Do To Yourself As You Would Do For Others

“…our impulse control is less based on an order from our executive command center, or frontal cortex, and more correlated with the empathic part of our brain. In other words, when we exercise self-control, we take on the perspective of our future self and empathize with that self’s perspectives, feelings, and motivations.”
~ Alexandar Soutscheck

Self-control is rooted in self-awareness. Julian Jaynes and Brian McVeigh, in one of their talks, brought up the idea that “mind space” has increased over time: “The more things we think about, the more distinctions we make in our consciousness  between A and B, and so on, the more mind-space there is” (Discussions with Julian Jaynes, ed. by Brian J. McVeigh, p. 40). The first expansion was the creation of introspective consciousness itself. Narratization allowed that consciousness to also extend across time, to imagine possibilities and play out scenarios and consider consequences. Empathy, as we we experience it, might be a side effect of this as consciousness includes more and more within it, including empathy with our imagined future self. So, think of self-control as being kind to yourself, to your full temporal self, not only your immediate self.

This would relate to the suggestion that humans learn theory of mind, the basis of cognitive empathy, first by observing others and only later apply it to ourselves. That is to say the first expansion of mental space as consciousness takes root within relationship to others. It’s realizing that there might be inner experience within someone else that we claim inner space in our own experience. So, our very ability to understand ourselves is dependent on empathy with others. This was a central purpose of the religions that arose in the Axial Age, the traditions that continue into the modern world* (Tahere Salehi, The Effect of Training Self-Control and Empathy According to Spirituality on Self-Control and Empathy Preschool Female Students in Shiraz City). The prophets that emerged during that era taught love and compassion and introspection, not only as an otherworldly moral dictum but also in maintaining group coherence and the common good. The breakdown of what Jaynes called the bicameral mind was traumatic and a new empathic mind was needed to replace it, if only to maintain social order.

Social order has become a self-conscious obsession ever since, as Jaynesian consciousness in its tendency toward rigidity has inherent weaknesses. Social disconnection is a crippling of the mind because the human psyche is inherently social. Imagining our future selves is a relationship with a more expansive sense of self. It’s the same mechanism as relating to any other person. This goes back to Johann Hari’s idea, based on Bruce K. Alexander’s rat park research, that the addict is the ultimate individual. In this context, this ultimate individual lacking self-control is not only disconnected from other people but also disconnected from themselves. Addiction is isolating and isolation promotes addiction. Based on this understanding, I’ve proposed that egoic consciousness is inherently addictive and that post-axial society is dependent on addiction for social control.

But this psychological pattern is seen far beyond addiction. This fits our personal experience of self. When we were severely depressed, we couldn’t imagine or care about the future. This definitely inhibited self-control and led to more impulsive behavior in being in present-oriented psychological survival mode. Then again, the only reason self-control is useful at all is because, during and following the Axial Age, humans ever more loss the capacity of being part of a communal identity that created the conditions of communal control, the externally perceived commands of archaic authorization through voice-hearing. We’ve increasingly lost the capacity of a communal identity (extended mind/self) and hence a communal empathy, something that sounds strange or unappealing to the modern mind. In denying our social nature, this casts the shadow of authoritarianism, an oppressive and often violent enforcement of top-down control.

By the way, this isn’t merely about psychology. Lead toxicity causes higher rates of impulsivity and aggression. This is not personal moral failure but brain damage from poisoning. Sure, teaching brain-damaged kids and adults to have more empathy might help them overcome their disability. But if we are to develop and empathic society, we should learn to have enough empathy not to wantonly harm the brains of others with lead toxicity and other causes of stunted development (malnutrition, stress, ACEs, etc), just because they are poor or minority and can’t fight back. Maybe we need to first teach politicians and business leaders basic empathy, in overcoming the present dominance of pscyopathic traits, so that they could learn self-control in not harming others.

