November 27, 2015

The Culture of Law (Part 15): An Antidote for a Left-Brain Dominated World

rhodesThe last of Iain McGilchrist’s predictions:

We would expect there to be a resentment of, and a deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe and wonder.

It would become hard to discern value or meaning in life at all; a sense of novelty and boredom before life would be likely to lead to a craving for novelty and stimulation.

There would be a … downgrading of non-verbal, non-explicit communication. Concomitant with this would be a rise in explicitness, backed up by ever increasing legislation.…

Visual art would lack a sense of depth, and distorted or bizarre perspectives would become the norm.

Music would be reduced to little more than rhythm.

Technical language, or the language of bureaucratic systems, devoid of any richness of meaning, and suggesting a mechanistic world, would increasingly be applied across the board, and might even seem unremarkable when applied to descriptions of the human world, and human beings, even the human mind itself.

And then, after all this, McGilchrist makes one last, entirely understated observation:

This is what the world would look like [under left-brained dominance]. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that [this outcome] is within sight.

Lawyer brains are trained to argue both sides of an issue, and to be dispassionate about it. We can regard McGilchrist’s analysis and predictions that way, but I have to say that, now that I know about brain-based culture as I’ve been describing it in this Culture of Law series, I personally find them chilling — mostly because I wrote a whole blog series on the Future of Law earlier this year which revealed them already playing out at a runaway pace.

McGilchrist published his predictions eight years ago, but spent twenty years researching them before he did so. I hadn’t read them before I wrote the Future of Law series. Now that I have, I see them reflected over and over in that series, in concepts such as the commoditization of the law, the new legal experts, law by algorithm, the focus on task- and systems-oriented expertise. the unmanageable (except by technology) proliferation of law “data,” the predominance of technology as a change agent, the acceptance of technical language as normative, the proliferation of bureaucracy and its endless rules and regulations… and so on and so on.

It seems lawyers, the legal profession, and most importantly the law itself stand to lose a significant “richness of meaning” if these trends are not accompanied with thoughtful reflection on what professionalism means in today’s New Economy. (I wanted to include a link to that term here, but I Googled “new economy” and ended up frozen by the extent of the results; none rose above the others as fully representative. I therefore invite you to make your own search.)

The future is not a given. The best way to predict it is still to create it. And the best way to create it is to deliberately, consciously create a newly responsive and sustainable law culture based on thoughtful, whole-brained, human guidance.

Creating the future of law by recreating its culture will require a daring new kind of leadership that will appear at first to be subversive in nature. It has to be that way, because in the absence of subversion, the brain (where culture originates) simply will not depart from its default evolutionary path or risk undermining the cultural vision it already holds as status quo.

We’ll look more at subversive change next time.

Kevin Rhodes’s new book is Running For My Life: When Impossible is the Only Option. This is from the publisher: “Running For My Life is for life athletes: people who live with fire and focus. Athletes, entrepreneurs, executives, artists… whatever our sphere, we take life’s extreme challenges head on. We need a strong inner game to do that. This book guides us to the core source of our greatest power: personal ethos, that inner life that makes us uniquely who we are and defines what we will do, impossible or not.” Click here or on the book cover for further information.

The Culture of Law (Part 14): Where Culture is Trending, Continued

rhodesContinuing with Iain McGilchrist’s predictions about current cultural trends:

The world as a whole would become more virtualized, and our experience of it would be increasingly through meta-representations of one kind or another; fewer people would find themselves doing work involving contact with the real, “lived” world, rather than with plans, strategies, paperwork, management and bureaucratic procedures. In fact, more and more work would come to be overtaken by the meta-process of documenting or justifying what one was doing or supposed to be doing — at the expense of the real job in the living world.

Technology would flourish, . . . but it would be accompanied by a vast expansion of bureaucracy, systems of abstraction and control.

[C]onsiderations of quantity might come actually to replace considerations of quality altogether, and without the majority of people being aware that anything had happened.

[C]onsciousness changes its nature in work geared to technological production . . . which means the development of a system that permits things to be reproduced endlessly, and enforces submergence of the individual in a large organization or production line; “measurability,” in other words the insistence on quantification not qualification; “componentiality,” that is to say reality reduced to self-contained units, so that everything is analyzable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components. . . .

The impersonal would come to replace the personal. There would be a focus on material things at the expense of the living.

