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Support your local Midwife

October 22, 2019

Men and women are not the same. Basically, for men, achievement is in the foreground and person is in the background. For women, person is in the foreground and achievement is in the background. Dietrich von Hildebrand laid this out in his essay, Man and Woman. It is naturally true, built-in, and locked in place by evolution, since, in evolutionary terms, a man can afford adventurous initiatives in copulation, while a woman needs to be conservative and estimate the chances that this will go well for her in the long term. Then if a child comes, the man must bravely fight off the wolves while the woman gathers their children by the fire and cooks for everyone. But the distinction that is gripped and programmed in these facts is profound and reverberates all through the corridors of the minds, not just the bodies, or the culturally proposed vocational choices of men and women. Never bet on an easy separation of body and mind, or body and soul, or body and culture. You will be on the losing side.

The vast cultural (anti-cultural) effort to show that women can do whatever men can do is almost wholly counter-feminine. This holds true in multiple respects, one being that for so long, most of the effort was about claiming that women can do whatever men can do. This is true only in the insignificant sense that a few women are excellent in the accomplishment of various things that the average man does easily; it follows that merely social barriers to female participation in men’s doings might generally be relaxed to let certain women thrive. But the average woman does not thrive under pressure to keep up with men in fundamentally male spheres of action, not least because it takes her attention away from doing other things in the feminine spheres of action, things she might find she wanted to do if it were socially acceptable to say so and still pursue her other interests.

Anyway, why should gender equality be about women achieving men’s preferred goals. How many men hope to knit better than women? Very few, and a man is more likely to invent a knitting machine and leave it to work while he goes out to smoke cigars or shoot bears. Or possibly writes sermons, like William Lee, (inventor of the knitting machine.)

So, again, why would a woman seek equality on men’s terms? Here’s why. Because men’s abilities are about status, and if that’s what a woman wants, she can achieve it, and she can be strong and famous and culturally powerful, but not if it’s about status for herself. A few women might reach their own personal highest goals and get status and fame for it, as did Eleanor of Aquitaine. Notice, however, that when her famous accomplishments were behind her, she retired happily to the monastery she had founded for women in need. No men there.


Some women make a living helping other women achieve the fullness of womanhood. Midwives are the most straightforward example of this, and the most metaphorically powerful, because they are doing for women something that only women need, and that men never experience and have often served badly when they barged into it. It’s just not their thing and they mostly don’t get it; they’re more likely to fight the pains of childbirth by working for universal knock-out C-section than waiting around for a child to be born on his own schedule.

For years, it was the nuns and midwives who had the least childbed fever, having washed their hands before attending women in childbirth; this would seem a simple courtesy, compared to coming unwashed from the slaughterhouse or the morgue, even before germs were understood. Eventually, one very singular man got the message about washed hands and spent twenty years, traveling Europe with carefully researched charts and graphs to champion this revolutionary strike against childbed fever. At last, he was run into a nut house by the doctors of his time; there he shortly died of septicemia after the guards beat him up. (We may presume that they had not washed their hands before the beating.)

In the early 20th century, my grandfather, a doctor at Massachusetts General said that any hospital with a C-section rate over 3-5% should be investigated; in the early 21st century, the average C-section rate was 25 – 35% and rising all over the industrialized world, with some doctors hoping to raise it to an ideal of 100%. This is most emphatically an anti-maternal, anti-feminine goal. Fortunately, according to my daughters, the C-section ideal is finally losing ground — because there are too many complications!

The great strike for women’s reproductive peace, therefore, was not struck by Margaret Sanger pressing for abortion, but by Ina May Gaskin, author of Spiritual Midwifery, who encouraged thousands of women to find a way to have their children in peace. This is not to dismiss the value of a hospital for the 2 or 3% who cannot safely give birth without extraordinary support, but to call out the disrespectful encroachment of those who fail to see the humanity of this event. Birth is about persons welcoming persons into the human community.

Much more, however, Ina May’s work is a wake-up call to the women who have ceded the humanity of birth to a veterinary and surgical perspective which crowds out personal and human initiative from the moment of new motherhood. The depth of disinheritance here is hard to recognize and impossible to overcome without a complete conversion of maternal consciousness. Men can’t do this.

A Deeper Midwifery

There is more. The issue I wish to emphasize is the consideration of midwifery as the vocation of helping another person work through a major life transition. That is what is striking about the vocation of midwifery. It’s not just a more primitive form of obstetrics, it’s being knowledgeable about a whole train of physical demands and simultaneously aware of personal transitions that are almost overwhelming at a specific point in life. In that sense, the midwife is the symbol of our deepest spiritual companions.

To such companions, we owe a return of care and support when their task is difficult or when it is under fire, legally otherwise. Midwives are still in the midst of a battle for survival; obstetricians are still trying to hem them in with restrictions which all sound very responsible — until you know a specific midwife who has delivered 2,000 babies, many for an Amish or Hutterite community where birth will now take place with no experienced support at all. They are not coming to the hospital. Who will help? There’s no money in supporting midwifery any more than in spiritual direction; and now there are jail terms to consider. Really?

Choice in birth seems like a pretty simple option to allow, and if it is attacked, the humanity of birth is what is at stake. So get behind it, even if you’re not pregnant this time round. Your mother was.

