October 6, 2015

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!

Running Past Our Limits 2015 (Part 3): The Straight Dope on Motivation

rhodesThere’s a scene in my “What’s Your Impossible” video where I tap my chest and say, “I don’t have to get motivated to do this. I run from here.”

I should have tapped my head. The heart is where we feel motivation, but the brain is where it happens. It’s all about dope — dopamine, that is.

Dopamine is the brain chemical behind “the pursuit of happiness.” When we think about getting moving on something, dopamine triggers a cost-benefit analysis, and if the perceived reward outweighs the cost, it gets behind the idea. We feel motivated. We get going. But if the ledger comes up short, dopamine settles back on the couch and asks for more Cheetos.

I often experience MS that way — like a Great Big I Don’t Wanna. I usually go work out anyway, and feel better when I’m done, but not always. Sometimes (rarely, thankfully) there’s no feel good reward and it’s just too hard to push through, so I quit early, or don’t go at all.

Norman Doidge explains all this in his profile of John Pepper, the “conscious walker” with Parkinson’s Disease we met last time:

The conventional view is that dopamine is essential for movement, and because people with [Parkinson’s Disease] have too little . . . , they can’t move. But it turns out that dopamine is also essential to “feel” that it is worth making a movement — that is, people need dopamine to feel motivated to move in the first place.

Thus dopamine has at least three characteristics relevant to [Parkinson’s Disease]: first, it enhances motivation to move; then it facilitates and quickens that movement; and finally it neuroplastically strengthens the circuits involved in the movement, so that movement will be easier next time. But if there is no motivation, no movement will occur.

A recent study shows that the “motivation to move” goes awry in [Parkinson’s Disease].

The importance [of this study] for understanding Parkinson’s cannot be underestimated: it is not simply that [Parkinson’s Disease patients] have an inherent inability to move normally and at a normal speed; the motivational component of their motor system is also fundamentally compromised.

Parkinson’s Disease appears in its symptoms as a physical movement disorder, but it has roots that are “cognitive” or “mental,” and is thus as much a mental as a physical disorder.

Which is precisely why it is problematic to teach Parkinson’s patients that the loss of dopamine prevents them from moving! This instruction will only reinforce passive resignation, at the very moment when that attitude needs to be undermined.

This motivational lack is not a product of laziness or apathy or weakness of will. Rather, the brain’s dopamine-based motivation circuit often cannot energize particular movements, even when desired, and this appears as weariness or lassitude.

That John Pepper was able to motivate himself to move, despite limited dopamine, attests to the vital force of his mind and will. But to translate that motivation still required a “neurological” discovery on his part. He still couldn’t do normal, everyday walking, which is automatic and habitual . . . until his conscious walking technique got around this circuit and allowed him to use other circuits.

From The Brain’s Way of Healing

In other words, by doggedly sticking with his intent to walk, John Pepper has recruited other parts of his brain to help him stay with it.

Knowing about dopamine takes the mystery out of motivation. It also tells us there’s a neuroplastic reward waiting for us if we can somehow defy our Great Big I Don’t Wanna’s and just get moving.

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 2): Moving on Purpose

rhodesMeet John Pepper, my new role model:

My walking companion, John Pepper, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder, over two decades ago. He first started getting symptoms nearly fifty years ago. But unless you are a perceptive and well-trained observer, you would never know it. Pepper moves too quickly for a Parkinson’s patient. He doesn’t appear to have the classic symptoms: no shuffling gait, no visible tremor when he pauses or when he moves; he does not appear especially rigid, and seems able to initiate new movements fairly quickly; he has a good sense of balance. He even swings his arms when he walks. He shows none of the slowed movements that are the hallmark of Parkinson’s. He hasn’t been on anti-Parkinson’s medication for nine years, since he was sixty-eight years old, yet appears to walk perfectly normally.

