Archive for the 'Psychology' Category
May 17th, 2013 by Wil
Our ability to recognize faces is a fascinating and oft commented on topic. How is it that we can differentiate between the tens of thousands (if not more) of people we come into contact with over the course of our life? Also, why is it that we differentiate between the faces of our fellow humans, but cannot differentiate between animal faces? One giraffe looks pretty much like any other.
In “The Age of Insight” Eric Kandel address this. It turns out at one point, we CAN differentiate between animal faces.
The brain mechanisms underlying face recognition emerge early in infancy. From birth onward, infants are much more likely to look at faces than at other objects…. Three-month-old infants begin to see differences in faces and to distinguish between individual faces. At this point they are universal face recognizers: they can recognize different monkey faces as readily as different human faces. They begin to lose their ability to distinguish between nonhuman faces at six months of age, because during this critical period in development they have been exposed primarily to different human faces and not two different animal faces.
Presumably, were a child raised by wolves, he would be able to differentiate between various wolf faces. That’s good to know.
May 10th, 2013 by Wil
As I read about Freud and his influence on the Viennese artists of the early 1900s, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something of a paradox at work. Freud encouraged people to look deeply inside themselves, to peel back the layers of their unconscious, to seek out their neurosis. But did he, I wonder, thus create a generation of psychologically dysfunctional people? After all, anyone who looks hard enough at themselves is going to find some psychological deficit that could cause them anxiety. By encouraging people to look deeply into themselves, did Freud doom them to inner torment?
The way I figure it, there’s two big psychological approaches to life. One is Freud’s idea of deep self analysis, of obsession with the self. The other is a general attitude of “Move along, I’m not all that important – God/Peace/the Universe is. Nothing to see here.” One is adorning the ego, the other is ignoring it. Pretty much everyone is stuck somewhere between the two philosophies. But did Freud (and those he influenced) tip the balance towards ego adornment for awhile, causing an uptick in psychological distress?
May 9th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve mentioned my interest in the theory that as the history of humankind has unfolded, our basic experience of being alive has changed, perhaps radically. I was reminded of this today as I continued to read the book “The Age of Insight.” At one point in the book, we are introduced to Arthur Schnitzler, a writer and playwright who lived in Vienna in the early 1900s and purportedly invented the technique of internal dialogue. This is the practice of presenting the character’s inner voice on the page. An example included in the book is from Schnitzler’s story “Lieutenant Gustle.”
How long is this thing going to last? Let me look at my watch… it’s probably not good manners at a serious concert like this, but who’s going to notice? If anyone does, he’s not paying any more attention than I am, so I really don’t need to be embarrassed… it’s only a quarter to ten?
And on and on…
Internal dialogue probably found its most prominent use in the thought balloons of comic book characters, as I’ve mentioned here.
The problem, of course, is that nobody really thinks that way. You don’t think, “Gee, I really need to get to work. I guess I’ll wear my blue tie today.” You just have a general sense of being late, and a fleeting desire to put on your blue tie. Maybe a few of the words pop into your head – “late,” “blue” – but you don’t think in full sentences.
Having said that, I do sometimes find myself kind of thinking in full sentences. Maybe that’s based on some assumption on my part that that’s how I “should” be thinking — because that’s how people think in books, movies and comic books. And I wonder if this idea, this concept of thinking in internal dialogue, is something relatively new to our species, perhaps starting with Schnitzler’s invention.
There’s another area be explored here. To think in even a kind of broken down internal dialogue requires us to have language. How do creatures without language — cavemen, or children raised by wolves — “think?”
May 5th, 2013 by Wil
Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about using visual images to serve as the template for pieces of music. For instance, I might take a scene of a bunch of houses and represent them musically. If I was describing a tall mansion made out of brick I might using reaching melodies that go up into the sky (illustrating tallness) and perhaps a series of quick, dense chords (illustrating the tiny, hard units that are bricks.) Similar processes could be used to illustrate other houses in the group.
This is, of course, what a lot of movie soundtracks do: describe or augment the visual with the musical. And often what the music is describing is a person’s inner state – anxiety is illustrated by manic violins, calm denoted with long smooth tones.
