Tag Archives: socialization

Discernment and Acting in the World

This essay is in large part grounded in two earlier essays: The Nature of Evil and The Natural Mind. A brief summary of those two essays is included but reading the essays could also be helpful.

          In the Nature of Evil essay it was posited that within relative reality, which is subsumed by absolute reality, there is a bipolar conception of behavior that ranges from ignorant at one end to enlightened at the other end. Of course, as with any bipolar construct one might define a number of intermediate positions between the anchor points at either end of the dimension. In the earlier essay, ignorant behavior was defined as including what is generally thought of as “evil” but went on to include many types of behavior that probably would not generally be thought of as evil, though they might still be considered wrong. The core defining characteristic of ignorant behavior is perceiving everything external to oneself (subject) as an “object” suitable to be used in anyway one sees fit to meet one’s needs and especially wants (egocentric). Wants in this case being something that one has no objective need for but has acquired a desire to possess or consume in some manner. Objects external to the self can be anything, including material objects, social structures and biological organisms, especially other people. The core defining characteristic of enlightenment is Self-realization or recognition that one’s consciousness is in fact not an individual phenomenon but is a localized manifestation of a unified and universal Consciousness, which becomes the operative form of Consciousness within enlightenment (Oneness). Some residual subject/object functioning remains a necessity even for an enlightened person, due to the necessity of operating in a relativistic context. However, egocentric wants will no longer drive the motivational state of such a person, and thus such a person will not view objects in the world to be simple means to an end.

In The Natural Mind essay, a state of functioning that might be thought of a ego-free but without unity with universal Consciousness was described. A state of child-like innocence was offered as a state analogous to the natural mind. The Natural Mind is a follow-up to a discussion of ways in which one can work to eliminate or modify conditioned programs that govern much of our emotional/behavioral functioning. Methods for working on conditioned, automatic programs (APs) [see sub-section in Part I). These conditioned programs are acquired largely through our socialization and come to be organized around and understood through a narrative, which may consist of multiple related stories, constructed from our memories. In the essay, this narrative was called the fictive-self. Neutralizing many of our conditioned ways of interpreting the physical and social environment facilitates becoming free of ego-driven thinking, feeling and acting; i.e., deconstructing and ending our identification with the fictive-self. Once operating from the natural mind, one is available for (i.e., not resisting) a transformation of consciousness through an opening to universal Consciousness. This is not, however, something that one can “make” happen but must allow to take one (see the brief essay Taken).

The question then arises as to how one functions in the relative world when no longer motivated by the fictive-self (egocentric self) and is not yet an open channel for universal Consciousness. As long as one lives in the relative, there will be choices arising out of the dualistic underpinnings of relative reality. Jon Marc Hammer in one of his books makes an interesting distinction. Hammer referred to the earth and the world as being distinct. The former is Gaia-like, which according to Wikipedia, refers to a hypothesis proposing that “…organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.” Hammer would go one step further and say that this complex system is an organism and that all components of it arise out of Consciousness and to varying degrees possess consciousness. The world according to Hammer is a complex of ideas, concepts, beliefs and expectations that govern a drama called “human culture and civilization” performed on a stage called earth. Hammer’s drama recalls to mind some lines from a poem (Outlaw) I wrote many years ago in an effort to capture a truth revealed to me during a noetic event (see note at end)*. Several lines from that poem: :

And the man knew God

And he was made free.

All history and tradition

Culture and words

Rescinded — Grace.

Freedom from the past

And from the future.

An outlaw.

Eckhart Tolle makes a similar distinction albeit on a smaller scale. He speaks of one’s life-situation versus one’s life. Your life-situation is analogous to how you “stand” in relation to the world. Your life is related to your role as one of the biological organisms of which the earth is partially comprised. The world and life-situations are governed by the mind while the earth and life are governed by natural processes.

Consider the world to be a large web spun around the earth. The strands comprising this web can, for example, be thought of, but not limited to: political systems and ideologies, systems of law and concepts of justice, economic and financial systems, occupations, art, music, fashion, religions, philosophies, moral systems, science and technology, social mores, educational systems, systems of kinship and social classes based on racial, ethnic, wealth, gender and various other characteristics. One’s life-situation results from the strands one identifies with and uses to define oneself through. Now, imagine that all human life were eliminated from the earth. What would happen to this web comprising the world that most of us think of as reality? It would vanish instantly, clearly showing that it was not real at all but simply the product of the mind. What would happen to the earth and life? They would continue on following the natural processes that have always ordered them.

