still too ignorant of what really drives, and is important to, human beings.)

In the wake of the referendum result the emotional brain is clearly having a field day as people argue, blame, resign and make all sorts of binary, final decisions that, viewed from a cooler perspective, seem both unnecessary and unhelpful. (Further evidence, if more were needed, that high emotional arousal causes us to lose access to our higher human faculties and renders us functionally stupid.) Because this seems like an ideal time for sticking together, and sticking with it - not for more fighting and abandoning of ships.

Charting a way forward

There are big questions now facing the UK such as: What do we do next? How do we move forward? How might we stick together in order to work things out and avoid further wasteful conflict? Ideological, party politics is divisive. Is it (like the us-vs-them instinct previously referred to) an anachronism that we need to dump if we are to discover a viable way of running our country, especially now that we have increased scope for taking responsibility and making our own decisions? Do the conditions in post-Brexit UK increase the necessity, and provide an opportunity, for us to take the next step in our political evolution? If so what might that look like?

It’s clear to most people that our politicians have lost their way. If you asked most of them what the purpose of politics is (and assuming, by some miracle, that they answered honestly) one feels that they would say something like:
"If we are in power the purpose of politics is to remain in power. If we are not in power the purpose of politics is to get into power."
Beyond this it is doubtful that they would have anything useful, or coherent, to contribute. Money and power are the priorities. Everything is subservient to these considerations.

The good news is that Human Givens Charter provides a simple blueprint for how to govern a country in a way that could unify the warring clans and work better for all concerned. In summary, imagine a country where the agreed purpose of politics was:
"To run things in such a way that people and businesses can thrive."
Rates of mental illness would be used to measure how well any government was doing vis-a-vis this purpose. Healthy GDP (whatever this means when such a large slice of it is apparently 'consumer spend') and profit in general would be a byproduct of creating an environment in which more and more people get their innate needs met, gain access to their innate resources, become more stable, intelligent and creative - rather than the (in itself meaningless) raison d'etre.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

How do we free ourselves from the tyranny of modern mass politics?

The multi-step American Presidential election process has always seemed baffling to outsiders (perhaps to insiders too) and increasing numbers of commentators are now explaining that it is also flawed and fundamentally undemocratic,[1][2] but in 2016, with the improbable rise of Donald Trump, it's an even stranger carnival than usual.

People all over the world are scratching their heads in wonder. How could a man like Trump, who seemed at first almost like a joke candidate, be doing so well? Many have simply stopped paying attention to the story - tuned out because they feel powerless to do anything about it, to oppose something so manifestly, and multifariously, wrong. But the winner of the American Presidential race will be, for a time, one of the most powerful people on Earth, and there is therefore is an increasing need for us all to make sense of this situation, to understand what's really going on, to work out what (if anything) ordinary people like us can actually do about it. Because this is not just an American problem. Trump's presidency, if he is successful, will affect millions of lives across the world, and the forces that may bring him to power are common to all people and societies.

A recent article in Psychology Today made some interesting observations that partly explain the secret of Trump's appeal: he is using the tricks and techniques of a dominant male primate to activate ancient templates lying deep in the human brain that turn us into unthinking, fawning, subordinate creatures that are happy to give power away to super-apes who promise protection and plenty for all - at least for those lucky enough to be on the right side of the fences they will build to keep the wrong kinds of people out. 

John Bell and Ivan Tyrrell have also just shone some additional, useful light on this subject in their article for Al Jazeera: Donald Trump, demagoguery and attractive illusions. Politicians like Trump use language in a special way that hypnotises and entrances, turning off the critical faculties and turning us, effectively, into their mindless slaves. But we can take back some power, and regain control over our own minds, if we realise what is being done to us. If we take the time to study and think about these methods of manipulation there is the possibility that we can learn to spot them when they are being applied to us and become less affected by them. But the onus is on us, as individuals, to do this for ourselves. Liberation from this kind of tyranny cannot be done for us or by simply joining some kind of mass movement. The revolution that is needed has to happen in each of us, individually - in the quiet stillness of our own hearts and minds once we have stepped away from the herd and absorbed the requisite information. 

This is such an important theme, particularly at the moment, that Human Givens College produced a webinar presented by Ivan Tyrrell:

How politicians use hypnotic language... to turn us into puppets

Increase your awareness and understanding of how some politicians gain fanatical support – and why it can be dangerous if we don't realise what's happening...

Attendees will discover:
  • Why we must pay attention to the language politicians use – and what happens when we don't
  • Important lessons from assessing speeches made by Donald Trump, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn
  • Why we are susceptible to becoming puppets – what is happening in our brains and how this can lead to mass insanity
  • Examples of hypnotic language – what to look out for 
  • What you can do to protect yourself against manipulation and make informed decisions during elections or referendums
You can watch a replay of the webinar here.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Is it possible to build 'resilience' to 'stress'?