[I]individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, and resentful of, on another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals and such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people.

Panoptical control would become an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm.

Measures such as a DNA database would be introduced.

[P]eople of all kinds would attach an unusual importance to being in control. Accidents and illnesses, since they are beyond our control, would therefore be particularly threatening and would, where possible, be blamed on others.

According to the left hemisphere view, death is the ultimate challenge to its sense of control, and, on the contrary robs life of meaning. It would therefore have to become a taboo, while, at the same time sex, the power of which the right hemisphere realizes is based on the implicit, would become explicit and omnipresent.

There would be a preoccupation, which might even reach to be an obsession, with certainty and security.

There would be a complete failure of common sense, since it is intuitive and relies on both [brain] hemispheres working together.

Anger and aggressive behavior would become more evident in our social interactions.

One would expect a loss of insight, coupled with an unwillingness to take responsibility, and this would reinforce the left hemisphere’s tendency to a perhaps dangerously unwarranted optimism.

We could expect a rise in the determination to carry out procedures by rote, and perhaps an increasing efficiency at doing so, without this necessarily being accompanied by an understanding of what they mean.

More next time, plus commentary and wrap-up.

Kevin Rhodes’s new book is Running For My Life: When Impossible is the Only Option. This is from the publisher: “Running For My Life is for life athletes: people who live with fire and focus. Athletes, entrepreneurs, executives, artists… whatever our sphere, we take life’s extreme challenges head on. We need a strong inner game to do that. This book guides us to the core source of our greatest power: personal ethos, that inner life that makes us uniquely who we are and defines what we will do, impossible or not.” Click here or on the book cover for further information.

The Culture of Law (Part 13): Where Culture is Trending

rhodesIt takes something powerful — like an epiphany — for us to break from prevailing cultural norms — even the ones we know are harming us. Or who knows, maybe we’ll get scared into it. We’re just past Halloween: let’s look at some scary stuff, from a guy who’s scary smart.

Iain McGilchrist makes his living thinking big thoughts. He lives on the Isle of Skye, off the western coast of Scotland. It’s one of the places I visited just before my first professional show me the money moment I told you about. If you can’t have epiphanies on Skye, you’re not trying.

His website introduces him this way:

[McGilchrist] is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise — the culture which helps to mould [no, that’s not a typo, his website is British], and in turn be moulded by, our minds and brains.

In other words, he’s a brain-based culture guru. His magnum opus is The Master and His Emissary, in which he reinterprets the major periods of history from the point of view of what was going on in the human brain during those times. In the closing chapter, he speculates about where the current state of culture is trending, given its left-brained dominance.

His predictions are particularly relevant to left-brain dominated law culture, but besides that, they’re just plain fascinating. For the next couple weeks, we’re going to sit back and let some excerpts from his predictions scroll down the screen. When that’s done, we’ll regroup and talk about what they mean to law culture.

Let us try to imagine what the world would look like if the left hemisphere became so far dominant that, at the phenomenological level, it managed more or less to suppress the right hemisphere’s world altogether. What would that be like?

We could expect, for a start, that there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focused, restricted, but detailed, view of the world.

The broader picture would in any case be disregarded, because it would lack the appearance of clarity and certainty which the left hemisphere craves.

In general, the “bits” of anything, the parts into which it could be disassembled, would come to seem more important, more likely to lead to knowledge and understanding.

Ever more narrowly focused attention would lead to an increasing specialization and technicalising of knowledge. This in turn would promote the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience. Knowledge, in its turn, would seem more “real” that what one might call wisdom, which would seem too nebulous, something never to be grasped.

Knowledge that came through experience, and the practical acquisition of embodied skill, would become suspect, appearing either a threat or simply incomprehensible.

The concepts of skill and judgment, once considered the summit of human achievement, but which come more slowly and silently with the business of living, would be discarded in favor of quantifiable and repeatable processes.

Expertise, which is what actually makes an expert, . . . would be replaced by “expert” knowledge that would have in fact to be based on theory, and in general one would expect a tendency increasingly to replace the concrete with the theoretical or abstract, which would come to seem more convincing.

More next time.

Kevin Rhodes’s new book is Running For My Life: When Impossible is the Only Option. This is from the publisher: “Running For My Life is for life athletes: people who live with fire and focus. Athletes, entrepreneurs, executives, artists… whatever our sphere, we take life’s extreme challenges head on. We need a strong inner game to do that. This book guides us to the core source of our greatest power: personal ethos, that inner life that makes us uniquely who we are and defines what we will do, impossible or not.” Click here or on the book cover for further information.

