Metaphor and Empathy

Sweetness and strangeness
by Heather Altfeld and Rebecca Diggs

In thinking through some of the ways that our relationship to metaphor might be changing, especially in educational settings, we consulted a study by Emily Weinstein and her research team at Harvard, published in 2014. They set out to study a possible decline in creativity among high-school students by comparing both visual artworks and creative writing collected between 1990-95, and again between 2006-11. Examining the style, content and form of adolescent art-making, the team hoped to understand the potential ‘generational shift’ between pre- and post-internet creativity. It turned out that there were observable gains in the sophistication and complexity of visual artwork, but when it came to the creative-writing endeavours of the two groups, the researchers found a ‘significant increase in young authors’ adherence to conventional writing practices related to genre, and a trend toward more formulaic narrative style’.

The team cited standardised testing as a likely source of this lack of creativity, as well as changing modes of written communication that create ‘a multitude of opportunities for casual, text-based communication’ – in other words, for literalism, abbreviation and emojis standing in for words and feelings. With visual arts, by contrast, greater exposure to visual media, and the ‘expansive mental repositories of visual imagery’ informed and inspired student work.

Of course, quantifying creativity is problematic, even with thoughtfully constructed controls, but it is provocative to consider what the authors saw as ‘a significant increase in and adherence to strict realism’, and how this might relate to a turn away from metaphoric thinking. […]

In a long-term project focusing on elementary school and the early years of high school, the psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner at Boston College studied the relationship between empathy and experience. In particular, they wanted to understand how empathy and theories of mind might be enhanced. Looking at children who spent a year or more engaged in acting training, they found significant gains in empathy scores. This isn’t surprising, perhaps. Acting and role-play, after all, involve a metaphoric entering-into another person’s shoes via the emotional lives and sensory experiences of the characters that one embodies. ‘The tendency to become absorbed by fictional characters and feel their emotions may make it more likely that experience in acting will lead to enhanced empathy off stage,’ the authors conclude.

For one semester, I taught the Greek tragedy Hecuba to college students in Ancient Humanities. The first part of Hecuba centres on the violence toward women during war; the second half offers a reversal whereby, in order to avenge the deaths of her children, Hecuba kills Polymestor – the king of Thrace – and his two sons, just as he killed her son, whose safety he had explicitly guaranteed. The play is an instruction in lament, in sorrow, rage and vengeance, loyalty and betrayal. To see it is to feel the agony of a woman betrayed, who has lost all her children to war and murder. To act in it – as students do, when we read it, much to their horror – is to feel the grief and rage of a woman far removed from our present world, but Hecuba’s themes of betrayal and revenge resonate still: the #MeToo movement, for example, would find common ground with Hecuba’s pain.

Eva Maria Koopman at Erasmus University in Rotterdam has studied the ‘literariness’ of literature and its relationship to emotion, empathy and reflection. Koopman gave undergraduates (and for sample size, some parents as well) passages of the novel Counterpoint (2008) by the Dutch writer Anna Enquist, in which the main character, a mother, grieves the loss of her child. Thus, Koopman attempted to test age-old claims about the power of literature. For some of the readers, she stripped passages of their imagery and removed foregrounding from others, while a third group read the passages as originally written by Enquist.

Koopman’s team found that: ‘Literariness may indeed be partly responsible for empathetic reactions.’ Interestingly, the group who missed the foregrounding showed less empathetic understanding. It isn’t just empathy, however, that foregrounding triggers, it’s also what Koopman identifies as ‘ambivalent emotions: people commenting both on the beauty or hope and on the pain or sorrow of a certain passage’. Foregrounding, then, can elicit a ‘more complex emotional experience’. Reading, alone, is not sufficient for building empathy; it needs the image, and essential foreground, for us to forge connections, which is why textbooks filled with information but devoid of narrative fail to engage us; why facts and dates and events rarely stick without story.

