Archive for the ‘consciousness/psychology’ Category


September 2, 2012

   The above is one installation in an exhibition by Austrian Stefan Sagmeister that just ended at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Comprised of video, print, sculpture, interactive installations, and graphics, the show was an exploration of happiness.  It was entitled, appropriately, The Happy Show.

There was lots of fun and provocation.  This bit citing psychologist Haidt is one of my favorites.  If you’ve read much of my stream of BS leading up to this you’ll likely guess that I totally buy the metaphor of elephant and rider.

And that sitting here in a very lonesome shack by the sea without electricity or running water watching waves and whales and gulls and seals, the pachyderm and its obsessive passenger have had meaningful and productive intereaction.  Matter of fact we’ve gotta go pump water before it gets dark.  More later.

*In case your resolution isn’t fine enough:

“Research psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the mind as a small rider, the conscious. Sitting on a giant elephant, the unconscious.  The rider thinks he is in charge and can tell the elephant where to go but the elephant has his own ideas.  The rider cannot force   the elephant into a direction but can train him slowly over time.  When the rider and the elephant work as a team – when the conscious and unconscious are close – I’m going to be rich.”


Invisible Driving Force

May 4, 2012


  Years ago on kids’ first trip to the beach I noticed that the shells in which they found great interest were not whole or colorful, but in fact the most sun bleached pieces – especially those with some intricacy.  Furthermore, that observation reminded me that I’d been the same and even had some ‘originals’ in a dusty collection at my folks’ house.

  It was the shape, not the color.

  Thus it was interesting for me to read in the Science Times section of the 5/1/12 NYT that “Babies are born Euclideans” and that they “use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space”.  And not color.  Isn’t that interesting given all of the information provided by our eyes?

  The article was about a researcher at Harvard – Elizabeth Spelke – investigating the innate characteristics of our brains by means of  close observation of infants.  “…Identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet.”

  Very young babies would notice if the room in which they were was triangular or rectangular in plan.  They’d remember whether an object had been by a short or long wall.  Much to the surprise to Prof Spelke it was not until the age of five or six that color provided much help in infant navigation.

  Made me think.  First, that the ability to discern even light and dark let alone how to read a map came long after, well, the ability to swim in the primordial soup.  And that even earlier all that stuff moved (moves!) through the cosmos just fine without even being alive.

  The design of our universe is all math.  It is incredible to realize, in the words of architect and theorist Anne Tyng, how completely “we inhabit geometry”.  She showed that “the building blocks of nature are demonstrated as geometry in pure motion”* and that the “power of geometry is the invisible driving force in natural forms”**. 

  Too bad I have to take off my shoes and socks to get past ten…

* ** The comments were from the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition of the work of Ms Tyng. The first was from an essay by Jenny Sabin: “Geometry in Transformation – Computing Mind and Matter”.  The second from the essay “Dynamic Symmetries” by Alicia Imperiale.

Eye of the Beholder

April 27, 2012


  OK, what do the picture above, The Investiture of St Ildefonso by Nicholas Rodriguez Juarez and the one below, Sultry Night by Grant Wood have in common?  Give up?  Well it’s the tormented sexuality of certain viewers of those works.  Huh?

  Top one first.  You see it as Sr. Juarez painted it more or less.  Sometime thereafter however it was on its way to a perch on the wall of a convent when head abbess perhaps, but I’ll wager a priest, decided that an image of a man in that milieu would serve naught but untoward arousal.

  The painting was thus altered so that he became a she.  When it arrived at a new home some centuries later it was sent to a conservation lab for inspection and cleaning.  X-rays showed that what appeared to be a kneeling nun was actually a man saint in drag.  Drag was undone and voila.

  Sultry story even funnier.  Looks weirdly lopsided, right?  Well, didn’t start out that way.  Look at Wood’s lithograph of the same scene below and you’ll see what I mean.  An attempt to send the original (whole) painting to a show via the USPS was blocked by a repressed postal inspector and so Wood excised the self-showering farmer.

