Thursday, September 26, 2019

On Heartache and Burnout: A Personal Interview with Holistic Wellness Expert Jennifer Marcenelle

Smiling woman sitting on a couch
Last Friday I had the pleasure to have a phone interview with Jennifer Marcenelle, a board-certified, holistic, registered nurse with over 30 years of experience in the medical field who is, moreover, an energy medicine practitioner of Gemstone and Diamond Therapy. This personal interview came about through the efforts of Public Relations Manager Arden Izzo, who had first contacted me with background information as well as a brief article on Jennifer’s experience, practice, and initiatives and who then set up and arranged my interview with her.

Jennifer who used to work as a cardiovascular nurse for over 20 years considers emotional stress, heartache and burnout as serious but generally under-reported and unacknowledged sources and causes of illness and disease. Since she viewed and approached stress and burnout through a holistic lens and away from the current standard and traditional practice of Western medicine, I was not only intrigued but very eager to personally speak with her about these matters that are close to my own heart (pun intended).

Our conversation started off with a bit of background information about herself. Thanks to her knowledge, experience, and work ethic, she achieved higher levels of leadership and management positions in the health care industry. However, all of that took a heavy toll on her health and led to a near suicide due to burnout. 

It was at that point when she had a life-changing spiritual experience. She realized that not only was there a driving resistance against change within her, but the main issues in her life could be traced back to problems with “energy” levels. 

In fact, she was energetically damaged by hate and jealousy projections from others as well as by herself. Although she was already practicing alternative medicine, such as acupuncture and Chinese medicine, the problems had been alleviated to a certain degree, but then they plateaued and stagnated and did not advance much further thereafter.

This led her towards another path, one that was further away from corporate America and towards a place that was both physical and spiritual in nature and in which she could receive and later herself provide what is known as energy healing

Jennifer told me that one of the main causes for burnout is our relationships, namely the relationship we have with ourselves as well as with others. We often carry around negative energy in the form of thoughts and feelings, but we also absorb the negative energy that is oozing and emitted from and by others. Becoming aware of these emotions and then releasing them is part of the process of realizing what is true and essential to one’s own unique and special way of being.

This is what constitutes wellness, according to her. The problem with Western medicine is that we tend to turn to pills to alleviate the symptoms, but pills are and cannot be wellness. In fact, they tend to make the problems worse as they are not directly treating or dealing with them but rather circumventing and avoiding the real issues and problems while causing many unwanted and potentially damaging side effects.

Symptoms of any kind are indeed a message from our body, and they show us what specific parts of ourselves need to be changed and healed. For instance, in my case, I tend to suffer from higher cholesterol, and I am generally urged by my family physician to take pills, which is her response to any medical issue; nonetheless, we would still need to keep in mind that cholesterol has its own function as a natural protection against inflammation. Just blocking a natural defense system from doing its diligent work and ignoring or drowning the message it is trying to give us would be counterproductive.

It does not mean one should always avoid medication, far from it, but rather one should take it, if, when and only as long as it is necessary; put differently, it should be used only as a temporary measure and at the correct dose. 

One should not overlook other more natural and much more effective means, such as diet, lifestyle, and, most importantly, a reduction of overall stress, all of which would need to be addressed first to effect and bring about healing.

Jennifer further explained that each organ in our body has an energetic counterpart, an aura or a chakra, so-to-speak. In fact, strong emotions have their emotional connection with a physical body part; for instance, anger and jealousy literally burn in one’s inside and cause and contribute to energetic injury, which can eventually lead to burn-out.

We often unconsciously acknowledge this connection when we say that love is “pulling at one’s heart strings.” Indeed, emotional stress and heartache can damage the heart, change its shape or deform it, and in some extreme and dire cases, it can even lead to death. Jennifer personally witnessed this when a mother collapsed and succumbed to a heart attack when visiting her injured son at the hospital. In fact, recent research shows that emotional stress can also alter the brain, which has given insights into post-traumatic stress disorder and why it is so pervasive, prolonged and harmful when left untreated.

What can we do about emotional stress then and how we can protect ourselves from it? The best way to find wellness would be to release and remove the negative energy we carry inside. Unfortunately, we have become less and less adept at doing so. Jennifer suggested that we work with a practitioner to create balance and equilibrium in our aura or in the energetic anatomy. 

