Friday, March 12, 2021

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

Lisa Feldman Barrett
Nonfiction, 180 pages, 2020

This is a book of essays. It could have been a textbook, but in that case, it would have been far lengthier. The essays make up two thirds of its length. Detailed footnotes fill the final third. Although brief, this book will change the worldview of many readers. This summary can’t do it justice.

The author begins with the half lesson:
  • Your Brain Is Not for Thinking
It was designed to aid in predicting and regulating bodily processes and ensuring survival.
  • You Have One Brain (not Three)
As I learned somewhere, we have a dinosaur brain, a cat brain, and a rational neocortical brain all piled on top of one another. This theory is bunk. Lisa Feldman Barrett shows us why.
  • Your Brain Is a Network
Have you heard that we’d be geniuses if we used our whole brains instead of a mere ten percent? That is also bunk. The parts of the brain’s network are always connected, and functioning a part of a whole. Neurons that don’t connect are pruned from the network.

Older, less accurate brain models point to locations where special functions occur. But the brain behaves holistically as well as locally.

“Your network is also dynamic in another way. As neurons change conversation partners, a single neuron can take on different roles. For example, your ability to see is so intimately tied to an area of the brain called the occipital cortex that the area is routinely called the visual cortex; however its neurons routinely carry information about hearing and touch.”

Neurons multitask and some are multitasking pros, “Some neurons in your brain are so xibly connected that their job is to have many jobs.”

Little Brains Wire Themselves to Their World
Many animals are able to walk shortly after birth. It takes baby humans about a year to start walking. Human brains aren’t fully wired until about age 25. Perhaps because our brains wire slowly we have unique intellectual advantages. Barrett describes in detail the ways baby’s wire themselves to their environments.
  • Your Brain Predicts (almost) Everything You Do
"Neuroscientists like to say that your day- to-day experience is a carefully controlled hallucination, constrained by the world and your body but ultimately constructed by your brain. It's not the kind of hallucination that sends you to the hospital. It's an everyday kind of hallucination that creates all your experiences and guides all your actions."
She continues,
"I realize that this description defies common sense, but wait: there's more. This whole constructive process happens predictively. Scientists are now fairly certain that your brain actually begins to sense moment-to-moment changes in the world around you before those light waves, chemicals, and other sense data hit your brain. The same is true for your body—your brain begins to sense them before the relevant data arrives from your organs, hormones, and various bodily systems. You don't experience your senses this way but it's how your brain navigates the world and controls your body."
Following further explanation, Barrett concludes:
"If your brain has predicted well, then your neurons are already firing in a pattern that matches the incoming sense data. That means the sense data itself has no further use beyond confirming your brain's predictions. What you see, hear, smell, and taste in the world and feel in your body in that moment are completely constructed in your head."

When a police officer mistakes a cell phone for a gun and fires, his brain has likely responded to its prediction and not to its incoming sense data. Sadly such mistakes get innocents killed. The triune brain theory originated with the ancient Greeks, as did our notions of human rationality. While rationality is a prized quality, people don't always behave rationally, especially in tense situations. Our culture and legal system are still influenced by ancient Greeks and Roman notions about rationality. We need to update our old ideas to reflect our new knowledge about the brain. Perhaps we can rethink and restructure our policing methods to prevent unnecessary deaths.

Three more chapters tell us what else is unique about the human brain.
  • Your Brain Secretly Works With Other Brains - It’s "A brain that regulates other brains so invisibly that we presume we’re independent of each other""
  • Brains Make More Than One Kind of Mind - Your brain is "A brain that creates so many kinds of minds that we assume there’s a single human nature to explain them all"
  • Our Brains Can Create Reality - Your brain is "A brain that’s so good at believing its own inventions that we mistake reality for the natural world."
The reality our brains create is largely a social one.
"The human brain misunderstands itself and mistakes social reality for physical reality, which can cause all sorts of problems. For example, humans vary tremendously, like every animal species does. But unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we organize some of this variation into little boxes with labels such as race, gender, and nationality. We treat the labeled boxes as if they're part of nature when in fact we built them."
It's useful to know how our brains work instead of just trusting how we think they do. Once you know how your brain works, you can tap its strengths and dodge its illusions. But you cannot look at your world in the same way ever again.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Orwell and the costs of free speech


"We are living Orwell's 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America. It died with big tech and what’s left is only there for a chosen few,” said a son of wealth and privelge about a company enforcing its policies.

He's mistaken. Here in the U.S.A. we don't live in Orwell's "1984." It's a bit different—perhaps as bad—probably worse. Orwell's dictatorship, fueled by hate and ever-changing 'facts,' has not replaced our democracy. Instead, our democracy hangs upon a fine thread.

Perhaps three fourths of Republicans and a third of independents believe what some are calling "the big lie." If those calling it that are correct, then a sizeable portion of the American public is already living in an Orwellian reality while America's majority struggles to maintain a more balanced, dialog-driven reality.

