"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Category: Psycho-Excursions (Page 1 of 2)

Mind and Body Problems

Mental illness has ravaged many a life, ruined many a family, and has dramatically increased during the pandemic. Most of us probably know someone—a loved one, family member, friend, or colleague—who has been afflicted.  

Hidden within all this suffering is a long standing, seemingly intractable, philosophical quandary residing at the center of Western philosophy since the 17th century: The mind-body problem. This Gordian knot was prompted by the rise of science, which permits only physical causes and effects. The problem is this: How can a material, biological entity that obeys the laws of the physical world (our body) give rise to our rich, subjective, deeply personal experience of the world (our mind)? The debate ranges and rages across a wide landscape. Are we, for example, only body and our mind is, at best, an epiphenomenon? Or, alternatively, can we only be sure of our immediate phenomenological experience—our mind—and our body, as a physical entity, is a mirage?

This debate appears to have little to do with our everyday lives; simply another pointless intellectual game played by philosophers.1 This debate, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. Many will likely make decisions that have life consequences, sometimes life and death consequences, without realizing that they are determined by unexamined assumptions about the mind-body problem.

Mental Illness

Mental illness. The mind-body problem adheres in its very name. The term, mental illness, is a concatenation of mind (mental) and body (illness). The term also encodes a presumed resolution to the mind-body problem. Illness is the subject, the noun. Mental is the descriptor of the subject, an adjective. It identifies the type of illness. To reverse the order, “illness mental”, makes no sense. Illness is not an adjective. Because human distress, anguish, and dysfunction are defined as an illness, a physical affliction of the body, then the identification, diagnosis, cause, and cure must be treated as all illnesses are; as a medical condition.

Pills and Power

The illness approach to mental suffering gives “ownership” to MD’s; to psychiatrists. The manual for identifying and diagnosing mental illness (the DSM) is issued, and frequently updated, by psychiatrists; new illnesses are identified, some deleted, and diagnostic criteria added and amended.   

Understanding and treating mental illness underwent a revolution in the 1960’s. Prior to this time, identification, diagnosis, cause, and cure were predominately determined by Freudian trained psychiatrists. The revolution was sparked by the discovery of medications that ameliorate symptoms associated with profoundly disabling types of mental illness; neuroleptics to treat psychosis, antidepressants for depression, and mood stabilizers for bipolar disorder.

The chemical actions of these drugs were investigated with the aim of uncovering the pathophysiology responsible for the illness that the medications address. This research led to “chemical imbalance” causal models of mental illness. So, for example, neuroleptics, which contain dopamine, was hypothesized to offset an imbalance in dopamine presumed to cause psychosis. Similarly, antidepressants, which inhibit the uptake of serotonin, was hypothesized to prevent an imbalance of that neurotransmitter presumed to cause depression.

Given the severity of impairment of these illnesses, and the prolonged Freudian treatments using medically dubious means (talk) with uncertain results, these discoveries flashed on the scene as miracle drugs. Psychiatry was upended. The Freudian-based approach was replaced by a medical model anchored in physical causality, symptom-based diagnosis, and treatment by medication.

In addition to the obvious and profound benefits of relief of suffering, other important consequences followed from the positioning of mental illness within the body-causes-illness medical model. Insurance coverage is now routine, lifting the huge financial burden of treating these illnesses, and billions of federal dollars are now dedicated to research investigating the bio-medical causes and cures of mental illness. Medication is the default option typically used to treat mental illness.2 While philosophers debate the mind-body problem, it appears to have been solved in the laboratory.

Flies in the Ointment

Despite the success of medication and its widespread use, however, a host of troubling difficulties plague foundational aspects of the medical model of mental illness. Three are especially noteworthy.

Causality. Decades of research has failed to support the premise that specific biochemical deviations in the brain correspond to particular mental illnesses. Furthermore, symptom amelioration can be accomplished with drugs that do not contain the hypothesized chemical causal agent.3

It also has become clear that psychological stress and trauma can precipitate all manner of mental illness, from PTSD and anxiety disorders to schizophrenia and depression. Both body (biology) and mind (psycho-social) can predispose, prompt, or give rise to mental illness. Causality is a complex entanglement of body-to-mind and mind-to-body interactions. The nature of the entanglements are fuzzy, vary among mental disorders, and even vary among individuals sharing the same illness.