The Culture of Law (Part 12): To Epiphany or Not to Epiphany

rhodesA couple installments back, we looked at lawyers whose personal epiphanies led them to break from the profession’s “show me the money” culture.

Epiphanies find us in our ruts, grab us under the armpits, and yank us out. The view from up top is exhilarating at first, but epiphanies fade quickly without new thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to sustain them. To get all that, we need new brain wiring, which doesn’t come easily. Plus, once we’re out of our professional rut, we’re out of our other ruts, too, which means that our need for new neurons and neural pathways spills over to our relationships with family, friends, employees, co-workers… all the people most invested in the cultural status quo we intend to change.

In her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, Anne Lamott writes in her funny-but-so-honest-it-hurts style about the effect our epiphanies have on those close to us, especially when we come from a high achievement family culture.

The grown-ups we trusted did not share the news that life was going to include deep isolation, or that the culture’s fixation on achievement would be spiritually crippling to those of more gentle character. No one mentioned the peace that was possible in surrender to a power greater than oneself, unless it was to an older sibling, when resistance was futile anyway. Teachers forgot to mention that we could be filled only by the truth that suffuses our heart, presence, humanity. So a lot of us raced around the rat exercise wheel, to get good grades and positions, to get into the best colleges and companies, and to keep our weight down.

Most of us have done fairly well in our lives. We learned how to run on that one wheel, but now we want a refund.

Most people in most families aren’t going to feel, “Oh, great, Jack has embarked on a search for meaning. And he’s writing a family memoir! How great.” To the world, Jack has figured out the correct meaning. He’s got a mate, a house, a job, children. He’s got real stuff that he should fully attend to. At best, his seeking his own truth is very nice, but it’s beside the point. At worst, one would worry that he was beginning to resemble a native Californian.

It is not now and never was in anybody’s best interest for you to be a seeker. It’s actually in everybody’s worst interest. It’s not convenient for the family. It may make them feel superficial and expendable. You may end up looking nutty and unfocused, which does not reflect well on them. And you may also reveal awkward family secrets, like that your parents were insane, or that they probably should have raised Yorkies instead of human children. Your little search for meaning may keep you from going as far at your school or your company as you might otherwise have gone, if you had had a single-minded devotion to getting ahead. Success shows the world what you’re made of, and that your parents were right to all but destroy you to foster this excellence.

So you — I — stuck to the family plan for a long time, because your success made everyone else so happy, even if you made yourself frantic and half dead trying to achieve it. You couldn’t win at this game, and you couldn’t stop trying. At least it was a home to return to, no matter how erratic, which is better than no home.

Are epiphanies worth the trouble they bring to our close relationships? Enjoy the humor, take the dose of honesty, breathe deeply, and then… you decide.

Next time: some scary cultural stuff — too late for Halloween, but worth a look.

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for 30 years. He’s on a mission to help lawyers (and anybody else) to live large in their work in or out of law practice. He also believes law culture is ripe for change. He lives in Denver.

The Culture of Law (Part 11): Time is Money

rhodesWe’ve been talking about money, now let’s talk about time — a natural segue for a profession that logs value in 6 minute increments.

Working long hours is a law cultural norm, and never mind that it’s no secret any more that working too much is counterproductive. This Time article featured popular author, TED talker, and professor Brené Brown:

[Ms. Brown] talks about how people use the idea of being “crazy busy” as a sort of armor—a justification for not bothering to pause, evaluate what’s going on in your life, and reconsider decisions regarding lifestyle, work, family, and perhaps whether it’s really necessary to be “crazy busy.”

Also, she reveals that, for the most part, highly successful people understand that perfectionism is not healthy and ultimately gets in the way of progress.

Also never mind that overworked unhappiness abounds on both ends of the legal profession’s financial food chain. In this New Yorker op-ed piece a few weeks back, Columbia Law professor Tim Wu fingered the tyranny of technology as the culprit, citing the long hours of litigation as an example.

Consider the litigation system, in which the hours worked by lawyers at large law firms are a common complaint. If dispute resolution is the social function of the law, what we have is far from the most efficient way to reach fair or reasonable resolutions. Instead, modern litigation can be understood as a massive, socially unnecessary arms race.

