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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

03 JULY, 2014

Isaac Asimov on Optimism vs. Cynicism about the Human Spirit

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Why cynicism is, above all, a disservice to our own happiness.

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman,” E.B. White wrote in a letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, “the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” A beautiful and soul-expanding counterpart to the power of optimism in the human spirit that White advocates comes from science-fiction icon Isaac Asimov, found in his posthumously published It’s Been a Good Life (public library) — a rich selection of the author’s letters, diary entries, and his three prior autobiographies, edited by his spouse, Janet Jeppson Asimov, which also gave us Asimov’s wisdom on humanism and science vs. spirituality.

The book itself is titled after some of Asimov’s last words to his wife, but the most magnificent embodiment of his faith in life’s goodness comes from a letter to one of his friends. Asimov writes:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable about enjoying the good things.

Asimov later echoed this sentiment in his spectacular conversation with Bill Moyers in 1988, in discussing the ideas of heaven, hell, and all the artificial ways in which religion tries to keep human goodness in check:

It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being. Isn’t it conceivable a person wants to be a decent human being because that way he feels better?

It’s Been a Good Life, featuring selections from Asimov’s first three autobiographies, In Memory Yet Green (1979), In Joy Still Felt (1980), and the posthumously published I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), is a fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Asimov’s wonderful 1983 Muppet magazine interview on curiosity, risk-taking, and the value of space exploration.

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01 JULY, 2014

The Science of Mental Time Travel: Memory and How Our Ability to Imagine the Future Made Us Human

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Shedding light on “the cognitive rudder that allows our brains to navigate the river of time.”

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland remains one of my all-time favorite books, largely because Carroll taps his training as a logician to imbue the whimsical story with an allegorical dimension that blends the poetic with the philosophical. To wit: The Red Queen remembers the future instead of the past — an absurd proposition so long as we think of time as linear and memory as beholden to the past, and yet a prescient one given how quantum physics (coincidentally, a perfect allegorical exploration of Wonderland) conceives of time and what modern cognitive science tells us about how elastic our experience of time is. As it turns out, the Red Queen is far more representative of how human memory actually works than we dare believe.

Illustration from Alice in Wonderland by Lisbeth Zwerger. (Click image for details)

“To be human,” writes Dan Falk in In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time (public library), “is to be aware of the passage of time; no concept lies closer to the core of our consciousness” — something evidenced by our millennia-old quest to map this invisible dimension. One of the most remarkable and evolutionarily essential elements of experiencing time through human consciousness is something psychologists and cognitive scientists call mental time travel — a potent bi-directional projection that combines episodic memory, which allows us to draw on our autobiographical experience and call up events, experiences, and emotions that occurred in the past, with the ability to imagine and anticipate future events. Falk puts it unambiguously:

Without it, there would be no planning, no building, no culture; without an imagined picture of the future, our civilization would not exist.

As it turns out, episodic memory — a term coined in the early 1970s by Canadian neuroscientist Endel Tulving, author of the seminal book Elements of Episodic Memory — is central to our capacity for mental time travel and, according to many scientists, fairly unique to humans. Unlike other facets of memory, such as the acquisition of new skills, which are rooted in the here-and-now, Falk points out that episodic memory allows us “to peer back across time, using our imagination to revisit just about any event that we choose.” This mental reliving of the past may be the root of some distinct human maladies — take the wistful reminiscence over a lost love, for instance — but it is also central to our evolutionary survival, allowing us to anticipate future outcomes based on past ones and thus to plan better and be more prepared for what tomorrow may bring. (The dark side of this evolutionarily beneficial faculty is that our over-planning often ends up shortchanging our happiness.)

And yet the benefits outweigh the costs, in evolutionary terms. Falk explains:

The capacity for mental time travel gave our ancestors an invaluable edge in the struggle for survival. They believe there is a profound link between remembering the past and imagining the future. The very act of remembering, they argue, gives one the “raw material” needed to construct plausible scenarios of future events and act accordingly. Mental time travel “provides increased behavioral flexibility to act in the present to increase future survival chances.” If this argument is correct, then mental time travel into the past — remembering — “is subsidiary to our ability to imagine future scenarios.” Tulving agrees: “What is the benefit of knowing what has happened in the past? Why do you care? The importance is that you’ve learned a lesson,” he says. “Perhaps the evolutionary advantage has to do with the future rather than the past.”