Diagnosis and Cure. Mental illness does not share essential diagnostic attributes of physical illness. Question: How many mental illnesses can be diagnosed using biomedical indices, including brain scans, genetic markers, blood tests, body scans, laboratory assays of bodily fluids and functions, identification of pathogens, etc.? Answer: None. Not one. Furthermore, the illnesses themselves are not identified by medical or biological symptoms. The symptoms are all psycho-behavioral. And cures consist of the reduction of the listed psycho-behavioral symptoms. Diagnosis and cure fall entirely within the circumference of “mind,” not body.

Treatment. The treatment of mental illness is a much researched area and the complications are head spinning. The best practice, empirically supported treatments vary for types and severity of illnesses, and can differ between individuals and circumstances. Medications can certainly be effective, but they are not a panacea. Indeed, for many, if not most, of the 157 mental disorders listed in the recent diagnostic manual, medications are not the most effective treatment. Instead, behavioral and psychological interventions often are, and they come with the added benefit of no long-term side effects.4

Mind-Body and You

The debate about the mind-body solution to mental illness ranges widely and rages on. It has not been solved. Confusion, dispute, and debate about all aspects of mental illness, from identification, to diagnosis, to cause, to cure, indeed, to the very legitimacy of the term “mental Illness” itself, highlight the intractable nature of the issue. This is not simply a philosophical debate, and cannot be waved off as irrelevant to our daily lives. It is a dispute with life-altering consequences. Should you find yourself in need of treatment, you must choose your solution, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Be informed. Choose wisely.

Abracadabra!

Consider. . . . . . . . . a tiger.

If I were speaking this, you would experience a silence after “Consider”. And when I eventually spoke again, you would then think of a tiger. Out of the anticipatory silence, the word conjured this remarkable creature—so utterly removed from your immediate experience—into awareness. The word “tiger” is “magic”. It “tricks” you into inhabiting an imaginary experience that overshadows the concrete reality that directly presents itself to your senses.

Language untethers us, liberates us from the immediate, allows us to reference distant things beyond our immediate experience; time travel forward to eternity or back to the Big Bang; contemplate zero and infinity, tennis and tigers, unicorns and utility bills; think about, and conduct, a “dialog” (!) with ourselves. Words have the power to charm, to evoke, to cast a spell. Words—puffs of air—are chants that enchant.1

We dwell within a reality that is conjured into existence through words. We typically think of enchantment as the experience of being transported into a state of wonderment apart from the mundane reality we navigate in our everyday lives. But our everyday world is defined, orchestrated, governed by words, and our body is habitually attuned to respond to these air-puffs. We dwell within the word meanings; they are grafted onto our brain and viscera evoking immediate, sometimes strong responses usually so automatic we are unaware of how we are being organically influenced and swayed. We live this enchanted life, walking, talking, thinking, feeling it—mesmerized. We experience it so directly and unquestionably that we think those who might suggest we live in a dream world slightly mad.

Collective Spell-Casting

This conjured reality is essential for our individual and collective survival—so essential that our brains are hard-wired to acquire and use language. We are, fundamentally, a social species, born so helpless that we must rely, for many years, on the intense care and attention of adults if we are to survive. As adults, we also cannot survive on our own; we must communicate and collaborate with others. Language makes this possible. Miraculously, our biology primes us, in our early years, to rapidly acquire words, regardless of the language.

Words are cultural covenants that exist before and beyond any individual, enabling those who share the word to inhabit a common intention. We speak through these covenants, breathing life into these ready-made forms, using them to express our personal meanings and intentions. When we “give our word” we make a promise to honor the shared intention of the word. And we “give our word” whenever we converse.

Power of Nonsense

Words are nonsense. Say a word over and over, fast. Doing so strips it of its power to charm, draining its meaning, exposing its sonic absurdity. Learning a foreign language has the same effect only in reverse. It is an act of faith that the nonsense sounds we try so hard to master will, in the right linguistic context, exert their magic. I spent many months laboring to learn basic French in preparation for a two month visit to France. When there I finally was able to utter the rehearsed sounds. . . others responded—as promised! I experienced toddlerhood, saying sounds and being startled and delighted to see others respond to me. It was an “abracadabra” moment.

