Tag Archives: Prefrontal Cortex

Am I Responsible for my Thoughts?

You have heard it said … “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  But I say to you that anyone who so much as looks with lust at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matt 5:27-28

At first glance it would seem that what Jesus is saying in this famous passage is that a man is responsible for the thought of lust that passes through his head at the sight of a beautiful woman.  Presumably this man is responsible for all his other thoughts as well and with this responsibility comes shame and guilt if the thoughts are wrong.  That is certainly the way I understood the passage growing up.  This is a very shame-based way of viewing the mind and places a heavy and unnecessary burden on impressionable minds.

This is true because the mind is constantly churning forth thoughts.  Anyone who has meditated quickly figures this out.  This is especially true for someone who is new to meditation.  Sitting still with closed eyes, trying to concentrate on a mantra or trying to clear the mind is a very difficult task.  Seemingly random thoughts will sneak in here and there and you will follow them until you remember that you were supposed to be meditating.  This will happen over and over again.  Performing this exercise will reveal how difficult and how much effort it takes not to identify with these thoughts.

Meditation will also reveal the several layers or parts to the mind.  There are at least three.  The first is the part that churns forth ideas without morals.  This is sometimes called the id or the ego or monkey-mind.  Sometimes this is associated with the limbic system or the primitive, reptile brain that seeks pleasure and tries to avoid pain.  This part of the mind lives in the moment and does not think ahead.  The second,  is the part of the mind that chastises the self for the lust, envy, anger that the first part thinks about.  This part is sometimes called the super-ego or conscience.  This is probably associated with the prefrontal cortex or modern brain that can think ahead and moralizes and judges.  Finally, there is the part of the mind that observes the other two parts.  This is sometimes called the true-self, the atman or perhaps the soul.  Most of the time the observer is asleep or identifies itself with one of the other two parts.  Meditation, is a way to keep the observer awake but that is a topic for another blog post.

In the shame-based universe, a person is responsible for their thoughts.  But how can a person bear the responsibility for something he has no control over?  Would it not make more sense to say that a man is not responsible for the initial thought but is responsible for how he reacts to that thought.  After all, it is possible to reject a thought or not act on a thought.  When this happens, this is the observer part of the mind not identifying with the thought churning part of the mind.  Adopting this way of looking at one’s thoughts takes practice in order to believe the truth of it but it does alleviate a great deal of unnecessary guilt and shame.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Psychology, Shame

Sin and Shame

I have heard it said that the actual definition of sin is not “committing a morally bad act” but rather “missing the mark”.  In other words, sin is not an act that makes you a bad person necessarily.  Rather, sin is a mistaken act or an act that takes you where you actually do not want to go.  Another way of saying this is that sin is coming short of the glory of God.  These two definitions of sin are vastly different.

The morally bad sin implies shame.  The act is morally bad and therefore the person who commits the act is morally bad.  Accordingly, the sinner really wants to commit the sinful act (through the urging of the ego and the limbic system).  The sinner knows that it is bad and proceeds to commit the act anyway.  After the act is committed the sinner feels guilty and seeks forgiveness.  Psychologically, the Super Ego (which is the Prefrontal Cortex overlaid with shame) tells the sinner he is morally wrong for sinning.  This is a cycle of shame.  This is also a cycle of addiction because shame does not feel good and cannot be sustained forever.  If bad feelings continue over an extended period of time the ego and the limbic system kick in again and attempt to relieve the consciousness  of the bad feeling.  It then seeks out the short-term fix which is the sinful behavior.

According to the “sin as missing the mark” way of thinking, the sinner thinks that committing the sinful act will bring about some kind of desired result.  This desired result is typically a short-term benefit (as in the case of addiction).  Again, the sinner is encouraged to act by the ego or limbic system which hijacks consciousness and thinks in terms of short-term gains.  After the act is committed the ego and limbic system are satiated and relinquish control of consciousness.  At this point the prefrontal cortex assumes control again and recognizes that the short-term benefit is not worth the long-term ramifications.  If shame is removed from the process, the sinner realizes the mistake and seeks to rectify it.  Sin becomes a learning experience and if properly educated the prefrontal cortex is strengthened and the true self becomes more awake.  This is the path to enlightenment.