In fact, everything in our environment has a given frequency and reacts with energy fields. For instance, herbs that stem from the plant kingdom have their own vibratory rate, which affects healing, but the frequency of plants is relatively small.

On the other hand, the mineral kingdom has much higher crystalline frequency and its healing rate, as a result, would be much higher as well. Practices like diamond or crystal therapy alongside meditation and yoga can help realign vibratory forces. When you meditate with the sound of Ohm, the verbal components of the word can help your body, which is mostly made of water, vibrate, and this can aid healing.

Asked upon her own meditation practice, she told me that she likes to engage in what is known as contemplation or active meditation. For about twenty minutes and twice a day, she would try to focus and connect to the divine to reach a certain form of cleansing from within. She would, however, be discouraged from doing the type of inward meditation I engage in, which is, by all means and purposes, construed as rather passive: a kind of Zen sitting and being aware of feelings that naturally come and arise.

The problem with such passive meditation, in her view, was that it could leave one at the mercy of evil energy or forces out there. She claimed that certain things, certain thoughts and emotions, should be avoided, and that some fears are best left alone or dealt with only with the presence of a licensed practitioner.

This was one of the few instances we disagreed with each other as my approach is to actively seek out what one is afraid of and to face one’s inner demons. There was a noticeable and palpable moment of silence on the other side of the phone when I mentioned those words. 

I myself strongly advocate psychoanalysis as a means of releasing trapped and accumulated negative memories, feelings and experiences so that one can become free and independent from their pernicious influence.

Contrary to avoiding certain thoughts and emotions, I believe that those are the ones that ought to be faced, addressed, and confronted to begin with. Without stepping out of one’s comfort zone and without making unconscious processes conscious - some of which will feel quite uncomfortable - nothing true and lasting could be achieved, and we would be only caught in a vicious cycle.  

Upon my question on what she thought about psychology and psychotherapy, Jennifer responded that she believed one should have no agenda and one should not live by the truth that others propose but rather be guided by one’s own personal truth. 

The problem, she added, is that psychology alongside Western medicine, has its limitations as it is too focused on the mental structure. They work well with the mental body, yet at the expense of all the other bodies that we are made up of, including feelings, intuition as well as spirituality.

There is hope, however. Many in the medical community are changing their views on these issues and have become more open and flexible to alternative medicine and holistic care. In fact, there are various methods and treatments, such as Reiki and general holistic care in many systems and at different hospitals and institutions. This type of acceptance of different views on health care and wellness has also become visible at cancer care facilities that do not merely or solely rely on traditional Western medicine.

In fact, at the public deliberation meetings on cancer funding I attended earlier this year, I was made aware of a local supportive cancer care facility by the name of Inspire Health. At this institution, they support cancer patients by adding holistic practices, such as yoga and meditation as well as a person-based model or outlook that focuses on stress, emotional support, nutrition, and spirituality. In fact, I am planning to visit this place soon, so I shall be able to provide more details about their approach as well as practice.

Why is it that traditional medicine has been so skeptical, narrow-minded and even averse to those changes for such a long time? I asked. The answer, Jennifer responded, goes back to the United States when influential and wealthy people like John D. Rockefeller - in fact, he is considered one of the wealthiest Americans of all time - wished to make additional sums of money from the fountains of the petrochemical industry. 

As a result, they developed the medical model that would actively utilize sources of petroleum, commonly referred to as Big Pharma nowadays. By relying on this limited and often ineffective definition of health and wellness, it helped owners and shareholders grow their own pocketbooks, but left the patients to deal with various medical issues and complications. 

To heal, it is important to go inward and take responsibility for oneself and one’s health, and one needs to realize what parts to address and change in one’s body and mind. This cannot be achieved via pills or medicine but needs to go much deeper and further than that.

Although I entirely agree with Jennifer that healing comes from going inside and releasing accumulated negative energy, our means and approaches seem to be rather different. I am accepting and open-minded of other points of views and practices, but I tend to be skeptical of proposed treatments like diamond therapy. However, Jennifer pointed me towards the book Gemstone Energy Medicine: Healing Body, Mind and Spirit by Michael Katz, which I would have to consult in the near future for more information and details on the topic.

