Friday, January 29, 2010

This is your brain on politix

The piece below was originally part of a longer post I wrote in September 2009, but I decided it didn't really belong in that post, which was already more than long enough. As you probably know, I don't normally "do" politix on this blog, but some things just need saying. I do think it's a shame that disagreement over politics can be so bitterly divisive, but I guess that's part of what makes online life so "interesting."

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We have to get past this notion of politics-as-Super Bowl, where you root for your team and I root for mine, and all that matters is which team wins, and thus there's no hope (nor even any real reason) for conciliation on either side. If we don't defeat that, it will defeat us.
~ Steve Salerno, writing on
SHAMblog about President Obama's State of the Union speech 

A few months ago I read a fascinating book called Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend, by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D. (Prometheus Press, 2008). I think the book offers insight into the ruthless and power-hungry among us – politicians, corporate tycoons, and even some selfish-help/New-Wage gurus. (The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout may give more insight into the latter, but I haven't read it yet so I can't say for sure.)

But I promised you politix in my little prelude, so I'm sticking to that for now. In a section on 'feel good' politics (pp. 187-192 of the trade paperback edition of Evil Genes), Dr. Oakley cites a brain imaging study by psychologist Drew Westen and his colleagues at Emory University. The study took place at the time of the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential race, and involved two groups: fifteen committed Democrats and fifteen equally committed Republicans. Participants were hooked up to MRIs to monitor their brain activity. Each group was presented with incidents in which "their" candidate appeared to contradict himself, as well as similar instances in which the opposing candidate appeared to contradict himself, and similar examples regarding a more "neutral" target, such as actor Tom Hanks, who is such a nice guy that most folks, regardless of politics, seem to like him.

Then the participants were asked to give opinions about their candidate, the opposing candidate, and the neutral target, based upon the information they had just been given. All of them, Democrats and Republicans alike, found a way to put a positive spin on "their" candidate, despite the ostensibly damning information, and they also found a way to put a negative spin on the "other" candidate. As Drew Westen explained in the introduction to his own book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,* they clearly saw the opposing candidate's inconsistencies and contradictions, rating him close to an average of "4" on a 4-point rating scale. For their candidate, on the other hand, the ratings averaged closer to a "2."
As for the neutral target, their conclusions were more balanced and seemed to be based upon the information they'd been given. None of that is terribly noteworthy, but what was noteworthy was the difference in brain activity when emotions were at stake. Dr. Oakley writes:
When this "emote control" began to occur, parts of the brain normally involved in reasoning were not activated. Instead, a constellation of activations occurred in the same areas of the brain where punishment, pain, and negative emotions are experienced (that is, in the left insula, lateral frontal cortex, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex). Once a way was found to ignore information that could not be rationally discounted, the neural punishment areas turned off, and the participant received a blast of activation in the circuits involving rewards – akin to the high an addict receives when getting his fix. In essence, the participants were not about to let facts get in the way of their hot-button decision making and quick buss of reward. "None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," says Westen. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."
On the other hand, when participants had no particular emotional investment in their opinion – as with statements concerning Tom Hanks – a completely different process occurred in the brain. It was a more straightforward, rational process, involving only the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning as well as conscious efforts to suppress emotion. 

