15 December 2012

The Bisexual Allure of Objects

Filed under: Culture, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:14 pm

To test whether grammatical gender really does focus speakers of different languages on different aspects of objects, we created a list of 24 object names that had opposite grammatical genders in Spanish and German (half were masculine and half feminine in each language), and then asked a group of native Spanish speakers and another group of native German speakers to write down the first three adjectives that came to mind to describe each object on the list. The study was conducted entirely in English, and none of the participants were aware of the purpose of the study. The question was whether the grammatical genders of object names in Spanish and German would be reflected in the kinds of adjectives that Spanish and German speakers generated. All of the participants were native speakers of either Spanish or German, but both groups were highly proficient in English. Since the experiment was conducted in English (a language with no grammatical gender system), this is a particularly conservative test of whether grammatical gender influences the way people think about objects.

After all of the adjectives provided by Spanish and German speakers were collected, a group of English speakers (unaware of the purpose of the study) rated the adjectives as describing masculine or feminine properties of the objects. The adjectives were arranged in alphabetical order and were not identified as having been produced by a Spanish or a German speaker.

As predicted, Spanish and German speakers generated adjectives that were rated more masculine for items whose names were grammatically masculine in their native language than for items whose names were grammatically feminine. Because all object names used in this study had opposite genders in Spanish and German, Spanish and German speakers produced very different adjectives to describe the objects. For items that were grammatically masculine in Spanish but feminine in German, adjectives provided by Spanish speakers were rated more masculine than those provided by German speakers. For items that were grammatically masculine in German but feminine in Spanish, adjectives provided by German speakers were rated more masculine than those provided by Spanish speakers.

There were also observable qualitative differences between the kinds of adjectives Spanish and German speakers produced. For example, the word for “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The word for “bridge,” on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.

– Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Phillips (2003), “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics.”


27 November 2012

Voigt-Kampff Fail

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:33 am

A few days ago I wrote a post illustrating how filmmakers capture the perceptual attention of viewers. Fiction-makers also draw readers and viewers’ emotional attention by triggering their empathic connections with fictional characters. It’s possible to experiment with the manipulation of viewers’ visual perception by, for example, hiding the important thing in plain sight and distracting the viewer’s attention onto more visually compelling cues — a phenomenon called inattentional blindness. It’s also possible to experiment with empathic manipulation. In one sort of experiment the writer seduces the reader into identifying with despicable characters: it’s curious that both Humbert Humbert and Tom Ripley were introduced to the reading public in the same year, 1955. Another sort of experiment is to eschew empathic connection altogether. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard: is he enigmatic and deep, or is he a shallow and hollow cipher no different from the replicants he kills without remorse in PK Dick’s novel?

People can recognize specific emotions based on facial expressions, even if those expressions are on the faces of professional actors who aren’t actually experiencing the emotions they’re depicting. Can people detect empathy in others? Can they distinguish between authentic and simulated empathy? That was the purpose of the Voigt-Kampff Test that Deckard administered to suspected replicants: to evaluate whether the suspect was really empathic, and thus really human, or just faking it. Human evaluators of empathy are too easily deceived: that’s how Humbert Humbert and Tom Ripley got away with it. The Voigt-Kampff Test relied on less easily controlled responses like pupil dilation and EKG patterns — machines measuring the machinery under the hood. By the end Deckard wasn’t sure whether he himself could pass the Voigt-Kampff he administered to others. I wondered the same thing in a post from last year when I was on an empathy kick.

I find it difficult to know what someone is thinking or feeling and why. I don’t score very high on empathy tests — kind of like an early-generation replicant, or like Rick Deckard. But I’m also skeptical of these empathy tests: do they test real emotions, or conformity to general agreement as to what emotions ought to look like? I can, on the other hand, imagine all sorts of things going on under the hood in other people’s inner lives. If I’m wrong, is it because I lack insight, or because people are deceptive? Or are people more often than not being shallow and hollow, undeserving of the imagined depths of character I ascribe to them?

Fictions are simulated worlds populated by disembodied replicants. I can make a variety of psychological attributions about fictional characters, treating them as if they were real people. But the characters aren’t real, and neither are the emotions and motivations I attribute to them. If I were to assign some of my wanton psychological imaginings to my own fictional characters, then I might be mistaken for someone with deep insight into human nature. I would also be contributing to the popular but possibly erroneous presumption that people are deep rather than shallow and hollow. Consequently I tend to write enigmatic characters opaquely drawn, whose physical features are not described and who reveal little about themselves in dialogue with each other. I also deny my narrators access to the characters’ inner lives. In brief, I don’t dangle many hooks in the water attempting to snag readers’ empathy — if there really is such a thing as empathy. If readers want to attribute psychological depth to my characters then it’s on their own heads.

21 November 2012

There Will Be Perception

Filed under: Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:03 am

Following up on my last post about JJ Gibson‘s ideas on how people perceive pictures, here’s a video produced by psychologist Tim Smith that tracks the eye movements of 11 people watching a segment of the film There Will Be Blood.

Contemporary film editing relies largely on cuts and close-ups, alternating perspectives and montage, to direct the viewer’s attention. In contrast, the film excerpt in the video consists of one extended continuous take and a second shorter one. Despite the freedom afforded the viewer to look around these extended shots at leisure and at will, the cinematographer remains in control. The first scene illustrates how visual attention is drawn by the objects in the environment, their interrelationships, and their movements. Human faces and hands are particularly compelling. The second scene shows how the observer’s movement through the environment also directs visual attention. The eye is drawn to what’s present in the scene, but the observer also anticipates change in the scene. The viewer follows the character’s gaze toward the object of his attention; a pause in the conversation leads the eye toward the character who is likely to speak next; a camera tracking to the right directs the viewer’s attention to the right of the screen in anticipation of what will slide into view next.

Discussing his eye movement video on David Bordwell’s blog, Smith writes:

The most striking feature of the gaze behaviour when it is animated in this way is the very fast pace at which we shift our eyes around the screen. On average, each fixation is about 300 milliseconds in duration. (A millisecond is a thousandth of a second.) Amazingly, that means that each fixation of the fovea lasts only about 1/3 of a second. These fixations are separated by even briefer saccadic eye movements, taking between 15 and 30 milliseconds!