Put a flower on the table

October 20, 2019

Beauty has been neglected across our culture, even abandoned. This is partly because the Protestants regarded beauty in our churches as a possible idolatry. But the cure for idolatry is holiness, not ugliness.

There’s a famous story about Mothere Teresa of Calcutta using a donation to purchase a gold paten. The donor was upset: he gave the money for the poor. Mother’s response was, “You do not understand poverty.”

My Swedish mother learned, in her immigrant community, that is was barbaric to serve potatoes without a sprig of parsley. Look at the Japanese food presentation, or the French. You can do this in some small way; it is not expensive, it requires consciousness. Find a flower, or, in the winter, a stone or a statue, and put it the center of your table. Or find an herb, carve a carrot, steam some broccoli Romano. Protect yourself from the barbarism that naturally arises when hunger is allowed to overwhelm a person’s consciousness.

In her stunning prison camp memoir, And I am Afraid of my Dreams, Wanda Poltowska gives an impressive description of the heroic battle of the Polish prisoners in Ravensbruck to hold out against the temptation to let food dreams sweep their consciousness as they were starved, some of them to death, week by week, and month by month. They just would not do it. When the camps were freed, many prisoners died of overeating. Wanda describes her inspired desire for a simple cooked cereal, and her slow eating of it, safely reintroducing her stomach to food. She went on to study medicine and then psychiatry and at last she worked with Pope John Paul II and with Jerome LeJeune to start the Pontifical Academy for Life. All three of them loved beauty.

Beauty is not an extra; it is a responsibility, to seek, to notice, to provide; and it will give you courage. In every undertaking, starting with the food that you need every day, but continuing with your bedroom, your book covers, your desktop, and yes, your clothing, but also your posture, voice, and smile, make beauty your aim.

Theological virtue

Beauty is the clothing of hope, which in its turn, even rises to the dignity of a theological virtue. Just as the theological virtue of faith is the turning of the mind to be formed by the truths of our faith, and the theological virtue of charity is the turning of the heart to be formed by the love of Jesus Christ, hope as a theological virtue is the turning of the imagination to be formed by the creative joy of the Holy Spirit who infuses material creation with the message of the Divine Presence. It is a perfection of the imagination, and at the same time, it is the virtue which deals most directly with physical world. Yes, there are beautiful equations and beautiful philosophy, but these are called beautiful by extension, in metaphor. Beauty is about harmony, integrity, and luminosity in the material world. It is the incarnational virtue at the same time that is it the perfecting of the imagination.

You are responsible for your imagination; it is a work of cultivation that you must be committed to. Whole phalanxes of evil warriors in the anti-culture are working to suck your imagination down into the whirling black holes of their profit and your damnation; scary or merely ugly images are part of this. Fear actually shuts down the subdominant hemisphere of the brain, handicapping our thought processes.

Take charge. Put into your life the imagery that gives hope to your own heart and the hearts of those around you.


Be Chaste

October 18, 2019

A woman wants to be desired and pursued. But she has to have a self worth pursuit, and that means a center that is still in the face of the spinning world. This is the natural issue of chastity: if you want to be chased, be chaste.

Therefore: dress so that your person is in front of your sexuality, not the other way. Ask yourself whether simplicity, professionalism, orderliness, athletics, adventure, sportsmanship, casualness, or sexuality is either the goal or the first impression of your clothing. What priorities, whether your own or the designer’s, lie behind your fashion choices? What is your concept of beauty, and of feminine beauty in particular?

If you value the person, which is the only absolute value in purely human life, put your person in front and let your concept of beauty develop around its proper center.

A friend sent his lovely daughter to high school as a senior after being educated mostly at home. She was very smart and very attractive and she wore a long skirt where nobody had seen a long skirt for years! Within a week, the long skirts began to appear all around the school. It was impossible not to want what she had. Of course it was more than a skirt…

At a certain point in life, sexuality becomes the most commonplace and persistent of distractions, and women are the ones who suffer the most when chastity is lacking. They are the ones who most strongly experience as abandonment a relationship that is broken after a period of intimacy, — or of apparent intimacy. They are the ones who are mysteriously depressed if a sexually intimate relationship does not eventuate in marriage, and this is true even in Denmark where there is no particular stigma attached to long-term sexually intimate relationships outside marriage. It is the nature of the woman, not merely of the culture, and it serves the nature of the person, not merely the style of one culture.

If there is a child

Women are, of course, the ones who get pregnant; they are the ones who suffer if they abort a child, and this is true even if the abortion is truly a response to insurmountable pressures.

But make no mistake! Men also lose the intensity necessary to reaching worthwhile goals if they slide into sexual pre-occupations and then reject their fatherhood. Abortion is a failure of fatherhood, and it wounds them less as a broken relationship, but more as the ultimate failure; you did not protect your own child. In the case of men, however, abortion derails their interior progress, whereas women are crushed by two broken relationships, first with the father and then with the child.

The person of a woman changes after her first experience of motherhood, no matter what happens. Abortion will not turn back any kind of clock. Your whole body knows the child was there, even remembering his due date: for example, women may experience their aborted children in annual dreams for years and years.

If there is a child who is kept, it is usually the mother who will be most deeply attached to his welfare. If her relationship with the father is unstable, she will wish it had been better, for the sake of her child even more than for herself, and her grief on this account is likely to grow rather than to diminish over time.

