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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

16 APRIL, 2015

Thinking with Animals: From Aesop to Darwin to YouTube

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How metaphors of nonhuman beings help us give shape to the human experience and make sense of our inner lives.

We think in metaphors — they are our bridge of meaning between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Anthropomorphism — the tendency to project human qualities onto nonhuman beings and objects — is perhaps the most common of all metaphorical modes. In our earliest conscious experiences, we are surrounded by toy animals and immersed in children’s books rife with animal characters — in fact, cognitive scientists now know that the development of metaphorical thinking in children is what gives rise to the imagination, so imagining animals as ourselves and projecting ourselves onto animals is a developmental achievement for the human mind. But using animals as a mode of clarifying the human experience is something that permeates every stage of life and every epoch of our civilization, from ancient creation myths to Aesop’s fables to Orwell’s allegorical masterwork Animal Farm to Lolcats and its conceptual predecessor. We are drawn to YouTube videos of animals not just because they are cute or comical, but because they are contextually cute or comical — implicit anthropomorphism juxtaposes their nonhumanness with the expectations of a human context, putting into practice Arthur Koestler’s pioneering biosciation theory of how humor works.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

The fascinating complexities and hidden dynamics of our human dance with nonhuman metaphors is what Max Planck Institute director Lorraine Daston and science historian Gregg Mitman explore in Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism (public library) — a wildly stimulating anthology of essays that began as a workshop at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science held in May of 2001, exploring our metaphor-riddled relationship with animals from a variety of perspectives: philosophical, historical, anthropological, political, economic, scientific, and artistic, from ancient India to the Victorian laboratory to the internet.

Daston and Mitman write:

We are animals; we think with animals. What could be more natural? The children’s section of every bookstore overflows with stories about animal heroes and villains; cartoons and animated feature films show the adventures of Bambi, Mickey Mouse, and the Road Runner to rapt audiences… From Aristotle to Darwin down to the present, naturalists have credited bees with monarchies, ants with honesty, and dogs with tender consciences.

They go on to examine how thinking with animals in both senses of the phrase — on the one hand, the kinship of thought and feeling between us and other creatures; on the other, our tendency to use other animals in symbolizing and dramatizing aspects of the human experience — transforms us.

They trace the root of our paradoxical attitude toward thinking with animals — the automatic readiness with which we employ anthropomorphism despite continuing to view the term as one of intellectual and moral reproach:

Originally, the word referred to the attribution of human form to gods, forbidden by several religions as blasphemous. Something of the religious taboo still clings to secular, modern instances of anthropomorphism, even if it is animals rather than divinities that are being humanized.

[…]

In the sciences, to impute human thoughts or emotions to electrons, genes, ants, or even other primates is to invite suspicions of sloppy thinking.

One can’t help but think of the resistance Jane Goodall faced from the scientific establishment for naming rather than numbering the chimps she studied as she embarked on a career that would render her one of the most important scientists of the past century. Had Goodall not learned to think with animals as a child, thanks to her toy chimpanzee named Jubilee, she would have never dreamt the childhood dream that she spent her life turning into a reality.

Illustration by Patrick McDonnell from 'Me... Jane,' a picture book about Goodall's formative years. Click image for more.

Daston and Mittman capture the history of this paradox elegantly:

Despite the official ban on anthropomorphism in science, thinking with animals permeated practice in the field and the lab. Both animal and human were transformed in the process.

Of course, this stubborn resistance to letting other animals encroach on our status as self-appointed supreme beings isn’t limited to science — it has a long cultural history and is central to our understanding of what it means to be human. What Margaret Mead observed of our intraspecies divides — “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out,” she told James Baldwin in their magnificent forgotten conversation on race and identity — is also true of the human identity, which is dependent upon enforcing the interspecies divide.

And yet, Daston and Mitman note, even though evolutionary theory has made it increasingly difficult to draw a hard-and-fast line between humans and other animals, there is more to our cultural conflictedness about anthropocentrism:

There is a moral as well an intellectual element to critiques of anthropomorphism. On this view, to imagine that animals think like humans or to cast animals in human roles is a form of self-centered narcissism: one looks outward to the world and sees only one’s own reflection mirrored therein. Considered from a moral standpoint, anthropomorphism sometimes seems dangerously allied to anthropocentrism: humans project their own thoughts and feelings onto other animal species because they egotistically believe themselves to be the center of the universe. But anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism can just as easily tug in opposite directions: for example, the Judeo-Christian tradition that humans were the pinnacle of Creation also encouraged claims that humans, being endowed by God with reason and immortal souls, were superior to and qualitatively different from animals. In this theological context, it made no sense to try to think with soulless animals.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

