Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

Out of Our heads, Continued

I recently mentioned my thoughts and confusion while reading the book “Out of Our Heads” by Alva Noë. I was somewhat dismissive after reading it, but while I’m still not quite sure what it was saying, I find some of its ideas still percolating.

The book seemed to be about defining where the limits of a person are. Obviously our physical bodies can be said to extend to our skin (though one could quibble with even that point.) But if you refer to a person as a sum of their experiences, thoughts, beliefs, perceptions etc… where does a person begin or end in that view? Noë’s claim, and I think he’s probably correct, is that modern neuroscience would generally say that the borders of the nervous system (brain and nerves throughout the body) are this beginning and end point.

Let’s consider our conscious experience of life – by this I mean our sights, tastes, smells etc. as well as internal thoughts, feelings and so on. If we consider that sum of perceptions as “us” where do we begin or end?

Think of seeing a bird. What’s going on there? In short, light particles/waves reflect off the form of the bird and some of them make their way to your eyes and to certain retinal cells designed to respond to different wave lengths of light (what we see as different colors.) Those retinal cells connect to other cells, travel up your optic nerve and into you brain where the “information” is “processed” by the brain and this results in our internal perception of the bird. So where is the “us” in this process – who is seeing the bird? Conventional science would probably say, again, that it’s the nervous system (the eyes and brain etc.) And that not a bad view to take, especially for medical purposes. This view would say our perception arises out of the signals traveling through our eyes, optic nerve and brain. But let’s consider what’s happening before those signals fire from our eyes. Light particles bounce off the bird and go to out eyes. In a sense, those particles could be thought of as signals (at least as well as the electrochemical firings of your nerves can.) So could those particles and indeed even that bird be thought of as part of “us”? And where do those bounced light particles come from? If we’re outside, the sun is likely source. So is the sun not a part of “us”?

At this point one starts to sound rather new agey, essentially claiming that “we” are the universe—a complex system of signals of “information.” I’m not really willing to take it that far (though the case could be made.) But I do find it interesting to think of ourselves (if we define “ourselves” to include our conscious perception of the world) as more than just our brain but also our surrounding environment.

And this aligns with another meme you often see in psychology, Buddhism, new age thought etc… that your environment has a great effect on you and thus by placing yourself in the right environment you can flourish. (The opposite would also be true. And I might argue that the real trick is making whatever environment you are in “positive.” Like the prison lifer who nonetheless thrives.)

Musical dissonance

I was thinking the other day about the topic of musical dissonance. Dissonance is a somewhat relative term—some people hear a piece of music and consider it sharply dissonant, others less so—but there’s some general agreement. Few would argue that there’s not a lot of dissonance in Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes soundtrack.

I know some people who are really averse to musical dissonance. I know others, like myself, who don’t find dissonance particularly perturbing. It struck me that a lot of the people I know who dislike dissonance tend to be clean freaks – they’re unusually repulsed by bugs, filth and such. I wonder of there’s some correlation – is their distaste of dissonance (a kind of musical filth) related to their fear of general filth?

There’s some research into the neuroscience of all this. I found this essay online that synopsizes some of it.

A recent experiment dealt with this problem by attempting to minimize subjectivity, by measuring responses to dissonance. (1) Dissonance can consistently create feelings of unpleasantness in a subject, even if the subject has never heard the music before. Music of varying dissonance was played for the subjects, while their cerebral blood flow was measured. Increased blood flow in a specific area of the brain corresponded with increased activity. It was found that the varying degrees of dissonance caused increased activity in the paralimbic regions of the brain, which are associated with emotional processes.

Another recent experiment measured the activity in the brain while subjects were played previously-chosen musical pieces which created feelings of intense pleasure for them. (2) The musical pieces had an intrinsic emotional value for the subjects, and no memories or other associations attached to them. Activity was seen in the reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal areas of the brain. This result was interesting partly because these areas are associated with the pleasure induced by food, sex, and drugs of abuse, which would imply a connection between such pleasure and the pleasure induced by music.

