Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

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.

Resetting the pain threshold

I’ve long discussed the topic of physical pain on this blog and I’ve touted the idea that our sense of pain is not a simple measurement system by which X amount of damage to the body results in a corollary amount of pain. I suspect, mood, anxiety and other aspects of psychology change how much pain we feel. A depressing new article alleging that Americans are facing greater pain toward the end of their lives offers some food for thought.

Reports of patients experiencing pain near the end of life increased 11 percent between 1998 and 2010, according to a new study published in theAnnals of Internal Medicine. Reports of depression and periodic confusion also increased 26 percent over this time.

“There were certainly reasons to think that things were getting better,” said Joanne Lynn, the author of the report and a palliative care clinician. “We were using hospice so much more, there was more use of narcotics and so much more attention to symptoms, there was reason to think we were doing better.”

Lynn sees two major possible explanations for her conclusion. Patients and family members could be expecting more from the care provided and have “reset their thresholds” over the 12 years in this study. Another is that the number of treatments have increased, allowing patients to live longer with the diseases that ultimately kill them.

This resetting of thresholds ties directly into my thoughts on the psychological aspects of pain. Having said that, it seems likely the second reason is a factor as well.

The mind of conspiracy theorists

I’ve started reading a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time: Julian Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.” (There’s a title that would not make it in today’s popular science writing market!) I’ve seen the book mentioned in various places for years, mainly for its stunning assertion that humans only became conscious fairly recently, like 3000 years ago. (I think that’s the number; I’m sure I’ll find out soon.)

I’ve read the first couple chapters and see that part of how Jaynes supports his argument is as one might suspect: by defining down what consciousness is, thus making the idea that we could live without it more palatable. That said, I think his definition of consciousness is perfectly valid. He points out something I think we’ve all noticed: the process of reasoning, often touted to be about extensive rumination and consideration (all done consciously of course), is really a sudden gut feeling that is then justified via logic. In chapter one, he states… (BTW, this chapter is online.)

But more complex reasoning without consciousness is continually going on. Our minds work much faster than consciousness can keep up with. We commonly make general assertions based on our past experiences in an automatic way, and only as an afterthought are we sometimes able to retrieve any of the past experiences on which an assertion is based. How often we reach sound conclusions and are quite unable to justify them! Because reasoning is not conscious.

He then adds an interesting point.

And consider the kind of reasoning that we do about others’ feelings and character, or in reasoning out the motives of others from their actions. These are clearly the result of automatic inferences by our nervous systems in which consciousness is not only unnecessary, but, as we have seen in the performance of motor skills, would probably hinder the process.

This ties in with a lot of my thoughts about various conspiracy theories. I’m always amazed by people who believe that George Bush planned 9/11 or that various people are covering up Obama’s secret Kenyan and Muslim roots, or that thousands of medical professionals are keeping quiet about how vaccines cause autism. I’m amazed because these conspiracies would involve organized evil on the part of so many, with not much payoff. I guess I could understand why George Bush might have determined it was in his favor to affect a false flag operation, but why would the various minions who would be needed to enact it decide to go along? Perhaps the head of some pharmaceutical company would keep quiet about his poisonous vaccine, but why would the entry-level chemists who would certainly figure it out? What would their motivation be? I’ve discussed this with people who believe such theories and they don’t seem to see the issue. They freely accept evil as a payoff unto itself. As Jaynes says above, neither I nor the conspiracy theorists are using consciousness in our assessment of people’s character and motivations, we are using automatic inferences. (These inferences play a big part in the ideas of neuroscientist Antonio Damassio who I’m a big fan of.) These are not arguments of reason, but of differing instincts.

Having said that, I believe my automatic inferences are correct and those of people who disagree with me are wrong.

The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath

A great question that arose once I started reading about the brain and brain disorders is this: what is the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath? Both terms are thrown around in pop culture, generally to mean, “a person with really fucked up morals (or a lack of them.)” But these are two different terms—something must separate them, yes?

I researched this question on the web a few years ago and found very little useful information. Generally I got the impression that psychopaths were somehow worse than sociopaths, but exactly how was unclear.

I was discussing the topic with a friend recently and we looked it up again and found this article. It makes things a bit clearer, though not completely. One point.

Sociopathy, while severely the less understood of the two disorders, can be congenital or acquired. Psychopathy, meanwhile, is generally considered a confluence of genetic and chemical imbalances.

So, psychopaths are born psychopaths, not made that way. So, would serial killer Henry Lee Lucas who was raised in an environment of unbelievable neglect be a sociopath? Maybe, though I’ve always heard him described as a psychopath.