Looking at these patterns, our gaze may appear unusually busy and erratic, but we’re moving our eyes like this every moment of our waking lives. We are not aware of the frenetic pace of our attention because we are effectively blind every time we saccade between locations. This process is known as saccadic suppression. Our visual system automatically stitches together the information encoded during each fixation to effortlessly create the perception of a constant, stable scene…

The second most striking observation you may have about the video is how coordinated the gaze of multiple viewers is. Most of the time, all viewers are looking in a similar place… Viewers’ gazes are attracted by the sudden appearance of objects, moving hands, heads, and bodies. The greater the motion contrast between the point of motion and the static background, the more likely viewers will look at it. If there is only one point of motion at a particular moment, then all viewers will look at the motion, creating attentional synchrony.

This is a powerful technique for guiding attention through a film. But it’s of course not unique to film. Noticing points of motion is a natural bias which we have evolved by living in the real world. If we were not sensitive to peripheral motion, then the tiger in the bushes might have killed our ancestors before they had chance to pass their genes down to us.

19 November 2012

The Invariant Cat

Filed under: Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:32 pm

[From The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception by James J. Gibson, 1979 — Chapter 15, “Pictures and Visual Awareness”]

To see the environment is to extract information from the ambient array of light. What is it, then, to see a picture of something? The information in ambient light consists not of forms and colors but of invariants. Is it implied that the information in a picture does not consist of forms and colors but of invariants likewise? That sounds very odd, for we suppose that a picture is entirely composed of forms and colors. The kind of vision we get from pictures is harder to understand than the kind we get from ambient light, not easier…

*  *  *

When the young child sees the family cat at play the front view , side view, rear view, top view, and so on are not seen, and what gets perceived is the invariant cat. The child does not notice the aspects of perspectives of the cat until he is much older; he just sees the cat rolling over. Hence, when the child first sees a picture of a cat he is prepared to pick up the invariants, and he pays no attention to the frozen perspective of the picture, drawing, photograph, or cartoon. It is not that he sees an abstract cat, or a conceptual cat, or the common features of the class of cats, as some philosophers would have us believe; what he gets is the information for the persistence of that peculiar, furry, mobile layout of surfaces.

When the young child sees the cat run away, he does not notice the small image but the far-off cat. Thus, when he sees two adjacent pictures of Felix in the comic book, a large Felix at the bottom of its picture and another small Felix higher up in its picture, he is prepared to perceive the latter as farther off. When he sees the cat half-hidden by the chair, he perceives a partly hidden cat, not a half-cat, and therefore he is prepared to see the same thing in a drawing.

The child never sees a man as a silhouette, or as a cutout like a paper doll, but probably sees a sort of head-body-arms-legs invariant. Consequently, any outline drawing of this invariant is recognized as a man, and the outlines tend to be seen as the occluding edges of a man with interchangeable near and far sides. Even when the outlines give way to line segments, as in so-called stick figures, the invariant may still be displayed and the man perceived…

To summarize, a picture is a surface so treated that it makes available an optic array of arrested structures with underlying invariants of structure. The cross-sections of the visual angles of the array are forms, but the invariants are formless. The array is delimited, not ambient. The array is arrested in time, except for the case of the motion picture… A picture is a surface that always displays something other than what it is…

*  *  *

By gradual stages human children begin to draw in the full meaning of the term — to draw a man or a woman, a house, a flower, or the sun in the sky. The child is still making lines on a surface that record the movements of the tool in his hand, but he is now also recording an awareness in terms of the invariants he has picked up. He delineates for himself and others something he has apprehended or experienced. The traces he leaves on the paper are not just lines, or the outlines of forms, but the distinguishing features of the environment. While drawing, he may be looking at something real, or thinking about something real, or thinking about something wholly imaginary; in any case, the invariants of his visual system are resonating. The same is true of the artist as of the child. The invariants are not abstractions or concepts. They are not knowledge; they are simply invariants…

Drawing is never copying. It is impossible to copy a piece of the environment. Only another drawing can be copied. We have been misled for too long by the fallacy that a picture is similar to what it depicts, a likeness, or an imitation of it. A picture supplies some of the information for what it depicts, but that does not imply that it is in projective correspondence with what it depicts.

*  *  *

If this new theory is correct, the term representation is misleading. There is no such thing as a literal re-presentation of an earlier optic array. The scene cannot be reestablished; the array cannot be reconstituted. Some of its invariants can be preserved, but that is all…

The efforts made by philosophers and psychologists to clarify what is meant by a representation have failed, it seems to me, because the concept is wrong. A picture is not an imitation of past seeing. It is not a substitute for going back and looking again. What it records, registers, or consolidates is information, not sense data.

*  *  *

A picture is not like perceiving. Nevertheless, a picture is somehow more like perceiving an object, place, or person than is a verbal description… The picture is both a scene and a surface, and the scene is paradoxically behind the surface. This duality of the information is the reason the observer is never quite sure how to answer the question, “What do you see?” For he can perfectly well answer that he sees a wall or a piece of paper. It is this duality in the optic array from a picture that makes the drawing a bad way to begin the study of perception…

A picture is both a surface in its own right and a display of information about something else. The viewer cannot help but see both, yet this is a paradox, for the two kinds of awareness are discrepant. We distinguish between the surface of the picture and the surfaces in the picture. In such paintings as those of the impressionists, we can see the difference between the illumination of the picture and the illumination in the picture. The two sets of surfaces are not comparable, and the two kinds of illumination are not commensurable…

*  *  *

Psychologists have long been showing inkblots to their subjects and asking what they saw. A set of such random blobs on cards devised by Hermann Rorschach has now been standardized and is in use by clinical psychologists. Faced with a card, a sensible patient might very well say simply that she saw a blot, but she seldom does. She attends to the nameless squiggles, contours, textures, and colors and says, “A bleeding heart” or “A pair of dancing bears,” allowing the psychologist to diagnose her fantasy life. I have argued that a Rorschach blot is a picture of sorts containing information not only for bleeding hearts and dancing bears but for dozens of other events. It is different from a regular picture in that the invariants are all mixed up together and are mutually discrepant instead of being mutually consistent or redundant. It is rather like a mass of scribbles for a child in this respect.

