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Opinion philosophy psychology

The Fear of Losing the Future

The most ironic part about get-rich-quick schemes is that the people who buy into them invest many years trying to get rich “quick.” But why are they so attractive? And why do they pull so many people in?

I think it has to do with “loss aversion” – the idea that people prefer to avoid losing 100 dollars than gain 100 dollars even if there was a slightly higher probability that they would gain 100 dollars.

When I read behavioral economists discuss this concept, they usually refer to money as the “thing to be lost or gained or lost.” But loss aversion doesn’t need to be limited to money.

Why do people get attracted to shortcuts? Many reasons, including:

  1. Lazy thinking: I do not properly assess the risk involved. High reward is always precluded by high risk.
  2. The hedonic treadmill: I quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. Because of continuous dissatisfaction, I am constantly pulled towards the allure of easy money.
  3. Mimesis: I want want others want, because I do not know what is worth wanting.
  4. Security: I constantly feel threatened by the prospect of rainy days – I must accumulate money as fast as possible to protect myself.

But there is another less obvious reason – they are averse to losing time. The part that is salient in “get rich quick” is the the word “quick.” Not many people care about getting rich if they have to wait for 50 years to get there.

A typical case of loss aversion would be the case of the someone who chooses a low paying job with a guaranteed salary, rather than a potentially high paying job with a non-guaranteed salary. The prospect of having no salary at all is much more motivating than the prospect of having a higher ceiling.

We would say that the employee who goes for the stable wage with a low ceiling is influenced by his inclination towards loss aversion.

But what about the person who ditches the stable wage for the potential for astronomical success, such as the artist or entrepreneur? This person, is not only motivated by the innate need to create something, but by the potential loss of time that would come from pursuing something else. The time itself is what is valuable.

In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley starts his book by painting a very desperate picture of a typical family living in the United States prior to the Industrial Revolution. This fictional family resides in a farm, and has little access to the things modern people take for granted – sanitation, convenience, security, nutrition, variety, and entertainment.

The modern person may complain about his current circumstances, like Henry David Thoreau once did (he thought it was better to live like a secluded life in nature that be part of a busy and dirty city).

But the reality is that the economic engine that currently powers society has removed culture from the clutches of a hellish existence, and we should be very grateful that we are part of this world and not a past world.

But the greatest benefit from modern industrial society is time.

To see why, let’s look at Ridley’s premises.

Ridley explains that the four most basic human needs – food, clothing, fuel and shelter – have grown much cheaper during the past two hundred years.

If basic needs have got cheaper, then there is more disposable income to spend on luxuries. Artificial light lies on the border between necessity and luxury. In monetary terms, the same amount of artificial lighting cost 20,000 times as much in England in the year 1300 as it does today.

Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist

A more precise way of measuring such an improvement would be to calculate how much artificial light you earn with one hour of work at the average wage. This amount was 24 lumen hours in 1750 BC (sesame oil lamp) to 186 in 1800 (tallow candle) to 4,400 in 1880 (kerosene lamp) to 531,000 in 1950 (incandescent light bulb) to 8.4 million lumen-hours today (compact fluorescent bulb).

In simpler terms, an hour of work today earns you 300 days’ worth of reading light, an hour of work in 1800 earned you ten minutes of reading light. The argument is that the same amount of work today earns you much more light, and thus much more free time.

Returning to the person who is sucked into get-rich-quick schemes is simply a product of the spirit of modernity: the urge to extend idle time taken to the extreme. Or, in other words, an intense aversion to lost time in the future.

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Opinion psychology

How to be a Genuine Fake?

The Illusion of Separateness

The biggest taboo of all is knowing who we really are behind the mask of our self as presented to the world. Through our focus on ourselves and the world as it affects us, we have developed narrowed perception.

– Alan Watts, The Book


To understand what Watts is saying, we need to revisit Freud, for as I have discussed in a previous blog post, many of the ideas that we have about the self have been derived from him. Freud posited that infants have primary narcissism – a claim that was later disputed by Melanie Klein. Freud thought that it was only later in life that people develop secondary narcissism.

What is primary narcissism? It is the lack of differentiation between the self and the world. The infant cannot see the boundary that separates them from the rest of the world. According to Watts, the reality is the stage we occupy as infants, and the illusion is what we acquire as adults – the illusion of separateness.

Watts noted that Freud was influenced by “reductionism” – the nineteenth century fashion that felt the need to put down all human intelligence and culture by calling it an arbitrary by-product of blind forces.

Yet humans have hypnotized themselves into believing in the hoax of egocentricity. And this ego-fiction is not essential to the individual. Each person is a branch of the tree of humanity, but differentiation is not separation.

Man is conditioned to believe in the ego fiction, which creates in him a sense of alienation from everything else. This implants in him the desire to get one up on nature, to conquer it and to defeat everything that is separate from his individual body.

But this is absurd. The individual works for a vision that will never be fulfilled. He works for the promise of tomorrow, a future in which the impossible will happen. So, he lives always in the future, incapable of living in the present. There is never a point where you can say, “Now, I have arrived.” Formal education precludes this possibility by robbing you of the ability to be alive now.

Education consists of a series of steps, where each step prepares you for the next great moment, until finally, you get into university. And if you are clever, you manage to stay on indefinitely by going to graduate school and becoming a permanent student.

Otherwise, you join the outside world of family-raising, business, and profession. But even at work, each stage is another step, which promises to carry you towards a great moment. But by the time you get there, to the final point, towards retirement, to enjoy the fruits of your labor, your life of anxiety and emotions have left you with a “weak heart, false teeth, prostate trouble, sexual impotence, fuzzy eyesight, and a vile digestion.”

How to be a Genuine Fake?

Through technology, man tries to control life. But this strength and skill may be self-destructive.

In the past, recognition of life’s impermanence led to withdrawal. Monks, ascetics, and hermits tried to exorcise their desires, to regard the world with benign resignation, or to try to draw back into the depths of consciousness to unite with the Self. Others saw the world was a state of probation, where material goods were to be used as if they were loans from the Almighty, where the point of life was loving devotion to God and to man.

Yet both these responses are based on the initial supposition that the individual is the separate ego, thus any task undertaken on this basis including religion-will be sell-defeating. Just because it is a hoax from the beginning, the personal ego can make only a phony response to life. For the world is an ever elusive and ever-disappointing mirage only from the standpoint of someone standing aside from it as if it were quite other than himself and then trying to grasp it.

Alan Watts, The Book

But there is a third response which we are conditioned to ignore, it is not withdrawal, but the fullest collaboration with the world, and knowing that the only real “I” is the endless process. Our bodies and senses know this, but our thin ray of conscious attention has been taught so well to ignore it. That is why we are genuine fakes

That is why the conservative psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, got something right when he opted to preserve tradition in some way, and offered his patients a more fulfilling answer that connected them with their ancestry. Instead of thinking of the self as fragmented, the self was, in fact, connected deeply with the past. And archetypal symbols that exist in the unconscious of each person were proof of this continuous identity.

The problem with the analysis Watts gives is that it commits the same error as Freud, unwittingly. Freud’s reductionism may have led him to believe that the self was disconnected and fragmented, which led him to assume that a self free from the past was more free than one that was not, but Watts’ “the self is connected to everything” epiphany leads him to believe the opposite absurdity – that the self is not in important ways disconnected from everything else.

A more reasonable hypothesis is that the self is both connected and disconnected from everything else. That is, there is a sense in which the self is truly a separate entity, capable of making free choices, yet at the same time, is undeniably connected to an ancient tradition, both biologically and culturally.