Oakley writes that Westen's study was the first to describe the neural processes underlying political judgment and decision making, though the significance of the findings ranges beyond the study of politics. One obvious takeaway lesson is that all of us are far less rational than we often like to believe, as Dr. Oakley writes:
...simply looking at the research results, one must conclude that people's first emotional response about what's wrong, who is to blame, or how to proceed, particularly in relation to complex issues, must always – always – be considered suspect. There is no simple algorithm for teasing rationality from emotion. An ardent Democrat or Republican, a dyed-in-the-wool communist union organizer, a young devotee of Scientology, a Palestinian suicide bomber, or a KKK grand kleagle could each read the above paragraphs and think, I'm not irrational – it's those other idiots who can't see the obvious. But we all have pockets of irrationality, some large, some small, no matter if we are mathematicians who make our living doing proofs, wealthy philanthropists, or stay-at-home housewives.
This research definitely raises the question of how the brain scans might differ between, say, livid Obama critics who originally protested his September 2009 speech to school kids but admitted that they changed their minds after reading or hearing the speech, and livid Obama critics who read or heard the speech but continued to grumble that it was "indoctrination," that the original speech had been "cleaned up," and that Obama has sinister hidden agendas for the US. Or, for that matter, the respective differences in the brains of those who thought his January 27 State of the Union speech was either (1) masterful and even brave, because he dared to criticize the Supreme Court; or (2) the same old crap from a "socialist" President who had the unmitigated gall to publicly criticize the Supreme Court; or (3) a pretty good speech overall but still not necessarily a harbinger of real change in this country. (I'm in category number (3), by the way; I thought it was a good speech and an eloquent plea for bipartisanship, but I rather suspect that we're in for another round of the same old politix. Call me jaded, but that's pretty much my default mode, though I would love to be proven wrong.**)

And Westen's research certainly sheds some light on why many folks are crowing triumphantly about Scott Brown's recent victory in Massachusetts, claiming that "the people have spoken" in that state about what they think of Obama's health care plan; and why many other folks are more easily able to see that Massachusetts already had a cushy state health care system in place, for which Brown himself voted. (For the record, I think the national health care plan(s) currently before us stink, being unthinkably costly and offering the worst of everything for everyone but the insurance companies. Something has to be done, but this ain't it.)

Let's face it: We all have an endless capacity for rationalization, especially when it comes to our politics or other belief systems. We all rationalize. I do it. You do it. The proud, patriotic, we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-health-care-plan folks who love to bash "the libtards" do it. Progressives do it. Conservatives do it. Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Green Party folks do it. For that matter, skeptics and believers do it. (Birds and bees and even educated fleas probably do it too, at least to the extent that their cognitive hardware will allow, but we just don't understand their respective languages yet enough to really tell.)

Sometimes, agreeing to disagree is the best option, and it really can be done without childish name-calling or contemptuous dismissal of the other person.

Not that this is going to keep me from my own childish snarking about the stuff in the New-Wage/selfish-help/McSpirituality industry that I find snarkworthy, mind you, but I just thought I'd put in my two-cents' worth about politix.

* Regarding Drew Westen's book, some have criticized him for going beyond reporting on the data, and suggesting that politicians can use his research to their advantage, or, as one reviewer on Amazon put it, "actually encouraging political candidates to explicitly rely on fallacious red herring tactics in political debate."

**As for that controversial Supreme Court decision striking down part of a campaign financing reform law that no lesser a Republican than Senator John McCain co-sponsored, perhaps we need to, as a widely quoted AlterNet blogger put it, "rid ourselves of "the perverse notion of corporate personhood."

On January 28, syndicated newspaper columnist Clarence Page published a good piece on corporate personhood as it relates to human rights historically and currently. He notes:
If the populist Tea Party movement is truly worthy of its touted “populist” crusade against Wall Street and other powerful interests, it could find common ground with President Obama's call to curb runaway political spending — unless the Tea Party believers think corporations are people, too.
Good point, Mr. Page, but I think it's going to go over a lot of folks' heads.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

D/s, I love you

Warning: Today's topic is very adult in nature, so if you are easily offended by such things, I suggest that you skip this one.
I have always believed that what two or more consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedroom, kitchen, back yard swimming pool, or dungeon is their own business and no one else's, even if some of their activities would make Dana Carvey's Church Lady purse her lips and say, "Well, isn't that SPECIAL?" But what if they blog about their sexual activities nonstop or otherwise make their private lives very public? The Church Lady might not approve but it's still NBD, in my book, because there's a lot of that going around, and this isn't a sex blog, most of the time.* But what if someone uses his kinky sex play as part of a New-Wage/selfish-help shtick? What if he claims that his quirky activities are not just a fun way to get off, but also a means of learning and teaching powerful life lessons?
Well, that's when he walks right into my Whirled.