In older times, the limits of technology and a kind of professionalism created a natural limit to such arms races, but today neither side can stand down, lest it put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

A typical analysis blames greedy partners for crazy hours, but the irony is that the people at the top are often as unhappy and overworked as those at the bottom: it is a system that serves almost no one. Moreover, our many improvements in the technologies of productivity make the arms-race problem worse. The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.

We may not like what we’re doing — see, e.g., this Above the Law blog post re: Prof. Wu’s article — but we do it anyway. Why?

Barry Goldman, arbitrator, mediator, and author of The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators, cites a psychological trait cognitive scientists call “sphexishness” to explain our stubbornness. You can read about it in this LA Times op-ed piece.

Sphexishness? Maybe. Or maybe workplace unhappiness and a show me the money mentality are embedded in the larger context of American workplace culture. The following is from a Pyschology Today article called “Counterproductive Productivity,” by marketing professor Raj Raghuna:

I don’t know about you, but it seems that the average American doesn’t really enjoy work. If the reason we work harder is because we enjoy our work, then most of us would be happy to go back to work, and we would have restaurants that are called TGIM (Thank Goodness It’s Monday) and not TGIF (Thank Goodness It’s Friday).

No, we don’t work harder because we enjoy our work. Rather, we work harder so that we can earn more money, and so that we can feel, at some level, more important and more successful. . . . And once we get on that gravy train, it’s difficult to get off it.

Whatever the cause, we seem to have a problem here, Houston, and next time we’ll look at yet another reason why we avoid addressing it.

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for 30 years. He’s on a mission to help lawyers (and anybody else) to live large in their work in or out of law practice. He also believes law culture is ripe for change. He lives in Denver.

The Culture of Law (Part 10): Don’t Show Me The Money

rhodesIt’s not the legal profession’s fault that you can make good money at it. The problem is when we use that as an excuse for personal powerlessness.

Personal powerlessness is when we buy into Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat as a cultural and personal norm that can’t be challenged. We think that way because our brains are running on established cultural neural pathways. There are other options out there, but pursuing them will cost our brains their cherished peace of mind.

We don’t need a research survey to tell us there are other ways to measure value than money, but consider this one anyway:

Money and prestige aren’t key to career satisfaction, according to findings from a multiyear survey of University of Michigan law grads. Instead, work satisfaction is more closely related to the law grads’ perceptions of the social value of their work and the quality of their relations with co-workers and superiors,

If you’re willing to try something other than money and prestige, how about…

A Utah lawyer starts a flourishing non-profit law firm, where clients pay based on income.

Or this New York Times story about lawyers who have chosen less remunerative law careers:

Of the many rewards associated with becoming a lawyer — wealth, status, stimulating work — day-to-day happiness has never been high on the list. Perhaps, a new study suggests, that is because lawyers and law students are focusing on the wrong rewards.

Researchers who surveyed 6,200 lawyers about their jobs and health found that the factors most frequently associated with success in the legal field, such as high income or a partner-track job at a prestigious firm, had almost zero correlation with happiness and well-being.

However, lawyers in public-service jobs who made the least money, like public defenders or Legal Aid attorneys, were most likely to report being happy.

Lawyers in public service jobs also drank less alcohol than their higher-income peers. And, despite the large gap in affluence, the two groups reported about equal overall satisfaction with their lives.

Some lawyers went straight to these alternatives out of law school, others got there by exiting private practice. That path isn’t for everybody, but if you’re looking for a different option than show me the money, why not? While you’re thinking about it, consider this BigLaw partner’s case against being too enamored with the prospect of making money in the law:

Becoming a lawyer is a great way to improve your standard of living if you come from a family of poors who thinks rich people “worked for every penny they had.” But if you are a lawyer, your income is pretty much restricted to how many hours you can work in a day. That’s no way to live.

(“A family of poors”? Hmmm. Never heard that one before.)

Lawyers who opt for greater satisfaction for less pay are bucking a cultural norm that measures value in terms of money, which is in turn a function of hours worked — another cultural value standard. They’ve probably had their epiphanies and are on the Jerry Maguire path, and yes, as we saw last time, they will suffer for it.

And so will those close to them, as we’ll see next time.

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for 30 years. He’s on a mission to help lawyers (and anybody else) to live large in their work in or out of law practice. He also believes law culture is ripe for change. He lives in Denver.

