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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

12 JULY, 2013

Thoreau on Friendship, Sympathy, and Animal Consciousness

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“A man [is] commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.”

What better way to complement Maurice Sendak’s lovely vintage illustrated ode to friendship than with a related reflection from one of modern history’s most beloved thinkers? In The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — which also gave us, for a piece of appropriate meta-irony, Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau — the beloved transcendentalist, born on July 12, 1817, considers the essence of friendship, what it means to be human, and how inextricably connected we are to our fellow non-human beings, who are just as worthy of our sympathy and respect as our human friends.

On July 13, 1857 — the day after his 40th birthday — Thoreau awakens to a resolution for celebrating capital-F friendship as a centerpiece of the good life:

I sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities, a new life and relation to me, which perhaps I had not experienced for many months. Such transient thoughts have been my nearest approach to realization of it, thoughts which I know of no one to communicate to. I suddenly erect myself in my thoughts, or find myself erected, infinite degrees above the possibility of ordinary endeavors, and see for what grand stakes the game of life may be played. I catch an echo of the great strain of Friendship played somewhere, and feel compensated for months and years of commonplace. It is as if I were serenaded, and the highest and truest compliments were paid me. The universe gives me three cheers. Friendship is the fruit which the year should bear; it lends its fragrance to the flowers, and it is in vain if we get only a large crop of apples without it.

For Thoreau, the essence of friendship was the cultivation of true sympathy. On a “stern, bleak, inhospitable” January day in 1856, with the temperature a cruel “5° at noon and at 4 P.M.,” Thoreau observes a closed pitch pine cone he had gathered three days prior, which had just opened in his chamber. From this seemingly mundane occurrence he extracts a profound meditation on existence and the ties of sympathy, by way of a squirrel — that uncanny gift from translating the minutia of the physical world into timeless wisdom on the metaphysical is the defining characteristic of his journal:

If you would be convinced how differently armed the squirrel is naturally for dealing with pitch pine cones, just try to get one off with your teeth. He who extracts the seeds from a single closed cone with the aid of a knife will be constrained to confess that the squirrel earns his dinner. It is a rugged customer, and will make your fingers bleed. But the squirrel has the key to this conical and spiny chest of many apartments. He sits on a post, vibrating his tail, and twirls it as a plaything.

But so is a man commonly a locked-up chest to us, to open whom, unless we have the key of sympathy, will make our hearts bleed.

In fact, this combined sensitivity to other living beings and exaltation of sympathy as a defining duty of what it means to be human emerges again and again throughout the diary as Thoreau touches on insights predating the modern science of animal consciousness by more than a century. On March 31, 1842, in the last entry before his three-year journal hiatus that ended when Thoreau moved to Walden, he contemplates our interconnectedness with the rest of the living world and the joyous humility that springs from its recognition:

All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair. How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!

[…]

It is the saddest thought of all, that what we are to others, that we are much more to ourselves, — avaricious, mean, irascible, affected, — we are the victims of these faults. If our pride offends our humble neighbor, much more does it offend ourselves, though our lives are never so private and solitary. How many young finny contemporaries of various character and destiny, form and habits, we have even in this water! And it will not be forgotten by some memory that we were contemporaries. It is of some import. We shall be some time friends, I trust, and know each other better. Distrust is too prevalent now. We are so much alike! have so many faculties in common! I have not yet met with the philosopher who could, in a quite conclusive, undoubtful way, show me the, and, if not the, then how any, difference between man and a fish. We are so much alike! How much could a really tolerant, patient, humane, and truly great and natural man make of them, if he should try? For they are to be understood, surely, as all things else, by no other method than that of sympathy. It is easy to say what they are not to us, i.e., what we are not to them; but what we might and ought to be is another affair.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 is sublime in its entirety, the kind of lifelong companion to be revisited regularly and voraciously for a wholehearted existence.