Words are power. My French gave me power to participate with others in a meaningful way and navigate the simple cultural pathways of everyday engagements. My thrill derived from the remarkable power of words to reach beyond myself and animate reactions in others. I was initially elated: “I can speak French!” Over time, however, I became aware of just how limited I was. Culturally, I was a babe. As I fumbled my way through exchanges, I was met with kindness—not unlike that accorded a young child. I became aware of my vulnerability. I could not command adult authority, could not understand much of what was said or happening around me. I became concerned of being cheated, duped, mislead, and worried that if I was to find myself in a disagreement or situation of some personal consequence, I was a toddler. l discovered what it is like to be a “foreigner,” a migrant, an immigrant, an “alien”. Powerless.

Writing

Now consider writing. The sound-stream of words frozen into visual images no less absurd than the sounds themselves. Time is stopped. The author is disemboweled, a non-present presence made manifest. The words of those not only absent but long-ago dead can now be conjured, speaking to the those now-present and to those yet-to-be-born. Immortality. Unimagined places, ideas, experiences, lives, and so much more, whispered to us across the chasms of time, space, and death. Writing is magic. And those who can read and those who can write—conjurers. No wonder the written word has oft been considered sacred.

So, dear reader, as you read this you bring me to life in your life. Words and writing, conjuring, allowing us to share these personal, private moments together. You—alive. Me—who knows?  Abracadabra!

Holey-Moley—Pointless Absurdity!

“What is the meaning of life?
Golf.”
“Golf—That’s absurd!”
“Precisely.”

Golf

Golf is the most gravely serious of sports. Tournaments occur in very exclusive, private clubs typically off-limits to the general public, attire is country club conservative, caddies carry the golfer’s clubs and serve up the desired club for each shot, the crowds are silent during play, commentators offer their remarks in whispered voice, and players adhere to strict codes of honor and etiquette.1 Each golf course is unique and specially designed with obstacles of various types to challenge the golfer; narrow fairways, strategically placed bunkers, sand traps, trees and water obstacles, fringed tall grasses and plants to make it “rough” on a player who strays there, and tilted, undulating putting greens with difficult cup placements that prevent simple straight-line putts to the hole.

Miniature

Golf is a sport ripe for parody. And miniature golf delivers, upending the serious solemnity of golf. It is played on very short holes, requiring only a putter, using a colored ball, and real-world course challenges are replaced by manufactured funhouse obstacles. You can putt your way through a Victorian house and partake of microbrewery refreshments while navigating holes based on a labyrinth board game and a duck shooting gallery; play in the basement of a funeral home with death-themed holes including a coffin, of course, and guillotine hazards; or stroke away on a glow-in-the dark course with underwater themes of mermaids, sharks, and giant clams.

Holey Moley!

Rotating Hotdog
(with Mustard)

A good friend of mine who is a golf enthusiast told me about a series he watches, “Holey Moley.” It is a very bizarre show involving “golf.” Participants compete on a course with a variety of unusual “super-sized” obstacles similar to those found in miniature golf. What makes “Holey Moley’ unique, however, is that the players must run a gauntlet of crazy obstacles after putting, such as crossing a narrow plank over a pool of water while jets of water are sprayed across the plank to knock the player off, or mounting a giant rotating plastic hot dog. All the while, commentators make jokes about the competitors, about each other, and poke fun at the entire enterprise. Fans are loud and raucous, players come from all walks of life, prizes include a dorky, checkered green jacket (a wink at the Masters Tournament’s Green Jacket), and sports celebrities encourage contestants by, among other things, playing a tuba. It is riotous fun.

Playful Upending

Humor, jokes, puns, satire, and parody derive their force by upending our assumptive frame of expectations. We are surprised, delighted and, perhaps, shocked because our anticipations about how things are, or should be, are overturned—in a playful way. The playful upending occurs because we are “just kidding,” “don’t really mean it,” which allows for transgressing without consequence.

