Sunday, December 20, 2009

Looking for Help with Burr Removal?

The words of some men are thrown forcibly against you and adhere like burrs.
-Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and author (1817-1862)

When we reach a certain age (different for each of us, but usually in the early 20s) we feel pretty sure that we make up our own "minds" about what we think and believe. Thoreau thought differently (as he did about many things) and contends that our verbal skin provides a good surface for the prickly words of others. We bristle with these words without realizing, in many cases, where we picked them up. They just "seem right" and we defend them as our own even when presented with plausible evidence that we have picked up somebody else's questionable cockle burr instead of the wise fruit of experience plucked by our own hands.

Wendell Johnson encouraged us to ask two questions about beliefs: What do you mean? and How do you Know? While these can prove quite useful in conversation, we can also benefit from asking ourselves the same questions. If we have trouble explaining what we mean, or showing how we know, we might suspect the presence of a cockle burr. With that awareness we also acquire the ability to evaluate the belief and decide, deliberately, whether we want to keep believing or brush the burr from our "mental" clothes.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Change Happens

All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone, you leave it to a torrent of change.
- G. K. Chesterton, English essayist, novelist, and poet, 1874-1936


Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.

-H.L. Mencken, writer, editor, and critic (1880-1956)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Science Discovers the Organism-as-a-Whole-in-its-Environment!

A recent study reported by Jeanna Bryner at Live Science feels a little less ground-breaking to me that it probably does to a lot of people. The study found that a physical puff of air directed at blind-folded listeners would affect their perception of a sound played simultaneously. The sound "ba", which we say without releasing a puff, was more often heard as "pa", which does involve a puff, when the listeners felt a puff somewhere else on their bodies.

The research observes that "we have brains that perceive rather than ... eyes that see and ears that hear" and views humans as "whole-body perceiving machines."

To those who have studied general semantics, this comes as no surprise. We learn about reacting as an "organism-as-a-whole-in-its-environment", which clearly implies interactions between the organism and its environment at many levels.

The study does help to substantiate the importance of experience in shaping the brain to uniquely perceive and understand the environment we humans find ourselves in most often. As the article's author notes, "we see and hear people speaking all the time ... so it'd be only natural to learn how to integrate what we see with what we hear."

Only natural, perhaps, but not so obvious.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Here's Something About General Semantics

A new e-book, titled "Here's Something About General Semantics", recently hit the web and I'd say that the author has the requisite gs teaching experience to back up his abstractions. Steve Stockdale has studied gs since 1979, and has taught the subject extensively, both in his position as trustee and later as Executive Director of the Institute of General Semantics, and as an adjunct professor in the Schieffer School of Journalism at TCU.

Steve has compiled a readable and reasonable introduction to the basics of general semantics, derived from his extensive reading and study of the subject. He includes extensive video clips and well-organized teaching materials, as well as articles he published in ETC, as well as local and national news outlets.

The book reflects his penchant for well organized information, and admirably conveys his conviction that learning Something about General Semantics can help anybody reduce their misperceptions and mistakes and increase their communication skills. I agree with that conviction, and I find Stockdale's book the best introduction to gs I've come across.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"Redefining" a Word - Whose Job is it?

On Nov 3, 2009, the voters of Maine passed a referendum repealing that state's gay-marriage law, passed by legislature several months earlier. This story on the ABC News website offered some very interesting (and probably somewhat unevaluated) comments on the language of the debate:

Ellen Sanford McDaniel, 35, of Fairfield, Maine, said she's relieved the referendum passed, rejecting gay marriage. "I don't feel anybody has the right to redefine marriage," she said....

But gay marriage supporters, like Carole Cheeseman Russo, 65, of Carmel, Maine, says, "...I just don't think anyone has the right to tell someone who they're allowed to love or who their allowed to marry."
From a gs viewpoint, I find it both telling and amusing that while these two women hold apparently diametric views on the gay-marriage issue, they agree, in effect, that "no one should be able to define (or redefine) 'marriage'".

If we can't tell ourselves what words mean, who can? On one side, who defined it in the first place? Only humans have language, and only humans decide what 'thing' a word refers to. On the other side, who tells us what we can and cannot do, if not the society in which we live--ie, us? We may not agree with the majority vote on a given subject, but realistically, we buy into the majority rule when we buy into the society. Yes, we can work to change that rule if we don't like it, and I presume both sides will continue to work this issue until people lose interest for some reason.

But I contend that both sides will do well to consider the underlying issue of how we make meaning and how those meanings rule our social contract.

Yes, we CAN redefine marriage, or any other detail of how our society works. It happens all the time. For example, back in the early 1900s, we chose, as a society, to redefine "who can vote." If we had not, these two women would not have had any say in yesterday's referendum in the first place.

And yes, what we decide as a society will determine what people "are allowed" to do in that society, whether they like it or not. That's how we protect ourselves from the behavior of others we find dangerous, disruptive or disturbing. If we did not decide on, and enforce, such rules, these two women might have come to blows or found themselves in jail for speaking out.

