Saturday, February 17, 2018

Teaching My Amygdala a Lesson!

Robert Sapolsky, in his recent book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017), has quite a lot to say about the amygdala, that small, very old, bit-of-an-almond-shaped unit found on either side of the brain in all mammals. It’s right under the temporal lobe.  The popular joke is that it triggers the three F’s: flight, fight, and sex ...but it’s fundamentally about fear and anxiety. amygdala receives direct sensory input -- vision, olfactory, tactile, etc. --  and it also has complicated relationships with other parts of the brain.  It sends signals to other areas and it can be influenced by the other areas too -- most important for my purpose, by the rational prefrontal cortex which, as Sapolsky  puts it, encourages you to to the harder thing, when it's the right thing.

In a prophylactic sort of way thoughts from the prefrontal cortex can moderate the intensity with which the amygdala attaches meaning to sensory input.  It's as if the cortex can coach the amygdala, but the amygdala takes the first swing at incoming signals and that starts the mind off in a certain direction.  We're talking about a fifth of a second.

The amygdala goes a long way explaining our natural sorting into Us's and Them's.  That sorting, Sapolsky explains, is generally along two dimensions: warmth and competency.   For the true Us's (high warmth and competence) we feel pride.  At the other extreme (low warmth and competence), disgust.  Low warmth/high competency evokes envy, high warmth/low competence, pity.  (It gets even more interesting when the categories change, p 413).  My point here is that the amygdala sets in motion some perspectives that can have real emotional ramifications.

After the amygdala takes its first whack the other parts of the brain kick in with their assessment, possible adjustments/corrections, and perhaps an emotional/behavioral response.  For some people that initial intuition becomes quite a guide for behavior; others prefer to later think things through.  The key for my purpose here is that the amygdala is a direct  recipient of sensory input, is the first-processor of it, and it operates within a fifth of a second before we are consciously aware.

That makes it a potential enemy, as the algorithms it has developed are less relevant now in the modern world.  If someone or something in the thicket looked dramatically different from you 50,000 years ago there's a pretty good chance that it might be an immediate threat, you should be anxious, you should feel threatened, and maybe you should react.   But unfortunately in the world we live in now the amygdala remains (or, Sapolsky suggests, has become) highly sensitive to race.
Quoting Sapolsky: “A hugely unsettling sensory cue concerns race.  Our brains are incredibly attuned to skin color … We may claim to judge someone by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin. But our brains sure as hell note the color, real fast.” (p85)
Sapolsky again: “Threatening faces produce a distinctive change … in under two hundred milliseconds.  Among white subjects, viewing someone black evokes a stronger [threatened] waveform than viewing someone white.” (p 86)
Other things activate the amygdala too.  Gender, age, and occupation often trump race (p 408) and social status also is used sorting Us's from Them's. (p 388)  Facial expression is processed too, but only for people already identified as an "Us". (395)   In most situations, most of these attributes matter less today, you would think.  And so "we feel positive associations with people who share the most meaningless traits with us." (390)

Because it works before our awareness we can't be blamed for the amygdala's behavior .. that is, until we learn that we can override its suggestions, and even prime it with thought.  Sorry about this: we can.  A few hundred milliseconds after that first amygdala hit, messages start merging from the frontal cortex which can dampen or begin to correct that primitive impulse.  Also good: the amygdala can be influenced by a little advanced processing.  "Race as a salient Us/Them category can be shoved aside by subtle reclassification." (p 408)  For example, when subjects were shown pictures of vegetables and asked to guess whether people would like them, the amygdala wasn't activated by those people's different races!

These thoughts were playing in my own brain as I walked through the Newark Airport recently.  I have found airports to be extraordinary places to think about people.  When foot traffic is high I often marvel at how the human rushing flow finds its own patterns with rivulets of more hurried travelers finding smooth ways around the slower groups, constant merging and diverging at intersections, large moving masses easily flowing around sudden obstacle -- all without any rules or instructions or enforcement and without the frustration and rage you might get on a real road.

