Rating the debating

So I’ve spent a few months now feeding my brain some academic candy. Might not sound like fun to most folks, but I find it curiously soothing. I’ve listened to a lot of brainy people – some talks are just that – talks – others have been debates. And in the spirit of celebrating this peculiar sort of hobby, I thought I’d give you all a run down of the best of the best. All available on youtube so if any of them intrigue you, look ’em up.

The “A” Team Leaders

1. Robert Sapolosky: The one who got me hooked on listening to open college classes on the ‘net. Totally free and in their entirety. His credentials? PhD. Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University. Research Associate at the National Museums of Kenya. The attraction? His gentle humor, the way he weaves his personal experiences as a primatologist into his lessons in such a way that it does not feel like a class at all, the fantastic way he has of teaching complicated subjects, making this complexity so personal that you can easily connect lessons to the real world, his intense love and respect for field work and his connection to the natural world. The videos that hooked me? Human Behavioral Biology (Stanford class, 25 lectures).

2. Bart Ehrman: PhD of Divinity from Princeton. He is a New Testament Scholar and, while no longer a Christian himself, contributes brilliantly to an understanding of ancient times and the evolution of the Christian faith within the context of the ancient world. I had absolutely zero interest in anything historical until I heard Bart speak. Also a man of incredibly gentle good humor. He is also extremely knowledgeable, a great teacher and an unparalleled debater. To get me from “ho hum – ancient civilization” to “Say, this is some pretty interesting stuff!” is pretty hard, but after listening to Bart, I began to wonder if I could learn to read Greek and began thinking about how awesome it would be to read these ancient manuscripts in their original languages.

The rest of the “A” Team (great listening, just not quite as good as Sapolsky and Ehrman):

1.  Dr. Oliver Sacks. PhD in Neurology and professor at the NYU School of Medicine. Now well into his 80’s, he still teaches, practices medicine and writes books. Dr. Sacks was the physician whose work with victims of encephalitis was featured in the movie  Awakenings. A reticent man, but one with an eye for presenting the most intriguing case studies. I actually read many of his books before listening to him speak and I’ll pretty much read everything the man writes.

2.  Dr. Henry Marsh. PhD. Neuroscience. There is a fantastic documentary of his experiences working with a doctor who operated in an impoverished area of the Ukraine. It’s called The English Surgeon. Marsh pioneered the technique of doing “awake” brain surgery, which helps surgeons to operate on the brain without accidentally disabling some crucial area of the patient’s brain.

3. Paul Bloom, PhD. and Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science. His Yale introductory psychology class is excellent and available in it’s entirety on YouTube. He also has an wonderful dry wit that keeps the class interesting and relevant.

4. V.S. Ramachandran, PhD and Professor of Psychology and Neurosciences, UC San Diego. He’s a great speaker and he’s the inventor of a very low tech device called a “mirror box” that helps amputees recover from phantom limb syndrome. He has wide-ranging scientific interests and also is able to engage, without intimidating, his audience.

5.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD in Astrophysics. What can I say? Almost everyone knows him already. Infectious laughter, contagious curiosity, intelligence without pretension. Again, one who inspired me to become interested in astrophysics, a subject in which I had absolutely no previous interest. I can’t think of a better person to inspire young people to fall in love with science, not just as a practical matter, but as one that stirs the imagination.

6. Patricia Churchland, PhD in Philosophy. Professor of neurophilosophy at UC San Diego. I watched her give a book-signing talk once (in addition to many other videos) and she was so gentle with just everyone (even people asking questions that would make me go, “Oh for heaven’s sake! I can’t believe you just asked that!”). An amazing educator and someone who knows how to present philosophy in a way that is both exciting and accessible.

7. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Lutheran pastor who breaks every stereotype you might have about religion. Loved her book “Pastrix,” and love the fact that she talks about Jesus one moment and then says, boldly and honestly, that her “F” word isn’t always “faith.” She doesn’t preach “at” people and she is able to articulate her experiences in ways that resonate with real people. In this article, she says, “I speak like other people. Lots of people want pastors to be examples of shining piety. There are lots of pastors for those people. There aren’t many for people like me.”

8. Richard Feynman (deceased, but still speaking through the miracle of the interwebs 🙂 ), PhD in theoretical physics. OMG – if you’ve never listened to this man, you really need to give him a try. He was the kind of person that you would love to go discuss science with – over a beer, in a dive bar somewhere in a gritty neighborhood. You will fall in love with him, guaranteed.

