Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lose Weight, Know Death

Last fall I uploaded the video for my song “Constipation,” after being inactive on YouTube for several months, and a bunch of people commented, “You’ve gotten fat!” Turns out I had gained about ten pounds since I last weighed myself (and I wasn’t exactly skinny before). A check of the body mass index chart showed that for the first time in my life, I was in the “overweight” category. I immediately put myself on a weight-loss program. It’s been about four months, and although I am no longer crash-dieting, I’ve lost 27 pounds. It feels great, and it’s satisfying to pick up three gallon-jugs of water and realize that this is the amount of me that’s no longer “me.”

My body is now some 15% less of a body than it was when I started. I am still the same person; it’s just that about one-seventh of me has gone away. That one-seventh is now dead. It has transitioned from being a part of my living tissue, to being entirely nonliving. It is now like all ordinary matter — molecules and atoms freely wandering in the world, unconstrained by cell membranes and the processes of life, broadly scattered about the environment in the form of metabolic by-products and residual heat. This 27 pounds is not conscious; it is not experiencing anything whatsoever.

I realized that since the 15% of me is now dead, that means that when I as an individual die, I will be effectively losing 100% of my weight. Death is the simple transition of living matter to nonliving matter; this can happen equally effectively to cells, organs, or an entire person. So when I die, 100% of my body will undergo this transition, and that 100% of me will feel exactly the same as the departed 15% of me feels right now: nothing.

Of course, this is an imperfect analogy; I lost little or no weight from my brain, and molecular fat within fat cells does not participate in consciousness. But this doesn’t really matter, because pretty much the same thing would happen if I lost one-seventh of my brain in a grisly accident. A decomposing chunk of brain tissue doesn’t experience consciousness, either; the lost one-seventh portion would be exactly as unconscious as the 27 pounds of fat that I’ve lost. And if one-seventh of my brain died, I don’t think part of me would go to Heaven … would it?

This is an area where I feel that even moderate people of faith are living in pre-scientific times. There is no localized “seat” of consciousness, no specific location of the soul, in the body. We all know that if we lost one-seventh of our brain tissue, our consciousness would suffer — consciousness deteriorates readily just when we have a high fever. The many bizarre cases written about by Oliver Sacks are proof positive that our sense of the world (including the self) is tied to the physical condition of the brain. How does the idea of an eternal soul work with a person like Terri Schiavo? Do Christians feel that she was actually fully conscious in some manner as she lay in her waking but vegetative state? Or, when she died, did her healthy consciousness reconstitute itself before going to heaven? And which consciousness was that — as it was just before she suffered brain damage at age 26, or a younger, more naïve consciousness? Do persons born with severe developmental disabilities become normal after death? Do those with minor learning disabilities, or traumatic memories, lose them before they go to Heaven? Do sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder learn to chill out after they die? What if certain people’s disorders or flaws actually helped them to achieve great things on Earth?

I suppose if I were a believer, I’d say something like, everyone has a perfect soul or spirit which can be trapped inside a flawed body, but which becomes free upon death. To me, though, if a person’s soul in Heaven is different from his or her waking self on Earth, then it isn’t the same person — any more than someone is the same person after they’ve been given a lobotomy, or developed Alzheimer’s.

The problem is, the idea of an eternal soul is logically incompatible with the idea of an organic body that hosts consciousness organically. There could be no self-consistent “theory of the eternal soul” that explained how that soul relates to an individual’s personality, memories, and experience on Earth. Life after death is fine as a bedtime story, but when scrutinized with any logical rigor at all, none of it makes sense.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the remaining six-sevenths of me has a life to enjoy.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How People Sleep At Night

You often hear the expression, “How does (so-and-so) sleep at night?” We wonder how people who do wrong things manage to live with themselves. At the height of their wrongdoing, how did Bernie Madoff, or Saddam Hussein, or Joseph Stalin sleep at night?

I'll tell you how they slept: Just fine, I'm sure.

People have the ability to shape the subjective reality that they live in — the world in which they see themselves embedded — however they see fit. Let me rephrase: All people actively shape their subjective reality, all the time. It is a part of human nature; there is no escaping it. For most people this isn’t a big deal. For others, it’s a very big deal, because it’s what lets them sleep at night.