Freud rejected tradition, particularly Christianity, it may be an emotional reason, since he was a target of anti-Semitism (he was Jewish). But as social commentators such as Rieff and Lasch have pointed out, the individual, when severed from his roots, does not become more free, but more self-absorbed and trapped.

Narcissism is impossible to get around. It is everywhere. Only a truly narcissistic society could have led to the phenomenon of sharing (on social media) the banalities of an individual’s daily existence, or selfies, i-phones, or megalomaniac world leaders.

Lasch and Rieff were raging against narcissistic trends in 1960’s. More than 60 years later, we can safely say that their concerns were unfounded at the time.

The Problem of Narcissism

The problem of narcissism is a very old one, and it remains a problem, but simply not perceived as one. Psychologist Heinz Kohut posited narcissism as a defense mechanism. If someone is narcissistic, it will allow him to suppress feelings of low self-esteem. By talking highly of himself, the person can eliminate his sense of worthlessness

The consequences of abandoning past traditions is not simply abandoning a “belief in a supernatural entity” but the abandonment of values that have been consistently proven to be self-destructive.

In Christianity, pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins. Lust, envy, greed, anger, gluttony, sloth are bad, not none come close to pride – the root of all evil and the beginning of sin. Watts may not have proposed the correct solution to the problem of the “self” – but he can be forgiven, humanity has had a go at it for millennia, and we are still not much closer than the Ancient Greeks were. The self remains a mystery. But his sentiment about disconnectedness is closer to the truth.

Modern man is obsessed with the next trend, or in Michael Lewis’ words, “the new new thing.” And as Lasch remarked, the Marivaudian being is always in the present – a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. But the deeper truth is that the shifts in values are impossible to counteract, because man is not in control of how society moves or what it values.

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Opinion psychology

The Double-Blind of the Therapeutic

In The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Rieff describes modern society (the book was written in 1966) as completely different from the past. Previously, society was marked by “religious man” – and then, many centuries later, by “economic man”, and now, in the current stage, by “psychological man.”

And this new type of individual differs from ancestors in the way he creates meaning in his life. Whereas the older generations sought meaning from without, by burdening themselves with cultural traditions and economic aspirations, psychological man is mainly interested in maintaining a balanced mindset, he seeks meaning from within. A principal feature of psychological man is his indifference.

No longer the Saint, but the instinctual Everyman, twisting his neck uncomfortably inside the starched collar of culture, is the communal ideal, to whom men offer tacit prayers for deliverance from their inherited renunciations. Freud sought only to soften the collar; others, using bits and pieces of his genius, would like to take it off.

Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic

A society is made up of controls and releases. A cultural revolution, such as the one we are experiencing, occurs when the releases overwhelm the system of controls. The rise of Christianity was an example of such a revolution.

Near the end of the 19th century, Western culture became more remissive (a sign of an imminent cultural revolution). But unlike previous revolutions, the new culture does not have a new set of commitments.

Western culture is changing already into a symbol system unprecedented in its plasticity and absorptive capacity. Nothing much can opposite it really, and it welcomes all criticism, for, in a sense, it stands for nothing.

Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic

This vacuum that was created in a post-religious society was then filled by Freud and psychoanalysis. In short, Freud thought that psychological problems resulted from a triangular conflict between the id, ego, and superego. The old culture solved this tension by influencing the super-ego and crushing the id. The new culture, since it requires nothing from the individual, relaxes pressure on the superego, and allows the individual to be free.

Culture is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied.

Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic

But the cost of gaining freedom was the loss of meaning. A culture of commitments offers a consolation for the misery of living, because binding social commitments, while painful on many, holds out the promise of salvation. Christian culture offered its adherents a religious answer. Marxist culture offered its adherents an economic answer (the workers’ paradise). The psychological culture offers no mechanism for salvation, since it is individualistic. This marks the impoverishment of Western culture, according to Rieff.

While the old culture cured man’s psychological needs by giving him a communal purpose, the new culture encourages self-absorption and minimal group commitment.

Blinding loyalties are taboo. Psychological man stands for nothing, in congruence with Freud’s psychology of analysis and detachment.

Analysis impels the individual to understand but not to judge. And since there is hierarchy between our competing instincts, we must give expression to all. The ultimate purpose is to prevent the negotiations from breaking down. That is, if you are conflicted between what your conscience tells you to do, and what you feel like doing – the solution would be to find a compromise. This is in contrast to the process of demonizing some impulses while glorifying others. 

Freud thought that the person who questioned the meaning and value of life was sick, since objectively, neither exist. To the person who accepts Freud’s account, analysis appears rational, saving the individual from the pointless bustle which animated the lives of his ancestors.

The old answers to the deepest questions of life are no longer valid.

Thus, Freud created a major change in Western society.

His ideas were the anti-creed for those who thought of themselves as post-religious. But Freud refused to tell them what to pursue. He was only interested in giving them the tools to structure their inner life, even if the newly discovered structure is more imprisoning than what came before.

Freud proposed sublimation as the antidote to a meaning crisis – that is, to seek redemption through art. Here, Rieff quotes Harry Sullivan, a sage among psychologists, who said, “If you tell people how they can sublimate, they can’t sublimate.” The dynamics of culture are in the unwitting parts of it.

Categories
Book Summaries Psychology

The Triumph of the Therapeutic Summary

In The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Rieff describes modern society (the book was written in 1966) as completely different from the past. Previously, society was marked by “religious man” – and then, many centuries later, by “economic man”, and now, in the current stage, by “psychological man.”

And this new type of individual differs from ancestors in the way he creates meaning in his life. Whereas the older generations sought meaning from without, by burdening themselves with cultural traditions and economic aspirations, the psychological man is mainly interested in maintaining a balanced mindset, he seeks meaning from within. A principal feature of psychological man is his indifference.

No longer the Saint, but the instinctual Everyman, twisting his neck uncomfortably inside the starched collar of culture, is the communal ideal, to whom men offer tacit prayers for deliverance from their inherited renunciations. Freud sought only to soften the collar; others, using bits and pieces of his genius, would like to take it off.

Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic

A society is made up of controls and releases. A cultural revolution, such as the one we are experiencing, occurs then the releases overwhelm the system of controls. The rise of Christianity was an example of such a revolution.

Near the end of the 19th century, Western culture became more remissive (a sign of an imminent cultural revolution). But unlike previous revolutions, the new culture does not have a new set of commitments.

Western culture is changing already into a symbol system unprecedented in its plasticity and absorptive capacity. Nothing much can opposite it really, and it welcomes all criticism, for, in a sense, it stands for nothing.

Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic

This vacuum is filled by Freud and psychoanalysis. In short, Freud thought that psychological problems resulted from a triangular conflict between the id, ego, and super-ego. The old culture solved this tension by influencing the super-ego and crushing the id. The new culture, since it requires nothing from the individual, relaxes pressure on the super-ego, and allows the individual to be free.

Culture is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied.

Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic

But the cost of freedom was a loss of meaning. A Culture of commitments offers a consolation for the misery of living, because binding social commitments, while painful on many, holds out the promise of salvation. Christian culture offered its adherents a religious answer. Marxist culture offered its adherents an economic answer (the workers’ paradise). The psychological culture offers no mechanism for salvation, since it is individualistic. This marks the impoverishment of Western culture, according to Rieff.

While the old culture cured man’s psychological needs by giving him a communal purpose, the new culture encourages self-absorption and minimal group commitment.