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10 JULY, 2013

David Lynch on Using Meditation as an Anchor of Creative Integrity

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“It’s a joke to think that a film is going to mean anything if somebody else fiddles with it.”

“Mindfulness meditation is essentially cognitive fitness with a humanist face,” it’s been said. And what more essential cognitive fitness than that required to stay sane in a world that constantly demands more and more?

In 2005, the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, held the first annual “David Lynch Weekend for Peace and Meditation” — an initiative by the David Lynch Foundation, which has invested millions of dollars in teaching Transcendental Meditation techniques to students around the world. Lynch gave the keynote at the conference, which was followed by the typical audience Q&A. In this short video, he answers a young man’s question about the age-old tension between commercial pressure and creative integrity, pointing to meditation as a gateway to shaking free of the creativity-squashing discomfort that comes from practical pressures like deadlines and budgets. A year later, Lynch would come to collect his wisdom on meditation and creativity in Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (public library).

I came from painting. And a painter has none of those worries. A painter paints a painting. No one comes in and says, “You’ve got to change that blue.” It’s a joke to think that a film is going to mean anything if somebody else fiddles with it. If they give you the right to make the film, they owe you the right to make it the way you think it should be — the filmmaker. The filmmaker decides on every single element, every single word, every single sound, every single thing going down that highway through time. Otherwise, it won’t hold together. When there’s even a little hint of pressure coming from someplace else — like deadlines or going overbudget… — this affects the film. And you just want support, support, support… in a perfect world… so that you can really get the thing to be correct.

Now, this doesn’t happen these days — so, “support, support, support” — when you do dive within and experience this pure self — atma — pure consciousness — it’s the home of all the laws of nature. You get more in tune with those and … nature starts supporting you. So you have that feeling, even if they’re breathing down your neck, and there’s pressure here and pressure here, it doesn’t matter — inside … I say, “Every day is like a Saturday morning” — you got a great feeling, and it grows and grows and grows.

Catching the Big Fish is excellent in its entirety. Pair this short teaser with David Lynch’s instructions for how to make a Ricky Board and Bill Watterson’s indispensable 1990 commencement address on creative integrity.

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03 JULY, 2013

Beware of Beauty Overload: The Adaptive Eye of the Beholder

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How sensory adaptation is compromising our experience of love.

“Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit,” Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff wrote in her indispensable meditation on the psychology of beauty. But beauty’s primal appeal and its polarizing power on our inner world has a dark side. In a chapter unambiguously titled “Why Playboy Is Bad for Your Mental Mechanisms” from his altogether engrossing book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Nature (public library), Arizona State University psychology professor Douglas T. Kenrick explores how overexposure to beauty makes us recalibrate our own criteria for what is beautiful to a point that harms human relationships and even our experience of love.

He describes a curious experiment inspired by his own everyday experience as a graduate student twenty years earlier, when he caught himself noticing a disproportionate number of attractive female students in the crowd passing by during campus rush hour. Fascinated by this phenomenon of extreme selective attention when it comes to beauty, Kenrick decided examine it empirically two decades later as a formal researcher and replicated his youthful ogling in an experimental setup:

When we strained our subjects’ attentional capacities, we found exactly what I had suspected several decades before: Men overestimated the number of beautiful women (though their estimates of handsome men were unaffected). Female subjects also overestimated the frequency of gorgeous women in the rapidly presented crowds, but they did not overestimate the frequency of handsome men. The whole body of findings points to a simple conclusion about beautiful women: They capture everyone’s attention and monopolize downstream cognitive processes. The conclusion about handsome men is different: They grab women’s eyes but do not hold their minds; good-looking guys quickly get washed out of the stream of mental processing.