All in all, I very much enjoyed talking with Jennifer over the phone, and I learnt a lot about treatments I had known very little about. In addition, Jennifer is a very pleasant and resourceful person to talk to, and if you are interested to know more about her as well as her services and practices, please feel free to visit her website at

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Helen Fisher UBC Talk on The Future of Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age

Last week I had the pleasure of not only attending Helen Fisher’s talk entitled “Swipe, Right?: The Future of Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age,” but I also had the wondrous opportunity to personally meet this celebrated and renowned speaker, researcher, and scientist. Helen Fisher’s work first came to my attention during my undergrad years while studying psychology. Her bestselling book Anatomy of Love sounded most appealing and interesting, so I picked up a copy at a second-hand bookstore (the heavily indebted student could not afford new books for the longest time).

At the time, I was trying to not only understand the female heart and psyche but also wished to learn more about romantic courtship. I wished to gain some upper hand in those endeavors since romance was consistently on my mind back then. As a hopeless romantic, I saw everything through poetic rose-tinted glasses; although I did not necessarily heed her advice, I very much appreciated Helen Fisher’s insights and ideas.

Flash forward to my teaching years. As an English instructor, I was casually looking for something to use for an upcoming Valentine’s Day, material that would be both informative as well as practical for my group of young adults, and I stumbled upon Helen Fisher’s TED talk entitled “The Brain in Love.” Listening to her then, myself being happily married and in a much calmer state of mind compared to my university years, I was even more impressed with what she had to say about love, attraction, and the brain. Essentially, she considered romantic love to be a drug, and I for one was immediately hooked!

Even so much so that I considered her my academic soulmate. In fact, we have four simultaneous interests in common: Evolution, the brain, psychology, and romantic love. Her views are almost completely shared and mirrored by my humble self, and that is a very rare phenomenon. As I told her last week, there are very few people I agree with in this world, and she is one of the few.

It was about five months ago when I saw a billboard announcing her upcoming talk in September, and I had to move closer to the poster to ensure that my eyes were seeing right and that my prescription glasses were still valid. Tickets cost only twenty dollars, which for me considering the wealth of information I would receive was a complete bargain (I found out at the event that it also came with a drink voucher worth ten dollars, so things got even better than presumed)! 

Since the seats were first come, first serve, or as the usher would tell me, it was essentially festival seating, it would not have really mattered when I purchased the ticket. Nonetheless, the moment they went on sale, I was already online buying and securing my own entry to the talk.

On the day of the event, I arrived early of course; in fact, I showed up just barely after the doors had opened and before the bar would serve its drinks. When the bar openly welcomed the attendees, which occurred about an hour before the talk, I decided to use my surprise voucher for a drink of red wine to celebrate the incredible occasion of soon seeing Helen Fisher on stage. I ended up talking to a UBC student who shared some of my enthusiasm as well as incredulity (she asked me if it was really Helen Fisher who was going to speak at the event, and I assured her that this was indeed the case)!

Then I found a close enough seat to the stage. I also happened to run into one of my colleagues who had accidentally chosen to attend the talk, and I tried my best to convince her that it was indeed one of the best decisions she had made. Her husband and I referred to me as the Helen Fisher fan boy, and of course I did not mind because I was.

I proudly showed them the first edition of her book that I had acquired in the good old college days and told them that I was hoping to perhaps get it signed later on. The organizers of the event had previously communicated to us that Helen Fisher would sign books after the talk, but that there would be neither dedications nor selfies allowed due to time constraints. I thought to myself that a simple book signing would simply make my day anyhow.

Just as I was engaged in pre-talk conversation, an elderly man suddenly stopped in the main aisle next to me. I thought he either knew me or he wanted to sit in the same row as me. It was neither. Instead, he produced his drink voucher and asked me if I wanted it. 

I did not hesitate to accept, but I double checked with him to see if he really wanted to give his voucher away. He said yes, and there I was with another potential drink to be partaken after the talk. I was ecstatic and Cat Steven’s catchy line of “everything is going my way” was buzzing in the nether regions of my brain.

And then she took on the stage (right after some preliminary but thank goodness rather brief introductions). In fact, Helen Fisher started off full of vigor and energy, and she began with the end and the final take-away message of her talk: She gave a big thank you to the millennials who have actively brought about a revolution, not only in technology but also in mindset. 

She added that it is wrong to assume that technology is killing love. Love is something you cannot and will not ever kill! It is ingrained in us since the beginning of time and shall stay with us for time immemorial: Love is primordial, adaptable, and eternal! Now if that’s not an amazing entry, I do not know what is!