The part of the brain involving cognitive empathy and theory of mind is generally involved with selflessness and pro-social behavior. To stick with brain development and neurocognitive functioning, let’s look at diet. Weston A. Price, in studying traditional populations that maintained healthy diets, observed what he called moral health in that people seemed kinder, more helpful, and happier — they got along well. Strong social fabric and culture of trust is not an abstraction but built into general measures of health, in the case of Price’s work, having to do with nutrient-dense animal foods containing fat-soluble vitamins. As the standard American diet has worsened, so has mental health. That is a reason for hope. In an early study on the ketogenic diet as applied to childhood diabetes, the researchers made a side observation that not only did the diabetes symptoms improve but so did behavior. I’ve theorized about how a high-carb diet might be one of the factors that sustains the addictive and egoic self.

Narrow rigidity of the mind, as seen in the extremes of egoic consciousness, has come to be accepted as a social norm and even a social ideal. It is the social Darwinian worldview that has contributed to the rise of both competitive capitalism and the Dark Triad (psycopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism), and unsurprisingly it has led to a society that lacks awareness and appreciation of the harm caused to future generations (Scott Barry Kaufman, The Dark Triad and Impulsivity). Rather than normalized, maybe this dysfunction should be seen as a sickness, not only a soul sickness but a literal sickness of the body-mind that can be scientifically observed and measured, not to mention medically and socially treated. We need to thin the boundaries of the mind so as to expand our sense of self. Research shows that those with such thinner boundaries not only have more sense of identification with their future selves but also their past selves, in maintaining a connection to what it felt like to be a child. We need to care for ourselves and others in the way we would protect a child.

* * *

* In their article “Alone and aggressive“, A. William Crescioni and Roy F. Baumeister included the loss of meaning. It was maybe associated with the loss of empathy, specifically in understanding the meaning of others (e.g., the intention ‘behind’ words, gestures and actions). Meaning traditionally has been the purview of religion. And I’d suggest that it is not a coincidence that the obsession with meaning arose in the Axial Age right when words were invented for ‘religion’ as a formal institution separate from the rest of society. As Julian Jaynes argues, this was probably in response to the sense of nostalgia and longing that followed the silence of the gods, spirits, and ancestors.

A different kind of social connection had to be taught, but this post-bicameral culture wasn’t and still isn’t as effective in re-creating the strong social bonds of archaic humanity. Periods of moral crisis in fear of societal breakdown have repeated ever since, like a wound that was never healed. I’ve previously written about social rejection and aggressive behavior in relation to this (12 Rules for Potential School Shooters) — about school shooters, I explained:

Whatever they identify or don’t identify as, many and maybe most school shooters were raised Christian and one wonders if that plays a role in their often expressing a loss of meaning, an existential crisis, etc. Birgit Pfeifer and Ruard R. Ganzevoort focus on the religious-like concerns that obsess so many school shooters and note that many of them had religious backgrounds:

“Traditionally, religion offers answers to existential concerns. Interestingly, school shootings have occurred more frequently in areas with a strong conservative religious population (Arcus 2002). Michael Carneal (Heath High School shooting, 1997, Kentucky) came from a family of devoted members of the Lutheran Church. Mitchell Johnson (Westside Middle School shooting, 1998, Arkansas) sang in the Central Baptist Church youth choir (Newman et al. 2004). Dylan Klebold (Columbine shooting, 1999, Colorado) attended confirmation classes in accordance with Lutheran tradition. However, not all school shooters have a Christian background. Some of them declare themselves atheists…” (The Implicit Religion of School Shootings).

Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman, in studying school shootings, has noted that, “School rampage shootings tend to happen in small, isolated or rural communities. There isn’t a very direct connection between where violence typically happens, especially gun violence in the United States, and where rampage shootings happen” (Common traits of all school shooters in the U.S. since 1970).

It is quite significant that these American mass atrocities are concentrated in “small, isolated or rural communities” that are “frequently in areas with a strong conservative religious population”. That might more precisely indicate who these school shooters are and what they are reacting to. Also, one might note that rural areas in general and specifically in the South do have high rates of gun-related deaths, although many of them are listed as ‘accidental’ which is to say most rural shootings involve people who know each other; also true of school shootings.

