Is our species still on this planet because we are equally wired for both kindness and selfishness/self-preservation? Someone was ‘kind enough’ yesterday to post the ScienceDaily December 9, 2009 article (included below) about the ‘goodness’ research coming out of Berkeley to an online group I belong to. Someone else responded with a comment that they disagree with this “theory”.
How does it happen that what was once considered theory comes to be known as fact? I wonder how long it took the ‘discovery’ that the sun was at the center of our solar system to permeate public thinking. How long did it take the ‘discovery’ that our planet is round to infiltrate common knowledge? Whatever people thought about the rotations of our solar system or the shape of our planet certainly had no affect on how things actually are in reality. So what is the process by which erroneous thinking becomes supplanted with new thoughts that directly contradict the old?
I could say that I staked my career on a losing hand of cards. I could say that even in light of what I have since come to understand about my own limitations, about the body-brain physiological changes that my mother’s severe abuse of me created. I understand now that dissociation happens to me on a regular basis. I understand now that the stress response systems within me were built in trauma and do not allow me to experience my life in ordinary ways. I understand now that going all the way before my brain’s language centers were built trauma changed how my emotional-social brain operates. But all of this new information that I have doesn’t change the basic fact that I staked my career on the stars while I walked down here in the mud.
I trained myself with a BA in psychology and a MA in art therapy specifically to work with sexually abused children on Native American reservations. THAT didn’t work. But I had to go through a PROCESS of learning and understanding how I fit into a world that I did not create.
I found that after the U.S. government rescinded its laws in 1974 that had been put into place to make sure that indigenous people within the borders of our nation did not practice their traditional spiritual beliefs, the tribal people where I lived had to resurrect their ceremonies and ancient teachings into the new world they found themselves now living in. It had been the intention of our government to disempower the people. What has been called ‘assimilation’ was nothing more than an invisibility cloak thrown over the true intention of genocide.
Our government was joined by private interest forces that were allowed to help destroy the tribal structure of our nation’s indigenous people through greed. Our government was also joined by religious interest forces that introduced the gangrene of sexual abuse into Native communities through boarding schools, which also operated to erase traditional languages, customs, beliefs and practices and destroy clan and family systems.
Included in the history of terrible abuse and trauma that was perpetrated against our nation’s so-called enemy, is a pattern of dishonoring treaties that should make any conscience-ridden nation so ashamed of itself it could not exist. But exist America does, in spite of these actions which to this day remain so buried, hidden, disguised, condoned and still practiced that it is amazing our nation can ignore them.
What does any of this have to do with me? As far as I know I have no indigenous American ancestry. What I did was take my newly acquired credentials, acquire a job as an art therapist on a reservation, and set to work to ‘help’ the little 2-10 year-old members of my 40 child caseload to ‘recover’. Of these children, all of them had been sexually abused along with being victimized by neglect and maltreatment, many from before they were born through drug and alcohol usage of their mothers. Seventy percent of my caseload were little boys.
What ‘good’ did I think I could do for these children? I had children on my caseload who could name 55 cousins they were sexually active with. I found that in many cases adults knew this was happening and ignored it. There were ‘rape gangs’ of older children who tricked or kidnapped younger children, taking them far into the woods to sexually initiate them, if they hadn’t already been molested from the time they were babies.
There were stories of children watching their father chop their mother to death in the household kitchen with an ax because he was on acid. There were stories of foster parents putting their own and their foster children to sleep at night by putting plastic bags over their heads until the children passed out. When the older children could be taught to do this themselves so that the foster parents could go out an party, guess what happened? While eventually the children were removed from these parents’ care, nobody ever prosecuted for abuse.
And on this reservation where it wasn’t uncommon for people to be killed by being buried alive, I found it got even worse. I had little children on my caseload whose mother had run away from their abusing father. The father’s parents went to medicine people and asked in retaliation that the spirits attack their grandchildren. The spirits complied. The children suffered through sickness and threat of death. And if all of this wasn’t bad enough, sooner rather than later these same ‘bad’ people asked that bad medicine be used not only against me (as the foreign intruder that I was), but also against all three of my children.
My response? I was fortunate to have the same ‘good’ medicine man I brought my caseload’s children to for assistance and healing perform ceremonies that removed this bad medicine from me and from my children. Then I turned tail and ran. I abandoned my work with the children, took myself and my own children, left the area and disappeared.