Blinding loyalties are taboo. Psychological man stands for nothing, in congruence with Freud’s psychology of analysis and detachment.

Analysis impels the individual to understand but not to judge. And since there is hierarchy between our competing instincts, we must give expression to all. The ultimate purpose is to prevent the negotiations from breaking down.

Freud thought that the person who questioned the meaning and value of life was sick, since objectively, neither exist. To the person who accepts Freud’s account, analysis appears rational, saving the individual from the pointless bustle which animated the lives of his ancestors.

The old answers to the deepest questions of life are useless.

Thus, Freud created a major change in Western society.

His ideas were the anti-creed for those who think of themselves as post-religious. But Freud refused to tell them what to pursue. He was only interested in giving them the tools to structure their inner life, even if the newly discovered structure is more imprisoning than what came before.

Freud proposed sublimation as the antidote to a meaning crisis – that is, to seek redemption through art. Here, Rieff quotes Harry Sullivan, a sage among psychologists, who said, “If you tell people how they can sublimate, they can’t sublimate.” The dynamics of culture are in the unwitting parts of it.

Now our renunciations have failed us; less and less is given back bettered. For this reason, chiefly, I think, this culture, which once imagined itself inside a church, feels trapped in something hke a zoo of separate cages. Modern men are like Rilke’s panther, forever looking out from one cage into another. Because the modern sense of identity seems outraged by imprisonment in either old church or new cage, it is the obligation of sociologists, so far as they remain interested in assessing the quality of our corporate life, to analyze doctrinal as well as organizational profiles of the rage to be free of the inherited morality, the better to see how these differ from what is being raged against.

Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic

But in the end, Rieff concedes that there is no way of knowing whether the anti-creed of Freud is a gift or a curse – we will have to wait and see.

Indeed, with the arts of psychiatric management enhanced and perfected, men will come to know one another in ways that could facilitate total socialization without a symbolic of communal purpose. Then the brief historic fling of the individual, celebrating himself as a being in himself, divine and therefore essentially unknowable, would be truly ended—ending no less certainly than the preceding personifications of various renunciatory disciplines. Men already feel freer to live their lives with a minimum of pretense to anything more grand than sweetening the time. Perhaps it is better so; in cultures past, men sacrificed themselves to heroic and cruel deceptions, and suffered for glories that once mirrored their miseries. Not until psychological men overcome lives of squalor can they truly test their assumption that the inherited ideals of glory are no longer required.

Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic

Jung, Reich, and Lawrence – disciples of Freud – established their own pseudo-religious systems of thought – simulations of religion. Rather than become completely anti-religious, like their predecessor, they were determined to provide “something” in place of “nothing” – but according to Rieff, all three were intellectually inferior to Freud.

Jung proposed a religious psychology, a deity through the amalgam of archetypes that exist in the collective unconscious; Reich introduced radical political activism as the means to self-fulfillment; and Lawrence proposed erotic experience as a therapy to integrate the self. Each rejects the past, but each seeks a new definition of man.

In the aftermath of the psychoanalytic movement, the anti-religions and the pseudo religions, Rieff wonders if the age old question posed by Dostoevsky “Can civilized men believe?” ought to be replaced by its inverse “Can unbelieving man be civilized?”

We believe that we know something our predecessors did not: that we can live freely at last, enjoying all our senses—except the sense of the past—as unremembering, honest, and friendly barbarians all, in a technological Eden.

Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic
Categories
Book Summaries Philosophy

Girard’s Mimetic Theory Summary

A great overview of Mimetic Theory, by Wolfgang Palaver. In a systematic careful synthesis of Girard’s thought, Palaver summarizes the mimetic insights that were derived from authors such as Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Flaubert, and Proust. And finally, he shows the precise stories of the Old and New Testament that confirm Girard’s thesis. What is Girard’s thesis?

Man is fundamentally mimetic, he imitates the desires of others (models). If the models are internal (within his social sphere), he may reach a point of conflict with his model because they are both competing for the same desire. If the model is external (outside his social sphere), then there will be no conflict, since there will be no rivalry. Because man is more mimetic than any other animal, he has the capacity to imitate abstractly. But the ability for abstract imitation was only earned after the discovery of the first instance of language, the first symbol.

When did this discovery occur? With the origin of culture. Like Freud, Girard agrees that the beginning of culture occurred as a result of a murder. Freud thought that this murder was patricidal. Girard did not think that was necessarily true. Instead, Girard tells us that in the beginning, before society and language developed, when man found himself competing for resources with other men, in a state of all-against-all, a miraculous development occurred.

Man was able to, for a moment, to see beyond the physical reality that he was part of, he was able to think abstractly. This occurred precisely when, by accident, the conflict of all-against-all turned to a conflict between all-against-one. The first scapegoat, according to Girard, was the birthplace of language and consequently, society. The survivors of the conflict realized that when the scapegoat was murdered, there was momentary peace in the community. When this phenomenon was repeated across time, it became embedded as an abstract symbol. And because it was a symbol that represented a momentary break from conflict, it became sacred. This first symbol was the cause of man’s cognitive development, and eventually, because man became capable of abstraction, language was possible, and this led to the creation of society.

That is a very rough sketch of mimetic theory as it pertains to the origin of society. But the other part of mimetic theory is what happens after the founding of society. And according to Girard, the social mechanism that led to momentary peace, the scapegoat, was in fact, based on a lie. It was based on the presumed guilt of the victim. For the scapegoat mechanism to work, all members of the community must believe that the victim is indeed guilty. When the victim is killed, scapegoated, then the perception is that the evil in the community has been purged. And this brings peace, but the peace will only last until conflict once again arises.

This phenomenon became inscribed in mythology, and was celebrated. Using ancient texts such as Sophocles (Oedipus the king), Girard demonstrated that sacred and archaic religion is based on the scapegoat mechanism.

A crucial point should be made. It is not that Girard was saying that all myths included the scapegoat, but that of the myths that did include the scapegoat, they all shared a common feature, and that was the belief that the scapegoat was indeed guilty. This continued for millennia, until it was interrupted by Christianity. The Christian story subverted the mythological mechanism by diffusing its most important feature (the unawareness of the perpetrators with regards to the innocence of the victim).

At the heart of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, a book Girard published in 1999, one finds a comparative analysis of religious myths and Judeo-Christian revelation. In Girard’s eyes, it is precisely the difference between these two forms of religion that displays the truth of Christianity

In Girard’s Mimetic Theory, Palazer cites numerous examples from the Bible, such as the Book of Job, Cain and Abel, King Solomon and the Two Harlots, and the story of Jesus Christ, to show that in each case, there was a clear rejection of mimesis. There was a rejection both of scapegoating and of man’s imitation of man.

Since Girard was originally a literary scholar, before he became a Christian, his discovery of mimesis came from literary works, and these are also cited in the book.

From the beginning, René Girard’s mimetic theory was independent of the influence of traditional theories of secularization. This was because he was more interested in theoretical approaches that assumed a maverick role with regard to the question of religion and, in great contrast to the secularist theories dominating the humanities, did not foresee any impending end to religion.

In his early work, Girard makes numerous references to the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and Denis de Rougemont, two thinkers who explicitly rejected the modern secularization thesis. Tocqueville stresses in his studies of American democracy that the religious nature of man will not only survive modern democratization, but also will show its true meaning in the age of increasing egalitarianism

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Opinion psychology

A Brief History of Madness

In the previous post, The Narcissistic Personality of Our Time, I discussed the trade-off that the modern individual must face when isolating himself from his cultural roots.  