If it is the father who keeps the child and becomes attached to his welfare, he will see his child suffer for want of a mother and this will be part of his grief as well as an element of the difficulty of finding a wife and also of finding the best job. Even so, a commitment to chastity is part of his road to recovery.

In order to develop better relationships, a person must have more interiority, not less; and this is not a cultural, or merely Christian, construct. Cultures may support chastity or not, but the nature of the person is not changed by culture. Rather, cultures develop around an understanding of the value of the person, and some cultures serve the interiority of the person better than others.

Homage to Jordan

October 13, 2019

Jordan Peterson has written a wonderful and well-received Twelve Rules for Life, and it’s worth reading for anyone who wants to put his life in order. I say “his life” deliberately, not only because I hate messing with the pronoun usage of the last few decades, but also because it is distinctly more directed to young men than to anyone else. Young men, at the present cultural moment, are under attack, just for being men, and everything natural to men is forbidden, mocked, prevented, or outlawed. Peterson has touched a nerve.

But in the nature of things, if one sex is abused across the entire culture, it is not possible that the other is properly supported either. In fact, Karl Stern, writing in the mid-twentieth century, asserted that western secular culture had been engaged in a 400-year “Flight from Woman.” This has reached its culmination in the present demand that women absorb men into their ranks, including men who have already progressed well into mid-life as men and now wish to play-act a gender that nothing has prepared them to conceptualize.

So I would like to propose 12 rules for women, especially young women, rules that are as universal as Dr. Peterson’s twelve, but are especially aimed to address the feminine.

And Rule One would be:

Lift your head; tilt your chin

Women naturally have a lower voice volume than men, and we tend to raise the pitch of our voices to compensate for this. This, combined with a wrong positioning of the head can create an irritating vocalization, and the worst of it is that it’s not only irritating to others; several positions produce a floating larynx, which makes us feel detached from our voices. Making them louder or pitching them higher does not fix this.

Your body is made to project your voice, and the best projection requires correct posture, starting with putting your larynx into a gentle but firm pressure contact with your cervical vertebrae. Since the pharynx, where you swallow food, lies between the vertebrae and the larynx, this is not a direct contact, but the pharynx is not very thick, and as long as you are not actually swallowing food, you can make a good pressure contact from the 3rd to the 6th cervical vertebrae.

Put your fingers on your throat and hum; feel the vibrations of your voice. In fact, you can feel correctly produced vibrations in any bones, most readily in your cranium and your collarbone, for the entire bony frame of the body is built to be your private violin, if you will let it.

Hold your head up as if there were a string from the upper back of your head all the way straight down your back. If you bend your head too far forward or too far back, your larynx floats away from the neck bones, and the violin goes dead; you can feel the vibrations in your collarbone disappear instantly. If your back is twisted, similarly, the vibration of your voice cannot travel along its length, and again, the violin loses power.

A correctly straightened neck lets your chin tilt slightly downward so that the line from your lower eyelid to your ear canal is horizontal. This levels the fluid in your inner ear and gives you your best hearing, including the essential feedback of your own voice. You can listen to yourself humming or singing “alleluia” or some other vowel-filled sound, and you will easily find the right position. Confident vocalization requires auditory feedback. You must hear your voice in order to own it.

A floating larynx results in a feeling of voicelessness and thus of isolation, helplessness, and even panic. A woman has to hear her own voice as something her whole body assents to; she has to be all in with what she is vocalizing. Nobody will heartily assent to an uncertainty.

The voice has a purpose

The basic purpose of the human voice is the expression of rationality and of spiritual love. Other purposes that we share with animals are also present in human life, and we build on them, but these two identify the fundamental humanity of our voices.

Consequently, any vocalization that damages the vocal chords is harmful to the person, and not only to the body as if that were a separate entity. We are composed of body and soul, and the soul infuses the body throughout. Obvious examples of harm abound in popular music, but few people recognize that the person is involved in this damage, that harsh vocalizations damage the human power of the voice and they isolate the person from his personal destiny.

On the other hand, a vocalization which correctly exercises the vocal chords gently works in the service of our hearing, including our self-hearing, and thus also contributes to the stability of the human person.

We know that Gregorian chant, properly sung, is healing. Alfred Tomatis has documented this and Pierre Sollier’s book, Hearing for Wellness, lays it out for us in plain English.

Therefore: lift your head, tilt your chin, and sing.

Two more emotional puzzles

October 10, 2019

2nd puzzle: how are passions and emotions related?

This is a version of the question how body and soul are related.

If you feel like Jim was being unjust, it is called anger. That’s the name of the passion of the soul that is aroused when you know that your territory is being trespassed or when you perceive an injustice, either towards yourself or towards others. And the underlying circuit for that is what Panksepp calls RAGE.

If you don’t see the anger, it could be that you are so quickly at work trying to figure out why Jim is acting this way, or how to respond to it, that you are already on the SEEKing circuit. Or it could be that Jim’s anger makes you anxious about losing his love, so that the PANIC/DEPRESSION system is activated before you are even conscious of anything else.

But whatever else is going on, you are at work as a rational person, and this is appropriate. It’s not a denial; it’s not a lack of emotion. In particular, if you are immediately trying to figure out how to deal with Jim, you are working from the very positive SEEKing circuit, a circuit that puts your energy in motion.