Hidden Abilities

There are some human abilities that are equivalent to superpowers, in that they seem superhuman. The most obvious examples are certain kinds of athletes and performers. Some of these people can do things that are hard to believe a human can do. In watching acrobats and contortionists, one worries they might hurt themselves.

I have some athletic ability. I’ve played sports and I’m decent at juggling. My greatest physical skill was hacky sack or, if you prefer, footbag. I played all the time and even invented tricks that were quite impressive. But even then there were surely thousands of other people just here in the Midwestern United States that were at least as good as I and probably far better. My skills, as great as they were, were not at the level of the superhuman. I’m not a genius in physical ability, just above average.

That is fine. Most people don’t mind having limited athletic skills or whatever. We live in a society that only moderately admires and rewards such abilities. For all the wealth a professional athlete can accrue, a popular movie star or powerful CEO will still make vastly more money, and no one even cares to watch the CEO. Besides, the movie star or CEO doesn’t have to worry about potential physical injury and permanent brain damage that might lead to chronic pain and a shorter lifespan.

What gains respect in our society, more than anything, is cognitive ability. Even the entrepreneurial businessman is largely admired because his success is supposedly a sign of intelligence and innovation, whether or not that corresponds to book smarts. It’s a different kind of cognitive ability than a professor or scientist, but it’s the same basic quality that compels respect in a society such as this.

Yet, at the same time, Americans tend to only appreciate outward forms of intelligence as they manifest in worldly achievements and positions of authority. A scientist, for example, will be much more respected if he invents a new medicine or technology. It’s the rare scientist, such as Albert Einstein, who is respected for merely developing a new theory.

That is the rub. Intellectual capacity is rarely obvious. The most brilliant people, even geniuses, don’t get much respect or reward for all their talents, no matter how hard they work. It’s partly because the greatest thinkers don’t tend to have an immediate and spectacular impact on the world around them, as any society will be resistant to change. To appreciate the impact of a great thinker might take centuries, until the rest of society catches up.

Plus, many people with immense cognitive abilities have their talent wasted. They are working at jobs that don’t make use of their intelligence, creativity, etc. I suspect more geniuses are never discovered than those who get the opportunity to live up to their potential. Working class jobs, poor communities, homeless shelters, prisons, etc are filled with lost and wasted human potential.

It’s not unusual to meet people with all kinds of talents and abilities. Rarely are these people doing much with what they have, partly because life is tough and most people are simply trying to get by. Being smart most often won’t do you much good if you live in isolated, desperate poverty with few positive outlets of intellectual achievement. But it doesn’t require poverty to obscure human potential. Let me give an example.

My friend’s father is a bookdealer, although he collects books more than he sells them. This guy easily could be doing greater things than running a practically nonprofit book business. He is smart, clever, witty, and has a near perfect memory filled with vast information. He was working on his dissertation when stress and a psychological breakdown caused him to drop out. Despite his being well respected by other bookdealers, few others would suspect that this slovenly guy is anything special.

There are many people like that.

I live in a town filled with smart and well educated people. A large part of the working class around here has college degrees. Many people I know don’t do anything with their education: someone with an architecture degree who is a busdriver, someone with a psychology degree who is a postal worker, someone with a history degree who is a bartender, someone with a religious studies degree who is a baker, someone with an art degree who is a maintenance worker, etc. One of my coworkers who works as a cashier has a PhD. Even the homeless population around here is far above average.

That’s just talking about the well educated. Genius is a whole other level. If you met a mental genius, how would you know? Someone could be having genius thoughts right in front of you and you’d probably not notice anything unusual was happening. It’s harder for a physical genius to hide their talents while using their talents because, well, they are physically apparent. You might not pay close attention to the street juggler as you pass by, but you most likely will at least notice that juggling is happening within your vicinity.

