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Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Since time began, or at least farming, people have always had a need to separate the wheat from the chaff. But people also have a need to add chaff to the wheat. It could be in that pound of grain you bought or the money you bought that grain with. It is in other words the fake stuff that's passed along and sold as real that makes chaff not useless but the stuff of big business.

Knowledge of course can be counterfeited along with physical goods. In its most obvious form it can be in the product warranties of the flim flam artist or snake oil salesman, or more innocently it can just be a byproduct, like chaff, of the way that we harvest knowledge. The problem is, as we become better at harvesting stuff from wheat to facts, passing off adulterated stuff becomes less an unintended and more an intended consequence. So we take our business elsewhere to those who can deliver just the good stuff, pure and simple.

You can blame the Internet for this, as it has wised us up so we can find the right definition of a word without wading through a thousand synonyms. The ability to find the right fact without wading through a thousand digressions is bad news for encyclopedia companies, and of late the entertainment media. But it's good news for those who want to get directly to the point, providing of course that they have the means to find it.

The next phase of this movement, long overdue, is in academic research. Squirreled away in journals whose contents are inaccessible, unreadable, and overpriced, the publish and perish mentality among academics has encouraged printing stuff that may make an academic but hardly a popular grade. But of course both are hardly incompatible criteria, as anyone who has read the lucid writings of Darwin or Einstein may attest. If you the reader paid for knowledge in detail rather than wholesale, editors would be immediately conscious of a whole new set of criteria, namely readability, usability, and value. It might even make academic knowledge interesting again.

(and for me, I am looking forward to completing my collection of B. F. Skinner's, Robert Bolles, Kent Berridge, and Jaak Panksepp's greatest hits, all for 50 cents an article from the first cousin of i-tunes, dare I coin the phrase, i-tomes?)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Jaak Panksepp's Galilean Moment

What if you invited your neighbors to witness your revolution-ary discovery, and nobody came? It's apt to make one a little cranky, to say the least. That was the fate of the great 17th century astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei. Inviting some learned colleagues to witness his telescopic discovery of the moons of Jupiter, the good fellows (Jesuits mostly) declined. Although one thinks Galileo would have had a better turnout if he had served wine and cheese, with a fruit basket as a door prize, one gathers that the invited guests did not relish the prospect of seeing something (namely orbiting moons) that jarred so completely with their preconceived notion of how the solar system worked.

So no one came, and Galileo was, to put it mildly, a bit miffed. Indeed, in a subsequent letter to the equally distinguished astronomer Johannes Kepler, Galileo was not shy in his contempt for his learned peers.

“We will laugh at the extraordinary stupidity of the crowd, my Kepler. What do you say to the main philosophers of our school, who, with the stubbornness of vipers, never wanted to see the planets, the moon, or the telescope although I offered them a thousand times to show them the planets and the moon. Really, as some have shut their ears, these have shut their eyes towards the light of truth. This is an awful thing, but it does not astonish me. This sort of person thinks that philosophy is a book like the Aeneid or Odyssey and that one has to search for truth not in the world of nature, but in the comparison of texts."

"I meant, point it at the sky!" Galileo fumed

Galileo certainly did not suffer fools gladly, yet suffered condemnation not for fighting for what he believed in but for doing it rudely. Galileo simply had little patience or respect for nonsense parading as science. Galileo did not believe in scientific pluralism, that no matter how odd or unscientific the belief we should all nonetheless get along. After all, following the coda of the times, the scientific party did not suffer if a few flat earth enthusiasts were allowed to join the club. Call it perhaps an affirmative action program for stupidity. It's perhaps understandable why this drove Galileo nuts.

Travel forward almost 4oo years, and neuroscience has progressively revealed, and with telescopic precision, how the brain actually works. Still, for the major psychological schools that purport to explain behavior, from behaviorism to cognitive science, the brain is strangely left out of the picture. Thus for psychology in general, philosophizing and rhapsodizing about how the mind works occurs for the most part without having to stop for a second to look into the mind and see how it actually works.

Naturally, there are some cranky sorts who won't have any part of this, and crash the party by trying to bring the entire party down. One of these is the distinguished neuro-psychologist Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp is at turns rude, irascible, cutting, and sarcastic in his view of trends in psychology that treat the brain lightly. (In other words, from a Galilean vantage, an overall splendid fellow) In particular, the fact that neuroscience tends to leave out metaphors of affect to describe the analogical processes that underscore our most primal urges has in his view rendered the science incapable of truly understanding behavior.

So naturally, with this attitude came the inevitable Galilean moment. When Panksepp published an article called the 'Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology' he demonstrated with logical and empirical comprehensiveness and precision why the popular 'science' of evolutionary psychology is neurally unrealistic, and is for the most part a lot of guff. Some of the most distinguished voices in evolutionary psychology, such as Dennett, Buss, Pinker, and Tooby/Cosmides were invited to comment on Panksepp's observations, yet declined. Since these folks are publicity hounds, and seek it wherever they can to promote their Darwinian view of psychology, by refraining from addressing many of the points that Panksepp advanced, one naturally can question their motives. So, lacking Panksepp's insights, their psychological version of the flat earth continues, until we in due course all look through Panksepp's telescope, and discover the truth.

For more on Jaak Panksepp, take a look at my new e-book on the psychology of the internet:

for more.....

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Aether of Attention

A fundamental premise that shaped physics up to the end of the 19th century was that nature abhorred a vacuum. Empty space, even in outer space, had something to it, namely a substance called the aether that was the medium that allowed light to get by. Of course, a cosmic aether didn't change the speed of light, no matter where the aetherial wind was blowing. So because it didn't change light in any predictable way, it was abandoned.

Like particles or waves of light, behavior is shaped through 'reasons', those stimuli impinging on us or created by us that as arranged and conceived through conceptual metaphor 'drive' behavior. But behavior passes through a similar aether that seems to shape behavior independently of the objective reasons we have to behave. This psychological aether is called attention. For every moment of existence, we are just swimming in attention, the eddies and currents of awareness that sculpt behavior like water shapes a rock. Whatever we do, however we are doing it, attention is there as the medium through which behavior flows. That is, attention, like aether, allows us to get by. Yet do we need it?

