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Posts Tagged ‘Psychology

“Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule”*…

 

nationalism

 

Over the course of a decade, the male chimps in one group systematically killed every neighboring male, kidnapped the surviving females, and expanded their territory. Similar attacks occur in chimp populations elsewhere; a 2014 study found that chimps are about 30 times as likely to kill a chimp from a neighboring group as to kill one of their own. On average, eight males gang up on the victim.

If such is the violent reality of life as an ape, is it at all surprising that humans, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimps, also divide the world into “us” and “them” and go to war over these categories? Reductive comparisons are, of course, dangerous; humans share just as much of their DNA with bonobos, among whom such brutal behavior is unheard of. And although humans kill not just over access to a valley but also over abstractions such as ideology, religion, and economic power, they are unrivaled in their ability to change their behavior. (The Swedes spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe; today they are, well, the Swedes.) Still, humankind’s best and worst moments arise from a system that incorporates everything from the previous second’s neuronal activity to the last million years of evolution (along with a complex set of social factors). To understand the dynamics of human group identity, including the resurgence of nationalism—that potentially most destructive form of in-group bias—requires grasping the biological and cognitive underpinnings that shape them…

Robert Sapolsky on the biology of “us and them”: “This is your brain on nationalism.”

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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As we muse on membership, we might send elegantly-composed birthday greetings to Ludovico Ariosto; he was born on this date in 1474.  An Italian poet, he is best remembered for his epic Orlando Furioso; a continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo‘s Orlando Innamorato, it describes the adventures of Charlemagne, Orlando (the Christian knight subsequently known as Roland), and the Franks as they battle against the Saracens.

Ariosto’s epic was hugely influential on later European literature (including English poets Spencer, Shakespeare, and Byron).  And while the work had a “patriotic” (and, at least overtly, Christian) cast, Ariosto coined the term “humanism” (in Italian, umanesimo), helping pave the way for Renaissance Humanism.

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Ariosto, detail of votive painting Madonna with saints Joseph, John, Catherine, Louis of Toulouse and Lodovico Ariosto by Vincenzo Catena,

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Written by LW

September 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work”*…

 

attention

 

From psychology professor (and Inner Magic Circle member) Richard Wiseman, a wonderful video elaboration on the famous Gorilla Experiment (to which Wiseman includes a sly nod), demonstrating just how easily our attempts to pay attention can lead us to miss important dimensions of what’s going on around us…

[TotH to Jack Shalom]

* Mary Oliver

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As we iris out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was actually signed (by all of the signatories except Matthew Thornton from New Hampshire, who inked it on November 4, 1776).  After the Continental Congress voted to declare independence on July 2, the final language of the document was approved on July 4– to wit our celebration of the date– and it was printed and distributed on July 4–5.

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John Trumbull’s depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Capitol Rotunda

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“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination”*…

 

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John Trumbull’s depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Capitol Rotunda

 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
—The Declaration of Independence

These words, from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, are so familiar that it is easy to assume their meaning is obvious. The puzzle lies in the assertion that we have a right to pursue happiness. John Locke, in his Two Treatises of 1690, said we are all created equal and have inalienable rights, including those to life and liberty. But for Locke the third crucial right was the right to property. In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, also published in 1690, he wrote about the pursuit of happiness, but it follows from his account there that there can be no right to pursue happiness because we will pursue happiness come what may. The pursuit of happiness is a law of human nature (of what we now call psychology), just as gravity is a law of physics. A right to pursue happiness is no more necessary than a right for water to run downhill.

Jefferson meant, I think, that we have a right to certain preconditions that will allow us to pursue happiness: freedom of speech, so we can speak our minds and learn from others; a career open to talents, so our efforts may be rewarded; freedom of worship, so we may find our way to heaven; and a free market, so we can pursue prosperity. Read this way, Jefferson’s right to the pursuit of happiness is an elaboration of the right to liberty. Liberty means not only freedom from coercion, or freedom under the law—or even the right to participate in politics—it is also a right to live in a free community in which individuals themselves decide how they want to achieve happiness. The “public happiness” to which Jefferson aspired can therefore be attained, since public happiness requires liberty in this expanded sense.

Jefferson was well aware that being free to pursue happiness does not mean that everyone will be happy. And yet we trick ourselves into thinking we know what is needed to be happy: a promotion, a new car, a vacation, a good-looking partner. We believe this even though we know there are plenty of people with good jobs, new cars, vacations, and attractive partners, and many of them are miserable. But they, too, imagine their misery can be fixed by a bottle of Pétrus or a yacht or public adulation. In practice, our strategies for finding happiness are usually self-defeating. There’s plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that much of what we do to gain happiness doesn’t pay off. It seems that aiming at happiness is always a misconceived project; happiness comes, as John Stuart Mill insisted, as the unintended outcome of aiming at something else. “The right to the pursuit of happiness,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “is nothing else than the right to disillusionment phrased in another way.”