* * *

Brain stimulation reveals crucial role of overcoming self-centeredness in self-control
by Alexander Soutschek, Christian C. Ruff, Tina Strombach, Tobias Kalenscher and Philippe N. Tobler

Empathic Self-Control
by David Shoemaker

People with a high degree of self-control typically enjoy better interpersonal relationships, greater social adjustment, and more happiness than those with a low degree of self-control. They also tend to have a high degree of empathy. Further, those with low self-control also tend to have low empathy. But what possible connection could there be between self-control and empathy, given that how one regulates oneself seems to have no bearing on how one views others. Nevertheless, this paper aims to argue for a very tight relation between self-control and empathy, namely, that empathy is in fact one type of self-control. The argument proceeds by exploring two familiar types of self-control, self-control over actions and attitudes, the objects for which we are also responsible. Call the former volitional self-control and the latter rational self-control. But we also seem to be responsible for—and have a certain type of control and self-control over—a range of perceptual states, namely, those in which we come to see from another person’s perspective how she views her valuable ends and what her emotional responses are to their thwarting or flourishing. This type of empathic self-control is a previously-unexplored feature of our interpersonal lives. In addition, once we see that the type of empathy exercised is also exercised when casting ourselves into the shoes of our future selves, we will realize how intra-personal empathy better enables both volitional and rational self-control.

Science Says When Self-Control Is Hard, Try Empathizing With Your Future Self
by Lindsay Shaffer

Soutscheck’s study also reveals what happens when we fail to exercise the empathic part of our brain. When Soutscheck interrupted the empathic center of the brain in 43 study volunteers, they were more likely to take a small amount of cash immediately over a larger amount in the future. They were also less inclined to share the money with a partner. Soutscheck’s study showed that the more people are stuck inside their own perspective, even just from having the empathic part of their brain disrupted, the more likely they are to behave selfishly and impulsively.

Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self
by Ed Yong

This tells us that impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity. Perhaps it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.

New Studies in Self Control: Treat Yourself Like You’d Treat Others
from Peak

A new study recently shifted the focus to a different mechanism of self control. Alexander Soutschek and colleagues from the University of Zurich believe self-control may be related to our ability to evaluate our future wants and needs.

The scientists suggest that this takes place in an area of the brain called the rTPJ, which has long been linked to selflessness and empathy for others. It’s an important part of our ability to “take perspectives” and help us step into the shoes of a friend.

The scientists hypothesized that perhaps the rTPJ treats our “future self” the same way it treats any other person. If it helps us step into our friend’s shoes, maybe we can do the same thing for ourselves. For example, if we’re deciding whether to indulge in another pint of beer at a bar, maybe our ability to hold off is related to our ability to imagine tomorrow morning’s hangover. As science writer Ed Yong explains, “Think of self-control as a kind of temporal selflessness. It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.”

Empathy for Your Future Self
by Reed Rawlings

Further Research on the TPJ

The results of Soutscheks team were similar to past work on the empathy, future-self, and the TPJ. It’s believed a better connected rTPJ increases the likelihood of prosocial behaviors. Which relates to skills of executive function. Individuals who exhibit lower empathy, score higher for impulsivity – the opposite of self-control.

Keeping our future selves in mind may even keep our savings in check. In this research, Stanford University tested a “future self-continuity”. They wanted to explore how individuals related to their future self. Participants were asked to identify how they felt about the overlap between their current and future selves. They used the Venn diagrams below for this exercise.

If they saw themselves as separate, they were more likely to choose immediate rewards. A greater overlap increased the likelihood of selecting delayed rewards. In their final study, they assessed individuals from the San Francisco Bay area. The researchers found a correlation between wealth and an overlap between selves.

While the above research is promising, it doesn’t paint a full picture. Empathy seems useful, but making a sacrifice for our future-self requires that we understand the reason behind it. It’s the sacrifice that is especially crucial – positive gains demand negative trade-offs.

That’s where altruism, our willingness to give to others, comes in.

Why Do We Sacrifice?

Research from the University of Zurich’s examined some altruism’s driving factors. Their work came up with two correlations. First, the larger your rTPJ, the more likely you are to behave altruistically. Second, concerns of fairness affect how we give.

