Monday, November 30, 2009

Notes from 'Feet of Clay' by Anthony Storr

Since this book is concerned with some gurus who were less than admirable, I want to affirm at the outset that I recognize that morally superior individuals exist whose integrity, virtue, and goodness are far beyond the reach of most of us. Such people, unlike gurus, usually influence other by their examples in daily life rather than by swaying crowds with rhetoric, surrounding themselves with adoring disciples or claiming access to esoteric wisdom which the ordinary person cannot reach unaided.

Many gurus appear to have been rather isolated as children, and to have remained so. They seldom have close friends. They are more interested in what goes on in their own minds than in personal relationships, perhaps because they do not believe that anyone else really cares for them. In other words, they tend to be introverted and narcissistic.

Gurus tend to be intolerant of any kin of criticism, believing that anything less than total agreement is equivalent to hostility. This may be because they have been so isolated that they have never experienced the interchange of ideas and positive criticism which only friends can provide. It is also because revelations are in a different category from works of art, in that they cannot be criticized, only accepted or rejected.

Conviction of a special revelation must imply that the gruru is a superior person who is not as other men are. Gurus attract disciples without acquiring friends.

Gurus must possess charisma...Charisma is closely linked with intensity of conviction. The ability to speak fluently in public and good looks are helpful additional assets. Some of the gurus discussed in this book were so fluent that, without reference to notes, they could hold an audience entranced for hours at a time.

Almost by definition, charismatic leaders are unpredictable for they are bound by neither tradition nor rules; they are not answerable to other human beings. If a leader is accepted as having charismatic authority, he is often accorded the right to direct every aspect of his followers' lives. For example, he may dictate where they live, with whom they form sexual relationships, and what should be done with their money or other possessions.
(Self-note: Same working principle for Astrology.)

A guru's conviction of his own worth depends upon impressing peole rather than upon being loved.

Moreover, it is those who are high in the dictator's hierarchy who are most likely to be seen as threatening. Paradoxically, the 'friends' and allies on whom a normal leader might depend for advice and support during crises, often constitute the greatest threat to the paranoid dictator. Hitler's purge of Ernst Rohm and his Stormtrooper lieutenants in 1934 is a typical example.
(Self-note: Reminiscent of Saddam's approach of keeping 'dumb relatives' in important senior positions for the same reason as above)

As we shall see, some gurus are dictators on a small scale. Although their message is ostensibly religious rather than political, they behave like dictators, thrive on adulation, have no true friends, attempt to exercise absolute power, and are afflicated by the same kind of paranoid suspicions. Let us look at two gurus who fit this description:

On Nov. 18, 1978, over nine hundred people, including two hundred and sixty children, drank or were injected with cyanide in Jonestown, Guyana. This self-annihilation of the members of the People's Temple was ordered by its founder, Jim Jones,...On April 19, 1993, eighty-six people, including twenty-two children, perished in the flames of Ranch Apocalypse, Waco, Texas. This self-immolation was at the instigation of the cult leader David Koresh...Their aim was absolute power, and the ultimate expression of power over others is to bring about their death.

As a youth, he invited an acquaintance for dinner. When the lad said that he must leave before Jones wished him to do so, Jones fired a gun at him, narrowly missing him.

Jones claimed divinely inspired clairvoyance, which he invoked as explaining his knowledge of the personal histories and secrets of those whome he called up. In reality, he employed spies who discovered these secrets by passing on information gleaned from personal enquiries, unauthorized entries to homes, and even from combing through dustbins.

Jones specialized in services of healing, for which he claimed he had a divine gift. Many of his so-called cures were faked. People brought in in wheelchairs would be told they were healed and could walk. In fact, these were disguised members of the People's temple who had been trained for the role. Jones had no hesitation in claiming to cure cancer. An individual would be told that he had cancer of the bowel and instructed to go to the lavatory. Then, a bloody mass of animal intestine would be produced as evidence that the cancer had been miraculously evacuated. Complicity in his deceptions as healer was one way in which Jones gained control over the members of his cult. Sexual confessions were another. Some were compelled to sign confessions to crimes which they had not committed. Members of the Temple had to abrogate anything which ministered to their sense of individuality: possessions, children, spouses, and ownership of their own bodies. Everything was to be held in common. Jones, like many other gurus was good at raising money. By 1975, the Temple's assets were rated at $10 million.

Eugene Chaikin, a Californian attorney who became a member of the Temple, described him as the most loving, Christ-like human being he had ever met. Another law graduate, Tim Stoen, called Jones 'the most compassionate, honest and courageous human being the world contains'. in 1972, Stoen signed a paper requesting that Jones sire a child by his wife, since he himself was unable to do so. Jones acceded to Stoen's request.

In 1977, Jones moved to Guyana, and established a settlement in Jonestown, so remote from the capital Georgetown, that it took thirty-six hours to reach it by steamer and river boat. Guyana was chosen because it had a history of offering sanctuary to a variety of fugitives, including a number of criminals and the black leader Michael X. (A convert to Islam and Black Power, he was expelled from Britain for dope-dealing, fled back to Trinidad, and, after committing murder, fled to Guyana.)

About 70% of those who followed Jones to Guyana were black; about two-thirds were female.

Jones' need to bring everyone and everything under his own cotrol came near to fulfillment in this remote place.

According to Deborah Blakey, a former financial secretary of the Temple, who managed to get out in April 1978, the commune lived under a reign of terror. Most people were required to work in the field for eleven hours a day on grossly inadequate rations. As a result, extreme weight loss, chronic diarrhoea, and recurrent fever affected half. The settlement was constantly patrolled by armed guards. Jones threatened that anyone who tried to escape would be killed, forbade telephone calls to the outside world, ensured that mail was censored and confiscated passports and money. He also told them that the settlement was surrounded by mercenaries of by the Guyanese Army, who would capture and torture and defectors and castrate any males who attempted to escape.

Jones affirmed that heas the only truly heterosexual male in the settlement and alleged that many of the other males had not come to terms with their homosexual feelings. To demonstrate this, he found it advisable to bugger some of them. One such victim is reported as saying: 'Your fucking me in the ass, was, as I see it now, necessary to get me to deal with my deep-seated repression against my homosexuality'. 'Father' could do no wrong, and sex with Father was generally reported as an incomparable experience.

Punishments were generally carried out in public on the stage of the church. Beatings were inflicted with a three-foot paddle, and some beatings lasted half-an-hour. Grace Stoen saw her son John Victor beaten in public, but when she finally escaped from the settlement in July 1976, she had to leave the child behind. Victims of beatings had their cries amplified by microphones held to their lips. A child who soiled his pants was forced to wear them on his head, forbidden food, and made to watch others eating. Children were sometimes tossed into a well near Jones' bungalow and pulled down into the water by aides already swimming there. Other offenders had a hot pepper stuffed up the rectum. Another punishment was to be confined in a crate too small to permit standing for days at a time. Some offenders were given electric shocks from a machine known as Big Foot.

Yet, as Shiva Naipaul indicates in his book 'Journey to nowhere' there was another side to Jonestown. Dr. James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist who interviewed a number of survivors over a period of ten years, was impressed with the fact that none regretted their stay in Jonestown. It is evident that some people who had been alienated from conventional society felt themselves part of a new community in which they were for the first time accepted and valued.

His sexual behaviour indicates that he used sex as a way to dominate others rather than as an expression of love.

Although the People's Temple accumulated considerable funds, he does not seem to have been attracted by conventional trappings of wealth in the shape of Rolls-Royces, yachts, or gold trinkets. What fascinated him was the exercise of power over people.

Jones was a confidence trickster. He once broke a window and claimed that a brick on the floor had been thrown at him. Unfortunately for him, the absence of broken glass within the room...In Jonestown, he claimed that enemies had fired at him, and produces bullets in evidence. In fact, his adopted son Jimmy had fired the shots, and was seen to do so by Vincent Lopez.

Jones began to announce himself as God around 1974. Drugs made him more inclined to claim divine status but how he believed in his own divinity is an open question.

The inhabitants of Jonestown were prepared well in advance for their eventual death. Jones kept on telling them that he expected the settlement to be attacked by a variety of foes, and that if this happened, the only way out might be suicide. Reports by survivors, and examination of the site of injection in the corpses suggest that more were murdered than was originally supposed.

Let us turn from Jonestown to Ranch Apocalypse. Born to a 14 year old girl, who placed him in her mother's care, reclaimed him when she married a merchant, who thrashed him frequently. Did poorly at school, called retard, knew the whole of New Testament by 12. Impregnated a 16 yr old who refused to live with him on the grounds that hewas unfit to bring up a child. This shattered his confidence. Mood swings of pathological intensity, sometimes believing himself to be uniquely evil, sometimes thinking he was especially favoured by God. Soon infatuated with a Pastor's daughter, behaviour became so outrageious that the pastor and his congregation expelled him. His intial periods of depression were succeeded by an ever mounting confidence that he had been specially selected by God; a conviction which may have been reinforced by LSD, which he started using in his late teens.

Koresh started a similar cult similar to Jones' Guyana, but in Waco, Texas.His annual income amounted to $500,000 (financed by a number of rich businessmen who were persuaded) He taught that God would return to earth with fire and lightning and establish a new kingdom in Israel with Koresh on the throne. He persuaded his followers that death was only a prelude to a better life to come, in which they would be among the army of elite immortals who were destined to slaughter all the wicked on earth.

Similar starvation practices as Jones.

Punishments also as savage as Jones'. He taught that children as young as eight months old should receive corporal punishment for misbehaviour. Another punishment was to immerse offenders in sewage and not allow him or her to bathe.

Derek Lovelock, and English survivor of the terminal siege insisted that Koresh was 'a very caring compassionate man'. "We were one big family,"

Koresh was as sexually rapacious as Jones, but his tastes were different. In 1983, Koresh married Rachel, the daughter of an official of the Branch Davidian Church. She was only fourteen years old, but no one objected. She bore him three children. In 1986, Koresh began sleeping with her younger sister, then twelve years old. When Koresh took command of Ranch Apocalypse, he split up families by ensuring that the men slept on one floor, the women on another. Severing family ties was one way of reinforcing allegiance to himself, and also made it easier for him to seduce the women he wanted. Koresh considered himself entitled to have sexual relations with any of the females in the compound, including girls of twelve and thirteen. One child who was too small for penetration was urged to use large tampons in order that her vagina might become able to accommodate him.

He was less obviously a confidence trickster than Jones; "Vernon (Koresh) gets a craving. Then he finds the theology to justify that craving. When others buy into his doctrine, he starts believing it himself.

When Ranch Apocalypse finally went up in flames, seventeen of the twenty-two children who perished has been fathered by Koresh, who claimed that only he was allowed to procreate, and that part of his mission was to fill the world with righteous children.

The final holocaust was initated by members of the cult, who used kerosene lamps to start the blaze. Not everyone who died was burned alive. Twenty-seven cult members, including Koresh, were shot.


There were very few defectors from either camp. It appears that once a guru has convinced a follower of his Messianic status, his actual behaviour, as judged by ordinary human standards, becomes largely irrelevant. Belief in a guru, whilte it persists, entirely overrules rational judgement. Dedicated disciples are as impervious to reason as are infatuated lovers.

There is a well-known psychiatric phenomenon called 'folie a deux.' If two people live together and one is mad, the other may become convinced by at least some of the delusions expressed by the psychotic partner. If the psychotic partner is removed to hospital, the other partner usually recovers his or her sanity. Shared delusions are mutually reinforcing, and membership of a sect led by a psychotic leader reassures both the leader and the disciple who has fallen under his spell of the truth of their beliefs.


Gurdjieff claims our interest because he, or his doctrines as propounded by his disciple Ouspensky, bewitched so many interesting and intelligent people, including the writer Katherine Mansfield, A. R. Orage, Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap, Kenneth Walker, Olgivanna, John Godolphin Bennett, James Young, Maurice Nicoll, David Eder, T.S. Eliot, David Garnett, and Herbert Read.

Gurdjieff claimed to have learned much from a three months' stay in 'the chief sarmoung monastery'...The Sarmoung monastery cannot be identified. His own autobiographical account, in 'Meetings with remarkable men' is contradictory and chronologically unreliable.

Gurdjieff was a dictator. He had the capacity so completely to humiliate his disciples that grown men would burst into tears.

Eugen Bleuler, the famous director of the Burgholzli mental hospital in Zurich and the originatoor of the term 'schizophrenia', quotes a patient who wrote:
'At Apell plain church-state, the people have customs and habits partly taken from glos-faith because the father wanted to enter new f. situation, since they believed the father had a Babeli comediation only with music. Therefore they went to the high Osetion and on the cabbage earth and all sorts of malice, and against everything good. On their inverted Osetion valley will come and within thus is the father righteousness.

Gurdjieff is said to have believed in God, to whom he referred as 'Our Almighty Omni-Loving Common Father Uni-Being Creator Endlessness'.

His theories: "Man, like every other living being, cannot, in the ordinary conditions of life, tear himself free from the moon. All his movements and consequently all his actions are controlled by the moon. If he kills another man, the moon does it; if he sacrifices himself for others, the moon does that also. All evil deeds, all crimes, all self-sacrificing actions, all heroic expoloits, as well as all the actions of oridnary ilfe are controlled by the moon."

Perhaps I have extracted enough to give the reader some idea of Gurdjieff's picture of the cosmos, and to demonstrate that Gurdjieffe's own writings are both voluminous and obscure.

His own account of how he survived his early wanderings reveals how expert he was at deception. Gurdjieff wrote that he coloured sparrows with aniline dyes and sold them as 'American canaries' in Samarkand. He also wrote that he found out in advance which villages and towns the new railway would pass through, and then informed the local authoriteis that he had the power to arrange the course of the railway. He boasted that he obtained large sums for his pretended services, and said that he had no pangs of conscience about doing so.

He became skilled at extracting money from Americans to support his enterprises at the Chateau du Prieure, and he referred to this activity as 'shearing sheep'.

When he and his followers were in danger from the conflict between the Cossacks and the Bolsheviks, Gurdjieff managed to get transport from the Provincial Government by spreading rumour that he knew of enormously rich deposits of gold and platinum in the Caucasus mountains which would fill the Government's coffers.

Fritz Peters recounts an elaborate hoax in which Gurdjieff diluted a bottle of vin ordinaire with water, and the covered it with sand and cobwebs. Two disgintuished women visitors were tricked into believing that Gurdjieff was serving them with wine of a rare vintage, and dutifully pronounced it the most delicious they had ever tasted.

In 1933, he went to New York where he gave a dinner for some fifteen New Yorkers. When the diners had drunk a certain amount, Gurdjieff began to tell them that it was a pity that most people - especially Americans - were motivated only by genital urges. He picked out a particularly elegant woman and told her in crude terms that she took so much trouble with her appearance because she wanted to fuck. The guests were soon behaving in an uninhibited fashion and becoming physically entangled with each other. Gurdjieff then announced that he had proved his point that Americans were decadent and demanded that he be paid for his lesson. According to Peters, he collected several thousand dollars.

Yet confidence trickery cannot be the whole explanation of Gurdjieff's teaching. If Gurdjieff could support himself so easily by deception, why should he bother to invent a cosmogony? All and Everything is enormouly must have demanded considerable dedication to complete. Gurdjieff began his dicatation of the first part of the book in Dec. 1924 and finished only in Nov. 1927. Could anyone devote so much time and energy to something he did not believe himself, with the deliberate intention to deceive? We hover on the borderline between confidence trickery and psychosis.

But he did, at times, show considerable interest in people, and compassion for those who were suffering. He sometimes exhibited a capacity for intense concentration upon individuals, which was certainly one component of his undoubted charisma.

Fritz Peters wrote: "Whenever I saw him, whenever he gave me an order, he was fully aware of me, completely concentrated on whatever words he said to me; his attentoin never wandered when I spoke to him. He always knew exactly what I was doing, what I had done. I think we must all have felt, certainly I did, when he was with any one of us, that we received his total attention. I can think of nothing more complimentary in human relations."...When in the late summer of 1945 Peters suffered from severe depression with insomnia and anorexia, he sought Gurdjieff in Paris. Gurdjieff realized that he was ill, forbade him to talk and at once offered him a bedroom for as long as he needed it. He made Peteres drink strong, hot coffee, and concentrated upon him intesely.

However, not everything about Gurdjieff was so impressive. His personal habits could be disgusting. Peters wrote:
"What he could do to his dressing room and bathroom is something that cannot be described without invading his privacy; I will say that, physicall, Mr. Gurdjieff, at least so I gathered, lived like an animal...There were times when I would have to use a ladder to clean the walls."

Gurdjieff, like many other gurus, was unashamedly elitist and authoritarian.

Gurdjieff's sexual behaviour was unscrupulous, in that he coupled with any female disciple whom he found attractive, and not infrequently made her pregnant. When Peteres went to Paris to visit him, there were about ten children there.

Similar work load on disciples as Jones and Koresh.

However, he did not bring pressure upon followers to stay with him.

Rajneesh is best known to the general public as the guru who owned 93 Rolls-Royces and who celebrated sex as a path to enlightenment. Any guru who promotes technology, capitalism, and free love is likely to win support, and Rajneesh was hugely successful in attracting followers, especially from the white middle class.

Rajneesh, like Gurdjieff, was personally extremely impressive. Many of those who visited him for the first time felt taht their most intimate feelings were instantly understood; that they were accepted and unequivocally welcomed rather than judged.
Hugh Milne said "I had the overwhelming sensation that I had come home. He was my spiritual father, a man who understood everything, someone who would be able to convey sense and meaning into my life.' Ma Yoga Anurag wrote: 'Only a Master to whom you can entrust your very being - physical, mental and spiritual - is capable of taking you on such a journey. Listening to Bhagwan, I gradually came to realise that he knows, he has the power, that if I can only say, "Yes, I leave everything to you," everything will be taken care of'.

He was finally imprisoned in, and then expelled from, the United States. After being refused entry by various countries, he eventually returned to India.

Grandfather terminally ill when Rajneesh 7. Refused to eat or leave bed for 3 days after death.

As a boy, isolated, self-absorbed, and clever.
Suffered from asthma and came close to death on several occasions. He played with death, taking risks in order to come to terms with his fear of it. For example, he would dive into whirlpools in the river Shakkar and let himself be sucked down until, at the bottom of the whirl, he was thrown free.

Read enormously. Eastern and western philosophies. Turbulent, aggressive and arrogant. Habitual liar. Was so argumentative and difficult that he was asked to leave his first college. Got admitted into a second but decided to stay at home. Went into a depression mixed with poor health. Ran up to 16 miles a day in order to try and feel himself again, and started to mediate. His parents, believing that he was mentally ill, took him to see a number of different doctors;

On March 21, 1953, when he was 21 years old, Rajneesh's illness terminated with what he called 'enlightenment'. This was the end-point of 7 days during which he ceased to strive, seek, or struggle, but passively let go and waited. He entered an ecstatic state in which 'everything became luminous, alive, and beautiful,' and he himself felt 'mad with blissfulness'.....This series of events sounds like a psychotic episode.

It appears probably that Rajneesh suffered from a fairly severe depressive illness between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one which came to an end with a hypomanic state in the form of an ecstatic experience.

There are strong hints that he suffered from further depression after he had become established as a guru. In 1974, he withdrew from all activities and went into complete silence for a few weeks. In 1981, he also went through some months in which he failed to respond to those caring for him, and apparently did not even read.

I think it reasonable to conclude that, as in the cases of many other leaders, his personality was both narcissistic and manic-depressive, manifesting itself in actual illness from time to time.

B.A, M.A philosophy. 1960 asst. prof. philosophy at U. Jabalpur.

When the centenary of Gandhi's birth was celebrated throughout India in 1969, Rajneesh seized the opportunity to outrage conventional wisdom by alleging that Gandhi's fasting was masochism, and his abstinence from sex a form of perversion.

His remarkable range of reading ensure that his teaching was a pot-pourri of all the great religious leaders of the past, including Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. He could quote - not always accurately - from every well-known western thinker from Plato to Freud. When Bernard Levin visited his ashram, he reported that Rajneesh talk for an hour and three-quarters with no pause.

Rajneesh wrote nothing himself; but devoted disciples recorded his discourses and commentaries and made books out of them. Assuming that the edited discourses are accurate, one can understand that Rajneesh must have been a riveting and fluent speaker.

I could understand that his vision could bring new meaning to life for those who were in search of it. The main thrust of his teaching was what he called a 'religionless religiousness'; by which he meant a religious attitude to life without commitment to any particular creed or church.

Rajneesh always hated and despised poverty, and unashamedly claimed to be the rich man's guru.

Live in the moment philosophy. Same as Gurdjieff.

Rajneesh affirmed that sex was a way to enlightenment.

All inhibitions and possessiveness must be discarded and sexual experimentation and free love with different partners should be encouraged. The sexual act should be prolonged as long as possible in order to reach what he called 'valley orgasm' as opposed to 'peak orgasm'.

Too much in the book worth taking down. Others analysed in the book:


I am buying this book along with 'Kluge' so that I get free shipping from amazon (above $25).

Recommendation: High

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Notes from 'Kluge: The haphazard construction of the human mind'

I make notes from most books I read, fiction, and non-fiction. Most of it is stored in some chaotic manner in my hard drive and I have often found it cumbersome when I wished to trace a particular quotation, dialogue or trivia I know I've recorded in one of several word files titled 'Random notes 1/2/3/...n.doc' Also, usually my notes are not thorough because somewhere along the way I either lose continuity in my reading and forget to take notes when I resume after several days, or I get too involved in the book and say to hell with notes. Sometimes also, the books are too big and there's too much to write down (non-fiction) so I just give up. This book, the one mentioned in the title, is not too big and I have been very systematic in taking down notes, so I thought I'd store it online on my blog, from where I find it is easier to retrieve information compared to my hard drive. Also, I wished to share it with my blog readers to get feedback. I hope it is sufficiently well-documented that a blog reader can follow the tid bits and, hopefully, appreciate them like I did. Please let me know if the notes make for very chaotic reading for someone who hasn't read the book. In that case, I'll just create another blog to store these notes. (Note: The book isn't esoteric in the least bit so if its still not clear, then it must only be due to the fragmented nature of my notes than the contents of the book.)



If people had good source memory, they would have spotted the ruse. Instead, most subjects knew they had seen a particular name before, but they had no idea where. Recognizing a name like Sebastian Weisdorf for the name of a bona fide celebrity whom they just couldn't place. The same thing happens, with bigger stakes, when voters forget whether they heard some political rumor on Letterman or read it in the New York Times.

Take, for exapmle, the truly sad study in which people were shown pictures of one of two children, the child, let's call him Junior, had just thrown a snowball, with a rock inside it, at another child; the test subjects were then asked to interpret the boy's behavior. People who saw the unattractive picture characterized Junior as a thug, perhaps headed to reform school; those whon the more attractive picture delivered judgments that were rather more mild, suggesting, for example, that Junior was merely "having a bad day." Study after study has shown that attractive people get better breaks in job interviews, promotions, admissions interviews, and so on, each one an illustration of how aesthetics creates noise in the channel of belief....And, in a particularly shocking recent study, children of ages 3 to 5 gave higher ratings to foods like carrots, milk, and apple juice if they came in McDonald's packaging.

Studies show that in virtually any collaborative enterprise, from taking care of a household to writing academic papers with colleagues, the sum of each individual's perceived contribution exceeds the total amount of work done....Realizing the limits of our own data sampling might make us all a lot more generous.

As a rough guide, our thinking can be divided into two streams, one that is fast, automatic and largely unconscious, and another that is slow, deliberate, and judicious.

Although many emotions (such as fear) are arguably reflexive, emotions like schadenfreude - the delight one can take in a rival's pain - are not.

When we are stressed, tired, or distracted, our deliberative system tends to be the first thing to go, leaving us at the mercy of our lower-tech reflexive system - just when we might need our deliberative system the most.

While all normal human beings acquire language, the ability to use formal logic to acquire and reason about beliefs may be more of a cultural product than an evolutionary one, something made possible by evolution but not guaranteed by it.
Formal reason seems to be present, if at all, primarily in literate cultures but difficult to discern in preliterate ones.
The russian psychologist alexander luria went to the mountains of central asia in the late 1930s and asked the indigenous people to consider the logic of syllogisms like this one: "In a certain town in Siberia all bears are white. Your neighbor went to that town and he saw a bear. What color was that bear?"
His respondents just didn't get it; a typical response would be, in essence, "how should i know? Why doesn't the professor go ask the neighbor himself?" Further studies later in the twentieth century confirmed this pattern...This does not mean people in those societies cannot learn formal logic - in general, at least the children can - but it does show that acquiring an abstract logic is not a natural, automatic phenomenon in the way that acquiring language is.

'Prisoner's dilemma....the catch in this particular study was that before people began to play the game, they sat in a waiting room where an ostensibly unrelated news broadcast was playing in the background. Some subjects hear prosocial news (about a clergyman donating a kidney to a needy patient); others, by contrast, heard a broadcast about a clergyman committing murder. What happened? You guessed it: people who heard about the good clergyman were a lot more cooperative than those who heard about the bad clergyman.'

..."the attraction of the visceral." It is one thing to turn down chocolate cheesecake in the abstract, another when the waiter brings in the desert cart. College students who are asked whether they'd risk wasting 30 minutes in exchange for a chance to win all the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies they could eat are more likely to say yes if they actually see (and smell) the cookies than if they are merely told about them.
Hunger, however, is nothing compared to lust. A follow-up study exposed young men to either a written or a (more visceral) filmed scenario depicting a couple who had met earlier in the evening and are now discussing the possibility of (imminently) having sex. Both are in favor, but neither party has a condom, and there is no store nearby. The woman reports that she is taking a contraceptive pill and is disease-free; she leaves it up to the man to decide whether to proceed, unprotected. Subjects were then asked to rate their own probability of having unprotected sex if the were in the male character's shoes. Guess which group of men - reader or video watchers - was more likely to throw caution to the wind? (Undergraduate men are also apparently able to persuade themselves that the their risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease goes down precisely as the attractiveness of their potential partner goes up.)

Kill one save 5 by hitting a switch, kill one save 5 by pushing one person off the trolley. Most people say yes to former, no to latter, even though in both cases, 5 lives saved to one lost. Possible reason: Something more visceral about latter.

One historical example of how visceral feelings affect moral choice is the unofficial truce called by British and German soldiers during Christmas 1914, early in World War I. The original intention was to resume battle afterward, but the soldiers got to know one another during the truce; some even shared a Christmas meal. In so doing, they shifted from conceptualizing one another as enemies to seeing each other as flesh-and-blood individuals. The consequence was that after the Christmas truce, the soldiers were no longer able to kill one another. As the former president Jimmy Carter put it in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture (2002), "In order for us human beings to commit ourselves personally to the inhumanity of war, we find it necessary to dehumanize our opponents."

fabrique de Nimes (originally made in Nimes, France) -> denim -> now in France as les blue jeans

According to legend, the first machine translation program was given the sentence "The flesh is weak, but the spirit is willing." The translation(into Russian) was then translated back into English yielding, "The meat is spoiled, but the vodka is good."

Similar findings...apply even in our attitudes toward other people: the more we need them, the more we like them.

To be sure, evolutionary psychologists have tried to find adaptive value in at least one of these variations (homosexuality), but none of the explanation are particularly compelling. (There is, for example, the "gay uncle" hypothesis, according to which homosexuality persists in the population because gay people often invest considerable resources in the offspring of their siblings. The trouble is there's no evidence that all that good uncle-ing (for relatives that are only one-eighth genetically related) offsets the direct cost of failing to reproduces. Other popular adaptationist accounts of homosexuality include the Sneaky Male theory (favored by Richard Dawkins) and the Spare Uncle theory, by which an uncle who stays home from hunt can fill in for a dad who doesn't make it home) A more reasonable accounting, in my view, is that homosexuality is just like any other variation on sexuality, an instance of a pleasure systme that was only broadly tuned (toward intimacy and contact) rather than narrowly focused (on procreation) by evolution, co-opted for a function other than the one to which it was strictly adapted. Through a mixture of genetics and experience, people can come to associate all manner of different things with pleasure, and proceed on that basis.

My note: A little web research suggests "Explanations buried in Pleistocene history are always less convincing where reproduction, rather than survival, is at stake."

Something similar happens in our eternal quest for control. Study after study has shown that a sense of control makes people feel happy. One classic study, for example, put people in a position of listening to a series of sudden and unpredictable noises, played at excruciatingly random intervals. Some subjects were led to believe that they could do something about it - press a button to stop the noise - but others were told that they were powerless. The empowered subjects were less stressed and more happy - even though they hardly even actually pressed the button. (Elevator "door close" buttons work on a similar principle.)

Gilbert(Daniel Todd) has another favorite example: children. Although most people anticipate that having children will increase their net happiness, studies show that people with children are actually less happy on average than those without. Although the highs ("Daddy I wuv you") may be spectacular, on a moment-by-moment basis, most of the time spent taking care of children is just plain work. "Objective" studies that ask people to rate how happy they are at random moments rank raising children - a task with clear adaptive advantage - somewhere between housework and television, well below sex and movies. Luckily, from the perspective of perpetuating the species, people tend to remember the intermittent high points better than the daily grind of diapers and chauffeur duty. paraphrase Mark Twain, dissecting our own happiness may be like dissecting frogs: both tend to die in the process.

The psychologist Melvyn Lerner, for example, identified what he called a "Belief in a Just World"; it feels better to live in a world that seems just than one that seems unjust. Taken to its extreme, that belief can lead people to do things that are downright deplorable, such as blaming innocent victims. Rape victims, for example, are sometimes perceived as if they are to blame, or "had it coming."...Blaming victims may allow us to cling to the happy notion that the world is just, but its moral costs are often considerable.

People committed to eating in a healthful way are, for example, more likely to turn to junk if something else is on their mind. Laboratory studies show that as the demands on the brain, so-called cognitive load, increase, the ancestral system continues business as usual - while the more modern deliberative system gets left behind...When mentally (or emotionally) taxed, we become more prone to stereotyping, more egocentric, and more vulnerable to the pernicious effects of anchoring.

Procrastination is, in short, the bastard child of future discounting (that tendency to devalue the future in relation to the present) and the use of pleasure as a quick-and-dirty compass.

DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, third edition) listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. Has been changed in DSM-IV.

The classic example of a physical disorder with a clear corresponding benefit is sickle cell anaemia. Having two copies of the gene is harmful, but having a single copy of he gene alongside a normal copy can significantly reduce one's chance of contracting malaria. In environments where malaria has been widespread (such as sub-Saharan Africa), the benefits outweigh the potential costs. And, accordingly, copies of such genes are fare more widespread among people whose ancestors lived in parts of the world where malaria was prevalent.
But while some physical disorder do demonstrably bring about offsetting benefits, most probably don't...There are few, if any, concrete illustrations of offsetting advantages in mental illness...
It's true that many disorders have at least some compensation, but the reasoning is often backward. The fact that some disorders have some redeeming features doesn't mean that those features offset the costs, nor does it necessarily explain why those disorders evolved in the first place...
At the very least, it seems plausible that some disorders (or symptoms) may appear not as direct adaptations, but simply from inadequate "design" or outright failure....especially those that are extremely rare extremely rare, may result from little more than "genetic noise", random mutations that convey no advantage whatsoever.
Even if we set aside possibilities like sheer genetic noise, it is a fallacy to assume that if a mental illness persists in a population, it must convey an advantage. The bitter reality is that evolution doesn't "care" about our inner lives, only results. So long as people with disorders reproduce at reasonably high rates, deleterious genetic variants can and do persist in the species, without regard to the fact that they leave their bearers in considerable emotional pain.

Addiction can arise when short-term benefits appear subjectively enormous (as with heroin, often described as being better than sex), when long-term benefits appear subjectively small (to people otherwise depressed, who see themselves as having little to live for), or when the brain fails to properly compute the ration between the two.

Depressives...often distort their perception of reality by fixating on the negative aspects of their lives - losses, mistakes, missed opportunities, and so forth - leading to what I call a "ruminative cycle", one of the most common symptoms of depression. An early, well-publicized set of reports suggested that depressives are more realistic than happy people, but today a more considered view is that depressives are disordered in part because they place undue focus on negative things, often creating a downward spiral that is difficult to escape.

Man a schizophrenic, for example, has come to belive that he is Jesus and has then constructed a whole world around that notion, presumably "enabled" in part by the twin forces of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. The psychiatrist Milton Rokeach once brought together three such patients, each of whom believed himself to be the Son of the HOly Father. Rokeach's initial hope was that the three would recognize the inconsistency in their beliefs and each in turn would be dissuaded from his own delusions. Instead, the three patients simply became agitated. Each worked harder to preserve his own delusions; each developed a different set of rationalizations.

I don't mean to say that depression (or any disorder) is mpurely a byproduct of limitations in our abilities to objectively evaluate data...Most common mental disorders seem to depend on a genetic component, shaped by evolution - but also on environmental causes that are not well understood. If one identical twin has, say, schizophrenia, the other one is considerably more likely than average to also have it, but the concordance percentage is only about 50%.

...Darwin, who started his legendary work 'The Descent of Man' with a list of a dozen "useless, or nearly useless" features - body hair, wisdom teeth, the vestigial tail bone known as the coccyx. Such quirks of nature were essential to Darwin's argument.

Few theories are as well supported by evidence as the theory of evolution, yet a large portion of the general public refuses to accept it. To any scientist familiar with the facts - ranging from those garnered through the painstaking day-to-day studies of evolution in the contemporary Galapagos Islands (described in Jonathan Weiner's wonderful book 'The beak of the Finch') to the details of molecular change emerging from the raft of recently completed genomes - this coninued resistance to evolution seems absurd. Since so much of it seems to come from people who have trouble accepting the notion that well-organized structure could have emerged without forethought, scientists often feel compelled to emphasize evolution's high points - the cases of well-organized structure that emerged through sheer chance.
Such emphasis has led to a great understanding of how a blind process like evolution can produce systems of tremendous beauty - but at the expense of an equally impassioned exploration of the illuminating power of imperfection. While there is nothing inherently wrong in examining nature's greatest hits, one can't possibly get a balanced and complete picture by looking only at the highlights.
The value of imperfections extends far beyond simple balance, however. Scientifically, every kluge contains a clue to our is no exaggeration to say that the history of evolution is a history of overlaid technologies, and kluges help expose the seams.
Every kluge also underscores what is fundamentally wrong-headed about creationsim: the presumption that we are the product of an all-seeing entity. Creationsists may hold on tto the bitter end, but imperfection (unlike perfection) beggars the imagination. It's one thing to imagine an all-knowing engineer designing a perfect eyeball, another to imagine that engineer slacking off and building a half-baked spine.

naturalistic fallacy - confusing what is natural with what is good.

Scientific reasoning is not something most people pick up naturally or automatically.
And, for that matter, we are not born knowing much about the inner operation of our brain and mind, least of all about our cognitive vulnerabilities. Scientists didn't even determine with certainty that the brain was the source of htinking until the seventeenth century. (Aristotle, for one, thought the purpose of the brain was to cool the blood, inferring this backward from the fact that large-brain humans were less "hot-blooded" than other creatures.)

...Studies in teaching so-called critical thinking show increasingly promising results, with lasting effects that can make a difference. Among the most impressive is a recent study founded on a curriculum known as "Philosophy for Children", which, as its name suggsts, revolves around getting children to think about - and discuss -- philosophy. Not Plato and Aristotle, mind you, but stories wirtten for children that are explicitly aimed at engaging children in philosophical issues. The central book in the curriculum, Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery, begins with a section in which the eponymous Harry is asked to write an essay called "the most interesting thin in the world." Harry...chooses to write on his thinking: "To me, the most interesting thing in the whole world is thinking. I know that lots of other things are also very important and wonderful, like electricity, and magnetism, and gravitation. But although we understand them, they can't understand us. So thinking must be something must be something very special."
Kids of agest 10-12 who were exposed to a version of this curriculum for 16 months, for just an hour a week, showed significant gains in verbal intelligence, nonverbal intelligence, self-confidence, and independence.
Harry Stottlemeier's essay - and the "Philosophy for Children" curriculum- is really an example of what psychologist call metacognition, or knowing about knowing. Bu asking children to reflect on how they know what they know, we may significantly enhance their understanding of the world.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why I didn't get the swine flu shot

Chat transcript from earlier in the day:
me: hey they are giving swine flu shots in student health services
just fyi
until 4 apparently
Heather: thanks for the info
3:30 PM I'm not going to get the shot
me: why not? :) just curious
3:31 PM Heather: I've never had a flu shot, so I'm not going to start now. And I remain fairly isolated from people....don't figure there's such a high risk... don't have kids who can catch it at school and bring it home, take two classes but otherwise barely see people during the day....take the bus, but wash hands afterwards and take it at hours where it is not crowded and have minimal contact...
3:32 PM me: :)
fair enough
Heather: did you get it?
me: of course, i'm not getting it either :p
Heather: lol
why not?
me: well, i'm already a swine, so for me it would just be a regular flu

Monday, November 02, 2009

Poignant irony

Contemplating the strange irony of the doctor's profession: The better he is at his job, the lesser people will pay a second visit.