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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. 

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Book Summaries History Politics Psychology

A Culture of Narcissism Summary

A Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch was published in 1979. Lasch argues that the “me generation” that Tom Wolfe previously celebrated, was in fact, dysfunctional, empty, and worthy of contempt.

He bases his argument on Sigmund Freud’s insights, who wrote an important paper on the subject called, On Narcissism.  At first, Lasch points out a social paradox. People are expected to submit to the rules of society, but modern society refuses to ground these rules into a moral code. The individual’s reaction is to become self-absorbed, and far from feeling elated or grandiose, he loses self-efficacy and self-worth. The self shrinks back towards a passive state in which the world remains unformed.

The egomaniacal, experience-devouring imperial self regresses into a grandiose, narcissistic, infantile, empty self: a “dark wet hole” as Rudolph Wurlitzer writes in Nog, “where everything finds its way sooner or later. I remain near the entrance, handling goods as they are shoved in, listening and nodding.

He then borrows a term from Phillip Rieff, the author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the “psychological man.” Who is the psychological man? He is the modern individual, who has cut himself off from his roots, and from his past. He is plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, and a sense of inner emptiness.

He seeks neither self-aggrandizement nor spiritual transcendence but peace of mind, under conditions that increasingly work against it. Whereas man used to look towards priests, self-help preachers, or models of success such as successful business leaders, his main ally in the struggle for composure is now the therapist. The modern equivalent to salvation is “mental health.”

Therapy has established itself as the successor both to rugged individualism and to religion; but this does not mean that the “triumph of the therapeutic” has become a new religion in its own right. Therapy constitutes an antireligion, not always to be sure because it adhreres to rational explanation or scientific methods of healing, as its practitioners would have us believe, but because modern society “has no future” and therefore gives no thought to anything beyond its immediate needs.

The principal goal of the therapist is not help you carve out a future, but to sedate you. He does not want you to look forward to the future, but to focus on your emotions in the present. The idea here is not that the therapist should be responsible for fulfilling these functions – it is not his job to do this. But since therapy has taken over the role of religion in alleviating man’s angst about the future and the purpose of his life, it is tasked with the heavy burden of giving people good answers, and in empowering them. Yet, Lasch argues that it does the opposite, it reduces man further and further. Even meaning and love, to the therapist, are not valuable in themselves, but useful insofar as they fulfil the patient’s emotional needs.

It never occurs to the therapist, to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to others, to someone, or some tradition that is outside himself. Love is self-sacrifice and meaning is submission to a higher authority. These sublimations (of libidinal energy) are deemed intolerably oppressive. Lasch here alludes to Freud’s idea of sublimation and libidinal energy. In short, the individual’s ego is nourished through sexual (or libidinal) energy since his youth. At some point in life, he gets disappointed, when the love that he used to direct inwards, is directed towards a person who does not return the favor. He then retreats into himself and becomes narcissistic and delusional. This is a very rough sketch of Freud’s concept of narcissism which is explained in more detail here.

The post-Freudian therapies attempt to rid the individual from the ideas of love and duty, and for whom mental health means gratifying each impulse and removing all inhibitions.

Propaganda

In an interesting section about Ellul’s work on propaganda, Lasch notes that propaganda does not use facts to support an argument, but to exert emotional pressure. Advertising does the same. But in both cases, the point is not to make the emotional appeal obvious or direct – the emotional appeal is made through the facts themselves which give the person the illusion that they are being “informed.”

Since the propagandist knows that educated people relish facts and the illusion of being informed, they do not use high-sounding slogans, or appeal to fantastic ideas. They do not call for heroism or sacrifice or reminds his audience of the glorious past. They merely stick to the “facts.” This marks the union of propaganda and “information.”

Impending Disaster

Near the turn of the twentieth century, there was a growing conviction that everything was coming to an end. And people were so sure of a catastrophic event, a nuclear war, that people gave up on looking for a solution, and instead, kept themselves busy with survival strategies designed to prolong their lives, or programs that ensured good health and peace of mind.

After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or bellydancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate,” overcoming the “fear of pleasure.” Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past.

From Politics to Self-Examination

After displacing religion as the organizing framework of American culture, the therapeutic outlook threatens to displace politics. Lasch discusses the political revolutionaries of the sixties, such as Abbie Hoffman and his associate, Jerry Rubin, who decided (a decade later) that it was more important to get one’s head together, and immerse themselves in therapeutic activities, than move multitudes.

Relationships

Long lasting relationships have become more difficult. Relationships are framed in terms of combat. “assertiveness” “fighting fair”… Open relationships are more common. But they end up intensifying the disease they pretend to cure. The root of their problems are social. By refusing to commit or attach themselves to others, they presume that their problems have nothing to do with other people, and everything to do with their inner feelings. 

There is the ego that is healthy, it contains the healthy judgements of others and superior ideals to strive towards. The sadistic superego, is the archaic and destructive force that is harsh and punishing. The superego is filled with destructive forces from early violent fantasies, which result from the parents failure to satisfy all the fantasies of the child. 

In a society, where there is no extreme disdain for authority, the superego softens, and forms into a harsh but constructive conscience. Whereas in a society that hates authority, the child grows up still thinking of their parents as devouring monsters and fails to develop a healthy supergo. 

Creative Work

According to Kohut, useful creative work which confronts the individual with unsolved intellectual and aesthetic problems, offers hope for the narcissist to transcend their predicament since it requires the individual think about problems that are outside the self. 

Freud revised his initial theory on narcissism. He first concluded that the libido was comprised of self-love. He changed his mind and concluded that the id was in fact, the great reservoir of the libido. He acknowledged the existence of non-sexual drives, such as aggression or the death instinct, and the alliance between the Ego and the Id, Ego and aggression. This is important, because the way in which you define narcissism determines how and to what extent you recognize narcissism in society. 

