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Milky Way

The free lecture on the Great Courses site last month was David Kyle Johnson of King’s College discussing science fiction as philosophy – is time travel possible. He looked at various popular works such as Quantum Leap, Back to the Future, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and others and talked about whether physics would allow for the time travel method used. The one he found closest to science was the movie “Interstellar.” He also mentioned H. G. Wells’s book The Time Machine, but not a couple of modern novels and their feasibility. I am thinking of two science fiction works that are also counterfactual histories – Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South and Lightning, by Dean Koontz. In Guns of the South, white South Africans travel back to save Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederacy by supplying them with AK-47s and other technology. Koontz has time traveling Nazis. Both are interesting reads with their own travel adaptations for travel and the time line.

I think the fascination with time travel is often a desire to change the past and perhaps to see what the future holds. We can also learn by speculating on what might have been had something, even something small, occurred differently – chaos theory in history. We can’t do those double-blind experiments in life to see which path is the best. Every moment, every choice, every action, is a crossing of our own personal Rubicon. Interstellar took care not to have those paradoxes that vex the idea of time travel, like the grandfather paradox. What if you go back in time and do something (like killing your grandfather or some other ancestor) which prevents you from being born. In that case you are not born and can’t go back in time and prevent your birth so then you are born then go back in time and prevent your birth, but then… You are caught in an unending time loop. In physics, theoretically time can go both forwards and backwards, but we experience time in a linear fashion. I think the Canadian series Continuum had issues like this, like having two of the same person in the same place and time. But if there are time travelers from the future, they would have at some point visited us in our present, but there is no evidence of this (at least that we can perceive) so that would lead one to believe that travel backwards doesn’t happen at some point from the future. As for visiting the future, how do you travel to a place that doesn’t exist yet?

I think of time travel as more of a transcendental experience, like Joseph Campbell talked about in the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers a few decades back. (Media does allow us to travel back in a virtual way.) He said that the life everlasting in the Coptic experience was not necessarily going to some supernatural place but experiencing eternity in the moment. It is that mindful place of feeling at one with everything and with all time. You are that everchanging stardust that always has been and always will be.

I do like the speculation of counterfactual history and science fiction. You get an idea of just how fragile a moment is and how there are almost infinite possibilities in each and every one. My favorite Star Trek series was Deep Space 9, and my favorite captain was Sisko. At the end, he explained human’s experience of linear time to the Prophets.

 

 

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Kona Hawaii 2013 116

I remember Dr. Peter Derks, my very first psychology professor, many years ago discussing a study in which people were asked to find patterns in flashing lights. Lights would flash in a sequence and participants were supposed to figure out the pattern so they could predict which light would flash next. What the participants didn’t know was that there was no pattern. The lights were programmed to flash in a random pattern. In every case, however, people found a pattern. When they were ultimately proved wrong, they would typically say, “now I see what you’re doing,” and would change their theory to a different pattern. No one ever figured out that there was no pattern, it was all random.

The NPR podcast, Invisibilia, recently did a story about patterns in the context of trying to predict behavior. One story was about a woman who had a history of abuse and arrests. She had turned her life around and was trying to become a lawyer in Washington state. Her appeal went to the state supreme court, and her attorney was a man who had convictions of bank robbery. Another story was about a Princeton study that used longitudinal data to try to predict outcomes in children. The researchers, despite massive amounts of data and coding efforts were not able to predict outcomes. You can listen to the podcast at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia (it is the March 18, 2018 podcast) or you can read the transcript here. People long for patterns and predictability and typically feel very uncomfortable with randomness. With randomness you can’t predict what will happen next. And life just has way too many variables to be completely predictable.Our brain takes shortcuts to give us the comfort that we can predict things. We inherently look for patterns. It enhances our chance at survival. It is part of evolution. It also gives us a sense of self, of who we are. We are those patterns we fall into.

Michael Puett, a professor at Harvard, and Christine Gross-Loh wrote a book called, “The Path: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life.” Rather than looking inside for our “authentic true self” we are urged to “recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.” Every moment can be a moment of redemption or a moment of damnation. For all of us. Puett says that Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher of the Warring States period, said that labeling yourself is dangerous. It limits you. Saying you are an inherently shy person limits you to being that, you become stuck in that pattern. Instead, you can look at each moment for what you can become. We are not static beings.