Attention Grabber

Well, no. Attention is not a thing, but an aspect of a thing. It is no more than a taxonomy or classification scheme for the specific events that drive behavior. Paying attention means nothing in itself, save for the stimulus events rendered as cognition or behavior that 'occupy' and thus define attention. In psychology, attention is rarely used as an independent or controlling variable, yet nothing we see or do can take place without using the term. That is because attention is, like the x factor in 2x=4, a very useful 'unknown' variable, or a descriptor for an obscure event that drives behavior that we will get around to defining, someday. In other words, if we say that such and such behaves in a way because he wasn't paying attention, it ain't attention that's the cause, but implied reasons that comprise attention.

The problem is that attention can become a defacto stimulus, and thus needs no more elaboration, even though it has no stimulus properties whatsoever. To illustrate, in meditation and hypnosis, the causal event of attention is rendered as a specific stimulus event, even though it is never defined. However, if you don't know what your independent variable is, you won't really know what the dependent variable is either. Thus we have psychological magic, with attention being a mere sleight of hand that moves us like a will o the wisp to somewhere we scarcely know. So attention is a great device to define something without defining what you're talking about. (this is also called psychobabble or outright fraud) Indeed, this is a problem we all should pay attention to.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Heaven on Earth

As a unique aspiration of mankind, nature must not only be preserved, but coddled. It is believed to be both practical and sentimental to have a reserve, preserve, or at the very least cage for the beasts who we have so wantonly burdened over millennia. So we place swimming, walking, and crawling creatures in replications or mock ups of their environments, give them care, attention, and fulfill their every need. And then we watch them suffer and die. What we don't recognize is that animals thrive in imperfect, unpredictable environments. As a foraging instinct, roaming about in an uncertain world is in their genes. Make the world predictable, and like love unrequited, an animal sulks in depression and boredom, and withers away.

We are, as naked apes, no different in our love of the novel or unpredictable ways of the world. Of course, in a perfect world we would rather all our surprises be good ones, and thus we probe our world for mysteries and challenges that have happy endings, and if we fail, we are caught and coddled by safety nets both physical and social. That's the blessing of this modern age, as success is still a surprise, and failure is a cushioned and rarely fatal blow.

Our present world is as rich in surprise as an ocean is rich in oxygen, and so we as a species thrive. But this cannot last. Year by year, we are making it safer, more predictable, as life becomes progressively more coddled by virtual worlds and robotic helpers. But when a comfortable life becomes predictable, it is not just boring as hell, it is hell. So what does the far infinite future hold? To physicists and mathematicians like Frank Tipler and David Deutsch, the computers will have taken over and will replicate human beings in infinite memory. Both envision a paradise where each human is coddled with every want fulfilled. But our intelligent descendents will know better, and we should not be too surprised to find our afterlives populated with the uncertain pleasures of domestic life, a forager to the ends of eternity.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Psychological Aspirin

When it comes to sure cures for your most common ailments, aspirin fills the bill. Lately, besides clearing your headache and reducing your fever, its been discovered to do a lot more. Taken daily, it can reduce your chances for heart disease, and help prevent cancer and strokes. The problem however is that aspirin is cheap, unexotic, and not patented. Because there is no money in it, there is no marketing budget for it either, save for word of mouth from your friendly physician and press.

But the folks who do have the marketing budget are the pharmaceutical companies, and they would like to share with you a better idea, namely drugs such as statins or beta-blockers that pretty much do the same job as our little white pill, but give you a healthy heart in exchange for a proverbial arm and a leg. Luckily, most of us keep our own counsel, and our medicine, and take an aspirin a day to keep not only the doctor but the drugstore bill away.

For our mental health, we are also lucky to have simple time tested cures. We've always known that a challenging and productive life style will keep us alert and our minds fit and capable. In addition, we know the power of words, and use them appropriately to sooth and inspire troubled minds, whether they be ourselves or others. We've also known that setting aside a time where we can be alone and away from distractions will reduce stress and produce a calming relaxation. But what we have not known is how these methods systematically work to change our behavior and our minds.

Unfortunately, instead of big pharma, we have big psychology, that accedes to the power of these simple methods, but assures you that for best results they need the expensive packaging of psychotherapy or the mystical patina of religion. Big psychology is fully on parade in Sharon Begley's new book 'Train your mind: change your brain: how a new science reveals our extraordinary power to transform ourselves'. She demonstrates well how these cures literally change the structure of the brain and cause emotional transformation, but directs us throughout to patented rather than common sense sources who have their own snake oil to sell. So, the psychological aspirin of reason and rest become psychotherapy and meditation, which of course are available for a fee from a psychotherapist or guru near you.

But for me, and I would gather most of us, the standard psychological aspirin will do just fine. To bad it doesn't have a marketing budget. For my own take on the psychological aspirin of rest and the psychological Excedrin of meditation and the like, you may venture forth here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Richard Dawkins Delusion

Life is short, nasty, brutish, and tough. Naturally, in any environment and in any age, you have to use your wits to survive, and the language you use to describe all this self serving striving for self preservation (can you say that rapidly five times?) is invariably a metaphorical sign of your times. So, looked at unadorned by philosophy, the act of living is not a sentimental, moral, or enlightening thing, but rather is a royal pain where might makes right, and only the fittest survive. Thus, in spite of the common Disneyfication of the facts of life, we pretty much know that times are tough all over and that the world is not a nice place. It is therefore not a great stretch to expand this metaphor of meanness to presumably the life and times of homo-sapiens and indeed of all life. So it is no surprise that the metaphors we use to describe life and its vicissitudes are about the same that Darwin used to describe the whole record of life.

As social creatures who are gifted with large cerebral noggins who uniquely reflect on their reflections and are painfully self-conscious about it, there is however a trick or two to ameliorate all this mean spiritedness. Since we are buggered by the fact that we have consciousness, and don't know how the darn thing survives, evolves, or just moves about after we die, a whole new set of metaphors has 'evolved' that answers these timeless questions and as a bonus keep us in line. Thus the metaphors of natural selection are supplemented by the metaphors of super-natural selection. These metaphors are called religion. So if you want to survive not only in this world but the next, and not devolve into an insect (bad karma) or be perpetually squashed like one (such as in the 8th circle of hell), it pays to be kind to kittens and little old ladies.