In reading books, I sometimes come across a writer who has amazing knowledge, understanding, and insights. Most of the time, such people aren’t famous and well paid authors. There seems to be a negative correlation between how brilliant a writer is and how well they are rewarded in their profession. The more brilliant a writer is the far fewer readers there will be to appreciate their brilliance. It takes above average intelligence to even recognize brilliance, much less fully appreciate it.

That is the difference. Anyone can watch physical ability and be awed by it. Cognitive ability, at the extremes, tends to just go over people’s heads or else is ignored. A scientist doing cutting edge research often would have a hard time explaining the research to most people in a way that would make it both comprehensible and interesting. The fact of the matter is most scientific research is boring and, besides, it happens in laboratories few people ever see. Scientists are hidden away while doing their scientific work. That is the nature of most intellectual pursuits. They are outwardly unimpressive and not easily seen, at least until some worldly result is achieved, which comes out long after all the hard intellectual work was done.

The work and thought being done that will change the world in the future is happening all around us. Knowledge, ideas, and inventions slowly percolate through society. Meanwhile, a large part of the population is watching sports.

A Curious Superpower

If I were a superhero, my superpower would be to make people irresistibly curious.

Anyone within my vicinity would have their minds forced wide open, the doors of perception blown to smithereens by psychic dynamite. All the fears and doubts, prejudices and habits would disappear. They would be filled with a sense of wonder and awe. They would viscerally know their own ignorance and hunger for knowledge, an infinite and endless hunger.

They would look at the world as a place of immense possibility and potential. All the things that could be learned. All the places to be explored. An immensity of paths and directions, some well-trodden while others not yet taken. A restlessness would overtake them. All of the universe would be vast compelling mystery, like a lover beckoning them. Anything could be around the next bend, over the next hill, through the next door. Adventure!

Anyone who met me would be overwhelmed with heart-bursting wonderment and their minds would be lost in the infinity of existence, ideas and questions simultaneously spinning off in a million directions. They would be absorbed, pulled into the flow. Their imaginations would be unleashed, no longer constrained by what they’ve known or thought was true. Knowledge would be made ignorance and the familiar alien. A joyous uncertainty, as if anything could happen.

The cup of their mind would be emptied. Then filled to overflowing. It would feel like trying to get a drink of water by standing at the bottom of Niagara Falls, the water crashing down on you until you’re beaten senseless.

For some, this would be an awe-inspiring experience. For others, it would be terrifying. My superpower would open their minds, but it wouldn’t control what spilled out. It would simply reveal what was hidden away in their psyche, their secret longings and hungers, the thoughts they never before dared to entertain.

This superpower would defeat all supervillains. They would be so absorbed in curiosity that they’d forget about trying to defeat me, taking over the world, or whatever evil scheme they had in mind. And the more they sought to resist it the more powerful would its hold take on their psyche, an ache and compulsion that if not embraced would drive them beyond the bounds of sanity, like a full blown psychedelic trip. Their sense of self would dissolve in maniacal laughter.

I would be the anti-Borg: Resistance is futile. You will be disassimilated!

Of course, to all the stable-minded folk of the world, to all those defending the social order, to those contentedly dwelling in their collective reality tunnels, my superpower would be the ultimate threat. They would see me as the supervillain, even though I would harm no one. As I passed along, the people I left behind would eventually return to their humdrum existences, fondly remembering that strange man or else futilely trying to forget the whole thing happened, although the ache of discontentment would never fully leave them.

My end would probably come like the Midwich Cuckoos. The governments of the world would quickly realize the threat I posed, once they understood my superpowers couldn’t be used for their nefarious purposes. One way or another, they would find a way to eliminate me, even if it meant dropping a nuclear bomb.

Yet the world would never quite be the same again. The wake of my passing would ripple for generations. Wild new innovations and brilliant art would be produced by those who had come into contact with me. It would take time for the surge of creativity to be bottled again and order re-established, although some almost imperceptible shift would never be undone.