The old mentalistic explanation of perceiving objects in clouds and inkblots, incidentally, is projection, the projecting outward of fantasy images from the unconscious mind as if by a mental magic lantern. Hence, the Rorschach is called a “projective” test. This is mischievous nonsense. But the dogma of two different contributions to perception, one objective and one subjective, one coming from the world and the other coming from the mind, is so strong that the notion of a picture being thrown outward to mix with a picture being thrown inward is widely believed.

What are we to call the tree in the photograph, or the bleeding heart in the inkblot? Neither is an object in my terminology. I am tempted to call them virtual objects. They are not perceived, and yet they are perceived. The duality of the information in the array is what causes the dual experience… I conclude that a picture always requires two kinds of apprehension that go on at the same time, one direct and the other indirect. There is a direct perceiving of the picture surface, along with an indirect awareness of virtual surface — a perceiving, knowing, or imagining, as the case may be.

*  *  *

The invariants display a world with nobody in it, and the perspective displays where the observer is in that world… What is induced in these pictures is not an illusion of reality but an awareness of being in the world. This is no illusion. It is a legitimate goal of depiction, if not the only one…

Visual scientists with all their theorizing know little about the actual art of painting. A fine art should not be subject to rules and regulations. This is the attitude of many modern painters and most schools of art. The theory that artificial perspective is no more than a convention of Western art is a way of justifying this attitude. E. Panovsky (1924-1925) asserted that perspective is “symbolic.” G. Kepes (1944) has written about the “language” of vision. R. Arnheim (1954) believes that we will learn to see what is represented by abstract painters even if we now cannot. And N. Goodman (1968) in Languages of Art assumes that depiction is fundamentally description, that we learn to read a picture as we learn a language, and that linear perspective could just as well be reversed from the way we have become accustomed to interpret it.

Now it is one thing to argue that the use of perspective is not necessary for a painting, but it is quite another to say that perspective is a language. That says that both the perspective and the invariants of a picture must be analogous to words and that, just as we can learn a new vocabulary, so we can learn a new mode of perception. If a language of words can be invented such as Esperanto, why not a language of art? But the essence of a picture is just that its information is not explicit. The invariants cannot be put into words and symbols. The depiction captures an awareness without describing it. The record has not been forced into predications and propositions. There is no way of describing the awareness of being  in the environment at a certain place. Novelists attempt it, of course, but they cannot put you in the picture in anything like the way the painter can.

*  *  *

It has been generally believed that even adults can become conscious of their visual sensations if they try. You have to take an introspective attitude, or analyze your experience into its elements, or pay attention to the data of your perception, or stare at something persistently until the meaning fades away. I once believed it myself. I suggested that the “visual field” could be attended to, as distinguished from the “visual world,” and that it was almost a flat patchwork of colors, like a painting on a plane surface facing the eye. The awareness of depth in the scene could not be wholly eliminated, I thought, but it could be reduced. The similarity to a painting could be enhanced by not rotating the head and not displacing it, by closing one eye, and by avoiding any scene with motion. I recognized even then that the normal field of view of an ocular orbit is continually changing and that an arrested pattern is exceptional.

My comparison of the visual field to a perspective painting, although guarded, now seems to me a serious mistake. No one ever saw the world as a flat patchwork of colors — no infant, no cataract patient, and not even Bishop Berkeley or Baron von Helmholtz, who believed firmly that the cues for depth were learned. The notion of a patchwork of colors comes from the art of painting, not from any unbiased description of visual experience. What one becomes aware of by holding still, closing one eye, and observing a frozen scene are not visual sensations but only the surfaces of the world that are viewed now from here. They are not flat or depthless but simply unhidden. One’s attention is called to the fact of occlusion, not to the pseudofact of the third dimension. I notice the surfaces that face me, and what I face, and thus where I am. The attitude might be called introspective or subjective, but it is actually a reciprocal, two-way attitude, not a looking inward…

The young child learning to draw has long interested both psychologists and artists. When he first draws a man or a truck or a table, I suggest, he depicts the invariants that he has learned to notice. He does not draw a patchwork perspective, for he never had the experience of a patchwork. He may not yet draw in edge perspective because he has not noticed it. Hence, he may draw a table with a rectangular top and four legs at the corners because those are the invariant features of the table he has noticed. This is a better explanation than saying he draws what he knows about the table, his concept, instead of what he sees of the table, his sensation.

17 November 2012

Is US Public Support for Palestine Underestimated?

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:26 am

My cardboard GET OUT sign is still in the garage, where I left it after the last local protest against the Israeli blockade of Gaza fizzled out in the summer of 2009. Every February Gallup conducts a survey of American opinions regarding the conflict. In 2012 Israel beat Palestine by a score of 61% to 19%, a margin that’s held consistent over at least the last ten years. But there is evidence to suggest that US public support for Palestine might be under-reported in the surveys.

In my last post (and in my comments to myself on that post) I looked at US public opinions about the Vietnam war. According to surveys public support dropped in half over a 3½-year interval, from 61% in 3/66 to 32% in 10/69. After analyzing the survey data in greater detail, political scientist Adam Berinsky concluded that the early pro-war results were systematically overestimated:

“In the early years of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, individuals who on balance held considerations that conformed to pro-war rhetoric would be more likely to be heard in opinion polls. Conversely, respondents who possessed considerations that did not fit with the dominant pro-war message should have been under-represented in aggregate public opinion. To use the language introduced above, in the first portion of the war, public opinion should have suffered from a pro-war exclusion bias. That is, on balance, anti-war sentiment would have been excluded from aggregate opinion.1 Over the course of the war, as the balance of the volume and salience of elite rhetoric changed and both pro-war and anti-war views were represented in public discourse, the size of exclusion bias should have reduced and eventually disappeared.” (Berinsky, pp. 12-13)

Berinsky found that respondents who claimed to be more knowledgeable about the war were more likely to express an opinion. Much of their information was derived not from fact-checking but from “elite rhetoric” provided in the media by politicians and professional commentators. Before 1968 most of the elite rhetoric was pro-war. Those who opposed the war but who felt uninformed were reluctant to express an opinion that didn’t jibe with either the rhetoric they heard or the majority view, which until 1968 was supportive of the war. In consequence,  the “true sentiment towards American policy in Vietnam was, in fact, more anti-interventionist than opinion polls indicated” (p. 14).