The narcissist does not love himself but is defending himself against aggressive impulses.

Those who deny the psychological dimension also deny the character traits associated with pathological narcissism, which in less extreme form appear in such profusion in the everyday life of our age: dependence on the vicarious warmth provided by others combined with a fear of dependence, a sense of inner emptiness, boundless repressed rage, and unsatisfied oral cravings. They also do not discuss what might be called the secondary characteristics of narcissism: pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous, self-deprecatory humor. 

Thus they deprive themselves of any basis on which to make connections between the narcissistic personality type and certain characteristic patterns of contemporary culture, such as the intense fear of old age and death, altered sense of time, fascination with celebrity, fear of competition, decline of the play spirit, deteriorating relations between men and women. For these critics, narcissism remains at its loosest a synonym for selfishness and at its most precise a metaphor, and nothing more, that describes the state of mind in which the world appears as a mirror of the self.

In short, Lasch defines contemporary man as disconnected from traditional methods of connecting with the world. The triumph of the therapeutic sensibility, particularly in the US, has resulted in a self-obsessed individual, who has no care for posterity, idealizes youth and perfect, requires constant adulation and praise, worships fame and celebrity, despises old age and weakness, hates dependence on others yet need their warmth, has pseudo self-insight, sees the world as a reflection of themselves, doesn’t want lasting relationships, doesn’t want lengthy commitments, feels empty, is a hypochondriac due to aggression directed inwards, desires the illusion of success and competence, rather than success and competence.

The narcissist thinks that people are disposable, usable, not important, and has faux intelligence, that is, he is good at intellectualizing but only to evade, for example by rephrasing what the other person said, rather than trying to find truth. He tries to defend ego from libidinal (non-sexual) forces, including death drive and aggression, disdains all forms of authority, worships consumerist culture, think it is more important to be worshipped by others than to be content, makes no real effort to understand the world.

Lasch’s criticism is an extreme point of view, and could be interpreted as reactionary. But the value of the book is not found in the literal truths of the criticisms laid forth, but by the existence of such a perspective. There is no harm in the therapeutic. An individual can find, through analysis, useful insight about the nature of their thoughts. Self-reflection is valuable. But the pathological aspect of the therapeutic emerges when it becomes the only ideal the individual is interested in.

In other words, rather than strive for personal success, or social change, or spiritual enlightenment, the modern individual is only interested in the avoidance of pain. The problem with having no interest other than the therapeutic is that it shrinks the individual, and makes life less adventurous, and less meaningful. There is nothing wrong with being interested in improving one’s health, but when it becomes one’s sole preoccupation, it leads to hypochondria and narcissism.

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Book Summaries Psychology

Motivation and Personality Summary

The central project of Maslow in Motivation and Personality is to study the psychology of healthy minded people. Thus far, psychology has been restricted to the study of mental illnesses but this exclusive focus does not inspire hope or optimism in either the layman or the scientist. 

The hierarchy of needs has become a common every day term that many people understand. Once we have satisfied our lower needs (hunger, shelter) then we can move on to satisfying our higher needs: self actualization. 

What is self-actualization? It is a mode of behavior that can be described as ideal. It is a philosophical ideal more so than a scientific ideal. In fact, Maslow argues that the scientist himself is biased. There are human reasons for why he does his job, for why he is a scientist in the first place. A philosophical ideal is necessary to ground the motivations of a scientist, and ultimately, this ideal is itself biased, subjective, and unscientific. In other words, Maslow affirms Hume’s observation: you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.”

Science as an endeavor is informed by a prejudiced philosophical ideal, and the question of the healthy individual should not be so much a scientific question as much as a philosophical one. But Maslow does not just limit himself to conjecture, he draws on social science, biology, as well as philosophy, to construct a convincing ideal for human beings to aspire to. This is not to say that the person who does not embody these characteristics should be considered sick. 

But none of this is to say that Maslow was not empirical. On the contrary, he has based “self actualization” on the lives of people he has interviewed, as well as historical figures such as Huxley, Spinoza, Einstein, and William James. 

Some of the characteristics that he found in common were: 

  • More efficient perception of reality. Secure in their own ignorance. Unthreatened by the unknown. 
  • Accept their contradictory nature. At peace with their vices, bad habits, and animal nature. 
  • Behave spontaneity, simplicity, and naturally. Unconventional thinking, not necessarily actions. 
  • Not self-centered or narcissistic. Outward focused. 
  • Independence from culture and environment. Think for themselves. Enjoy solitude. Reserved, calm, self-disciplined. 
  • Act according to own judgements, not others. Priority is self-development and inner growth. 
  • Rich subjective experience. Enjoy reality, grateful for what they have. 
  • Have peak and transcendental/ religious experiences. 
  • Treat people according to their character not race, class, or education.
  • Creative and humorous. 
  • Distrust of enculturation and ethnocentrism.

After basic needs such as health, safety, belongingness love, and esteem are satisfied, self-actualization becomes possible. But to choose not to self-actualize, means to betray one’s identity in an important way. The consequence of this betrayal will likely be a life of perpetual dissatisfactions.

The desire to become what one is, and what one is capable of becoming is the end of self-actualization.   

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Book Summaries History Politics Psychology

Ch. 8: Inner Demons (The Better Angels of Our Nature)

So far, Pinker has argued that the history of human beings has been shaped by violence. He has also noted that violence has declined. There is nothing about human nature that is exclusively violent or peaceful. The environment that we occupy, either through our own innovations or by sheer accident, is what determines our movement in either direction.

He then cites works of art that explore the violent nature of human beings.

Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream, Bible stories, Homeric sagas, martyrologies, portrayals of hell, hero myths, Gilgamesh, Greek tragedies, Beowulf, the Bayeux Tapestry, Shakespearean dramas, Grimm’s fairy tales, Punch and Judy, opera, murder mysteries, penny dreadfuls, pulp fiction, dime novels, Grand Guignol, murder ballads, films noirs, Westerns, horror comics, superhero comics, the Three Stooges, Tom and Jerry, the Road Runner, video games, and movies starring a certain ex-governor of California.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Even in wartime, many soldiers do not fire their weapons and are racked by posttraumatic stress disorder when they do. Some writers have concluded that most humans are constitutionally averse to violence. But the default human conditioning is towards violence. Even toddlers are violent. The question should not be why they are aggressive, but how they learn to not be aggressive?

We are attracted to extremes – illicit sex, violence, and giant leaps of status.

But if violence is hardwired into us, then why do soldiers feel reluctant to fire their guns in combat? A study found that less than 25 percent of veterans ever fired a gun in World War II.

It is not because human beings are gentle and compassionate that they exercise of constraint. Pinker cites Darwin and Hobbes when he analyzes the nature of violence. From these authors we can learn that human beings, unlike rocks, take part in a world everyone else takes part in. The individual that evolves violent tendencies is surrounded by other individuals who have evolved the same tendencies. If you harm others, they will probably harm you back. And others are motivated to harm you even before you harm them.

The Moralization Gap and The Myth of Pure Evil

There is a modern denial of the dark side of human nature.

Each person has either taken a perpetrator or victim viewpoint. The perpetrator excuses his behavior with self-serving facts “It’s not fair to blame me”. The victim frames the behavior of the perpetrator as a continuation of a series of mistakes, “You always do this”.

But self-serving biases are part of the evolutionary price we pay for being social animals. People congregate in groups for good reason. They look for warmth, cooperation, reciprocal exchange.

Trivers was the first to suggest that moral emotions were adaptations to cooperation. But there is more. When you convey an exaggerated impression of kindness and skill, others are bound to develop the ability to see through it – setting an evolutionary arms race between better liars and better lie detection. Lies can be spotted though internal contradictions, “A liar must have a good memory”, or through physical tells such as blushes and hesitations.

Trivers ventured that natural selection may have favored a degree of self-deception so as to suppress the tells at the source. We lie to ourselves so that we’re more believable when we lie to others. At the same time, an unconscious part of the mind registers the truth about our abilities so that we don’t get too far out of touch with reality. Trivers credits George Orwell with an earlier formulation of the idea: “The secret of rulership is to combine a belief in one’s own infallibility with a power to learn from past mistakes.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

But Self-deception makes the paradoxical claim that something called “the self” can both deceive and be deceived at the same time. It is easy to show that people are liable to self-serving biases, but it is difficult to show that people are liable to self-deception.

Two social psychologists ran a brilliant experiment where half the participants would get a pleasant tasks like looking through photographs for ten minutes, and half would get a difficult task like solving math problems for forty five minutes. The participants were told that they would be run in pairs, but it was not yet decided who got which task.

So they allowed each participant to choose one of two methods to decide who would get the pleasant task, and who would get the unpleasant one. The participants could either choose the easy task for themselves or they could use a random number generator that determined who would get the different tasks.

Since humans are selfish, almost everyone kept the pleasant task for themselves. In a questionnaire they were later given, almost everyone thought that they were being fair, but did not think that the way others behaved was fair at all. The difference between how they judged others and how they judged their own behavior is a classic example of self-serving bias.

But did the self-servers really believe that they were acting fairly? Or was did their unconscious brain register the truth, while the conscious spin doctor in their brains selected the most convenient narrative? The psychologists wanted to find out, so they tied up the conscious brains of the participants by asking them to hold seven digits in memory while they evaluated the experiment. Since their conscious minds were distracted, the terrible truth came out. The participants were as harsh on themselves as they were on other people. Trivers was right – the truth was in there all along.

This is an encouraging result, because it suggests that while we do tend to deceive ourselves, we also can acknowledge the truth. Freud suggested that we use denial, repression, reaction formation, and projection to postpone facing the truth, but at least in principle, it is possible.

Once you become aware of this fateful quirk in our psychology, social life begins to look different, and so do history and current events. It’s not just that there are two sides to every dispute. It’s that each side sincerely believes its version of the story, namely that it is an innocent and longsuffering victim and the other side a malevolent and treacherous sadist. And each side has assembled a historical narrative and database of facts consistent with its sincere belief.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Violence may be motivated by a need for dominance or practical considerations. The need for dominance can be tied to testosterone drives or Intermale Aggression system.

The practical, instrumental kind of violence where goals such as lust, power, or ambition is pursued is set up by the Seeking system in the brain and is guided by the person’s intelligence.

There are three other reasons for violence – and they include revenge, sadism, an ideology.

1 to 3 percent of males are psychopaths. And psychopaths are liars and bullies since childhood. Sometimes, psychopathy comes from brain damage, other times, it is heritable. Psychopathy evolved as a minority strategy that exploits a large population of trusting cooperators.

Many studies have shown that people are overly optimistic about their competence, health, intelligence, and athleticism. People also think they are inherently lucky, and most people think they are more likely than others to live a long life and to have gifted children. They also think they are less likely going to be a victim of accident, crime, disease, or unwanted pregnancy.

Why should people be so deluded? Positive illusions make people happier, more confident, and mentally healthier. But this does not explain why it is better to have positive illusions than to have a better sense of reality. A plausible explanation is that some degree of incredulity is evolutionarily useful. If you want to recruit an ally to support you in a risky venture, or bargaining for a better deal, or intimidating an adversary into backing down, you need to exaggerate your strengths if you are going to be given any credibility.

And it is better to believe your own bullshit than to cynically lie about it. Since lie detection co-evolved with the ability to lie, it is not a good tactic to constantly rely on deception. If your exaggerations are not ludicrous, then your audience will have to lend you some degree of credibility. It would be better for the species if everyone was completely honest, but this strategy is disastrous for the individual. You cannot afford to be the only honest person in a society of liars.