9. Shane Claiborne. Social justice advocate and one of the founding members of the New Monasticism movement which advocates service to the poor, community and voluntary simplicity. He’s been a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq, worked with Mother Teresa and lives and works in a community he built up in an impoverished area of Philadelphia. He’s written a book that’s on my “must read” list called The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.

10. Rupert Sheldrake. PhD in biochemistry. Dr. Sheldrake is one of the leading consciousness researchers and holds a diametrically opposed position to Dr. Churchland in that he does not support scientific materialism. In other words, he is a scientific heretic with the knowledge to support his ideas,  the ability to articulate them and the courage to challenge scientific dogma.

11. Sir Ken Robinson. PhD. in Education. His contributions to contemporary issues with the education system make me want to get up and do a few fist pumps. His vision for what the field of education could be, as opposed to what it currently is, stirs the imagination and inspires people to re-think the whole structure of modern education from kindergarten through college.

So that rounds out my best of the best. Others I have listened to with various degrees of engagement:

1. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (evolutionary biologist and deceased journalist, respectively). Both are brilliant, witty and wry. (Warning for my Christian friends: Both are outspoken advocates for atheism.)  I enjoy what I can learn from them about science and history, but their atheistic dogma becomes a bit repetitive after awhile. I love that they advocate stridently for science education, unlike Ehrman and Churchland, but they seem to lack the ability to connect on a human level. I take the science knowledge and leave the dogma.

2. Steven Pinker, PhD. in experimental psychology. His area of expertise is linguistics and he is a very good speaker with some very interesting thoughts. I particularly enjoyed his short talk on The Language of Swearing. 🙂 I do get a bit distracted by his hair, though, so I have to listen and not watch.

3. AronRa. A very outspoken advocate for evolutionary biology (and by default, against creationism). No matter what your point of view is, however, when he focuses on teaching biological science and paleontology, you always pick up some interesting information such as why dogs have dew claws (hint: ancient dog-like ancestor 🙂 )

4. Dale B. Martin PhD. Along the lines of Bart Ehrman, he teaches the New Testament from a literary and historical point of view. You can listen to his entire Yale class here.

5. Reza Aslan. Yes he’s a Muslim who wrote a book about Jesus. Chill out. He also holds PhD in Sociology and is both a New Testament scholar and an articulate speaker with a great sense of humor and a good deal of knowledge regarding the ancient world. So you may not want to give him a listen if you are put off by his faith, but that does not take one thing away from his scholarship, which has been peer reviewed and published in academic journals.

6. The Dali Lama. Because he is just awesome. He manages to convey playfulness and peace simultaneously which is quite lovely.



Understanding addiction – an open letter to non-addicts

First of all, I apologize for the title. I don’t know if one can properly say “non-addicts.” There must be a better term for it, but unfortunately, I don’t know what it is.

Second, I want to frame this post as a primer for parents, spouses, siblings, friends and all those whose lives have been touched by an addicted loved one. (Geez, I fucking hate the term “loved one,” but again I lack a better turn of phrase.) In short, it is for anyone who has ever asked, “Why?” or “How could they do this to me?” or “Why can’t they just stop?” It is for those who have ever said this to an addict: “You’ve been clean for 17 years, for fuck’s sake! And now you are at it again? Are you crazy?” It’s for parents who have done all they can and hit the end of the rope. It’s for those who tend to stick self-righteous labels on addicts – labels that infer that the addict has some sort of character flaw that makes them “bad” or “criminal” or “weak.” And I’m going to leave out a lot of the big words that scare people away from scientific explanations, because the best articles on the subject are way too intimidating for people who just want answers.

Sooooo – long story summarized in three points:

Fact: The one thing science can’t explain is why some people become addicted and others don’t. People from “good homes” with loving parents who are engaged and involved in their kid’s lives become addicted just as easily as people who have shitty parents. A person is a system – just like nature, just like computers, just like politics, just like academia. They are a combination of environment and genetics, nature and nurture. And it isn’t just the variables. It’s the interaction between them. No living organism, no matter how simple it is, functions in a single-variable lab where you can push button “x” and get result “y” every single time. That only happens in science experiments which are very tightly controlled and do not in any way resemble anything that looks like reality (Neuroscience of Need: Understanding the Addicted Mind, Standford University).