As usual, this reveals, at least to me, the multiple levels of meaning and meaning-making that goes on in humans. I might suggest this as the "moral" of this story:

Saying something doesn't make it so (we define the meaning of words and one person's meaning may not match another's, and by definition, neither matches WIGO on the event level)
unless we say it together as a society. (we accept the societal meaning of words and implicitly agree to abide by those meanings, unless we choose to try to change the society or the meanings.)

Or so it seems to me.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Evidence of the "cortico-thalamic pause"

A post on the BPS Research Digest blog reports on research concerning facial expression that contends that expressions are BOTH universal and culture-specific. The research shows that the more universal expression appears first, followed a few seconds later by a more culturally-appropriate mask or adjustment:

Matsumoto and his colleagues believe that the initial facial reaction is triggered automatically by subcortical brain structures, before more culturally specific modification is applied by the motor cortex.
From this I think we can say that in those few seconds, the cortex engages and provides a different evaluation that the person-from-a-culture then applies to adjust their emotional reaction.

Matsumoto's research detects the replacement of one automatic reaction with another learned reaction that allows us to fit in with our culture. If we learn to do this simply by growing up in different cultures, can we learn to make deliberate pauses and adjustments that can help us choose our emotional reactions as well? Both gs and REBT say yes, we can. Both disciplines encourage stopping to think before reacting.

Can that alone change how we feel about an event? A report in the New York Times on research concerning the effect of our expressions on our mood suggests that it can.

In terms of this research, we can suggest that a deliberate effort to slow or suspend our initial emotional reaction to the automatic subcortical brain evaluation, followed by the deliberate choice to evaluate the event with the educated cortex rather than the more automatic parts of the brain, can produce more accurate, evidence-based meaning-making.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quote, with gs update

"The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred."
- George Bernard Shaw

While I love this quote and find it very acute and astute, I would probably change that to "A problem with communication...." Despite the pin-point accuracy of Mr. Shaw's observation, I think we have other problems in addition this illusion.

Monday, August 03, 2009

How Language Can Befuddle Us

New York Times cartoonist Tim Kreider laments the difficulties of "finding happiness" in a recent post on his NYT Averted Vision - Happy Days Blog

While I understand the complaint, I don't relate with the evaluation. Language has befuddled us by allowing us to make "happiness" a NOUN, as if a thing, as if "it" "exists" and can be "found". And because we feel happy doing many different, disparate things, the noun "happiness" becomes muddy and complicated--do we "find" "happiness" when we love (another process that we have mistakenly made into a noun) "or" when we work? Does that mean love=work? If we sometimes feel sad when we love someone, have we "lost" "happiness"? What if we see a beautiful painting in an ugly place? Have we "found" "happiness" or "sadness"? How confusing!

Imagine if our language only allowed verbs and adverbs. Then we might "read happily" or "interact happily" or "work happily" but we could not fool ourselves into "seeking" "happiness"--no noun, no thing, just process.

As a thing, "happiness" seems to fill up the whole room and push every"thing" else aside when you "find" it, while its "lack" seems to leaves an unfillable hole. But do you imagine or hope to ever "find" "hunger"? No--you feel a sensation, hungry, at some times and not at others, regardless of what else you happen to be doing.

As a sensation, feeling happy resembles feeling hungry, or relaxed, or sleepy, or focused--all ongoing states that do not exclude other potentially contradictory sensations. In that light, we can start to see that we can feel happy right alongside feeling sad, or frustrated, or fulfilled, or accomplished, or lonely, etc. It's only a nasty trick of language that makes us think we can "find" it, rather than just feeling it here and now, or then and there, or not.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Either-Or Strikes Again

In a report headlined "Is Parenting A Joy Or A Trial?", Science Daily describes an article that appeared in The Psychologist. The article described the results of a study concerning the relative emotional effect of having children. The study found almost no correlation between having children and being happy.

I find two different levels of either-or problem here.

Of course, one level concerns the Science Daily headline: "Is Parenting a Joy or a Trial?" My first answer, both from my experience as a parent and from my GS training: Yes. "Parenting" encompasses a life-time of experience, and to attempt to sum anything like that up into one of two gross categories amounts to gross foolishness, in my view. Most parents can recount a whole panoply of moments, from horrible to fabulous to excruciating to heart-rending to ecstatic, as a result of living with kids. And most non-parents have a similar array of experiences, resulting from different kinds of experiences but similarly emotional.

Of course the study did not reduce their subject to quite to simplistic terms. From the quotes from the researcher, it appears that the study looked at broader, averaging type indicators of "life happiness", and concluded that having children does not necessarily make people happier than those who have not had children.

On the other hand, in a neat bit of "blind sight", the researcher discounts the belief that children make you happy as "focussing illusion"--the idea that you focus on one aspect while overlooking others. Focussing illusions leave us open to disillusionment when "real life" presents those overlooked details in a way we can't avoid. The researcher suggests that we imagine parenthood as wonderful and then become disillusioned by the reality of it.

