Friday, March 24, 2017

Can People Change?

Heraclitus believed that everything was constantly changing (painting by Johannes Moreelse)
One of the biggest and most overarching questions faced by anyone interested in the human mind is the question of whether people change. Most people who are honest probably would answer “no,” “I'm the same.” The only problem is that it's notoriously impossible to be objective about the self. That’s the reason why even the most practiced clinician cannot effectively practice self-analysis and also why people who know each other too well like old married couples are not very effective evaluators of each other. When you see someone all the time your pre-conception of them is so set that it’s likely to trump reality. That’s also why people who see each other all the time aren’t really able to recognize the physical change, called aging, that’s likely to be occurring. Individuals pursue all manner of attempts to change, but changing human character seems to be the highest hurdle. You may change your attitude and cognitively learn to do away with maladaptive behaviors, but still at the heart of the self, the same beast lurks, constantly transforming and camouflaging itself in ever new ways, like some kind of constantly mutating virus, always on the verge of creating new symptoms. Ask anybody suffering from OCD; in many cases they eliminate one obsession (like needing to check if the gas is turned off), only to find themselves at the mercy of a new compulsion. Some experts argue that behaviors are what  constitute character, while those who deal in so called depth psychology might say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and still another point of view might be held by those who argue that human character exists totally apart from its most visible manifestations, much the way Plato’s ideal forms are something which, by definition, elude apprehension. Those who embark on the journey of classical Freudian analysis sometimes spend years on the project of human character, only to find that while their so-called character may have been changed (together with the lens through which they view the world), they still suffer from many of the symptoms they had initially sought help for in the first place. A philosophical attitude becomes necessary in the face of such a seemingly paradoxical understanding of human personality.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Where to Shop for Your Universals?

50's Safeway ad
If you employ the paradigm of physics, most people think in Newtonian terms when relativity and quantum mechanics might provide better explanations or solutions to their problems. This is certainly apparent when we look at the current populist revolution, which has resulted in the election of Donald Trump, Brexit in England, and the rise of right wing politicos in both Italy and Germany. Exasperated voters point to terrorism, lost jobs and unfavorable balances of trade and then devise a strategy that’s right back there with Newton’s apple. There’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t address more profound issues and problems. You don't treat an infection by simply attending to symptoms. Otherwise it will simply come back. That's why antibiotics were devised. Yes, jobs might be lost to foreign workers who accept lower wages, but technological innovation has been equally responsible for rising unemployment in certain sectors of the economy. When you look at human psychology a similar attraction to surface cause and effect still seems to prevail. The emphasis on behavior and cognition is not mistaken. It’s just that it doesn’t tell the whole story, which ultimately relates to motivations that fall outside the province of reason. Why do some people make the same mistake time after time when they know better? The answer is that something else is driving them—perhaps the need to fail. Relativity and quanta are hard to understand, particularly because it’s practically impossible to see them in action. The same is true of the notion of the unconscious, originally proposed by Freud. However, when simple explanations and solutions to complex phenomena start to fail, the uncomfortable, unwieldy world of complex thinking, with its disturbingly un-salt-of-the-earth type analyses will likely provide the only direction in which to turn.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Beyond the Valley of the Bed Bath and Beyond

Advertising is successful when it becomes embedded in your unconscious and you no longer realize there's an addition to the interior design of your mind. An advertisement works when you mistake the message for a pro forma, the way say procedural memory makes it possible for you to mechanically undertake ordinary tasks. Let’s take the example of Bed Bath and Beyond, the home furnishing chain. The ingeniousness of the name lies in the fact that you very seldom think about its meaning. You muse about either the bed you sleep in or the bath you wash in and you take the most important word, “beyond” for granted. Most people would simply say that “beyond” connotes other things related to beds and baths, like duvets or toilet seat covers, but the ingenuity of the expression lies in its subliminal aspirational associations. The "beyond" aspect has to do with romantic strivings, not necessarily for love, but something more global and having to do with the complete renovation of one’s existence. Self-invention is what is ultimately being sold by the folks at Bed Bath and Beyond. However, the ingeniousness of the choice of name lies in the way it avoids hitting you over the head with such a heavy handed notion. So before Bed Bath and Beyond became what it is today, one would wager that the copyrighter at the agency handling the account, if there was one, had her or her work cut out for them.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Final Solution: The Truly Pathetic Fallacy

Beelzebub from Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire infernal

The pathetic fallacy is a literary notion in which nature mirrors the inner soul. It’s  important to remember that it’s a device used by authors to express the inner emotions of characters they have created. When a Katrina strikes, there’s a tendency to feel that the turbulence either mirrors an activity of the soul or in fact is a divine response, or punishment. But there are exceptions. For instance what are we to do about the current election? Trump, even his name, has a biblical aspect. Trump sounds like Beelzebub or the overreaching characters Elia Kazan created in movies like East of Eden and you could imagine Paul Thomas Anderson doing a sequel to The Master devoted to Trump trying to put his name on every conceivable object on the planet. Would the movie be called The Overreacher? There are indeed frightening things happening. What could be more disconcerting then the melting of the polar ice caps or infestations of smog that cause major cities in China to have to furlough employee (“Smog in China closes schools and construction sites, cuts traffic in Beijing," CNN, 12/8/15). When you turn on the television and see the destruction of Aleppo presided over by Assad in league with Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah all tacitly supported by a new president elect who has trouble differentiating reality TV from realpolitik, then it may be time to conclude that the upheaval in the outer world is more than just a reflection of the  turbulence of the poet's mind.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Marriage Trap

The intimacy of marriage is almost impossible to fathom which is why so many people either avoid (by taking detours into unfaithfulness) or destroy it, when its fragility becomes almost too much to bear. Why not hate the person with whom you have attained such a dire state of proximity rather than having to live with the vulnerability, perishability and fragility of something precious? But think of a typical couple living together for years, sleeping in the same bedroom, dressing and undressing in front of each other, even going to the bathroom in front of each other without embarrassment, and perhaps so mollified by preconception that they don’t even start to notice the changes which are readily perceptible to those who see them on a far more intermittent basis. Humans are social animals and most people have spent their lives inhabiting social units, starting with their parents homes, going on to college dorms, apartment sharing with roommates, and then early relationships and living together which may or may not turn into something more. However, though you might get undressed in front of the stranger with whom you're having a fling, you're truly naked with the person you've locked horns with in holy matrimony.  And most long married couples go through a process which is similar to the making of alloys in metallurgy. It’s the reverse of separation and individuation that occurs between parent and child early in life. The differences that once existed and that fueled the fires of libido begin to fade in tandem with ideologies and long held beliefs. One partner can finish another’s sentences and those very differences which might formerly have made it impossible to be joined at the hip dissolve. Many long married couples are like Siamese twins. And you’ve seen it. When one goes, he or she takes the other with them.