1968 was a pivotal year. By the beginning of 1968 less than half of survey respondents supported the war. In February 1968 the Tet Offensive tilted elite rhetoric in a markedly antiwar direction. This rhetorical shift became stronger with the subsequent assassinations of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. As a consequence the antiwar “exclusion bias” largely disappeared from survey results: even antiwar respondents who acknowledged not being particularly well-informed became more likely to state their opinion that the war was a mistake.

Is “exclusion bias” underestimating American pro-Palestinian sentiment? Probably. Is anything likely to neutralize the bias anytime soon? Probably not.

Surely there is an imbalance of elite rhetoric about the Palestine-Israel conflict, with Democrats and Republicans alike seeming to show no restraint in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from Palestinian aggression. Those who express an opinion support Israel 3 to 1, so only people who regard themselves as well-informed are likely to express a contrary opinion, even in an anonymous survey. Over the past ten years the percentage of undecideds in the annual Gallup survey has declined from 29% to 19%, most of them shifting into the pro-Israeli column. Israel’s successful pounding of targets in Gaza isn’t likely to shift support toward the Palestinians. After all, US public support for the Vietnam War dropped not because so many Vietnamese were being killed but because it was becoming clear that America was losing the war. Israel is regarded, and with strong justification, as a firm ally of the US government, whereas Hamas, the governing party of Gaza, is officially condemned as a terrorist organization by the US government.

In short, it’s hard to see what could shift the strong pro-Israeli support among the American public. When Gallup trots out the annual survey in February 2013, the results are likely to stay the same as they have for the past ten years: 3 to 1 in favor of Israel.

11 November 2012

Reducing the Intentionality Problem

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:26 pm

How can intentionality exist in an unintentional universe? And if intentionality exists, how can it be explained scientifically? Scientific investigation looks for causes, and causes precede effects. When I do something with intent, the cause of my behavior is in the possible future rather than in the actual past. Arguably intentionality evades what counts as an acceptable scientific explanation. It would seem either that intentionality is ineffable and transcendent, or it should be eliminated as a self-delusional false explanation of how brains work. The only way out, it would seem, is for science to expand beyond backward-looking causality into teleological explanations.

I think this is a bigger problem for philosophers than for scientists.

It’s possible to speculate on evolutionary causes for intentionality. Hard-wired instincts are of only limited value in a variable and changing environment, so being able to craft intentional schemes for finding food, for wooing sexual partners, for protecting oneself and one’s people, etc. offers survival value to the organism. Random mutations that incrementally increase intentional capabilities would thus be naturally selected.

But what about the individual intentional act? I go to the candy drawer in order to get a snack. Why is this a problem? There is a cause preceding my intent: hunger, or the desire for the taste of chocolate. I already know from experience where the chocolate is most likely to be found: that expectation too is caused by past events. I don’t see the paradox.

Humans don’t have direct perception of the present; rather, we use sensory input to construct neural representations of our environment. We don’t have direct perception of the past; rather, we retrieve neural representations of specific past events. We don’t have direct perception of the future; rather, we neurally represent possible future states and situations. Intentionality can operate by constructing a neural representation of a desired specific future state — eating one of those little Snickers bars left over from Halloween — and constructing a behavioral routine that is likely to transform this desired future into an actual present state.

Some fMRI studies intriguingly suggest that the brain unconsciously activates a neural cascade that precedes, and perhaps causes, conscious intent. Is it possible that conscious intent is merely a recognition after the fact of what the brain has already done? The experimental task — intending to push a button — is as simple and unitary as possible. But much intentional behavior is more complex: making airplane reservations to visit your family, deciding where to go to college, preparing a 3-course meal, writing a blog post. For decades psychologists have studied intentional behaviors without recourse to neural imaging or brain probes. The intentional tasks are broken down into components, the requisite skills for performing them are evaluated, the developmental pathway by which children acquire the necessary competencies are systematically studied. Even if it turns out that intentionality cannot be reduced to brain activity, the performance of intentional acts can be subjected to the usual sorts of  scientific cause-effect sequences. If intentionality is transcendent and immaterial, it’s not monistic; it can be analyzed.

What about free will? Sure, most of our intentions are caused by motivations, but what about unmotivated intent? Sometimes we wonder why we do things we didn’t consciously intend, but we have come to accept that we may be moved by motivations of which we are not consciously aware. But that’s not free will; it’s almost the opposite, where our intent is controlled by appetite or fear or societal expectation. In order for an intention to count as free, it would have to be unmotivated by either conscious or unconscious causes within ourselves or our environment. Unmotivated intent would be hard to prove. Even if I managed to do it, I would be motivated by a desire to demonstrate my own freedom of choice — a desire that preceded and caused my intention and my action.

The big problem, or maybe The Big Problem, is to account for the causal forces shaping both conscious and unconscious intentions. Even single-celled organisms act in ways that increase their likelihood of surviving and reproducing — what Terrence Deacon calls “ententionality.” Inorganic self-organizing systems are very efficient heat pumps: once the energy gradient between system and environment is equalized, the system spontaneously disorganizes. Why and how, in a universe that’s winding down into inevitable heat death at both the macrolevel and the microlevel, did certain kinds of systems evolve that ententionally preserve rather than dissipate the energy gradient between themselves and their environments?

4 November 2012

Go Green!

