Archive for January, 2010

Anti-violence post #1

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Some things in life are predictable: death, taxes, humorous non-sequitur third option. Others – like my update schedule – are less so. Sometimes you can see the car headlights moving inexorably towards you, and you try to get out of the way, only to realise the road has been covered with crazy glue, and your shoelaces have been tied together. Other times, they buy an electric car and switch off the headlights, and sneak up on you. Christ, I hate my neighbourhood.

Another thing that can be placed in the “predictable” category is the storyline of my comic. Well, large chunks of it, anyway – especially if you are already familiar with my political and social views and the way I like to express them in my work. I’m hoping to mix in a few surprises along the way, within that overall framework of inevitability, but I don’t think I’m really giving much away when I say that the main theme of the first half of the story will be the causes and consequences of violent behaviour. Since it’s a subject which will no doubt continually crop up as the story progresses, I’m going to jot down a few musings here, mostly to help keep my thoughts in order.

So, let’s start off with the basics. Violence is essentially a reaction against vulnerability, sought because it delivers feelings of safety and control – but ultimately, these feelings are just an illusion. You can see this across the board, from full scale warfare right down to one-on-one encounters. A telling example is the way governments use euphemisms like “security” to justify expanding their own power and hegemony, revealing that even large and powerful groups of people still function with the exact same deep-seated fear that drives all violent behaviour. Because what is security, exactly? The ability to gain so much control that you will never have to fear violent attack? Such a situation is patently impossible, yet it is the very thing that violence promises to deliver, and so people continue to fall for it. This psychology scales down with surprisingly little change, even to an individual level. The school bully, looking to control the other kids because he feels threatened by them. The guy who starts a bar fight with almost no provocation, because he is trying to compensate for feelings of powerlessness resulting from social isolation and emotional disconnection. The husband who has been taught all his life that emotions are effeminate and wrong, and thus ends up being so filled with fear when it comes to relationships that he tries to exert control by beating his wife. In fact, sex itself is, for a number of different reasons, one of the most vulnerable experiences in life, which is why some people will turn to violent behaviour to try and deal with it, either in reality or fantasy (the psychology is basically the same either way, despite how illogical and contradictory it seems from a more superficial perspective).

The consequences of violence are numerous and well-documented. History books are filled with innumerable accounts of lives that have been ruined through senseless and careless acts, and the media takes a certain macabre delight in delivering fresh tales of similar woe each day. It’s not exactly difficult to see that violence causes far more problems than it will ever solve. So why, then, do people keep returning to it? Why are they so unendingly inured to the obvious outcomes? There are numerous factors at play, but in the end, it all comes down to perception versus reality. The real problem here is that even though violence only delivers the illusion of safety and control, this illusion is the result of the brain equating mastery of its immediate surroundings with a more general and wide-reaching feeling of empowerment. It still feels very real, in the mind of the person committing these acts. And its absence is very noticeable. This is why violent behaviours, once learned, are amongst the hardest to let go of.

Human behaviour is driven primarily by fear, so anything which creates a feeling of safety is naturally going to be very attractive. Violence, however, actually decreases safety whilst making the user feel safer. It’s like buying a gun for protection: you might feel safer with a gun at your side, but in reality, a society full of people carrying guns is far less safe than a weaponless one. It’s easy to see how this works with something like a gun, which so obviously changes the balance of power, but this same psychology extends to all violent behaviour, to varying degrees. Because the feeling of safety increases whilst actual safety decreases, the result is an unending behavioural loop, driven by fear, in search of something which by definition can never exist.

Even when you recognise this reality, finding a way out is still extremely hard. To revisit the gun analogy: a society full of people carrying guns might be dangerous, but a society where everyone except you is armed is even worse, from your own perspective at least. Trying to go against this system means putting yourself in an even more vulnerable position – which, when you’ve formed behaviours around compensating for vulnerability through violence, is not only a truly daunting task, but it seems quite illogical if not outright stupid (I mean, get rid of your gun, when everyone else still has theirs? That’s crazy, right?). Fear can build up to such a level that abandoning violence can become seemingly unthinkable; so instead you run in the other direction, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, despite knowing full well that you’re moving further and further away from the only path out of this mess.

I believe it can be done, however – so long as people are actually willing to make that choice. And the more people who do, the easier it becomes, because people naturally feel less vulnerable in groups than they do alone. More importantly, though, the need to move on from violence is becoming increasingly urgent, as an examination of human development will reveal.