I can hear the wheels turning in some of your heads now. Capitalize on one's kinky love play by convincing others that it is deeply relevant to their own business and personal lives? "Genius!" I can hear some of you saying. "Why didn't I think of that?"

Well, Steve Pavlina, owner of the Personal Development for Smart People blog, author of a book by the same name, and "active member" of the Transformational Leadership Council (TLC),** did think of it. As you may recall, Steve was featured briefly on my Whirled last July when he was going on and on about being in Bermuda for the Top Seekrit TLC summit. (My pal Duff McDuffee also blogged about Steve (and a few other New-Wage gurus) in September. Do read Duff's post, if you haven't already.) As it happens, another TLC meeting began Wednesday, January 20, in Puerto Rico, and will culminate this Sunday, January 24, which is Cosmic Connie Day, aka My Birthday. Steve Pavlina is in Puerto Rico with this gang of New-Wage elites, and once again has been Tweeting about it, as he did last July. He wrote of hugging a dozen TLC-ers upon his arrival in humid PR, and apparently a lot of them have been visiting his hotel room as well, as evidenced by this Tweet:
Going to visit a rainforest tomorrow for the first time ever. Lots of different insects have been visiting my hotel room to say hi.

But what does that have to do with kinky sex? Not much, probably, but you know how I get sidetracked sometimes. Anyway, in a PS that I later added to my July 2009 post, I mentioned Steve's foray into the wild world of "polyamory," which is a sophisticated social-anthropological sounding way of referring to an arrangement whereby one or both partners in a marriage or other close committed relationship get to boink whomever they want, and everyone is cool with it.

Steve first announced his polyamorous intentions at the end of 2008, saying that was what he was going to focus on in his personal life in 2009. One got the distinct sense that his wife, Erin, was not nearly so enthusiastic about the new arrangement. Around the time that he decided to explore polyamory, Steve apparently also became involved with promoting the "Man Transformation" products by David DeAngelo, aka Eben Pagan, which teach men to transform themselves so they can get attractive women. Announcement of the Pavlinas' separation and impending divorce came towards the end of 2009.

And then Steve was off to the races, bound (oops, poor choice of words, as you'll see in a moment) and determined to become a real player in the field of enlightened promiscuity...I mean, "intimacy abundance." He got a fashion makeover and new hair color and 'do that would have driven those wild and crazy guys, Georg and Yortuk Festrunk, mad with envy, and must surely have attracted many big-breasted foxes to his lair. Life was just getting better and better for him.

It got even better when, after what must have been weeks of intense self-exploration and mulling over how best to take advantage of being a single guy again, he discovered the world of dominance and submission, aka Dom/sub, aka D/s. He first wrote about this at length on his January 2, 2010 post (scroll down to 'Alternative Relationship Styles'). He further explored the topic on January 4 and then again on January 7. "I really love my life!" he enthused on his January 4 post.

In case you haven't guessed it, Steve is a Dom, and is currently exploring a relationship with a "consensual sex slave." Although so far he has shielded her identity, it seems he's fairly bursting at the seams to tell more. Recently he tweeted:
I can't share a status update because nothing happening in my life right now is PG-rated, but she sure is yummy!
In his blog posts, he goes into a great deal of rationalization about the dynamics of the Dom/sub relationship. "It should be abundantly clear," he writes in his January 4 post, "that D/s can be a tremendous growth accelerator, assuming you approach it with such an intention."