But that day foot traffic was not heavy and I thought instead of how international airports are an amazing confluence of strangers.  Is there anything else is quite like them?  A shopping mall, you might think, but people there are more homogeneous and the crowds are generlly smaller and less hurried.  Sports stadiums are huge too, and full of strangers.  But there is a clear sense of shared purpose at a football game; there's the "Us" on this side against the "Them" across the way.  There's traffic on an interstate, all strangers there too, but far less dense or personal.

But in an international airport you will find people from all over the world -- all races, ethnicities, languages, classes, religions, and ages.  And aside from small traveling groups and employees everyone is pretty much a stranger to everyone else.  It's a nice place to think about strangers, I found.  That day I was trying to notice my amygdala sorting strangers into "Us's" and "Them's."

I remembered a trick I've used with some success  to sort in ways that are more meaningful than my almond-size amygdala is inclined to do.  I reasoned that race and gender are pretty much a given and they're not very revealing unless I want to draw on -- and perpetuate -- crude stereotypes.  But clothing is a choice.  Why not try to sort people on the basis of something they actually have some control over?  That man's suit suggests he's doing business right off the plane.  The woman with the scarf over her hair looks Muslim.  That child in the Buzz Lightyear outfit is carefree and cool, I have shoes like that, I'd never wear that sweater, and so on...  It seemed a more useful and realistic  sorting of Us and Them, I thought.  It took a lot of effort, it was an interesting exercise, and I could feel the difference.  I also tried it with facial expressions, noting "happy," "sad," "anxious," "confident" as another way to override my crass biases ...

But people wear different sorts of clothes for all kinds of reasons and facial expressions are fleeting and hard to read.  Are the sweat pants because they're cheap, or because they're comfortable?  Is that group laughing because they are happy or are they laughing at the homeless man?  She's anxious, yes, but just until she sees her gate ... not too useful.  So I asked myself again -- what is the most important thing about people, something fundamental and real that I can easily assess.  If I’m going to make a purposeful note of something to prepare, override, or dampen my initial evolutionary impulses, what would it be?

I may have found it, it’s a beautiful solution, it's very egalitarian, and it's super easy.  What’s the most important thing about people?  They’re there. They exist.

What's more, there is nothing particularly important about their proximity to me.  Just as the Earth is not the center of the universe, I am not the center of this airport.  Sure I do have a particular vantage point that limits my experience but the woman sitting at Gate 8 across the way is no more or less important than the man I'm passing.

I think my experience with Robert’s Rules helped me come to this.  When I was made chair of the senate it was, to be honest, in disarray.  It was considered a "snakepit" by some and there was a move underway to disband it.  So I read Robert's Rules, the Constitution and Bylaws and then simply treated every senator as equal, with an equal voice, equal right to speak, with a perspective of equal value, and with a perfectly equal vote.  It didn't matter that some would rather bully, interrupt, intimidate, or try to force their views, Robert's Rules required me not to let them.  No one had more or less of a role than any one else.  That approach, I found, had a leveling effect and after a time I felt it helped to dramatically heal and strengthen senate behavior and process.

So in the airport, just the same, I gave up the sorting hat altogether, gave up the goal of figuring out who might be more of an Us and who more of a Them.  I wanted to jam my amygdala with a predisposition which my prefrontal cortex can get behind: we’re equal.  Of course I didn't expect that everyone would suddenly be my friend, I was just trying to override those default, hardwired, outdated, quick  biases which jam me up a bit in the modern world.  One fifth of a second override, that was all I was looking for; relationship building can still come later.

My trick -- which may sound either brilliant or crazy -- was to replace every person in my field of vision, for a instant, with an identical marker: I used a stick but I suppose it could be anything: a dot, whatever, but all the same.  So many human beings, so many posts, so many equals.  I simply noted their number and their distribution.

This was so easy! Just a flash now and then, identical sticks, one per human regardless of age, gender, race, anything.  First hit: no judgment.  Just how many and where.

The result?  It seemed to make a difference on my outlook, I felt a little more informed about my environment, and the initial leveling was right in line with my egalitarian convictions.  I was just a stick too.  Then, of course, my prefrontal cortex came flooding in with its own observations, but it felt like a better place to start!

