Thursday, December 12, 2013

Deepak Chopra: We Live in a Lunatic Asylum

In an interview in October, Deepak Chopra said, “I had this moment in meditation where I realized we’re living in a lunatic asylum. There’s no other way to describe it. Everything that we see is madness, but it’s normal…So, we’re in it, there’s no escaping the lunatic asylum. You can choose to be an inmate, or you can pick up your visitor’s badge. That day, I chose to pick up my visitor’s badge.” (begins at 9:25)

When he said “it’s normal,” he kind of waved his arm around and paused—that’s what the “…” means; I didn’t cut anything out. Chopra meant, I believe, that it’s difficult to see the madness because we have been conditioned to believe that it is normal. It’s like the old joke about the fish in the sea having trouble with the concept of “water.” We live within a consensual reality created by our culture and family. We have to take on the beliefs and assumptions of our culture in order to survive, and these beliefs and assumptions skew our perceptions before we even become aware of them.
An example of consensual reality from We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity: long ago humans divided the Earth into countries and have so completely forgotten that the divisions are arbitrary that we have fought endless battles over the invented boundaries. When people first saw the photos of our planet taken by Apollo astronauts in the 1960s it was a revelation—there were no lines like on our maps and globes! And people had the dawning awareness that all those arbitrary borders are irrelevant when you comprehend the vastness of the blackness surrounding our precious globe of life.
Recognizing the insanity, seeing the delusions, allows us to be a “visitor”; this perspective means we have compassion for the inmates still trapped in their delusions, and compassion for ourselves every day we forget to pick up our visitor badge.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Expectations Shape our Reality

The claim that everyone is insane is based on the premise that no one sees reality as it is. Our perceptions are heavily filtered by our beliefs, assumptions, preconceptions, and expectations before we become aware of them.
Evolutionary psychologists have theorized that the brain evolved to make assumptions about the future based on what we have experienced in the past. This is an efficient use of our brain’s resources because it helps us focus our attention on what is important to our survival.
For example, an animal might be attacked at a waterhole. It would then form the assumption that waterholes are a place where there is an increased chance of danger/predators. So the animal stays alert every time it’s at the waterhole and expects predators.
In his best-seller Incognito, David Eagleman says expectations are vital to our ability to see. He included an illustration that looked to me as if it was just random blobs of light and dark. Eagleman said most people see it that way: without any expectation for what we should see, our brains don’t see anything. On the next page he gives a clue about the image, and once I knew what to expect, when I looked at it again I instantly saw it. Days later when I looked again the image jumped out at me as if it were obvious. The brain, Eagleman writes, is constantly engaged in the activity of comparing our expectation of what we should see with the information coming from our senses: “What all this tells us is that perception reflects the active comparison of sensory inputs with internal predictions.”
Many years ago a fascinating experiment demonstrated the influence of expectations on our perception of reality. The study built on the “halo effect,” a well-known cognitive bias: people who are attractive are judged to be more competent and have better personalities than those who are less attractive. Mark Snyder, the lead scientist, called the study an “attempt to demonstrate that stereotypes [another word for expectations] may create their own social reality.”