In fact, when he gets going at his normal speed, I can’t keep up with him. He’s now going on seventy-seven and has had this illness, which is defined as an incurable, chronic, progressive neurodegenerative disorder, since his thirties. But instead of degenerating, John Pepper has been able to reverse the major symptoms, the ones that Parkinson’s patients dread most, those that lead to immobility. He’s done so with an exercise program he devised and with a special kind of concentration.

From The Brain’s Way of Healing, by Norman Doidge, M.D.

John Pepper’s and my movement challenges are remarkably similar, plus we have three key things in common: an “incurable, chronic, progressive neurodegenerative disorder,” an “exercise program he devised” and “a special kind of concentration.” His issue is Parkinson’s. Mine is MS. His exercise program is walking. Mine is running on what a friend calls “an elliptical machine on steroids.” As for concentration,” the key to John Pepper’s walking is that he does it consciously. Same with me.

Most people walk unconsciously; that’s why they can also chew gum, talk, and text at the same time. Not so for John Pepper: his mind has to stay on the job; if he gets distracted, his symptoms come back. It’s the same for me. I’ve been getting gait-training rehab this year, and developed a mantra I chant to myself when I walk: “wide stance, bend your knees, pick up your feet….” If I leave it for a single step, my right foot immediately drags. I stumble, or hear the sole of my shoe scuff against the pavement. I’ve lost concentration. Pause. Take a breath. Regain focus. Take the next step.

John Pepper has a couple decades of practice on me; he can walk and talk at the same time. I’m not there yet. When I first started my new walking practice, my wife sometimes came with me. We’d hold hands and talk. Now I mostly go alone, or if she comes with me, we don’t hold hands and we don’t talk. I need to concentrate.

I wonder if I could learn to run the same way. Elite marathoners churn out 180 steps per minute. For a 2:10:00 marathon, that’s 23,400 steps. That’s a lot of focus, a lot of mantras chanted. But it may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, because of a third thing John Pepper and I have in common: a fascinating bit of brain functioning that backs up what we’re doing.

We’ll talk about that next time.

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: Cause and Effect Can’t Do The Impossible

rhodesThis is the fourth year this blog has taken a summer break from our normal topics to reflect on life lessons learned from how I’m dealing with primary progressive MS through aggressive physical conditioning. The idea isn’t just to tell my story, but to find things we can all use to bring up our inner game.

I wrote this year’s series last winter, because there was too much going on to wait until now. Plus I needed the posts for a new book that will be coming out soon, about the new inner game we need to do “impossible” things. Doing the impossible was a theme in last year’s series, too: it referenced a short inspirational video some friends did about my workout routine, called Unstoppable:  What’s Your Impossible? You might take a moment to watch it and answer that question for yourself.

Last year, I wrote about my goal to be a lab rat. A few weeks later, I achieved my goal, and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Laboratory science is about finding cause and effect. We put a high value on cause and effect in science, law, and life. Do this, get that. It’s useful. So we have quotes like this:

 “Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance.
Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I usually like Emerson’s quotes, but that one makes me cringe. If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that cause and effect can’t do the impossible. In fact, these days I wonder how we ever became so enamored with cause and effect; there are so many exceptions to it. I’m not the only one who thinks this way:

In short, a working knowledge of the way in which causes and effects relate to one another seems indispensable to our ability to make our way in the world. Yet there is a long and venerable tradition in philosophy, dating back at least to David Hume in the 18th century, that finds the notions of causality to be dubious. And that might be putting it kindly.

Mathias Frisch, philosopher at the University of Maryland, member of its Foundations of Physics Group, and author of Causal Reasoning in Physics, in a recent Aeon Magazine article.

Cause and effect is one of the ways we judge the odds of a desired outcome happening. I like the way Sir Terry Pratchett evaluated the odds of impossible things happening in his book Mort:

Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one.

But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.

We need to stretch our brains if we want to do impossible things — and that includes getting them (and ourselves) out of the cause and effect loop. Maybe that’s why I’ve been watching Chriss Angel videos lately: nothing like a master illusionist to stretch your brain.