To make it a little more fun, though maybe to overextend it a bit, next I tried to notice something more, to add the next meaningful layer.  What is the next most important thing, once I know number and distribution?  Simple.  Next, tell people apart.  So the second layer of Environment Scan 2.0 was not faces (because so many new faces do look alike) and not race (because there just aren't that many different ones).  But those crazy red shoes! … that zebra-striped bag .. those baggy pants and sneakers…  Back to clothes!  But this time without any judgment, no sorting.  It took a little effort but clothing can make pretty good unique identifiers for total strangers.  And I actually surprised myself by later recognizing a few people I'd seen before, by that t-shirt or striped scarf.  Hey there’s the stick with the baggy pants again, there’s that stick in red shoes!  I’m joking of course.

But I liked it! Ha! Take that, amygdala!

Here's a well known and highly respected "Implicit Bias" test conducted by Harvard, in which you can see your own by clicking "e' or "i" on your keyboard when you see pictures; they explain, it's easy.  Read about your results and their overall findings on this site as well.  Remember to select your letters fast if you want to test your amygdala.  If you take your time, like most of a second, that sophisticated prefrontal cortex begins to kick in!  

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Buddhism and Evolutionary Psychology

Robert Wright’s latest book brings together two big ideas: 1) Evolutionary psychology and 2) Theravada Buddhism.  It’s pretty wonderful as I’m very familiar with both and yet the connection hadn’t occurred to me.

When I read Wright’s The Moral Animal a decade ago I was reassured that people can both accept evolution in its full force and not worry about falling wholesale into immorality.  There is plenty of evidence for cooperation and reciprocal altruism in nature – this is a theme I’ve explored in this blog years ago and one that he extended with his second book NonZero.  Now he’s written Why Buddhism Is True binding evolution, psychology, and the Thai-Forest Buddhist philosophy/practice. Buddhism, he summarizes “has been studying how the human mind is programmed to react to its environment… Now, with Darwin’s theory we understood what had done the programming.” (p 224)

There are many kinds of Buddhism (“Zen is for poets, Tibetan is for artists, and Vipassana is for psychologists” ) and some carry supernatural beliefs like reincarnation which Wright and I reject.

Vipassana meditation, from Theravada Buddhism, is sometimes called “mindfulness” meditation and has a great deal of support in the books I read.  I meditated regularly for most of a decade and intend to return; I’ve  never doubted  the value of sitting quietly and watching the mind.

First, a little background, the basics of evolutionary psychology.  Our brains were groomed over 3.5b years to compel us toward things that increase the probability of passing on genes and steer us away from threats.  Of course that was a very different environment than we have now.  Things that worked well enough were hardwired and things that didn’t were combed away.  There was no premium on accuracy so we are beset with delusions, illusions, and impulses, all nicely patched up with convenient rationalizations. 

This hardwiring becomes a problem when the environment changes faster than the genes do.  Simple example: once storing enough calories was a pretty big problem so craving fat and sugar was selected for.  When fat was scarce, that helped.  We still have the craving but now we put on dangerous weight.  Offense triggers aggression?  That worked for us once, now we get stupid road rage.  Impulses are not always the best guide.

And while we get pleasure from satisfying our impulses it doesn’t last very long.  Why should it?  There’s no traction in satisfaction -- we have to reset quickly to be ready for the next impulse.  Studies have shown that even after winning the lottery people soon go back to feeling a “normal” amount of happiness again.

Thoughts can inform emotions, that’s what cognitive behavioral psychology has shown us.  But emotions, Wright says, are the real drivers of action and the prefrontal cortex, our "thinking" and most recent part of the brain, then rationalizes the action.  This is not intuitiv. We feel as if “we” simply make decisions and act on them.  Brain scan studies show the brain signals movement before the person herself know she's going to move her arm.  On seeing a stranger the amygdala announces within 0.2 seconds “attractive=friend” or “stranger=danger” before our prefrontal cortex -- and our awareness -- registers “thing.”  In a world of snakes, cougars, and warring tribes this reactive module was useful so evolution locked it in.

Wright then pointed out the next logical thing, and I was surprised that it hadn’t occurred to me:  Emotions can be true or false. This goes against popular psychology but if the feeling of desire (groomed by evolution) says “eating this bag of chips is good for me” -- and it’s really not -- your desire is lying.