But overconfidence can make people engage in battles they cannot win. This is when it becomes dangerous. Many fights and wars happened for this reason.

Dominance

Dominance hierarchies are based on more than brute strength. The ability to recruit allies, who choose to team up with the strongest and the smartest. The difference between predation and dominance is that the former is only about attaining the object of desire while the latter is about playing mind games (flaunting, flexing).

Dominance is also based on data. To avoid a fight, competitors must know who is stronger. Common knowledge may be undermined by contrary opinion, so dominance contests are also fought in the arenas of public information.


When dominance is reckoned within a closed group, it is a zero-sum game: if someone’s rank goes up, another’s has to go down. Dominance tends to erupt in violence within small groups like gangs and isolated workplaces, where a person’s rank within the clique determines the entirety of his social worth. If people belong to many groups and can switch in and out of them, they are more likely to find one in which they are esteemed, and an insult or slight is less consequential.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Testosterone usually makes animals more aggressive. But it is more complicated in humans. Men, for example, do not get more aggressive because of testosterone. But testosterone makes men more prepared for dominance contests.

In men, testosterone levels rise in the presence of an attractive female and in anticipation of competition with other men, such as in sports. Once a match has begun, testosterone rises even more, and when the match has been decided, testosterone continues to rise in the winner but not in the loser. Men who have higher levels of testosterone play more aggressively, have angrier faces during competition, smile less often, and have firmer handshakes.

Men with higher levels of testosterone also shake hands more firmly and perceive neutral faces as angry. Testosterone levels decline when men get married, have children, and spend time with their children. The hormone is an internal regulator of the basic tradeoff between parenting effort and mating effort where the latter consists of fending off rivals and wooing the opposite sex.

Over the past century, dominance as a concept has been deconstructed.

Sadism

The development of sadism requires two things: motives to enjoy the suffering of others, and a removal of the restraints that ordinarily inhibit people from acting on them.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Human nature comes with four motives to find satisfaction in the pain of others. One is a fascination with the vulnerability of living things. This is what causes boys to fry ants with a magnifying glass, or adults to rubberneck at the scenes of automobile accidents. Another motive is mastery over the living world, including our own safety. Another is the enjoyability of seeing how the mighty have fallen, especially if they have tormented you. And another is to know that you can dominate others at will.

Sexual Sadomasochism

K. Baumeister hypothesizes that emotions come in pairs, just like complementary colors. When you take off rose-tinted googles, the colors you see are temporarily greenish. Our emotional state is similar – it is kept in equilibrium by a balance of opposing circuits. Fear is in balance with reassurance, euphoria with depression, hunger with satiety.

The difference between opposing emptions and complementary colors is how they change with experience. With the emotions, a person’s initial reaction gets weaker over time, and the balancing impulse gets stronger. As an experience is repeated, the emotional rebound is more keenly felt than the emotion itself. The first leap in a bungee jump is terrifying, and the sudden yoiiiiing of deceleration exhilarating, followed by an interlude of tranquil euphoria. But with repeated jumps the reassurance component strengthens, which makes the fear subside more quickly and the pleasure arrive earlier. If the most concentrated moment of pleasure is the sudden reversal of panic by reassurance, then the weakening of the panic response over time may require the jumper to try increasingly dangerous jumps to get the same degree of exhilaration.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

The action-reaction dynamic can be seen with positive initial experiences too. The first hit of heroin is euphoric and the withdrawal mild. But as the person turns into a junkie, pleasure decreases, and withdrawal symptoms come earlier and are more unpleasant. The compulsion to avoid withdrawal becomes stronger than the compulsion to attain euphoria.


According to Baumeister, sadism follows a similar trajectory. An aggressor experiences a revulsion to hurting his victim, but the discomfort cannot last forever, and eventually a reassuring, energizing counter emotion resets his equilibrium to neutral. With repeated bouts of brutality, the reenergizing process gets stronger and turns off the revulsion earlier. Eventually it predominates and tilts the entire process toward enjoyment, exhilaration, and then craving. As Baumeister puts it, the pleasure is in the backwash.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

On its own, the opponent-process theory is too simplistic. You would expect people to hit themselves on the head repeatedly because it feels so good when they stop. Obviously, not all experiences are governed by the tension between reaction and counteraction, nor by the same gradual weakening of the first and strengthening of the second.

There must be a subset of aversive experiences that especially lend themselves to being overcome. The psychologist Paul Rozin has identified a syndrome of acquired tastes he calls benign masochism.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

These paradoxical pleasures include eating hot chili peppers, strong cheese, dry wine, and taking part in extreme experiences like saunas, skydiving, racing, and rock climbing. These are all adult tastes where the novice must overcome their initial reaction of aversion on the way to becoming a connoisseur. All are acquired by controlling exposure to the stressor in gradually higher doses.

What they have in common is a coupling of high potential gains (nutrition, medicinal benefits, speed, knowledge of new environments) with high potential dangers (poisoning, exposure, accidents). The pleasure in acquiring one of these tastes is the pleasure of pushing the outside of the envelope: of probing, in calibrated steps, how high, hot, strong, fast, or far one can go without bringing on disaster.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

The advantage in the end is to unlock experiences that were previously closed off because of innate fears. Benign masochism is an overshooting of the mastery motive, and the revulsion-overcoming process can overshoot so far as to result in craving and addiction.

With sadism, the potential rewards are dominance, revenge and sexual access, while the potential dangers are retaliations from the victim. Sadists do become connoisseurs. This is both frightening and hopeful. Sadism is an ever present danger to individuals or security forces. But it needs to be acquired.

Ideology

A big driver of violence is ideology. Like predatory or instrumental violence, ideological violence is a means to an end, but with ideology, the end if idealistic (the greater good).