Seeds of my superpower of curiosity would be planted. Then these seeds would sprout with new generations, an evolutionary contagion, a mind virus. A new age would begin, curiosity spreading across the global populations. Centuries ago began the Age of Paine, an age of revolutions. What followed now would be the Age of Wonder, a new revolution of the mind.

I’d like to think this is what would finally inspire humanity to new heights. And the world that came to be would the vision of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Humanity, freed from all the ancient restraints, would become explorers of the universe.

And it all would have began with mere curiosity.

Marshmallow Test vs Candle Test

I just saw this video about the marshmallow test.

The first thing I noticed was that the emphasis was on the belief we should teach our kids more self-control because it leads a to a more focused mindset and so increases the probability of traditional success. My immediate response was that psychological research shows that people are born with such traits and there is a limit to how much you can cause your child to change. It’s good to teach kids self-control, but I don’t think it’s good to force the ideal of “success” on young children. Kids should to an extent be allowed to be kids and allowed to be their natural selves.

I’d heard of the marshmallow test before, but I decided to post about it because it connects to another video I recently saw (and posted about: Rise of the Creative Class & Second Axial Age).

In the second video, another study shows an interesting contrast to the Marshmallow test. The more that the self-controlled, success-focused mindset is increased the more that innovative thinking decreases. Traditional schooling has focused on self-control, but as I described in my other post innovative is gaining a higher priority in our society. If you want to know who will be the geniuses, I’d bet on the kid who didn’t follow the rules in the marshmallow test and instead did something unexpected.

Web Participation

Web Participation

Posted on Nov 15th, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade
From the blog Personalize Media by Gary Hayes:

Humanity Slowly Returns to Creativity – 64% of teenagers engage in content creation

Web 2.0 and the Myth of Non-Participation

A commentor responded to the former blog with a disagreeing blog response:

kakotopia

And another blogger linked to their blog where I noticed this paper with a more cynical viewpoint:

User Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation
By Søren Mørk Petersen

Access_public Access: Public What do you think? Print Post this!views (115)  

Avatar: Imagination & Culture

I finally went to see the movie Avatar.  It took me a while to convince my friend to go with me. He doesn’t usually like SciFi, but I think he enjoyed it.  I can understand why this movie has made so much money.  I’m glad I saw it and I’d be happy to watch it again.

I want to say something about the larger meaning and impact of this movie, but first I’ll point out my immediate response to it as entertainment.  Even though it was mostly what I expected, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of its production.  It was a truly immersive experience.  It did, however, take me a while to get into. 

First, I don’t often watch 3D movies and it was initially odd trying to get forget the rectangular screen framing the 3D effects.  In a normal movie, it’s easier to forget the shape of the screen itself.  That wasn’t really an annoyance per se… just something I was aware of.

The second thing was that the indigenous people of Pandora were essentially just very large blue Native Americans.  Their language and facial features all had elements of the Native American people (along with bows and arrows and weird large horse-like creatures).    I eventually just had to accept that large blue Native Americans could actually exist on other planets and just go with the story.

I’ve noticed that other reviewers have pointed out that the story isn’t all that original.  That is true to an extent.  White soldier goes native and helps the natives fight the evil invading military.  There are many other movies with a more original vision of an alternative world, but the central conceit of the movie (the avatar bodies) was an original twist.  I don’t care if a story is all that original as long as it is told well.  Most stories aren’t original.  Even the story of Jesus isn’t an original story and that has never lessened its popularity.

So, was the story of Avatar told well?  I think so.  I was immersed in the world.  The character development was limited, but I genuinely cared for the fate of the characters and I was saddened when the large tree was destroyed.  The movie probably would’ve been better if done as a trilogy.   But, even as is, I was more than satisfied.

The real reason I wanted to write a review is because of thoughts I had of its larger cultural context.  I have heard that conservatives really don’t like this movie.  Even the Vatican made an official statement of criticism.  I’m not surprised.  I don’t think it’s an overestimation to say that this movie will have some impact on the collective attitude of our society.  It is a movie that is full of messages and conveyed in a very entertaining and compelling way.

