Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On Human Nature, Bots, Grace, and a Few Good Pigs

It's depressing to listen to the news and arrive yet again at the conclusion that war and violence seem fundamental to humanity. Maybe it's The Way of Nature, a theme I mentioned at the start of this blog (echoing the opening lines from The Tree of Life film.) In this essay I offer some offbeat evidence of humankind's warlike nature, then bring in two disparate sources -- one scientific and one Evangelical Christian -- suggesting how The Way of Grace may trump the Way of Nature.

 Consider first this unlikely demonstration of humanity's warlike nature. It comes from an article about the first artificial intelligence gaming bots to pass the Turing "human-ness" test.

The Turing test, named after Alan Turing, "is a test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior, equivalent to or indistinguishable from, that of an actual human" (from Wikipedia). Evidently, after some years of trying, videogame programmers at last created a computer program that operates game bots that fight convincingly like bots operated by humans.

The report, from October, 2012, said an ongoing challenge to develop realistic computer-run bots had finally yielded two winners:  programmed bots that fooled 52% of players into thinking the bots were being operated by real humans. Bots that were actually played by humans were guessed as being human-operated by just 40% of players, on average. The key to more-human-than-human bots, according to programmer Jacob Schrum, is their ability to mimic human foibles.
“People tend to tenaciously pursue specific opponents without regard for optimality,” Schrum says. “When humans have a grudge, they’ll chase after an enemy, even when it’s not in their interests."
“In the case of the BotPrize,” Schrum says, “a great deal of the challenge is in defining what ‘human-like’ is, and then setting constraints upon the neural networks so that they evolve toward that behavior. 
“If we just set the goal as eliminating one’s enemies, a bot will evolve toward having perfect aim, which is not very human-like. So we impose constraints on the bot’s aim, such that rapid movements and long distances decrease accuracy."
The artificial-intelligence programming of the bots operated a bit like natural selection, only in this case the selective force driving bot evolution was "appearing human" rather than survival of the fittest (i.e. leaving the most offspring). Any programming changes in the bots' behavior that led to them being judged as non-human were eliminated. Changes that led to greater apparent "humanness" were retained. The human-like behaviors the programers found were bearing a grudge-- ruthlessly pursuing an enemy (even when it was not in the interest of bot survival)--and being less than a perfect shot at high speed and long distance -- pretty much the Way of (human) Nature.

Now consider two very disparate sources on Grace in human lives:  the grandson of a Pentacostal televangelist, and a sociological study of the history of New Guinean tribal wars.  Possibly because they are so far removed from one another, I was strangely reassured by their joint message: Drawing from ancient wells of wisdom and tradition, there's a chance the human race can overcome violent natural tendencies.

I probably would never have known of or listened to  Drew Sumrall, the grandson of a famous Pentacostal televangelist but for a tip from emergent church guru Brian McLaren, who used his blog one day to tout Sumerall's online sermon. Quoth McLaren, "Pay attention to Drew Sumrall - he represents what is happening among many thoughtful children and grandchildren of more conventional conservative Christians in America."

Curious, I had a look at the pouffy-haired, smartly-suited young Sumrall. His look and the swarm of Bible quotations at the start of the video had me expecting the usual televangelist prosperity gospel. Instead, Sumrall described Jesus as an advocate for  "an egalitarian collective that suspends all tribal identities."  After flipping through examples of our 21st century tribal identities -- race, political party, gender, social networking groups, church denomination -- Sumrall said the Gospel and Pauline letters give us a Jesus that urges rejection of group affiliations. Instead, we're to join the nobodies, the "unwanted, excremental remainder of society... the refuse of humanity." Christ's blessings were "for those who would never fit in... the lost, the least, the sick, the weary."

But, Sumrall observed, that's all of us. "We're all broken," he said. From the guy sleeping on the street to the super-rich rock star, all would say they "don't fit in." We join in what Jesus was doing not by sharing our inclusion, but by joining the excluded. "To arrive at success, we must fail... empty ourselves of ourselves." Sumrall says the natural evolution of nomadic rivalry is towards "worry, envy, anger, violence, death." Alternatively, he says, Jesus calls for the end of the feral being that lies within each person -- giving up our tribal and familial ties in favor of Grace.

The next evidence of the possibilities for grace comes from the far side of the world -- warring Enga tribes in Papua, New Guinea, as studied by University of Utah anthropologist Polly Wiessner and Nitze Pupu, a blind Enga law school graduate. Their study, reported in the  Sept. 28, 2012, issue of the journal Science looked at the incidence and mortality from battles among the 110 Enga tribes.

Enga tribal village magistrates returning
from negotiating a cease-fire to a tribal war
in Enga Province, Papua New Guinea
A press release for the study says that until the 1950s, the Enga were largely isolated from the outside world, and waged their wars with bows and arrows. But in the 1990s, young people and mercenaries took up semiautomatic rifles and shotguns with devastating consequences: 500 wars over 20 years killed 4,816 people--about 1% of the Enga population.

Wiessner describes the chaos: "Missions and high schools were burned, entire valleys vacated, thousands became refugees and government services and development were disrupted." Enough was enough. Wiessner says the Enga turned to peace as they were driven off their land and "totally exhausted with war. The could see it was unproductive."

