Uncomfortable comfort zones

This post was written 4 years ago.
Fri, 23 Aug 2013

A rant and two mini book reviews

This is going to be more of a diary entry than any thought-through blog post. But I feel a massive urge to write, about so many things. And yet seem to be suffering from some kind of mental congestion. Where I read so much, fiction, non-fiction, books about web dev, but seem very little able to then communicate any of it, or use it in a creative way. Anyway that is what it feels like. But while that doesn't feel great, it's more and more the reading itself that I find unsettling. Not the books I've been reading, but the papers.

Thoughts that come at night

Journalists can give you the creeps (think "phone-hacking"), corporate data-hunger can give you the creeps, but governments (not only one, but a string of them!) starting to behave in the same and possibly worse ways… I can't even find a word for that. It becomes all the more perplexing, because we are all just so comfortable. What do I have to complain about? Maybe nothing yet, personally, but it does already affect others personally, and by the looks of it, will affect more and more people until there might be hardly anybody left who isn't affected.

I say "by the looks of it". Is it the media exaggerating, manipulating? One's own mind painting things more bleakly than they actually are? Do we know all the relevant facts? If there are things that resonate with what you know about the Stasi, Fascism, Nazism, is that a red herring? At least here the press can still report, right? What about all the despotic regimes, the atrocities you hear about. Are they not worthier of your outrage? But this is no excuse, and the reporting is already not totally free anymore.

And then, in some ways I do actually feel personally affected, because a government that orders the "symbolic" destruction of hard-drives to flex there muscle has for me lost every credibility and trustworthiness and I don't feel at all they represent the people they are meant to serve. I feel outrage about how it will affect many people on a subconscious level and that again most likely includes me. And quite a few journalists. You can say what you want, this is an intimidating act, it has zero to do with assuring security, but all with creating a shock effect.

Can we do anything to stop a gradual erosion of our freedom? Can I do anything? I have to say I don't know. I have never felt a very political person. But a lot of people will say that of themselves, and that is exactly why it is difficult. We have just been so comfortable and we are conditioned to worry so much more about status, about the things we have and we think we need. Maybe it is just what humans are like anyway. And we, in the Western world, just happen to have come to this point in our history where things start to go awry. Or maybe they have for a long time already. That's the thing, where do you draw the line? What does freedom actually mean?

Man Machines

Here is something I really wanted to write about. Two books I have read recently, quite different books, but both, in a wider sense, about how the mind works. Both, in my view, with some implications for individuals and society. I wonder whether I will be able to write much about the first one, as I finished reading it a few weeks ago.

It is called "The Emotion Machine", written by Marvin Minsky in 2006. It is kind of a sequel to "Society of mind" from 1986, about which I have written in another blog post. And like last time, I stumbled across it in my parents' house. So, let me see what I can retrieve.. Ha, this is actually a topic in the book! How do we retrieve memories. Anyway, these are a few things that bubble up. Some of this might be a bit inaccurate, but it is about ideas (that is how the mind works…):

  • The mind is organised in layers, each of which employs different "resources" (in the 1986 book those where called "agents"). High-level resources draw on subsets of other resources which themselves draw on others. There can be conflicts between different resources. If one system uses different subsets from another, we can do things in parallel (like walking and talking at the same time). But most things we have do to serially to do them well.
  • The self as a constant unchangeable agent is an illusion. There is no such thing as a self that makes decisions. It is always several parts of our mind working together.
  • Moreover, we cannot directly command the mind at our will. We cannot tell it to ignore certain needs. That would be detrimental in fact, for if we could decide to put off eating or sleeping forever that would do us harm. But not only that, things might demand our attention even if we would like to ignore them, and depending on what state of mind we are in different resources get precedence.
  • To decide what behaviour wil eventually be deployed, there are different layers of our mind exerting their influence. "Censors" are at work that stem from previous experiences, and they can stop things even reaching our consciousness. Minsky references Freud here. What is sometimes experienced in meditation as state of total peace (enlightenment?) is possibly the temporary absence of censors.
  • In our language we have a lot of "suitcase" words, that can mean slightly different things in different contexts. For example "to give" can mean physically giving something to somebody else, transfer ownership, lend… This can also make it difficult to give accurate definitions of things. How do you define "consciousness"? But far from this being a weakness of our language, it is actually a strength. You can make more connections between things if there isn't one exclusive definition.
  • When you see a familiar object, there is massive input from regions of your brain that store memories, not just from the visual cortex. So what you have learned in the past about that type of object probably contributes more to the picture than what you actually see.