Before I left the area I did some serious questioning of people ‘in the know” about how and why the spirits could participate in this kind of evil. I was told that most of the spirits that Indigenous people have always been able to access through ceremony are neutral. They can be accessed as power to work either good or ill. The choice is within the humans who are the ones who ASK them, or COMMAND them to either help or harm others.
Yet for all of this, what I most often think about is something my then 7-year-old son told me one warm early spring day as he and I were walking down an old logging road through the forest. It was early on in my art therapist days on the reservation, and I was struggling with something that disturbed me greatly.
I asked my son, who was and is very wise, “What am I going to do if some day I am asked to work with some of the adults or older teens that are the perpetrators of these great harms against little children? I don’t think I can do it, and I don’t think I will be given the choice. Do you think there’s any hope that abusers can change?”
I wasn’t looking at my son while I asked him these questions while we walked. I was looking into the forest at the tiny little brilliantly green leaves that were sprouting from the trees. When I looked to my right my son was no longer beside me. I stopped and turned around to see him standing a ways back on the road in the sunshine with his feet spread apart, his hands resting on his skinny little hips, his head cocked to the side, staring at me.
“Well, MOM,” he said, obviously perturbed with me. “Don’t YOU KNOW?”
I turned around and walked back to him, standing in front of him I responded, “KNOW WHAT?” Obviously I didn’t have a clue.
“Well, MOM, you SHOULD know this! Everyone decides when they are in their mother’s tummy if they are going to be good people or bad ones. They’ve made that decision before they are born and NOTHING ANYONE can ever do is going to change them.”
I was stunned by his insistent sincerity. And only for a moment did I doubt him. “Well, honey, how can that be possible?” I wanted to know in my adult logical way. “Babies can’t make those kinds of decisions before they are born. How could they even have enough information to even begin to think about such things, let alone make such a huge decision that will determine the course of their lives?”
Again, as if amazed and almost disgusted with my ignorance, my son responded, “Mother, don’t you KNOW? Babies talk to the angels all the time they are in their mother’s tummy. They know what they are doing when they decide. Once they are born they will just be who they have already decided to be, and nobody, nothing, not even you, can change them.”
I have never been able to convince myself that my son didn’t know exactly what he was talking about. I strongly suspect that it is entirely possible that what he told me on that glorious spring morning was the truth.
It took another few years before I began to understand how pervasive and how powerful the bad choices could be.
This brings to mind my fascination with wolverines that I had as a child as soon as I found out this animal existed. Although I don’t think they lived in the Alaskan valleys or on the mountains anywhere near where my family staked claim to our homestead, certainly stories of them floated in the air around me in childhood.
I knew there was something special about their fur so that if a ruff was made out of it around a parka hood one’s breath would not accumulate moisture and freeze on the ruff. I know they were MEAN and people were afraid of them. I knew they were smart and could disarm traps intentionally so that humans could not catch them.
I heard they were the only animal that intentionally bullied others. I heard they could chase away wolves from their moose kill and then spray the meat so it stunk so badly no other animal could eat it. The wolverine was selfish. It wasn’t one bit hungry or interested in the meat. It just liked to be mean. Wolverines stayed alone, liked or needed nobody, and as far as I could tell nobody liked them. Wolverines seemed to embody powerful fear at the same time they were immune to it themselves.
Probably as a combined consequence of the terrible ongoing abuse I suffered, coupled with the fact that I had access to no information that would have helped me be able to THINK about anything that happened to me, I liked and admired wolverines even though I never got to meet one personally.
My fascination and respect for this animal continued to crystallize in my mind all the way through my 20s. I searched for and read everything I could find about them. In some mythological, unconscious way I seemed to understand that perhaps the only being strong enough to overcome the badness that was my mother would have to be badder than her. Wolverines seemed to be the essence of bad. I knew my mother had nothing on them. If my mother ever met one, she would NOT win that battle. That thought delighted me!
Few probably equate the potential for badness in animals that we project onto humans. Nobody is going to teach or influence a wolverine to be ‘good’ or ‘nice’. Wolverines occupy an environmental niche that belongs to them. They were always, to me, about the opposite of what I could imagine tame, domesticated or civilized could be. “Take a walk on the wild side” named both who this animal was and who it would always be. Even now, there is something comforting to me about knowing that there is a legitimate place for badness and a place it belongs.