The Culture of Law (Part 9): Show Me The Money

rhodesIf you saw Jerry Maguire, you remember the show me the money scene. Jerry has a moral epiphany, writes a middle-of-the-night manifesto, and hits the send button. He’s greeted at the office with a rousing ovation… as one colleague asks another, “How long do you give him?” His manifesto broke with the cultural status quo. He had to go. He gets fired of course, and now he’s dialing for dollars. He takes only one client with him, at the cost of everything he just gained from his awakening.

It’s funny, and if you’ve been there, painful.

I had my own show me the money moment my first day back in the office after taking the bar exam. My wife and I had escaped for 3½ weeks in the Scottish highlands and islands. The silent remoteness and stark natural beauty were disorienting at first, but in time we settled into it and returned home resolute about creating a more enriching lifestyle.

We flew back on a Saturday. On Monday morning I biked into work early, stopping to take photos of the downtown skyline and the Cathedral Basilica in the red light of the rising sun. At the office, the corporate department was in the middle of a merger on a fast track. I worked until 11:00 that night; I was the first to leave.

Welcome back. Epiphanies are nice, but duty calls. There are clients to serve and paychecks to earn. Culture wins again.

There were more epiphanies and more show me the money moments over the course of my career. I’m far from alone in that. At my CLE workshops on career and personal satisfaction, someone always brings up money. “I’m not happy,” they’ll say, “But the money is good, so I can’t change.”

Notice what just happened: they took a cultural reality — the ability to earn a good paycheck practicing law — and turned it into a rationale for personal powerlessness — an attitude that derives from the cultural norm of resisting change we looked at earlier in this series. We saw this attitude at work in our midst a couple years back, when two-thirds of the respondents to a Colorado lawyer salary and career satisfaction survey wouldn’t recommend their jobs to someone else, but meanwhile the money was good, and 40% felt financially constrained from considering other options.

Yes you can change, I reply, but you will suffer. That’s not a challenge to dig deep or rise above, it’s a recognition of how hard it is to change our neurological cultural wiring. (See this Huffington Post video re: the difference between pain and suffering.)

Jerry Maguire suffered to get back what he gave up in his show me the money moment. We will, too. Epiphanies exact a price; we have to pay it. And one of the ways we pay is with money.

If we’re going to have epiphanies, we must deal with “show me the money.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean less money. It wasn’t that way for me, or for most of the people I know who’ve made the cultural break. Next time, we’ll look at lawyers who’ve deliberately opted for career and personal satisfaction over money. Not everyone will make that choice, but reconfiguring our relationship with money — one way or another — is a necessary stage along on the path to changing our personal response to dominant law culture.

At least we’ll be in good company. A reporter asked Rohan Dennis, winner of this summer’s USA Pro Challenge cycling race in Colorado, how he’s had such a great year. “You have to learn to suffer,” he said.

‘Til next time….

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for 30 years. He’s on a mission to help lawyers (and anybody else) to live large in their work in or out of law practice. He also believes law culture is ripe for change. He lives in Denver.

The Culture of Law (Part 8): Bleak House and Epigenetics (Really)

rhodesWe looked last time at the slow pace and uncertain outcome of evolutionary cultural change. Just how slow is slow? How about no fundamental cultural change in the past 160 years? I’d say that’s pretty slow.

Law professor Benjamin H. Barton opens his recent new book Glass Half Full: The Decline and Rebirth of the Legal Profession with these observations:

Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House as a serial in the 1850s and published it as a single volume in 1853. It is a blistering assessment of the English Chancery system and remains one of the most trenchant critiques of the common law system.

Given the bewildering series of technological and societal changes over the last 160 years, there is something remarkable about Dickens’s portrait of lawyers in Bleak House: it is utterly familiar to a modern reader.

Bleak House portrays a legal profession little changed from then to now. Dickens describes lawyers meeting in person with clients, or drafting papers, or investigating their cases. English lawyers in 1850 practiced an individualized and bespoke professional service that consisted of paying a lawyer for his time, sometimes in court, sometimes in consultation, sometimes in drafting documents or conducting research.