As an adult, this movie is impressive even if only for the special effects… but, to a child or young adult, this movie is the type of experience that could help shape the mindset of an entire generation.  The youth today are already very liberal in most ways because of various demographic shifts.  Conservatives dominated most of the twentieth century with their formulation of the cultural war.  Conservatives have been very good at controlling the cultural narrative and the group that controls the narrative controls all social and political dialogue. 

Liberals have been challenged in recent decades.  The conservatives managed to reframe progressivism as socialism and communism, as big government, as intellectual elitism.  But liberalism was never entirely limited to progressivism or not any simple notion of progressivism.  The liberal vision was never solely or centrally about creating a new society.  Rather, the liberal vision was about basic human rights, about empowering the common person.

Avatar has deep resonance with struggles that have been going on throughout US history and world history.  I’m just about finished with my second reading of The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen.  If you want to understand why this movie matters, read some of Jensen’s writings.  Avatar is, in some ways, a simple story but it is also a story that is communicating some basic truths about our culture.  The evil military guy may seem like an exaggerated stereotype.  However, I would argue that he is a fairly realistic portrayal of a certain kind of person.  Jensen goes into great detail about US history and there have been plenty of military (and non-military) people who have had the same basic attitude and who have said very similar things.  Sadly, this character isn’t an exaggeration.  There really have been (and still are) people like him and they really did try to get rid of any culture that got in the way of their ideology or profits.  For certain, the US government’s treatment of Native Americans wasn’t an isolated event(s). 

In the early 20th century, the workers union movement was connected with the beginnings of the civil rights movement.  These progressive movements were led by working class people.  For example, the Wobblies fought against unfair pay and immoral working conditions.  What was interesting about the Wobblies is that they didn’t refuse blacks and women from joining.  It was a truly egalitarian progressive movement that happened decades prior to Martin Luther King, jr.  And, yes, the Wobblies were violently put down by the government.

The first World War undermined this movement even further because patriotism has a way of redirecting public outrage to convenient foreign enemies.  In place of these progressive movements, arose the renewed KKK.  The KKK was different in that its membership was mostly middle and upper class.  The KKK was a gentlemen’s club and not an organization defending the common man… although it did play off the dissatisfaction and anger of the common man.  This was the beginning of the conservative movement as we now know it.  The beliefs of the KKK are essentially the same as the beliefs of present rightwingers (patriotic nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, traditional family, white culture/supremacy, and Christian fundamentalism; it was the KKK that was behind the early attempt in getting Creationism taught in public science classes).  The story of the conservative movement has been that of true Americans fighting for the American Way, the American Dream.  This “America”, of course, was a bit exclusionary toward a large portion of the population, but it appealed to all the people who mattered (i.e., those with power). 

Even the moving speeches of MLK had a hard time of challenging the conservative narrative.  Because MLK couldn’t change the popular narrative, the popularity of the civil rights movement mostly died with him.  Ever since, liberals have been trying to communicate their message.  Obama has been somewhat successful in awakening the progressive sense of hope, but he too hasn’t been able to find the narrative to empower this hope beyond speechmaking.  Conservatives are just better at creating and controlling the political attitudes of the general public.

Still, not all is lost.  Liberals seem more successful in using entertainment as a mode of communication.  This is where conservatives have failed.   The conservative ideology doesn’t fully appreciate the power (and the potential merits) of imagination, and the conservative movement did successfully limit creative freedom during the 20th century (Hollywood blacklists, Comic Book Code, etc).  The conservative response to imagination is simply to fear it.  Both conservatives and liberals understand the liberating potential of the arts and of popular entertainment. 