In "1984," Orwell showed how language could be used for social manipulation. He also addressed language prior to writing that book. Should Americans decide to live in a shared reality and begin to construct one, they could learn from George Orwell's 1946 essay,  Politics and the English Language

Those who take time to ponder English usage, Orwell begins, "would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it." Orwell questions this belief, "Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes." People can and do shape their language, Orwell argues. He believes they should do so intentionally instead of unconsciously.

"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible."

No one sets out to become a drinker. Careless actions lead to forming careless habits and before a drinker realizes it, he's an alcoholic. But what careless actions lead to careless speaking habits? "Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer." If language decline is caused by political and economic conditions, we can cultivate precise language to change those conditions:

"If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."

Orwell analyses several examples of contemporary writing:

"Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged."

The tricks Orwell lists include pretentious diction and meaningless words among other items. He provides details that I am omitting here. In any case, the language problems Orwell describes have only worsened through the years. Orwell must have known only print and radio. Television hadn't become popular before he died, and the internet was unheard of. Radio and TV are no longer regulated by the Fairness Doctrine and social media isn't regulated by mandate, only by the views of its owners. Further, tricks that were unconscionable in Orwell's day are played regularly today.

Language trickery has become so commonplace that I wonder if some of its users are even aware that they're using it. I wonder if Junior realizes when he wrote, "Free speech no longer exists in America," he really meant, "Free publicity no longer exists in America?" After all, Twitter only took away Dad's free publicity, not his freedom of speech. And that had been a privilege, not a given right.

We need to work on our language skills lest we revert to being cave people. Here's a few quotes from the essay: 

"But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better."

"The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. ... Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way."

"As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."

"Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Jung at heart— the psychiatrist’s memoir

Memories, Dreams, Reflections

C. G. Jung. Recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffe, Translated by Richard and Clara Winston
Non-fiction, 430 pages

Carl Gustav Jung wrote his fittingly titled, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” late in his life. As Jung recollects his childhood, youth and career, readers gain insight into his intellectual development and the origins of his theories. Even at an early age, Jung knew his understanding of God was different from that of his minister father. His understanding was intuitive, bordering on mystical. His father understood God in a more conventional and rational manner. Though Jung had a scientific mind, he also possessed a sense of wonder in the natural world, an understanding of myth and an acceptance of the paranormal. Though highly intelligent, his unconventional thinking earned him scorn and disrespect from teachers and peers. Even after Jung became well respected, many of his peers questioned his theories. Regardless, Jung was, and remains, a major influence in psychotherapeutic and personality theories.

Early in his psychiatric career, Jung was influenced by Sigmund Freud. Initially Freud considered Jung the likely heir to his theories. Jung, however, could not accept Freud’s emphasis on sexuality as a major force behind psychic activity. To Jung, man was far more than his sexuality.

To Jung, psychic phenomenon encompasses not only the unconscious and conscious, but also anything that can be conceived by the psyche, including the opposites of those conceptions: “The fact, therefore, that a polarity underlies the dynamics of the psyche means that the whole problem of opposites in its broadest sense, with all its concomitant religious and philosophical aspects, is drawn into the psychological discussion... Leaving aside their claim to be independent truths, the fact remains that regarded empirically—which is to say, scientifically—they are primarily psychic phenomena. This fact seems to me incontestable. That they claim a justification for themselves is in keeping with the psychological approach, which does not brand such a claim unjustified, but on the contrary treats it with special consideration.”

Freud used the myths of Oedipus and Electra to explain children’s sexual desires toward their parents and their developmental adaptations to those desires. Like Freud, Jung used myth to explain psychic phenomena, but Jung went further, developing the concept of archetypes, and mining myth for richer meaning. Speaking about the need for myth, Jung states, “Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything. No science will ever replace myth, and a myth cannot be made out of any science… We cannot explain an inspiration. Our chief feeling about it is that it is not the result of our own ratiocinations, but that it came to us from elsewhere.”

Though no substitute for a basic primer on Jung’s theories, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” provides insight into the nature of the man himself. Jung was a complex personality, willing to be both rational and mystical at once, a man who embraced both scientific empiricism as well as philosophical speculation. Unlike many scientists of his time, Jung doesn’t dismiss subjective experience as unscientific. He embraces his intimations, dreams, visions and paranormal experiences and attempts to understand them.

Jung’s description of his near death experience is especially fascinating. Unlike other narratives of this type, Jung doesn’t encounter a spiritual being in heaven. Rather, he meets his attending physician. During his convalescence, Jung realizes that he encountered his physician because the doctor is, himself, close to death. When Jung later learns that his doctor has died, he concludes that his intuitions had been correct. Jung’s memoir contains several paranormal anecdotes, which Jung treats with both an open mind and a desire for explanations.

Jung’s memoir will interest historians of psychological thought, Jungian practitioners and interpreters of mythology. Others will appreciate Jung’s candor in revealing his personal life—especially his ability to reconcile belief in both the natural and the supernatural and his appreciation for both scientific and mystical knowledge.