The kindergarten list

Let’s look again at the kindergarten list. How could “loving” or “loved” be missing from the list of possible children’s emotions?

I don’t know. Of course children who feel loved are not likely to be in counseling for it unless they are actually dealing with someone else’s LUST circuit, which neither Panksepp nor St. Thomas would call love.

But there may be another reason why it’s left off. Whoever put this list together may view “I feel loved,” as an analysis of somebody else’s response to you, not as your own emotion. Some believe that if you can substitute the word “think,” for the word “feel,” then it’s not a feeling. Since you can say, “I think that I am loved,” just as easily as you can say, “I feel that I am loved,” they say it’s not a feeling. Whereas if you say, “I feel comfortable” or “I feel happy and peaceful when Jill comes into the room,” you can’t substitute, “I think comfortable,” or “I think happy and peaceful when Jill comes into the room,” so these are your own feelings.

But when a child feels loved, the CARE circuit is clearly activated, and it’s activated both when we express affection and when we receive it. And even if there are thirty-four thousand ways that our feelings can be strengthened or nuanced by alternation with other feelings, or even by opinions, it is good to start out with something simple.

Self-knowledge is so much more accessible when we have a clear (and short!) list of emotions to choose from. So that is one reason I love Panksepp and delight in comparing him to St. Thomas, whose list was also short.

Puzzle #3: Can feelings be modified by thoughts?

Yes. And this is not dishonest; it’s healthy.

Emotions can be modified in the body simply because every emotional circuit can alternate with the SEEKing circuit, and when we start nosing around, we may discover things that arouse other emotions. This is not only possible, it’s important, because the negative emotions — FEAR, ANGER, and PANIC/DEPRESSION are actually harmful in large doses or over a long period of time. They stop digestion and cause changes in heart rate and other functions, all so as to enable the body to respond to a crisis. Each has a valuable function, but strategically, it’s best to address that function and return the body to its proper metabolic functions.

Obviously the SEEKing circuit underlies intellectual seeking as well as material foraging, and this is why thinking is so stabilizing. When we think over the negative events in our lives, we have a chance to see them in a broader context that may be more positive, or we have a chance to see how to escape similar negative events, and that escape is positive.

Unfortunately, most people have also had the experience of thinking things over and getting nowhere, or getting depressed. If your thoughts are going round and round, you may be sliding into the PANIC/DEPRESSION circuit, not the SEEKing circuit; thinking does not automatically mean you are on the SEEKing circuit. At this point, you need an injection.

Any new event can be helpful. A hug can put you on the CARE circuit; a fresh look at the Milky Way can give you joy, which presumably activates the PLAY circuit. And in fact there may even be an actual injection, GLYX-13, which also activates the PLAY circuit.

One kind of injection is healing prayer, in which the memory of painful events is infused with such a sense of Jesus’ loving presence that the memories cease to be hopeless, solitary, and painful and instead become infused with a spirit of mercy and providence. This kind of prayer does not change the facts of the past, but it changes their emotional weight. Once a healing of memories takes place, memories may be left behind, or a person’s thoughts may resume, taking surprising and positive directions that seemed impossible before.

What issue can Panksepp resolve?

October 8, 2019

What have we learned by this exercise? Is there any question in psychology that we can better answer with the tool of Panksepp’s research? If it’s really parallel with St. Thomas, whose writings are going on 800 years old, perhaps there’s nothing new under the sun, and Panksepp’s work is empty.

But there are few puzzles puzzle that we can address in a new way.

1st puzzle: how many emotions are there?

When I went for a formal study of psychology, only a few years ago, one of the issues that came up in various places was: how many emotions are there?

For that matter, what is emotion? Wikipedia says there is no generally accepted theory of emotions, and while Wiki is no oracle, I verified this while getting my degree. There are lots of theories, but none is “generally accepted.”

Emotions are feelings, and feelings are important; that’s about all.

When people seek therapy, or even if they just go on a marriage encounter retreat, they may be asked: how did you feel in such and such a situation? And if a person is naïve to the question, he may answer something like, “I felt as if I were going to drown,” whereupon he will be told that: “going to drown” is not a feeling. How did you feel?

Should they respond, “I felt like Jim was being unjust,” they get the same admonition: “Jim was being unjust” is not a feeling. It’s an interpretation. How did you feel? Then there may be a discussion in which about 40 “feeling words” are proposed, so you can start to distinguish feeling from thinking and try to learn to identify your feelings.

Where did those 40 words come from? How logical are they? Are there really 40 feelings, or maybe 41, or 27, or 64? What about 34,000? Apparently that number is out there too. Great! Nobody can possibly count such a collection or check whether he’s identified the correct word from such a welter.  

One day on my course, in an assigned reading, we were given a list of about two dozen words words for feelings — a professional list for caregivers of small children — and loving, was not on the list. How could that be? Small children may feel happy or sad but not feel loved? Is feeling loved not a basic emotional experience?

This is crazy town.

You can find a very detailed “wheel of emotions” by Robert Plutchik, and though, as I said, it is not “generally accepted,” it is a well-known proposal, and one that many people have found useful. On this wheel, eight emotions are presented as primary, plus there are variations in intensity, and then there are secondaries where the basic ones are combined. Plutchik is also responsible for the number 34,000, which has to be a mathematical calculation of combinations of his primary and secondary emotions at different intensities. Nobody can analyze such a large collection.

