Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

The artist as madman

I continue reading “The Immortalist” and discover an interesting passage that both lauds and condemns “the artist” in society. Harrington, the book’s author, argues, as many have, that the artist creates art to achieve immortality, to live forever, if only in name. When this dream is foiled, ugliness ensues.

The artist still risks his identity and self-respect to an extent undreamed of by the man of business. He must always live with the fearful possibility that his work is no good, his daring departure from the safe world a bore to everyone else. And if he lacks talent, no one will care one way or the other what revolutionary notions he may entertain. Even after he attains some success, he can go dry and lose his talent. Or he may be taken up and dropped as tastes change. He remains exposed and on the firing line. When things go wrong the outcome becomes doubly unbearable. He fails twice—in his own mind dwindling alarmingly before the gods, and also in the public mind. The sensitive failed artist runs the risk of dying twice, spiritually and materially, which is why, as Eric Hoffer has shown in The True Believer, frustrated individuals of this kind have turned into the most dangerous people on earth: Hitler, Goebbels, Mussolini, etc.

I am, by any fair definition, a failed artist. Am I on the verge of becoming a power mad dictator casting millions to their doom?

Hmmmm…

Our obsession with accomplishment

I continue to read Alan Harrington’s “The Immortalist.” One of the books argument is that man, faced with the modern observation that god is dead, tries to achieve immortality by becoming famous, thus ensuring that he (man, not god) will not be forgotten. We do this not consciously, of course; this drive for celebrity and status is buried somewhere in the nether-regions of the subconscious. This leads to a certain kind of craziness as Harrington notes in one paragraph:

Middle-class people in particular have always competed for the god’s notice, but today, with religious authority on the wane, this competition has become frantic, in some arenas unbearable so. We have a merciless obsession with accomplishment. Millions are caught up in the neurotic new faith that a human being must succeed or die. For such individuals it is not enough to enjoy life, or simply do a good job or be a good person. No, the main project, pushing all other concerns in the background, is to make a name that the gods will recognize.

I have to say this summarizes my internal battles explicitly. On one hand I derive pleasure by obtaining skills—musicianship, writing, drawing, speaking foreign languages, being a skilled lover etc.—but other the other I realize the fruitlessness of it all. These skill have little value in the job marketplace, they are only good for generating a certain kind of respect. But why earn respect? I suppose Harrington would argue because on some level I feel it will lead to some form of immortality. But if that is a false belief, as it almost certainly is, shouldn’t I just chill out and enjoy life?

He has an interesting phrase in there: “succeed or die.” It sounds very Darwinian. I would if this human obsession with skills and accomplishment became stronger after Darwin put forth his “survival of the fittest” theory?

The Immortalist

I recently stumbled across a rather interesting looking book: The Immortalist, written by Alan Harrington in 1969. I’ve just started reading it and it seems to be a treatise on the idea that man should be making a furtive effort to live forever (or at least a really long time.) By googling the book, I’ve gathered that The Immortalist is considered essential reading by the movement known as trans-humanism, which is dedicated to the effort of transcending the limits of our biological state.

But this is not some dreary science tome full of calculations and chemical compounds. In the first chapter, Harrington lists what he believes are the various psychological strategies man has employed to avoid confronting the finality of death. (Religion is an obvious one, but also hedonism, fame and destruction of the ego.) I don’t quite know what to think about the content but the writing crackles. Check out this passage in which he argues that the modern* youth culture—rock clubs and discotheques, LSD etc.—is all about overwhelming the senses to create an “eternal now” (and thus obliviate an awareness of our impending doom.)

* Modern at the time I mean; late sixties.

…all this too amounts to one more attempt to hide from the end—by substituting Dionysian togetherness for romance, and a bombardment of the senses, lightworks of the soul, a sort of electronic Buddhism in place of sequential perception. The use of kinetic environment as an art form removes death, creating the illusion of an Eternal Now—an illusion in that it seems to guarantee eternal youth, which, of course, is what this generation is really after.

