Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

25 MARCH, 2013

The Mortality Paradox

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“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not.”

“It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life,” Goethe, who ceased to be 181 years ago this week, proclaimed as he concluded that “in this sense, everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.” Since the dawn of time, it has been the human instinct to resolve the psychological dilemma by constructing various immortality narratives — one of the hallmarks of our species. In Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library), Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave explores the inner workings of that ancient impulse, inviting us on a mind-bending, intense, at times unsettling and at times deeply comforting journey into the most cavernous quarters of the human psyche.

Cave argues that besides our immortality narratives, what sets us apart from other sentient beings are our highly connected brains and our self-awareness — adaptive developments that have enabled us to foresee different possibilities and make sophisticated plans, but also, in envisioning the future, to grapple with the terrifying prospect of our own demise. He terms this the “Mortality Paradox” and argues that it gives shape to both immortality narratives and civilization itself:

On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is the very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.

[…]

Both halves of this paradox arise from the same set of impressive cognitive faculties. Since the advent some two and a half million years ago of the genus Homo, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, our brain size has tripled. This has come with a series of crucial conceptual innovations: First, we are aware of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait limited only to a handful of large-brained species and considered to be essential for sophisticated social interaction. Second, we have an intricate idea of the future, allowing us to premeditate and vary our plans — also an ability unseen in the vast majority of other species. … And third, we can imagine different scenarios, playing with possibilities and generalizing from what we have seen, enabling us to learn, reason and extrapolate.

But while the survival benefits of these faculties are indisputable, Cave argues, they come at a cost:

If you have an idea of yourself and of the future and can extrapolate and generalize from what you see around you, then if you see your comrade killed by a lion, you realize that you too could be killed by a lion. This is useful if it causes you to sharpen your spear in readiness, but it also brings anxiety — it summons the future possibility of death in the present. The next day you might see a different comrade killed by a snake, another by disease and yet another by fire. You see that there are countless ways in which you could be killed, and they could strike at any time: prepare as you will, death’s onslaught is relentless.

[…]

We are therefore blessed with powerful minds yet at the same time cursed, not only to die, but to know that we must. … This is the central theme of philosophy, poetry and myth; it is what defines us as mortal. … Since we attained self-awareness, as Michel de Montaigne wrote, ‘death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment.’ No matter what we do, no matter how hard we strive, we know that the Reaper will one day take us. Life is a constant war we are doomed to lose.

What Cave neglects to mention, of course, is that Montaigne shared not so much a lament over our mortality as one over our preoccupation with it, famously writing that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Still, Cave does consider the second half of the Mortality Paradox — our inability to even conceive of our own obliteration:

The fact is, whenever we try to imagine the reality of our deaths we stumble. We simply cannot envision actually not existing.

He points out that even in trying to imagine your own funeral, or the “dark empty void” of death itself, you’re still present as the observer, the virtual eye doing the envisioning.

We therefore cannot make death real to ourselves as thinking subjects. Our powerful imaginative faculties malfunction: it is not possible for the one doing the imagining to actively imagine the absence of the one doing the imagining.

He cites Freud, who wrote in 1915:

It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. … [Therefore] at bottom no one believes in his own death … [for] in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.

A century after Freud, contemporary science has dissected the inner workings of this quintessentially human phenomenon:

Modern cognitive psychology gives a scientific account of this ancient intuition. Our acceptance of new facts or possibilities depends upon our ability to imagine them — we accept, for example, that playing with matches could cause our house to burn down because this is something we can easily picture. But when our minds come across an obstacle to imagining a certain scenario, then we find it much more difficult to accept. Our own death is just such a scenario, as it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.

(Unless, that is, we were to do as Buckminster Fuller did and conclude that “all phenomena are metaphysical, wherefore … life is but a dream.”)

And while Christopher Hitchens, always the contrarian till the very end, claimed to “love the imaginary struggle,” for most of us, Cave points out, it’s a source of endless cognitive dissonance:

And thus we have a paradox: When we peer into the future we find our wish to live forever fulfilled, as it seems inconceivable that we might one day cease to be. Thus we believe in our own immortality. Yet at the same time we are painfully aware of the countless possible threats to our being. . . . And thus we believe in our own mortality. Our very same overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not, both that death is a fact and that it is impossible.

[…]

The paradox stems from two different ways of viewing ourselves — on the one hand, objectively, or from the outside, as it were, and on the other hand, subjectively, or from the inside. When we deploy reason to view ourselves as we do other living things around us, then we realize that we, like them, will fail, die and rot. From this outside, objective perspective, we are mortals. But when we switch to our own perspective and try to make sense of what this means subjectively, then we encounter the imaginative obstacle — the inability to accept the prospect of annihilation. Our introspection tells us we are imperishable as the angels, indivisible and everlasting; yet when we look in the mirror we see ourselves as others see us … an imperfect and impermanent creature fated to a brief existence. . . .

But while the friction between these two perspectives might explain how the Mortality Paradox arises, Cave argues, it doesn’t make light of the fact that most of us don’t live with the constant, all-consuming tension such a conflict might suggest. Henry Miller’s timeless words — “The aim of life is to live. . . . No why or wherefore…” — reverberate as we amble along the increasingly dimly lit corridors of existence.

From ancient mythology to today’s dominant world religions to modern scientific models like Terror Management Theory, the remainder of Immortality explores precisely how we’ve enlisted storytelling in weaving powerful immortality narratives that lift us out of our cognitive dissonance and, in the process, lay the very groundwork for human civilization.