Anyway, he presents love as one of the secondaries, a combination of joy and trust. That’s not a bad idea of love, but it’s just odd. Surely love is basic! When a child is born, a mother does not have trust for the child, but she does have love.

Trying to sort this out will make you crazy. Panksepp is simply sane. His list is small, and it only refers to a very raw and inarticulate level of emotion. But it’s real. That is so helpful!

And there are other puzzles.

Not just two sides of a coin.

October 5, 2019

Let me point out a specific consequence of Panksepp’s research.

Aquinas speaks of the passions of the soul in pairs.

Desire and aversion.

Love and hate,

Daring and fear.

This is perfectly logical.

But it is not precisely how the brain works. That is, the circuit of CARE does not run backward to form an opposite emotion of hate or whatever you think is the opposite of love. There are circuits for RAGE and for FEAR, and either of these will derail the CARE circuit; similarly, we notice that either anger or fear might drive out love from the soul so that you might consider either of them the opposite of love; but there is no question of the CARE circuit reversing into fear or anything else. The circuits don’t go backwards. Rather, it is a fact that either FEAR or RAGE – or PLAY or SEEKing, for that matter — will displace CARE, because only one circuit of emotion is active at any given moment.

In this way, Panksepp’s observations answer the question: which is most directly the opposite of love, fear or anger? Love doesn’t have an opposite. It is itself, and there are several emotions that can interrupt it in different directions.

We can even insert a small reflection on the Psalm 132 (“Yahweh, my heart is not ambitious”) where the psalmist reflects on how restlessness of mind can interrupt our loving attention to God. It is true! Not because God dislikes intellectuals, but because research, with SEEKing underneath, is not the same as worship, which generally has CARE underneath.

Now, all this parallels things we see every day; the child who stops nursing to see who has come into the room (drops CARE for SEEKing) or the friends who interrupt their woodland picnic at the cry of a panther (who also drop CARE for FEAR and then for SEEKing.)

Thus the Panksepp system involves, even dictates, a different approach to emotion. And it is objective. The circuits are there, all the time, as long as we live, and they are the physical platform for all the complex feelings we experience in the conscious realms of mind and soul.


The question was whether psychology could be objective or even whether it could be a “natural science.” So far as it involves reason, it can be objective. So far as it learns from the brain research, it uses the natural sciences, just as theology is pleased to get insights from archeology to clarify events and locations in the Bible. (In fact, Panksepp calls his book, The Archeology of Mind.) Thus, psychologists, even philosophical psychologists, can learn from scientists, but it is a mistake to let their field devolve into the “weight and measure” areas of brain science or behaviorism, just to make a fashionable claim of being “scientists”.

Psychologists know that when the realms of language and human reflection are added to the evidence from brain research, they must move outside the realm of the weight and measure. Accepting Panksepp’s work as a contribution to their larger field, they have a new trove of evidence to work with as they reason about the human mind and soul.

And Catholics are still more struck by the movement of the Spirit of God in the human soul. Their study is still rational; it is still a field of learning that builds by reasoning from evidence to conclusions; but some of the evidence is completely intangible.

It is a Science; it is not a “natural science.”

The circuits of positive emotion

October 4, 2019

There are also circuits for our positive emotions, and their names will be a surprise to anyone who is not familiar with Panksepp’s work.

1: SEEKing

The first he calls SEEKing. You may not be thinking of curiosity as an emotion, but if you think of ‘desire” or if you consider the eagerness that underlies curiosity, perhaps you will perceive its emotional character. In every instance of looking around to discover what is hidden, what is needed, what explains something else, or how to respond in new circumstances, a specific pathway which Panksepp calls “SEEKing” is activated in the brain. Furthermore, the activation of this circuit disables RAGE, PANIC/DEPRESSION, and FEAR. That is why little children can be cajoled out of their tears by the sight of a shiny toy.

So can adults, really! One of the reasons I study astronomy is to cheer myself when the world seems to be going very wrong. The stars are so beautiful; the galaxies hold so many mysteries! It makes me smile, gets me off the RAGE circuit. And I know someone who has worked to expose the eugenicists — a very depressing collection of research — who also studies botany and can tell you mysterious, intricate, and wonderful things about flowers, especially about the humble dandelion. It calms and comforts her.

In the realm of the soul, St. Thomas speaks of desire, of the soul’s reaching out, for God, yes, but also for discovery, for information, even for beauty. And it is notable both that seriously depressed people do not respond to beauty and, on the other hand, that beauty can pull a person out of depression. Beauty is the engine of hope, which is the spiritual form of desire; and underneath hope and desire, there is SEEKing.


Going back to the brain, Panksepp speaks of CARE, (he names the circuits with small caps) which has motherhood as its essential and evolutionary foundation, but which belongs to both sexes and to all ages: we need CARE and there is a specific energy pathway in the brain that lights up when tenderness is given or received. Notice: given or received. Giving comfort has a comforting effect on the giver, and this is clear in the brain itself.

Obviously also, this is parallel to what St. Thomas says about love. It’s very simple. God is love, and our need for love and our vocation of love are the center of our life. And, going back to the little children, it is often the case that children stop being angry or frightened and just melt when they are picked up and kissed by their mothers. Even if a child is actually hurt, bloody scrapes and broken limbs, the affectionate presence of his mother can dissipate much of the distress.

