The Whirling Dance of Art and Science

The visual arts can be the path toward truth, just as the study of DNA processes opens our understanding of human variations. The question is how strongly you hold to one path or the other. In retrospect I should have titled this blog: There is still time to do something other than art. That’s the cynic in me alerting you that the probability of great success as an artist is low.

But if you don’t care what the odds are, if you’re committed to pursue your artistic muse, if you don’t care if you never sell your creations, if you pursue the visual arts as a hobby and not a profession, if you are financially secure, then I bow to you and nothing I say is relevant.

If you are not up to your neck in art already and are wondering what great artists may be like (aside from loony, perhaps) I  offer my Seven Forces of Change that could be relevant or at least lead to a better understanding of why some do well in an unpredictable environment and why others fail.

My main message when I go deeper is that art is critical for digging out universal truths, more so than with science. Looking for truths in this world is what makes the visual arts so important. It’s not that the visual arts are beautiful — they don’t have to be. Art doesn’t have to entertain you or others either — you can’t depend on that. Nor does superior art have to closely represent what you see in nature — a camera is better.

What art is, I believe, is a “hands-on” method for pushing the artist and the observer toward truths — truths about you, your evolutionary origins, truths about the sublime, the ridiculous, and, yes, the evil that lurks in us. Art is a method, then, one that is akin to psychoanalysis portrayed by Freud and June that may reflect the roots of psychological truths.

I don’t believe that truths are relative and that there is no absolute meaning about anything. Study the history of art and you see what men and women have been telling us. The artists of antiquity rolled out the truths about us long before DNA spelled out our diversity and potential. The truths they spotlighted, especially in the Renaissance and beyond, were about fear, joy, relations, what is and is not possible, stains in our nature as well as the altruistic and enviable traits. Art was about desires, cravings, the visage of new things, the sympathy with humankind and with other animals and even plants. It was about pleasure, faults, fatal flaws, sacrifices, and dire circumstances. It was about a spiritual need and possible redemption.

I am not suggesting that early artists always reached the level of truths — no — but they did dedicate themselves to a method that was likely to get to that level. That possibility is ours to share today.

In short, our ancestors around the world shouted at us with charcoal, pencil, paint, and marble to pay attention to what we are and what we might be. Art did not deliver us from anxiety, hardships, and emotional lusts. Instead, it told our story as truth would have it, linking common thoughts and understanding. It also tore down the barriers that prevented us from asking the tough questions and delivering the punch lines that instilled a sense of freedom and a universal nature.

In my opinion, art has always moved ahead of science and it still remains as our last path to truth and self-acceptance. The implication is that artists have the responsibility to be honest as they probe the unknown. They cannot not lie or try to justify our condition. They must tell us what they find and what they think. The story of mankind is long and deserves our best efforts to tell it as we believe it to be.

Bets on the moment must favor science that turns on logic and accumulated developments. But no matter how empowering and sophisticated science and technology may become the choice points in science will remain controlled by humans. Even if robots excel our limited brain capacity, science still contains the demons of its own destiny.

As I write at the moment we witness the fragility of science to cope with determined people who wish us dead. It takes very little to push us right back into the Middle Ages where hope was slim and lives were so easily lost. Doug Casey, in his newsletter, The Casey Report, shows us the human conflict:”It has been said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But there’s a big problem for you and me as individuals. At the moment, we all have very finite lifetimes. What if (even thought medical advances are extending our life expectations radically) we die before magic happens?”

I’ll continue this theme next week and will try to outline the Seven Forces of Change that may shape the lives of great artists.

Del Thiessen



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The greatest Western painters growing out of the Renaissance traditions could not today buy their own paintings at auction. They are rare birds who produced truly unique and valuable work. Some of the greatest artists died in poverty and despair during their whirlwind life.

The eight classic artists that I listed in my last blog were widely known by the literati of their times, but they suffered a fatal flaw. They sometimes died friendless, hopelessly insane, addicted to drugs, obsessed with detail, Machiavellian in character, or hunted by the police for high crimes of passion. Here are their concluding misadventures — the defects that rocked their stability but which may also be the major reasons for their success.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti  (1478-1564) was revered and in large measure the focal point of the Renaissance. He seemingly had it all, but was in constant turmoil and agony and was misunderstood by nearly everyone. At 88 years he had failing eyesight, loss of hearing, and felt incomplete. He died in 1564 an unparalleled genius.

El Greco (1541-1614) work became “old fashion” in his lifetime and was only rediscovered in the 19th Century. He became the “father of Modernism, but only became after his death. His work was stunning in its detail and color, but was often criticized.

Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a violent man who fought and killed and was a longtime fugitive from justice. His homoeorotic paintings and his unique use of light and darkness changed the world of art and is still a source of controversy.

Rembrandt van Rign (1606-1669) was probably the greatest artist of the 17th Century, delving in Biblical painting, philosophy, and history. He was best known for his portraits of famous people. His success may have been his downfall. He lived beyond this income and took out loans to meet his debts. He died at 63, nearly a broke and was buried with few mourners and little ceremony.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), perhaps Spain’s greatest artist, lived in tumultuous times. His land was invaded by Bonaparte which was followed by civil war. Goya claimed to be not interested in politics, yet his paintings suggested the opposite. He was called up by the Spanish Inquisition and barely escaped execution or imprisonment. He lost favor from the provisional government of Spain. From that point on he worked exclusively for himself. His darkest contributions were 14 works (called black paintings) displaying his morbid state of mind, his strong fear of insanity, and his terror on illness. Saturn Devouring his Son was his blackest and most stunning revelation of a degenerating mind.

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) was intense but ultimately was unable to complete his vision of art. His work was rarely accepted during his day; his paintings were said by one museum director that his work would never hang in a museum.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) painted with van Gogh for a short time and lived briefly in Polynesia. An artist, self-taught, Gauguin returned to the south pacific and Caribbean when he became famous for his luxurious and exotic island women. Manic and often uncontrolled, he became riddled with syphilis, a degenerating liver, a heart condition, rotten teeth with abcesses. Imprisoned for a short time he finally died of an overdose of morphine.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) argued furiously with Paul Gauguin who lived with van Gogh for a time. Vincent slashed a part of his earlobe in response to his fury. He committed himself to a mental hospital but continued his erratic and volatile behaviors. Later he shot himself in the stomach and died at age 37 virtually unknown to the world of art. He sold one painting for pennies during his lifetime.

What is it that drives some intelligent individuals to despair. These eight painters were prolific, sometimes having painted over 200 paintings during their career. They were extreme in their behaviors but guided by dreams that only they could deal with, and their contributions were extensive. My blog will follow the thread of their mental conditions that are often deep and dark, traits that put some artists on the edge of universal greatness and suicide. Amazingly the anguish of their lives set the stage for the production of art that people are now willing to pay millions of dollars for. Sadly, none of the eight rested in peace and few experienced financial success that lasted.


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Deviant Minds: The Greatest Artists

The great visual artists that changed how we “read art are relatively few in number and unique in accomplishments. They were often self-taught, obsessed with their work and fought for their beliefs. Without them we would have no “art history” and our perspective of the world would be mostly religious, flat and two-dimensional, and less revealing of our inner nature.

Here are 8 European artists who laid the groundwork for what we know about visual arts and what is possible today. I chose these 8 because of their great courage, their mental struggles that defined their lives, and the ultimate value of their creations. Many others would qualify for this list, but these are clearly outstanding for their work.

None of the 8 are common in any sense. They lived their lives at the tip of the spear. In fact, I think that it was their quirky minds, their depressive -manic personalities, and their search for universal truths that led to their greatness. Yes they were intelligent but also highly competitive, agitated, and demanding of themselves. Most were highly narcissistic risk takers who rarely found peace and prosperity.  They sometimes died without fame, thanks, or friends. Along with their names I have given what has been estimated for the sale price of their greatest paintings should they ever come to market. It is not merely our recognition of their artistic genius that sets the price of their creations, but is their drawing back of a curtain that exposed the basic traits that evolved among the survivors of our ancestors. In the next blog I will sketch what appear to be the driving forces of their personalities. The creative artists then and even today are those who charged forward regardless of social stigmas and even though their minds may have been self-destructive.

From Darkness to Sublimity

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarrot (1475-1564): 50 million for Birth of Man, Sistine Chapel

El Greco (1541-1640): 1,475,00: Baptism of Christ

Caravaggio (1571-1610): 135 million: Judith Beheading Holofernes

Rembrandt van Rign (1606-1669): 33.2 million: Portrait of a Man

Francisco Goya (1746-1828): 7.1 million: Bullfight

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906): 250 million: Card Players

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903): 300 million: Two Tahitian Women

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890): 71 million: Starry Night

As we will see in the next blog, they all paid a dear personal price for their accomplishments.




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If you are an unknown artist — possibly newly attracted to the creative arts — I have unsettling news. The statistics are against your becoming recognized for your work. According to a recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts there are only two million of you out there, concentrated mostly in San Francisco and Santa Fe, but also in the larger cities of Las Angeles and New York. These types of art break down into 11 specific categories.

True, the competitive atmosphere is in your favor, if your work is excellent, but the market is flooded with the standard fare of drawings, sculptures, illustrations, and fashion designs. It’s like seeing yourself as you might birds in flight: they pass as they move toward their destiny, but leave no trace. The many products I see look pretty much like flying birds.

Moreover, job opportunities for artists are terrible. About 40% of the employed artists are in commercial areas, such as fashion design. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that the annual pay is a lousy 45K, and the artist has little freedom to innovate. Try living on 45K a year in San Francisco or Santa Fe.

Added to these bleak statistics is the recent fall in selling prices of famous and not-so-famous art work. Sales at the biggest art action houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillip’s are falling like a stone. In early 2016 the Dow Jones Industrial average and the S&P 500 were down about 10%, but the art houses were down about twice that. The Wall Street Journal of February 12 drew this conclusion:

“Collectors have become pickier, bypassing less spectacular pieces in favor of colorful decorative scenes or iconic works regarded as safe bets.”

The art market for more typical pieces that you and I might produce seems to be hit equally hard. Although the overall market is crumbling, geniuses and mad people either believe that their unique style or their ingenuity will prosper. Some, of course, don’t care as long as they can eat, get a good night’s rest, and produce endless art.

There is one other obstacle artists face. Like everything else common gallery exhibits have been politicized. No longer can artists show Christ on the cross, aggressive behaviors, deviant acts, wars, or socially unacceptable gestures. There has been a convergence of acceptable art pieces that, as I see it, emphasize beauty but no beast, social justice but no class distinctions, cooperation but no aggression. Half of human and animal behavior has virtually been excluded from view, leaving a lot of pretty scenes done in soothing pastels devoid of controversy.

What is completely missing is the expression of deep thought and profound revelations. If you are disinclined to present a beautiful canvas with positive social messages your work is not acceptable in today’s contemporary galleries. You have been completely axed out if your ideas lead the viewer to a new and dangerous idea. What’s left are puny representations of common notions. Birds in flight.

Real art emerges only when the marks you make are true to your nature and are not compelled into existence by the standards of others. Art must touch the fingers of universal traits or it is nothing. Instead of teaching and encouraging political correctness that leads to only superficial and decorative art pieces, we should be encouraging the expression of those artists who live with the dark side of the brain or at least with a brain that is free to illuminate our deepest secrets.



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Finding Yourself Through Art

The evolution of human brain capacity brought with it a greater capacity to understand ourselves, both the good and the bad. Hints of what was to come is found in the dusts and ruins of French caves, where colored representations of the world are found on these ancient walls. It was the artistic ability to express our views of the world that led us toward a deep understanding of our unconscious self. More than 40,000 years later we have expanded our view, but in the expression of the fundamental nature of humans and other species, almost nothing has changed. It didn’t take Freud and Jung to unveil our nature, for it was there from our earliest evolution. What did change was our abilities to flash that nature on the walls of time and reach backward to our roots. Many other changes were taking place in our cognitive structure and function, but the pathway to understanding was genetically carved into our DNA under great pressures to survive and reproduce.

I believe that one of the best mechanisms for reaching the truths about ourselves is through the arts of music, sculpture, drawing and painting, dance, and creative writing. One does not need a Ph.D. or any particular technical ability to pull out those defining truths. One only needs the courage to go where others fear to tread, and the guts to stick it out even in the blackest of moments. My choice of drawing and painting is immaterial.

The 18th Century literatus Denis Diderot could have been reflecting on the artistic career of Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) when he cried out: “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep, stare, be engaged — only then regale my eyes.” Delacroix did those things. His profound vision was to present his paintings, not to amuse and entertain, but to lead the viewer to the depth of the soul. He looked and saw the human reactions that push forward for the brave regardless of where they take us. Those reactions rest at the junctions of our evolutionary struggle to survive. They are there to again tell us that the truth will set us free.

I want to expose this struggle through the visual arts, but it just as well comes from a study of the Bhagavad Gita, personal and spiritual  quests, Promethean journeys, the martial arts, writing of novels, or any other activity that touches upon our evolutionary history. We must, at the same time, avoid subscribing to the politically correct notion that beauty is our goal and that our creations must above all be visually stunning and settle the mind. No, some may be and should be, but the point of our lives is not to add to the beauty around us but to form the concepts that open Pandora’s jar and lead us to a more complete understanding of our origin and our potentials. They, in their many forms can set us free.



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Finding One’s Center



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Robert Oppenheimer Creator, Captor, Destroyer

University of California Berkeley campusTrinity nuclear test

Prometheus stole fire and gave it to men. But when Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to nail his body to Mount Caucasus. On it Prometheus was nailed and kept bound for many years. Every day an eagle swooped on him and devoured the lobes of his liver, which grew by night.

Apollodorus, The Library, book 1:7, second century B.C.

Writing American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer was an incredible intellectual task, one that was finished by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin after 25 years. Yes, 25 years in the research and writing.

The tome of 721 pages was a compelling analysis of the genius, and “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” Robert Oppenheimer. With admiration and wonder, it struck me that the writers’ dedication must have changed them forever. The deep study of one person was bound to tie them to Oppenheimer, just as Prometheus was bound to the chain of Mount Caucasus. When Oppenheimer died at the end of their inked feather, it must have been like losing a son to eternity.

Oppenheimer fell in love with the mountains and valleys around Los Alamos, New Mexico. When tired or distressed he returned to that region to renew his spirits, ride horses for hundreds of miles, and push on with his work. He later returned to the region the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and decided that the work on the atomic bomb would be conducted in Los Alamos. And it was.

The love of that region troubled him as he anticipated creating a more dangerous world from which there would be no escape. In August 10, 1931 – long before the nucleus of the atom was split and during the time he directed the birth of theoretical physics at University of California at Berkeley, he wrote of his anxiety:

I think that the world in which we shall live these next

thirty years will be a pretty restless and tormented place;

I do not think that there will be much of a compromise

possible between being of it, and being not of it.

The journey with Bird and Sherwin brought to mind the more general question why we tend to identify with the subjects of our study, the home from which we came, the loves we cherished and perhaps lost?

Identifying with another person, place, or an ideology provides comfort. For me, returning to old haunts that I love is like stirring the ashes of time in order to reignite warm moments of pleasure and pain. The experience allows new insights into my psychic stuff, and provides the continuity that only history can provide.

I remember, too, several instances in which people welded together by years of time establish a bond that unites until the last breath of life. It is not uncommon that when one spouse dies, the other spouse dies shortly thereafter. I had a friend, Bob Pidgeon who after many years of marriage died within hours of his spouse’s death – both natural deaths.

Once committed to a time, a place, a person, one is doomed to become that world and no other. Identification is complete and fate owns our times and our progress through life. Others may see sterility in our being caught in a time warp, but we all are, after all. For each of us those moments of identification act as a lens that lets light pass from time to time and gives us the reasons for pushing on, as Oppenheimer did after bathing again and again in the wilderness of New Mexico that he loved.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, looking backward into the places and times that he loved. March 27, 2015.

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Death and Longevity

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How People Cope with Death

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The inspiration for this concept art is “Samurai Image,” Dia por Dia me, The longevity calligraphy shown is Chinese in form.

Research on aging is a relatively new enterprise, and surprising developments indicate that aging and death are not inevitable. An interesting clue has occurred recently, with the finding that the blood of young mice when injected into old mice can significantly extend life. Obviously, there is a chemical factor in young blood that physiologically impacts longevity (Dr. Tony Coray, at Stanford Univ., to be published in Nature).

But there have been many exciting findings, including noting that cell life can be extended by manipulating the tail end of DNA (telomeres). Even a cut in calories of the diet of mammals can extend health and length of life. Genes are clearly implicated, suggesting that inducing genetic change in relevant genes can extend life, and evolutionary hypotheses are critical. Right now, human life runs up against a biological barrier at about 120 years, but breakthroughs are inevitable (Evolutionary Theories of Aging and Longevity:

Dr. J. Graig Venter, a genomic investigator, and a critical member of a research team that first sequenced the human genome, is now examining the DNA of thousands of humans in order to determine which genes are critical for extending the length of life. He has elaborated the known DNA molecular code and has created an electronic version that may allow him to synthesize a life form (or use an existing synthesized genome) and transmit that genome to anywhere in the world (or through space) electronically, where it can be received and transfigured into a replica of the original genome. He hasn’t accomplished the feat yet, but it is entirely possible. It is also possible that the code for the synthesized genome can be saved and later stimulated to develop a clone.

Even scientific writers for Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, are looking optimistically into the near future, saying:

There is no thermodynamic necessity for senescence.

In addition, genetic damage or “wear and tear” theories

could not explain why biologically similar organisms

(e.g. mammals) exhibited such dramatically different

life spans. Furthermore, this initial theory failed to

explain why most organisms maintain themselves so

efficiently until adulthood and then, after reproductive

maturity, begin to succumb to age-related damage.


Still, the live all become dead, and the dead do not rise up to prosper; we must adjust to the inevitability that all of us will perish before we can take advantage of scientific findings.

Ernest Becker wrote a profound book on death in 1973 (The Denial of Death, Simon & Schuster). He concluded:

Each person thinks that he has the formula for

triumphing over life’s limitations and knows with

authority what it means to be a man, and he usually

tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today

we know that people try so hard to win converts for

their point of view because it is more than merely an

outlook on life: it is an immortality formula.

The root of humanly caused evil is not man’s animal

nature, not territorial aggression, or innate selfishness,

but our need to gain self-esteem, deny our mortality, and

achieve a heroic self-image. Our desire for the best is the

cause of the worst.

Several years ago, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski wrapped Ernest Becker’s notions on death in psychological and evolutionary terms and concluded that thoughts of death stimulated anxiety. Death-induced anxiety could be reduced by high personal esteem and social and world view concepts. Indeed, cultures are structured to unconsciously hide or disguise death anxiety and provide avenues of personal development that can reduce fears of death (see Goldenberg, 2000, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 200-218).


In the 1600s armed Samurai guards attended to the defense of their retainers (shoguns, clan leaders, regimes), agreeing to die in the defense of their lord. The regimented origin of the Samurai is Buddhism, but a more militant form. Buddhism was an escape from reality by turning within and learning not to fight adversity and death. Shoguns saw these notions in their favor and encouraged the aggressive style of the Buddhism/ Samurai for their own benefit.

The entire movement was supported by a Samurai and Buddhist monk, Yamamoto Tsunetomo who in 1716 wrote a famous book, titled Hagakure, which advocates the rituals associated with the understanding of the Samurai philosophy. Hagakure is translated to mean “hidden leaves,” or “hidden by the leaves.” Its main principle is that the Samurai must prepare himself for death: “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult.” Accordingly:

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed

daily. Every day when one’ body and mind are at peace,

one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows,

rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging

waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being

struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great

earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of

disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s

master. And every day without fail one should consider

himself as dead.

There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of

the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession

of moment after moment. If one fully understands the

present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and

nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single

purpose of the moment.

Many Samurai and others have learned to be immune from the fear of death, a process that not only frees oneself of anxiety and ill-directed activities, but permits the individual to redeem himself from dishonorable behavior with the killing of one’s self by a ritualized disembowelment with a knife, followed by decapitation by an aide (seppuku).

A famous Japanese writer and the last Samurai, Yukio Mishima, realizing that he could not reignite the honorable practice of the Samurai and thus change the nation after World War II, committed seppuku in Tokyo in 1970. His biographers, Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato, writing a beautiful book, Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (Stone Bridge Press, 2012, describe the event:

The wound Mishima made by disembowelment started

1.6 inches below his navel, 5.5 inches long from left

to right, and 1.6 to 2 inches deep. Twenty inches of

his intestines came out.

It was a magnificent seppuku.

Obviously there are many ways to shake hands with death, but as I did the canvases that I introduce here, I learned a lesson not so much in techniques in painting (I have a long road to pursue here), but in the powerful link that we have with the universe in the better understanding of artistic creations and in comprehending how important beauty is in defining life and leading us toward greater truth. I have referred to Buddhism and other Asian approaches to spiritual fulfillment, not as an attempt to displace the Western concept of God, but as a method for coming to terms with our inner source of discontent.

Western canon excels in our understanding of external motivators of behavior, and it certainly is effective in driving economic prosperity, but for some of us a more internalized vision of ourselves has much to recommend it. Fortunately our quest can begin anywhere.

I use to feel, as a young man, that if I could only understand one thing – a tree, for example – I would eventually understand the entire universe. In a sense, I still believe that. The bigger lesson, I think, is that everything is related to everything else. Start anywhere and the road will always lead to the same core, one that we all share. That is true because we all carry the founding molecules and imperatives of our common origin. Those who have seen the other side of things, who have pursued the “obedience of the unenforceable,” know that the best game played is not the best game won. It’s pulling back the bow string and finding that the arrow flew without our command.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, March 20, 2015

Michima twoYukio Mishima, A man longing for and finding honorable death

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Study of Simplicity and Beauty

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Cactus Flower, Night Blossom

We move in wonder and contemplation, often far from the concept of usefulness. When we see natural beauty there may be truth and greater understanding. Art is the timeless effort to understand ourselves and the world beyond. William Blake, English poet in the Romantic period gave us this wisdom:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Our metaphor is supported by a white cactus flower and a hovering moon, a possible sign of purity and spirituality. The flower is the model for the painting originated by Fadi Khraishah, 500, photo 739313.
Explaining beauty is largely subjective, but we are gaining ground in its explanations. Art historian I.C. McManus recently discussed the links between beauty and symmetry, and investigators have studied their influence. For example, a symmetrical face, with features in perfect relation, is often preferred to a face where symmetry is less evident. It is presumed that a person with high symmetry may have genetic advantages during development and beyond. Beauty among men and women may therefore reflect the
reproductive capacities of potential mates, and can be understood from an evolutionary perspective. But there is more.
McMans says that although symmetry is indeed attractive, it also lacks dynamic force, and is actually less attractive than beauty with a small flaw, such as a small “beauty mark,” tattoo, or slightly off manner. Here are his distinctions.
These Traits Speak of Home,
Safety, and Provisions –



Speak of Opportunity, Freedom and Sublimity





Life, play







Understanding that individuals can find themselves on one side or the other in these issues, suggests that beauty is not easily understood and must be related to personality and utilitarian differences. Roger Scruton, I think, comes close to a generality about beauty and art, and what it can mean (Beauty: A very short introduction: Oxford University Press, 2011):
The experience of beauty in art is intimately connected
with the sense of artistic intention. And even the
experience of natural beauty points in the direction of
a ’purposiveness without purpose”. The awareness of
purpose, whether in the object or in ourselves, every-
where conditions the judgment of beauty, and when
we turn this judgment on the natural world it is hardly
surprising if it raises, for us, the root question of
theology, namely, what purpose does this beauty serve?
And if we say that it serves no purpose but itself, then
whose purpose is that? Once again we recognize that
the beautiful and the sacred are adjacent in our
experience, and that our feelings for the one are
constantly spilling over into the territory by the other.
(p 66)
Scruton tells us that images around us tend to be either beautiful (e.g. beauty with symmetry), or subline (beauty with dynamic asymmetry). A field of peaceful grazing sheep in a meadow with sunshine and a running stream is beautiful, for instance, but a storm bursting on mountain cliffs at night as you wonder about your chances of survival for the next few hours is sublime. The first reminds us of home and security; the second reminds us that the power of the universe is a spiritual experience. Thus Beauty with Asymmetry leads us toward a religious explanation of the universe, well beyond the human capacity to understand.
These two forms of beauty are expressed among the ten canvases that we see here: these canvases are metaphors of identification or awe – the beauty of belonging or the beauty of sublimity. They tell a story of our lives and our hopes of redemption.
Not all beauty is natural beauty, and our landscape is filled with human creations that many would consider of great beauty, including dance, song, comedy, music, poetry, architecture, and athletic abilities, to name but a few. Scientists, too, are enchanted with beauty – the beauty of discovery that suddenly announces a universal law that before was uncharted.
The theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg reportedly said this to his colleague Albert Einstein:
If nature leads us to mathematical forms of great
simplicity and beauty – by forms, I am referring to
coherent systems of hypothesis, axioms, etc. – to
forms that no one has previously encountered, we
can not help thinking that they reveal a genuine
feature of nature. You must have felt this too; the
almost frightening simplicity and wholeness of the
relationships which nature suddenly spreads out
before us and for which none of us was in the least
Or, consider this:
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Be embraced,
This kiss for the whole world!
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.
These fateful and beautiful words are from Beethoven’s incomparable Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy, from the final movement, arising from a poem written by Friedrich Schiller.
Beauty runs through our progenitor species – the spider with its aesthetic appreciation of its orbital web, with female baboons that select males for mates based on male strength, aggression, and physical adornment, with avian and mammalian species that build designs into their habitats, and even paint on canvass with vivid colors. My dog, Archer, showed his Euclidian nature by distributing stuffed toys in stunning geometric figures (untrained and not reinforced). All beautiful and subline.
Beauty is truth; truth is beauty – that is all Ye know
on earth, and all Ye need to know. What the
imagination seizes as beauty must be truth – whether
it existed before or not.
John Keats, poet

Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, March 13, 2015

Del two

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Beauty is Deep Inside Us

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Our minds wander, nearly without control, preventing us from achieving a more calm and
contemplative existence. Sometimes we are lucky, particularly at an older age when sensorial demands diminish, and we do acquire a sense of serenity. The beauty of the world is etched deeply into our unconscious self, there to express our most fundamental quests for understanding. To me it speaks of the universality of spirituality — not the usual feelings of religion — but the innate quietness of imperfection and the survival value of wonder and admiration. For discussion, I turn to Eastern philosophies that not only describe the might of nature — as with Mount Fuji in Japan — but also provide the beauty that codes the messages of survival and reproductive.