In that spirit, this year we’ll look at the neuroscience of motivation, how focused conscious intention empowers us to do things we shouldn’t be able to do, the one quality that “supersurvivors” share in overcoming major life challenges, and how the new normal can so thoroughly replace the old normal that we literally can’t see it anymore.

Those topics are neither cause and effect nor magic, but they are useful, at least in my world. Should be fun. See you next time.

You can read the entire Running Past Our Limits 2015 blog series on my personal website. We’ll just hit some highlights here. The new book is called Running For My Life:  The Impossible Inner Game of an MS Life Athlete. The first third is a collection of all the Running Past Our Limits posts from this blog. It will be out in late September. And while I’m doing a commercial, there will be a second book out late this year or early next, which will collect the Future of Law and Culture of Law posts from this blog. Both books will be available as FREE ebook downloads.

The Culture of Law (Part 5): Culture by Agreement

rhodesWe’ve seen that culture is a matter of individual brain patterning. But how is culture transmitted from one brain to another, so that all brains in a culture have the same wiring?

It begins with a shared experience of cultural formation, which we’ve looked at. After that, culture is reinforced by agreement. Agreement about what? A state of mind.

Because mental states cannot be transferred physically, they must be transferred by being re-created in the mind of the receiving individual.

[W]hat is transmitted is some state of mind that produces behavior.

[The transmitted state of mind includes] a myriad of… beliefs, values, desires, definitions, attitudes, and emotional states such as fear, regret, or pride.

From an article by Philip G. Chase, former Senior Research Scientist and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, in a collection of scholarly articles entitled Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture.

Law students entering law practice observe lawyers thinking and behaving in ways that characterize law culture — that make it recognizable as such to both members and non-members. Through observation and imitation, they become habituated into cultural norms of thinking and acting, forging implicit agreements about law culture which are reinforced through ongoing experience. In time, they become recognizable as lawyers even when they’re not lawyering. It’s a mindset: “once a lawyer, always a lawyer.”

The same is true of other professional cultures. Think of accountants, engineers, physicians. Meet one, and you can just tell.

John R. Searle, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, has made a career of deconstructing about these cultural agreements, beginning with his landmark book The Construction of Social Reality, where he framed his inquiry this way:

This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time: there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking about things like money, property, governments, and marriage.

If everybody thinks that this sort of thing is money, and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling, political offices, and so on.”

How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?

Professional culture is not monolithic. In every profession, the cats resist herding. Members of the culture practice some cultural agreements more than others, according to personal preference. We’re not all in the same place on the cultural bell curve. Yet there is undeniably an identifiable mindset that characterizes the culture, and a general consensus about what that mindset is, even if you believe yourself to be an exception. (I have asked workshop participants about this for years, and the list of what characterizes law culture is always the same. You can write it up for yourself, right now, if you like.)

The seeds of cultural change lie in the tension between the general consensus and individual self-perception. More on that coming up.

For a taste of what I mean by cultural norms that make law culture “recognizable as such to both members and non-members,” check out these recent blog posts on “admirable” and “distasteful” lawyer mindsets and behaviors.

A collection of Kevin Rhodes’ Legal Connection blog posts for the past three years is now available in print from Amazon. Also available from Amazon as a Kindle, and as an ebook from Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, and Scribd.

The Culture of Law (Part 4): Changing Our Default Cultural Setting

rhodes“We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Let’s start this week by revisiting the premise of this series:

The law of the future requires the law culture of the future. Culture is the context in which the future will occur. If we understand what culture is and where it comes from, we can most effectively shape both the law and its future… if we choose to do so.

Key words: If we choose to do so. We might not. Let’s look at what’s going on in our heads one way or the other.

As we saw last time, our brains are patterned with our cultural expectations through the creation of new brain cells (neurons) and new brain wiring (neural pathways).

When we resist cultural change, judge new developments as “bad,” insist the old ways were better, we think we’re making a reasoned assessment of the pros and cons of old vs. new, and we’re convinced our assessment is correct. Maybe so, but the neurobiological reality is that our brains are encountering a new cultural model that won’t run on their existing neurons and neural pathways. Turns out we’re not saving the citadel from the invading hordes, we’re experiencing a brain reality: hormones secreting and electrical charges firing within our skulls.

Kinda puts the kibosh on the righteousness indignation, doesn’t it?

When we promote cultural change, our brains need to generate new neurons (a process called neurogenesis) and lay down new neural pathways (a process called neuroplasticity). Once in place, this new neurological infrastructure will support the change we want.

Until our brains are rewired to the point where they can find and maintain the internal-external brain concordance Dr. Wexler talked about (see last time), we will continuously revert to our old cultural patterning. This is why we can leave a firm to set up a solo or small firm practice, or launch ourselves on a mission to reform law education. or whatever our focus of change might be, only to wake up one day to find ourselves back in the same culture where we started. We revert and self-sabotage because our brains weren’t rewired to support the change we wanted.

We begin the process of deliberate change with an awareness of what our default cultural setting already is, as patterned into us during law school and our early practice years. I previously quoted Simon D’Arcy of Next Level Culture. Here he is again:

You cannot change what you cannot accept. Creating a thriving team and workplace culture starts with revealing, acknowledging and embracing your default culture.

To know where we’re going, we first need to know where we are, which means the cultural beliefs and behaviors, assumptions and expectations currently patterned in our brains. Finding out is an essential exercises in honesty, and honesty requires reflection.

We think we don’t have time for reflection. We want results.

We’ll get results if we take time for reflection.

New culture means new thoughts and behaviors. We won’t have either if our brains haven’t been rewired to accommodate them. We won’t get anywhere unless we first understand where we are now. And we won’t gain that understanding unless we step back and reflect about it.

That is the inside-out game of cultural change.

A collection of Kevin Rhodes’ Legal Connection blog posts for the past three years is now available in print from Amazon. Also available from Amazon as a Kindle, and as an ebook from Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, and Scribd.

The Culture of Law (Part 3): We Wuz Brainwashed

rhodesThis is from Wikipedia, on cultural neuroscience:

Similar to other interdisciplinary fields such as social neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, affective neuroscience, and neuroanthropology, cultural neuroscience aims to explain a given mental phenomenon in terms of a synergistic product of mental, neural and genetic events.

Heady stuff — quite literally. In this series, we’ll look at all those factors — mental, neural, and genetics. I know… but stay with me here… this is good stuff.

In his landmark book, Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, professor of psychiatry at Yale Medical School Bruce E. Wexler declared that “concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.”

That “concordance” he speaks of is the peace of mind we’ve been talking about. It’s a brain necessity: our brains work on culture all the time. They do this mostly undisturbed most of the time, but not always. There are particularly intense formative periods of our lives when our brains are particular alive to shifting their cultural points of view.

Dr. Wexler speaks of “the 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.” (My emphasis.) Those “times of development” are the key to cultural creation.

Not surprisingly, one of those times is adolescence, which from a brain point of view lasts until age 25-27. New cultural possibilities abound when we come of age, and we make choices from the cultural contexts we are exposed to during that time, literally activating and de-activating genes as we do so. (Which explains why our kids aren’t like us.) Then, during our adult lives, our brains and our external lives settle into creating concordance with our adolescent cultural choices.

That’s exactly what happens to our brains when we enter the legal profession. Think about it: many law students are under 25-27; nothing personal, but their brains aren’t all there yet. What’s especially missing are the portions that govern learning and sound judgment. (This explains why older law students experience law school differently than students right out of college — something you probably noticed if you were an older student yourself, but probably didn’t if you weren’t.) Add the stress of law school to normal adolescent brain development, and you’ve got culture formation on steroids.