Deep truths can be stated or hinted at while “just kidding.” Indeed, these playful romps are subversive, allowing us to explore alternative possibilities and truths, safely. Laughter is the joyful delight of “playing with the world.” Jokes, satire, and parody unmask the taken-for-granted. Humorists often are the ones who offer the most biting and penetrating observations of contemporary morals and mores, politics and religion. They are our modern day tricksters and fools who, throughout the ages, have poked fun at kings and princes, mocked the sacred and the cherished, sneered at tradition and convention.

“Holey-Moley” is a parody of miniature golf, which is, itself, a parody, multiplying the absurdity quotient and leaving in its frothing wake a wink about of the absurdity of golf itself: “All this serious effort just to hit a ball into a hole! Why bother playing golf—such a pointless enterprise?!”

Pointless Absurdity and Despair

The absurdist mask and garb of the trickster and clown can be frightening if you fail to see the humor; that is, if you see the reality the mask is unveiling—that the assumptive ground beneath our feet is unstable.2 Life is golf writ large: “All this serious effort to what end? Why bother playing life—such a pointless enterprise?!”

Many of us have experienced bouts of pointless absurdity, the sense that it is all a silly waste of time. Although this experience is quite common and usually brief, it can be, in the extreme, a heavy, pressing weight of angst, depression, and despair. Ironically, there also is an appeal to this stance toward life—it affords a measure of detachment from the injuries, cares, turmoil, and disappointments of life. “If is doesn’t matter, it can’t hurt.” “If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” “If I don’t love, I won’t grieve.”

Play The Game

Golf affords a path out of this existential despair. In my experience, those who are most likely to say “All this serious pursuit just to hit a ball into a hole! Why bother playing  golf—such a pointless enterprise!?” are those who do not play golf. That is because once you play the game, open yourself to the divots, roughs, and hazards, you also experience the joys of the game: the satisfying smack of the club-to-ball, the shots out-of-the-rough-onto-the-green, the putts-into-the-hole.3

“Play the game” is the answer to the question, “Why bother to play the game?” whether the game is golf or life. The challenge, of course, is why, and how, should you begin to play a game that is obviously pointless? This self-perpetuating spiral offers no apparent exit. But if you have no games in your life, no loves, no joys of even he smallest kind, this too, is a self-perpetuating spiral—of despair.

Overcoming pointless absurdity in both golf and life is the same. The first step is the biggest—getting up off the couch; a willingness to “give it a try.” It is important to seek momentary joys, not life changing transformations; to take pleasure in the simple act of taking action, not criticize all efforts as a failure; to embrace divots and flubs as part of the game, not proof of inadequacy; and to find an understanding and knowledgeable coach who can teach how to “get a grip”, ” take a stance”, and “get into the swing” that increase the joys of playing.4

The answer to pointless absurdity—and despair: “Tee it up.”

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Creative Genius

Leonardo. Michelangelo. Newton. Mozart. Einstein. They have altered the shape of Western civilization; some of whom, while dead for over 500 years, we know by their first names. We venerate them, hold them in awe—we have even pickled Einstein’s brain in the hope of someday grasping the source of his brilliance. Their contributions are so extraordinary that when we hear the term, “creative genius,” our first association is likely to one of them. Indeed, one of the synonyms for genius listed in the Thesaurus is “Einstein.”

The term, “creative genius”, is freighted with intimations of the divine. Creation is a sacred act. All religions have creation stories about our origins to explain the miracle of our existence so as to answer the most haunting existential question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Something appears, inexplicably, beyond our imagination, and we are left only to wonder. So, too, do we wonder about the unfathomable acts of creation by people like Leonardo and Einstein. The word, “genius,” also intimates wonderment and suggests supernatural origins: The Latin origins of the word refers to an “inborn deity or spirit that guides a person through life.”1 And we do confer a quasi-deity status to them.

This deification, however, misleads. Although, indeed, remarkable, these individuals could not have conjured their creations without the benefit of being in a very special place and time, afforded opportunities, and being embedded in a deep and extensive socio-cultural network that not only gives rise to the occasion for their creative acts, but also provides the means for their execution.