  The resultant state of the painting is somehow perfectly obtuse and, with knowledge of the back story, homeopathically conveys a sense of the zeitgeist far more subtly than did, say, the film American Beauty much more recently…

cf post 8/21/09

Life Shrinks or Expands in Proportion to One’s Courage -Anais Nin

March 18, 2012

Or, uh, be careful what you wish for.  As I mentioned a few weeks back, this chicken is about to cross the road and wonders what’s on the other side – free range or a barbecue.   Miss Nin’s comment came to mind at this juncture because I heard her speak at a previous flex point – college commencement so many years ago.  Nearly forty now.

I had no clue why she was deserved of an honorary degree.  What’s so great about sleeping around?  And why would you want to write about it?  Interesting to me now is that the realization that I then had far less knowledge of what was going on inside my head than did she.

All those voices!  Id, ego, anima, shadow et al; Mom, Dad; and cultural stereotypes roared up a cacophony while my own only piped up a few notes now and then – most notably in the throes of  life’s more beautiful duties.  Cannot but take a while though I guess, for experience and effort to begin create a melody out of all that noise.

It’s quiet at first, but soon enough clarity increases and then the dynamics ensue.  As it becomes more crisp and apparent you can either begin to not worry about scorn or embarrassment and try to hum along or else at your peril drown it out with some sort of overindulgence.  It won’t go away.  In other words: “the requirement [is] that a man, whatever his age or station, pull out of his reflexive behaviors and attitudes, radically reexamine his life and risk living out the thunderous imperatives of his soul”.

Further, “The terror he may feel on the high seas of life is understandable, but in relinquishing the imperative to sail on, in giving over to an ideology or to dependency on someone else, he loses  his manhood.  It is time to come clean, acknowledge the fear, but live the journey.”*

Gulp.  We shall see what we shall see.

*James Hollis, What Matters Most

Final Answer

February 17, 2012

  In the Science Tuesday section of the 2/14/12 NYT was an interesting article about novelty seekers*.  Heretofore a positive answer to questions like “Are you easily bored – do you thrive in conditions that seem chaotic” were linked to problems like attention deficit disorder, alcoholism, and worse.

  New research suggests that “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age… is a crucial predictor of well being… can lead to antisocial behavior, but if you combine this adventurousness and curiosity with persistence and a sense that it’s not all about you, then you get the kind of creativity that benefits society as a whole…”

  They call it “neophilia” and describe its role in the evolutionary success of our forebears.  We’d never have left the shade much less Olduvai had we not, at least some of us, a healthy dose of curiosity.  And novelty-seeking combined with two other traits (persistence and self-transcendance) turns out to be “a crucial combination… in people who flourished over the years… [and have the] greatest satisfaction with life”.

  There was an online quiz accompanying this article and I figured I might as well take it.  Tone was set with question #1.  I wanted to answer no to “Do you ever speed” but unfortunately I’d won a $168.00 speeding ticket earlier in the day.  Suffice it to say that the final results indicate that I ought to live forever and be quite happy**.

  Such knowledge couldn’t come at a better time since, after thirty-five years at the same job (no sick days) it is now time for plan B and my roommate and I are excited.  In case she reads this and takes the quiz though I must hasten to add that I didn’t get a ‘perfect’ score.  To the question: “Away at a convention a gorgeous married colleague from another city suggests a rendezvous, you…” 

  I checked C “You feel insulted”.  Final answer.

*”What’s New? A Penchant For Novelty Has Benefits” by John Tierney

**”You tend to enthusiastically approach the new and different as potentially rewarding and downplay any risks involved.  You may live too fast and die too young, but you also explore, experiment and otherwise push the envelope for the rest of us, often in productive ways.  You’re innovative, adventurous, and extravagant but also apt to be impulsive, irritable, and overindulgent regarding food, alcohol, drugs, and other temptations.”