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pride's Gotta Go Too

One aspect of the philosophy of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity is the rejection of free will. (See these blog posts: general, societal consequences, personal consequences.) There are many consequences of letting go of the belief in free will; these include the elimination of blame and guilt. If, in any situation, I couldn’t have done any differently there is nothing to feel guilty about. This is pretty easy to swallow. But another of the consequences seems a little harder. This is the flip side of guilt: if I couldn’t have done any differently, there is nothing to feel pride about. This seems cruel and unjust.
Many of us have worked hard in our lives, in school, at our profession, in our marriages, and it seems only just that we feel pride when we have achieved success.
The New Yorker recently published a review by Malcolm Gladwell of a new book, The Sports Gene, by David Epstein (you can watch his TED talk here), that is pertinent to the issue of pride:
In The Sports Gene there are countless…examples of all the ways that the greatest athletes are different from the rest of us. They respond more effectively to training. The shape of their bodies is optimized for certain kinds of athletic activities. They carry genes that put them far ahead of ordinary athletes.
For example, the book reveals that major league baseball players have superior eyesight compared to the average person. The ophthalmologist Louis Rosenbaum tested four hundred professional baseball players and found the average visual acuity was 20/13. When he looked at the Los Angeles Dodgers, half had 20/10 vision, and a small number fell below 20/9, “flirting with the theoretical limit of the human eye,” according to Epstein. Gladwell concludes
The ability to consistently hit a baseball thrown at speeds approaching a hundred miles an hour, with a baffling array of spins and curves, requires the kind of eyesight commonly found in only a tiny fraction of the general population.
The question here is: should those baseball players be proud of their ability?
Of course those baseball players worked hard to get where they are; the fact that they are members of a professional baseball team didn’t happen just because of their good eyesight. Epstein reveals that even the ambition to work hard is not shared evenly among the whole population. In the Sports Illustrated article he wrote (unfortunately Sports Illustrated has taken this article down since the book was published),
But researchers have found that even motivation to work out has an important genetic component. A 2006 Swedish study of more than 13,000 sets of fraternal and identical twins—fraternal twins share half their genes on average, while identical twins share all of them—found that the exercise tendencies of identical twins were twice as likely to be similar as those of fraternal twins. 
Another 2006 study, of more than 37,000 pairs of adult fraternal and identical twins from six European countries and Australia, concluded that about half to three quarters of the variation in the amount of exercise people engaged in could be accounted for by their genetic makeup, while environmental factors, such as access to a gym, often had less influence. [my bold]
Wayne Gretzky famously said, “Maybe it wasn't talent the Lord gave me, maybe it was the passion.” But what if the two are inextricable? What if passion is a talent?
What if passion were a talent? Exactly. The passion that motivates an individual to devote his life to the physical training required of a professional sport, or to practice the piano eight hours a day, or to pursue a Ph.D. in particle physics is not “freely chosen” by the person. It is created through the interaction of that person’s physiological makeup and psychological programming. I know scientists whose field of study was clear at the age of seven: they had a fascination with bugs or stars in childhood that lasted all their lives. Novak Djokovic, the tennis star, began to hang around a tennis court at age six, and when he began playing that year the tennis pro said it was obvious he had extraordinary talent.
Of course this passion doesn’t have to be obvious as a child. One of the scientists involved in Curiosity, the latest Mars rover, didn’t become interested in astronomy until he was in his 20s. According to “The Martian Chroniclers” (The New Yorker again) Adam Steltzner, the leader of the team in charge of entry, descent, and landing, dropped out of college and, at age 21, was working as a musician. One night as he drove home from a gig he noticed the stars overhead and wanted to learn more.
A few weeks later, he went to the local community college to sign up for an astronomy class. Told that he had to take physics first, he reluctantly agreed, only to discover that he had a knack for it. More than a knack, really. “I just fucking dominated,” he told me. “There were tests where the average was thirty per cent and I would have a ninety-eight. I was the dude.”
Steltzner ended up with a Ph.D. and a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But how many of us have looked up at the sky in wonder and been content with a trip to the planetarium, or taking a single course, or just cruising around the Internet looking at photos. We didn’t have the ability to understand physics, or the drive to keep learning and working that this man had. Should Steltzner feel pride at his accomplishment?
Another element that Epstein discovered was that not everyone responded to training equally.
Even after five months of training, some people in families that benefited little on average did not improve their aerobic capacity one iota, while others in families that generally showed marked improvement increased it up to 50%. Statistical analysis showed that about half of a person's ability to improve with training was determined by his or her parents. The amount any person improved in the study had nothing to do with how good he was to begin with—his "baseline aerobic capacity"—but about half of that baseline, too, was attributable to family inheritance.
So for some of us, even if we have the passion to undertake a sport, our physiology might mean we are incapable of improving. So for those born with the capacity for improvement, should they feel pride at their increased aerobic capacity?
We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity says that instead of pride, we should feel gratitude. Gratitude for our inbuilt passions, talents, drives, and abilities. Gratitude for what those gifts allow us to accomplish in life.
Pride means we are claiming a control over life that we do not have. It reminds me of the folk saying “‘My, look at the dust we raise,’ said the ants on the chariot wheel.”
Everything is interconnected. Say I made an apple pie that I was proud of. Did I make the apples that taste so good? Did I grow the wheat, create the cows that produced the butter? Carl Sagan once said that in order to truly make an apple pie from scratch one would have to first bring the universe into being.
Because of the linkage of guilt and pride there is a benefit to letting go of pride:
You don’t have to take the blame if you don't take the credit.  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

