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Monday, May 30, 2011

Look into my eyes!

It is the stuff of cheap Las Vegas acts, anti-smoking or weight loss scams, or bogus self-help books. It is ubiquitous and special, wholly inexplicable and near magical. It requires special words and procedures, engages a unique mental state, and allows one to transcend human nature itself. A heady resume for a process that does not exist.

Franz Mesmer invented it, though magnetism was  his thing. An 18th century charlatan, Mesmer  convinced a gullible  public that the newly discovered magnetic force was just the thing to cure whatever ails you. Just pass yourself under a powerful magnet, and a harmonious 'fluid flow' would be achieved, hence removing the 'obstacles' that caused disease. Funny thing though, many of his patients actually found their symptoms alleviated, and more than a few thought themselves cured. Since diseases tend to run their course, treatment or no treatment, and since illnesses tend to get worse if we ruminate about them, it was no surprise that the  resulting placebo effect would be interpreted as representing something much more profound. If Mesmer was known for the placebo effect, his inadvertent contribution to medical knowledge would be much more obscure. However, he included one more element that added his name to the lexicon, and a procedure and process that has retained its credibility to this day.

To be mesmerized, or in more modern terms, 'hypnotized', was an integral part of Mesmer's therapeutic procedure. As an adjunct to the devices (which included magnets and even a glass harmonica!) that helped to achieve the right fluid flow, a trance state purged the obstacles causing the impairment of disease. The delirium and convulsions followed Mesmer's artful suggestions, resulting finally in a relieved patient and a practitioner bowing to applause. This made for great theater, as Mesmer and his patients unknowingly became the precursor to every hypnotic act, both stage and therapeutic to follow.

...before Dr. Phil, there was Mesmer

The postulation of a hypnotic state follows the fact that given the right setting, people can do some remarkable things that cannot be accounted for by the normal mental processes that we believe have governance over our behavior. Indeed, without the novelty and mystery it would scarely be a process at all. Give a suggestion to a family member to mow the lawn, and whether they listen to you or not, it's no great shakes. However, if out of frustration you told some loved ones to jump in the lake or play in traffic, it would be a remarkable thing if they took you up on the offer. Of course, incongruity is relative, as your kin may have their own reasons. But hypnosis is more than a mysterious process that produces mysterious behaviors. Hypnosis also includes a set of procedures that induce it, and a unique mental or 'trance' state that opens the mind to suggestions. But is a trance state necessary for suggestion to take place or be more effective?

Fortunately, this is a very testable premise. Consider a rabbit's foot. If rubbing a rabbit's foot grants you luck, extra motivation, or God's grace, than all you need do to prove the effectiveness of rabbit's feet is to compare one group of people who rub rabbit's feet to another group that does not. It the group that rubs rabbit feet is significantly more successfuly, lucky, or is able to walk on water, then there must be something to rabbit's feet. On the other hand, if there is no difference between both groups, then it is safe to say that rabbit's feet have no special power.

This is precisely the approach the psychologist Theodore X. Barber  employed in a review of an exhaustive series of experiments that controlled for different aspects of the hypnotic induction procedure among thousands of subjects. In his 1969 book 'Hypnosis: A Scientific Approach', Barber found that the sole element that accounted for hypnotic behavior, from seeming past life regression to increased sensory acuity to suggested anti-social behavior, was information derived from the experimental session that translated into positive expectancies  for performance. Barber found thatall of the behavioral phenomena normally associated with hypnosis could be produced among normally awake subjects, given the proper motivation of course. A 'trance state' was simply the behavioral equivalent of rubbing a rabbit's foot, a voluntary hysteria that was no more biologically rooted to extraordinary behavior than the magically productive hysterics of a crying child. 

Although Barber and succeeding researchers on hypnosis demonstrated that information could elicit a staggeringly wide repertoire of behavior, these behaviors often extend beyond the more limited scope of what common sense informs us of our true capabilities. Hypnotic behaviors not only extend to commonplace voluntary behaviors, but to involuntary behaviors that otherwise seem immune to conscious control Suggested physiological effects such as hallucinations, blindness, analgesis, etc. are all beyond the pale of our voluntary control and beyond the scope of common sense. Hence one must either question common sense assumptions about behavior, or defer this complex question in favor of a special process that places an invisible mental gear in one's brain to make it all work. Given a historical ignorance of the neuro-psychological processes that map to environmental information, it has been easy to refer extraordinary behavior to special processes. Thus, hypnotic states come in from the back door as a cipher for special processes that we cannot yet grasp.

