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Friday, March 30, 2007


Build a house on mud, and no matter the breadth and majesty of your architectural imagination, the whole thing will quickly sink and collapse in the goo. Foundations are the unchallenged principles that allow you to freely build castles on the land and conceptual castles in the sky. For architects, your great tower will become a leaning tower in no time if you don't pay attention to the fundamentals of the ground you build upon. The same thing applies to any other contraption that is built without consulting the foundational laws of physics.

Funny thing though, when you are dealing with conceptual neverlands, the concept of a building built on sand can defy gravity forever if we just all sat around a circle and consistently calculate that mud is after all like concrete. Of course, testing your theory against the reality of dirt is what makes your calculations not only right but true. But sometimes we just don't want to get out hands, well, dirtied. So by not questioning foundational issues, whatever we build may have, to say the least, a certain tilt about it.

This is currently a raging problem in of all places, the quite foundational discipline of physics. In his recent book, The Trouble with Physics, the distinguished physicist Lee Smolin argues that Newtonian physics is good enough for macro, quantum physics is good enough for micro, but both rest on a common foundation that is another matter entirely. Thus, good enough is not good enough is you want an integrated theory of everything. The problem is assuming that something is foundational when it is not. Thus a final theory ain't so final.

Former foundation for the building housing
the Center for Evolutionary Psychology

For the psychology of motivation, the foundation is simple, namely a biologically informed and testable theory of how experience changes behavior. This is called a theory of learning. Unfortunately, a biological learning theory constrains how you can interpret observations about behavior. So when you ignore learning theory, you can't build psychological castles in the sky because there is no 'under' under. Thus, social, evolutionary, humanistic psychologies do without a neural foundation (in spite of their lip service to its importance) and equate approximate solutions with exact ones, which end up in a metaphorical sense, leaning. But that's OK if you tilt your head, and your reasoning within it, just so. But as this writer confesses, it is a common skill that I have never learned.

Monday, March 05, 2007

15 minutes of fame

The pop artist Andy Warhol predicted that with the technological advance of the media, soon everyone will be famous, but only for 15 minutes. A columnist in the Wall Street Journal recently turned this prediction on its head, and noted that as the media fractures as it advances, everyone will be famous all the time, in the eyes of 15 people that is. Thus, given advances in mass communication led by the internet, you will always find at least 15 people who raptly attend to your every musing, even if your claim to fame is a mere knowledge of the natural history of the dung beatle.

And this of course is a good thing, for if we can readily find 15 people who will give us an 'atta-boy' for our every murmur and burp on any topic that interests us, we will be more motivated to develop and perpetuate that interest. That's a wonderful change from pre-internet times, when the only 15 people who cared about us were more concerned with how we made our bed, fixed dinner, or paid the bills. We were famous of course, but not for the things that we felt truly mattered. Indeed, accomplishment and genius is only nurtured in environments where there are small groups of people to provide the 'atta-boy' for the simple act of trying. Indeed, where would Mozart, Galileo, and Einstein be without family and friends who gave them encouragement?

Of course, popular psychology, epitomized recently by Rhonda Byrne's best seller 'The Secret', gives short shrift to this simple truism. Motivation is just a matter of optimism, not a product of day to day encouragement, and your weightiest goals will move to you as a function of a sort of psychic gravity, or law of attraction if you will. So to get what you expect, you just have to learn how to expect, and keep expecting good things.

But this is nonsense, because as modern neuro-science demonstrates, motivation is not just a logical but an affective thing, and without the daily pleasantries of an unexpected compliment or word of encouragement, motivation is extinguished like a candle. To love what you're doing, you have to have other people love you because you're doing it. There is no other option. Motivation is not found in the logical constructions of optimism, but in our affective reaction to the opinions of other people.

To illustrate this truism, consider this global mind experiment, which can be performed by everyone who has ever posted to the internet. Consider a world without the internet. This would snuff out more than daily stock quotes and news blurbs on celebrities, but the individual inspirations of millions. Indeed, who would blog unto silence, or keep their aspirations bright when no one can hear them speak? Expectations would never be matched, because there would be no motivation to reach them. Indeed, that is the true 'Secret' of motivation, not the reflection of a cosmic law, but of a very human one. Motivation, like happiness, is not found in the facile and nonsensical laws of pop-psychologists, it is found in the 15 people who care about what we do.