Friday, October 15, 2010

Layer 362 . . . Jabobson, Finkler, Great Novels, TED, Brain Science, Better Worlds, Meditation, Spiritual Intelligence, Extrinsic and Intrinsic Values, Mental Illness, and Inequality

Howard Jacobson has won the Man Booker Prize for his latest novel - "The Finkler Question". Brilliant news. From the reviews I've read it's a superb must-read book.

There was discussion on the Today programme last week about the state of contemporary novels. "Freedom" - Jonathan Frantzen's new novel, for example - has been widely acclaimed as a Great American Novel - in the tradition of Steinbeck, Salinger, Bellow, Faulkner, etc.

What does it take to write a novel about the zeitgeist and about contemporary issues which also manages to be gripping, grand, profound, funny, intense, serious, etc? For example - who's writing about the "gigantic con-trick of investment banking" and its effect on the world? Who's able to write dramatised lives of "realistically rendered individuals"?

Satire alone is not enough to overcome powerlessness. Where are the signs of real rebellion? Where are the writers that can really enlighten and enliven?


At the other extreme, on the spectrum of the uses of writing, there was an item on the Today programme which mentioned a piece of written evidence used in court - a reminder note in the defendant's own handwriting which simply said:

1) Go on the rob
2) Sell weed

The defendant's solicitor said he'd written it because he needed to 'structure his day'.


Brain Science and a Better World

A friend sent me this reference - to explain an illness and its effects.

Jill Bolte Taylor - An Idea Worth Spreading

The annual TED conferences, (Technology, Entertainment, Design) held in Long Beach/Palm Springs and Oxford, bring together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives

Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions -- motion, speech, self-awareness -- shut down one by one. An astonishing story.

Jill began her TED lecture with some thoughts about schitzophrenia - an illness and a brain malfunction that often results in delusion and aggression. .

Jill's scientific career has involved her in mapping the microcircuitry of the brain - and its chemicals transmitters.

In summary, Jill says:

We still don't know a great deal about the biological differences in the brains of schitzophrenics.

Having had what turned out to be a stroke Jill discovered that it immediately affected her  ability to process information.

"I became an infant in 4 hours".

Our cerebral cortices are completely separate - but able to communicate with each other.

They process information differently.

Therefore they think about different things, care about different things, and have very different personalities.

The right hemisphere is a "parallel processor" - and has a consciousness about the present moment. It thinks in pictures. It processes sensory information. We're all connected as a human family thanks to our right hemispheres - "perfect, whole and beautiful".

The left hemisphere is a "serial processor" - it thinks in a methodical and linear fashion. It deals with the past and the future. It categorises and organises the information it currently takes in and associates it with things from the past, plus it projects into the future and assesses possibilities. It thinks in language - not pictures. It calculates, and it tracks time and commitments. It reminds us of things we need to deal with.

The left brain also says, "I am". It sees me as separate from the energy flow around me, and separate from other people. If the brain chatter in the left brain goes silent then we can more easily perceive the energy flow surrounding us.

It can be a euphoric feeling - dropping decades of emotional baggage.

Accessing fully the right cortex can be like finding 'nirvana' - and a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people.

Is it possible to choose to bring silence to the left brain hemisphere and find the peace that's then possible? Is this a 'stroke' of insight as to how we could live our lives?

Who are we? The 'light-force power of the universe'? With two cognitive minds we have the power to choose from moment to moment how we want to be in the world. To BE in the world.

We can be 'at one' with 'all that there is'. Or we can be a single individual, separate from 'the flow', and from other people. I can be merely an intellectual and a scientist - " simply the 'we's' inside of 'me' ".

We can choose to become part of the greater "we", through allowing our right brains to have more power in our lives, by using the deep inner peace circuitry, and we can project more peace into the world, and make our planet a more peaceful place.

Which do we choose - and when?