At that point, traditional village justice returned to the scene. In contrast with Western justice systems, the emphasis of the indigenous system was on restoration of relations through mediation and compensation -- traditionally involving payment in pigs. Hotheads get sent back to their villages to drink coca-cola (the modern-day substitute for chewing on sugar cane, we're told). Local politics and future relationships of the tribes are factored into village court decisions, and Christian ideology (embraced by most Enga) backs up the peace-making of the village courts.

Indigenous justice through village courts "...made it possible to control the wave of violence after the adoption of guns in a way that neither the colonial powers nor state could manage," says Wiessner. She found that wars were stopped more quickly, with fewer deaths from 2006 to 2010, and a sharp drop in the number of wars in the following year as village courts increased control. Where Western-style justice led to fines or jail terms for 10% of cases in District Courts, traditional intertribal courts produced a compensation order, mediated settlement, or agreement to settle out of court in 98% of cases. The average number of deaths per war was 3.7 in pre-colonial times. It rose as high as 19 per war in the early 1990s. By 2006-2010, there were an average of five deaths per war.

The Enga's tradtional system of dispute resolution "is built on restoring respect, accepting liability and responsibility, and paying compensation," says Wiessner. In contrast, "The Western judicial system is for a broader anonymous society. Our system is effective for taking offenders out of circulation – which theirs isn't – but often the offender doesn't accept responsibility or compensate, so the victim gets nothing."

Weissner says the Enga were able to draw on traditions that predated contact with Europeans. "Social technology from generations past was adapted to contain the impact of adopted modern technology. … New institutions build on former rules, norms and values; history matters."

When Australia assumed colonial rule in the 1950s, the Enga already possessed a 100-year history of suppressing violence through compensation via "pigs and other valuables – to make peace with enemies, boost a clan's reputation and re-establish the balance of power." In addition, the Enga developed "new indigenous, religious ceremonies ... to instill discipline in young men, honor ancestors and unite tribes." This included huge exchange networks -- tens of thousands of people exchanging hundreds of thousands of pigs.

These traditions declined as colonial armed adminsitrators took responsibility for maintaining peace. Warfare only intensified with social inequities after Papua New Guinea gained independence and  another tradition -- rejecting use of firearms in warfare -- disappeared in the 1990s. An arms race, abetted by businessmen, politicians and arms procured from the police and army led to devastating consequences.  "Extreme violence came when traditional, small-scale, face-to-face societies evolved into larger-scale, anonymous societies where people didn't know each other anymore," Weissner says. "People get into a brawl, or someone steals a pig, rapes a women or kills someone, and the clan must show that it has the strength to defend itself."

The authors allude to Steven Pinker's conclusion in Better Angels of our Nature--that humans are becoming less warring and lethal, but Wiessner and Pupu are uncertain whether the trend toward peace will continue in New Guinea. On the one hand, development and foreign aid could mean the Enga have more more to lose through the ravages of war. But on the other hand, development and population growth could lead to exploitation by multinational corporations, discontent and conflict over natural resources, and greater anonymity.
... As Enga society grows, clan members may be less likely to make compensation payments on behalf of kinsmen they barely know. If this happens, local institutions founded on principles of kinship, respect and restorative justice will not suffice, and the Enga may find themselves in another cycle of violence as the scale of their society increases, Wiessner and Pupu conclude.

Perhaps it's a stretch, but I now connect these three very different articles through a perspective I've got from an online course I took (The Science of Happiness from UCal Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center) and Jonathan Haidt's  The Righteous Mind. Riffing on evolutionary theory that allows the possibility that selection has sometimes favored cooperative human groups (rather than just well-adapted individuals), Haidt sees humans as being "90% chimp; 10% bee"-- that is, 90% devoted to self-advancement and 10% to hive-like behavior for our team, tribe, clan, group, homies, drama club, caste... etc.

He sees some sort of "hive switch" evolving in the human psyche more than 50,000  years ago. This change comprised a host of physiological, mental, and behavioral adaptations that reinforce cooperation. We get a rush of "reward" chemicals in our brain when we feel part of a team working (or singing, marching, dancing, playing, cheering, etc.) together. On the other hand, the same "hive switch" may explain a dark side of human nature: ill-will and even violence against those who are not part of our group.

Instructors for the GGSC course took us through the evidence that some of the most rewarding aspects of life come from social engagement, compassion, helping others, and involvement with goals beyond ourselves. From family to friends to contacts in the community and social capital -- engagement with others makes our lives happy, healthy, and satisfying. When this engagement extends to people outside our self-defined group, barriers, prejudices, and anxieties come down -- we start to see the outsiders as part of our tribe.

So back to the three articles above -- if the way of nature is our chimp-like, individualistic humanity, maniacally set on self-preservation (or clan-preservation) against our enemies, the contrasting way of grace is, as Sumrall recommends, identifying ourselves as family with the out-group. Or, as the Enga would do, restoring peace not with more violence, but a few good pigs.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Potentially Positive News for Cultivating Compassion

Just in time for the Christmas season ... some more evidence that it may be possible to teach people to be more compassionate. I looked at this idea in a previous post, and pretty much concluded  (bah, Humbug!) that, as much as I WANTED to believe it was true, the evidence from the studies wasn't strong enough to support that yet.