What’s remarkable to me is that we, in the West at least, reject serenity for a stubborn work ethic that allows us to accumulate conveniences and superior toys. Serenity is lost in the constant buzz of everyday life. This, in spite of the apparent reality that serenity is a valuable state of being that appears to have a genetic base and an evolutionary history.

The Eastern world has learned that a Buddhist attitude of open mind and “know nothing” is a spiritual reach for understanding without the Western emphasis on materialism. In this dual world of Eastern philosophy and Western dynamism the world seems to be constructing links between forms of behavior that serve both our needs for materialistic innovation and an inner serenity. I am not talking about a religious movement, but an ultimate union between human consciousness, neurophysiology, self- knowledge, and behavior.

The Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki may have the credit for introducing Zen Buddhism to America in 1958 when he moved to California, thus bridging Eastern and Western thought. His 1970 publication, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is still printed and is one of the best introductions to the mastery of Buddhist principles.

Suzuki tells us that the book is about:

How to practice Zen as a workable discipline and religion, about posture and breathing, about the basic attitudes and understanding that make Zen practice possible, about non- duality, emptiness and enlightenment. It is about reaching serenity.

For me, one of the most inspiring and true Buddhist stories is actually a book by Western author, Eugen Herrigel, titled, Zen in the Art of Archery (Vintage Books, 1953). Herrigel was a German philosopher who traveled to Japan to practice the art of archery with a master Zen archer.

It took Herrigel six years of training under the watchful (or not) eye of his Zen Master before he understood that his task was not to hit a target with his bow and arrow, but to open his Zen Mind to the unconscious reach for understanding (enlightenment). If I could recommend just one book on the subject of the Zen Mind it would be this one. Here are a couple of experiences of Herrigel.

Bow and arrow are only a pretext for something that could happen without them, only the way to a goal, not the goal itself, only helps for the last decisive leap. His Master told him when Herrigel became discouraged. What stands in your way is that you have too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.

After nearly six years of trying to reach Buddha Mind, a day came when Herrigel pulled back the string of the bow and “the arrow flew.” He did not release the arrow; it just flew.

At last Herrigel concluded:

Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so ridiculously simple …

His Master broke in at this point, saying: The bowstring has cut right through you.”

Well, Herrigel’s life was changed and he finally obtained Buddha Mind. That mind can be found anywhere, in your work, your studies, your relations, or as is true for thousands, in the climb of the holy mountain, Mount Fuji, the metaphor for our Concept Art.

For thousands of years individuals have found that meditation calms the storms of the brain and makes it possible to reach new levels of self-understanding. More recently investigators have discovered that various regions of the brain become enlarged as a result of meditation. Presumably, the benefits of meditation can be traced to its effects on specific areas of the brain.

In a remarkable learning program from Great Courses ( Ronald D. Siegel, a neural biologist from the Harvard Medical School, describes the widespread brain changes that are associated with Buddhist monks who spend a lifetime of meditative dedication to the search for personal “mindfulness.”

In controlled studies Dr. Siegel and his colleagues have found that the neural activity of the right prefrontal cortex is correlated with worried brain activity, but the left prefrontal cortical activity correlates with happiness, engagement, and contentment. Meditative practice enhances the neural activity of the left prefrontal cortex. It also reduces the stressful brain activity in regions of the brain related to worrisome behaviors. In the teaching course Siegel gives us the important generalization.

… mindfulness practice (traditional meditative activity)
trains us to bring deep awareness to the present moment – to become more fully conscious of our unfolding sensory and mental experience as it rises. This mindful awareness, as research clearly shows, can profoundly change our relationship to all our experience.

The imagination of the public in the United States has been profoundly excited by the findings that the brain and behavior are changed for the better by Buddhist meditation. The journal, Scientific American, devotes an entire issue to The Neuroscience of Meditation (November, 2014), showing us that not only are more people involving themselves in meditative practices, but that the scientific links between neurophysiology, behavior, and meditation are at the interface of a major scientific revolution. The aesthetic nature of the visual arts offers yet another path to the understanding of
the mysteries of our inner nature.

Serenity may be difficult to have and hold, but it is always there, striving for release. Artistic creations have a habit of getting us to our inner goals, just like Herrigel did with his arrow. Like Buddhist practices, it can also be obtained through art that touches the most primitive aspects of our brain.

Art is manifold and shows us many ways to personal truth. In my view, it is by revealing the deep instincts of the brain, the evolved concepts, or the unconscious human archetypes, as the analyst  Carl Young opined, through which our motivations in our “collective unconscious” are unleashed to extend our views of the universe and lead us to a rebirth of perspective.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, March 6, 2015.

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The Desert God

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T.E. Lawrence, a low-level officer in the British 1914 offensive of World War 1 against the Germans and Turks in Arabia, acted as a contact officer with the Arab leader Emir Feisal. Lawrence’s job included persuading the Arabs to fight with the Western allies for their freedom. But Lawrence did much more, organizing the Arabs into hit and run guerillas, and setting off a two year campaign that led to the defeat of the Germans and Turks.
Our Concept Art illustrates the powerful links between T.E. Lawrence (in Arab dress), the Arabian peninsula, and his touch with God.


Though scientists like Richard Dawkins make their case today for genetic determinism and atheism (The God Delusion, Houghton Miffin, 2006), they neglect the human cravings for sublimity and immortality, ideas more salient in driving human cognition than any Darwinian principle of evolutionary determinism.
The harshness of the desert literally delivers occupants to the concept of God. For them, there is no choice, no rationalization, no coffee-house atheism. Their challenge is not intellectual; it is survival under the most austere circumstances, where nothing relevant can be verbalized or written in any language. The challenge is only survival in the desert’s eternal drought, its intense shifts from bitter cold to dehydrating heat, its common infestations, along with the inability to sleep without insect persecution, and its impenetrable rocks and cutting sands. The vastness of the wasteland, with its ever-present threat of annihilation and incalculable beauty presets the body and mind to accept the desert’s dominance with its constant rhythms of life and death.
T.E. Lawrence said this about his resolute band of guerrillas (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Random House, 1926):
Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent
in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow
with one another in the naked desert, under the
indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us;
and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night
we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness
by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-
centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to
freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so
ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so
transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.
Then there are these unforgettable passages by Lawrence that revealed the Arab mind, all simple illustrations of mental concepts, and resigned destiny.
There was no human effort, no fecundity in Nature: just
the heaven above and the unspotted earth beneath.
There unconsciously he came near God. God was to
him not anthropomorphic, not tangible, not moral or
ethical, not concerned with the world or with him, not
but the being …[Latin]… thus qualified not by divestiture
but by investiture, a comprehending Being, the egg of all
activity, with nature and matter just a glass reflecting Him.
This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words,
and indeed in thought. It was easily felt as an influence,
and those who went into the desert long enough to forget
its open spaces and its emptiness were inevitably thrust
upon God as the only refuge and rhythm of being.

His sterile experience robbed him of compassion and
perverted his human kindness to the image of the waste
in which he hid. Accordingly he hurt himself, not merely
to be free, but to please himself. There followed a delight in
pain, a cruelty which was more to him than goods. He found
abnegation, renunciation, self-restraint. He saved his own
soul, perhaps, and without danger, but in a hard selfishness.

The “desert God” comes to us in times of deprivation, pain, sickness, and hopelessness, but it finds us in one form or another, in the prospect of our death and the suffering in our reality, in the “foxhole” that hides our fears from our knowledge of disaster and the fear of no redemption, on our deathbed of regret and self-loathing, in the loss of material supports and untested spirituality, in the cancer of our lives, and in the abandonment we feel from loved ones and the indifference we experience.
Yet, strangely, there stirs hope in the mix, in the people we love, the truths that we bathe in, and the identification with the beauty of all things – even our death – the grandeur of the universe, and our inevitable ties to all things manifested and dreamed of. Art is one of the beauties that concentrate our beliefs, both in awe of creation and the knowledge that we are all tied together in the common struggles of life and an unending quest for a resolving future.


Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, February 27, 2015

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Narcissism in the World of Art and Literature

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Narcissism is self-love, a trait that all people possess as a survival device given to us by evolution’s variations, and one that is often exaggerated among charismatic Machiavellian (psychopathic) individuals. Narcissism is a major key in our understanding of the deviant mind. Our Concept Art expresses the visual metaphor of narcissism, illustrated by Oscar Wilde’s remarkable novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. I will conclude by arguing that narcissism is responsible for the lack of empathy among psychopaths and their general lack of concern for other people.
Sam Vaknin, an Israeli scientist and writer, wrote a remarkable book, all about narcissism, titled Malignant Self Love, Narcissus Publications (2007). He defines pathological narcissism as “a life-long pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with the self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification, dominance and ambition.”
Individuals with extreme narcissism require constant adulation and spin everything around their love for themselves. They feel entitled; they lack empathy, they exploit others, and they seek to destroy others who stand in their way. About 75 percent of individuals diagnosed with extreme narcissism are male.
Narcissism tends to expand to encompass material things, deep beliefs, and loved ones. It’s as if one’s identity enlarges to the degree that we add to our possessions. Neural biologist V.S. Ramachandran explains that our self-interests explode as our mirror of the world reflects more and more of us. Even using a pointer in a lecture can extend our personal image to the tip of the pointer. The extension by the distance of the pointer is reflected as neural changes in the sensory-motor areas of the brain cortex. We construct our own image and relate it closely to the world around us. The psychopathic profile may be genetically given, but its expansion or contraction depends on our own manipulation.
We can conclude that the primary trait from which Machiavellian behaviors flow is narcissism, the Pandora portal through which all other personality traits are squeezed. When that cabinet is opened all the related personality traits rattle and tumble out to give sustenance to the primary default of narcissism. This stunning description clearly incorporates the wide sweep and consequences of malignant self-love, a love that is often secretive, erects firm defenses against intrusion or change, and stands in defiance of disconfirming information. On the other hand, narcissists are often interesting individuals, and can in the abstract be friends and colleagues. One wonders, therefore, where the threshold is between charm and manipulation, clever oration, and madness. We need other methods to lead us to explanations.
A Buddhist master told a group of devotees that everything we own and love adds to our self-image, enlarging our ego. As a result, our personal image becomes faulty, obese, and fragile. The master went on to say that the answer to a ballooning self is to divest one’s self of encumbrances and seek Buddha within the meditative self. We wonder if this philosophy could minimize the psychopathy that is fueled by narcissistic motivations?
Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) separated out the duality of man for all to see in his first and only novel of 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The stunning novel was penned long before Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung brought the separations within man to the front row for all to see. Wilde’s genius, found in retrospect, was associated with his personal narcissism, bipolar manic-depressive disorder, and his deep psychopathy. His literary creation was Dorian Gray, also bipolar, probably reflective of the author’s psychopathy—surely an instance of self-analysis that reveals our general condition.
The illustrations I paint are Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray, brilliantly acted by Ben Barnes.
Dorian was clearly Wilde’s guy, a mirror of himself and millions of other tortured men and women. The novel is a great place to begin our analysis and the lever to get at the mechanisms of the human mind and their impress on the growth and destruction of civilizations.
Dorian was a most beautiful young man who captured the attention of men and the love of women. Lord Henry tells his friend Dorian to live his life to the hilt with no regrets, to give way to every temptation, and realize every fantasy. Basil Hallward, a well-known painter, arranges to put the beauty of Dorian on canvas, which he does, suggesting to Dorian that his true beauty will outlast his reflection on the canvass. Dorian later remembers what he said to Basil on that fateful day.
He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might
remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own
beauty might be untarnished, and the face on the
canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sin,
that the painted image might be seared with the lines
of suffering and thought, and that he might keep all
the delicate bloom and loveliness of his just conscious
Dorian rushes on with his self-centered and psychopathic existence. Sibyl Vane, a beautiful actress, attracts Dorian who gives her the impression that he loves her. Actually, he is enchanted with her ability to act out false love on the stage. She gives in to Dorian, but having discovered real love, she can no longer

act out an unreal drama on stage. Dorian, no longer entranced, leaves her without a thought because she is “shallow” and “unworthy.” Sibyl, distressed to the bottom of her heart, commits suicide. Dorian muses even before her suicide, “Why should I trouble about Sibyl Vane? She is nothing to me now.”
Later, Dorian’s narcissistic eyes fall on his portrait that Basil Hallward had painted and retreats in shock. When he examines the painting in detail, he sees a seam of cruelty in the mouth. It is like looking in the mirror after he had done some dreadful thing. Almost immediately he understands that his cruelty will forever be etched in the oils of the paint. He hides the portrait behind bars in a locked room of the attic, and looks at it with both obsession and repulsion. Dorian’s life degenerates, yet he holds his beauty. In an act of raging paranoia and revenge for Basil’s insightful painting, he kills his friend. The portrait records his every sin, becoming bloody, worm infested and hideous.
When they [Dorian’s servants] entered, they found
hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their
master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder
of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor
was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in
his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome
of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings
that they recognized who it was.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is fixed in the literary mind because of the symbolic representation of good and evil in radically different forms – in the person of Dorian, and in a surrogate, a painting of Dorian – the two mirror images of his tortured personality. The novelistic theme is that of psychological projection, a paranoid attribution of evil to someone else. The projection of our attributes is what we all do on a minor scale (see S. Freud and C.G. Jung for classical views). In its extreme we find its manifestation in bipolar reactions, in paranoid delusions, multiple personalities, schizophrenic breaks and tyrannical commanding leaders. Like Dorian, many of us deny the darker and selfish psychopathy roiling about in our unconscious, and attribute our rejected nature to others, or even objects (“It cast a spell on me.”).
The painting of Dorian Gray is symbolic of a growing psychopathy and wanton impulse for self-destruction – a dynamic illustration of a progressive increase in narcissism, loss of morality and the ultimate failing of empathy. The Faustian bargain of eternal beauty, traded in exchange for the soul, is a haunting reminder of our own weaknesses and universal desires. The metaphor is painted as an Art Concept.

Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin


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Prometheus Bound: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

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Prometheus stole fire and gave it to men. But when
Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to nail his
body to Mount Caucasus. On it Prometheus was nailed
and kept bound for many years. Every day an eagle
swooped on him and devoured the lobes of his liver,
which grew by night. According to some stories, after
great torment and punishment, he was freed at last by the
hero Heracles.
Apollodorus, The Library, book 1:7,
second century B.C.



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There are rare men and women, who, inspired by dreams of conquest or righteousness and obsessed by feelings of destiny, overreach with power. They are risk takers and tend toward a Machiavellian personality. They compulsively put their moral integrity in great danger, disregard authority, and believe that they are too special to bend to the wishes of others. In our Western tradition Prometheus mythologizes the unreserved quest for knowledge, where, then, they overreach and face unintended consequences.
In the Romantic era of our history, visionaries who sometimes transformed civilization were thought to be lone geniuses who attempted to go beyond traditional ties and suffered as a result. Today we might consider them unbound Machiavellians with great desires and uncurbed appetites.


The anatomy of Prometheus in this art concept was inspired by Willy Pogany 1979, The Art of Drawing., page 100: Totowa, New Jersey, Littlefield, Adams &U Co. The myth of Prometheus threads the above description.
Classic cases of the Prometheus influence commonly appear in literature and in biographical perspectives, including these well-known examples.
1. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s romantic story of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Dr. Frankenstein successfully creates a monster from body parts and lightning strikes, in his attempt to give humans the potential for everlasting life. Things become chaotic; the monster rebels against his grossness, finally dies, and Dr. Frankenstein is jailed for months, humbled, and perishes.
2. Joan of Arc has a vision from God in 1429 to lead the French against the British who would occupy all of France. Her vision and confidence inspired the French to resist the invasions from Britain. She led French troops through several successive battles before failing in a critical battle. She was captured in1430 by the British, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake. A rehabilitation trial in 1455-1456 reversed the verdict and she was canonized by the Church in 1920.
3. Jesus Christ was presumably born of God, rose to great influence within the growing Christian faith, was crucified by the Romans, and within days following his death on the cross rose from the dead to extend his influence.
4. T.E. Lawrence, a lowly officer of the British forces in World War 1, was sent to Arabia to help the Arabs in their fight against Turkey and Germany. By promising the Arabs freedom at the end of the war he gained their support and with boldness and cunning and unending sacrifices, Lawrence successfully led the Arab forces to Damascus for a peace conference with the allies. The British and the French refused the Arabs the freedom that Lawrence expected, and Lawrence immediately left Arabia and soon became a recluse until his death by motorcycle accident.



George S. Patton led the allied forces to their victory over the Nazis in World War II, only to find that he was relegated to a minor administrative position. Ironically, he was killed in a car-truck accident and was buried in Germany. His visions of conquests over the Russians were crushed with his death. O’Reilly, in his new book believes that the evidence supports the theory that Patton was deliberately destroyed – Prometheus unbound.
6. Robert Oppenheimer, a renowned physicist, with a vision to build the first atomic bomb, was supported by our government even though it was suspected that he might have been a member of the communist party during his teaching days in Berkeley. He did, in fact, build a research facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and staffed it with some of the most brilliant scientists in the world. Two bombs were produced and exploded on Japan in August of 1945, saving perhaps two million American and Japanese lives. But his days of fame were nearly over, when the government tried him for his communist ties, and took his research security clearances away – Prometheus bound.



These few cases are well-known illustrations of the Prometheus influence, and indeed can be observed among many strong and able politicians, scientists, and unknown folks in every walk of life. The Prometheus Myth is no myth at all. It is common and it can be deadly. It seems to be an almost inevitable circle of psychological change that begins with the unfolding of power and the obsessions that often follow. The changes are often followed by overreaching ambitions, loss of support by allies and enemies, conflict, and loss of prestige, financial status, and power. It is often fatal when conflicts become extreme.
Prometheus Image has a hidden danger for all of us.
Those infected by Prometheus may be at times doomed to lose more than they gain. But, remember this: we who watch the ascension of Prometheus with awe and blessings, thus encouraging behaviors that we favor, are also responsible for indifference and derision when Prometheus stumbles or another glittering alternative appears.
The late Chancellor of Boston University, and former colleague of mine at the University of Texas, John Silber, put it right when he said: “To adopt, as if it were true, an unproven materialism which denies all transcendent meaning to human existence, inevitably dwarfs the human spirit. But the possibility of transcendence, of the search for goals beyond our present reach, has been demonstrated in the lives of countless individuals throughout the history of mankind.” Silber, the most successful leader of Boston University, was another uncharted individual infected by Prometheus and made an outcast for the Governorship of Massachusetts.
We are equally responsible for the rise and fall of excellence. The useful reaction is to value the benefits bestowed by Prometheus, and understand the importance of long-range evaluations during short-term catastrophes.
We also need to develop an attitude of forgiveness when a person fails and accept the right of a person to seek redemption or change of direction without social punishment. Without these attributes a culture may fail to realize its potential.
Empires fatefully follow the same cycles as individuals. The hand of fate deals the high and low cards, and there may be little we can personally do, but we should be aware of the rules of the game and play our options as judicially as possible.


Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, February 20, 2015


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Art, Persistence, Failure, and Success

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Deep in our evolutionary functions are the traits of tenacity and the call to personal duty. We see these traits among our heroes, and importantly, in all of our activities, where victory can only follow multiple failures and consistency of purpose.
Winston Churchill called Britain to the hardships in its charge to pursue all possible routes to victory in the war with Germany. Addressing the House of Commons on May 13, 1940 he drew the road of blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous
kind. We have before us many, many months of
the struggle and suffering.
The policy:
is to wage war by land, sea, and air. War with all
our might and with all the strength God has given
us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny
never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue
of human crime. That is our policy.
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word.
It is victory. Victory at all costs – victory in spite of
all terrors – victory however long and hard the road
may be.
Thus, in Churchill’s call to hardship and persistence, we catch the depth of our instinctive capacity to meet challenges with tenacity and the call to personal duty.
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, recently filled out our impressions of Churchill in a new book, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. His thoughts are summarized in a recent review by Johnson in The Wall Street Journal (November 8-9, 2014. His main point that it remains to individuals and not ideologies, to change history, is important to remember today:
Churchill is the resounding human rebuttal to
all Marxist historians who think history is the
story of vast and impersonal economic forces.
Time and again in his seven decades in public
life, we can see the impact of his personality on
the world and events – far more of them than
are now widely remembered.
The traits that Churchill demonstrated so vividly any number of times, are inherent qualities that all of us share. Accordingly, time does not create history, history is created in time. As the mayor said: “There has been no one remotely like him before or since.” True, but the force of our individuality contains the promise of victory.
We see the theme of our call in the metaphor of Sisyphus, who, it is said in Greek and Roman mythology, was condemned in Tartarus (Tartarus lies far beneath the disk of the world, it was said. It was deeper then Hades’ kingdom of the underworld. It is used as the ultimate of prisons, unpleasant and inaccessible). Sisyphus was condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill and collapsing in agony as the boulder fell downhill once more (Thomas Bulfinch, Myths of Greece and Rome, Penguin Books, 1981).
It is the persistence in face of failure that has brought humanity from victory to victory and the continuation of our evolutionary adaptations, and is, perhaps, the strongest drive in our human tool kit. Every dedicated and extended effort falls in the shadow of Sisyphus. It is true: successes are less evident than defeats, and the only sure way for humans (and other animals) to survive and reproduce is to be able to tolerate failure and continue to pursue avenues that might lead to reproductive success. One advantage of failures is that we learn from experience (history) and therefore don’t have to roll up the same rock to the summit in order to become wiser and more worthy.


Stand Fast


Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, February 6, 2015

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Looking for an Honest Man: Integrity and Art

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Philosopher Diogenes Looking for an Honest Man

Where Might that Be?


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Simple but true concepts are found in ancient Greek history, and probably earlier if the record were clear. They have also been expressed in visual art, probably 40,000 years ago with cave paintings and with verbal communication. Humans evolved with their expanding minds, looking upward into the heavens and beyond the horizons. Philosophical questions, including those about truth and morality, became critical.
The Greek philosopher, Diogenes (412BC to 323BC) was not impressed by human reactions to abstract concepts, such as “What is integrity and is it a common trait?” He exclaimed: “I am just looking for an honest man,” as he would walk among the streets shining a lamp into every corner. But what he found was that humans were “nothing but rascals and scoundrels.” Diogenes lived in poverty, howled like a dog for food, and slept in a large wine cask.
His thoughts led him to establish the Cynic philosophy, where he regarded his fellow Athenians with disdain, arguing that they were vain, self-deceptive, deceitful, and showed a lack of concern for their fellow man.
On the other hand, he failed at example, rejecting human decency, urinating on people who insulted him, defecating in the theatre, and masturbating in public, saying, “If only it were as easy to banish hunger by rubbing my belly.”
I depict his rhetorical searching for an honest man, showing that when truth is shined in dark corners, men and women hide their faces, run for fear of being discovered as duplistic, and hide their true thoughts. If caught in lies, they do a cover up. The concept, shown in visual form, reflects a fundamental characteristic of humans, one that may be practical in the pursuit of personal ambitions, but one that leads us away from truth and limits our moral integrity.
The late philosopher and president of Boston University, John Silber, remarked that sincerity has become our only virtue – not flat-out truth – and can be easily assessed for validity, but truth, or moral character, can only be assessed through time, and is much more difficult to obtain. Our perversion of morals and our demand for an “instant culture” shows that the loss of principals moves toward its own destruction:
Ours moves towards the last moment of its short
existence by throwing away its heritage, its
institutions, and the patterns marking a meaningful
ordering of time in the passage of the individual from
infancy through childhood to adulthood and old age.
In this apparent decline of Western Civilization, Silber adds, we can better ourselves by reflecting on John Fletcher Moulton’s “law of obedience to the unenforceable.” He said that there are three domains of human behavior. The first is where our behaviors are determined by laws that must be obeyed (or punishments are delivered). The second is where we express our individual freedoms to do as we like, without regard to written law. Lord Moulton said that between laws to regulate social behavior and complete freedom is the important middle ground, that includes moral duty, social responsibility, and proper behavior, covering all behaviors of doing “right” where there is no one to make you do it but yourself.
This level of activity is the most important level for the assertion of individual integrity and truths. They do not require a spot light to make them happen. Moulton concluded in its importance by saying: “The real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of obedience to the unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its area testifies to the way they behave in response to that trust.”
This is where we should stand when tough decision must be made, where we must trust to our integrity to do what we think is the right thing, regardless of whose eyes are following our behaviors or ignoring our actions. It is the very heart of our existence and the bedrock of our strength.


Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, January 30, 2015.

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Art Argues for the Importance of History



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History is not bunk, Henry Ford


The study of history bears witness to the trends of human behavior. It is not always accurate in its detail, but the overall picture gives us the major vectors of time and space. It is certainly better at reflecting our past than a history rewritten by those who have no sense of what history offers.