So, the invocation of a hypnotic state, like a miracle that saves the equation, allows one to still make predictions, if you accept of course poor predictions. But because it denotes no demonstrable neurological processes, as an explanation it is impossible. Indeed, no neural state has ever been identified that can account for the extraordinary capabilities of people when confronted with information that is phrased just right. Nor is one needed, since the problem, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is not in the stars, but in ourselves, or more concisely,  in the very way we perceive our worlds.

To our common sense time and motion are absolute, fixed things. However, as Einstein demonstrated, this reality is an illusion, since physical constants vary depending upon what observer you measure them against. Thus a car may be moving relative to the perspective of one observer, but is immobile relative to another driver keeping pace. But relative things encompass not just the physical, but the behavioral, as goodness and evil, the extraordinary and mundane are dependent upon your experience and knowledge. The authority of a hypnotist may have an individual run a gauntlet of fire, act foolishly or immorally, and be none the concerned because of it. Yet similar behavior can be similarly produced by authority figures given credence by government or religion, and we likewise would be unconcerned with facts of our behavior that we would otherwise have found repugnant, embarassing, or morally wrong. As authority perceived moves from the implicit and nonconscious (the hypnotist) to the explicit and conscious (a commanding officer, religious leader), behavior itself moves from the remarkable to the commonplace, and the causes of behavior from the special to the mundane. Thus, an individual is hypnotised when indifferent to fear or pain if he runs a gauntlet of fire, but is merely heroic if that same gauntlet is a beach in Normandy in 1944. Remarkable behaviors engender remarkable causes, and just as heroism is not a 'thing'  that requires a special mental process or module, neither are hypnotic events that are essentially as remarkable.

Were these men hypnotized?

When one does not look too closely at behavior, mental processes can multiply like rabbits, an one is forced to confront a verbal zoo of inferred processes from hypnosis to intrinsic motivation to 'flow' that upon closer inspection actually emerge from simpler, more rudimentary events that engage brain and body. The popular acceptance of such simple (and often simpleminded) reasons for behavior don't require much thought, but if we do perchance think about them, our first instinct is to keep hypnotists and psychologists employed, who obligingly sustain our trance of ignorance that ironically needs no special name. Or perhaps, we can use the congealed pudding like stuff between our ears, and think. 

Idiot Savant

Idiot Savant: An individual who exclusively focuses on the mastery of one aspect of performance (doing math, playing the piano) to the exclusion of all other skills, both technical and interpersonal. Known in less severe cases as nerd savants, idiot savants are to be distinguished from those folks who focus on all aspects of performance and are masters of none, but think they are savants in one way or another. They are known as 'that bunch of idiots' or more formally as religious fundamentalists or Republicans. (from Dr. Mezmer's Dictionary of Bad Psychology)

Isaac Newton: Idiot Genius?

As an individual who has a decidedly more than passing interest in psychology, my penchant for thinking about it all the time does call into question my ability to act and think about other important things, such as taking out the garbage.  So regardless of whether my musings on the topic merit a Nobel or booby prize, my wife will think that as a man about the house, I am a total idiot. Which brings me to man's special genius and perhaps handicap, namely his ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of almost everything else, and to do so forever. Isaac Newton was so accursed, and attributed his development of the calculus and the laws of gravity to simply thinking about it, constantly.  Of course, he also thought constantly about the alchemical disciplines that aimed to discover how transmute lead into gold, and it is here that posterity has judged him not as a savant, but as a total idiot. 

When we constantly think about any topic, we will master that topic, and amaze our friends with our intellectual acumen, if of course they care to listen. Mozart, Newton, and Einstein did this to popular and intellectual acclaim, but unfortunately male obsessions are a bit more mundane. So what do us guys have in mind for the future monomaniacal edification of the world? Usually it has something to do with recounting baseball statistics, reaching the fiftieth level in Dungeons and Dragons, or recalling all the episodes of Star Trek. Of course, we keep this special genius secret, partly because of modesty, but mainly because no one cares.  Which brings us of course to real idiot savants, which is an unfortunate and pejorative name to give to those individuals who through a quirk of nature are neurologically attuned to focus on inconsequential acts that in their perfect execution become quite extraordinary. Whether it be the ability to perform unerring mental calculation, play the piano by ear and with note worthy perfection, or just remember what one had for breakfast for all the days they have lived, idiot savants are too relentless in their quest for a single minded perfection. In fact, by being single minded, they have no mind for anything else, hence the unfortunate term idiot.

The curse of genius and madness is that both are single minded things.  Whether it is displayed in obsessive compulsiveness, addiction, or autism, to call it good or bad, creative or merely stupid depends ultimately upon the acclaim of others. It does make sanity a relative thing, and renders our judgment on the poor souls who think a bit too straight to remember their manners or when to take out the garbage to be, well, the mere opinion of an idiot. 