A person acting from a conditioned mind is entangled in the world and cannot see beyond it. When one is functioning from a conditioned mind or ego, choices are ruled by APs, which are conditioned programs, many of which reflect beliefs, opinions and expectations that we have adopted about the world. Such choices are often described as judgments or prejudices. Someone who has regained their natural mind acts through the application of refined thought or discernment. Thus, the natural mind functions in the world through the development and practice of discernment. Discernment means seeing the “unfiltered” nature of things or seeing through the web. Thus, the natural mind must weave its way through the world distinguishing between essential and superficial characteristics when choices must be made.

Do understand that the web comprising the world is not an illusion and has real consequences that one must take into account. However, the natural mind helps give one a perspective on the web that opens the possibility of navigating it without becoming lost in it. The American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolff spoke of what he called the “high indifference,” by which he seemed to be referring to this ability to rise above the web and gain some perspective on it. This does not mean one is indifferent to the real needs of the living but only that one responds to them independent of egoistic influences. While Merrill-Wolff recognized that it is virtually impossible to completely disengage from the world, he thought that one could function in the world without being of the world. The natural mind is grounded in life and being not in the world of the mind or as Leonard Jacobson prefers, “…in the world of time.”

Some choices involve simple preferences and do not require discernment. For example, given a choice between several flavors of creamer for your coffee, personal preferences are adequate for making a choice. However, having found your way back to the natural mind, one no longer has beliefs and opinions (prejudgments) to rely upon in making most choices. One is left with discernment as the basis for making these choices. This means carefully considering the worldly context for a choice and then determining the best course of action, which minimizes any potential harm that might result from the choice to yourself or others and making choices that could potentially be life enhancing. This seems to be close to what the Buddhist mean by right action. There are no hard and fast rules for right action. However, if one approaches decision points without being entangled in and identified with the world, one will usually intuitively understand what to do. For those who have freed themselves from the conditioned mind, right action arises from the heart, not the mind.

* A noetic event, in my experience, is a shift in consciousness that, while it may not always be permanent, one nevertheless never fully returns from it. You can read more about noetic events in my life here: A Personal Odyssey. The term “noetic” was popularized by the moon astronaut Edgar Mitchel who used the term to describe something that happened to him on the way back from the moon. He subsequently founded the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS) to study noetic events.

Speculation About Transgender Conditions

[Note: I use transgender in a broad sense and do not limit the term to persons who transition physically into the binary alternative to their assignment at birth. Personally, I make a distinction between sex identity (biological basis), gender identity (requires a biological basis but largely socio-cultural) and sexual orientation (biological basis). I consider each to be a separate factor in every individual, in whole or part. I also consider these factors to be variable and interactive producing a wide range of outcomes. While some outcomes are atypical relative to the norm, I consider all to be natural outcomes.]

          Incidence data suggests that TG has a wider occurrence in males than in females and I am more knowledgeable about this condition. Therefore, this speculation will be largely focused on TG in males. I do not intend to dismiss TG in females, I am simply trying to keep the level of complexity in this piece manageable. Thinking about biological factors in males who are TG it seems to that a definitive answer is unlikely simply because such an answer would require experimental research on humans, which would be unethical to perform in the first case and would never be permitted by a human subjects review board even if some scientist or group of scientists had no ethical qualms about performing the research. The animal alternative will not provide a definitive answer because animals aren’t human beings and generalization from animal studies to humans will always be open to challenge, especially in something as unique as human sexual identity.

What is left then? I would suggest that the next best thing to controlled, experiments on humans is what’s often called a natural experiment. These are unplanned, unintentional events that often provide a source of data that would otherwise simply never be available.

For example, there is the case of David Reimer. Reimer was born a male along with a twin brother. Shortly thereafter, the two brothers were taken for circumcisions. The operation on David was badly botched. After consulting with “experts” on sex and development, David’s parents decided to have him surgically modified to be structurally female. From that point on he was reared as a girl and was on estrogen therapy appropriate to developmental needs. At an early age David began resisting his status as a girl and insisted that he was a boy. By the time that s/he reached the age of 14, the parents gave up and explained what had actually happened. From that point forward, David did everything that was within his power to reverse what had been done to him. He subsequently lived as a man as implied by the name David that he took for himself. Unfortunately, David ended his own life at age 38 (more here). There are apparently a number of such failed natural experiments, but David Reimer is the best know because he decided to allow all the details of his case to be made public.

