Archive for the ‘psychology’ Category


October 27, 2009

curveballI told you Jennifer Hecht has good breaking stuff. The curveball she hurls in today’s reading is wicked, especially coming right on the heels of Brandon’s report on our cultural “happy pill” addiction the other afternoon:

“It is a modern myth that some mood drugs are good and some are bad… our public rhetoric is mythically against drugs, and yet our individual lives include all sorts of intoxicants, stimulants, antidepressants, and other happiness drugs.”

Sounds like maybe she’s going to defend a libertarian loosening of attitudes and statutes on this hot-button issue, maybe even defend the idea that psycho-pharmacology promises a royal road to happiness? But then the pitch veers sharply through the zone and it’s past you. Before the final pitch of this inning (“Drugs”) she “would not counsel the use of illegal drugs for happiness… if you get caught, you won’t be happy.”

Alright, I’ll drop the baseball metaphor. World Series doesn’t start ’til Wednesday. (I’m picking the Yanks in six.) But Hecht’s approach to drugs is not easy to score. I think the best angle on it is from William James’s famous, notorious remarks on alcohol:

“It is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognize as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning.”


“The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the Yes function. . . . Not through mere perversity do men run after it. ”

Some might call alcohol and other intoxicants “artificial,” but James is not pointing to the genesis of an episode of imaginative flight but, rather, emphasizing the resultant expansiveness, the sense of cosmic unity and affirmation, and the general feeling of existential reconciliation. These are not artificial, no matter the instigating agency. They are vehicles of transcendence. But subjectivity and transcendence are not unqualified goods; they are rimmed by relations of consequence that must figure prominently in our final evaluations.

I think that’s Hecht’s approximate position, too. We’re “trapped in our era’s assumptions and anxieties” about chemicals, legal and otherwise, and she wants to snap us out of our trance so we can think more clearly about the admissible limits of self-medication and its possible contributions to our happiness.

Coffee-PostersJames again: “How at the mercy of bodily happenings our spirit is… [A] cup of strong coffee at the proper moment will entirely overturn for the time a man’s view of life. Our moods and resolutions are more determined by the condition of our circulation than by our logical grounds.”

(Nice pun, Willy. As one who begins every day with strong coffee and thrives under its influence, I take particular interest in this passage. I remain confident that my better early-morning moments are mine and not Starbucks’.)

Hecht: “You were happy today. Does the fact that you had two cups of strong coffee and a dose of over-the-counter painkiller have anything to do with our assessment of this happiness?”

Could be. “Imagine that coffee beans could be cultivated so that they packed more of a euphoric punch.” Yeah!

illegal smileillegal smilebrainondrugsAnd what if it wasn’t coffee, but something flatly illegal?

How about it, John Prine?

Or Bertie Russell? “I am not prepared to say that drugs can play no good part in life whatsoever.” Moments when a wise physician will prescribe opiates are “more frequent than prohibitionists suppose.”

Hecht: “We have drugs that can help make people happy– short-term bliss, long-term grins.” We should think about it. And we should think about all the money we’re wasting on all the wrong wars.

All that said, I confess that I’m no Tim Leary or Albert Hofmann (his obit) or Aldous Huxley. I don’t even like nitrous oxide. Coffee, beer, and whisky are my drugs of choice. I don’t believe I abuse them, though I’m not going to ask my GP to review my position on that.

I do agree with Huxley, though: “I cannot discover that I was any stupider (under the influence) than I am at ordinary times.” I have occasionally experienced “that state of uninhibited and belligerent euphoria which follows the ingestion of the third cocktail.” And you know what? I liked it.

Hecht: “When we drink alcohol we can think about it as a possibility for minor metaphysical events, not only as a technique to numb ourselves. We can see it as a different kind of intelligence rather than as stupidity.”

But be VERY careful, don’t overestimate your intelligence, and don’t drive. (Dr. Hofmann was very lucky, on his bicycle. And for the record, he made it to 102 but his son, an alcoholic, died at 53.)

And if you’re ingesting something of more ramifying impact, don’t skip class , don’t neglect your children or other relationships or your health and mental stability. “Here are some of the things long-term happiness requires in the short term: studying for exams; caring for children… being responsible at work; forgiving friends and spouses who have hurt you terribly; keeping the promises of marriage… taking a walk…” There’s more, but I have to go walking now.

See you in class.

P.S. Happy birthday, Older Daughter! (Don’t read this post ’til you’re 21.)

James bio – 7

October 23, 2009

jameswithsonIt’s 1883, James is 41 and a success in his chosen vocation (about to be promoted to full professor). Like many who marry relatively late, it’s taken him awhile to settle comfortably into the group dynamic of family life and the checks it inevitably places on a bachelor’s accustomed unconditioned freedom. But settle he has, and the stability and safe haven of  home are reflected in the growing confidence of his philosophic voice.

