by Emile DeWeaver
Last month, I wrote about Andy Andrews’ bestselling book, The Butterfly Effect. In setting up his claim, Andrews relies on physicists’ discovery that the butterfly effect, small actions inciting events that spawn exponentially over time and space to produce lasting consequences, comes into play when matter of any sort—humans included—begins to move. His claim: Everything we do matters. He illustrates his argument with unlikely historical actors whose actions drastically affected the world decades later. According to Andrews, a schoolteacher on a Civil War battlefield is responsible for America’s victories in World War II, and one American family’s stand against racism in a slave state resulted generations later in a genetically engineered crop that has saved billions of lives.
This idea continues to stick with me going into the New Year. In 2016, I’m preparing to go before the parole board, and I’m launching Prison Renaissance, a project that will utilize the virtues of community and the Arts to undermine criminality. My parole hearing represents the culmination of past traumas, mistakes, and recoveries. Prison Renaissance represents a seed that I’ve committed to cultivate until it transforms the culture of division at the root of so many societal problems.
Consequences: I’ve been thinking about the butterfly effects that resulted in my imprisonment. My father was a doctor; my mother, an attorney. Though domestic violence stirred winds through my childhood that became hurricanes in my teens, physical abuse doesn’t resonate with me as the root of my imprisonment. The simple answer to how I ended up in prison is that I chose to commit a crime, but nobody reads monthly columns to discover the obvious. To me, it’s as obvious that I became a criminal because I felt isolated from society, “locked out.”
What’s not as obvious is something I discovered while reading David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Eagleman, a neuroscientist, makes two claims that interest me. 1. Our brains don’t passively record reality and convey it to the neural centers that construct meaning; rather the brain generates meaning, then actively constructs realities that fit prefabricated interpretations of the world. 2. There are thoughts we cannot think.
To explain the relationship between these ideas, Eagleman relies on a concept introduced around 1909 by a biologist named Jakob von Uexküll. The part of reality experienced by an animal via its senses was termed by Von Uexküll as umwelt. The larger reality outside the narrow band of experience he called the umgebung. “Each organism has its own umwelt, which it presumably assumes to be the entire objective reality ‘out there.’” For example, a blind bat makes its reality with echolocation, and as a result, isn’t likely to conceive of a moon or a flashlight. While Eagleman’s book covers the full complexity of his argument, the part that relates to butterfly effects in my life is his comparison of Von Uexküll’s physical umwelt to the mental umwelt posited by Eagleman. The latter states:
“By analogy to your perception of the world, your mental life is built to range over a certain territory, and it is restricted from the rest. There are thoughts you cannot think … The function of this wet computer, the brain, is to generate behavior that is appropriate to the environmental circumstances. Evolution has carefully carved eyes, internal organs, sexual organs, and so on—and also the character of your thoughts and beliefs. (emphasis added)
I tend to think about evolution—the ultimate butterfly effect—in terms of millions of years, but evolutionary processes happen every second of our lives, particularly with regard to behavior.
Consequences, consequences: if as a youth I felt excluded from society, what act began the chain that locked me into my mental umwelt? From the viewpoint of evolutionary psychologists, “the physical structure of brains embodies a set of programs, and the programs are there because they solved a particular problem in the past,” writes Eagleman. What problem did my brain seek to solve by constructing a paradigm that shut me out of society? Inevitably, I think about school, perhaps the earliest model of society that youth experience.
In 7th grade, the school suspended me repeatedly for wearing Malcolm X t-shirts. I refused to stop wearing them because they represented the only history, the only identity I had. I’d need 5,000 words to explicate how frightened boys raised in violent homes desperately need an identity to hold, so I’ll give you Good Behavior’s abbreviated version. Peter denied Christ; I would’ve died before I denied Malcolm X.
The principal eventually expelled me, and school became an institution controlled by people hostile to my identity, my anchor in existence. I couldn’t be part of it.
In 8th grade, the principal called the police on me after a sexual game a girl and I had been playing over two weeks culminated in me grabbing her butt. The school held me for sexual assault, but I escaped from the principal’s office before the police arrived. From that point, I was finished with school. Today, I realize grabbing someone’s butt without permission traumatizes them, but in 8th grade, all I knew was that school wasn’t a safe place for me. When I returned weeks later, I didn’t go to any classes because attendance would enable the police to track and arrest me. By 8th grade, I’d gone from a straight-A student to the kid who assaulted other students in the hallway for laughs from the kids who’d similarly framed school and society as the enemy.
What’s my point? It’s definitely not that we should fault a racially insensitive principal in the 7th grade, a zero tolerance policy in the 8th grade, and my umwelt for my imprisonment. No, I carry the blame for my crimes. As Eagleman writes, exploring the relationship between neuroscience and criminal justice, “Explanation does not equal exculpation.” My concern with the relation between the butterfly effect and my current incarceration has nothing to do with who deserves blame and everything to do with what Eagleman would call a “forward-looking” concern—i.e., once we become aware of Fact X and Causes Y and Z, where do we go from there? The fact that “all known serial murderers were abused as children” doesn’t mean Jeffrey Dahmer is less culpable for eating people, but it does mean that, as a society, we should be all the more concerned about child abuse. Likewise, the asshole principal and zero-tolerance policy that loosed butterflies in my own umwelt don’t make past criminal acts less criminal. But if we’re a society that values solutions to social problems like crime, then Fact Umwelt and Causes Principal, Policy are reasons to examine how we treat children in school.
They’re good reasons to continuously examine how we treat people because everything we do matters. Just as one action can generations later positively transform our world, another act can positively destroy it. Sometimes, one person at a time.