I remember a small child whose broken arm had to be set, and she had a choice of anesthesia in the hospital or no anesthesia sitting in her mother’s lap while the doctor set it. She chose to be on the CARE circuit. And it really hurt, but she was still glad to be there.


The third positive emotion is PLAY. This is quite unexpected. Is playfulness an emotion? Play is something we do, but is it “an emotion?” — something we feel? Panksepp says it is, and that all those frisky squirrels and tumbling kittens have active play circuits, the very same as our own. He says that the activation of this circuit is essential to development because PLAY is where the rules of social engagement are learned and practiced. And, for example, one of those rules is that if you win more than 70% of the time, nobody wants to play with you any more. It’s true! PLAY requires that you handicap yourself if you are winning too much, and that is certainly something that we see about maintaining relationships in human life.

These reflections enable a different insight into competitive games. It is not always PLAY that is activated, I’ll wager, but of course the SEEKing circuit (how can I win?), and also sometimes the RAGE circuit: how can outwit the other guy and keep him off my home territory. Territorial protection, even in fun, can activate the ANGER circuit, and that is why games can get ugly. It’s also why the actions of Colin Kaepernick were so bad for his profession; people watch football for fun, to exercise their PLAY circuits. But he was out on his ANGER circuit, and he stepped into it in public when people were paying for him to PLAY, to help them just enjoy themselves.

But again, notice that if PLAY is one of the circuits, and if you can only activate one circuit at a time, then PLAY will stop anger (RAGE), sadness (DEPRESSION), or anxiety (FEAR), and it will even put curiosity (SEEKing) on pause. That’s why the “class clown” is so disruptive; he prevents curiosity and therefore learning. It’s also why he can be so helpful; he prevents other students from being discouraged: he gives everyone a fresh start.

St. Thomas lists joy as one of the passions of the soul. Not just happiness, which might be no more than quiet contentment; joy is active and bubbling; it implies relationships with a merry ferment. I presume that PLAY is the underpinning of joy in the deep layers of emotion in the brain.

So we have three positive emotions with Panksepp: seeking, care, and play; and we have three positive passions of the soul: desire, love, and joy.


Panksepp lists one more circuit, which he calls LUST, obviously the underpinning of romantic feelings on the positive side, and of sexual sins on the negative side, philosophically considered. If I understand rightly, St. Thomas would view sexual feelings as a form of desire, and of course romantic feelings are considered a form of love. But these feelings are not holiness, and they cannot be confused with divinity (“God is love”), with virtue, or even with the kind of love that arises on the CARE circuit. Sexual feelings are not a form of CARE, and moving from tenderness to sexual intimacy, that is, from CARE to LUST, is very often experienced as an aggression or betrayal; in fact, moving from affection to romance can harm any relationship.

In this case, perhaps the parallel between philosophical and scientific classification breaks down. LUST is not a combination of SEEKing and CARE. It is its own circuit and its evolutionary foundation is the need for reproduction.

Still, sexuality is how we share God’s creativity in bringing new persons into the world, the most magnificent capacity imaginable, yet it may be coupled, in sin, with the least magnificent of relationships. It is all quite amazing.

An Objective Scheme

These circuits are completely mapped in the interior of the brain. They are not theoretical constructs but specific energy paths that activate from moment to moment, and they give us a foundation for thinking about emotions. That said, they are not interchangeable with the emotional experiences that we have in our conscious life; the fact that we share them with chickens doesn’t mean that our feelings are “no more than” chicken-scratch. It just means that our bodies can help us to think about our souls and that’s because the same God and Father made both.

More Psychology in the Brain

October 3, 2019

Not a tautology

Before going on to the various emotions, let me clarify that the relationship between SEEKing and the other emotions is no mere tautology: each emotion has a different circuit, and you only activate one circuit at a time. You might move back and forth; you might change the quality of an emotion by which other emotion you are shifting with. People might alternate rapidly between happiness and sadness if a soldier comes home — seriously wounded. Or a baby might alternate between curiosity and anger when you are trying to distract him from a bruise. But if you think about the most typical discipline of what is called Eastern Mysticism (which is generally not mysticism at all, but psychism), it is trying to stay with your angry, sad, happy, frightened, or any other feelings without seeking ways to act on them. In Panksepp’s terms, it is as if one were to say: Just feel them; cut yourself off from the restless impulse to SEEK. This stillness is a very unnatural path, and one that would not stand up to the demands of evolution or even of a particular life if it were adopted from birth; of course it never is.

All that aside: the fundamental point is that the first of Panksepp’s emotions, the primary one which he calls SEEKing, is strikingly parallel with what Aquinas/Lombardo offers as the underlying scheme of the universe: desire. God creates us out of his desire; we return to him in desire. Desire is the underlying theme in every human story. Yearning for the face of God: that’s what it’s all about.

This desire is the light of infant eyes – the attentiveness that enables him to master not only his native language, but the whole concept of language; not only the face of his mother and family, but the whole notion of the human face, and so much more. And when a child is sick, as long as that light is on, we know that he is fighting effectively; if he becomes listless, then he is in trouble: he needs an intervention. And I am saying that this is true in every field of life. We live by desire.

