Tag Archives: Psychology

In the Minds of Others

so I argue within myself whether to take my shoes off or not, and of course I could not ask him if I’m to take them off or not however it doesn’t seem right to me to begin analysis proper with a question of this sort especially since I have trouble becoming intimate with people, even with my father there was no intimacy, and in conclusion since hesitating any longer could also look insulting to him while he waits and perhaps doesn’t understand I resolutely take off my shoes…
—Giuseppe Berto, incubus (269)

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While I was in Italy a friend of mine posted a Facebook game in which all participants were to reach for the closest book, turn to a certain page, and write down the fifth sentence they came upon. I did not even need to decide if I wanted to participate because the book I was reading at the time, Giuseppe Berto’s incubus doesn’t do sentences. Written in 1964, and leaning hard on the conceit of a session at the analyst’s office, the exposition of the central problem of the narrator’s life (father issues) is very nearly a 383 page stream-of-conscious work. It is a tour-de-force of a study in modern angst as well as a fun and fascinating read.

my God I’m not fourteen yet and already I have such a great longing to die, what am I doing in this world what am I doing, I love love love so wretchedly and immensely that I don’t have the courage to decide on an object for my love, and then mine is love in bitterness love in renunciation, now houses and human beings are far away and I can sing without anybody hearing me Lovely liar beauty of an hour your lips are like a poisoned flower….(304)

The protagonist, a writer living in Rome, tells the story of his life and consequences of being the son of a father unable to show any love towards him. It is at once funny and tragic. A sort of Italian Catholic Woody Allen flinging himself from one illness to another, some real and some imagined.

he wants me to dig up in the Gospels or some sacred text or other article of faith whereby a person that has nobody to weep for him on earth cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and for the hundredth time I explain to him that such an article of faith doesn’t exist because it isn’t in accord with the ethical principles of our religion, nor of any other religion in the world I’m sure, however I believe he needn’t worry about this since it’s a film he’s making and not a theological treatise, and since the gimmick involving Gennerio is poetically valid according to me he can proceed freely with out articles of faith, but since I have used pretty obscure words like ethical principles and theology and poetically valid he looks at me like I’m trying to put something over on him…  (186–7)

I found this book in a used-book shop in Trastevere and I was happy to discover it. It kept me company when I took breaks from walking and looking and thinking. Although my trip was truly wonderful, I was also quite alone (when I wasn’t working, and even much of the time then) and as in all lonely periods of my life books afford me time out of my own incessant internal dialogue. This book was particularly interesting to me not only because it was set in Rome, the city I stayed in for over a month, but also because it took place in someone else’s mind. Someone else’s fears, foibles, and fables mercifully quieting my own; giving me someone besides me myself and I to listen and talk to.

Throughout all of the struggles of the unnamed protagonist in this tale, one thing becomes painfully clear to both reader and hero—while there may indeed be no article of faith that prohibits a person from entering heaven if no one weeps for him, the knowledge that no one will is the most wretched sort of life one could endure. My loneliness was temporary. The disorientation of being in a foreign country with middling fluency in the language gave me the freedom and a silence created by the remove of social interactions to fearlessly examine my past and my future hopes. Berto’s hero was not so lucky. He worked himself up into a froth of incurable isolation. It was heartbreaking to witness.

*Published in Italy as Il Male Oscure. This Penguin Books edition translated by William Weaver.

 

The Penumbra

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The utter mystery of what transpires beneath the folds of the brain is profound. And love, more perhaps than any other emotion, reaches into nearly every dark shadow of our gray matter. Our brains want love, need love, and are improved by love. And sex too for that matter. According to The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex, and the Brain, by Judith Horstman, not only are love and sex good for your brain, they are good for it in different ways. More than that, one merely has to think of love or sex to benefit.

Just the thought of love or sex can improve brain performance, but in different ways. Thoughts about the two states have different impacts on performance: Love makes us creative, whereas sex makes us analytical (Horstman 88).

A friend jokingly asked me, which, in that case, would be better for SATs? Sex, obviously—but who has to tell a teenager to think about sex?

Can it be said that sex is left brain and love is right brain? On the face of it, it makes sense. Sex is obviously very action, ‘now’ oriented, necessarily focusing on details of the event. Love, on the other hand, is expansive and discursive, reaching into the future, and back into the past as well.

And this all made me think of another book I just finished, The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard Davidson. To easily test this notion of right and left thinking (and I did test a friend to verify) one can think about a slightly complex question involving language (the example question in the book was: name three synonyms for boredom) one looks to the left (which the right side of the brain controls) whereas when the question is a mathematical question requiring some thought (how many corners does a cube have?) one searches into the right field of vision for the answer. This is one of the ways scientists determine that the right and left hemisphere of the brain dominate different modes of thinking.