If we want change faster than cultural evolution can give it to us, we might try analogizing to another scientific concept: epigenetics. David Perlmutter, neurologist and author of bestsellers Brain Maker and Grain Brain, describes epigenetics this way:

Even though genes encoded by DNA are essentially static (barring the occurrence of mutation), the expression of those genes can be highly dynamic in response to environmental influences. This field of study, called epigenetics, is now one of the hottest areas of research.

There are likely many windows during one’s lifetime when we are sensitive to environmental impacts.

Epigenetics, defined more technically, is the study of sections of your DNA (called “marks” or “markers”) that essentially tell your genes when and how strongly to express themselves.

[O]ur day-to-day lifestyle choices have a big effect on our biology and even the activity of our genes.

Now that we have evidence to suggest that food, stress, exercise, sleep… affect which of our genes are activated and which remain suppressed, we can take some degree of control in all of these realms.

Epigenetics explains why your kids aren’t like you. They have your DNA, but the choices they make in their contemporary cultural context alternately activate or shut down certain aspects of their genetic coding. No paternity test needed; they’re your kids alright, they’ve just been practicing epigenetics.

By analogy, law students and lawyers who are “sensitive to environmental impacts” — either because their brains are still developing while they’re in law school or because they’re committed to cultural change — have the ability to turn off their Bleak House cultural coding and embrace something new.

And get this: radical cultural shift doesn’t have to be driven only by technology, which was behind much of the change we looked at in the Future of Law series earlier this year. Instead, cultural change can be driven by “day-to-day lifestyle choices” involving things like “food, stress, exercise, sleep.” Think about that for a minute: lawyers committed to self-care could turn the whole institution and enterprise of law into a place of brand new vibrancy, creativity, and wellbeing.

That’s not pie-in-the-sky, that’s epigenetics.

In the next couple installments, we’ll look at a topic where lawyers routinely choose historical cultural DNA over epigenetic change: their paychecks.

Intrigued by epigenetics? Here’s an entertaining video on the basics. And here’s an overview.

This year’s fourth annual Running Past Our Limits series is an abbreviated version of a longer series I posted on my personal blog earlier this year. You can go there to get the whole thing if you like!

The Culture of Law (Part 7): Sweating the Small Stuff

rhodesOur Future of Law series earlier this year looked at internal and external trends creating pressure for change in the legal profession. But really… the law has been around for millennia; changes move through it glacially. Can’t we just let things work themselves out in due time?

Sure, of course. Culture is formed in the brain; it evolves there as well. Cultural evolution brings change slowly, eventually, and inevitably. There’s just one problem: evolution of any kind doesn’t work from a blueprint and doesn’t sweat the small stuff, so you never know where it’s going.

The evolved architecture of the brain is haphazard and disjointed, and incorporates multiple systems, each of which has a mind of its own (so to speak). Evolution doesn’t design things and it doesn’t build systems— it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit (and if a better way comes along, it will adopt that). There is no overarching grand planner engineering the systems so that they work harmoniously together. The brain is more like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor, and less like new construction.

The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, McGill University

As a result, cultural evolution’s adaptive walk might take us places contrary to our own best interests:

Cultural evolution can yield significant change in behavior in the absence of biological evolution… Such changes need not be biologically adaptive; as a result, fads, fashions, or random variation, attitudes and behaviors may spread through a population that either have no effect on survival or that actually reduce the fitness of the members of a population.

From Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture, introduction by Gary Hatfield, Dept of Philosophy, University of Pennsylvania

(Hmmm, did someone just say “billable hour”? Just couldn’t resist….)

If we’d prefer something other than an unpredictable evolutionary walk to potential self-destruction, we need to get proactive. Again from Dr. Levitin:

A key to understanding the organized mind is to recognize that on its own, it doesn’t organize things the way you might want it to. It comes preconfigured, and although it has enormous flexibility , it is built on a system that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to deal with different kinds and different amounts of information that we have today.

It’s helpful to understand that our modes of thinking and decision-making evolved over the tens of thousands of years that humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Our genes haven’t fully caught up with the demands of modern civilization, but fortunately human knowledge has — we now better understand how to overcome evolutionary limitations.

This is the story of how humans have coped with information and organization from the beginning of civilization. It’s also the story of how the most successful members of society — from successful artists, athletes, and warriors, to business executives and highly credentialed professionals — have learned to maximize their creativity, and efficiency, by organizing their lives so that they spend less time on the mundane, and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things of life.