The critique that Lasch presented in A Culture of Narcissism is not towards isolated behaviors that aim to better oneself, but the belief that the combination of multiple autophile behaviors will be an inadequate substitute for traditional communities and social contracts (that asked the individual to direct their libidinal energy outwards, away from the ego).

When this was done in the past, it grounded people and gave them a sense of humility. Today’s self-centered society believes that it is the community that owes them something. And unwittingly, the modern narcissist worships new forms of religion. In the modern world, as Harari points out in Homo-Deus, it is not so much the cult leaders or religious leaders that are worshipped, but the technologists in Silicon Valley that are promising the next big breakthrough that will be the cure of all cures.

In the end, people must worship something. The self is a poor candidate, since too much self-love can lead to megalomania and delusional ideas (Secondary Narcissism). Self-love does not perform the function of a drug, it does not give people a sense of security. So when people turn their attention on something else to worship, or perhaps someone else, they are in a way, protecting themselves from psychological harm. They are blocking energy from flowing towards the self, they are standing in the way of their own narcissism.

The unfortunate truth is that human beings cannot choose to worship nothing and have a healthy sense of self. At least that is the suggestion behind Freud’s theory of narcissism. And the problem that no choice of worship is not without its problems. In the culture of the therapeutic, the problem is propagated as more people become convinced that the cure to their problems is self-understanding; they debilitate themselves. 

Psychology makes the claim that you should understand yourself, or in ancient philosophy speak, “know thyself”. Yet no psychologist has not admitted to the complexity of the self, its dynamism, and elusiveness. This is a clear double-blind. 

Nietzsche, long before the advent of psychotherapy, understood the importance of the religious instinct. That is why he created Zarathustra, a Zoroastrian prophet, who came to preach the doctrine of no divinity, in Biblical style. After Freud psychoanalyzed away the idea of God, his disciples, Jung and Adler, went on to establish their own pseudo-religious organizations, as detailed in The Triumph of the Therapeutic

A History of Madness

One of the features of this new world that we occupy is that each individual is somehow broken. If they are not being as “effective” as they can be, or capable of “relating to others” well enough, or buying into social fictions willingly, then they are “sick.” The reality is that they are not docile enough to be considered normal.

In the West there are many therapists who handle these problems professionally. And they take a fat fee for their services. In other parts of the world, therapy isn’t even an idea that people entertain. But slowly, thanks to globalization, most nations are beginning to embrace therapy. You would think that the countries that have the most therapists would have the highest percentage of psychologically “healthy” people.

Which countries have the highest rates of mental illness? You can see very quickly how difficult it is to answer such a question, not least of all because simply defining “mental illness” is highly subjective – as Szasz would point out. 

In a study being conducted by the World Health Organization the highest prevalence of mental illness (which include anxiety, mood disorders, impulse control, and substance abuse) was found among the “United States, Colombia, the Netherlands and Ukraine tended to have higher prevalence estimates across most classes of disorder, while Nigeria, Shanghai and Italy were consistently low, and prevalence was lower in Asian countries in general.” – Source

Can we extrapolate that the US indeed has the highest number of mentally ill individuals, or are these results simply reflective of a society that has embraced therapeutic definitions? In which case, the data we have is based on what is self-reported. 

How to resolve this paradox?

An answer can be found in The Myth of Mental Illness, the first point Szasz makes is that psychological diseases keep changing over time. Szasz recalled that not long ago, there were less than 20 psychological illnesses – then, during his lifetime there were hundreds. It is not that change itself is indicative of foul play – without change, there is no evolution or advancement, but the point is that we have not really discovered new illnesses, as much as we have re-categorized old behaviors. The role of the therapist is essentially to socialize the individual into the normal functions of society.

In Madness and Civilization, Foucault details the history of madness.

There was a time when the mad were mobile, where they interacted with society, and people heard them speak. There was a time when it was those who knew too much that went mad – Don Quixote went mad because of too much reading, so his priest burnt a selection of his books to cure him. There was a time when to be mad meant to be unproductive, thus the vagabonds, the idle, and the youth who had squandered the family fortune were labelled as mad. There was a time when the remedies to curing the mad was in throwing cold water at them. But confinement was the most popular tool.

Madness was recognized as non-reason, or the negation of reason – that is, non-being – insofar as it is cut off from external stimuli. In fact, doctors prescribed travel and ocean waves to restore movement, and thus the correct flow of thoughts in the mind. To cure madness, by language, for example, was to follow the madman in their illusion, or to force them to come out of their condition out of necessity (the need to work and survive).

Eventually, the mad were no longer allowed to be mobile and were locked up in prisons to make sure they were productive and not just a drag on society, they were forced to work. Ironically, this had the effect of displacing “normal” people in society from jobs, and then those people were labelled as “mad” and the cycle continued.

Then in the 19th century, it was only the unproductive mad people that were considered “mad” – this marked the beginning of the asylum.

They were forced to work so that they did not violate one of God’s commandments. The work was a way to fix their soul, and consequently, absolve them of guilt. But that was not the only rationale. There was an idea that work was a way to cure man from his suffering. When man escapes the law of labor that nature imposes on him, he seeks a world of anti-nature, and artifice, and his madness becomes only one manifestation of such a world. In describing how he succeeded, by industrious activity in being cured, Bernadin de-Saint Pierre said:

It was to Jean-Jacques Rousseau that I owed my return to health. I had read, in his immortal writings, among other natural truths, that man is made to work, not to meditate. Until that time I had exercised my soul and rested my body; I changed my ways; I exercised my body and rested my soul. I gave up most books; I turned my eyes to the works of nature, which addressed all my senses in a language that neither time nor nations can corrupt. p.104

Madness and Civilization, Foucault

The next stage, psychiatry, is when the analyst takes the role of the priest. The patient, or the madman, confesses to them their sins. In a sense, the madman is like a child while the analyst/therapist is the adult. Merely by virtue of rationality vs non-rationality, the therapist had the upper hand and did not need to use any physical force.

That was Foucault’s contention against Freud, that one did not need to archive mountains of data on a patient to analyze them. it was sufficient to merely be the rational person in the room, and in that sense, you could hold up a mirror to the madman or the patient, and they would be able to see the errors in their thinking for themselves. This is in contrast to Jung, who preferred not to maintain this hierarchical relationship.

There are two points that are important. One, the very definition of madness is dubious, not only because it keeps changing with time to reclassify old modes of behavior, but because there are political and financial incentives to convince people that they are dysfunctional. Second, the therapist has merely filled the void that was previously occupied by the priest, the family, and traditional institutions. 

My intention is not to reduce psychotherapy to an invalid mode of healing, but simply to point out its shortcomings and limitations. If we want to contextualize its position in history, we would treat it as just another human experiment (not a source of ultimate truth) that began with mesmerism and strange forms of pseudomedicine, and then evolved to psychotherapy, behaviorism, and finally cognitive science and neuroscience.  

If you would like an introduction into the history of psychology, see my summary of Ellenberger’s excellent The Discovery of the Unconscious. 

Psychology faces one final limitation: the subject-subject problem. That is, the scientific study of subjective experience requires a subject to be an objective observer of subjective experiences. On the one hand, it is impossible to derive an ought from an is. As Karl Popper pointed out, you cannot falsify psychological ideas. Therefore, as scientific hypotheses, psychological ideas (Adler, Freud, Jung) fail. But that would be the wrong lens to view these ideas. A better approach would be to see the ideas of psychoanalysis as a philosophy, like Epicureanism or Stoicism, no less valuable and important to the human experience. 

