Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

The anti-guilt pill

For a while now I’ve heard of a particular drug that purports to dull the formation of painful memories. I’ve always been a little unclear on how it works but I believe it takes away the emotional sting of the memory while leaving the recollection of the events. Ideally it could aid people who have suffered horrible crimes or soldiers suffering from PSTD. I had not heard of a more controversial use: the pill as a way of ducking emotional damage caused by committing heinous acts, especially in war time. This article, from 2003, describes a scenario.

The artillery this soldier can unleash with a single command to his mobile computer will bring flames and screaming, deafening blasts and unforgettably acrid air. The ground around him will be littered with the broken bodies of women and children, and he’ll have to walk right through. Every value he learned as a boy tells him to back down, to return to base and find another way of routing the enemy. Or, he reasons, he could complete the task and rush back to start popping pills that can, over the course of two weeks, immunize him against a lifetime of crushing remorse. He draws one last clean breath and fires.

That sounds a little overdramatic but makes the point. The rest of the article is a very even handed look at the whole issue. Some might say we can never use the pill in this way as it will destroy our humanity. But the response is that, look, if a killer is wounded during his crime, he still gets medical treatment for his physical wounds. Why would we deny him treatment for his psychological wounds? And if the person is a soldier why should he be doomed to a lifetime of guilt why the politicians who put him in the position get off scot-free*? It’s quite an interesting ethical debate.

* Writing this sentence made me consider how the term “scot-free” came to be. You’d think it was based on some story about a guy named Scot, but not so. it’s derived from an old english term that means exempt from royal tax.

Timing your mental activity

A while back I was reading a book titled “The Circle of Consciousness.” One point it made, one that we’ve all heard before, is that different people are more alert and functional at different times of day. Some people are morning people, some are night owls, and some are, according to the book, a kind of hybrid person that comes alive after waking up, then burns out after a few hours but can then have a second wind around afternoon or evening. I suspect I fall into that category.

So why is this? I don’t really know though I suspect it has to do with the way your metabolism varies throughout the day. At certain points maybe energy can better get to your brain or something.

It seems our eating schedule affects this as well. I usually wake up and have a not-heavy breakfast (plus coffee!) I can then work on whatever for a good couple hours and get things done. Eventually the nagging of hunger gets to me and I’ll have a lunch. And almost always my brain then conks out a bit; I become more sluggish. This seems like the opposite of the way you’d think it would work—more food should give me more energy. But I find that slightly hungry morning period is my best period for mental activities. (I tend to write these erudite blog posts during that period.) To be slightly hungry actual makes my brain run better.

I could look up the whys of this but in a way it doesn’t matter. What I try to do is organize my day so that key mental activity takes place during that first hungry period (or perhaps later in the day at my second wind) and mundane, unintellectual stuff is after lunch.

Maybe the trick for optimum mental ability is the classic six light meals a day program that keeps your metabolism burning but never overwhelms you digestion.

Are we wired to created Gods out of our heroes?

If you take a look at rock history you notice that a lot of rock stars were or are complete douchebags. I’ve noted before that John Lennon, icon of peace, was actually kind of a violent fucktard. Warren Zevon, whom I’m a great fan of, was a violent alcoholic. It’s only recently I learned of Eric Clapton’s famous racist speech from the 70s.
(You can hear his clueless defense decades later, here.)

The truth is, you seldom hear people talk about this. Fans and music journalists seem to be able to look past these behaviors and continue their adulation of these musicians.

I was recently reading a text that touched on the idea that humans are wired for a certain kind of spirituality, a certain sense of mysterious forces in the universe. We are, the idea goes, wired to believe in god. (There’s actually are very interesting, albeit flawed book called “The God Part of the Brain” which is all about this stuff.)

And I wonder if this is partly why we can be so forgiving of rock stars who go bad? Are we programmed to view them as Gods and therefore incapable of evil? (Ironically, graffiti that peppered London in the 60s did claim that “Clapton is God.”)