But I recently saw a "Fast Company" post about research from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison,  (self-proclaimed on its website to be "a global leader in conducting novel research that has revolutionized how we understand the mind, our emotions, and how to nurture well-being for ourselves and others." They did get a few mentions in my "Science of Happiness" class from Berkeley.) Their study offered new evidence to support the idea that compassion is a trainable skill.

The Fast Company article describes a research project by Helen Weng and others, including lab chief Richard J. Davidson, which concludes:
...compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing.
Unfortunately, neither the abstract nor the FastCompany article gives details such as how many people participated in the study. This makes it hard for me to know how enthusiastic I should feel about the research, but the points that emerge from the Fast Company article do make it seem like they covered thoroughly what ground they covered.

The study included participants who received just fourteen 30-minute sessions of online training in compassion over the course of two weeks. (As with the study in my previous blog post on the subject, this included imagining compassion for one's self, then a beloved friend or family member, a neutral stranger, then a disliked person.) These participants were compared to an active control group that received training in "reappraisal training, which is an emotion regulation technique that asks people to re-interpret negative events to decrease negative emotions. "

The compassion training encouraged participants "to observe the thoughts and feelings that arise as they imagine a time that each person has suffered. The goal is to give participants practice at tolerating their reactions, rather than avoiding them or getting too wrapped up in them. The next part involves actively wishing others compassion—or wishing their suffering is relieved. "

All participants underwent MRI brain scans before and after the study and were were assessed for changes in brain regions linked to compassion. They were also assessed for compassion in a computer game in which they could contribute their money to others. According to the FastCompany article,  there was a correlation between brain changes linked to key regions of the brain, as shown in the scans, and altruism in the computer game:
"The participants who were the most altruistic playing the computer game showed the greatest changes in brain activation in response to suffering. In the most altruistic participants, activation increased in the inferior parietal cortex (a region of the brain involved in empathy and understanding others), in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a region involved in emotional control), and in the nucleus accumbens (a region involved in rewarding emotions). This may reflect that compassion training increases detection of others’ suffering through neural circuitry involved in empathic resonance and sharing others’ experiences. It also suggests that these individuals may have been learning to change their emotional response to a more caring response for the person in need. The participants in the control group either showed no relationship between their brain responses and their altruistic behavior or a negative relationship. "
As would be appropriate for researchers who study compassion, the Wisconsin group will let you download scripts or mp3s of their compassion training sessions if you register here:  http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/compassion.html (It's a slightly odd system, in that you need to sign in, for free, and they e-mail you the link to the training 24 hours later.)

 I am going to keep my enthusiasm in check until I can actually see the full study, but in the meantime,  I've downloaded the compassion scripts and I'm going to give it a go this holiday season. It can't hurt, and who knows, maybe, just maybe, it's true -- that compassion CAN be taught (and the teaching of compassion can be scientifically studied and developed)...

Friday, October 31, 2014

Harnessing the Power of the Sun to Destroy a Village

The most divisive planning application to hit our village -- possibly EVER--has come to a head. As it happens, this is transpiring while I've been taking a marvelous "MOOC" (Massive Open Online Course) called The Science of Happiness (from UCal Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center).

At the beginning of the course, we learned about the importance of something called "social capital." I couldn't dismiss this as sociological mumbo-jumbo because it made too much darn sense. Plus it has huge implications for the health and welfare of our village--actually the happiness of people everywhere. But what's on my mind especially is my tiny village, right now, right here.

Social capital is the overall benefit that results from networks of trust and cooperation. In a village, that basically means neighborliness or keeping an eye out for other folks in big and small ways: working together on projects for charity--like the Famine Lunch; cooperating on projects to raise money for the village-- like Bonfire Night; or assisting with projects to benefit subsets of residents-- like a class to upgrade computer literacy for older folks. Social capital covers simple sociability and everyday kindness -- stopping to have a chat with a fellow dog-walker; retrieving their recycling box when the wind blows it into the street; picking up your neighbor's kid from school when you see he missed the bus. Maybe you take your neighbor some spiced nuts (you're welcome, Alf) or loan her your post-driver (thanks, Lynne!)

No one called it "social capital", but that is what led our village to rally to help residents of the four homes that were most affected by last winter's floods. People donated money, helped with cleanup and repairs, and provided alternative housing in the village--for several months--for the couple most severely affected. Village farmers and experts on the lay of the land spent hours helping with a plan to drain the floodwaters. When the main road was closed, we made arrangements to assure that a resident with medical needs would be able to get to the doctor. I'm sure there were dozens more acts of kindness during the floods that I will never hear about. People just got on with helping, because that's what we do here.

More signs of goodwill in the village include the turnout for events at the Village Hall and Fun Days on "The Rec" -- the wonderful playing fields and park in our village -- and support for art and history, including musical concerts; dragon tiles, mosaics, and a small stone carving; and interest in an archeological dig lead by the county archaeologist. We have a monthly needlework group and a weekly bowls club. We hosted a 'scratch' choir in the Village Hall this summer -- which raised an impressive sum for charity. The church has an occasional choir, the "Allerlooyas," which, like the cleaning and flower rotas, includes people who aren't members of the church. That's just what we do here, because we love our village and care for one another.