What is reality? Could it be different from what we perceive? These are the questions addressed by Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived 2500 years ago, in his Allegory of the Cave.
Plato asks us to imagine a group of people chained in a cave since birth. The chains prevent them from moving their heads so they can only see the wall of the cave in front of them. A fire is kept burning behind them. Other people pass back and forth between the fire and the prisoners, carrying things. These peoples’ shadows and the prisoner’s shadows are cast onto the wall that the prisoners can see. Understandably, because it is the only thing they see, the prisoners believe that the shadows are reality.
The prisoners can talk to each other; they form all sorts of theories and philosophies and scientific hypotheses about the shadows. But the truth is the reality they think is so real is actually just a shadow-world. The real world exists, but they can’t see it.
In my terminology, they are deluded about what is real; they are out-of-touch with reality; they are insane. But within the prisoners’ consensual reality, within the “truth” of their society, to be “sane” you must believe that the shadow-world is objective reality.
Plato then asks us to imagine that a prisoner escapes the chains, makes it out of the cave, and sees objective reality. After a difficult period in which his eyes adjust to the light of the sun, this person realizes that the shadow-world is an illusory, delusional reality. When this person tries to enlighten those still in chains as to the truth, he is ridiculed.
But in fact he is more in touch with objective reality than those who believe the shadows are reality. He is the relatively sane one.
This allegory is exactly to the point of the message of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity. Our perceptions are like the shadows on Plato’s wall. Yet we mistakenly believe that our subjective point-of-view is actual reality.
Lately I have been wondering what brought about the so-called Post-Modernist worldview, which began to appear in the 1960s. In a major shift from earlier times, when it was accepted that there was only one correct worldview, people began to recognize that everyone has a subjective point-of-view.
While watching a collection of films made by Thomas Edison’s studio between 1901-1906, it occurred to me that the advent of film played a role in this shift. We take it for granted today, but imagine what it was like one hundred years ago to go into a dark theater and see on the flat screen something that seemed so real. Of course people had been attending stage-plays for centuries, but these could never approach the simulation of reality that is true of movies.
In addition, in an age when many people never traveled farther than 50 miles from home, the images of life in far-off places and of people behaving differently than the norms of the local society must have been startling and revelatory. (The film “Cinema Paradiso” is a fascinating look at the influence movies had on a small town in Sicily.)
While I was looking for online versions of Plato’s Allegory, I came across a version posted by someone at Washington State University, with this commentary:
If he were living today, Plato might replace his rather awkward cave metaphor with a movie theater, with the projector replacing the fire, the film replacing the objects which cast shadows, the shadows on the cave wall with the projected movie on the screen, and the echo with the loudspeakers behind the screen. The essential point is that the prisoners in the cave are not seeing reality, but only a shadowy representation of it.
The essential point here, in this blog, is that when we are confuse our shadow representation of reality with actual reality, we are delusional, we are insane.
In an earlier version of We Are ALL Innocent Arthur and I used a movie analogy for the concept of “mind-generated reality.” We wrote: imagine a one-seat theater in our minds in which we watch the film of our life. This film is scripted, edited, and directed by the beliefs and assumptions of our culture, time, family, and personal experience, and is projected on an internal screen of awareness.
Arthur wrote a song about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:

by Arthur Hancock

In Plato’s cave a prisoner dreams of a place he knows is true
High above this shadowed darkness that was once all that he knew
In Plato’s cave a chanced escape sent him wandering from that wall
That he'd studied for a lifetime that he'd never learned at all
In Plato’s cave everyone was chained with their faces to the stone
And their shadows were reality not just ghosts the light had thrown
In Plato’s cave all the others said that a life in shadowed chain
Was the most that one could hope for there was nothing else to gain
In Plato’s cave he escaped his chains and he stumbled to the light
And he saw the wherefore and the why and he saw the prisoner’s plight
So to Plato’s cave he returned to tell of the truth he’d found above
But there his words of hope received more fear and hate than love
In Plato’s cave maybe life ain’t much but it’s all we’ve ever known
We’re secure in this reality so won’t you please leave it alone
In Plato’s cave maybe life ain’t much but it’s all we’ve ever known
We’re secure within our misery so won’t you please leave us alone

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What Does It Mean That Many of our Memories are False?

The vagaries of human memory are notorious. A friend insists you were at your 15th class reunion when you know it was your 10th. You distinctly remember that another friend was at your wedding, until she reminds you that you didn’t invite her. Or, more seriously, an eyewitness misidentifies the perpetrator of a terrible crime. Not only are false, or mistaken, memories common in normal life, researchers have found it relatively easy to generate false memories of words and images in human subjects.

This passage is from a New York Times article about research just published in the journal Science: false memories were successfully implanted in mice.

What does it mean that it is common for our memories to be false?

When I was fourteen my parents divorced (the event was so traumatic I’ll admit to being a little fuzzy about my age). This was totally unexpected; my four siblings and I had no inkling that anything was amiss in our parent’s marriage. One night the whole family was called into the living room, and my father told us he’d decided to separate from my mother and was moving out that night. We talked for some time and then he left. I have a very strong memory that all my brothers and sisters cried, but I didn’t.

Years later at a family gathering we discussed that night. All my brothers and sisters were there, along with our mother. Everyone shared their memories and how this had affected their lives at the time. One thing was stunning: each one of us had the same false memory. Each one of us thought everyone else cried but he or she didn’t. Our mother told us that we all cried.

The fact that all of us believed we didn’t cry says reams about our family psychology. But the point here is that all of us had operated for years from a false memory that slanted our perception of a pivotal event in our lives.

The premise of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity is that everyone is deluded about reality; we are all confused about what is true. Optical illusions are wonderful illustrations of how we don’t perceive sensory information accurately (see blog post). False memory research shows we don’t accurately remember what happens to us.

Our mind-generated reality is largely constructed from sensory input and memories; if both of these are faulty how can our reality be anything but false?

“Delusion” means a “fixed, false belief resistant to confrontation with actual facts.” Even after my mother had told me I cried that night, I was resistant to believing her because my false belief was so strong. It had been reinforced by years of remembering.

Monday, May 13, 2013

E-book now on sale!

We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity: The Mechanics of Compassion, is now available as an e-book at, and as a Kindle ebook and paperback at Click here to download the first four chapters for free.

Here's a brief description:

Most of us think we perceive reality directly and accurately, but we don’t. What we see is an individual mind-generated reality, heavily distorted by our beliefs and assumptions. We erroneously believe our subjective reality is actual reality. We’re all insane because we’re deluded about what is real.

What better explanation for dysfunctional human behavior than universal insanity? What better way to explain why loneliness, fear, and hatred are so familiar and love so rare? Why so many people need to use alcohol and drugs just to get through another day? Why half of all marriages end in divorce?