Now, from a secular and materialist perspective, we can say that we live by having our energy in motion, which is to say, we live by emotions, and in particular, our lives depend on the activation of SEEKing.

From a spiritual perspective, we can say that we live by the desire for God, and before we know the name of God, we live by those desires which he has placed within us to set us in motion towards goods, greater goods, and finally, Himself.

Three negative passions/emotions

I want to speak next about the negative emotions, the ones that are generally on our sin lists, but which Aquinas affirms as part of created human life, and part, therefore, of God’s plan. And I begin with the negative ones because it is so striking that both Aquinas and Panksepp recognize their positive importance. They aren’t mistakes in development whether you are thinking of evolution or Creation; they have a place.

1: Rage and anger

Panksepp lists three; let’s begin with RAGE.

From Panksepp’s perspective, RAGE is the feeling that our domain or our person has been trespassed and we need to defend it. This is an essential feeling; if we are not aroused to protect our own, what would become of us: what would become of nests, of dens, of the young of so many species; and what would become of children, wives, homes, neighborhoods, or of nations? There is a domain to be protected; that is essential to every living creature. Even the self, one’s own body and mind, needs protection. This is part of life.

Aquinas similarly notes that anger is an appropriate mobilization against perceived injustice, giving us the energy to right the wrongs we see. He is speaking of injustice as perceived by the soul, not merely the instinctive mobilization of jealousy or inhospitality; and of course wisdom counsels us to be sure the injustices are real and the responses proportionate. But the point is that Aquinas affirms that anger is not automatically sinful; it is a feeling that has a place in God’s plan.

2: Fear and alertness

So does FEAR. It makes us alert and watchful. We need that in the forest and the jungle, and even in the predator-ridden savannahs where human life perhaps began as well as in the cities where it continues. And how many stories have you read where the whole forest becomes unnaturally quiet when a lion is stalking its prey? All the animals are watchful; all have shifted onto that same circuit, and the protagonist feels it in his brain before he starts looking about for the danger.

In the spiritual life, we know that fear can be harmful; it may signal a lack of trust in God! How many times does Jesus say, “Fear not!” And yet, Aquinas says that a certain amount of fear is good for us, and basically for the same reasons Panksepp gives in the wild: it makes us attentive, and that is important. Jesus says, “Be sober, be watchful because your enemy the devil goes about… seeking whom he may devour.” “Be sober” is not an admonition to be sad; but it’s about stopping the merry-go-round to notice what is most important. Watch!

3: PANIC and sadness or despair

Panksepp’s third negative emotion is PANIC /DEPRESSION. From an evolutionary point of view, this is the emotion of the abandoned young, and their insistent cry for help is another issue of survival. They have to find their mothers and they have to insist that their mothers respond to them. It is curious that this same emotion travels all the way up the evolutionary ladder, and it may seem somewhat counter-intuitive that PANIC/DEPRESSION is a single circuit, so let me address that.

You may be thinking that PANIC is a fear response, and is very unlike DEPRESSION.  When we are depressed, we shut down; but surely PANIC is a species of fear, thus it would be an activation, an alertness. The key here is to know how we are using words. When someone has a “panic attack”, he is precisely not more alert, but more withdrawn, less responsive, and basically less alert except perhaps to cry (or squeak). Thus, he does not watch carefully and does not run, he just shakes. All this is wise for a little one in the wild; movement may betray his location to predators who can move faster than he. In the fear response, the individual is ready to run and has all the adrenalin he needs to do it. Thus the PANIC/DEPRESSION system is a different system, perfectly distinct from the fear system. All this is a fact of cerebral arrangements, not a theory.

On the level of the passions of the soul, we may consider what Aquinas says about despair, which is the disabling and hopeless “passion of the soul.” What is more disabling than thinking our mother does not love us? And all other forms of despair are like echoes of that original one bubbling up from below: we cannot do what needs to be done, we cannot be what we ought to be, we have no place in the world and no future. Aaaah!

Again, however, feeling despair may be what it takes for us to see that we need to change paths. How many people begin their deepest spiritual search when something goes wrong and they cannot see any way to fix it.

Negative emotions are… well… negative

Thus we find that the negative emotions, which have specific circuits in the brain, may readily find parallel in the passions of the soul, and this is to be expected since we were created with bodies to live for God. Also to be expected is that each of these emotions has a positive role to play.

That’s not to say, however, that negative emotions are positive. All of them are catabolic, that is to say, the opposite of metabolic: all of them are destructive of the body in the long term. They shut down digestion, they shut down certain parts of the brain to concentrate certain types of decision-making; they are not good. They have a good function, in a properly limited dose, but they are poison as a way of life.

Nor do I mean to say that the emotions are the same as the passions of the soul. I am certain that these primitive circuits light up for their corresponding passions, but they are not interchangeable, partly because the higher realms, even of the brain, involve language, reason, and judgment, all within a wider frame of reference than the mute emotions can muster. And there is a yet wider frame of reference which is open to us in the knowledge of God. So the passions of the soul are not the same as Panksepp’s circuits; but they must be underlying elements and as such, understanding them can help us organize our thoughts about emotions, or passions, in the higher realms of human life.

How to escape negative emotions

But, returning to the negative emotions, and if they really are negative and even poisonous in large doses, what are we to do?

