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.