Her hopeful and optimistic outlook was in direct contrast with another talk I had attended months ago on how technology brainwashes and manipulates us with fake news influencing our voting choices and patterns. In fact, we ought to delete our social media apps from our phones. Although some of their observations were certainly true and valid, I did not subscribe to the bleak picture they painted about humanity and technology at that session. 

And no, twitterverse rest assured, I did not succumb and delete my twitter app but rather used my phone to let that person in question know that I would not do so. The irony was, of course, that the speaker herself had a Twitter account but did not allow herself to have it handy and ready on her smartphone; she was most likely not trusting herself to use and handle it wisely.

While that speaker was projecting her own fears and insecurity about the future of technology, Helen Fisher, much more poised and scientific in her outlook and demeanor, instead looked back and used the example of evolution to ground her claims and optimism. We are, whether we acknowledge it or not part and parcel of evolutionary processes and development and of a brain system that has been evolving from over 4 million years ago.

This powerful brain system connects us across history and the globe, and it underlines and ensures that romantic love is universal. In fact, this overlap exists also across sexual orientation and identification as gays and straights love the same way. 

In either case, when we fall in love, the loved one attains special meaning in our heart, and we constantly think about them; it’s as if someone was, in Fisher’s words, “constantly camping” in our head. Everything they say, they do or everything they possess gains a special quasi magical and mystical meaning.

In fact, love and attraction can be divided into three stages: The first one is the sex drive driven by increased levels of testosterone, the second one is romantic attraction, evidenced by surges of dopamine and norepinephrine, and finally, we have attachment kicking in in with the release of oxytocin and vasopressin.

Contrary to popular opinion, Helen Fisher insisted that there was no such thing as casual sex. This phenomenon could exist and be true only if the person in question was completely drunk or spaced out; otherwise, sexual intercourse would create important chemical bonds and connections between people. 

It is the neurotransmitter dopamine that fuels and is responsible for our craving, for the feeling of elation and motivation, and it also helps and makes us focus on what and who we want. It is the driving force behind our lingering obsession since romantic love in its essence is an obsession or a drug after all.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the regions of the brain responsible for dopamine are next to the part of the brain that controls and regulates thirst and hunger. This ancient survival mechanism is also symbolized and reflected in our speech as we “thirst” for someone, we “crave” a specific person and “hunger” for their physical presence. Sex not unlike hunger and thirst is a basic physical as well as emotional need we all share and have in common.

Parts of the middle brain are responsible for attachment. Attachment takes time to grow and develop. It is another human drive that tries to ensure that the person stays and sticks with us. From an evolutionary point of view, we want to pair up with the other person, and in many instances, we want to ensure that our offspring has everything they need.

Is monogamy a natural state for humans? Helen Fisher gave us some statistics that support the view that humans tend to prefer monogamy. She preferred to use the term pair bonding, which means that we would like to be with one person at a given moment or over a certain time period because as humans, we are, generally speaking, jealous animals. 

Moreover, in societies that allow and accept polygamy, only 5 to 10 % of men end up taking more than one wife, most likely because they cannot afford more wives. It takes a lot of goats, sheep, and cows to be able to afford more than one woman, Helen Fisher quipped.

She then gave an example of a man who had three wives. As she was driving in his jeep, she asked him ideally how many wives he would have liked to have. The man paused for a while, and Helen was thinking that he was going to give her an astronomical number, such as five, ten or even twenty wives. But to her surprise, the man retorted, ideally, he would have none.

But the states and stages of courtship and marriage have changed, and those changes are mainly due to and driven by technological advances. Today we use anything from emojis, emails to texting, while some even engage in sexting despite the fear of its potential fallout and consequences. 

These technological means of and opportunities for communication have significantly influenced and changed the face of courtship, and oddly enough, some of its most ardent users are older people; in fact, technology has facilitated communication and the expression of romantic interest especially for that age bracket.

But dating sites can only do so much and can only go so far. In fact, they should be perceived as introduction services because, as Helen Fisher put it, the only true algorithm is your brain. However, with this new technology, there are also rules, tips, and taboos. 

One of the tech dating tips from Helen Fisher was to limit your choices from five to a maximum of nine persons. Since having more than nine options will create cognitive overload in your brain, it is best to stop after meeting nine potential romantic interests.

One should also overcome what is known as the negativity bias. We would need to focus on the more positive aspects of the person that could help us override the perceived negative ones. The problem with negative aspects is that they are more salient than the good characteristics. This is a by-product from evolution where our focus on the negative may have helped to increase our chances for survival.

