“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Meditation for the Non-Religious

My first encounter with meditation was uninspiring. As a fifteen-year-old, I was enjoined to sit Indian-style on a cold, mercilessly hard floor with unyielding carpet roughly the texture of sandpaper and redolent of post-workday feet, close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing. These sessions lasted anywhere from five to twenty minutes, and I went through the same motions at the beginning of every martial arts class I attended, two or three times a week for four years. I won’t say I got nothing out of it. Just knowing how important concentrating on your breath is can get you through some otherwise panic-inducing positions in submission wrestling. And knowing not to hold your breath while throwing or absorbing punches can keep you from getting winded or having the wind knocked out of you. But my martial arts teachers never taught me to go beyond the first level of meditation.

My dad had a heart attack near the end of May in 2006. Even though my lifestyle choices have always tended to be quite a bit healthier than my dad’s, I was moved, partly because I thought I might discover simple hints to pass along to him, to read up on stress. As a science-minded graduate of Anthropology and Psychology programs, I naturally gravitated toward primatologist Robert Sapolsky’s work on the topic Why Zebras don’t Get Ulcers. I’d read articles in science magazines about how Buddhists monks in fMRI machines had demonstrated meditation was a mental state clearly distinguishable from mere resting and relaxing (which was surprising to me given my experiences), and now I was reading about evidence that meditation has clear health benefits. But, though I remember a few attempts at establishing a routine back then, it took me until recently to really get into experimenting with it.

Having been shocked at the beginning of this semester at how well my memory palace worked to help me encode and store the names of my students, I started poking into Mind Performance Hacks, the book that introduced me to the method. (I also have a friend who’s been telling me about his experimentation with it of late.) I’d actually read the hack on meditation (and I use the four-fold breath when I can’t sleep) a couple times before, but what stood out this time was the idea of walking meditation. I ended up doing a breathing and visualization exercise while I was on the elliptical and watching the NewsHour. Next thing I knew, I was looking down at the display and it was several minutes later. I’d missed most of the news. Being so out of it while exercising has obvious benefits.

Many of the explanations and suggested techniques for meditation are marred by purposely elliptical philosophizing and mumbo jumbo about universal consciousness. The best account I’ve come across of what it entails is in Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. And the easiest technique to start with is in Mind Performance Hacks. But I’ll attempt an easy and direct explanation and set of directions here, all of which can be personalized as you practice and figure out what works best for you. Keep in mind, though you’ll know it when you’re in the state of meditation—or more likely when you’re coming out of the state—the initial experience of a beginner is only a taste of how it feels as you log more and more time in developing the skill.

The process I use consist of four, usually sequential, levels:

Level one is concentrating on your breathing. You don’t have to sit in the lotus or anything like that, but you want to be comfortable enough to relax yet not so comfortable that you’ll fall asleep. Try Indian-style or half-lotus, or lying with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. It’s important to take each breath into your belly first and then gradually let it into your chest; this will increase your capacity for air intake. To help you concentrate on breathing, actually say to yourself silently in your mind, “Breathing in, I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out.”

Level two is body and sensory noting. Once your breathing rhythm is established, do an inventory of each part of your body beginning with your toes and moving all the way up to the top of your head. It may help you relax if you tense and then deliberately relax each part as you note it. So pay attention to how your toes feel as you wiggle and tense them before letting them relax as you move on to tense and release the muscles in your feet, and then your calves—and so on all through your body. Noting your body will already move you in the direction of noting what’s going on with your senses. Consider all the things you feel and hear and smell and taste. I like to imagine my surroundings visually (remember your eyes are closed) and feel myself blend in with the environment. As your body relaxes like this, you’ll find your imagination is really freed up.

Level three is mind noting. This is where Hofstadter’s idea of jootsing comes in. Joots stands for jumping outside of the system. Imagine you’re driving and someone cuts you off. You start to get pissed off, your blood pressure rises, and you start to think all kinds of nasty things about your fellow driver. The system you’re concentrating on here is the offense this other person caused you. Jump outside of it. It’s hard to do in the moment of course but in a state of relaxation it’s much easier. Consider yourself. Is it really such a big deal that you got cut off? Were you in any real danger? Are you going to arrive at your destination significantly later? Has the condition of your life been in any way diminished? Now, consider the other driver—he’s probably stressed out and in a hurry just like you. He didn’t mean to cut you off. It wasn’t personal.

