September 18th, 2002

We continue with our series of articles by John Brand which began with part one on  Sunday and part two on Monday. Originally posted at The Yellow Times.

The Human Theater of the Absurd –III

John Brand, D.Min., J.D.

There is an interesting story of lust and sex in the Bible. It is really spicy stuff. Surprisingly, those who seek to censor our morality have not sought to strike that incident from the Good Book and have the author blacklisted. There cannot be much doubt that the sinfulness of this narrative far exceeds the immorality of the exposed breast of the Statue of Justice that Ashcroft commanded to be clothed. Amnon, one of King David’s sons, had an overpowering desire to seduce his half-sister Tamar. She, in turn, met his blazing passion with stony silence. With the help of a friend, Amnon found a pretext inducing Tamar to come to his private chambers. Then Amnon raped her. (2 Samuel 13)

After Amnon satisfied his lust he “was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was ever greater than the lust he had felt for her.” Why hasn’t Hollywood picked up that story? Can’t you just see some sex kitten, maybe the “Playmate of the Year,” playing Tamar? I can also think of several esteemed politicians on both sides of the aisle who might portray Amnon.

Amnon’s love turned to hate with the change of circumstances. Feelings depend upon the shifting happenings in our lives. As weather is reflected in barometric changes, so our moods and emotions are images of our internal responses to life’s ups and downs. Our emotions run deep but they are changeable. Love can turn to hate. Warm feelings for friends can turn to icy rejection. Joy in the morning can turn to sadness by nightfall.

A. The origin of emotions

The hypothalamus, an integral part of the limbic system, is the impresario of our emotional behavior. The genesis of our emotions can be traced back about 180,000,000 years to the therapsids. You may recall that what we may properly call the beginning of intellect had its origin no more about 3 to 5 million years ago. Is it any wonder that our emotions are far more powerful than our intellects? You know what happens when you try to discuss a problem rationally with someone who has deep feelings about the matter. It is mostly a waste of time, is it not?

Emotions do not originate in our highest brain centers. They are primordial responses to external events. Neither gods nor devils cause our elation nor do they conspire to force us to act the brute. Our ancient brains provide the capability to either wear halos or to sprout horns. One of the critical factors to the survival as a free people depends upon our understanding the origin of our feelings.

Most of us have a tendency to accord whatever behavior happens to occur at any given moment the same degree of authenticity. We do not realize that much of our behavior stems from the evolutionary heritage of animals less sophisticated than we are. Reason, logic, and linear thinking play no roles when emotions are aroused. In all probability neither religious dogmatists nor political charlatans know much about the genesis of human emotionality. However, they sure know how to use emotions to their advantage. When reptilian instincts of territory, hierarchy, ritual and deceit merge with raw emotions, the result is a witch’s brew. Shakespeare’s “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog,” is but a mild tonic compared to the bitter bane forced down our throats by dogma and canon.

B. Emotions and religion

The Judeo/Christian tradition makes people feel guilty for the mere presence of emotions. In Matthew 5:27, we are told that if a man lusts after a woman, it were better for him to pluck out his eyes. The opinion is advanced that it is better to go to heaven blind than rot in hell with 20/20 vision. That is pretty stout medicine. I wonder how many men and women can pass that exam and enter the Pearly Gates?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. If we all plucked out our eyes because we felt like crawling into bed with someone who is not our own spouse, there would be an acute shortage of seeing-eye dogs. We are also told in Matthew 5:22 that anger against our brother results in judgment. It does not say we shall be condemned when we ram the guy’s car that almost took off our front fender. It says that the mere feeling of anger will result in our getting whipped by the Almighty.

Of course, most people will respond to sexual situations with emotions. Of course, most people will sense anger when in a threatened situation. The church has convinced us that those feelings are sinful in God’s sight. If we ever expect to get to heaven, then we must be purged from these awful feelings. And who will do the cleansing for us? Well, of course, the church. So the hierarchy has us where it wants us. We will feel the emotions of lust. We will experience the emotion of anger. We are made to believe that they are very, very sinful. Therefore we become enslaved to the church because it assures us that it has the way that leads to our forgiveness and to eternal life.

We are in a no win situation. Emotions arise in a very ancient part of the brain. We have little control over their arousal. Of course, we can learn to manage our emotions, but the church has convinced us that the mere presence of the emotions constitutes sin. So we are enslaved to church doctrine if we ever hope to find forgiveness. We cannot escape our emotionality – nor can we escape the church’s enslavement if we hope to find God’s mercy. It is also, of course, one heck of a way to raise money. If you are assured that an offended God will forgive your nasty feelings if you put some money in the offering tray, you may be quite willing to contribute so God will not punish you for your grubby, filthy, disgusting feelings.