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:16 am

In a recent blog post, Jennifer Stuart provided a link to this NYTimes article about the unconscious priming of conscious decisions. It’s been demonstrated experimentally, for example, that strangers who bump into you are more likely to judge you as a “cold” person, unsociable and selfish, if you’re holding an iced latte in your hand than if you’re holding a cup of hot coffee. The author of the article explains:

Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have. More fundamentally, the new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known.

Here’s a possible example of unconscious priming that I experienced yesterday. I graduated from Michigan State University, and while I never thought much of the school and didn’t really enjoy my time there, for some reason I have continued to follow its basketball and football teams. Yesterday the MSU Spartans were playing the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers in a televised football game. Michigan State, underperforming all season, was hanging onto a precarious lead against the nationally-ranked Nebraska team. As the clock ticked down toward the end of the fourth quarter I heard a knock. You can imagine my irritation when, upon opening the door, I saw two strangers holding clipboards standing there. As I think back on it now, I don’t recall either of them holding any sort of beverage. “I’m watching the game,” I volunteered in order to ward off whatever spiel they intended to sling at me. “Sorry,” one of them said; “are you voting for Obama?” Canvassers. “No,” I replied; I’m voting Green.” Smiling cordially, the two thanked me and walked away.

Now it’s true that I had been leaning toward the Green Party despite the fact that I can’t even remember the name of their presidential candidate. On the other hand, confronted with the dead certainty that the Green candidate will lose the election combined with the Democrats’ traditional lesser-of-two-evils argument, I’ve persistently thought that I ought to “make my vote count” by choosing Obama despite my disappointment with his right-leaning politics. Now, in revealing my decision to the Obama canvassers, I had revealed it also to myself: no to Obama, yes to Green.

But why had my decision suddenly crystallized? I was irritated by the interruption in my game-watching: was I venting my irritation on the interrupters’ candidate? And Green: might my statement of support have been primed by the fact that the MIchigan State football team’s colors are green and white? “Go Green! Go White!” That’s the traditional cheer that erupts periodically from the crowded Spartan Stadium, a cheer that I’d no doubt heard several times while watching the game.

I closed the door on the two canvassers and resumed my spot in front of the TV. MSU would go on to lose the football game when Nebraska scored a touchdown with 6 seconds remaining. Will my irritation with the green team now override my irritation with the canvassers, resulting in my switching back to Obama before I step into the voting booth on Tuesday? Or will my unconscious now infiltrate me with dissonance-reduction and effort-justification tactics for reinforcing, with logic cold as iced latte and passion steamy as hot coffee, my conscious public commitment to the Green Party? The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.

29 October 2012

The Big Five

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:19 pm

Who are you? Here’s a quick-and-dirty “Big Five” personality inventory that will answer your question:

Big Five Personality Test

Though I’ve not read the primary sources, it’s my understanding that the Five Factor Model has received stronger empirical support than alternative formulations. The Big Five are conveniently summarized as the acronym OCEAN:

Last week when I completed the questionnaire I discovered that I’m extremely open and extremely disagreeable. I disagree with that assessment, but I’ll keep an open mind about it.

[Cartoon cribbed from the Beings Akin blog, Definitions page.]

26 October 2012


Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:15 pm

Demonstration of Manhattan CrawlSpace [An Aid Toward Developing One’s Own Subjective CrawlSpace]

This is Chapter One, Book I of Patrick Mullins’ Illegal Dances of New York City. For me the word “crawlspace” is always occupied by John Wayne Gacy, who must be evicted before anything else can open up. A resident of my home town, the Killer Clown disposed of the bodies of more than two dozen of his young male victims in the crawlspace under his house. A parody tribute to Gacy made the airwaves back then, sung to the Pink Floyd tune: “All in all it’s just a-nother kid in the crawl.” But then there’s the persistent and repeated tendency of my fictional characters to head underground, to excavate, to dig tunnels and trenches, to look for some way out… maybe they could use some tips, some inspiration.

The CrawlSpace search is all about anger not knowing where it’s supposed to go. Even when CrawlSpace is found, some more is needed, and felt to be so immediately. It is hidden but not static, which is why it’s so addictive once you’ve had a taste of it. You also really do need it, because new threats to it are developed daily.

Well yes, a safe place to discharge one’s anger would be a valuable resource. Rage depositories are under constant threat, says Patrick — I think this is largely because there are other non-angry people who occupy these places, and so the anger tends to flow toward them. Most people don’t like being the lightning rod for anger discharge, and so they leave. And then where does the anger go? Onto oneself? Fuck that.

9/11 — Patrick saw it unfold. Some claim that the televised images were a kind of violence porn, a spectacular CrawlSpace release valve for the pent-up anger of a whole nation, as if the disaster had been staged for that very purpose. But, Patrick insists, you really had to be there:

Seeing the real physical form of this image was a real escape, despite the pain and subsequent paralyzing trauma such horror caused, into safe CrawlSpace past the television and computer — because even the real form of this image was both dependent and independent of the Era of Media Spectacle.

So what aid for carving out CrawlSpace is being extended here? Ambulance-chasing? Staged Ballardian car crashes? Or can one only hope to take subjective advantage of disasters when they happen to occur?

Patrick laments the disappearance of cabaret in NYC. I’d not thought of cabaret as a place where anger is supposed to go, but I could be wrong. Maybe there’s an aggression to the live performance that I’m not crediting — certainly that was true of the old rock clubs. Maybe cabaret is precisely the sort of demimonde onto which a CrawlSpace enters after the anger is discharged.

You can get CrawlSpace from watching The Sopranos. The characters always need it, and they, like Bill Clinton, show you how to get it by lying. If that is the only way to get it, by all means lie. ‘We’re talkin’ survival,’ as the low-brows say, or the even more horrid ‘you gotta do whatcha gotta do.’

Do TV shows affect behavior? Only if you let them, if you treat them as instructional videos. But back to lying — I’m not sure if the lie is itself a place for anger to go, or if it’s the structure one erects over the CrawlSpace, disguising it and keeping it out of sight like those brownstone facades hiding the emergency stairways and air vents in the NYC subway system. Climb down the lie into the anger; climb up from the anger into the lie.