Yet for all that idealism, it’s ideology that drove many of the worst things that people have ever done to each other. They include the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Russian and Chinese civil wars, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocides of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. An ideology can be dangerous for several reasons. The infinite good it promises prevents its true believers from cutting a deal. It allows any
number of eggs to be broken to make the utopian omelet. And it renders opponents of the ideology infinitely evil and hence deserving of infinite punishment.

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker
Categories
Book Summaries Psychology

Know Yourself (The Art of Worldly Wisdom)

Know your pet Faults. The most perfect of men has them, and is either wedded to them or has illicit relations with them. They are often faults of intellect, and the greater this is, the greater they are, or at least the more conspicuous. It is not so much that their possessor does not know them: he loves them, which is a double evil: irrational affection for avoidable faults. They are spots on perfection; they displease the onlooker as much as they please the possessor. ‘Tis a gallant thing to get clear of them, and so give play to one’s other qualities. For all men hit upon such a failing, and on going over your qualifications they make a long stay at this blot, and blacken it as deeply as possible in order to cast your other talents into
the shade.

Have reasonable Views of Yourself and of your Affairs, especially in the beginning of life. Every one has a high opinion of himself, especially those who have least ground for it. Every one dreams of his good-luck and thinks himself a wonder. Hope gives rise to extravagant promises which experience does not fulfill. Such idle imaginations merely serve as a well-spring of annoyance when disillusion comes with the true reality. The wise man anticipates such errors: he may always hope for the best. but he always expects the worst, so as to receive what comes with equanimity. True, It is wise to aim high so as to hit your mark, but not so high that you miss your mission at the very beginning of life. This correction of the ideas is necessary, because before experience comes expectation is sure to soar too high. The best panacea against folly is
prudence. If a man knows the true sphere of his activity and position, the can reconcile his ideals with reality

Categories
Book Summaries Psychology

Know The Psychology of Others (The Art of Worldly Wisdom)

Comprehend their Dispositions with whom you deal, so as to know their intentions. Cause known, effect known, beforehand in the disposition and after in the motive. The melancholy man always foresees misfortunes, the backbiter scandals; having no conception of the good, evil offers itself to them. A man moved by passion always speaks of things differently from what they are; it is his passion speaks, not his reason. Thus each speaks as his feeling or his humour prompts him, and all far from the truth. Learn how to decipher faces and spell out the soul in the features. If a man laughs always, set him down as foolish; if never, as false. Beware of the gossip: he is either a babbler or a spy. Expect little good from the misshapen: they generally take revenge on Nature, and do little honour to her, as she has done little to them. Beauty and folly generally go hand in hand.

Common in Nothing. First, not in taste. O great and wise, to be ill at ease when your deeds please the mob! The excesses of popular applause never satisfy the sensible. Some there are such chameleons of popularity that they find enjoyment not in the sweet savours of Apollo but in the breath of the mob. Secondly, not in intelligence. Take no pleasure in the wonder of
the mob, for ignorance never gets beyond wonder. While vulgar folly wonders wisdom watches for the trick.

Do not make Mistakes about Character. That is the worst and yet easiest error. Better be cheated in the price than in the quality of goods. In dealing with men, more than with other things, it is necessary to look within. To know men is different from knowing things. It is profound philosophy to sound the depths of feeling and distinguish traits of character. Men
must be studied as deeply as books.

Distinguish the Man of Words from the Man of Deeds. Discrimination here is as important as in the case of friends, persons, and employments, which have all many varieties. Bad words even without bad deeds are bad enough: good words with bad deeds are worse. One cannot dine off words, which are wind, nor off politeness, which is but polite deceit. To catch birds with a mirror is the ideal snare. It is the vain alone who take their wages in windy words. Words should be the pledges of work, and, like pawn-tickets, have their market price. Trees that bear leaves but not fruit have usually no pith. Know them for what they are, of no use except for shade.

Categories
Book Summaries Psychology

Man and His Symbols Summary (7/10)

Man and his Symbols is Jung’s introduction to the unconscious. Initially, Freud saw the unconscious as the place that holds repressed memories or unwanted desires. Many of the best ideas by artists, philosophers, scientists are sudden manifestations of the unconscious. But Jung sees the psyche as representative of the Self as well. The unconscious is not what the person secretly wants, but also who they deeply are.

Jung’s contribution, over decades of investigation, was to point out to us the universality of dreams symbols and what they mean to people undergoing different stages of psychic development.

The Limitations of Civilized Man

Modern man has lost the colorful and mystical unconscious associations of primitive man, such as when the latter fully identifies with animals in nature. we are more rational today, we do not fear demons or think of ourselves as anything other than human, but the terrors of our elaborate civilization may be far more threatening than what those primitive people attribute to demons.

Civilized man can use his willpower to do whatever he pleases, he does not need to chant or drum to hypnotize himself into a state of doing, like primitive man. Civilized man can even dispose with divine iaid, and he can carry out his actions uninterrupted, whereas primitive man cannot act without encountering fears, superstitions, and other unseen obstacles.

The superstitions of modern man is, “When there’s a will, there’s a way.” But modern man, to sustain is creed, pays the price by an incredible lack of introspection,

He is blind to the fact that despite his rationality and efficiency he is possessed by powers that are outside his control. His gods and demons have no disappeared, they have merely taken new names. They keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food, and an array of endless neuroses.

The Shadow of the West

The west has tolerated, secretly and with shame (the diplomatic lie, systematic deception, veiled threats) – these come back into the open and in full force from the East and ties Westerners into neurotic knots.

It is the face of his own evil shadow that grins at Western man from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

This explains the strange feeling of helplessness of so many people in the West. They have realized that the biggest difficulties confronting them are moral problems, and to answer these concerns with nuclear stockpiling or economic competition is a mistake, since it cuts both ways.