But even if, in an age when we’ve left behind Decartes’s notion of animals as mere soulless “automata” and we’re beginning to recognize the complexities of animal consciousness, there is a different kind of arrogance in projecting our own souls onto nonhuman animals:

Even if anthropomorphism is decoupled from anthropocentrism, the former can still be criticized as arrogant and unimaginative. To assimilate the behavior of a herd of elephants to, say, that of a large, middle-class, American family or to dress up a pet terrier in a tutu strikes these critics as a kind of species provincialism, an almost pathological failure to register the wondrous variety of the natural world — a provincialism comparable to that of those blinkered tourists who assume that the natives of the foreign countries they visit will have the same customs and speak the same language as at home.

At the heart of the matter seems to be a larger kind of arrogance: We tend to accept and honor otherness, be it in our fellow humans or in our fellow species, for as long as it’s convenient — as long as it doesn’t require us to reformulate our us-ness and revise our own way of being in the world. But once it does, all bets are off. This is why we’ve made such profoundly insufficient progress on enduring issues of racial justice and why we sign Facebook petitions for animal rights while buying products mired in animal testing and cruelty. Drawing that increasingly artificial hard-and-fast line between human and nonhuman consciousness is what allows us to continue considering ourselves moral beings; refusing to widen our circle of empathy and sympathy to other creatures is what allows us to go on fancying ourselves empathetic and sympathetic people even as we harm nonhuman animals, directly and indirectly, with our daily choices.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Orwell's 'Animal Farm.' Click image for more.

Daston and Mitman capture this poignantly:

Should animals be treated as moral persons, with rights like those accorded to human beings? If so, would animal rights imply that humans ought to embrace vegetarianism, stop wearing fur and leather clothing, and abandon experiments on animals that do not serve the animals’ own interests, for the same reasons that cannibalism and instrumental experiments on humans should be rejected as ethically repugnant?

[…]

Since many (though not all) of the arguments pro and contra in this debate hinge upon the degree of analogy between humans and other animal species, and more particularly on the analogy between thoughts and feelings, the ancient and almost universal practice of thinking with animals has taken on new significance.

In a sentiment that calls to mind John Berger’s provocative 1980 essay Why Look at Animals, they add:

The question raises important issues of representation and agency. Thinking with animals is not the same as thinking about them.

[…]

The outcome of all of them depends crucially not only on how we think about animals but whether, and above all how, we think with them.

Illustration for Aesop's Fables by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for more.

To be sure, our motives for thinking with animals aren’t purely philosophical — they are often quite practical. Images of animals in visual communication create moods and, ultimately, sell products. Daston and Mittman write:

Pets enhance the health and happiness of their owners [and] animal personalities move the public and politicians more effectively than wildlife statistics… Striking images of animals are in great demand by global advertisers because — in contrast to equally striking images of humans — age, race, class, and culture do not interfere with identification and the desire to acquire… No wonder that anthropomorphism has been assiduously cultivated: money, love, and power are all to be had by thinking with animals.

And yet anthropocentrism isn’t always an act of solipsism — it can also be the very opposite: an effort at self-transcendence, evoking Alan Watts’s assertion that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” Daston and Mittman offer a counterpoint to the common critique of anthropocentrism:

In certain historical and cultural contexts, the longing to think with animals becomes the opposite of the arrogant egotism decried by critics of anthropomorphism. Instead of projection of one’s own way of thinking and feeling onto other minds, submersion of self in the genuinely other is fervently attempted—but never achieved. It is a virtuoso but doomed act of complete empathy… This extreme form of thinking with animals is the impossible but irresistible desire to jump out of one’s own skin, exchange one’s brain, plunge into another way of being.

Illustration by Bhajju Shyam from 'Creation,' a visual cosmogony of ancient Indian origin myths. Click image for more.