And that, as it turns out, is what would be called "high social capital." Beyond making our village the friendly, trusting place that accepted me as a foreigner and outsider these past seven years, high social capital has a host of important benefits. Sociologists have discovered that individuals living in communities with high trust enjoy: more active parental involvement with schools, higher student academic achievement, less crime, better health, greater longevity, higher voter turnout, fewer disparities between rich and poor, and reduced likelihood of economic decline.

Higher social capital is especially important for ageing populations because it helps preserve health and physical mobility as people grow older. High social capital means better health information, more frequent contact with people, and lower levels of disability. People in high-social-capital communities are more likely to volunteer and enjoy lower rates of depression, neuroticism, and Alzheimer's disease.

All this means Aller has been a great place to live. But right now, the social capital of my village is at risk in the battle over the controversial planning issue--a large solar park to be located on land rented from our village's most prominent farmer. Emotions are running high. There are threats and personal attacks, half-truths, exaggerations, assumptions, irrelevancies, and falsehoods -- all being dished up with passion and fervor in hopes of making the case for one side or the other.

I know from sad personal experience how these things go. My family's yard abuts the land of a rubber-crumb processing plant that was installed without planning permission. Folks at our end of the village opposed it for the noise and because it meant bringing a light-industrial plant--and all it requires for security, waste disposal, haulage... into a peaceful residential/agricultural area. The retroactive planning application was approved with conditions, but it was left to complaining neighbors to assure the conditions were met. We don't complain, because we see the plant owner as uncooperative and intimidating.

Call it NIMBYism, but I was devastated by the loss of peace and quiet in my garden. The wife and co-owner of the facility admitted at one point that they lived in fear of complaining neighbors, and felt rejected in the community. Years later, there is no love lost -- and limited circulation of social capital--at this end of the village. This mutual distrust disturbs my peace far more than the noise from the plant.

As discomforting as it may be, our spat over the rubber-crumb processing plant is minuscule compared to the solar park. As things are going now, the split in the village over that issue could potentially spell the end of civility, trust, and social capital throughout the village for decades.

Here's my plea to everyone in Aller: Please do everything in your power to preserve goodwill in the village, now and in the trying days ahead. The damage that will result if we fail to preserve our social capital will far outweigh the damage from EITHER building or not building the solar park.

How can you help with that? Here are some suggestions based on my "Science of Happiness" class and other readings:

  1. Pause to consider all the cooperation that you are grateful for in our village -- times you have been helped; times we've worked together to help others; groups and activities you've enjoyed. Consider, in particular, the help given to the village by people who do not share your views on the solar park.  This might mean consideration of the farmer's helping with the Great Crane and archeology projects; providing generous use of buildings and land for village and church events; and trying to improve the land for wildlife. Or this might mean consideration of many villagers' work in the many cooperative projects I've mentioned above. Count those blessings; express your gratitude.
  2. Consider the common values we share. I'll bet we all moved here for pretty much the same reasons. We love the place -- the peace, the rural character, the birds, the views, the agricultural contribution of the active farms, the walks, the fresh air, and the neighborhood full of trust, cooperation, and goodwill.
  3. Strive to see things from other points of view. Put yourself in the place of the farmer, worried about depletion of the soil, unpredictable prices for milk, and numerous uncontrollable forces, including animal diseases, legal liability for people on his land, and the weather. Put yourself in the place of the resident whose greatest treasure is the view out her window -- a view that could encompass thousands of large solar panels.
  4. Disagree respectfully. Treasure your neighbor. Try to be as kind and generous as possible, even if you don't share his viewpoint. Don't intimidate or shout him down.
  5. Don't exaggerate or misrepresent in making your case, and trust the folks on the other side to do the same. There is a strong case to be made for either side and economies of the truth are both unnecessary and likely to be remembered for a long time. Calmly accept that there really are people who don't think the views will be so awful and who do believe solar energy is more eco-friendly than fracking or nuclear power plants. There really will be sheep grazing between the solar panels. There really are people whose views and deeply-held sense of the sacred, historic site will be spoiled by the large solar installation. There are honest people who have good reason to distrust energy companies.
  6. Do not make threats of mischief, sabotage, or withdrawal of cooperation if you don't get what you want. Whether you do or don't carry out your threats, people will remember them and it will be much harder--if not impossible--to rebuild trust. No one wants to live in a village fearing they will be the next targets of malice.
  7. If you can see both sides -- or grounds for compromise -- or if you are somewhere on the fence, reach out to people to start laying the groundwork for reconciliation when this is over.
  8. Realize this psychological truth: in a year's time, the outcome of not getting your way will not be as bad as you now fear, and the benefits of getting your way will not be as great as you now expect. This is a psychological truth, and it holds for people on all sides of this issue, however it ends up. The only thing that could block you from enjoying that happy truth is tenacious lack of goodwill for the village and your neighbors.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Compass of the Heart & Measuring a Dose of Mindfulness

Researchers studying new medicines must often come to grips with "patient compliance" issues--assuring that participants actually take each dose of an experimental treatment. But the patient compliance difficulty factor goes up orders of magnitude when it comes to studying the effects of mindfulness.

I'm currently taking an EdX class (with 100,000 other people!) on The Science of Happiness from the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. The subject for this week is mindfulness. One of this week's guest presenters--Shauna Shapiro from UCal Santa Clara--is a leading light in the academic field of mindfulness.

