WORLD REFUGEE DAY 2018

Inside the mind of Trump.

World Refugee Day 2018 sees an explosion of controversy over the Trump administration’s incarceration of migrants crossing the Mexican border and the forced separation of families. People worldwide are expressing their revulsion at images of caged children and audio recordings of them crying for their parents. Yet many observers also appear to be unmoved, claiming that the migrants are ‘illegal’ and therefore should be treated like criminals. Within the last 24 hours a female news reporter has broken down live on screen, unable to even report such stories, while a male commentator has been widely criticised for mocking a 10-year-old with Downs Syndrome who was separated from her mother. How is such diversity of perspective possible? The answer lies in the modus operandi of the human mind.

Our brains work by leveraging the mutual independence, but interdependence, of the two hemispheres to benefit from the contradictions they create. In its simplest expression, the left mind focusses narrowly while our right mind takes a much broader outlook and this is an evolutionary mechanism designed to help us survive. With a narrow focus we enhance our chances of finding food, while with a simultaneous wide focus we also reduce the likelihood of us becoming prey. Each mind produces a very different view of the world but, via the integration of opposites, we make sense of what we experience. Healthy, balanced thinking requires the blending of opposing cognitive impulses and it’s the failure to mix them appropriately which is the root cause of perspectival ‘extremism’.

Our right mind is more strongly connected to the real outer world plus the limbic source of our emotions, while the left mind is responsible for our inner world of abstract mental models. While both our minds ‘process’ human beings, the broader focus of our right mind perceives that we are all members of multiple groups which are ultimately nested within one global human community. Our right mind makes no hierarchical distinction between individuals, considering them all to be of equal value, but it ultimately gives primacy to the group over the individual. Our left mind also perceives individuals and groups but takes a narrower focus, prioritizing the individual over the group, and its categorizing function always distinguishes between groups. Its automatic homogenization within groups and polarization between groups, exaggerates the similarities of those in the same group and the differences between individuals in different groups. Groups are also automatically prioritized with in-groups always taking precedence over out-groups. 

The two minds therefore take a radically different approach to concepts such as freedom and justice. Both minds place great value on individual freedom but each has a unique lens on the matter. For the left mind, with its narrower focus and primacy of the individual, freedom is the right to be left alone with minimal interference from any outside group. The right mind, with its wider lens and deeper links to emotions such as empathy, more powerfully perceives the relationships between people so considers that individual freedom can only be achieved within an ecosystem which offers relative equality for everyone. From its broader perspective, the wellbeing of the individual is interdependent with the health of the whole ecosystem, while the left mind’s primary interest is in protecting us and those closest to us. So, with this as its priority, it is automatically more self-centred than the right mind. Its narrower focus prioritises the interests of ‘me and mine’ over the interests of others, while its natural categorization and lower empathy means that people, beyond those it knows personally, exist less as unique entities and more as faceless members of homogenous groups.

In short, while our left mind prioritizes personal freedom for those in our in-groups, our right mind wants freedom for everyone. This is a crucial distinction and makes sense of the United States’ decision to withdraw from the UN’s Human Rights Council. There is clear alignment between the respective approaches of our two hemispheres with our conservative versus liberal lenses on the world, and it is no accident that our key political polarities are derived directly from the operating modes of our minds. Our brain is ultimately the source of all human creations and politics is no exception.

The peculiar perspectives of the left and right mind are similarly reflected in their approach to justice. In the left mind, reductionism automatically offers separation as our favoured solution for ‘criminal’ behaviour, so incarceration (which ensures a physical barrier between a ‘me and mine’ and the undesirable ‘other’) is the logical solution. The left mind doesn’t see out-group members as individual mothers, fathers or children but as a homogenous group marked ‘refugees’, so it has no qualms about denying personal freedom to such faceless collectives. Lacking in empathy, the left mind genuinely does so without feeling guilty because, from its dualistic perspective, such categories of ‘bad’ people threaten the rights of ‘good’ people and it is perfectly legitimate to deny them the freedoms we demand for ourselves, to maintain collective order for the majority. Naturally, the ‘majority’ tends to correlate strongly with our in-groups. Conversely, the integrative right mind seeks to create harmony through unification, so is instinctively co-operative in comparison with the competitive left mind. The right mind therefore believes that empathy and love are more valuable tools than force and separation, in ordering society.

Global society is currently experiencing a titanic battle for dominance between the left and right minds. The left brain/right wing impulses of Trump’s administration, the UK’s ‘Brexiteers’ and the Italian Interior Minister’s call for a census of the Roma population are dialectic responses to the increasing liberalisation of global society. An unfettered left mind will invariably lead to the disintegration of human communities worldwide and result in further violence and suffering. Only the synthesising qualities of the right mind are capable of elevating human consciousness to the level required for the harmonious integration of our species. Which path will we take?

MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK 2018

How our species is making itself mentally ill.

The WHO estimates that as many as 10% of the world’s population suffer from some form of psychological disorder – over 700 million cases worldwide. Mental illness is a common occurrence in all regions of the world, with no significant difference between rich and poor nations. It is also undertreated everywhere. Even in wealthy countries, less than one-third of those mentally ill are in receipt of treatment and no government spends more than 15% of their total health budget on mental healthcare, despite psychological disorder being a far greater source of human suffering than physical pain.

The chaotic outer world we have created is extremely damaging to our mental wellbeing because it challenges the ability of the mind to sustain itself within a natural, healthy range of equilibrium. Global culture is ultimately the manifestation of thoughts and feelings, because all of our actions must first originate in the human cognitive system. While it may be more obvious that our personal behaviour is the output of our own cognition, it is no less true that our collective actions, as an entire species, are ultimately the result of the thoughts and behaviours of all of us. While we may not wish to admit it, the communities, cultures and conflicts we experience are what emerge when we put our minds together.

In short, we are making ourselves mentally ill. The outer world chaos causing our major life stresses is ultimately the product of the very same brains which are suffering from our self-inflicted, societal sickness.

Our modern minds share many characteristics, not only with each other but also with schizophrenia. Core to the connection is hyper self-consciousness in which, rather than simply experiencing life, we become prone to standing back and analysing our social interactions from a position of detached observation. According to Louis Sass, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Rutgers University, hyper-consciousness can cause people to ‘stare’ at the outside world as if it were an inanimate object, rather than engaging with it as a living organism. In doing so we move beyond a healthy range of equilibrium between thinking and just ‘being’ and start to overthink every encounter, becoming more self-conscious than is good for us. The more we retreat from the outer world, the more we become alienated from our own bodies and from the feelings which make us human and give us a sense of wholeness.

As a result we lose touch with our intuitive sense of context and connection, both of which give meaning to our experiences; experiences which feel fragmented and incoherent as a result, causing us to retreat a little more. However, the further we withdraw the more we become alienated from our own body, leading to a sense of devitalization, listlessness and inner numbness in which everything physical and emotional is cut off from us.

This ‘anaesthetised state of modernism’ can easily lead to social alienation and extreme loneliness, but also to paranoia and other mental illnesses which appear to be peculiarly pervasive in modern times. Instances of schizophrenia appear to be very rare before the 18th century but grew with industrialization throughout the 19th century and increased dramatically in the 20th century - a pattern which can be consistently traced across Europe and North America. Today, the condition is more widespread and more severe in first-world and Western nations and the risk of developing schizophrenia is almost doubled in urban versus rural environments.

There is evidence that a number of very common, modern-day mental illnesses may all find their root cause in an overly dominant left mind and a correspondingly deficient right mind. For example, multiple personality disorder shares many symptoms with schizophrenia and hemispheric imbalance may also be central to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. Overreliance on the left mind can lead to a self-image which becomes psychotically distorted, leading to self-loathing and self-harm. Then there are conditions such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome which are both thoroughly modern maladies, first described in 1943 and 1944 respectively. Many of their defining characteristics such as a lack of social intelligence, difficulty in interpreting implicit meaning, low levels of empathy or imagination, obsession with minutiae and feelings of alienation from the body, are all strongly suggestive of left-mind dominance and an underperforming right hemisphere.

What all of these conditions have in common is a sense of ‘dissociation’; either feeling or craving to be cut off from the outer world and from one’s own embodied existence, resulting in a lack of emotion, a lack of connection with other living organisms and a fragmented sense of the unitary self. While no medical professional would suggest that the causes of such complex conditions can be simply defined or that the patterns of dominance and deficiency manifest in the same way in each case, they do all appear to have some degree of hemispheric imbalance, in favour of the left mind, as a core component. What’s more, they have all become much more prevalent in the modern era. While accounts of ailments such as melancholia and manic depression are easily recognizable in texts from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, no such descriptions of schizophrenia or similar conditions appear from those times.

Of greatest concern is when such ailments move from being random, individual afflictions to become culturally-conditioned and endemic within our societies. The more we individually rely on the left mind, the more we collectively empower it to define what is culturally ‘normal’ and to thereby influence the unconscious minds of everyone around us. It is therefore perfectly possible that entire societies have slowly dissociated their collective left mind from an increasingly deficient right, not only causing mental illness to become more widespread but also allowing its behavioural symptoms to become culturally normalized. As psychiatrist R.D. Laing pointed out back in the 1960’s, culture plays a dual role in the development of mental illness by creating the pressures, stresses and strains which increase psychotic behaviour but also by setting the norms against which sanity is judged.

