Implications of the Social Brain Hypothesis: Integrated Indigineous Wisdom and Neuroscience
In December we hosted Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a GP, geriatrician, psychiatrist and neuropsychologist, currently the Executive Director of Coyote Institute in Maine, USA, an organisation whose purpose is to bring the wisdom of indigenous cultures into contemporary medical practice. Lewis is himself the son of a Lakota father and a Cherokee with Scottish blood, mother. The central message of the talk was the importance of the stories we live by, especially those which are shared with our communities. Living in community is the major way in which change occurs, and it is this cultural perspective that Lewis uses in healing his patients, especially those with mental problems. Lewis focused on the importance of narrative, and defined the necessary elements as: being coherent, succinct, logical, causal (because x then y) and having a distinct time line. We were given an exercise in which we were asked to describe a routine experience to a dyad partner in the room. We were then asked to embellish this experience by bringing in mythical and fantastical elements. The second version of the story was eminently more memorable than the first. Stories communicate important messages and important messages are better communicated by stories, especially in groups. Personal change Lewis said, happens within a social environment. People cannot change on their own, their change needs to happen within vessel, a community. We belong in communities. Ideas take on a bigger dimension within communities and the intersubjectivity in these circumstances, creates the social approach to consciousness. Communication in community happens not only with words, but with music, dance etc. Mirror neurones facilitate the congruence within a group which shares experiences, which explains why certain experiences such as prayer and meditation are stronger in groups. Western culture stresses the powerful hero whereas the American indigenous culture stresses the powerful community. Lewis works with healing circles and his experience shows the power of the intention of a circle. In those he sees miraculous healing, or as he put it – outcomes which surprise doctors!
The Porcupine is a Monkey, or, Things Are Not What They Seem
Our November speaker was Iain McGilchrist, well known to the SMN and beyond, for his major work The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale 2009). Iain has an academic background both in the humanities and in medicine and is retired Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal & Maudsley Hospital, London. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Stellenbosch in South Africa. He is also author of a number of books. The title of this evening’s talk is also the title of a book he is working on, in which he combines both the theories he developed in The Master and his Emissary and the current worrisome state of the world, a result of our ways of thinking. The Porcupine is a Monkey refers to a study undertaken by Anglo-American neuroscientist Marcel Kinsbourne who investigated how the two brain hemispheres interpret truth differently. The study involved the presentation of a syllogism to participants, in which the middle statement is false. The syllogism goes as follows:
All monkeys climb trees
The porcupine is a monkey
The porcupine climbs trees.
Participants were asked the question on three different occasions: once in a normal state, once with the right hemisphere temporarily inactivated and once with the left hemisphere temporarily inactivated. In the normal state and with the left hemisphere inactivated, the participants declared the conclusion as false. But when the right hemisphere was inactivated, the conclusion was declared as true. Even when participants in that state were asked whether porcupines are monkeys, they would confirm they knew they were not. The concluding statement was declared true because, as they said, it ‘was written on the card’.
This experiment supports the theory developed in Iain’s book that the left hemisphere is focused on the literal, the detail, the explicit, etc whilst the right hemisphere looks at the wider picture, the implicit, contextual etc. The study indicates that conclusions reached without the input of right hemisphere thinking lack common sense, a characteristic of right hemisphere thinking.
Iain pointed out that the current left hemispheric thinking pervasive in all levels of society is causing major problems at personal, societal and planetary levels. Some of the examples given as evidence include for instance the fact that we pursue happiness only to become less happy over time, that we allow machines to take the drudgery out of work, while work becomes ever less fulfilling and that for more than half a century we are pursuing measures designed to promote equality only to find progressively greater inequality. We go into Iraq and Afghanistan to achieve global security and stability, we develop tools to predict and monitor the stock market to avoid a crash, we make medical staff fill in forms so that ‘there will never be another disaster’ with the result that on all the examples above, the exact opposite occurred. Further example is the over-sanitisation, leading to greater vulnerability to infection and conspicuously, being so eager that all scientific research result in ‘positive findings’ that it has become progressively less adventurous and more predictable.
It was an insightful and sobering talk and we were left hoping that in some not distant future, right hemisphere thinking will emerge and the Master will hopefully take charge of his Emissary.