What this natural experiment clearly suggests is that there is no significant socio-cultural contribution to sex identity. You cannot have a cleaner test of the socio-cultural hypothesis than a young child surgically modified to conform to external female morphology, estrogen therapy and socialization during childhood as a girl. Even if one argues that the parents weren’t fully committed to the path they had chosen, the influences marshaled to affect a change in sex identity were far greater than can be imagined under any set of typical childhood circumstances. The likelihood that the parents weren’t fully committed to making this natural experiment a success seems remote. They were convinced that it was possible by doctors who were supposed to know about these things. They chose to embark on the recommended course of treatment, which for all practical purposes was irreversible once the surgical procedures to remove the male testes and modify the genitalia was completed. They, no doubt, gave the project their best effort knowing that there was no going back. It just didn’t take.

Another natural experiment that has bearing on some of the issues is that of individuals with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) [more here]. The cells of which these individuals are comprised either do not have receptors for testosterone or do not respond to the hormone. The default morphology in such cases is female. When this occurs in a male fetus, the outcome is a child that is genetically XY or male and whose external morphology is female. Such individuals do not, however, have the internal female reproductive organs. In other words, a male genotype and a female phenotype, at least in most observable respects.

Individuals with CAIS are reared as girls and the parents and the child are often unaware of the presence of the condition until puberty. Many of these individuals do suffer psychological issues when they become aware of their condition but they do not grow up thinking they are male. Further, they almost invariably live as women and follow a typical female life course. They are sexually oriented toward men and usually marry. Many also become mothers and rear adopted children within their marriages. When there are other than temporary identity problems in these cases, they seem to be mostly accounted for by partial AIS (PAIS) in which the male child is born with deformed or incomplete genitalia. In such cases, the insensitivity to testosterone is not total. In some such cases, they may be surgically modified to be female depending on the status of the genitalia.

What this natural experiment suggests is that sex identity is not a simple product of DNA or genes. The outcome in CAIS is, for all practical purposes, a woman with male genes. These genetic males have female physical features, female sex identity and a female sexual orientation (i.e., toward males), which seems to be the human default condition. A cell biologist, Bruce Lipton, argues that DNA directly controls nothing and these cases appear to bear him out. Lipton argues that DNA is simply a blueprint for various proteins and that like any blueprint it is not self-activating. DNA in a cell’s nucleus must be turned on or activated before it will respond and produce a protein. What turns it on, according to Lipton, is a signal that is external to the cell. Such signals attach to a receptor on the surface of a cell and cue the cell to send a signal to the appropriate DNA sequence or gene in the cell’s nucleus to activate it. Testosterone clearly seems to be a signaling chemical that can activate sex related genes and modify some cellular functions. In the absence of the external signal, the genetic sex of a male remains unexpressed.

Sorting out the particulars and understanding the mechanisms and the variations may be possible by a careful study of natural experiments. The two types of cases discussed above seem to clearly rule out socio-cultural factors and simple genotype. The answer to the questions about TG in males will probably be found in exploring natural experiments that represent the middle ground between these two types of cases. It appears that the middle ground is probably formed by individuals with PAIS. What seems probable is that in TG males, sex hormones in their role as external cues that activate genes will be critical.

In TG males, testosterone production is adequate for activating the genes that modify the fetus to follow a male line of morphological development. However, there apparently are further functions for testosterone that are in whole or part not carried out. It seems likely that the critical function is related to a signal to the cells, especially the neurons in the brain, masculinizing the male fetus. Several possibilities follow but do not represent an exhaustive list:

1.              The testes fail to produce a sufficient quantity of testosterone during a critical period of brain development.

2.              The testosterone production of the testes is adequate but blocked or neutralized by some interfering chemical during a critical period of brain development.

3.              There is some interference with the sensitivity of the testosterone receptors on neurons by an outside agent during a critical period of brain development.

4.              Testosterone production is normal, there is no external agent interfering and the cell receptors are functioning normally but the timing of the testosterone release must match closely with a critical period in brain development and the timing is off.

5.              Normally, there is an additional surge of testosterone in male babies perinatally or immediately postnatally. There might also be a failure of this late surge or variable levels of weakness in it that could affect brain development related to sexuality.

 In any of the proposals above, the outcome is likely to be variable depending on a variety of factors. The outcome could be the default (female sex identity) resulting in a transsexual condition. The outcome could also be only a partial conversion of the default female sex identity to a male sex identity (mixed sex identity) resulting in a range of TG associated outcomes.