In her definitions, Dr. Shapiro highlights three core elements of mindfulness: Intention, Attention, and Attitude. It was her discussion of the role of Intention that has given me new appreciation for one of the most serious challenges of conducting mindfulness research. Shapiro sees Intention as "knowing why you are practicing" mindfulness or "setting the compass of your heart."

To drive this home, Shapiro quotes a confession from the father of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn:
"Your intentions set the stage for what is possible. They remind you from moment to moment of why you are practicing . . .  I used to think that meditation practice was so powerful...that as long as you did it at all, you would see growth and change. But time has taught me that some kind of personal vision is also necessary."
Personal intentions of participants in mindfulness studies are essentially the equivalent of "patient compliance" in studies of medical treatments. Each person's intention in pursuing mindfulness is a key determinant of the "dosage" of mindfulness that reaches his or her brain.

Miranda Bevis, my mindfulness teacher, framed intention with a light touch in one of the first classes.  She had us form small groups and invited us to say why we'd signed up for the class and what we hoped to get out of it. And, when telling us we needed to do our meditation homework assignments, she said learning mindfulness was like learning a foreign language. It doesn't do much good just to come to class once a week, she said -- you need to practice, practice, practice.

The drill of home practice no doubt is one necessary manifestation of intention to develop mindfulness. But it's probably not sufficient. I learned this from a close friend who studied mindfulness (but not with Dr. Bevis) and who had a very different experience from mine.

My friend signed up for the class on the recommendation of friends and colleagues. He had studied and practiced psychology and thought studying mindfulness would familiarize him with a new aspect of the field that had come along since he was at school. His intention was to learn about mindfulness techniques in order to help others. He was irritated to get a "pre-test" for various psychological problems in the first class, followed by instruction that seemed to be oriented toward resolving psychological challenges of class members.

My friend did do his home practice during the course, but it's fair to say he did not set the compass of his heart on becoming mindful himself. He found the voice on his practice tape irritating; the practices took too long; they didn't do much for him. He was especially irritated to get a "post-test" version of the psychological assessment again at the end of the 8-week class. Easily fudged and he saw it as more for subsequent promotion of the course than for the students' benefit. He hasn't practiced mindfulness since he finished the class.

My friend is case-in-point for why mindfulness studies are hugely difficult. A typical research paper would say that my friend and I both got the same "dose" of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction -- we both had an 8-week class with a trained Mindfulness teacher and did our home mindfulness practices. But clearly the difference in our respective intentions meant that we got very different doses.

Currently, the closest mindfulness studies come to measuring (and controlling for) participant compliance is data on class attendance and self-reports of home-practice. The degree to which these data approximate participants' actual intentions and efforts to cultivate mindfulness determines --and currently limits-- the reliability and strength of the studies' conclusions. Someday researchers may do better. Maybe cheap, easy, painless, convenient, home-use brain scanning? Or perhaps they can do a massive data crunch and find better correlates of actual mindfulness dose.  Controlling more precisely for heart-compass readings will make for sounder science.

Beyond this, finding better correlates of intention also could help improve the way mindfulness teachers advertise Mindfulness courses, the claims they make, and how and what they teach. It might change class composition, the way teachers relate to class participants -- or even help identify people who are wasting their time and money studying mindfulness.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Can Mindfulness Create Compassion?

See Updates at the end of this post--most recent 9 December, 2014

The most dangerous hypotheses are the ones you really want to be true.

I was re-tantalized by one of these thanks to an article on the "Greater Good" website (affiliated with UCal Berkeley's  Greater Good Science Center.) Therapist and psychology researcher, Hooria Jazaieri,
wrote about a Swedish study* investigating whether training in meditation could increase compassion and altruism.

I speculated about this in my blog in December, 2012. These were just personal ramblings -- wondering if mindfulness meditation training might offer me an escape hatch from self-preoccupation to the fresh air of concern for others. I really hoped it might, and imagined it could--perhaps through mindful,  intentional focusing of attention on others rather than self. Instead of focusing on breath, sensations, or gentle yoga movements--as you do in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)--I imagined directing my full and kind attention to another person-- i.e. deep listening.

Jazaieri describes how the Swedish study compared altruism in 20 people randomly assigned to an eight-week course in Buddhist meditation with 22 "control" subjects randomly assigned to the waiting list for the class. At the start and end of the eight weeks, the investigators surveyed the participants'
"...levels of empathy, stress, mindfulness, self-compassion, and ...  'altruistic orientation'—the ability to feel empathic concern rather than personal distress when faced with the suffering of others."
The meditation training sounds like it is similar to MBSR in teaching the value and practice of meditation; in the length of the course, its meditation and gentle movement exercises, and required home practice.

But the program departs somewhat from MBSR in being more explicitly grounded in Buddhism's "four immeasurables" -- loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the founders of MBSR, developed mindfulness meditation by rejigging aspects of Buddhist meditation. The Swedish researchers likewise drew on Buddhist practices, but particularly those thought to foster altruism. For example, meditation exercises included imagining the presence of another person and directing compassion to him or her. Gradually the exercises moved from envisioning empathic concern for a loved one to empathic concern for a "neutral" stranger, and finally to a disliked or non-valued person.