In Western culture the defining characteristics of good mental health - a clear sense of self, positive self-image, temporal awareness plus skills in self-organization and reasoning - all require that an individual’s outlook is consistent with the Newtonian-Cartesian framework. This is not only regarded as the principal frame of reference but also as the only accurate description of reality, so everyone must force fit their experiences into the prevailing framework for fear of being labelled insane. Conversely anyone operating solely in the Newtonian-Cartesian mode is considered to be ‘normal’, as defined by scientific materialism, but cannot truly be considered to be mentally healthy. Such individuals may typically lead a goal-oriented life and be driven, competitive and ego-centric, focussing narrowly on manipulating the outer world and measuring success solely in terms of material wealth. Psychiatry shows that for such people, no level of wealth, status or power can bring sustained satisfaction or lasting happiness, so their inner world becomes infused with a sense of pointlessness which no amount of external success can alleviate.

A life dominated by the left mind is unquestionably ‘the madness of our dominant culture’ yet extends right throughout Western society from the ordinary person to the academic, corporate and political elite. How else might we explain a culture in which political leaders who proclaim their willingness to commit genocide using nuclear weapons are lauded, while any leader who makes it clear they would never push the nuclear button under any circumstances, is considered to be weak and lacking in patriotic loyalty?

THE CONSEQUENCES OF CATEGORIZATION

The Consequences of Categorization

The horrific case of eight-year-old Asifa Bano recently rocked India and the wider world. Belonging to a nomadic Muslim tribe of cattle-herders, Asifa was held captive by eight Hindu men for a week, drugged and repeatedly raped before being murdered. Her killers included a retired government official and two serving police officers, all members of a Hindu fundamentalist group whose objective was to terrorise the Muslim nomads and drive them from Rasana, a largely Hindu village in the Jammu and Kashmir province of Northern India.

As evil and inhuman as this case undoubtedly is, the behaviour of these men was ultimately the product of the human brain we all share, and rooted in the natural, valuable yet potentially dangerous cognitive process of categorization. Categorization is the left mind’s energy-efficient tool for simplifying the vast richness of the real outer world experienced by the right mind, in which abstract categories such as ‘dogs’ or ‘cars’ don’t exist, only each individual canine or vehicle we encounter. It is not in our interests to devote valuable energy to processing the myriad of differences which distinguish one dog or car from another, so our left mind serves us well by decontextualizing each entity and by allocating it to categories it calls ‘dogs’ and ‘cars’. Categorization allows us to make simplified but useful generalizations about all category members, without having to recall the detail of each individual entity’s uniqueness. Dogs can then be generically associated with a category called ‘sticks’, rather than having to associate specific dogs with specific sticks, which would involve far too much energy-depleting effort.  This is an essential skill which we couldn’t function without.

However, categorization can become extremely dangerous when groups of human-beings are involved. When we categorize we also automatically homogenize group members, making individuals seem more alike than they truly are by ironing out their distinctive nuances. Thus individuals within categories such as ‘Muslims’ or ‘immigrants’ or ‘the unemployed’ are all considered to be the same, despite their many personal differences, We also automatically polarize, making each group seem more different than they truly are from other groups (which have also been similarly homogenized) by exaggerating their differences and ignoring any similarities they may share. Finally, we create positive or negative stereotypes for all groups and almost always show a strong preference for groups we are members of, as well as bias against those groups of which we are not members. Thus division, suspicion and demonization of ‘the other’ can easily manifest in sectarian hatred and violence, even against innocent souls such as Asifa.

Clearly, other cognitive failings contributed to the appalling behaviour of the perpetrators of this crime, such as the lack of empathy for another human-being (particularly a child) we might expect from fully-functioning adults, or the self-control required to override any negative emotional impulses experienced as a consequence of Asifa’s ‘categorization’. Nevertheless, the net effects are the same cognitive outputs which enabled ordinary German citizens to become passionate advocates of Nazi ideology, which enabled previously moderate Hutus to slaughter their Tutsi neighbours in Rwanda and which are currently permeating the ‘hard-Brexit’ wing of the UK’s governing Conservative Party, resulting in their stated desire to create a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants. The homogenization of all immigrants caused the ‘Windrush’ generation – those immigrants from the Commonwealth who were legally admitted to help rebuild the UK post World War II – and their descendants, to be caught up in the controversial clampdown on more recent migrants from the EU.

Categorization is an essential function of the mind but must always be moderated by other, counterbalancing cognitive impulses if its more pernicious consequences are to be nullified. Failure to do so can easily lead to the persecution, or far worse, of all those who fall within the demonized category. The horrific fate of an innocent child like Asifa should serve as a warning to all, that the unintended consequences of the categorizing functioning of the human brain can cause great suffering and ultimately lead to genocide.