Newton’s Law of Gravity

Newton is reported to have discovered the law of gravity after observing an apple fall from a tree. Miraculous, indeed. But if Newton was an Eskimo, I can confidently say: no Newtonian discovery.  Same for Mozart and the rest of the pantheon of creative geniuses. Not simply because the Arctic lacks apple trees or pianos, and certainly not because Eskimos lack the capacity for such genius. Consider Newton’s law of gravity with its bizarre jumble of letters and numbers. What the hell does this mean? You need many years of very intense, specialized schooling to grasp its meaning. Or, take a score of Mozart’s music. Again, impenetrable, except with years of specialized study.  

Each of these geniuses profited from the good fortune of opportunity and circumstances. Newton was educated—a extremely rare and privileged opportunity—and was a professor at Cambridge University in the 17th century. At the time, England was the driving force of the scientific revolution, and Cambridge was the white-hot center of English science. A similar pattern of good fortune and opportunity is found for the rest of the quintet of geniuses.

We venerate these individuals but fail to venerate the remarkable cultural networks, contexts, and opportunities that provided the soil for their individual genius to arise and flourish.

These notable individuals are not apart from the rest of us, but are the apex of the creativity that is our human birthright. Our survival as a species depends on our inborn capacity to create and share ingenious discoveries that are drawn from and, in return, profit the larger community. Genetic mutation enables biological adaption, but the process is very slow; many generations long. The creation of new, adaptive innovations, in contrast, can occur in leaps and gain widespread use within a generation. Human adaptation occurs primarily through memes, not genes.

Our lives are densely packed with the gifts of the long history of human ingenuity, almost all by nameless individuals. The simple screw affords an example. Who invented the screw? We don’t know. When was it invented? Again, not sure, maybe ancient Greece, maybe ancient Egypt. Our world is literally held together by screws; by this original innovation created by unknown, ingenious individuals passed to us from long ago.

What is true for screws holds for sewing needles, bread, chocolate, and most of the rest of what compose our modern lives—-all products of nameless creative geniuses. We are part of this ongoing history, making our contributions, some far reaching, most more local. We each contribute to the network in our own, often humble way. It takes a village for a Newton to thrive. For a screw to be invented. And to create a village.

Robots, Hives, and Heroes

Robots

We are now able to engineer machines to perform feats that were, only a few short years ago, thought to be very distant possibilities in an imagined future. Self-driving vehicles, medical advances that outstrip the diagnostic abilities of the most able and experienced physicians, robots capable of accomplishing tasks of great complexity, are some examples. These futuristic achievements resulted from a breakthrough in how to program computers perform tasks.

Computers are programed using algorithms, which are simply formulas that define the organization and order for systematically performing operations needed to execute a task. These, of course, can be very complex, as the tasks become more complex, but are typically also rigid; once programed, the sequencing organization cannot be changed unless the programmers make modifications. The learning—the altering the organization based on feedback from the results —is done by the programmers.

All this changed with the advent of “machine intelligence”, where learning occurs within the machine itself. The algorithms responsible for machine learning are not completely rigid. They can self-modify, based on the results of its action. Exposure to many, many, situations creates many, many different outcomes that provide feedback, generating iterative adjustments (learning) that refine and perfect the performance. Machines become experts, capable of discriminations and decisions that can surpass the best human experts.1

Brain

The human brain is the model for how machine learning is programmed. The brain is composed of billions of neurons knitted together in complex networks. Each neuron operates like an on-off switch; it is either “on”—firing an electrical impulse—or “off”. The firing occurs when the electrical potential between neurons reaches a critical value, generating a spark that jumps the gap between the neurons. This becomes a link in a neural pathway that is part of an incomprehensibly vast web of networks. The networks are constantly changing as circumstances change. Habits create established neural pathways that occur when confronted with familiar circumstances. Learning occurs when feedback from familiar situations is sufficiently different from expected, prompting alteration of the response, changing electrical potentials between neurons, and thus changing the neural networks.

Machine learning is composed of silicon, rather than neural on-off switches, and the networks are very simple, not infinitely complex, but in both, feedback changes the firing potentials between switches, which alters the networks, which alters the responses.2 Simple, individual components capable of only the most elementary and inflexible on-off responses, when combined into complex networks of coordinated action, give rise to a system capable of solving impossibly complex tasks, and self-correcting as is goes. Thus occurs a promethean leap from silicon and neurons to intelligence and mind.3

Hive

What is this? It is not a sand hill. It is a termite mound. It is also housing for, and integral to, a mind; a hive mind. Each individual termite can perform simple functions, certainly more complex that an on-off switch, but quite limited in flexibility and function. The biology of the termite (reflexes, nervous system, exoskeleton, etc.) constrain the scope and functioning of individuals, but, most importantly, also encompass the ability to communicate and cooperate with other termites. This is a critical component for survival, for like the on-off switches of computers and brains, individuals become part of networks of collaborative action, which gives rise to a hive mind.