In the late 20th century, the conservative oppression of the Cold War started to lessen.  There was a tremendous explosion of cultural creativity that was combined with technological innovation.  The liberals found the media for their message in movies, and special effects allowed them to communicate their message in ever more compelling ways.  Star Wars was the first great use of movies to express the liberal vision.  Following that, Blade Runner and the Matrix began to remind Americans of the true power of the liberal vision.  The Boomers set the stage for all of this, but it took the GenXers to instill this liberal ethos into the very structures of our culture (e.g., the internet).

That brings us to the last decade when a new generation was coming of age.  This new generation is the largest generation in US history and probably the most liberal generation in US history.  The Millennials have grown up with liberal vision.  Harry Potter has become central to their identity, and the message of Harry Potter is very liberal.  Fantasy/SciFi in general is very liberal.  Our culture has been slowly shifting towards liberalism, but I think Avatar might be a tipping point of sorts. 

The improvement of special effects has unleashed the collective sense of imagination.  Movies may seem like mindless entertainment, but the power of imagination shouldn’t be underestimated.

All of this reminds me of an incident from a several years ago.  I went to hear a lady speak at the University of Iowa.  It wasn’t exactly what I expected.  The lady turned out to be a conservative Christian.  She discussed popular culture and the entertainment industry from the view of conservative Christianity.  She thought conservatives needed to use popular culture to communicate their ideology.  There isn’t anything necessarily wrong about this attitude, but my sense was that this lady’s view (and the conservative view in general) had an extremely superficial comprehension of the value of imagination and creativity.  Conservatives want to control entertainment for their purposes.  The best example is how the Mormons like to spend money making movies with good Christian values, but these movies of course are never very popular.

Liberals don’t need to use imagination and creativity to express their ideology… or at least not in the way that conservatives try to do this.  For liberals, imagination and creativity isn’t just a medium for their message.  It is their message.  The very act of imagining is inherent to the liberal attitude, the liberal view of reality.  This can be understood in terms of Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types.  Liberalism corresponds to the thin boundary type.  Thin boundary means that a person’s experience demonstrates less distinction between dreaming and waking, between subjectivity and objectivity, between imagination and perception.  Liberals don’t use imagination.  Liberals live in imagination.

After listening to the conservative Christian lady speak, I went into the University library where there was a showing of William Blake’s art and writing.  There couldn’t have been a better contrast between the conservative and liberal understanding of imagination.  In Blake’s vision, imagination was something with the power to liberate.  I don’t know if Blake was a visionary, but he was most definitely touching upon the visionary potential of imagination.  It was imagination as self-expression, as celebration, as defiance of all oppressive forces.

Avatar isn’t on the same level as Blake.  Even so, Avatar expresses the same liberal impulse.  There is ideology in Avatar, but it’s ideology as a vision of reality.   With liberals, ideology is expanded through imagination.  With conservatives, imagination is constrained by ideology.  Both may start with ideology, but go in different directions.  The liberal impulse wants to escape or transform ideology into something greater.  It’s not that conservatives don’t have a sense of something greater.  It’s just that to conservatives ideology itself is an expression of that sense of something greater.  Maybe it’s a difference between ideology as means vs ends.

Imagination has so much influence because it’s so easily dismissed.  Entertainment beguiles our conscious mind and sneaks past our rational and ideological defenses.  The most powerful stories are those that alter our very perception of reality.  We don’t see imagination.  We see through imagination.  And it’s liberals who understand this best. 

As such, Avatar is a vision of what imagination means in the world.  Imagination is potential.  We live in and embody imagination.  The world is alive with the imaginal.  To see this planet or any planet as an inanimate chunk of rock is a failure of imagination.  Killing life for profit can only be accomplished if imagination is first killed.  But imagination is an ever-present potential that can be reborn in any person.  That would seem to be the message of Avatar.

Psychological Research: Uncertainty and Spirituality

How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect by Benedict Carey

Along with being insightful and informative, this article is also well written.  I always enjoy a good article, but I must admit I’m particularly happy whenever I read about research comfirming my own intuitions and observations.  The article is about how people respond to the unusual, the uncanny… those things that can’t be immediately explained or fit into past experience, into conventional categories of thought.