So we embrace religion, but end up acting like selfish assholes in any event. In fact, religion can easily be used to rationalize all sorts of awful behavior. The problem arises when some armchair pundit believes this deception, and assumed that religion is not used as a general rationalization for bad behavior, but is the actual reason for that behavior. In his latest book, 'The God Delusion', the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins rants and rages about the endless stupidities and cruelties of religion, but forgets that if you're acting stupid and cruel, it ain't God who is behind your behavior, but rather your selfish genes. After all, if you are a Crusader, business tycoon, or just an everyday guy who instinctively loves to rape and pillage, what better way to rationalize the whole thing than by saying that God made me do it? Overall, the philosopher Nietzsche was closest to the mark when he said the last Christian died on the cross. For Dawkins, Christianity just makes him cross. Perhaps there is some poetic justice in this.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Aunt Bee

Fifty years ago, if you were anxious and blue, there was only one person to go to. It was of course a close relative like your aunt who invariably lived with or near you. Your aunt would counsel you on your troubles, tell you to calm down and relax, and fix you a hot bowl of chicken soup. Invariably you got better, and for free.

Bending today's psychological parlance to yesteryear, that was a 'treatment', but remove the situation, aunt and all to the present day you get not a treatment, but a 'control group'. In other words modernity offers a better way, that in the form of counseling, meditation, or drugs, helps you far more than your aunt ever could, except of course that it ain't free.

The problem is that the aunts of the world have never went away, and you can often find some significant other to counsel you, feed you soup, and otherwise tell you to chill out. Moroever, a loving empathetic friend who can sooth you with a bit of affection, advice, and a homemade broth has never ever been scientifically shown to be less effective to the innumerable versions of psychotherapy and their various bromides (none , alas that involve soup). So empathy trumps therapy, relaxation bests meditation, and the placebo of chicken broth not only works as well as other nostrums, but tastes better.

The rub though is that when left on our own devices, such as friends and family, we can invariably find a better cure than what science offers us. Certainly it would be worthy of study to determine why the skills needed to remedy day to day psychological problems come effortlessly to simple minded folk whose best pharmaceutical concoction is soup. Perhaps it is due to the fact that by living in a complex world, we learn how to emotional navigate our worlds. Thus, wisdom comes not through perusing some philosophical or psychological tome, but by simply observing ourselves. In other words, perhaps the true font of wisdom comes not from books or 'experts' but from from the trials and tribulations of being alive.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Window to Paris

The universe of ideas is changing radically, and folks are rather proud of it. All knowledge is now becoming available at our fingertips, pulled from the air by a little box the size of our palm. It is a window to the world. And still, some folks are not impressed, wanting to write letters with ink and paper and not with keystrokes, and talk to people personally rather than as a virtual image of someone we would like to be. But of course, as they sample the new manner of doing things they will change their ways. New ways have a way of seducing the unconverted. But still, many resist. Regardless, succeeding generations will know of no other life but the way of the multi tasker, and this genteel single tasking world will die out. But there is a price to pay. To take it all in one must be able to cut it all down to size. Attention demands it. We must grab as much of the world as we can, but to cope with this avalanche of possibilities it must be distilled into sound bites and chopped into little events that can be pondered in all their significance for the next fifteen minutes until the next wonder arrives. And as we multi-task into oblivion, the world becomes a tyranny of the trivial, a patchwork of tinier and tinier things to do, to be, and to understand.

But this has been seen before. In the 1995 Russian comedy "A Window to Paris", an impoverished Russian discovers in an abandoned room a portal to Paris. Walking through the door, he found himself in the city of lights. And so Russians being Russians, they poured through the door, marveled at the bounty of the city, and began to cart it off. From cars to caviar, the booty was hoisted, tugged, and pulled through the door. The world was available at their fingertips, so they grabbed it one little piece at a time. But even this fantasy had its intellectual Luddites who would long for a earlier and less frenzied era. Looking through the glass at an elegant couple talking over dinner, a Russian expatriate turned to his friend. "Look at them. They are dining in an elegant room with champagne and violins, and have nothing more to say than stale conversation about hair style and office politics, and for our part we would sit at a card table in a cold empty closet with nothing more than a bottle of vodka and a pickle, and explored with the leisure of our imagination the infinite possibilities of the universe."

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Curse of the Institute

A curious way of validating knowledge is to treat old knowledge like a dinosaur bone. You dig it up, and since its been around millenia, and you can't change what you find, it must be true. Such was the fate of Aristotle's natural philosophy, which like an old bone dug from a library full of similar literary fossils, was something that could not be denied. Trusting in the wisdom of our ancestors and the sanctity of a tradition of knowledge is a common way to parse inquiry. It's makes things easier while you concentrate on the more pressing problems at hand. Thus, there is no need to reinvent, or should we say re-inquire about the wheel.

When you have fossilized knowledge, you have of course folks who band together to tend to it and perhaps build upon it. This institutionalization of knowledge is something the early Catholic Church did well, and kept too inquisitive folks in line by an Inquisition that was inquisitive about those being a bit too inquisitive. Institutions have a way of shrinking the mystery of the universe by limiting not only what we can but what we should be curious about. Indeed, to question an institutionalized belief is not a mark of curiousity, but insufferable rudeness, even blasphemy.

In psychology, institutions have been replaced with Institutes, clubs of like minded believers who will brook no dissent from the shared wisdom. Institutes have their own journals, their own methods, and their own studies, which prove unquestionably that their core beliefs are correct. To paraphrase Mark Twain's comment on religion, it seems that only in America do we have the true psychology, several hundred of them.

But where is science in this picture? Science of course represents a universal standard of knowing that enshrines the importance of every question, any question. It may be justly said that for a scientific temperament, a belief that cannot be questioned is a belief not worth having. To bad there are few institutes just for that.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Kent Berridge and the Motivational Drive Train

Nothing is more exciting and promising than the concept of a new and revolutionary product. Yet promise often fails to match reality, which thankfully means that new products die in the lab before they cause you to die.