We are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity presents the idea that the primary cause of human suffering is universal insanity. Insanity is defined as: confusing our mind-generated reality with actual reality. In practical terms, this translates as confusing subjective opinion with objective fact.

For example: “I made a mistake” is an objective fact. “I made a mistake because I’m a loser” is a subjective opinion. When I think and act as if the subjective opinion is an objective fact I’m confused about what is real. It is this confusion of fantasy with fact that makes me insane.

Free will is shown to be a complete myth. Insane people do not have free will. We are driven by subconscious psychological forces over which we have no control. Recognizing our insanity means the end of blame, shame, and arrogance.

In addition, the recognition of universal insanity is the key to compassion: we’re not right in our minds.
By understanding that all hurtful behavior—from gossip to mass murder—proceeds from insane thinking, we can experience compassion for ourselves and everyone else.

The book includes references to recent scientific and psychological research that demonstrates how out-of-touch with reality we really are. Other references range from Zen stories to the Three Stooges.

I use examples from my own life to illustrate how we all build a personal subjective reality—My Story. I also share my personal growth as I face my own insanity.

This book is for adult audiences. There is a chapter on sexuality and passages in other chapters that discuss sex in an explicit manner.

Sanity is love. Love is defined as: the experience of unconditional acceptance of what is. This means that when we experience acceptance of reality exactly the way it is we experience love.

This book may transform the way you see yourself and the world.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Like Watching a 3D Movie Without Glasses

Recently I gave the following quick synopsis of the theory of universal insanity to a new acquaintance: “Most of us think we perceive reality directly and accurately. But we don’t. What we see is an individual mind-generated reality, heavily distorted by our beliefs and assumptions. We confuse our subjective opinions with objective facts. We’re all deluded about what is real, and this is why we’re all insane.”

I could see that he found this a dubious proposition, and I was pretty sure it was because he was convinced that he was perceiving reality directly and accurately.

It occurred to me that the analogy of a 3D movie could help to illustrate the concept of universal insanity. When a 3D movie is being made, two cameras film simultaneously from slightly separated positions. The final film superimposes the offset perspectives. When you wear polarizing glasses those two images are separated and delivered to the appropriate eye, and you perceive the illusion of three-dimensions on a flat movie screen. But when you look at the film without glasses, it’s blurry, like it’s out of focus. If you watch it too long it’s disorientating and nauseating.

The more clearly an organism perceives objective physical reality, the better its survival chances. For example, when we are trekking through the jungle, if we can’t distinguish the crouching tiger from the obscuring foliage we’re dead. Humans are the product of over three billion years of evolution on this planet, and our ability to construct an effective model of physical reality in our minds is quite remarkable.

But there is another reality built in our minds, a subjective reality, and this doesn’t match physical objective reality exactly. It is offset from physical reality by a certain amount, depending upon the content of our personal subjective beliefs. This offset causes dissonance in our minds, analogous to the way the 3D picture causes nausea. This dissonance is our delusional insanity, and the more our subjective reality is offset from objective reality, the more insane we are.

As 3D films show, it doesn’t take much offset to create an uncomfortable distortion. This is why it can be hard for us “normal” people to grasp our insanity, because our everyday actions appear to prove that we are in touch with objective reality. We can navigate our cars through rush hour traffic, handle the demands of our job, shop for groceries, cook dinner, bathe the kids—all this seems to indicate that we are accurately perceiving objective reality. But accompanying these actions are the distortions caused by our subjective reality: we’re unhappy, or anxious, or depressed, or wish we could be doing something else.

We have all been programmed to think this internal dissonance is completely normal. It’s “normal” if by that word you mean what most people live with every day. It’s also “normal” in the sense of being an evolutionary inevitability. But this dissonance is exactly what we mean here by universal insanity. We confuse our subjective reality with objective reality, and when life doesn’t go the way our subjective reality thinks it should we feel anger, anxiety, or depression.