This problem is particularly acute in our modern consumer economy, in which political institutions, the economic system, and popular culture are all now primarily dedicated to the pursuit of happiness…

How have we come to build a whole culture around a futile, self-defeating enterprise: the pursuit of happiness?  David Wootton explores the implications of our (mis)understanding of America’s founding document: “The Impossible Dream.”

* Mark Twain

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As we think twice about self-gratification, we might send porcelain birthday greetings to Marcel Duchamp; he was born on this date in 1887.  A painter, sculptor, and conceptual artist, Duchamp was, with Picasso and Matisse, one the defining figures in the revolution that redefined the plastic arts in the early Twentieth Century– in Duchamp’s case, as an early Cubist (the star of the famous 1913 New York Armory Show), as the originator of ready-mades, and as a father of Dada.

In the 1930s, Duchamp turned from the production of art to his other great passion, chess.  He became a competitive player; then, as he reached the limits of his ability, a chess writer.  Samuel Beckett, an friend of Duchamp, used Duchamp’s thinking about chess strategy as the narrative device for the 1957 play of the same name, Endgame.  Then in 1968, Duchamp played an on-stage chess match with avant-garde composer, friend, and regular chess opponent John Cage, at a concert entitled Reunion, in which the music was produced by a series of photoelectric cells underneath the chessboard, triggered when pieces were moved in game play.

Duchamp (center; his wife Teeny, right) “performing” Reunion with John Cage (left) in 1968

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“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth”*…

 

Burdick-FlatEarth2

A map from 1893 portrays Earth as square and stationary and warns of Biblical interdiction against the notion of a round Earth flying through space

 

If you are only just waking up to the twenty-first century, you should know that, according to a growing number of people, much of what you’ve been taught about our planet is a lie: Earth really is flat. We know this because dozens, if not hundreds, of YouTube videos describe the coverup. We’ve listened to podcasts—Flat Earth Conspiracy, The Flat Earth Podcast—that parse the minutiae of various flat-Earth models, and the very wonkiness of the discussion indicates that the over-all theory is as sound and valid as any other scientific theory. We know because on a clear, cool day it is sometimes possible, from southwestern Michigan, to see the Chicago skyline, more than fifty miles away—an impossibility were Earth actually curved. We know because, last February, Kyrie Irving, the Boston Celtics point guard, told us so. “The Earth is flat,” he said. “It’s right in front of our faces. I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us.” We know because, last November, a year and a day after Donald Trump was elected President, more than five hundred people from across this flat Earth paid as much as two hundred and forty-nine dollars each to attend the first-ever Flat Earth Conference, in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina…

The unsettling thing about spending two days at a convention of people who believe that Earth is flat isn’t the possibility that you, too, might come to accept their world view, although I did worry a little about that. Rather, it’s the very real likelihood that, after sitting through hours of presentations on “scientism,” lightning angels, and NASA’s many conspiracies—the moon-landing hoax, the International Fake Station, so-called satellites—and in chatting with I.T. specialists, cops, college students, and fashionably dressed families with young children, all of them unfailingly earnest and lovely, you will come to actually understand why a growing number of people are dead certain that Earth is flat. Because that truth is unnerving…

Alan Burdick explains what the burgeoning movement says about science, solace, and how a theory becomes truth; “Looking for Life on a Flat Earth.”

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

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As we contemplate curvature, we might recall that it was on this date in 1850 that Harvard Observatory director William Cranch Bond and Boston photographer John Adams Whipple took a daguerreotype of Vega– the first photograph of a star ever made.

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“As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance”*…

 

Klimt

 

The neuroscientist was in the art gallery and there were many things to learn. So Eric Kandel excitedly guided me through the bright lobby of the Neue Galerie New York, a museum of fin de siècle Austrian and German art, located in a Beaux-Art mansion, across from Central Park. The Nobel laureate was dressed in a dark blue suit with white pinstripes and red bowtie. I was dressed, well, less elegantly.

Since winning a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, for uncovering the electrochemical mechanisms of memory, Kandel had been thinking about art. In 2012 and 2016, respectively, he published The Age of Insight and Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, both of which could be called This Is Your Brain on Art. The Age of Insight detailed the rise of neuroscience out of the medical culture that surrounded Sigmund Freud, and focused on Gustav Klimt and his artistic disciples Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, whose paintings mirrored the age’s brazen ideas about primal desires smoldering beneath conscious control.

I’d invited Kandel to meet me at the Neue Galerie because it was the premier American home of original works by Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. It was 2014 when we met and I had long been reading about neuroaesthetics, a newish school in neuroscience, and a foundation of The Age of Insight, where brain computation was enlisted to explain why and what in art turned us on. I was anxious to hear Kandel expound on how neuroscience could enrich art, as he had written, though I also came with a handful of doubts…

Kevin Berger learns “what neuroscience is doing to art”: “Gustav Klimt in the Brain Lab.”