Thanks, Filip; public domain images via Flickr Commons

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21 MARCH, 2013

Henry Miller on the Mystery of the Universe and the Meaning of Life

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“This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.”

More than merely one of the most memorable, prolific, and disciplined authors of the twentieth century, Henry Miller was also a champion of the wisdom of the heart, a poignant oracle of writing, a modern philosopher. But hardly anywhere does Miller’s spirit shine more brilliantly than in the 1974 gem This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn: Conversations with the Author from the Henry Miller Odyssey (public library) — not a book in the traditional sense, but “a transmutation, a reduction of the hours and hours of film and tape” that filmmaker Robert Snyder began recording in 1968 as the basis for the 1969 documentary The Henry Miller Odyssey. The book itself, as Snyder puts it, “is only a skimming of the film of the man” and “couldn’t be more than an invitation to the man’s work.”

Anchoring the biographical anecdotes are Miller’s many meditations on writing, creativity, and the meaning of life. Among the most poignant is this hand-written “memo to self,” dated 9/17/1918, in which Miller adds to other famous wisdom on the meaning of life:

What are we here for if not to enjoy life eternal, solve what problems we can, give light, peace and joy to our fellow-man, and leave this dear fucked-up planet a little healthier than when we were born.

The book ends with Miller’s grandest reflection on the eternal mystery of the universe, something great minds from Galileo to Montaigne to Neil deGrasse Tyson have pondered. He observes:

No matter what you touch and you wish to know about, you end up in a sea of mystery. You see there’s no beginning or end, you can go back as far as you want, forward as far as you want, but you never got to it, it’s like the essence, it’s that right, it remains. This is the greatest damn thing about the universe. That we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it. And it’s meant to be that way, do y’know. And there’s where our reverence should come in. Before everything, the littlest thing as well as the greatest. The tiniest, the horseshit, as well as the angels, do y’know what I mean. It’s all mystery. All impenetrable, as it were, right?

Complement This Is Henry, Henry Miller from Brooklyn with Miller’s meditations on creative death and the art of living.

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19 MARCH, 2013

Stress As Metaphor

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“Stress signified hardship, and endurance was needed to deal with it. Now … we ‘work’ to overcome stress; we don’t suffer it.”

Modern neuroscience has strongly suggested that optimism might benefit physical health, and researchers are now confirming that psychoemotional stress might actually trigger physical inflammation in the body. Even back in 1934, they knew that the key to mastering life was the elimination of worries. F. Scott Fitzgerald set out to immunize his daughter Scottie against stress with an itemized list of the things in life to worry and not worry about. But what, exactly, is stress — and how did we come to think of it the way we do?

In One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea (public library), Dana Becker investigates the origins of our stress metaphors:

Stress has had many different meanings over the centuries, and because of this, the way we talk about ‘stress’ now bears only a shadow of a resemblance to the way people talked about stress long ago. At one time, stress was a name for ‘what was hard and had to be endured,’ as Robert Kugelmann has noted. Stress demanded strength and fortitude. The image that was often invoked was that of a ship tossed about by the stress of bad weather, and in that image Kugelmann sees the difference between the stress of then and the stress of now. The storm-tossed ship represented something that neither challenged the forces outside it nor was wholly separate from these forces. Stress was what ‘proved the strength, power, and virtue of the ship and crew.’ It was occasional, like wintery blasts that assailed that metaphorical ship; stress signified hardship, and endurance was needed to deal with it. Now, particularly in the middle class, we ‘work’ to overcome stress; we don’t suffer it. And stress is not considered a sometime thing in contemporary Western societies; it is believed to be constant.

Much like our early metaphors for memory, which likened the mind to the recording technologies of yore, Becker traces the metaphor for stress to yesteryear’s depictions of the body as a machine and an industrial apparatus:

Early engineering gave us the ideas of stress and strain, and from these followed the metaphor of the body as a machine with a finite store of energy and with parts that life could grind down. The 1949 edition of the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary defined stress completely without reference to human beings, as the ‘action of external forces; especially to overstrain.'; Today, the definition reads like this: ‘a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tensions and may be a factor in disease causation’ and ‘a state from a stress; especially one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.’ Stress now derives from physics, where it refers to the force that can transform material in ways that cause it to change its form or to break. In our vernacular, stress can be both a cause (‘It was stress that caused his heart attack’) and effect (‘When the plane was late I was so stressed out’). But although we refer to stress as both a force outside the person and an inner state, recently it is the inner state that has been getting the primary emphasis.

This inward reorientation of the stress metaphor, Becker argues, is largely the result of the rising monoculture of liberal individualism, which places individual freedom and self-actualization at the heart of what it means to be human, all the while preserving and honoring the fluid self and negating the myth of fixed personality:

The ‘self’ has become something we can think and talk about — something we can even remake, if necessary. But individualism or no, the self is not separate from social expectations and norms; it can’t be considered apart from the way it is talked about and judged, as British psychologist Nikolas Rose has pointed out. Many of the events in our lives (marriage, unemployment, combat) are open to judgments about how we have coped with or adjusted to them, and these judgements are steeped in a psychological language that has slipped its middle-class moorings to become the currency of our time. … [At] other times in our history, when the stress concept didn’t exist, we couldn’t experience ourselves in the way that stress both describes and delimits.

In the rest of One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, Becker, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College, goes on to argue that the concept of stress has become inflated to a deleterious degree over the past 40 years, critiquing our cultural tendency to approach stress management and the preservation of sanity as a matter of perpetual bandaging of symptoms rather than a deeper concern with understanding and healing the underlying causes.

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