I first came upon this idea right after the O.J. Simpson trial in the ’90s. Here was someone who had almost certainly murdered two people, but the murderer himself seemed to have no knowledge of this fact. At press conferences, incredibly, he would talk about how he planned to devote his life to finding “the real killers.” It didn’t make sense; I believed that O.J. himself believed that he was innocent. It seemed as if he had rewritten his internal history, the memories in his brain (which at some time had to be incredibly vivid), to the point where Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were killed by totally different people.

Bingo. That is exactly what Mr. Simpson did, although consciously, he has no idea what he did. Subconsciously editing a murder out of one’s memory is extreme; it’s difficult to believe such a feat of selective memory is even possible for a human. But this is merely an extreme case of something that happens all the time, in all of us. I started calling it the O.J. syndrome.

More recently I’ve come to call this effect the everyday Stockholm syndrome. The Stockholm syndrome is what happens when someone is captured against their will by a group, and then over time, they come to identify and cooperate with that group. (Patricia Hearst is the classic example.) The Stockholm syndrome is recognized as a defense mechanism for people under tremendous stress or duress — but again, it’s just an extreme example of something that routinely happens to all of us.

My friend Vivian is a good case of the everyday Stockholm syndrome. She was, and is, idealogically a liberal person — the kind who would volunteer for an environmental cause. But then she got married, her husband was hired by an oil company, and they moved to Houston. Although she is still socially and politically progressive, when it comes to climate change and energy regulation, she can rattle off all of the conservative arguments. It isn’t that she doesn’t believe them and she’s just “acting.” It probably isn’t even that she independently changed her mind on these issues, based on some enlightenment. It’s that she found herself in an internal conflict, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, and this was the way out. Subconsciously she became motivated to experience a shift in the way she saw the world. If her subjective reality didn’t undergo this transformation, she’d literally be sleeping with the enemy, the man she loves, and that just wouldn’t do. So gradually, her subjective reality changed by just a small amount, and once that happened, the life she lives became completely fine. And she’s sleeping at night, no problem.

I noticed this myself a few years ago. I got a boatload of work animating promotional videos for Verizon Wireless. Mind you, normally I’m about as anti-corporate as anyone, vehemently so. I kind of had to grit my teeth to make these videos pimping a huge phone company and its celebrity affiliations. But after a couple of weeks, I caught myself thinking, “Verizon is actually pretty cool.” NOOOOOO! There was nothing about Verizon’s inane promotions that made me feel this way. But in the immersion of it all, I noticed a slow change in my perspective.

Nowadays I smile when someone brings up this question. “How does Glenn Beck sleep at night?” Very well, I’m sure! Many people would like to think that on his way to work, Glenn is psyching himself up for another hour of cynical lies, and on his way home he’s wondering how he could have done such a thing, perhaps pleading with God for forgiveness. But, that is a liberal fantasy! No matter what his personal idealogical history might be, I guarantee you that anyone in Glenn Beck’s position, making that much money and with that much fame and influence — and all of the faithful followers constantly validating his opinions — will go to work telling himself, “I am going to be telling the truth today! People need someone like me to tell them the truth! I am doing the right thing!”

Because that’s what Glenn Beck needs to do to sleep at night.

The “everyday Stockholm syndrome” fits well with other ideas I’ve written about. Each individual’s view of the world is always filtered through a subjective reality that sees and ignores whatever aspects it desires, at times embellishing life with experiences which (apparently) aren’t a part of objective reality. Many people live a “fake life” because it’s comforting to believe that praying works and dead relatives are looking down on them from Heaven. And full-on sufferers of the “Bullshit Syndrome,” such as creationists and 9/11 Truthers, have placed themselves in a bubble so profoundly impenetrable, the evidence for their position seems to be overwhelming; meanwhile there is zero conflicting evidence, so dissenters must all be mindless zombies who will believe anything that authorities tell them. (Actually, someone who thinks the government is out to get them probably doesn’t sleep so well at night.)

All of these ideas are brought together in an excellent article that a reader recently forwarded to me — thanks, Ian.