According to the NIH approximately half of a person’s vulnerability to addiction is genetic. Half. The rest comes from the environment and, (dare I say it?), random chance. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong influence. Any other explanation is simply garbage, not based on anything but someone’s own personal opinion. To think otherwise is to believe that if you love someone, you are able to control their every move simply through the influence of  your own stunningly superior will. You can’t. And if your kid or spouse or parent has been lucky enough to avoid this problem, count yourself just that – lucky  – and check your self-righteousness at the door. You passed on good genes and somewhere along the way, unbeknownst to you, your “loved one” narrowly avoided meeting someone who would lead them down the wrong path. One single chance encounter or event – just one – and it all could have turned out differently. One genetic oooops, and your perfect, squeaky clean life becomes unrecognizable.

Fact:  Almost anything is capable of causing addiction, including food. Unsurprisingly, (duh), drugs which influence the brain cause changes in the brain. Refer to the Stanford piece if you want the technical explanation, but to boil it down, studies have shown that brain-influencing drugs cause you to grow all sorts of new shit in your brain and eradicate some of the old shit. The new shit it grows is related to learning and memory. The parts of the brain that deal with survival – the oldest and most primitive parts – are affected the most. In essence, the brain eventually associates the drug of choice with survival and grows more receivers accordingly.

What is more important to an organism than survival? As it turns out, nothing. The substance of choice has basically trumped our much over-rated pre-frontal cortex because the survival instinct is hair-trigger and the pre-frontal cortex is slower. Before the pre-frontal cortex can even say “Hey wait a minute!” the mid-brain has reacted as if it was about to be eaten by a fucking tiger. The mid-brain has all sorts of awesome chemicals it can release in milliseconds to react to life-threatening situations. These chemicals pump up the heart rate and re-direct the blood flow to the parts of the body that are required to escape becoming human tiger chow. Simultaneously, chemicals are released that cut off all the non-essential stuff like digestion, reproductive hormones and deep, introspective thoughts.

Someone who struggles with addiction literally – read that word again slowly…literally – reacts to drug deprivation the same way they would react if they were about to be eaten by a tiger. So I ask you, if you were about to be eaten by a tiger, how much time would you spend dwelling on whether running away would impact the opinions of your friends and family? Would you, in fact, devote a few precious moments to thinking, “Hmmmm. You know my mother might disapprove of this?” Would you ask yourself, “Gosh. If I run now, will it look bad on my resume?” Or, “Good Lord! What will the neighbors think?” Fuck no.

So the old ways of learning go out the window and the news ways of learning are all about the drug. Pleasure circuits are hijacked and re-directed. Normal survival instincts that deal with food, water and sex are obliterated and re-formulated to accommodate this new model. Worse yet, the part of the brain that deals with memory is fucked up. (Again, refer to the Stanford piece – although there are many, many other sources, this one summarizes a whole lot of shit in one article). It is so fucked up, in fact, that the memory of the pleasure derived from taking the drug becomes sweeter than the actual experience of getting high.  This should be easily understood by anyone who has ever grown misty-eyed about some childhood memory. Wasn’t Christmas grand back in the day? Conveniently you’ve forgotten the bits about how your sister threw a tantrum and ran your new Christmas tricycle into a retention pond. Conveniently you’ve forgotten staying up all night to put together your daughter’s doll house which came complete with directions that appear to belong to a small nuclear reactor. You forget that Uncle Fred was drunk and that mom was taking Valium and burning the Christmas dinner. You forget that the cat mistook your new sandbox for kitty litter. You forget all that stuff and just remember the warm, fuzzy feeling you had on Christmas morning and the soft glow of the Christmas tree and the pile of unwrapped presents under it.

Yeah. So you understand how a memory can trump a fact, (or even a bunch of facts), yes?

Fact: Relapse happens in any chronic disease, including diseases of the brain. This is not to say that recovery can’t be permanent. It can, but it may take awhile. Don’t expect someone to come out of a 30 day program and just get on with things. The reason it is difficult goes back to the whole Fact #2 bit. And triggers. Triggers are anything that remind a person of an experience they had when they were high. Now recall that the memory of being high is better than the actual experience in the physically altered mind of an addict. And a trigger can be anything at all – a song, a smell, a place, a thing, a person. This is the way the human brain learns – by association.