The philosophy of past and future tense

For a while now, I’ve been going through the Pimsleur language CDs program for French. I was listening to one on the bus the other day and it got to the explanation as to how you put verbs in past tense; how to say, “I bought something” as opposed to “I am buying something.” In essence, you put the verb “have” in front of the verb, like “I have bought something.” (It’s not quite that simple but that’s the gist.) This is pretty similar to English, where adding “have” puts the experience in the past. If you say, “I have eat something” it sounds like baby talk but gets the point across.

This is an interesting role for the word “have” isn’t it? We think f have as denoting ownership, like “I have a cat.” It’s almost implied that by experiencing something we take ownership of it. We own the experience of having eaten.

And how about future tense? In French, like english, you add the verb for “going.” For example, “I am going to eat a sandwich” makes clear the act will take place in the future. Again, this is curious. We tend to first think of “going” as traveling through space but here it’s almost like you’re saying “I am traveling through time into the future and there I will eat a sandwich.”

I’d be curious how this problem (how to place an action in the past or future) is handled in different languages. It would be quite interesting if all cultures used the same techniques but I’m almost certain that isn’t true. (I seem to recall reading about some tribal culture that really didn’t differentiate between the past and present or future—it was happening in some giant “now.”)

Language, as Wittgenstein noted, really gives illumination into the mind. And our thoughts are limited to the words we can use to express them.

Morning moodiness

Years ago my Dad mentioned to me that he would often lie in bed in the morning worrying about largely inconsequential things. For example, when he was building a house in Montana he would worry about whether or not he had enough material for flooring or whatnot. This surprised me because he was generally the epitomy of cool, of a non-worrier.

The admission also struck me because I have had periods of similar morning anxiety. (Not lately though – I sleep like a baby these days.) Could we (my dad and I), I wondered, share some genetic trait for morning worrying?

Well, I don’t know and may never know. But today I was thinking about this and was reminded of a bit of knowledge I’d picked up at some point. You body tends to make hormones at night and then “use them up” during the day. So in the morning as you wake up, you have peak hormone levels. I also recalled that the hormone cortisol is associated with anxiety. Is cortisol one of these “morning buildup” hormones? A little research on cortisol confirmed that it is.

Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day.

That makes sense. Ever get the sense later in the day that you’re too tired to worry? Your cortisol levels have fallen.

So I was thinking about this fact that cortisol is associated with anxiety and moodiness. I considered that there’s a particular time of the month when women are especially moody. (A great Modern Family rerun I recently watched highlighted this.) Is cortisol to blame here?

Indeed.

After ovulation, the empty follicle that once contained the egg begins to secrete the hormone progesterone to thicken the lining of the uterus and prepare it for the possible implantation of an embryo. As progesterone levels rise, you may begin to feel moodier. This happens because progesterone helps the body make cortisol, a hormone that tends to be higher in people who are stressed. If cortisol levels are already elevated because of outside factors, like a busy workweek, the progesterone can cause an excess of cortisol in the body. “If I’m already doing something to give myself high cortisol levels, by the time I get to the second half of my cycle, I’m going to be irritable,” Schwarzbein says.

(I have to say, this article ends with what I consider troubling advice. “If you’re practicing good habits and still have period-related moodiness, contact your doctor, as you could have a hormone imbalance that needs correcting.” Doctors. There’s nothing nature can do that they aren’t eager to “fix.”)

Anyway, this all seems indicative of what I’ve suspected for some time, that we are puppets on a string dancing to the rhythms supplied by our hormone and neurotransmitter masters.

Morgellons disease

I’ve discussed in the past my interest in psychogenic diseases (though I tend to use the term “psychosomatic.”) What are they? Let’s ask wikipedia.

Psychogenic diseases are physical illnesses that stem from emotional or mental stresses.

I have, for example, talked about the girls of Le Roy who developed weird, twitching body tics though for which no cause could be discovered.

Now I stumble on a Vox article on Joni Mitchell’s bizarre illness called
Morgellons. It’s a disease that causes debillitating pain and the appearence of strange fibers in the skin and flesh. But…

For the past decade, researchers have searched for a biological cause or single underlying factor that might explain the suffering. But they have mostly concluded that Morgellons is “a psychosis or mass-shared delusion.”