But whichever direction we lean isn, selfishness or self-transcendence, the allure of thinking with animals remains undeniable — something the authors argue is rooted in “the active reality of animals”:

Plants are beautiful, endlessly varied, and marvels of organic adaptation. Yet they radiate none of the magnetism animals do for humans. Even the most enthusiastic fancier of orchids or ferns rarely tries to think with them, in either sense of the phrase… Unlike dolls or robots or any other product of human skill, however ingenious, animals are not our marionettes, our automata (which originally meant “puppet” in Greek). They are symbols with a life of their own. We use them to perform our thoughts, feelings, and fantasies because, alone of all our myriad symbols, they can perform; they can do what is to be done. We may orchestrate their performance, but complete mastery is illusion. Eyes peer through the human mask to reveal another life, mysterious — like us or unlike us? Their animated gaze moves us to think.

Thinking with Animals is a tremendous read in its entirety, spanning from the curious “science” of medieval angelology to Kafka to how the Victorian elite sparked the fashion of pet ownership. Complement it with Laurel Braitman’s empathetic inquiry into the mental life of nonhuman animals, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2014, and Jon Mooallem’s moving paean to wildlife, then treat yourself to one of the loveliest animal-charactered allegories of our time, Marianne Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird.

Thanks, Laurel

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15 APRIL, 2015

Virginia Woolf on Why the Best Mind Is the Androgynous Mind

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“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female… The androgynous mind is resonant and porous… naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”

In addition to being one of the greatest writers and most expansive minds humanity ever produced, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was also a woman of exceptional wisdom on such complexities of living as consciousness and creativity, the consolations of aging, how one should read a book, and the artist’s eternal dance with self-doubt.

So incisive was her insight into the human experience that, many decades before scientists demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creativity, Woolf articulated this idea in a beautiful passage from her classic 1929 book-length essay A Room of One’s Own (public library).

A year after she subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of gender identity with her novel Orlando, Woolf writes:

The mind is certainly a very mysterious organ … about which nothing whatever is known, though we depend upon it so completely. Why do I feel that there are severances and oppositions in the mind, as there are strains from obvious causes on the body? What does one mean by “the unity of the mind”? … Clearly the mind has so great a power of concentrating at any point at any moment that it seems to have no single state of being. It can separate itself from the people in the street, for example, and think of itself as apart from them, at an upper window looking down on them. Or it can think with other people spontaneously, as, for instance, in a crowd waiting to hear some piece of news read out.

Long before cognitive scientists were able to tell us exactly how the mind does this, Woolf concludes:

Clearly the mind is always altering its focus, and bringing the world into different perspectives.

Illustration from 'I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!,' a 1970 picture-book satirizing limiting gender norms. Click image for details.

Since male and female are the very first categories of experience into which we are placed as newborns and which continue to shape society’s expectations of us throughout our lives, the perspectives attached to each gendered experience are among the most profound and persistent sources of difference in human culture. But Woolf argues that the most fertile mental and spiritual landscape is one where there is ample cross-pollination between the two:

When I saw the couple get into the taxicab the mind felt as if, after being divided, it had come together again in a natural fusion. The obvious reason would be that it is natural for the sexes to co-operate. One has a profound, if irrational, instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness. But the sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness? And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her.

Illustration by Yang Liu from 'Man Meets Woman,' a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

Turning to Samuel Taylor Coleridge for ratification — “The truth is,” the celebrated poet and philosopher wrote in 1832, “a great mind must be androgynous.” — she adds:

Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilized and uses all its faculties. Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine, I thought. But it would be well to test what one meant by man-womanly, and conversely by woman-manly, by pausing and looking at a book or two.

Coleridge … meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. In fact one goes back to Shakespeare’s mind as the type of the androgynous, of the man-womanly mind… And if it be true that it is one of the tokens of the fully developed mind that it does not think specially or separately of sex, how much harder it is to attain that condition now than ever before… No age can ever have been as stridently sex-conscious as our own…

A Room of One’s Own remains one of the most rewarding and rereadable books ever written. Complement this particular point of genius with Ursula K. Le Guin’s spectacular essay on being a man and the contemporary cognitive science of psychological androgyny, then revisit Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the malady of middlebrow, her little-known children’s book, and the only surviving recording of her voice.

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14 APRIL, 2015

How We Elevate Each Other: Viktor Frankl on the Human Spirit and Why Idealism Is the Best Realism

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“If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him … we promote him to what he really can be.”

Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997) is a timeless testament to the luminous tenacity of the human spirit. His 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) is one of the most vital books ever written, and one of the most vitalizing one could ever read — a wealth of insight on how to persevere through troubled times and what it means to live fully.

In this 1972 lecture footage, brimming with his humble wisdom and disarming wit, Frankl makes a beautiful case for believing in each other and viewing the human spirit with hope rather than cynicism:

If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him … we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way — because then we wind up as the true, the real realists.