So, obviously, this is about much more than just getting off with yummy sex slaves. It's also about personal growth and business development, as Master Steve 'splains in even more detail on his January 7 post, which you really must read. At one point he expounds upon why a partnership of non-equals can work as well or better than a partnership of equals. He posits two different scenarios, in which a business owner either has a free slave to do the owner's bidding, or a free manager who tells the owner exactly what to do. He concludes:
...So would you agree that all else being equal, you’d be more likely to succeed as an entrepreneur if you could start your business with either a free slave or a free manager, assuming they’re competent? And if you can see in advance that you’re likely to succeed, wouldn’t you be more willing to dive in and try it? Wouldn’t you also be willing to stretch and take more risks in your business?
Now consider this. Would these businesses also be good experiences for the slave and the manager? Could you fathom that they might also benefit tremendously from it? For example, what if the slave is, in real life, someone just starting out on their career path, and even though they work for free, they gain tremendously valuable experience. This “slave” is essentially an intern. Similarly, the manager could be thought of as a mentor or board member.
Many variations are also possible, whereby the slave and manager could easily share in the rewards of the business.
Hopefully you get the idea. The point is that a partnership with an unequal power structure can have some serious advantages, and it could very well turn out much better than a partnership with two equal partners who share responsibility for all decisions and actions in a more balanced way.
Well, this is essentially how a D/s relationship works behind the scenes, except that instead of trying to build a business, the partners come together to help each other grow as human beings.
Although it looks asymmetrical on the surface, D/s actually has a very balanced way of fostering new growth experiences for both partners. One simple reason this happens is that it reduces the risk of failure. It also creates a dynamic whereby if a failure experience does happen, it’s no big deal.
So there, you naysayers. And before you go all snarky or judgmental about this whole Dom/sub game, Master Steve admonishes you:
Perhaps an even more important point is to be careful not to dismiss a potential new growth experience out of hand. Be cautious about judging what you’ve never experienced or what you’ve experienced only in a limited way. If you’ve never experienced a particular dynamic firsthand, it’s safe to say you don’t have a clue what it’s really like. If you cast judgment from the outside looking in, all you’re doing is limiting yourself. I think it’s better to keep an open mind about that which you’ve never tried. Don’t buy into the social conditioning that encourages you to pre-condemn with prejudice. Our society cannot progress much until we drop such limiting thoughts.
And just for good measure, he repeats the lesson on his Twitter page:
Educate yourself first before forming an opinion on something with which you have little or no experience.
Anticipating critics, he notes on his January 2 ("2010 Focus") post:
I’m looking to see how much maturity my readers can summon in terms of watching me explore this path without going kittywompus, especially since other people are involved. In the past I’ve been largely disappointed, but perhaps the New Year will bring a new level of genuine acceptance and curiosity...
... Commence with the criticism now if you must, but just remember that ultimately it’s all about you anyway… and a harsh reaction could be a sign of a repressed desire to be dominated. Or perhaps you just need to be introduced to a particularly skilled sadist to soften you up a bit. ;-)
I noticed that the "Related Articles" at the end of his January 7 post begins with these two items:

  • Domination and Submission
  • Million Dollar Experiment – Submissions Rolling In (Shouldn't that be "submissives rolling in?")

  • Comments are turned off for the D/m posts, but you can discuss it all on the Steve Pavlina forum. Here's the link to one thread.
    Now, I don't know about you, but I think Steve's pla
    n to mix his kinky sex life with his personal-growth shtick really is sheer genius.*** For one thing, he could very well be on the verge of tapping into a grievously under-served market: the conspicuously enlightened porn consumer. A few years ago I suggested the possibility of New-Wage porn movies (it was really just a passing mention on this post; look for the paragraph on "Spiritual Sinema"), but Steve Pavlina has actually had the courage to go forth with a New-Wage porn lifestyle.