Knowing that emotions arise in ancient parts of the brain, we can conclude that the arousal of lust and anger are neither good nor bad. Emotions arise in a part of the brain over which we have no control. Emotions are a fundamental quality of our lives. I draw a very sharp distinction between the presence of the emotion and our management or their mismanagement. To condemn someone for the presence of emotions differs not much from finding them guilty for their heartbeat. Pulse and emotions originate in ancient neural circuits. To be judged for their existence is to condemn life itself.

Only the active manifestation of emotions, not their mere presence, raises moral issues. If I feel like beating the hell out of you because I am angry but do not act on my impulse, the “bad” never happened. If I feel like bedding down some cute chick, but do not follow through on my feeling, the “bad” never happened.

The teachings of the church have us in a “no win” situation. Lust and anger are parts of the landscape of our lives. It is not their presence that is evil. Their presence is natural. The evil only comes when we fail to manage them. But our tradition condemns us for their mere presence. This gives the ecclesiastical establishment tremendous power over our lives. One of the most liberating moves the church could make is to clarify this issue. Maybe then Mr. Ashcroft won’t feel so threatened by the mere sight of an aluminum breast. For heaven’s sake, what would that man do in the Louvre? Go nuts?

C. Emotions and politics

Naturally politicians know what the church knows. If a people’s emotions can be aroused then intellect and logic will take a back seat. America is in the midst of an emotional binge at the present time. September 11th aroused our deepest fears. A foe attacked us on our own turf. Anger, fear, revenge, and dread flooded our senses in a way that we have not experienced before. In response to these deep feelings, we fly the Stars and Stripes at our homes, on our cars, on office buildings, and wherever we can attach a flag. We put patriotic pins on our lapels. Being true opportunistic materialists, designers made T-Shirts, sweatshirts, bandanas, and hats with the design of the flag. We swore we would get the bastards who dared to invade us.

Under the flurry of emotionalism parading for patriotism, our President was quick to see enemies in everyone who disagreed with his agenda. The Attorney General saw the presence of terrorists in every neighborhood. Inflamed by passion we little realize that we are moving towards a police state.

Civil liberties are being limited under the pretense of making us secure. Rewards to supporters who raised millions for POTUS come in the form of throwing more and more money at defense industry giants. So caught up we were in our emotions that we were willing to do anything to protect ourselves. And whenever there might have been a bit of relaxing of our fears, our newly appointed Home Security Chief would issue another warning. It has even been suggested that anyone disagreeing with the President’s program is not a patriotic American. Well, he or she might not be a docile sheep following an agenda leading into the vortex of an American dictatorship, but isn’t it carrying things a bit too far to accuse dissenters of not being patriotic Americans?

Years ago, long before there was even a thought of 9/11, the industrial psychologist Maslow wrote, “The safety needs can become very urgent on the social scene whenever there are real threats to law, to order, to the authority of society Ö A common, almost expectable reaction is the easier acceptance of dictatorship or of military rule.” Politicians take advantage of our raw emotions to perpetuate their power and the agendas of the lobbyists who funnel money into their campaigns. And the Constitution and the Bill of Rights be damned.

But the usurpation of our emotionality by politicians predates 9/11 by a long shot. In the 1950’s and even later there was a concern about making America a more just and equitable country. The Middle Class, the backbone of any democracy, was doing well. A sense of assurance was felt as Social Security and Medicare provided people with some guarantee that their retirement years would know a measure of stability. But then strange things began to happen. I am not saying that there was a cabal to destroy our freedoms. But there was an ever-growing development of materialistic opportunism. Labor Unions were disparaged. Now don’t misunderstand me, I know that some unions were fronts for Mafia-type rings, but there was a general belittling of labor unions. Businesses became ever larger and larger. As they made more money, they influenced more and more legislation favorable to their particular interests. The common good was shelved.

Either by intuition or by design, the Kenneth Lay and Anderson prototypes had to fill an emotional need in the lives of America. All too many churches became unwitting participants in the destruction of righteousness and justice in America. Profound hot button issues became the order of the day. It was proclaimed from many pulpits that America has lost its way because prayers were not said in public schools, because abortions became the legal right of women, because homosexuals were given protection under the law. And all these moralistic issues, it was preached, caused God to forsake our land.

This suspended attention away from the real “front burner issues” such as health care, the elimination of the Middle Class, corporate rape of the masses, and spoliation of the environment. When Enron created an artificial energy crisis in California, costing the people billions of dollars, our President said he could not do anything about it! And all the time he and Kenny Boy were big buddies. Furthermore, POTUS claimed that Jesus was his philosopher.

So it is only natural, these purveyors of religious charlatanism would claim, that God cares more about prayer in public schools than children without medical services. We were told that God is quite angry because some women are getting abortions but we didn’t care that minimum wages did not keep up with inflation. Channeling our emotions on homosexuals, we failed to see that as tax cuts favored the wealthy, less and less money was available for public schools, for roads, and for other necessary infrastructures.

