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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

12 SEPTEMBER, 2012

This Is Water: David Foster Wallace on Life

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Revisiting the tragic literary hero’s only public insights on life.

On September 12, 2008, David Foster Wallace took his own life, becoming a kind of patron-saint of the “tortured genius” myth of creativity. Just three years prior to his suicide, he stepped onto the podium at Kenyon College and delivered one of the most timeless graduation speeches of all time — the only public talk he ever gave on his views of life. The speech, which includes a remark about suicide by firearms that came to be extensively discussed after DFW’s own eventual suicide, was published as a slim book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (public library).

You can hear the original delivery in two parts below, along with the the most poignant passages.

On solipsism and compassion, and the choice to see the other:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted’, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

On the double-edged sword of the intellect, which Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott have spoken to:

It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

On empathy and kindness, echoing Einstein:

[P]lease don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

On false ideals and real freedom, or what Paul Graham has called the trap of prestige:

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

On what “education” really means and the art of being fully awake to the world:

[T]he real value of a real education [has] almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

‘This is water.’

‘This is water.’

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.

In the altogether excellent Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, Tom Bissell writes:

The terrible master eventually defeated David Foster Wallace, which makes it easy to forget that none of the cloudlessly sane and true things he had to say about life in 2005 are any less sane or true today, however tragic the truth now seems. This Is Water does nothing to lessen the pain of Wallace’s defeat. What it does is remind us of his strength and goodness and decency — the parts of him the terrible master could never defeat, and never will.

Complement with the newly released David Foster Wallace biography.

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07 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Why We Cry: The Science of Sobbing and Emotional Tearing

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Why it’s easier to prevent a crying spell than to stop one already underway.

The human body is an extraordinary machine, and our behavior an incessant source of fascination. In Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond (public library), psychology and neuroscience professor Robert R. Provine undertakes an “analysis and celebration of undervalued, informative, and sometimes disreputable human behavior” by applying the lens of anthropologically-inspired, observational “Small Science” — “small because it does not require fancy equipment and a big budget, not because it’s trivial” — to a wealth of clinical research into the biology, physiology, and neuropsychology of our bodily behaviors.

Take, for instance, the science of what we call “crying,” a uniquely human capacity — a grab-bag term that consists of “vocal crying,” or sobbing, and “emotional tearing,” our quiet waterworks. Provine explains:

As an adult, you cry much less than when young, and your crying is more often subdued, teary weeping than the demonstrative, vocal sobbing of childhood. . . [T]he trauma that causes your crying is now more often emotional than physical. However, whether intentional or not, as adult or child, you cry to solicit assistance, whether physical aid or emotional solace. Paradoxically, your adult cry for help is more private than the noisy, promiscuous pronouncement of childhood, often occurring at home, where it finds a select audience. The developmental shift from vocal crying to visual tearing favors the face-to-face encounters of an intimate setting. The maturation of inhibitory control gives adults the ability to select where and when crying occurs, or to inhibit it altogether, options less available to children.

To better illustrate the physiology of crying, Provine contrasts it with that of laughing, pointing out that the two are complementary behaviors and understanding one helps understand the other.

Specialists may argue whether there is a typical cry or laugh, but enough is known about these vocalizations to provide vivid contrasts. A cry is a sustained, voiced utterance, usually of around one second or more (reports vary), the duration of an outward breath. Think of a baby’s ‘waaa.’ . . . Cries repeat at intervals of about one second, roughly the duration of one respiratory cycle . . . A laugh, in contrast, is a chopped (not sustained), usually voiced exhalation, as in ‘ha-ha-ha,’ in which each syllable (‘ha’) lasts about 1/15 second and repeats every 1/5 second.

One curious feature crying and laughing have in common, which any human being with a beating heart can attest to:

Crying and laughing both show strong perseveration, the tendency to maintain a behavior once it has started. These acts don’t have an on-off switch, a trait responsible for some quirks of human behavior. Whether baby or adult, it’s easier to prevent a bout of crying than to stop it once under way. Crying causes more crying. Likewise, laughter causes more laughter, a reason why headliners at comedy clubs want other performers to warm up the audience, and why you may be immobilized by a laughing fit that can’t be quelled by heroic attempts at self-control. In fact, voluntary control has little to do with starting or stopping most crying or laughing.

So, if vocal crying evolved to attract help, what’s the evolutionary purpose of quiet tears? For one, they contain lysozyme, the body’s own antiseptic, which sanitizes and lubricates the eye. But, Provine argues, there might be something much more interesting and neurobiologically profound at work:

Several lines of evidence suggest that the NGF [nerve growth factor] in tears has medicinal functions. The NGF concentration in tears, cornea, and lacrimal glands increases after corneal wounding, suggesting that NGF plays a part in healing. More directly, the topical application of NGF promotes the healing of corneal ulcers and may increase tear production in dry eye . . . Although more of a scientific long shot, I suggest that tears bearing NGF have an anti-depressive effect that may modulate as well as signal mood.

Non-emotional, healing tears may have originally signaled trauma to the eyes, eliciting caregiving by tribe members or inhibiting physical aggression by adversaries. This primal signal may have later evolved through ritualization to become a sign of emotional as well as physical distress. In this evolutionary scenario, the visual and possibly chemical signals of emotional tears may be secondary consequences of lacrimal secretions that originally evolved in the service of ocular maintenance and healing.