Consider for example the concept car. Powered by sunlight, natural gas, steam, or just pedaling, they can take us from 0-60 in two seconds and from here to the Arctic circle on a tank of gas, or the equivalent thereof. They look fancy, act fancy, and get a lot of fancy press. The problem is that we know what they can do, but not how they can do it. But no matter. After all, such details can take care of themselves after the car rolls out of the assembly line. That is, we can believe that a car can fly to the moon on a whim and promise, knowing that when push comes to shove, the product is mere hype once the first consumer has to get behind the immobile wonder mobile, pushing and shoving.

Nonetheless, it would save a lot of time if we could sort out the science from the fiction, lest we end up forever looking forward to Star Trek holo-decks and transporter beams to pop up soon at the local Best Buy. For the hyped up futuristic contraptions that will power our everyday lives, that means that knowledge of elementary physics is fundamental to separating hype from reality, so that if we read about a concept car powered by anti gravity or brain waves, we can tell in a flash whether we are reading a story from Scientific American or Amazing Stories.

Being able to distinguish hype from reality is particularly important when hype is more than a prelude to a product, as with consumer goods, but is the product. For psychologists in particular, hype may not make a lot in terms of product or procedure, but it certainly makes for discussion groups, journal articles, and job tenure. Thus getting too real can get in the way of the hype, or the 'high concept' if you will. So the motivational forces which make us move must have as little to do with a firm grounding on the brain 'in action' as possible, which would make those high falutin' concepts as testable and ephemeral as the promise of a perpetual motion machine.

So among psychologists, it is no surprise that the most popular motivational drive trains are as powerful, intangible, and untestable as phlogiston (an imaginary ingredient that enabled fire). From hard wired mental modules (evolutionary psychology), to computation (cognitive psychology), to conceptual metaphor (cognitive linguistics), to intrinsic and extrinsic motivational drives (self-determination theory), the brain is missing in every equation. And that's a pity, for if psychologists qualified what they know by the limitations of that grey congealed pudding between our ears, they could minimize their chatter and maximize their usefulness, which come to think of it would be the highest concept of all.

For those of you who really have to know what a true motivational drive train looks like that has high learning but mercifully little high concept, I refer you to the neuro-psychologist Kent Berridge's 2001 article Reward Learning: reinforcement, incentives, and expectations. Now if Kent would only hire a Steve Jobs for his lab to dress things up a bit, think of the high concepts he could roll out!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Base Instinct: i-phones and the information Cuisinart

With the introduction of i-phones and their ilk, an argument may be made that the information age has found not its telescope, but its Cuisinart. The idea seems to be that in order to be as productive in processing ideas as we can be processing baloney (which come to think of it have a lot in common), we can slice, dice, or otherwise multi-task information to ramp up productivity, happiness, and even consciousness to new awe inspiring levels.

I of course demur, by referring to something else that the new gadgets really appeal to, namely the lemur.

It has to do with the universal, dare I say basest instinct that can easily be overindulged to our emotional ruin. Does this set the stage for a personal rant against the use of these little devices to invade privacy, commit illegal acts, access immoral sites, or generally waste time? Not really. You see, I'm talking about our true base instinct, the urge which is the base not only for us but for our furry ancestors and mammalian cousins. Thus the all in one information appliance appeals in essence not to the consumer, sports fan, or inner child, but to the little lemur that is within us all.

I'm talking about this little guy.

Human Being: Base Model

The lemur, like other small mammals, must be continually on the move. A constant forager, he has to be continually alert to every aspect of his environment in order to find something to eat, or escape from being eaten. This foraging instinct is still with us today, as we are innately sensitive to little surprises that can entail the difference between life and death. The only problem is, for the current generation at least, life and death is not an issue any more. Regardless, we continually act as if it were, and if we had our druthers we would access email, Internet, movies, news, and make phone calls every minute on the minute for hundreds of times a day like a matter of life and death. But does productivity really benefit from accessing the Internet, voice mail, email, and 'Desperate Housewives' videos 400 times day? I think not. Even if mania provided us with some long term benefit, we would still likely end up like little Napoleons, stranded on some rock in the Atlantic.

So there is our grim future, a stress filled life in the fidget lane, with no respite for most of us until we are eventually committed to some proverbial rock in the Atlantic, far from the information superhighway.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Mezmer's New iPhone (i for idiot that is)

I don't know about you, but I am weary of super cool must have products that promise the world but end up sucking out your time and productivity on one hand, and your money on the other. It all must end sometime, which I figure will be in a century or two. Thank God I will not be around when this final model of the i-phone is served up.

But what do I know? So here is what our grandchildren can look forward to in the future, a cool phone, search device, time waster, and portable Matrix.

-Processor Intel quantum computer, with one google-plex operations a second, running the Google OS of course.

- MPEG player 1 tera-tera flop hard drive with room for all music known to man, including everything you've hummed since birth.

- Search tool for all possible knowledge, including stuff not thought of yet, such as all one trillion lost plays of Shakespeare, derived from the super fast emulation of lots of monkeys hunting and pecking on typewriters.

- Web cam to continually monitor your life and after life.

- Compact design the size of amoeba, and implanted in your cerebral cortex, is charged forever by that nacho you ate this morning.

Universal Connectivity connects to i-tv, i-life, and i-consciousness.

With Mezmer's i-phone, you don't just phone, you are the phone. So if upon dialing you find yourself walking about nude in Paradise picking apples, know that you can say here too that an Apple is the cause of your predicament.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Princess and the Pea

The Princess.....

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful but miserable princess. She was an altogether irritable and troublesome sort who confounded and distressed the royal family and her subjects. She would sleep fitfully, and upon rising in the morning, would be quick to anger, and was continuously nervous, often depressed, and overall not very happy. And so the king summoned from across the land psychic healers from all persuasions. They recommended that they pile mattress upon mattress to so get a good nights sleep, and a psychotherapeutic regimen for her to reinterpret, ignore or otherwise purge her inner angst. Then the court jester, who had an eye for the ironic, had an idea. He reasoned that since princesses are an extremely sensitive sort, perhaps the source of her distress was equally as fine. Thus he searched under each of her mattresses, and at long last found a single tiny pea. Upon removal of the little legume, the princess slept soundly, and regained her cheerful and relaxed disposition. So the moral of the story is: And for wont of a pea, the kingdom was calmed.