CrawlSpace was found by employing the drug-dealer and addict W., with whom he was living at the time…

The important lesson here isn’t the drugs or the living arrangement, although being able to exert influence over another for one’s own purposes is kind of like having unpaid CrawlSpace excavation laborers. In this story W. serves as a kind of henchman, arranging at Patrick’s behest a subtly orchestrated disruption of an irritatingly commercial performance event in which he was the featured performer. Got it.

That is enough Global CrawlSpace Manhattan for now. Examples Dept., that is.

Evidently it wasn’t enough.

CrawlSpace by appropriating a gift sent to one in hatred. Instead of sending it back, the point is to realize it has impersonal real value like money and so one should go ahead and steal it by just keeping it and making no reciprocal gesture.

An example in the breach: the divorcee who refuses the cheating spouse’s alimony payments, which would have provided the added bonus of revenge in addition to the money.

Havaiti as CrawlSpace. It’s nice when the CrawlSpace occasionally intersects with the lavish.

Polynesia — isn’t this more an escape from the anger-producing aspects of life, a place for the anger to dissipate rather than a place to express it? But then again I’ve never been there.

Central Park CrawlSpace… Central Park has a remarkably tainted quality throughout, produced in large part by human and canine urination done at random… There are dark colours in the Park that have been building up their malignancy over many years… those who row in the green-scum ponds, near reeds where horrible rats dwell.

What value has this taintedness in the context of anger depositories? I have been there, though not recently, and I was aware of the taint. Probably I was too much of a tourist to get it, or not sufficiently attuned to the Park’s juxtaposed illegal hustling which leads to the occasional arrest. So too must the juxtaposition infuse the Painted CrawlSpace — a giant hydrangea, modeled on a real one in NYC, painted after a fight.

Sex becomes more prominent, and loses all of its guilt associations in a way you never thought possible. There are moments of giddiness when fucking loses all trace of guilt and regains all its inimitable charisma.

Did Patrick know this painter; was he the one with whom the painter fought, the inspiration for gaudy artifice? Yes, clearly so, eventually. Like Polynesia, is guiltless sex an escape from anger or a place to put it?

In 2006, he felt as if he’d escaped from the elevator car in the World Trade Center on 9/11 into CrawlSpace that was the still open space of lobby of the North Tower and was lying on his back, all primitive bulges, another of those raging bulls — those entities that ‘tell the truth’ and are richly praised for it after they’ve been fully dispensed with, punished politely. In such cases, all efforts have to be made toward avoiding martyrdom, because this is a society favourite and does not actually bring forth guilt, but assuages it, according to degree of shallowness.

Too much context to summarize, but we do have a thematic convergence here, bringing Chapter One full circle.

13 October 2012

Putting Sleepiness in the Air

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:57 pm

An exceptionally perspicacious therapist with whom I have worked for several years once told me that her first analysis, which lasted 3 years, came to grief when her analyst appealed to projective identification to explain the fact that he fell asleep during one of her sessions with him. Shortly before the session, her brother had begged her to commit suicide with him and she was, as she put it, in a state of crisis, blubbering, and not at her most articulate. In the midst of this, she noticed that her analyst seemed to be asleep but figured he might just be looking down at his notes. When his head slumped over to the side and he awoke with a jolt and a loud snore, there was no longer any doubt in her mind that he had dozed off. He tried to act as if nothing had happened and asked her what she was thinking,. “That you’re tired?” she offered, mortified and shocked. He admitted that he was tired but proffered, “You are putting sleepiness in the air.” He explained that she had unconsciously wanted him to abandon her and had thus made it happen.

The fact that this explanation did not at all tally with her own experience of the session and of the analysis did not lead her to break off the analysis immediately — she wondered about her own unconscious intentions and tried to explore them in future sessions. But whenever she brought them up, her analyst changed the subject and seemed unwilling to work through the incident. It was this, combined with some erratic countertransference reactions on his part involving him missing sessions, that led her to leave the analysis and find someone else to work with. Had he simply acknowledged his own tiredness or sleep deprivation, apologized for nodding off, and perhaps even rescheduled the session, none of that probably would have happened. It seems that it was the very existence of a theoretical concept like projective identification in his bag of psychoanalytic tricks that allowed him to deny his responsibility for falling asleep and to attribute the “sleepiness making” to his analysand — more stubbornly than many would have, no doubt, but with the blessing of the likes of Bion who characterized one of his patients as speaking “in a drowsy manner calculated to put the analyst to sleep.”

Such moves on analysts’ parts incline analysands to believe that their doctors are nuttier than they themselves are and would do well to have their heads examined by other doctors who are not such fruitcakes.

– Bruce Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique, 2007

10 October 2012

Chalk Talk

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:49 am

Here’s a paragraph in Bruce Fink’s book on psychoanalytic technique that I read on the plane yesterday. In his chapter on interpreting, Fink recounts an episode from his practice — an episode with which some of us in the blog world are familiar as recounted by the analysand.

One of my analysands told me that he had noticed he was no longer putting so much pressure on his chalk when writing on the blackboard that it would break, which he had been wont to do for some time when standing in front of his class (much to his embarrassment). This change apparently occurred after I had rearranged a few of his words, saying something like “pressure at the board” (referring to pressure he had felt as a child when called on by teachers to perform at the blackboard, and to pressure he was putting on himself to fail for a whole variety of reasons). He had not given my phrase any thought at the time but realized a couple of weeks later that he was no longer breaking chalk, even though he was not making any special effort to ease up and did not know why he had stopped. Although this is just a micro-symptom, it points to the fact that the analysand need not even become conscious of what had been unconscious for a symptom to disappear, as long as enough of it is verbalized by the analyst, the analysand, or the two together building on each other’s words. It also points to the fact that the analyst need not know that what she has said has had an effect — I would not have known if the analysand himself had not told me a few weeks later.

The analyst’s implicit interpretation — that the analysand was feeling too much pressure, putting too much pressure on himself — seems pretty straightforward. As I recall, though I’d have to check the original source to be sure, the analysand’s self-interpretation was much more convoluted than this. Presumably he arrived at his own understanding only after his behavior had already changed and he’d stopped breaking chalk.