Scientific Heresies: Heralds of a Nondualistic Mythology
In October we had a lucky chance to host Charles Eisenstein, who was in the UK for only a few days! Charles is a writer and speaker focusing on themes of human culture and identity. He is the author of several books, The Ascent of Humanity, Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible. Charles started by explaining that rather than material science, the problem of the contemporary paradigm is materialism, which is too narrow an understanding of what the material world actually is. In reality, all the qualities we see in the spiritual, things like sacredness, intelligence, consciousness etc, exist in matter as well. The exclusion of spirit from matter ins an intellectual effort and mirrors the removal of sacredness of the world around us. This separation makes possible the kind of economics and society we have, in which exploitation of the other, rather than compassion, is the rule. If we saw the other as connected, and respected this connection, we would not be able to use and exploit him/her the way we do. We would by default take into consideration people’s needs and wants and society would be very different. As Charles pointed out, the truth is that we are part of a bigger reality and in it a bigger order in the universe, beyond our human intelligence, exists. Our human purpose is not the only purpose. Indigenous people understand this and they experience the world as animated. What has happened to us that this knowledge has been crushed? In our world we have become used to scientists looking for and expecting certainty. This deeper knowledge however does not come with evidential certainty, and this makes it easy prey for the challenges of the current paradigm. Information and data emerging from this deeper knowledge is interpreted in a way to fit the myth of separation and so fit the expected model. Paranormal events, near death experiences, synchronicities, water memory etc, are looked at with hostility by mainstream science, yet they are an indication of an order in the universe beyond our intelligence.
But, says Charles, things are changing. Politicians don’t believe their stories any more. The ideological core is hollowing out. Personal and societal identity is breaking down. Practices being developed on the margins, such as consensual decision. constellation work, social technology, truth and reconciliation etc, suggest that we are in transition. The story is changing. We are weaving a new story as a receptacle for truth. The message is positive, we cannot escape what is happening!
Making Time for Matter and Mind
This month we had the good fortune to hear SMN Chairman, Bernard Carr. Bernard is Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Queen Mary, University of London, and has a long-standing interest in the relationship between science and spirituality and also in psychical research. Bernard started by telling us that time is and always has been a great mystery, which has occupied the minds of great thinkers through the ages from Augustine to Einstein. Bernard’s own particular angle in relation to that mystery are the questions “What is Now?’ and ‘Why am I Me?’. Science, he says, cannot answer these questions because mind or consciousness is not factored in. Three new books have been recently published about the question of Time, and typically none of them included the issue of Consciousness. Bernard argued that if we are to understand the mystery of time, consciousness has got to be part of the explanation.
Bernard presented a brief historical overview of various philosophers who put forward their view on time and its flow, from the Greeks to Galileo. Newton’s theories, however, were more extensively explained and we heard that he introduced the ideas that time and space are fixed and the future can be predicted. More recently, a change of understanding occurred with the introduction of Einstein’s General Relativity theory space and time became the space/time continuum, and time became a 4th dimension. Then came Quantum Theory in which Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle means that we can know the position or the speed of a particle, but not both at the same time. The final theory, Bernard says, has got to marry both Relativity and Quantum and resolve the real question, is space fundamental (General Relativity) or is it time (Quantum)?
Bernard then addressed the three main areas of interest in his personal quest for understanding time:
- Flow of Time
- Specious present
To explain the flow of time which physics has been unable to do so far, Bernard quoted a theory by C. D. Broad, which invokes an additional fifth dimension ‘ mental time. The explanation is complex, and fascinating. Precognition, an area of special interest for Bernard, was demonstrated with a few examples of his personal experience. And we then heard about specious present, which is defined as the minimum time span needed for the awareness of our experience of time. Specious time is variable and we have personal experience of this variability in moments of fun when time goes fast or moments of anxiety when time seems never ending. Bernard proposed that specious time may be a property of consciousness possibly varying among the living beings on the planet, and potentially, one can imagine even for cosmic bodies, which may mean that the Universe itself may be conscious!
The ultimate explanation then has in his view, to include mind or consciousness as an additional dimension of Reality. The inclusion of this dimension will resolve a number of issues at present not understood by conventional physics. There followed an animated discussion, with very interesting questions and it felt hard to bring this session to a close at 10pm.