The problem only arises when a philosophy is expressed as brute fact. In recent years, there has been an accommodation in the West to the benefits of Eastern practices that used to be considered esoteric and exotic (yoga, meditation). But a few decades ago, this was not the case. 

In Altered Traits, a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, we are told about the failure of clinical psychology in trying to cure the problems of the mind. A comparison is made between the Western and Eastern approach. 

In the West, clinical psychology tries to fix a specific problem like high anxiety by focusing on that one thing, while Asian psychologies have a wider lens and offer ways to enhance our positive side. Notice that this is akin to the dichotomy posited by Ian McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary. 

Essentially, the brain is divided into two ways of thinking (left hemispheric and right hemispheric). This is a metaphorical description and not a description of the location such modes of thinking take place in.  

The left hemisphere is sequential, linear, compartmentalizes the world, logical, and analytic. The right hemisphere is holistic, complex, receptive. Each hemisphere knows things that the other hemisphere does not know. The corpus callosum creates cooperation between the hemispheres, by excluding the other at the right time.

A great example given by McGilchrist is to compare the two hemispheres to a technology business consisting of a salesperson and of an engineer. The salesperson forges new relationships and brings in clients, while the engineer builds systems and technologies. The salesperson thinks that the engineer is free loading off of his talent, while the engineer thinks the same of the salesperson.

We can draw a parallel between the Eastern and Western approach in dealing with problems of the mind. The Eastern approach is holistic and right-brained, while the Western approach is linear and left-brained. 

Richard, one of the authors of Altered Traits, became interested in consciousness after reading the works of Aldous Huxley, R.D Laing, Martin Buber, and Ram Dass. But these interests were driven underground during his college years in New York University, where professors were staunch behaviorists (followers of B. F. Skinner). They thought that observable behavior was the only way of understanding the mind, while looking inside the mind was a taboo waste of time. They believed that mental life was irrelevant to understanding behavior. 

When French poet and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland became a disciple of the Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna near the beginning of the 20th century, he wrote to Freud about the mystical state he experienced. Freud diagnosed it as regression to infancy. 

In the 1960’s, psychologists dismissed drug-triggered altered states as artificially induced psychosis. 

And yet, as described in Altered Traits, there are tangible, scientifically measurable benefits to meditation.  

In the past, many insights about the mind have been discovered by psychologists in the West, but it is important to not ignore the subjective experience of “I”. That is, to give priority to experiences and relationships that are positive, rather than to compartmentalize subjective experiences (anxiety, stress) and to try to only understand them in isolation. 

The right-hemispheric approach to complexity is to look at the bigger picture, rather than to get lost in the details. An approach that sounds more majestic and visionary, when one gets around the negative associations we have internalized when it comes to solutions that lack scientific rigor. As Kahneman reveals in Thinking: Fast and Slow, system 2 (the deliberate brain) thinks it is playing the lead role in the movie, when in fact, it is system 1 that is the star (the automatic brain).  

Categories
Book Summaries Business

The Intelligent Investor Summary

The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham is often cited as one of the best books on investment, most notably by Warren Buffet.

Graham lays the foundation for laymen by giving a sound approach to investment, written with simple language that is easy (albeit dated) to understand. You are presented with Graham’s personal investment philosophy and other potential investment philosophies based on the type of risk you are willing to tolerate.

For example, he doesn’t believe in speculation. Many people think about the stock market as a casino, where they can make money quickly by buying low and selling high. Graham thinks that this is the wrong approach. You don’t make money (sustainably) from buying and selling but from owning and holding securities, earning dividends and interest, and benefitting from their increase in value over many years.

Your main goal in investing should not be to make money, but to avoid losing money. That is the difference between an investor and a speculator.

Factors to consider when picking stocks

PE ratio is a measure of the valuation of a company’s stock. It has price in the numerator and earnings in the denominator. The higher the PE ratio, the more expensive the stock

PB ratio compares the price of the stock with its book. The higher the PB ratio, more expensive is the stock and vice-versa

Source

Trailing P/E should be less than 15 and P/E * P/B should be less than or equal to 22.5.

When considering what stock to buy, don’t simply buy cheap companies.

Consider the following indicators:

  • Earnings per share (growth > 30% over 10 years prior is a good sign).
  • Current ratio (Current Assets/ Current Liabilities) > 2.
  • Company offers dividends, with consistent dividend growth.
  • Avoid companies with negative earnings per share previous 3 years.
  • Speculate the right way: Buy low and sell high. Avoid the herd instinct to start buying more when stocks are at record highs. See financial crashes as opportunities to buy for cheap.
Chapter 1: Investment Versus Speculation

Keep investments and speculation separate. If you must speculate, make sure it is no more than 10 percent of investment funds.

Full Summary

Chapter 2: The Investor and Inflation

Inflation is an investment concern because it depletes real wealth, and the purchasing power of profits and principal. Fixed income securities are usually most hard hit.

Full Summary

Chapter 3: A Century of Stock Market History

It is important to learn about the history of the stock market, so that you understand how stock prices are related to earnings, cash flow, and dividends.

Full Summary

Chapter 4: General Portfolio Policy: The Defensive Investor

The conventional wisdom is that the investor should match the amount they risk with their risk tolerance.

Full Summary

Chapter 5: The Defensive Investor and Common Stocks

As long as the stock is not overpriced, buying them could protect against inflation and offer a higher return than bonds or cash in the long run.

Full Summary

Chapter 6: Portfolio Policy for the Enterprising Investor: Negative Approach

Unless lower rated bonds and preferred stock have a huge upside, enterprising investors should avoid them. Lowe rated securities usually collapse in adverse markets.

Full Summary

Chapter 7: Portfolio Policy for the Enterprising Investor: Positive Approach

An enterprising investor wants to achieve a higher than average rate of return. There are 4 ways in which this type of investor can go beyond the defensive investor.

Full Summary

Chapter 8: Mr. Market and Fluctuations

Mr. Market is the analogy given for the market. Imagine that you co-owned a company with Mr. Market.

Full Summary

Chapter 9: Investing in Investment Funds

Investment funds are vehicles provide a convenient means for saving and investment, and potentially protecting investors from themselves.

Full Summary

Chapter 10: The Investor and His Advisers 

Most investors are novices and make many mistakes. Drawdowns, high fees and expense ratios, and improper diversification are all common problems they face.

Full Summary

Categories
Opinion philosophy

Forever Reading, Never to be Read

In Essays and Aphorisms, Arthur Schopenhauer makes an interesting remark about the pitfalls of reading too much. He refers to Alexander Pope’s poem.

Forever reading, never to be read.

Alexander Pope

When you read the thoughts of others, you are allowing their flow of thoughts to steer you in one direction or another, even if you do not feel like going there.

reading forcibly imposes on the mind thoughts that are
as foreign to its mood and direction at the moment of reading as the signet is to the wax upon which it impresses its seal.

When the mind is thinking for itself, it is paying attention to its immediate surroundings and its needs.

As Lao Tzu remarked, the value of things is in the space between, and not only in the things themselves.

To compulsively distract ourselves with the thoughts of others robs us of the ability to use our own mind. It makes our minds less elastic.

Too much reading can make men dumber than they are by nature.

In a different way, Herbert Simon hinted at the same problem when he said,

“In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Schopenhauer goes on, trying to convince us that reading is a mere surrogate for thinking. It means letting someone directly into your thoughts. And many books show you how many ways there are of being wrong, and how you would be lead astray if you followed their guidance.