To explore this idea I need to clearly define the term object. As I use it, the term can describe actual physical objects – cars, animals, stars etc – or mental units – thoughts, feelings, perceptions.
The idea here is that we correlate different types of objects with other objects. We understand that the slow cadence of a walking elephant has a correlation with a down tempo series of tuba honks. We understand that the overwhelming onslaught of emotional stress can be captured in a single large painting of vibrant red. We understand that an image of a wide peaceful lake correlates to the calm sensation of a peaceful mind. In a weird way elephants ARE tubas, stress IS red, lakes ARE peace. In a psychological/perception sense these objects are interchangeable.
I was just reading about Freud’s theories about dreams. As you probably know, he posits that a lot of things we see in dreams represent something else – e.g the peacock is really your vanity, the bellowing walrus is your obnoxious uncle, the cigar you place in your mouth is really a long, hard, sweaty penis. Freud was basically making the same point I am – that objects can be correlated to each other.
April 30th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve long been a part of a email list which discusses the topic of repetitive strain injuries (RSI). Whereas RSI is not much of a problem for me these days, I still follow the discussions on the list. There’s really two camps of people on the list: 1) People who believe de-stressing techniques such as meditation/yoga will alleviate RSI, and 2) People who believe RSIs are largely physical, structural problems that can be relieved via practices like massage/surgery/ergonomics/electrotherapy.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know I reside in the former group. (Truthfully, most people on the list are probably open to both ideas but they clearly have a dominant belief.)
Meditation comes up a lot on the list. Today someone was addressing an obvious question: If meditation is so great for you, why is it so hard (and often boring?) Why does our mind resist calm? His reason was sound and thought provoking.
Lots of meditation has shown me how my mind is built to resist the ‘inner journey’ of using yoga and deep relaxation to slow it down and get it to release stuff and let me see how it works. My theory is it has to be like this because if we all went after the bliss this can bring we would all have been a bunch of wimpy meditators and eaten by predators a long time ago!
It makes sense – in the world of our ancestors we had to pay attention! We couldn’t be sitting around in nirvana. Our mind resists efforts geared towards its deconstruction.
He continues on a tangent that sounds a little elitist but is probably correct.
Evolution favours diversity – only some can do this inner journey which produces the sages [who] keep us from going too crazy and destroying ourselves. Others cant and are useful for more real world things.
There’s another possible theory here. Earth is under observation by an aggressive alien lizard race who plan on conquering us. They planted the concept of meditation in our minds hoping that the practice will spread until most of humanity exists in a meditative trance. Then they will attack our planet, eat our young and rape our grandmothers!
But I’m just being silly. It’s nothing to worry about. Go back to meditating.
April 26th, 2013 by Wil
Even the most sophisticated and intellectual among us (myself, for example) have picked up a copy of People magazine when stuck at an Airport with nothing to read. For some reason, staring at pictures of the beautiful and famous is a way to pass the time. It turns out monkeys are no different. They will “pay juice” to look at pictures of higher ranking monkeys.
Researches have found that monkeys will “pay” juice rewards to see images of high-ranking monkeys… They say their research technique offers a rigorous laboratory approach to studying the “social machinery” of the brain and how this machinery goes tragically awry in autism — a disease that afflicts more than a million Americans and is the fastest growing developmental disorder.
It seems, sadly, that monkeys are just as guilty as us when it comes to celebrity obsession.
Male monkeys will also pay juice to look at pictures of female monkey butts. But that seems perfectly reasonable.
April 25th, 2013 by Wil
A couple weeks ago I was thinking about the financial meltdown of 2008. I was wondering whether – had I somehow been unaware of this meltdown (via living under a rock or something) – would I have lived my life any differently? (Aside from living under a rock.) I decided it was likely that, no, I wouldn’t have. Basically, this constant news chatter about the financial situation was really of no practical value to me other than fodder for conversation.
Now, I freely grant that there are some people who would have benefited from following this particular news story – especially people who work in the world of finance. But I am not one of them.