If anything, Provine points to this as a direction of curiosity for future research:

Emotional tearing is a uniquely human and relatively modern evolutionary innovation that may have left fresh biological tracks of its genesis. The contrast of the human lacrimal system with that of our tearless primate relatives may reveal a path to emotional tearfulness that involves NGF. NGF may be both a healing agent found in tears and a neurotrophin that plays a central role in shaping the neurologic circuitry essential for emotional tearing during development and evolution. A lesson of NGF research is that pursuit of the scientific trail can lead to serendipitous discoveries both broad and deep. Emotional tears may provide an exciting new chapter in the NGF saga, and vice versa.

The rest of Curious Behavior goes on to explore such seemingly mundane but, in fact, utterly fascinating phenomena as yawning, sneezing, coughing, tickling, nausea, and, yes, farting and belching.

Photograph via Flickr Commons

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06 SEPTEMBER, 2012

No Dream-Laden Adolescent: Anaïs Nin Meets Young Gore Vidal, 1945

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“Like all writers, he dreams of total acceptance, unanimous love. A dream.”

Last month, we lost celebrated screenwriter, author, political activist, and professional contrarian Gore Vidal. Though much has been written about him both before and since his death, by far the most poignant and revealing portrait of the man beneath the icon comes from an unlikely source — Anaïs Nin, specifically the fourth volume of her diary, 1944-1947 (public library), from whence this beautiful letter on the importance of emotional excess in writing and creativity came.

In November of 1945, 42-year-old Nin met a young Gore Vidal, aged 20, at a lecture. Even their first encounter exudes Vidal’s unswerving and purposeful character:

Kimon Friar asked me to attend his lecture on love at the Y.M.H.A. so I went yesterday. I was in a depressed mood. I wore a black dress with long sleeves half-covering the hands, and a small heart-shaped black hat, with a pearl edging, shaped like Mary Stuart’s hat. Kimon lectured at the head of a long table. At the foot of the table, one chair was empty. I took it. Maya Deren sat a few chairs away. Next to me sat a handsome young lieutenant. During a pause I leaned over to speak with Maya. She said: ‘You look dramatic.’ I said: ‘I feel like Mary Stuart, who will soon be beheaded.’ The lieutenant leaned over and introduced himself: ‘I am Warrant Officer Gore Vidal. I am a descendant of Troubador Vidal.’ Later he admitted that he had guessed who I was. He is luminous and manly. Near the earth. He is not nebulous, but clear and bright, a contrast to Leonard. He talks. He is active, alert, poised. He is tall, slender, cool eyes and sensual mouth. Kimon was lecturing on Plato’s symposium of love. When it was finished, Vidal and I talked a little more. He is twenty years old, and the youngest editor at E. P. Dutton. His own novel is appearing in the spring. He knows Under a Glass Bell. He asked when he might visit me.

And visit he did — at first, timidly, shortly after their initial encounter, and then with persistent regularity that gave Nin keen insight into both his intensity and his vulnerability:

He came another time, alone. He tells me he will one day be president of the United States. He identifies with Richard the Second, the king-poet. He is full of pride, conceals his sensitiveness, and oscillates between hardness and softness. He is dual. He is capable of feeling, but I sense a distortion in his vision. He has great assurance in the world, talks easily, is a public figure, shines. He can do clever take-offs, imitate public figures. He walks in easily, he is no dream-laden adolescent. His eyes are hazel; clear, open, mocking.

Gore Vidal at age 23, November 14, 1948 (Library of Congress)

He embodied, not without self-awareness, the way in which our early experiences of attachment shape our adult relationships:

Gore said: ‘I do not want to be involved, ever. I live detached from my present life. At home our relationships are casual. My father married a young model. I like casual relationships. When you are involved you get hurt.’

Nin, herself trained in psychoanalysis, was quick to dissect Vidal’s emotional patterning:

Gore came. We slide easily into a sincere, warm talk. He dropped his armor, his defenses. ‘I don’t like women. They are either silly, giggly, like the girls in my set I’m expected to marry, or they are harsh and strident masculine intellectuals. You are neither.’ Intellectually he knows everything. Psychologically he knows the meaning of his mother abandoning him when he was ten, to remarry and have other children. The insecurity which followed the second break he made, at nineteen, after a quarrel with his mother. His admiration, attachment, hatred, and criticalness. Nor is it pity, he says. He is proud that she is beautiful and loved, yet he condemns her possessiveness, her chaos, her willfulness, and revolts against it. He knows this. But he does not know why he cannot love.

[…]

He moves among men and women of achievement. He was cheated of a carefree childhood, of a happy adolescence. He was rushed into sophistication and into experience with the surface of himself, but the deeper self was secret and lonely. ‘My demon is pride and arrogance,’ he said. ‘One you will never see.’ I receive from him gentleness and trust. He first asked me not to write down what he would say. He carries his father’s diplomatic brief case with his own poems and novel in it. He carries his responsibilities seriously, is careful not to let his one-night encounters know his name, his family. As future president of the United States, he protects his reputation, entrusts me with state secrets to lighten his solitude. Later he wants to write it all down, as we want to explore his secret labyrinth together, to find the secret of his ambivalence. To explore. Yet life has taken charge to alter the situation again. He, the lonely one, has trusted woman for the first time, and we start the journey of our friendship, as badly loved children who raised themselves, both stronger and weaker by it.

But Nin’s greatest wisdom shines, once again, in seeing past the hard intellectual edge of the public persona and into the soft core of the private person:

Gore fights battles with threatening forces, faces critics, is vulnerable. Like all writers, he dreams of total acceptance, unanimous love. A dream.

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