Well, one principle from Panksepp that is helpful to remember is that the brain only activates one circuit at a time. If we change circuits, we can move towards recovery. Even among the negative emotions, it is a ready observation that sudden fear or anger will sweep away depression, at least for the time.

And so will the positive circuits. So let us consider the positive emotions. What are they, and what role do they play, or what role could they play, in the diminution or scattering of the negative emotions?

Various approaches to Psychology as Science

October 2, 2019

Psychology as a Natural Science

There are then, two classes of ways that the field of psychology can gather material, that is, evidence to reason about. One way is to look at certain actions of men and women, particularly their actions in measurably arranged environments, and then reason about those actions as a study of the “soul”. This would appear to take psychology as a natural science. The other way is to define the human soul in some way and then reason directly about the nature of such a soul; this is philosophical psychology

Thus, the behaviorists, for example, might count up the number of times that people (or some group of people) complain about abortion vs. the number of times they accept it as an uncomfortable part of life, and from this they reason about whether objections to abortion are part of maturity or a failure of maturity. The philosophical psychologists might, instead, talk about the fundamental inclination of the soul towards love, beauty, relationship or something of that sort, and build up a line of reasoning that considers whether abortion will contribute to the harmonious development of that fundamental inclination.

Now, at this moment in history, there is another way. One can look into the brain, which is an objective and measurable entity, and which is yet mysteriously linked to the deepest inclinations of the human individual. Activities in the brain could be signals of activity in the soul. This is a relatively novel idea, because the brain, being very delicate and also inside the cranium, is hard to observe, almost as hard as thought itself. Descartes, in fact, thought that the pineal gland, a tiny structure inside the brain, was the seat of contact between the material body and the spiritual soul. Just to say: looking into the brain is not a new idea, but we have new tools which make it more interesting.

Note that Descartes viewed the universe and the body in completely mechanical terms, so he was trying to find a way out of the implication that the soul could be no more than mechanical.

Unfortunately for him, he made so many mistakes even about the physiology, let alone the function of the tiny pineal gland, and nobody now takes his proposal seriously. Still, he was grappling with a way to view the relationship between the body, which he viewed in completely mechanical terms, and the soul, which was obviously related to thought and thus presumably in some special way to the brain, the seat of our intelligence, materially considered. Nobody wants to say that thought is mechanical, because that would strike at the heart of such concepts as truth and spiritual freedom. So where does the soul really intersect or interact or whatever? It’s a tough question.

I’m not going to address the issue of Cartesian intersection any further here, but the brain is very interesting, and I want to offer some thoughts along a different line of reasoning.

Seeking and desire

In particular, I would like to compare two schemes of thought about our interior lives, both of which seem to offer organizing principles, and from two very different directions, one being philosophical and religious, and the other quite thoroughly materialist. Even so, they are strikingly parallel. These two schemes are described in “the passions of the soul” as treated by (13th century) Thomas Aquinas according to the (21st century) account of Nicholas Lombardo, and the emotion circuits of the brain as researched and described by Jaak Panksepp in the 20th and 21st century.  

The Logic of Desire is Lombardo’s book on the scheme of Aquinas, where desire is the overarching concept referring to the activation of the powers of the soul. Let me interject here that the simplest and most useful definition of emotion is “energy in motion.” Any activation of our life energy is called emotion. Since Aquinas is talking about the spiritual dimension of human life, his perspective is different, but I’ll come to that later.

Aquinas says that God creates us out of his divine desire to share Eternal Love, and we reach back towards him from the deepest desires of our hearts, desires which he planted there to call us home to himself. That’s the big scheme, “the logic of desire.”

Could anything be further from Thomistic theology than the neuroscience of the brain? Well, Panksepp lists seven circuits that can be localized in the brain and that are active at different times in our emotional life, one or the other of them at every moment. And the most fundamental one he calls seeking.

(By the way, the discovery of these circuits is so revolutionary and so specific that Panksepp introduces the rubric of spelling them in small caps, to distinguish them from more general usage. I can’t use small caps, so I am using caps.)

  1. SEEKing is desire, curiosity, and every kind of checking things out; and SEEKing is fundamental because:
  2. if we have RAGE, we SEEK ways to redress our grievance;
  3. if we have PANIC / DEPRESSION, we SEEK our friends;
  4. if we are feeling PLAYful, we SEEK new ways to engage our playmates;
  5. if we are FEARful, we SEEK safety;
  6. if we feel the impulse of affectionate CARE, we SEEK to lavish our care on another;
  7. and if our romantic inclinations are aroused, (Panksepp calls them LUST) we SEEK the beloved (or the object of our LUST.)

This does not mean that SEEKing is part of every other feeling. It is not; we activate only one circuit at a time. But SEEKing is the counterpoint to every other circuit. When Panksepp says these circuits can be localized, he means that if these areas of the brain  light up, those are the feelings that are in play. Furthermore, if these circuits are stimulated directly, say with electrodes, those feelings are simultaneously aroused. And besides all that, there is specific chemistry associated with each circuit, so that feelings can be aroused with the chemistry, and that, in turn, will switch on the identifiable circuits. These circuits have a definite location in the brain, and not only in human brains, but in a large variety of animals studied, including chickens. So not just mammals. It’s very interesting.