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A Crucial Fact about the Brain Is Missing When We Address the Problem of Violence
Many people are quite sure of what's needed after a tragedy, yet there is a lot of disagreement. How can this be? It's all about how the brain can form widely different opinions inside different people.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a New York Times bestselling author. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he also directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is best known for his work on time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia, and neurolaw.
Beyond his 100+ academic publications, he has published many popular books. His bestselling book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the neuroscience "under the hood" of the conscious mind: all the aspects of neural function to which we have no awareness or access. His work of fiction, SUM, is an international bestseller published in 28 languages and turned into two operas. Why the Net Matters examines what the advent of the internet means on the timescale of civilizations. The award-winning Wednesday is Indigo Blue explores the neurological condition of synesthesia, in which the senses are blended.
Eagleman is a TED speaker, a Guggenheim Fellow, a winner of the McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication, a Next Generation Texas Fellow, Vice-Chair on the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Neuroscience & Behaviour, a research fellow in the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Mind Science Foundation, and a board member of The Long Now Foundation. He has served as an academic editor for several scientific journals. He was named Science Educator of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience, and was featured as one of the Brightest Idea Guys by Italy's Style magazine. He is founder of the company BrainCheck and the cofounder of the company NeoSensory. He was the scientific advisor for the television drama Perception, and has been profiled on the Colbert Report, NOVA Science Now, the New Yorker, CNN's Next List, and many other venues. He appears regularly on radio and television to discuss literature and science.
David Eagleman: When it comes to what to do about mass shooting there’s a variety of opinions and I think what this represents is the variety that people have on the inside. What I mean is people are very different. I’m talking about the decision-makers now, not the mass shooters. People are very different on the inside and who you are and what you believe about the world comes about as a confluence of your genetics and your environment. So the predispositions you come to the table with mixed with every experience you have from your family of origin to your culture, your neighborhood, your generation that you drop into. As a result, brains are all very different. They’re as unique as fingerprints. So when it comes to what to do about a mass shooting, there’s no surprise that you have completely different opinions.
On the one hand, you have people who say, "Look, let’s just get rid of all weapons," and on the other hand, on the other hand of the spectrum you have people who say, "Look, let’s make sure that everybody’s armed because it’s impossible to get rid of all of the weapons. So let’s do a mutually assured destruction approach." And these are all, you know, valid in some way. I mean it’s understandable why different people have different opinions about what to do. One of the things that I follow as a neuroscientist whenever there’s a mass shooting is the discussion that happens. People will often throw around words like, "Well the guy’s a psycho." Now you may know there’s no such thing as a psycho. That’s a meaningless term. What the commentator presumably means is either this person has a psychosis, something like schizophrenia where they have a disorder of cognition, or they mean this person is a psychopath which is not a disorder of cognition. Instead psychopathy is about having no empathy towards other people, not caring at all about other people, seeing other people as objects to get around. They’re also known as sociopaths. So somebody can have a psychosis or somebody can have a psychopathy or sociopathy and these are completely different things. An understanding of these things in the public dialogue I think would be very important; every time there’s a mass shooting there are all sorts of commentators that come out and say things like well I heard he had Asperger’s or I heard he had ADHD or I heard that he wrote dark poetry, which is, of course, true of most young teenagers. So a better understanding of the vocabulary and what are the issues that come along with these different things is something that I try to disseminate through my work in neuroscience and law.
Think of all the labels that get tossed around whenever there's a mass shooting or terrorist attack. "Psycho" and "sociopath," "ADHD" and "Aspergers": Often conditions people don't fully understand, yet are still quick to toss around like a smoking gun. David Eagleman, neuroscientist and host/author of PBS' The Brain, sheds light on how the brain forms different opinions inside of each of us and how we might use that information to have more informed discussions with each other.
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Can thinking about the past really help us create a better present and future?
- There are two types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward.
- Both upward and downward counterfactual thinking can be positive impacts on your current outlook - however, upward counterfactual thinking has been linked with depression.
- While counterfactual thinking is a very normal and natural process, experts suggest the best course is to focus on the present and future and allow counterfactual thinking to act as a motivator when possible.
“Upward” versus “downward” counterfactual thinking<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ1NDYxOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDM2MDY2OX0.njWs1qrV1vDBxU1V75tUduUW4TjJvEHglDWsK8ZF2l4/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C556%2C0%2C209&height=700" id="a15fa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98314d4d2b256ed08f42d369fe4ae080" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="concept of man thinking about the past one line drawing counterfactual thinking" />
What are upward and downward counterfactual thinking?