“We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science. “We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.”

Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.

In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns.

 So, the same psychological mechnism that lead to personal biases also leads to innovative thinking.  I’ve often thought about those two things separately, but I hadn’t considered their connection.  I think I understand the connection though.  The key isn’t fear.  Rather, the key is uncertainty which may or may not be caused by fear.  The type of person open to uncertainty (thin boundary types) are more likely to respond to uncertainty with curiosity (even to the point of inentionally seeking out situations that encourage uncertainty)… and thick boundary types, being less open to uncertainty, are more likely to respond with fear (thus desiring to avoid and dismiss uncertainty).  However, the psychological mechanism is similar and everyone has their limits on how open they are to uncertainty (and people are more open to certain things or situations than others).

Researchers familiar with the new work say it would be premature to incorporate film shorts by David Lynch, say, or compositions by John Cage into school curriculums. For one thing, no one knows whether exposure to the absurd can help people with explicit learning, like memorizing French. For another, studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist — becoming more prone to conspiracy theories, for example. The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.

Yes, a useful point to make.  It’s not helpful to provoke confusion in others in the hope of encouraging learning ability if you aren’t simultaneously teaching critical thinking skills.  On the other hand, critical thinking skills without innovative thought is equally problematic.

Religious Experience Linked to Brain’s Social Regions by Brandon Keim

The article is discussing the research of Jordan Grafman.

People who reported an intimate experience of God, engaged in religious behavior or feared God, tended to have larger-than-average brain regions devoted to empathy, symbolic communication and emotional regulation. The research wasn’t trying to measure some kind of small “God-spot,” but looked instead at broader patterns within the brains of self-reported religious people.

[…] Grafman suspects that the origins of divine belief reside in mechanisms that evolved in order to help primates understand family members and other animals. “We tried to use the same social mechanisms to explain unusual phenomena in the natural world,” he said.

I heard an interview with Grafman last night which is what led me to this article.  In the interview, he explained his theory in more detail.  He mentioned that primates bond through intimate contact.  This is still important to humans, but intimate contact isn’t practical when dealing with a larger group.  Humans had to develop more efficient ways of creating social connection.  In particular, speech became very important for humans.

What fascinates me about this research is that it implies that those who lack spiritual experience will will probably have less ability towards empathy, symbolic communication, and emotional regulation.  This relates to research done on boundary types which confirm these findings.  A thin boundary person feels less separate from others.  So, they will have a better sense and understanding of the other person.  This is important because, as George P. Hansen writes in The Trickster and the Paranormal, thick boundary types are the people who are most likely to attain high positions in hierarchical organization (which means practically all major organizations from corporations to governments, from scientific institutions to educational institutions).  Thick boundary types have most of the overt power in society despite the fact that most of the population has much thinner boundaries than they do (and more spiritual experience, empathy, etc.).  This might answer the question of why our political leaders are so willing to send other people’s children off to die in foreign lands.

The emotional regulation aspect is a bit surprising.  People of extreme thin boundaries can have some psychological issues such as nightmares.  However, considering the average person rather than extreme examples, maybe increased emotional regulation can be explained by the other two abilities.  If someone is highly empathetic, then they’ll be more emotionally self-aware.  If someone is more capable of symbolic communication, then they’ll be better able to come to terms with psychological experience.

Very, very interesting!

Burroughs, PKD, and Ligotti

William S. Burroughs had a powerful influence on many writers, two of note being Philip K. Dick and Thomas Ligotti.  PKD wrote about Burroughs in his Exegesis a number of times and he experimented with Burroughs cut-up technique.  Ligotti considered Burroughs to be his last artistic hero, but disliked his cut-up technique.  Burroughs, for me, acts as a middle ground between these two writers and also between the visions of hope and of despair. 