    More importantly, I believe he is providing an excellent working model for the ideal relationship between a selfish-help/McSpirituality/New-Wage guru and his/her devoted followers. I think the Transformational Leadership Council should be very proud. At their Puerto Rico summit Steve is scheduled to speak about building traffic. And he should know about that; after all, as he told his friend Joe "Mr. Fire" Vitale when they were hanging together at the TLC party last year in Bermuda, his blog gets two million visitors a month.
    Maybe if more of the Transformational gurus take a page from Steve's book, they can divert some of that easy money from the multi-billion dollar porn industry into their own coffers. The new FTC regs and other factors may have rained on the parades of some of the gurus, and Sweatgate may have also put a damper on the festivities, but all is not lost. There's still that prurient-interest angle!

    By the way, Steve's most recent blog post, as of today, offers another lesson that many selfish-help gurus or wannabes surely need: How to Build a Stronger Ego. Once again he mentions that he is at the TLC meeting in Puerto Rico, and notes that several of the TLC-ers...
    ...gushed over how much they liked my new hair. By making a small change to my avatar, it created a fun shift in the way people relate to me, even people who already know me. But prior to making this change, I was one of those guys who could criticize others for fussing over their appearance. It took me a while to realize that I was giving my power away to others so as to avoid taking full ownership of my own avatar’s appearance.
    As the Church Lady might say, "We like ourselves, don't we?"
    So let's hear it for Master Steve and his courageous decision not only to spiff up his avatar by getting new hair, but, more importantly, to plunge headlong into the world of D/s.*** And all of you harsh critics out there, before you go all kittywompus or something, just remember that the Master has your number. It's painfully obvious that you are harboring a deep desire to be dominated. Get on your knees now and thank him for being brave enough to show you the light. And be sure to gush over his new hair while you're at it.

    PS ~ On a related note, here's a little blast from the past: a page from my old work, Cosmic Relief, showing that once again I was ahead of my time. The "ad" was a take-off on a business book that was a bestseller back in the 1990s, The Discipline of Market Leaders, by Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema (the Amazon page is for the expanded edition published in 1997). Click on the pic for an enlargement. (And I must apologize for the relative crudity of the comp above, but I'm sort of busy today and didn't have time to lovingly labor over every pixel, as I have done at times in the past. But hey, it's the thought that counts. And I don't know about you, but I'm kind of feeling inspired to break out into a verse of 'Rose Tint My World.')
    PPS ~ For even more enlightened sexploitation, check out ACCESS Consciousness. (The link is to one of my most recent posts about ACCESS, but the post contains links to my earlier articles on the topic as well.)

    Update, February 2010: Oh, dear. Nothing pokes holes in a cozy little master-slave relationship like Cupid's invasive arrows. Yes, Steve Pavlina and his sex slave have officially fallen in love with each other, and are apparently no longer so much into the D/s thing. In his February 12 blog post Pervlina reveals his former slave's identity and shares with us that she is a major Trekkie who beats the hell out of Star Trek Trivia, that is. No word on whether they utter Klingon endearments to each other in moments of passion (thank Goddess for small favors). Anyway, so much for that New-Wage porn lifestyle.

    * As I said above, this is not a sex blog most of the time, but believe me, that is not from lack of material. I've learned more than I care to know about the private lives of some of the New-Wage luminaries I write about. Let's just say they're a randy bunch and don't mind "sharing the love," whether they're in an allegedly monogamous relationship or not. At least Steve Pavlina, for better or worse, is more honest and open about his shenanigans than most of that crew.
    ** Incidentally, when I checked the Transformational Leadership Council site a little while ago, I noticed that Steve Pavlina is still not listed as a member in good standing, but then, neither are others who say they are TLC members. At least I haven't seen their names there on the times I visited. Perhaps TLC just doesn't have the resources to keep their web site updated. On the other hand, James Arthur Ray's
    name was on the TLC membership roster at one time – he was listed as a founding member – but apparently his name was removed some time ago. (He was listed at the time I wrote about the TLC back in July, but that, of course, was before Sweatgate.)
    *** I feel compelled to add a huge sarcasm alert here, just in case there was any doubt.

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