My art concept on the importance of history is painted to represent the historical links between ancient peoples’ needs to remember ancestors and the events that led to a world of Western law and prosperity. The theme presented here is from the gold of historical knowledge to the cradle of civilization embodied in the Roman Empire and beyond. On 27 B.C. Octavian defeated Mark Anthony in Egypt, uniting the Roman Empire. He was proclaimed Imperator Caesar Augustus. During the next four decades Augustus created the role of the Roman emperor, adding immensely to the power of the empire and creating the atmosphere that led to an era of internal peace and prosperity.

For the inspiration for the painting I am indebted to Lapham’s Quarterly, Spring 2010, Vol III, Number 2, page 188, with the depiction of a play of old knowledge from the 16th-century Japan, directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1985. Our eyes move us to the ancient citadel of Rome (~ 27 B.C.) when Octavian Augustus became emperor.

Two decades ago a church reporter by the name of Rocca visited the Roman Forum which at that time was totally open to the public. Within a few hundred yards one could see and touch the physical foundations of our Western world, barely a postage stamp on the landscape of history.Cornice fragments, Corinthian columns, temples and chariot boulevards, all symbols of Rome’s absolute dominance, were centered within ten acres of Italian soil. From one perspective the Temple of Vespasian and Titus is on the left, the Arch of Septimius and the Temple of Saturn are on the right. The Senate house is only two hundred feet away, it, the forerunner of modern republican legislatures. Between the structures runs the route where triumphant and egotistical generals displayed their spoils of war and enslaved captives. This is the same route where Julius Caesar dragged the chained Gallic tribal leader (and loser), Vercingetorix, strangling the poor devil for the empire to see.

At one point in his visit to the past, Rocca looked down and read a small descriptive plaque: “The body of Julius Caesar was brought to the Forum after the Ides of March in 44 BC, and here his body was probably cremated.” As if fated, the remains of the assassinated Caesar was at Rocca’s feet. We can imagine his thoughts about that deep past and its continuing influence on the present. He might even have remembered Lord Byron’s comment about raising the dead.

But when the rising moon begins to climb
its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
when the stars twinkle through the loops
of time, and the low night-breeze waves
along the air the garland-forest, which the
grey walls wear, like laurels on the bald
first Caesar’s head; when the light shines
serene but doth not glare, then in this magic
circle raise the dead: Heroes have trod this
spot – ‘tis on their dust ye tread.

This passage by Byron is the inspiration for the title of my recent book: Psychopaths Rising: Unholy links to Civilization and Destruction. The dictatorial rein of Julius Caesar was a leading factor leading to the assumption of power by Octavian and the continuation of a robust empire.

Historian Niall Ferguson compares the ancient structures of empires with today’s alignment of nations in order to answer the question as to why the West became the dominant form of social and economic organization.

He argues in his 2011 book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, that the West won all competitions for dominance because of “five killer applications.” They were: scientific achievement, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumer supply and demand, and the work ethic.

Our greatness stems from these five competitive applications. Each one is part of our history that only the West developed, and together are the obvious benchmarks that we can trace throughout the historical record.

The Oxonian Review (2011 later published an interview with Niall Ferguson where he laments the fact that even university students lack a sense of history. In the technological rush to satisfy our immediate desires, history is being destroyed.
Accordingly, the West is losing its competitive edge, primarily because we don’t understand the importance of history. He says: “I think the problem is there in a generation that is leaving school with a very, very jumbled and fragmentary knowledge of the past.

But the problem is deeper and involves a growing disregard for the concept of truth. Philosopher John R. Silber, who appears in association with some of my other Art Concepts, in his 2014 book, Seeking the North Star puts it this way:
Our departure from the search for truth is of profound
importance. It is a huge obstacle to any corrective course
we might propose. To an alarming degree, we have ceased
to live in a civil order in which persons can disagree in a spirit
of toleration and work together for the common good. This
is due in large part to the triumph of ideology over common
sense and the search for truth. Arbitrary conclusions based
on selective evidence, with contravening evidence ignored,
are presented as certain. A partisan dogmatism replaces
dialogue. As a result, the concept of compromise has been
vilified and denounced as if it were evil by ideologues who
profess by their intolerance an infallibility for which there is no

The viewer of Concept Art can easily see the importance of a historical view of life and achievement; it cries out for attention.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, January 23, 2015

Octavian Octavian

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Starry Starry Night

Concept Art Pict 002

Art Canvas by Del Wolf Thiessen


Cat Tail 2Friday’s Tail

Every canvas tells a story, one of accomplishment, love of life, history, tragedy, or anticipation. This canvas attempts to illustrate the archetypal nature of religious experience that derives not from idiosyncratic experiences and learning but from the primal genesis of our common makeup. The lust is for salvation; the questions are universal and part of our collective unconscious; they emerge from our evolutionary imperatives for survival and genetic reproduction.
The seeking of salvation comes in many forms, not all religious, and illustrates only one possibility.
Often our hidden nature reveals itself early in life and may spontaneously repeat spiritual urges and behavioral patterns that we see historically in many forms. They tell us intuitively that we are united in common cause and deep desire. They also tell us that art is the creative force that drives humanity.
Spiritual searching seems to be a part of our adaptive makeup, perhaps an enhancement of the life force that gives us an appreciation of the beauty around us and an optimistic view of circumstances.
Believing in a force greater than our own might have been built into our genotype to maximize the possibility of survival and thus reproduction, sort of an anti-suicide impulse.

Consider this. We have many drives for survival and reproduction, and spiritual seeking may be just one of these. We are predisposed by genetic information to seek food when hungry, sleep when fatigued, companionship when isolated, exploration of strange environments, avoidance of dangerous predators and aggressive neighbors, child care when birth occurs, burial of the dead when there is possibility of the spread of disease, and on and on. We are “instinctively” programed for many survival behaviors, and predisposed for other behaviors under particular environmental conditions.
It seems equally possible that we are awestruck by beauty, terrified by the unknown, mystified by nature, and transfixed by the heavens. What is selected into our genotype for survival, protection, and gene duplication drives us to philosophical speculation and metaphysical assumptions about the irrational powers of the universe.
The spiritual trait of our evolutionary history dictates our soul quality and guides our thoughts toward god, redemption, and salvation. The protective god that we seek has no evidential validity, and may never be named as “God,” but we may nevertheless rest more secure within the wholesale flux of the elements if we grant the spectacular a power that might save us.
William James, a Harvard Professor of Psychology at the turn of the 20th Century, and brother of the famous writer Henry James, had a view of the spiritual qualities of humans, much like those described above. For example, in a famous publication Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William commented that “In all sincerity, the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverance of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless.”
William James also said that we share a “faith state” “in which the mind is prepared for acceptance of God.” Reaching that faith state does not occur through rational justification – it is a given of evolution and can only come to us, as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard explained, through a “leap of faith.”
Thus, in our exploration of sublimity, beauty, and man’s reaction to an irrational environment, we see the strong link between works of art and the search for spiritual meaning.
Don Mclean reflects the breathtaking beauty of Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic probes of our unconscious complexity with his hit song Vincent: Starry Starry Night (see: I give the lyrics below in dedication to Van Gogh and with the sense that my painting of Starry Starry Night is a quest for an understanding of similar psychological processes that lie in the heart of every individual.
Starry starry night.
Paint your palette blue and grey,
Look out on a summer’s day,
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.
Shadows on the hills,
Sketch the trees and the daffodils,
Catch the breeze and the winder chills,
In colors on the snowy linen land.
Now I understand what you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen.
They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now.
Starry starry night.

Flaming flowers that brightly blaze,
Swirling clouds in violet haze,
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue.
Colors changing hue, morning field of amber grain,
Weathered faces lined in pain,
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand.
For they could not love you,
But still your love was true.
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.
Starry starry night.
Portraits hung in empty halls,
Frameless head on nameless walls,
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget.
Like the stranger that you’ve met,
The ragged men in the ragged clothes,
The silver thorn of bloody rose,
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow.
Now I think I know what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they’re not listening still.
Perhaps they never will. . .
We can rest comfortably knowing that art generates a path from our individual perplexities to the wide and crucial path of spiritual awakening.
My first Concept Art piece, Starry Starry Night joins our basic quest for spiritual fulfillment with the “unexplainable” that surrounds us.
Charles Darwin removed God as an explanation for biological existence, substituting the process of natural selection for adaptive traits for the usual belief in free will and moral determination. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung followed this world-shaking investigation with a deterministic explanation for the conscious and unconscious processes of the brain that essentially accounts for our self-understanding. And, astronomers and physicists developed precise principles for understanding the universal features of our genesis.
Regardless of these scientific developments and the overwhelming evidence that the universe may be self-organized, we are still left with a restless mind and a sense that the “unexplainable” may be, after all, the most important part of our nature. Perhaps the concept of the unexplainable is only a part of our evolutionary story, and that non-godly perceptions of the universe are more realistic, but the deep structure of our biology may demand that we attend to the unexplainable that gives us the Starry Starry Night and the spiritual drive to go beyond our short and mysterious life.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, January 16, 2015.

Thiessen photo

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Concept Art: Art that Describes Evolved Traits

Roman Colosseum

Roman Colosseum


Agave Publishers

Agave Publishers                                      January 9, 2015

The painted canvasses referred to in this blog will appear in subsequent issues. Please let me know what you think about the evolutionary approach to the visual arts.


Presented by Del Wolf Thiessen (
Ten oil paintings of evolved concepts of living the just life, with
written descriptions of critical traits that drive human behaviors.
Canvases and narratives by Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor of Psychology
Psychology and Visual Art
Every piece of art conveys a story, if only we can interpret the artist’s intent. Even if we are successful, or
at least get the drift, we are likely to lose the complexity of the author’s message.
I submit a sequence of ten black canvas oil paintings that directly convey fundamental concepts of the origin
and expression of human motivations. These concepts arise through (1) evolutionary selection for mental
capacities that facilitate survival and reproduction, and (2) show environmental (e.g. social) modification of
evolutionary dispositions. These concepts arise in early development and during the major stages of
human activities. They suggest psychological strategies for personal achievement and individual
success from birth to death.
In my opinion, art can probe the depths of psychological dramas that otherwise might remain hidden or
obscure. Where our consciousness fails, the unconsciousness can lead us to insights about ourselves and
our fellow human travelers. That is what the concepts are intended to do – stimulate the latent unconscious
mechanisms of behavior and give us insights into our own nature, much like ambiguous Rorschach cards
(the ink blot test) provide the psychiatrist information about hidden psychological motivations.
When we encounter unclear signals they can open a pathway to unconscious processes of the brain. Carl
Jung, the famous analyst of a century ago, tells us that “the two million year old man is in all of us” as a
part of our universal evolutionary history, but to draw it out for viewing requires probes like free association,
continuous talking between analyst and client, the analysis of patterns of dreaming, and unexpected events
that turn our attention inward. Primary concepts in the form of art can reach inward to unveil that “old man.”
Many, of course, dispute the validity of the psychoanalytic approach, but I am convinced in the power of
the unconscious workings of the brain and believe that one pathway to understanding is through the visual
arts, both with their creative forces and with the impact on the viewer. Anthony Stevens, an analyst and
psychologist, tells us the details in a dynamite little book, Jung: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University
Press, 1994). There he says:
One can, nevertheless, follow the Apollonian advice
to ‘know thyself’, heed Pindar’s dictum “become what
thou art’, and learn from Plato and Aristotle to discover
one’s ‘true self’ – to make explicit what implicitly one
already is. In Jungian terms this means overcoming the
divisions imposed by the parental and cultural milieu, to
divest oneself of the ‘the false wrappings of the persona’ . . .
Art work is critical for human development; it opens the way to the unconscious stream of development,
and helps renew our interest and participation in the culture and time in which we live.
The particular art, ironically, is not as important as the concept it reveals. The point is to recognize the
importance of the concept as a basic quality of our lives, and then go beyond that concept and see its
general implications and universality.
For example, the first canvas of my series, brings to mind the universal drive for spiritual connection. It’s
evident; it’s real; and it’s critical. The fact that I use the image of the cross is representative of the symbol
for the quest of spiritual fulfilment. It is not meant to suggest that Christianity is the only, or even primary,
path. I could have used the symbols of Buddhism or any other religion or other avenues for personal and
spiritual accomplishment.
It is only necessary that the art observer recognize the symbols for the concept. At the base we are dealing
with genetic dispositions and cultural imperatives. The observer (you) can expand on the specific concept
and consider how to use the information in a more general way.
The sensitivity to fundamental human concepts can also help the art observer to see the same concept in
other pieces of art, regardless of the medium. Art, if properly conceived, can open our eyes to our basic
nature and give us paths to express our own desires and fears. Art can be the way to all things.
Concepts that can be considered to be primary in our lives and help us to become integral and knowledgeable
citizens are discussed below. These include the early expression of spirituality, the study of history
(education in general), and the development of just decision making. Nevertheless, it was my personal
preference that initiated the early canvases in the series of ten. The later ones among the ten lean toward
the representation of more abstract concepts, such as the importance of beauty in our lives, other notions
of spiritual development, and coping with aging and death.
The concepts of life and death are explained in part by our evolutionary history and our individual
experiences. The visual arts give us the metaphors that structure how we think about the world and show
us that the important concepts are universal and simple. Each canvas has a description that explains the
importance of the illustrated artwork. These ten canvasses are mainly pedagogical and related in a general
sequence and are meant to be displayed together. A short book is available for those who are interested in
a detailed discussion of each of the ten paintings.
I liken these Art Concepts to genetic probes, in that they are meant to bring to mind critical behaviors
that have been naturally selected for adaptive purposes during generations of evolution. I choose those
concepts that may help individuals live up to their greatest potential and enjoy a more just and
happy life. My personal as well as professional experiences are clearly involved in the interpretation and
presentation of the concepts.
I center my focus on the universal nature of human behavior, illustrating elementary and symbolic images
of underlying mechanisms of human struggles for survival, individual freedom, accomplishments, and
reduced fear of harm and ultimate death. In a sense, concept art can help the viewer find harmony within
his or her existence and facilitate the search for a life elevated by renewed perspectives.
In a frightful era of lost promises and immoral temptations, these simple concepts may bring your thoughts
to ways where you can become a better person, not because these are easy paths to travel, but because
they can guide you to a more just, truthful, and effective life, a life free of political correctness, envy, and
Visual art is a primary aid in our attempts to learn more about ourselves and our place in the vast cosmos.
Through art we talk to ourselves and each other and express our passions and fears. All of this happens
through the use of visual metaphors.
My goal as a psychologist and artist is to link principles of evolutionary biology to primary concepts that are
illuminated through art and aesthetic beauty.
The approach is to explain the fundamental concept that is central to specific paintings, put a single
concept into an understandable metaphor, and paint the metaphor as best I can. The entire project aims
to transform important concepts of human behavior into a deeper understanding through the medium of
The concepts that I attempt to express in art form include the following:
1. Canvas: Starry Starry Night. The spiritual identification of humans with a
universe much older than humans and one that is basically incomprehensible.
2. Canvas “History is bunk,” Henry Ford exclaimed .To some extent that is true,
but if history is abandoned by the thoughtless and the ideologues, the disregard
for the past can result in loss of our ancestral connections. Our disregard for our
past can also result in tyranny and even murder. History contains the explanations
for both our good and our evil. To the extent that we ignore the past, we inevitably
repeat the evil.
3. Canvas: Looking for an Honest Man. As the Greek philosopher Diogenes,
shining his lamp in all dark corners, discovered, the truth within the world is difficult
to find, and is often rejected. Diogenes could not find an honest man, but they are
there, and we find them within us.
4. Canvas: Never stop trying. Sisyphus, from Greek and Roman mythology, was
punished for his evil ways by forever pushing a rock to the top of the mountain. The
rock would roll down the mountain before Sisyphus could get it to the top. He would
be forced to try again. From this myth we see our constant determination which
often leads to failure and sometimes to great successes.
5. Canvas: Prometheus Bound. Under the heading, “No good deed goes
unpunished,” we often aim for accomplishments, only to find that the good we
accomplish is misinterpreted and used against us by recipients of our efforts. This
idea goes back to at least the ancient Greeks and is known as Prometheus Bound.
6. Canvas: Narcissism. Narcissism is a natural reaction to competition – it’s
a super strong sense of self when it is expressed in the extreme. It is often
beneficial, but in the extreme it can override rational choices and lead to disaster.
The dangerous nature of narcissism is painted in the context of Oscar Wilde’s
Picture of Dorian Gray.
7. Canvas: The Desert God. T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) found that the
harshness of the vast ocean of the Arabian desert leads to the discovery of God, a
sense of “nothing else could act so savagely, yet ultimately provide sustenance”. We
often find our core under the most difficult circumstances.
8. Canvas: Beauty is Deep Inside Us. Mount Fuji outside of Tokyo provides
people of the world with the wonder of beauty and serenity. Millions have climbed
that mountain seeking divine revelation. To see the world differently, climb the
mountain. It is through choosing difficult paths that we find inner strength and
conviction. Buddhist practices, such as meditation, can move us toward a greater
understanding of our inner self.
9. Canvas: Study of Simplicity and Beauty. The power of beauty is all around
us, suggesting either a quietness of contentment and contemplation or the fire
and ferociousness of sublimity, with its risk and possible destruction. We are
touched by the light and darkness of nature’s beauty.
10. Canvas: Death and Longevity. The concept of beauty is linked to our fears
of death – the Eros and Thanatos of Sigmund Freud. Research is extending our
longevity, but our real understanding of death involves sharing world views and
common cultures. We look toward Buddha as a source of knowledge, and to the
Samurai within us to defeat death every day. We also look for that “two million
year old man” within our universal genotype, as Carl Jung advised.
We, as humans, are in a common quest for knowledge and understanding and we share those traits that
can add to our appreciation of life. Art is not a trivial part of our life. It reflects our conscious and unconscious
nature and can add to our pleasure and wisdom. The wisdom we seek is the universal makeup of earth’s
history that abides in our brains and stores the information of everyday existence and the history of our
ancient relatives.
Del Wolf Thiessen is Professor Emeritus of Evolutionary Psychology at the
University of Texas in Austin. He studied at Denver University, received his B.A.
in Psychology from San Jose State College (now San Jose State University), and
received his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley.
Thiessen conducted research on the genetics of alcoholism in the Department of
Psychiatry at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, California. At UT
Austin he taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Comparative Psychology,
the Evolution of Human Behavior, the Psychology of Sex, and Evolutionary Psychology and investigated
animal communication and human biology and behavior. He retired from the Department of Psychology at
the University of Texas at Austin as Professor Emeritus. Thiessen continues his investigations of human
deviant behaviors, writing non-fiction and fiction, and publishing a weekly blog (now in its third year): His blog attempts to unify concepts of evolution with developments in the
humanities, literature, and research on the deviant mind. He can be contacted at

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A New Look at Visual Arts: Concept Art

Thiessen photo

Dear Reader: Beginning Friday, January 10, I will be blogging about Concept Art, an attempt to highlight the most basic evolved human concepts (traits) in simple painted visual form, sort of visual metaphors, ranging from psychopathic behaviors to spiritual quests. Recently I took up drawing and oil painting, hoping for insights into human behavior from a different perspective. Please join me and let me know if the approach has value to you.

Del Wolf Thiessen  (

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The Good, the Better, the Beautiful: Corporate Benefits

Evil and Good  Agave Publishers Logo

Evil and Good


Dispite the Enrons, MF Globals, Madoffs, and corruption embedded in layers of government, the psychopaths do not always win; they are, indeed, in the minority.


We’ve seen the worst of the worst, CEOs, management teams, and financial advisers, as well as those who may be Machiavellian but nevertheless sometimes meritorious in their overall agenda of building and developing. True, many are responsible for damaging companies for their own benefit. Of course, there are also bad economic policies, heavy taxes, and over enthusiastic regulations that can destroy companies and people.

One thing should be evident: the United States capitalistic system has always been strong and beneficial, and still is, but it must be protected if it is to continue. Despite the Enrons of the world, the Medoffs, and the Dunlaps, despite government intervention in private enterprise, and despite harsh economic environments, the overall record of U.S. businesses is stellar.

The market tends to weed out the bad apples; the successful businesses normally prevail. For every incompetent or psychopathic leader or CEO, there are hundreds of outstanding and honest business leaders. These individuals, as did Steve Jobs, and generally Howard Hughes, pursue innovation and excellence, and live exemplary lives. Of course, they often make millions and even billions of dollars, and they sing their own song, but they regularly reinvest their assets, support communities in which they live, and work hard to improve their companies and the world around them. They also, not so incidentally, support the economy, employ millions, pay the majority of taxes, support the arts, and act as the intellectual backbone of our country.

Those who would destroy capitalism and advocate socialism diminish all of us with their destructive envy and greed. Capitalism hands out difficult lessons and uncertainty, but it is at the same time the consistent path to prosperity and opportunity. It is better to aspire than expire, and better to try, than die in poverty and socialistic darkness.

I add a note of optimistic reality by pointing to a few of the many companies in the United States that, for a minimum of 25 years, have shown significant profits for investors and serve as a network of entrepreneurial excellence. Some of these companies actually have a history of over one hundred years of serving our needs and desires. My short list is from a much longer list of S&P stocks called Dividend Aristocrats that have shown a minimum of 25 years of annual increases in dividend payouts to investors, and have excellent records of capital gains. Thousands of people have retired rich by steady investments in these or similar companies.


(Dividend Aristocrats) *


Company         Company Name            Recent Dividend           Payout            EPS ***

Symbol                                                            Yield (%)                      Ratio (%) **

XOM                 Exon Mobil Corp                       2.40                  30.75                10.55

WMT                 Wal-Mart Stores                         2.26                  28.97                10.15

MCD                 McDonald’s Corp                      3.19                  47.91                10.05

ADM                 Archer Daniels Midland              1.99                  21.25                   7.80

ABT                  Abbott Laboratories                   3.71                  56.29                   9.70

JNJ                  Johnson & Johnson                  3.49                  41.71                   6.27

PG                   Proctor & Gamble                     2.98                  48.74                   8.61

KMB                 Kimberly-Clark Corp                  4.18                  57.84                   7.63

KO                   The Coca-Cola Co                     2.70                  52.67                   8.33

ED                    Consolidate Edison Inc              4.79                  69.30                   4.38


** Payout ratio is the ratio between dividend paid divided by share price, expressed as a percent.

*** EPS (earning per share) is the projected stock earnings in the next five years.

These Dividend Aristocrats encourage long-term non-speculative investing in companies with lasting achievement, sound financial policies, and sensitivity to peoples’ needs. Rather than destroying the fundamental structure of the free enterprise system, one could accomplish a great deal by attempting to duplicate the successful investment models we now have. One can never anticipate future returns in any system perfectly, but historical reliability of companies providing basic products that everyone needs is just about as good as it gets. Even in rough economic times these companies have a distinct advantage over companies that cater to short-term social trends or pay no dividends at all.

Prophetically, investors should monitor stock performance and not fall in love with a particular stock that may disappoint. If the stock performance deteriorates one need not ride it down – one can find a new mount, build a diversified stable of mounts that can serve changing needs. It comes down to deciding how much risk an individual is willing to take and how one can protect investments. The S&P Dividend Aristocrats have many advantages but should not dictate lives.

The free market offers individuals opportunities and choices. History does matter, and the corruption of the market by psychopaths and cynics need not interfere with individual goals of independence, prosperity, and morality. There is no way to build economic organizations that absolutely are perfect in function, but we can concentrate our investments where the record of performance indicates suburb management and responsible citizenship. We have to exert care, of course, and be willing to risk what we can afford to lose.

The greatest slip-up that most of us experience is to believe that the mind looking at us over the table or from across the street is not dangerous. Mostly, we believe that because it is usually true; we experience no ill effects. Moreover, we tend to see ourselves in other people, believing that there is goodness in most people. We draw on our experiences and give others the benefit of any doubt.

Any, why not? We would rather take a few chances, and be wrong once in a while, rather than walk constantly with paranoia. Mistakes are made, slip-ups happen, but life’s tunes are not always melodious. It’s just part of a game that has been with us since our early first steps in Africa.

There is a middle ground, where we show reserve and seek assurances before we commit to an idea or a person. Perhaps, the best advice for someone who is unsure of another is to proceed in slow motion, remain open for possibilities, and note reactions, and test for glimpses of reality.

Given time, and with patience, most of us can separate the interesting mind from the dangerous mind. Hopefully, the slip-ups will be few and without lament.

Throughout our seeking and screening of information we remember that the psychopath is narcissistic, charming, and disarming, but also full of stories and prevarications, a combination of traits that can cause him or her to skid into a revelatory slip-up. The game, then, is up, until the psychopath finds another game.

Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, Dec. 26, 2014.

Thiessen photo  Slip-ups cover design

Happy 2015


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The End for Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme



Madoff, Bernie

Good ‘ol Uncle Bernie Madoff

Cat Tail 2 Friday’s Tail  Agave Publishers Logo


Beware of good tidings.


            There was not enough money to go around, so the power investor Bernie Madoff took form the rich, gave them fraudulent reports of his investor success, and lived like a king.

Born April 29, 1938 in New York City he parlayed $5,000 earned as a lifeguard into one of the greatest fortunes ever. If we believe that the worst can only emerge from corporate fraud, and if corporations did not exist, life would be just great, then we should consider the mental landscape of Bernie Madoff.

Madoff had his Wall Street Connections, alright, but he was mainly an individual financial advisor that we might find in any money-making environment. Ending class differences would not end con jobs and mayhem; it would only change the nature of the psychopathy and the target of criminal interest . He is in this blog because of the grandiose nature of his criminal strategies and his strange believability by hundreds of investors.