PKD, like Burroughs, was attracted to Gnosticism and saw something fundamentally or at least potentially good in a dark world.  Burroughs cut-up technique fits in with PKD’s belief about God in the gutter, divine truth revealed where one is least likely to look for it.  Both believed that, however difficult, God could be discovered.

Ligotti also started out as a spiritual seeker with his studies and meditation practice, but lost his faith along the way.  Ligotti, like Burroughs, takes very seriously the suffering of the human condition.  Ligotti takes the dark pessimism of Burrough’s to the extreme which he writes about in his Conspiracy Against the Human Race (an excerpt is published in the Collapse journal).  Both present insights that most people would rather not know about.

PKD sought the spiritual and had revelatory visions of what to him felt divinely true.  Ligotti sought the spiritual and yet discovered no truths to be consoled by.  Even though both accept the world is filled with much suffering, the difference is whether one has faith in the face of it.  Can our suffering be placed in a context of meanng?  Or are we simply animals who can’t comprehend the trap we find ourselves in?  Burroughs presents a very challenging view of reality.  PKD and Ligotti represent two very different responses.  So, why this difference?

PKD and Burroughs seem to have been more restless in their seeking than Ligotti (or so this is what I sense from my readings of these authors).  It’s possible that Ligotti is just better medicated.  He speaks about being more restless before his moods were modified with prescriptions, and also said something along the lines that this dulled his creative edge as he no longer had the extreme manic phases to motivate his writing.  PKD, on the other hand, did his best to magnify his manic phases by self-medicating himself with uppers (to the point of mental breakdown.. and maybe divine breakthrough).  Burroughs was also an experimenter with illicit drugs.  It makes me wonder what kind of view Ligotti might’ve come to if like Burroughs and PKD he had spent his whole life destabilizing his psyche.

This is important from another perspective.  For Burroughs and PKD, there instability drove their minds, their seeking, and their writing.  They were restless and had long careers and wrote profusely.  Ligotti has said that he at present doesn’t feel compelled to write.  I don’t mean to romanticize mental illness, but their is some truth to the connection between non-ordinary (including disturbed) states of mind and the creativity of artists.

Another issue is that both Burroughs and PKD were very interested in people and the human experience.  This included spirituality, relationships, and politics.  They were restlessly curious about this world that humans both live in and help to create.  Ligotti, however, wishes to see beyond the human, but realized that as a fiction writer he had no choice but to convey the horror of reality through the experience of the human.  The truly monstrous can’t be conveyed in its own terms whatever that may mean.  The problem is that this sense that one’s humanity is a failing or a limitation possibly doesn’t lead one to a long career as a fiction writer.  Afterall,  fiction is ultimately about human experience which necessitates to a certain extent a desire to sympathize and to understand. 

I appreciate what Ligotti has written as he has a probing intellect and communicates well.  However, some of Ligotti’s fans have said that Ligotti has said all that he could possibly say and has said it as best as he possibly could, and so what more is left for him to do?  Ligotti easily could be argued as a consistently better writer than Burroughs and PKD, but what good does it do if his understanding of the human condition has come to a deadend? 

I’m not saying that Ligotti can’t come to further insight.  However, without the restless seeking that drove Burroughs and PKD, is he likely to feel a desire to seek further insight?  Burroughs and PKD believed there was meaning to be found, but Ligotti dismisses meaning as just another way of avoiding suffering.  Other than the momentum of his identity as a writer, what is to inspire Ligotti to continue his creative career, to continue to share his thoughts and publish them?  Without a sense of purpose, what is the point of writing at all?

Anyways, Burroughs symbolizes the ideal of the person who simultaneously strives to be an artist and a truth seeker.  It takes something like courage (or maybe just a perverse compulsion) to confront suffering, grapple with it, try to understand it, and to convey whatever insight one has gained.  But there is danger in delving so far into the morass of the human condition.  You don’t know what you’ll find… or what you’ll become in the process.