Death has not taken a holiday. His mother and father are recently departed. Younger brother Wilky will soon join them. Then, William and Alice will lose a child (18-month old Herman). We forget how precarious  life was, day to day, not so long ago.

The shocking death of his little son coalesced with the lingering grief James continued to feel for his parents. Years later he would attest: “To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred for ever after… That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

James had no insuperable problem with metaphysical materialism. Determinism, however, was another matter.BLoggers Dilemma graphicThe Dilemma of Determinism” began as a Harvard lecture in 1884, and it would remain one of James’s clearest statements of objection to the denial of free will. Like I.B. Singer’s, his position was unequivocal (if also a bit ironic and self-deprecating). Did he believe in free will? “Do I have a choice?”

Citing the example of a brutal spousal murder, James again challenges the reader to feel the preposterous implausibility of hard determinism. “For the deterministic philosophy, the murder [was] necessary from eternity.” Can we believe it? No, “something else would really have been better in its place.”

James sees the dispute between determinism and freedom as decisive, as requiring definite decision. One must choose between these incompatible visions:

“Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one becomes impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself. Indeterminism thus denies the world to be one unbending unit of fact. It says there is a certain ultimate pluralism in it… To that view, actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen… Determinism, on the contrary, says they exist nowhere, and that necessity on the one hand and impossibility on the other are the sole categories of the real. Possibilities that fail to get realized are, for determinism, pure illusions: they never were possibilities at all. There is nothing inchoate, it says, about this universe of ours, all that was or is or shall be actual in it having been from eternity virtually there… The issue, it will be seen, is a perfectly sharp one, which no eulogistic terminology can smear over or wipe out. The truth must lie with one side or the other, and its lying with one side makes the other false.”

James has also now begun serious work on what will eventually be published as Principles of Psychology, and he’s named the “wonderful stream of consciousness” for which he is still largely remembered. His delightfully pictorial imagination likens consciousness to avian flights and perchings (the transitive and substantive forms of experience), flights and perchingsand he refuses to accept the notion that whatever is real is always conceptually and nominally precise. Language is limited. It dulls our powers of discernment and discrimination. Non-verbal experience is rich, but difficult to contain and identify. It acquaints us, for instance, with vague feelings of relation (like the feeling of “if,” “and,” or “but”) that are no less real  than more substantive things. It is evanescent, impressionistic, fluid, streamy.

One of my favorite James quotes come from this middle period. “What an awful trade that of professor is– paid to talk, talk, talk. What an awful universe it would be if everything could be converted to words, words, words.”

Being open and hospitable to the non-verbal dimensions of life, and being conscientious in his devotion to building the fledgling field of psychology into an inclusive science, James at this time got seriously into the world of the paranormal. He attended countless psychic seances  conducted by “spirit mediums,” alert to possibilities no longer taken seriously by scientists in our time but still wildly popular with the devotees of contemporary media stars like James van Praagh and John Edward.

It  bothered  James that there was “a mass of (alleged) testimony about such things, at which the only men capable of a critical judgment– men of scientific education– will not even look.”

Is such testimony fraudulent? You won’t know if you don’t check it out. If you don’t, you’re as guilty of self-deception as the worst “spiritualist” showman. “There is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomenon are impossible.”

James bio – 6

October 16, 2009

jameslThe story continues. It’s the late ’70s, James is about to become a family man (Henry III was born in May ’79), his philosophical future is resolving into sharper focus, his brilliant but troubled sister Alice has begun a steep, inexplicable decline (diagnosed as “neurasthenic”), and his parents are nearing their respective ends.

William is now articulating some of his most distinctive positions. For instance,

On habit: “The great thing is to form habits which then leave the hemispheres free for higher flights…” 

On emotion: “No conscious event can occur without some parallel event occurring in the nervous system on which the conscious event depends… the bodily event is the condition, the mental event the consequence. What we esteem the highest is at the mercy of the lowest…”

On consciousness and human evolution: It “means the end of the reign of chance and the beginning of the reign of intelligence.”

On human “powers” and free will: We may profess a “natural faith that our delights and sorrows, loves and hates, aspirations and efforts are real combatants in life’s arena, and not impotent, paralytic spectators of the game.” And: “The trouble with determinism, fatalism, pessimism, the unconscious, and materialism is that in our better hours we feel such limited and limiting forces… to deny our most intimate powers all relevancy…” And: “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”

On attention: “Emotional interests are the great guides to selective attention.”

On life as an adventure, without guarantees: “All that the human heart wants is its chance.”