In one of the most comprehensive studies to date, published in the journal PLOS, researchers from the CDC collected detailed epidemiological information, medical histories, and skin samples from 115 Morgellons sufferers in Northern California.

“No parasites or mycobacteria were detected,” they reported. The researchers also couldn’t find any environmental explanation for patients’ suffering.

The fiber-like strands on sufferers were mostly just cotton debris, probably lint from clothing. Their skin damage seemed to be caused by nothing more than sun exposure. While some patients had sores, these appeared to have arisen from chronic picking and scratching.

I, of course, am in no position to definitively say whether the disease is real or not. But if it is not, we are again forced to examine a disturbing conclusion, that the mind* alone is capable of inflicting serious distress on on the body. Bizarre.

*Of course, I don’t really believe in a “mind” (in the sense of some non-material soul or whatever); I use the term here to designate the variety of what we call mental processes that go on in the brain.

On the virtue of being unprepared (a curious note about jazz)

As I think most people know, I play a lot of music. Lately I’ve been working more on jazz and am learning jazz tunes, focusing on my improvisation etc. I’ve started to notice an interesting philosophical question related to this music.

Jazz is considered improvisational music. Players know the chords and the melody but make everything else up on the spot. (Frankly, even the chords and melody are often varied and altered on a whim.) This might sound hard but once you get it down it’s actually pretty easy as well as liberating.

Now, I personally like to know the tunes I’m playing pretty well before I play them live. By this I mean I like to really know the melody, know the chords from memory (as opposed to using a chart) and have some soloing ideas worked out in advance. But I find some people object to this as being over prepared. How can anything spontaneous happen, they might argue, if you have it all planned out in advance? And it’s not a bad point and I presume as I get better I’ll prepare less. But the funny pooint here is that jazz is one of the few pursuits where being unprepared is a virtue.

I suspect this ties in with something I’ve thought about before. Jazz really broke on the scene in the early 1900s, right when a fellow named Freud and his ideas about the unconscious where taking hold. Jazz is essentially music produced “unconsciously.” By this I mean it is not supposed to be planned or written out (aside from some basics); it happens on the spot before the conscious mind has time to analyze anything. How could musicians even know that they could create anything worthwhile (choruses upon choruses of solos for example) without thinking it through? I think Freud and his then burgeoning theories were what convinced them they could.

The demon in your right hemisphere

As one might expect, I’m still reading through Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness.” In today’s reading he made a point relevant to the topic of demonic possession. And I think his observations line up with those of others.

Let’s sidetrack a second and consider the research that Mike Gazzaniga did with split brain patients. Gazziniga ran a series of tests on patients who had had their left and right hemispheres separated (for medical reasons.) The details are described here, but, basically, he concluded that each hemisphere was, in a sense, its own person, unaware of what the other hemisphere was doing. Since most of a person’s talking ability is housed in the left hemisphere only that hemisphere could speak, but the right had other ways of making its thoughts known.

Now let’s consider Jaynes’ thoughts on demonic possession. Demonic possession, as anyone who’s ever seen The Exorcist can tell you, seems to involve a person’s body and speech being taking over by another entity, usually one that talks quite differently (in both voice and use of words) than the “real” person. In “The Origin of Consciousness” Jaynes essentially asks, “What if possession is really the silent right hemisphere taking control of a person’s speaking apparatus?”

It’s an interesting theory and seems plausible. And it opens up a thought-provoking question: does everyone’s right hemisphere sound like an evil demon when given voice? Do we all have these dark sides festering without language in one half of our brain? The observation that Jaynes notes is that usually people who become possessed are not great intellects. But is it possible their right hemisphere persona is smarter than the left (vocal) hemisphere, but deprived, most of the time, of speech?

Crazy stuff, y’all.

Of course, I’ve hinted at this stuff before: Do we have multiple consciousness(es)?