But here is an interesting consideration: likewise, when we recall negative memories we tend to look to the left as the right side of our brains is activated. Positive memories will induce a rightward gaze.

positive and negative emotions are distinguished by activation in the left and right prefrontal cortex, respectively (Richards 31).

Davidson’s research led him to discover that “positive” and “negative” emotions were largely processed in different regions of the brain. Why might this be, he asks? He speculates that it comes down to qualities that every emotion balances between: “approach” and “avoidance.”

Whether to approach or avoid is the fundamental psychological decision an organism makes in relation to its environment (Richards 39).

It is fundamental, and the brain has evolved in such a way, perhaps, in order to keep these two competing drives neatly separated.

But back to sex and love. One can see how this may fit in. Sex depends upon an “approach” sort of instinct—that seems obvious. Does that mean that love reigns in the “avoidance” hemisphere? It would seem so. I hasten to interject here that, I think, one must step away from value judgments about “positive” and “negative” for a moment to follow my train of thought. There is much more going on in each hemisphere of the brain than can be reduced to “good” and “bad.” Not to mention the obvious fact that each brain is individual (a driving thesis in Richard’s book), complex, and each region of the brain deeply, inextricably interconnected. So, that said, the more I read about the subject, the more I begin to see a pattern which begins to lead my research question: is love a mechanism that works under the constraints of avoidance or limits. Why yes, of course: I love this and not that, I love you and not someone else.

I am starting to see love as a beautiful process which quiets the noise of all the myriad choices we would otherwise be overwhelmed by. It makes for specificity. It simplifies and concentrates by naturally encouraging an avoidance of things I don’t love.

I have been focusing on the senses’ relationship to the emotion of love, and I see this sort of manifesting in those realms as well. It’s quite fascinating. I have to think more on this, follow my thoughts more thoroughly, but one thing that I find truly lovely about our brains, and love in the brain, is the complexity and the simplicity: an unavoidable truth that there is a wholeness in the peaks and valleys.

 

Philistines From the Plush Parlors

Any legend immune to rational arguments can be supposed to rest upon powerful collective desires.
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A psychological history of the German film (117).

IMG_5602A couple of weeks ago some of my children and I went to see Star Wars. I’ll state right up front, unequivocally—I love Star Wars. Okay, maybe a little equivocation—I am only speaking of the first three, and mostly the first two that were made. Nevertheless—we were excited. The film was fine, I do not regret the price of admission (which my lovely daughter’s boyfriend paid for come to think of it, although I bought the exorbitantly priced popcorn and what not) and it went a long way to make up for the last three monstrous iterations. But never mind all that. The discomfiting thing I wish to discuss is the previews that we were subjected to.

What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions—those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness (6).

There were of course many previews. The remarkable thing to me was not that they were all hyped-up action flicks—I suppose that is to be expected when one goes to see an action film—but it was the sheer redundancy of the films. We watched the first one which was based on a comic book, something to do with a superhero “civil war.” Then the next film was previewed—instead of DC Comics, this one was Marvel Comics about a superhero “civil war.” I look around in dismay—we literally just saw this preview, I hissed to my daughter— It’s the same film, right? Am I right? The next six previews were exactly the same, saving the scenery—one in ancient Greece, another Egypt, et cetera, ad nauseum. What the hell?

And permeating both the stories and the visuals, the “unseen dynamics of human relations” are more or less characteristics of the inner life of the nation from which the films emerge (7).

I began to be convinced that these films must surely suggest something about the American psyche. A deep fear, a hope for a single vigilante-like hero to save a world beset by evil. By a very interesting coincidence the next day a book that I had requested from ILL (inter-library loan) came. It had been recommended to me by a fellow blogger Howard JohnsonFrom Caligari to Hitler examines just this question in pre- and interwar Germany. And the comparisons are chilling.

Significantly, many observant Germans refused until the last moment to take Hitler seriously, and even after his rise to power considered the new regime a transitory adventure.[…] Their surrender to the Nazis was based on emotional fixations rather than on any facing of the facts (10, 11).

In the book, Kracauer takes the reader through a history of the German film which, he argues, shows the struggle and latent anxieties of the German people at that time. Film, in particular, because of its collaborative nature, has the ability to inadvertently expose the pulse of the culture. No single person’s pathology emerges, rather there is a sort of leveling out of the zeitgeist. The major difference between our time and the time Kracauer writes of is the complete excess of entertainment we now face. One can (and believe me, I normally do) easily avoid “popular” movies and TV, while still enjoying myriad film productions. This may diffuse our ability to gain insight into our particular current psyche. But— I am very confused about Donald Trump’s popularity…and I think it is worth a few moment’s thought to take him more seriously, or probe the unfathomable-ness, than any semi-intelligent person might otherwise be inclined.