WE ARE COMING TO THE END of stress awareness month 2016 so it seems like a good time to ask: is it possible to build resilience to stress?
"Because life is tough and, if we want to survive, we need to learn how to be tough back!" (Anonymous)
HG College tutor, therapist and writer Julia Welstead will be pondering this important question from the human givens point of view in our next live webinar on Wednesday 27th April @ 1pm (UK BST).

HUGH GLASS (c.1780-1833) was an American
fur trapper and frontiersman noted for his exploits
in the American West during the first third of the
19th century. Self-sufficient and courageous, he
epitomises a form of archetypal human resilience.

People have been talking about 'stress' for ages but 'resilience' is a word that recently seems to have appeared alongside it. It's been cropping up in articles and chanted in conversations: a magic word that immediately makes anyone employing or hearing it feel a bit better - a bit less stressed, a bit more resilient (at least for a moment or two, until the emotional effects wear off).

But what do we need to do to get something more substantial, a little less transitory, from the 'stress'/'resilience' theme? It feels like there might be some stuff here that could be of more lasting use if we can find an intelligent way of unpacking and making sense of the key terms - of taking what are really a set of confusing abstractions (that can mean different things to different people, and even different things to the same person at different times) and putting them to work in a bit of clear-thinking on a subject that does seems pretty important.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'stress' as follows:
A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
And the human givens definition says simply that 'stress' is what happens when our innate physical and emotional needs are not met. When this happens the emotional brain feels itself to be under threat, and starts to 'sweat'. This is a really useful way of making 'stress' concrete and understandable to anyone, and we can do the same thing with 'resilience' too. Again, the OED is a good place to start. 'Resilience' is:
The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
So if 'stress' is what happens to us when innate needs are not met (could be sleep, could be control) then 'resilience' could be the ability not to fall apart when things get stressful. This means several things, for instance:
  • The ability to endure stresses that we have no immediate control over.
  • The ability to reduce stresses that we do have control over. 
This is reminiscent of The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971):
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things [stresses] I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
To which we could add:
  • The ability to avoid making things worse by misusing our innate resources (such as imagination) in ways that are self-defeating.
And then there are the stories of people who have demonstrated outstanding resilience, in the above senses, from which we can learn a good deal. For instance, the real story of Hugh Glass, the man on whom the recent Hollywood film The Revenant was based, is quite astonishing. After being savagely mauled by a bear, stripped of his possessions and left for dead, Glass crawled his way alone out of the wilderness. Later the same year he found himself abandoned once more, his companions again thinking he was dead. He wrote:
"I felt quite rich when I found my knife, flint and steel in my shot pouch.  These little fixin's make a man feel right peart when he is three or four hundred miles from anybody or any place."
Glass had the skills and tools to survive, was courageous and not prone to feeling sorry for himself. His story demonstrates that human beings are far, far tougher (and need far, far less) than modern society encourages us to believe (perhaps to keep us docile, dependent and obedient).

Truly resilient people don't run away from the difficulties and discomforts of life, nor do they passively accept (or keep returning to) familiar yet toxic situations. Instead they arm themselves with the knowledge and tools that they need in order to handle stress as they seek to extend and stretch themselves, to step outside of their comfort zones into a world that becomes, as a result, gradually wider and wider (instead of narrower and narrower).

So please join Julia on Wednesday 27th April @ 1pm (UK BST) for what promises to be an essential and stimulating webinar.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Are we starving for meaning?

Last week the Human Givens Blog featured a research intervention in Ethiopia that showed how the fulfilment of innate emotional needs was a prerequisite for saving children there from malnutrition. The availability of food was, by itself, not sufficient. Malnourished children who are also starved of a meaningful sense of connection with their primary caregiver lose their appetite for food. The internal, emotional logic seems to be: What's the point of eating in order to stay alive in a world where I am not welcome, or wanted? Happily, when reconnected with their mothers, these children regained their appetite for life, started eating food, and recovered.

Reflecting on this just a little, could there be a parallel in our own culture? We are drowning in consumer plenty but are we, at the same time, literally starving for an adequate sense of meaning and purpose? If so, what are the consequences, and what do we do about it?

If our sense of meaning and purpose is inadequate (which for many people in our scientific, self-centred, hedonistic consumer culture, it certainly seems to be), what reason is there to care about ourselves, each other, or our planet - not just today, but in the long-term?

If human beings are merely a by-product of a blind, uncaring, random process of evolution; if all meanings are concocted and therefore equal (so take your pick); what reason is there not to believe that he (or she) who dies with the most toys, having been to the most parties, having had the most fun - wins? It's almost logical (if you accept the underlying assumptions).