The speculative hypothesis put forward here is that TG males arise from hormonal signaling gone awry. The errant signaling is likely to be largely, if not wholly, related to testosterone, especially too little hormone or weak sensitivity to the hormone at the wrong time. It seems likely that the explanation for TG females might also be found to be related to errant testosterone signaling or receptor sensitivity that occurs too late in the gestation process to affect morphology but could still cause neurons to activate DNA with male sex identity functions. It seems likely that TG males and females are due to errant androgen biology. In the former, this is probably due to a deficiency of some sort and in the latter probably due to an excess of some sort. It also seems likely that there would be fewer TG female outcomes simply because the default biology is female and should thereby be more robust and less susceptible to errant hormone signaling.

Genetic activation, to one degree or another, of biological sex identity probably has limited but necessarily some biologically based behavioral implications. There is some pretty clear evidence from evolutionary analysis that there are some basic differences in male and female reproductive strategies that lead to differences in behavioral styles. For someone who has some degree of sex identity associated with the morphologically opposite sex, the greatest behavioral impact will be through socialization. Much of socialization takes place through social learning, which is observation based. The most critical factor in observational learning is attention to models. Thus, sex identity might be considered an attention orienting variable. For example, a male with a female sex identity, in whole or part, will to some degree be biologically oriented toward attending to female models. This is not unlike the priming that a fetus’s brain receives to focus attention on language models to facilitate acquisition of language in its developmental environment.

The content that makes for femininity is largely socio-cultural and will vary by time and place. An individual with a focus of attention for female behavior will through observation or social learning acquire some degree of those behaviors and attitudes associated with the female models in his or her life. The strength of this biological orienting response will affect how strong or weak are the learning conditions. A further impact on the strength of the learning will be governed by whether or not the environment supports and reinforces the learning of feminine content. In the case of TG males, there should be variability in the strength of sex identity both for male and female aspects. This should result in variable degrees in the attention orienting response to both male and female models. Combine this with variability in the environmental support for or disapproval of attending to and imitating cross sex models and there exists the potential for a wide range of outcomes ranging from fantasy male femaling (to borrow a term from Richard Ekins) to medically orchestrated sex change, which in fact is what is seen in TG males.

In sum, the hypothesis is that a male’s sense of sex identity is determined at the biological level and is related to hormonal signaling. When this signaling goes awry, TG males result. It seems likely that the errant signaling is related to diminished androgen signaling at a critical time or selective cellular insensitivity such as in neurons to androgen signaling at a critical time or more generally. The degree to which the signaling goes awry accounts for different degrees of expression seen in actual TG males. That femininity and masculinity are learned expressions of gender is, no doubt, largely true. However, it is also proposed that the focus of attention needed to readily acquire expressions of gender through observational learning has a biological basis in one’s sense of sex identity. Finally, attempts to socialize against one’s biological sense of sex identity, as in the Reimer case, will be met with resistance and will likely fail.

Why We Believe

          As a psychologist I have often asked myself, why people seem to easily commit to belief systems? This predisposition is clearly evident in a wide range of human activities. It includes things as diverse as religions, conspiracy theories, political ideologies and pseudo-scientific theories.

Albert Ellis’ rational-emotive theory (see also Foundations sub-section Part I) makes a useful distinction between what he calls rational and irrational beliefs. The former have some objective basis and depend upon evidence. The latter have no empirical basis and their adherents usually have a strong emotional investment in the belief, which is largely supported by faith in its correctness. Ellis’ theory rests upon two assumptions about human nature. First, we have a biological predisposition toward irrational thinking, e.g., over generalization and illogical association. Second, one of the major tasks of socialization is to establish a system of beliefs. It is a major developmental task because belief systems help us interpret our experiences, organize our thoughts and observation and make decisions to act.

The second assumption helps to explain why we adopt beliefs systems. They are to varying degrees useful schema for imposing order on our world, understanding the events in our lives and guiding our behavior. The first assumption indicates why many of the belief systems we adopt are irrational and without empirical foundation.

What might be the basis for the assumed predisposition for irrational thinking? Michael Gazzaniga found evidence, in his research on the brain, for what he calls the Left Brain Interpreter (LBI). Gazzaniga thinks that the LBI is a function of the brain acquired through evolutionary selection pressures. The LBI evolved because being able to organize and explain experience has survival value. Having an explanation for a phenomenon, even an incorrect explanation, makes it easier to interpret and respond quickly. If our beliefs lead to successful responses more often than not, this success would give an ability to use explanations to quickly evaluate and respond survival value. While it is often the case that our beliefs lead to successful responses, such success doesn’t necessarily make them valid. However, we usually take success as evidence confirming the correctness of our belief. For example, if you believe that people who look different aren’t trustworthy and are potentially dangerous, you will avoid contact with such people. If you then find that you are seldom assaulted, you will probably attribute your safety to avoiding contact with people who look different from you. Of course, the absence of assault experiences may be due to entirely different reasons but it will be attributed to the belief that motivated your avoidance behavior.