Live Your Life

December 30, 2011


   Clearly and obviously I am among the more dazed and confused.  Can’t stay on topic.  Short attention span.  Where some, most it seems, see the path before them plain as day – even if it be one requisite of adroit maneuver – I usually can’t see my own fingers if arm’s at full extension.

  Sometimes there’s something going on in my head that causes not a little distress.  Though I’ve had florid (sober) hallucinations, I’ve have never heard voices and never lost a reality test (at least not one of which I was aware), but I have indeed felt the weighty presence of an uninvited emotional tone.

  Makes me think of a couple of things.  First the Russell Crowe/John Nash character in A Beautiful Mind.  Like I said, I don’t have manifest imaginary friends but do occasionally have stuff I sometimes successfully banish to the periphery.  A dismal succession of future events more often than a winning lottery ticket.

  Secondly Julian Jaynes.  I’ve previously mentioned his incredible book Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  The chief premise is that human preconsciousness was characterized by auditory hallucinations – voices -“gods”.  Of which such things occurring here and now are vestigial traces.  From barely discernable rumblings all the way to schizophrenia.  Hmmm.

  Maurice Sendak. Listening to an interview with him yesterday on that wonderful NPR “Fresh Air” program I heard him tell Terri Gross:  “…which is what the creative act is all about.  Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean… when I was younger I was afraid of something that didn’t make a lot of sense… [but now I know that]  There’s nothing to worry about.”

  Maybe there’s hope.  I do indeed agree that it can help to write shit down.

GROSS: Well, I’m really glad we got the chance to speak because when I heard you had a book coming out I thought what a good excuse to call up Maurice Sendak and have a chat

SENDAK: Yes, that’s what we always do, isn’t it?

GROSS: Yeah, it is

SENDAK: Thank God we’re still around to do it.


SENDAK: (Who’s 83) And almost certainly, I’ll go before you go, so I won’t have to miss you.

GROSS: Oh, God what a…

SENDAK:  …It doesn’t matter.  I’m a happy old man. 

GROSS: I wish you all good things

SENDAK: And I wish you all good things… Live your life, live your life, live your life.

  That’s going to be my New Year’s Resolution.

*If you haven’t ever listened to “Fresh Air” you are doing yourself a great disservice.  Go to the website and listen to the podcast of this interview.  It was played yesterday as an encore from September because it was the most commented upon interview of the 2011.

I Need The Eggs

December 9, 2011


  Interestingly, in his new book Who’s In Charge* cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga wrote: “…we are people, not brains” by which he means that, uh, the whole is more than the sum of the parts.  That though an emergent property of the bit of grey matter up top, a meeting of minds can not be understood as can, say, theIndianapolis 500 by the mechanics of an internal combustion engine.

  He holds that: “analyzing single brains in isolation cannot illuminate the capacity of responsibility”.  Rather, it is “an interaction between people – a social contract”.  One, crucially, able to be honored or broken.  And it’s irreducible.  A solitary test lap would be meaningless.

  Makes me think of the Buddhist imperative to “forget the self”, because there’s not one really there to begin with.  It’s (they say) a construct assembled by the brain from inputs internal and external to aid us in navigation through a daily routine.  If some combination of influences doesn’t make you feel trustworthy or un-, you will have no ability to feel either.

  Perhaps the example of feral children can provide a useful, if horrific, example. Romulusand Remus aside, there have indeed been cases of infants and children who survived early extreme neglect, sometimes actually with the nurturance of wild animals.  If protracted, a child’s mental and psychological development ends at a prehensile stage.

  Beyond hope and possibility of resurrection.  Should a one not be exposed to language – in any form – by puberty, the potential for later acquisition would have thus been rendered forever lost.  But, with luck and the agency of a “Good Enough Parent”**, a child grows to become part of a rich network with myriad relationships – some inchoate and fleeting some deep and long.