Well, I have news for America. We can say prayer in school three times a day and not another single child will get medical insurance. We can eliminate all abortions and minimum wage will not go up one red cent. We can again become homophobic and there will not be another dollar for our schools or our roads.

Politicians have turned America’s emotions away from the real issues. We should be angry that the middle class is disappearing instead of worrying about prayers in school. We should be angry that the rich get ever more and more tax benefits instead of worrying about abortions. We should be angry that rivers and the land are being polluted instead of thinking we are doing God a favor by becoming homophobic.

The emotional components of the limbic system play a significant part in our lives. Church and politicians understand that and both have done a number on America.

Popular wisdom perceives that our President has not been blessed with an over-endowment of intellectual acuity. However, there can be little doubt that some of the men around him have plenty of gray matter. Folks like John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and others probably score pretty high on a Binet, and yet their combined smarts have our society teetering on its edge. A widening gulf between the super rich and the rest of us will create social problems of unimaginable dimensions. Lack of an intelligent long-range energy program may bring about economic chaos. Shortsighted monetary and tax policies already seriously harm our country’s infrastructure. And let’s not even mention damage done to the environment. Yet, all these smart folks in D.C. don’t seem to have a clue about the long-term effects of their wheeling and dealing.

What does it take, besides smarts, to pull up the human species from its brutal, consistent practice of genocide to something resembling a humane being? I believe the answer can be found in the most recently developed part of the human brain, the prefrontal cortex. The concluding part in this series discusses this neural constellation of the triune brain.

In this column I am making some comments about the neocortex. I want to state in the very beginning that the neocortex does not provide the solution to our problems. If anything, it just complicates our existence.

The neocortex

About 3,000,000 to 5,000,000 years ago, with a sudden burst of unparalleled activity measured in cosmic time, the neomammalian brain entered the world’s stage. From these early beginnings in our forebears the neocortex evolved into the complex organ it is today. Human accomplishments resulting from this advance defy description. Where shall we start a list of our species’ triumphs? Is it the power to write? To develop mathematics? To split the atom? To compose? We must marvel no less at the grandeur of Egypt’s Pyramids than we do listening to a Beethoven symphony. Surely Shakespeare’s Othello is as majestic as the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA. All of our accomplishments stem from the neural capabilities of the neocortex. It is a veritable treasure chest of past achievements and of future possibilities.

However, our species has not won the war over its own bestial nature. The major factor enslaving us to old brutal ways is our bondage to the unresolved reality of the brain’s three competing drivers. Of course, the old reptile wins most of the battles. As long as we thought our brains were one integrated whole there might be some justification to assign our benign or violent behavior to some divine/satanic cause.

Instincts to expand tribal boundaries were engulfed in the flames of passions. These profound feelings found a voice in rationalizations developed in the neocortex. The saber clashing took on the voice of God. Arrows tearing apart flesh were but expressing the will of the creator. Some God? Eh? But now we know better! We know there is a reptile in our brains that can dominate our behavior to the exclusion of any humane concerns.

The drive for territory and power is not the voice God. It is but the expression of our most primal instincts. No God or gods will stop the carnage. No amount of fervent prayer will make “the wolf live with the lamb, the leopard to lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together.” (Isaiah 11: 6) The title of the book of our lives must be changed from “A Destiny under God” to “Human Destiny.”

The neocortex enables some members of our species to compose the Titan Symphony, to paint Nude Descending a Staircase, and to understand the nature and function of DNA. At the same time, we need to accept the fact that such greatness is but one side of the neocortex.

The other side built concentration camps and Gulags, indulges in the grossest manifestation of conspicuous consumption while refusing to fund equal educational opportunities for all. It indulges in the vilest of inequities under the shameful cover of “Private Enterprise.” Of course, without tax support and special legislation, our “Private Enterprise” would not be the voracious, gluttonous beast it has become. It is the power of the neocortex that writes all this legislation favoring the rapacious alphas of our society.

We have yet to avail ourselves of the power of the neocortex to translate into reality the ideal that all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Tell some of the folks living in parts of East Austin, Texas that that is the expression of the American dream and they will laugh in your face!

We do not want to accept as fact that some essential qualities between earthworms and humans are much the same. Individual earthworms do not manifest many differences; they do not have personalities. One is pretty much like another.

The same can be said for the physiology of human beings. Gray’s Anatomy applies to all of us. The sameness of our species transcends religious, political, ethnic, and all other surface differences. We all breathe the same air and die within minutes when deprived of oxygen. None of us can long exist without water. None escapes the reality of our biological common heritage. Just below the surface of our differences, we are all pretty much alike. All Indians and all Pakistanis, all members of Al Qaeda and all CIA agents, all Republicans and all Communists, all people of all colors, religions, features and languages will “bleed when pricked and laugh when tickled, die when poisoned, and revenge when wronged.” (Thanks to the Bard.)