The Eternal Conflict

The sad truth is that man’s real life is made up of opposites: day and night, birth and death, happiness, and misery, good and evil. We do not know which will prevail over the other, whether good will overcome evil, or whether joy will defeat pain. Life has always been a battleground and will continue to be this way. If it were not, existence would come to an end.

It was this conflict that led the early Christians to hope for the end of the world, or the Buddhists to reject all earthly desires. These basic answers would be suicidal if they were not linked with peculiar mental and moral ideas and practices that characterize both religions, and that, modify their denial of the world.

This is an important point because in our time, millions of people have lost faith in any kind of religion. These people do not understand their religion any longer. Life can run smoothly without religion, the loss remains unnoticed. But when suffering comes, it is a different matter. That is when people look for a way out, and reflect about the meaning of life, and the its bewildering and painful experiences.

Modern man may assert that he does not need them since there is scientific evidence of their truth, or he might regret the loss of his convictions. But since God is unknowable, there is no point bothering about evidence. Even if we did not know by reason our need for salt in food, we should still benefit from its use. We can argue that the use of salt is merely an illusion of taste or a superstition, but it would still make us better off. Why, then, should we deprive ourselves from views that would help in crises and give meaning to our lives?

Many would agree with the idea that these religious ideas are probably illusions, but they do not realize that this denial is as impossible to prove as the assertion of religious belief. We are free to choose our point of view, but it will be an arbitrary decision. But there is good empirical reason for us to cultivate thoughts that cannot be proved. Man needs general ideas and convictions that will give his life meaning and help him find a place for himself in the universe. He can withstand the most severe hardships when he is convinced that they make sense. But he is crushed when on top of all his misfortunes, he must admit that is playing a part in a “tale told by an idiot.”

It is a common illusion to believe that we know today is all we can ever know. Nothing is more vulnerable than scientific theory, which is an ephemeral attempt to explain facts and not an everlasting truth in itself.

And modern man, far from being a rationalistic skeptic, retains many old-fashioned prejudices, outdated habits of thoughts, and blind ignorance.

The Function of Dreams

The purpose of dreams is to try to restore psychic balance by producing dream material that re-establishes total psychic equilibrium. People who have unrealistic ideas about themselves dream of flying or falling.

The recurring dream is an interesting phenomenon – it is an attempt to compensate for a certain defect in the dreamer’s attitude to life, or may come from a traumatic moment that left behind some prejudice, or may anticipate an important future event.

Individuation

For men, the first half of life is when you identify with the masculine, the second half is the integration of the persona with the Self.

Dream life creates a pattern in which individual tendencies become apparent, then vanish, and finally return again. If one observes this meandering process for long enough, they will notice a hidden regulating or directing tendency at work, creating a slow, barely noticeable process of psychic growth – that is individuation.

The Self is the inner guiding factor that is different from the conscious personality, and can only be grasped through the investigation of one’s own dreams.

The ego, it seems, has not been produced by nature to follow its own arbitrary commands, but help make the totality – the whole psyche. The ego serves to light up the entire system, allowing it to become conscious and realized. If you have an artistic talent that your ego is not conscious of, nothing will happen to it. The gift may as well not exist. The inborn but hidden totality of the psyche is not the same as the whole-ness that is realized and experienced.

Many believe that Jungian psychological can only apply to middle-aged people. While it is true that those who reach middle=age without psychological maturity require help for neglecting phases of their development – the first part of the process of individuation. But it is also true that the young person can encounter serious problems as he grows up.

If he is afraid of life and finds it difficult to adjust to reality, he may prefer to dwell in his fantasies or remain a child. In such a young person, especially if introverted, one can discover unexpected treasures in the unconscious, and by bringing them into consciousness, he can strengthen his ego and give him the necessary psychic energy to grow into a mature person. That is the function of the powerful symbolism found in dreams.

The Shadow

When a person tries to see his shadow, he becomes aware and ashamed of the qualities that he denies in himself but clearly sees in others. These include egotism, mental laziness and sloppiness, unreal fantasies, schemes, and plots; carelessness and cowardice; inordinate love of money and possessions. In short, all the little sins about which he may have told himself: “That doesn’t matter; nobody will notice it, and in any case other people do it too.”

Sometimes, a person lives out the worse side of his nature and represses his better side. In this case, the shadow is a positive figure in his dreams. But to a person who lives out his natural emotions and feelings, the shadow may appear as a cold and negative intellectual; it then personifies poisonous judgements and negative thoughts that have been repressed.

The Anima

The anima is a personification of all feminine psychological tendencies in a man’s psyche, such as vague feelings and moods, hunches, receptiveness to the irrational, feeling for nature, and his relation to the unconscious.

In its individual manifestation, the character of a man’s anima is shaped by his mother. If he feels his mother had a negative influence on him, his anima will express itself in irritable depressed moods, uncertainty, insecurity, and touchiness.  

But if a man’s experience of his mother has been positive, this can affect him in a typical but different ways, with the result that he either becomes effeminate or is preyed upon by women and thus unable to cope with life’s hardships. An anima of this kind can turn men into sentimentalists.

The anima in this form involves men in a destructive intellectual game, where they engage in pseudointellectual dialogues that stop them from living life and dealing with real decisions. He reflects about life so much that he cannot live it and loses all spontaneity and outgoing feeling.

Criticism of Jung

Jung is criticized for not systematizing his approach enough, but the material itself is a living experience charged with emotion, which does not lend itself for systematization. Modern depth psychology has reached the same limits that face microphysics. When we deal with statistical averages, a systematic description of facts is possible. But when trying to describe a single psychic event, we can do no more than present an honest picture of it from as many angles as possible.