Let’s see…

The most successful members of society,
[including] highly credentialed professionals [such as lawyers],
maximizing creativity and efficiency,
spending less time on the mundane,
and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things of life…

That’s the rationale for making the effort to overcome the limitations of evolutionary cultural change.

Anybody up for it?

This year’s fourth annual Running Past Our Limits series is an abbreviated version of a longer series I posted on my personal blog earlier this year. You can go there to get the whole thing if you like!

The Culture of Law (Part 6): Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat

rhodesFirst, a quick review of where we were in this series before we took our annual Running Past Our Limits vacation:

Culture derives from a neurological structure created in the brains of the culture’s individual members at impressionable times. Individual brain wiring is transmitted by agreement from member to member, and reinforced by experience. Culture thus neurologically shaped is maintained by the brain’s need for concordance between expectations and experience. The result is a shared cultural belief system that characterizes how the members engage with the world.

This week looks further into the term “belief system.” I Googled it, and the following was one of the more instructive, albeit denser hits:

Belief systems are structures of norms that are interrelated and that vary mainly in the degree in which they are systemic. What is systemic in the Belief System is the interrelation between several beliefs. What features warrant calling this stored body of concepts a belief system? Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually “make sense” of the world around us.

A culture’s members adopt its belief system not merely as their “personal sense of Reality,” but as a shared belief in how things really are. I.e., the culture’s members don’t just believe similar things about how the world works, they also believe in their beliefs, holding them as their common perceptual and behavioral code.

What happens when a culture’s belief system is threatened, either from within or by outside pressure?

We met Bruce E. Wexler, professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School, and his book, Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change a couple posts back. He’s the guy who talked about

[t]he importance of a close fit between internal neuropsychological structures created to conform with an individual’s sensory and interpersonal environment at the time of development, and the environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself.

Wexler uses his brain-based cultural approach to explain intercultural conflict this way:

This book argues that differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.

I.e., a culture resists change because its shared brain wiring is guarding its neurological peace of mind.

Wexler’s analysis also applies to intracultural conflict. And, as he further points out, ultimately the battle over culture is about whose brain wiring gets to make the rules.

This argument thus provides a rational basis for the apparent fact that people fight not because of differences in religion and other beliefs; they fight to control the opportunity to create external structures that fit with their internal structures, and to prevent others from filling their environment with structures and stimulation that conflict with their internal structures.

All of which explains why “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” — i.e., resistance to cultural change — is always an implied cultural norm. Challenges to a culture’s belief system are always perceived as a case of,

The devil will drag you under by the sharp lapels of your checkered coat,
So sit down, sit down, sit down you’re rockin’ the boat!

We’ll be talking more about rocking the cultural boat. In the meantime, take a couple minutes to give yourself a treat and watch the video. It’s short, from “Guys and Dolls.”

This year’s fourth annual Running Past Our Limits series is an abbreviated version of a longer series I posted on my personal blog earlier this year. You can go there to get the whole thing if you like!

Running Past Our Limits 2015 (Part 5): The New Normal

rhodesA funny thing happened on the way to the clinic.

I don’t go regularly to the Rocky Mountain MS Clinic. Nothing personal, there’s just nothing to talk about. I do my diet and exercise thing, they do their medical thing. But every now and then for financial or insurance reasons I get a request for a neurologist’s update re: my MS.

I called for an appointment. The receptionist wanted to know why. “I guess just to talk,” I said. They sent me an online questionnaire. I filled it in, hit “send.” A couple days later I realized what just happened.

It was Memorial Day. Most people had the day off and were doing the usual things you do on a holiday weekend. That’s not my reality anymore. Hiking, biking, long walks… never mind the details, the short version is that these days I can’t do lots of things on purpose that I used to do on autopilot.

On the other hand, my overall mind-body health that has never been richer and fuller. I’ve done my best to deal with MS, embrace its losses and turn them into gains. MS has become my life practice for optimal health. I’m grateful, and amazed. But despite all that, there’s still one gift MS still hasn’t given me that I want more than all the others:

To be rid of it.

But here’s the funny thing: when I filled out the neurologist’s office questionnaire, I didn’t answer the questions from the perspective of MS. Instead, I answered from the wellbeing point of view. “Life is good!” I basically said. “I do everything I want!” That’s true: it is, and I do. It’s just that what I want and what I do have changed.

After I hit the send button I had this thought: maybe that’s not what the questionnaire was asking; maybe it wanted to know about what things are like for me with MS. Well now… that changes everything.