On effort and free will: “What makes it easy to raise the finger, hard to get out of bed on a cold morning, harder to keep our attention on the insipid image of  a procession of sheep… It is a question of getting to the point where we want to will something or other…”

In January 1879 James publishes “Are We Automata?” No, he insists, and would insist to Dan Dennett today with his neuroscientific idea that our minds are assemblages of billions of miniscule cellular robots. But T.H. Huxley’s argument in the affirmative had sounded some characteristsic Jamesian themes too. For example: “In men as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism.” Remember, on James’s early psychological view we are sad because we cry, not the other way ’round.

But in “Are We Automata?” James is mainly concerned to keep free will in the game, and this seems to require a big role for the emotions as selective, attentive, and integral to the possibility of real human choices and acts. In the process, he says things that might remind you of Cartesian homunculi. The point of consciousness is to allow us to choose, just as a ship’s passenger may choose to seize the helm and “raise, lower, or reef the sail, and so, in small but meaningful ways, direct the voyage. Such a person, taking such actions, cannot be called an automaton.”

No. But neither is it clear that such an understanding of the role emotion plays in our lives is quite consistent with the James-Lange theory. When concept-laden theory confounds our actual experience, James will always opt for the preservation of experience. The details may need working out, but he’s typically happy to go back to the theoretical drawing board rather than deliberately distort perceptual reality in the name of a tidy but misleading picture.

(BTW: James would be fascinated by a story that appeared in the Times science section this week, suggesting the possibility that the Hadron Super-collider might actually interfere with time itself. Perhaps what we do really does alter the space-time causal landscape in tangible ways… does wiggle our dominoes, to return to a strange metaphor that came up in the course of one classroom discussion this week.)

It was during this time that James began experimenting with various psycho-active substances to see what effect they might have in expanding his consciousness and recognition of reality. Hilariously, he read Hegel under the influence of nitrous oxide with predictable results.

1882 was a year of loss. Darwin died, Emerson died. His mother died at age 71. Before the year was out, his father followed suit. James was abroad when his Dad began his final descent, and quickly drafted a letter that preceded him back to Boston. But it did not arrive in time for Henry Sr. to read.

It is a remarkable letter, one which I found it fitting to read to my own father* when his remaining days were few. William was still aboard ship on Dec. 21, continuing his Atlantic transit,  when his brother Henry stood at their father’s graveside  and  read aloud from that letter that began: “Darling Old Father…”

“The letter concludes: “As for us… we will stand by each other and  by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodby how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note, it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again– Farewell! A blessed Farewell! -Your William”

Richardson rightly observes: “Letters, even undelivered, outlast life. It was a scene a novelist would be hard-pressed to improve.” *It sure was.


October 12, 2009

PicassogirlbeforemirrorI’m kinda partial to Pablo. He does to faces what I do to words.” Jimmy Durante

This girl’s face is fairly together, compared to some of Picasso‘s more fractured renovations of physiognomy and form (and compared to the rest of her). His work implies that we can’t infer the inner self from its superficial outer presentations. The real self is often masked, deliberately or unavoidably. But is there a there there? (Gertrude Stein also did with words what Jimmy Durante did… and by legend got out of  an exam in William James’s class  once by pleading emotional disinterest.)

Buddhists, for example, say the self is a construction built of relations. Take those away and literally nothing ‘s left. Others agree that the notion of a substantial self is illusory, thus disagreeing with Descartes and his res cogitans. The “thinking thing” may be no-thing at all. But if self-hood is a process, does that make it unreal? Do you then vanish in a puff of high redefinition?

Or, say you’re Crusoe (without a “Friday”) or Tom Hanks in Cast  Away, or Wall-E (without his little friend), and you tell yourself– your self?– you’re all alone here. Who’s listening? Or what? Without others to commune and cooperate or fight with, it may just be an error to think of the solitary speaker/listener as a self, a person, at all… even if it’s you. If we’re essentially constituted by our relations, we need relations in order to be ourselves. I, paradoxically, am not then just me.

Substantial or not, where do we draw our boundaries? Am I limited to the territory wrapped by my skin and my memories? Do my dates of birth (or inception) and death map onto me? Is it possible that the real me is pure potential, up until the moment that for many may never come, when I become all that I can be? Do I possess an essential self in utero? (Goober once  thought so.) Or do the existentialists have it right, when they say that existence precedes essence… or less cryptically, the pragmatists when they say we are what we do? (Or Ol’ Blue Eyes… do-be-do-be-do?)

How should we disentangle concepts like mind, soul, person, individual, and self? Must a self be selfish, an ego egotistical, always in a bad way? Is it all I me mine, so long as we believe literally  in ourselves? Who or what can be helped, by all those self-help books and 12-step programs? Who did Maslow want to help you actualize? What did Henry James Sr. and the Swedenborgians consider so evil about ego and self-hood?

The instrumentally-useful biological concept of “self”— really, of organism– is not quite what we’re wondering about here. It’s more the philosophical and psychological (and maybe metaphysical) self that is problematic to itself, and finds itself asking: Who am I? What’s my purpose in life? Am I ultimately separate from you and him and her? Sure, we come into the world alone and we leave it that way, too; but do entrances and exits tell the whole tale?

While we’re here, we have to wonder what it’s like not only being a bat, but what it’s like being another human. Both questions bring us face-to-face with our own and others’ (let alone other species‘) subjectivity.

Thomas Nagel—whose famous “bat” speculations56 on the
inaccessibility of first-order experience provided an
irresistible hook for subsequent contention—is to Dennett one of
the mysterian obscurantists whose “skyhooks” block the road of
inquiry better traveled by “cranes”—the heavy (self-) lifters of
growing human knowledge. Dennett is eager to reassure him that
“we’re making tremendous progress in getting information so we’ll
be able to say exactly what it’s like to be a bat.”57 Subjective
mystery is on the run, at least so long as no bats dispute our
“information.” But humans may not be compliantly batty enough for
the research program. What must it be like to be Dennett? We are
not likely to “get” that information anytime soon, not because
Dennett’s keeping it to himself but because it is no more than
partially verbal (say the mysterians).
Dennett lumps John Searle with Nagel and indicts him for
sponsoring “forlorn attempts to conceal the mind behind
impenetrable mystery”58 despite Searle’s wish to place the mind
on all fours with the rest of nature. But this statement from
Searle seems perfectly complementary of Dennett’s faith in the
recession of mystery:
@EXT:As with the “mysteries” of life and consciousness, the way
to master the mysteries of intentionality is to describe in as
much detail as we can how the phenomena are caused by biological
processes while being at the same time realised in biological
systems. . . . I am not saying we should lose our sense of the
mysteries of nature. . . . But I am saying that they are neither
more nor less mysterious than other astounding features of the
world, such as the existence of gravitational attraction, the
process of photosynthesis, or the size of the Milky Way.

Thomas Nagel— whose famous “bat” speculations on the inaccessibility of first-order experience not our own providedbat an irresistible hook for subsequent contention, and reinforced the sense of selfhood as mysteriously isolated and opaque— is to Dan Dennett* one of the mystery-mongering obscurantists craneswhose “skyhooks” block the road of inquiry better traveled by “cranes”—the heavy (self-) lifters of growing human knowledge. Dennett is quick to reassure Nagel’s readers that “we’re making tremendous progress in getting information so we’ll be able to say exactly what it’s like to be a bat.” (And as he said at *TED, we’re also figuring out about the provenance of cows, religions, and other natural phenomena… Dennett has no use for the old Cartesian “homunculi” picture of consciousness, homunculusbut at this TED Talk he says there are, after all, little robots in each of us generating our respective senses of self. They’re called cells.)

If so, subjective mystery is on the run, at least so long as no bats dispute our “information.” But humans may not be compliantly batty enough for the research program. What must it be like to be Dennett? We are not likely to “get” that information anytime soon, not because Dennett’s keeping it to himself but because it is no more than partially verbal (say the mysterians).

Does this counter-intuitive approach to self and emotion de-mystify? Early in his career as a ground-breaking pioneer in the fledgling field of psychology, James and a peer named Carl Lange drew fire with their independently-conceived view (now the James-Lange Theory)  that “bodily changes follow directly the perception of [external] facts, and our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion… we feel sorry [for example] because we cry.” What is an Emotion?

This inversion of conventional wisdom, seeming to send emotions to the sidelines,  struck  some as deflating. It definitely posed a challenge to dualism, to place facts, perceptions, bodily events, and their emotional concomitants, all in the same tight sphere of mutual attraction. (In subsequent years, as James expanded his portfolio to include more overtly-philosophical reflections, he would come to share Dewey’s view of emotion as more richly textured and variously nuanced than the earlier account might seem to have allowed. There are varieties of emotional experience, too.)

But an even more pressing question, for the independent  self and its prospects of surviving close critical scrutiny, might have been another rhetorically-quizzical essay by James: “Does Consciousness Exist?” Short answer: nope, if you mean by consciousness an enduring, self-identical, metaphysically irreducible entity with its own unique purchase on reality. But yes, if you mean the ever-active processes of shifting relations, person-to-person & person-to-world(s) that constitute our  most fundamental comprehension of what a self is.

Maybe our main concern ought to be with the self of Emerson’s (and James’s) special interest: when you learn to rely on yourself, what have you learned? Is it finally an issue of trust? Trust  thyself, said the Sage. Well OK, but where exactly do we cut the cord between me and thee, then between us and them, and between past, present, and future? The self, it may be, is “ever not quite,” always and forever a work-in-progress.