To put it in simple, nonscientific terms, nuclear physics has robbed the basic units of matter of their absolute concreteness. It has made matter mysterious. Paradoxically, mass and energy, wave a n d particle, have proved to be interchangeable. The laws of cause and effect have become valid only up to a certain point.


Categories
Psychology

Myth 15: IQ Tests Are Biased against Certain Groups of People (50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology)

Regarding IQ tests, there are three important questions that are asked. 1) Do IQ tests predict success? 2) Are IQ tests indicators of intelligence? 3) Are IQ tests biased towards certain groups of people?

The first question is debatable. Some argue that IQ tests can only predict one thing – how well people do on IQ tests. Others argue that IQ tests can reliably predict which students will become more successful in their careers, and even which presidents will accomplish more.

As for question 2, intelligence is defined as the broad capacity to understand things and solve problems but cannot be constricted to some narrow academic skill or book smarts.

 And for the third question, there are many different viewpoints. Some people, such as Ralph Nader, have called for the abolishment of the SAT’s because minority groups do not do as well on them. And in the U.S, there is a good reason to believe that racial prejudice exists.

In the influential Larry P. v. Riles (1980), the 9th District court of appeals in California ruled that an unbiased test should yield the same pattern of scores when given to different groups of people, and placed strict limits on the use of intelligence tests for classifying children as mildly mentally retarded for educational purposes. Another court case saw the Golden Rule Insurance Company sue the state licensing board and test publisher because less black respondents (than white respondents) answered correctly on some items on the licensing tests.

However, just because two groups of people may differ in some ability, this does not indicate that the tests are biased, but may indicate that their abilities are biased. If a doctor says that his measurements tell him that men are taller than women, it does not mean that his tests are biased, but that men are, on average, taller than women.

Some psychologists think that there is truth to the claims of test bias. Here is why: the items making up the test, and not the test itself, can be biased. This phenomenon is called differential item functioning or DIF. For any pair of groups (men versus women, or blacks versus whites), we can examine each item on an IQ test for DIG. If members of two groups perform the same on the test except for a particular item, we can see this as evidence of item bias.

Researchers commonly discover that many IQ test items meet criteria for DIF. But how can themselves demonstrate DIF without scores on the entire test being biased? It turns out that many of the DIFs are trivial in size. Further, some items favor one group, while other items favor another group, so their effects cancel each other out. DIF does not necessarily produce test bias.

The verdict according to the authors is that IQ tests validly predict performance in many important areas in life, with no evidence of bias against women or minorities. The real bias is when the blame is cast on the IQ tests themselves, without considering environmental explanations, such as cultural disadvantages, for differences in test scores across groups.  

Categories
Book Summaries Philosophy Psychology

The Master and his Emissary Summary (8/10)

In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist explains our reality through the perspective of brain lateralization. He includes in his study neurology, mythology, art, science, literature, and psychology – to explain how the hemispheres of the brain are different, and how this explains why experience contradictions in our own thinking, such as the mismatch between what we will and what we desire.

These differences not only explain the contradictions in our own minds, but they explain the differences between cultures, and most importantly, they tell us why Western civilization is headed towards social disintegration, ostracization, and mental illness.

The Difference Between the Hemispheres

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 of his talent, while the engineer thinks the same of the salesperson.

The True Master

The brain manifests itself in the world, and the world then reshapes the brain. But the brain is not a monolithic entity, it is comprised of two vastly different interpreters of reality, and for this reason, one takes precedence over the other. In the West, the left-brain has emerged victorious, while in the East, it is the right-brain that has won.

According to McGilchrist, the true master is the right-brain, and its servant is the left-brain. He gives many reasons to back up this claim, one of which involves what happens to patients with damage to either one of their hemispheres. For those with left-hemispheric damage, there is an increase in living in a state of denial, as compared with patients with right-hemispheric damage. The right hemisphere is more universal, it goes beyond the limitations of language.

In a sense, language, which is a left-hemisphere invention, can only work by working with its own presuppositions. That is, any insight you can derive from language can only come from language itself. While the right hemisphere cannot articulate its insights because they are too complex, and cannot formulate linear arguments with clear conclusions, it is open to new experiences, and is thus the conduit to creativity. The right-hemisphere chooses what part of the world to take in, and the left-hemisphere merely chooses to either obey or disobey.

But because the right-hemisphere can lead to an unstable society, there has been a revolt by the left-brain, and now the emissary has become the master. Yet this emissary has proven to be a terrible master.

Rationality

But McGilchrist does not attack rationality. On the contrary, he uses rationality in the proper way, by being critical of the rational mental faculty itself. There is no point in using rationality in the world, if we cannot criticize our own tendencies, rational or otherwise.

Rationality is, in fact, under minded when it is not itself examined, and for this self-criticism to take place, we must apply a new kind of reason, one that is more holistic and open minded, less materialistic and narrow.

In the West, there has been a movement towards a society that is orderly and rational. Historically, we can think of this period as the Enlightenment, when a fear of human intuition, emotion, and superstition led to a hyper-rational ethic that persists till this day.

Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment, and philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger have warned of this development. Nietzsche, a strong critique of rationalism, suggested that the materialistic worldview is not superior to the religious. Instead of the worship of God (antithetical to left hemispheric thinking), a superior being, man will worship inferior gods, that are of his own creation.

This includes political and economic systems. Both capitalism and communism are products of the left-hemisphere, they are modes of dividing the spoils of a lifeless society in the most rational way possible. In the west, it is the worship of consumerism that has prevailed. And therefore, there has been a dissipation of family structures, and a rise in individuality. This has led to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and anorexia in urbanized areas in the west. In art, we can see the universality of right hemispheric thinking (Bach can be appreciated in areas as remote as Papa New Guinea).

The East and West differ with regards to interpreting reality. In the West, the emphasis is on taking a side. There is a winner and a loser, a correct argument and a false argument, and very little room for contradiction. Whereas in the East, it is the opposite. Children are taught to understand the world through its contradictions. That is, contradictions are a source of trouble in the West, but in the East, they are a source of illumination.