There is some irony in Schopenhauer’s words. He compels his reader to abandon the writings of others, and to listen only to him. Like the crazed cult leader who admonishes his followers to reject all other forms of authority – of course, all others but his own.

But there is some truth to what Schopenhauer is saying, but only with regards certain kinds of books. Some books are informational, historical, scientific, or even mathematical – not all books contain the ramblings of philosophers. So, in our age, it may be necessary to understand how things work, in order to function well in the world, and that does not include reading the thoughts of others. We cannot conjure up facts in a vacuum, no matter how hard we try.

As for reading other philosophers, it would be silly not to. Especially if they were great philosophers. For one thing, a great philosopher is capable of thinking through problems that you neither have the time nor ability to think though, and this will, far from making your mind inflexible, open your mind up to new ideas.

The danger is when you become a passive consumer of the ideas of others. For example, you merely read Nietzsche or Kant, and forget to write about what you have learned, or even to express your own thoughts.

The only reasonable path forward would be to maintain a balance, between scanning the minds of others for what you might be missing, and by using your own mind for original insights that cannot be accessed from elsewhere.

The problem that Herbert Simon discussed is more related to the involuntary control of our attention. Whenever we cannot help but consume information, and do nothing else, then we fall into the trap of becoming a dull erudite, who knows a lot about the world, but understands very little of it.

You should read only when your own thoughts dry up, which will of course happen frequently enough even to the best heads; but to banish your own thoughts so as to take up a book is a sin against the Holy Ghost; it is like deserting untrammelled nature to look at a herbarium or engravings of landscapes

Schopenhauer
Categories
Opinion philosophy

Ivan the Fool in Hyperreality

Ivan the Fool is a short parable by Leo Tolstoy first published in 1886. It presents Tolstoy’s philosophical critique of militarism and commercialism.

Ivan belongs to a peasant family. He has two brothers. One of his brothers is a soldier, the other is a fat merchant. Ivan is the story’s hero; he is called a fool because he lacks keen intelligence and understanding of how the materialistic world works. Ivan stays home and takes care of his parents and his sister (who is dumb because she cannot speak) on his family farm.

In the story, it is Ivan the fool who leads others to a life of happiness, and it is his “dumb” sister who can tell the difference between a person of true value, and an arrogant charlatan. The fairy tale points out the devious and destructive elements of militarism and commercialism, while idealizing the peasant life.

Throughout the story, Ivan and his brothers are tempted by little devils, who disguise themselves as different characters, and offer tempting rewards to sow conflict in the family. Ivan never falls for these tricks while his brothers do.

The little devils that were conspiring to tempt the brothers into trouble were agitated, so they decided to sow more conflict, each time disguising themselves as a potentially useful person to either one of the brothers. A masterful merchant met with the fat merchant and promised to multiply his riches. A great general met with the soldier and helped him upgrade his army. But soon after both brothers got into trouble. The soldier would be defeated in battle, and the merchant would starve for days.

The same devils tried to trick Ivan the fool, but they failed. In frustration, they tried one final trick – a disguised nobleman who would promise Ivan wisdom and a prosperous city. Before doing so, he had walked among the fools (the villagers) and tried to purchase food and drink with his gold. But he was not given anything to eat because the villagers soon did not need any gold.

When he asked for bread, the baker obliged but only if it was received in Christ’s name. This disgusted the devil-disguised-as-nobleman, who went hungry for days. Ivan’s dumb sister served food, and she was fooled by the lazy. But she managed to distinguish between the honest and the dishonest by looking at their hands. Dirty hands were a sign of hard work, while soft white hands were a sign of laziness. Those with soft hands would only eat the leftovers. The nobleman had no luck going there.

Ivan was given the news that there was a nobleman who went around trying to buy things with gold they did not want. Ivan met with the nobleman, who promised him wisdom, factories, and a wealthy city. All he required was to address the people.

So, he did. He told them that to make money, they would need to use their heads, not their hands. The fools listened for a while, then they got bored, and went back to work. But each day, they would listen a little more, out of curiosity. Eventually, the nobleman felt hungry and tired, and asked for some bread. But the villagers laughed at him, and suggested that he should use his brilliant head to get his own bread, since that was what he had preached.

He finally collapsed and fell on his head. One of the fools remarked, ironically, that he had finally used his head.

Ivan the Fool was told of what had happened, and approached the nobleman, who after having his head crushed, appeared as the devil.

Tolstoy’s short story is a simple parable about the virtue of honest work. The laborers were kind but fair. And they were hard to fool (even though they were known as “fools”). Tolstoy was clearly fond of irony.

The laborers knew the value of hard work, and were instantly suspicious when they heard of promises of Eden for little to no effort. They had powerful bullshit sensors.

The modern world has fewer people tilling the fields with their hands – a historical anomaly.

Kenneth Boulding, an eminent economist and creative thinker, shows that the present moment is a turning point in human history. If we measure human history, not according to how much time has passed, but how many notable events have occurred – we live in a truly exceptional epoch. The last few hundred years have seen as much change in human activity as did the thousands of years before combined. The world today is as different from the world in which Kenneth was born in, as the world in which Kenneth was born in is different from the world of Julius Caesar. Almost as much has happened since he was born as has happened before.

In the book Future Shock, an interesting way of categorizing time is suggested. If we divide the last 50,000 years of man’s existence into lifetimes of around 62 years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves.

Only during the last 70 lifetimes has effective communication between lifetimes been possible. Only during the last 6 lifetimes did masses of men see the printed word. Only in the last 2 has anyone used an electric motor. And most of the material goods we use every day have all been invented within the present (800th) lifetime.

Recall that in Tolstoy’s short story, Ivan and his villagers were either farmers, or they were manual laborers. In 1886, reading the same story was an entirely different experience than reading it in 2021 for one crucial reason – there are barely any manual laborers left.

In a single lifetime (out of the 800), agriculture, the original basis of civilization (the agricultural revolution allowed hunter gatherers to finally settle down and eventually become literate) has lost its dominance in almost every civilization. In the largest economies of the world, agriculture employs fewer than 15 percent of the economically active population.

In the US, whose farms feed 200 million Americans and around 160 million people around the world, this number is already below 6 percent and is shrinking rapidly.

After the agricultural revolution, we had the industrial revolution. Today, we have already entered the third stage of human development. In 1956, the US became the first major power where half of its non farm labor stopped wearing the blue collar of factory or manual labor. Within the same lifetime, a society has not only thrown off the burden of agriculture, but has thrown off the burden of manual labor as well.

The parable demonstrates with clarity, the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of achieving wealth or fame quickly. Ivan’s brothers, who were tricked by the prospect of military or commercial success, represent modern man, who, without the toil of manual labor, has lost track of what is real. He lives in a dream like state, pulled by ideas and abstractions, with no sense of where he came from, or where he is going.

“The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events. He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him. In consequence he exists in a certain freshness which seems, if I may so, very desirable.”

Donald Barthelme, “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning”

Whatever is fashionable and exciting holds sway, whatever is archaic and drab is ignored. In the words of Neil Postman, modern society is complicit in the project to be amused to death.

Decades ago, before the Snapchat and TikTok, there were concerns about how information was being presented on TV.

“MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour”, writes that the idea is “to keep everything briefnot to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action, and movement. You are required … to pay attention to no concept, no character, and no problem for more than a few seconds at a time.”

He goes on to say that the assumptions controlling a news show are “that bite-sized is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message, that visual stimulation is a substitute for thought, and that verbal precision is an anachronism.”

