We Have Black Swans

by Siegfried Othmer | January 3rd, 2014

by Siegfried Othmer, PhD

EEG Info NewsletterAn advertisement prepared by a company that manufactures large video monitors recently went viral. It showed an interview situation in which aspirants were interviewed on the upper floor of a high-rise, where they had a view of the city through a large picture window. In mid-interview, the sky suddenly discolored and the city was struck by a meteorite, spreading destruction that was threatening to engulf the building. The interviewees panicked and sought cover, even as the interviewer appeared to remain oblivious. The subterfuge had been pulled off with the company’s new realistic large-screen video monitors.

Watching the advertisement with amusement is a guilty pleasure, as the panic of the naïve interviewees is quite real. The video also happens to draw attention to a very real problem. What was pictured could indeed happen at any time. We know this, and yet we are largely just sitting on this information. We have a potential natural catastrophe that with foresight could be quite avoidable. Matters lie largely in the technical domain, which we can get our arms around. The risks we face are calculable, and the numbers are not particularly reassuring. But where is the call to action?

A lack of future-orientation seems to characterize our society and our politics these days. This is happening even while our ability to shape future events is increasing substantially. Even the close call at Chelyabinsk last year did not have major policy repercussions. By contrast, Native Americans had an ethic of preserving the integrity of the environment unto the seventh generation, even while they had only limited means of messing things up in the first place. This is an example it would serve us well to emulate.

A similarly blinkered view exists around the issue of global warming. Sea level rise is typically projected only to the end of the century at most, as if we were reaching a plateau at that point. But the problem does not end there. An old song tells of a truck full of bananas losing its brakes on the run downhill into Scranton, Pennsylvania. The trajectory of the careening truck initially remains uneventful, but ineluctably, the truck speeds up. The approach to its doom is nonlinear. So is the matter of global warming. We make linear projections at best, and these vastly underestimate the real threat. At the moment, we still have brakes. But we are gradually losing control of our ability to slow or stop this process.

It’s even worse than that. Ocean levels have been rising for decades, and the system is not in equilibrium. Even if we stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere, sea levels will keep rising. And it will take hundreds of years for the ecosystem to recover naturally from the CO2 we have already added to the atmosphere. We are engaging in collective madness…if we care about the future at all.

This is not to say that our predictions don’t have margins of error. The Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajökull or its siblings could blow again and we could be worrying about being too cold for many years rather than too hot. But the underlying story would remain the same. We are being reckless with the future of our civilization by pushing the limits.

Last year our attentions were drawn back to the loss of the Titanic one hundred years earlier. The quick sinking of this majestic vessel was symbolic in so many ways. All needs and wants were provided for on this floating life-support system, as it navigated through forbidding waters in a state of assumed invulnerability, oblivious as to the hazards besetting it. Initially people refused to believe that the ship was doomed to sink. After all, the band was still playing and the liquor was still flowing.

What first drew my attention to the change in future-orientation was a series of philosophical questions sent by Max Frisch to his fellow authors on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday a few years ago. One of the questions was whether the person cared what happened to the planet beyond the estimated lifetime of his grandchildren. I was shocked to read that most of the respondents could work up no concern about what happens over the longer term. I found that very troubling indeed.

It is understandable that corporate executives have a short planning horizon. It is also clear that politicians focus mainly on near-term concerns. And we realize that apocalyptic faiths fully expect our earthly strivings to end badly. But our artists? If even our artists have little concern about the sustainability of our civilization, then that is surely reason for alarm.

So much hinges on our assumptions about the future. A large part of the satisfaction we derive from our life’s work is due to the knowledge that we are contributing to human well-being, and that is all the more true if we can project the consequences into the long-term future. If we simply dispense with concern about the longer term, then a lot of things are no longer worth worrying about.

If we take the lack of future-orientation as a point of departure then many things happening in our society make more sense. Those who were most centrally involved in the financial meltdown were surely aware that they were on an unsustainable path. But it did not matter as long as they were still personally profiting. If the future is not our problem, then we might as well trim the funds we are expending on educating the next generation, as indeed we have been doing. And it no longer matters if the American workforce is healthy, employable, or provided for in its old age. Much of it has become surplus. If we regard policy in the absence of future consciousness, then even what is troublesome begins to seem rational.

Of course future-orientation remains a guiding principle for many. All those crowding into Independence Square in Kiev in the extreme cold are surely betting on a brighter future. The same goes for those who risked their lives in Tahrir Square. And a visitor to Shanghai is struck by the optimistic bias of the people. Things are not ok now, but they will be so much better in the future….

Is it a sign of incipient senescence of our civilization that we are seemingly no longer future-oriented? Or is it merely a feature of the extreme wealth disparity that presently exists? Those with substantial tangible wealth tend to shift toward concerns about its preservation. Claims made on behalf of our collective future are claims on the country’s present wealth, and these claims will be resisted by those who possess it. Finally, is it a matter of our increasing insularity, ever more the reality for the upper crust?

Class distinctions were maintained throughout the sinking of the Titanic, until victims finally met their end. Class divisions determined outcomes after Katrina. Class also determines fates presently. Those in the top 5% get to live nine years longer, on average, than those in the bottom 10%. The bottom 40% have virtually no tangible assets. In fact, the ledger is negative. They are in debt, and likely to remain so. Their future security rests entirely on communally shared resources. Yet those at the top remain cocooned in their sanctuaries, liberated from any sense of social obligation.

With neurofeedback we are necessarily largely future-oriented. Against the one trillion dollars expected to be spent on pharmaceuticals around the world next year, the two billion or so that will be spent on neurofeedback hardly registers. Given the fact that neurofeedback can only thrive in a future-oriented context, it is of specific as well as general interest to inquire into the state of the larger society that we wish to support.

It is appropriate to take an ecological perspective—a systems perspective. We end up asking a set of questions similar to those we ask about the brain. The most critical issues are those related to the stability of the natural systems on which we depend, as well as of the civil institutions and commercial enterprises we have created. Additionally, we inquire into issues of state regulation. Are the conditions we require sufficiently regulated to be sustainable? Lastly, we inquire into the quality of the interaction of the constituent parts. Is social harmony being promoted?

We have reason to be very skeptical on all counts. What we know to date is not reassuring. Neither the brain nor the natural world operates as an equilibrium system. This limits predictability. At the same time we orient more to the discipline of economics than any other in charting our future. The operative economic theory is an equilibrium model, and along with convention in all of economics, the entire matter of resource limitation lies outside of the framework of analysis. According to standard theory, the only resources that need to be judiciously allocated are capital and labor. The fruits of renewable nature and the exploitation of non-renewables do not weigh in as elements of the model.

In reality, of course, non-renewables are being depleted and renewables are increasingly being over-exploited. A steady-state economic status needs to be approached, and soon. Instead of preparing for that eventuality, however, our exertions are in the direction of restoring the growth model that has gotten us here. We are caught in the grip of the normalcy bias, the expectation that what is working presently is likely to keep working for us. But the growth model is clearly faltering.

The bias in favor of propagating existing arrangements is so pervasive that it is unlikely we will respond to impending challenges with the needed foresight and finesse. It is evident that we are prepared to respond only to crisis, so inevitably we have in store for us a future that will be lurching from one crisis to the next. Crises can emanate out of the technical, the economic, or the political sphere. Of the three, one would expect the technical sphere to be the one that is most competently managed. One look at Fukushima disabuses one of that hope. In fact, all three areas give one grounds for despair.

At Fukushima the water pumps for emergency cooling were in the basement, where they could readily flood. The spent-fuel pool, on the other hand, was located at elevation, where at the moment it is susceptible to sudden rupture with the next major aftershock, leading to rapid drainage with catastrophic consequences. That’s why the fuel is being moved as quickly as possible. Placing four reactors close together meant that engineers had created a correlated risk. All these design flaws became immediately obvious to even a non-technical observer after the earthquake. Yet none of these considerations was persuasive to the engineers before the event. This disaster gives us rare insight into the larger reality that our technological society is not organized to be fault-tolerant.

As for the economic sphere, it is a story of perpetual instability. America’s financial history is replete with major financial crises. In the history of the world, there has never ever been an economic arrangement that had an extended history of stability. So why is so much credence being given to an equilibrium theory, when the equilibrium referred to has so little persistence?

And finally, with regard to the political sphere, is it even necessary to point out that it is presently quite incapable of effecting a response to anything less than a major crisis? So crises we will have. In fact, Nassim Taleb (author of “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile”) now tells us that crises are probably intrinsically unavoidable. Living in the face of system instabilities is therefore our natural state. The best we can do is to build resilience into our society in response to them. In practice we are doing the opposite: the ‘system’ is pushed towards its limits in every dimension where that is possible. That is the capitalist dynamic.

The re-balancing of our societal priorities depends on a restoration of future-consciousness, and it depends on the adoption of an ecological perspective. This is a question of values that goes deeper than rational argument can reach. Everything rests on the core principle that human beings possess intrinsic value. The rebalancing that needs to occur in economics must proceed from the principle that markets exist to serve people, not the other way around. And the needs of the people can no longer be seen as distinct from the question of the health of the natural environment. The essential, humbling ecological truth is that we are the species that best meets our own definition of a plague. An inclusive systems perspective is needed.

Finally, on the social dimension we need to reclaim the village square. We are living in another Tower of Babel where we no longer understand each other. Words no longer mean what they were intended to mean. Our formal political structure has become monolithic and predatory. It needs to be liberated from the grip of finance. Politics needs to become poly-centric, infused with energy from the bottom up. But power, once concentrated, is not voluntarily dispersed. Hence we are poised for another crisis—politically, economically, environmentally, and socially. Canadian social scientist Henry Giroux has grasped our current dilemma: “America is descending into madness.”

A Ray of Hope
The fraying of the social contract over the last thirty years can be seen as part of a cyclical pattern that the United States has undergone a number of times. It was given intellectual support by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in the book titled “The Bell Curve,” published in the mid-nineties. The problem of the underclass was deemed to be intractable, and hence it was proposed that resources should not be committed because they would be merely wasted. The moochers and the takers should muddle through on their own. Effectively, they are “life undeserving of life.”

A recent German study found 10 percent of the population to be essentially incapable of participating productively in the economic life of the country. Would the findings for the US be much different? If we inquire into the reasons for such incapacity, we uncover mainly brain-based dysfunctions of various kinds and from a range of causes.

Enter neurofeedback. The major contributors to the dysfunction of the bottom 10% are accessible to us through neurofeedback: 1) anxiety-depression spectrum (the largest cause of disability world-wide); 2) emotional trauma; 3) physical brain trauma; 4) cognitive dysfunction; 5) addiction; 6) criminality; 7) dementia. All are substantially remediable with brain-based training. This awareness constitutes an ethical mandate to make this intervention broadly available in our society, something that can only be accomplished with societal support.

That brings us back to future-consciousness, the precondition for acknowledging such an obligation. In this manner, societal balance and harmony can be restored. Our larger mission must be the healing of the human family, and of the environment in which we live. As Peter Sellars once said, “The answer does not lie in shopping.” It is awareness of neurofeedback that gives us hope in the face of the bankruptcy of the status quo. This is not just because of its effectiveness in redressing some of our most intractable social ills. Rather, it is because of its general tendency to promote a greater capacity for connection.

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

4 Responses to “We Have Black Swans”

  1. Miles Thomas says:

    Hi Sigfried,

    Just saw you Thursday……I applaud your optimism, but I doubt the 1% will agree (just read they are now worth over a Trillion dollars!)…..I think they are too distracted and greedy to worry about the Earth and the damage we continually do to it. After all, native Americans called it their Mother….funny that almost all pharmaceuticals come from natural sources usually discovered by primitive tribes….

    Love what you do at EEG and your whole crew there. Thanks for a positive article. In the face of dealing with Gabby 24/7 and her very, very slow progress after her brain injury, it’s tough just getting up in the morning. So many of us, you and your family included have been through such pain and suffering with our families it’s hard to believe how cold and uncaring the rich are, even in the face of their own families hardships…..it’s all about the $ and I’m afraid it always will be.

    Serena, Gabby and I all hope the year is wonderful for you and yours.

    Best & Warmest,


    • Thank you, Miles, for your kind thoughts.
      Those who are well-served by current economic arrangements are unlikely to call them into question.
      So it is pointless to look in that direction for the change that needs to occur.
      Unfortunately, we are in a time of fusion of economic with political power, so it is hard to see just how the needed change can come about within the existing framework.

  2. Hanno Kirk says:

    This is a very thought provoking article. I agree that our beliefs about our competence to manage ourselves on the macro level in the fields that you mention, are completely at odds with the reality of history and of what is going on right now. There is no assurance that we will recognize our own inability to free ourselves from these beliefs. Indeed despite ever more acute crises in each of the realms, we tend to cling to our outmoded beliefs that equilibirium will somehow magically be restored. Except of course, as we have seen after each crisis, whether economic, political, or ecological, the subsequent state of affairs is less stable and even more prone to relapse into crisis mode.

    Eastern spiritual philosophy tells us that to heal the world we need to begin at the micro level, i.e. each working to heal him/herself. So perhaps if each of us was able to have access to Neurofeedback, we could exert a collective balancing influence on the macro level.

  3. John Putman says:

    Well written. My former supervisor used to say that when the fight-flight neuro-circuitry is fully charged, it compels the mind to take refuge in the shell of the immediate future. That is what is necessary for survival. But over time, it will bring the opposite. It may well be that neurofeedback’s primary purpose is to move us away from that state.

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