After several years of aggressive physical training (and this year I added a special new diet, too), I had viewed the questionnaire from the perspective of the “New Normal” that’s been patterned into my brain, thanks to this amazing thing called neuroplasticity. The New Normal has become so… well, normal… that I was blind to the way things used to be!

The New Normal is the perspective of a changed brain. It’s not because I’m such a great guy and have a great attitude or anything like that, it’s because our brains rewire themselves as a result of consistent focus. Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley describe this process in their book, The Mind and the Brain:

The time has come for science to confront the serious implications of the fact that directed, willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function; that the exertion of willful effort generates physical force that has the power to change how the brain works and even its physical structure. The result is directed neuroplasticity.

Directed neuroplasticity creates the New Normal. And in my case, it blinded me to the Old Normal.

Which makes me ask: In light of the power of our brains to change themselves, is there anything we don’t dare hope for anymore?

This year’s fourth annual Running Past Our Limits series is an abbreviated version of a longer series I posted on my personal blog earlier this year. You can go there to get the whole thing if you like!

Running Past Our Limits 2015 (Part 4): Delusional

rhodesMy wife Janet brought home a book from the library. “This was calling me,” she said, “To give to you.”

It was Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success. Click this link and watch the trailer. It’s short, and worth it. Go ahead, we’ll wait.

The authors define “supersurvivors” this way:

They bounce forward, and in truly remarkable ways. . . . They move beyond mere resilience. They transform the meaning of their potential tragedies by making them the basis for change.

Yes, the book was for me. I understood the people and their stories on a level where still waters run deep. They weren’t inspirational, they were satisfying in their matter-of-factness. Two stories in particular spoke to me.

Alan Lock always knew he’d be career military. A genetic eye condition made him legally blind at age 23, ending his career in the Royal Air Force.

All his life, people had been telling swimmer Maarten van der Weijden he was destined for Olympic gold, and he was proving them right until his path to the medal podium was halted by cancer with a 30% survival rate.

What happened next? Alan became the first legally blind person to row a boat across the Atlantic Ocean. After three years, Maarten’s cancer was gone. Five years later, he won Olympic gold.

Neither of them was a positive thinker. In fact, just the opposite. “No matter what people say, there were no positives in losing my sight,” Alan told the authors. His secret to success? “I always expect the worst,” he said, adding “I knew I was doomed.”

Maarten’s supporters encouraged him to use his athletic training to maintain a positive attitude. He had other thoughts. “There was a big gap between my idea of hope and their ideas of hope,” he said. “For me, hope was chemotherapy.” Of his recovery, he said “I knew the odds of success were very small. I set out simply to swim my best in small competitions.” After the Olympics, a reporter compared Maarten to Lance Armstrong. Maarten responded “Armstrong says that positive thinking and doing a lot of sports can save you. I don’t agree. I even think it’s dangerous.”

So much for maintaining a positive attitude. If that wasn’t their secret, then what was? Just this: a feeling they could do something about it — a feeling of personal power that said “It may be over for me, but I still think I can do something about it.”

Surprisingly, that attitude can co-exist with a lack of positive thinking — a fact that apparently drives some psychologists crazy. Supersurvivors cites numerous psychological articles describing this attitude as “delusional” and based on “illusions of control.” One psychologist said people like this have “distorted positive perceptions of themselves (self-aggrandizement), an exaggerated sense of personal control, and overly optimistic expectations about the future.”

Okay then.

Alan described his attitude this way: “I know what I can’t do now that my eyesight is gone. So now I’m going to figure out what I can do.” When he decided to row across an ocean, “People thought I was nuts. But this was my life now, and I wanted something that stretched me mentally and physically. I was shooting for a watershed moment.”

He got his watershed moment alright. Quite literally.

We would call Alan and Maarten realists, pessimists even. There was no bravado or can-do spirit, no hope for a miracle. They knew their odds were poor. They expected adversity and got it. Yet they did what they did anyway, for no one but themselves.

I find a stillness in that attitude, and a deep satisfaction when I act from it. And so I keep up with my physical training, training diet, and all the rest, and somehow I think it matters.

Call me delusional, I guess.

This year’s fourth annual Running Past Our Limits series is an abbreviated version of a longer series I posted on my personal blog earlier this year. You can go there to get the whole thing if you like!