What I am attempting to describe is how shame corrupts morality.  In order for an act to be moral it cannot be motivated by shame.  Nor can it be rectified by shame after the fact.  Morality has to come from the heart.  It has to be an actual desire and goal.  It cannot be something one does to avoid humiliation.  This is inauthentic and devoid of joy.  In order to enter into the fullness of God’s glory one must truly enter into the fullness of the true-self.  This can never be done through shame because shame sets the self against the self.  Whereas, the lines of demarkation are blurred between the true-self and God.  Their interests and motivations are ultimately aligned and perhaps cannot truly be described as separate entities.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shame

Two Feelings I Don’t Want To Feel: Missing Out and Humiliation

There are two feelings I don’t want to feel, the feeling of missing out and the feeling of humiliation.  I have come to understand that both of these feelings are two sides to the same coin which is shame.  The explanation is a bit circular.  Humiliation is a terrible mental and physical feeling.  It is the feeling of being judged negatively by others and agreeing with them.  It is the feeling of knowing I have no worth and do not deserve respect.  Further, it is the feeling that I deserve to be disrespected because I have no worth.  Because I fear feeling humiliation I am reluctant to try new things, take risks and otherwise “put myself out there.”  So I make safe choices and stay within my comfort zone.  But within this comfort zone I feel like I am missing out.  So I stay within my comfort zone until it becomes stifling and intolerable.  At that point I reach out for any sort of change.  Because the change is new and different and not very well thought out I often fail and when I do I feel humiliated.  When I am humiliated I seek safety which then repeats the cycle.  This cycle is shame.

Generally, shame is the painful feeling that I am not worthy of respect.  This is not merely a mental conclusion but also a physical, bodily sensation.  There are two typical ways I deal with shame: hiding my shame from others and distracting myself from my own shame.   I hide it from others by pretending or acting to be something other than myself.  Implicit in this action is the belief that I am contemptible and if others knew the truth about me they would reject and abandon me.  I distract myself from shame through addiction.  I drink alcohol, I have taken drugs, I bite my fingernails, I masturbate to pornography, I gossip, and I try to make other people feel shame.  All these distractions are a very short-term fix that produces an immediate form of pleasure.  This is the nature of addiction.  The desire for distraction comes from the primitive brain called the limbic system.  The aim of the limbic system is survival via the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure.  This aim creates the addictive desire.  Unfortunately, the modern brain called the prefrontal cortex, kicks in once the limbic system is satiated and goes to sleep.  The prefrontal cortex then makes me feel shame for giving in to my addiction.  The prefrontal cortex, whose aim is to plan for the future and preserve the society that protects me, knows that a society of addicts is no society and will fall apart.  My prefrontal cortex tells me that by giving into addiction I am responsible for the impending downfall of civilization.  I believe this and then I feel ashamed and unworthy of respect.  This feeling is painful and will eventually wake up my limbic system who will then recreate the addictive desire to distract myself from them.

This describes the cycle.  I do not want to feel humiliated so I seek safety.  I then feel stifled and reach out of my comfort zone.  When I do this I feel humiliated.  This cycle of shame is painful.  I hide it from others and I distract myself from it through various addictions.  The solution is difficult but achievable.  It starts with becoming aware of the process and that is the aim of this blogpost.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shame

Thoughts On Quotes from Bill Maher and Penn Jillette, Atheism and Religion In General

I heard Bill Maher say this on his show “Real Time” and it got me to thinking.

Explain to me how a book that is written by God, who is perfect, there’s so much–it’s pro-slavery, pro-polygamy, it’s homophobic, God in the Old Testament is a psychotic mass murderer–I mean, there’s so many things in it. I always say to my religious friends, you know, if a pool had even one turd in it, would you jump in? — Bill Maher

First of all, Maher is proposing a straw man argument.  Yes, there is quite a bit of stuff in the bible that is contradictory to modern morality and even to itself at times.  To use that as a strike against the Bible assumes the Bible is supposed to be interpreted literally.  Some people espouse this viewpoint and to them, I assume Maher’s argument is difficult to circumvent.  But certainly all Christians do not agree that the Bible is to be interpreted literally.  So this argument cannot really be used to refute Christianity or (as I suspect Maher is implying) religion in general.

Second this argument is painting religion in a purely intellectual framework.  I would argue that religion makes more sense on the emotional and spiritual levels than it does on the intellectual.  To me, religion seems to come from the limbic system whereas science and logic come from the prefrontal cortex.  That is, religion comes from an emotional, primitive part of the human conscience.  It comes from the place that wants to connect to its source, the infinite unknowable that is reality.  I suspect those inclined towards religion feel an emotional need to connect to this unknowable something.  In this way, faith is a feeling more than an intellectual belief.  Because this something is unknowable, I see religion as a tool created to relate to that something.