Although older law students have organically mature brains, stress pulls them into a comparable state of adolescent-like brain patterning, in a process comparable to what happens during boot camp. A former Marine Corps drill sergeant told me how they “greeted” new recruits, stomping into their barracks at 3:00 a.m., shouting and cracking whips. “We had to do that,” he said, “Otherwise they weren’t going to survive boot camp, let alone the kind of combat we send them into.” Once they’d been torn down, the newly malleable recruits were built back up — thoroughly enculturated into the Marine way.

Like them, law students younger and older enter law practice (the equivalent of Wexler’s “environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself”) with brains primed to reinforce the cultural choices we made in that stressful context.

We wuz brainwashed, all of us. No kidding.

For a user-friendly analysis of adolescent brain development, see Change Your Brain Change Your Life Before 25, by Jesse Payne. Jesse is the son-in-law of celebrity psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen. His courtship of Dr. Amen’s daughter required a brain scan conducted by his famous future father-in-law.

A collection of Kevin Rhodes’ Legal Connection blog posts for the past three years is now available in print from Amazon. Also available from Amazon as a Kindle, and as an ebook from Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, and Scribd.

The Culture of Law (Part 2): It’s an Inside Job

rhodesWe tend to think of culture as something external to ourselves — as something out there, set in motion and maintained by the cumulative energy of all those other people we live and work with.

Not so. Culture is not out there somewhere; it’s right here inside us — in our brains, to be precise. Culture isn’t about what everybody else is doing, it’s about our own brain cells (neurons) and the ways they’re linked together (neural pathways), plus all the hormones and electrical charges that keep the brain system running. Culture, in other words, is ultimately a personal biological and neurological reality.

In a series a couple years ago, I likened law culture to another biological concept:

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake posits the existence of “morphic fields.”

A morphic field is the controlling energy field of a biological entity – either an individual or collective system. The field is made up of both organic and psychological elements. The field is invisible, but its impact is observable. For example, both genetics (organic) and individual and collective conscious and unconscious factors (psychological) invisibly affect our behavior.

When we enter the legal profession, we enter its morphic field. Lawyers work in the field of law – get it? There are certain expectations, dynamics, outlooks, disciplines, judgments, commonly accepted wisdom, urban legends, etc. that come with the territory of being a lawyer.

In law school, we allowed our psyches to be affected by those things – we learned to “think like a lawyer.” Our neural pathways were literally rewired, our consciousness was altered, and our physiology was affected as well, so that we were biologically and chemically different beings when we graduated than we were when we started. No kidding. This brain- and body-retraining process continued when we went to work.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was describing neurological cultural patterning. No, I’m not making this stuff up, and this series will look more deeply at how all this happens. But now, as we’re getting started, it’s useful to note several very practical implications all this has for lawyer personal wellbeing and career satisfaction. Here’s the short list:

As we saw last time, brain-originated culture is ultimately about promoting peace of mind — what one prominent brain researcher calls “concordance.” We have an innate biological need for an ongoing, functional match between how things work in our cultural context and our personal needs and expectations.

The culture of law as it existed when we entered the profession becomes our default cultural setting. Our brains, in their pursuit of concordance, continuously seek to reinforce that default culture and conform our experience to it.

The trouble is, as much as our brains would like the default to stay in place, the external world is always changing, which stresses our neurological peace, which in turn stresses our personal wellbeing and professional performance.

If we want to change our experience of the culture of law to promote concordance, we need to get to that default brain cultural setting and change it, and keep doing so as new stressors arise. To do that, we need to consciously promote our brain in developing new neurons and new neural pathways. No kidding.

Coming up, we’ll look at how law culture is shaped in lawyers’ brains, and how our brains keep our default cultural setting in place unless and until we actively exert our power to change it.

A collection of Kevin Rhodes’ Legal Connection blog posts for the past three years is now available in print from Amazon. Also available from Amazon as a Kindle, and as an ebook from Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, and Scribd.