That moment of becoming reminds me of solution focused therapy and narrative therapy. You start with small steps, like a small snowball at the top of a hill that gets bigger as it rolls down. The problem is outside yourself, and does not define you. Instead of staying with your past patterns and stories, you look at how you would like to be. It reminds me of flow – you become one with the moment you are in. But that takes practice. Humans tend to fall off the Way or Dao. We get caught up in thinking and patterns and ruts. Joseph Campbell, when interviewed by Bill Moyers on the Power of Myth, spoke about the Coptic Christians for whom the everlasting life was living forever in the moment – transcendence. Confucius used rituals to help us get there.

Chance life encounters with their randomness play a large roll in our lives, too. That can be for better or for worse. The better are situations like that if Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, who had given up on publishing his first book and planned to destroy it. That changed with a chance encounter on a walk home. You can read that story here. For worse could be an instance of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I remember years ago a man driving home from work, just as he did every week day, was killed when a car, driven by an adolescent girl and friends, went airborne with the front end coming down into his windshield and killing him instantly. Albert Bandura wrote an excellent article on chance life encounters in the APA Monitor back in 1982. You can read it here.

So in this life, with all its messiness and randomness and chaos, how can be live in a way of growth and loving kindness? How can we live in the present so that we are not captured by the past, but have a chance at a better future? How can we change our relationships into skillful ones? How can we flourish? The Path gives us some practical ideas from the Chinese philosophers whose ideas have been found to be supported by neuroscience.

I think a part of changing and just being in this life is to be comfortable with that randomness and ambiguity. We learn that going with the flow is being open to the results of that butterfly flapping her wings off the coast of Africa, and we adapt and adjust as best as we can. That may go against our nature of desiring predictability and a world of where everything is easily judged right or wrong, good or bad, and we always know what comes next. Rather than judge harshly and condemn or overly praise and think that something is solved for good, we look at how skillful we are and how we can improve that. We have a sense of curiosity. The Chinese philosophers all sought to teach us how to be decent people, each in their own way. It is a constant life long process, and our skill levels vary from moment to moment. The philosophers from Confucius to Xunzi all have ways of reaching a place where we automatically find and live the Way. But for all the teachings, there is an inherent paradox. The harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. In Chinese, the process similar to flow is “wu wei” or effortless effort. Edward Slingerland gives a good overview.

Kona Hawaii 2013 116You may have heard someone say, “I can’t believe I did that, that’s not me!” And sincerely believe it and be baffled at what they said or did. You may have felt that way about someone else. “My son/daughter/friend would never do something like that.”

There are at least two versions of us – the one in the moment, and the one we construct in our story over time. In the updated edition of “Full Catastrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn cites research from the University of Toronto about these two versions of the self. The study looked at people who had completed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program and found “increases in neuronal activity in a brain network associated with embodied present-moment experience and decreases in another brain network associated with the self as experienced across time.” That second self is the narrative self or the self we experience as ourselves in the story we tell ourselves over time. The research findings encourage us to be in the present moment rather than caught up “in the drama of our narrative self.” “Non-judgmental awareness of our wandering mind may actually be a gateway to greater happiness and well-being right in the present moment, without anything at all having to change.”

Jeffrey Zimmerman in “Neuro-Narrative Therapy” goes a step further and cites the work of Dan Siegel. “Narrative therapy rejects the notion of a single, true self and instead embraces the idea of multiple identities or multiple versions of the self.” Siegel says that the notion of a unified self is “missing the point of the multiplicity of our normal, adaptive, ever-changing selves.” We need these multiple states to be able to adapt to the changing situations in our lives. We do tend to have states that we favor and see those override states or dominant style as our personality. Our brain is constantly taking short cuts so that we can cope with all the information we are constantly bombarded with internally and externally, and we see that dominant style as our self. “… (O)ur brain likes coherence, it has a bias for making the world appear solid and stable. To do so, it constructs an unbroken picture, giving us a continuous sense of self out of these multiple brain states.”