 Jazaieri says the key item of interest in the study was whether people with eight weeks of this training would be more altruistically-oriented than the wait-list group. The abstract of the study reports:
 "Results indicated a trend towards increases in altruistic orientation in the intervention group—an increase that significantly correlated with meditation time, decreases in perceived stress, and increases in self-compassion and mindfulness." 
Depending on your outlook, the good or bad news is that both the wait-listed group and the compassion-trained group improved their scores on the Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ).  And in a twist that spoils the picture I wanted to emerge, the experimental group, although improving in altruistic orientation (defined as "empathic concern" minus "personal distress"), ends up at a point less altruistically-oriented than the wait-listed group--which started out with higher values and declined slightly over the eight weeks. 

 The trained group improved their mindfulness, self-compassion, and decreased stress compared to the control group (consistent with data on the effects of MBSR). And the increase in altruistic orientation in the experimental group was correlated with how much time was spent practicing meditation. The increases in altruistic orientation were also correlated with the other benefits of mindful mediation (reduced stress, and increased mindfulness and self-compassion).

Another trait that increased for the experimental group was "perspective taking" -- flexibility to see things from another vantage point. Improvements in this trait were significantly related to increases in one facet of FFMQ mindfulness. The researchers speculate that mindful detachment from one's own issues might enhance "the ability to adopt the perspective of another" and may thus be the way mindfulness promotes perspective taking. Other studies have linked perspective taking to "reducing prejudice ... and promoting greater social connectedness..."

The authors of the pilot study acknowledge it has limitations -- many shared with a lot of research in the young field of mindfulness. The study was small and looked at quite a few variables, so it is not surprising that some significant differences turned up. While these may have been statistically significant, it is disappointing that the magnitude of the changes from the eight weeks of instruction and practice did not even compensate for initial differences in altruism between the study participants and the control group.

As with many mindfulness studies, the control group did not participate in an active intervention and the study was not blinded -- that is, subjects (and researchers, presumably) knew participants' group assignments. These factors could bias results (for example when the researchers discarded "outliers" in the data) and could permit placebo effects to color participants' responses. The study looked for correlations--not causation, so it's possible the results are actually due to some unstudied factor. The selected participants were predominantly women, and may not have been representative.

Jazaieri writes,
"Although the conclusions that can be drawn from this study are limited, likely due to the small number of participants, the results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting a relationship between mindfulness meditation and altruism or compassion."
As part of this growing body of evidence, Jazaieri cites research by Paul Condon and David DeSteno at Northeastern University in Boston, and Gaelle Desbordes and Willa Miller at Mass General and Harvard, respectively. She also cites a study from the University of Wisconsin. These studies were published last year. 

The Swedish investigators connect their findings to research on psychotherapists who did mindfulness meditation, and were found to be 
"...more successful in therapy as compared to non-meditators. Patients of meditating therapists showed a significant decrease in symptom severity and rated their therapist significantly higher on clarification and problem-solving skills as compared to patients treated by non-meditating therapists."
The web page with Jazaieri's article also includes a link to a YouTube video by Shauna Shapiro, How Mindfulness Cultivates CompassionShapiro, an associate professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, mentions six or seven randomized controlled trials she's conducted over the past 15 years showing that mindfulness significantly increases compassion for others. Accepting the claimed link between mindfulness and compassion, Shapiro says she is playing with ideas about mechanisms for how mindfulness leads to compassion.  The Swedish study may lend some insight into this. 

I haven't been digging into all these studies yet -- but am hopeful that these or future studies will hold more meaty data and a clear, credible mechanism for the hypothesis I've wanted to believe all along -- that meditation really can reprogram the brain to compassion, just as it can reprogram away from anxiety and depression. As I wrote here previously, mindfulness research is still a wild frontier.  Until I see more solid evidence, I remain apprehensive that the connection between mindfulness and compassion -- at least for me -- still owes a debt to wishful thinking.
*Promoting Altruism Through Meditation: An 8-Week Randomized Controlled Pilot Study. Mindfulness 2013 4:223-234. Erik Wallmark, Kousha Safarzadeh, Daiva Daukantaite and Rachel E. Maddux



Today I spotted a really good example of how people fell into the very trap I fear above, namely being too quick to embrace science that appears to support our wishful thinking on the social benefits of positive psychology.

In this case it was a take-down of a paper published in 2013 in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The original study of 80 healthy volunteers claimed to find that people who seek happiness by pursuing pleasure -- as opposed to pursuing deeper meaning in their lives--show changes in the expression of genes similar to those found in people experiencing chronic stress.

 The new study re-analyzed the data and concluded that the "widely publicized claims about the effects of different dimensions of well-being on health-related gene expression are merely artifacts of dubious analyses and erroneous methodology."