The New “Mental Illness” Epidemic – are psychiatric manuals to blame?
In August we explored the world of psychiatry and the root of the current situation in which a diagnostic label is found for more and more mental conditions, and more and more drugs are prescribed. The ‘bible’ used by psychiatrists in the US and the UK is the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), issued by the American Psychiatric Association which is now in its fifth version. The mental disorders listed there rose from 106 in 1952 to around 370 today. Has human nature changed so much in the last 60 years, or does the problem lie elsewhere?
Dr. James Davies is a senior lecturer in social anthropology and psychotherapy at the University of Roehampton and a practicing psychotherapist. He is also co-founder of the Council for Evidence-based Psychiatry an organisation launched earlier this year dedicated to looking into the world of psychiatry and psychiatric drugs. Last year he published the bookCracked: why psychiatry is doing more harm than good in which he exposes what is going on in mental health in the UK, which sees ever more people being diagnosed with one or other mental condition for which a drug is prescribed. These drugs are often ineffective, and sometimes actually harmful. We heard about the regulations which approve these drugs to come to market, which are patently not fit for purpose, often based on research which is feeble and compromised by not being independent.
The main focus of this evening’s presentation was the DSM and the research James conducted with the authors in order to understand how this manual was put together, and how the disorders were identified. We heard details o interviews which revealed the unscientific nature of the process in which decisions were made by agreement or votes. In other words, opinions rather than evidenced and demonstrated facts! One of the members of the team acknowledged that ‘there was very little research, and much of the research that existed was really hodgepodge ‘ scattered, inconsistent, and ambiguous’. He went on to say that ‘the majority of us recognised that the amount of good, solid science upon which we were making our decisions were pretty modest’! And yet, it is based on this manual and others of the kind, that millions of people are medicated, sometimes out of their mind! It was a very interesting (albeit depressing) presentation and for those interested in the work of uncovering what is going on in the world of psychiatry, click on the website below.
Modern Pagan Witchcraft: from occult anomaly to Britain’s largest New Religious Movement in fifty years. Contemplating the past and anticipating the future of Wicca
Melissa Harrington, our July speaker, is a Wicca Pagan or a Witch and her PhD research focussed on esoteric religiosity, especially within Paganism. We heard about her own journey looking for a container for her own mystical experiences first within Catholicism and then successfully within Wicca. Melissa gave us an overview of Paganism, the religion Britain gave to the world. Although comparatively small in numbers, it is said to be currently the fastest growing religion in Britain. Paganism is an umbrella term for a variety of religions, and we were taken through the list which includes Druidsm, Shamanism, Wicca, Witchcraft etc.
Modern Paganism can be said to date from 1954 when Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today which described the beliefs of followers of a revived Pagan religion. Gardner founded a community and introduced a string of High Priestesses which included Doreen Valiente. During that time Wicca was seen as marginal and not as a serious religion. Academic interest started to grow with the work of Edward Teriyakian (1972) Wouter Hanegraaf (1996), Ronald Hutton (1999), and Christopher Partridge (2004). Paganism is now accepted as a manifestation of perennial esoteric religiosity. Paganism allows for the numinous re-sacralisation of the feminine. Pagans are tolerant, have positive moral code and humanistic ethics and say there are different paths up the mountain. It is a religion which has no Church, no authoritative texts or doctrines and the role of teachers is to impart their own knowledge of esoteric teachings. Currently even initiations are no longer practised. For this reason Melissa feels that the freedom that is core and a strong part of the attraction of the religion, is also potentially the cause of its future demise. The system is totally unregulated and the people involve in it do it for love rather than money. It is possible though that a more institutionalised form of Paganism may emerge, or the area may become even more diversified with more mystery schools and eclectic practices.
An Andean transcendental Anthropology in the Andean Cosmology
In June we welcomed Juan NuΓ±ez del Prado, a Peruvian anthropologist who came to London as part of his tour of Europe where he teaches the ancient spiritual wisdom of the Incas. Juan was a distinguished academic from 1974 to 1997, when he decided to change his life and focus exclusively on teaching what he learned from the spiritual masters he has been training with since 1979.