Moving up the social and educational ladder, Madoff began his study of law at Brooklyn Law School, and later began his own investment firm. With the help of his father-in-law he amassed an impressive client list of movie stars and other notables. He became famous for his reliable return of an annual rate of 10 percent on client investments. By the 1980s his firm accounted for up to five percent of the trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Prospective clients came to him, almost begging to become a client. He made contacts on golf courses, in lavish restaurants, and as a result of business and social contacts. This was no ordinary con man. He was bright, sophisticated, well-mannered, and perfectly attired. He surrounded himself with symbols of wealth, including multi-million dollar houses for his families, and he groomed his image with care.

The money rolled in, but under pressure by the SEC he finally admitted to his sons that he had lost $50 billion of his investors’ money. He was imprisoned and pled guilty to 11 felony counts, security fraud, money laundering, false statements, perjury, and false filings with the SEC, and theft from an employee benefit plan.

About $170 billion moved through Madoff’s account but the financial statements showed a total of only $65 billion, indicating that he had lost more than a $100 billion of his clients’ money. Madoff was found guilty on all substantive counts and was sentenced to 150 years in prison, and that’s where he is today.

There is no need to list his losing clients. We only need to indicate that hundreds of superstar clients were involved, losing billions of dollars. The names covered 162 pages of clients, ranging from major banks, investment firms, golf courses, Hollywood stars and directors, senators, governors, baseball owners, insurance companies, universities, religious foundations, business executives, and many other well-known celebrities. Profits were exaggerated in reports to clients and losses hidden behind accounting practices.

Others may have known about the Ponzi scam and even helped perpetuate the prestigious image of Bernie Madoff. The scheme was vast and eluded the scrutiny of the SEC for decades, making it difficult even now to get an accurate accounting.

One thing is clear. Bernie Madoff was a psychopathic crook of major proportions, putting forth an image of wealth and success – narcissistic with the best and callous with the worst. This story is a unique in its pattern of behavior but not in the underpinnings of the psychology behind the crimes. It makes us wonder if there can ever be adequate checks against psychopathic assaults on well-meaning investors.

The story of Bernie Madoff has a final reflection in a recent report in USA Today (December 16, 2014). The end is the jailing of the 5th Madoff aid. Daniel Bonventre maintained the books and records of the fraudulent accounting records. For that he received a prison sentence of 10 years. Annete Bonglorno handled the portfolio investments of the thousands of clients. Her sentence is for 6 years. Jerome O’Hara and George Perez created the software programs that allegedly gave the company the fraudulent investment claims. They each received 2 and one-half years sentences. The latest collaborator is JoAnn Crupl who was convicted of tracking the daily activities of the Ponzi scheme. Along with a conviction for 6 years in prison, she forfeited approximately $1.2 million that she recived from the sale of a beach home that she purchased with funds provided by the Madoff’s business.

All of the conspirators are contrite with what they did. Ms. Crupl, for example, said this about the victims of the Madoff business: “I cannot begin to tell you the immense sorrow I feel for the thousands of victims of Bernard Madoff.” Of course, it was partly her doing as well. Too late to correct the $20 billion dollars lost by unsuspecting customers. The bottom line is that many people have a price for their complicity and that price is psychopathic disregard of other people. It also tells us that people can be swept into believing in excessive profits by the glamour of enticements often presented by the investment world. The only protection from this are cynicism, care in judgment, long-term reliability of investment performance, and diversification of investments. It takes two to produce a psychopath, the excessive greed of the adviser and the vulnerability of the victim. Madoff and his crew are off the streets for awhile, but there is always another scheme operating and others in their formative state.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, December 26th, 2014.

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Howard Hughes Goes Rocket

Frankenstein Monster

The Great Manipulator


Ya’ got a be sympathetic.

I am impressed with Howard Hughes who understood how to balance personal interests with community service. His philanthropic interests benefited thousands. In 1953 Hughes launched the biomedical research center, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The institute is dedicated to researching and eradicating all deadly diseases of mankind. Clearly these and other charities that Hughes supported benefited this country, but along the way he often used his community contributions (or promises) to deflect critics or legal investigations that might slow his other projects, such as buying up casinos and hotels and other real estate in Las Vegas.

“With each fortnight bringing a fresh report of some new Hughes contribution to the public welfare, it was none too surprising that the state legislature lost interest in conducting a serious investigation of concentrated ownership in the gaming industry. Once again, public relations triumphed.” (p 308)

Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness,

            W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1979.

Hughes was touched by Machiavellian madness with high narcissism, low empathy, extreme sensation seeking, grandiose ideas, paranoia, obsessive compulsive behaviors, manic-depressive swings, and hypochondriac fears. He was also one of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, giving him the flexibility that can facilitate psychopathic activities.

The stories about his selfishness and peccadillos are legend, as are his aviator exploits, movie production, airline ownership, playboy pursuits, numerous near fatal airplane crashes, and, in the end, his reclusiveness and extreme disheveled condition.

By today’s standards, Howard Hughes was not extremely wealthy, though he lived the part. The public exaggeration indicated that Hughes was worth from $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion. The best estimate is that he died with a fortune of at least $600 million and at most around $900 million. Author Bartlett and Steele put an interesting spin on his wealth, saying:

“If Hughes had invested the profits of the tool. Company, left to him by his father, in a passbook saving account, he would have died a richer man.”

But that doesn’t measure the character of the man. It was his legend that Hughes was obsessed with, the image of an untouchable genius whose influence reached around the world and is still influencing much of what we do, have, and aspire to. The list of his accomplishments, many pounded out from intimidation, massive spending, and political partnerships, are far too many to numerate or comprehend.

In just one of many regions of his influence, we can see the scope of his authority. It was Hughes’s organization that placed communication satellites into orbit and linked the world in spectacular fashion. On June 1, 1966, the United States placed an unmanned Hughes Surveyor spacecraft on the moon, transmitted thousands of photographs back to earth and set the stage for the manned moon landing that made history.

The Navy’s F-14 Tomcat jets were equipped with the sophisticated Hugh’s weapon system, and the Phoenix missiles, also Hugh’s products, that were guided to their targets by television for precision strikes on enemy targets.

The developments coming out of the Hughes Aircraft Laboratories changed the way we communicate, how we fight wars, and how we view our lives.

Howard Hughes was a bare-knuckle Machiavellian warrior who lacked empathy for most people but still affected their lives, with products and ideas that improved their futures. Almost like the Pharos of ancient Egypt, that used forced labor for creating lasting images of incomparable human achievements. Hughes, with genius and foresight, extended our impact on science, economics, and invention far beyond our wildest dreams. The question will always remain for anyone who builds new models of life and behavior, are the changes in our thinking and acting worth the heartbreak that was part of the necessary steps to achieve new forms and thinking?

Psychopathic, yes, genius beyond the ordinary, and aspirations and vision spinning through the planetary system and beyond, Howard Hughes, a physical and mental wreck of 90 pounds died April 5, 1976 on his last flight into Houston, giving us a legacy never matched and forever remembered. That’s a Mach for you.

Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, December 12, 214

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Detecting Psychopaths in the Corporate World



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The Beast in the Jungle


According to comments by Clive R. Boddy (The Corporate Psychopath, Journal of Business Ethics, 2012), psychopaths that are elevated to power in financial corporations influence the moral climate of an entire organization. Financial giants may, in fact, deliberately choose the psychopathic personality for important positions, knowing that they will aggressively push the company agenda.

Ironically, Professor Robert Hare, a leading proponent of quantitative tests to identify psychopaths, and his colleague Dr. Paul Babiak, are designing a comparable test to identify psychopaths in business organizations. They call it the Business Scan, or the BS scan, for identification purposes.

The BS instrument will look for executive dysfunction, including:

Those who have unusually high-dollar retirement plans, often with stock options.

Evidence for previous SEC violations or investigations.

Other CEO impressions of an individual’s reputation.

Evidence for living high on the hog.

Ruthless cutting of employees. The question I have is whether organizations will apply the BS evaluation for weeding out psychopaths or for attracting them for special positions? It will be interesting to see what happens.

In any case, there is sufficient evidence for the heavy influence of psychopaths in business atmospheres, as well as all other organized functions where opportunities beacon. We probably should keep in mind that psychopaths gravitate to position of authority wherever opportunities exist – not merely business. It happens with high frequency in social areas, educational circles, science, athletics, and government.

Least we forget, the deviant mind is, or can be, highly creative. In my next blog I will tell you about one of the most psychopathic business executives on record, yet creative — Howard Hughes. It is surprising how strong his influence was on American economic growth and technological advancements. His impact on air power and destructive forces was unbelievably strong. Almost every technological advances we see among today’s weapons was on Hughes’ drawing board decades ago.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, Nov. 29, 2014.

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Manipulating Human Behavior by the Ebola Virus

The Beast in the Jungle


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What we don’t know about the Ebola disease would fill a large library. On November 2 I posted my first discussion on the Ebola virus, suggesting that many infected individuals may carry copies of the virus without expressing the major horrifying symptoms that we typically see. Even after the disease is successfully treated, and after the patient is observed for 21 daysand the blood no longer shows the virus, the virus may persist in reduced form in other tissues and secretions of the body.

In my discussion I suggest that the virus can influence the victim’s behavior to maximize the possibility that the virus will reproduce and spread within a larger population of people. In other words, the virus evolves tricks to avoid detection and change the host’s behavior to facilitate transmission.,

No one I talked to immediately embraced my hypothesis: most believe that the blood tests are sufficient to detect when the virus is cleared from the system. Moreover, the notion that the virus is under selection pressure to change host behavior to favor its reproduction seems to fly in the face of evidence and common sense.

Still, the evidence is in favor of host manipulation by invasive microorganisms. Here I present a recent observation that shows that a successfully treated patient still carries the virus in his semen three months after being treated for Ebola. The data suggest that reproductive appetites under the influence of increased hormones may be an avenue by which the virus moves from host to host without detection.

India Finds the Ebola Viurs in the Semen, Even Months After Blood Tests Show no Virus.

The New York Times, November 19, published a report by Ellen Barry showing that a 26 year-old male who recovered from Ebola was being held in quarantine in New Delhi airport after his semen tested positive for the virus. When he arrived in India he had been successfully treated for Ebola in a Liberian hospital and released on September 30. Three blood tests were negative for Ebola, yet in two samples of his semen while in India he tested positive. So, three plus weeks after given the news he was free of Ebola, he still carries the virus.

This is just one example of lingering effects of Ebola, but it is significant, and may reveal how the virus can hide from blood detection and be transmitted by a human behavior normally under control of sexual hormones, such as testosterone in the case of the male and estrogen in the case of the female.

Of course we need more data, but an immediate hypothesis is that carriers of Ebola may show significant increases in sex behavior and related hormones. It also cries out for caution by others who may be exposed through sexual activity, just as they should be cautious of STDs.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, November 2, and November 20, 2014.

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New Age Psychopathy


Fallon's psychopathic brainFallon is a noted neural biologist, who admits being psychopathic, but is also clearly successful and bright. He is the type of individual who probably much like those noted to be successful in business.


Cat Tail 2Friday’s Tail

The first corporation we discussed that  suffered from psychopathy was Enron, my benchmark for the big time psychopaths. I believe that today’s well-known and profitable corporations do not depend on psychopaths for their success or failure. It is more likely to happen with newer, and smaller business entities out for the fast buck. Enron was one, although it quickly became top heavy and dangerous. Let’s look at another “modern” model that became more psychopathic over time.

The current counterpart to Enron is a new story of devastation centered in the financial heart of MF Global, a futures and commodities brokerage firm led by Jon Corzine, former top executive at Goldman Sachs and former New Jersey senator and governor. The depth of this fraudulent enterprise is yet to unravel.

A real rock and roll star on Wall Street, and a Democratic political insider, Jon Corzine assumed the top executive slot at MF Global in November, 2010. His job, apparently, was to return the firm to profitability by transforming MF Global into an investment bank and accelerating its proprietary trading.

At the point Corzine joined MF Global, the firm had around 36,000 accounts with $5.5 billion in funds. Quickly, however, with leveraged investments in European debt (Belgium, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Portugal), large amounts of money simply disappeared – as much as $1.2 billion in customer money.

When MF Global declared a $191.6 million loss for the third quarter ending September 30, 2011, the news spooked investors and the credit rating of the company fell below investment grade. This sudden change of fortune initiated regulatory investigations by the FBI, the SEC, and the Commodities Trading Commission (CTC), forcing MF Global into bankruptcy. Approximately 1,066 employees lost their jobs without access to severance pay, company benefits, and other financial perks. Investors suffered major loses.

No one knows where this is going. Yet, there is evidence of mismanagement, the mixing of segregated funds, and over-leveraged investments with margin calls. MF Global may have taken money from normal investment accounts to cover the margin calls and continue its commodity investments. It all looks like fraud on a gigantic scale, with the little guy again paying the price for the company’s failure.

The full extent of the damage to investors, brokers, customers, taxpayers, and employees is yet to be tallied, and the blame hasn’t been ascribed to illegal maneuvers by Jon Corzine or the traders involved, but the massacre has a familiar fishy odor. Parenthetically, Jon Corzine simply tells a Congressional investigative committee that he has no idea where all the money went. Shouldn’t the top CEO know?

The debacle goes far beyond that of Enron, as billions of dollars are involved and the landslide consequences of self-destruction are almost too severe to measure. We’ll keep our antenna up for further development.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin. November 7, 2014.

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Ebola Virus May Modify Host Behavior to Maxamize Transmission to Other Hosts



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The following is a hypothesis, not verified experimentally, but as a possibility for the transmission of the ebola virus to host species. It assumes that the virus can alter the brain processes of humans to increase the probability for its reproduction, as is known to be the case with other parasitic microorganisms (see discussions in the author’s book, Psychopaths Rising: Unholy Links to Civilization and Destruction. Our Evolved Death Spiral (Agave Publishers LLC, 2014) The blog also suggests that a number of individuals may harbor the ebola virus but not express the full-blown symptoms, thus making the transmission of the virus nearly invisible to us and even more dangerous than we have anticipated.

Microorganisms have the nasty habit of maximizing their reproductive capabilities by evolving devices that increase the probability that they will move quickly from host to host. Consider just one example, that of the transmission of the rabies virus by dogs or other species. When a person or another animal is infected by a dog bite, for instance, the virus travels rapidly to the brain of its victim, causing the victim to be more aggressive and more likely to bite and infect another individual. Moreover, the virus readily accumulates in the saliva of the dog, maximizing the probability that the virus will spread and multiply in a new host. The new host may, in turn, become aggressive and bite and infect other individuals. Thus, the virus has improved its possibility to pass from individual to individual by changes in behavior.

Ebola may travel through its life cycle in a similar way, stimulating infected individuals to pursue social contacts that may benefit the continuing and rapid transmission of the disease. This is one reason that mutations related to behavioral change may alter parasite-host relations. Here is the crucial point:

We have all noticed the recent travel and social activities of individual humans who may be infected by Ebola virus. Normally they are responsible people who ordinarily would not engage in behaviors that would jeopardize others (mainly doctors and other health care workers). Yet, they do, traveling widely on domestic flights, going on ocean cruses, moving widely around cities and lying about it, and even insisting that their rights are being violated if they are required to wait out the desired period to assure that they are not infected. Even the first ebola carrier entered the U.S. after lying on a pre-board survey. While other explanations can be advanced, it may also be the case that infected individuals routinely lose their altruistic behavior as they charge from contact to contact.

While some observers may characterize these behaviors as immoral and self-centered, the behaviors of maximizing social contacts may be induced by the virus itself, affecting the motivation of the infected individual and causing an increase in callousness. The process is known for many other species, as predatory microorganisms pursue their own self-interests, and may also occur in those who are exposed to the Ebola virus. I have earlier hypothesized that invading microorganisms may cause complex psychopathic behaviors (see reference at end of this blog).

More data are required to confirm these observations. Unfortunately, we may have many opportunities in the United States to judge the effects, as the virus is allowed to move into our population, and few restrictions are made on its advancement. At the minimum we need to be aware of the links between the body’s invasion by microorganisms and subsequent behavioral changes that may be induced by the invasive organisms.

The behavioral profiles of those who are possibly infected may suggest other criteria for deducing the presence of the virus. Beyond that, uncharacteristic changes in behavior, as with loss of empathy for others, may be the needle through which the virus moves across generations of hosts. Knowing the parasite-host relations, and basing the finding on evolutionary principles of survival and reproductive fitness may present opportunities for halting the spread of the disease before it becomes unalterably dangerous.

It is also possible, but less likely, that the Ebola virus may cause behavioral changes at an undetectable physiological level. I can imagine that even if detection by medical tests (or lack of tests) are not possible, low levels of the virus may cause the expression of behavioral changes, thus decreasing our ability to prevent the spread of major symptoms of the disease.

Increasing our concern are findings that about 13% of people carrying the ebola virus do not express the typical symptoms (even though their frenetic behaviors may be exaggerated). In a study sponsored by the World Health Organization and published late last month on line by the New England Journal of Medicine,  of 3,343 confirmed ebola cases 12.9% did not exhibit a fever. Eventually they may, but the length between infection and full expression may be longer than most medical reports suggest.

The “latent” virus may, however, change the neural structure and function and activate behaviors that increase the damaging contacts that lead to transmission. The virus does induce inflammatory release of cytokines and chemokines. Cytokines have been implicated in the increase in anger and rage, increasing levels of hostility, and irritability (see Zalcman and Siegel, November, 2006, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, pp 507-514). In non-patient situations there are reports of correlations between cytokine levels and aggressive behaviors.

If there is validity in the reports, we may find that there are a number of people who are not expressing the ebola disease but are carriers of the virus, a virus that has a destiny of its own and mechanisms that stimulate increased social interactions and irresponsible behaviors that increase avenues for the virus to spread. We should respond to the disease with deliberate caution until many of the unknowns have been adequately investigated.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, November 2, 2014.

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Blacker than Black

The Beast in the Jungle


Double cat tail FRIDAY’S TAIL



We are not naïve enough to ask for pure man;

we ask merely for men whose impurity does

not conflict with the obligations of their job.

Jean Rostand

French biologist


Where there is no vision, the people perish.

Bible, Hebrew, Proverbs 29:18

Quoted by J.F. Kennedy on the

eve of his assignation



Psychopaths forever are running freely through the business world, creating empires, building images, and utterly destroying the foundations of trade and commerce. From the chaos of destruction their profits skyrocket. While the investors, consumers, and workers experience loses, the least-principled people rise to the top. I have watched the birth and death of many businesses, from corporations to small ventures, but claim no special knowledge about the details of many business declines. Nevertheless, the summaries I have collected tell the basic stories.

The rise and fall of the corporation Enron is a classic example of the warp-speed fraud that can both build incredible corporate giants and initiate activities that affect the lives of thousands of employees and hundreds of creditors. With lightning speed Enron rose as a model of business acumen and community excellence, only to collapse under the weight of corruption, fraud, and narcissism, ending in bankruptcy, suicide, prosecution, and shame.

Emerging in the 1990s as a prototype of modern corporate empires, with headquarters in Houston, Enron executives assumed that owning assets and manufacturing products were old-fashioned and unnecessary in the new-age of information flow and electronic management. The company would build an asset, such as a power plant, and almost simultaneously claim a profit on their books based on projected profits. When the revenue was less than expected the corporation transferred these assets to an off-the-books corporation and didn’t report the loses on the Enron balance sheet.

The attitude of the CEOs Ken Lay and his successor Jeffery Skilling was that profits are a manifestation of accounting practices, not revenues. Schemes were devised by CFO Andrew Fastow to hide losses with the use of special purpose entities (SPE) and issue common stock to compensate for the losses. It was a Ponzi scam where profits were always assumed and losses were hidden until they could become profits. By October of 2001 the company posted its first quarter loss and closed its “Raptor” SPE so that it didn’t have to issue 58 million shares of stock.

The practices of Enron finally triggered the attention of the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), opening investigations that highlighted the dubious practices of Enron. A few days later Enron changed pension plan administrators, preventing employees from selling their shares in the company. It was a shock felt ‘round the world.

The company was in free fall, and filed for bankruptcy in December of 2001. Prosecutors ended the charade and thousands of workers and creditors lost everything. Enron will go down in history as an example of greed and hubris in the corporate world, a symbol of glitzy psychopathy. I see the saga as the early backbone for the new wave of big government and the unrestrained ability to elevate corporate euphemisms to the status of social virtues.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, October 31, 2014.

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The Capitalistic Marvel and the Psychopathology

Voodoo Spirit Hands of Fate: Our Fate



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            When the rewards are greater – the grass is greener – the more likely male and female Machiavellians sniff out the trail of greatness. It is not merely chaos and the will to power that drive the Machiavellian, but also greed and the sense of invulnerability. Big business, including the corporations, large banks, non-democratic governments, and other competitive enterprises, often show an unusually large number of psychopaths with their hands on the throttle. For instance, Babiak and Hare (Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work, Harpor, 2006) have data indicating that corporations have about three to four times the number of psychopaths working in the capitalistic system than expected by chance.

From the sidelines our lot in life is constant exposure to the whirling derby of mental deviations, the vacillating episodes of mob violence, the psychopathic ascension of tyrannical leaders, the self-centered callousness of genius, and the self-absorption of pompous asses. Be it sometimes we, that trample and trade, we must also deal with ourselves.

It is not difficult to respond to the Machiavellian version of a new leader, who may be tainted by madness, but offers a raw vision and a personal flair that can rally people when the world is crumbling all around. Observing a number of political seekers tells us that the psychiatrist S. Nassir Ghaemi is correct; it may take the touch of madness for someone working the high wire of fate to break through to a new and different level of understanding. The typical admonitions and cautions of old systems, stale political parties, former war heroes, and likely losers simply won’t do. Folks are looking for the Churchills, the Lincolns, and the Gandhis for leadership, the roll of the dice. They are at first looking at the media, not the message. A candidate for political position may be a wobbly cannon, but some will believe that that dodging the cannonball is better than lobbing a small tennis ball toward the net. Somehow our genetic structure leads us to questionable individuals during periods of economic and social disruptions, and it gives us the courage to live outside the chicken coop and sample new possibilities. In the next few years we will see how willing people are to roll those dice.

One cannot usually tell when a Machiavellian will support our cultural values or go an independent way that we would like to avoid. Identifying a Machiavellian is the first step toward a decision, but the second step of giving or withholding support may be debatable in our minds. Let’s be clear: we will never know for sure what the best approach is. The drawing out of the recent national election has given us detailed exposure to individual personalities, but in the end many voters still could not be sure of their choice. At some point, like the characters risking their lives in the movies, Jackass, voters just go for it. We hope for the best and go for the change. That’s what life amounts to.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin October 24, 2014.

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The Generality of Greatness

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Thomas Cole Destruction

DESTRUCTION: End of Cultural Progress,  Thomas Cole



Creation sometimes has its dark price.

The rise to greatness is not limited to political or military motivations but extends to our prodigious and brilliant playwrights, poets, literary giants, writers, scientists, religious leaders, and educators. In their particulars, they strive for greatness and flourish because of their aesthetic values, giving culture the soft lessons of humanity. Machiavellians, many, their personal lives are often filled with tragedies and lost opportunities.

Dr. Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and herself a bipolar person, author of a famous book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (Free Press Paperbacks, 1993), probes the artistic mind to show us in stark terms the self-consuming fire of artistic greatness and the artist’s struggles for perfection. The numbers of this small study are daunting, as exemplified by the mental illness found among famous writers.




            Psychiatric Diagnosis              Writers (N = 30) %          Controls (N = 30) %


Any affective disorder                            80                                             30

Any bipolar disorder                              43                                               10

Alcoholism                                                30                                                7

Drug abuse                                                  7                                                7

Major depression                                     37                                               17

Suicide                                                          7                                                 7

Schizophrenia                                              0                                                0


            After Kay Redfield Jamison 1993,

                The mortality rate for untreated manic depressives is higher than that for many types of heart problems and cancer. Poets are especially disposed toward mental disorders, many of which are fatal. Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963), the victim of a grisly suicide, left us a portfolio of incredible poems and books. One stanza from Death and Co., written about a year before her death, gives us a stark view of her thoughts.

I do not stir.

The frost makes a flower,

The dew makes a star,

The dead bell.

The dead bell.

Somebody’s done for.

Artists and scientists travel in different outer circles of associates and conditions than do political and military aspirants, but their inner circles, the obsessions of the mind, are shared. They invariably live “outside the chicken coop,” following their own dreams and avoiding the machinations of others. It’s not easy to survive outside the chicken coop among the predators, but if anything is wired into the genotype, it is the reaching toward freedom and the dance for immortality. Many bear the same burden of insecurity, the need for fame and adulation, the belief in the perfectibility of humans (in a generic sense and not an individual sense), the narcissism of seeking, the belief in destiny, a reduced empathy for other humans, and the fear that death may be permanent. Nothing deflects their ambitions, and if all fails, they drink the hemlock.

Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

October 18, 2014

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Never Waste a Perfectly Good Crises

The Beast in the Jungle


FRIDAY’S TAIL Double cat tail

As we witness in this blog, history supports the notion that the Machiavellian personality is found disproportionately in the swirling circumstances of events, either to lead with wit and sword or collapse with failure and scorn. Harsh episodes, early poverty, loss of love, resentment, and unannounced bad luck fall to the unfortunate, but the consequences may ironically resonate across civilizations.

            Rahm Emanuel, then Chief of Staff at the White House and now Mayor of Chicago, realized the value of a crisis to galvanize the people to a purpose and to grease the skids that can drive a person to greatness. Rahm repeated this mantra in November of 2008 at a Wall Street Journal Forum: “You never want a serious crisis to go waste.”