Recognizing my insanity means I stop trying to impose my subjective beliefs on objective reality. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a subjective point-of-view, it means I eliminate a lot of the dissonance—conflicts, disappointments, worries, problems—in my life.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fear of Completion

For much of my life I had trouble finishing things. I would start on a project, like making a quilt, and devote hours to it. Then I would find myself slowing down as I neared the end, and it would often just sit there, unfinished, for months or years. Sometimes forever.

Then one day I realized that I had a fear of completion: there was an image in my mind of the perfect finished product, and I was sure that what I was doing would never match that image, so I preferred incompletion, where I could continue to dream of perfection, rather than finish and realize my imperfection.

The aphorism “the perfect is the enemy of the good” seems apropos here.

Just recently I ran into a musician acquaintance and he told me how he just didn’t seem able to finish writing the songs he started. “They didn’t sound good enough to keep working on them,” he said. I told him how my musician husband, over the years, had recorded his songs and consistently hated the sound of the recording. Then, years later, he’d listen to the cassette tape or CD and say, “you know, this is pretty good.”

A component of universal human insanity is self-hatred. All of us are encumbered with doubts and insecurities.

It’s like there’s two parts of us. One is vibrant and alive and creative, wanting to share our vision with the world. The other part is fearful and dark and suspicious, sure that our vision is silly or worthless or stupid. This part convinces us that if we express ourselves we’ll be shot down as a fool—“you actually thought that was of value?!”—so we shut ourselves down. We censor ourselves.

Some years ago I produced a weekly one-hour TV show, and simultaneously wrote a weekly opinion column for a local newspaper. I was forced to get over my fear of completion! I learned how to just do the best I could, because I didn’t have time to hone anything to perfection. And one of the benefits was that by completing one thing, I opened up the space for something new. I found that all of that incompletion acted like a plug, blocking creativity and expression.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Stiletto Surgery

Women are cutting off their small toes so they can wear stiletto heels. This is insane. Enough said!

The American Podiatric Medical Association says, “eighty-seven percent of women have had foot problems from wearing uncomfortable or ill-fitting shoes such as high heels.”

A collective belief of our culture is that women should have small dainty feet. We were all programmed by the story of Cinderella: the stepsisters’ feet were too big for the dainty glass slipper, and their huge feet were as much a part of their ugliness as the look of their faces.

How different are we from the Chinese who bound their women’s feet?

As a feminist once said about the Virginia Slim slogan (“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”): “You haven’t come a long way and you aren’t a baby.”


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Search for a Motive

The perpetrator of the latest American mass shooting—at the elementary school in Newton Connecticut—also killed himself and his mother. In addition, Adam Lanza smashed his computer hard drive before he went on his rampage. This, we are told by the investigators, is going to make it harder to find what motivated Mr. Lanza to do such a horrible thing.

When we say we want to find the motive for a crime, what we want is a clear, logical, rational explanation for an action that makes it understandable. However, when someone does something of this nature—a mass killing—you can be sure they were not thinking clearly and rationally. Sure they could think clearly about the guns, ammunition, clothing, etc., but this deludes us into thinking that the motivation for their action is also rational.

Dr. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who directed the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School and was in charge of psychiatric services for the Massachusetts state prison system for ten years, begins his book, Violence, with this message: “The first that all violence is an attempt to reach justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice, for himself or for whomever it is on whose behalf he is being violent…Thus, the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence. [italics in the original]

I think Dr. Gilligan gives us the guidance we need in our search for a motive: somehow, for Adam Lanza this action was an attempt to achieve justice. It’s not too hard to imagine how Mr. Lanza might have perceived that his mother had caused him an injustice, but it’s much harder to get a handle on how killing children could undo or prevent injustice. I suggest we’ll never know for sure. All we can know is that in some way this action helped Lanza, in his mind, right an injustice that he believed had been done to him.