Oftentimes the cause of all our miseries is like a pebble in one’s foot,
or a pea under the mattress

...and the pea

The princess was bothered to distraction by a small yet often constant distraction. Having to constantly adjust in frustration because of a pea yet not know the source of that frustration seems the stuff of fairy tales. Yet ironically a modern fairy tale existence of unlimited opportunity and choice can drive one to the same level or irritated distraction as the little pea, and be ignored even though it is in plain sight. A distraction denotes a relatively unimportant option that attracts attention. Like a pea under a mattress or a pebble in one’s shoe, it is an affectively (or subjectively) important but logically (or objectively) trivial thing. The problem is that we believe we can easily reconcile a distraction filled day with our daily rational agenda, and that distractions are somehow a good thing. If we end up every day sorely tensed and stressed, it is not because of an onrush of the trivial. It is, like the proverbial pea, something we just don’t consciously consider, until of course the source of irritation is removed.

The moral to this story is that it is often not high level demands or choices that make us miserable, but the low level continuous and small choices that provide a non-conscious irritant that interferes with not only our sleep but all of our behaviors during the day. Ironically, for contemporary stress management practices, irritants are mainly small potatoes. For psychotherapists in particular, stress is big ticket stuff caused by big ticket problems. Hence if you feel irritable, exhausted, or just plain cranky, it's because of major choices you confront in life that need major league (and expensive) therapy. Simply rearranging your life to eliminate distractive choices is a job for an interior decorator, not a therapist. And so it is not stressed, leaving the patient invariably stressed out. So if you are under stress, don't look for the nearest therapist, just look very carefully for a little pea.

For more on distractions and pea, see my take on another fairy tale character, Cinderella.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Letters from and Bombs to Iwo Jima

A case can be made that human virtue is consistent not with some ironclad rule dictated by our genes, but rather with the uncertain nature of information that we glean from a very confusing world. That is, goodness is not dependent upon who you are, but upon what you know about who someone else actually is. Thus, the results of the loves me, loves me not ritual depends upon not what rose petal you pluck, but what information you can pluck from a myriad perspectives on the world.

In Clint Eastwood's cinematic diptych on the bloody World War II battle for Iwo Jima, we have as a matter of perspectives, two. The first film gives the American perspective on the battle. It's literally guts and glory, and the Japanese are all faceless and scary, like a breed of fire ants from Starship Troopers. And like bugs everywhere, we cheer when they are duly roasted, shot, or otherwise squashed. The second film gives us the Japanese perspective, and shows that lo and behold, the Japanese are homo sapiens too, and behave just like thinking mammals everywhere! Naturally, since we're looking at the world from Japanese eyes, the Americans are the invaders from Mars, only this time microbes won't come to the rescue of the harried Asian species of mankind. Tragedy ensues, and we are sad. So upon seeing both films we end up with conflicted emotions, and that's the point. Virtue is naturally not a fixed but a conflicted thing. Like Oedipus, we'd be having our honeymoon one minute, and plucking out our eyes the next over a choice gone horribly wrong, it just depends upon what you know. Ultimately, knowledge is virtue and virtue is knowledge, as all we need to be good is a little bit of empathy towards the world.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Ginzu Psychology

Ginzu knives. You know the product. You can't find them at local stores, but with this televised offer, you can get them now. Operators are standing by.

That's an infomercial for you. Hawked on TV channels at times otherwise reserved for test patterns, infomercials demonstrate to you products that you simply cannot do without. The products of course create no muss, have no fuss, and perform genuine miracles. And better yet, you see them making succulent pot roast, toning perfect bodies, and sculpting perfect julienne fries. The perfect product is received in a perfect way as breathless and excited, the audience coos and applauds rapturously, prompted on by ecstatic delirium of the host.

Of course, when you finally get the miracle product, it doesn't do the job, breaks after a week, and is far less functional than the can opener, pressure cooker, or dumbbell it replaced. Which explains why local stores don't carry such junk, namely because it's easier to bring your dull ginzu back to a Wal-Mart than mail it back to a p.o. box in Costa Rica. Now of course, we all feel dumb after we buy this crap, but at least we have the alibi that we saw the darn thing in action.

Unfortunately, when it comes to another type of infomercial, we don't even have this excuse. I am of course referring to the most nefarious infomercial product of them all: the self help video, course, or tape. Self help infomercials, whether they help you earn a million or feel like a million, don't even explain their product, they just have testimonials for the product. That means that you won't see or learn how this information works, you just have to take the word from those very satisfied and genuinely honest customers whose lives have been profoundly changed by that information. Of course, unlike a ginzu knife, you can't bring information back when it invariably doesn't work, which of course isn't their fault because you haven't followed their instructions to begin with. So there you have it, the perfect infallible product: you buy it in ignorance, use it ignorantly, and when it fails it's because you're an utter ignoramus. Makes you want to become a psychologist, a con artist with dignity!

And of course, I'm right. Just take my word for it, of course.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Richard Dawkins gets Dissected

Saddam Hussein is dead, and Richard Dawkins is not pleased. The distinguished evolutionary biologist, atheist, and grinch thinks that the world has lost a tyrant, and psychology has lost a specimen. How much better it would have been, he thinks, for psychology to study this monster, and gleen more knowledge of the workings of evil. But what's evil? History has shown that it is something matter of fact, having to do with practical matters like survival and such. Attila the Hun, Caesar, and Napoleon performed their peculiar evils because people at the time did such things to get by, survival of the fittest you know. Indeed, it was this metaphor, banally simplified but rising to the level of scientific cant, that was responsible for the very real evils of social darwinism, national socialism, and communism, all pivoting on the false premise that evolution surely proves that man can be perfected beast, but only if the tree of man is pruned by cutting a few million every now and then. An evil meme you might say.