Modern neuroscience appears to confirm that line of reasoning: as far as your brain is concerned, the act of remembering is indeed very similar to the act of imagining the future.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s; from Cartographies of Time. (Click image for details)

Though we might not be able to “remember” the future, as the Red Queen does, we do envision it in ways strikingly similar to how we picture events from the past — Falk notes that fMRI studies indicate we use similar regions in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes when thinking about events in either direction of time. What’s more, psychologists have found that much like it’s harder for us to remember an event in the distant past than a recent one, it’s harder for us to imagine an event in the distant future than one expected to take place soon. This hints at the massively misguided way in which we think of and evaluate memory, which we falsely depict as a recording device, versus foresight. Falk writes:

When we imagine the future, we know what we picture is really just an educated guess; we may be right in the broad brushstrokes, but we are almost certainly wrong in the details. We hold memory to a higher standard. We feel — most of the time — that our memories are more than guesses, that they reflect what really happened. When confronted with a conflicting account of how last week’s party unfolded, we cling to our beliefs: He must be mistaken; I know what I saw.

Falk cites the Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter:

[The brain is] a fundamentally prospective organ that is designed to use information from the past and the present to generate predictions about the future. Memory can be thought of as a tool used by the prospective brain to generate simulations of possible future events… We tend to think of memory as having primarily to do with the past… And maybe one reason we have it is so that we can have a warm feeling when we reminisce, and so on. But I think the thing that has been neglected is its role in allowing us to predict and simulate the future.

Artwork by Andy Goldsworthy from his project 'Time.' (Click image for details)

In order to mentally time-travel into the future, the brain has to accomplish a couple of things at once — we activate our “semantic memory,” which encompasses our basic knowledge of facts about the world and thus helps paint a backdrop for the imagined scene, and we call on our episodic memory, which pulls on our autobiographical library of remembered experiences to fill in specific details for this general scene. Curiously, episodic memory tends to be rather flawed but, according to two scientists Falk quotes, that’s okay since its core purpose is to provide “a more general toolbox that allowed us to escape from the present and develop foresight, and perhaps create a sense of personal identity.”

To be sure, just like elsewhere in cognitive science, human exceptionalism may be misplaced here — scientists have found that other species are also capable of varying degrees of mental time travel. Falk cites one of the most intriguing experiments, involving scrub jays. He writes:

Psychologist Nicola Clayton and her colleagues housed the birds on alternate days in two different compartments — one in which the jays always received “breakfast,” and one in which they did not. Then the birds were unexpectedly given extra food in the evening, at a location where they could access either compartment. The jays promptly cached their surplus — and they preferentially cached it in the “no breakfast” compartment. Because the birds were not hungry at the time of the caching, the researchers claim that the birds truly anticipated the hunger they would experience the next morning.

Still, the fact that humans are capable of remarkably elaborate and detailed mental time travel reveals something unique about our evolution and the development of such hallmarks of humanity as language and theory of mind. Falk writes:

In all likelihood, the capacity for mental time travel did not develop in isolation but rather alongside other crucial cognitive abilities. “To entertain a future event one needs some kind of imagination,” [the prominent psychologists Thomas] Suddendorf and [Michael] Corballis write, “some kind of representational space in our mind for the imaginary performance.” Language could also play an important role. Our language skills embrace mental time travel by the use of tenses and recursive thinking; when we say “A year from now, he will have retired,” we’re imagining a future time in which some event — which has not yet happened — will lie in the past… Mental time travel may have been “a pre-requisite to the evolution of language itself.” If mental time travel is indeed unique to humans, it may help us understand why complex language is also, apparently, unique.

In fact, the development of mental time travel may even be how the concept of time itself came into existence — according to Suddendorf and Corballis, our species emerged victorious in “an extraordinary evolutionary arms race” largely due to our growing capacity for foresight and sophisticated language, which not only gave us culture and “coordinated aggression” but also, for the first time in evolutionary history, enabled us to understand the concepts of “past” and “future.” The mental reconstruction of what has been and the imagining of what could be, they argue, created the concept of time and enabled us to understand the continuity between the past and the future. Falk, once again, puts it succinctly:

Mental time travel may indeed be the cognitive rudder that allows our brains to navigate the river of time.