This is one reason why the theme of the 2016 Human Givens Conference is Seeking meaning in the modern world. People with a strong, authentic sense of meaning and purpose have a reason to care about tomorrow, and the motivation to make the changes necessary to ensure that tomorrow happens (whether they are around to enjoy it - or not). Developing our collective sense of meaning and purpose could therefore be, not just some kind of higher-order luxury, but actually crucial to our survival as a species.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Research in Ethiopia shows that emotional needs are indeed crucial for survival

In the new, expanded edition of Human Givens: The new approach to emotional health and clear thinking, published in 2013, the authors state:
The law of all living organisms is that, to survive, they must take nourishment from the environment so that they can continually maintain and rebuild themselves. Like all animals, we need air to breathe, water to drink, nutritious food and sufficient amounts of the right quality of sleep. These physical needs are easily apparent because, if they are not met, we quickly die - as many people sadly do in those parts of the world where clean water is scarce and food in short supply...

Everyone can accept that these basic physical needs should be met and that they are 'givens'. But psychologists throughout the ages have also determined there are other nutritional needs, emotional rather than physical, which are equally crucial for our wellbeing - and sometimes, even for survival too.
The final point about emotional needs being crucial for survival may seem hard to believe at first, but further evidence from Dr. Alessandro Conticini's 2009 intervention in Ethiopia backs this up, and raises some interesting questions.
Research has shown that the survival rate of malnourished children during food crises critically depends not just on the availability of appropriate therapeutic food, but also on the emotional and physical stimulations available for both the child and the caregiver (usually the mother). Studies have shown that the combined use of emergency nutrition support and emotional stimulation techniques provides for lower malnutrition rates, a higher rate of child survival, and quicker recovery from malnutrition.
Conticini's intervention is neatly summarised in this review by Helen Epstein for The New York Review of Books: 
In 2009, Conticini introduced a program to help mothers reconnect with their sick children. In Ethiopia, parents don’t traditionally play with babies or talk to them, and childcare tends to be limited to feeding and cleaning, but Conticini trained community nurses to teach the mothers how to make toys out of sticks, cloth, discarded toothpaste boxes, whatever they could find. A field trial of the program is underway, but when I interviewed mothers who had been through it a few years ago, many told me that the simple act of playing and laughing together had restored their children’s appetite and saved their lives. “I’d prepared the funeral shroud and told the church that he would be buried soon,” said one mother of the healthy toddler playing beside her. “Now I can’t get enough of him. I can’t quite believe he’s alive.” 
This is a really interesting and heartening discovery. It seems that these malnourished children needed attention and emotional connection with their mothers before the need for food would kick in.

But why, from an evolutionary point of view, would this be? Feeling our way into this situation for a moment, might emotional neglect by our primary care giver be interpreted as a signal that we are not valued or needed by our group, perhaps switching on Brodmann area 25 (the brain's depression gate) causing us to give up, and get it over with sooner rather than later?

Whatever the reason one message is clear: human beings are born with a constellation of interconnecting needs, and we need to attend to all (or at least more) of them if we are to survive and thrive.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

CBT not so effective for depression any more

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is less effective in treating depression than it appeared to be 40 years ago. This is the conclusion drawn from a meta-analysis of 70 studies published between 1977 and 2014. To make the comparisons more rigorous, the researchers, Tom Johnsen and Oddgeir Friborg, looked only at studies in which patients/therapists used one of the two standard scales, the Beck Depression Inventory or the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, to rate patients’ symptoms. Over 2,426 people diagnosed with depression took part, almost two thirds of them female. The average age was 41.1

The researchers found a steady reduction in the therapy outcomes over time. Puzzled, they acknowledge that the result couldn’t be explained by an overall drop in recovery from depression, because there was no changing trend in outcomes among patients in control groups who didn’t have CBT. It was also not the case that patients in newer studies had more complex mental health problems; the reverse was, in fact, found to be so.

Two possible explanations

Reduced to speculation, Johnsen and Friborg focus on what they see as two possible explanations: 

1. Inexperienced CBT practitioners:

The growing popularity of CBT has led inexperienced therapists to start using it and this might have affected outcomes, as greater experience leads to greater resolution of symptoms. Using CBT, say Johnsen and Friborg, requires “proper training, considerable practice and competent supervision”. However, outcomes were worse in trials that required CBT to be delivered as per the manual, so couldn’t be attributed, at least, to a more lackadaisical approach.

2. CBT losing its placebo effect:

Another possibility is that CBT is losing its placebo effect. The researchers comment, “In the initial phase of the cognitive era, CBT was frequently portrayed as the gold standard for the treatment of many disorders. In recent times, however, an increasing number of studies have not found this method to be superior to other techniques. Coupled with the increasing availability of information to the public, including the internet, it is not inconceivable that patients’ hope and faith in the efficacy of CBT has decreased somewhat.

“Moreover, whether widespread knowledge of the present results might worsen the situation remains an open question,” they say glumly.

(This article was first published in  The Human Givens Journal, Volume 22, No 2, 2015.)

1. Johnsen, T and Friborg, O (2015). The effects of cognitive behavioral therapy as an anti-depressive treatment is falling: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 141, 4, 747–68.