* Bill Watterson

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As we think about thinking about it, we might spare a thought for Jacob Lawrence; he died on this date in 2000.  One of the best-respected 20th century American painters, and one the most well-known African-American artists, Jacobs described his style as “Dynamic Cubism.”  His works are in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Phillips Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

He is perhaps best known for a 60-panel work, Migration Series (depicting the migration of rural southern African-Americans to the urban north), which he painted on cardboard.  The collection is now held by two museums: the odd-numbered paintings are on exhibit in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the even-numbered are displayed at MOMA in New York.

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The first panel of Migration Series [source]

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Written by LW

June 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity”*…

 

Hay

David Ramsay Hay’s mapping of color onto musical notes, a diagram from his The Laws of Harmonious Colouring (1838)

 

“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” So wrote the Victorian art critic Walter Pater in 1888. Earlier in the century, Scottish artist David Ramsay Hay composed a series of fifteen books published between 1828 and 1856 that attempted to develop a theory of visual beauty from the basic elements of music theory. Anticipating Pater but also fin-de-siècle attempts to unite the arts via spiritual or synesthetic affinities, Hay’s writings mapped colors, shapes, and angles onto familiar musical constructs such as pitches, scales, and chords. While these ideas might appear highly eccentric today, an understanding of them offers a glimpse of the remarkable importance of music to the Victorian Zeitgeist…

Hay’s approach to visual aesthetics was equally applicable to architecture, color theory, the ornamental arts, and the human face and figure. It can be understood as a psychological account of beauty, as opposed to other contemporary theories that anchored beauty in notions of the picturesque, the mimetic, or the sublime. Though analogies between music and the fine arts certainly do not originate with Hay, his application of music theory to an extensive array of visual experiences including color, shapes, figures, and architecture broke new ground. Rather than locating musical properties in the objects themselves, as earlier thinkers ranging from Plato to Newton had done, Hay worked in the post-Kantian tradition, regarding these features as immanent to our own minds, where they create our experience of beauty by determining the very structure of our perceptions…

Throughout his writings, Hay consistently links the claim that a single fundamental law of nature determines aesthetic perception to the work of the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras…

Understanding the same laws to apply to both visual and aural beauty, David Ramsay Hay thought it possible not only to analyze such visual wonders as the Parthenon in terms of music theory, but also to identify their corresponding musical harmonies and melodies: “Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics.”

* Baruch de Spinoza

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As we excavate the essential, we might send elegantly-composed birthday greetings to Mary Cassatt; she was born on this date in 1844.  An American printmaker and painter, she moved to Paris as an adult, where she developed a friendship with Edgar Degas and became, as  Gustave Geffroy wrote in 1894, one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism (with Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot).

Self-portrait, c. 1878

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Written by LW

May 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”*…

 

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With the appearance of the first rays of the sun from Cerro Huantajaya in Alto Hospicio, northern Chile, people celebrate the arrival of the Aymara New Year, Machaq Mara, and the arrival of new energies.

 

For centuries, Inuit hunters navigated the Arctic by consulting wind, snow and sky. Now they use GPS. Speakers of the aboriginal language Gurindji, in northern Australia, used to command 28 variants of each cardinal direction. Children there now use the four basic terms, and they don’t use them very well. In the arid heights of the Andes, the Aymara developed an unusual way of understanding time, imagining the past as in front of them, and the future at their backs. But for the youngest generation of Aymara speakers – increasingly influenced by Spanish – the future lies ahead.

These are not just isolated changes. On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling – and, sadly, those of us who study the mind had only just begun to appreciate it.

In 2010, a paper titled ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ gave the field of cognitive science a seismic shock. Its authors, led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia, made two fundamental points. The first was that researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.

But there is a third fundamental point, and it was the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania who made it. In his commentary on the 2010 article, Rozin noted that this same WEIRD slice of humanity was ‘a harbinger of the future of the world’. He had seen this trend in his own research. Where he found cross-cultural differences, they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging. The signs are unmistakable: the age of global WEIRDing is upon us….

Are we breeding a global cultural and cognitive monoculture?  More at: “What happens to cognitive diversity when everyone is more WEIRD?.”

* Stephen R. Covey

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As we delight in difference, we might send utilitarian birthday greetings to Jeremy Bentham; the author, jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer was born on this date in 1748.  Bentham is considered a founder of modern Utilitarianism (via his own work, and that of his students, including James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill); he actively advocated individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children.

Bentham was involved in the founding of University College (then, the University of London), the first in England to admit all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief.  On his death, he was dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture– as he specified in his will.  Afterward– again, as Bentham’s will specified– the skeleton and head were preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet called the “Auto-icon”, with the skeleton stuffed out with hay and dressed in Bentham’s clothes.  Bentham had intended the Auto-icon to incorporate his actual head, preserved to resemble its appearance in life.  But experimental efforts at mummification, though technically successful, left the head looking alarmingly macabre, with dried and darkened skin stretched tautly over the skull.  So the Auto-icon was given a wax head, fitted with some of Bentham’s own hair.

It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of University College.  The real head was displayed in the same case as the Auto-icon for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, so is now locked away.

 see a virtual, 360-degree rotatable version here

 

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