Mind noting doesn’t have to focus on anger or frustration, but these are the things that usually make it hard to relax so you’ll end up beginning the process with them most of the time. The idea is to focus on yourself experiencing the emotion instead of on what triggered the emotion. You may even want to say, “I am feeling frustrated about how that guy cut me off earlier,” or “I’m feeling angry that my boss doesn’t appreciate me,” etc. Doing so means you’re jumping out of the first system, up one level. And you can keep jumping to higher levels. You’re pretty much just putting things in perspective, taking the long view, and saying to yourself that in the scheme of things these stressors are insignificant. You can keep jumping levels until you’re at the level of the entire cosmos, in which neither you or your family or friends—or anything you know about and spend time thinking about has much significance. Thinking at this level makes it really hard to be reactionary. (But there is a danger: if you stay at this level, you may get past your stressors only to get depressed that everyone and everything you love or care about will end.)

Level four becomes possible when you’ve thoroughly relaxed your body and cleared the clutter form your mind. (Sometimes, if nothing's preoccupying me, I skip level three.) Now you can chose what you want to focus on. This is the level at which many monks will recite mantras. Ohm, for instance, when pronounced properly, begins at the back of the throat and moves forward to the lips, making every vowel sound possible and thus symbolizing the totality of existence. Against this backdrop, their individual sense of themselves, their egos, diminishes drastically and they come ever closer to enlightenment. But, as a non-Buddhist and non-Hindu, I concentrate on moods or states of mind I want to spend more time in. You can personalize this level any way you want. What I do is concentrate on colors I associate with moods, and scenes or images or plots I associate with broader states of mind. For instance, there’s a state of mind I associate with reading Walter de la Mare’s ghost stories or watching certain schlock horror movies that I must enjoy because it represents moments of excitement and happiness in my childhood. So I focus first on a certain shade of blue and gradually resolve the image into a view of the moon through silhouetted tree branches. You can choose anything you like to concentrate on. The important thing is that you devote all of your attention to it, with no part of your consciousness occupied with anything else.

I’ve been trying to do this at least twenty minutes a day, five days a week. I also have quite a bit of success doing it while on the elliptical, perhaps because the rhythmic pedaling helps to synchronize my breathing and get me into a near-trance state. Anyway, just keep in mind it takes practice. I have a feeling what I’ve experienced with it to date is only the tip of the iceberg.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

1 More Reason Not to Read

Adam Gopnik, in a recent offering to The New Yorker, does what computational neuroscientist Douglas Hofstadter calls jootsing—jumping outside of the system—in discussing a slew of books on new media and communication technology. In a brilliant move, he takes a step up and away from the books and tries to see them from a broader perspective rather than simply engaging with each in turn. He groups the authors according to their stances toward the revolution as Never-Betters, Ever-Wasers (what revolution?), and Better-Nevers. I am a Never-Better with qualifications. And this is the group Gopnik dismisses with the least ceremony. The optimistic view, “has its excitements,” he writes, “but the history it uses seems to have been taken from the back of a cereal box.” The Never-Betters have a habit of citing how the invention of printing represented a sudden major leap forward to the Enlightenment. But, according to Gopnik, “The idea… that the printing press rapidly gave birth to a new order of information, democratic and bottom-up, is a cruel cartoon of the truth” (125). Tyrants and despots were among the first to use the new technology to its fullest potential. Voltaire didn’t come along for another two centuries. On the other hand, today we can cite Tahrir Square.

I like the idea of a “global psyche” (126) some of the more sophisticated Never-Betters put forth because it meshes well with the group mind concept I come away with after reading books by David Sloan Wilson. We can increase the computing power of our minds exponentially by connecting them with other minds. However, this group model suffers the same problem in terms of cognition as it does in those of adaptation—there’s always the threat of selfish free-riders who detract from the adaptiveness of the higher-order organism. I’m afraid there are as of yet far from adequate mechanisms in place to punish propagandists and users who don’t contribute. Even though a group of cooperative minds is vastly superior to any one mind, the group mind suffers dramatically as the quality of the individual brains constituting it deliquesces into narcissistic muck. M.T. Andersen’s novel Feed provides an all-too-recognizable dystopian vision of what the unchecked ascent of marketing can do if the consumerist ethos continues its ruthless campaign against discipline and compassion.