A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

We do not refuse to remember or find it useless to do so, but we have become unfit to remember. If remembering is more than nostalgia, it needs context – theory, vision, metaphor – a way that allows facts and patterns to be discovered. The politics of instant news gives no such context. A mirror only shows you what you are wearing today but says nothing about yesterday. Television launches us into an incoherent, continuous present.

If this is true, then Orwell was wrong again, at least for Western democracies. He thought that history would be demolished by the state or some equivalent to the Ministry of Truth. This may be true of the Soviet Union, but as Huxley foretold, nothing so dramatic needs to happen.

Seemingly benign technologies devoted to providing the populace with a politics of image, instancy and therapy may disappear history just as effectively, perhaps more permanently, and without objection.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

We should look at Huxley, not Orwell, to understand the threat of television and other forms of imagery pose to liberal democracy – specifically, to freedom of information.

There is a book called Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard, where he describes the hyper-real – a simulation of reality that is more real than reality itself. For example, CNN’s coverage of the US-Iraq war was more real than the war itself, because the entire world witnessed the events unfold on the news platform, and even those who were engaged in the war got much of their information and impressions of the war from CNN. Rick Roderick, in his lecture on Baudrillard, gives the example of his child who will get angry at a Nintendo and see nothing strange with the idea of getting angry with a machine. In our world, broken screens due to unbearable range is a normal event, even among adults. We live in a hyper-real world. The games that people can play are far more sensual and intense than real life experiences (and becoming more so). And often, the consequences of what happens on a screen are worse than what could happen in the real world.

Our brains are easily tricked into believing things that are not there.

But not strictly in a visual or visceral sense.

We buy into many kinds of illusions. The prospect of making easy money in the stock market, after witnessing an anomalous event where a negligible number of small traders hit the lottery, is a common phenomenon that might earn itself a unique label soon. Other than obvious financial scams, fake yogis, and pipe dreams – we are prone to paying attention to the wrong things. We allow our focus to shift in whichever way the wind blows, or whatever news article (or Youtube video) contains the highest number of controversial words in its title, or highest number of views.

Or we spend a significant portion of our time trying to look like fakes of fakes. Copies of copies. That is, many people’s ideal beauty standard is of a barbie doll – a fiction. So, they do everything they can to look like barbie. They succeed. Countless others copy them.

Deep fakes are a fascinating phenomenon suggested by one reader of this website.

Deepfakes are so-named because they use deep learning technology, a branch of machine learning that applies neural net simulation to massive data sets, to create a fake. Artificial intelligence effectively learns what a source face looks like at different angles in order to transpose the face onto a target, usually an actor, as if it were a mask. Huge advances came through the application of generative adversarial networks (GANS) to pit two AI algorithms against each other, one creating the fakes and the other grading its efforts, teaching the synthesis engine to make better forgeries.

Source

The proverbial devil has been tricking people into making bad decisions for a long time. More than a hundred years later, we have not become much better at recognizing what is real from what is fake. We still look for simplistic solutions and listen to charlatans. We are still mistake appearances for reality. In fact, we are deliberately manufacturing a world where truth becomes more difficult to locate (Attention-hacking) and making it more difficult to separate illusion from reality (Deep fakes, Virtual Reality).

Another element in Ivan the Fool is mimesis (Girard’s idea) – the brothers were successfully tempted because they wanted to beat their competition. The soldier lost the battle with his new, more powerful army to another army that was more powerful. It may be no coincidence that Girard saw the mimetic mechanism as the devil himself.

The deepest illusion is not only that we mistake copies of reality for reality, but that we don’t even recognize that we are doing that – that was the Huxleyan warning.

It is possible to suspend disbelief temporarily when entering a movie theatre and becoming fully immersed in the movie. It is also possible to be mindful of your surroundings while enjoying the movie. But movie theatres, VR headsets, or game consoles are obvious mediums of simulation. You make a conscious decision to engage in these activities – knowing that your perceptions will be fooled.

But what about every-day life, or the “facts” about the world that we take for granted. To what extent are our impressions of the world based on reality, rather than descriptions of reality? To what extent are the narratives that we have subscribed to better determinants of our experience of the world, than our own previous experience of the world? What percentage of what we know is true, and what percentage is propaganda, or borrowed ideas that are themselves copies of borrowed ideas? Which of our desires are truly our own, and which are unconsciously borrowed from others out of laziness?    

If you could become Ivan the fool for a day, or his dumb sister, what would you notice?

Categories
Book Summaries Psychology

Altered Traits Summary

Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson takes a scientific look at the practice of meditation. From the start, we are assured that the authors are not interested in giving us a sales pitch about meditation.

They acknowledge that many hucksters try to make money by promoting meditation in a dishonest way, promising benefits that have not been validated by any evidence, and find a way to personally benefit from people’s wishful thinking.

But that is not to say that meditation does not have proven benefits. The rest of the book is a careful exploration of precisely what those benefits are, and to who they belong.

A Background of Meditation Research

The number of publications about meditation from 1970 to 2000 are negligible, and then at around 2005, we witnessed a rapid increase to over 1000 in the span of less than 10 years. 

Joseph Goldstein was instrumental in bringing meditation to the West. 

Clinical psychology tries to fix a specific problem like high anxiety by focusing on that one thing, while Asian psychologies have a wider lens and offer ways to enhance our positive side. 

Richie, one of the authors of the book, became interested in consciousness after reading the works of Aldous Huxley, R.D Laing, Martin Buber, and Ram Dass. But these interests were driven underground during his college years in New York University, where professors were staunch behaviorists (followers of B. F. Skinner). They thought that observable behavior was the only way of understanding the mind, while looking inside the mind was a taboo waste of time. They believed that mental life was irrelevant to understanding behavior. 

When French poet and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland became a disciple of the Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna near the beginning of the 20th century, he wrote to Freud about the mystical state he experienced. Freud diagnosed it as regression to infancy. 

In the 1960’s, psychologists dismissed drug-triggered altered states as artificially induced psychosis. 

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James observed, “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” The very existence of these states “means they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.” 

Buddha prescribed not only strong concentration for the attainment of a liberated mind, but a different kind of inner focus: the path of insight. Awareness stays open to anything that arises, rather than one thing to the exclusion of all else. It is total concentration. With mindfulness, the meditator notes what comes into the mind without reactivity, and lets go. If we think much of what just arose, we have lost our mindful stance – unless that reaction becomes the object of mindfulness. 

The Visuddhimagga describes how a carefully sustained mindfulness – the “clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens” in our experience refines into nuanced insight practice that can lead to nirvana – the final epiphany.

Insight meditation causes a shift between ourselves and our thoughts. Usually, we are directed by our thoughts to react in various ways. But what we gain with strong mindfulness, is the ability to see each thought, whether pleasurable or painful, for what it truly is – a passing moment of mind, like any other. We don’t need to be chased through the day by our thoughts. 

The Abhidhamma distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy states of mind. Desires, self-centeredness, sluggishness, agitation are unhealthy. Even-mindedness, composure, ongoing mindfulness, and realistic confidence are healthy. A subset of healthy traits apply to both mind and body: buoyancy, flexibility, adaptability, and pliancy. 

Research showed that people who went on a meditation retreat and strengthened a sense of purpose in their lives showed a simultaneous increase in the activity of telomerase in their immune cells – even five months later. This enzyme protects the length of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA strands that reflect the lifespan of a cell. But this study only had 14 participants and has not been replicated. 