BTW – here’s that Planet of the Apes. Brilliant stuff – I love the weird percussion bit around 6:35.

What is real?

Science writer Nicholas Wade recently wrote a book about the role of race in the development of human culture. According to his thesis, the different races possess more or less of certain collections of genes and some of these genes are responsible for human behavior therefore certain races are genetically predisposed towards certain behaviors*. This is controversial because it implies that in some sense, races can’t change and efforts to help them do so may be doomed to failure.

* Summarizing what Wade is saying is close to impossible and I’m sure people could niggle with what I’m saying here but I feel it’s close enough for this discussion.

Many people disagree with Wade’s theory and one frequent rebuttal is that race itself doesn’t exist—it is, they frequently say, a “social construct.” By this they mean, the division of race has no real meaning in nature. For example, the term species divides animal groups who can’t reproduce with each other. In that sense, species is a real term. But race is much harder to define. Different races (called sub-species by people who debate this stuff) can have sex with each. One might point out the differences of skin color and appearance between different races but that gets messy quickly. There are plenty of light skinned blacks or Asian looking Caucasians etc.

In this sense, I tend to agree that race is a social construct. But, as you think about it, so in pretty much everything. Words have meaning because enough of us got together and agreed they have meaning. If we didn’t all agree that a cup was a cup and that its purpose was to hold things to drink, it wouldn’t be a cup. If everyone on earth died then cups would no longer exist. They might exist in the sense that their matter would still exist (assuming the earth wasn’t destroyed or what have you) but as an object—a category—cups would be extinct. The definition of cups is a man made distinction which has no objective meaning.

(Of course, definitions are kind of blurry. Some people might look at a tall cup and claim it’s a flower vase. And we also hear about weird German words that have no translation in English.)

This reminds me of a few tidbits I’ve read in relation to Buddhist thought. There is a notion there that you can experience an object before you apply all the man-made definitions and correlations related to it. I suppose we all do this for a nanosecond before we mentally identify an object. For the briefest of moment, before you identify a cup, you experience it as some undefined thing. (This moment is so fast it’s questionable whether you can say we “experience it” but there you have it.)

Watching my dad and his wife, both in their 90s, I see a certain breakdown of this system of categories, this taxonomy, that we apply to everything around us. They might be baffled by what a fairly basic object is, or they might understand it but mislabel it; there’s a lot of calling things with words that rhyme with the real name—cup could become pup for example. I suppose this is what life was like when we were babies—everything was just a thing, and often we probably couldn’t even differentiate between things. A newspaper next to an apple next to a kitten was just a pile of “stuff” in our new minds.

This leads to an interesting point. What babies and demented people have in common are essentially brains that don’t categorize well. The neurons of their brains have limited connections (either because the connections haven’t formed yet as in the case of babies, or because they have deteriorated as in the case of older adults.) This would imply that the meaning we apply to the objects we encounter is literally wired into our brains. It’s the structure of our brains that applies meaning. From this one can presume that a brain structured differently would find different meanings in the world. (Say the brain of an autistic child. Or an alien. Or a sentient computer.)

It really leads to the question of “what is real.” Our words are not real. Our categories are not real. The only thing really real that I can see is the physical matter of the universe. Even the distinctions between these bits of matter (e.g. molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks etc.) are not really real.

This is heavy shit to think about. It’s giving me a headache.

Happy hospitals?

Many, many times here have I commented on my belief that pain has a significant emotional component. And, as I make my way in the world, I often see little clues supporting this thesis. For instance, today’s NY Times has an article on an effort to redesign hospital rooms to be more pleasent. One hospital first set up a test room to try out some happier designs.

After months of testing, patients in the model room rated food and nursing care higher than patients in the old rooms did, although the meals and care were the same.

But the real eye-opener was this: Patients also asked for 30 percent less pain medication.

Reduced pain has a cascade effect, hastening recovery and rehabilitation, leading to shorter stays and diminishing not just costs but also the chances for accidents and infections. When the new $523 million, 636,000-square-foot hospital, on a leafy campus, opened here in 2012, the model room became real.

So far, ratings of patient satisfaction are in the 99th percentile, up from the 61st percentile before the move. Infection rates and the number of accidents have never been lower.

This proves I am right about everything and all who oppose me should be punished.

Depression hurts (literally)

An idea I’m often talking about on this blog is the notion that emotions are felt as physical sensations. They are not merely ailments of the soul (which, of course, I don’t believe in) but are ailments of the body. This statement seems benign, but I think it’s really quite revolutionary, turning on end many of our assumptions about emotional states. For one thing, if emotions are physical feelings, perhaps negative emotions can be removed by removing their corresponding physical sensations (which is what pretty much any one does when they calm their nerves by having a drink, or use to sex to, as rapper Peaches once advised, “fuck the pain away.”)

In a thread about depression, a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog connects the emotional to the physical.

On a different note, another thing people don’t understand about severe depression is that it’s a physical experience. Aside from the lack of energy, which seems to be universal, the physical aspect is different for different people. For some people I’ve known, depression physically hurts. For me, it takes the form of a hollowness in the stomach. At my worst, in the bout that eventually led to my diagnosis, I could not eat at all. The very idea of food made me sick. I ended up in the hospital with an IV, having all sorts of tests done, and losing 20% of my body weight. It was months before I could eat any but the blandest of foods.

My mention of that Peaches tune got me thinking about her and I dug up this old video for the song. Never really got into her (I never liked her beats) but she had a certain kind of genius I suppose.

The danger of multitasking

I found myself observing an interesting tic of the brain last night and thought I would share it with eager readers.

I was tooling around in the garage while also reinstalling Windows 7 on a computer. I decided I would lock the garage door and around the same time the log in screen on the computer came up. As I prepared to type in my password I thought, “Caps-lock is on, make sure you turn it off” (or something to that effect.)

Of course caps lock was not on—I’d simply somehow correlated my locking of the door with having turned caps-lock on. In essence, my brain had transferred the property of “locked-ness” from one thing I was working on to another.

Thus is the danger of multitasking.

The war within!

I’ve argued that there’s a certain disconnect wired into the human body. On one hand, our genes want us to engage in certain behaviors that ensure the continuation of our genetic material. These behaviors are basically eating, sex, and the pursuit of status (status essentially being a tool to get people to have sex with us.) But we are in some ways at war with these voices prodding us to feed and get laid. We know that if we eat too much we get fat. We know that simply pursuing hedonistic sex ruins our relationships.

A recent NY Times article captures this.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we are wired to seek fame, wealth and sexual variety. These things make us more likely to pass on our DNA. Had your cave-man ancestors not acquired some version of these things (a fine reputation for being a great rock sharpener; multiple animal skins), they might not have found enough mating partners to create your lineage.

But here’s where the evolutionary cables have crossed: We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”

But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.

Enjoying Audioslave?

A band I’ve never been impressed with is Audioslave (comprised of members of Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden.) But a while back I was jogging and put on some of their music. After I finished my run I was listening and thinking, “You know, I’m kind of enjoying this.”

But it occurred to me that maybe I was just experiencing a pleasurable runner’s high and then attributing that enjoyment to the music I was listening to. Maybe it was that the music put me in a pleasant state of mind but rather I was in a pleasant state of mind and attributed it to the music I was listening to.

The truth is, I suspect many things were happening there. Maybe the rocking Audioslave music did help boost my already exuberant feeling. Maybe to enjoy some music you need to be in a certain physical state. But this opens up a whole other debate—does much of our reaction to art and entertainment have to do with things outside those products? If I eat a Twinkie and watch “Game of Thrones” (which I’ve never seen) how much of my pleasure is from the Twinkie and how much from the show? If I take a soothing bath and listen to Mozart, again, from where does the pleasure originate? I think the answer is a little of both sources, but it does seem we are more willing to give credit to the entertainment product than our pleasant environment.

This would explain these experiences we’ve all had where we listen to an album we’ve loved in the past and for some reason it just doesn’t do it anymore. Maybe the enjoyment was never in the album.

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?