But it seems to me that some people might very well focus on the negative future possibilities and then become pleasantly surprised by the reality. After all, we know that having kids will cost money and time, but we may no idea how great it can make us feel to see them graduate from college or buy their first house.

As usual, it seems that the either-or approach fails to accurately represent the full spectrum quality of life experience.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A bit about book covers and the brain

By now anyone not buried in sand or on a trek through the Antarctice knows the name Susan Boyle. If you haven't seen the Youtube replay of her performance on Britain's TV show "You've Got Talent", you might want to do so before reading on. Go ahead, I'll wait.....

Okay, back? If you think anything like me, you found the story interesting, inspiring, amusing and a little odd. On the face of it, the whole episode reminds me of my mother's admonition (echoed throughout my life from a jillion other sources) about the pitfalls of judging a book by its cover. Yep, she looks frumpy and yep, she doesn't do a great job of looking collected and alluring up there on the stage. We like our stars handsome and someone who doesn't fit has the temerity to aspire to stardom, we don't just dismiss her, we scorn her. Never mind that few in the audience would come off much better, we frumpy folk are supposed to know our places and not inflict our frumpiness on others, especially not on national TV.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have offered plenty of analysis of course. In this article from the NY Times, several experts note that this categorizing behavior runs very deep in the brain, reaching far back into our evolutionary history. Back then, we benefitted from a quick assessment of the stranger in front of us: are they good or bad, am I safe or in danger, can I eat it or have sex with it, etc. In modern times, we employ the same basic behavior to distinguish far less critical matters, like who's in and who's out, or who we want as leaders and who we can safely ignore.

As with so many other modern cultural co-optations of basic brain circuitry, we do not easily resist this compulsion to stereotype:

Scientists are finding that stereotypes are not simply stored and retrieved by the brain, but “are associated with general regions in the brain involved in memory and goal-planning,” Professor [David] Amodio [an assistant professor of psychology at New York University,] said, suggesting that “people recruit stereotypes to kind of help them plan a world that’s consistent with the goal they might have.”
The article goes on to note the research of Susan Fiske, , a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton,who found that:
The part of the brain that normally activates when you are thinking about people is surprisingly silent when you’re looking at homeless people...It’s kind of a neural dehumanization...But...the neural response is restored when people are asked to focus on what soup the homeless person might like to eat, something that makes one think about the person as someone with wants or goals.

In other words, the more we know about someone, the harder time we have not seeing them as "one of us", a human being.

I think this story tells us a lot more than simply to watch out for the dangers of judging by book cover. It demonstrates a few critical aspects of cognitive accuracy:

One: we get a more useful, accurate result if we base our assessment of someone on as many available facts as possible.

Two: we get more useful results when we recognize that our assumptions may interfere with the accuracy of our assessments.

Three: we get more useful results when we use available feedback to update our assessments when new information becomes available.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Need an Electronic Pause?

Once again, neuroscience seems to have gained a new insight into an aspect of human brains that folks with general semantics experience have known about for some time. You tend to produce a more compassionate response if you wait a few seconds for the higher brain circuits to kick in and add reason to your evaluation. This story from Wired describes research that found that brain circuits involved in the experience of empathy take several seconds to activate. The rest of the story worries, probably with some good justification, that today's instantaneous communication modes, especially social networks like Facebook and Twitter, allow us to respond before we have had a chance to engage in a deeper emotional and rational evaluation.

One sentence in particular gave me pause: Empathy "...might even fail to properly develop in children, whose brains are being formed in ways that will last a lifetime."

The entertainment and communications industry have long denied that consuming their products can "harm" or even seriously affect the brains of viewers and listeners. This suggests otherwise--or at least, it makes it pretty apparent that what we do affects the shape and circuitry of our brains.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

GS in the Media

General semantics doesn't make it big in the entertainment world, despite some interest generated in the 50s and 60s. In Hitchcock's The Birds, Tippi Hedrin tells Rod Taylor she is taking a course in general semantics at Berkeley. In another movie, the name of which eludes me, we catch a fleeting glimpse of a structural differential on the wall of a bedroom.

So imagine my surprise when tonight's episode of Criminal Minds ended with this quote from Stuart Chase:

For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible.

You just never know where these little tendrils go and grow.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

RIOT with emphasis on the Relative

There is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others. -Michel de Montaigne, essayist (1533-1592)

In an era when few people ventured more than 20 miles from their birthplace, Montaigne strongly promoted the idea of travel as a way to see our foundational beliefs as simply one of many ways to look at the world. In the quote above, he reminds us that even our foundational beliefs may not have absolute invariance over time or in different contexts.

My mother would often answer a question by saying "I'm of two minds about that." I took this to mean that she recognized the difference between her and herself. I have found the phrase a useful reminder that even my strongest opinions don't reliably represent my strongest opinions, if you know what I mean.