The Andean Indians conceive power through love, action and intellectual knowledge, or feeling, acting and thinking, which corresponds with what anthropologist Edward Burnett says defines the culture of a community. The principle at play in human psychological development he says, is the recapitulation of the process of cultural development, in the same way the ontogenetic recapitulates filo genesis in biological evolution.
The development of consciousness within The Andean tradition, is determined by the level attained by individuals according to the Path of Seven Steps. This classifies a person according to his/her charismatic ability to lead
1.a small community
2.a middle size group
4.humanity (eg, Dalai Lama, Ghandi, Mandela)
5.to be a perfect healer (capable of healing everything and everyone without exception)
6.Enlightened (glowing, as the Buddha glowed, as Christ and Mohammed did)
7.The equivalent of our Father, God (a human with divine capabilities such as Christ)
Juan drew correspondences of these seven levels with other spiritual systems which also incorporate seven levels of attainment such as the seven churches in the Apocalypse of St John in the Bible, the seven levels of Gurdjeff and those of Integral yoga, which leads him to conclude that the hierarchical development of consciousness is recognized in similar steps in various cultures around the globe. This, Juan says, points to the existence of a ‘natural law’.
The progression is however not linear but cyclical, and we were told that we are approaching the fourth level at the moment (according to Juan 8% of the world population has reached the 4th level), although humanity has been here before and regressed.
The Frankenstein’s Prophecies: Reflections on the Shadow Elements of Culture
Dr. Robert Romanyshyn is a Jungian psychotherapist, teacher and author of many chapters, articles and 6 books, living on the West Coast of the US. Robert started his talk by telling us of his trip to Antarctica in 2009, ‘the most uncluttered place in the world’, where he found an inspirational landscape of immense beauty. This left him with a deep awareness of the crisis that the planet is experiencing brought about by the development of technology. Robert sees Mary Shelley’s story Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus as a metaphor for what is happening currently at planet level. The novel, written in 1817, tells of an old ship captain, relating a story he heard from a man he saved from the waves, who was pursuing his creation, the Creature. The man was Victor Frankenstein, who was pursuing the Creature he had given life to, in order to kill him because the Monster was wreaking widespread havoc and destruction. The title of the book gave and indication as to the nature of Victor Frankenstein for by calling him The Modern Prometheus, Shelley was reminding readers that Prometheus was the Greek god who first created mankind and then gave it fire, for which he was punished by Zeus. Frankenstein, we were told, having reached the peak of scientific endeavour by creating a living being, was the modern Prometheus. However, he was horrified by his creation and the Creature, feeling rejected by everyone because of his revolting and frightening appearance, became a destructive force. Has man through his hubris and ambition used science to create a monster? Having killed Frankenstein on the ship, the Creature was last seen going towards the North Pole to immolate himself. Is that a prophecy in 1817 for the current melting of the polar caps? Robert started writing a book about this subject, but found that it will work better as a play, so his efforts now are towards adding playwriting to his accomplishments as writer and teacher.
Quakernomics: An Ethical Capitalism
This month we had Mike King who talked about his new book Quakernomics: An Ethical Capitalism. Mike is an independent and interdisciplinary scholar and writer and his bookSecularism – The Hidden Origins of Disbelief was joint winner of the SMN Book Prize in 2008. This evening Mike started by reminding us of the Danny Boyle show which opened the London Olympics in 2012, in which one of the most powerful scenes was the depiction of the Industrial Revolution which started in England and changed the world. This revolution Mike told us, was started in 1709 by Abraham Darby who discovered a way of smelting iron using coke. Wood, which was used before, became scarce so the use of coke as fuel and resource was a most important discovery. Abraham Darby was a Quaker. The Quakers were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, many of the industries were owned by Quakers, for instance Cadbury and Fry in the confectionery sector and we heard of many others, including banks ‘ such as Lloyds and Barclays. The Quakers were not embarrassed about wealth, George Fox was himself very good with money, and because there was a lot of money in Quaker hands, they enjoyed favourable interest rates which was a major contributing factor for their success in practicing capitalism. Because of Quaker principles, their methods were highly ethical. Mike explained these ethics by pointing out the four aspects uppermost on Quaker agenda: above average wages, best efforts against unemployment, good working conditions, philanthropic local developments, philanthropic global causes, and they were also activists in various causes, such as anti slavery. Mike showed us photos of various buildings in London which years ago were Quaker owned concerns, places we all go by but don’t know their histories. In the second half of the talk Mike contrasted the Quaker ethics with the evils of industrial capitalism, which he identified as: subsistence wages, unemployment, hazardous working conditions and environmental degradation. We then heard about theories put forward by various economists over the last 200 years and to what degree they showed care for the four evils of capitalism. Top of the list for least caring comes Milton Friedman, whose theories of free market without regulation was promoted by Regan and Thatcher and still carries the day. Mike uses the term coined by Keynes ‘defunct economist’ to describe Friedman and define his legacy. The subject prompted a lively and interesting discussion in the group.