Since we have a strong disposition to formulate explanatory beliefs about our experiences, why do we so often formulate inaccurate and incorrect beliefs or explanations? This happens in part because evolutionary pressures favored those who quickly formulated explanations about experiences. The day-to-day struggle by our predecessors to survive allowed few opportunities for reflection. In the evolutionary environment that led to human beings the quick-witted were usually survivors and the reflective were often someone’s dinner. Thus, we acquired a disposition to formulate beliefs or explanations on the basis of little or no information and what information we had was frequently incorrect.

Frank Barron, a creativity researcher, pointed out many years ago that his research suggested that an inability to explain something made most people anxious or uneasy, which of course provides an incentive (anxiety reduction) to conjure up an explanation or accept some proposed explanation. This is possibly a motivational component to the evolved predisposition to create explanations. Barron found that most people would accept almost any explanation rather than live with uncertainty. He also found that among creative people the opposite was generally true. In short, a small minority of people would rather live with uncertainty than accept a dubious explanation. Barron would probably agree with Steven Pinker, a contemporary psychologist, who has suggested that the human mind frequently functions less like a chief executive and more like a “spin doctor” that is always busy creating post hoc explanations for our decisions and actions.

 There are many examples of this near compulsion to create explanations in human history. One need only think about the many, varied and incorrect beliefs that societies have created to explain natural events, e.g., floods, volcanic eruptions, failed crops, plagues, etc. In many cases, these beliefs have led to behavior that, from our perspective, was irrational. An irrational belief arises in one or more individuals and if it has appeal is adopted by others and often becomes a cultural belief that is perpetuated through the socialization process.

Ellis contends that our tendency to think irrationally results in distortions, flaws, and inaccuracies in our thinking. Parents, peers, community institutions (e.g., schools, churches, political parties, etc.), and the media can introduce distortions into our belief systems. Not only are distortions possible in commonly held beliefs, but personal aspects of our belief system are also prone to distortions that result from our own faulty thinking. Cognitive psychologist Yaakov Kareev’s research has identified one particularly important source of distortion in human thinking. His research has demonstrated a tendency in humans to find positive cause-and-effect associations among events. In fact, he found that people are more likely to see a positive association between two observations than a negative association even when a valid negative association is present. When we attempt to understand an event, we can usually only identify a few of the apparent components of the event. Further, due to limitations in our working memory capacity, we can only consider a small number of the apparent components at one time. Kareev and his associates have shown that our strong predisposition to find positive associations between things that appear to be associated with an event increase as the number of variables in working memory decreases.

There are differences between people in working memory capacity due to differences in cognitive abilities and due to differences in temperament, which make some people more susceptible than others to seeing false connections between events. Anyone who is susceptible to anxiety may experience a reduction in working memory capacity because anxiety has been shown to reduce working memory capacity. As the size of working memory decreases the likelihood of finding false positive associations increases. A predisposition to find positive associations among things we observe and experience has positive benefits, such as, making it easier for a young child to make associations between vocal sounds and environmental stimuli during language acquisition. It also makes it possible and even likely that we will develop cause-and-effect associations that are erroneous. This tendency to make erroneous cause-and-effect associations is sometimes called magical thinking and is most clearly reflected in superstitious and delusional behavior. In addition to our susceptibility to magical thinking, there are many other common errors in thinking that we are prone to make. In fact, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini has investigated and compiled a catalog of errors in thinking common to human cognition.

Finally, Gazzaniga indicates that once a belief is established it is difficult to change it. There are several reasons beliefs are difficult to change. First, we find it easier to think of evidence for rather than against a personal belief; that is, validating evidence is easier to recall than contradictory evidence. Second, we also have a strong tendency to look for evidence that supports our beliefs and to ignore evidence that does not. Third, when we encounter ambiguous evidence we are disposed to interpret that evidence so that it supports our beliefs. Finally, when we are confronted with evidence that directly conflicts with our beliefs, we are inclined to discredit the evidence rather than change our beliefs. The single best antidote for irrational thinking that we have developed is the scientific method.