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Friday, October 01, 2004

Flow, Metaphor, and Churchills Nose

Consider a copper atom at the tip of the nose of Churchill’s statue in Parliament. How could one have predicted it got there? Very simply, the atom got there because Churchill was a great man. Parliament commissioned the statue to honor him, and miners in Chile extracted the copper ore that winded its way from a freight car to a transport ship to a smelter to the artists mold. In other words, how did the copper atom get there? It was simply picked up and moved. Ask this same question to, say, a superstring physicist, and the answers become much more abstract and near intractable. Superstring theory, which is a theory of the ultimate constituents of matter, reduces all reality to the vibrations of an infinite number of one-dimensional strings. Reducing the processes that moved the copper atom to such an infinitesimal perspective would require an almost God-like capability to follow, but would ultimately be no more explanatory than our simple perception of an Andean miner lifting an ore laden rock.

In this example the physicist David Deutsch (1999) demonstrated that explanations and predictions are entirely different things. Explanations provide us with the linguistic tools from the English vernacular to the calculus that enable us predict outcomes in our physical world. But when and where we will utilize these tools depends on the problems we have to solve. We do not use Newtonian mechanics, Einsteinian field equations, or the mathematics of superstrings to help us get to the store in the morning or in any of our daily behaviors for that matter. However, we can and do use the metaphors of Newton, Einstein, and even superstring theory to explain our worlds.

The metaphorical understanding that comprises Newtonian, Darwinian, Einsteinian, etc. explanations are useful because they constrain or correct for the spurious inferences we could otherwise make from our vicarious experience with the regularities of the world. Thus knowing about the world from the perspective of modern physics constrains us from inferring the existence of angels moving the planets, of astrological influences on behavior, and hypothetical entities such as ether and phlogiston. It also constrains us from accepting shared metaphorical assumptions that may be equally incorrect. For example, common sense and Newtonian mechanics postulate causes and effects in a billiard ball array of interacting three dimensional objects set in an invariant time that higher order Einsteinian and quantum descriptions render illusory. Nonetheless, an understanding and acceptance of modern physics does not invalidate the subjective metaphors that describe our daily existence or the common sense physics of everyday life. Thus we still feel that the earth is immobile, that time passes, and that heat feels hot. The ‘qualia’ of our daily existence, the conscious feel of time, taste, touch, and color remains undisturbed.

In a similar vein, we know what a headache is by the fact that it hurts, but we understand what a headache is by our ability to move from one metaphorical scheme (hurt, pain, discomfort) to another (inflamed blood vessels, high blood pressure, etc.) Understanding what headaches are precludes us from hypothesizing new and strange causal entities such as demonic possession or errant microwaves. Similarly, understanding that headaches hurt assign an emotional valence or value to our understanding, and it is this empathic understanding that impels behavior to ends that serves individual and societal needs. Thus, we may say that a doctor understands what headaches are, but a good doctor also understands that patients suffer.

The ability to use the metaphorical language of different methods of inquiry precludes the postulation of odd metaphorical constructs that have no basis in reality, and is indeed essential to science. However, science does not dismiss subjective reality, but permits us to more reliably anchor it to physical or empirical events, and thus allows us to better communicate how we feel and what we truly value. This multi-metaphorical position assumes that no one metaphorical level of understanding is more privileged than another, and is championed by the cognitive linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Turner (1999), who argue that a true understanding of any phenomenon is dependent upon our ability to frame it using differing methodological assumptions. Thus, "In applying a method, we need to be as sure as we can that the method itself does not either determine the outcome in advance of the empirical inquiry or artificially skew it. A common method for achieving this… is to seek converging evidence using the broadest available range of differing methodologies. Ideally, the skewing effects of any one method will be canceled out by other methods. The more sources of evidence we have, the more likely this is to happen."

Unfortunately however, the tendency in science is be restrictive in the use of one’s metaphors, and to address particular issues in science with the singular methodology of the specialist. As the founder of cybernetics, Nobert Weiner noted (1961) "… has been increasingly the task of specialists. Today there are few scholars who can call themselves mathematicians or physicists or biologists without restriction. A man may be a topologist or an acoustician or a coleopterist. He will be full of the jargon of his field, and will know all its literature and all its ramifications, but, more frequently than not, he will regard the next subject as something belonging to his colleague three doors down the corridor, and will consider any interest in it on his own part as an unwarrantable breach of privacy."

This argument is particularly true for the science of psychology. Psychologists in the fields of humanistic, social, experimental, cognitive, and behavioristic psychology have churned out an extensive corpus of journalistic literature, but nearly all of it is does not include even the most cursory consideration of how other methodologies and their accompanying metaphors would clarify understanding. In particular, the question that comes to mind to any layman who confronts the imposing and intimidating edifice of endless rows of stacks of books and journals that comprise the knowledge of psychology is how much of all this stuff is comprised of just different ways of saying the same thing, and how much of it consists of merely metaphors that allude to events, but are grounded in none of them.