This actually ties in with something I’ve been thinking about. I’ve always felt something of prisoner of time. I hate deadlines and I get anxious when I have only limited time to get somewhere. But I know many people who seem to have the opposite problem; they seem oblivious to how long things take and are thus often late or have to skip activities altogether. There does seems to be a brain component to our ability to understand time. (Neuroscientist David Eagleman has done a lot of work on this subject.) And, as Harrington argues, overwhelming our senses (with drugs, loud music and bright lights) seems to knock out that component, thereby creating a kind of “eternal now.”)

Do we force the real world into being a “just world”?

First of all, I’m back in the saddle again so to speak. Was out of town for several weeks and neglected blogging.

While away I read most of a book I’ve been meaning to tackle: “Brainwashed – The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.” It’s a book coming from the “neuroskeptic” school—a viewpoint arguing that many of the claims neuroscience makes are inflated. It’s hard to argue with that basic point; you do see seemingly unlikely predictions coming out of neuroscience (and science) all the time. But that said, I find the book rather mushy. I just read through the chapter on free will and found it hard to follow the arguments. Sam Harris’s eBook called “Free Will” seems more cogently argued. (He argues against the existence of free will, the opposite view of “Brainwashed.”)

The free will chapter did have an interesting anecdote about Martin Lerner, a sociologist who developed the idea that people like to believe in a “just world hypothesis” (e.g. that the good are rewarded and the bad punished.) It seems a harmless enough delusion, but what if we alter our perception of the world to map it to a just world. And in doing so, what if we presume people who suffer deserve to suffer? The book states…

In one of his seminal experiments, Lerner asked subjects to observe a ten-minute video of a fellow student as she underwent a learning experiment involving memory. The student was strapped into an apparatus sprouting electrode leads and allegedly received a painful shock whenever she answered a question incorrectly (she was not receiving real shocks, of course, but believably feigned distress as if she were). Next, the researchers split the observers into groups. One was to vote on whether to remove the victim from the apparatus and reward her with money for correct answers. All but one voted to rescue her. The experimenters told another group of observers that the victim would continue to receive painful shocks; there was no option for compensation. When asked to evaluate the victim at this point, subjects in the victim-compensated condition rated her more favorably (e.g. more “attractive,” more “admirable”) than did subjects in the victim-uncompensated condition, in which the victim’s suffering was greater.)

I think it’s possible to extrapolate too much from these kinds of experiments, but this does kind of jibe with my sense of the world. We see someone suffering for whom we can do nothing and as a result we lower our opinion of them, basically saying, “sucks to be you!”

Ha! Humans are scum!

Is artistic skill really about measurement ability?

Artistic skill is certainly a mystery. Some people struggle to paint or act or play the piano. Myself, I’ve struggled with music and writing and a few other skills. Let me tell you: progress has been slow coming.

I’m thinking about two friends of mine. One was a guy I knew in high school. I was in a band with him though he was a mediocre musician. He was, however, a great tennis player. I think he was ranked in the top ten of the state (Hawaii) for his age group.

I learned that after high school he took up painting and very quickly became a professional. To this day he makes his living as a visual artist. He’s had great success despite the fact that when I knew him he had zero interest in the field.

My second friend was someone I also met during my high school years. At the time, he was already a great pianist, songwriter and visual artist.

I don’t want to say these talents came “easy” to these guys but they definitely seemed to have had a head start. They hit the ground running so to speak. So what could that advantage be? I’m posing an interesting theory here: Artistic skill is really an ability to measure.

Think about it. A lot of art is actually about measuring certain kinds of distances. This is most obvious in drawing and painting and other visual arts. You draw a person and the head looks too big for the body and people aren’t impressed. You sculpt a figure and one arm is too short and the work looks ugly. To do a good job with (representational) art every element needs to be sized correctly in relation to the other elements.