Branding in Psychology

Some years back, a bunch of guys got together one evening and stomped out a pattern in a wheat field using nothing more than some string (for measuring) and a few pieces of board (to press down all that wheat). From the air, the design looked otherworldly, and it thus became notorious and interesting because of all those otherworldly explanations (space aliens, psychic forces) that could account for it. No one paid much attention to the fact that a bunch of guys could do this with only a few  impromptu hand tools. Rather, the space aliens got all the press, and continued to get the press even when the guys confessed to their prank. It goes to show that common sense is not where the hype and money is, since after all sensible thinking is free and easy to all. 

The point is that although people could easily have created crop circles, a bunch of space aliens could also have created crop circles. So unless those circles left a mark (e.g. a cotton tag saying 'Kilroy was here') that couldn't have been the work of Mork from the Planet Ork, the crop circle argument would revolve endlessly on the unlikely (to say the least) possibilities that it wasn't due to a group of guys  out on a lark.

Who, me?

The reason of course is simple. Occam's razor, which accepts the simplest (albeit not simpleminded) solution as invariably the right one,  doesn't hold if you have razor blades to sell. Thus, although a human cause is the most likely cause by far, common sense and common causes are not quite marketable things. If you are an academic type trying to make a name for yourself, space aliens are a better route to attention, funding, publication, and most importantly, tenure!

When we turn from bad science to bad social science, we find as well that bad psychology more often than not does not take the obvious explanation but rather the complicated one. Moreover, even if you can vouch for the obvious facts of behavior through simple prose or replicate them with simple procedures, you're still going to find some nay sayer who adduces it all to obscure psychic, neural, or other mentalistic forces, and will ignore your objections to boot. But even if the facts were plain and evident to all, it can still be bramded with a special name, and made to seem important and new.

In advertising terms, marketers have a word for it: 'branding'. Branding is why you buy Bayer aspirin, Perrier spring water, and Exxon gas, even though you know the generic equivalents are just as good. Branding is also why you listen to stock  market analysts and self-help gurus, even though you know that the advice you get is no better than what you can get from  a dartboard or your mother, and for that matter for free.

Branding is all over the place in psychology, and the true crime is that psychologists are loath to admit it. At least you can look on the label of ingredients or read  Consumer Reports to know if  you're being conned. Take psychotherapy for instance. Repeated studies have again and again demonstrated  that a talking cure for the common problems of living is no more effective than the advice you can get from a relative or a trusted friend. Nonetheless, the myth is still propogated that psychologists possess some arcane wisdom that others don't that can guide us through the travails of life.

Other examples include the postulation of unique mental states from intrinsic motivation to 'flow' that have a separate detached existence in the human psyche, like some sort of ghost in the machine. This  'mysterian' trend in psychology exalts in the mystery of human behavior, and finds profit in making as much of it as mysterious as possible. Since we busy folk don't have the time or inclination to investigate these mysterious forces to make sure they're true or not  (Scott Adams of 'Dilbert' fame  had a word for those folks of easy intellectual virtue: induhviduals), we believe and buy into the glossy and ubiquitously marketed concepts that make common sense into something special, unique, and copyrighted!

So what's a poor consumer to do? Sadly, mysterian psychological states have no FDA label, no warranty expressed or implied, and most importantly, no real explanation that is based on real, tangible, and observable neural events that make them be.  Brewing up concepts (meditative consciousness, flowing state, intrinsic award) that are untethered to real neurological states, mysterian psychologists get away with it through an intellectual sleight of hand that substitutes metaphor for reality. But there is hope. In the case of biology, in spite of branding and good word of mouth, patent medicine, faith healing, bloodletting, and assorted medical quackery lost their market when common folk grasped the simple metaphors that describe how bodies work. In contrast to biological reality, psychological reality is a brain 'in action' that up to now has resisted the easy metaphors that have rendered complex concepts such as disease and infection so easy to grasp. With the rapid advance of neuroscience, new metaphors are arising that describe how brains work, and thus the same revolution will happen, and many psychological concepts in vogue today will be tossed out into the intellectual junk heap.  But even then of course, for crop circles, psychotherapy, or even disease, knowing the true explanation will never extinguish the romance of space aliens and alien psychological forces, and the public need for those charlatans who will tell us about them, for a  fee. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Procrastination and the spell of danger

Procrastination: the abiding problem of getting things done in time or at all, which will soon be cured by our leading psychologists as soon as they get around to it.