Consider this simple yet very nontrivial observation. A person who has to rapidly shift his attention between a host of very salient perceptions or precepts will experience a state of high neurological arousal marked by consistent reports of pleasure, ecstasy, and well being. This fact has been independently confirmed by the separate methodologies of humanistic, social, physiological, and bio-behavioral science, but never through the combined perspective of those methodologies. Simple polling procedures (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997) have found that individuals consistently report ecstatic or pleasurable states when engaging in very involving pursuits ranging from mountain climbing to gambling. This phenomenological interpretation is often merged with a social psychological perspective that imports indistinct metaphorical motivating processes such as intrinsic motivation, ‘autotelic’ personality, and self-actualization. In addition to these metaphors, the neurophysiological correlates to these experiences are well established. PET scans and other neurophysiological measures have demonstrated that heightened levels of the neuro-modulator dopamine are present during video game playing (Koepp et al., 1998), extreme sports, and gambling, and represent the distinguishing morphological change during such ‘flow’ producing behaviors. It has been proposed (Ashby, Isen, & Turken 1999) that dopamine facilitates switching between different cognitive perspectives, which improves cognitive flexibility and creative problem solving, and mediates the cognitive effects of positive affect. This position has been corroborated by recent neuro-physiological findings that have established dopamine as a neurochemical that imparts pleasure (Montague et al. 1994), makes thinking more efficient (Durstewitz et al. 1999), and keeps us rooted on our behavior (Schultz, 1998). Dopamine is released when attention ‘shifts’ due to behavioral discrepancies or challenges (Donahoe, Palmer, and Burgos, 1997), or in other words, is released when one is "attending" to salient events (Horvitz, Stewart, and Jacobs, 1997).

Finally, the bio-behavioral events that constitute the neural activity corresponding with peak experiences can be modeled using neural models of reinforcement that implicate dopaminergic midbrain systems (Donahoe and Palmer, 1993), and mapped to patterns of information (e.g. variable ratio or gambling schedules of reinforcement) that as a matter of course engage the contingency based metaphors of behaviorism. Each of these empirical methodologies if used in concert would immensely simplify an understanding of such ‘peak’ or ‘flow’ experiences by discounting extra behavioral metaphorical entities that have no meaning outside of the methodologies that created them. In particular, a grounding of ecstatic experiences to neural events and the schedules of information (or reinforcement) that elicit those events would dispel the implied reality of metaphorical constructs (e.g. ‘undreamed of level of consciousness, ‘heightened sense of self’.) On the other hand, an understanding of the subjective metaphors (e.g. ecstasy, pleasure) of peak experiences implicates those aspects of neuro-biological research that are important to people.

Because the evidence for what has been popularly called ‘peak’ or ‘flow’ experiences has never converged, the phenomenon has been needlessly confounded and trivialized by the persistence of extraneous metaphors that have no meaning outside of the methodology that created them. Contrariwise, if looked as a mere physiological or behavioral phenomenon, the subjective importance of such experience is unrealized, and is reduced to some colorless and abstract component of ‘reinforcement’. Only through the combined use of metaphors from phenomenology, social psychology, physiology, and behavior analysis (i.e. behaviorism) may such experiences be understood, and be ultimately reduced to the comfortable intuitive explanations that we apply to many aspects of the human condition, from headaches and disease to the mechanics of throwing a ball.
Ultimately, what is ‘real’ to us is what we understand, and understanding is not the province of one favored metaphorical description of the world, but of many. In his landmark book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Thomas Kuhn noted that the work of a scientist was a community affair, and that scientists tend to work with a narrow vocabulary that they may not share with other communities, thus causing each faction to ultimately talk past each other rather than to each other. Recent advances in cognitive science, and particularly in the nascent field of cognitive linguistics recognize that the long overdue simplification of the overly complex field of psychology requires an understanding and appreciation of the metaphorical underpinnings of the language we use. This appreciation is only the beginning, and is long past due.

Ashby, F. Gregory, Isen, Alice M. and U. Turken (1999) A Neuropsychological Theory of Positive Affect and Its Influence on Cognition, Psychological Review, 106(3), 529-550
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1997) Finding Flow, Basic Books
Damasio, Antonio R. (1994) Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Avon
Deutsch, David (1997) The Fabric of Reality, Allen Lane
Donahoe, J. W. and D. C. Palmer (1993) Learning and Complex Behavior, Allyn and Bacon
Donahoe, J. W., D. C. Palmer, and Jose E. Burgos (1997) The Unit of Selection: What do reinforcers reinforce?, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior67, 259-273
Edelman, Gerald (1992) Bright Air Brilliant Fire, Basic Books
Durstewitz, Daniel, Marian Kelc, and Onur Gunturkun (1999) A neurocomputational theory of the dopaminergic modulation of working memory functions, Journal of Neuroscience, 19(7): 2807-2822

Horvitz, J. C., Stewart, T., and Jacobs, B. L. (1997) Burst activity of ventral segmental dopamine neurons as elicited by sensory stimuli. Brain Research, 759, 251-258
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago
Lakoff, George, and Johnson, Mark (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books
M. J. Koepp et al. (1998) Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game, Nature393, 266-268
Montague, P.R., Dayan P. Sejnowski, T.J. (1994) Foraging in an uncertain environment using predictive Hebbian learning. In: J.D. Dowan, G. Tesauro and J. Alspector (eds.) Neural Information Processing Systems6, Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco, pp. 598-605
Schultz, Wofram (1998) Predictive reward signal of dopamine neurons, Journal of Neurophysiology80, 1, 1-27
Weiner, Norbert, Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1961

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