In this experiment, individuals were more generous if their choice would decrease inequality. When inequality would increase, participants were less likely to give.

This is an understandable human maxim. We have little reason to give to an individual who has more than we do. It feels completely unfair to do so. However, we’re raised to believe that helping those in need is objectively good. Helping ourselves should fall under the same belief.

Empathy and altruism, when focused on our own well-being, are intimately linked. To give selflessly, we need to have a genuine concern for another’s well-being. In this case, the ‘other’ is our future self. Thankfully, with a bit of reflection, each of us can gain a unique insight into our own lives.

Alone and aggressive: Social exclusion impairs self-control and empathy and increases hostile cognition and aggression.
by A. William Crescioni and Roy F. Baumeister
from Bullying, Rejection, and Peer Victimization ed. by Monic J. Harris
pp. 260-271 (full text)

Social Rejection and Emotional Numbing

Initial studies provided solid evidence for a causal relationship be-tween rejection and aggression. The mechanism driving this relation-ship remained unclear, however. Emotional distress was perhaps the most plausible mediator. Anxiety has been shown to play a role in both social rejection (Baumeister & Tice, 1990) and ostracism (Williamset al., 2000). Emotional distress, however, was not present in these experiments by Twenge et al. (2001). Only one significant mood effect was found, and even this effect deviated from expectations. The sole difference in mood between rejected and accepted participants was a slight decrease in positive affect. Rejected participants did not show any increase in negative affect; rather, they showed a flattening of affect, in particular a decrease in positive affect. This mood difference did not constitute a mediator of the link between rejection and aggression. It did, however, point toward a new line of thinking. It was possible that rejection would lead to emotional numbing rather than causing emotional distress. The flattening of affect seen in the previous set of studies would be consistent with a state of cognitive deconstruction. This state is characterized by an absence of emotion, an altered sense of time, a fixa-tion on the present, a lack of meaningful thought, and a general sense of lethargy (Baumeister, 1990). […]

Rejection and Self-Regulation

Although the emotional numbness and decrease in empathy experienced by rejected individuals play an important role in the link between social rejection and aggression, these effects do not constitute a complete explanation of why rejection leads to aggression. The diminished prosocial motivations experienced by those lacking in empathy can open the door to aggressive behavior, but having less of a desire to do good and having more of a desire to do harm are not necessarily equivalent. A loss of empathy, paired with the numbing effects of rejection, could lead individuals to shy away from those who had rejected them rather than lashing out. Emotional numbness, however, is not the only consequence of social rejection.

In addition to its emotional consequences, social rejection has adverse effects on a variety of cognitive abilities. Social rejection has been shown to decrease intelligent (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002) and meaningful thought (Twenge et al., 2002). But another category of cognitive response is self-regulation. Studies have demonstrated that self-regulation depends upon a finite resource and that acts of self-regulation can impair subsequent attempts to exercise self-control (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998). Self-regulation has been shown to be an important tool for controlling aggressive impulses. Stucke and Baumeister (2006) found that targets whose ability to self-regulate had been depleted were more likely to respond aggressively to insulting provocation. DeWall, Baumeister, Stillman, and Galliot (2007) found that diminished self-regulatory resources led to an increase in aggression only in response to provocation; unprovoked participants showed no increase in aggressive behavior. Recall that in earlier work (Twenge et al.,2002) rejected individuals became more aggressive only when the target of their aggression was perceived as having insulted or provoked them.This aggression could have been the result of the diminished ability of rejected participants to regulate their aggressive urges. […]

These results clearly demonstrate that social rejection has a detrimental effect on self-regulation, but they do not explain why this is so and, indeed, the decrement in self-regulation would appear to be counterproductive for rejected individuals. Gaining social acceptance often involves regulating impulses in order to create positive impressions on others (Vohs, Baumeister, & Ciarocco, 2005). Rejected individuals should therefore show an increase in self-regulatory effort if they wish to create new connections or prevent further rejection. The observed drop in self-regulation therefore seems maladaptive. The explanation for this finding lies in rejection’s effect on self-awareness.