Damasio, Jaynes and Sarno

In past writings I’ve mentioned my excitement when I first read Antonio Damasio’s neuroscience tome “Decarte’s Error.” In that book Damasio laid out his observations that emotions are really physical sensations, particularly sensations of our internal body: guts, lungs, circulation etc. If you take away the physical sensation of an emotion you take away that emotion’s “sting.” (One way to mitigate a negative emotional state is, of course, through booze and drugs which bring about a pleasant body high. Not that I advocate such activities.)

I’ve also mentioned that I’ve recently been reading Julian Jaynes’ “The Origin of Consciousness.” In the chapter I just finished he examines the famous Greek stories The Iliad and The Odyssey. He argues that several of the Greek words frequently used in these stories have been mistranslated. Words such as thumos and phrenes have been translated to mean soul and heart (in the figurative sense) respectively but he argues they refer more correctly to particular sensation of the body, exactly the sort of sensations Damasio wrote about. (Jaynes believes thumos, for example, really refers to the sensations present in the activation of the body’s stress response: increased blood pressure, increased energy etc. Basically, being “amped up.”)

Essentially, Jaynes argues that in the Greek era people were much more conscious* of their body state. When modern people say, “I feel angry” they are only tangentially aware of their erratic heartbeat and hot face, whereas ancient people, Jaynes argues, were acutely aware of their physiological state. He also alleges that people didn’t always feel “ownership” of these emotional states, e.g. they were aware of the sensations but did not ascribe the sensations to a particular self (the way we do.) But that’s a more complex discussion.

* Well, this isn’t entirely true as Jaynes famously argues in the book that for some parts of history men weren’t conscious at all! I use the word “conscious” as a synonym for “aware” here.

I’ve also talked much in the past of Dr. John Sarno’s notion that much recurring pain, gastrointestinal issues and other maladies are actually caused by a distraught subconscious. Jaynes hints at the very same idea with no knowledge (to my knowledge) or Sarno’s work.

I think it is obvious to the medical reader that these matters we are discussing under the topic of the preconscious hypostases have a considerable bearing on any theory of psychosomatic disease. In the thumos, phrenes, kradie and etor we have covered the four major target systems, of such illnesses. And that they compose the very groundwork of consciousness, a primitive partial type on consciousizing, has important consequences in medical theory.

Unconscious learning

I continue reading “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” Early in the book the author Jaynes makes the extraordinary remark that “Consciousness is not neccesary for learning.” He backs this up with interesting studies that show people improving in different skill sets but not really knowing why or consciously directing their efforts.

This shouldn’t sound too crazy. As a kid you first get on a bike and travel a wobbly path down the driveway. You do this for several days and you’re less wobbly. You do it every day for a year and you’re even better. Your balance improves, you more smoothly push the pedals etc. But you didn’t really direct yourself to improve, you simply did. You unconsciously made various micro adjustments to your riding technique and it got better and better.

Of course, that previous paragraph isn’t quite right. When you get on the bike you do have some advice, usually from you screaming parents, that you are conscious of. And you may even conscioussly try different ideas as you work to improve (“what of I push down hard with lef while relaxing this one.”) It seems fair to say that you are somewhat conscious of learning but, nonetheless, a large part of it is unconsciouss. I am very unaware of exactly how I perform many of the tasks I perform daily. If someone had asked me a minute ago how many fingers I use to type I would have been in the dark. I probably would have guessed four, but I now notice that it’s mostly two.

In a way, the idea that learning is largely unconscious is encouraging. Basically, we just need to do something over and over and we will get better at it. But, the whole idea of conscious, directed learning is that we can find shortcuts to become better, faster and also not learn bad habits. Years ago, I read a pretty interesting article by jazz guitarist Tuck Andress about picking technique. He went into quite a lot of detail and I have, rather lackadaisically, been trying to apply his advice, or at least be more conscious about how I pick a guitar string. In that case I’m “consciously” trying to learn.

But the whole point with conscious learning is to try and get the skills into your subconscious. If you have to think about how to do a task, you will probably screw it up. (The Far Side once nailed this.)

All of this points to a more disturbing realization: that we don’t consciously control our actions and lives to the degree that we think. And I suspect Jaynes has more to say on that in later chapters.