  Of the latter sort, I like the way Woody Allen put it in his film Annie Hall.   “I-I thought of that old joke, you know, this, this, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy.  He thinks he’s a chicken.’  And uh, the doctor says ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’  And the guy says ‘I would but I need the eggs’.  Well, I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships.  You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd and…but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us need the eggs.”

  I do.

*I read about this book in a review by Raymond Tallis in the 11/12-13 WSJ. Gazzaninga first gained prominence in the 50’s when he pioneered split brain research.  That is, brains in which the tissue connecting the halves – the corpus callosum – had been severed.  This lead to the knowledge of hemispherical specialization.  Interesting to note that the corpus callosum is more substantial in females.  I wonder what the ramifications of that are…

**I’ve heard this phrase a lot, but it’s capitalized in reference to the eponymous great book by Bruno Bettleheim.

***Perhaps the eggs come frequently to mind because Annie Hall came out – and won the Oscar – in 1977. The year I got my roommate.   

Wonder When The All Clear Will Come

November 25, 2011

Though it is not exactly the story he tells, in his new book The Bear History of a Fallen King, French cultural historian Michel Pastoureau shows how the coming of consciousness gave its bearers power which descendents have yet even now to effectively tame.

In prehistoric times bears were feared, perhaps deified as a result, and thus immortalized on cave walls.  Common in Europe they were more than a match for dimwitted pre-humans.  Once the light went on however, so was the hunt and the rest, well, history.

By the time of Charlemagne in the late eighth century it was mere sport.  He led forays that were responsible for incredible ursine carnage – thousands upon thousands.  By the 1200 sightings in the wild had become rare.  Bears did however make trifling appearances in zoos, circuses, and traveling minstrel shows.  They’re there now nearly extinct.

Reminds me of a roundtable discussion amongst nuclear weapon developers on NPR a decade or so ago.  Moderator asked about what had led to a particular cold war multiple level of magnitude increase in throw-weight.  Answer?  “It was a sweet technological problem.  Hee, hee, hee.”

Fortunately, we also are thus far this side of extinction.  But cf the ongoing decimation of species, climate change, and pressure of well armed hungry thirsty populations, the all clear is not yet out.

Funny thing though is that, with luck, the significant expansion of North American breeding bear populations might be an indicator of a new coming to conscience.  They are messy, destructive, and sometimes violent and deadly.  Yet, “The people [in their range] look at these bears as members of the community”.*

If a friend was killed or your kitchen destroyed by Yogi or Boo Boo the incident would not be something of which to make light.  However, yesterday was Thanksgiving and maybe we should look with favor upon the fact that these days the response to an initial minor incursion might not be to whack.  That there’s maybe an incipient wonder about the cosmic distribution of sentience and consciousness.

*WSJ; 11/21/11; As Bears Multiply, Human Clashes Rise.

**Photo on top of Cro-Magnon painting in Chauvet cave from Smithsonian 12/10

Don’t Light A Match

September 30, 2011


  Well, news from CERN has it that there are particles moving faster than the speed of light.  Sounds like a big deal given E=MC2 and all of that.  However, reading through the blogs, it seems that Einstein’s theory already allowed for neutrinos of the “Tachyonic” sort to exist always at faster than light. 

  Dang complicated though and they’d not theretofore been detected. Guess we’ll have to wait for review of the evidence to see what, if anything, new was discovered.  But don’t you wonder where this stuff comes from in the first place though?  Scientific insights I mean? Here’s what erstwhile Princeton Psych Prof Julian Jaynes had to say about it:

  “The picture of a scientist sitting down with his problems and using conscious induction and deductions is as mythical as the unicorn.  The greatest insights of mankind have come more mysteriously.  The literature is full of insights which have simply come from nowhere.*”  Said Einstein of his theory: “Suddenly the happiest thought of my life came to me”.  And “Why is it that I get my best ideas in the morning while I’m shaving?”

  Insights come when you stop thinking about the problem.  For example, years ago friends and I were encamped upon a glacier dreaming of first ascents up in the Interior Ranges of BC.  A storm set in and held us down for days.  One member of our party never left his tent and became more morose by the day.  Seriously depressed after several. 