My mother might have been vicious and incredibly abuse and mean, but even though she shared these characteristics with a wild beast, she had NOTHING on a wolverine. At the same time I know that no degree of early developmental trauma could change any other animal into a wolverine. They ARE born to be mean. That’s their nature.
Early trauma CAN change the course of physiological development of humans. As researchers clarify the wiring in humans that operates in our goodness, it is also clarifying a critical area of our body that can be changed through trauma in our earliest developmental stages so that these systems will operate differently from normal.
What this tells me is that we need to listen to the newest information about how trauma influences human development every step of the way. We have to consider the largest, broadest picture we can about the influence that traumas have not only on individuals, not only on families, but within cultures and societies. As resiliency factors are removed through trauma at the same time that risk factors are increased, the intergenerational affect that trauma has on human development can actually physiologically reduce the human capacity to both experience goodness and to choose it.
I see this as fact, not theory.
Social Scientists Build Case for ‘Survival of the Kindest’
ScienceDaily (Dec. 9, 2009) — Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.
In contrast to “every man for himself” interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.
They call it “survival of the kindest.”
“Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others,” said Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.”
Empathy in our genes
Keltner’s team is looking into how the human capacity to care and cooperate is wired into particular regions of the brain and nervous system. One recent study found compelling evidence that many of us are genetically predisposed to be empathetic.
The study, led by UC Berkeley graduate student Laura Saslow and Sarina Rodrigues of Oregon State University, found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are more adept at reading the emotional state of others, and get less stressed out under tense circumstances.
Informally known as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, nurturing and romantic love, among other functions.
“The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene,” Rodrigues said.
The more you give, the more respect you get
While studies show that bonding and making social connections can make for a healthier, more meaningful life, the larger question some UC Berkeley researchers are asking is, “How do these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers?”
One answer, according to UC Berkeley social psychologist and sociologist Robb Willer is that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. In one recent study, Willer and his team gave participants each a modest amount of cash and directed them to play games of varying complexity that would benefit the “public good.” The results, published in the journal American Sociological Review, showed that participants who acted more generously received more gifts, respect and cooperation from their peers and wielded more influence over them.
“The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,” Willer said. “But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”
“Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish,” he added.
Cultivating the greater good
Such results validate the findings of such “positive psychology” pioneers as Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research in the early 1990s shifted away from mental illness and dysfunction, delving instead into the mysteries of human resilience and optimism.
While much of the positive psychology being studied around the nation is focused on personal fulfillment and happiness, UC Berkeley researchers have narrowed their investigation into how it contributes to the greater societal good.
One outcome is the campus’s Greater Good Science Center, a West Coast magnet for research on gratitude, compassion, altruism, awe and positive parenting, whose benefactors include the Metanexus Institute, Tom and Ruth Ann Hornaday and the Quality of Life Foundation.
Christine Carter, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center, is creator of the “Science for Raising Happy Kids” Web site, whose goal, among other things, is to assist in and promote the rearing of “emotionally literate” children. Carter translates rigorous research into practical parenting advice. She says many parents are turning away from materialistic or competitive activities, and rethinking what will bring their families true happiness and well-being.
“I’ve found that parents who start consciously cultivating gratitude and generosity in their children quickly see how much happier and more resilient their children become,” said Carter, author of “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents” which will be in bookstores in February 2010. “What is often surprising to parents is how much happier they themselves also become.”
The sympathetic touch
As for college-goers, UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that the cortisol levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they got to know each over a series of one-on-one get-togethers. Cortisol is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety.
Meanwhile, in their investigation of the neurobiological roots of positive emotions, Keltner and his team are zeroing in on the aforementioned oxytocin as well as the vagus nerve, a uniquely mammalian system that connects to all the body’s organs and regulates heart rate and breathing.
Both the vagus nerve and oxytocin play a role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, for example, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching one other through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety.
Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many of the female participants grew anxious as they waited to be touched. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, the vagus nerve was activated and oxytocin was released, calming them immediately.
“Sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch,” Keltner said.
The same goes for smaller mammals. UC Berkeley psychologist Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney, a professor of biological psychiatry and neurology at McGill University, found that rat pups whose mothers licked, groomed and generally nurtured them showed reduced levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, and had generally more robust immune systems.
Overall, these and other findings at UC Berkeley challenge the assumption that nice guys finish last, and instead support the hypothesis that humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion.
“This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct,” Keltner said.
Adapted from materials provided by University of California, Berkeley. Original article written by Yasmin Anwar, Media Relations.