The researchers who debunked the study found that replacing the psychological data just with random numbers still yielded "large numbers of apparently statistically significant effects" when they did the sorts of analyses performed in the flawed study. The authors of the new paper -- an international team from England, The Netherlands, and the United States -- write beautifully about the response to the first paper and their motivation for looking again at the data:
"...Given the apparent importance of their findings, which appeared to amount to nothing less than a true breakthrough in behavioral genomics research, we eagerly and with great earnest read the article with the hope that science might finally have been able to illuminate true pathways to 'the good life' (or at least help to divert people from a not so good life). Unfortunately, what we encountered did not strike us as a breaktrhough. In fact, after an extensive reanalysis of of Fredrickson et al.'s data, we concluded that their study suffers from numerous problems that render its conclusions unfounded and potentially misleading..."
I am not saying the paper on mindfulness and compassion that I write about above has the same statistical flaws as were found in the first PNAS paper --I'm too puny a statistics midget and this is complicated stuff. But I do worry that investigators in the young field of mindfulness research might easily stray into  "a nebulous and largely exploratory correlational study without any solid founding in available theory and research"-- as the 2013 PNAS study was branded.

UPDATE TWO: ON the other hand ...  A  "Fast Company" post about research from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggests they were successful in training people to be more compassionate Please see my post for 9 December 2014.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dear God, Please just SHUT UP!

In mid-March and mid-July of this year, people were severely wounded by young women who heard God tell them what to do. This is the evil flip side of the evangelical belief that God (or Jesus or the Holy Spirit) speaks directly to people. This is why I wish the church would just stop claiming God speaks--just drop the whole metaphor. It doesn't work on many levels, or possibly ANY level.

In the March incident, according to the New York Daily News, a 23-year-old Tennessee woman (who acknowledged to police that she was a frequent marijuana smoker) said God told her to drive her car into a church. After causing serious damage to the church, she phoned her husband, who rushed to the scene and found her lying in front of the altar.
...as he checked on her, she stated, 'The devil is in me', and stabbed him on the right side of his chest with a large kitchen knife 
In the July incident, a 25-year-old woman in Indiana told police that “she was driving and out of no where God told her that he would take it from here and she let go of the wheel and let him take it.” When she did, her car swerved into a motorcycle and its rider:
 The car ran over his midsection breaking all of his ribs on his left side, damaging his spleen, bruising his kidney and leaving him with road rash that covered much of his back and extremities. It’s amazing that he lived.
Of course these two instances of people hearing God tell them to do evil things are not the first or even the most dire. David Koresh comes to mind...

I've written before about a local lecture series, presented by Keith and Nigel, the Diocesan church renewal experts, on "Listening to God." As I wrote in my blog post "God's Saying the Same Old Thing,"these expert priests
Evidently... have discerned that the way God speaks is by planting an idea in your head that you should pursue churchy things. ... You just need to have a heart-to-heart conversation with God, Keith advised.
They acknowledged three voices that might be heard in your head: God's, your own, and the devil's. "But fortunately, we're given the gift of discernment, they said."

The thing is, if the church is going to claim all the wonders produced when God speaks in this way, it also needs to claim all the idiocy -- or do a lot of handwaving and qualifying to explain why sometimes the "gift of discernment" works in such evil ways. Perhaps God only gives some people discernment? And how do you know if you are one of those?

In my second blog post on the lecture series, "Voice of the Dollhouse God," Keith and Nigel invited members of the audience to relate times when God had spoken to them and the pair related times when they had detected signs and wonders. All the messages and signs were experiences that non-believers would probably not have noticed, and if they did, would have attributed to happy or unusual coincidence: a fortunate move; dragonflies flying in the house after reading a story about dragonflies.

It seems, at best, this version of a talking God is handing out goodies that aren't actually any better than the workings of an observant brain in a wonderful world full of pattern and randomness -- not to mention chance that looks remarkably non-random. At worst this version of God tells Christians to do horrible things.

Of course I don't propose God's shutting up is the solution. It's religious humans that need to change -- to stop pretending that the wonders of our wishful thinking, imagination, observation, and questioning--and influences such as psychoactive drugs, alcohol, mental illness, and suggestive subliminal messages from videos, songs, movies, vines, t.v., friends, etc.-- are anything other than human. There are always some people incapable of comprehending the difference between the metaphorical and the literal.

If you're going to do God, please don't listen for a God so feeble he can be blamed for such human stupidity. Or as I wrote before,
...the only kind of God I can start to imagine is a Creator far beyond human imagining. More wonderful than a God who runs his Earth and its inhabitants like an elaborate dollhouse, I would see a God who made the Ultimate Awesome: Creation that keeps on creating through cosmic and atomic forces (increasingly understood by physics); geologic processes; evolution; human discovery, growth, societal change...  ... Between the Ultimate Awesome of creation and our neurons that perceive it, there is no end of "messages" we could be getting from God every minute, every place we look, every sound we hear, every breath we take. The only question is which messages, which signs, which instincts, which input we're going to take in, which we're going to ignore, and what significance we attach to them. This is the pallet from which we create our lives.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Boring Rocks and Amazing Spiritual Encounters

The blindingly frustrating, yet brilliant thing about Jesus is that, while he gives us hints on how to live our lives, he is largely inexplicit on details -- even when it comes to something as important as what his church should be like.

I was reminded of this by a blog link, "Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me." recently sent by a friend.

As I argued earlier in this blog, I see Jesus' fundamental rule being to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. When you look to Jesus' life and words to eke out more details, often you'll find ambiguous parables and metaphors.

One of these is a foundation for Christian churches and leads the blog by +Lillian Daniel that my friend sent me. It's Jesus' pun, namely that Peter (whose name Greek name was very close to the word for 'rock') was the rock upon which he would build his church.