With music, the role of measurement is a little trickier. Consider this though: it’s not uncommon to find people who really seem to play by feel… they just reach for the note they want and it’s there even if they can’t explain how they know how to find it. I suspect that if you have a refined ear (particularly if you have perfect pitch) you develop a sense of how far notes are away from each other on the musical scale (which is really just a tool to standardize certain sound vibrations to pitches.) You may not know the terminology that a certain note is a major third away from another but you “know” it on an unconscious level. Then you pick up an instrument and quickly learn that to get “this” music interval you move this finger from here to there, and to get “that” one you perform a different move.

I myself have long struggled with music; I don’t think I have any kind of “magic” ears. But occasionally even I have found myself locating notes or chords via this intuitive process.

What does this have to do with my two friends? Well, I mentioned that the first one was a great tennis player. Tennis is also about distance measurement—where is the ball in three dimensional space? I wonder if the measuring skills honed in tennis could be applied to visual art? And with my second friend: could his twin skills— art and music— support each other? Is his real talent not so much drawing or playing piano, but gauging kinds of distances?

Part of what got me thinking about this is looking at myself. I recently, after 20 years, got back into drawing. I’m not great (Here’s some samples.) but what I find is that drawing is much easier than I remember it being. I used to take a stab at drawing something—say, a muscular male superhero—and it would take a few tries to get something passable. (And my female figures fucking SUCKED!) Now I find myself hitting something decent on the first try.

Like I said, I haven’t practiced art for years. But what have I been doing? Music, in particular, playing guitar and piano. Has that practice been building up a larger skill—measuring—that I’m now applying to art. Maybe. Who knows?

I think I’m going to do some drawing.

Silence your emotions!

Several years ago I wrote a blog post that argued that we cannot trust our feelings. (I can’t seem to track that damn post down, however, so no link.) This viewpoint—the distrust of emotion—is at odds with beliefs prominent in our society and especially our entertainment. Think of Obi-Kenobi telling Luke to trust his feelings. Of the general hippy adage “If it feels good, do it.” (I’m not sure a hippy ever actually said that.) Modern society still is in the throes of European Romanticism. We still want to believe feeling something means that it is true.

For myself, over the past couple years, I’ve been moving away from that belief. It simply isn’t hard to catch your feelings lying to you and quite often—telling you that you’ve been slighted when you haven’t, that you’re afraid when there’s really no need etc.

I’ve been reading an interesting book entitled “Emotional Awareness.” It is a transcribed converstaion between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, a psychologist. At one point Ekman says:

When most people experience an emotion or act emotionally, they are not conscious of doing so. They could not tell you, because they do not know themselves, “What I am doing now is acting fearful,” or, “acting angry.” It is not that they are unconscious. But they are not observing themselves and realizing, Maybe that really is a coiled rope and not a snake, and I do not need to be so afraid. To be conscious of that, we would have to acquire this ability which nature does not give us.

In essence, Ekman is arguing we need to learn to see the past the deceptions of our emotions. I find this view, so contrary to Romanticism, interesting and appealing. I might even say, “It feels right.” ;)

The death of individuality

I’m working on my next article for acid logic and it’s essentially a list of modern day fears that I think could be exploited by horror movies creators. One fear is fairly esoteric: a fear of the loss of identity brought about by the hyper-connectedness of the age. In essence, we are so hooked in to each other that when a subject comes up we immediately know what everyone else thinks about it and tailor our opinions and ideas to match the group we want to associate with. (Political tribes are an obvious example of these groups.)

The fear is not so much about this process but the crisis of self it could bring about. If you wake up one day and find that your opinions totally match some subset of the masses, would you start to wonder whether you really exist on a meaningful level? Would you conceive of yourself as merely a vessel for popular opinion?

Programming hunger

Last summer I had an experience that got me thinking about how much food we need to eat. I was in Paris with my Mom, and found that even though we were walking around most of the days, we only ate a couple meals per day. We had a breakfast, mostly of bread (you know the frogs and their bread) and then a regular meal in the afternoon. It was less than I would normally eat at home, yet I was never hungry.

The New Yorker blog has a post that connects to this, noting that why we get hungry is often unconnected to our need for energy.

More often than not, we eat because we want to eat—not because we need to. Recent studies show that our physical level of hunger, in fact, does not correlate strongly with how much hunger we say that we feel or how much food we go on to consume.

Even if you’ve had an unusually late or large breakfast, your body is used to its lunch slot and will begin to release certain chemicals, such as insulin in your blood and ghrelin in your stomach, in anticipation of your typical habits, whether or not you’re actually calorie-depleted.

This probably doesn’t surprise anyone, indeed I think we all observe this. You’re not hungry at all but a plate of fried chicken passes before you and whammo—pig out city!

The article states that we start to see part of our environment as cues to eat. We have a great snack on our favorite couch and we become conditioned—like Pavlov’s dogs—to associate that couch with snacking. We drive to the dentist and are reminded how there’s a great donut shop nearby and we start to crave donuts. I think this is partly why I experienced so little food craving in Paris—it is a city unfamiliar to me and I had not programmed in the environmental cues to stimulate hunger.

On a side note, I recall reading about a very ineffective campaign against drug use that was set up by some city. (I read about this a while back; can’t recall the location.) The government placed billboards in ghetto neighborhoods saying things like “Cocaine: It’s Evil” and showing a big pile of cocaine. Of course the result was rehabbing drug users saw these signs and thought, “Oh man I would love to snort a pile of coke like that right now!”

Was Rorschach Henry Lee Lucas?

The book I recently finished, “The Anatomy of Violence,” had quite a bit of discussion about the life of famed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. Lucas had a childhood designed to turn him into a serial killer. His mother was certainly a psychopath, a prostitute who beat her son mercilessly. (She was also one of his early victims, possibly his first.)

As I read about Lucas’s childhood, I was reminded of the scenes in the comic book Watchmen which showed the childhood of the fictional vigilante Rorschach. (I discussed him here.) Rorschach and Lucas’s upbringings were so similar I was curious as to whether the former was based on the latter. I don’t think author Alan Moore has ever commented, but a Google search reveals I’m not the only one to make the connection. This review of a Lucas biopic states…

The early part of the film shows you the upbringing of Henry. It would seem pretty basic except for his incredibly abusive mother that could almost resemble the angry mother Lois from Malcolm in the Middle except on rabies and alcohol. In fact some of the scenes with the mother and young Henry would almost resemble some of the same scenes with a young Rorschach and his mother from Watchmen.

Are we wiring ourselves to death?

The New Yorker notes that we are in the midst of a suicide epidemic. While I’m always wary of the term epidemic, it’s worth noting that American suicide rates rose about 30% from 1999 to 2010.

The article posits that suicide’s main sponsor—depression—is an illness, not a deficit or character weakness. While I agree with gist of that, one has to question, “Why then has this illness only recently increased so dramatically?”

I’m often arguing that technology has substantially changed our lives over the past 15+ years. I talk about my total frustration with the intrusions of modern media (endless email messages, Facebook alerts, the incessant fucking phone, etc.) Part of what is so annoying about all this stuff is that it gives you this sense of losing control over your life. You want to just lie down and take a nap, or sit in the yard and stare into space but there’s a half dozen electronic devices poised to ruin your reverie. I wonder if all this contributes to the rise in self-immolation.

Obviously this argument is so speculative is doesn’t even deserve the term “fanciful.” But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And there’s another way I think technology, particularly the web, has unsettled our psychology. In the pre-internet era, people could (somewhat) comfortably settle into various tribal distinctions, often but not exclusively based on the music they listened to. Punks, Metal-heads, hippies, hip-hoppers, yuppies etc. This allowed a certain sense of self-definition and self-worth. “I’m a cool, rebellious punk rock type!” one could think. But I think the web, for a variety of reasons has weakened these tribal self-definitions making us more like interchangeable members of the digital citizenry. And this has weakened our sense of ourselves… we find ourselves, in some hard to define way, asking ourselves “what am I?”