This is a random list. There is much more to the book. And it gives a fascinating insight into how the brain might work. It is humbling and awe-inspiring at the same time. We are such intricate, ingenious machines! We are just not able to command them very well (or not at all?). Especially not always to our own benefit. Perhaps this is a result of my age, but I feel more and more that we are really a product, of our genetics plus all our experiences plus society plus the people we are close to plus individual circumstances and so on, rather than these largely unchangeable beings that have a personality. But of course you still move and live "as if", it is what we have learned to do, and it is our frame of reference. So while it is fascinating to follow Minsky along, in the end you cannot keep looking at things this way. Unless you worked at a "Thinking machines" lab I guess, then you would probably switch into this mode for several hours each day! In any case, we need to use the "I" as a model in our everyday lives.

One thing I took from this book for myself is that really, if we want to make any changes to our habits or ways of thinking, we have to do it in a very indirect way. This probably varies for different people, but my mind pretty much has "a mind of its own", I find it nearly impossible to order it to do anything. Any plan I make seems doomed to fail, unless there is an outside pressure, like I have an appointment with somebody. I also was reminded how powerful meditation can be, and I would so much like to do more of it again. But ironically, this is one of the things I find impossible to tell my mind to do. As is writing for that matter, and I cannot tell you what a massive relief it is to find myself writing now. Massive, massive, massive.

As I said, I feel there are implications for society, too. It might be difficult to put this into words. Basically, I guess at the level of society you find the same patterns repeated as in our mind. And in fact, Minsky's 1986 book was called "Society of Mind", it works in the other direction as well. Our mind is a society of resources that work together. Likewise, our society generates an Übermind which goes in the direction that the most powerful resources (or agents, I think that might be a better term actually) determine it to go. And sadly, you have a mixture of "bully-in-the-playground" and "old boys club" phenomena here, in our current society. The ones who shout the loudest and punch the hardest, get the attention. And decisions get made by the ruling classes, and a shocking number of times in secret it seems. It is an interesting question now, how we can make the more thoughtful and sensible parts of that Übermind be heard more. Giving them a voice should be engrained in the structure of our societies, and that is what constitutions and the law are meant to do. Yet it looks like the power of those agents that keep things in check, aber being eroded, and that is scary, I can't help saying that again.

Also, those in power employ certain tactics to manipulate the public. I just hope - and believe - that they, too, often get things wrong in that respect. Whatever psychological knowledge they might have, they will not be able to steer the collective of our minds, as much as they would like to.

Are you ready to be Wholehearted?

On to the second book. I actually stumbled over that, too! In a motorway service station, in the over-priced WHSmith shop, of all places. The book is called "Daring Greatly", subtitle "How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead". Quite a mouthful, and I have to confess that I normally have an aversion to titles like that and the books they normally adorn. But there are exceptions. And the exception here is that it is written by Brené Brown who has given one of my all-time favourite TED talks, and that upon brief inspection of the contents, I just really wanted to have this book.

I read the book in a single day. My most concise description of it would be: It is telling the truth. The truth that lies at the heart of our experience of being human. This is the other side of Minsky, this is the "illusion" that the mind creates, which is, for us, the truth we live in. It is telling this truth in very pragmatic terms, with only passing references to such things as mindfulness (her therapist tells her: "Less thinking. More feeling." Something I can fully subscribe to). Based on qualitative research. Not quantitative, thankfully! One of my pet peaves in TED talks, is the total straightness of curves and absence of standard deviations in the "statistics" they show there. So, what is this truth. In short: To be able to live life to the full, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be seen. We also need to be prepared for some (sometimes immense) discomfort and pain. And we need to build up something Brené Brown calls "shame resilience". As a good summary of her conclusions, just watch the TED talk.

It is not at all an easy feat. In fact, BB herself says that she has created a roadmap with her research, but is not necessarily a good traveller along that map. At the start of her journey, she states, she was "2 for 10" and is still not always able to embrace the hallmarks of "Wholeheartedness", a term she has coined for the ability to live life to the full and with authenticity.

In any case, the themes of this book are really important to me. Shame is something I have felt a lot, especially in my earlier life. And it has this tendency to self-perpetuate, and to operate in silent. So, kudos to Brené Brown for dragging it out in the open like that and give it a good "beating". I say, it is important to me, but it should be to everybody really, including a lot of people who are not even aware of how shame, fear of failure, illusions of scarcity, shape their lives. I wish this idea does in fact spread and enter the collective unconscious, without ever becoming too dogmatic, that is always the danger.

To conclude, one quote from the section on parenting. That chapter had a bit of an eye-opening effect with some thoughts I had not previously come across or forgotten. One thing worth noting is that your actions and the way you present yourself to the world, has a much greater influence than anything you say to your child. This is again something I believe to be absolutely true. And this. It seems an important message in our safety-obsessed times of helicopter-parenting:

"I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful, I now think about it as dangerous. Don't get me wrong — I still struggle and I still step in when I shouldn't, but I now think twice before I let my discomfort dictate my behaviours. Here's why: Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle. And let me tell you, next to love and belonging, I'm not sure I want anything more for my kids than a deep sense of hopefulness."




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