Sunday, May 22, 2011

Playing dumb - I

There are quite a few situations when it is advisable to listen quietly and not give expert comments. Whoever said silence is golden knew a thing or two.

Some of these situations happen when there are discussions about religion and spirituality. Different people have different ways of coping with a difficult world where luck plays such a big part which provide some amusing (and disturbing) moments for a heathen like me. (According to Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, HEATHEN, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.) Sometimes I will not be sure whether people are distinguishing between history and mythology; between reality and metaphor. There will be an innocuous discussion going on when suddenly temperatures will stat rising. I will see Dr. Jekyll for the most part but without any warning I will find myself face to face with Mr. Hyde and I will feel like telling them Boris Becker's immortal words,'Nobody died.'

I heard that a person can gain so much spiritual power that he can even cause tsunamis! (I wonder what sort of person would want such a power.) I once read that you cannot think of anything so incredible that you cannot make at least one person believe it. I increasingly think this is true. People will come up with deepities that will be totally incomprehensible to me. They would have had a tough time with Socrates. In The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant writes:
So he went about prying into the human soul, uncovering assumptions and questioning certainties. If men discoursed too readily of justice, he asked them, quietly, to ti? - What is it? What do you mean by these abstract words with which you so easily settle the problems of life and death? What do you mean by honor, virtue, morality, patriotism? What do you mean by yourself?
I knew that if I had tried to argue, I would have been inundated with an information cascade that would have led to group polarisation where I would have been the only member of one group. As Herbert Spencer once said, 'Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none.' And it will all be delivered with an air of smug superiority which irks me so I am well advised to remain silent. When people are confronted by ideas they don't like, they react by reasserting familiar structures of meaning.

When people of faith are around, you often get to see the Dunning-Kruger Effect. They will talk about fantastic things with a certainty that Einstein wouldn't have been capable of when talking about Relativity.Without skipping a beat, they will say that atheists are certain about everything. There will be no danger at all that they will be able to spot the irony. I will try my best to hide my smirk.

There is a peculiar tendency to find scientific explanations and discoveries in ancient texts. Sometimes there will be a mix of scientific facts and fairy tales to produce some bizarre story. For instance, I heard that all the land masses were once joined into one unit which was called India. This gradually split into the various continents so actually the whole world is India! People say such things with such confidence that I begin to develop doubts about what I thought I knew and will try do some checks.

It is astonishing to find people rushing to believe some authority figure without bothering to check the veracity of the information. This same attitude is drilled into kids who refuse to accept the idea that teachers are only humans and could sometimes make mistakes or perhaps they had heard something wrong. They will continue to say the wrong thing saying, 'Teacher said so.'They seem to have internalised Voltaire's warning - “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”

It will be amusing to listen to the unconscious competition among believers (of the type parodied in Yes Prime Minister). For example, someone will say that he has visited a particular religious place 8 times while another will say she has gone there 12 times. Many people will talk about how they knew some temple official which enabled them to jump a long queue on a hot day and enter the sanctum sanctorum quickly where 'I prayed to my heart's content'. I will be the only one who will chuckle at the irony.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Losing Speech

Christopher Hitchens writes about losing his ability to speak.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Psychological factors that reduce stress - II

I could enjoy reading about various scientific discoveries that I hadn't given much thought to earlier because I don't have the kind of science phobia that Steven Pinker describes in The Blank Slate:
The fear that scientific knowledge undermines human values reminds me of the opening scene in Annie Hall, in which the young Alvy Singer has been taken to the family doctor:

MOTHER: He's been depressed. All of a sudden, he can't do anything.
DOCTOR: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
MOTHER: Tell Dr. Flicker. [Answers for him.] It's something he read.
DOCTOR: Something he read, huh?
ALVY: [Head down.] The universe is expanding.
DOCTOR: The universe is expanding?
ALVY: Well, the universe is everything and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
MOTHER: What is that your business? [To the doctor.] He stopped doing his homework.
ALVY: What's the point?

The scene is funny because Alvy has confused two levels of analysis: the scale of billions of years with which we measure the universe, and the scale of decades, years, and days with which we measure our lives. As Alvy's mother points out, "What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!"

People who are depressed at the thought that all our motives are selfish are as confused as Alvy. They have mixed up ultimate causation (why something evolved by natural selection) with proximate causation (how the entity works here and now). The mix-up is natural because the two explanations can look so much alike.
Another psychological factor that reduces stress is the presence of social support networks. Robert Sapolsky writes in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers:
Rats only occasionally use it, but primates are great at it. Put a primate through something unpleasant: it gets a stress-response. Put it through the same stressor while in a room full of other primates and ... it depends. If those primates are strangers, the stress-response gets worse. But if they are friends, the stress-response is decreased. Social support networks -- it helps to have a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, an ear to listen to you, someone to cradle you and to tell you it will be okay.


Social support is certainly protective for humans as well. This can be demonstrated even in transient instances of support. In a number of subtle studies, subjects were exposed to a stressor such as having to give a public speech or perform a mental arithmetic task, or having two strangers argue with them, with or without a supportive friend present. In each case, social support translated into less of a cardiovascular stress-response.
I have written about the wonderful support system that I have. Another psychological factor that reduces stress is control which also I had mentioned earlier.

It is said that life is lived forward and analysed backward. I did not know about these things before my stroke. I read this book a couple of years ago and tried to think of the various factors under these heads that helped me to cope with the changed circumstances.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Psychological factors that reduce stress - I

When an organism is subjected to some physiological stress say, a pain stimulus, it develops a stress response. Two similar physiological stresses can be perceived and appraised differently depending on psychological factors i.e. they can be modulated by psychological variables. A corollary is that, in the absence of any physiological stress, psychological factors alone can cause a stress response. Being familiar with zebras, you are no doubt conversant with all this stuff. So let us proceed to rats.

Take a rat and subject it to a series of mild electric shocks. It has some stress response like an increased heart rate. Let us say the long term consequences of this is measured as some probability of developing ulcers later on. It is seen that this probability increases for the stressed rat. Take another rat and subject it to the same electric shocks of the same intensity and duration. But this time allow the rat to run across and gnaw a piece of wood after every electric shock. It is seen that this rat has a lower probability of developing ulcers. You have given it an outlet for frustration. Discussing this experiment, Robert Sapolsky writes in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers:
We humans also deal better with stressors when we have outlets for frustrations - punch a wall, take a run, find solace in a hobby. We are even cerebral enough to imagine those outlets and derive some relief: consider the prisoner of war who spends hours imagining a golf game in tremendous detail. I have a friend who passed a prolonged and very stressful illness lying in bed with a mechanical pencil and a notepad, drawing topographic maps of imaginary mountain images and taking hikes through them.

A central feature of an outlet being effective is if it distracts from the stressor. But, obviously, more important is that it also be something positive for you - a reminder that there is more to life than whatever is making you crazed and stressed at the time.
The interest I developed in reading about and trying to understand evolution and to some extent astronomy were my outlets for frustration. (I read more about evolution not because I like astronomy less but because I like evolution more. Both are huge subjects and I have only so much time to read so I have to make a choice.) I loved grappling with concepts that I didn't know anything about. “Not to be occupied, and not to exist, amount to the same thing,” said Voltaire. I tried to keep myself occupied during long sleepless hours thinking about stuff that I was previously unfamiliar with. So when I was not doing anything, I was not really not doing anything. This blog also acts as an outlet for frustration. of course the mother of all outlets was the establishment of a means of communication.

There is an interesting variant of the above rat experiment. This time after each electric shock, let it run across the cage and hassle another rat. Such stress induced displacement of aggression reduces the probability of it developing ulcers. Sapolsky writes:
It’s a real primate specialty as well. A male baboon loses a fight. Frustrated, he spins around and attacks a subordinate male who was minding his own business. An extremely high percentage of primate aggression represents frustration displaced onto innocent bystanders. Humans are pretty good at it, too, and we have a technical way of describing the phenomenon in the context of stress-related disease: “He’s one of those guys who doesn’t get ulcers, he gives them.” Taking it out on someone else- how well it works at minimizing the impact of a stressor.
P.S.: I saw recently that Stanford has just posted Robert Sapolsky's entire Human Behavioral Biology course from Spring 2010 on YouTube! I don't know about you but I am going to
freak out on this.