the brain, feelings, oppression, and humanity

yesterday morning, while on my way in to work, i had a day of making crazy thought connections. sometimes i doubt why i go back and forth between reading “pop” books (like resilience and imagine) and more grounded, radical, theory-based books (like all about love and pedagogy of the oppressed). days like yesterday remind me of why going back and forth is helpful. this post is gonna be a little stream of consciousness and quick, but here goes!

so i’m reading the book focus (which actually is pretty poorly written, poorly edited, or poorly translated into english. bleh) and i’m learning about different parts of the brain. the older parts of the brain (developed over millions of years) are more wired to our sensory organs. this is connected to the need for survival and how sometimes, we just needed to gtf outta the way of a life-threatening danger (think lion). the younger parts (developed over only the last few hundreds of thousands of years) are the more active, rational parts. this is connected to our ability to hold something in our focus, think about, and then make a decision if necessary.

turns out, this older part of the brain is super important. it is why/how sometimes we can “feel” a choice be wrong or right better than we can think about that same choice rationally. this is the “i’m not really sure why, but it just does/doesn’t feel right,” comes from.

sidenote: this info has reinforced why my friend annemarie’s trick of trying on a decision for a day works so well. she says when faced with an important decision you should take a day and pretend like you’d chosen one option. and then take a different day and try the other one. our bodies are literally wired to sense things that our conscious brain may not be able to tap into.

ok next point.

the insula is the part of the brain that senses all of our organs. people who are better at sensing these connections have a bigger insula (brain part). these are the people who often say things like “my gut/intuition is telling me…”

also, this connection between brain and “gut” can be made stronger or weaker. it’s like a muscle sort of. people can practice noticing how parts of their body are feeling and their insula will grow (says some research study in the book). on the flipside, some people have terrible ability to sense these things. they have small insulas. those people, because they are out of touch with their own body and feelings, also tend to be bad at sensing other people’s feelings.

now here’s the jump.

something i’ve heard about (and thought about before in some post i can’t quite remember right now) and heard other talk about is how oppressors of all types are bad feeling at their own feelings. some people might say that it’s a necessary part of oppressor identity. it is this ability that allows them to be oppressive. it makes clearer sense to me than ever that those people have, over time, weakened the connections between their body and their mind.

this is the idea i’ve heard before (even recently in a convo with my friend, abe, but also in works by baldwin, freire, lorde, etc.) that that oppressors have to kill parts of themselves in order to be violent towards others. part of what abe talked about is the massive numbing complex that is a part of toxic whiteness (and, consequently, white supremacy). people are raised to numb themselves and often don’t even know it. worse, they raise their children to numb and don’t even realize they’re teaching them that. this all works to disconnect parts of “whole” ourselves.

also, on some recent radio show i listened to (maybe state of the re:union with al letson?) the host or guest described meeting white supremacists and realizing how cold and relatively out of touch so many of them were. it was actually a pretty sad story. call me a heretic, but i felt bad people living that reality.

ok. ramble winding down. i think my conclusion for the time being is this: ending supremacy is going to take a lot of work in many areas. what i’m learning is that it’s going to be just as much about changing perception as it is going to be about waking people up to their own feelings. baldwin and john a. powell both talk about how the problem is race isn’t and has never been race. the problem (and consequently, the solution) of race is about how to become more human. how do oppressors become more human and stop dehumanizing. how do oppressed people both realize their full humanity and also remove the oppressor identity from within themselves.

phew. not perfect, but done for now.

ps - ha, this question about “being human” keeps coming up more and more for me these days. noticing…

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