If you are among the many who have met over the Internet, take heart, as you are certainly not the only one. In fact, most people nowadays meet or have met on the Internet. They are also less likely to divorce, they tend to be better educated and with permanent jobs, but, moreover, they are truly looking for a companion. All of this adds to a recipe of success when it comes to long-term commitment and relationships, and the online tools can help us reach them.

In fact, what many perceive as reckless behavior among younger adults of this modern age is not really so. What happens is that we have moved away from Agrarian belief systems, a farming life that tended to promote and accentuate virginity, arranged marriages as well as marriages in which the female spouses were serving and dominated by their husbands. In fact, this relationship would only end when death do them part.

All of this has been and is continuously changing. Marriages, as a result, are becoming happier and more egalitarian. Where marriage used to be seen as the starting point of a partnership, now it has become the final outcome of a relationship. What that means is that the pre-commitment stage has been expanded.

Before jumping into relationships, many start out as friends. Then they may become friends with benefits, which is basically a way of gauging sexual compatibility. After this, there will be the official date. 

As Helen Fisher pointed out, an official date is, in fact, an investment, especially if you live in a place like New York where it could easily cost you a hundred dollars per date. In that sense, you want to make sure that the person is as well matched as possible before you go out on a date.

The official date has its own set of rules and decorum: you cannot just hang out in our PJs and sweatpants or get a bite to eat from the hot dog stand or stroll in the park together. Now you need to dress up, be on time – do not be more than fifteen minutes late, she suggested because that could the death knell to any potential romantic endeavors - and most importantly, be smart and do not use your smartphone during the official date.

If you need to take it with you, she recommended not to pull it out. If you need to pull it out, put it face down on the table. If you go to the washroom, under no circumstance should you take the phone with you. All these points are etiquette for you to ensure that the romantic date is as successful as possible.

After the official date, couples may end up living together. This is called “slow love,” which embodies a long and gradual time period to learn about oneself as well as the other. This is also one of the reasons why marriages are not rushed or jumped into, but that people choose to get married usually at the age of 27 to 30.

Does this approach lead to happier marriages? The answer seems to be yes. In a survey asking people whether they would remarry the same person they are currently with, 81 % said yes. What made their marriages successful depended on three outcomes that were tied to their brain and lifestyle.

First, a happy relationship depends upon showing and having empathy for each other. Secondly, both partners would need to find effective ways of controlling their stress and emotions. Finally, they would have to practice something called “positive illusions,” that is the ability to suspend negative judgments about the other. This would be counteracting the aforementioned negativity bias we all carry around with us unconsciously and could guarantee and promote successful relationships.

There are certain biological and physiological differences between the genders that are passed on through evolution, while there are also neurological differences that set people apart regardless of gender. This is known as the 4 different brain systems of dopamine (explorer), serotonin (builder), testosterone (director), and estrogen / oxytocin (negotiator).

Most of us usually have two predominant brain systems that are accompanied with both positive and negative traits, and this can be generally divulged and explored via a Neuro-Color test developed by Helen Fisher. 

In fact, she gave all attendees the gift of limited time-restricted access to this test. After listening to the characteristics, I had an idea how I would turn out in terms of my brain systems, and lo and behold, that was what the results demonstrated. However, more about the brain systems in a future post as I would like to finish here with what happened after the talk, and this post is getting much longer than planned.

After the talk, I rushed to get my drink and lined up to get the book of my undergrad years to be signed by Helen Fisher. The line was not too long, and I thought I would perhaps be able to get her autograph. I was mulling in my mind what to say to her, while I was sipping on my white wine, courtesy of the friendly elderly gentleman who had given me an unexpected second ticket.

One of the helpers at the event was going around asking for our names and putting them on yellow stick-it notes so that Helen could personalize her autographs. I was most elated about the fact. 

Then I noticed how one of the other organizers would take pictures while we were talking to her; some even got to stand next to Helen Fisher while their pics were taken. I asked for that as well pushing my luck on such a fortuitous day that I was having.

When it was finally my turn, I expected Helen Fisher to be thrilled with me owning a vintage edition of her book, but she scolded me instead. She told me that I should get the latest version, the revised edition that came out in 2016. She still signed it though, which I thought was very nice of her. 