Hannah Arendt thought evil was banality. Its easy to be evil. It doesn't require much smarts or independence, and thus one can follow the crowd, obey orders, and as a bonus, survive. The more pressing question is what causes true poets of science and religion to get into all that trouble. Whether it is Galileo or Christ, these are the true specimens that need to be studied. I would surmise, in contrast to the syndrome that infects the grinches among us, that they have hearts three times too big.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Jester in the Court of Psychology

One thing we all agree is that we all need criticism. A second thing we all agree is that criticism hurts. But as Mary Poppins said, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, or in other words, allows us to metaphorically take our medicine. The problem is, it can be downright uncomfortable and even impolite to administer the harsh medicine of criticism, but the resulting silence often has the unfortunate mark of approval. The results in 'group think' when everyone agrees on a topic not so much because they are being thoughtful, but rather because they are being polite. When criticism comes too late it is often the hangman who sets you straight, as you lose your job, wife, or self respect for a job you had until then thought you were doing quite well. On the other hand, if you can somehow get the criticism you need politely put, then the pain of being wrong becomes something you and your critic can, well, laugh about.

Enter the jester. In medieval times, the jester or fool sat on the foot of the throne, and spoke his mind in a stand up comic sort of way. The king invariably got the point from all the ribbing, and thus was able to bear with criticism that from any other source would have cost the miscreant his head. In polite society, the jester has been abolished to the comedy club or to late night TV, but a case may be made that the heads of every social institution from religion to politics to academia needs their own in house jester to let them know that wisdom is not the only thing they are full of. Unfortunately, it's not something this fool will see very soon, no joke.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Perfect Mess

Sigmund Freud was once asked about the hidden meaning of smoking cigars, of which he was fond. He responded in effect that a good cigar was merely a smoke. Of course, any simple thing can be made impossibly complex if we put our minds to it. But in science as well as in practical affairs, it is the opposite that is cherished, as the devil can truly be found in too many details.

The ability to find profundity in the trivial and complexity in the simple represents a sort of conspiracy theory for the facts of life. From crop circles to who shot Kennedy, the simple and obvious solution fades before the grand and complex theory that merits at least a spot on the Discovery channel.

Consider if you would a simple mess, such as the mess of papers on your desk, or the mess of clothes in your closet, or the other messes from dishes to taxes that you have to sort out. The incremental accumulation of things that individually need to be eventually sorted, classified, or even thrown out are best not handled individually, but in batches. It's simply more efficient to do things that way. These accumulations, or messes, are thus necessary things that are dispatched all at once. Of course, different people have different time tables for their own messes, as for a housewife that pile of dishes in the sink must be dispatched as soon as dinner is done, but for the husband it doesn't call for action until the last clean spoon is gone. This cleaning threshold, which represents the tipping point when messes trigger their remedy, is a matter of personal preference. But a mess nonetheless remains a mess, until of course academic types get a handle on the concept and make a mess of it, as the new book 'A Perfect Mess', by Messrs. (pun fully intended) Abrahamson and Freedman demonstrates. Thus we learn from examples culled from urbanology to catastrophe theory that messiness is in fact a virtue. Of course the serendipity that is so important to motivation and cogitation is generally derived from the messes we confront daily that we call the process of living. But neatness has a role in this too. Indeed, what is life but the continuous interplay between the yin of orderliness and the yang of chaos (or messiness if you would). In this regard, the authors are only half right. But overall, I would gather that it is not messiness that concerns the average joe (or jane), but who is going to clean it up, and when the wheel is turned temporarily to order, how much time do I have to watch sports on TV before the dishwasher or dryer or crying baby signals a return to an invigorating or infuriating disorder that can otherwise be called a complete mess.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Damasio's Error

One reason bad psychology has such staying power is that it is full of grand predictions, but untestable results. Indeed, that's why it's bad, because it fails the most basic litmus test of science, namely that a scientific hypothesis, to be scientific, must be testable. It is for this reason that concepts like God, free will, and the afterlife are not scientific concepts. But just as bad science is not really science, bad psychology is really not psychology at all, but a perversion of a name.

The problem for good psychologists however is that because they come up with hypotheses that are testable, their fame can be a very tenuous thing. That is, if you make a grand prediction that doesn't test out, your accomplishment can be as fleeting as a soap bubble. As an example, consider the hypothesis of the somatic marker. As a pivotal hypothesis that defines the neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio's claim to fame, the somatic marker hypothesis derives from the salient and well accepted idea that behavior is 'embodied', or in other words is directed as much as by how we feel as how we think. The concept of the somatic marker is simple, namely that changes in the peripheral nervous system and the autonomic arousal that is stimulated by those changes constitutes a 'gut' feeling that helps you make correct choices prior to thinking about that choice. That is, the somatic marker helps you decide upon what course of action to take before you rationally consider what actions to indeed take. On the surface, the concept makes sense, however the problem with this hypothesis is that Damasio implicitly equates a rational consideration of response options with their conscious consideration. This is because non-conscious information processing (which is species of cognition or thinking too) was never considered or controlled for in Damasio's work. But as with all good scientific hypotheses, other folks such as Tiago Maia did just that, and proved Damasio wrong. Indeed, one can act rationally without being at all aware of the logical reasons for behavior, and non-conscious information not only precedes the somatic marker, it appears to do so in every case. Indeed, most arousal occurs when we already know what's happening, as when we become aware of bad turns of events, such a when the stock market falls or when we end up in the slowest line at the food store. Finally, if you cut off the physiological input from the peripheral nervous system, and decision making goes on merrily unimpaired. Thus the somatic marker is not only unnecessary but un-useful as an aid in decision making.

Naturally, Damasio is quite defensive about this, which of course will serve him naught if he is indeed wrong. And he is. Which brings me to the moral that all good psychologists must follow, since they can't rest on their laurels by claiming they are right just because they say so, like Dr. Phil (or Humpty Dumpty for that matter). The moral is: DON'T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB. Since Antonio has remained a neuro-psychologist and has not quit to proselytize his wisdom on the lecture circuit and on Oprah, his future is secure regardless of the future of the somatic marker hypothesis. That's my gut feeling anyway.