It is the rather insignificant differences such as skin color, religious beliefs, and ethnic background that play havoc with our species. Psychologically we tell a story that belies our essential sameness. We hate. We kill. The problem with our neocortex lies in the fact that the reptilian brain, at times, dominates it. Seeking to justify its behavior it “commands” the neocortex to produce mountains of rationalizations defending reptilian prejudices. Atrocities of kings were defended as being their “divine” right. Kenny Boy claims that what amounts to his theft of pension funds is just one aspect of “free enterprise.”

Our very intelligence is our worst enemy in the efforts to achieve a world of peace and justice. Primitive territorial instincts have been elevated to an almost sacrosanct duty to destroy our perceived enemies. The neocortex furnishes a high level of self-justification and plausible reasons for our devious behavior. In our minds we crave righteous explanations to fly our militant banners bearing the inscriptions, “Race against Race,” “Religion against Religion,” “Nation against Nation.” The reptilian brain dominates our behavior. Our country is divided into hostile factions and each passing year brings new hostilities.

What can we do, no, what must we do, to stop the insanity? As long as we thought we had one integrated brain, our behavior could be rationalized. But that “old dog won’t hunt any longer.” We know that three drivers are competing for control of our behavior. Our task in the 21st Century is to understand just how much of our primal egocentric behavior is justified by intellectually rationalizing our selfishness.

How can we direct the neocortex to deliver us from our parochial self-interests and our self-defeating submission to essentially meaningless doctrines? To set ourselves to that task, it seems to me, is far more important than to build computer chips around molecules so we can have an almost infinite amount of storage.

Will today’s dominant alphas fight to perpetuate the ignorance of the past? The battle cry of fundamentalists has ever and a day been the same. “God,” they cried 400 years ago, “ordained that the earth is at the center of the universe. Anyone teaching otherwise is a heretic and must be silenced.” Well, somewhere there could be an ignorant fringe group still believing our planet to be at the center of the universe. But most of us know that it is not so. Today’s self-styled conservatives believe that teaching the nature of Nature will bring about the wrath of God. Little do they realize that their dogmatism is a fundamental cause of much of the world’s ills. “God,” they still cry today.

Present scientific understanding negates the dogma that human beings resulted from a special divine act of creation. Of course, the church fathers shake in their boots when they are confronted with such insights. They are in deadly fear what the implementation of that reality will do to their institutions. Certainly, their resistance has nothing to do with God, with truth, or with rightness. It is just another verse of the ancient claim that kings and Popes rule by divine right. Those assumptions have proven to be wrong.

The future will prove dogmatism to be the sham that it is. Denials of profound insights into the reality of Nature based on nothing more than ancient provincial beliefs are just so much hot air. I am certainly not claiming that anyone has the final word on the subject of the nature of Nature. However, present knowledge, at the very least, presents us with significant kernels of new insights into the way Nature works. Today’s fundamentalists simply repeat the second and third stanza of the ancient folly.

The modern era was committed to the idea that knowledge will drive away ancient superstitions and myths. Certainly, investigative science has opened the door to wondrous progress. Enthusiasm created by science, resulting from the potentials residing in the neocortex caused J. Bronowski to say, “Knowledge is our destiny.” Carl Sagan concludes his insightful book, The Dragons of Eden, with that quotation. The wheels of science and discovery are churning forward and no stopping place appears in sight.

However, I take exception to the idea that mere knowledge is our destiny. The knowledge of Greek’s Golden Age was erased with human blood. The storehouse of insights developed in the Arab world between the 9th and 13th centuries did not stop human brutality. The teachings of Buddha have not eliminated the confrontations between India and Pakistan. Gandhi has turned into a footnote.

The modern Scientific Revolution coexisted with the most brutal Gulags and concentration camps. Both beauty and brutality have their genesis in the neocortex. Much more is needed than mere knowledge. Needed is the conscious will to transcend beastly powers residing in our brains with the insights of the prefrontal cortex. That will be the discussion of the final column in this series.

To Be Continued …

John Brand is a Purple Heart, Combat Infantry veteran of World War II. He received his Juris Doctor degree at Northwestern University and a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry at Southern Methodist University. He served as a Methodist minister for 19 years, was Vice President, Birkman & Associates, Industrial Psychologists, and concluded his career as Director, Organizational and Human Resources, Warren-King Enterprises, an independent oil and gas company. He is the author of Shaking the Foundations.  You are welcome to write John Brand.  

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More on Paul D. MacLean’s The Triune Brain in Evolution.