7 October 2012

Against Empathy

Filed under: First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:03 am

The psychoanalyst’s first task is to listen and to listen carefully. Although this has been emphasized by many authors, there are surprisingly few good listeners in the psychotherapeutic world. Why is that? …When someone tells us a story, we think of similar stories (or more extreme stories) we ourselves could tell in turn. We start thinking about things that have happened to us that allow us to “relate to” the other person’s experience, to “know” what it must have been like, or at least to imagine how we ourselves would have felt had we been in the other person’s shoes.

In other words, our usual way of listening is centered to a great degree on ourselves — our own similar life experiences, our own similar feelings, our own perspectives. When we can locate experiences, feelings, and perspectives of our own that resemble the other person’s, we believe that we “relate to” that person. We say things like “I know what you mean,” Yeah,” “I hear you,” “I feel for you,” or “I feel your pain” (perhaps less often “I feel your joy”). As such moments, we feel sympathy, empathy, or pity for this other who seems like us; “That must have been painful (or wonderful) for you,” we say, imagining the pain (or joy) we ourselves would have experienced in such a situation.

When we are unable to locate experiences, feelings, or perspectives that resemble the other person’s, we have the sense that we do not understand that person — indeed, we may find the person strange, if not obtuse or irrational. When someone does not operate in the same way that we do or does not react to situations as we do, we are often baffled, incredulous, or even dumbfounded. We are inclined, in the latter situation, to try to correct the other’s perspectives, to persuade him to see things the way we see them and to feel what we ourselves would feel were we in such a predicament. In more extreme cases, we simply become judgmental. How could anyone, we ask ourselves, believe such a thing or act or feel that way?

Most simply stated, our usual way of listening overlooks or rejects the otherness of the other. We rarely listen to what makes a story as told by another person unique, specific to that person alone; we quickly assimilate it to other stories that we have heard others tell about themselves, or that we could tell about ourselves, overlooking the differences between the story being told and the ones with which we are already familiar. We rush to gloss over the differences and make the stories similar if not identical. In our haste to identify with the other, to have something in common with him, we forcibly equate stories that are often incommensurate, reducing what we are hearing to what we already know. What we find most difficult to hear is what is utterly new and different: thoughts, experiences, and emotions that are quite foreign to our own and even to any we have thus far learned about.

It is often believed that we human beings share many of the same feelings and reactions to the world, which is what allows us to more or less understand each other and constitutes the foundation of our shared humanity… I would propose that the more closely we consider any two people’s thoughts and feelings in a particular situation, the more we are forced to realize that there are greater differences than similarities between them — we are far more different than we tend to think!…

In effect, we can understand precious little of someone’s experience by relating it or assimilating it to our own experience. We may be inclined to think that we can overcome this problem by acquiring much more extensive experience of life… We ourselves may fall into the trap of thinking that we simply need to broaden our horizons, travel far and wide, and learn about other peoples, languages, religions, classes, and cultures in order to better understand a wider variety of analysands. However, if acquiring a fuller knowledge of the world is in fact helpful, it is probably not so much because we have come to understand “how the other half lives” or how other people truly operate, but because we have stopped comparing everyone with ourselves to the same degree…

If our attempts to “understand” ineluctably lead us to reduce what another person is saying to what we think we already know (indeed, that could serve as a pretty fair definition of understanding in general), one of the first steps we must take is to stop trying to understand so quickly.

– Bruce Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach for Practitioners (2007), pages 1-4

1 October 2012

Partners My Ass

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:47 pm

If we take on the idea of mimesis as world-creating alongside its meaning as world-reflecting, our idea of what we do as readers and audience members can change. In this case, we don’t just respond to fiction (as might be implied by the idea of reader response), or receive it (as might be implied by reception studies), or appreciate it (as in art appreciation), or seek its correct interpretation (as seems sometimes to be suggested by the New Critics). We create our own version of the piece of fiction, our own dreams, our own enactment. We run a simulation on our own minds. As partners with the writer, we create a version based on our own experience of how the world appears on the surface and of how we might understand its deeper properties.

– Keith Oatley, Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction (2011), p. 18

See, this is what happens when you get too caught up in one particular psychological construct.

When I look around me, I’m looking at a 3-D simulation of the room generated by my brain. But it’s still a simulation of the room itself. That’s what the brain’s simulation-making perceptual apparatus is for: to generate a reliably accurate visual representation of what’s out there in the world.

When I try to understand someone else’s motivations in a particular circumstance, I might run a simulation of the other person so as to understand how I might respond if I were in his shoes, how I might feel, what I might think, what I might have in mind to do next, and so on. But my simulation of the other person is not the same as that person, nor do I become the other person by running a simulation of him. The simulation is a tool to help me understand the other person.

When I read a novel I run simulations. I can create a mental and emotional simulation of the fictional world in which the fictional characters are acting. But my simulation of that fictional world isn’t the same thing as the world as depicted in the novel; it’s a tool to help me understand that fictional world. In simulating the characters in the story, walking in their fictional shoes, I do it not in order to become the characters, but to understand them.

We create our own version of the piece of fiction… as partners with the writer

Don’t flatter yourself. If you read fiction, then be satisfied with understanding, responding, receiving, interpreting, and simulating it. If you want to create fiction, then write something.

12 September 2012

Reaching Across the Fictional Terrain

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:01 pm

As the time got into the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, everywhere, altogether new relationships between chords and paths were being fulfilled now, the analytic character of my note choices, as good notes for such chords, coming under consistently thoroughgoing reformulation as a handful choosing, the song as a progression of demarcated and harmonically conceived placements becoming a rather different formatting structure.

For now I would do jazz sayings that increasingly brought my full ‘vocabular’ resources, my full range of wayful reachings, into the service of that jazz on the records, into the hands’ ways of pace-ably traversing not from route to route, but doing singings. And the language of paths and path switchings, born of my instructed introduction to jazz music and deeply intrinsic to the nature of my selectional negotiations for so long, thoroughly situated in the image-guided traverse ways of my past, must be abandoned…

For there is no melody, there is melodying. And melodying practices are handful practices as soundfully aimed articulational reaching. There is no end to ways for characterizing the ‘structure of a melody,’ given the possibilities of terminological revision, theoretic reclassification and structural analysis. But the action essentially escapes descriptive attention. If it can be said that I ‘do repetitions,’ it must then be asked: how do jazz hands behave so as to produce ‘appearances’ for a material examination by all who talk about them.