For much more on the somatic marker, take a look at my new e-book on the psychology of the internet:

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Happy-Unhappy Little Curve of Yerkes and Dodson

In psychology, nothing is more impressive than a bell curve. Bell curves tell you where you stand academically, socially, and psychologically. They are a swell way of graphically making an argument that hedges its bets. Thus you can be anywhere on the curve, it just depends. Bell curves also have a faux mathematical rigor about them. Like a physical law, you change one variable and the other one changes in a proportional way. One such behavioral algorithm is the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which is more metaphor really, as we commonly invoke the Yerkes-Dodson curve to support the hoary cliche in psychology that demand (i.e., stress) is good for you up to a point when things start going rapidly downhill (hence the bell curve).

The original Yerkes and Dodson published their hypothesis way back in the year 1908, and actually has little to do with the little graph you see above, which in turn doesn't have a lot of empirical support in psychology anyways, but I digress. Basically, the Yerkes Dodson curve plots performance against physical arousal, which presumably represents real discrete events that can be plotted across the X and Y axes. Thus given an X amount of performance, you can reliably infer a Y amount of arousal, and vice versa. This is all well and good if performance and arousal are consistently defined things. The problem is, for arousal at least, it's not. What is arousal? Indeed, there are many kinds: sexual, emotional, physical. Thus a fellow can be aroused while peeping into the girls locker room, and aroused in a different way upon being discovered, and aroused more differently yet as he hightails it away.

Moreover, different states of arousal have different relationships to performance, and can occur separately or at the same time. Attentive alertness, as a form of arousal, increases performance as arousal increases. On the other hand tension and attendant autonomic arousal, or anxiety, always decreases performance (see tomorrow's post for more). Interestingly enough, separate them both and the Yerkes-Dodson curve disappears, but combine them and out it pops. For example, a person who is highly and pleasurably aroused while climbing a mountain or creating art doesn't suffer in performance as his arousal increases, but actually gains in performance. On the other hand, a person who is frustrated while performing a task progressively loses his ability to perform well as anxiety increases. Nonetheless, as demand increases and decreases, these two very different types of arousal can occur simultaneously, and produce a performance curve very similar to the Yerkes-Dodson model.

As an aroused state, attentive alertness scales with the novelty or surprise of moment to moment behavior. As a function of the release of the neurochemical dopamine, touch and go events that entail continuous positive surprises (e.g. rock climbing, gambling, creative behavior) positively correlate with aroused alertness, which not only feels good but helps you think better. Thus the bigger the positive surprise, the more alert you become, and the better your performance becomes. If however, surprises start to trend from good to bad, alertness decreases as we become progressively more depressed, but tension and associated autonomic arousal (i.e. anxiety) increases. That is, as news moves from good to bad, arousal doesn't increase, it just changes to an entirely new form! The problem though is that positive surprises always come at the risk that things will take a decided turn for the worse, as the rock climber get stuck in a snow storm and the creative artist hits a writers block. Thus, the cost of higher good feelings is the chance you take that a turn of fortune will turn those good feelings bad. Generally, as demand increases risk increases, and at first we can handle it and be pleasantly surprised by and are motivated by the continuous moment to moment surprise of our success. But as demand ratchets up we are more likely to experience failure, and another type of arousal, that of anxiety. Hence as demand goes up, so does performance and arousal until performance reaches a crest and arousal begins to change not in amplitude but begins changing in kind. So the Yerkes Dodson bell curve survives, it is rather the idea that arousal does not change in kind across the level of performance that falls away.

The lesson we learn from all this is that the highest motivation or performance stands at the cusp of failure, as we are rarely motivated by the sure and thus boring thing. Unfortunately, what psychologists take from the Yerkes-Dodson curve is the wrong lesson entirely, that arousal is a monolithic and indivisible thing that does not categorically change as demand increases. In other words, the lesson that no pain equals no gain is wrong. Rather, if you have pain you will likely have no gain. For folks that are a bit wary of the school of hard knocks, this is perhaps a lesson one can get a bit excited about.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Herbert Benson: Bad Psychologist

To be a bad psychologist and join the immortals like Dr. Phil and Franz Mesmer, you must first must have years of academic study, preferably in any field but psychology. Secondly, you must be able to create simple hypotheses that can be understood by any primate, human or not. Third, these hypotheses must be revolutionary, and change the world as we know it. Fourth, there is no time to waste, thus your ideas must be rushed to print so that the world can share in your genius and you in your royalties. Fifth, to make sure that your influence and profit stream keep growing, you must create an institute that builds on the foundation of your wisdom.

Happily, the 'psychologist' Herbert Benson meets all these criteria. A cardiologist by training, his ticket to fame and fortune was simple. He hypothesized that there is an innate 'relaxation response', the opposite of the 'flight or fight' response, that occurs when we settle back in a distraction free environment and focus silently on a repetitive idea or phrase. Bottled in book form, lecture series, and through therapies around the world, and enshrined by Benson's Mind/Body Institute, the relaxation response has won converts the world over. Unfortunately, for the relaxation response to work, one must also activate the equally important 'gullibility' response. Unfortunately, the gullibility response is deactivated with knowledge, as this writer will sadly demonstrate.

In psychology 101 (but not found in cardiology 101), budding psychologists learn the difference between independent and dependent variables. An independent variable is the event you manipulate (e.g. a whack on the head), and the dependent variable is the response (e.g. someone whacks you back) that correlates with the independent event. For the relaxation response, relaxation correlates with focusing on something while sitting in a distraction free environment. Funny thing though, Benson never thought that sitting in a distraction free environment is an independent variable as well (this is called resting). But that's just as well, as sitting by yourself away from mental or physical distractions is a generic hypothesis that would likely fail in book or therapeutic format. Benson could have resolved the issue by showing that paying attention to a simple stimulus (e.g. driving a car in a rain storm while trying to focus on the little white stripe in the road) would cause relaxation no matter the level of distraction, but obviously felt that the relaxation response was so true, it would be insulting to test it further. As for the dependent measure of relaxation, relaxation has always meant (well at least prior to Benson's genius revelation) that the muscles are for the most part not doing anything, or are relaxed. Thus the relaxation response, or a 'doing nothing' response, is in fact an oxymoron, but nonetheless is accepted by morons the world over.