A similar train of thought occurred to me at one point during the recent Boston Marathon bombing story. The cops had shot the first bomber and the manhunt was on for the second. I got the impression that people I knew were avidly following the news story, frequently checking the web and TV news for updates. I was thinking, “It’s one guy versus the entire Boston Police Department – of course they’re going to find him!” The constant news blather about the topic was largely meaningless.
But to have this view – that news is mostly crap – flies in the face of common wisdom. We are constantly reminded how uninformed we the public are. We’re supposed to follow the news because that symbolizes that we care about the world. Don’t you care about this earthquake in China, or these starving polar bears in Tibet, or the fact that children’s public education scores have dropped to new levels, or Congress’s malfeasance, or the rise of prescription drug deaths or…
To be honest, not really. Or at least I recognize I only have so much attention to give to these topics and if I want to achieve various goals I have set out for myself, I need to restrict my attention to the news (and other similar distractions: facebook, email, blogs etc.)
I was pleased to see the following article appear over at the Guardian (which, lest you thing I was checking for news, I actually saw linked off a blog. (Not that that’s much better.)) News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier. The author makes a number of arguments against the consumption of news; this one stood out in particular.
News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.
I was also interested in this point about online news; it makes a lot of intuitive sense.
Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.
That’s really the crux of my complaint – news interrupts. I’m not saying it should be avoided completely but we should manage our time when interacting with it.
April 22nd, 2013 by Wil
Lately I’ve been considering the idea of writing down some of the various episodes of my life so that I can be aided in their recall years from now. I’m talking about various adventures, profound experiences and sexual conquests that have occurred to me. For them to be lost would be a shame, both for my pleasure as well as the good of humanity. My dad wrote an autobiography several years ago from which he now frequently enjoys reading.
But I’m also aware that the process of writing down memories tends to alter them. When you force yourself to recall an event you often find yourself putting greater weight on parts of the memory then you had during previous more passive episodes of recall. Like, you might force yourself to recall your 13th birthday party and then all of a sudden you remember that some kid who you had a fight with years later was there and you fixate on his presences at the party, perhaps soiling the memory when you recall it in the future. The memory morphs from “my fun 13th birthday party,” to “that party that fucker David Alvira was at!”
I also have to note that in the past when I’ve written down memories I have… shall we say, embellished things? Not out of a need to aggrandize myself, but merely because I’ve forgotten the exact facts. I might not recall exactly which friend I shared some activity with, so I just chose the best candidate out of friends I had at the time. The problem is that then the memory gets re-encoded with that friend as the partner in crime. Then, years later I’m telling the story to someone and they say. What do you mean that was X? That was me!”
This all leads up to the question: what is a memory? This question can be asked from a number of views – the psychological view, the neuroscientific view, the biological view – but I’m asking from the subjective view. When I recall a memory what am I really experiencing? I’ll recall a memory right now: my trip to New York this past fall. I recall my brother’s apartment where I stayed, his pet rabbit, the rather cold whether (it was right after the hurricane hit) a walk down the east side of Central Part anxiously looking for a bathroom (had to pee bad!), a nice stroll through Central Park when the re-opened it, having beers with my brother’s friend. Basically a cascade of memories. But what are the contents of those sub-memories? I recall that walk through Central Park but I certainly couldn’t map out the path I took. I couldn’t provide an account of the people I saw. I don’t recall what I was wearing. I have, at best, a collection of fleeting moments, vague mental snapshots. And I’m glumly aware of the fact that I may, in future years, confuse events that happened in that stroll through Central Park with other strolls. Memories are malleable and interconnecting which makes them ultimately untrustworthy.
April 19th, 2013 by Wil
Hoarding strikes me as a problem unique to modern times. My suspicion is that people are made anxious by this ever changing world and their obviously meaningless existence within it so they latch on to familiar objects to stabilize them. But it can only end in death as this article so eloquently explains. New Jersey hoarder found dead, mummified inside own apartment
Two months after being reported missing, a New Milford woman was found dead in her trash-strewn apartment, her mummified body hidden beneath clothing and debris that had apparently concealed her presence during earlier searches, authorities said.