In Search of Time is a fantastic read in its entirety, covering such facets of life’s most intricate dimension as how the calendar was born, why illusion and reality aren’t always so discernible from one another, and what the ultimate fate of the universe might be. Complement it with these seven excellent books on time and a fascinating read on how our memory works.

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30 JUNE, 2014

A “Dynamic Interaction”: Leo Buscaglia on Why Love Is a Learned Language

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From developmental psychology to Timothy Leary, a reframing of love as deliberate mastery rather than magical thinking.

Love might be one of the most quintessential capacities of the human condition. And yet, for all our poetic contemplation, psycho-scientific dissection, and anthropological exploration of it, we greatly underestimate the extent to which this baseline capacity — much like those for language, motion, and creativity — is a dynamic ability to be mastered and cultivated rather than a static state to be passively beheld. Despite what we know about the value of “deliberate practice” in attaining excellence in any endeavor, the necessary toil of mastery, and the psychology of what it takes to acquire new habits, we remain gobsmackingly naive about the practice of love, approaching it instead with the magical-thinking expectation that we’re born excellent at it.

That disconnect is precisely what Leo Buscaglia considers in one of the most stimulating chapters in Love: What Life Is All About (public library) — that slim and potent volume based on his 1969 course at the University of Southern California, which also gave us Buscaglia on education, conformity, and how labels limit us.

Citing famous cases, both folkloric and factual, of human children raised by animals outside civilization, Buscaglia notes that just like we “learn” to be human, we also learn to love. He points to the research of various psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, and educators, who have indicated that love is a “learned response, a learned emotion,” and laments a fundamental cultural disconnect:

Most of us continue to behave as though love is not learned but lies dormant in each human being and simply awaits some mystical age of awareness to emerge in full bloom. Many wait for this age forever. We seem to refuse to face the obvious fact that most of us spend our lives trying to find love, trying to live in it, and dying without ever truly discovering it.

And yet, Buscaglia argues, this dreary destiny is self-made and thus avoidable through the choices we make, in how much of ourselves we invest in learning love. He observes a startling paradox that bespeaks how we, as a culture, cripple ourselves in the journey to love — if one wanted to learn about cars, one would “without question study about automobiles”; if one wanted to become a gourmet cook, one would “certainly study the art of cooking, perhaps even attend a cooking class.” But when it comes to love, Buscaglia points out, we expect the skill of it will magically bestow itself upon us. “No mechanic or cook,” he writes, “would ever believe that by ‘willing’ the knowledge in his field, he’d ever become an expert in it.”

He writes:

Love is a learned, emotional reaction. It is a response to a learned group of stimuli and behaviors. Like all learned behavior, it is [affected] by the interaction of the learner with his environment, the person’s learning ability, and the type and strength of the reinforcers present; that is, which people respond, how they respond and to what degree they respond, to his expressed love.

Love is a dynamic interaction, lived every second of our lives, all of our lives.

Buscaglia puts the premise poetically yet unambiguously in seven postulates:

One cannot give what he does not possess. To give love you must possess love.

One cannot teach what he does not understand. To teach love you must comprehend love.

One cannot know what he does not study. To study love you must live in love.

One cannot appreciate what he does not recognize. To recognize love you must be receptive to love.

One cannot have doubt about that which he wishes to trust. To trust love you must be convinced of love.

One cannot admit what he does not yield to. To yield to love you must be vulnerable to love.

One cannot love what he does not dedicate himself to. To dedicate yourself to love you must be forever growing in love.

This growth, Buscaglia argues, is a process both active and interactive:

Love is an emotion, that is true. But it is also a “response” to an emotion and, therefore, an “active” expression of what is felt. Love is not learned by osmosis. It is actually acted out and acted upon.

The process begins in childhood, as we absorb the picture of the world we are fed and emulate the psychoemotional tools we observe — something psychiatric trio Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explored with remarkable dimension decades later in their excellent A General Theory of Love. Buscaglia writes:

In order to exist at some level of comfort, [the child] must accept what is offered, often without questions. In fact, he has few questions for he has little knowledge and nothing to compare it to. He is spoon-fed his world, handed the tools to meet its requirements and the symbols with which to organize it. He is even taught what things are significant, what sounds to listen for and what they mean, and what is valueless. In other words, he is taught to be a particular type of human lover. To be loved in return, he need but listen, see and respond as others do. It is a simple matter but the cost to his individuality is great.

