I have a dream… part II

This morning I read an article I printed off Time Magazine‘s web site that relates to a similar topic as my previous entry. The author addressed the impact of imagination or recollection on the brain, not the soul. But given my position that the form of the brain is the “shadow” cast by the soul, different manifestations of the same Light of creation, the two observations coincide.

How The Brain Rewires Itself
Sharon Begley
Friday, Jan. 19, 2007

It was a fairly modest experiment, as these things go, with volunteers trooping into the lab at Harvard Medical School to learn and practice a little five-finger piano exercise. Neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone instructed the members of one group to play as fluidly as they could, trying to keep to the metronome’s 60 beats per minute. Every day for five days, the volunteers practiced for two hours. Then they took a test.

At the end of each day’s practice session, they sat beneath a coil of wire that sent a brief magnetic pulse into the motor cortex of their brain, located in a strip running from the crown of the head toward each ear. The so-called transcranial-magnetic-stimulation (TMS) test allows scientists to infer the function of neurons just beneath the coil. In the piano players, the TMS mapped how much of the motor cortex controlled the finger movements needed for the piano exercise. What the scientists found was that after a week of practice, the stretch of motor cortex devoted to these finger movements took over surrounding areas like dandelions on a suburban lawn.

The finding was in line with a growing number of discoveries at the time showing that greater use of a particular muscle causes the brain to devote more cortical real estate to it. But Pascual-Leone did not stop there. He extended the experiment by having another group of volunteers merely think about practicing the piano exercise. They played the simple piece of music in their head, holding their hands still while imagining how they would move their fingers. Then they too sat beneath the TMS coil.

When the scientists compared the TMS data on the two groups — those who actually tickled the ivories and those who only imagined doing so — they glimpsed a revolutionary idea about the brain: the ability of mere thought to alter the physical structure and function of our gray matter. For what the TMS revealed was that the region of motor cortex that controls the piano-playing fingers also expanded in the brains of volunteers who imagined playing the music–just as it had in those who actually played it.

“Mental practice resulted in a similar reorganization” of the brain, Pascual-Leone later wrote….

The article then continues discussing the plasticity of the brain into adulthood (which ran contrary to earlier opinion) and how brain “real estate” is reclaimed for other uses after a limb is amputated r”l.

On the subject of using thought to heal mental illness:

AS SCIENTISTS PROBE the limits of neuroplasticity, they are finding that mind sculpting can occur even without input from the outside world. The brain can change as a result of the thoughts we think, as with Pascual-Leone’s virtual piano players. This has important implications for health: something as seemingly insubstantial as a thought can affect the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can treat mental illness or, perhaps, lead to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion. It may even dial up the supposedly immovable happiness set point.In a series of experiments, for instance, Jeffrey Schwartz and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can quiet activity in the circuit that underlies obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), just as drugs do. Schwartz had become intrigued with the therapeutic potential of mindfulness meditation, the Buddhist practice of observing one’s inner experiences as if they were happening to someone else.

When OCD patients were plagued by an obsessive thought, Schwartz instructed them to think, “My brain is generating another obsessive thought. Don’t I know it is just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit?” After 10 weeks of mindfulness-based therapy, 12 out of 18 patients improved significantly. Before-and-after brain scans showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex, the core of the OCD circuit, had fallen dramatically and in exactly the way that drugs effective against OCD affect the brain. Schwartz called it “self-directed neuroplasticity,” concluding that “the mind can change the brain.”

The same is true when cognitive techniques are used to treat depression. Although she writes of Buddhist Meditation, it could certainly be speaking of hispa’alus or hisbonenus.

… With the help and encouragement of the Dalai Lama, Davidson recruited Buddhist monks to go to Madison and meditate inside his functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tube while he measured their brain activity during various mental states. For comparison, he used undergraduates who had had no experience with meditation but got a crash course in the basic techniques. During the generation of pure compassion, a standard Buddhist meditation technique, brain regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, the fMRI showed, as if the subjects–experienced meditators as well as novices–opened their minds and hearts to others.

More interesting were the differences between the so-called adepts and the novices. In the former, there was significantly greater activation in a brain network linked to empathy and maternal love. Connections from the frontal regions, so active during compassion meditation, to the brain’s emotional regions seemed to become stronger with more years of meditation practice, as if the brain had forged more robust connections between thinking and feeling.

But perhaps the most striking difference was in an area in the left prefrontal cortex — the site of activity that marks happiness. While the monks were generating feelings of compassion, activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal (associated with negative moods) to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity. By contrast, the undergraduate controls showed no such differences between the left and right prefrontal cortex. This suggests, says Davidson, that the positive state is a skill that can be trained.

For the monks as well as the patients with depression or OCD, the conscious act of thinking about their thoughts in a particular way rearranged the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity, in particular the power of the mind to change the brain, is still too new for scientists, let alone the rest of us, to grasp its full meaning. But even as it offers new therapies for illnesses of the mind, it promises something more fundamental: a new understanding of what it means to be human.

“I have a dream…”

I mentioned twice recently the connection between dimyon (imagination and the ability to recreate experiences) and desire, and the number of rishonim and acharonim who therefore associate it with the yeitzer hara, as in the sense of “and you will not veer after your hearts or after your eyes, which you often stray after”. (See this entry on the role of dimyon in thought, and this one on the yeitzer hara.)

The ba’alei mussar realized, though, that desire cuts both ways. If dimyon can create destructive desires, it could also be harnessed to create sacred and ennobling ones. I had this idea in mind when I wrote:

I think therefore we must conclude that the key of Rav Yisrael [Salanter]‘s thought is more in the contrast between free and confined than in dimyon vs. muskal. Dimyon is far more readily uncontrolled. Emotions are more readily fired by events rather than ideas, and so of our thoughts, our ability to create and recreate events has a strong ability to shape our desires.

This link between dimyon and desire is also seen in the English word “dream” — the same word is used for describing the free-wandering experience of dimyon at night and for a person’s desires and aspirations. (As per the quote used in the title line, which was written when I thought this entry would be complete on time for Martin Luther King Day. That day was also the 25th of Teves, which is Rav Dessler’s yahrzeit. This devar Torah draws heavily from his Michtav meiEliyahu, so I wanted it to be in tribute.)

The Alter of Kelm, R’ Simcha Zisl Ziv, called the use of mental imagery to create holy desires and ahavas veyir’as Hashem (love and awe for G-d) by the term “hisbonenus“. (Described in Kisvei HaSaba veTalmidav miKelm I pp. 108-170.) Hisbonenus is a controlled visualization in which you try to create and internalize change through the power of dimyon.

Rav Dessler explains the idea at length (Michtav meiEliyahu IV pp 249-257, “Darkhei haHashavah el haLeiv“). If we are trapped by the number of negative images we dream up, the only way to fight it is to choose to imagine situations that increase one’s ahavas and yir’as shamayim. To thereby find a better balance in our desires.
Rav Zalman Vilozhiner (Toledos Adam, also cited in Michtav meiEliyahu) gives a powerful example of a second use of dimyon. Not only does it motivate desire, but dimyon is also key to emotion in general. When Rabbi Aqiva was being tortured to death, he happily said Shema. His students were amazed with his ability to do so. Rabbi Aqiva explained to them that he spent all his life wondering if he would have an opportunity to serve Hashem “bekhol nafshekha — with all my living-soul”, “miyamai nitzta’arti al mitzvah zeh — all my life I pained for this mitzvah”. Rav Zalman explains that Rabbi Aqiva imagined this possibility his entire life, and thus, having practiced it through imagery, he was capable of following through when it happened in reality.

Rav Dessler starts by speaking about a different use of imagery and builds from that to hispa’alus. Visual aids are a powerful tool in education. We use this idea both in the classroom and in mitzvos like the seider. We don’t just tell our children about the exodus, we eat matzah and maror and we reenact the slavery and departure from Egypt. Rav Dessler understands this visualization as the difference between the seider night’s commandment of sipur yetzi’as Mitzrayim and the daily mitzvah of zeikher yetzi’as Mitzrayim.
This is a central them in R’ SR Hirsch’s philosophy. Rav Hirsch classifies many mitzvos as osos, signs. In his thought, Hashem communicates basic truths to us through the symbolism of mitzvos. Symbols are at the intersection of emotion and thought. For things we accept but do not analyze, they provide a metaphor for study and further understanding. For ideas that we understand intellectually but do not internalize, they give us the means for internalization.

Rav Hirsch writes that it is for this reason that prophecy too was through the medium of metaphor. The prophet not only receives the ideas he immediately apprehends, but can also get more understanding by contemplating and analyzing the metaphor in all its detail.

Similarly, Rav Dessler points to the text of our tefillos. We don’t merely say on Rosh haShanah that Hashem judges each of us. We create the image of sheep going past the shepheard’s crook, counting off each one to separate ma’aseir. Something we can visualize and focus our attention on, and thereby impact our souls. To truly get the full value of these symbolic mitzvos we must take the time to absorb and feel the imagery. Not just say these tefillos or follow through the actions, but actually imagine.

Illness spread throughout the Jewish community and Hashem commands Moshe, “make a venemous snake for yourself”. Rav Dessler notes that Hashem didn’t tell Moshe what to make the snake out of. Moshe chose bronze because its name resembles the word for snake. He made a “nachas nechoshes“. Why? Was Moshe composing poetry? Moshe’s example teaches us something important. The more detailed and precise the image, the greater it moves the heart.

Imagery is our most powerful tool for shaping our desires and emotions. This is channeling the very same power that is at the core of many of our aveiros.

We discussed three environments in which imagery helps: symbolic mitzvos (and prophecy), identifying with our prayers, and in hisbonenus. We saw that such imagery is more effective when as detailed as possible. And, we saw that imagery can be used to create desires, allow one to practice how to respond to situations without actually having to live through them, and thereby change one’s emotional response.

Hisbonenus is something we all did as children, but as adults, it can be both difficult and alien to our routines for many of us. Find some quiet time and try picturing a scene. Perhaps an image from tefillah, a historical event, or a midrashic story. When Rav Dessler was writing, there were Holocaust survivors who traveled by boat trying to fulfil the dream of living in Israel only to be turned back at Cyprus. Try picturing being on such a boat. Feel it rock on the waves. What color is it? Who are on the crowded deck with you? What are they doing? Who brought their children? Who brought their chess set? Did you strike up a friendship with anyone? Once spending the necessary minutes to make that voyage is made “real”, look out in the distance. Land! What is it? Did we really reach Israel? No, the next fellow tells you, we were redirected to Cyprus. And so on. Initially, our attention spans are short, but with practice one can spend many minutes fully developing the scene, creating the detail Rav Dessler tells us is so critical to the process. After spending the time it takes to place yourself in the shoes of the person who just have their dreams so cruelly dashed, realize — this is the experience of the soul upon death. Just as it thinks it was freed from the body to return to heaven, it learns that no, there is a detour first…

Through hisbonenus exercises like this one we can pierce the orlas haleiv, the callousness of the heart, to allow Hashem’s mitzvos and ideals reach the core of our being.

Yeitzer haRa

(This entry draws heavily from one posted a couple of weeks ago.)

I – Defining the Term

What is the Yeitzer haRa?

The simplest translation is the inclination to do evil.

But people do not inherently know what is evil and what is not. The tinoq shenishba, the child who was taken captive and raised by bandits or a person who otherwise lacked the proper upbringing to realize something was wrong, is not held as accountable for their sin as someone who did have a more proper upbringing. If the yeitzer hara were a part of the self that was sufficiently in heaven to know what was evil to motivate someone to do it, there would be no reason for such leniency.

The second notion would be that it is an inclination to do what the person believes is evil.

This doesn’t match actual experience, though. People need to rationalize their actions. No one chooses evil because it’s evil. They may choose wrongly because they are following a different notion of good; perhaps an aesthetic good rather than a moral one. But there is always some axis on which the person sees good in their choice. Chavah took the fruit of the tree of knowledge for this very reason, it was aesthetically pleasing — “good to look at and good to eat”.

Which leads one to conclude that the yeitzer hara is a drive to do something that often is evil. But this is quite a distance from our original definition. Is it justifiable?

As we will see in a moment, I believe that it’s justifiable on linguistic grounds. But also, I believe it must be true for a priori reasons. It is impossible for the mind to contain a complete model of itself. Therefore, when we speak of ideas like the yeitzer hara, we can only speak in terms of simplified models; ways of explicating only certain aspects of the problem.

The majority of this essay is a list of some ways of explaining what the yeitzer hara and yeitzer hatov are. I would not assert that the sources of each are necessarily arguing about the nature of man. In fact, I ascribe two of them to the same source — the Rambam! Rather, I believe that they are presenting different models, and at different times in our lives or even as we face different decisions in the same day, each may be useful in analyzing our motives and overcoming the destructive ones.
II – The Diqduq

A tzurah is a form, a yotzer someone who gives form. E.g. from Yamim Noraim davening, “kehinei kachomer beyad hayotzeir — for [we are like] clay in the hands of the Potter”. A yeitzer would be a causative conjugation, it causes something else to have a form. Like a cookie cutter, which leaves its form on the cookies it defines, rather than a potter. A template.

Second, the idiom as a whole is a semichut, an “attached” conjugation meaning “of”. As in “Benei Yisrael – Children of Israel”, “beis seifer — house of books (i.e. a school)”. The rules for hei hayedi’ah, the “ha-” prefix meaning “the”, on a semichut are non-intuitive for the English speaker. A “davar qodesh” is a “holy thing”, but “the holy thing” would require a hei on both words “hadavar haqodesh“. “Devar haqodesh” would be “a thing of the holy one”. So that “yeitzer hara” is not “the evil template”, as that would mean we would always find it conjugated as “hayeitzer hara“.

So, looking at the diqduq of the words, the most literal translation would be that the yeitzer hara is something that causes our actions to have an evil form, but isn’t necessarily evil itself. In fact, it would most probably describe a drive which is not evil, but only causes evil when it is used as a yeitzer, defining the shape and purpose of our actions. As Chazal say on the pasuq in Shema, “behol levavekha – bishnei yitzrekha“, loving Hashem with all your heart means loving Him with both yetzarim. Impossible if the yeitzer hara were inherently evil.

II – Giver and Taker

Man is inherently a dialectic being; it is inherent in the human condition that our behavior is characterizable by pairs of conflicting truths. It is this tension which gives us opportunity to choose. It is also a necessary consequence of our being recipients of Hashem’s good, and thus of His ability to be Giver. We receive His Image, and thus become givers.

This dichotomy, giving vs. taking, is the fundamental point in Rav Dessler’s “Qunterus haChesed“, a section of Michtav meiEilyahu vol. 1. To be a ba’al chesed, a giver, is the key to G-dliness. It is also a theme in Rav Shim’on Shkop’s introduction to Shaarei Yosher. Hashem gave us existence, and thus to be in His Image is to give to others. Chazal comment on the Chumash’s words “Qedoshim tihyu – you shall be holy” with “perushim tihyu — you shall be separated.” Rav Shim’on explains that holiness requires separation from taking anything that we do not need for the purpose of giving good to others.

To rest for the pleasure of resting is not holy, but to do so for the purpose of being able to give tomorrow, is. Holiness is thus proportional to one’s commitment to giving. Thus, one can take in a way that expresses love for Hashem, fulfilling “bekhol levavekha“.

IV – Spiritual and Animal

Rav Hirsch speaks of man’s animal side and man’s higher calling to ennoble himself. The Vilna Gaon defines nara”n similarly — the nefesh being the life-force we have in common with animals, the neshamah is our connection to heaven, and between them the ru’ach is the will which has the freedom to decide between them. (See also the Nara”n section of this blog.) In a totally different model, the Tanya makes a distinction between the nefesh E-lokis vs nefesh habeheimis, the Divine Soul vs the Animal Soul. (Each of which has their own nara”n. Nara”n is a concept dating back to the seifer haYetzirah, but by the time it reaches the acharonim many different opinions exist as to the parameters of each concept and their roles in the psyche.)

This is also very central to Victor Frankel’s pyschological model. As his book’s title presumes, man has a quest for Meaning no less innate than his quest for physical pleasures. That meaning could be defined religiously, or it could be like his description of his own drive to make it through the camp in Terezin just to see his wife again. But it’s a drive to live for more than just myself.

This dichotomy also maps directly to our concepts of yeitzer hara and yeitzer hatov as drives that, when used as goals, produce good or evil. Our physicality isn’t inherently evil, but to live for the sake of one’s physicality is. Similarly, spirituality can be abused, but a life of constantly striving to be elevated is a good one.

To love Hashem bekhol levavekha then refers to things like being able to enhance one’s Shabbos through the enjoyment of food, rest, and other physical pleasures.

In Shemoneh Peraqim (ch 3), the Rambam talks about man’s spiritual form (meaning one’s purpose which in turn determines one’s attributes) as the source of G-dliness. It is our form which is “in the Image of G-d”. It is our physical substance which is the source of sin.
And yet the Rambam’s introduction to his commentary on pereq Cheileq (Sanhedrin ch. 10) proves that people are more than simply clever mammals using examples of negative uses of the spiritual. The Rambam notes that people will often forgo physical pleasure for the sake of honor or revenge. So one sees there is something that overrides physical desires, proving the point. However, his examples of overriding motivations are both negative ones. Just as the yeitzer hara can be used for good, the yeitzer hatov can be used for evil.

V – Reason and Desire

Another dichotomy that is often mapped to the battle between the yeitzer hatov and yeitzer hara is the battle between reason and passion. Thinking through one’s actions vs. acting impetuously on a desire. Here the lesson of loving G-d even with one’s yeitzer hara is self evident. What is true love if not passionate?

The Rambam describes this dichotomy as well (Shemoneh Peraqim ch 2, Moreh Nevuchim 3:8). The Rambam follows Aristotle’s notion (N.E 1095a) that the problem with children is that they haven’t learned to think before acting, and therefore act on their passions, not the intellect.

I think the position I explained in my entry of two weeks ago, including Rav Yisrael Salanter’s comments on dimyon vs. muskal (imagination vs thought, where imagination includes the ability to create and recreate scenarios in general) is a variant on this theme. The Igeres haMussar opens with “A person is free in his dimyon and bound by his muskal.” The dimyon isn’t evil; as we saw, it is vehicle of prophecy. However, as a yeitzer, an end, it becomes the subject of Hashem’s warning that we need tzitzis so that “velo sasuru acharei levavkhem ve’akharei eineikhem — we not wander after our hearts and after our eyes. It is when the dimyon is allowed to run free rather than be harnessed that it becomes a yeitzer hara.

Both positions can be seen as being about a desire that a person ought to have been able to decide to overcome, but could not. The first is more straightforward, dealing with the desire directly. The latter looks back a step to dimyon as a key source of desire. And therefore its focus also includes being able to assert a filter between dimyon and desire.

VI – Summary

Man is basically dialectic in nature, a composite of conflicting definitions, self-images, and desires. (Why that’s true will, G-d willing, be the topic of a future entry.) When facing a moral choice, one desire will prove superior to the others. By looking at how various ba’alei mesorah divide these choices, we can be equipped with tools to analyze and improve our decision making.

There are two parts to the problem, clearly assessing one’s desires, and being able to look beyond what one wants to be true to objectively be able do so. The above ideas suggest the following tools.

  • Assessing the value of the conflicting desires, which axis of values are each drawing from?
    • Am I trying to give to others or improve the world around me, or am I trying to get something for myself at their possible expense?
    • Am I choosing physical comfort or pleasure over spiritual ones?
    • Aesthetic pleasure over moral good?
  • Reengaging intellect
    • The classical tool of listing pros and cons will help identify which is the more reasonable choice. In this way, we can force ourselves to see if we are ranking desires objectively, or if one desire is prejudicing our thought.
    • Hisbonenus:Since the desire that is coloring my ability to think was created by dimyon, my imagining the joy of fulfilling it, can I use that same power of dimyon to redirect that passion? (Another topic already promised for a future entry.)
    • Hispa’alus: By studying something passionately or creatively I can create an emotional investment in it. In this way I can build on the positive desire. See my earlier description of hispa’alus in the Ki Seitzei issue of Mesukim MiDevash.

The two pieces of the puzzle are also the topics of two chapters of Shemoneh Peraqim. In ch. 1, the Rambam discusses mistakes in thought which lead to sin, whereas in ch. 2 he discusses “diseases of the soul” which are sensory and emotional orders. Opposite order, same two ideas.

There is a third possible tactic. It hasn’t yet been discussed in this essay, because until now we took it for granted that the person is consciously making a moral choice. However, it is possible to avoid the problem.

Rav Dessler notes that consicous decision-making really only occurs in small regions of the choices we face. Those in which are desires are balanced enough that there is an active war between them. With each decision that point moves, either in one direction or the other, as that desire is reinforced.

  • Moving the bechirah point
    • How can I use habit to avoid having to struggle to overcome the temptation? This is key to the mussar practice of accepting qabbalos on oneself, small practices that gradually move my bechirah point on the topic. The practice of qabbalos is described more fully in the Eikev issue of Mesukim MiDevash.

Afterward: The Origin of the Yeitzer haRa
The question of where the yeitzer hara comes from can be asked in two ways — historically, and developmentally. Both were addressed in the past.
The historical origin is with eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This internalized the mixture of motivations, some good, some evil. See “The Origins of Imperfection“. That essay is primarily about the physical vs. spiritual dichotomy.

However, until that dichotomy is internalized with the first sin, choice was about truth vs. falsehood. Which was the greater good, not eating the fruit, or was the snake’s rationale the truer story? One can also interpret the transition in that essay as being about the dichotomy between passion and thought. Adam before the sin was able to think clearly, without desire clouding his judgment. Adam after the sin is a war of conflicting desires, and therefore needs tools to help reengage unbiased thought to choose between them.

These are the two parts to the problem I listed in the summary — Adam’s internalization of counterproductive desires, and the consequent inability to rely on intellect directly parallel our need to rank our desires
The developmental origin of the yeitzer hatov occurs when a child reaches 12 or 13. I suggested that this is because it can not exist without the potential to rebel. A child who hasn’t yet tasted teenage rebellion behaves because their sources of authority tell them to — parents, teachers, peer acceptance. To truly choose good, it has to be in a framework where the source of the choice is internal, not imposed.
(With thanks to R’ Daniel Eidensohn, compiler of the “Yad Moshe”, for clearing up some of my misunderstanding of the Rambam.)