It works like this. Once when I was about 21 and very stupid, I drank tequila on New Year’s Eve. Quite a bit of it, actually. Around midnight alarm bells started going off in the part of my brain that was still capable of having a coherent thought and that thought was, “Oh my God. I am going to feel like shit tomorrow.” And then I had an idea: “Maybe if I eat something, the room will stop spinning.” It was a really bad idea, but it was followed by an even worse one. My desperate eyes lit upon the one party snack in the room that was a) untouched and b) did not require eating implements. That one thing was fruit cake. To this day, my brain associates fruit cake with spending the rest of a perfectly good evening clutching a dubiously cleaned toilet in the home of a college friend who I fervently hope I will never run into again. To this day, I cannot stand to be in the same room with fruit cake. It’s not rational of course, but this is a perfect example of learning by association. And of course pleasurable memories are similarly learned. If your brain believes that good things happen when you do “x,” you will do “x” as often as you can because you have learned that “x” brings you great pleasure and deep satisfaction. Just the smell of baking bread, which you enjoyed at your grandmother’s house when you were a child, makes you want to return to that place and that time that made you so very, very happy.

In the case of addiction, the trigger works the same way. It fires and your brain reacts. It’s learned. And like the trigger of a real gun, once its been is pulled, you can’t stuff the bullet back in the gun.  This study, for example, showed triggering images to cocaine addicts. The images were tucked in between normal, every day pictures of non-triggering images. The triggering images displayed for 33 milliseconds – long enough for the image to register subconsciously, but not long enough for the brain to process what it had seen. The image was never consciously digested, never reached the executive functions in the brain, never even hit the reasoning circuits. Yet addicts who had viewed the pictures with the embedded trigger images reported stronger cravings for cocaine after the presentation than addicts who had viewed a presentation with no trigger images. The rational, reasoning part of the brain never stood a chance. It’s hard to “just say no” after the part of your brain that houses the survival instinct has already said “yes” without even being aware that it had done so.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the perfect storm. Genetic predisposition plus random environmental events plus altered brain chemistry plus survival instincts plus altered patterns of learning plus altered memories plus subconscious triggers. If you’ve never struggled with addiction, you got lucky. If you know someone who does struggle with it, you owe it to them (and to yourself, in case you are predisposed to self-flagellation) to understand why it is so intractable and why it keeps coming back.

Can a person recover? Yes. Does it take a really long time? Yes. Do you have the right to judge? No.

Any other questions?

Suck it up, cupcake – a love letter to the self-righteously smug

Well, I’ve had this rant coming on for – oh, I dunno – fifty-seven years and counting, so I thought it might be therapeutic to get it out there in sort of a non-specific way, because it’s just kind of rude to go ’round putting scarlet “S’s” on people’s chests (however amusing that might be). So here goes.

Dear “Smuggies,”

It’s hard, isn’t it? Being surrounded by incompetent damaged people. That’s so terribly hard. Is it any wonder you cannot contain yourselves when so many people are ever so disappointing. Look at that one over there! Claims to be mentally ill. Ha! We all have problems, don’t we? Why just the other week – and you remember the day in vivid detail because it was just. . .that. . .awful – you pulled a hamstring at the gym, but you aren’t whining about it, for God’s sake. And that old woman over there. She’s carrying on about having spent her last dime trying to save her twenty year old cat. Now she can’t afford to eat. Well boo-fucking-hoo. She should have been more financially responsible and just had the damn thing put down now, shouldn’t she? And that obese woman laying in the hospital in a diabetic coma? Driving our health care costs up, she is. Where is the personal responsibility? All around you are broken people, right? The depressed, the drug addicts, the poor, the criminals, the unhealthy, the unemployed, the…the DEFECTIVES! They are everywhere and it is enough to make you so angry that you have to resort to. . .to. . . (oh you are just spluttering at this point) social media! And water cooler gossip! And nasty emails! You can’t help it. You need those “likes” from your fellow smuggies. It’s the only thing that gets you through the day.

I sympathize. Really I do. The burden of perfection is onerous. Just ask Jesus.

But there’s hope, folks. I’ve stumbled across a revolutionary new therapy called, “Suck it up, cupcake.”

Now trust me, this is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. It involves self-control. It involves temperance. It involves tough fucking love, but someone has to help you poor, suffering bastards. No matter how good your health insurance is, it just won’t cover Smug Therapy.

Here’s what will. It’s a 12-step program which stems from the (believe it or not!) great historical tradition of treating defectives. Kinda ironic, yes?

