Tag Archive: Cognitive


Practice Compassion

This is a stencil illustration of my mother that I created soon after her death in 2010. She was a person who lived a life for others. She was a person who had a deep well of forgiveness and compassion for others. On her grave stone I had inscribed “Resting here is Margaret Adele Thomas, beloved mother and unassuming princess among humanity . A soul of great beauty, compassion and self-sacrifice. She is my greatest role model in life.

When I created this work, as well as missing my mother deeply, I had been reminded of that iconic image of Che Guevera that is now commonly found on the t-shirts of non-conformists around the world (many of whom I would suggest don’t understand the idea of communism nor know much about Ché Guevera’s personal history). His image has come to represent the idea of revolutionary change in society. Those familiar with history will recognise that although revolution is responsible for a lot of interesting things in human culture, it hasn’t ever delivered a utopian society. In fact it very often leads to a lot of harm and suffering with just a change in the demographics of the people inflicting the suffering and those receiving.

There is something far less drastic than revolution that is far more effective in bringing us closer to a utopian society. That thing is compassion. Unlike emotions like anger, hate and fear, which originate in the basal ganglia, neurological structures that we inherited from our reptile ancestors, empathy and compassion are a product of cerebral activity. In other words, a person without these cognitive skills is emotionally stupid, cognitively impaired. It is not strength to be without compassion, it is weakness, pathological weakness. If you don’t believe this statement, ask yourself, who in our community are completely devoid of empathy and compassion. It is the psychopaths, people who rape, murder, torture, molest children without the slightest feeling remorse. They do not represent an evolved or evolving humanity. Those without compassion or who devalue compassion represent a diseased state of being.

Thus, I created this image to illustrate how each of the billions of individuals on this blue planet has the power within themselves to generate a revolutionary change in society, without revolution.

Compassion is evolved, compassion is strength.

Eer2

I generated this image to illustrate some important points regarding ethics and ethical/moral reasoning.

The title, “Ethics = empathy x respect squared” is not meant to be taken as a genuine algebraic formula, it is merely a play on Einstein’s formula for energy, E=mc^2. It expresses the idea that two very key elements to an ethical character are a) that a person is capable of empathy for others, and b) that they are prepared acknowledge the right of others to be treated with respect. By making reference to Einstein’s famous equation, which has had a significant impact on our understanding of the universe, I’m attempting to illustrate how ethical reasoning is of fundamental importance to our functioning as a social entity.

The sagital section of the brain, is arbitrarily delineated into four sectors. Each of these represent four qualities that I’ve held for a long time to be essential to being a good human being, virtue (ie engaging in prosocial behaviour and thought while refraining from antisocial behaviour and thought), compassion (the product of empathy), understanding (ie making the effort to use reasoning and evidence in making ethical decisions while refraining from ignorant thought processes such as stereotyping, bigotry etc), and finally tranquility (if a person has a calm mind then they are more able to reason clearly, perceive evidence, and less likely to react in emotive and antisocial ways).

In the lower right area of the work is listed what developmental psychologists recognise as the universal and sequential levels of cognitive development in the human species. These are the levels identified by the researcher Nancy Eisenberg. You will note that I have labelled the first three levels as being religious levels (with the label placed over the basal ganglia to represent that these are very basal modes of ethical reasoning). If you examine the moral instruction given by major religions you will realise that the forms of reasoning they use fit into these low level categories. Studies have indicated that religion in fact retards the development of ethical cognition, with followers often not rising above the sterotypical level. This is defined as representing a 7 to 12 year old level of reasoning. The majority of people tend to only reach the empathic level of moral reasoning, with only a small number developing partially internalised principles and strongly internalised principles. People tend to switch between different styles of reasoning depending on the circumstances. The reason few people obtain the higher levels of ethical reasoning is that little to no emphasis is placed upon the development of these skills in our education systems. Even the use of an already available curriculum such as P4C, Philosophy for Children, would be enough to help rectify this situation, leading to a more prosocial school environment and society.

Finally, in the lower left area I have simply listed the three major principles of ethical reasoning used in ethical philosophy and applied ethics. Individuals who reach the sixth level of moral reasoning often discover these themselves. It is my contention that the aim of each individual and the aim of education should be to raise everyone’s consciousness to the highest level of moral reasoning that they are capable of.

Image

In each or these diagrams there are represented two conflicting beliefs (circles), and four aspects of cognition that are involved in belief formation and maintenance, emotion, critical reasoning, attention. and conscious thought, There are others but l have omitted them for simplicity. Represented at the bottom of each diagram is a collection of “evidence” that either confirms or disproves belief s A or B. Colour indicates activation of the relevant neuro-networks. No colour (white) means no activation.

Figure 1
This is an illustration of the cognitive style known as top down processing. A pre-existing belief that the individual has gained through a process such as acculturation For example, the mother of the individual has passed the belief on to them and they have accepted it without any reference to evidence for or against the belief. If they have held the belief for any length of time there will be an emotional attachment to the belief that reinforces it as a part of their world view at the same time as inhibiting the formation of beliefs that contradict this belief. In this instance the person is presented with both confirming and disconfirming evidence. The weight of the evidence is against the belief A, however, in this individual there is a lack of critical reasoning skills and so the strength of the pre-existing belief determines which evidence the individual attends to. Thus they employ only selective attention to attend only to evidence that reinforces belief A and so belief A retains dominance in the conscious thought of the individual.

Figure 2
Here we have a second example of top down processing. In this instance all the available evidence disconfirms belief A while confirming belief B. However, the emotional attachment that the individual has to the belief has blown it’s strength out of all proportion. The individual in this case does not even try to attend to evidence for the belief as they are absolutely certain of its veracity. This is the sort of reasoning we observe in fundamentalist religious views. In fact critical reasoning is decried as a threat to the belief and is thus actively discouraged.

Figure 3
This diagram is representative of the cognitive style known as bottom up processing. The individuals beliefs are informed by the evidence for or against them. Evidence is gathered, hypotheses formed to account for the evidence, evaluation conducted to establish the facts, and beliefs are chosen based on the hypotheses that conform to the evidence. This is the mode of thinking adopted by the scientific mind and the scientific community. As can be seen by the pattern of activation in the diagram, all evidence is attended to and all possibilities to account for the evidence, including our hypothetical belief A, are considered.

Figure 4
Of course it is not possible to think without emotion. In fact damage to a person’s emotional centres causes severe impairment to decision making processes. So there is always emotional input into thinking and decision making. However, when a mind is trained in critical reasoning skills, emotions are moderated.

Top down processing is based on preconceived ideas. Another term for this is schema driven cognition. The social version of this being stereotyping. This is a very efficient form of cognition as it takes up few cognitive resources, it aids individuals in making very quick decisions about how to behave. However, this efficiency trades off accuracy, The cognitions of individuals who predominantly think in a schema driven style are often fallacious, in other words it is the cognitive processing style that defines the wilfully ignorant. It is stupid thinking in that it requires minimal cognitive effort. It is the style of thinking that perpetuates beliefs such as: Women are too irrational for the vote, men don’t cry, all Aboriginals are drunks who abuse their kids, all people on the social security are bludgers, atheists worship Satan and are all driven by greed and self-interest, artistic males are gay, people of other races are inferior, environmentalists are dope smoking hippies, anyone who believes in social justice is a communist, drinking recycled water is the same as drinking sewerage, women don’t have the emotional constitution to handle positions of authority, Aboriginals just want handouts. Individuals who adopt this way of thinking, and unfortunately that is the majority of the human population, can have disconfirming evidence thrust into their faces and they still refuse to alter their beliefs and attitudes.

 

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