All said, I am not sure whether or not I should be happy that what I sensed on the screen was as potentially ominous as I perceived, or, seriously depressed that it might in fact be so.

*title from p. 272 “The blare of military bugles sounded unremittingly, and the philistines from the plush parlors felt very elated.”

** Photo of my daughter and her Donald Trump creation made for our dear friends’ Guy Fawkes party this past fall.

 

Coenesthesia of Art

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All remarks as to the ways and means by which experiences arise or are brought about are technical, but critical remarks are about the values of experiences and the reasons for regarding them as valuable, or not valuable (23). – I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

The book Principles of Literary Criticism was mentioned in The Story of Ain’t and for some reason, I felt I had to read it. Published in 1924, Richards seems to use perspectives in psychology to try to understand the value of the arts and outline principles with which to appreciate and critique them.

The basis of morality, as Shelley insisted, is laid not by preachers but by poets. Bad taste and crude responses are not mere flaws in an otherwise admirable person. They are actually a root evil from which other defects flow. No life can be excellent in which the elementary responses are disorganised and confused (62).

I came across Andrew Wyeth’s study for his painting Black Velvet the other day in the book Writers on Artists. The writer was John Updike and the focus of his essay was (mostly) on his complaining of the titillating speculation and hype surrounding the relationship between Wyeth and his long time model Helga Testorf (Black Velvet is one of the so-named “Helga Series”). I sent a picture of the finished painting via facebook to my daughter because she loves this series of works (I couldn’t find the above study online, for this post I scanned the image from the book). My oldest son commented on it, “that’s creepy.”

The two pillars upon which a theory of criticism must rest are an account of value and an account of communication. We do not sufficiently realise how great a part of our experience takes the form it does, because we are social beings and accustomed to communication from infancy (25).

I looked at the painting as it must have appeared to him, a woman lying corpse-like, almost being swallowed by a rich black background against which her hair, individually limned with golden light, glimmered intoxicatingly.

There is no kind of mental activity in which memory does not intervene (106).

But it was exactly her pose that had resonated with me. I told him: never mind the obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia, or the beautiful lines and (in the painting) the use of lights and darks – it is her pose! That it happens to be the exact position that I sleep in fascinates me, (as my children have, even a friend once checked to see if I was alive when we once shared a bed, I was so persistent in my odd, still repose).

Tragedy – is still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed (69).

The hands over her chest, wanting to cover her heart, her crossed limp feet, head turned away- it is evocative of a vulnerability, a melancholy and…becalmed spirit that so overwhelms. Quite the opposite of Olympia’s pointed command and assurance.

We rarely change our tastes, we rather find them changed (198).

My son’s two word reaction made me organise my thoughts about my own judgments. What made me stare at it, feel and think so deeply? For Richards, that is the very key – organising the chaos of our thoughts as a direct function of critique. Yes we all have thoughts and/or feelings, but it is the making sense of them and the communication of them with which the artist intuits and the viewer aspires to illume meaningful existence.

To put it briefly the best life is that in which as much as possible of our possible personalities is engaged. And of two personalities that one is the better in which there is more which can be engaged without confusion. We all know people of unusually wide and varied possibilities who pay for their width in disorder, and we know others who pay for their order with narrowness (288).

It doesn’t matter that my son and I had different reactions, only that we have an organized and expansive sense of ourselves with which to understand our reactions – because we always react. Literature and the arts engage sense and sensibility, order and organic harmony, through which we discover we are more than all that we see, hear and read. We are more than all this.

 

*title from Chapter XIII, Emotion and Coenesthesia:  In alluding to the coenesthesia we came very near to giving an account of emotion as an ingredient of consciousness (98). […]  As a rule a process of extraordinary complexity takes place between perceiving the situation and finding a mode of meeting it. This complicated process contributes the rest of its peculiar flavour to an emotional experience (102).

WITHDRAWN

System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy. 
– Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (81)

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I spent the greater part of my working hours this past week removing books from the library shelves and stamping them “withdrawn.” Feeling something of the executioner, I began to muse on the psychological effect it might have on me to stamp the word, “withdrawn” “withdrawn” “WITHDRAWN” over and over again.

One further limitation of System 1 is that it can not be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it (25)

Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking Fast and Slow names the differing ways of thinking, respectively, System 1 and System 2. The part we know and believe to be firmly in control is System 2, all activity that requires conscious thought lives in this system. The unfortunate news that Kahneman shares in his book is the overwhelming evidence that System 1 is in fact (smugly, no doubt) running the show. System 1 is so firmly in control of our reactions, impressions, and judgements, that it hardly need deign to acknowledge its domination.

The technical definition of heuristics is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as eureka (98).