All of this is a good starting point for many different reflections. For example - on the role of meditation in achieving a state of nirvana or satori - by calming and reducing the activity taking place in the brain. BUT - in order to achieve a transcendental state of spiritual 'intelligence' surely BOTH hemispheres have to be calmed or emptied, rather than only the left hemisphere? In order for intuition and insight to emerge from our deep consciousness then activity needs to slow down in both hemispheres.

Isn't it bound to be the case that if we mainly calm and silence the left hemisphere and leave the right hemishere active then what we achieve is greater empathy and higher levels of social/personal/emotional intelligence? Which is all very well, and very desirable - but what we are talking about then is not metaphysical/spiritual intelligence as such - ie not satori or nirvana. We may then feel more connectedness with other people and with nature - but that in itself is by way of a social/emotional/personal intelligence, not a spiritual intelligence.

Surely Jill is wrong to say we have TWO cognitive minds? Isn't the right hemisphere more of an affective (rather than a cognitive) processor? Surely it's the WE rather than the ME processor - which is based more on feelings and empathy rather than actual cognition?

I'm sure Jill is a brilliant scientist and an amazing person, but it seems to me she is still lacking some key insights into the functioning of the brain, into the locus of our various intelligences, and into how they operate and interact.


Extrinsic and Intrinsic Values - and Human Intelligence

In Monday's Guardian George Monbiot published one of his really important columns.

The whole of this piece is essential reading, but here is the essence of it:

The left has to start asserting its own values

The progressive attempt to appeal to self-interest has been a catastrophe. Empathy, not expediency, must drive our campaigns

The punishment of the poor for the errors of the rich, the abandonment of universalism, the dismantling of the shelter the state provides: apart from a few small protests, none of this has yet brought us out fighting.

The acceptance of policies that counteract our interests is the pervasive mystery of the 21st century. In the US blue-collar workers angrily demand that they be left without healthcare, and insist that millionaires pay less tax. In the UK we appear ready to abandon the social progress for which our ancestors risked their lives with barely a mutter of protest. What has happened to us?

The answer, I think, is provided by the most interesting report I have read this year. Common Cause, written by Tom Crompton of the environment group WWF, examines a series of fascinating recent advances in the field of psychology. It offers, I believe, a remedy to the blight that now afflicts every good cause from welfare to climate change.

Progressives, he shows, have been suckers for a myth of human cognition he labels the enlightenment model. This holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. All that has to be done to persuade people is to lay out the data: they will then use it to decide which options best support their interests and desires.

A host of psychological experiments demonstrate that it doesn't work like this. Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information that confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.

Our social identity is shaped by values that psychologists classify as extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement. People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame.

Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance. Those who have a strong set of intrinsic values are not dependent on praise or rewards from other people. They have beliefs that transcend their self-interest.

Few people are all-extrinsic or all-intrinsic. Our social identity is formed by a mixture of values. But psychological tests in nearly 70 countries show that values cluster in remarkably consistent patterns. Those who strongly value financial success, for example, have less empathy, stronger manipulative tendencies, a stronger attraction to hierarchy and inequality, stronger prejudices towards strangers and less concern about human rights and the environment. Those with a strong sense of self-acceptance have more empathy and greater concern for human rights, social justice and the environment. These values suppress each other: the stronger someone's extrinsic aspirations, the weaker his or her intrinsic goals.

We are not born with our values. They are shaped by the social environment. By changing our perception of what is normal and acceptable, politics alters our minds as much as our circumstances. Free, universal healthcare, for example, tends to reinforce intrinsic values. Shutting the poor out of it normalises inequality, reinforcing extrinsic values.

The rightward shift that began with Thatcher and persisted under Blair and Brown, whose governments emphasised the virtues of competition, the market and financial success, has changed our values. The British Social Attitudes survey shows a sharp fall over this period in public support for policies that redistribute wealth and opportunity.