Mindfulness can help us be aware of those states, and to be with them in a nonjudgmental way and lessen the drama and the pain of everyday life.

I think it also helps to look deeper, even on the physical cellular level of the self. What we perceive, for example a chair, is not solid at the microscopic level. And we are not solid beings or even mostly made up of human cells, at the microscopic level. Take a look at this “Nova Wonders” called, “Nova Wonders, What is Living in You?” It not only tells about how in terms of numbers our human cells are vastly outnumbered by the bacteria, viruses, and other micro-organisms that co-habit our bodies with us, but gives some thought provoking ideas and findings about the function of our gut bacteria in illnesses ranging from C. diff to Parkinson’s to autism. You can find it at https://www.pbs.org/video/nova-wonders-whats-living-in-you-fnbfuy/. Fortunately, our human cells are bigger than all our fellow micro-organisms. Their total weight in our body is about three pounds – about the same as the weight of our brain.

Leo Copy

Uncle Leo

We are less than a year from the end of the centennial of World War I, the war to end all wars that ironically in many ways still continues to this day. My great uncle, Leo, was in the National Guard in Chase City serving as a medic when his unit was called. They were first sent to Camp McClellan in Anniston, Alabama for training. One day, his horse caught a hoof in the tracks at a railway crossing. Leo tried to free his horse and in the process, the horse fell on him crushing Leo’s kidneys. He lingered for three painful days with my great grandparents getting updates via telegram. He died April 28, 1918. My great grandmother was devastated. The soldiers who went to Europe and lived to return received a great welcome home. One of the soldiers from Mecklenburg County received particular acclaim. For his actions in capturing guns and twenty-two of the enemy on October 8 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Sergeant Earl Davis Gregory received the Medal of Honor. He was the war’s only Virginia recipient.

 

Not everyone got a welcome home, or even a loving send off. In “Water Tossing Boulders,” Adrienne Berard writes about how in Mississippi, black men had a choice of work on plantations, be arrested (and work on plantations) or be drafted into the Army. Nate Shaw, a black sharecropper, recalled that whites would meet the returning veterans “at these stations where they was gettin off, comin back to the United States, and cut the buttons and armaments off of their clothes, make em get out of them clothes, make em pull them uniforms off and if they didn’t have another suit of clothes – quite naturally, if they was colored men they was poor and they might not a had a thread of clothes in the world but them uniforms – make em walk in their underwear.”

Berard further writes: “In the spring of 1919, a band of white men in Blakely, Georgia, confronted a black soldier named Wilbur Little as he returned home from his tour of duty in World War I. When they ordered him to take off his uniform, he refused, A few days later, a mob attacked Little at a celebration for his achievements during the war. He was found beaten to death on the outskirts of town, still wearing his uniform. In the Mississippi Delta, a black coast guardsman returning on leave to visit his grandmother in Greenwood was stopped in Tchula and arrested for ‘trespassing without money.’ When it was discovered that he did, in fact, have money, the charge was changed to vagrancy. He was sentenced to thirty days of hard labor at a cotton plantation. Thirty-six days later, he was released, haven been beaten on several occasions with a ‘seven pound strap,’ once for writing a letter to his commanding officer.” These men were treated far better in France than in the country of their birth.

Not only do the repercussions of that war linger on in this world, but the struggle for equal justice and treatment with dignity, compassion, and respect for all continues as well.

2015 Bar Harbor

We unite ourselves and divide ourselves with words. We not only define but give emotional meaning to things with words, and you often can tell the importance of something by how many words there are for it in a language, a classic example being the number of Inuit words for snow.

Political correctness often comes up in the discussion of the evolving of our language and how we frame our culture. The discussion is often disingenuous, for the same philosophical group that disparages the move to change the name of the Washington professional football team name as political correctness gone overboard forced the Cincinnati professional baseball team to change its name to Redlegs for a time in the 1950s so they wouldn’t sound communist. That was also the time that the US national motto was changed from “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of the many, one” – an inclusive unifying phrase) to “In God We Trust” in an effort to prove we were not and to divide us from “godless communists.” This was done despite the constitutional separation of church and state. In Virginia, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom had major supporters in the Baptists who did not want to pay taxes to support the official government religion of the Church of England. Those who most speak out against Sharia law ironically want to force their own brand of Christianity (and there are many brands and denominations) on others. They are doing exactly what they say they oppose, but it is okay because it is their brand. To oppose it is to be politically correct in a “bad” way. Those thoughts are further stirred up by talk radio and the disinfotainment branches of cable TV news and propaganda sources that masquerade as news.

One of the Founding Fathers of the US was a physician named Benjamin Rush. One of the things he is remembered for is declaring that addiction to alcohol is a disease. There has been an ongoing debate about whether addictions and other issues of behavior are diseases or not. The labels have changed over the years, and what is and is not a disease or a disorder has changed over time as well. Trying to decide what to call people we see as having these problems changes, too. Do you say, he is an addict? Or do you say he is a person with an addiction? Do you say he is a schizophrenic? Or do you say, he is a person with schizophrenia? Does it matter? Is it all just political correctness? Take a deep breath for a moment, and think. What do you call a person with cancer? Do you call them a cancer patient, a person with cancer? No one that I know of calls them a cancerite or some other word that implies that they are the disease. Now there are conditions like diabetes and hemophilia that do have words for a person with the condition. Do you feel a different emotional reaction to the words “alcoholic” and “schizophrenic” than you do to “diabetic” and “hemophiliac”? Would you feel differently towards someone called a cancer patient or a cardiac patient than you would schizophrenics and diabetics? Would that feeling change according to how you think they became ill? Did it just happen, or did they bring it on themselves by smoking or diet, or was it some environmental contaminant beyond their control? Does that change how you feel?

Our language shows in a very strong way how we determine and express our values. In a diverse culture, there are different values and different linguistic ways of expressing those values. One can rigidly hide behind lazy shortcuts like “political correctness” and somehow feel smugly superior when belittling something as politically correct. Or one can look more deeply at the language and try to see what values that language expresses. One thing working with families has taught me over the years is that families function better when the members treat each other with respect and compassion. Language and the values that language expresses and teaches can help a culture function more positively when it has compassion and respect as fundamental parts of its foundation. Remember the principles of taiji – softness overcomes hardness, and flexibility overcomes rigidity. In the West, another way of expressing that is that a soft answer turns away anger. The emotions of language are contagious for better or for worse.

I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the more enthusiasm someone expresses for something, the more likely they are to lose that enthusiasm when they get what it is they wanted. It reminds me of a dog chasing a car, catching it, and discovering that they really can’t drive the thing so what was all that fuss about.

I have seen it in taijiquan over the years, both with my teacher and with me. People say they have wanted for a long time to learn taijiquan and are eager to get going. But maybe they show up and if they do, maybe they last one or two lessons. I think there is good reason that a Chinese teacher may tell would-be students they have to show up to check in everyday for months before they will even consider taking on a person as a student. In counseling, people decide they want to change and discover change can be very difficult and takes energy, and they lose desire. Thermodynamics applies to behavior, too. Behaviors in motion tend to continue and those not happening tend to stay that way – unless a force acts upon them. When that force has to be you over time, procrastination and the status quo can be very attractive. I think of someone I knew long ago who constantly talked about a dream vacation. She went on and on about it but time went by, and that vacation never happened. The idea of something often is more desirable than the thing itself. The examples are almost endless.

There is something to that cliché that it’s the journey, not the destination. The journey can become monotonous. It’s like a Louis CK punch line – the guy spends so much time out in the yard by himself because he is just running out the clock. And telling your goal to others so you can liven up the journey makes you less likely to actually accomplish that goal. Derek Sivers explains why.

It makes me wonder a bit about treatment planning in therapy. Make the goals specific, measurable, and positive (“I will do something” versus “I will not do something” which activates that part of your brain associated with what you don’t want to do making you more likely to do it guaranteeing failure). There is an online program to help you accomplish a goal that has been around for a number of years at https://www.stickk.com/. They make it interesting by having you put your money on the outcome. Achieve your goal and an organization you support will get your donation. Don’t achieve it and an organization you don’t like gets your money. You have a referee ensuring the integrity of the outcome, and you can form a support network.

The transtheoretical model of change helps. Realize that change may not continue upwards in a straight line. People start and stop. They have set backs; they recover. Sometimes they take a break.  It may take many starts to finally continue something. And realize that the destination is not the end point. A good example is that sense of loss after completing a marathon or a degree or some other big goal. What next? Keep on the journey. Don’t retire in place. Keep moving. Daydreams are nice, but are not a place to live like Walter Mitty – unless perhaps you are just running out the clock. Life is ongoing change. Adapt and learn and be open to what comes next. But maybe don’t get overly enthusiastic about it. Remember the middle way and wu wei. Wu wei, similar to flow in western psychology, is that paradoxical Chinese concept of effortless effort or not trying. Don’t try so hard. You just make things more difficult for yourself. Relax and flow into it.

A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

This has always been one of my favorite Edgar Allan Poe poems. It goes well with questioning the nature of reality, the nature of the self, the passage of time in that reality, of life. We structure all these in our perceptions from our own nature. We have a beginning and an end (at least in this plane of existence) and a structure that we feel we perceive accurately based on our existence in our reality. But even our concept of time in everyday life -for example linear time or sequential time or synchronous time – comes to us from our culture and beliefs.

amelia-island-march-2011-049Some philosophies see no beginning or end of time, no boundary to the universe. Infinity is a difficult thing for our minds to conceptualize and comprehend. A few weeks ago, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “Star Talk” discussed “Is Our Universe a Stimulation?” Perhaps we are all just part of a computer program similar to “The Matrix,” except it is just a machine with a programmer somewhere writing the code. We would have no way of proving of disproving the assumption. There could even be an infinity of universes or multi-verses. Whenever any decision is made, a timeline is created. That would theoretically make time travel a possibility since new timelines would create the logical possibility for paradoxes. I love reading counterfactual history. The speculation is always intriguing. What if Churchill had died when hit by a car in New York City in 1931? In some timelines, he would have.

An interview with Donald Hoffman called “The Case Against Reality” is a very interesting read. He uses physics to argue that the world is not hereas we see it. You can read it here or here. Even the concept of universal mind and the oneness of eastern philosophy is possible in his model.

I will end with these words from Alan Watts in his “Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking“: – “The world that we see is a creation of eidetic imagery. We select the human concerns as the significant areas. In a way, this is our answer to the cosmic Rorschach test. So, in that manner we have performed maya, the world illusion. But maya also means “art,” and it also means “magic.” Therefore, the magical evocation of the world of things from the formless world – which means from the world of pure Tao that simply wiggles – that is the real creation of the world.”

Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

Chiune Sugihara, his wife Yukiko and children

A few decades ago, I attended a wedding reception on Long Island and had a conversation with a person that has stayed with me all these years. I only had that one short talk with her and don’t remember her name, but she was very engaging and quite fascinating. She was Jewish and was born in Poland. She was a young girl when Germany invaded her country and systematically began to exterminate her people. Her life was saved by the actions of a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who provided exit visas to Jews in Poland and Lithuania. The woman and her father made their way across the Soviet Union via the Trans Siberian Railway to Japan to Canada and eventually to New York. I was fascinated by her story but the part that has stuck with me all these years was her wisdom of perspective. She said that we tend to focus on the present and forget to put things into perspective. She would catch herself complaining about the cold New York winters, but then she would remember crossing Siberia and the bitter cold. New York was not so cold after all. When I hear someone say, “this is the worst ever” or even “this is the best ever” I think of her. She saw both the worst and the best in people. And when I hear people judge others as different and as outsiders to be rejected, as we in the US did to the people on the SS St. Louis fleeing certain death, I think of the compassion and bravery of Chiune Sugihara and his family. Too few of us have their integrity.

All we have is the current moment, and how we view and live in that moment ripples through time in ways we can barely imagine.

zhuangzi

Zhuangzi

 

Many years ago, I was facilitating a group for folks who had been referred by the courts for drunk driving and had been evaluated as having a problem with alcohol. I came down to the group room early one afternoon, and one of the guys had gotten there early, too, and we just sat at the table and talked for a while before anyone else arrived. He was concerned that his son, who was about 12 years old, did not respect him as he had respected his dad. I asked him to tell me about his relationship with his son. They went fishing together, they talked, and his son could confide in him, and he could correct his son with words. What he did not do was hit his son. I asked him how did he see respect. “When I did something wrong, daddy didn’t talk, he just flailed us.” It became clear fairly quickly that what he had with his son sounded like a healthy loving relationship that included respect , but he saw respect as lacking. The relationship did not have fear in it. His son was not afraid to talk to him. As an adult, the man I was talking with was still afraid to confide in his father. He still felt fear of his father, and thought that was respect.

So what is respect? In a culture of western religion, we are taught we have a loving God, but that we should also fear that God. Politicians preach that for other countries to respect us, they must fear us. That same belief comes to permeate relationships among those in the community to those in the family and to friends.  In personal relationships, some come to believe that if they are not feared they are not respected.

How well does that work? A child cannot be honest with a parent. Western religions have the concept of original sin and being redeemed by being forgiven by the loving but feared God. Over the millennia, some believers, from various religious traditions, have chosen to kill those they deem nonbelievers in order to save them and to serve their God and spread their belief. Some mix their chosen economic system and put it into their religion, regardless of how incompatible they may be, and again hate and try to destroy those nonbelievers and  forcibly spread what they believe is truth. Nations, and individuals, may lie to each other, try to intimidate each other, and try to be at least one up on all others. Being on top means being the most feared in the hierarchy. Fear doesn’t plant the seeds of honesty very well. Fear kills honesty. For all the television and movie action stories that rely on fear and torture to get the truth, the reality is that those methods don’t work very well, and are often counterproductive. Meeting anger and hatred with anger and hatred just intensifies and increases and spreads the anger and hatred and fear. You reap what you sow in an endless feedback loop.

More and more, neuroscience focuses on the attachment style we acquire as infants and that style affects every relationship we have in life including relationships with addictive behaviors. Here is Allan Schore talking briefly about the effects of abuse and neglect on attachment.

Chinese philosophy doesn’t have the concept of original sin nor an eternal afterlife nor the need for the supernatural to save you from sin and eternal damnation. It is based in nature. The philosophers, who lived during the Warring States period, tried to teach a way that would help people treat each other decently, and the way of each philosopher was directed by their view of whether people are inherently good or evil or born with the capability for both with the outcome based on how they were raised. Confucius taught the need for ritual to be able to act and react in the right way with “de” or virtue. Mencius had us develop our “moral sprouts.” Laozi taught the need to get back to our original nature, which he felt was inherently good. Mozi taught the need to measure the utility of everything and direct behaviors based on outcomes. He also said that maybe it was better that people believe in ghosts and spirits for then they would behave better. Modern psychology does find that people tend to behave more ethically when they feel they are being watched. A poster of a drawing of eyes on the wall in a break room can increase the contributions to the honor collection for coffee. Mozi, however, never indicated that he believed in such beings.

Zhuangzi taught that no matter what path you take, you focus on the path and do your best. There are many ways to strive to get to the top of the mountain. Virtually every philosophy/religion has some version of the golden rule or categorical imperative – treat others as you would like to be treated. Love one another as you love yourself. The only life long relationship you have is with yourself, and the relationship you have with yourself affects your relationship with and attachment to others. Which gains more respect – treating yourself and others with honesty, a desire for understanding, empathy, compassion, and loving kindness, or in ways that invoke fear? How would you like to be treated? And how do you treat yourself and others?

How The Police Generate False Confessions, by James L. Trainum

Review of “How The Police Generate False Confessions,” by James L. Trainum

There is an old adage that confession is good for the soul. But what if the confession is false and the result of coercion and the stakes are your life? In his book, “How the Police Generate False Confessions: An Inside Look at the Interrogation Room“, James L. Trainum tells us just how that can happen. He follows the case of the Norfolk Four, and in particular the case of Danial Willams, throughout the book as he guides us through the investigative process that is commonly used by police and prosecutors in the US. The case was also featured in a Frontline documentary in 2010 called “Why Would Anyone Confess to a Crime They Didn’t Commit?”