  “We’re gonna die” he’d wail from inside his tent.  The situation wasn’t pleasant, but wasn’t that serious either.  Finally I decided to stick my head in and try to assuage his fears only to be nearly overcome with horrible odor of freeze-dried frijoles begotten methane.

  “Hey man” I said to him in recoil, “get the hell out of there and breathe some fresh air before you get really sick.  You got something muy bad goin’ on in there.  Don’t light a match.  Seriously.”  He moaned a bit, I persisted, and soon he emerged. 

   Five minutes later he was smiling.  Storm hadn’t broken, but his head was clear and he offered a few suggestions for elegant new routes of which no one had yet thought and which ended up years later with multiple stars in a guidebook.  Same here.  My best ideas always come  shazam while breathing outside air.

*From his Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – to which I’ve previously and frequently referred.

**Gotta be honest.  I came up with some of this while perusing two books that’ll I’ll shortly wrap and give as birthday gifts:

The Courage to Create by Rollo May and Confronting the Quantum Enigma by David J. Kreiter.  And dang if, since I just bought them yesterday, I’m not going to have to go out and buy again for myself.

Think With Your Hands

September 9, 2011


  OK, the other day I was near a bookstore in its final death throes, having been killed by the internet, Amazon, et al.  Sign said “80% off” so I decided to go in and see if there was anything interesting left.  There was!  Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations – Images and Quantities, Evidence, and Narrative. 

  The Boston Globe calls the book “A Visual Strunk and White”.  The New York Times calls Tufte: “The Leonardo of Data”.  No understatements.  With wit, verve, and beauty the author convincingly shows how good design matters.

  One of many cases in point.  We learn that it was poor design that allowed the Space Shuttle Challenger to explode, and I’m not referring to the engineering of the Shuttle or its launch vehicle themselves, but rather that of charts engineers used the day before the launch in an unsuccessful attempt to convince NASA that an explosion was likely.

  The physical problem was that the cold temperatures predicted for launch date would attenuate the resilience of critical rubber o-rings allowing propellant to escape and conflagrate.  The chart below is but one of several holding data describing the danger.  Of their many faults Tufte cites inadvertent visual dissembling: “Chartjunk”. In contrast “Good design brings absolute attention to data”.

  Then he recounts the famous experiment undertaken by the Nobel Prizewinning Physicist Richard Feynman in front of the commission investigating the accident.  Using a small c-clamp he’d brought with him, he squeezed an o-ring and put it in a glass of ice water for a few moments.

  As he removed and released the bit of rubber, it became immediately apparent that the cold kept it from springing back.  “I believe that has some significance for our problem”.  The utter clarity of his presentation and his deadpan understatement blew the minds of the masses who saw it on TV or read about it in the printed press.

  “Never have so many viewed a single physics experiment.  As Freeman Dyson rhapsodized:  “The public saw with their own eyes how science is done, how a great scientist thinks with his hands, how nature gives a clear answer when a scientist asks her a clear question.”

  So, now, my questions are first: Without shelves loaded with books in a store through which to meander, how will one be able to occasion such moments of serendipitous edification?  Seriously.  And more important (again) what will the internet do to the potential for the development of great minds that “think with their hands”? 

  Here’s a response to question #2.  Reformed nerd Nick Carr has written a Pulitzer nominated book, The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and penned an article for The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making us Stupid?”  Slate called his work “Silent Spring for the literary mind”.        

  Carr believes that “…there’s legitimate reason to be fearful.  I’m just suggesting that data technology is becoming so dominant that we’re losing the opportunity and the encouragement to engage in what I think is the highest form of thought.”*

  I’m gonna get some sort of grip exerciser. 

*”The Reluctant Luddite.  Nicholas Carr is a Net user of the first order, but he believes his brain is paying for it.”  Article by Dirk Olin in the Sept/Oct ’11 Dartmouth Alumni Review.