Few studies in psychology are targets of replication. Publication is inbuilt: few scientists report studies when they have found no significant results. And yet that null finding is significant. 

Physical and Psychological Stressors

Modern life, psychological stress, if it continues for a long time, can make you sick. Such stressors trigger the same biological reactions as when encountering predators in the past. 

Vulnerability to stress-worsened diseases like diabetes or hypertension reflects the downside of the brain’s design. The upside reflects the power of the human cortex, which has built civilization. But the prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, contains the brain’s executive center.

It gives us a unique advantage among animals and a paradoxical disadvantage: the ability to anticipate the future and worry about it, as well as the tendency to think about the past, and regret. 

As Epictetus observed, it is not the things that happen to us that upset us but the view we take of them. The Dalai Lama reported that he met many people who had everything they wanted, yet were miserable. 

In the 1970s, science saw attention as mostly stimulus-driven, automatic, unconscious, and from the “bottom up” – a function of the brain stem, a primitive structure sitting above the spinal cord, rather than from a “top down” cortical area. This view considers attention involuntary. Something happens around us, a phone rings, and our attention automatically gets pulled to the source of the sound. A sound continues to the point of monotony and then we habituate (tune it out).

But there was no scientific concept for the volitional control of attention even though the scientists doing those experiments were using volitional control themselves. 

Decades before we began to drown in a sea of distractions, Herbert Simon observed, “What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information means a poverty of attention.” 

There are two kinds of awareness. One is being aware of something, the other is being aware that you are aware of something, without judgement. 

Meditation In a Lab 

Seasoned meditators (9,000 lifetime hours of Vipassana practice) had a 13 percent lower cholesterol level than controls. 

Even stressed novice meditators who were tested (unemployed job seekers) had reductions in kep pro-inflammatory cytokine. 

Constant stress and worry takes a toll on our cells, aging them. So do constant distractions and a wandering mind – due to the toxic effects of rumination. 

The gene that makes us susceptible to diabetes may never develop the disease if we have a lifelong habit of exercise and not eating sugar. 

Compared with non-meditators, meditators had greater cortical thickness in areas important for sensing inside one’s own body and for attention (anterior insula and zones of the prefrontal cortex). 

A study at UCLA finds meditation slows the usual shrinkage of our brain as we age. At age fifty, meditators’ brains are younger by 7.5 years compared to brains of non meditators of the same age. For every year beyond fifty, the brains of meditators were younger than their peers’ by one month and twenty two days. Researchers concluded that meditation can help slow down brain atrophy. But the problem is that in those studies, many different types of meditation were sampled, so it is not clear which type of meditation results in the different benefits. 

An article in the one of the JAMA journals (official publication of the American Medical Associated, showed that mindfulness (but not mantra based meditation like T.M, which had insufficient research) could lessen anxiety and depression, as well as pain. The degree of improvement was about as much as for medications, but without the troubling side effects. 

But the meta-analysis found that when it came to other health indicators (eating habits, sleep, substance use, or weight problems), no benefits were found. And no benefits were found either for other psychological troubles like ugly moods, addictions, and poor attention. 

Making History 

A seasoned meditator, and a Tibeten monk arrived to Wisconsin, for a series of scientific experiments, that would measure his brain activity while he meditated. His name was Mingyur Rinpoche. 

The protocol he was given, had him meditate on compassion for one minute, followed by a 30 seconds of neutral resting period. To make sure that any findings were not due to chance, he would have to do this four times in a row. 

Just as Mingyur behan the meditation, there was a sudden huge burst of electrical activity on the computer monitors displaying signals from the bain. The researches thought this meant he had moved (a common problem with EEG research). Oddly, this burst lasted the entire period of compassion meditation. And as far as anyone could tell, Mingyur had not moved an inch. 

The four experimented watched, transfixed, while Mingyur moved on to repeat the exercise. Instantly, the same dramatic burst of electrical signal occurred. He was perfectly stil. As this pattern repeated each time he was instructed to generate compassion, the team looked at each other in astonished silence – almost jumping off their seats in excitement. They were witnessing a profound and historic event. 

The news of that session created a scientific stir – these findings have been cited more than 1,100 times in the world’s scientific literature. 

The next surprise event happened when Mingyur underwent another batch of tests, but this time with fMRI (which creates 3-D video of brain activity). The EEG readings are more precise in time. The fMRI readings are more accurate in neural locations. 

The closest resemblance to brain activity that followed Mingyur’s meditation on compassion, was in epileptic seizures – but those last brief seconds, not a full minute. And seizures are involuntary, in contrast to Mingyur’s intentional control of brain activity.

The Tibetan monk was a meditation prodigy with 62,000 hours of lifetime practice up to that point. Compared to controls, Mingyur’s brain is clearly ageing more slowly. The chronological age of his brain was 41, while his brain fit more closely the norm for whose chronological age was 33. This remarkable fact demonstrates the further reaches of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change structure). 

In contemplative science, “altered state” refers to changes that occur only during meditation. An “altered trait” indicates that the practice of meditation has transformed the brain and biology so that the changes can be seen before the beginning of a meditation session. 

Beginners 

For novice meditators, there was no difference between their brains at rest, and when they were trying to meditate on cue. This contrasts with the findings obtained from experienced yogis, such Mingyur (and 21 others). 

Interestingly, hearing sounds of people in distress caused less activity in an area in the brain responsible for self-centered thought among yogis, when compared to others. 

Many of the amazing results seen with expert meditators were not seen in novice meditators, but there were some important benefits. Even for people who had meditated for as little as 8 minutes a day, for two weeks, improvements in focus, less mind wandering, and better working memory were noted – enough to produce improvements in GRE scores. But these effects are unlikely to persist without continued practice. 

After meditating for many years, the early effects deepen and new ones emerge. For example, functional connectivity in the brain in a circuit important for emotion regulation is strengthened, and cortisol – a key hormone secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stress – lessens. 

Words of Caution 

It is not mere practice that takes a meditator from “novice” to “expert.” Going on retreats and getting personal advice from seasoned meditators are important to make incremental improvements. The quality of the practice, not just the quantity counts. 

Meditation is not a substitute for real world compassion or action. 

The Dalai Lama remarked that in some cases, practitioners have the impression that they are holy people – which is true when everything is fine, when the sun is shining and the belly is full. But when confronted with a real challenge or crisis, they become just like everyone else. 

Neural Hacking 

A group of religious scholars, experimental psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers gathered under the auspices of the Mind and Life institute to explore the corner of the mind that begins with everyday desire. Sometimes the pathway runs though craving to addiction (whether drugs, porn, or shopping). 

The religious scholars pinpointed the problem at the moment of grasping – the impulse that makes us lean in toward pleasure. In this state, there is a feeling of uneasiness that drives the clinging and seductive intuition that the object of our desire will relieve our disease. 

This contrasts with the state of utter ease when nongrasping. Mindfulness helps us observe what is happening within the mind itself rather than get carried away by it. 

Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Judson Brewer has helped people addicted to cigarettes kick the habit with mindfulness exercises in his lab. 

Inspiration 

Richie and Dan, the authors of the book, were inspired by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which showed that science shifts abruptly from time to time as new ideas and innovative paradigms force shifts in thinking. They wanted a new paradigm in psychology. 

By now, the evidence has confirmed their hunches. Sustained mind training alters the brain both in structure and function. 

Practical advice

Find a meditation practice that appeals to you. Practice every day, for one month, even as short as a few minutes. See how you feel after 30 days.