The final conclusion of the book is that there is a powerful movement towards linearity, systems, organization and separation, And unless there is a focused effort in examining where this momentum will lead, society is at risk of remaining hostage to the incompetent emissary, who knows exactly how to do things, but never what ought to be done.

Review                                                                                     

While the book contains many insights, and is worth revisiting, it can be verbose at times. As for the conclusion itself, the author oversimplifies the world to match the dualism of the brain The world is not so easily divided between right-hemispheric and left-hemispheric thinking. While it is true that in the East, there is greater appreciation, historically, for holistic thinking than in the West, it is by no means clear that this is still the case. For example, in Japan, a country that is mentioned a few times in the book, while seemingly embracing the right-hemispheric thinking that McGilchrist promotes, appears to be more individualistic and techno-centric than most other societies.

It is a correct observation to say that increased detachedness and logical analysis has resulted in the destruction of social bonds, and there is evidence to back it up, but it is far from clear, where this is taking place. Is it taking place in the West, where there is now a movement towards meditation, yoga, and spirituality, or is it in the East, where there is a rapid movement towards urbanization and techno-centrism?

Categories
Book Summaries Psychology

Masochism and the Self Summary (7/10)

It is difficult to understand the human mind without understanding its pathology. One of the ideas that struck me as odd and pathological is masochism – when people derive pleasure from the experience of pain. Freud defined masochism as any action that brings harm to oneself. At work, the masochist repeats his mistakes or gets himself fired. Sexually, the masochist seeks out feelings of pain and humiliation.

In Masochism and the Self, Roy Baumeister focuses on a more precise definition of masochism that only includes the sexual, because far too many behaviors would be considered masochistic without such a restriction. This is unlike Reik’s perspective on this subject in Masochism in Modern Man, or Becker’s views on Sadomasochism in The Denial of Death.

Before summarizing Roy’s ideas, I will review some of what Reik and Becker had to say.

Reik explained that there are two forms of masochism , social masochism and sexual masochism. Sexual masochism was not about enjoying pain, it was the opposite. Unlike what psychologists such as Roy Baumeister think, the masochist is just like the rest of us, he does not like pain. But the difference is that the masochist has found a method to deal with pain, and that is by administering it to themselves in small doses. By confronting pain voluntarily, the masochist alleviates his deepest fears.

Becker would subscribe to this way of thinking, but the difference is that he thought that this primal fear was death. Masochistic activities are nothing more than a prelude for death, the ultimate fear for any person.

For Reik, it was not the fear of death that is central, but the control of pain. The sexual masochist, through ritual, confronts his fear and anxiety in controlled doses, and then feels pleasure. He is able to triumph in spite of the anxiety.It may even be because of anxiety. But the social masochist has no end goal, it is formless masochism. Instead of controlling pain, he sabotages his own life by subjecting himself to painful experiences. Yet the social masochist is defiant, despite this defeat. His thoughts are that “one day they will appreciate me” or that “I will get revenge against this person who wronged me.”

Roy’s idea more closely resembles Becker. His conclusion is that sexual masochism is about the elimination of the self. Another important idea is that masochism is not simply the inverse of sadism. There is an idea that masochism is simply sadistic urges directed towards oneself because of guilt feelings.

This is a departure from Reik, Becker, and Freud. Roy contends that masochism is primary, and not equal to sadism – that masochism is far more prevalent. And his goal was to understand why. What compels people, in a sexual context, to invite pain to themselves?

Male and Female Masochism

Freud thought that masochism is a feminine impulse, because traditionally, women have had a subservient position in society. There has been push back against this idea by feminists, but Roy seems to agree with Freud because he has found, through letters written by masochist, that male masochists are attracted to feminine activities, such as dressing like women, but female masochists are not attracted to masculine activities.

The Perversion

And when it came to perversion, Freud thought that people who could only have sex through a fetish were perverse, while those who only did so occasionally were normal. The association of perversion with masochism is common among psychiatrists, but according to Roy, this is not because masochists are dysfunctional. Recent surveys have shown that masochists are often well-functioning, normal people. Prostitutes that are paid to cater to masochists have reported powerful men such as politicians and business leaders as their most frequent clients.

The reason masochism has traditionally been associated with mental sickness is that most masochists who are well-functioning are secretive about it, thus, you would expect an over-representation of masochism among the mentally ill.

The History of Masochism

People were not masochistic in ancient times. There is no evidence of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians or Chinese referring to masochism. Masochistic ideas only began taking shape in the last 200 hundred years. In the 19th century, Sader-Masoch wrote about his predilection for pain and humiliation. He convinced his wife to have sex with a man, while he watched from another room, through the door’s key hole. She didn’t enjoy it, but apparently, he had a great time.

In the book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, researchers scoured the database of the famous porn website, Pornhub, and discovered that search terms related to “cuckold” have skyrocketed and are among the top searched categories by men.

The Pressure of Individuality

Roy noticed that only Western society has any documentation of masochism. And he noticed a pattern that made sense of this. In periods that called for greater individualization, the cultivation of personal identity, we have seen a rise in masochism, while periods that called for greater collectivism saw a decline in masochism. The increase in masochistic tendencies can be attributed to the modern pressure to differentiate oneself from the group.

The Elimination of the Self

The sexual masochistic act, in this sense, is the desire to eliminate the self. Through masochism, the individual reduces his awareness to a lower level, and by doing so, restricts most of reality. When playing the role of the masochist, he is not thinking about his position on the social hierarchy, he transforms into a lesser form. That is what Roy means by “the elimination of the self.” And doing, similar to meditation, is a therapeutic way of escaping one’s individualistic role in society, with all its pressures and frustrations.