”HE was a scientist, but he was acting strangely,” said Dr. Stuart Yudofsky, a psychiatrist who consulted on the man’s case. ”At work, when something didn’t go right, he would scream and threaten his co-workers. At home, if his 4-year-old spilled some food at the table, he’d get so mad at her, he’d punch holes in the walls with his fist. It was completely out of character.” For several years the scientist was treated by a series of psychotherapists, who urged him to examine his childhood for deep-seated conflicts that might explain his rages. Then a psychiatrist prescribed a sedative. Nothing helped.
Finally the scientist was referred to a neurologist, who traced the beginning of the violent outbursts to an auto accident in which the scientist had received a severe head injury. When the scientist was treated with propanolol, a medication used to control blood pressure, his rages stopped.
The scientist’s case exemplifies a new advance in understanding explosive anger: that the most common cause is brain injury or neurological disease, and that there are now medications that can control it far more effectively than can the approaches most commonly used by psychiatrists.
But researchers say that despite the advance in understanding the causes of violent rage, too little attention is being paid to people who suffer from such attacks, and that as a result they receive inadequate care.
”The brain basis for violent rage often goes unrecognized, and a great many patients with the problem are being given improper care,” said Dr. Yudofsy, chairman of the department of psychiatry at the University of Chicago Medical School. ”This has been a huge unsolved problem for psychiatry.”
The rage resulting from neurological impairment is distinct from ordinary anger. It is a sudden and unpredictable storm of overwhelming fury that is triggered by a trivial event and that builds into an explosion in an instant. It serves no purpose for the person who is swept away and typically leaves remorse and embarrassment in its wake.
The work on rage bears great significance for several groups, like the estimated four million people in the United States with Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have found that about a third of Alzheimer’s patients have uncontrollable rages. Inability to handle the patients’ outbursts of rage is the single most common reason given by families of Alzheimer’s patients for sending them to nursing homes or hospitals.
Apart from those with Alzheimer’s disease, one million people suffer brain injuries each year from strokes, tumors or blows to the head; 180,000 of them are injured in auto accidents. Some degree of constant irritability or explosive aggression occurs in as many as 70 percent of those who suffer serious brain injury, studies have shown. For those working with such patients in hospitals, dealing with outbursts of anger is troubling and frightening.
Insights on Criminal Violence
The research may also offer insights into some criminal violence: two studies involving a total of 29 murderers on death row in at least four states found that almost all had a serious brain injury that may have triggered their violence.
”Explosive rage is very common, since it can be a symptom of any malady that destroys brain cells,” said Dr. Yudofsky. ”And I suspect brain damage is, by far, the most frequent cause of these violent outbursts, though no one has exact numbers.”
The new treatments may mean a fresh start on life for people who have suffered from the attacks of rage.
Other experts caution that there are many cases of explosive rage that cannot be explained by brain damage. ”There are a large group of people with brain damage who do not have explosive rage, and a sizable group of people with rage who have no brain injury,” said Dr. Gary Tucker, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Washington medical school.
Even so, brain damage is increasingly being recognized as a cause of the problem. Dr. Louis J. West, chairman of the psychiatry department at the medical school of the University of California at Los Angeles, said, ”The number of cases where brain damage explains an explosive rage is not so small as we used to think.”
In some studies, up to 70 percent of those with outbursts of rage were found to have neurological damage. A University of Pennsylvania study of 286 psychiatric patients prone to unprovoked attacks of rage found that 94 percent had some kind of brain damage. The cause ranged from head injuries and stroke to encephalitis and Alzheimer’s disease.
Factors Found on Death Row
Like violent psychiatric patients, violent criminals have also been found to have a disproportionate share of brain injuries. For example, of the 29 death row inmates all were found from hospital records or neurological tests to have had a head trauma, ranging from falls from trees in childhood to regular beatings.
”There is no question that much violent crime can be traced, in part, to brain injury, especially in criminals who are repeatedly violent,” said Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a psychiatrist at New York University Medical School, who conducted the research on death row inmates.
But Dr. Lewis says that brain injury alone is not likely to provoke such intense violence. ”The most lethal combination is a history of neurological damage and abuse in childhood,” said Dr. Lewis. ”When you have a kid who has some organic vulnerability, like a brain injury, and you add being raised in a violent household, then you create a very, very violent person.”
Her conclusions stem from a study of 95 boys who were studied at a Connecticut correctional school in the late 1970′s, then were tracked seven years later using records of their subsequent arrests maintained by states and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Those who, as teen-agers, showed no sign of neurological problems or childhood abuse had not committed a violent crime as adults. Those who had some brain impairment, or who had been abused in childhood, committed an average of two violent offenses.
But those who had both brain impairment and an abusive family history had committed an average of five violent crimes. Nine who had been convicted of murder were in this category. Avenue for Criminals? Experts in law and psychiatry doubt that the findings suggest an avenue for criminals to evade punishment for violent crimes. ”Being swept away by emotion does not mean one did not know right from wrong,” said Dr. Park Dietz, a psychiatrist in Newport Beach, Calif., and formerly a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Virginia.
Nevertheless, he said, ”it is legitimate to bring up a brain impairment at sentencing to mitigate the blame for the defendant and so get a lesser sentence.” And, he said, it was becoming increasingly common for defense lawyers to raise neurological problems in their client as a defense of last resort when there is no other sign of mental illness.
Injuries to certain parts of the brain, such as the frontal areas of the cortex, are the most likely to result in attacks of rage, researchers say. According to one theory, these brain areas ordinarily control aggressive impulses that originate in lower brain centers. When the controlling areas are damaged, the inhibitions disappear, allowing rage to be expressed freely.
For that reason, a new diagnosis, a ”disinhibited type” of dementia, has been proposed for inclusion in the next edition of the official psychiatric diagnostic manual.
”There is good evidence that explosive rage is one sign of a disinhibition syndrome,” said Dr. Tucker, who heads the committee studying such new diagnoses.
”But we see rage attacks as one example of a more general category of inappropriate emotional behavior due to brain trauma. It can take many forms, such as exposing oneself, or swings from crying to laughing.”
Unique Psychiatric Syndrome
Dr. Yudofsky, on the other hand, leads a group of psychiatrists who argue that explosive rage marks a unique psychiatric syndrome in itself and that a specific treatment is now available for it.
Dr. Yudofsky said that most patients treated for explosive rage were being given the wrong medications. ”The majority of these patients are prescribed sedatives like heavy tranquilizers or antipsychotic medication,” he said. ”You see patients in hospitals looking like zombies. They’ve been oversedated to keep them under control.”
One of the most promising new treatments for rage is propanolol, a beta-blocker more commonly used to treat hypertension that has none of the debilitating side effects of the sedatives.
In a study published in the spring issue of The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, Dr. Yudofsky and colleagues showed that the drug was highly effective in calming rage in white rats.
The researchers first made lesions in the rats’ brains in a procedure that ”creates a very violent rat,” Dr. Yudofsky said. The researchers then put the rats on a device that delivered a shock to their feet.
When the rats were paired, they attacked each other four out of five times when the shock was applied. But after they were given injections of propanolol, they attacked only about one in five times, or at the same rate as before the operation.
A number of studies in humans also suggest the usefulness of propanolol. One of the most recent, reported at the meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in May, was conducted by Dr. Jonathan Silver, director of neuropsychiatry at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.
That study used a group that is among the hardest to treat: 21 patients whose violence has kept them in the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital for an average of 10 years. Overall, there was a 50 percent reduction in the number of angry outbursts, from an average of one incident a day, to one every other day. In seven patients the reduction was greater than 75 percent.
In addition to propanolol, other medications have shown promise for controlling rage. Most mute the activity of catecholamines or serotonin, brain chemicals involved in emotions like anger.
The other medications include lithium, used to treat manic-depression; buspirone, used to treat anxiety; and carbamazepine, used to control seizures.
It was this last drug that was of crucial help to Paul Streicker, president of an advertising and public relations agency from Providence, R.I., who had attacks of rage following a severe brain injury from an auto accident.
”As I was recovering, I was highly irritable,” Mr. Streicker said. ”Once in the hospital I threw a can of soda at my dietitian. At home, I’d have fits of rage where I’d take a swing at a lamp and yell.”
But when Mr. Streicker began taking carbemazapine, his emotions were tamed.
Experts say learning not to feel guilty or embarrassed about outbursts can help prevent self-reproach and depression.
”People can also relearn some emotional controls,” Dr. Yudofsky said. ”Drug treatment should be in tandem with psychotherapy and family therapy.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
All you knew was that it hurt: the stubbing of the little finger or toe, biting of the tongue, bumping of the head…
You didn’t even know what you said until you were standing there rubbing your jaw, gazing up at your grandmother as warm tears blended with the stinging of the inflamed imprint left by her hand.
You had been “popped”, “slapped”, “smacked”, whatever you want to call it…
….and rightfully so: Where do you get off using language like that? You’re just a kid…barely out of pull-ups yet!
Reduced to unskilled lip-reading (…considering the ringing in your ears has yet to subside), you peer through your tears and into the wide, angry mouth of your ‘sweet, kind, nurturing’ grandmother.
Intriguing, isn’t it…the uncharted territory of swearing?
How old were you when you figured out that there were some words you just SHOULDN’T say?
Seven? Maybe five?…Three??
I’m pretty sure we’ve all been there at some point: standing in the doorway watching an angry grandmother trail off into the distance of our home (well, at least a variation of this situation). And I’m sure the question that popped up first can be quickly summed up with “why?”.
Let’s start with why you said it:
You were in pain. Your foul language was an exclamation; cathartic swearing. You meant no intentional harm to anyone and I doubt that you sought to add some kind of “shock factor” to your choice of words either. You had probably heard it somewhere and, being the naive and often irrational child that you were, simply regurgitated it during a moment of sudden pain. A combination of three theories can explain this (each less flawed than the one preceding):
The Hydraulic Theory: Cathartic swearing is used for “releasing steam”. While most agree, there is no physiological proof that swearing produces this effect. In fact, considering the areas of the brain and hormones linked with hearing foul language, you’re likely to be MORE stressed when you swear.
The Rage Circuit Theory: Mammals naturally make sudden, startling noise when attacked or abruptly injured. It is widely believed that this is a defense mechanism that is even found in humans. This is quite convincing until we realize that we are too cultured to be reduced to such an “instinct”. What left your young lips that day was not a series of yelps or sharp grunts. You were swearing; emitting a series of sounds that had to be learned and associated with the events they followed.
…which brings us to the most accommodating theory,
The Response Cry Theory: Cathartic swearing, though seemingly uncontrollable, is a communicative feature of language. It is intended to inform your audience that something really, really painful, exciting, or upsetting has just happened to you….SO much so to the point of neglecting intelligent or appropriate language to express it.
Now, the fun part: why was grandma so angry?
The surface of the argument is often limited to the fact that swear words are offensive. We, as members of society, naturally associate these words with the most foul, intimidating and exploited aspects of living. We first internalize the feelings we connect with these aspects and then allow them to escape during spells of intense emotion or even casual interaction (the intense emotional swearing often categorized as dysphemistic, abusive, emphatic or cathartic; the more casual mostly known as idiomatic swearing). As a result, we now have wonderfully colorful language for the disfavored groups in our culture (i.e. the “n” word, words for homosexuals), sexuality (i.e. the “f” word, and the ever frequently misused “c*nt”), bodily effluvia and organs (i.e. the “s” word, A-hole) and even the supernatural (i.e. “hell”, “damn”, “Jesus Christ”).
Upon breaking the surface of this argument we find that the offense we take to such language is really involuntary. Whenever we hear swear words the lower right hemisphere of our brain becomes quite active. This activity occurs more specifically in the limbic system (responsible for memory, emotion, basic behavior and even vocalizations in primates and other animals) and the basal ganglia (responsible for impulse control and motor functions). While our choice of swear words is governed by the voluntary selection processes of the outer left hemisphere (the Wernicke’s and Broca’s area), our reactions are governed by the impulsive and emotional inner right hemisphere. Listening to swearing literally forces the listener to think unpleasant, negative thoughts. It is a kind of “mind control”; jerking the unsuspecting synapses of poor, old grandma into sudden rage…completely against her will.
Now, I must say: grandma probably could have used a little restraint. I mean, SHEESH!! I was only SEVEN: When I was a child, I SPAKE as a child. I hadn’t grown my filter yet. Language was fresh, new and disjointed back then. I STILL don’t know exactly what I said to make her so angry that day!
Nonetheless, in putting away childish things, there are some facets of life that just HAVE to go. We are not what enters the lips, but what leaves them. Your fellow man WILL judge your character based upon what you say. Therefore, make no mistake in believing the tongue should go unbridled forever. It’s been SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN that we progressively gain control over our speech and, subsequently, the reactions they evoke. Avoiding the release of corrupt communication from our lips does EVERYBODY some good. Besides the hurt feelings and the occasional damaged pride, swearing has also been connected to increased levels of the stress hormone Cortisol which is a contributing factor to bigger bellies and fatty hearts.
Language is a code, a tool for communication. It is the bridge between the mind and the world; the materialization of our experiences. Why take something so functionally beautiful and voluntarily use it for physiological and emotional discomfort?
It is likely that both you and I are not children. Nor are we the victims of a traumatic brain injury or degenerative brain disease (considering that the same areas of the brain used for reading this are closely linked with those that make swearing involuntary for some stroke victims and sufferers of Tourette’s Syndrome). Therefore, with the greater good and maybe even our reputations in mind,
let’s watch our mouths.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Fucking became the subject of congressional debate in 2003, after NBC broadcast the Golden Globe Awards. Bono, lead singer of the mega-band U2, was accepting a prize on behalf of the group and in his euphoria exclaimed, “This is really, really, fucking brilliant” on the air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is charged with monitoring the nation’s airwaves for indecency, decided somewhat surprisingly not to sanction the network for failing to bleep out the word. Explaining its decision, the FCC noted that its guidelines define “indecency” as “material that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities” and Bono had used fuckingas “an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation.”
Cultural conservatives were outraged. California Representative Doug Ose tried to close the loophole in the FCC’s regulations with the filthiest piece of legislation ever considered by Congress. Had it passed, the Clean Airwaves Act would have forbade from broadcast
the words “shit”, “piss”, “fuck”, “cunt”, “asshole”, and the phrases “cock sucker”, “mother fucker”, and “ass hole”, compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms).
The episode highlights one of the many paradoxes that surround swearing. When it comes to political speech, we are living in a free-speech utopia. Late-night comedians can say rude things about their nation’s leaders that, in previous centuries, would have led to their tongues being cut out or worse. Yet, when it comes to certain words for copulation and excretion, we still allow the might of the government to bear down on what people can say in public. Swearing raises many other puzzles–linguistic, neurobiological, literary, political.
The first is the bone of contention in the Bono brouhaha: the syntactic classification of curse words. Ose’s grammatically illiterate bill not only misspelled cocksucker, motherfucker, and asshole, and misidentified them as “phrases,” it didn’t even close the loophole that it had targeted. The Clean Airwaves Act assumed that fucking is a participial adjective. But this is not correct. With a true adjective like lazy, you can alternate between Drown the lazy cat and Drown the cat which is lazy. But Drown the fucking cat is certainly not interchangeable with Drown the cat which is fucking.
If the fucking in fucking brilliant is to be assigned a traditional part of speech, it would be adverb, because it modifies an adjective and only adverbs can do that, as in truly bad, very nice, and really big. Yet “adverb” is the one grammatical category that Ose forgot to include in his list! As it happens, most expletives aren’t genuine adverbs, either. One study notes that, while you can say That’s too fucking bad, you can’t say That’s too very bad. Also, as linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out, while you can imagine the dialogue How brilliant was it? Very, you would never hear the dialogue How brilliant was it? Fucking.
The FCC’s decision raises another mystery about swearing: the bizarre number of different ways in which we swear. There is cathartic swearing, as when we slice our thumb along with the bagel. There are imprecations, as when we offer advice to someone who has cut us off in traffic. There are vulgar terms for everyday things and activities, as when Bess Truman was asked to get the president to say fertilizer instead of manure and she replied, “You have no idea how long it took me to get him to say manure.” There are figures of speech that put obscene words to other uses, such as the barnyard epithet for insincerity, the army acronym snafu, and the gynecological-flagellative term for uxorial dominance. And then there are the adjective-like expletives that salt the speech and split the words of soldiers, teenagers, and Irish rock-stars.
But perhaps the greatest mystery is why politicians, editors, and much of the public care so much. Clearly, the fear and loathing are not triggered by the concepts themselves, because the organs and activities they name have hundreds of polite synonyms. Nor are they triggered by the words’ sounds, since many of them have respectable homonyms in names for animals, actions, and even people. Many people feel that profanity is self-evidently corrupting, especially to the young. This claim is made despite the fact that everyone is familiar with the words, including most children, and that no one has ever spelled out how the mere hearing of a word could corrupt one’s morals.
Progressive writers have pointed to this gap to argue that linguistic taboos are absurd. A true moralist, they say, should hold that violence and inequality are “obscene,” not sex and excretion. And yet, since the 1970s, many progressives have imposed linguistic taboos of their own, such as the stigma surrounding the N-word and casual allusions to sexual desire or sexual attractiveness. So even people who revile the usual bluenoses can become gravely offended by their own conception of bad language. The question is, why?
The strange emotional power of swearing–as well as the presence of linguistic taboos in all cultures– suggests that taboo words tap into deep and ancient parts of the brain. In general, words have not just a denotation but a connotation: an emotional coloring distinct from what the word literally refers to, as in principled versus stubborn and slender versus scrawny. The difference between a taboo word and its genteel synonyms, such as shit and feces, cunt and vagina, or fucking and making love, is an extreme example of the distinction. Curses provoke a different response than their synonyms in part because connotations and denotations are stored in different parts of the brain.
The mammalian brain contains, among other things, the limbic system, an ancient network that regulates motivation and emotion, and the neocortex, the crinkled surface of the brain that ballooned in human evolution and which is the seat of perception, knowledge, reason, and planning. The two systems are interconnected and work together, but it seems likely that words’ denotations are concentrated in the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere, whereas their connotations are spread across connections between the neocortex and the limbic system, especially in the right hemisphere.
A likely suspect within the limbic system is the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ buried at the front of the temporal lobe of the brain (one on each side) that helps invest memories with emotion. A monkey whose amygdalas have been removed can learn to recognize a new shape, like a striped triangle, but has trouble learning that the shape foreshadows an unpleasant event like an electric shock. In humans, the amygdala “lights up”–it shows greater metabolic activity in brain scans–when the person sees an angry face or an unpleasant word, especially a taboo word.
The response is not only emotional but involuntary. It’s not just that we don’t have earlids to shut out unwanted sounds. Once a word is seen or heard, we are incapable of treating it as a squiggle or noise; we reflexively look it up in memory and respond to its meaning, including its connotation. The classic demonstration is the Stroop effect, found in every introductory psychology textbook and the topic of more than four thousand scientific papers. People are asked to look through a list of letter strings and to say aloud the color of the ink in which each one is printed. Try it with this list, saying “red,” “blue,” or “green” for each item in turn from left to right:
red blue green blue green red
Easy. But this is much, much, harder:
red blue green blue green red
The reason is that, among literate adults, reading a word is such an over-learned skill that it has become mandatory: You can’t will the process “off,” even when you don’t want to read the words but only pay attention to the ink. That’s why you’re helped along when the experimenters arrange the ink into a word that also names its color and slowed down when they arrange it into a name for a different color. A similar thing happens with spoken words as well.
Now try naming the color of the ink in each of these words:
cunt shit fuck tits piss asshole
The psychologist Don MacKay has done the experiment and found that people are indeed slowed down by an involuntary boggle as soon as the eyes alight on each word. The upshot is that a speaker or writer can use a taboo word to evoke an emotional response in an audience quite against their wishes. Thanks to the automatic nature of speech perception, an expletive kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations. That makes all of us vulnerable to a mental assault whenever we are in earshot of other speakers, as if we were strapped to a chair and could be given a punch or a shock at any time. And this, in turn, raises the question of what kinds of concepts have the sort of unpleasant emotional charge that can make words for them taboo.
The historical root of swearing in English and many other languages is, oddly enough, religion. We see this in the Third Commandment, in the popularity of hell, damn, God, and Jesus Christ as expletives, and in many of the terms for taboo language itself: profanity (that which is not sacred), blasphemy (literally “evil speech” but, in practice, disrespect toward a deity), and swearing, cursing, and oaths, which originally were secured by the invocation of a deity or one of his symbols.
In English-speaking countries today, religious swearing barely raises an eyebrow. Gone with the wind are the days when people could be titillated by a character in a movie saying “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” If a character today is offended by such language, it’s only to depict him as an old-fashioned prude. The defanging of religious taboo words is an obvious consequence of the secularization of Western culture. As G. K. Chesterton remarked, “Blasphemy itself could not survive religion; if anyone doubts that, let him try to blaspheme Odin.” To understand religious vulgarity, then, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our linguistic ancestors, to whom God and Hell were a real presence.
Say you need to make a promise. You may want to borrow money, and so must promise to return it. Why should the promisee believe you, knowing that it may be to your advantage to renege? The answer is that you should submit to a contingency that would impose a penalty on you if you did renege, ideally one so certain and severe that you would always do better to keep the promise than to back out. That way, your partner no longer has to take you at your word; he can rely on your self-interest. Nowadays, we secure our promises with legal contracts that make us liable if we back out. We mortgage our house, giving the bank permission to repossess it if we fail to repay the loan. But, before we could count on a commercial and legal apparatus to enforce our contracts, we had to do our own self-handicapping. Children still bind their oaths by saying, “I hope to die if I tell a lie.” Adults used to do the same by invoking the wrath of God, as in May God strike me dead if I’m lying and variations like As God is my witness, Blow me down!, and God blind me!–the source of the British blimey.
Such oaths, of course, would have been more credible in an era in which people thought that God listened to their entreaties and had the power to carry them out. Even today, witnesses in U.S. court proceedings have to swear on the Bible, as if an act of perjury undetected by the legal system would be punished by an eavesdropping and easily offended God. But, even if these oaths aren’t seen as literally having the power to bring down divine penalties for noncompliance, they signal a distinction between everyday assurances on minor favors and solemn pledges on weightier matters. Today, the emotional power of religious swearing may have dimmed, but the psychology behind it is still with us. Even a parent without an inkling of superstition would not say “I swear on the life of my child” lightly. The mere thought of murdering one’s child for ulterior gain is not just unpleasant; it should be unthinkable if one is a true parent, and every neuron of one’s brain should be programmed against it.
This literal unthinkability is the basis of the psychology of taboo in general, and it is the mindset that is tapped in swearing on something sacred, whether it be a religious trapping or a child’s life. And, thanks to the automatic nature of speech processing, the same sacred words that consecrate promises–the oath-binding sense of “swearing”–may be used to attract attention, to shock, or to inflict psychic pain on a listener–the dirty-word sense of “swearing.”
As secularization has rendered religious swear words less powerful, creative speakers have replaced them with words that have the same degree of affective clout according to the sensibilities of the day. This explains why taboo expressions can have such baffling syntax and semantics. To take just one example, why do people use the ungrammatical Fuck you? And why does no one have a clear sense of what, exactly, Fuck you means? (Some people guess “fuck yourself,” others “get fucked,” and still others “I will fuck you,” but none of these hunches is compelling.) The most likely explanation is that these grammatically baffling curses originated in more intelligible religious curses during the transition from religious to sexual and scatological swearing in English-speaking countries:
Who (in) the hell are you? >> Who the fuck are you?
I don’t give a damn >> I don’t give a fuck; I don’t give a shit.
Holy Mary! >> Holy shit! Holy fuck!
For God’s sake >> For fuck’s sake; For shit’s sake.
Damn you! >> Fuck you!
Of course, this transmutation raises the question of why words for these particular concepts stepped into the breach–why, for example, words for bodily effluvia and their orifices and acts of excretion became taboo. Shit, piss, and asshole, to name but a few, are still unspeakable on network television and unprintable in most newspapers. The New York Times, for example, identified a best-seller by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt as On Bull****.
On the whole, the acceptability of taboo words is only loosely tied to the acceptability of what they refer to, but, in the case of taboo terms for effluvia, the correlation is fairly good. The linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge have noted that shit is less acceptable than piss, which in turn is less acceptable than fart, which is less acceptable than snot, which is less acceptable than spit (which is not taboo at all). That’s the same order as the acceptability of eliminating these substances from the body in public. Effluvia have such an emotional charge that they figure prominently in voodoo, sorcery, and other kinds of sympathetic magic in many of the world’s cultures. The big deal that people ordinarily make out of effluvia–both the words and the substances–has puzzled many observers. After all, we are incarnate beings, and excretion is an inescapable part of human life.
The biologists Valerie Curtis and Adam Biran identify the reason. It can’t be a coincidence, they note, that the most disgusting substances are also the most dangerous vectors for disease. Feces is a route of transmission for the viruses, bacteria, and protozoans that cause at least 20 intestinal diseases, as well as ascariasis, hepatitis A and E, polio, ameobiasis, hookworm, pinworm, whipworm, cholera, and tetanus. Blood, vomit, mucus, pus, and sexual fluids are also good vehicles for pathogens to get from one body into another. Although the strongest component of the disgust reaction is a desire not to eat or touch the offending substance, it’s also disgusting to think about effluvia, together with the body parts and activities that excrete them. And, because of the involuntariness of speech perception, it’s unpleasant to hear the words for them.
Some people have been puzzled about why cunt should be taboo. It is not just an unprintable word for the vagina but the most offensive epithet for a woman in America. One might have thought that, in the male-dominated world of swearing, the vagina would be revered, not reviled. After all, it’s been said that no sooner does a boy come out of it than he spends the rest of his life trying to get back in. This becomes less mysterious if one imagines the connotations in an age before tampons, toilet paper, regular bathing, and antifungal drugs.
The other major source of taboo words is sexuality. Since the 1960s, many progressive thinkers have found these taboos to be utterly risible. Sex is a source of mutual pleasure, they reason, and should be cleansed of stigma and shame. Prudery about sexual language could only be a superstition, an anachronism, perhaps a product of spite, as in H. L. Mencken’s definition of puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
The comedian Lenny Bruce was puzzled by our most common sexual imprecation. In a monologue reproduced in the biopic Lenny, he riffs:
What’s the worst thing you can say to anybody? “Fuck you, Mister.” It’s really weird, because, if I really wanted to hurt you, I should say “Unfuck you, Mister.” Because “Fuck you” is really nice! “Hello, Ma, it’s me. Yeah, I just got back. Aw, fuck you, Ma! Sure, I mean it. Is Pop there? Aw, fuck you, Pop!”
Part of the puzzlement comes from the strange syntax of Fuck you (which, as we saw, does not in fact mean “Have sex”). But it also comes from a modern myopia for how incendiary sexuality can be in the full sweep of human experience.
Consider two consenting adults who have just had sex. Has everyone had fun? Not necessarily. One partner might see the act as the beginning of a lifelong relationship, the other as a one-night-stand. One may be infecting the other with a disease. A baby may have been conceived, whose welfare was not planned for in the heat of passion. If the couple is related, the baby may inherit two copies of a deleterious recessive gene and be susceptible to a genetic defect. There may be romantic rivals in the wings who would be enraged with jealousy if they found out, or a cuckolded husband in danger of raising another man’s child, or a two-timed wife in danger of losing support for her own children. Parents may have marriage plans for one of the participants, involving large sums of money or an important alliance with another clan. And, on other occasions, the participants may not both be adults, or may not both be consenting.
Sex has high stakes, including exploitation, disease, illegitimacy, incest, jealousy, spousal abuse, cuckoldry, desertion, feuding, child abuse, and rape. These hazards have been around for a long time and have left their mark on our customs and our emotions. Thoughts about sex are likely to be fraught, and not entertained lightly. Words for sex can be even more touchy, because they not only evoke the charged thoughts but implicate a sharing of those thoughts between two people. The thoughts, moreover, are shared “on the record,” each party knowing that the other knows that he or she has been thinking about the sex under discussion. This lack of plausible deniability embroils the dialogue in an extra layer of intrigue.
Evolutionary psychology has laid out the conflicts of interest that are inherent to human sexuality, and some of these conflicts play themselves out in the linguistic arena. Plain speaking about sex conveys an attitude that sex is a casual matter, like tennis or philately, and so it may seem to the partners at the time. But the long-term implications may be more keenly felt by a wider circle of interested parties. Parents and other senior kin may be concerned with the thwarting of their own plans for the family lineage, and the community may take an interest in the illegitimate children appearing in their midst and in the posturing and competition, sometimes violent, that can accompany sexual freedom. The ideal of sex as a sacred communion between a monogamous couple may be old-fashioned and even unrealistic, but it sure is convenient for the elders of a family and a society. It’s not surprising to find tensions between individuals and guardians of the community over casual talk about sex (accompanied by hypocrisy among the guardians when it comes to their own casual sex).
Another sexual conflict of interest divides men from women. In every act of reproduction, females are committed to long stretches of pregnancy and lactation, while males can get away with a few minutes of copulation. A male can have more progeny if he mates with many females, whereas a female will not have more progeny if she mates with many males–though her offspring will do better if she has chosen a mate who is willing to invest in them or can endow them with good genes. Not surprisingly, in all cultures men pursue sex more eagerly, are more willing to have casual sex, and are more likely to seduce, deceive, or coerce to get sex. All things being equal, casual sex works to the advantage of men, both genetically and emotionally. We might expect casual talk about sex to show the same asymmetry, and so it does. Men swear more, on average, and many taboo sexual terms are felt to be especially demeaning to women– hence the old prohibition of swearing “in mixed company.”
A sex difference in tolerance for sexual language may seem like a throwback to Victorian daintiness. But an unanticipated consequence of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s was a revived sense of offense at swearing, the linguistic companion to the campaign against pornography. As a result, many universities and businesses have published guidelines on sexual harassment that ban telling sexual jokes, and, in 1993, veteran Boston Globe journalist David Nyhan was forced to apologize and donate $1,250 to a women’s organization when a female staffer overheard him in the newsroom using the word pussy-whipped with a male colleague who declined his invitation to play basketball after work. The feminist writer Andrea Dworkin explicitly connected coarse sexual language to the oppression of women: “Fucking requires that the male act on one who has less power and this valuation is so deep, so completely implicit in the act, that the one who is fucked is stigmatized.”
Though people are seeing, talking about, and having sex more readily today than they did in the past, the topic is still not free of taboo. Most people still don’t copulate in public, swap spouses at the end of a dinner party, have sex with their siblings and children, or openly trade favors for sex. Even after the sexual revolution, we have a long way to go before “exploring our sexuality” to the fullest, and that means that people still set up barriers in their minds to block certain trains of thought. The language of sex can tug at those barriers.
Which brings us back to fucking–Bono’s fucking, that is. Does a deeper understanding of the history, psychology, and neurobiology of swearing give us any basis for deciding among the prohibitions in the Clean Airwaves Act, the hairsplitting of the FCC, and the libertinism of a Lenny Bruce?
When it comes to policy and law, it seems to me that free speech is the bedrock of democracy and that it is not among the legitimate functions of government to punish people who use certain vocabulary items or allow others to use them. On the other hand, private media have the prerogative of enforcing a house style, driven by standards of taste and the demands of the market, that excludes words their audience doesn’t enjoy hearing. In other words, if an entertainer says fucking brilliant, it’s none of the government’s business; but, if some people would rather not explain to their young children what a blow job is, there should be television channels that don’t force them to.
What about decisions in the private sphere? Are there guidelines that can inform our personal and institutional judgments about when to discourage, tolerate, and even welcome profanity? Here are some thoughts.
Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about where to aim it and when to fire. The common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it’s worth considering how often one really wants one’s audience to be reminded of excrement, urine, and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the listener’s attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener and a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to. It’s all the more damning for writers, who have the luxury of choosing their words off-line from the half-million-word phantasmagoria of the English language.
Also calling for reflection is whether linguistic taboos are always a bad thing. Why are we offended–why should we be offended–when an outsider refers to an African American as a nigger, or a woman as a cunt, or a Jewish person as a fucking Jew? I suspect that the sense of offense comes from the nature of speech recognition and from what it means to understand the connotation of a word. If you’re an English speaker, you can’t hear the words nigger or cunt or fucking without calling to mind what they mean to an implicit community of speakers, including the emotions that cling to them. To hear nigger is to try on, however briefly, the thought that there is something contemptible about African Americans and thus to be complicit in a community that standardized that judgment into a word. Just hearing the words feels morally corrosive. None of this means that the words should be banned, only that their effects on listeners should be understood and anticipated.
Also deserving of reflection is why previous generations of speakers bequeathed us a language that treats certain topics with circumspection and restraint. The lexical libertines of the 1960s believed that taboos on sexual language were pointless and even harmful. They argued that removing the stigma from sexuality would eliminate shame and ignorance and thereby reduce venereal disease, illegitimate births, and other hazards of sex. But this turned out to be mistaken. Sexual language has become far more common since the early ’60s, but so has illegitimacy, sexually transmitted disease, rape, and the fallout of sexual competition like anorexia in girls and swagger-culture in boys. Though no one can pin down cause and effect, the changes are of a piece with the weakening of the fear and awe that used to surround thoughts about sex and that charged sexual language with taboo.
Those are some of the reasons to think twice about giving carte blanche to swearing. But there is another reason. If an overuse of taboo words, whether by design or laziness, blunts their emotional edge, it will have deprived us of a linguistic instrument that we sometimes sorely need. And this brings me to the arguments on the pro-swearing side.
To begin with, it’s a fact of life that people swear. The responsibility of writers is to give a “just and lively image of human nature,” as poet John Dryden wrote, and that includes portraying a character’s language realistically when their art calls for it. When Norman Mailer wrote his true-to-life novel about World War II, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, his compromise with the sensibilities of the day was to have soldiers use the pseudo-epithet fug. (When Dorothy Parker met him, she said, “So you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.”) Sadly, this prissiness is not a thing of the past: Some public television stations today fear broadcasting Ken Burns’ documentary on World War II because of the salty language in his interviews with veterans. The prohibition against swearing in broadcast media makes artists and historians into liars and subverts the responsibility of grown-ups to learn how life is lived in worlds distant from their own.
Even when their characters are not soldiers, writers must sometimes let them swear in order to render human passion compellingly. In the film adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story, a sweet Polish peasant girl has hidden a Jewish man in a hayloft during the Nazi occupation and becomes his doting wife when the war is over. When she confronts him over an affair he has been having, he loses control and slaps her in the face. Fighting back tears of rage, she looks him in the eye and says slowly, “I saved your life. I took the last bite of food out of my mouth and gave it to you in the hayloft. I carried out your shit!” No other word could convey the depth of her fury at his ingratitude.
For language lovers, the joys of swearing are not confined to the works of famous writers. We should pause to applaud the poetic genius who gave us the soldiers’ term for chipped beef on toast, shit on a shingle, and the male-to-male advisory for discretion in sexual matters, Keep your pecker in your pocket. Hats off, too, to the wordsmiths who thought up the indispensable pissing contest, crock of shit, pussy-whipped, and horse’s ass. Among those in the historical record, Lyndon Johnson had a certain way with words when it came to summing up the people he distrusted, including a Kennedy aide (“He wouldn’t know how to pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the heel”), Gerald Ford (“He can’t fart and chew gum at the same time”), and J. Edgar Hoover (“I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in”).
When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy language himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Over and over again, studies show that people set out on a mission to seek out reasons to support their emotional reactions. And because you are usually successful in this mission, you end up with the illusion of objectivity. You really believe that your position is logicallly and objectively justified. Most people give no real evidence for their emotional reactions and no effort is made to look for alternatives opposing this emotionally based sense of certainty. The mind generally uses the “makes-sense-to-me” rule, where you take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if you find some evidence, enough so that your position “makes sense”, you stop thinking. If someone brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, you can may be swayed to change your mind. However, the problem is that you may not make any effort to seek out conflicting points of view unless they are presented to you.
This reminds me of a client I saw who ad two failed marriages and concluded, “All men are pigs.” From only two examples, she created a generalization that included three billion men! Her cynicism, her unwillingness to allow any men to get close to her, was the side-effect of two fundamental facts about how the brain work: 1) the brain has the amazing ability to see a pattern with minimal clues, and 2) your brain has a tendency to look for evidence that confirms an already-existing beliefs. So once you have concluded something, you have a strong tendency generalize that conclusion by noticing evidence that supports your pre-existing belief. So a pessimistic, cynical, or defeatist feeling, causes your mind to look for negative evidence and selectively ignore any positives. In this way the pain comes from making negative events larger and more awful than they really are.
Our memory allows us to recall information about what is likely to happen in different situations. Our memories promote expectations and predictions to how life will unfold. For example, when you walk into a grocery store, you know automatically, how things are supposed to go. You go in, grab a cart, pick food off the shelf, line up for a cashier who will take your money for the food, and you can go home. It is not as if you walk into the store and think `OK, what happened the last time I was here’ or `Why are people looting food off the shelves?’ You automatically know how to behave in the situation based on your experience. The knowledge from these memories, makes the world a much more predictable place.
So let me be clear, you are not conscious of everything you do and how you do it, for every aspect of your life. For example, tying your shoelaces, walking, dialing the phone, or driving, are all guided to a large degree by unconscious processing. Frequently performed actions and behaviors become automatic so your consciousness can turn to other things. In this our complex, information saturated world, the brain is required to handle a vast amount of data. This enormous amount of information exceeds the capacity of your consciousness, which can contain only one or a few things at a time. In fact some researchers suggest that most of what you do on a daily basis is habitual. Which side of the bed do you get out of in the morning? Do you think about the processes of getting dressed, or is it automatic? First the left leg and then the right leg. You put my trousers on the same way every morning. You shave the same way, eat the same breakfast. And so forth. In fact, most of the choices on a daily basis are automatic and out of your conscious awareness.
A good example would be to think of the name of your sixth grade teacher. Before reading the last sentence, you probably weren’t thinking about that period of your life or that teacher. But this information was stored unconsciously and has now entered your consciousness. Soon it will pass back into your unconsciousness, ready to be accessed again if the need arises.
Try for a moment, while reading this passage, to consciously piece together the individual letters in this sentence. Actively focus on how each letter is a symbol, then consider how their meaning changes when they stand in relation to one another, how they form words whose meaning is in turn affected by the words around them, and how these chunks of symbols form a representation in your brain of what the sentence says. Not easy right. Try again.
A few things are worth noting about this exercise; namely that a) in spite of your intentions, you probably couldn’t do it without a significant level of focus, b) you understood the sentence very quickly anyway, and c) it still affected your behavior. Also, since you already knew what it said, the meaning of the sentence didn’t really change when you went over it again, trying to consciously determine why it conveys the particular meaning it does. This illustrates a few factors involved in unconscious functioning, which can be fairly difficult to consciously understand. The first point is this that you unconsciously and very quickly derive meaning from past learning experiences. Second, you have incomplete insight into how this happens, and once the skill of reading is learned, it is hard to stop without conscious effort. Thus reading is an automatic skill that is guided by your unconscious, your behavior occurs without your being entirely aware of it or choosing that it happen.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Humans, for all their sophistication, tend to use unconscious processes. For example many of us drive using unconscious skills unless something unexpected happens, at which point conscious processes take over. These allow you to analyze the unfamiliar situation in more depth in order to figure out how best to respond. The same is true for social situations. Much of the information coming in from social situations is processed unconsciously. Only a small amount of the information is attended to and analyzed consciously. Because you rely so heavily upon unconscious processes, many of your responses to social situations occur “mindlessly.” You are thus free to think about Bob’s annoying table manners and Jane’s infectious laugh as you wander down the aisles, selecting all the necessary ingredients for the dinner party the next night.
The problem is that you unconsciously conform your new experiences into existing patterns. The compulsion to explain, or determine the generalizations, is hardwired in humans, it helps us to learn. Unfortunately, the compulsion to explain is not bound by reason. If a logical explanation does not fit, the mind will make up its own explanation based on exaggerated and unlikely patterns. When presented with bits of information that have no particular relationship, your mind will find one anyway. When the mind cannot generalize a pattern with the information that has, it will create an explanation to fit. No effort is made to test the validity of facts used as evidence. Your mind tries to find additional evidence that supports your conclusion and proves that you were right in the first place. No effort is ever made to prove that you could be wrong. You just assume you are right.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Life is about attention. You can control what you attend to and for how long. Your changing and varied focus arises from what you choose to observe and concentrate on. Yet, you unconsciously and automatically refocus and redirect your attention without even knowing it. Your attention simply flows, moving in all directions like the air around you. However, the trouble arises when your attention is fixated or scattered, rather then fluid. Of course, you can selectively attend to different things, but it is impossible and not very practical to attend to all things equally. Attention is controllable, the amount and frequency of attention you give is within your power to manage. You can direct it like the wheel of a ship steers the rudder and guides the vessel in a given direction. Emotions, like attention rise and fall in the natural ebb and flow of life. Some fade with time like the sunset descending over the horizon in the ever-changing sky. Others are reoccurring lighthouses that direct you to change course and guiding you to safe harbor. Your attention is most stable when you are able to focus on the present moment and accept reality as it is, not as how you’d like to see it. You can move your attention from what has been done to what you need to do now.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Marketers, managers and panhandlers all have something in common: They regularly want to make you do things they want. Marketers want you to buy stuff, managers want you to finish projects on time, and panhandlers want you to spare a buck, or three.
Over the years, psychologists have studied the techniques of manipulation and found several that seem to work. (Read on only if you agree to use these techniques for good and not for evil!)
One is called the door-in-the-face technique. You start by asking for something outrageous; when that’s turned down, you then ask for something reasonable. A boss may ask an employee to work weekends for a whole year, for example, and when that request gets turned down, the manager might ask for a report to be turned in by Friday. The outrageous request reframes the real request to make it sound reasonable.
Another technique is known as fear-then-relief. Here, you tell someone he narrowly dodged a bullet and take advantage of his relief to make your real request.
The best-studied technique of all is the foot in the door. The panhandler who stops to ask you the time before asking you to spare a buck is employing the technique. In contrast to the door in the face, the foot in the door starts by making a very small, easy-to-accomplish request, and then follows up with the real request.
In a series of new experiments, researcher Dariusz Dolinski of the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland found that when the initial request was highly unusual, people were more likely to comply with the demand that followed it.
Dolinski had a confederate stop people en route to a supermarket and say to them, “Excuse me, but I suffer from terrible back pain and I cannot bend down. My shoelaces are undone. Could you please be so kind as to tie them for me?”
That was the unusual request. Other passersby were given a routine marketing survey.
A little later, the passersby were stopped by a woman standing outside the supermarket.
Dolinski wrote: “The second request was posed at the entrance to the supermarket by a woman who asked the participants to ‘keep an eye’ on her shopping cart full of goods ‘for a moment.’ She explained that her husband had her car keys and he had disappeared somewhere in the supermarket, and as the cart had a broken wheel, it was very hard to push. She would like to look for her husband without having to push the cart.”
Dolinski found that people were more likely to mind the woman’s grocery cart when they had been previously asked to fulfill an unusual request — to tie someone else’s shoelaces.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Life is about attention. You can control what you attend to and for how long. Your changing and varied focus arises from what you choose to observe and concentrate on. Yet, you unconsciously and automatically refocus and redirect your attention without even knowing it. Your attention simply flows, moving in all directions like the air around you. However, the trouble arises when your attention is fixated or scattered, rather then fluid. Of course, you can selectively attend to different things, but it is impossible and not very practical to attend to all things equally. Attention is controllable, the amount and frequency of attention you give is within your power to manage. You can direct it like the wheel of a ship steers the rudder and guides the vessel in a given direction. Emotions, like attention rise and fall in the natural ebb and flow of life. Some fade with time like the sunset descending over the horizon in the ever-changing sky. Others are reoccurring lighthouses that direct you to change course and guiding you to safe harbor. Your attention is most stable when you are able to focus on the present moment and accept reality as it is, not as how you’d like to see it. You can move your attention from what has been done to what you need to do now.
People that are shy and introverted tell therapists that when they enter a restaurant, people look at them, creating anxiety. It’s true, but it applies to everyone, not just those who are shy. When anything enters your visual field, you unconsciously begin scanning it. A person walking into a room is “scanned” by almost everyone else and that automatic scanning procedure takes about two seconds. The unconscious mind is looking for two things 1) to see if you have a memory or point of reference for comparison and 2) to protect you for any signs of danger. If the new individual is odd looking, carrying a weapon, or naked, the brain will start a full-scan and react accordingly (long stare, fright, or “Don’t I know you?). Individuals with physical features that are unusual lead to the common “double take” where you will first unconsciously scan for safety and reference, then look again consciously to examine and analyze. These references are designed to help you, as when remembering an old friend, the location of the store in a mall, or when remembering needed facts/details. This occurs unconsciously as reflex and instinct. To override or cancel this natural/normal procedure requires attention, focus, and effort.
Because of the tremendous amount of data streaming in to the mind every second from your senses, your mind’s ability to perform routine tasks unconsciously is essential. The human eye, for example, scans two billion bits of data per second. If all this data were not already organized somehow, the conscious mind would have to start from scratch to figure out what each pattern of light and dark meant. You simply can’t afford to consciously process all the data every time you move your eyes. It would take all day just to get dressed. Automatic, unconscious processes allow you to respond to familiar situations quickly, efficiently, whereas controlled, conscious processes produce responses slowly, demanding a great deal of attention and mental effort. However, you typically use conscious processes only when you must or are highly motivated to use them.
Over the last several years, the problem of attention has migrated right into the center of our cultural awareness. We hunt it in neurology labs, lament its decline on op-ed pages, fetishize it in grassroots quality-of-life movements, diagnose its absence in more and more of our children every year, cultivate it in yoga class twice a week, harness it as the engine of self-help empires, and pump it up to superhuman levels with drugs originally intended to treat Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy. Everyone still pays some form of attention all the time, of course—it’s basically impossible for humans not to—but the currency in which we pay it, and the goods we get in exchange, have changed dramatically.
Attention is a complex process that shows up all over the brain, mingling inextricably with other quasi-mystical processes like emotion, memory, identity, will, motivation, and mood. Attention comes from the Latin “to stretch out” or “reach toward,” distraction from “to pull apart.” We need both. In their extreme forms, focus and attention may even circle back around and bleed into one other. Only in the last ten years—thanks to neuroscientists and their functional MRIs—have we been able to watch the attending human brain in action, with its coordinated storms of neural firing, rapid blood surges, and oxygen flows. This has yielded all kinds of fascinating insights—for instance, that when forced to multitask, the overloaded brain shifts its processing from the hippocampus (responsible for memory) to the striatum (responsible for unconscious tasks), making it hard to learn a task or even recall what you’ve been doing once you’re done.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Have you ever tried to ride an elephant? I’ve been on rides at the circus or petting zoo as a child where some trainer led the elephant by a short rope around a short circle. Then I went to Africa and for the first time it was just me and an elephant, no rope. I wasn’t alone, there were eight other people on the elephant, and one of the people was a local elephant trainer, so the ride didn’t ask much of me. There was, however, one difficult moment. We were riding along a path on a steep hillside, two by two, and my elephant was on the outside, walking about three feet from the edge. Then the path turned sharply to the left, and my elephant was heading straight for the edge. I froze. I knew I had to steer left, but there was another elephant to my left and I didn’t want to crash into it. I looked around and no one else seemed to notice. I might have called out for help, or screamed, “Look out!”; but some part of me preferred the risk of going over the edge to the certainty of looking stupid. So I just froze. I did nothing at all during the critical five seconds in which my elephant and the one to my side calmly turned to the left by themselves. As my panic subsided, I laughed at my ridiculous fear. The elephant knew exactly what she was doing. She’d walked this path a hundred times, and she had no more interest in tumbling to her death than I had. She didn’t need me to tell her what to do, and, in fact, the few times I tried to tell her what to do she didn’t much seem to care. I had gotten it all so wrong because I had spent the previous ten years driving cars, not elephants. Cars go over edges unless your unless you tell them not to.
Well nice story, but what is the point? Well, I think that this story can be helpful in understanding how the unconscious mind works. Just like a person riding an elephant, you may believe that you are directing your life, but in reality your unconscious is directing you. You may be riding these elephants, but they are the ones in control of where you are going. Like the rider, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the unconscious emotional elephant does. The rider is holding the reins and by pulling one way or the other can tell the elephant to turn, stop or go. You can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, you’re no match for him. You are merely a passenger. The elephant has been around for longer, is much faster, and is far more powerful then you. The rider cannot stop the elephant once it takes action, you can only guide it where it is willing to go. If you want your elephant to respect your wishes, you need to be aware that the elephant will exaggerate failures, understate success, and it will worry about potential consequences. The elephants may be stampeding, but they can be tamed. With time, attention, and effort, the rider can train the elephant, the unconscious can be made conscious, and the results of this teamwork can be astonishing. The key, is noticing when your conscious and unconscious are pulling you in opposite directions.
How do you know when you are being pulled in opposite directions? You need to reflect on how you make sense of the world around you. It begins by understanding how the unconscious mind influences daily life. Your daily experiences occur on two different levels of perception, namely conscious and unconscious. The conscious mind is the one that we are all familiar with. The conscious mind is in charge of “perceiving, apprehending, or noticing with a degree of controlled thought or observation.” However, there is no single definition for the unconscious in psychological literature. For my discussion, I will use a definition for the unconscious from Webster’s New World Dictionary, which is, “the sum of all thoughts, memories, impulses, desires, feelings of which you are not conscious, but which influence your emotions and behavior.”
The unconscious is not a thing but a relationship between yourself and the external world. Just as gravity describes a relationship between masses, perhaps your unconscious and conscious mind refer to a similar relationship between your inner processes and the outside world. The conscious mind is what you ordinarily think of when you say “my mind.” It’s associated with thinking, analyzing and making judgments and decisions. The conscious mind is actively sorting and filtering its perceptions because only so much information can reside in consciousness at once. Knowledgeable and powerful in a different way than the conscious mind, the unconscious mind handles the responsibility of keeping the body running well. It has memory of every event you have ever experienced; it is the source and storehouse of your emotions.
So I find an iceberg to be a useful metaphor to understand the relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind. An iceberg floats in the water largely hidden. Typically, the tip of the iceberg is seen, and the huge mass of it remains below the surface. Only a small percentage of the whole iceberg is visible above the surface. Everything else falls back below the water line, into unconsciousness. The conscious mind, like the part of the iceberg above the surface, is a small portion of the whole being. Yet the unconscious mind, the largest and most powerful part, remains unseen below the surface. And like an iceberg, the conscious mind is built upon a solid foundation of unconscious material.
Because of the inherent limitations of your perceptual systems, you can place your attention and concentration on a very tiny fraction of the information that is potentially available to you, at any moment. For instance, as you read this, you are probably unaware of the feeling behind your knees, or the background sounds around you, until you consciously direct attention to them. The brain is constantly scanning its environment for personally relevant information. When an unexpected event occurs, such as a loud noise from an empty room, a rush of adrenaline shuts down all unnecessary activity and focuses the brain’s conscious attention, so you can spring into action. Conversely, a situation that contains mainly predictable or repeated circumstances, such as driving, reduces the conscious brain’s interest in the outside world and tempts it to turn inward. The point is that lacking emotional weight, circumstances lose their hold on your conscious attention. The best the mind can do is to have an awareness that flexibly scans events, so that nothing is ignored for very long. The more information you have available to you about events, the better you are able to determine what is relevant to solving problems and satisfying your needs and desires.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Innovation is the name of the game these days — in business, in science and technology, even in art. We all want to get those big ideas, but most of us really have no idea what sets off those sparks of insight. Science can help! In the past few years, neuroscientists and psychologists have started to gain a better understanding of the creative process. Some triggers of innovation may be surprisingly simple. Here are five things that may well increase the odds of having an “Aha!” moment.
1. Take a shower.
A seemingly mindless task — showering, fishing or driving — might help spur creative thoughts, as the mind wanders from “lather-rinse-repeat” to a recent problem, and then back again. There’s even history to back this up.
As the ancient Greek engineer Vetruvius told us, Archimedes was lounging in a public bath when he noticed the water level go up and down as people got in and out. He suddenly realized that water could help him calculate the density of gold. “This alteration [of thoughts] may be very useful for churning the creative process,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Downtime also seems to reset the brain. In an upcoming study in Psychological Science, Schooler and his colleagues gave volunteers creativity problems followed by a period of rest. During that rest period, some were assigned a demanding task that kept the brain fully occupied, while a second group got a simpler task that allowed for mind wandering. A third group was given no task at all. Afterward, they all went back to try to complete the original problems. Those who could let their minds wander during the resting time were more likely to solve the creativity problems.
Researchers aren’t quite sure why mindless tasks help the creative process, Schooler says, but it could be that such tasks allow two different brain networks that aren’t usually turned on at the same time to be active. Schooler says: “It’s possible that there’s some opportunity for cross talk that’s useful.”
2. Work in a blue room.
As we grow up, colors take on specific associations — red means danger, and blue connotes peace and tranquility. Those associations affect how we think. In one experiment, people facing a red computer screen did better at detail-oriented tasks like proofreading. Volunteers who faced a blue screen did better at creative tasks. That study appeared in 2009 in the journal Science. Why the difference? Red makes us anxious, and “anxiety causes you to focus,” says Mark Beeman, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University who studies the neuroscience of creativity. Blue, he says, tells us we can relax and let the imagination roam free.
3. Live abroad.
Want to discover a new planet? Live in a foreign land. That’s what German-born astronomer William Herschel did while living in England in 1781 — he found the planet Uranus. He’s just one of many great scientists, artists, writers and composers who spent significant time living far from their native turf. A week in Paris isn’t enough to light the creative spark, delightful though that trip may be. The foreign sojourn has to be long enough to challenge your habitual ways of thinking and living.
People who had lived abroad performed better on creative problems and tasks, such as drawing alien creatures, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They bested people who had traveled for only a brief time, or who had never left home. The researchers think adapting to a new culture may spur some sort of psychological transformation that enhances creativity.
4. Watch a funny video.
Mood matters when it comes to creativity. Anxiety focuses a person, but good cheer and contentment liberate creativity. It “might not just relax your scope of interest, but actually broaden it further,” allowing you to look at a problem in new ways and come up with a solution, says Beeman. It could be as simple as seeing a YouTube video of a laughing baby. That’s one of the images that boosted the creativity in a 2010 study in Psychological Science. Mood-boosting music helped, too. Beeman’s own research has indicated that a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex is activated. That brain region is linked to decision-making, empathy and emotion. Gearing it up may help the brain reach new insights by detecting ideas it may have otherwise ignored.
5. Sleep on it.
Sleep helps generate new ideas in several ways. During sleep, the brain consolidates memories. That act of consolidation actually reorganizes thoughts, much like organizing books on a shelf. The new arrangement can help extract knowledge and generate new associations. And that half-awake period right before you fall asleep or when you wake up may also help you focus on a problem.
Legend has it that Thomas Edison came up with an invention to harness the insights generated during those half-awake moments. When he catnapped, he would hold a handful of ball bearings above a pie plate. If he fell asleep, the ball bearings would fall, waking him up to write down his thoughts.
But you don’t need noisy ball bearings to gain the benefit of sleep. Just waiting a day to tackle a problem again takes advantage of the consolidation process, increasing the odds that new solutions to the problem will emerge. But don’t expect this to work every time. Beeman says the sleep-on-it solution works best when people feel that they are getting close to an answer that is most likely to be solved by waiting a day. In his own research, he found it’s those “it’s on the tip of my tongue” moments that are most likely solved with sleep.
“When you’re stuck on a problem,” Beeman says, “getting away from it for a while helps.” Especially if you’re in the tub. In a blue room. Watching the Marx brothers.
This article is part of Joe’s Big Idea, an NPR project to explore how innovations come about.
The question of what sparks innovation and creativity has been the source of fascination for centuries, and our era is no exception. Recent books on the subject include:
Aha! The New Neuroscience of Creative Insight, by John Kounios and Mark Beeman (Random House, 2011).
Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011).
Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, by Steven Johnson (Riverhead, 2011).Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
« Previous Entries