Image by one line man on Shutterstock<p><strong>What is upward counterfactual thinking?</strong></p><p>Upward counterfactual thinking happens when we look at a scenario and ask ourselves "what if" in terms of how our life could have turned out better. </p><p>Examples of upward counterfactual thinking are: </p><ul><li><em>"I wish I had taken that other job instead of this one 10 years ago - my life would be so much better if I had." </em></li><li><em>"I wish I would have gotten the part in that high school play, maybe I could have gotten into a theatre school and became an actor…"</em> </li></ul><p>Both of these examples have the ideology that if you had made different choices, your life right now would be improved. </p><p><strong>What is downward counterfactual thinking?</strong></p><p>Downward counterfactual thinking is, naturally, the opposite of upward counterfactual thinking in that we think about how things could have been worse if other decisions had been made. </p><p>Examples of downward counterfactual thinking are: </p><ul><li><em>"I'm so thankful I studied secondary education in university instead of psychology like I had originally planned - I love teaching high school kids and I never would have gotten to do that…" </em></li><li><em>"I'm so happy I left David when I got the chance, I can't imagine still being in an unhappy marriage with someone who doesn't support me…"</em> </li></ul><p>In these examples, we see the idea that if you had made different choices your life would not be as good as it is right now. </p>
How counterfactual thinking can impact your life<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ1NDYxNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjI2MDQxOX0.DIVQ-Yk0d6yE3tc743MH1Fz2pOg1TGHLmhp8dPp9UdY/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="522d7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="da7df6ad916b043e3610223900d0f8df" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="man thinking what if written on chalkboard" />
How do upward and downward counterfactual thinking impact your life?
Photo by Brasil Creativo on Shutterstock<p>While many people don't see the point in "what if" scenarios, various studies have found that downward counterfactual thinking can be more associated with psychological health compared with upward counterfactual thinking. Not only that, but research has also shown upward counterfactual thinking can be linked with current and future depression.</p> <p><strong>Downward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with psychological health </strong></p><p>According to a <a href="http://journal.sjdm.org/jdm06136.pdf" target="_blank">2000 study</a>, downward counterfactual thinking can be linked with better psychological health compared to upward counterfactual thinking. More importantly, in cases where downward counterfactual thinking did lead to negative feelings, those feelings acted as something of a motivator for people to take productive actions to better their current situation. </p> <p><strong>Upward counterfactual thinking tends to be more associated with depression </strong></p><p><a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272735816301714#:~:text=An%20upward%20counterfactual%20(as%20opposed,Markman%20and%20McMullen%2C%202003)." target="_blank">According to a 2017 study</a> that pooled a sample of over 13,000 respondents, thoughts about "better outcomes" and regret (upward counterfactual thinking) were associated with current and future depression. </p> <p><strong>Downward counterfactual thinking can actually improve your relationships and is more often engaged in by women than men.</strong></p><p>In a <a href="https://dspace.sunyconnect.suny.edu/bitstream/handle/1951/67589/Studer_Thesis.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank">2016 research paper submitted</a> to the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, downward counterfactual thinking in regards to romantic relationships was associated with relatively positive relationship outcomes. Interestingly, women were more likely than men to engage in downward counterfactual thinking about their romantic life. </p> <p><strong>Upward counterfactual thinking can have some benefits in certain scenarios. </strong></p><p>When we look back after a failed test and think "I wish I would have studied more" - this motivates us to study harder the next time a test comes up. In this way, upward counterfactual thinking (or the negative version of "what if") can actually benefit us. </p> <p><strong>This can be difficult, though, because much of the time upward counterfactual thinking is more associated with a pessimistic outlook that can be unmotivating. </strong></p> <p>Thinking in the past tense can be motivational (and even healthy) at times, but the best thing to do is look forward. </p><p>While counterfactual thinking as a whole can be used to motivate us to make better choices or appreciate where we are in life, <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/darwins-subterranean-world/201809/the-psychology-what-if" target="_blank">this Psychology Today</a> article suggests that we should come up with ways to move on and focus on the present and the future instead of the past. Using counterfactual thinking as a motivational tool can be very helpful if we don't get stuck in the "what if" mindset that tends to pull us out of the present and back into the past, where things will always remain the same. </p>
Despite fact check campaigns, anti-vaccination influence is growing.
- Despite announcing plans to combat disinformation, anti-vax groups continue to gain influence on Facebook.
- An analysis of over 1,300 Facebook pages with 100 million followers shows that anti-vaccination agendas are having a profound impact.
- Only 50 percent of Americans are certain they'll receive an approved COVID-19 vaccine.