Indeed, crises have historically been the catalysts of greatness.

Demosthenes (330 BCC)   Athens threatened by expanding Macedon and

encroaching Philip. He told the people that he

was the single person who could bring victory to



Hannibal (218 BCC)            Carthaginian general delivered a monumental

Speech to his army after crossing the Alps with

50,000 soldiers and 37 elephants and entered

Italy to attack the Romans.


Jonathan Edwards (1741)    The Great Awakening of religious fervor swept

the American colonies. Edwards took up the

challenge to unify its purpose and weed out the

bad seeds that resisted his efforts.


Patrick Henry (1775)              Leader of the American Revolution who rallied the

people with keen insight and absolute courage, saying

“Give me liberty, or give me death.”


Susan B. Anthony (1873)        Against the background of the civil rights

movement following the Civil War, she fought for women’

suffrage and freedom from male abuse.


Winston Churchill (1940)      Warned England of the Nazi danger, fought

brilliantly during WWII. Came to power during

a deep economic depression.


Adolf Hitler (1938)                 Sudden rise to power during an economic

depression in Germany, prior to invasion of

Poland and the start of WWII.


Franklin Delono Roosevelt (1933)          United States economic depression was in full

Swing, facilitating his rise to power.


Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964)             Brought the United States through WWI, WWII

and Korea. He was an incomparable general.


George S. Patton (1880-1945)         In large measure he was the Third Army general

who destroyed the Nazi influence in Europe. His

motto: “Kill the Bastards.”


Not only did these individuals have the courage and temptation to assume leadership, they were all kissed by the gods with oratorical splendor. They rode the charismatic train to fame and promised an escape from darkness and the hope to emerge into light. “Our moment has come,” they all announced in one way or another. They lived on threads of hope and thought in terms of revolution and victory in battle. They moved in circles of power, fame, and money.

It is a Faustian bargain between the commanding leader and their followers. The leader gives the people what they want to hear and believe, and the followers give up their individual freedom in order to serve the commander and the common path. The bond between “master” and “apostle” is strong, the leader knowing that the medium is the message – its content, its implementation, and its imperfections, or untruths, are unimportant.

For the common experience, the followers propel the leader to power, help the medium accomplish his or her goals, and protect the leader from criticism and bodily harm. The services that followers receive are of special status, retribution, and perhaps redistribution of wealth.

Great commanders exposed to the trembling and fear of their audiences are always at risk, and they may be cut down, either for what they represent, their ideology, or what they accomplish, or for the failures to produce, or for the crimes that they may commit. Economic and cultural demons stir the broth of the cauldron, and the questionable leaders float to the top.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

October 10, 2014

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Are Our Best Leaders Close to Madness?

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S. Nassir Ghaemi, MD and Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University, writing in his recent book A First Rate Madness (Penguin, 2011), takes the unusual position that the best leaders in troubled times are often touched by madness. Ghaemi points to Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln (all with periodic depression and thoughts of suicide) as examples of outstanding leadership that lies quiescent in the disturbances of the brain. He asserts that someone who is mentally healthy “is insensitive to suffering” and therefore is unable to identify with the needs of the moment.

Accordingly, it is the off-centered, risk-taker, and deep seeker of change that explodes myths, defies history, ascends to power, and leads a nation out of darkness. Under the clouds of melancholy or narcissism and agitation, leaders – often troubled Machiavellians – embrace new ideas and often resolve major crises.

It is distressing to think that our cultural leaders may be mentally irresponsible. Ghaemi may have exaggerated the association between mental illness and leadership, but he does have a point. Accordingly, he believes that leaders touched by insanity toil in sadness when society is happy (Wall Street Journal, July 30/31, 2011) and only bloom under the weight of trauma. Not all do that, and as we have found; Machiavellian leaders ride the parallel rails of great success and imminent disaster.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas, at Austin, October 3, 2014

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The Western Canon as a Template for Measuring Psychopathy

Bell Cure distribution 3

Psychopathic Probability (1=highest)


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The ecclesiastical and secular prognosticators of moral and immoral behaviors give us another view of the psychopathic strategy, again as part of the structure of the human evolutionary tree, and the normal behaviors that are sometimes expressed to the extreme.

Indeed, the broad structure of our western civilization – those attributes that we consider virtuous (the Western Canon), and thus are in contrast to the psychopathic image – can be used as a cultural template against which we measure the psychopathic mind.

Ask yourself, when considering the collective consciousness of society, how well individuals fit the non-psychopathic model. I am not suggesting that the conceived moral template is desired or not, but only that it provides a traditional and accepted backdrop against which you can more easily identify a psychopath. If an individual is greatly at odds with the following Western Canon, one might consider the individual as a candidate for the Big P (that is, psychopathy).


1, Community identification

Interest in local political activities.

Involvement in religious functions; goes to church.

Volunteer activities; charitable donations.

Interest in local school activities, sports functions, broad community activities.

  1. Job commitment

Regularly employed or self-employed.

Long-term job history and involvement in current job.

Interest in personal success and in bettering oneself.

Supervisory responsibilities.

Interest in starting business.

  1. Expectation of cultural conformity

Reliability in meeting expectations.

Goal directed inclinations.

Discipline and specificity of focus.

Reciprocal relations (reciprocal altruism).

Interest in non-aggressive conflict resolution.

Orientation toward community projects and community health.

  1. Attitudes toward marriage and infant care

Concern with stable marriage.

Concern with marital fidelity.

Interest in having children and infant care.

Interest in family stability and financial status.

Interest in child education and advancement.

Many of these attitudes and cultural expectations may sound superficial to some of you, but consider this. In several regards the collective consciousness is not simply arbitrary features of civilization. They embody the formula for success at the biological level, unveiling the universal attitudes associated with social cohesion and ultimately genetic success. Thus the Western Canon developed around the fundamental attributes of humans, as individuals strove for community identity and stability of important relations – the collective unconsciousness on the job – all of this is more in conformity with non-psychopathic strategies. Thus the Western Canon shows us, inadvertently, what traits are important for achieving genetic success. The esteemed social thread also helps us identify and protect ourselves and our loved ones from the contrasting psychopathic social chaos.

As Sherlock Holmes once remarked, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains must be the truth.”

Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, September 26, 2014

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The Forever Search For Virtuous Behavior


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Evil and Good

Evil and Good

            Ecclesiastical interests always move toward the control of unruly behavior. One of the early spectacular attempts to instill a sense of morality in the restless brain was also perhaps the most successful. It occurred at the moment when Moses spoke with God at the top of Mount Sinai and returned to the people with the Ten Commandments of the Lord engraved on stone tablets.

These sectarian images fueled the expansion of the expression of Western economic and social dominance. They were also intended to squelch the psychopaths among us, even though that personality type was yet to be described. If I were to ask you to quickly indicate which commandment provokes your interest or concern, which one would you choose? Quickly now.


  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.

Opening my envelope with my predictions, you would find numbers 6, 7, or 10, and possibly 5, as most significant in your thinking. All of these could have major influences on your reproductive fitness. Numbers 1 through 4 would not quickly come to mind, as they are not immediately part of our biological concerns, and 8 and 9 are situational in most of our lives. How did I do?

Thoughts about sins and virtues became more pointed and less spiritual over the centuries. The “Seven Deadly Sins” are the most interesting, as they resist religious dictates and appeal to our hedonistic motivations and our searching for freedom of expression. We do spend time dealing with what I call the “Seven Deadly Virtues,” but I submit that the “Seven Deadly Sins, the “Seven Biological Determinants” that shape our lives, and “The Seven Psychopathic Behaviors,” often corner the market of the mind. I make the comparisons among these traits in the table below.

Seven Deadly     Seven Deadly     Seven Biological     Seven Psychopathic

Sins                    Virtues               Determinants         Traits

Lust                        Chastity             Excessive sex              Promiscuity

Gluttony                  Temperance     Over-indulgence       Will to power

Greed                     Charity              Avarice                           Material pursuits

Sloth                       Diligence          Lack of ambition           Aloofness

Wrath                      Patience           Rage                                 Destructive urge

Envy                       Kindness          Insatiable desire             Blaming others

Pride                      Humanity           Boasting                         Narcissism

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus,University of Texas at Austin

September 19, 2014

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Psychopaths Have Little Sense of History



Indeed, there is a lot of variability in the expression of psychopathic traits, but there is a small percentage of the population whose behaviors are relatively stable under a variety of circumstances and unlikely to change when faced with pressures of the environment. It is as if some individuals are mute to negative and positive reinforcements. This quality is beyond the usual flexibility of human reactions, and is more determined than that of the Machiavellian personality, where psychopathy is less of a determining feature. Unlike the earlier examples, the inheritance of power does not suddenly change the personality; rather; the personality is oriented in that direction from an early age. It may be disguised in the work place and in daily interactions, but the inclination wafts across the spectrum of fortunes.

This characteristic is a strangeness of hard-core psychopaths that seems impervious to the flow of information around them; they cannot easily adjust to novel ideas and changes in the environment. Even as the psychopath ages, the incidence of psychopathic acts decreases, but not, apparently, the motivations underlying such acts. Testosterone may waft away, but we remember the challenges of earlier days. It is the other side of the biological coin where psychopathic traits come and go depending on opportunity and demand. Neurophysiologists are especially interested in these stable traits because in their research they act as the neural baseline, those girders that shore up more common variations. Historians and philosophers have a role to play, as the data suggest that hard-core psychopaths and those that embrace those same traits, lack a sense of history, a damning quality in a world short on predictive capabilities.

Niall Ferguson, a Harvard historian, explains in his prophetic book, Civilization: The West and the Rest (The Penguin Press, 2011), that in order to understand the past, we must learn to step into the shoes of those who went before us. We must sympathize [or empathize] with their shorter lives, where they lived, and how they dealt with uncertainties, often under harsh circumstances.

Insights about history not only occur as a result of our present economic and social environment, but because we are able to sense what people faced in the past and their implications for understanding the present.

Ferguson leads us back to the great Scottish economist Adam Smith for the origin of this idea.

“As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation.”

History, according to this view, has no credibility if it is not based on our sympathy for those who died before us. There has to be an emotional bonding or history is stale and lacks human motivations.

Adam Smith’s admonition to probe the past with sympathy unintentionally gives us a better module for understanding the hard-core psychopath, or his pretender, who displays a minimum of empathy. He/she, without an emotional attachment to the past, is entirely a person without a past, without a history, and therefore, without an ability to use history to predict the future. “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford, not in tune with those of the past. In full he said this:

“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.”

Henry Ford, U.S. Industrialist, Interview for the Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916

He also said that anyone can have the color of his choice for the Model T Ford as long as it’s black.

The psychopath is said not to have a conscious, but, according to Adam Smith’s view, a more accurate appraisal would be to say that he/she has no history. Lacking empathy, there is no way he/she can grasp the significance of the past in making decisions. He/she may be able to visualize a historical chronology, but the sense of why people responded as they did does not register the import of the events. Instead, what the psychopath carries in his head is a fixation on the present and a lusting for instant gratification. The lifeline to his history, and his ability to grasp the significance of peoples’ lives, has been severed by his emotional privation. Even the short history of his parental beginnings will probably lack substance. His future, too, has reduced significance because he cannot accurately identify with others’ view of the world. In short, he/she, like an electronic robot, is stuck with the gyrations of the present – always the present, never the past, unable to touch the future – the present, the present, the present.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, September 11, 2014

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Sociological Psychopathy: Caught in the Social Whirl of the Unexpected

Jung, Carl The Force of the Collective Unconscious: Carl Jung


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Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate

and visible political effect, can gradually and indirectly,

over time, gain in political significance.

Vaclav Havel, Cezch playwright, president



Individual psychopathic behavior often takes a backseat to collective psychopathy. Collective behavior, not necessarily restricted to undesirable people, can alter the human spirit and make us shiver in its presence. Group-think is not always individual-think, where freedom of thought can be submerged in group identity. Herd-like activity involves attitudes and beliefs that can be socially advantageous and may be expressed by contemplative individuals. The atmosphere of the group may walk on a tightrope of emotion, inevitably merging with the crowd to temporarily or permanently overriding the individual personality and set the stage for new perspectives and actions.

Sociologists have known this for a long time, although it is left to us to use collective hypotheses to explain sociological psychopathy. Groups can be productive and enlightening, and they can also be destructive and dark and scary. Collective consciousness was a sociological term used by Emile Durkheim in 1893 to describe the shared beliefs and moral attitudes that operate as a unifying force within society. He did not have psychopaths in mind when he formulated the notion of collective consciousness.

Durkheim thought that the content of individual consciousness is largely learned and is held in common by members of their society. The outcome of group formation creates a mental and physical solidarity through mutual likeness, lending the group more power and effectiveness than with the individual components.

While short on evidence in the early days of sociology, most theoreticians probably accept these ideas as demonstrated. What the group theory lacked was a grounding in biology. There are innate behaviors that have evolved to ensure advantages of merging with others in common aims. Carl Jung, a famous psychoanalyst and a student of Sigmund Freud, brought us closer to understanding the biological forces that make group cohesion possible. He proposed that in addition to our individual and immediate consciousness, and independent of learned social behaviors, there is a second system of a collective unconscious, where the collective and universal archetypes of the mind reside. Today, the evolutionary psychologist would talk about social adaptations, instead of archetypes, that evolved for the understanding of the world and for effective group activities. Archetypes, I surmise, are the representations of universal forces, as with mental concepts of god, totems, and taboos.

In any case, Durkheim and Jung complement each other, as with two sides of a coin, leading us to the consideration of learned and genetic aspects of social behavior, collective consciousness being flexibly related to learned social values, collective unconsciousness providing the evolved substrate of universal perspectives.

Perhaps we should not push these “collective” analogies too far, and that’s what they are at this point, but there may be one more that we should consider, as it now has currency and relates to religious ideals, morality, and visions of utopia. That concept is referred to as collective salvation, a Marxist precept that tells us that our economic and social struggles are progressive, and through class warfare, lead us to the perfection of man, and the birth of collective equality and social justice.

In our social development we have heard more than once that one’s salvation depends on the salvation of everyone, suggesting that our perfection depends on the movement toward a classless society where equality and justice are found. The idea is sort of an “end of history” secular argument for the replacement of a god-religion with a unification of social principles.

I doubt that the progressive notion of utopia would ever be possible — natural selection causes the emergence of individual differences at the genetic level that produce differences in capabilities and performance and are antithetical to any political ironing of variations. The communal notions of equality and justice may have some ideological imprint in political battles but they cannot be justified within a scientific and evolutionary context.

Needless to say, these discussions require amplification for understanding and cannot be fully developed here. There are implications that are related to the different points of view. They do, in total, give us the heuristic foundation for understanding the good and the bad, the altruistic and the psychopathic inclinations of group activities. There are also the practical implications of massive self-serving riots and continuing revolutions. Today’s events are extreme illustrations of our continuing need to pursue truth in the face of destructive alternatives.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin. September 5, 2014.

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The Death of Sensation Seekers

Looking for the Final Answer

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            Why do so many racers and many others take major risks where sudden death is a high statistical probability? During the early days of the Grand Prix the driver faced a thirty-three percent probability of being killed, yet thousands of drivers were willing to take the risk. Hundreds have died. In Cannell’s book about the thrills of Grand Prix auto racing, the ever-present fear of death was translated into a defiance of death and the hope for redemption. When the driver of a Formula 1 car was wedged into the cockpit of his car, in the late 1950s and early 1960s – no helmet or seatbelt, no top cover, with feet shoved through holes in the fuselage to manipulate the petals – the fear of death suddenly vanished for the existential fight and the mental calculation of speeding at 150 mph through the limit of steep curves.

           With the threat of death ahead, fear was forced into a deep pocket, a common happening with the sensation seeker and psychopath under siege. What the driver faced was the role of the dice and a path to immortality. One mile an hour too fast and he would spin out and the end would be sudden; one mile an hour too slow and the race is lost. At the start of the race the driver committed himself for the ride into hell and possible deliverance.

            Rock climber Richard Gottlieb believes that his extreme risk-taking is a way of coping with death. “We open the door, see the Grim Reaper right there, but instead of just slamming the door, you push him back a few steps.” Social psychologists interested in the basic urges of fear, creation, and conquering, understand the Faustian life and death bargains that tend to hold civilizations together before choices are lost. What can be a greater sensation than looking death in the eye? Spectacular things can happen.

            Thanatos still haunts our activities. On August 7, 2010, the 35 year old long-time Swedish climber and skier Fredrik Ericsson fell to his death climbing the second highest peak in the world, K-2, a 28,250 foot peak in the Chinese-Pakistani border region. He and his partner were pushing for the summit when he fell to his death. It was his dream to ski from the summit all the way down to the base camp, a heroic attempt that no one has been able to do.

            The usual question came up: Why would he temp fate when he didn’t have to? One answer, voiced for Ericsson, said it clearly: “You think he’d prefer to have died in a car accident, or in a senior center? I think not.”

            The committed sensation seeker with low fear under stress is likely to succeed or speed to a fast death – an Evil Knievel kiss to the gods before he/she plunges toward immortality.

            As I wondered about all of this, I settled on two points. The first is that great achievements cannot occur without risk, and death is often the co-pilot. The second is that when individuals square off against death they instinctively realize that sudden death is better than Parkinson’s disease, long-term cancer, uselessness, wheelchairs and burning regret. There is only one life to use as you can. My guess is that the careful racer, Phil Hill, would have wished to go like the risk taker von Trips – a blazing torch of commitment, defiance, and longing for the end and perhaps a continuity of the soul.

            Talk about a slip-up. On December 5, 2012 we witnessed an example of the cost of sensation seeking. Eight red Ferraris, one Lamborghini, and two Mercedes crashed in a horrendous pileup on a Japanese freeway. Speed was an issue. The police estimate that the large group of cars was traveling between 80 and 100mph when the crash occurred. The mass destruction of incomparable luxury cars was triggered when the driver of one of the Ferrari drivers tried to change lanes to pass a Toyota Prius, hit the median barrier, and spun across the path of the other vehicles. A total of 14 cars were involved in the accident. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt. The accident ruined at least one million dollars of fine engineering, according to police, but other estimates run as high as three million. Imagine all that luxury and engineering history gone in seconds. The police called the group of speeders “a gathering of narcissists.” Heads will roll.

Ferrair crash Japan


            Earlier I said that increases in technology triggers higher intensities and more frequent involvement of high-risk behaviors. Maybe the growl of a Ferrari engine, with its promise of victory and fame, drew von Trips and Phil Hill into their compulsive urges to press the limits of life. Perhaps that is the reason that von Trips and numerous spectators died on the track of the Italian Grand Prix, and was the reason that Hill backed down from more death-defying races in 1967.

            But the last 100 years of cultural advances may be responsible for the explosion of sensation seekers. This short period of time was the era of exciting changes and a growing sense that life was short, that there was no God, and that we all die. Nihilism is replacing optimism and confidence as a life force.

            This was the era of Tin Pan Alley, prohibition and the mob, two world wars, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Roosevelt It was the time of the birth of the blues, jazz, and the explosion of science. Our cynicism of life and death was voiced by Pablo Picasso, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Sylvia Plath, and many other incredible thinkers. The cold philosophy of Darwin and Gregor Mendel held sway over our growing anxiety about death, followed by the shocking discovery by Watson and Crick of the indifferent DNA regulators of growth, senescence, and death.

            We spiraled on, restless males and females increasing in numbers, losing our moral rudder, and asking how we should conduct our lives. For many, the answers came with technology, art, and an existential philosophy that left us detached from history, religion, moral restraint, and responsibility.

            About the only avenues of expression left for surging populations of young males and females were risk-taking, drugs, sex, and a relief brought by the highs of dopamine and testosterone. Perhaps the “nothing” that we faced was transformed into the momentary pleasures of grand sensations, fast cars, bull fighting, mountain climbing, and jumping from high places.

            “If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing,” so sang Peggy Lee in 1969, giving us the new mantra of the sensation seeker and ultimately the surging numbers of psychopaths.

“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, before we too into the dust descend.”

Omar Khayyam, Persian astronomer and poet

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, August 29, 2014.

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Mixing Fear of Dying with Commitment to Death

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            The undecipherable irony of sensation seeking is that the worshiper of risk-taking sometimes makes a pact with Lucifer for a euphoric life in exchange for exposure to an increased probability of death. Well, he/she signs no contract with the devil, and only infrequently refers to the commitment, but one can hardly avoid the alliance. Sensation seekers are drawn into the pact with every opportunity and every technological development. The invention of skis and the snowboard ushered in new levels of downhill sensation and risk. Similarly, the advent of the automobile and airplane brought us racing and sky diving. Rock climbing equipment increased the art of scaling rocks and climbing to mountain summits. New weapons and easy means of communication increased the ease of guerrilla warfare. Almost every advance in technology drew in sensation seekers that extended and overused technology for the dopamine high. It also saddled the participant with a closer relationship with death.

Coupled with the young male budge in many countries, sensation seeking increased over the years and was more and more directed toward conflict, revolution, and war. Death rates immediately escalated or remained high as the cultural potential. An early example of this association is evident with auto racing in the United States where 391 drivers died for the thrill of shaking hands with death.

Ferrari 1962 sold in 2014 for over 34 million 1962 Vintage Ferrari sold in 2014 for 34M

Ferrari first race car 1947 First Ferrari Formula 1 Race Car 1947

            Count von Trips, a flamboyant and famous German Grand Prix driver of the late 1950s and early 1960s, had a coat of arms that symbolizes the eternal sensation seeker: In Morte Vita (In Death there is Life). Death always stalks the sensation seeker, and often wins the tussle. As Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalyst postulated, death is often embraced as well as avoided (Eros and Thanatos, the wishes for life and the longing for death).

            Competing against the American driver, Phil Hill, in the Grand Prix of Italy on a dreadful day, death took the life of von Trips. Trips committed a tiny error of no more than an inch and paid the ultimate price of living on the edge. Phil Hill was driving right behind Trips. Michael Cannell in his fast-action book, The limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit (Hachette Book Group, 2011) gives us the moment of death for Count Von Trips.

“…at 150 mph it was enough to sling him onto a grassy shoulder to the left. His wheels plowed the soft earth as the car rode up a five-foot slope where spectators stood two deep behind a chest-high chicken-wire fence. In an instant of explosive violence, the Ferrari slashed along the fence for about ten feet, shredding spectators like a big red razor, then bounced end-over-end back onto the track. The mauled car came to rest right side up with its wheels collapsed inward.”

Five spectators standing along the fence died instantly, their skulls crushed by the spinning car. The survivors screamed, and the echoes returned the agony, in reaction to the death all around them. Bodies lay in scattered heaps. Ten more would die later. More than fifty were injured.

Hill zigzagged through the wreckage with studied care, never losing his patience, always with his eye on the prize.

            Phil Hill, always measuring the odds and never recklessly challenging “the limit,” won that race against his friend von Trips, becoming world champion. He at last walked away from the seduction of risk-taking and returned to his home in Santa Monica, where at the age of forty-four married Alma Baranowski. With a sudden loss of testosterone, I surmise, Hill lost his edge for danger and merged back into a traditional lifestyle. His last statement on the matter was: “I no longer have as much need to race, to win. I don’t have as much hunger anymore. I am no longer willing to risk killing myself.”

            Von trips never left his mind, however, as Hill measured his long life against the short and dramatic life of Trips. Deep nostalgia and regret eventually took him back to Pebble Beach with his wife, where he tried to relive his earliest triumph in a race for the Pebble Beach Cup fifty-eight years earlier. This may have been the same track that seduced James Dean and sent him forward to his death. Whatever Hill was looking for now escaped his reach.

            At the end of his life Hill suffered from Parkinson’s disease and other neurological degeneration. He was confined to a wheelchair and died in a Monterey hospital twelve days after his flight backward in time to Pebble Beach, finally giving in to his desperation at the age of eighty-one. He died August 28, 2008, paradoxically, the same day of the month, but in 1947, that the worshiped bull fighter Manuel Manolete was killed in Lincres, Spain, a bad day for the superstitious.

            Both Von Trips and Hill drove for Enzo Ferrari who in his earlier years was also a racer. Later Enzo’s sensation seeking turned to designing and manufacturing a superior line of Ferrari race cars, several of which later became prized street automobiles desired by new generations of sensation seekers. I recently watched a video of the remarkable worship race-people have for Ferrari, as 360 almost all red racing Ferraris blew around a race track for the spectators.

            Enzo specialized in speed and racing success, building mid-engine heavy racing machines that extended the “limit” to new levels of speed. The pistons of these cars are set at a low angle in order to lower the hood for better vision. Enzo was treated like a king, for decades making or breaking race drivers and spending millions of dollars on his passion. Enzo’s extraverted and low empathy personality profile would have been perfect for a Shakespearian play. He wasn’t happy with Hill’s marriage, carping that occasional liaisons with women were fine for his team members, but marriage was a threat to speed  (testosterone and dopamine are lowered as family responsibilities consume one’s life).  Strangely, Enzo never saw one of his cars race because he believed that each one was imbued with part of his soul and he refused to see it mistreated or ruined.

            The thunder of motors and the thrill of speed remains present in our races, but the risk-taking has been reduced by benefits in technology and increased safety devices and strict regulations for car and driver performance and the protection of spectators. But the possibility is still in the mix as we recently watched Indy car driver Dan Wheldon die and burn at age 33 in a crash at a Las Vegas race (October 16, 2011). As cars piled up on the track Weldon’s No. 77 car slammed into another car in front of him and he went airborne before crashing into a fence, briefly catching fire. Other cars were involved and some caught fire, but the drivers survived. At the hospital Wheldon was pronounced dead from “unsurvivable injuries.” No spectators were hurt.