Another point of distinction:

Psychopaths lack the proper neurological frameworks to develop a sense of ethics and morality. Sociopaths interact with their social worlds in a meaningful way, but their moral compasses needed a massive tune-up yesterday.

while psychopathy and sociopathy both likely involve impaired cognitive function, the two differ in which circuits are affected. Psychopaths are fearless; sociopaths aren’t. Psychopaths don’t have a sense of right and wrong; sociopaths do.

So the main difference would seem to be that sociopaths understand what they are doing is wrong and they just don’t care, whereas psychopaths don’t really understand that they are in the wrong. This still seems a little vague but is clearer than it used to be in my mind.

A connection between stress and cancer?

If you know me, and I believe you do, you know I have an interest in mind/body medicine which argues that calming the mind can have beneficial effects on the body. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence making this case but not a great understanding on how this process could work. This article from the Harvard Medical School notes the following.

A new study from investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center finds that eliciting the relaxation response—a physiologic state of deep rest induced by practices such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing and prayer—produces immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion.

A systems biology analysis of known interactions among the proteins produced by the affected genes revealed that pathways involved with energy metabolism, particularly the function of mitochondria, were upregulated during the relaxation response. Pathways controlled by activation of a protein called NF-κB—known to have a prominent role in inflammation, stress, trauma and cancer—were suppressed after relaxation response elicitation. The expression of genes involved in insulin pathways was also significantly altered.

I read that and said, “Hold on! Cancer?” Many people have theorized about a connection between stress and cancer but until now I’ve never seen any real science to back this up. I’ll be interested to hear what more research brings.

Maybe salespeople are on to something

Freddie Deboer had a interesting post recently titled “Pedantic ridicule never convinced anybody of anything.” His point—a rather obvious one—is that trying to convince people that they are wrong by talking down to them and treating them like shit will probably have the opposite effect. (This has been been affirmed in various studies that claim to measure such things.) As Deboer states…

I can’t find it now (edit: here), but some Facebook friends of mine last year were sharing a comic about white privilege that was essentially the “argument through aggressive disdain and ridicule” thing to the absolute zenith. It literally ended with a cartoon character looking into the frame and saying “fucking educate yourselves!” to its implied audience. Let me assure you of something: no one, in the history of persuasion, has ever been persuaded by someone indignantly ordering them to educate themselves. Telling people to educate themselves in that manner is essentially ensuring that they won’t. At some point you have to decide if you’re more invested in the fun of feeling righteously superior or the actual need to convince others.

It’s worth checking out the white privilege comic to get a feel for what Deboer is talking about.

I always had an embattled relationship with liberalism because of this sort of thing. While I agree with at least some of liberalism’s ideas, I find the attitude of so many of its proponents to be completely off-putting. This is partly because I came into political awareness while living in Olympia, Washington and Seattle—two enclaves I think even moderate liberals would agree are stifling in their progressive orthodoxy.

But what is it precisely that bugs me about this kind of “fucking educate yourselves” argumentation? I think one hears it and suspects that the person making the point is being disingenuous. Take the cartoonist described in DeBoer’s post. Is their point really that they want to make the world a better place by eliminating inequality, or is it that they want to buffer their self image and serve the needs of their ego by saying, “Look at me! Look how wonderfully progressive and right-minded I am!”?

Well, that’s really an impossible question to answer since I’m not a mind reader, and, frankly, I’m arguing that this cartoonist is not even themselves aware of their real intent. We really have no way of knowing another person’s intent (though I think we can take some reasonable guesses). But I will note this: there is a class of people who really are focused on getting people to do something. These people are called salespeople, and usually they are trying to get you to buy something. And they are almost never pedantic or assholes, if fact, they usually bend over backwards to be nice. They try to appear as your friend. (Sometimes they try to dissuade your dubiousness to the idea that they are your friend by explaining their self interest in what they are presenting as a win-win. “I’m not going to lie to you, Bob, I’ll get a healthy commission if you buy this car. But I honestly think you will look great driving off in it too.”)

Is my point that liberals (or anyone seeking to cause political change) should be a lot more like salespeople? Well, sort of. At least I think folks find people who don’t seem indentured to their own egos as more convincing than those who are.

Interestingly, I stumbled on a web post just the other day that touched on this point. It was titled, “You’re Wrong And I Can Help You.

The reason that I no longer want to act like I think I’m better/smarter than others is because I think it’s damaging my relationships. Previously, I’ve written about Power and Intimacy. I talk about how in relationships, power and intimacy are opposite: treating someone else (whether it’s a friendship, family, a partner, a colleague) as though you know better than them, distances you.

So even if you’re the smartest person you have met, or more insightful or more loving – whatever it is that makes you better than others – if you act on it while deep down thinking “you’re wrong and listening to me will help you,” think twice.

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.)