The reason is because of the investigative techniques used in trying to close the case, which doesn’t necessarily mean solving the crime. Trainum is now a consultant but was a police officer and detective for many years and said that by using the techniques generally employed by police, he also caused a false confession. There is no standardized investigative method in the US. There may be training or it may be on the job or some combination. Typically you receive a lot more firearms training than you do investigative training. Court decisions and cultural changes have taken out the “third-degree”, though “enhanced interrogation” and torture still finds its way in at varying levels and has been reinforced in pop culture in television series such as 24 and Hawaii Five-O. It makes for marketable drama but is lousy for finding accurate information and evidence. Shane O’Mara published his work, “Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation” last year that laid out the evidence. That can be a hard sell, though, with pop culture driving home the storyline that it does work and enables the “hero” to get to the bottom of the case in roughly 48 minutes of air time.

Trainum says that just as many police mourned the loss of the third-degree and felt it would make their jobs impossible, they felt the same after the Miranda ruling. Police quickly evolved to find creative ways to get around that decision, though, and again you can see that in books such as “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” by David Simon (which is an excellent book) and pretty much any current police procedural program.

One source of training that Trainum discusses throughout the book is The Reid Insititue. Reid provides training on interviewing and interrogation. One problem that seems to typically occur in investigations is that the focus is on closing the case quickly which leads to investigators in good conscience making a quick decision as to guilt or innocence and moving from the interviewing and gathering evidence stage straight to the interrogation phase. The sole goal of the interrogation phase is to get a confession of guilt. Methods include lying to the person, sometimes procedurally questionable line ups, tag teaming during the interrogation so the questioners are fresh but the suspect is continually worn down, jail house snitches, deal making, and when the physical evidence doesn’t match the hypothesis of guilt, rather than looking for a different suspect who is the actual guilty one, the hypothesis is changed. That is what happened in the Norfolk Four case when the DNA did not match Williams. Rather than looking at another person (who had been named by a witness early on and who later was found to be the actual perpetrator), the police decided that there must have been accomplices. I suppose it is difficult for anyone to admit they may have been mistaken. People do get wedded to their theory. Years ago, I was trained to investigate client rights allegations of abuse, and one of the techniques taught was having the person be able to save face. It would be nice if investigators and prosecutors could admit they were wrong and have some way to save face. I also remember one person who was receiving the training had a big smile when he said substance abuse counselors would be great at these types of investigations. I thought of that as I read this book. I never felt comfortable with the old style denial busting heavy confrontation of traditional substance abuse counseling.   The person had to admit they were an addict, and confess that they had a problem. Otherwise they would never get better. Talk about a Catch-22. If you go along, you are labeled an addict. If you say you are not, you are in denial and the confrontation goes on. It is the same style here. Whether the allegation is true or not, sometimes people just get worn down and confess and are not always aware of the consequences.

Trainum does an excellent job of showing just what can go wrong with our current system. He even mentioned a case from Vermont in which a person confessed to murder and was condemned to death even though a body was not found. Fortunately, the person supposedly murdered was found alive before the execution. You can read about that case and other similar ones in “Wilkie Collins’s The Dead Alive: The Novel, The Case, and Wrongful Convictions “by Rob Warden of Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions. This book is also a worthwhile read and reviews many cases of wrongful convictions, including a death penalty case in Virginia in which the person was put to death – the case of Joseph O’Dell. A case was brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond afterwards to re-examine the DNA evidence and the court ordered the evidence destroyed. According to Warden, the “prosecution argued that if the requested testing turned out to be exculpatory, ‘it would be shouted from the rooftops that the Commonwealth of Virginia executed an innocent man.'” Warden also mentions the case of Roger Coleman who was executed. When DNA testing had advanced enough to be able to tell whether the now executed man was innocent, the court did not allow the testing. Whether you agree with the death penalty or not, one thing that cannot be argued is that the dead who turn out to be innocent cannot be brought back from the grave, and the guilty are still out there. The death penalty is also a good tool to get a confession, including a false confession. “Do as we say and confess, and we let you live. Go to trial, and we will seek the death penalty. This is a time limited offer. Choose now.”

One technique often used is lying by the police and prosecutors to suspects in order to obtain a confession. Trainum points out that in the US, “we justify the use of lying to suspects by saying that they are on a ‘lower moral plain’ than the rest of us. This is a dangerous mentality that has been used to justify all sorts of abuses, including but not limited to the use of third-degree tactics. Lying not only increases the risk of false or unreliable confessions and statements, it damages the reputation of law enforcement in the eyes of the public.” So even before a person is charged, he or she is considered to be of a “lower moral plain.” With stereotyping and profiling, some people are automatically put into that category without having done anything. Perhaps those who like to point out that all lives matter could take into consideration that engrained cultural prejudices (conscious and unconscious) can produce situations in which some of our lives are treated as less than equal in mattering and as being worthy of justice. Some folks, whether because of race or gender or economic status or beliefs, are automatically classed as being in that “lower moral plain” because of history and culture and the time in which we live. Fortunately there is training to help counter unconscious biases in the use of force by officers. Hopefully training also includes addressing judgments and biases in the techniques of questioning and mitigating quick decisions on guilt. The justice system is not the only part of our culture with unconscious biases. We all have them. You can check out your own attitudes at Project Implicit. Project Implicit is a “non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a ‘virtual laboratory’ for collecting data on the Internet.” You can also examine your beliefs at Understanding Prejudice. You will become more informed by the information on the site.

Trainum’s goal is to see that the right people are convicted. That can be very difficult to do in highly charged emotional circumstances. We can be so repelled by the viciousness of a crime that we want justice and vengeance as soon as possible. Tunnel vision takes over.

Trainum does discuss a way of investigating that is very different than the US model. The investigative mindset in the UK is Assume nothing; Believe nothing; and Challenge everything. It is the UK model he recommends and which he describes using the acronym PEACE.

  • P – Planning and Preparation
  • E – Engage and Explain
  • A – Account Clarification and Challenge
  • C – Closure
  • E – Evaluation.

Trainum does of good job of explaining the model and the rationale for it. He provides US objections and the UK response to each of the parts. PEACE is a model of seeking the truth and of accountability. It is a model of critical thinking and evaluation. It has oversight and maintaining a trail of the investigation including videotaping of interviews. Investigators and prosecutors do not lie and manipulate. The oversight also allows investigators to change theories and save face. Our current model can not only contaminant the memories of the suspect but also of the witnesses. This model seeks to rectify that problem. A detailed outline of the model can be found here. All members of the criminal justice system that are looking to seek the truth in cases and find justice by arresting and prosecuting the correct perpetrator would do well to consider looking at Trainum’s arguments and his rationale for change. It would do us all good to read this book to see just how justice can work, or sometimes not work. Trainum opens the book with a scenario showing how easily a person can quickly become a suspect and almost immediately be subject to an interrogation with the sole purpose of getting a confession. As for the Norfolk Four, according to Trainum they are out of prison but have not been able to get a full pardon despite the evidence and the subsequent legal and ethical issues of the investigator who got the confessions. “One has been released from prison, having served his full term. The others are out, granted conditional parole by a governor who, though admitting the existence of the evidence pointing to their innocence, does not feel that he can grant a full exoneration because they ‘confessed.’ It is true – the power of a confession can trump all reason.” Trainum devotes chapter 12 of the book to recommended safeguards and reforms. His closing paragraph is powerful:

“Change and reform begins with you. As evidenced in the 2015 public responses to police shootings of unarmed African American men, the criminal justice system (and law enforcement agencies in particular) will respond to adverse public opinion. One good thing remains: As resistant as law enforcement agencies are to change, deep down, most individual investigators want to get it right. They need the right tools, the right training, and the right mindset. With your voice, and the reforms suggested in chapter 12, they can get it. Then we can all sleep better.”

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