This brings me to another quote I ran across recently from Penn Jillette:

If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again. — Penn Jillette

This statement might be true but I would argue religions are products of the culture in which they arose.  We live in a big complicated universe that we don’t understand.  At the same time we feel more comfortable when we understand things so we frame the unknowable according to things we understand and what we understand changes over time and from culture to culture.  That is why Christianity is different from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and even Scientology.  Religions are different because the infinite unknowable is unknowable.  Science is the same from culture to culture because the material world is knowable.  As such I do not see Penn Jillette’s statement (even if true) to be a particularly effective in terms of undermining the case for religion.

English: Penn Jillette at Rio Las Vegas

English: Penn Jillette at Rio Las Vegas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Really, the only honest position is agnosticism because we cannot know for sure what is the true nature of reality and if there is something more than material existence.  But agnosticism is neither interesting intellectually or satisfying emotionally.  So those inclined towards religion choose religions (usually) connected with the culture they live in.  That does not mean that religion is wrong or untrue.  It means we are trying to have a connection with the infinite unknowable on some level.

The final point I’d like to make is that it is probably impossible for a person inclined towards religion and a person not inclined towards religion to find common ground on an intellectual level.  This is not something that an honest debate can solve in most cases.  This is precisely because religion is emotional at its core.  I suspect atheism is also emotional at its core in the case of Maher and Jillette given how they argue their points of view.  I have respect for anyone’s belief.  It seems that statements like Maher’s and Jillette’s come off a bit snarky and judgmental.  They seem to observe religion from a purely intellectual vantage point and from there it is easy to claim religion is nonsense.  I certainly do not want to say they are wrong for doing this. I guess I would rather they not support their beliefs by attempting to shame those who disagree.

1 Comment

Filed under Religion

Defining the Mind *

There are many theories on the mind and many different terms used to describe how the mind works.  For example, the term “Ego” can mean different things in different contexts.

Dictionary.com lists six distinct definitions for ego, the first two of which are the ones most commonly used in popular culture.  Although these terms are commonly used (sometimes interchangeably) they are quite different.  The first definition is:

the “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.
This definition, I believe, refers to the type ego that you might hear used by Yoga instructors, Eckhart Tolle, or Depak Chopra.  This ego is the “false self” that separates itself from the “true self” to cope with and survive in reality.  This ego is often referred to pejoratively as a problem to be overcome or a sickness of some kind.  This is true in a sense because this type of ego often is maladaptive and creates more problems than it originally set out to solve, but this type of ego is also a defense mechanism protecting the self from external assaults.  I believe that was the original intent behind bringing the ego into existence.  It’s an ally that comes to help but then takes over.
The second definition of ego is:
the part of the psychic apparatus that experiences and reacts to the outside world and thus mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment [also known as the ‘super ego’].
This is the Freudian definition of ego I learned as a psychology major in college.  This ego works in concert with id and the super ego.  The id is the primitive part of the mind that covets.  The super ego is the moralistic part of the mind that councils not to listen to the id.  The ego is the part of the mind that decides between the id and the super ego.  This ego seems more like beneficent administrator than the false self ego.
There are other systems used to define and classify the parts and functions of the mind.  There seem to be some correlations between the “false self” ego, the id and the limbic system (for example).  They all seem to covet and do not do not seem concerned with moral issues.  But the limbic system and the id do not think in terms of language and logic but rather emote, whereas the false self ego can be critical and judgmental as well as emotional.

Similarly, there appear to be parallels between the super ego and the prefrontal cortex.  Both of these concepts can think logically and use language. The prefrontal cortex is able to receive the urging from the limbic system but then use reason to decide whether it makes sense to act on it.  The super ego challenges the id in a similar but slightly different (more moralistic) way.

The Freudian ego and the true self do not seem to be similar concepts.  The Freudian ego is similar to the prefrontal cortex in that it receives advice from the id and the super ego and decides the best course.  The true self is mostly awareness combined with compassion and a small amount of will.  This is more of a spiritual concept.

Then there is thinking and feeling overlaid on these structures.  Thinking is labeling, conceptualizing, making into words, reasoning, planning remembering.  Feeling is a physical sensation in the body in the body connected to an emotion such as happiness, sadness, fear.  Feeling is more primitive but it is also more honest.  Thinking is more advanced but can engage in falsehoods.

The conclusion seems to be that there are many overlapping concepts use to describe the mind and its functions.  But they do not fit together seamlessly and can cause confusion.  The reality is that all these concepts do overlap in a manner that is probably not understood completely by any one (or perhaps all) schools of thought.  It might not even be helpful to design an entire system to encompass them all.  Where would that get us anyway?

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized