Thursday, July 28, 2011

Neuroscience and Indigenous Wisdom

I received an email from William Dale Koehler, PhD, today and I would like to pass it on to all of you via this post. Bill is a board member of our Native American Center for Wellness Research and an active community member. Bill's bio is on the center’s website. 

I have read many of the works of Four Arrows (Wahinkpe Topa), aka…Don Trent Jacobs Ph.D., Ed.D. He has written prolifically on Indigenous ways of knowing. His books include Critical Neurophilosophy and Indigenous Wisdom, Unlearning the Language of Conquest, Differing Worldviews, Primal Awareness, and Last Song of the Whales. He currently resides in Mexico.

This is a post he recently wrote for a bulletin from the Institute of Noetic Sciences. I think it provides a little insight into the thinking and the works of Four Arrows. His works touch upon topics ranging from education, ecology, consciousness, healing and numerous other topics that are all tied to Indigenous ways.

The Missing Link: Neuroscience and Indigenous Wisdom

In the ongoing search for a “theory of everything,” some people look to string theory for a mathematical explanation, while others prefer the uncertainty quantum physics allows. The science that has taken the strongest hold in our collective imaginations, however, is cognitive neuroscience. In 2007, for example, Colorado State University’s David McCabe and UCLA’s Alan Castel found that placing an image of a brain with its patterns of activity into an article increased the likelihood that study participants would believe the article’s assertions, whether or not the article described a fictitious or implausible finding. Brain research has found its way into education, corporate marketing, and even “folk knowledge.” Some of it, of course, has contributed to our understanding of human behavior and wellness, such as neuroscientific findings on the significant role emotions and preconceptions play in our decision making. But a number of brain scientists’ conclusions about the nature of reality may be contributing to rather than solving many of our current world problems.
Perhaps cognitive neuroscience and its cousin neuropsychology have captured such interest because of their sophisticated technologies, such as fMRI and PET scans. We are as enamored with technology as we are the workings of the brain, so the combination is irresistible. Nonetheless, neither neuroscience nor technology seems to have done much to mitigate our wars, ecological problems, and social inequities. This does not mean that neuropsychologists aren’t trying. A number of experiments in the last decade have sought to address some of these problems by exploring such questions:
• In light of research that suggests biases lurk below our awareness, how can we prevent the affect of such harmful prejudice on our conscious, thoughtful deliberation?

• What are the biological and spiritual bases for social trust, and how can social experiences be healing and restorative?

• What can neuropsychological studies tell us about the mind-body-spirit connection?

• Is deception a critical evolutionary survival mechanism in human beings?

Nevertheless, a number of contemporary researchers are critical of the conclusions brought forth by neuroscience, though they may not be as negative as developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s skepticism back in 1984 when he wrote, “The packaging of current research on the human brain threatens to tell us more about academic huckstering than about neurological function.” More recent concerns are found in the scholarly 2003 book Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience by neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett and philosopher Peter Hacker, which questions some of the basic assumptions (for example, dualism) behind brain-mind research. After all, there are about 100 billionneurons in the human brain, and each is connected to thousands of others. Moreover, most behaviors, beliefs, and emotions engage multiple parts of the brain, and the variety of possible interactions with memory, culture, and DNA is unfathomable. To expect relatively new brain imaging technologies and human interpretations of those data to explain why we behave as we do and how we can do better might be placing too much confidence in technology, science, and the Western cultural lens through which most scientists perceive the world.
Of course, there are many who recognize this. In the Spring 2010 issue of this newsletter, for example, independent researcher Scott Anderson called for a genuine science of subtle energy as a way toward “personal and spiritual healing, growth, and development across the life cycle [that] will be key determinants of the kind of world we leave to future generations.” New fields of study such as positive psychology focus on the strengths and virtues that enable us to be truly happy. Research into meditation has delivered some important insights into human health and well-being. However, continued exclusive dependence on standard scientific methods, which these arenas depend on for mainstream acceptance, will not be sufficient to address the breadth and depth of the challenges humanity is facing.
There is a way for the neurosciences to yield more fruitful solutions to our current crises, and that is through an active partnership with Indigenous wisdom. Now often referred to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), TEK has proven relatively successful in helping human societies to live happy, balanced, and sustainable lives. Unlike typical Western sciences, the data from Indigenous wisdom is generated from observations over long time periods in one location and is substantiated by applications to real-world living. Also, rather than attempt to be acultural and objective—a limiting if not impossible feat—Indigenous wisdom embraces a holistic subjectivity that honors authentic reflection on lived experience and relationships with others.
Indigenous wisdom is comprised of the learning that has occurred in diverse locations around the world from people who have spent centuries deeply studying their intimate relationships with all dimensions of reality. Although such wisdom has been largely ignored, suppressed, or marginalized, more and more critical and creative thinkers are recognizing its importance. For example, in an endorsement of John Perkin’s book Shapeshifting: Techniques for Global and Personal Transformation, Edgar Mitchell writes, “Only a handful of visionaries have recognized that Indigenous wisdom can aid the transition to a sustainable world.”
The application of Indigenous wisdom (for example, a non-anthropocentric worldview and realization of interconnectedness) in the neurosciences is important not only because of the limitations of the new technologies or the complexities of the human brain and mind but also to reverse a dangerous trend. Some neuroscientific interpretations are penetrating our consciousness with new ideas about human nature that may not only be wrong but that may be leading us further and further away from what we wish for ourselves and our offspring. For example, they are teaching us that deception is a natural evolutionary survival mechanism, that selfishness is the primary motivation for all behavior, that humans are superior to other life forms, and that war is inherently natural to our species. Indigenous ways of knowing challenge such assumptions—in fact, the accurate histories of Indigenous cultures themselves contradict them.
For example, in contrast to neuropsychological and anthropological inferences that human violence and competition are basic features in human nature, many Indigenous cultural histories have long revealed that healthy reciprocity and cooperation are more defining traits. Johan M. G. van der Dennen’s 2005 dissertation, “The Politics of Peace and War in Preliterate Societies,” is one of numerous studies that offer substantial evidence for this. He considered it a pity that the peaceable pre-societies, which represent more than 70 percent of all that have been studied, constitute a nuisance to most theories of warfare and that they are, with few exceptions, either denied or “explained away.”
Interestingly, neuroscience itself tends to confirm the problem of the “Western lens.” In a paper entitled “Mind and Culture,” published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2009, Nalini Ambady and Jamshed Bharucha, professors of psychology at Tufts University, use the term “cultural mapping” to describe how the brain reorganizes itself throughout life as it develops a cultural lens through which to perceive the world. What different conclusions might emerge if neuroscientists added Indigenous wisdom to their Western experiential mind-set? An understanding of these cultures and histories might change hypothetical assumptions and the “lens” through which the results of experiments are interpreted, such as those on selfishness or the prevalence of violence and aggression. Indeed, it would change the experiments themselves. (I explore this question with my coauthors Greg Cajete and Jongmin Jongmin in Critical Neurophilosophy and Indigenous Wisdom; Sense Publishers, 2009.)
Indigenous wisdom is not mere folk psychology, although intuition, self-reflection (especially in relation to experiences with both the visible and invisible worlds), metacognition, and observation of human nature have certainly contributed to it. Indigenous wisdom is the product of careful and methodologically sound observations of the natural world (which includes humans) that have been tested and retested for thousands of years in the rigorous real-life laboratories of survival and well-being. The results include inventions and contributions that relate to food development, storage, and preparation; herbal-based medicines; clothing and transportation; astronomy; sustainable practices; and more. Indigenous wisdom has also influenced concepts of democratic governance and approaches to child discipline, equitable wealth distribution, positive interpersonal relationships, and conflict resolution that reunites communities.
So, rather than ignore, reject, or relegate Indigenous wisdom to merely “new age” diversions, coupling it with the prestigious neurosciences might start a revolution in how we study the brain and lead to the reorganizing of our own neurons in time to save ourselves from extinction.

I hope you enjoyed Four Arrow's bulletin and please feel free to comment. Peace, DAP

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Closer We Humans Live by Mother Nature’s Design, The Healthier We Are

My small family here in Buffalo began a Mother’s day tradition a few years ago of planting trees in our yard. My wife and I thought it was a good message for our two boys that we all should show respect for all of our Mothers. So we now have apple, peach, cherry, dog wood, red bud, and different maple trees in our little yard. We also have a lot of animals in our neighborhood such as rabbits, deer, and turkey. Each spring we like to watch the process of Mother Nature coming to life. 

I especially like to see the apple tress bloom their white flowers. We also seem to have an annual, underground, large bee’s nest which looks like a bee volcano at times.  Our boys understand the pollination process and the importance of all of these living-beings working together. So no bee killing. If a bee finds its way into our home, it is important to help her find her way back out as she has become lost on her way to work.

I like to regularly walk around the yard witnessing and monitoring our Mother’s work. Seeing those bright, white apple blooms, for some reason, makes me happy. I am proud to see those bees buzzing around and cross pollinating. I eagerly wait to see the first baby apples appear on those skinny little apple tree limbs. As things begin to happen I worry that as these apples grow, the seemingly small twigs that are supposed to hold them will not be able to support the apple’s weight. My 48 year old mind begins to wonder and worry about weather my billions year old Mother will successfully cycle and give birth again. I’m not sure how these trees have survived millions of years without my recent help?!

The other day, during my regular rounds, I noticed that every baby apple bud had been eaten by our local deer population. As you might guess, I was upset. How dare these rouge deer come onto my small lot of land and deface my beautiful garden. Once all the apple buds were eaten, these terrorist deer targeted other plants, eating many of them to the nub. Also, a notorious gang of outlaw rabbits de-flowered most of our remaining blooming babies.

My evenings of walking around and witnessing Mother Nature’s beautiful works went from the feelings of joy and excitement to thoughts of an appropriate revenge method. A vision of me hiding behind our fence and attacking the first deer setting his little hoof on my lawn with a tomahawk, was very satisfying. I experienced a very human reaction to what was happening in Mother Nature’s world – I will fix this to my own desires. I have the misguided belief that I am capable of altering my Mother’s billions year old plan!

Luckily, I came back to my good senses. These thoughts are no way to respect my Mothers. It occurred to me that our Mothers do not take something without giving something back. It is only us humans that are designed this way. We take many things from our Mother without ever returning anything. These deer and rabbits are living by our/their Mother’s design.  

For instance, if you have ever seen geese flying in formation, then you are witnessing Mother Nature’s intended design. This flying formation is what we human call aerodynamic. The goose in the front position has the most wind drag.

Those geese flying just behind and slightly above have the least wind resistance. So, the geese in the very back positions have an easier time flying. Because the front position is the hardest spot to fly, when the leader gets tired, s/he will drop back to the end, where it is the easiest. The geese will continue rotating positions which allows for longer, coordinated flight times and this flying position also allows for better team monitoring and communications.

We humans learned about aerodynamics from watching geese. But who taught the geese? They travel thousands of miles each year together and do so without AAA, maps, or GPS. Probably, if you have ever seen a flock of geese flying overhead, you heard them talking before actually seeing them. Maybe if we understood the geese’s language we would hear them arguing about which route is best, but I doubt it. It seems my wife and I can have good driving directions somewhere, along with the help from GPS, and still have disagreements about best directions. But, we are human!

Our Mothers have developed a billions years old proven design for living. Our animal relatives seem to follow this familiar plan -- at least those animals unaffected by human interaction. Of course we humans believe we know better.

Please allow me to suggest that the closer we humans live by our Mothers design, the healthier we are. Our Mothers did not design a life with obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. These conditions do not exist in any other living animals, only humans. A life guided by our Mothers’ design is a healthy one. A life led by extreme self-will is evident by its outcomes.

As I have heard many times, we are pitiful human beings. We all need help and each other in order to live a life of health. I wish for all to find and walk a healthy path that was originated by our Mothers.

Peace, DAP

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainable Development Conference in India -- Some thoughts & Photos

Our recent trip to India centered on attending the First Annual International Conference on Society, Technology & Sustainable Development with the focal theme being: Indigenous practices, Technology & Policies, see conference information Here. UB’s School of Social Work’s Buffalo Center for Social Research has had a research partnership with Amrita University’s social work department for a couple years. After some considerations between the partners, having an informative conference in India focusing on sustainable development using indigenous knowledge was prioritized. The partners worked together for several months which resulted in a very nice conference.

The traveling UB group consisted of social work department folks such as PhD students (Shraddha & Amy), student field placement (Laura) and recruitment representatives (Kathy), stats expert (Gene), center Director (Catherine) and me.    




After about 30 or so hours of planes, trains and automobiles, we arrived in Cochin India. Just like the first time I travelled to India, outside of the airport was very crowded. It is somewhat overwhleming to step into this crowd after several hours awake. 

This is the typical crowd outside of the airport waiting on folks

We were whisked off to our hotel, which is just delightful after surviving our long trek.
Looking out hotel window into pool area

Because we arrived in India during the morning hours, it was very important to remain awake and adjust to the local time. After a quick breakfast a group of us decided to get out of the hotel, where our comfortable beds were located, and do something other than sleep. There are boats in India that take folks around a local waterway and they also puts on a feast. Of course it takes about 1 hour by car to get there, which is like being on a scary carnival ride. I still have a major case of PTSD as the result of a short car ride in India.

The boat ride was very nice. There are many boats on the water and lots to see. Although there were a few hard rains, relaxing on the boat, looking at the sites, and learning about the community was well worth the price, which was about $50 US dollars.
Some men playing cricket
They feed us about mid way through the ride
There are a few school around the water, the kids were let out and on their way home

Water bus I guess?
The ride last for about 4 hours and the crew were great. Towards the end of the trip we all could have slept in our chairs. However, the hour car trip home seemed to wake me right up!
The next day was the first day of the three day conference located at AIMS Hospital. It began with much fanfare. The local health representatives were present along with the hospital dignitaries and the press.  I was asked to speak on indigenous issues in the US. Trying to narrow my focus, I asked our India contact about what local folks know about US indigenous matters. My contact stated that it is important to inform folks about the history of America’s indigenous history and issues.

Still not sure what specifically I would speak about, I made sure to inform the attendees that Christopher Columbus did not discover America. As all know, just because it might be someone’s first time visiting a location does not equal first discovery.  Since the conference was about sustainable development using indigenous knowledge, I thought I would speak a little about three indigenous ideas. The three I spoke about where, working with the thoughts and concerns of the next seven generations, working with one good mind, and working together such as the three sisters design. This provided an opportunity to connect sustainable development issues with indigenous knowledge principles. I won't go into it here, but happy to expand on those three topics at a later date.

Afterwards, there was an opportunity for questions from the audience. There was a young lady from Australia who indicated that her country has the same misinformation about who discovered it. As we all know, or should know, that large country has an indigenous population that is very different from Australians. She indicated that she is working with and trying to research the indigenous population and having trouble with that population trusting her. She asked what she could do to get better relations. My first suggestion was cash! My second was these things take time. It seems once indigenous communities say yes to outsiders, such as researchers, they begin to lose their power. The best way indigenous populations can hang onto power, is to say No.

The overall conference was very informative. The folks who attended and everyone connected with the conference were very welcoming and supportive.  I have always experienced India and the people as very generous and interested in American issues. Because we are around mostly academic people, they are very curious while remaining courteous. The issues related to sustainable development in India are similar to issues in American and the rest of the world. There are problems with housing, water, food, health, etc. I was happy NOT to see an American present something with all the answers. Having attended some other international conferences, I cringe when I see the American idea as the best and only way of doing things.

There is already a second annual conference being planned and should happen about the same time next year in India. It is a worthy conference and the topic is timely. For anyone who has never been to India and interested in visiting, this conference would be a great reason to go. There are many opportunities and possibilities.

There are a few hundred pics from the trip. I would like to thank Amy who took and shared all of these great photos of our trip. Unfortunately, I could not include all of the pics here. Just down loading these took way too long! Anyone interested in seeing more, please let me know.
Peace DAP 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Walking the Red Road

The idea behind “Walking the Red Road” is very important to my small community of walkers. We take this belief seriously and try to remain committed to its mission.

For those of you who might not know the term Walking the Red Road or its intended purpose, I’ll try to explain it as simply as possible. Walking the Red Road is a determined act of living within the Creator’s instructions.  Basically, it is living a life of truth, humbleness, respect, friendship, and spiritually. Those on this road are by no means walking a perfect path, but are in search of self-discovery and instructions. While there is much more information and teachings about a life on the Red Road, a more complete understanding would come from our Native American elders and leaders, who themselves have traveled this path for a while.
Standing or Walking the Red Road?
As someone who has stumbled down this road for a while, it seems to me that the main requirement for anyone interested in this route is -- Action. There is a large difference between being “On” and “Walking” the Red Road. There are certain acts that get someone on the Red Road. If someone attends sweat lodges, participates in purifications, or other ceremonies, they are on the Red Road. If they know Native American songs, languages, or other related traditions, they are on the Red Road. These are all very important acts and place an individual on the Red Road. If being on the Red Road is the main goal for someone, do these above things regularly.
If however you are interested in “Walking” the Red Road, much more is necessary. Consistently participating in the activities listed above puts someone on the path, but traveling on that path requires more. I have met folks who attend sweat lodges and other purification ceremonies, self-help recovery meetings, abstain from alcohol and other drugs, and several other related acts, but all other areas of their lives are disconnected from the ideas behind Walking the Red Road.  Now…please know these comments/opinions come from my own personal experiences, not from the idea of traveling a perfect Path. If I was reading these same words written by someone else, my humanness would encourage me to stop reading this BS immediately! Hopefully you’ll forgive my human opinions and continue reading.
Walking the Red Road is a Balanced 24/7/365 Life
Participating in sweat lodges, purification ceremonies, recovery groups, etc. only requires a few days per year. The idea behind Walking the Red Road requires action in all aspects of one’s life. Doing and saying the right things during a four hour ceremony is fairly simple. The primary focus should be on the remaining 20 hours in a day.
There was a young, single parent who did not treat the children very well as the result of an alcohol and drug problem. After several months of being clean and sober and regularly attending ceremonies, the parent hastily made a typical dinner for the children consisting of sandwiches and chips. As the parent was rushing out the door to attend a regular ceremony, one of the children said, “What…sandwiches again tonight?!” The parent angrily replied, “I need to take care of myself. Did you like me the way I was?” The child replied, “I did not care much for you then, and I don’t care too much for you now!”  The original story I heard was about a mother. I use the word parent in this story as it applies to both mother and father.
Walking the Red Road is a substantial personal commitment and responsibility. It is a 24/7/365 balanced life between self, family, community, and Creator. I write this not as a judge of who is or is not Walking the Red Road, but as someone who struggles with this balancing act. No person can judge if you are on the Red Road, where you are located, how fast you are traveling, or if you belong on this Path. That is the good news about this life/living route.
Widening the Path
The bad news about traveling this way of life is that no one can judge your Path. You are in total control of your route. Wouldn’t it be so simple and easy to have GPS? All of the help you need would be stated with one word – Recalculating! You hear that word and would instantly know you have meandered off the Path. Unfortunately, there is no GPS guidance while traveling the Red Road. The best way forward is joining other walkers and following the same path that has been paved by past generations of walkers. Also, the more people we travel with, the wider the path will become. Cohort of walkers are joined at the shoulders rather than walking single file. Walking the Red Road is very hard and requires much effort. What may be more difficult is being on the Red Road and not doing the necessary things that result in forward movement.
Peace, DAP