But pointing to other research he has conducted with his colleague Sara Gutierres, Kenrick argues that “an overdose of beauty might have ill effects for both sexes, albeit different ones for women than for men.” Citing Harry Helson’s famous 1947 theory of sensory adaptation, which holds that we make psychological adjustments as we match new forms of stimulation — hot or cold, salty or sweet, heavy or light, etc. — against our adaptation level, he began suspecting that sensory adaptation might be at work when it comes to our judgments of beauty. So Kenrick and Gutierres set out to test the idea:

In our first study, [we] asked people to judge an average-looking woman after being exposed to one of two series of other women. Half the participants judged the target woman after seeing a series of unusually beautiful women; the other half judged her after seeing a series of average-looking women. As in the case of expose to extremes of water temperature, exposure to extremes of physical appearance affected people’s judgments of what was average. As we had predicted, an average-looking woman was judged significantly uglier than normal if the subjects had just been gazing at a series of beauties.

Josef Albers: 'Homage to the Square'

Another study sought to assess whether these same processes played out in our judgments of people we know and love. Under the pretext of conducting research on “community standards of aesthetic judgment,” the scientists told participants they were collecting opinions from a random sample of students to settle an ongoing controversy about what is considered good and bad taste in visual art:

Subjects in the control group first judged the artistic merit of abstract paintings such as Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square. The men in the experimental group saw centerfolds from Playboy and Penthouse; the women saw handsome naked men from Playgirl. After they had looked at either paintings or centerfolds, we asked our participants to rate their feelings about their current relationship partners. Again, there was a cover story — that psychologists were divided on whether being in a relationship opened people up to new aesthetic experiences or made them less open to novelty. To test which side was right, we told them, we needed to know about the extent to which their reported level of commitment depended on whether they had seen centerfolds.

Once again, the results displayed a curious gender difference:

Men who had viewed the centerfolds rated themselves as less in love with their partners; women’s judgments of their partners were not so easily swayed.

Playboy December 1972

What the study suggests is at once obvious and ominous: Exposure to beautiful women changes people’s reference points for what is beautiful. Kenrick considers the implications for men:

The harmful side effect for guys … is this: Real women … do not look as attractive once the mind has been calibrated to assume the centerfolds are normal. And for guys in relationships, exposure to beautiful photos undermines their feelings about the real flesh-and-blood women with whom their lives are actually intertwined.

(It turns out, then, that Esquire’s 1949 dating tips were not only amusingly appalling in their sexism, but also scientifically off in advising women to only bring their most glamorous friend to a double date.)

But lest we’re too quick to assume men are the only ones who conform to the worst of their gender’s stereotypes, women didn’t fare much better when the experiment was repeated with power rather than beauty as the variable:

Seeing a series of socially dominant men undermined women’s commitment, just as seeing attractive women had done to men’s.

But what could be driving this toxic allure of beauty? Kenrick suggests a biological basis for our sensory receptors, which evolved to make our ancestors aware of opportunities and threats while looking for mates in a world very different from our own — but amidst today’s media overstimulation, he argues, our natural mechanisms are overwhelmed and begin to malfunction. He likens our relationship with beauty to our relationship with food:

In a sense, the images from Hollywood and Madison Avenue are analogous to the flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The tasty flavors and images tap into mechanisms that were designed to promote survival and reproduction in a much different world. Consume too much, though, and it may be harmful to your health.

Like Clay Johnson did in his information diet guide, Kenrick suggests a cure that is at once obvious and onerous, simple but certainly not easy, and altogether necessary for the sake of sanity:

So what’s a mortal to do? Are we helpless in the face of our evolved mechanisms, which may lead us astray without our conscious awareness? Not completely. People who understand the dangers of overabundant fats and sugars can control their diets. People who understand the dangers of an overabundant diet of mass-media images can stop gorging on Playboy, People, Sex and the City, or Dancing with the Stars.

It may sound simplistic, perhaps, but at the heart of this empirically grounded suggestion is the idea that our beauty diet is just one of the harmful habit loops we can rewire if we remember that, as William James famously put it, “we are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”

Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life is absolutely captivating in its entirety, exploring such fascinating subjects as the relationship between sex and religion, the psychology of homicidal fantasies, and the missing bricks in Maslow’s classic pyramid of needs.

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