When we go to the movies, it’s often in the nick of time before the feature starts. And when the feature does start, we take pleasure and excitement in watching folks do things once again in the nick of time. Consider the proverbial time bomb. It is a metaphor for plot lines like getting the girl, solving the crime, averting the fire, saving the planet, and of course defusing the bomb when there is literally no time to spare. Miss the deadline and there will be a proverbial or actual explosion that will render the hero and all the good things he stands for into a pile of dust. That’s what makes drama so dramatic, the fact that the outcome is always uncertain until a resolution comes in the nick of time. Identifying with our hero in the cinema means putting ourselves in his place, and this cinematic empathy can drive us to tears, horror, disgust, or delight, but underscoring it all is a need for our undivided attention. The easiest way to do that is to literally wait until the last minute, or preferably, the last second. But that of course is courting danger, and danger is something that we presumably are instinctively geared to avoid or flee through the intervention of a ‘hard wired’ stress response, with the result that danger would be something we would continually want to avoid. But we don’t, and that’s the rub. The fact that we wait until the last minute to get things done means that we are actively putting ourselves into stressful or near stressful situations that we by all accounts should wish to avoid, but how can this be? Like a moth to the flame we are at once attracted and repelled by danger, but the problem and irony is that we couldn’t be motivated to do things otherwise. Danger increases risk, and risk embodies the prospect of uncertainty, and it is precisely this fact that makes us attentively aroused and more attuned to the task at hand. But with it, we are also incented to stay the course of being uncertain. That is the property of the neuro-modulator dopamine, which primes us to be alert and imparts incentive value to moment to moment behavior.  But because dopamine only increases the value of momentary behavior, it can act at cross purposes to our long term interests. Hence we often procrastinate to be attentive, a state of mind that is dependent upon the uncertainty of the moment but ignorant of the long term prospects of behavior irrespective of their danger.

Motivation is da bomb!

But what is procrastination?  Simple definitions of procrastination mean to postpone activities until another time. Of course, that by definition covers everything you postpone, whether it’s logical or not. So if to order our daily schedule means to do one thing in deference or postponement of another, that means that our whole life is spend procrastinating, which is absurd.  A better definition is provided by the Oxford Dictionary, which holds that “Procrastination is a postponement, often with the sense of deferring though indecision, when early action would have been preferable," or as "deferring action, especially without good reason." [i]  The concept that procrastination is an inherently unreasonable thing has been echoed by many pundits who concur that procrastination is the irrational delay of behavior.

At root however this definition is nonsense, for even irrational behavior must have a reason to be. It’s only when behavior doesn’t fit our prized model that we curse the agent rather than the explanation, but the faulty explanation always loses. Consider the behavior of the solar system. The fact that it didn’t conform to the model that put the earth in the center of the universe didn’t make the planetary motions irrational, and even faulting God for bad design principles couldn’t escape from the fact that the world worked in mysterious but not irrational ways. As creatures who embody the natural world, the conclusion is the same. Humans act in mysterious but not quite irrational ways, and behavior must serve reasons both obvious and subtle, as there is nothing nutty under the sun. The point therefore is not to decry the unreasonableness of procrastination, but investigating why for us common folks procrastination is often not an unreasonable but a necessary and rational thing.

Consider the fact that we don’t work when we are sleepy, hungry,  or are under the sun,  and generally wait until a time when we are rested, sated, or in the cool of the evening. We do this because at a later time we can work faster, more comfortably, and with more alertness and attention to our job. In these cases, ‘procrastination’ is rather a justifiable delay. Procrastination can also be a reasonable thing if we consciously or non-consciously postpone an action in order to inject an element of risk into behavior. Since risk increases dopamine release that corresponds with positive affect and attentive alertness, procrastination can actually increase the effectiveness of behavior. In other words, procrastination is a reasonable thing if it represents the non conscious manipulation of affect to increase effectiveness, whereas procrastination due to distraction or fear (e.g. postponing a trip to the dentist) simply reduces effectiveness. Doing things effectively means doing things affectively, and that often means acting just in time. Ultimately, the non-reasonableness of behavior is an aspect of everything we do because motivation requires activation, and this means affect. In other words, to be effective we must be affective, and affect never falls within ‘good reason’ unless there is good reason to manipulate affect. Ultimately, procrastination implies irrationality, but irrationality occurs when we ignore reasonable causes, and when affect is left out of the picture of human behavior we are left confused and needful of a title to describe how timeliness of behavior cannot be predicted by the reasonableness of behavior. Thus procrastination is not an artifact of behavior, but of our ignorance of how motivation works.

[i] Oxford English Reference Dictionary, 1996