And this is where I begin to sympathize with the Better-Nevers, though I agree with the Ever-Wasers that there have always been old fogies like me grinding their teeth at night about wayward generation nexters (generation text?). Gopnik pulls off the feat of quoting Nicholas Carr, who calls the internet, and his book, The Shallows, at once both warmly and condescendingly to the effect that being online doesn’t draw the same intensity of concentration as reading does. “The medium does matter” (127), Carr insists. (I haven’t read his book yet.) Communication technology also separates us from the flesh-and-blood humans whose avatars we’re communicating with, a phenomenon Sherry Turkle captures in her own wonderful title, Alone Together. It is in discussing these Better-Nevers’ concerns that Gopnik starts to piss me off a bit. After casually referring to research that shows technological multi-tasking does indeed have deleterious effects on people’s capacity for concentration and abstract thinking, to surveys showing an alarming decline in college students self-assessments of empathy, and to research linking this decline to the coterminous decline in the reading of fiction, Gopnik waves it all away in a single sentence: “But if reading a lot of novels gave you exceptional empathy university English departments should be filled with the most compassionate and generous-minded of souls, and, so far, they are not” (128).

This breezy dismissal pisses me off because distracting us from the research doesn’t change the findings. It also pisses me off because Gopnik is right about English departments (though not, I must admit, about the one in which I study, where all the professors are exceptionally generous and open-minded). He’s has, in fact, unwittingly stumbled upon a driving force behind the decline in reading independent of technology and consumerism—the scholarly black hole that is Literary Theory (or Theory as it functions in the Humanities in general). As far back as seventh grade I remember being annoyed at how my Lit. teacher, Mrs. Kalb, seemed to want to treat stories and novels as if they were algebraic equations (New Criticism), and this would only get worse as I got further in my education. It wasn’t that I minded close reading; it was that this heightened attention to the details was in the service of a much too mechanistic analysis of the “text,” which became a type of coded message instead of a story.

As an undergrad, my Shakespeare teacher (at Purdue) was refreshingly atheoretical—though looking back I remember him pushing some bizarre Freudian readings of “Hamlet.” I later had a class on Literature and Psychology, which focused solely on the theories of Carl Jung. Though both Freud and Jung are archetypal pseudoscientists, I’m glad their theories at least approach characters in a way human readers tend to approach them—as actual people, not real, but potentially real, and definitely not linguistic ciphers. The really appalling theories falling under the labels of structuralism and poststructuralism, and even, to a somewhat lesser degree, New Historicism, came later in my education. Fortunately, I was inoculated to them through my independent study of science. According to these theories, novels and stories are vessels for the transmission of culture—again, coded messages—and can be “deconstructed” to uncover all the nastiest elements of civilization: patriarchy, oppression, racism, colonialism, ecotoxicity.

At the core of all these theories is the idea that one should read with critical detatchment, assessing the narrative in terms of how it is functioning symbolically, or assessing and resisting the multitudinous ways in which it's trying to push some "dominant culture" onto you. But for most people it's a struggle to get into the text in the first place, so teachers making them even more difficult by freighting them with all these absurd theories and paranoid concerns merely serves to make it less likely they'll get anything out of reading.

Literary theory needs to begin with the realization that people don't need theory to understand stories. And critics should endeavor to cast their readers into the stories they're examining, not out of them.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Group Mind in Darwin's Cathedral

Reading David Sloan Wilson’s contribution to the scientific endeavor of understanding religion, I developed a finer appreciation for the point he made with Eliot Sober in an earlier work, Unto Others, about how focusing on how a trait or behavior is adaptive for an individual, but only in the context of a group in which several other members can be counted on to share the trait or engage in similar behavior, overlooks a mechanism that would have been necessary for that trait or behavior to evolve. One might argue that religion benefits an individual within a group, but as long as the benefits are in relation to others in the same group who also believe in and practice religion, we have to assume that somewhere in evolutionary history the process of selection at the level of the group was more important than selection at the level of the individual (or selection at the level of the gene). The paradigm Wilson and Sober advocate is thus called multilevel selection. And justifying a sole focus on the individual by pointing out that individuals with the trait in question fare better on average than individuals without it, regardless of context, is what they call the averaging fallacy.

Evolutionary biologists have no trouble at all explaining altruism—behavior that benefits others at some cost to the individual engaging in it—in terms of either reciprocity or kin selection, whereby aiding a close relative benefits an individual who likely possesses the same “selfish” genes as the individual doing the aiding. To handle the fact that humans often engage in exchanges with strangers they’ll likely never encounter again, they point out that humans evolved as small bands of hunter-gatherers so this business of treating others as though future meetings weren’t all but guaranteed probably hasn’t affected us much genetically. That the dynamic scales up to civilizations of thousands and millions is just a happy coincidence. In this reasoning, they may be right. But as soon as you open the door to kin selection, you’ve entered a discussion of group selection whether you intended to or not. For what is a family but a group of individuals with at least some shared genetic difference from other groups. Kin selection implies competition between families. Families are groups. How could something like language evolve—what’s adaptive about an especially communicative individual alone on the savannah?—without selection at the level of groups? The question applies to almost all aspects of culture.

Wilson likes to use an analogy between groups composed of subgroups composed of individuals and eukaryotic cells made up of several organelles which likely developed independently, formed symbiotic relationships, and then somehow coalesced into a single unit. He doesn’t use the term group mind, but I find it helpful in conceptualizing how human’s unmatched capacity for culture came about through a process of selection. We have a unified and eminently coherent sense of our own minds that we refer to as consciousness. But this sense derives from the operation of several different parts of the brain (modules), which themselves derive from the firing of individual neurons. Just as neurons communicate with each other via transmitters, and modules among themselves via electro-chemical signals, individual humans communicate with each other via gestures, expressions, and language. The beginnings of these modes of exchanging information can be found in several non-human species. But for culture to have blown up the way it has for humans must have taken a runaway feedback loop built up from a foundation of individuals cooperating.

How can a capacity for culture be adaptive for an individual unless it’s in an environment with several other individuals with similar capacities? Civilization is the continued expedition of this group mind, whose computing power vastly supercedes that of the individual minds composing it. Wilson’s argument is that religion originally helped groups capitalize on this potential of group mindedness to outcompete other groups, pointing out how much of religion centers on fostering altruism toward others (of our tribe but not rival tribes) and subordinating our own selfish desires for the sake of some greater destiny. We may think of language and religion as organelles in the cell of society—or organs in the body of it. My question is, since it is a manifestation of tribalism, with built-in sanctions against free thought, can we encourage cooperation some other way?

Monday, February 7, 2011

My Memory Palace

            I'm in the process of memorizing Phillip Larkin's poem "Aubade." It's fifty lines, and I'll never forget the shock I got when I first read it. I frequently wake in the middle of the night and find myself worrying about how quickly life slips by. That's what the poem is about. I decided to memorize it because at the beginning of this semester I used a trick I learned in "Mind Performance Hacks" to remember my students' names. The memory palace was first developed in classical Greece by orators who needed to remember their speeches. What I did was review a large house I have countless intimate memories of and place a celebrity with the name I wanted to remember each to a room. Thinking I'd have to rehearse the list a couple times, I was amazed to find myself writing down all twenty-two names on the first try. Check it out on wikihow.

            I've been searching for other things to memorize since then. What is worth having in mind at all times? One of the things I put in my palace was fifteen questions from "The Sharing Game" developed by relationship researcher Arthur Aaron. That could come in handy the next time I find myself in a superficial conversation. But fifteen questions only took a little while to remember with the help of the memory palace. I've tried to use it at the restaurant where I work, but so far I found that it interferes with other mnemonics I wasn't even aware of using. (Eleven people at a table--no problem. In fact, that was last week, and I think I can still recall what everyone had for dinner.)

            A poem is more difficult because you have to remember the exact sequence of words. It's not just fifty lines (two to a room and out the front door), it's a few hundred words--though of course they're not random. One of the unforeseen consequences is that I'm finding each room resonates with emotions from the various experiences I had in it. This actually helps the process because it makes abstract ideas emotionally salient. But the more time I spend in my memory palace the more acquainted I am with the long period of time I lived in that house--from age 16 to 27, with a few hiatuses. So if you're going to use a memory palace, choose it wisely; it's not just a tie to new memories but also to old ones.
(Also check out my review of Joshua Foer's book on mnemonics, Moonwalking with Einstein.)
Here goes:


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking a four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
--The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off used--nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear--no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And the realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape.
Yet can't accept. One side will have go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

--Damn, don't quite have it yet (it's only been a few hours since I started). But I cleaned up all my mistakes.