Alice Klee, 68, was found on her bedroom floor Friday by her landlord, who was there to open a window after getting court permission to clean out the apartment, said Police Chief Frank Papapietro.
“It was by chance that he caught her hair sticking out under the debris,” Papapietro said Monday.
In her own way, Alice Klee died like the great Egyptian Pharaohs – mummified and surrounded by cats. If you have a drink in your hand this morning, raising your glass… to ALICE KLEE!!!
Oh yeah… that burns as it goes down…
April 15th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve become intrigued with the idea that the fundamental experience of being alive has been changing over the course of human history. I don’t mean basic changes like we’ve got more stuff or less hunger, but rather that the very nature of how we perceive and conceive of the world around us is shifting. You might recall my musing about a writer who argued that human beings were not even conscious 3000 years ago. Or my conception that as we’ve become more assaulted by distractions like phone calls and email alerts we’ve become less able to focus on the creation and enjoyment of ornamental art.
Today I came across a relevant section in David Byrne’s “How Music Works.” He notes…
Marshall McLuhan famously proposed that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in an acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multi-layered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has a perspective—a vanishing point.
I’m not sure I totally buy this. Sound isn’t exactly “everywhere” – we can tell if a sound came from our left or our right; we can tell if a sound is coming from far away or close. And I’d even say there’s a certain hierarchy to sounds. Loud or novel sounds demand our attention more so than softer or common ones. (Of course, maybe that’s just my visual culture trained brain imposing a hierarchy on acoustic culture.) Nonetheless, I agree with the gist – the acoustic world is much more ephemeral and ghostlike than the visual world of objects. The acoustic world is harder to define, which is Byrne’s next point.
McLuhan claims that our visual sense began to get increasingly bombarded by all the stuff we were producing. It began to take precedence over our auditory sense, and he said that the way we think and view the world changed as a result. In an acoustic universe one senses essence, whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies. He claims that in a visual universe one begins to think in a linear fashion, one thing following another along a timeline, rather than everything existing right now, everywhere, in the moment.
Again I have some small qualms with these statements but the point is made. Certainly we seem to live in a world obsessed with defining things. One need look only at genres of music; people don’t just listen to pop music, they listen to “West Coast post-modern indie pop.” (And they have no use for anyone who doesn’t!) The argument some would make is that we’ve gotten so obsessed with defining things that we no longer really experience them.
We’re so used to the hierarchy of the visual universe that it’s hard to imagine life without it. It seems like such an essential aspect of our life experience that we presume it must be innate – built into the brain. But I recall neurologist Oliver Sacks observations of a man who – after being blind his whole life – regained sight. It wasn’t really a gift; he could see but he struggled to comprehend what he saw. I discussed this in my old acid logic piece “Making Sense of the Senses.”
With the cataracts gone the outside visual world flowed into Virgil’s brain, but he could not map what he saw to objects he had only experienced with his other senses. During Virgil’s initial moment of sight…
… he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was color, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, “Well?” Then, and only then, [Virgil] said, did he finally realized that this chaos and light and shadow was a face — and, indeed, the face of the surgeon.
Sacks contemplated the dilemma of this moment.
… when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for 45 years — having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten — there were no visual memories to support a perception, there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.
After regaining sight, Virgil struggled with seemingly basic components of seeing. He could see all the elements of a tree — the leaves, the roots, the branches — but had difficulty combining them into a single object. He struggled to understand shapes. Movement baffled him. He had to practice looking at household objects from different angles to gain the understanding that they were one single thing. And his eyes would fatigue much faster than a normal person. Eventually, Virgil lost his vision a second time, though the exact cause for this is unclear.
McLuhan might have argued that Virgil was at the center of a devastating collision between the visual and non-visual universes.
I’m taking pains here to not insinuate that one way of observing the world is better than the other. But I will say there’s a part of me that yearns to escape the endless defining and categorization that seems built into modern life (and often passes for some kind of intellectual activity when it’s more often mere mental masturbation.) I’d like to experience things more simply and fully. To better experience the essence of things.