Complement with Frankl’s indispensable Man’s Search for Meaning, then see another great champion of the human spirit echo the same ennobling sentiment: Isaac Asimov on choosing optimism over cynicism.

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13 APRIL, 2015

The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility

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“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

“Nothing any good isn’t hard,” F. Scott Fitzgerald asserted in his letter of advice on writing to his fifteen-year-old daughter upon her enrollment in high school. That uncomfortable yet strangely emboldening counsel is what Cheryl Strayed offers — with greater poeticism and much better grammar — to a despairing young writer in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), the ample soul-satisfactions of which have been previously extolled here.

Long before Wild — her magnificent memoir of learning, oh, just about every dimension of the art of living while hiking more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail — was turned into a major motion picture, Strayed wielded her art as an advice columnist for The Rumpus, simply known as Sugar. Among the thousands of Dear Sugar letters she received was one from a self-described “pathetic and confused young woman of twenty-six” named Elissa Bassist, a “writer who can’t write,” a “high-functioning head case, one who jokes enough that most people don’t know the truth.” “The truth,” she tells Sugar, “[is that] I am sick with panic that I cannot — will not — override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Like all the letters Strayed answered as Sugar, this one is profoundly personal yet speaks to the artist’s universal dance with the fear — the same paralyzing self-doubt which Virginia Woolf so elegantly captured; which led Steinbeck to repeatedly berate, then galvanize himself in his diary; which sent Van Gogh into a spiral of floundering before he found his way as an artist.

What makes Strayed’s advice so vitalizing is that it is never dispensed as a holier-than-thou dictum; rather, it weaves tapestry of no-bullshit solace from the beautifully tattered threads of her own experience, messy and alive. This is exactly what she hands to Bassist, under the title “Write Like a Motherfucker.”

Invoking the time right before she wrote her first book, when she too was a twenty-something writer plagued by the same fear that she was “lazy and lame,” Strayed recounts how she “finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked”; in other words, she got off the nail. With an eye to Flannery O’Connor’s famous proclamation that “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” which Strayed had inscribed across the chalkboard in her living room at the time, she writes:

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote… And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweat pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Echoing Voltaire’s memorable admonition from his letter of advice on how to write well“beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose” — and Bukowski’s lament that “bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Strayed adds:

I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

Strayed directs her tough-love incisiveness at Bassist’s paradoxical blend of self-pitying defeatism and grandiose entitlement — something not uncommon in young artists, who forget that “anything worthwhile takes a long time,” and a kernel of truth in the otherwise overly flat and ungenerously applied cultural archetype of the millennial:

Buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there… You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done. We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce.

Pointing to Bassist’s litany of women writers who ended their own lives — perhaps Plath, Sexton, Woolf — Strayed calls the young writer out on perpetuating the dangerous mythology of creativity and mental illness. Reminding her — reminding all of us — that the stories we tell ourselves shape our horizons of possibility, Strayed reality-checks this perilous narrowing of attention:

In spite of various mythologies regarding artists and how psychologically fragile we are, the fact is that occupation is not a top predictor for suicide. Yes, we can rattle off a list of women writers who’ve killed themselves and yes, we may conjecture that their status as women in the societies in which they lived contributed to the depressive and desperate state that caused them to do so. But it isn’t the unifying theme.

You know what is?

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured.

[…]

The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you—,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

[…]

So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

In this excerpt from her altogether fantastic 2012 conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, with Bassist in the audience, Strayed elaborates on the art of motherfuckitude:

But being a motherfucker, it’s a way of life, really… It’s about having strength rather than fragility, resilience, and faith, and nerve, and really leaning hard into work rather than worry and anxiety.

[…]

I think there are a lot of writers who can’t write, or they think they can’t write… I understand that feeling, I think every writer has wrestled with those anxieties and that self-loathing, and yet ultimately in order to succeed in anything we all have to in essence embrace humility, rather.

[…]

A lot of people think that to be a motherfucker is to be a person who is the dominant figure. But I actually think that true motherfuckerhood … really has to do with being humble. And it’s only when you can get out of your own ego that you can actually do what is necessary to do — in a relationship, in your professional life, as a parent, in any of those ways. It has to do with humility — doing the work.

Tiny Beautiful Things, it bears repeating, is nothing short of necessary to the liver of modern life. Complement this particular fragment with Dani Shapiro on the plight of the artist and this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

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