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Positive Psychology

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

If you follow my twitter or liverjournal then you’ve probably seen me linking to videos from TED.com in the past. I love that site. It is basically an ideas forum, featuring short speeches by a variety of experts on diverse subjects relating to technology, entertainment and design (ie. T.E.D.). Some of the speakers are quite prominent (Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, etc) whilst others are simply there for being experts in their field, even if they aren’t celebrities. Because the speeches are generally short (usually around 18-20 minutes), I find it’s a convenient site to visit when you need to take a quick break from whatever you’re doing, or if you need something to do over lunch or whatever. Taking this approach, I’ve gradually worked my way through a large number of speeches, most of which have been really fascinating, and some of which have even been quite astounding (mushrooms! Who knew?!). There are inevitably a few weird and silly ones which really don’t seem to belong there, but for the most part, the quality has been high. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a long post linking to a whole bunch of my favourite talks, but for today, I’m just going to focus on one: Martin Seligman On Positive Psychology.

So, uh, it would probably help if you went and watched that now, but if you can’t be bothered or if you’d rather find time for it later or whatever, then here’s a quick summary: Seligman is a psychologist working on the idea of positive psychology, ie. studying what makes people happy, as opposed to the more traditional approach to psychology, studying what makes people unhappy. He briefly runs through some points on why this seemingly-minor switch in focus is actually quite important to psychology in general and has opened up new areas of understanding about what makes humans tick, but he also makes note of the advances made by the older model of psychology and why they are still important as well, even though they were only part of the larger picture which is beginning to unfold. He then explains that there seems to be different types of happiness, which can be approximated by three broad categories. The first and most obvious category is things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction, the second revolves around activities which you can lose yourself in and become completely immersed by, and the third relates to the desire for meaning and knowledge. This is the part that I found most interesting, and the reason why I decided to write this blog entry, because I can really relate to a few of the unexpected findings his studies have revealed.

Perhaps the least surprising of his findings is that the first category – things that provide an immediate pleasurable reaction – is the most superficial and short-term form of happiness. The example he provides is the experience of eating something which is delicious to start off with, but you’re sick of it by the time you’re done eating it. This is a very fleeting form of happiness, and interestingly, you can’t really stretch it out by continually moving from one pleasurable activity to the next – it is simply not enough to provide real and long-term satisfaction. This is probably a conclusion that most people eventually reach on their own anyway, even if they don’t give it much conscious thought. People tend to naturally gravitate towards certain things which provide a deeper and more fulfilling sense of happiness, and gradually leave behind more superficial pursuits. Or else they don’t, and can’t figure out why they are unhappy.

The second category is kind of a subtle one. Again, it’s not something that usually receives much conscious thought, but I can certainly relate to the idea of losing yourself in an activity and feeling better afterwards. For me, I can most easily accomplish this through playing videogames, especially a platforming game like Mario, which doesn’t require too much planning and forethought, and instead revolves around simply being in the moment. But I can also reach a similar state of flow through writing, and occasionally, when I am drawing, though I’m still not very good at that one. There have, however, been times in the past when I’ve spent several hours in Photoshop bringing some silly comic to life, and then I look back at the time that has passed and wonder how the heck that happened. It’s easy to understand why people would seek out activities which provide that feeling of accomplishment, even if it’s not always easily obtained.

The third category, though, is the one that really caught my attention. There is a definite sense of satisfaction and contentment that comes from having an understanding of how the world works, and from searching for the meaning behind what you see around you. The important thing to remember, though, is that this feeling is subjective, and entirely separate from reality – ie. it doesn’t matter if your explanations are objectively correct, it only matters that you can convince yourself that they are accurate. And because your head only contains a finite amount of knowledge, it is often very easy to convince yourself to believe in the accuracy of your own thoughts. I think a good illustration of this is religion. As an atheist, you will often find me arguing that religion is illogical, but from a certain point of view, that isn’t really accurate – all religions contain their own internal logic, and that is what makes them so appealing. They offer answers to just about any question you can think of, so if you accept that internal logic, you are essentially given a complete worldview, which is a very basic human desire. I think this stems from the fact that our brains evolved to understand the real world, and it wasn’t until they had grown much more powerful that we started turning our thoughts towards abstract concepts. Hence, we had no mechanisms for discerning objective truth, because until then, everything had been literal and there in front of us. Additionally, because we lacked a true understanding of the world anyway, we really relied on illusions for much of our development, until we could finally advance far enough to supplant these illusions with the real answers. Modern scientific progress is largely just a process of stripping those illusions away, one by one, so that hopefully we can make some progress towards a more accurate understanding of the universe.

So uh basically, the problem is not that religion is illogical, but that in order to accept the logic it offers, you need to ignore reality, which inevitably contradicts it.