Aside from being one of the most consequential puns in history, whatever did--and does--it mean? What were the details of Jesus' vision of his church--beyond Peter's saying he believed Jesus was the son of the living God? (In the preceding verses, Peter had given this reply when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and this prompted Jesus' quoted pun at Matthew 16:18.)

In her blog entry, Ms. Daniel, a minister in the United Church of Christ, says she favors the company of church-goers and takes issue with people who are "spiritual but not religious." For her, churches offer a more challenging, rich place to work out spiritual experience than does "having deep thoughts all by oneself."
"What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself." 
I pretty much agree with Ms. Daniel. Where church is done right, spirituality is challenging and people find inspiration and help in living out their faith in the world. They are the better for it, and so are the people around them--just as debaters at the Oxford Union hone and inform their citizenship and understanding of politics more sharply than do folks who grumble alone at the 6 o'clock news.

Daniel does get a bit snarky in her caricature of spiritual but not religious people:
"Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating."
I would raise my hand to this, guilty as charged. These days I spend a lot more time in solitary contemplation of my spiritual navel than I do in church. And were I to go back to church, I think my preference would be for the Society of Friends, where the spiritual working out is done within the silence of your own head, although your head is part of a congregation.

Ms. Daniel characterises the spiritual-but-not-religious as boring and uniform -- dazzled by pretty sunsets but missing God as encountered by and through others, past and present. This is the reward for her brave church people, whose companionship she prefers, especially in difficult times.
"Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church."
I would say two things to Ms. Daniel: First, far too frequently, what goes on in religious institutions is not "church done right" and has little or nothing to do with working out one's spiritual stuff or even kindly putting up with one another. And second, by instantly tuning out the "spiritual but not religious" she may be missing a profound opportunity to develop her own faith, as well as to demonstrate the love and finding-God-with others that should be at the core of her Christian faith--the very experience she treasures in church. [And I won't mention the possibility that this might be the way to start opening bridges between the churched and spiritual-but-not-religious.]

 As I've written before, the list of reasons people have abandoned -- or chosen not to explore -- religions is probably as long as the list of people who've done so. As Ms. Daniel says, some find ancient religious practice dull. But others are discouraged by hypocrisy when they encounter church folks who fail to respect their neighbors, much less love their enemies. Some walk away deeply hurt by churches preoccupied with the judgment and condemnation of other people's sins. Others despair at churches that focus on the rewards of heaven while ignoring urgent human needs here and now. Some churches are little more than social clubs -- no less, but no more spiritually salubrious than the W.I., the PTA, or the Rotary Club. I don't mean this as an insult. Social interaction is a good and healthy thing.

I've found that even within denominations, churches vary enormously. Some really are places where you're encouraged to do the brave working out of spirituality -- to thrash out your own translation of Jesus' metaphors into the daily living of your life. Sadly, most churches, as I've experienced them, would really prefer that you check your brain at the door. Please don't challenge the minister or other members of the congregation. Please don't make a fuss. Please don't be different. Please don't be yourself. Please don't get personal or too honest as you work out your spiritual stuff. Let's stick to the script and keep this superficial, like we've always done it.

It's not just my perception. Anglican priests at the last deanery synod I attended said leaders of the diocese are focused on:

  • getting more people into church
  • maintaining old church buildings
  • worrying about the ageing of their congregations
  • getting folks to give enough money to keep the church going

This just doesn't seem like what Jesus had in mind for his church, and hardly the "true and lively word." In fact, unlike Jesus and his work, unlike a beautiful sunset, and unlike a selfish hour spent in the small world of my own brain, it's... well... boring. As for the commonplace rush of spiritual impetus inspired by nature, I'd say it's a great place to start. Maybe if she just fanned that little flame a bit...

So now I imagine myself plunked down on an airplane seat next to Ms. Daniel in her clerical collar. She finds spiritual-but-not-religious people boring and knows the odds are good that I will fall in this category. I see her collar and presume that she's caught up with the mind-numbing details of running a typical, park-your-brain-and-shut-up church. We both take out our books. We don't speak to one another, expand our spirituality, or extend our love beyond our own little tribe.

And thus it is that we both miss out on the opportunity to listen kindly, patiently, and deeply. We don't
Random gift of kindness from a stranger
on the train from Carlisle
. After we chat-
ted about the beautiful starry ceiling in
Carlisle cathedral, a lovely lady crocheted
 this copy for me.
hear about the other's extraordinary experiences of creation--sunsets or otherwise. We don't hear about their profound, humbling human encounters -- how they lucked into a random act of kindness, or witnessed amazing love and gentleness in the care of a dying friend. We don't hear that story about how, when everyone else gave up, those foster kids are turning their lives around. Our spirituality bears no fruit.

As happens in 99.9% of human encounters, we fail to find holy ground in the very place we are--outside of church ... away from an inspiring sunset ...  in the presence of a stranger. Our lazy assumptions about the other's spirituality stop us from reaching what might be the real rock that Jesus meant was the cornerstone of his church: two people encountering one another in faith and love, suspending pretence and prejudice, asking important questions, and accepting the vulnerability of honest answers. If that's the Rock Jesus had in mind, "church" and "spirituality" could be found in human encounters everywhere and anywhere. Maybe not what church leaders, my friend, or Ms. Daniel have in mind, but it rocks my boat.