I also thought that this book had just increased exponentially in value, not only being a first edition, but also being signed by the author herself. I understood also why as a scientist, she would want the most recent edition to be read as it must have been updated with relevant research and modern brain scans compared to its original edition.

Then I told her how she was one of the few scientists I agreed with and that I was working on a book that combined psychoanalysis with evolution. She then stopped for a moment, looked up and said, “but I am an evolutionary psychologist.” 

It was great to hear her say that because I have seen her designated and referred to as a biological anthropologist (even by herself), but to me she always was and is an evolutionary psychologist. 

I also thanked her for standing up and being outspoken against medication, such as antidepressants as well as being firmly against medicating our children, a modern trend that I personally find scary, if not downright disturbing and appalling.

Then, she wished me luck with my book, and as I shook her hand, she decided to stand up and take the above picture with me. Needless to say, it was one of the best days ever!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Like Clockwork Orange: Systemic Problems with the Altruistic Capital of Nava Ashraf

Poster with red writing and head shot of economist Nava Ashraf
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the SFU public lecture by Nava Ashraf entitled Human Nature & Human Development. Although economics is not my field nor is it one of my personal interests or passions, I was nudged to go for two specific reasons: One, I am currently reading and reviewing the book The Wealth of Religions, which is giving me a novel and interesting viewpoint on how economy and religion often shape and influence each other. Secondly, since the abstract mentioned inherent, implicit and unconscious assumptions humans make, I assumed that she would be delving into the field of psychology, particularly psychoanalysis, a subject area I feel most at home and most comfortable with.

In fact, Canadian economist Nava Ashraf is quite known and distinguished in her domain: She has received a PhD in Economics from Harvard and has done both field and lab experiments across the globe in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Moreover, she has awarded a Queen’s Jubilee Medal for service by the Government of Canada, while she is the youngest person to receive the Order of British Columbia. Her theory of altruistic capital sounded most promising as it proposed to motivate people to create and make positive social impact in the world. As a result, I expected to gain essential insights and learn many a thing in the process of the lecture.

The first half of the talk was fascinating enough and did not disappoint. Ashraf started off with the idea of self interest that is supposed to characterize human nature but added the caveat and limitation that most of our assumptions and ideas are biased and often hidden, even from ourselves. These biases emanate not only from social and cultural contexts, but they are also part and parcel of each individual’s make-up. 

Hence, most of our choices are driven not necessarily by rational and conscious self interest, but they happen due to and are by-products of amalgamations of past and previous experiences, emotions, conditioning, and even trauma.

To illustrate this, she used the metaphor of a person riding an elephant (a supposed improvement to Plato’s unruly and wild winged horses). We as the rider have very little conscious control over how and where the animal may move; for the most part, we do not notice, or rather we tend to ignore and overlook our lack of choice and control in the matter.   

To prove this, she mentioned that the neocortex, the part of the brain that deals with higher functions, such as conscious thought and language is not only involved with thinking about the future, but it is also closely tied and connected to memory; hence, the potential offspring of our future thoughts and ideas equally serves as a warehouse of our very own past experiences and emotions.

And here lies the proverbial rub: whenever we think about the future, our view of it is then tweaked, tinged and distorted by our past. This means that, unbeknownst to us, we are looking ahead through glasses fit with lenses that may have been influenced and shaped by personal trauma.

No wonder then we cannot have a clear view and understanding of what to do or where to go next and are as lost and helpless as the rider on the elephant: We are caught up in a vicious cycle. For instance, a depressive mind will only have a distorted and depressed view of the future, and this would only increase feelings of immobility, stagnation, and helplessness.

How to combat that? The best way to get to the roots of the problem, in my view, would be depth psychology or psychoanalysis; however, Nava Ashraf settled upon and presented something more along the lines of cognitive behavior therapy. By using mental imagery and visualizing a better, a more expansive and optimistic future, one would be able to light the path ahead. This can work to an extent, but it is not an actual solution to the problems; at worst, it might just be a diversion or distraction from the real issues still festering unhindered in the unconscious.

But it underlines the fact that when it comes to goals and motivations, such as quitting smoking or losing weight, it is not necessarily a matter of self control or will power but more about not being able to visualize a future that is substantially different from the past. One way to aid ourselves in that process would be to use commitment devices. This has paid dividends in getting rid of unwanted and harmful habits.