Self-awareness is an important prerequisite of conscious self-control (Carver & Scheier, 1981). Twenge et al. (2002) found that, when given the option, participants who had experienced rejection earlier in the study were more likely to sit facing away from rather than toward a mirror. Having participants face a mirror is a common technique for inducing self-awareness (Carver & Scheier, 1981), so participants’ unwillingness to do so following rejection provides evidence of a desire to avoid self-awareness. A drop in self-awareness is part of the suite of effects that comprises a state of cognitive deconstruction. Just as emotional numbness protects rejected individuals from the emotional distress of rejection, a drop in self-awareness would shield against awareness of personalflaws and shortcoming that could have led to that rejection. The benefit of this self-ignorance is that further distress over one’s inadequacies is mitigated. Unfortunately, this protection carries the cost of decreased self-regulation. Because self-regulation is important for positive self-presentation (Vohs et al., 2005), this drop in self-awareness could ironically lead to further rejection. […]

These data suggest that social rejection does not decrease the absolute ability of victims to self-regulate but rather decreases their willingness to exert the effort necessary to do so. Increased lethargy, another aspect of cognitive deconstruction, is consistent with this decrease in self-regulatory effort. Twenge et al. (2002) found that social rejection led participants to give shorter and less detailed explanations of proverbs. Because fully explaining the proverbs would require an effortful response, this shortening and simplification of responses is evidence of increased lethargy amongst rejected participants. This lethargy is not binding, however. When given sufficient incentive, rejected participants were able to match the self-regulatory performance of participants in other conditions. Inducing self-awareness also allowed rejected individuals to self-regulate as effectively as other participants. In the absence of such stimulation, however, rejected individuals showed a decrement in self-regulatory ability that constitutes an important contribution to explaining the link between rejection and aggression. […]

Rejection and Meaningfulness

Twenge et al. (2002) found that social rejection led to a decrease in meaningful thought among participants, as a well as an increased likelihood to endorse the statement, “Life is meaningless.” Williams (2002)has also suggested that social rejection ought to be associated with a perception of decreased meaning in life. Given the fundamental nature of the need to belong, it makes sense that defining life as meaningful would be at least in part contingent on the fulfillment of social needs. A recent line of work has looked explicitly at the effect of social rejection on the perception of meaning in life. Perceiving meaning in life has been shown to have an inverse relationship with hostility, aggression,and antisocial attitude (Mascaro, Morey, & Rosen, 2004). As such, any decrease in meaning associated with social rejection would constitute an important feature of the explanation of the aggressive behavior of rejected individuals.

The God of the Left Hemisphere:
Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation
by Roderick Tweedy

The left hemisphere is competitive… the will to power…is the agenda of the left hemisphere. It arose not to communicate with the world but to manipulate it. This inability to communicate or co-operate poses great difficulties for any project of reintegration or union. Its tendency would be to feed off the right hemisphere, to simply use and gain power over it too. Left hemisphere superiority is based, not on a leap forward by the left hemisphere, but on a ‘deliberate’ handicapping of the right. There is perhaps as much chance of persuading the head of a multinational to stop pursuing an agenda of self-interest and ruthless manipulation as there is of persuading the Urizenic program of the brain which controls him of “resubmitting” itself to the right hemisphere’s values and awareness.

The story of the Western world being one of increasing left-hemispheric domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss.

The left, rational, brain, it might be safe to conclude, has no idea how serious the problem is, that is to say, how psychopathic it has become. Of course, it doesn’t care that it doesn’t care. “The idiot Reasoner laughs at the Man of Imagination/And from laughter proceeds to murder by undervaluing calumny”, noted Blake in a comment that is only remarkable for the fact that it has taken two hundred years to understand.

The apparently “conscious” rational self, the driving program and personality of the left brain, turns out to be deeply unconscious, a pathological sleepwalker blithely poisoning its own environment whilst tenaciously clinging onto the delusion of its own rightness. This unfortunate mixture, of arrogance and ignorance, defines contemporary psychology. The left hemisphere not only cannot see that there is a problem, it cannot see that it is itself the problem.