Facebook announces plan to 'tackle vaccine misinformation'<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="997c512b8b8afcd4db98fdb7ece75680"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ZTZ3Lq67yiY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This trend is having real-world consequences. Only <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/just-50-americans-plan-get-covid-19-vaccine-here-s-how-win-over-rest" target="_blank">half of Americans</a> are willing to get a coronavirus vaccine, with a quarter wavering and a quarter against. While we should be confident of efficacy—gossip about a <a href="https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20200511/covid-19_vaccine_by_fall_possible_but_at_what_cost" target="_blank">vaccine arriving in the Fall</a> is ambitious and potentially unsafe—the idea that a quarter of the country will refuse any vaccine is a potential public health disaster (as if we're not experiencing one now).</p><p>Making matters worse, we can't fight disinformation with data. No matter how many articles <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/the-plandemic" target="_self">debunk Plandemic</a>, Mikki Willis gains momentum. Do <a href="https://www.facebook.com/mikki.willis/posts/2875973472513592" target="_blank">27,000 doctors</a> really support his efforts to "reform our corrupt global healthcare systems?" There's no way to tell, but that's the thing about Facebook: it doesn't have to be true. Willis's claim, which he made in conjunction with a fundraising effort for the film, has been shared 4.4k times. Convincing his fanbase that perhaps tens of thousands of doctors aren't on board will be a Herculean task. </p><p>Media Matters notes the official-sounding National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), which, though sounding governmental, opposes every effort to vaccinate children. Beginning in February, the organization's website started publishing a "<a href="https://www.nvic.org/vaccines-and-diseases/Reports/covid-19.aspx" target="_blank">special report</a>" on COVID-19, laying the groundwork for vaccination disinformation. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The first three installments of the 'special report' adopt right-wing themes unrelated to vaccines, such as the claim that public health orders that promote social distancing result in a 'loss of civil liberties' and subject Americans to 'quarantine shaming.' The fourth installment, published on March 29, includes the first attacks on vaccine development in the series … The fifth installment of the 'special report,' published on April 1, frames the vaccine development efforts of pharmaceutical companies and other entities as a cash grab."</p>
A truck with writing "JESUS IS MY VACCINE" drives by demonstrators rallying outside the Pennsylvania Capitol Building to protest the continued closure of businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic on May 15, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images<p>The irony is that NVIC's Facebook page is listed as an "Educational Research Center." Just today the organization posted about the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831678/" target="_blank">long-disproven link between the measles vaccine and autism</a> (via Robert F. Kennedy's anti-vax organization, Children's Health Defense), <a href="https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/wxevj5/the-coronavirus-truthers-dont-believe-in-public-health" target="_blank">opportunist Joseph Mercola</a>'s questioning whether the COVID-19 surge in Texas has anything to do with the novel coronavirus, and conspiracy theory-rich GreenMedInfo, whose founder traffics in ridiculous ideas, such as <a href="https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1720256541450732" target="_blank">germ theory being false</a>. </p><p>And so here we are: instead of reporting on pressing global issues, Reuters has to <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-factcheck-metal-strip-medical-masks-5/fact-check-metal-strip-in-medical-masks-is-not-a-5g-antenna-idUSKBN24A2O1?fbclid=IwAR2nqo5OaXP3unV7v3jOhtdGY5JjivJgyBSqrKcW0pcEJfhdGWieDb1K5C8" target="_blank">fact check</a> whether the metal strip in face masks is really a 5G antenna or if Wayfair is <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-factcheck-wayfair-human-trafficking/fact-check-no-evidence-linking-wayfair-to-human-trafficking-operation-idUSKCN24E2M2" target="_blank">involved in human trafficking</a>. (The woman that posted the "medical doctor" video above is convinced Amazon is involved as well.) No matter how ridiculous these sound—and they should, to any functioning adult—common sense is losing ground: an <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/vaccine-opponents-are-gaining-facebook-battle-hearts-and-minds-new-map-shows" target="_blank">analysis</a> of over 1,300 Facebook pages with 100 million followers shows that anti-vax agendas are becoming more influential.</p><p>When the printing press was first invented, <a href="https://apple.news/Agz3WmeyWTEKLg-9yHo2BMA" target="_blank">anyone could hire a printer</a>. The idea of objective news took some time to work out, and it is questionable that it ever did get worked out. But we're in a truly disturbing place when one of the most effective therapeutics ever discovered—the <a href="https://www.tmrjournals.com/tmr/EN/abstract/abstract321.shtml" target="_blank">millennia-old idea</a> of allowing the body to build up immunity by introducing a small dose of an offending agent—is being used as, what? A political tool? An ideological battering ram? An apocalyptic battle song sung by the woke as they laugh at all the silly sheeple? </p><p>It's impossible to tell what the end game is. Being contrarian is now its own currency. Whether or not your agenda accomplishes anything is secondary to just being on the team—a participation trophy for simply showing up. Putting in the intellectual and emotional effort demanded by the complex and nuanced realm of science is proving too much for America to tolerate. When a nation descends into such intolerance, anything becomes possible. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Why do so many people encounter beings after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
What are DMT beings?<p>Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?<br></p><p>The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once <a href="https://www.ranker.com/list/dmt-machine-elves-facts/inigo-gonzalez" target="_blank">described</a> one of his DMT experiences:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"</p><p>McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "<a href="https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/old-favourites-the-archaic-revival-1991-by-terence-mckenna-1.3924887" target="_blank">raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.</a>" But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.</p><p>Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to <a href="https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/17902/RichardsonG_202004_HonThesis.pdf?sequence=3" target="_blank">speak directly to the gods</a>. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.</p><p>In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">"at least half"</a> of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".</p>
Manuel Medir / Getty<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."</p><p>It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">nothing like elves or aliens</a>. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.</p><p>In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves? </p><p>You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.</p><p>Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point. </p><p>In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."</p><p>DMT beings may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.</p>
Gender and sexual minority populations are experiencing rising anxiety and depression rates during the pandemic.
- Anxiety and depression rates are spiking in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially in individuals who hadn't struggled with those issues in the past.
- Overall, depression increased by an average PHQ-9 score of 1.21 and anxiety increased by an average GAD-7 score of 3.11.
- The researchers recommended that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.