Step #1. First, of course, you have to admit you are a Smuggie. This is a very, very hard step because it goes against all the things you’ve come to believe about your own invulnerability. It attacks your identity. It calls into question the core beliefs around which you have built your self-mythology. But stand tall in front of that mirror in the morning! Look yourself in the eye and boldly assert, “Hi. My name is _____ and I am a self-righteous prick.” You must admit that you are powerless to control this aspect of your life and that you need help. It’s O.K. All of us have been there at one point or another in our lives. Most of us have struggled with this, (albeit usually in late adolescence, but it’s never too late to start to start on the road to recovery!)

Step #2. Turn your brokenness over to your Higher Power. Now if you think you don’t have one, you might want to repeat Step #1.

Step #3. Sorry. It’s contingent on successful completion of Step #2. Recognize that your Higher Power  has the ability to intervene when you are weak. You may call your Higher Power “God,” or  “the Universe” or “Simple Fucking Human Decency.” It doesn’t matter. Use it. That’s what it is there for. It can prevent you from hitting that enter key before you torch a bridge with your vitriol. Bridges are useful things to have handy. Some day you may need to get to the other side and you’ll be left on the river bank, scratching your head and thinking, “Shit. If that dumb-ass person hadn’t made me hate him/her so much, I might of had some help here.” Repeat step #1. Relapsing is part of the recovery process.

Step #4. Can’t say this one better than A.A. “Make a searching and fearless inventory of yourself.” Just write the shit down. The easiest place to start is with the times you’ve judged someone based on a stereotype or an assumption you have absolutely no way to prove using the scientific method of direction observation, testable conclusions and repeatable results. If you do not know, intimately and in detail, what a person is doing or not doing to help themselves and you judge them anyway, you should probably write that one down, mmmm-kay?

Step #5. Confess. This time you can’t use the bathroom mirror. This time you have to say it to another person. It is probably best to do this with someone who is not a Smuggie, but if you can’t find one, you probably need to start hanging out with a better crowd.

Step #6. I’m actually a little foggy on why this is a separate step, but A.A. says you should prepare to have your Higher Power help you to “remove your character defects.” It’s the “prepare” part that is a little unclear, but being a practical woman, I would suggest generous use of duct tape. Preferably over the mouth. The Higher Power helps those who help themselves.

Step #7. This also seems a bit like an extension of Step #6, but according to the manual, you should now humbly request that your Higher Power excise your shitty attitude. I think that the key word here is “humility.” Look it up.

Step #8. Now you have to make another list. This time you have to list the people to whom you have been a dickhead. This may take awhile so be sure to find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, set aside a block of time, make sure you have a decent stockpile of paper, writing implements and MREs handy. Bathroom breaks are permissible, but should not be used as an excuse to wander off. If you are afraid you can’t trust yourself, post a request to your friend’s list on facebook. You’ll need an accountability buddy with a cattle prod. You may be amazed at the number of people who are willing to help you stay on task!

Step #9. Ooooo – here’s the good one. Now you have to go to the people you on your list and apologize for being a dickhead. Believe it or not, this is harder for Smuggies than it is for alcoholics and addicts. Why? Because half the people who have been on the receiving end of your bullshit may not even be aware of it. This happens when either a) you condemned them to others but did not have the balls to take them on personally or b) you couched your snide remarks in some passive-aggressive linguistic wizardry that you could later blow off as “just kidding.” Perhaps you’ve even deceived yourself into thinking that you were “just kidding” or “deeply concerned” or “certainly justified.” You weren’t and you aren’t. Get over it and do the right thing.

Step #10. This is just a “rinse and repeat” step. It’s hard to admit that this will be a life-long process for you, but smugness is like any other addiction. There’s no magic bullet to stop it in its tracks. You will be doing this for-fucking-ever, so just suck it up cupcake.

Step #11. Develop a deeper relationship with your Higher Power. Self-consciousness = self-control. Unless, of course, you a congenital asshole in which case you may need professional help. And medication.

Step #12. Carry your message of hope and recovery to the world. You probably have surrounded yourself with people who still believe exactly the same things that you did. They are suffering and need help. Reach out to them, brothers and sisters, and let them know that they, too, can become compassionate, empathetic and grace-filled human beings. Pat them on the back, smile at them lovingly and tell them, “Suck it up, cupcake.”

Rant off /