But I’m digressing from my original point here. Regardless how and why this desire for understanding developed, it’s safe to say it definitely exists. We have an undeniable curiosity, and a need to at least feel like we understand things, even if we are merely operating under illusions because we’ve reached the limits of our comprehension. This desire to learn is what makes us so intelligent, but also what leads us into logical traps that provide that contented feeling, despite being built around inaccurate logic. In many ways, the goal of a skeptic is to avoid that feeling of contentment, because there are still so many things that we don’t know, so however much we feel like we understand the world, the only thing we can really know for sure is that we are still held under the thumb of illusions that we don’t even know are there. That, I think, is the real strength of a skeptical worldview: not that it explains everything, but that it reminds you that you can’t explain everything. In spite of our awesomely powerful ability to rationalize abstract concepts, we are not truly rational beings, and our preconceptions can’t be trusted.

Interestingly, there could well be a fine line between this type of happiness, and depression. According to one possible explanation, depression is the result of a breakdown of that feeling of understanding, so that the world doesn’t quite make sense anymore. It stems from encountering a problem or problems which can’t be easily solved, thus sending the mind off in all different directions in an effort to find that elusive explanation, so that a more stable worldview can be reestablished (hence, depression of varying levels being common amongst teenagers, as their childish illusions crash headlong into the real world). This often happens on a much deeper level than we are consciously aware of, which is why it can be difficult for depressed people to really articulate what the problem is, even though they are acutely aware of it. This makes illusions such as religion even more attractive, because without that feeling of understanding, we are lost and confused. So an explanation, even if it is merely an illusion, becomes a much more agreeable alternative… until that illusion becomes the source of the next problem, of course.

The main reason I brought up this possible link with depression is because even though the pursuit of knowledge can be a deeply satisfying form of happiness, it doesn’t necessarily result in the smiley-cheerful kind of happiness. As I said, the line between happiness and depression in this sense seems quite fine, and is largely dependent on whether your search for knowledge is yielding any results. Staring down the barrel of a particularly large problem can be quite daunting and frustrating, blurring this line even further. But just because the outward indicators of happiness are absent, doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is unhappy. Personally, I am often told that I need to smile more, or receive enquiries as to why I am not all happy and cheerful. Often these comments are motivated by genuine concern, of course, but it can still be kind of annoying, because I actually find it far more satisfying to search for knowledge than to content myself with illusion, even if the result is that I’m sometimes too distracted to be appropriately, superficially happy. And certainly, I don’t want to discourage people from speaking up if they think someone really is depressed, because sometimes it can be vitally important to intervene when a person’s problems are getting the best of them, but just keep in mind that there are other forms of happiness aside from the more obvious and friendly kinds.

So anyway, how do you build up a stable worldview, as free from illusion as possible, when there are still so many things that we don’t know yet? You need to recognise what beliefs actually are. Despite the significance that religious folk place on their faith, the fact is, the brain processes thought and belief in the exact same way. Beliefs are merely thoughts that we hold to be unquestionably true, so much so that we don’t even really reflect on them. Which, again, makes sense in the context of brains that evolved to deal with real-world problems – once you’ve established that your prey behaves in a certain way or that certain weather cues indicate an approaching storm or a variety of other things, then it is helpful to have a method of mental categorisation that allows you to recall these tried-and-true facts immediately. So we build up webs of belief, interconnected thoughts which operate as a filter for new information, allowing us to immediately recognise familiar patterns and to interpret new patterns to the best of our existing knowledge. But when beliefs are built up around illusions, it distorts the way we view the world. An easy example is stereotypes, which cause us to place greater significance on behaviour which lines up with the prescribed stereotype, even if it is not actually typical or significant at all. Once illusions have distorted our worldview, they pave the way for further illusions, burying us under the weight of false belief.

The answer, then, is to ensure that no beliefs are held to be unquestionable. And instead of desperately clinging to our existing beliefs, we need the courage to let go of them, and search for the truth, as best we can determine it. Which, in the short term, may mean letting go of that feeling of contentment that comes from having a working understanding of the universe. Illusions, ultimately, are just another form of fleeting happiness, which cannot be sustained. And if I’m really honest, I think the ability to be consistently, superficially happy in such a flawed world as ours is something of a delusion anyway. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s worth pursuing, or anything like that. I just think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture when trying to carve out our own little place in the world.

And you’d be surprised at how much happier you feel when you let go of your illusions, and make peace with your incomplete understanding of the universe, safe in the knowledge that there are still so many things left to learn – for an animal with a natural sense of curiosity, that is perhaps the most exciting prospect of all.