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The spiritual goal of Self-Reg is to enable every child, teen and adult to sense a higher truth. Something above and beyond social mores. To know the difference between good and evil. To feel the momentous weight of morality for the wellbeing of our own and future generations. To hear the cries of a child before they stop crying completely because no one ever came to their aid. To be bound to care for the wellbeing of every member of the community, including the stranger. To abhor the possibility that anyone should go hungry or homeless or friendless.

The purpose of these Midrashic Musings, if I may be so bold as to call them that, is not to engage in Bible commentary, which is far above my pay grade. Rather, it is to reflect on the significance of certain passages or stories from Tanakh for problems that we are wrestling with today. Which to my mind is one of the central purposes of Midrash. 

Genesis 4 is a case in point. The most disturbing aspect of the story is  that Cain feels nothing when he kills his brother. No remorse for an act that, as far as we can tell, was committed for no other reason than an evil impulse. He is a pre-moral being who hears a voice, but does not recognize it as the voice of God. It is a voice that he disregards, even argues with. He must then suffer the consequences for his amoral act.

Moses picks up on this theme in his Farewell Speech to the Israelites. He tells them: “You will again hear the voice of the Lord and do all his commandments” (Deuteronomy 30: 8). What follows is one of the single most powerful lines in the development of moral thinking:

19“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! (Deuteronomy 30, NLT)

Whether Moses is privileging rationality here, that is certainly the way in which this passage has traditionally been interpreted. Obviously the only rational choice is to be moral. To choose evil is to harm oneself when harming others.

But how does a child learn to distinguish between good and evil? The upshot of the story of the Fall is that they don’t; they are born knowing which is which. What the child must learn is to “refuse evil and fix on good” (Isaiah 7:16).

In my May blog, I interpreted hearing the voice of God in neurobiological terms. Instead of innate knowledge of good and evil, we looked at hedonic sensations triggered by ancient survival systems. Mechanisms that cause aversive sensations when we see someone in pain, afraid, lonely, grieving. Positive hedonic sensations  when we ease their load. A feeling of satisfaction when we feed the hungry; comfort when we shelter the homeless. Happy when we make another happy; exhilarated by someone else’s joy. 

We might describe these sensations as mitzvot in the second sense of the term that we looked at in Lekh Lekha: viz., blessings that we receive, not because we should do such-and-such (i.e., “obey” the 613 commandments), but because of the positive sensations that empathy affords. And there is a neurobiological explanation for this phenomenon. 

A mother feels cold when her baby is cold. Likewise, when mother and baby are reunited after separation, body temperature goes up in both. So too with adults. We experience a drop in body temperature when we watch someone putting their hand in a bowl of ice water. Warmth when we see someone warm up. Pain when we see another in pain.

We are joined at the hip with other humans – including the stranger (as we are constantly reminded in the Pentateuch). Or rather, joined at the subcortex. That is, we are joined to other humans via the Interbrain. We don’t just see what another is feeling, we feel what others are feeling. All the result of another of the ancient survival systems: CARE.

Research on the CARE system in mammals has yielded some remarkable results. Ben-Ami Bartal found that 70% of rats will free a cagemate rather than consume a tasty treat (slightly more in females than males) (1). She concluded that: “Rats behave pro-socially in response to a conspecific’s distress, providing strong evidence for biological roots of empathy.” The rats didn’t “simply mimic another rat’s distress, i.e., express emotional contagion, but also acted with intention to liberate a trapped rat [my emphasis].” What’s more, in most cases the rats shared the remainder of the chocolate chips with the freed cagemate.

Ben-Ami Bartal points out: “This study provides the first evidence for a common neurobiological mechanism driving empathic helping across mammalian species and highlights a distinct neural response to the distress of affiliated others.” Ignoring the possible anthropomorphism of her interpretation — which we look at in our Gray Brain Series — the rats’ behaviour is the result of quelling aversive sensations triggered by the sight of a trapped conspecific and the pleasurable sensations experienced when they are freed. That is, the CARE system evolved for group survival and not as a solitary mechanism. 

But then, if CARE is so critical for our survival, how is it that someone can feel nothing when they see another in pain, afraid, lonely, or grieving? Indeed, feel nothing when they are the cause of another’s suffering? Such an individual cannot hear the voice of God — although the question of which voices they do hear is another matter. 

Have they chosen to disregard the aversive sensations we are biologically hardwired to experience? Or do they not have these sensations? If the latter, this raises the fascinating question of what may have happened to dampen this core feature of human functioning. That will be the topic for a future blog. For the moment, I am concerned with the impact that a demagogue can have on others. 

I first learned about demagogues when I was young. I’m not exactly sure what I had been saying in class, but I remember being sternly warned by the Principal of our Religious School: “Don’t be like Korach.” So, of course, I rushed home to find out who Korach was and what he had done that was so reprehensible. 

Korach was guilty of challenging the authority of Moses and Aaron. I read in the Midrash Parshat Korach how: “Korach took people in with his words.” He knew how to “inflame his followers’ grievances. He distorted and selectively ignored the truth in order to win people over. (2)” For this behaviour, God opened up the earth and swallowed Korach and his followers alive. 

I could see why Korach deserved this fate, but his followers? To put this in terms that we can resonate with today, why does the demagogue have such a pernicious effect on so many? In Paradise Lost, Satan mesmerizes the fallen angels with his bewitching words. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” he tells them. And they listen, cheered by his words. Like Korach’s followers, they must then suffer the consequences.

Overlooking for the moment the question of why, like Satan, the demagogue is “puffed up with pride and ambition,” the question is why anyone would pay the least bit of attention to the vitriol of a malignant narcissist? It is precisely here where we must eschew privileging rationality: not only because we can so easily confuse stress-behaviour with misbehaviour, but because, having taken this initial step, we soon find ourselves intoning “Woe is them.”

Being exposed to someone who deliberately transgresses all the moral norms that we govern our lives by overloads our ancient survival systems. Especially in those who are already in Red Brain. RAGE + SEEKING, FEAR + PANIC/GRIEF, DOMINANCE + LUST are hyperaroused, creating a maelstrom of powerful negative emotions. Or rather, overpowering negative emotions.

It is rationality that is overpowered. The affected individual is not choosing evil over good. Rather, they have been thrust into a state of dysteroception. If they feel nothing when they see another suffering, it is not (or at least, not necessarily) because they are suffering from a personality disorder, but because they are not registering the positive hedonic sensations described above. 

A complex of psychological factors, coupled with an intolerable stress-load, has led to this state. The result is that the neurons in the CARE system that release the neurotransmitters that cause positive hedonic sensations are suppressed. CARE is blocked by homeostatic imbalance in the above PECs. 

CARE is an ancient mammalian system: The nub of the demarcation between mammals and reptiles. What is not ancient, however, is the PFC that evolved to make sense of this primitive behaviour. Or at least, to project that we are, in fact, in control of our actions when this is anything but the case.

What makes humans truly unique is the uses to which language is put in the service of ego defenses. The individual has been thrust into a state of non-rational conviction. Not only are they not choosing how they act: They are not capable of asking Why they are acting in this manner. There is no pause between stimulus and response; no opportunity for them to deliberate. They don’t act and then regret; they act and then confabulate

If challenged by seemingly incontrovertible proof that they have been purposively misled, they justify their own actions by justifying the actions of the instigator. They construct a verbal shell around their misbelief, rendering it impervious to rational appeal. And sadly, often more than just a verbal shell around the source of their misfortune (which, perhaps, is the reason why his followers had to share the fate of Korach).

Herein lies the crux of the problem with privileging rationality. It consistently disappoints because it consistently misconstrues the source of the problem. It is not that the individual “refuses to refuse evil“; it is that the individual is not in the mental state of being able to choose or refuse. They cannot free themselves from the homeostatic imbalance in which they are gripped. Meanwhile, we have done nothing to help them restore.

On the broader interpretation, this argument fully accords with Moses’ intention. One of the points of the Mitzvot is to help those seduced by the resha’im to return to a state where they can hear the voice of God. In Self-Reg terms, to return to a state where they can register the sensations that maintain homeostatic balance. Where they not only want, but are able to choose life. 

(1) Ben-Ami Bartal, Decety & Mason (2011) ‘Empathy and pro-social behaviour in rats’. Science

(2) Rabbi Jonathan (June 7, 2021) Korach: Demagogue

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