Now a little background in Buddhism, there are three truths to existence  1. Anicca, 2. Dukka, and 3. Anatta.  Nothing is permanent, there is suffering, and there is no self.  The last one probably requires a little explaining.

What are the fundamental qualities of self?  Buddha started with the proposition that to be “self” it must have some consistency through  time and it must be something that we control.  Both of these concepts are implicit in the sentence “I did that.”

The Buddha said there are five aspects to our existence.  1.  the physical body and its organs, 2. our basic feelings, 3. perceptions of things, likes vison and hearing, 4. mental formations like thoughts, habits, etc, and 5. consciousness which is the awareness of the other four.  That’s a real simple summary but the question becomes which of these is something that is persistent through time and under our control -- the answer of course is none of them.   Meditation helps you see that one by one.   

Hence, no self.

So why do we have a “sense of self?”  It’s good for the organism to look after its body, the discrete package that carries its genes.  In fact the body is probably the most important thing, you want to wrap it up with a protective sense of self.  If you don’t feel that there is something real special about what’s inside your skin you won’t have a reason to protect it.  Good thing, too, if we’re going to live, right?

Of course that's impossible for a human to easily accept, but to get a taste of no-self try this.  Meditate and focus on something that you'd normally consider part of you -- a thought, a desire, a pain ...  When it becomes the object of your attention it seems to become something other than you.

The brain encourages use to recognize a special "self" which we fiercely protect.  That makes evolutionary sense. Wright wonders whether self should be so discreetly bounded.  In meditation he noticed that a pain in his foot sent a signal to his brain – “inside = me.”  A bird chirping sends a signal to his brain – “outside = not me.”  But, he wondered, in what sense is the cramp different from the song?  They both are signals, both are processed and interpreted by the brain.  Both can affect our outlook.

The Modular Theory of the Mind is pretty compelling, I thought.  It goes something like this.  The mind contains competing modules, each of which stimulates the organism toward taking some sort of action.  The strongest module wins.  Plenty of studies show how we can easily fabricate reasons for doing something when we actually had no reason whatsoever.   

A quote shows a good example of how this can work: “A long-term module may generate a sense of guilt when you reach for that chocolate bar. It may also give you a feeling of pride when you resist the allure of chocolate.  On the other side of the contest is the chocolate lust generated by the short-term module.  But the short-term module may have subtler tactics as well.  Is it, perhaps, the module that dredged up the memory of that article about the long-term benefits of antioxidants?  It just thought the long-term module might find that article interesting?” (p 129)

This has a practical implication. Instead of trying to overcome a habit – say, smoking – by strengthening self-discipline, maybe try instead to weaken the module that has taken control.  How do you do that?  Simply by looking at it carefully, and that’s where mindful meditation comes in.  Looking closely at the desire can turn it into an object of interest rather than a transparent impulse.  Mindful observation, he says, keeps the module from getting its reward. 

Wright uses the example of a rat which pushes a lever to get a reward.  Keep the rat away from the lever and the rat will still associate the lever with reward; when you look away he'll push it again.  On the other hand if you disconnect the lever from the reward, the rat will lose interest in the lever.  In the mind, you need only to bring the lever into your awareness  to disassociate the two.  From my experience, this can work.

Wright also explores the “essence” of things.  These are the adjectives we assign to objects -- that house is a “modest” house, or that person is a “nice” person.  Everything meaningful in our awareness is an association we have assigned to it, he says, and again, this has evolved for practical reasons.   Once you categorize something you don’t have to continually reassess it.  Attaching essence to things is something we do all day.  It's a shortcut we aren't even aware of.  

We also have an “essence preservation mechanism.” If a friend does a bad thing we consider it unusual, just as when a “bad” person does a good thing.  Still good.  Still bad.  Wright suggests  that not seeing “essence” consists mainly of not feeling intensely toward things. “Dampening of feelings leads to clarity of vision,” he says (p 165)   “… not making judgments’ ultimately means not letting your feelings make judgments for you.” (223) 

The way to see this for yourself is through meditation, he says.  It’s the practice of “fighting your creator: natural selection.”