This shift has been reinforced by advertising and the media. Their fascination with power politics, their rich lists, their catalogues of the 100 most powerful, influential, intelligent or beautiful people, their obsessive promotion of celebrity, fashion, fast cars, expensive holidays: all inculcate extrinsic values. By generating feelings of insecurity and inadequacy – which means reducing self-acceptance – they also suppress intrinsic goals.

Conservatives in the US generally avoid debating facts and figures. Instead they frame issues in ways that appeal to and reinforce extrinsic values. Every year, through mechanisms that are rarely visible and seldom discussed, the space in which progressive ideas can flourish shrinks a little more. The progressive response has been disastrous.

Instead of confronting the shift in values, we have sought to adapt to it. Once progressive parties have tried to appease altered public attitudes: think of all those New Labour appeals to middle England, often just a code for self-interest. In doing so they endorse and legitimise extrinsic values.

Many greens and social justice campaigners have also tried to reach people by appealing to self-interest: explaining how, for example, relieving poverty in the developing world will build a market for British products, or suggesting that, by buying a hybrid car, you can impress your friends and enhance your social status. This tactic also strengthens extrinsic values, making future campaigns even less likely to succeed. Green consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake.

Common Cause proposes a simple remedy: that we stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them. Progressive campaigners, it suggests, should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces – particularly the advertising industry – that make us insecure and selfish.

Ed Miliband appears to understand this need. He told the Labour conference that he "wants to change our society so that it values community and family, not just work" and "wants to change our foreign policy so that it's always based on values, not just alliances … We must shed old thinking and stand up for those who believe there is more to life than the bottom line".

But there's a paradox here, which means that we cannot rely on politicians to drive these changes. Those who succeed in politics are, by definition, people who prioritise extrinsic values. Their ambition must supplant peace of mind, family life, friendship – even brotherly love.

So we must lead this shift ourselves. People with strong intrinsic values must cease to be embarrassed by them. We should argue for the policies we want not on the grounds of expediency but on the grounds that they are empathetic and kind; and against others on the grounds that they are selfish and cruel. In asserting our values we become the change we want to see.

It's good to seee George Monbiot engaging with some of the 1200 responses to this piece on CiF. Excellent, George. What we're actually talking about, of course - apart from 'values' - is social and spiritual intelligence.


Oliver James is another excellent writer - the author of 'Affluenza'. He had this piece in the paper this week:

Why genes are leftwing

The right loves genetic explanations for poverty or mental illness. But science fingers society

When the map of the human genome was presented to the world in 2001, psychiatrists had high hopes for it. Itemising all our genes would surely provide molecular evidence that the main cause of mental illness was genetic – something psychiatrists had long believed. Drug companies were wetting their lips at the prospect of massive profits from unique potions for every idiosyncrasy.

But a decade later, unnoticed by the media, the human genome project has not delivered what the psychiatrists hoped: we now know that genes play little part in why one sibling, social class or ethnic group is more likely to suffer mental health problems than another.

This result had been predicted by Craig Venter, one of the key researchers on the project. When the map was published, he said that because we only have about 25,000 genes psychological differences could not be much determined by them. "Our environments are critical," he concluded.

Politics may be the reason why the media has so far failed to report the small role of genes. The political right believes that genes largely explain why the poor are poor, as well as twice as likely as the rich to be mentally ill. To them, the poor are genetic mud, sinking to the bottom of the genetic pool.

Instead, the Human Genome Project is rapidly providing a scientific basis for the political left. Childhood maltreatment, economic inequality and excessive materialism seem the main determinants of mental illness. State-sponsored interventions, like reduced inequality, are the most likely solutions.


Another interesting Desert Island Discs -

Kirsty Young's castaway is the founder of Storm model agency, Sarah Doukas. "I'm a terrible old rocker" she says, "I always knew my life would be unconventional."

Sarah hated school, and dropped out before A levels, in spite of ( or because of ) being sent to expensive private schools.

Excellent choice of music too. Especially Cohen, and Caetano Veloso   — Cucurrucucu Paloma (Alberto Iglesias & Vicente Amigo - Hable Con Ella)

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