Friday, July 8, 2016

Preface to Death of Denial

Some of you may have wonder why the posts on this Blog have been so infrequent over the last year and half. I’ve been living in two different worlds. I’ve been writing a novel – volume one of The Stockholm Trilogy.

It's a fictional third person narrative that takes place in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. There are four main characters. The plot begins as a mystery that soon evolves into an espionage thriller. As in life, just when the intrigue becomes intelligible, an accident occurs that completely changes everything.

Last fall I completed the first draft. Since then several of my friends have read, edited, and critiqued it, offering their advice and counsel. Recently, I completed my fourth draft.

I am now in the process of trying to find a literary agent while researching the next volume. The following is the preface to Death of Denial:

Preface: Merely an Illusion

Refusing to believe something until proof is given is a rational position. However, when the fear of reality renders our brains incapable of accepting the truth and knowledge is rejected even when the illumination is blinding, delay often becomes the deadliest form of denial.

Of all the arcane questions that confront and confuse human beings the most baffling is the brain’s inability to comprehend itself. It is both peculiar and informative. Though it has often been mired in fear and superstition, its slow, gradual evolution toward awareness has been significant. Over time, as it has experienced diverse streams of knowledge, it has revealed a remarkable ability to appreciate the difference between wisdom and foolishness. And yet, its irrational, debilitating fear of death together with its habitual impulse for myth making has left it susceptible to the seductive whims of ignorance and the often-antiquated beliefs and customs of the ruling authorities.

As conscious beings, destined to die, with deep inner feelings for life and self-expression, our vain desire for immortality has restrained rational thought, allowing us to entertain preposterous beliefs of faith-based, magical thinking. Unconsciously conspiring to keep the reality of our inevitable demise hidden within the recesses of our brains, we conjure up a supernatural being to lead our imagined immortal souls through the valley of the shadow of death to a heavenly hereafter.

Though we do not know how or when it happened (perhaps tens of thousands of years ago or longer), human beings began to acquire a series of genetic mutations with exceptional psychological abilities that enable us to get along with one another, to participate in collective cognition. These unique capacities over time made it possible for us to cooperatively gain knowledge through imitation, shared experiences, language, and collaboration – transforming the human brain through cultural evolution. In the process we became moral creatures, able to appreciate how our own behavior affects the lives of others.

According to researchers, humans innately feel emotions, such as affection, empathy, and gratitude that are essential to functioning well within a group. These feelings are so basic that for most of us, working together to achieve a common aim seems to be a natural, involuntary human interest. However, there have always been individuals (for a variety of neurological reasons) that find cooperation in varying degrees difficult, if not impossible. In an effort to protect the group from those individuals who exhibit conduct that adversely affect others, rules to regulate and attempts to manipulate human behavior with rewards and punishment began to be implemented and consequences administered.

For as long as human intuition, perception, and reasoning have existed, people have wondered and speculated about why some folks choose to harm others. Putting aside religious and other mythical explanations, it does not take a neurobiologist to realize that the cause lies within the brain. Everything that we feel, think, and do is the result of a complex network of brain cells firing in a specific way, allowing us to function as we do. The question then arises, “If that neural network is firing abnormally, are we morally responsible for the inappropriate behavior that follows?”

Regrettably, too many of us believe that what appears to be self-evident – that all sane adults not only possess a similar capacity to make wise and rational decisions but the “free will” to do so – conforms to reality. It’s an accommodating conviction but one that is demonstrably wrong. No two brains are alike. Nor, has the ancient debate concerning the existence of free will ever been resolved, let alone proven.

First off, the idea that the capacities of our brains are equal or comparable is a myth. Written in two molecular strands of nucleic acids coiled around each other, our unique genetic blueprints are born into environments and circumstances that are exclusively our own and which none of us has the ability to control, let alone understand. Through the complex interaction of heredity and environment we all have developed perspectives, personalities, and capacities that are uniquely our own, can vary greatly, and may traumatically change in the blink of an eye.

Though it seems that we possess the free will to make morally acceptable choices, the evidence remains uncertain. We may, in fact, merely be dangling marionettes dancing from distinct genetic cords within diverse ecological settings that may or may not be adequate to sustain growth and development.

More to the point, we now know that very advanced and complex behaviors occur constantly in the absence of consciously willing them. Blinking, swallowing, breathing, the beating of our hearts, as well as the neurochemistry of our brains all function involuntary. Even if free will existed, it would have little, if any, opportunity to operate free of the laws of biology. At best, it would be an inconsequential factor in a vast neural network formed and influenced by genes and environment, reducing choice to merely an illusion.

It is, therefore, extremely problematic to imagine that we can walk a mile in the shoes of another human being and presume to know them. Not unless we are made up of identical DNA and exposed to the same embryonic and childhood conditions (e.g., substance, physical, and psychological) can we ever begin to approach some understanding of another person’s capacity for making decisions. Evaluating their ability to freely choose one behavior over another requires awareness far beyond any intuitive competence we may possess. If we are unable to understand the complex decision-making function and process of our own brains, what makes us think we are capable of understanding and judging the motives of others?

And yet, we continue to do so with certainty. Presuming we are capable of discerning the aims of other people’s actions, we make findings, pass judgment, and administer consequences in a futile effort to alter and/or punish inappropriate behavior. As recently as the last century, the use of invectives, deprivation, and even torture were accepted practices for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Needless to say, these appalling approaches were therapeutically ineffective. While psychiatric disorders are usually the result of inherent forms of brain pathology, they are also the product of the complex interaction of the brain’s circuitry and its surroundings.

So, too, is criminal conduct. Despite our modern understanding of the brain and how it works, our present method of punishment for unlawful behavior continues to be based on personal volition and guilt. As long as the majority of us continue to reward and punish human behavior rather than to examine and understand it, we will continue to endanger ourselves and the rest of life on this planet.

Hopefully, our understanding of the correlation of our brain’s neurochemistry and inappropriate behavior will one day demand a different approach. Once neuroscience is able to identify and clarify how certain behaviors are the result of very specific neurological dysfunctions, more and more defense attorneys will make use of neurobiology to explain and justify an offense or, at the very least, to mitigate the severity of a guilty verdict.

1 comment:

Siri Nadler said...

Siri Nadler As always, you write so beautifully. Do you mean that people who commit murder or rape should not be held accountable because their particular brain chemistry went haywire at that particular moment? (Please forgive my lack of polish.)