Again, it becomes noteworthy that although Ashraf may have started off in psychoanalytic territory, she quickly moved away and entered more and more firmly into the realm of behaviorism, and as a result, she kept alienating me. But more about this a bit later. For now, I agree that habits can be replaced or substituted by other habits, whereas persistence and consistency would be necessary ingredients for this to occur.

One way of nudging the elephant to do your bidding is to set up realistic and manageable tasks and goals. As an economist, she naturally chose the example of money as an additional incentive. She gave the example of websites where you can put away a lump sum of money as a back-up investment on your health. This money would be locked for a given amount of time. When you manage to come out successful, that is, you get that nasty habit under control and / or continue with the healthy habits within the assigned time period, the money would be given to a charity of your choice.

However, and this part of it is borderline brilliant, if you do not comply or succeed, the money will go to an anti-charity, such as a donation to the NRA (or if you sympathize with the latter, just replace it with an antifa organization or an abortion clinic). That way, you will be motivated to do well, not merely based on concerns for your health and well-being, but you shall receive an extra push and motivation because you have no desire to sponsor your perceived enemy or a personally unwanted organization.

How these types of incentives could lead to more productivity, Ashraf demonstrated with a field experiment she conducted in an African town. At the time, they were promoting the new health initiative of female condoms designed to prevent and protect against HIV / AIDS transmissions. To access a relatively large amount of people, they recruited barbers to promote and sell the product. 

The barbers were divided into four different groups and categories: the first one was promised a relatively low commission for each sale (about 10%), while another group were to be given a quite high commission (80 to 90%). The third group were simply unpaid volunteers, while the latter group was promised non-monetary rewards, such as a point / star system for all the sales within the designated time period.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was not the second group that excelled – people were not that just driven by monetary rewards - but it was the final group in which they received not money but recognition and admiration for their efforts and that led them to significantly outperform all the other groups. In other words, giving more money or a raise may increase productivity, but giving one’s employees acknowledgement and recognition for their efforts pays even more dividends.

Ashraf concluded from this that humans are not solely and blindly driven by self-interest, but that altruism may play a significant underlying role as well. When people feel valued and appreciated for their work and efforts, they will go the extra mile and engage in higher and more enduring productivity. In that sense, altruism can be conceived as a capital, which Ashraf entitled altruistic capital, which can then be invested in or accumulated, whereas inversely, it can also be depleted.

She pointed out that although there are different altruistic types, people who like to help more than others, it is not a fixed status or position, since it can be altered or modified. As a result, altruism is akin to a skill or habit that can be acquired, learned and propagated both within the individual and within society. Put differently, we can train people to become more altruistic in their behavior.

One of the things that encourages a habit to persist, whether good or bad, is its repeated exposure. In neuroscience, there is the common understanding that neurons that fire together, wire together. This means as long as you repeat a certain action or skill, with practice it will become easier to follow through. If you learn how to swim and practice it on a regular basis, both your skill as well as motivation level can increase due to this repeated exposure; it simply becomes easier and more natural for you to follow through with that action.

Moreover, the same can be said with or applied to bad or unwanted habits, since by willingly not engaging in them or by replacing them with another activity, such as nicotine gums instead of cigarettes, we slowly but surely gain control over that habit in question. This boils down to a simple case of habit formation and the fact that we generally learn by doing, by actively and consistently engaging in any given activity.

Thinking of habits and repeated exposure, it comes to mind that we generally spend most of our time at work. Hence, our character is often formed by our work (“you are what you do”) and the workplace shall be influencing our outlook on various behaviors and issues, including values and altruism. If our work encourages us to be altruistic on a constant basis, such as the fields of health care, social work, or psychology, then we would tend to be more altruistic in other areas of our lives as well.

In that sense, we can also train ourselves for altruism by creating specific “zones of kindness” (my words but Ashraf’s ideas) in which we treat other members in a friendly and considerate manner. This would extend from family, spouse, children and pets to friends and acquaintances and to the community in general. 

Again, by repeating acts of kindness, we would propagate them, and it will become our new habit. Eventually, that would spill over into areas of work as well as influence empathetic shifts in the general outlook and perspective of society and culture.

The threat or danger to altruism would occur when we experience significant gaps or dissonance between the values that we state and actual values we embrace both on a personal as well as on a societal level. When that occurs, we may have a depletion or erosion of altruistic capital.

This is also where my criticism lies. Ashraf starts off by talking about how we orient ourselves towards our future and that there are inherent biases that impede us from reaching our full potential due to often unacknowledged or unprocessed negative past experiences. Then she moves towards cognitive behavior therapy, how we can change our thought patterns and visualize a happier and more promising future, and she ends with behaviorism in which our actions influence our perspectives.

But in a way, we are moving from a conception of humans as complex beings to ones that are, at worst, hamsters and pigeons in Skinner’s lab. Evidently, Ashraf is an economist and not a psychologist (she says she has worked with psychologist Emily Holmes in that regard), but she is using psychological terms that could lead to some faulty conclusions, if not downright dangerous conceptions. Human nature is much more complex than what she gives it credit for, but more importantly, she is taking altruism and distilling and turning it into an impersonal and detached form of capital.

It is interesting that she used the expression of “serving” others quite a lot during her talk. She mentioned on various occasions that we ought to serve others as well as our community. In a personal aside at the end of her lecture, she shared that she and her family had been facing religious persecution and that they were welcomed by the government of Canada, a country and community they decided to serve in return for its hospitality. 

This sounds very good and admirable but constantly and repeatedly serving others also implies being subdued to the other as is evident in the sense of being a servant. The serving individual will be indeed serving the master, with the latter essentially being the one that has sole control and command over the capital.

A question came up at the end of the talk that embodied this queasy feeling quite well. For example, at the McDonald’s workplace, they have the tradition of the employee of the month. This is a way of motivating workers to compete and to do better than others, but to my knowledge, it comes with little or no monetary and tangible rewards. Taking that model then, it would suit capital owners and employers to use altruism not out of any altruistic reason or motivation but simply to get their workers to do more for the company and to increase profits and earnings.

In fact, we must keep in mind that altruism itself often occurs out of self-interest. By caring for others, we basically hope to cover our own backs so that one day when we need help, we will receive assistance from the other, a kind of unspoken but implicit quid pro quo agreement. 

The second issue here is that I disagree that humans can be subsumed to and defined by their behaviors only; in reality, there are conscious and unconscious agents, factors, and motivations at work. Their actions are often driven by unknown or unacknowledged forces as was initially stated, namely at the beginning of the talk.

As a result, altruism cannot be simply perceived as a habit, but it is much more complex than that. It is something that is exemplified - if not glorified - by major religions around the world simply because it has such spiritual resonance and goes beyond petty and ephemeral acts. Catholic good acts, for instance, are meant to increase one’s chances for reaching heaven, so there is a spiritual dimension to one’s altruistic deeds. Altruism does not and cannot operate in or out of an emotional vacuum.

And yet, Ashraf has stripped all the spiritual connotations here, and although she finished the talk with a Baha’i quote, her refusal to address that dimension of humanity shows that it is a blind spot of hers. It certainly did not help that she both rejected the term karma (“I wouldn’t call it that,” she responded brusquely to one of the questions on the topic) as well as – and this hurt me even more personally on many levels – an utter rejection or denial of Maslow’s hierarchy (also another more than valid question asked by one of the attendees).

This soulless and lifeless view of altruism does more harm than good, and I would even go further and call it appalling. It has the outward appearance and trappings of beneficial and morally sound behavior, but inside it is hollow; it is as threatening as a wolf in sheep’s clothing as it tries to capitalize and appropriate genuine feelings of altruism for its own material good.

Altruism is much more complex and multi-faceted and cannot be reduced to a simple skill or habit. It is a powerful emotional connection and relationship with others and not an element of service nor a technical skill to hone or train for. You do not become a good parent simply by studying a manual or pretending to be one; you become so because you genuinely love and care about your child. 

Inversely, there are also many who claim to love their child, but then their behavior betrays their actual and real feelings and motivations. Moreover, there are also those who say they love humanity but use philanthropy as a disguised self-interested means, as a form of tax evasion, for instance.

In fact, all of this reminded me of A Clockwork Orange. The protagonist Alex is evil, and he shocks us by his monstrous and immoral actions, but what is even worse is the way the authorities try to “relieve” or “cure” him of his wrongdoing. Its end may have been good, but its means are as despicable as conversion therapy. 

By basically conditioning and programming Alex to vehemently hate adversity, he loses the core of his humanity in the process and becomes a mere puppet without the ability of discernment, the discernment between what is good and bad, between an ethical and an unethical act. Without this distinction, morality and personal responsibility would no longer make sense, but also without it, we would not be human anymore. We would be machines merely acting out and upon what others tell us to do, without genuine thought or emotion.