Admittedly heuristics is a good thing. We are not after all computers and lack the ability to algorithmically function in real time. Lord knows I’m all for split second, heuristics. Or so I thought. I don’t want to make an enemy of my own brain, but the fact that System 1’s default attitude is to believe, always to believe, concerns me.

declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true (212).

Halo effect, illusions of validity, hindsight effect, coherence, over confidence, context dependency- the list of pit falls, oversights, blind spots and standard issue mental sloth is depressing me. Standing in the back of the stacks with my red stamp – withdrawn, withdrawn, withdrawn, the frame of my life takes on a rather pathetic hue. What might I be feeling if the word was “discard?” I shudder to think. But never mind “discard,” the depressing point, according to Kahneman is that if the word had been “keep” or “valued” I probably would not have even noticed. It doesn’t fit into my story.

A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches (302).

As the acidic paper of the books I remove from the shelves flake and fall, strewing my hair and the floor with brittle specks of lonely confetti, I force System 2 to step it up. How we frame events, the tension between our remembering selves and our experiencing selves  makes a real difference to the actual quality of our lives. Kahneman mentions movements and policies, at the end of the book, that aim to help us help ourselves when dealing with all of our innate (and not always negative) judgment disabilities. And that is some cause for celebration. For hope.

Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound (367).

An admission that we know nothing,  yet relentlessly protect our belief systems against reality, is a healthy thing to keep in mind – I’m talking to you System 1! Understanding how profound our mental biases and tendencies are leaves me feeling that much more like useless confetti helplessly blowing about- it’s no use! but, never fear- my optimism bias kicks in and I just KNOW that acceptance is the first step! All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could – oh dear, I must confess my cynicism bias can kick my optimism bias’s ass any day of the week…..In the meantime I take some solace in the ineluctable certainly that, it is not just me. My predictable predilection of perception fallibility is matched only by yours. Solidarity, my fellow humans!

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it (402)

Simple Rather Than Truthful

The human mind receives, shapes, and interprets its image of the outer world with all its conscious and unconscious powers, and the realm of the unconscious could never enter our experience without the reflection of perceivable things. (461)

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Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye written by Rudolf Arnheim in 1954 is a fascinating study- not because of its freshness (many of the concepts discussed have long become part of the canon of psychology 101) but rather while revisiting these well known ideas, larger connections can be made. Art is such a seductive practice, both in a tactile as well as an emotional or intellectual sense. The fact is, we, as humans ,enjoy it.

It is an exciting experience to bring about something visible that was not there before […] It is simple sensory pleasure which remains undiminished even in the adult artist (171)

It is for that reason that considering the distortions and anti-distortions that are required for our minds to process what our eyes deliver is so very interesting and in my view,  poetically profound.

“He was a very skillful artist,” says Goethe of a painter friend of his, “and he was among the few who know how to transform artifice entirely into nature and nature entirely into art. They are exactly the ones whose misunderstood merits keep giving rise to the doctrine of false naturalness.” (97)

A “parsimony of perspective” rules our lives- not just visually, but materially. What is the simplest way to make sense of something? Visually our minds run to the familiar shapes, with all sorts of preferences for completion, concavity, balance, foreground, and pattern. It makes me wonder if these preferences carry over to other aspects: music-yes, literature- yes, our emotional lives?  Status quo is a powerful force because of this multi-faceted psychological disposition for the familiar to cling to- what’s easiest, go along and get along despite the truth of what may be before us.

When vision has to choose between a deformed cubic room populated by normal-sized people and a regular rectangular room with people of weirdly unnatural size, it chooses the latter. (275)

 And yet, these points of perspective that can be mastered by keen artistry, may be the very source of an inability to react honestly to truth. Our minds are geared to “make it work.” But sometimes when we let ourselves see the parts that don’t fit, what’s different and against the grain- that is where the possibility of profoundly altering our perspective exists. That is the domain of the mysterious truth, and it is where we  deeply experience the wonder of the world. A sudden burst of insight makes the disordered facts all add up in an entirely new and expansive way.

*  Title from – chapter sub-heading (271)
**Désarçonner (to unseat)- J. Ryan 1986, pencil and mixed media

Hard to Win Man’s Heart

Unknown

Write the names out once more and again
making a point to spell them without amend.
Yesterday’s Psychology exam was my bane
today, three more till I come to an end.

Italians, perché tantissimi verbi?
Does it matter that McKinley was called a chocolate eclair?
I just want to know about the center block of Versailles –
what the hell was the last name of that Jules something guy?

Last night my mind was perfectly conformed
Louis Le Vau and the rest, in my head adorned.
Then today it was gone: “interference,” Psych would say,
too much information to retrieve all in one day.

Jules- Jules- I can just see who you are,
but even Vernes’ leagues don’t seem as far!
A last minute look before the test starts,
A way at last! to recall his name and his art-

How could I forget? It’s Hardouin-Mansart.

JA/2013