            People who saw the crash said it looked like a movie scene in a Terminator movie, with fire, flying tires, and metal car fragments exploding through the air and into the pages of history.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, August 22, 2004

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Drugs and Environments That Trigger Dopamine Change Dreams Into Reality

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Ferrari, Enzo Enzo Ferrari, racer

Ferrari 458 convertable

Enzo Ferrari’s Legacy

SENSATION SEEKERS OFFER NO APOLOGIES  Tucked away on the Fox News website is a story that shouts there is nothing more incredible than the truth. A group of Australian senior citizens suffering from Parkinson’s disease is launching a legal suit against drug companies Pfizer Australia and Aspen Pharmacure that produce the anti-Parkinson drugs Calaser and Permax, respectively, claiming that the drugs cause compulsive gambling and addiction to pornography. Who would hae guessed?

            Both Calaser and Permax are classified as “dopamine agonists,” that mimic the action of dopamine in the central nervous system, thus counteracting the deficiency related to Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine agonists that activate two quite specific behavioral syndromes are a stunning and unexpected clinical breakthrough, if true, that is. The images are sharp and even amusing.

            We might believe that the story was someone’s idea of a joke, that is, until someone distributed an article about the Mayo Clinic, discussing the same effects of dopamine mimics: Erin Richards begins the article this way:

“According to a new study published by the Mayo Clinic, patients with Parkinson disease (PD) have another problem to deal with. Researchers have found that one in six patients taking therapeutic doses of certain prescription drugs for management of PD have developed troubling behavioral symptoms. The most problematic symptoms include compulsive gambling and hyper sexuality.”

Dopamine molecule

            Drugs like Pramipexole and Ropinirole are implicated, adding to the list of drugs like cocaine, amphetamine, and nicotine, as well as Calaser and Permax that can stimulate the release of dopamine or substitute for dopamine in the central nervous system to halt Parkinson disease. We can now see the basis for the legal action. Dopamine is a powerful motivator of risk-taking even among those that have never had a desire for sensation seeking, or the lust for danger. These older folks have lived their lives quietly, rarely jazzed, always in tight control, paying their bills early, and never giving themselves over to hot sports, iced energy drinks, the rocky North Face, or marijuana and cocaine and promiscuous affairs on lazy afternoons. Suddenly urges of ancestral origins appear and distort the view that man can change his base behaviors by will power and maturity.

            Recent evidence reinforces the results for the drug agonists that stimulate hypersexuality and gambling and is now being widely debated in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Additional observations indicate that drug agonists for dopamine also put patients on the path for excessive shopping, obsessive involvement in hobbies, and disruptions of sleep cycles.

            Sensation seekers dig deep for the hormonal rush that brings satisfaction. Young risk takers are sometimes slightly off center, aggressive, promiscuous, action-oriented, and into fast cars, horror movies, drugs, interactive video games, Twitter, Face Book, and rock and roll. The knowledge that they share is that it is all about getting high—the dopamine and testosterone kick that is crucial for defining life – a high that just can’t last forever, they realize, and is as precious as the Hope Diamond.

            Sensation seekers may often take excessive risks, but because of their narcissistic visions of success and low emotional attachments to others, they may have a lower than average rate of suicide. They may be killed in the frantic race to new summits, or die in a road race, but they probably don’t deliberately kill themselves, at least during their prime of life.

            Here is a stunner. John J. Ray, a sociologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia, did a postal survey of Australians, sampling both their ideological stance and their level of experiential sensation seeking, and found that those individuals with a “radial-left disposition” are high sensation seekers. Moreover, radicals on the political left have a general need for novelty and stimulation, almost regardless of its source, and they use consumer products that they denigrate. It is almost as if they find novelty beautiful. Ray concludes: “High-minded ideals are often little more than a cloak for a need for excitement and change.” Those who are hunting the thrills of hope and change may find a home in the political arms of chaos and near the steps of Wall Street.

            Following up on the notions of John Ray, it would be informative to find that listening to the sing-song repetition of entreaties, demands, and promises delivered by extraordinary orators, such as those we heard during the recent Presidential race, probably cause a sudden and electrifying surge of dopamine. As part of a homogeneous cohort, group consciousness might be shaped and solidified by the power of words and suggestions. Dreams become their reality.

            Marvin Zuckerman notes that several common risk-taking behaviors are correlated for both men and women in college. Risky driving, sex, drinking, drug taking, smoking, and gambling often occur together. It is not too surprising that drinking, smoking, drugs, and sex often occur together. These relations are not particularly strong, but many are statistically significant, and they do suggest that risk-taking behaviors and the associated highs are broadly expressed simultaneously, much like traits of psychopaths are joined.

            I asked a friend what he thought about the legal action of senior citizens against drug companies because of the prescription drugs that set off a chain of compulsive gambling and hyper sexuality. He wondered why in the world they would sue a company for essentially making them younger and more vigorous, more involved in social interactions, and (probably) euphoric. He said that he worked hard to get these reactions and these guys are getting it free, so “What do they have to complain about?”

               What I think it denotes is that psychopathic traits (and many other behaviors) are wired into just about everyone, but are only expressed to the extreme when they are triggered by the appropriate neural/physiological stimuli or relevant environmental cues. Behavior is in large measure a lock and key reaction. Specifically, these older folks possessed the biological engrams for youthful sex and taking chances, and the dopamine-like surge was the key that turned the locks. Such is life in the fast lane with the intermittent flow of dopamine and the strong feeling of perpetual life.

                 My next tail will elaborate on the Slip-ups and the Dangerous Mind, and takes us back to the days of car racing when it was unusual for a racer to retire successfully after a successful career.

Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, August 15, 2014.

Thiessen photo                           image001 Above discussion from

                                                                       Chapter Three of Slip-ups and the dangerous mind.

Posted in blog, deviant, evolution, evolutionary psychology, genetic, narcissism, natural selection, psychology, psychopath, psychopathy, Thiessen, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Grand Prix Circuit and Visions of Death


Sensation seeking is this world’s import and export commodity. If it weren’t so weird why do sensation seekers wear masks, tell lies, hide behind stories, and joust with other daredevils?


Double cat tail FRIDAY’S TAIL

Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,

Sermons and soda-water the day after.

Lord Byron


            I take up the explosive topic of sensation seeking once more. It may be the basis of human narcissistic tendencies and lack of empathy; hence it lies at the foundation of our greatest social and economic problems. We see it in our pets, admire those who live on high wires and flirt with death, and have a cult-like fascination with leaders who defy convention and raise the stakes of the game at every opportunity. Most of us pursue high risk with trepidation, but we follow its expression in media matters, in sports, with politicians, and among our friends. As far as many of us are concerned, the bloodier the results, the better we like it.  From where does it come; why is it so prevalent in human and non-human populations; and why often does it appear suicidal? Okay, this is our tail for today.

            Klaus Manhart writing for Scientific American in 2005 reflected on the 1950s movie Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean to point out the fatal attraction of sensation seeking:

“The two empty cars sit idling, side by side. Jim and Buzz each get into their vehicles,

close the doors and push their gas pedals to the floor, racing headlong toward the edge

of the cliff: the canyon below comes into view – they should each leap from their driver’s

seats before their cars vault into the abyss, but the first one to bail out loses. At the last possible

moment Jim throws open his door and dives out onto the ground. Buzz waits too long and

plummets over the edge to certain death.”


            James Dean showed us the rebel within us and provoked our imagination. In 1955 following his fast string of famous movies Dean began racing cars in the Palm Springs Road Races, the Minter Field Bakersfield Race and the Santa Barbara Road Race. Driving, instead of transporting his new Porsche 550 Silver Spyder on the way to a road race in Salinas, he crashed into another car nearly head on and died. From a short distance the wreck looked like grilled barbecue. The car was pulled around the country to show what could happen to a speeder. Later while on tour the car vanished and a million dollars was offered to anyone producing the mangled car. The money was never claimed. Dean became a cult celebrity in death and even today that’s his reputation.

            About this same time British psychologist Hans J. Eysenck developed a scale for the behavior of extroversion and other personality traits, concluding that risk-taking was one of the best predictors of extroversion. Risk-taking and extroversion were now holding hands. Around the same time Marvin Zuckerman at the University of Delaware introduced us to the extreme seekers of thrills and near death. Suddenly we were surrounded with new ideas about personality and human nature.

            The finishing touch on this stunning body of information and discoveries was announced by Hersey Cleckley – again in the early 1950s – that there is a cluster of 16 psychopathic traits that includes an uncontrollable narcissism sometimes called “Inadequately motivated anti-social behavior” that shows early onset, little change over time, and is found in a wide range of people. The trait of narcissism was associated with repeated risk-taking. Cleckley’s rendition of psychopathy is repeated below.


1.   Superficial charm and good intelligence.

2.   Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking.

3.   Absence of nervousness.

4.   Unreliability.

5.   Untruthfulness and insincerity.

6.   Lack of remorse or shame.

7.   Inadequately motivated anti-social behavior.

8.   Pathological egocentricity; incapacity for love.

9.   Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience.

10.  General poverty in major affective reactions.

11.  Specific loss of insight.

12.  Unresponsiveness to general interpersonal relations.

13.  Fantastic and uninviting behavior with drink and sometimes without.

14.  Suicide rarely carried out.

15.  Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated.

16.  Failure to follow any life plan.

            His massive summary of his work can be downloaded free from the internet. Cleckley is best known for his work on multiple personalities with Corbett Thigpen producing the 1957 movie The Three Faces of Eve.” Cleckley died in 1984. Indeed, as he believed, psychopaths often appear to have alternate lifestyles and identity. The strict definition of sensation seeking is seen in the table below.


Sensation seeking is the tendency to pursue novel, risky and stimulating experiences. Individuals show preferences for change, unusual situations, and uninhibited, unpredictable, extroverted, and risky behaviors. They often are smug and condescending about their disturbing behaviors, born to self-serving attitudes and feeling of superiority. Mainly they act as if they don’t give a shit what people think, because they really just don’t give a shit.


Athena, the author’s dog, a major sensation seeker


The directions for filling out the scale are from Marvin Zuckerman (2007). I present only a few sample statements from the scale of 40 statements.

  1.  A. I like “wild” uninhibited parties

       B. I prefer quiet parties with good conversation

  1. A. There are some movies I enjoy seeing a second or even a third time

       B. I can’t stand watching a movie I’ve seen before

  1. A. I often wish I could be a mountain climber

       B. I can’t understand people who risk their necks climbing mountains

The likely responses of a sensation seeker for the above choices are A, B, and A. I’ll bet you had no trouble with this little test.


  1. Thrill and adventure
  2. Experience seeking
  3. Disinhibition (letting oneself go)
  4. Boredom susceptibility


  1. Males seek sensations more than females.
  2. SS is age-dependent, stabilizing between the ages of 16 and 20 and decreasing thereafter.
  3. Racial differences are small.
  4. SS are seen as more attractive by others, including the opposite sex.
  5. SS are likely to have the following personality traits: extroverted, non-conformist, impulsive more masculine (males), risk taker, not mentally abnormal, open to more sexual experiences, often uses alcohol and other drugs, gamble more, go for extreme sports, tolerate more pain, prefer complex stimuli in art, are more cognitively complex, interested in “outgoing” professions, have more vivid images, dreams, and daydreams, have higher levels of reproductive hormones, lower monoamine oxidase (MAO) activity, and thus higher brain dopamine levels.
  6. Sensation seekers show heritable genetic variation at the level of 50 to 60 percent.
  7. Sensation seeking may be a subclinical psychopathic complex of traits.

*Based on (1) Zuckerman, M. (2007). Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior. Washington: American Psychological Association, (2) Kopeikin, H.S. Sensation seeking. www.psych.ucsb/-kopeikin/ssinfo.htm.


            Sensation seeking is often found in psychopaths, but they are not synonymous. James Dean may have been a little spooky, but he wasn’t a hard-core psychopath, as I earlier suspected. Rather, he was a tough energetic risk-taker, with money and the motivation to go beyond the possible.  Psychopaths do seek stimulation and take great risks, but so do non-psychopaths. At some level it is just another evolved human trait. However, it might be accurate to suggest that there is a continuum among personality forms, or at least patches of common traits, including psychopathic-like traits. James Dean and other drivers share a “soft” core of psychopathy that lies just below the defining characteristics of the typical psychopath.

              Next week I’ll tell you why some sensation seekers would rather die in a wild car race than live to be 100.

Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin. August 8, 2014.

       Thiessen    Slip-ups cover design


Posted in behavior genetic, blog, demography, destiny, deviant, evolution, evolutionary psychology, history, narcissism, natural selection, psychology, psychopath, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

How to Live Forever

Agave Publishers Logo        Double cat tail Friday Tail


Almost nothing is pure fiction anymore. That’s

certainly true for our search for eternal life, and

my story The Devil’s Song. So, while I am

writing fiction, fiction and truth walk hand

in hand. One day we will know where one stops

and the other begins. When that day comes we

may gain our deepest wish. *

Double helix DNA Watson & Crick photo 19523

James Watson and Francis Crick describe the double

helix DNA molecule in 1953. The “double strand”

configuration was history’s defining moment. Immortality

seemed just around the genetic bend.

How to Live Forever 

The rare air of the San Luis Valley is stimulating and I wonder if people here are healthier. I don my old brown cardigan sweater, jeans, and hiking boots and spend the morning exploring the town of Alamosa. I promise myself warmer clothes at Wal-Mart. Retracing my steps I locate the Student Union at Adams State College and hang around the register area until I see Conrad walk in. Short sleeves, my God. He’s clearly ten years older, and I hope wiser.

“Hey Forrester, let’s get some coffee and talk.” It’s as if we last saw each other Monday.

He looks at me carefully but never says I look fit. Maybe he is wiser.

Universities and colleges are the only

institutions where demented geniuses,

anti-Americans, and psychotic gangsters

survive and flower. Well, maybe Hollywood

and its offspring can compete.

The Student Union is swarming with attractive young women, bantering males, and the clattering of dishes moving from full to empty. The noon sun rushes in from oversized windows at the north and east, framing the distant Colorado Rockies in their understated magnificence. A hint of winter slips through the doors as students come and go.

Conrad and I plow through the buffet line. We manage to find a small table near a window overlooking a well-clipped garden and the mountains beyond. Only then do I see that Conrad’s food tray has three cups of steaming coffee and two chocolate chip cookies. I should have known. So much for a quiet luncheon.

“Well,” Conrad ventures as he crams a cookie in his mouth, “how do you like Adams State College? Far removed from the technoglamour of Berkeley, but, hey, it has its advantages.” He eyes a denim-clad beauty reading a calculus book at a nearby table. “Did you know that Coronado made it all the way to this site on a tributary of the Rio Grande River?”

I taste my fried chicken and consider why I hadn’t refused to join Conrad in his grandiose scheme. “Jesus, Conrad, either you’re way ahead of your time, or – and this is what I suspect – you’re delusional. You can’t just flip a genetic switch and expect to get younger.” I start to say more but he won’t let it come out.

“What’s your problem, Mark; have you no faith in science?” He begins working on his second cup of coffee and looking freely around the dining area. “Not only can it be done, I’m going to do it, with your help, with your help. I’ve isolated plenty of genes that affect aging, and now I’m ready to put a picture together. Maybe I can’t change aging like a genetic switch, but I’m damn close to it. You’re here, and that’s what counts. You’ll come around. Just wait.”

I look at Conrad with disbelief. Sure he is a damn good molecular biologist, but not that good. He is like a deprived little boy with his first electric train and a ticket to Mars. In fact, when I look closely at his intense nearly black eyes I see that bright, ambitious, and excited boy. I also see a black cavern without end and without explanation.

“Conrad, I don’t know why the hell I agreed to come. It can’t be because of your winning personality. Maybe I’m just bored. I badly need . . . I don’t know. But I do know the literature. All attempts to reverse the aging process are made of tissue paper.” Damn, he is laughing at me. “We stuff our cabinets with vitamins, fish oils, and supplements, jog ’till our ribs show white, avoid cell-damaging UV stimulation, and meditate until the cows come home. The end still comes, often as a random matter, a genetic imperative, or a quirk of unavoidable fate. We might, through un-Godly sacrifices, slow the death clock for seconds, minutes or days, as if that matters, but we never pass backward to remain at a preferred state. How could it be different?”

With what might have been a smirk, Conrad finishes his third coffee and looks around. “I’m going to get another cup of coffee. Do you want something? But, dear friend, I leave you with a simple comment and a tiny quiz. You’ve been talking only about life extension in humans. You’re right there, so far. Now I want you to consider the evidence in other species. I mean stuff that has never been tried with humans. Talk to me about that before you tell me I’m crazy.” With a small grunt he moves quickly toward the largest coffee urn, but unnecessarily close to the young woman with the shiny black hair and a worn calculus book. The woman moves slightly in response to the breeze generated by Conrad.

“Megalomaniac, megalomaniac,” the words keep pumping in my brain, interfering with a grand view of the eastern slope of the mountains. The union slowly becomes quiet, as students slip away for their MWF classes or find a corner to pursue their studies, worm their way through the Internet on laptops, or punch out numbers on their cell phones.

Conrad bounces double-time back to our table showing saucer-wide eyes. I see his Napoleonic profile that so closely fits his aspiring ambitions. Had Napoleon been as focused and smart we’d all be driving French cars, God forbid.

He sits, lines up his three fresh coffees, and challenges me with a simple “Well?” As he impatiently wafts through his fourth cup of coffee, I finish my chicken and dump the remains in a nearby trash can. I sit down just a bit off center and feel pains that again announce my age. “Well?” he repeats with an edge of agitation in his voice. “What animal studies, where longevity has been stretched beyond belief, would you say have relevance to human rejuvenation? Come on, let’s take a look.” He’s waving his hands in synchrony.

I grab his flashing eyes with my own gaze, wipe the chicken grease from my mouth with a paper napkin, adjust my glasses, and begin, not knowing where my thoughts will lead.

“I think, Conrad, that the biggest barrier you face is not genetic or physiological, but philosophical. You can tinker with the mechanisms, but ultimately your real problem is understanding what time is. Can it reverse itself? That, it seems, is what you’re up to, bending time by changing the DNA or whatever. Damn, man, if time is an arrow with only one direction, coming from the deep past through a nanosecond of the present, shooting forward into the future, then you haven’t a chance. You may be able to slow the arrow, but you can never change its trajectory.”

“Hmm,” Conrad muses. “You’re an evolutionist, not a philosopher, and I asked you about important animal studies. Besides, I don’t give a damn about philosophical issues. I got a half-dozen pretty good philosophers here at Adams State, and as far as I can tell, the only thing they know about is their own history. I’m so sick of hearing about Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s axioms, Socrates’ morality, and Kant’s imperatives, that the drivel simply comes in one ear and out onto the floor through the other. They don’t have a clue as to what’s important. Anyone who hasn’t had a new idea in over 2,000 years doesn’t have a word worth listening to.”

With that Conrad points to the gray ceramic tiles, letting me know where my philosophical thoughts went.

“It is the problem, the problem.” I persist. “You may not like it, but there it is. Now, just because no one understands time, doesn’t mean that there’s no solution. I think there is. I’m just a used-up biologist, 20 years your senior, but it strikes me that an evolutionary perspective might clear the air, and even make your genetic experiments more useful.”

I  finally have Conrad’s interest. He starts to drink from his fifth cup of coffee, but nervously puts his cup back down with a clatter. “This better be good,:” he says quietly. “Go on.”

My thoughts are coming together inexplicably, more cohesive than they have been in years. Maybe it’s because of the lack of oxygen at well over a mile high. “Okay, here’s what I think. Natural selection has cobbled together millions of organisms for only one purpose, reproduction. But to do that natural selection has had to work against the processes of entropy.”

“What? Entropy,” Conrad exclaims. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Everything,” I reply. “In a closed system, where no additional energy is coming in, all systems tend toward randomness – eventually all organized systems deteriorate, break apart, and become, well, simply, molecules without order. It’s like a chocolate cookie crumbling in your hand.” I eyed his remaining cookie.

“Okay, so what? We all know what entropy is.”

I see the skepticism, skepticism that in fact we share. “Here’s my point, Conrad. If it weren’t for entropy, we wouldn’t believe that there is time. There would be no time; there would be only eternal stability. We actually form our concepts of time around the process of entropy. One event after another breaks down order into chaos. We see it, and it seems to flow in only one direction. We call it time, our obsession with deterioration and death. Take your chocolate chip cookie as a model for the universe. When you simply hold it up, nothing is happening, at least to our naked eye, but if you crumble it, it moves from a state of order to one of disorder. Essentially, if the cookie doesn’t change there is no time, but as it crumbles we see the accumulation of disorder. It changes; it shows the progress associated with time. It has time.”

“I’m beginning to lose you, Professor. Where are you headed?”

I put out my hand as if to hold Conrad to his chair. “Physicists are beginning to question whether there really is a time line in the universe. Maybe there isn’t. We just interpret correlated events as time. For example, the late Nobel Laureate at the University of Texas, Ilya Prigogine believed that there are pockets in the universe, where the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that is, entropy, doesn’t hold. With sufficient energy and through self-assembling processes, more complex forms are born, not less complex forms that we experience as entropy. The arrow of time is reversed. Again, when you make the cookie from the various ingredients you are building order. There is a change and we see that change as evidence of time. In this case it’s anti-entropic, but nevertheless time-specific. If you believe all this, then time can run in different directions, forward and backward, and it moves at different speeds.

“So, here’s your bottom line, Conrad. Natural selection has targeted processes that act in opposition to entropy. It had to be that way or organisms would not have survived long enough to reproduce. In other words, there has been evolution of traits in young animals that move random molecules toward new orders, an actual reversal of time.”

Conrad forgets his coffee and sinks into his own worldview. Moments pass. “Tell me, Mark, what kinds of genes build characters; what kind of genes change time? Where are they on strands of DNA?”

I hesitate, down some water, and watch Conrad squirm. I could have guessed his question. “There may be an answer. Certainly your question is the important one. These genes act early in life and control development. They are ordinary genes with the extraordinary job of reversing entropy. Remember, development is a building process that gives life; it is not the destroyer; it is not a degenerative process. It’s a generative process. It builds time into the organism. In a sense, it builds cookies.”

Conrad isn’t satisfied. “But, but, all organisms die sometime. We may develop, but at some point entropy sets in, and it’s curtains.”

“I know, Conrad, and yes there’s a mystery here. The developmental geneticists believe that the genes for growth and development are there only to serve reproduction. Once reproduction takes place and that critical game is over the genes shut down or actually become disruptive. They’re useless, and to throw in a metaphor, natural selection no longer cares. What we then see clearly is entropic time whittling away at the grand structure cobbled together by natural selection.

“Conrad, I haven’t really thought about it before this moment, but what you should be doing is isolating developmental genes that build new structures and functions. You ask, what kinds of genes are these? Fair question, and I don’t know for sure. But I’ll put my money on homeobox genes – hox genes. As you know, these are genes that control the development of the overall body plan of vertebrate and invertebrate species, everything from insects to primates. During embryonic development their actions specify head from tail, left from right, and the organization of wings, limbs, and organ systems. They are clearly anti-entropic genes. Conrad, these are the most critical genes that natural selection has put together to reverse time, if only for the short time necessary for reproduction to occur. Further, and this should really interest you, these genes are nearly identical, no matter which species you look at. In evolutionary parlance, hox genes are highly conserved over millions of generations and species. They are the most essential genes that all organisms share.

“If you can find out how they are regulated by physiological and environmental stimuli, you can turn hox genes on again in older individuals and essentially stave off death forever more, maybe with chemical triggers.” I look directly at Conrad and say deliberately, “Forget the slight variations in genes that extend lifespan They’re trivial. Get out of the gene mutation business. Go for the jugular and create new life in organisms that are reaching their limits. Build time into aching bodies.”

Conrad is silent, as though hypnotized. At last he puts his thoughts together. “There’s something that really bothers me with your scheme. What I think about is the vast number of genes that are expressed during development. Get this: In fruit flies, Drosophila, Michelle Arbeiman and her colleagues have shown that most genes first become active during early development. Some of these genes later become active again, but about 88 percent do their developmental job early. In fact, about 86 percent of all their genes sampled change in activity during development. Now, let’s see. If we’re guessing that Drosophila has about 10,000 genes total, that means that over 8,500 genes have something to do with development.

“This is crazy. There is no way to figure out which ones are truly critical – it’s like looking for a rare species of fish in the whole Pacific Ocean – impossible.”

“No, Conrad, who the hell cares what genes are important late in development.” I’m sweating under icy skies. “What’s critical is finding and activating the earliest ones that regulate everything else, including future genetic activity. That’s why I think that hox genes are important. They function early and trigger hundreds and thousands of subsequent genes. These are the only ones you have to worry about; the others take care of themselves.

“Think of it this way. It’s like putting together a complex car in a factory. There are thousands of parts that go together, but they easily find their place once the simpler underlying chassis is constructed. Everything depends on this initial framework. What I’m telling you is that the few homeobox genes are fundamentally important in creating the human chassis. Once that’s done everything else follows in logical sequence. It self-assembles. Sure, a shoebox full of genes is needed to create a fly, but only a few genes act as triggers. I think these are the hox genes.

“If we can reactivate these critical genes in older individuals a new wave of development will occur. Old parts will be replaced by new parts. Entropic time is replaced by developmental time. That’s what I think.”

I am sweating bullets. None of this stuff had I thought about in any detail. It just comes to me, percolating through my unconscious, guided by who I am and what I learn, finally spilling out over a small sun-drenched table in Alamosa, Colorado. It is a beautiful concept, as grand as the Rocky Mountains. I know it is right, its beauty convinces me. I know I’ll be dead tired by dinner but for now I’m as young as Conrad.

Conrad drops his hands in his lap and sits still for the first time. I hit a home run and don’t even realize I hold a bat. He looks up with a stare that cuts to the deep, reminding me of what Ibana cautioned about the dark side of Conrad. The chocolate chip cookie goes down Conrad’s gullet: his smoky eyes snap with sparks from an unknown land. Conrad says, “Mark, with your help we can destroy God once and for all.”

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, August 1, 2014.

Thiessen photo

*Chapter from The Devil’s Song.

Posted in destiny, evolution, genetic, molecular biology, natural selection, philosophy science, science, survival, Thiessen | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Evolution Toward Juvenile Attributes Another Look at Neoteny

Genghis Khan photo transition


Double cat tail Friday’s Tail

If a reproducing adult individual of a species appears juvenile it is referred to as neotenized. Primates in general and humans in particular are neotenized, as if they have retained youthful traits even as older adults. Not only do neotenized individuals retain youthful features, but they also retain juvenile behaviors.  The deep implication of neoteny is that some species evolve rapidly by expanding in body and brain size. They do not necessarily become specialized through a long period of natural selection for species-specific traits, but, instead, quickly change in form as they enlarge in size.

For example, humans are closely related to common ancestors of the chimpanzee, having separated from the great ape line within the short evolutionary period of about 5 million years. We differ in our DNA from the chimpanzee by less than a couple of percentage points, even though we seem to be unique in so many ways. But the differences we see seem to be more developmental rather than genetic. To get the full impact of that fact, compare the adult human to the adult and juvenile chimpanzee (see the illustrations below). We have retained the juvenile traits of our ape ancestors and as adults look much different than the adult form of our ancestors.


The neotenized individual not only looks more juvenile, but its behavior is also more like a juvenile. Thus a neotenized adult human retains juvenile curiosity, playfulness, inventiveness, friendly smile, and reduced aggression. Neotenized dogs, as well as other neotenized species follow a similar pattern. Today’s adult dogs are generally more neotenized than their ancient wolf ancestors. Not all traits are neotenized to the same degree.

Neotony in four species Lorenz Dog Cat neotony Chimp neotony

Much of the early work on neoteny and other growth trajectories was

described by evolutionary ethologists and

addressed by Steven J. Gould (Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Belknap Press, 1977;

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Belknap Press, 2002). Two spellings

appear in the literature: neoteny and neotony.

Neotony Mickey Mouse

The second major point is that human observers are often attracted to individuals who are juvenile or are neotenized as adults. Ordinarily infant care is stimulated by juvenile traits, and that tend is also apparent among adults. Thus, the neotenized adult human, like the juvenile, has a bulbous head, large flat face, small nose, and pouty mouth. It is also more playful, less aggressive, and has cuddly, traits that attract attention and care-taking. The neotenic individual is also thought to have a positive and outgoing personality.  Men, by the way, are especially attracted to adult females who appear highly neotenized.

In general, we can conclude that juvenile features in adults elicit positive reactions and have less threatening personalities. As I indicated in the last blog, Walt Disney recognized these associations in the development of physical and behavioral characteristics of his movie screen characters. When Mickey Mouse was first introduced to the world in 1928, he was configured as an adult without juvenile traits; that is, Mickey was not neotenized. Mickey had sharp features, a slanting forehead, a fairly long snout and nose, small eyes, and little fat on the face or body. He was also strident, irresponsible, and aggressive, and not particularly likeable, somewhat psychotic.

Over the years, Disney found that the original Mickey with distinct features and bad manners was improved at the box office as his artists began to neotenize Mickey. By 1990 Mickey Mouse was totally redesigned (given new birth) as a neotenized character: he had a flatter face, less sharp features, a more bulbous cranium, a pouty mouth, and larger eyes. He was also friendly, less aggressive, and was loved by all. Mickey’s audience knew that he could do no wrong – those are the intuitive message of neoteny. Mickey is now 86 years of age but is still bouncing around as a grown-up juvenile. The changes Disney made with Mickey were worth billions of dollars to the Disney studio. Perhaps the same transformation occurred with Genghis Khan, who is now portrayed as juvenile in form and behavior.

Neotenized individuals (or species who are neotenized) may have larger brains and cognitive capacities, possess a more monogamous lifestyle, receive more help from others. be preferred as mates, and live longer. They may also have ecological advantages associated with complex mental processes. Whatever the case, many evolutionary lines have moved toward increased neoteny, suggesting that adaptive advantages associated with neoteny can rapidly change the phenotype of a species without a great deal of gene change along the way.

There is an obvious increase in neoteny among fossilized and contemporary species. Primates are more neotenized than non-primates; old world primates are more neotenized than new world monkeys; early hominids or related species are more neotenized than great apes and old world monkeys. We see the same changes through the sequence of fossilized  A. Africanus, H. Erectus, and H. Habilis. H. Neanderthal species show greater neoteny than their precursors, but still had less overall neoteny in their physiques and behaviors than more recent hominids, including H. sapiens.

Neanderthal Human crainum

Neoteny quickly changes the observer’s perception and intuitive (innate) judgments.

In my next blog I will take up the larger question of the association of body form with behavior. How much can we rely on the morphological traits we see and measure as predictors of brain processes, behavior and genetic variations?  If you stayed with me this long on the issue of neoteny, you may find that the next blog will address some of our larger behavioral questions about behavior. Hope so.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, July 25, 2014

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Paintings, Psychopaths, and Propaganda



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Genghis Khan image wohn wynne

John Wayne once played Genghis Khan in the 1956 movie, Conqueror, but no one knows what Genghis Khan (~1162-1227) actually looked like. No one painted his portrait, etched his likeness in marble, or took his photograph. The record is thin and unclear: He was mostly illiterate, but obviously intelligent. Unfortunately, we have no measure of his oratory capabilities, and there was no art or technology to capture his image.  I doubt that he looked as good as John Wayne. I do suspect that he was the first to sing “This land is my land.”

The absence of information is frustrating, but it also has propaganda advantages.  It makes it easy for those who would like to upgrade or change Genghis’s politics, as we can image him in any way we wish: we can fit his physical image to fit the ideology we construct. After all, as told us by Henry Ford, many people don’t give a damn about history. Who is the wiser when history is altered?

We do know that the earlier image-makers depicted Khan on horseback, with weapons flourishing, and  with a fierce and rough demeanor, sort of a magnified apocalypse slicing through his enemies with divine retribution. His woman was one of hundreds he romanced. He may have killed fifteen or more millions on his ride to glory – people who opposed his rule or defended freedom. But today, the images of the Great Khan have converged toward a grandfather-like pose, with kindly features dripping of Asian wisdom and hard-won compassion.

Genghis Khan photo transition

Even his skin has been artistically smoothed out, and he looks more like Gautama Buddha than a conquering warrior. The pale face of the Great Khan was flattened by the loss of emotion, small muscles were relaxed, tension gone, pigments receding, skull more vaulted, eyes enlarged – the perfect image of political indifference and youthful curiosity. Genghis was transformed into a nice guy by artists who made his dark philosophy seem acceptable. The art that followed the purification of the Khan’s storyline (now recognized as one of the 100 most auspicious events in history by Time Magazine)  may have been altered unconsciously by artists who sympathized with his development of a big and centralized government.

Biologists refer to physical changes that invoke youth and innocence as neotony, and that is perhaps the  political direction that altered the biopsychology of the Great Khan. We are driven by physical forms that remind us of juvenile innocence, an evolutionary reshaping of traits that are pleasing and that carry selective advantages for survival and reproduction.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, July 18, 2014.

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Art and the Expression of Empathy

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The visual arts have changed radically over the past 500 years as artists reach for intuitive understanding of human qualities. Expressionism is one of these movements that promise a better understanding of our emotional world and our evolved links to other species. The movement centers on our empathetic nature and how the artist can focus on emotions as the central issue in the understanding of us. It also has importance in our attempts to comprehend why psychopaths lack empathy and as a result move toward the accumulation of power and a tendency toward evil. It is truly amazing what a brushstroke or a sculpture may reveal.

Hirsh Sharon Latchaw

Sharon Latchaw Hirsh

A wise woman, President of Rosemont College and Professor of Art History, Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, recently said this about the art movement called Expressionism.

Expressionism was the first full artistic movement

of the 20th century becoming a major movement in

France and Germany around 1905.  Expressionism

prized personal expression through deliberate

stylistic distortion. Color, line, composition, and space

are determined by what the artists want to express,

rather than by what they observed in nature. The

purpose of Expressionism is not to be decorative or

even necessarily pleasurable but to produce empathy

in the viewer.

The Great Courses: How to Look at and

Understand Great Art, 2011

Accordingly, the artist’s job is to highlight the emotional characteristics of empathy and “to hell with the rest.”  For years I have been startled to see what I considered to be inconsiderate junk art. To say that the art was “abstract” was too kind. Frankly, much of what passes for art is in fact junk, much in desperate response to the instant representations available with the camera and the failure of imagination. But, I went too far in my rejection. For that error I will no doubt pay dearly. But, still, nothing can compete with the painting representations of life forces given to us by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome or in his classical sculptures.

Michelangelo's David

David, confident of victory, rock in one hand, sling in the other. Nothing gets better than this.

Mattias Grunewald Jesus

An early forerunner of the Expressionism artistic movement is actually found in a 1515 depiction of Jesus on the cross by Matthias Grunewald, where Christ’s hands are distorted by the agonizing  pain of death. Below that scene the same distortion is seen in Mary Magdalene’s hands, a severe empathic reflection of the agony of Christ.

This Renaissance depiction of empathy is clear to the observer. More important theoretically, it became a model for much later artists interested in communicating emotion with distortions of shape and color. With the Expressionism movement, the only thing important is conveying empathy: realism, strict composition, shapes, and colors take on abstract qualities – often upsetting to the observer. But it is hard to overlook the central meaning.

The everlasting power of the Expressionism movement is that it is a technique for probing the unconscious mind, much like the ambivalent Rorschach ink blots can sometimes do. Briefly, the links in my story can be seen through the corridors of history.

Rorschach ink blot test

What do you see? You see yourself.

According to Professor Hirsh, the philosophical pillars of Expressionism are part of the German mind. Theodor Lipps, a philosopher and esteemed psychologist in the early 20th century was concerned with theories of art and the aesthetic mind, and was a major supporter of the ideas of the unconscious mind. Lipps focused on “empathy,” a construct advanced by another German scholar, Robert Vischer.  Sigmund Freud drew on Lipps’ ideas, and Lipps, in turn, anticipated Carl Jung’s notions of the collective unconscious. Lipps also advanced the notion that inner imitation is the basis for empathy. As an example, he suggested that perceived motions by tight rope walkers and related affective expressions are “instinctively” and simultaneously mirrored by kinesthetic strivings in the observer. This is truly an uncanny anticipation of contemporary thinking.

This pivotal idea of empathy became the basis for “Theories of the Mind,” (the sharing of cognitive patterns because of shared physiology), now part of evolutionary psychology, and the related neurophysiological demonstration that imitation and empathy are reflections of common neural activity (“mirror neurons”). Who would have ever believed that theories of aesthetics, visual art, Expressionism, notions of the unconscious mind, psychoanalysis, evolution, and neurophysiology would align themselves like star constellations to explain intuition and empathy? But, hey, there they are – masterstrokes of human creativity and self-understanding.

Marc Franz Blue Fox

The Blue Fox 1911

In one of the better art representations of the central focus on empathy is the Blue Fox by Franz Marc. In it Marx distorts the size and shape of the animal, eliminates common contextual clues, uses colors and shapes that seem incompatible, and gives us virtually no story or hint about the condition of the fox. What is left is a concentrated exposure to the inner emotions of this lone animal in its fox confines. We are forced, as if by a laser, into inactive appreciation and unconscious contemplation.

The simple work of art is a haunting reminder of the mystery of life and an unfailing journey into the universal threads that make all life precious and yet unapproachable in its full dimensions. For all but the psychopath the empathy is direct and so intense as to be almost intolerable. The poet Emily Dickenson drew an analogous association in the late 1800s when she said that the intense beauty of nature in all its forms tested her sanity.

When one stares at this beautiful fox, one is likely to feel the loneliness and desperation of the animal. Has the mate failed to return to the den? Has it escaped death once again? Will the Blue Fox come to terms with its unfulfilled hungers? Will its heavy heartbeat abate?  Will it find its mate by morning’s light? Is peace of mind ever possible? The quirky and often depressive destiny of the fox is transformed into our own uncertain and calamitous life. What do you see in the Blue Fox? You see yourself.

Expressionism shows us that sympathy is not empathy. Sympathy is a superficial gesture toward the anguished, as if we understand, but true empathy is the experience of going through that same anguish. It is experiencing the torture of nails on the cross, or the loss that the Blue Fox feels for its mate, or the unreasonableness of losing a great love, and the questioning of the will to survive. In total this is the texture of understanding all life, misery, and death, and it can also be the mysterious euphoria felt from a simple communication with another individual.

We miss the cues of empathy all around us in part because we suppress our fears through action and distraction – safe from death and longing as long as we are busy. It is only during the deep quietness of darkness and during meditative states that we center on ultimate questions and ultimate discoveries. So, instantaneous satisfaction comes from the complexity of our visual scenes (Vincent van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows, for example); knowledge comes from singly facing our unconscious self as we seek the truth about ourselves in simple forms of empathy

Neurophysiologists are linking those qualities of empathy with shared neural responses (“mirror neurons”) that are activated during imitation, when the common adaptations of natural selection in one animal capture the reflection of another mind. In many ways empathy signals our common DNA code that supports all ambitions and all fears. The universal messages are as deep as the Universe stretches. Yet, it is our intuition, our creations, our inner life, and our evolved moral outreach that finally determine our fate – empathy that cannot be replaced by scientific logic.

Next wag of the cat’s tail will extend our use of art in the depiction of form and function and their place within the pantheon of universal connections.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, July 11, 2014

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The Universal Message of Psychopathy

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Again, I stress that we are an evolved species with traits that permitted life and reproduction among the string of ancestors leading us to coffee and scones at Starbuck’s. The strong and lusty genesis of psychopathy, as well as all other behavioral and physiological systems, lies quietly in the long-ago field of battle between us (our type) and all the other competitors that shared the same unyielding environment.

Look once more at a list of psychopathic traits, so I can make a more general evolutionary point.










Low anxiety

Low fear


Violent aggressive


No remorse

No guilt

Seeks stimulation

Early temporal developmentally

Again I want to recap a major point. The above traits may be occasionally shared by you and me but the fact is, the list describes one of my favorite cats, Houdini. The implications are clear: cat psychopathy is much like human psychopathy and can be generalized up and down the vertebrate phylum, and may be a general strategy in countless species that walked this earth (My son, Trevor, asked if dogs are psychopathic, and I would answer “Yes.” but the expression seems reserved in canine species until we look at wolf behavior and wild domestic dogs).

These tough attributes of species are heavily influenced by genes conferring benefits and only modestly influenced by the environment – they appear early in development and just don’t go away – they tell us a universal truth about natural selection and the survival of the few, the few genetic lines that somehow made it through the scrutiny of natural selection.

The hard sell in our current society is this. No hominid species would have made it to our present world had it not been for the motivations to beat the competition, destroy the opposition, find food, shelter, manipulate the environment, cooperate with tribal members, find a mate and propel those genes into the next generation. Greed, and all the other seven deadly sins, may be good for reproduction as well as wealth-building in a host of vertebrate species. Winning, however accomplished, has always been a major formula for genetic immortality. Nike’s March 2013 ad featuring Tiger Woods says it emphatically: “Winning takes care of everything.”

We try to look beyond the simple fulcrum between good and evil, but sometimes the devolvement of moral principles is staggering. Society’s intents blur and our criteria shift. Narcissism becomes a sign of confidence; wrath becomes retribution and escapes moral condemnation; demands for redistribution are confused with equality, lust and sexual aggression are laid at the feet of the victim; greed is disguised as human deprivation; empathy is ignored in the guise of achievement; criminal acts become expressions of social justice; gluttony is shaded crystalline as people rationalize their hidden desires; and envy becomes privileged criticism. We may seem to be emblazoned with the power to create a moral and ethical environment beyond the force of evolution, but the outcome can be little more than genetic drives clothed in acceptable attire.

Of course bad behaviors are not always the direct fault of evolution long past. We expect that the environment will help shape the expression of our more basic traits. One of the most fundamental characteristics of the human form is to respond differentially to the unevenness of the environment. Still, in the end, a cat is still a cat, a Neanderthal is still a Neanderthal, and Tiger Woods is still Tiger Woods, whether living in a cave, in a tree, under a thatched roof, pursuing other species, or contemplating our origin.

Who foresees our destiny? Well, it is not some mythical creature, or incomprehensible force, or the whiplash of the environment, but the “selfish gene” in all of its dark beauty. We may ache in our hearts when we lay bare the condition of man, where survival and endurance are at the heart of darkness and are often reflected in pools of blood and DNA that tells.

It’s time for a break.


            A city fellow, driving around the back woods of Montana, stopped

when he saw a sign near a small house which read: “Talking dog

for sale.’’ Indeed the owner told the city fellow that he had a talking

dog for sale, ushering him to the back yard where he met “Black

Diamond.” Our traveler turned to the dog and asked: “Do you talk?”

Black Diamond said: “Yes, I talk.” When the traveler recovered he said,

“So, what’s your story?”

The Lab looked up and said, “Well, I discovered that I could talk when I

was pretty young. I wanted to help the government, so I applied to work

for the CIA. In no time they had me jetting from country to country, sitting

in rooms with spies and world leaders because no one figured a dog

would be eaves dropping. I was one of their most valuable spies for

eight years running. But the jetting around really tired me and I decided

to settle down and retire. I signed up for a job at the airport to do some

under cover security, wandering near suspicious characters and

listening in. I uncovered some incredible dealings and was awarded

a batch of medals, got married, had a mess of puppies, and now I’m just


Our traveler was amazed, quickly asking the dog owner what he wanted

for the dog. “Ten dollars, the guy said.”

“What only ten dollars? The dog is amazing; why on earth are you asking

such a low price?”

The owner looked at our traveler and replied: “Because Black Diamond is

a damn liar. He never did any of that shit he told you.”

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, July 4, 2014. Happy Birthday USA

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Thr Right Stuff at the Wrong Time

Image is from Science Daily 2013


Cat black tail FRIDAY’S TAIL

Eiluned Pearce and his colleagues at the London Natural History Museum offer a new view of behavioral differences between Neanderthals and modern Europeans. Above is a photo of the cranial shapes of Neanderthal on the left and Cro-Magnon (early modern) skulls. The new look may prove to be a valuable clue to understanding the evolution of psychopathy.

The general picture is that Neanderthal had a brain equal to or even larger than modern man. The enlarged eye sockets and extended occipital lobes of the brain, and a relatively smaller cranium, suggest that the species had huge eyes and was highly visual, perhaps with a large cranial space devoted to processing visual information. In keeping with the walking and running capacities of Neanderthal, and its highly developed motor skills, more of the brain may have been devoted to muscle control and neuromuscular integration.

By contrast, modern man had a more vaulted cranium (greater higher cortical involvement). Neanderthal was a person of high activity, a mesomorphic (muscular) body form, and enlarged capacities for aggression and close-up battering involved in hunting large mammals with primitive spears. H. sapiens was taller, less compact, less muscular, less combative, more versatile in hunting skills and tool use, more anticipatory in its thinking, and probably more monogamous. *

Here is my hypothesis. This early human Neanderthal shared several traits that we see in psychopathic modern humans: it was agile, mesomorphic, aggressive, risk taking, probably dependent heavily on quick processing of critical information (System-1 style: reflexive) and less dependent on conceptual processing of environmental information (System-2 style: thoughtful). The mesomorphic body form suggests higher levels of blood testosterone, and possibly higher levels of dopamine, greater sensation seeking, high risk taking, and lower levels of monogamous bonding. In other words, Neanderthal may have been the early human representation of the psychopathic personality.

There are other examples of archaic human forms that seem to follow the behavioral pattern of Neanderthal and eventually lost out in the competition with more recent human species. One that has received a lot of archaeological ink is Homo floresiensis, discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores by Mike Morwood and his colleagues in 2003 (

Hobbit brain size eye size-17-2013 8-27-21 AM

This species is known for its small adult physical size (e.g. 55 lbs. and 3 ft. 6 in. in height) with a brain size of about 426 cubic centimeters, the size of brains of chimpanzees or the extinct pre-human australopithecines. It was nicknamed Hobbit after the small humanoids found in J.R.R. Tolkien books. It existed on Flores ranging from 94,000 to 13,000 years ago and is a close ancestor to us. It may have lived on the island contemporaneously with other early modern humans. It was an adept tool-maker and a successful hunter of young elephants on the island. It may be the shortest and smallest of the family of humans discovered thus far.

The species is controversial. It is thought by some that its small brain size may be due to microcephaly, abnormal pituitary function, or an unknown disease.  Several specimens have been uncovered. At this point the consistent anatomical form and the absence of disease are consistent with the belief that Homo floresiensis is a distinct but related modern human.

Of interest in our context is that the cranial characteristics of Hobbit has anatomical similarities to Neanderthal, such as receding forehead, large eye sockets, and an absence of a chin bone. Behavioral similarities are that the species probably lived in caves, cooked with fire, hunted in groups, and used spears to bring down large game. The brain may have been proportionately dedicated to visual processing and fast-action motor capabilities related to the hunting of large and dangerous elephants. It, too, like Neanderthal, may have had exaggerated psychopathic traits. They may have failed in competition with H. sapiens because of their disruptive behaviors.

We lack confirming details: the more primitive and early forms of human, exemplified by the male psychopath, may have been the nucleus from which the more communal type of human arose. The essential characteristics for survival and reproduction were selected into the hominid linage in many derivative species millions of years ago, suggesting why some forms of psychopathy are so difficult to modify using psychological techniques. We may have benefited from reduced violence and dependence on dangerous species for food, but we still are saddled with at least some early dangerous behaviors.

*One assumption running throughout this discussion is that there are relations between the size of different aspects of the brain (e.g., visual aspects) and their functional use in dealing with the environment. Later blogs will look more carefully at the evidence.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, June 28, 2014.

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Creating New Neanderthal Right Around the Corner


Double helix DNA

The DNA Code of Conduct

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The problem with natural selection is that it not only favors traits of tribal altruism, love, and empathy – traits that can facilitate bonding, mating and reproduction – but it tends to build “monsters,” that prosper because of aggression, callousness, high narcissism, and murder. Like our domestic cat that sometimes shows all of these qualities, many other species show a mixed bag of love and hate, good and evil, and potential destruction. The Genetic Codes of Evolution often specify species types, but are very similar in their responsiveness to environmental imperatives.

We can venture even further into the heart of evolutionary darkness in our attempts to differentiate psychopaths and non-psychopaths. Eiluned Pearce and his colleagues of the Natural History Museum in London highlight differences in cranial and brain configurations for Homo neanderthals and Homo sapiens that possibly reflect individual and social behavioral differences among these genetically similar species. These differences may help explain why Homo sapiens increased in dominance in European regions, whereas Neanderthals went extinct.


Charles Darwin believed that the fossil record for H. neanderthal and H. sapiens in Africa indicated evolutionary changes among these closely related species. The first  Neanderthal skulls in Africa were found in the 1820s. They were so similar in characteristics to modern humans that they were often misclassified. Yet, there were striking differences between species. Over the years the remains for over 400 Neanderthals have been found.

About 60% of the entire genome of Neanderthal has been characterized. Careful analyses indicate significant differences in anatomical features, even though recent genetic analyses show up to a 99.9% genetic similarity between Neanderthal and modern man. Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany concludes that the Neanderthal linage began to diverge from modern man about 800,000 years ago and became distinct by 300,000 years ago. Interactions between the two human linages occurred for thousands of years in Europe, with Neanderthal disappearing from the fossil record about 35,000 years ago.

There has been some genetic inbreeding between the two human lines. The Neanderthal DNA includes some genes from our modern human immune system. DNA that codes for light colored skin and red hair has been identified in Neanderthal. More immediate for our interest are possible differences in psychopathic behaviors.

Cloned sheep

The “scientific buzz” is that the cloning of the Neanderthal phenotype is theoretically possible right now. Stretching the point a little, it may be possible to create tribes of special forces, armies of magnificent gourmet cooks, and bevies of Shakespearian writers just by efficient methods of cloning. According to behavioral biologist Carl Zimmer, writing for the National Geographic magazine (April, 2013), genetic cloning is likely to be possible for the most recently extinguished species because intact DNA cells may still be available in bone and can be reborn and differentiated in surrogate mothers.

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer, Biologist

In reality the only species we can hope to revive

now are those that died within the past few tens

of thousands of years and left behind remains

that harbor intact cells or, at the very least, enough

ancient DNA to reconstruct the creature’s genome.

Because of the natural rates of decay, we can hope

to retrieve the full genome of Tyrannosaurus rex,

which vanished about 65 million years ago.

(p 33)

Neanderthal (Homo neanderthal), because of the frequency of recent finds, falls within the critical age range, as does the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacimus cynocephalus), and Saber-Toothed Cat (Smilodon fatalis). These are just some of the species now being considered for de-extinction. Neanderthal would be perhaps the most unsettling re-creation. Just how would a modern-made Neanderthal, suddenly developing without its natural history and radically different social supports fit into current societies? What would its mentation be like and how would it be treated? How would it treat us?

Other possibilities for reformation (cloning) that come to mind might include Plato, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mother Teresa, Douglas MacArthur, Adolf Hitler, Albert Einstein, and other notables, if and when biological cells from their remains can be found. Reaching back in our short history for opportunities of human reincarnation should give us pause. Presumably, “the sins (and glories) of the father and mother are visited on the sons and daughters,” thus creating situations in which the clones might be shunned or venerated for their duplicated and famous genotypes and for behaviors that were never prompted by environments that we now have. Who might want to be neighbors to Hitler by any other name?