Buscaglia applies Timothy Leary’s notion of developmental “imprinting” — the idea that a child’s acquisition of language and words serves as a “freezing of external awareness” — to love:

[According to Leary] each time a parent or society teaches a child a new symbol he is given both an intellectual and an emotional content for the symbol. The content is limited by the attitudes and feelings of his parents and society. This process begins too early for the child to have much to say about what words will mean for him. Once “frozen,” the attitudes and feelings toward the object or person to which the words refer become very stable, in many cases irreversible. Through words, then, the child is given not only content but attitude. His attitudes of love are so formed. A sort of map is set up, Leary continues, which is static and upon which all subsequent learning of attitudes and awareness take place. The child’s “map” will be determined by how closely the symbols resemble the facts and how they are taken in, assimilated, analyzed and reinforced through experience. The important language for establishing behavior, relationships, action, attitudes, empathy, responsibility of love, trust, caring, joy, response — the language of love, in other words, will thus be set.

The formal education system, Buscaglia argues, only compounds the problem with its propensity for “‘feeding in’ rather than a ‘leading out,'” coercing the child to accept the ideas of love as defined by his or her teachers. Buscaglia laments the distorted, backwards model of love instilled in us by culture and commerce since childhood:

Neither the love of self — what educators call self-respect — nor love of others — responsibility and love for his fellow man — can ever be taught in our present educational system. Teachers are too busy “managing” to be “creating.” As Albert Einstein said, “It is nothing short of a miracle that instruction today has not strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. For this delicate little plant lies mostly in need of freedom without which it will fall into rack and ruin and die without fail.”

So the individual, now fully grown, leaves our schools confused, lonely, alienated, lost, angry, but with a mind full of isolated, meaningless facts which together are laughingly called an education. He knows neither who he is, where he is or how he got there. He has no concept of where he’s going, how to arrive there nor what he’ll do when he gets there. He has no idea what he has, what he wants, nor how to develop it. In essence, he’s a type of robot — old before his time, living in the past, confused by the present, frightened by the future, much like the teachers who made him.

Nowhere along the way has he been directly exposed to love as a learned phenomenon. What he has learned of love he has come upon indirectly, by chance or by trial and error. His greatest exposure and often his only teaching has been through the commercial mass media which has always exploited love for its own ends.

[…]

You are assured that love means running together through a meadow, lighting two cigarettes in the dark or applying a deodorant daily. You are given the idea that love just “happens,” and usually at first sight. You don’t have to work at love — love requires no teacher — you just fall into love — if you follow the right rules, and play the “game” correctly.

The result of this, Buscaglia argues, is a singular and pervasive psychoemotional crippling. And yet there is hope — active, dynamic, elastic hope for mastering this all-important skill that is learned like any other:

Most of us never learn to love at all. We play at love, imitate lovers, treat love as a game. Is it any wonder so many of us are dying of loneliness, feel anxious and unfulfilled, even in seemingly close relationships, and are always looking elsewhere for something more which we feel must certainly be there? “Is that all there is?” the song asks.

There is something else. It’s simply this — the limitless potential of love within each person eager to be recognized, waiting to be developed, learning to grow.

It’s never too late to learn anything for which you have a potential. If you want to learn to love, then you must start the process of finding out what it is, what qualities make up a loving person and how these are developed. Each person has the potential for love. But potential is never realized without work. This does not mean pain. Love, especially, is learned best in wonder, in joy, in peace, in living.

Love: What Life Is All About is a glorious read in its entirety — a dimensional synthesis of the insights Buscaglia and his students arrived at over the three years he taught his USC course on love, prompted by the tragic and discombobulating suicide of one of his brightest students. Buscaglia goes on to explore, in a fashion both philosophical and practically useful yet not the least bit self-helpy, such facets of love as its biological basis, its deterrents, its agelessness, and its relationship with personal responsibility. Complement it with these essential reads on the psychology of love and some timeless wisdom on it by Susan Sontag, Vincent van Gogh, and Albert Camus.

Vintage postcards courtesy of the New York Public Library archives

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