I learned this language through five years of overhearing it spoken. I had come to learn, overhearing and overseeing this jazz as my instructable hands’ ways — in a terrain nexus of hands and keyboard whose respective surfaces had become known as the respective surfaces of my tongue and teeth and palate are known to each other — that this jazz music is ways of moving from place to place as singings with my fingers. To define jazz (as to define any phenomenon of human action) is to describe the body’s ways.

David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand: The Origanization of Improvised Conduct, 1978

In my doctoral thesis I explored the ways in which expert scientists differed from novices in scanning scientific journals. Second-year grad students were as good at extracting and evaluating the information about any given research study as were the tenured professors. Where the experts excelled was in linking a seemingly wide variety of studies’ theoretical constructs and findings to their own research programs.

I don’t have much sense of gradually achieving greater technical proficiency in the writing of fiction. As far as I’m concerned, the sentences and paragraphs I wrote last week aren’t any better than the ones I wrote shortly after I began writing fiction eleven years ago. Like Sudnow perhaps, I have become better at sustaining longer coherent riffs, at “storying” across broader swathes of terrain. For me it’s not a matter of writing several good paragraphs or pages in a single burst, like a jazz improvisation. It’s more the ability to see coherent patterns across varied surfaces, to grab “wayful reachings” spanning whole chapters, sections, books.

It’s like the difference between conducting one scientific study at a time versus pursuing a coherent research program across many studies. Each study still has to be done, from beginning to end, and done well. Together the studies circle around an assemblage of linked thematic and material concerns rather than pursuing headlong the Grand Theory with monomaniacal linearity. Sometimes the circle expands; sometimes it contracts into a pinpoint focus. Individually, few of the studies approach brilliance, and some are downright pedestrian. But they all contribute to the larger program. Together they are the program.

7 September 2012

Literature as Cognitive Pornography

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology — ktismatics @ 4:43 pm

Excerpted from Gregory Currie’s TLS commentary “Let’s pretend: Literature and the psychology lab”:

I do not say that the literary world is complacent about the mind. Literature loves the mysterious, the unexplained, the thought that there are deep facts not available to ordinary awareness. But it takes its lesson from the humanistic psychology we get from Freud, his rivals, successors, popularizers and distorters. That lesson has been read as an encouraging one. To understand the mind’s depth is hard and probably can’t be completed. But to make progress, we do not have to move far from literary modes of interrogation. Some myth-derived terminology, intense conversation, narrative construction: these are what we need, all amounting to a reassuringly qualitative approach. Above all, psychological depth is measured by increments of meaning: hidden motive and unconscious desire are the things we drill down into. And meaning is what literature thrives on…

One thing that psychological research these days does systematically is reduce the flow of meaning on which so much literature depends. Take that staple of literary psychology: character; character explanations are top predators in the hunt for meaning: show that someone’s action flows, not just from their wishes but from their character, and you have the best example there is, short of invoking the deity, of behaviour found to be meaningful. But a lot of evidence suggests that character plays a surprisingly insignificant role in human behaviour, which is highly sensitive to small, even trivial changes in circumstances. Certainly, our own ordinary treatment of the notion of character is close to paradoxical. We put down our own failings to circumstance, and those of others to bad character – an error as crazy as thinking that wherever I happen to be marks the centre of the universe…

Writers are rewarded in proportion to their success in capturing the bit of the market they target, and they do that by giving the people in that region what they want: thrills and the exercise of sentiment at the less demanding end, and an emotionally vivid sense of serious moral and psychological engagement at the other end (there’s a lot in between, of course). But satisfying either market (or some combination of or compromise between them) is not evidence that we have a serious claim to knowledge. Unless, that is, we have strong reason to think that readers’ emotional responses track the real causal relations between things. The evidence, however, is all against this idea. Emotions are good when it comes to forming and maintaining a relationship with your baby, but they are as easily triggered by sentimental ballads and horror movies. You might hope to find some special emotional reactions, highly sensitive to the truth about human psychology – let me know when you have found one.

[T]here is a reasonably well-evidenced relation between creativity and milder forms of schizotypy and bipolar disorder. The first of these is notable for a tendency to overinterpret the meaningfulness of things, as when a patient reads a veiled threat into a harmless conversational remark, while bipolar individuals cycle through periods of emotional distortion, alternating mania and depression. Dean Simonton, an expert on creativity, has suggested that people in the arts are more prone to such disorders than those in the sciences, and especially prone if they are operating at high levels of originality… Might great writers be better than average at using their imaginations? Perhaps they are better in some ways, sustaining imaginative activity more consistently and more productively. But it would be rash to think of them as resistant to the illusions that imagination creates for the rest of us…

Finally, note that creative writers often seem to be rather distanced from the reality of their subject – understanding between persons. “The creator rarely cares much for others” is the brutal summary of a survey in this area by Emma Policastro and Howard Gardner. It is striking that we tend to credit a certain group of individuals, prone, apparently, to over-interpreting the meaningfulness of things and to emotional disruption, with a deep insight into human nature and conduct, and are not discouraged by the fact that many of them seem to have little experience of or interest in the corresponding reality…

So here’s a suggestion about how to read the literary canon. Treat it as an exercise in pretence, accepting as a basic rule for the pretence the reliability of the point of view from which the work is given… The suggestion is that we give up the idea that what is going on in literature-land is true learning, and make do with the pleasures of pretended learning. Literature is starting to sound like cognitive pornography… At most, I am urging a clarification, a recognition that when we engage seriously with great literature we do not come away with more knowledge, better abilities, clarified emotions or deeper human sympathies. We do exercise capacities that let us explore a fascinating, demanding conception of what human beings are like – probably a wrong one.

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