Wolfgang Pauli and the ring i
In March we welcomed Herbert van Erkelens who has an eclectic background. He studied physics, mathematics and astronomy, which included a PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Amsterdam. His main passion however was the Divine Feminine and he devoted his life to this principle. He was a student of Marie Louise von Franz and authored a number of books in the field of quantum physics, alchemy, number archetypes and crop circles. He also studied the dreams of Wolfgang Pauli.
We were told that Pauli had a strange effect on the world of laboratory research where his presence was enough to interfere with apparatus and cause explosions. For this reason he was finally barred from going into labs! He was a complex person, intellectually brilliant but emotionally unbalanced. He had very powerful dreams and underwent analytical therapy with Jung who analysed over 80 of his dreams. Pauli met Marie Louise von Franz, and fell in love with her. He was however not skilled in matters of love and Marie Louise is said to have commented that Pauli’s Eros manifested in dreams but not in real life. The interpretation of many of his dreams challenged his scientist persona. Emma Jung was at the time studying the Grail and in her work emphasized Merlin’s need for redemption. This resonated with Pauli whose dreams often pointed to his own need for redemption. He frequently encountered a figure he called the ‘Stranger’ which was understood as the Anti-Scientist. This stranger was in need of redemption. The ring i was a ring given by a Chinese lady in a session of active imagination entitled The Piano Lesson. In this interesting imagery, Pauli engages with the figures in his dreams and visions, articulating the need of reconciliation between his scientist self and other aspects of his personality, including his Anima. The Chinese lady, his Anima, offers him the ring as the bridge between psyche and physics. For physics the ring represented the atom, the indivisible, the unity of particle and wave and for the psyche the alchemical vessel of transformation.
What is Behind Restorative Justice
This meeting was to have been with Tim Newell, a Quaker, former prison governor and now working for restorative justice. But due to low registration it unfortunately did not take place.
Cults, Sects or New Religious Movements? An Exploration of Alternative Spiritualities
Our first meeting in 2014 heard a presentation by Eileen Barker, Prof Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics. Eileen has spent the last 40 years in various parts of the world researching minority religions and the social reactions to which they give rise. She is an authority in the field and as well as having over 350 publications, she has founded the educational charity INFORM together with the British Home Office and mainstream Churches, to provide information about minority religions.
Eileen started by saying that there is nothing one can generalise about New Religions or Cults. They are all different and each movement has to be looked at within the context of what it does at a particular time and place. One needs also to look at the three elements of a movement: the movement itself (its message), the leaders and the membership. She then went on to display a very long list of movements, some which were familiar and some we never heard of. Every religion, she pointed out, has at one point been a New Religion, emerging out of some other religion. We can think of Christianity emerging out of Judaism, Buddhism out of Hinduism and so on. The first generation of a new religious movement has the fervour and aspiration which further generations may not have. They are the converts with the enthusiasm (and sometimes fanaticism) engendered by a charismatic leader. The hierarchy of new movements is mainly top down which is also the direction of communication. Regarding the message, the tendency of these movements is to have a dichotomous world view: good x evil, God x satanic, etc, the divisions are sharp. The membership tend to see themselves as having the truth and feel separated from the rest of the population which in their view live in ignorance. Such movements elicit an anti-cult movement which can also have the same characteristics in the opposite direction. In the world of cults however, there are some that do excellent work which however does not get publicised. We heard further about the process of change within these movements, cult wars, the issues which some of them deal with, how the internet has influenced their dissemination, and also things that lead to their demise. It was a fascinating start to the year not just by the presentation but also by the interesting discussion that followed.
For the INFORM website visit: