Articles:   Experiential learning comes from cultural immersion & autism &
Are we genetically predisposed to conflict and violence? {Below}

Experiential learning comes from cultural immersion & autism

 

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By Gwendolyn Barnhart, Ph.D.
August 1, 2021 - Last updated: August 2, 2021

While completing a graduate program in clinical psychology, there comes  difficulties, and with them come opportunities for growth through experiential learning. One growth opportunity for me is through navigating this training process while on the autism spectrum.

 

For most people, social aspects of navigating the world come naturally, but I have to learn as though it were math or history. This is one of the reasons I find psychology so fascinating: I study and learn about human behavior, which helps me to help others while also helping me navigate the world.

One of my favorite clinical training experiences has been through an internship in Nome, Alaska, where I have worked with Alaskan Natives in Nome and surrounding villages. No roads connect Nome to any major city. All resources are obtained through subsistence activities or the costly practice of flying them in or shipping when the sea isn’t frozen. The nearest city is Anchorage, which is 500 miles away, again, with no roads.

I enjoy being in a rural setting, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. City life is daunting for me as the noises are too loud and the lights are too bright. Too much sensory input can be difficult for me. Nome is quiet – no freeways, no large crowds, no sensory craziness – or at least it is minimized.

As an autistic, I have learned to navigate these overt aspects of sensory overload, but it can still be emotionally exhausting to constantly work to regulate my own emotions, cognitions and behavior. I “mask” often; heaven forbid anyone find out that I’m different. In Nome, those from the lower 48 are different. It gives me comfort to no longer be the only different one in town.

Living within this region gives me the opportunity to experience the basic framework of what it means to be human in the context of the environment, the ecosystem and the planet as I am not exhausting myself regulating my sensory and social difficulties. I enjoy the simplicity of life on the tundra, learning about subsistence living and what it means to truly rely on the environment for survival and become an active part of the ecosystem.

I also enjoy immersing myself in other cultures. Within a cohort model, my fellow interns

are tasked with learning about a new culture and being immersed in it. Since this is my

experience nearly every day, I feel as though we are on a level playing field, which is

comforting.

While in Nome and working with those in the surrounding villages, humility is needed as it is imperative to put our Western cultural lens aside and look through the lens of the lived experiences of those we serve. Some cultural aspects of those in the region have been adversely impacted due to colonialism and negative assertions of Native cultural practices.

People who live in this region often rely on traditional ways of life to survive. Some people do not have running water and regularly have to haul water as part of their daily life. Others do not have plumbing facilities and use “honey buckets” for hygienic purposes. Some do not have internet or cable. In the region, hunting seals, walrus, caribou and other wildlife are essential for survival. To many Westernized eyes, hunting seal and whale are unthinkable acts, while here, to Native eyes, the practice is necessary to feed their families.

As an autistic, I enjoy identifying parallels and threads in culture that create the fabric of what it means to be human.

As psychologists, it is imperative to put aside our Western lens and our own personal biases, opinions and expectations, since these can hinder therapeutic relationships when working with those in the region

For me, as an autistic, I can relate to some degree; being judged for being autistic is common. People have their biases and opine about what autistics are supposed to be like, about what I am supposed to be like. When I don’t fit their narrative, people often do not understand and attempt to assert their expertise on the subject. I feel as though Westernized culture has done this same thing to Native cultures.

I am fairly good at masking, or playing the “pretending to be normal game.” For me, psychology is the instruction manual. When I live by the manual, I can pass.
Much of my psychological training has been through the lens of Westernized culture, based on Western norms and values. This same culture has victimized those I serve. In a way, this culture has victimized me and others with neurodivergent minds.

Cultural sensitivity is needed when serving a population that has undergone such a tumultuous change in its way of life, especially since the adverse ramifications of it are present in the lives of those that come into my office as they actively experience the trauma associated with colonialism.

My job is to sit alongside my clients, acknowledge and process the past, its adverse effects and how it coincides with an ever-changing world with cultural sensitivity all whilst masking and playing the “pretending to be normal game.”

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Gwendolyn Barnhart is a Psy.D. student from Antioch University – Seattle Clinical Psychology program who is finishing her internship in Nome, Alaska, through the Alaska Psychology Internship Consortium. She holds a Ph.D. in general psychology with an emphasis in research and is also finishing her Ed.D. through Walden University concurrently with her Psy.D. at Antioch University. Her email is: gbarnhart@antioch.edu

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Are we genetically predisposed to conflict and violence?

By Richard Althouse, Ph.D.
August 1, 2021 -
Last updated: August 2, 2021

Genetics research long ago revealed that genes fundamentally determine the structures, functions and behaviors of all living things to ensure their survival and that genetics determines the structure and function of our brains. Neuroscience research has well established that our brains determine our individual responses to our environments and are programmed by epigenetic experiences that culminate in our personalities. These experiences can, in turn, influence genetic changes that are passed on to future generations, eventually defining their individual personalities.
 

Nonetheless, “genetics” and “neuroscience” have remained relatively uninspiring words that most of us relegate to the esoteric arenas of complex science.
 

It is likely that most of us did not associate the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capital building on Jan. 6 or the recent landing of Perseverance on Mars with either genetics, modern-day brain function or personalities.
 

But it was the interplay of precisely those two influences that explains both our ability to engineer the landing on Mars and the violent and lawless individual behaviors of some participants in the insurrection (e.g., The Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers) that resulted in five deaths and many injuries. Most of us were likely more emotionally captivated by the violence of the insurrection than by the Mars landing.
 

Why?
 

The answer is informing. Today’s species of homo sapiens, currently 7.8 billion of us humans, is the only remaining genetically related human species on the planet. Despite superficial differences of outward appearances often used to define race, we have been virtually genetically identical to each other for about 20,000 years.
 

Some anthropologists and historians believe that we are the only remaining human species because our species has a genetically-driven evolutionary history of being intolerant and violent. That history may have included eliminating all other existing human species, as well as other animal and plant species, as we migrated to different areas and competed with or utilized them for survival resources.
 

As a result of our competitive success, we eventually rose to the top of the food chain, a rise some historians believe resulted in us becoming both dangerous and cruel to compete for survival in an increasingly complex world of resource competitors, social and ecological challenge and environmental resource limits.

A good deal of our species’ survival success can be attributed to the enlargement

of our brains beginning about 2 million years ago. That eventually facilitated the

development of language, tool-making, critical thinking, factual analysis and the

problem-solving abilities we enjoy today. But neuroscience research has shown that

our brains also retained and integrated the earlier-evolved rapid-threat avoidance

responses of our initially smaller brain that facilitated our ability to quickly respond

to perceived survival threats, often referred to as our “fight or flight” response.
 

Why is understanding this evolutionary quirk important? Because these ancient, rapid threat-response networks neurologically inhibit the parts of our brains that later evolved to facilitate our critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
 

That is why we find it difficult to “think straight” or objectively when emotionally stressed by events perceived to be threats to our survival interests. And we find it easier to rationalize the imposition of destructive, cruel and violent responses to avoid or minimize such threats.
 

The ironic outcome is that when our real survival might benefit from evidence-based critical analysis, that ability is neurologically minimized. This often means we create and respond to imagined survival threats with fear and anger-based behaviors and resist evidence or fact-based information that is contrary to our suspicions and beliefs.
Historically, this developmental quirk has had serious social consequences.

 

It contributed to our beliefs that some religions were worth killing for, that witches should be burned or hanged and that communism was pervasive in our country. It also helped us believe that some groups of individuals who rationalized killing or being brutal to others were in different categories because they were inferior or posed a threat to racial purity. Finally, it made us think that we needed to militarize the public to keep our government from being taken over, resulting in the recent violent and illegal insurrection at the U.S. Capital to “stop the steal.”
 

The psychological implications of both genetic and neuroscience research for better conflict intervention and resolution strategies are there to be explored and developed. But I believe that combining the knowledge derived from genetic and neuroscience research allows for a different and more complete understanding of human emotions, cognitions, behavior and personality development that goes beyond labeling each other as terrorists, criminals, cowards or mentally demented when interpersonal or international conflicts and violence arise.

Are we blaming each other for behaviors rooted in our genetic inheritance over which we have no control?
 

After all, our individual actions today are the result of thousands of years of inherited homo sapiens genes that determine each of our brain’s structures, functions and response potential. Epigenetic circumstances that included parenting, education and social experiences collectively determined our emotional, cognitive and behavioral responses these functions enable.
 

Consequently, in a moment of behavioral opportunity, we can do nothing else than what our brains determine we do. For better or worse, in a world ostensibly made safer by the threat of nuclear weapons, the only question is whether or not we homo sapiens are able to overcome the enduring gravitational pull of our own violent genetic heritage to secure our future.
 

I believe that incorporating information from both genetics and neuroscience will better enable us to do so.

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Richard Althouse, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with 37 years of clinical experience in correctional and forensic settings in both staff and supervisory capacities. He has published and provided training in mental health standards of care in correctional settings. Retired from state service, he remains active in the field of corrections with an interest in genetics and neuroscience as they relate to criminal behavior. He contributes to the International Association for Correctional Psychology newsletter and is secretary of the executive board of that association. His e-mail is: goldmine123.a@gmail.com

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