Ethical considerations of course speak strongly against the production of a viably cloned archaic or historical individual, but like other ethical impediments, may someday be circumnavigated in favor of pursuing the possible. Scientists often go for the glory of discovery and singular breakthroughs. We may encounter Socrates on the streets of Austin, asking embarrassing questions about moral principles, and Frankensteinian creations may outdo even that of Mary Shelley, the literary creator of the Frankenstein monster. Now is the hour to consider what we can do and what we should do.

Frankenstein Monster

But, back to Neanderthal. The behavioral differences between closely related human species may have been critical for the differential survival of the species. Neanderthals were short and stocky and more mesomorphic (muscular) relative to other archaic human species and modern H. sapiens. All hominid species walked upright, even before the brain increased massively in size and complexity. Neanderthal arms were shorter and the bones heavier and more dense. Their bones also show that approximately 25% of them suffered multiple breaks and repairs, suggesting that their hunting of large mammoths with spears, and other environmental hazards, had some negative consequences. H. neanderthal , relative to H. sapiens, may have had high levels of testosterone and the euphoria producing dopamine neurotransmitter, and it may have been more risk taking, crude, and aggressive.

Well, maybe Neanderthals were early forms of human psychopaths. If so, cloning could result in unexpected disasters like London’s Jack the Ripper. The more general point is that cloning and genetic manipulation are reaching ethical thresholds of scientific probabilities never before dreamed of. We will see that old ideas may shortly achieve new reality. Stay tuned every Friday for updates.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, June 20, 2014.

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Robert Oppenheimer Was Told by Government to Quit Barking and go Sit on the Porch


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Fate is nature in disguise, and we are in its hands.

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Hiroshima atomic blast 8-6-1945    Oppenheimer at Berkeley

Left: Atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets, Commander. Detonated at 19,00 feet, killing 80,000 to 140,000 people. Equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. Right: J. Robert Oppenheimer in earlier days teaching theoretical physics at UC Berkeley; architect of the Los Alamo nuclear project that delivered the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A short report on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 2005.

What could have been just another book about “the father of the atomic bomb,” became from the start one of the most profound stories of personal and scientific struggles ever published. Researched and written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin over a period of 25 years, it illuminates the birth of theoretical physics and its dramatic transformation of academic science into the new world of nuclear energy, bombs, missiles, satellites,  planetary probes, diplomacy, and devastating war.

It is also an investigation into the nature of science, its importance as a balance against the misuse of information by opponents in government and elsewhere, and especially about the spiritual conflicts of individual men and women in the quest for truth and the pursuit of a moral life. From this perspective American Prometheus is a story of an incredible man, Robert Oppenheimer, caught between his unquestioned love for the United States and his loyalties to friends, social causes, and attempts to live a responsible life.


In the early 1940s when Robert Oppenheimer had achieved iconic status as a theoretical physicist he became obsessed with a short story by Henry James titled The Beast in the Jungle (1903). In the story the protagonist John Marcher is seized with the belief that he was destined for some spectacular and catastrophic circumstance that was lying in wait for him like a “beast in the jungle.” The belief haunted Marcher and prevented him from living his life to the fullest. The foreboding sense prevented him from having a close relationship with May Bartram, a woman he admired but did not want to involve in a devastating event that he now anticipated. In general, he trembled at the thought of confronting the beast.*

The Beast in the Jungle

May was dying, but before her death her words told Marcher that the Beast had lurked hidden, and the Beast, at its hour, had sprung, and that he was already devoured. One year after her death Marcher returned to her grave. Another man wept at a nearby grave. Suddenly he understood. The beast that he feared, that incapacitated him and made him sterile, had destroyed him. The beast had taken his life and prevented him from tasting the depth of joy and tragedy. He saw the animal rise huge and hideous. Marcher’s eyes darkened at that moment and turning to avoid the hallucination; he flung himself face down on the tomb of the only one who had loved him.

Oppenheimer believed, too, like other great personalities of history, that something rare and strange would later happen to him and he knew that it would “overwhelm” him.” After the atomic bomb was developed and delivered, and when he realized the consequences of what he had done, he knew that the beast from the jungle had come for its feast. Robert in his distress quoted from the precious Hindu scripture of the Bhagavad-Gita where Vishnu was trying to persuade the prince to do his duty: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” To President Truman, after Hiroshima literally vanished under the force of the atomic bomb, Oppenheim quietly said “I have blood on my hands.” Truman didn’t get it.

In my view Robert Oppenheimer spent the rest of his life trying to put the genie back in the bottle. He had ended the war with Japan, saving, it is said, thousands of lives that would have been lost had  the allies been forced to invade Japan in order to obtain victory. But there was no equivalence in Oppenheimer’s mind, and like Prometheus who was chained to the stone face of a mountain by Zeus for stealing fire and giving it to humans, he would be punished.

Prometheus Bound and gagedPrometheus Bound

Oppenheimer tried to convince the military and the government to seek détente with our enemies (the Soviet Union quickly tested their atomic bomb) and not push forward building a super bomb. The contemplated hydrogen bomb would be hundreds of times more destructive than the atom bomb and could never be used as a tactical weapon. Because of this reticence he was put on trial (“inquiry,” it was called), wherein a humiliating storm of acquisitions and speculations on Oppenheimer’s professional and personal life were displayed in dishonest pieces. He was accused of being a card-carrying communist, a spy for the Soviet Union, and a threat as a physicist with access to highly secret documents.

He did have communist links; many of his friends were communist-leaning individuals and his wife, Kitty, had been a communist years before. This was common politics in the United States during the 1930’s and 1940’s when the communist Soviet Union was our ally in Europe fighting the Nazis. Oppenheimer’s explanation for his personal behavior and financial contributions to communist groups was that the communists who were in opposition to the rise of Hitler were thereby able to pay to bring German scientists, many of them Jews, to the United States where they could safely pursue their work.


*Henry James may have written one of the best short stories ever written. Clever James filled the gap between Marcher and May with the point of understanding occurring in the month May died, April. Had the story continued, my guess is that Marcher would have marched into June and died unfulfilled.


Regardless of good intents, Oppenheimer was deemed to be a possible threat to the United States because of his earlier communist associations and wide influence among scientists in the U.S. He had done nothing illegal. He lost his security clearance but maintained his leadership of the Princeton Institute where many physicists, including Albert Einstein, worked. The powers of the military and the Federal Government had blunted the force of Oppenheimer’s criticism of the building of the H-Bomb and planted suspicions in the public mind. McCarthyism was underway in America.

The explosive atmosphere of the security hearing of Robert Oppenheimer leaves us with the question if people can and should openly criticize the government in grave matters of policy. To this, Bird and Sherwin, the biographers of Oppenheimer, asked:

How should a man be judged, by his associations or

by his actions? Can criticism of a government’s policies

be equated with disloyalty to country? Can democracy

survive in an atmosphere that demands the sacrifice of

personal relationships to state policy? Is national security

well served by applying narrow tests of political conformity

to government employees? (p 526)

Those questions still remain, sometimes underlining the fact that governments often prefer scientific conformity to open and objective debate. The crude handling of global warming is a case in point, where data mean less to the Administration than conformity and where criticisms are subversive and not allowed.

In spite of the beast in the jungle always ready to pounce, Oppenheimer never wavered in his responsibility as a citizen or scientist. And he lived a full and vigorous life. He would not allow the beast in the jungle to consume him. Yes, he was nailed  to the cliff by Zeus for insubordination, and he suffered beyond calculation. Yet, he never flinched from his beliefs and he found relief and joy with his family, many friends and colleagues outside the shattering focus of condemnation and general curiosity. He was finally set free of events and judges of his actions. His last fight – with death – came in his sleep on Saturday, February 18, 1967.

His friend and colleague, Isidor Rabi wrote this in recognition: “In Oppenheimer the element of earthiness was feeble. Yet it was essentially this spiritual quality, this refinement as expressed in speech and manner, that was the basis of his charisma. He never expressed himself completely. He always left a feeling that there were depths of sensibility and insight not yet revealed.”

Many believe that he unwillingly became a martyr as large as Socrates and Galileo. Maybe, but in any case, Oppenheimer showed us how to live with responsibility, great losses, and unflinching integrity under fire. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin did the world a great service in writing  American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It is as important today as it was when it was published in 2005.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, June 13. 2014.

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Prometheus, Fire, and Psychopathy

Prometheus Bound and gagedInterpreted by author

Prometheus, a Greek Titan, inspired by The Fall of Paeton,

an engraving by Hendrik Goltzius (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Prometheus stole fire and gave it to men. But when

Zeus learned of it, he ordered Hephaestus to nail his

body to Mount Caucasus. On it Prometheus was nailed

and kept bound for many years. Every day an eagle

swooped on him and devoured the lobes of his liver,

which grew by night. According to some stories, after

great torment and punishment, he was freed at last by the

hero Heracles.

Apollodorus, The Library, book 1:7,

second century B.C.


Friday’s Tail of Great Dreams and Sorrows

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There are rare men and women, who, inspired by dreams of conquest or righteousness and obsessed by feelings of destiny, overreach with power. They compulsively put their moral integrity in great danger, disregard authority, and believe that they are too special to bend to the wishes of others. In our Western tradition Prometheus mythologizes the unreserved quest for knowledge, where, then, strivers overreach and face unintended consequences. In the Romantic era of our history, visionaries, who on a whim transformed civilization, were thought to be lone geniuses. With sacrifice and obsession they attempted to go beyond traditional ties and suffered as a result. Today we might consider them unbound Machiavellians with great desires and uncurbed appetites.

In tale and consequence, we have long recognized the psychopathic stain which drives humanity to unusual greatness or to destruction of the human spirit. In story form we have the Fountainhead written by Ayn Rand, where the uncompromising young architect, Howard Roark, burns his creations rather than compromise their beauty and utility. In another renown novel, Frankenstein, birthed by Mary Shelley, the grotesque monster from the dead is referred to in the title as The Modern Prometheus. Dr. Frankenstein, obsessed with the creation of life, intends no evil, yet his creation, stitched together from graveyard and slaughterhouse parts and fired in a wild storm, is hideous and suffers from loneliness and alienation. The new life form eventually brings Frankenstein to his knees and icy death. Shakespeare was the master of the Promethean macabre, achieved with different themes in Macbeth, Hamlet, and his other literary tragedies. Indeed, the Promethean story is one of the strongest and most compelling associations of greatness followed by tragedy or evil.

We only have to read the true stories of Prometheus to understand why these individuals stir ambivalence in our reactions. Jesus Christ has longevity in part because of the hideous transformation of good intents on the cross into death-warrants of the soul. T.E. Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia) is another. He lost his victory in fighting for the freedom of the Arabs at the conclusion of World War 1, when his dedication was shattered by the dividing of the spoils of war by the British and the French. Lawrence immediately lost the taste for creation and war, regressing into a death spiral of inactivity. Similarly, J. Robert Oppenheimer (the “father of the atom bomb”) was intellectually crucified by his enemies as he tried to contain the genie of death that he had brought forth in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Whether we fixate our view on the rise and fall of Joan of Arc, Adolf Hitler, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, or others who brought us despair or enlightenment, we see the same threads of adulation and condemnation, success and failure. We also see, strangely, that fire and blood are the currency of social transformation. Joan of Arc died at the fiery stake, Jesus was torn apart on the cross, Lawrence spent years on the back of a camel bent on a path of destruction of Turks and Germans, Oppenheimer symbolically fell in the flames of the atom bomb, Patton, MacArthur, and Churchill suffered more directly in wars’ swirl of fire and smoke, and Hitler killed himself in the blazing crash of Berlin. Often the glory of war morphs into the engine of self-destruction and final rejection.

We should not forget the fires of heaven and hell in the literary creations of Ayn Rand, Mary Shelley, and Shakespeare. They remind us of the craving and mendacity of man’s basic nature.  Viewing the sustaining features of evolution in our kinships, we are first transfixed by audacity, dedication, narcissism, and the fire of life only to reshuffle our admiration and incomprehension into an indifference or denouncement of the life we see. There is something so primitive and certain about strife, struggle, sacrifice, and attempts of redemption that we might consider the elements of those complexities are first built into the first reproductive cell, almost as if we are perpetually in the “hands of fate.” It was told us thousands of years ago in India’s precious Bhagavad-Gita, the Satakatrayan:

Vanquish enemies at arms …

Gain mastery of the sciences

And varied arts …

You may do all this, but karma’s force

Alone prevents what is not destined

And compels what is to be.

As uncertain as it might be, it will be worth our time to gamble more on Prometheus. Next time I will outline a possible system of understanding – a look at the heart of the matter, and end by telling you about the incredible genomic entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, a Post-modern Machiavellian and a seeker of immortality, who is credited with synthesizing new forms of life and who intends to project his genome through time and space where, eventually, the coded DNA will synthesize (guess who?) J. Craig Venter. It is almost as if he is has taken on Promethean proportions and will demonstrate his missianic power by giving the people fire and new life. But will he, as many who take the same road, overreach and suffer the consequences chained to a rock cliff in the Caucasus Kazbek Mountain?

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, June 6, 2014

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Looking for Love in All the Strange Places

Coming Alive We are molded in form and substance by microorganisms.

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Any reproductive benefit for the parasite or the host may be exaggerated over generations of natural selection. I continue the theme here that parasites may cause hosts to become psychopaths, often for the benefit of parasites (check last week’s post).

In many cases parasites and hosts may both benefit. For example, animals, including humans, infected with parasitic worms are often harmed, but at the same time infections may reduce the prevalence and effects of autoimmune disorders. Co-evolution of adaptations by parasites and hosts results in long-term relations between the two. The “wisdom” of nature can both facilitate the generational transmission of infecting microorganisms and reprogram the host species to better survive and reproduce.

Parasitism is also one explanation for the evolution of sexual characteristics in breeding males, as with bright plumage of male peacocks and male lions. Female of many species often choose males as mates who are strong and competitive and sport beautiful plumage and thus demonstrate that they are resistant to infection. But the allure of the male may also depend on the increased sexual drives of the infected male. He may be resistant to disease, and he may also have higher blood levels of testosterone and dopamine that correlate with beautiful plumage that is of interest to females who choose successful males. Males show their potential using multiple signals.


The work with the cat I describe here is in part a research program pursued by the evolutionary biologist Jaroslav Flegr. The cat harbors a single-celled parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which it sheds with its feces and is picked up by many mammalian species including humans. Amazingly, when rats are infected with Toxoplasma (Toxo), they no longer fear the urinary odors of the cat, as they normally do, and even show a preference for the pheromones in the urine. Exposure to these odors actually increases the size of the rat’s testes. The rats approach the cat, with dreams of sex, and guess what? The cat eats the rat and the parasite is returned to the cat to live again for another generation.

Toxo carries the gene that produces dopamine from the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase, the neurotransmitter in the mammalian brain that causes the organism to become euphoric and probably also stimulates sex behavior. This could be one of the problems of the male rat infected with the Toxo parasite. The dopamine produced in the rat may activate those neural circuits that decrease fear of the cat and makes the rat prefer the odors of the cat (Sapolsky, 2012). And, if things weren’t bad enough already, dopamine may augment the production of testosterone, increasing the rat’s aggression and sexual exploration.

All we can do at this point is pay attention to the complexity of social interaction between species and the differential benefits that might accrue through processes of evolution. But, if indeed, the mental calculations and motivation of humans can be radically changed through infection, all other explanations of psychopathy may have to genuflect to the viruses, bacteria, and other organelles that share our environment and genotype, and indeed are the major building blocks of our existence.

I will discuss more about the possibility that microorganisms may at times drive human psychopathic behaviors; we should keep the possibility in mind as we explore the ecological factors that affect brain and behavioral processes. This is the third principle shaping the nature of the psychopathic mind. The other two are genes and ecologies.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, May 31, 2014.

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Can Parasites Living in the Human Body Induce Psychopathic Behaviors?

Rebirth and Redemption Author’s interpretation


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Bacteria E. Coli

E coli bacteria: common in humans. Photo from Wikipedia


Genes and the environment, the first two factors of reproduction, clearly impact psychopathic behaviors. There is another contender for the understanding of human “deviant” behavior, and that revolves around the possibility that invasions of our body by microorganisms can activate psychopathic behaviors that benefit the continued reproductive success of invasive organisms.

If human psychopathic behaviors can increase reproductive fitness, and they can, then those same behaviors may also help parasitic organisms successfully reach the next generation. It sounds strange, but our human nature may be directed by microbes with their own selfish motivations. If invasive organisms could speak a dialect of natural selection, they might say, “I have no desire to create psychopathic monsters so that they may reproduce, but if it will help my offspring to get to the next generation I will gladly create sexual monsters.” That does not imply that organisms express a will to reproduce –that is said only for convenience, but more realistically, features that increase reproduction are likely to evolve into refined adaptations.


A colleague of mine, Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, and Jaroslav Flegr, a Czech evolutionary biologist, are researching how microorganisms manipulate host behaviors to ensure that their genes propagate to the next generation. Natural selection for survival and reproduction, working silently but relentlessly, builds unbelievably efficient organisms that reproduce and multiply in host species.

Often, microorganisms, such as viruses and bacteria, reproduce in donor organisms. They infect host species, including mammals, to continue their life cycle in the host. As part of the adaptation of parasites, they invade host organisms and modify the host behavior to increase the likelihood that the parasitizing species can complete their own life cycle.

It all sounds surreal, but the facts bear out the proposition that microorganisms, just like all other species studied, adapt their strategy for manipulating the environment for reproductive efficiently. Hosts, including humans, are part of the microbial environment and can be manipulated to facilitate reproduction of all sorts of microorganisms.

For example, the deadly hantavirus causes infected rats to become more aggressive and to reproduce through bites delivered to mammalian species. Common cold viruses actually cause their human hosts to become more friendly at the peak of their infectiousness, and before symptoms appear, possibly maximizing the possibility that the virus can propagate. And, advanced syphilis is reported to trigger increases in sexual motivation, again, possibly, to advance the strategy of the virus. The behavioral changes in host species can be complex and surprising.

Consider the rabies virus. Sapolsky puts the strategy of the virus succinctly. “The rabies virus knows more about aggression than we neuroscientists do. It knows how to make you rabid. It knows how to make you want to bite someone, and that your saliva contains rabies virus particles, passed on to another person.” Again, these microorganisms do not really consider what responses might be beneficial. Rather, organisms sometimes do things that enhance reproduction, increasing the possibility that the responses will become part of the organisms’ program of behavior. Humans can speak with metaphors for clarity of communication, but what actually happens are the determined links that may increase the prevalence of behaviors that move the organism from one generation to another.

An infected dog within weeks of infection becomes aggressive and belligerent and begins to salivate profusely. The saliva is preferentially loaded with the rabies virus. When the dog bites another organism, including humans, the virus is easily transmitted along with the saliva. The virus passes to the brain of the host, reproduces, and activates the motivation to bite another organism. Thus, the life cycle of the virus continues. At this point it is irrelevant that the dog and the host (e.g. the human) perish from the infection. The evolutionary success of the virus is assured.

As strange as it may sound, the genetic program for survival and reproduction of the virus includes making the parasitized organism psychopathic. As I see it, aggression is the key behavior in the manipulation of the host by the virus, but it can be integrated with other behaviors as a syndrome that includes increases in self-centered behaviors, heightened sexual libido, and decreases in empathy. The virus destroys any reservations against success and heightens the aggressive behaviors that ultimately dominate its life (more metaphors).

In brief, the host (human) may be reprogramed by the parasite to become less empathetic, more self-centered, sexually aggressive, and a risk-taker, traits that appear in humans and other species, and are considered to be part of the psychopathic fabric. If these traits facilitate reproduction, and they often do, they serve the microorganism’s evolutionary strategy to pass on their traits to subsequent generations. I can imagine that someday defense attorneys defending psychopathic rampages will argue that the bad behavior is attributed to microorganisms: “The rabies virus made me do it, judge.” Nonsense!

Beyond the strange world of microorganisms lies a plausible explanation for the evolution of human psychopathy. Individuals more sensitive to the influence of microbial pressures and thus help the parasites multiply and prosper may themselves benefit. Symbiotic relations may therefore replace the initial parasitic invasions.

I’ll try to complete the argument in the next blog and advance the notion that parasites that use us as host platforms for reproduction can activate an entire syndrome of related human behaviors that I call The 5-Star Registry of Psychopathic Performance, seen below. It is certainly a menu of successful reproductive delights in the eyes of some females who are often attracted to male hoody behavior. Also,  males who hunt the flesh of women often demonstrate preferences for risk taking and promiscuous behaviors.

1 Extraversion/aggression (high competitive success)

2 Low fear and persistence in the chase

3 Attractive but false empathy

4 Risk-taking (sensation seeking)

5 Increased sexual desire

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

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Psychopathy and Holes in the Brain




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Pagan Wishes from the Amygdala

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There are some critical neurological approaches to the understanding of psychopathic behaviors. Deep in the “primitive” mammalian brain is a relatively small nucleus, the amygdala, that might be directly related to lack of fear and empathy that is a calling card of most psychopaths. Here is the amazing story.

Kent Kiehl, a neural behaviorist at the University of New Mexico, includes the brain amygdala in what I refer to as his “Circle of Fire,” the paralimbic system that is part of the interconnected neurological structure that supports psychopathy. Different aspects of this lower brain may be correlated with specific traits, as identified with the Robert Hare Psychopathic Checklist. One small component of the paralimbic system – the amygdala – is related to fear, empathy, aggression, and certain kinds of learning.

The amygdala has been studied extensively in various animal species since the 1930s when it was found that a damaged amygdala (bilateral damage of the left and right amygdala) reduces aggression in monkeys and decreases fear. Ordinarily monkeys and other primates will avoid all contact with snakes and are very disturbed by their presence.  New World monkeys with damaged amygdala approach snakes and will even play with their forked tongues. The effects of amygdala damage are stunning and permanent.

            Recently Justin Feinstein and his colleagues at the University of Iowa discovered a human female patient, SM, who because of a rare condition referred to as lipoid proteinosis, had holes in her brain where her paired amygdala should have been (BBC News, 2010). *

The lack of the amygdala has striking effects on SM’s behavior. She is absolutely fearless, a condition typical of male and female psychopaths. SM would play with spiders and snakes and was not bothered by an assault while she walked in a park by herself at night. She expresses other emotions, but never fear, as if freed from a heavy weight.

Deficits in the expression of fear occur in psychopaths and in human patients that have damage in their amygdala (Blair et al, 2003; Glenn et al, 2009). These patients also show deficits in aversive conditioning experiments (learning from negative reinforcement), as is also the case with psychopaths (Le Doux, 1998). This cognitive deficit is also found in conditions of dyslexia, perhaps a component of psychopathy.

Revealing experiments by Tilhonen and Kiehl and their colleagues verify the importance of the amygdala in affective disorders. They find that psychopaths actually have smaller sized amygdala (volume is reduced from normal), perhaps accounting for the reduction of amygdala function and loss of fear

Many neurological circuits control psychopathic traits including those thought to be involved with dopamine production and its distribution around the brain, such as with the frontal lobes that have interconnections with the dopamine receptors of the brain and with the amygdala. The amygdala is of central importance because of its inhibitory influence on fear and aggression, and also because emotional signals of all sorts converge at this site, thus distributing perilous information throughout the central nervous system. These neural components are also critical in aversive (inhibiting) learning.

The major point to remember is this: It appears that the absence of fear is a major diagnostic criterion of psychopathic dispositions. Its reduced facilitator of fear and suspicion may free the individual from inhibiting responses and blunts empathy, guilt, nostalgia, and remorse. Without these traits it is a short step away from complete disregard for the feeling of others and perhaps evil intents. The reduction of amygdala-fear enables many behaviors to occur that otherwise would defeat the agenda of individual psychopaths and some commanding political leaders.

What would it mean to act out one’s desires without the inhibitory function of the amygdala? Is freedom just another word for nothing left to lose? It might be, as if one’s moral structure is completely compromised, but how would one know if it were? A fish with an odd colored fin doesn’t know that its fin is odd, a bird has no concept of the air that supports its flight, and a compromised psychopath probably doesn’t know that he or she is compromised by a smaller amygdala. The only compromise is from our perspective and from structural and functional results related to neural tests.


*The conditions associated with SM’s disease, named after its discoverers, Urbach-Wiethe, are widespread skin disorders. About 50 – 75% of patients also suffer from neurological symptoms, including symmetrical calcifications of the medial temporal lobes, often affecting the amygdala. Calcium deposits occur in the area of the amygdala, over time causing lesions.  Some patients exhibit epilepsy and other neuropsychiatric abnormalities. Therefore, the multiple characteristics of the disease cannot be specifically linked to dysfunctions of the amygdala, and the suggested links with reduction of fear must remain tentative.  Nevertheless, the findings in total certainly suggest a critical role for the amygdala in the etiology of psychopathy.


Blair, J.R. (2003). Neurobiological basis of psychopathy. The British Journal of

Psychiatry, 182, 5-7.

Feinstein, J., et al (2010). Post Tramatic Stress Disorder). BBC News,

December, 17.

Glen, A.L., Raine, A., Schug, R.A. (2009). The neural correlates of moral

Decision-making in psychopathy. Molecular Psychiatry, 14, 5-6.

LeDoux, J. (1998). The emotional brain. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Tilhonen, J. et al (2000). Amydaloid volume loss in psychopathy. Society for

Neuroscience Abstracts, 2017.

Stand Fast.

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. May 16, 2014

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