Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Final Solution: It's Never History

George Santayana (Samuel Johnson Woolf, Time Magazine)
Will history ever stop repeating itself? Will people ever learn on both an ontogenic and phylogenic basis. All evidence points to the contrary. Take for example your friend who's always getting jilted by his or her lovers. No matter what's transpired he or she always seems to pick the same unavailable girl or guy and when you try to pick example A, B or C who would have the personality traits that would make for a good companion he or she always says perfectly innocently that they're simply not attracted--without thinking why. No matter how much hurt they’ve experienced, they still don’t get that there's something deeply wrong and that their drives, which  inevitably push them in the wrong direction, are where the problem resides. Each new relationship begins with the same excitement. If you're lucky you can even catch the embarrassed grin on their face as they practically admit they're doing the same thing all over again with the hope that perhaps this time the attraction to the same kind of person will bring different results. And so the frightfully similar pattern appears on a grand scale with nation states who enter into pacts full of promise that only end in enmity and war. What's the reason for all the perpetual conflicts? The Bosnian Serb wars of the l990’s are a frightening reminder of this very propensity. Under the rule of a benevolent despot, the varying factions of the former Yugoslavia achieved a prosperity that was singular for a Communist block country of the era. Then with Tito's death all hell broke loose. Populations that had been carrying centuries of historical baggage eventually caused a harmonious society to implode.  Horrifying death and destruction ensued with no conceivable goal that could be unearthed. Everyone was a loser except for the war crimes tribunals which ended up doing a brisk business. Now the lid has been put on the hostilities though there's no evidence the simmering antagonisms won't again flare up someday. Like the man or woman who perpetually chooses a louse, there's a profound sickness in many national and international relations, an unattended to death wish, that perennially puts peace and prosperity at risk. George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But even those who remember seem to find a reason to travel down the same path.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Joys of Insomnia

Insomnia can be a joy, maybe not as great a pleasure as sleep, but at the very least a learning experience, providing you embrace it. Many people fight insomnia, but the dreaded scourge of darkness can easily become the thinking man’s NoDoz. Let insomnia work for you. First of all, what better way to improve your meditation practice than to count your breaths through an insomniac night? And then there's your old friend visualization. Say you've been taking tango classes with your wife. What better time to bone up on your moves than when she's lying in bed and softly snoring by your side! Look at "tossing and turning" as a new class at the gym.  If you're studying a language, insomnia is a great time to go over your amo, amas, amats. And then there's sex. It’s night. Somewhere in the big city, another couple is having hot and heavy sex. While the fact that you’re not could make you feel left out, you now have a perfect opportunity to indulge in a bit of harmless, virtual reality adultery. “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day” is the famous Fitzgerald quote. In fact, there’s no better time to enjoy illicit but safe sex with yourself. True insomniacs know that one of the secret perks of the ailment, is the voyeuristic enjoyment of other people’s romantic lives.

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.