Go here for more of my sarcasm on the relaxation response.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Mrs. Blandings' Dreamhouse

What's in a word? A case may be made that without metaphors, we couldn't communicate a thing, and without understanding how to use metaphors, we end up communicating too many things.

Consider this excerpt from the 1948 comedy, 'Mr. Blandings builds his dreamhouse', where housewife Muriel (Myrna Loy) gives instructions to the contractor and house painter.

Muriel: Now, we'll talk about the painting. I had some samples. Now, first: the living room. I want it to be a soft green. Not as blue green as a robin, say, but not as yellow green as daffodil. Now, the only sample I could get is a little too yellow. But don't let whoever does it go to the other extreme and get it too blue. It should just be a sort of grayish-yellow green!

Mr. Delford: Aha ...

Muriel: Now, the dining room I'd like yellow. Not just yellow - a very gay yellow. Something bright and sunshiny. I tell you, Mr. Delford, if you'll send one of your workmen to the grocer for a pound of their best butter and match that exactly, you can't go wrong!

Mr. Delford: Aha ...

Muriel: Now, this is the paper we're going to use in the hall. It's flowered, but I don't want the ceiling to match any of the colors of the flowers. There's some little dots in the background, and it's these dots I want you to match. Not the little greenish dot near the hollyhockle, but the little blueish dot between the rosebud and the delphinium blossom. Is that clear?

Mr. Delford: Aha ...

Muriel: Now, the kitchen is to be white. Not a cold, antiseptic hospital white. A little warmer - but still, not to suggest any other color but white.

Mr. Delford: Aha ...

Muriel: Now for the carter room - in here - I want you to match this thread. And don't lose it: it's the only spool I have, and I had an awful time finding it. As you can see, it's practically an apple red. Somewhere between a healthy Winesap and an unripened Jonathan.

Mr. Delford: Aha ...
(The sound of tableware falling down is heard in the background)

Muriel: Oh, excuse me ...

Mr. Delford: You got that, Charlie?

Jack: Red, green, blue, yellow, white!

Mr .Delford: Correct.

In this excerpt the painter and builder weren’t killjoys, they were just trying to get the job done. To clarify the problem they had to clarify the language. If not, then they could never have settled on the right shade of grey. Of course, this type of plain speak is aesthetically unattractive, and for those who think that the aesthetics of creation derives from the very language we use, the painters did a very bad thing. But by no means did the painters impose on Muriel’s imagination. It is just that for imagination to carry well, it must be able to be copied. Thus for that matter, even Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling must first be described by a billion pixels of different hues for us to adequately transport its higher values to a billion pairs of eyes.

The problem comes from understanding how we use and misuse metaphorical speaking. A metaphor is simply a abstract property that is bestowed on a word that does not logically derive from that word. Hot passion, cold reason, consciousness raising, and flowing experiences don't actually tell you what these experiences logically are as simple facts of behavior, but they sure as heck make those experiences seem a lot more special, and as explanations, a lot more marketable.

Which brings us to a class of psychologists and psychological thinking that has as much in common with the painting contractor, but with a whole lot less marketing sense. Like the painting contractor, behavioristically minded psychologists (or behaviorists) disregard all the colorful metaphorical attributes that we give to behavior, and just look at behavior plain and simple. So instead of good, bad, happy, sad, they simply look to the facts of how folks behave. That means of course that they paint a picture of the mind with the same rudimentary accuracy of the painting contractor, yet if they were to sell the doggone thing, they would have to return to Muriel's metaphors, and color the world as happy as a ripe apple. Of course, behaviorists continue to be loath to do this, and because they can't shift their metaphors on a dime, they remain a micro-dot on psychological horizon with many expertly painted but metaphorically bland houses for sale that even Mrs. Blandings wouldn't buy.

Monday, January 01, 2007

My Poor Krell!

The universe is a pretty complex thing, and when you throw in people, it becomes downright inscrutable. Since people are the only sentient objects around that can understand the darn thing, one wonders if we are up to snuff for the task, or if the task is just the thing to snuff us out.

Perhaps an answer may be found in a goofy, scary, and yup, even profound 1959 space epic, Forbidden Planet. With special effects by the Walt Disney cartoon factory, stock 50's characters imported direct from NASCAR, a creepy electronic score, and a plot suggested by William Shakespeare (The Tempest), this picture had all the stuffings for a Happy Days blockbuster.

The movie starts with the soon to be cliched space expedition to rescue a lost expedition. Our crew discovers that only the expedition leader (Dr. Morpheus) and his nubile babe daughter are left alive. It seems that the good doctor discovered a long dead civilization, called the Krell, whose main surviving artifact was a subterranean power plant/shopping mall with one zillion floors and still no bathrooms. The Krell had left no pictures of themselves. Nonetheless, their shape could be construed from their doorways, resembling squat triangles, which in their world and likely in this, was a concession to the belt expanding needs of a fast food alien nation. Among other wonders, Professor Morpheus introduced the crew to a brain boosting machine (sort of like a Krell Wii) that enable him to project his thoughts, boost his intelligence, yet still after all that boosting have the mental chops of a Krell 1st grader. But that was only the beginning. It seems that the Krell were on the verge of developing the ultimate stocking stuffer for Xmas, when at the eve of their discovery they were completely wiped out. As it turned out their new invention allowed them to construct things completely at will, giving new meaning to 'just in time' manufacturing. The problem was, their secret desires (the so called tyranny of the id) got into the production queue, and let loose invisible energy monsters that paid off old personal scores like we like to take care of old traffic tickets. So as you may have guessed, the Krell tore themselves up.Naturally, at the end of the movie, the guy gets the girl, Morpheus gets his comeuppance, the energy monster gets shorted out, and the planet gets blown up real good.

Morpheus gets a brain boost

Fast forward to our own preoccupation with just in time manufacturing. Perhaps its not degrading the environment but just making too much stuff too fast that is our ticket to oblivion. And when our basic needs are replaced with fulfilling all those secret desires, well, I figure we'll just tear the place up.