This mind is capable intelligent actions and evidenced in the termite mound itself. The structure is among the largest of any constructed by non-human species and acts as a huge lung, allowing the entire colony to inhale oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide; houses underground cultivated gardens and specialized chambers; and is under continual alteration to adjust to changes in weather and humidity to keep a constant livable environment for the inhabitants. Single individuals are incapable of learning and lacking in memory. A hive is capable of both, in very complex ways; foraging widely for food and bringing it back to the hive, adjusting to changes in the environment, developing creative solutions to the problems encountered.4 The hive is made possible by the biology of the individual to establish collaborative networks. The survival of the individual is dependent on the survival of the hive.

Humans

What is this? It is not a metal and glass hill. It is a human mound. It is also housing for, and integral to, a mind; a hive mind. Each individual is certainly more complex than an on-off switch or a termite. Each possesses a mind capable of intelligent, creative actions and adaptive responses. Despite individual sophistication, however, they cannot survive independent of the hive.5 Biology (reflexes, nervous system, endoskeleton, etc.) constrains the scope and adaptability of individuals, but, most importantly, also encompasses the ability to communicate and cooperate with others. This is critical for survival, and like the on-off “switches” of computers and brains and the biology of termites, allows individuals to become part of networks of collaborative action that give rise to a hive mind. The survival of the individual is dependent on the survival of the hive. One becomes the many. The many protect the one.

The Screw

The hive mind, that is, the collective capacity to understand and undertake projects that allow the human hive to adapt to demands and changing conditions that help insure the welfare of the collective, are beyond what any one of us could possibly conceive or execute. They also typically are hidden from view, in the background, as we attend to the foreground that preoccupies our daily lives. We drive to the market, unaware and unappreciative that every single act is made possible through the hive mind.6 What single individual could build a car from scratch; scratch here meaning, produce even a simple screw needed for the task? Indeed, the human hive-mind not only encompasses the hum and buzz of the living, but also resonates with the deeper register of the hum and buzz of the long past; those who learned to make metal from dirt, the physics of the screw, and the machine tools to make a screw, for example.

The Heroic Individual

We Americans are especially blind to the humming significance of the hive mind, as our model of the heroic individual pervades all aspects of our life, from economics, to politics, to psychotherapy. Certainly, individual initiative, determination, intelligence, and adaptability are important attributes that can contribute to our individual accomplishments and fate. Often, however, the model also includes the assumption that the individual is pitted against the world—the collective “they”; that our fate is totally in our hands and we are solely responsible for our success or failure, and the collective is a barrier to achieving success.7

The Heroic Ones and the Many

Rescue

Crises that threaten the hive, such as pandemics, most forcefully reveal the limitations of the individual, however able, to survive on their own. Our collective welfare and survival, and our individual welfare and survival, are inseparable. And the most heroic individuals are those who are ready to sacrifice their welfare, even their lives, for the collective; health care workers, police and firefighters, to name but a few. We use the term “heroic” only for those who sacrifice themselves for the greater good. We understand, at a primitive level, that individual sacrifice that only benefits ourselves is not heroic. It may be admirable, encompassing individual pluck and initiative, but it is not “heroic”. One becomes the many. The many protect the one. The heroic ones protect the many.

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Pandemic Exposure

Crises expose. Some crises are personal; a traumatic event, life-threatening illness, death of a loved one. Some are communal; war, economic collapse, pandemic. Crises rupture our everyday life, upending what we have taken for granted, rendering what we thought essential as trivial, forcing us to confront stark realities about our life—and the impending end of our life.

Crises cloud our vision, as anxiety and dread about our future, our fate, our survival, disorient and overwhelm. The rupture of crises also expose, perhaps for the first time, the hidden undergirding that gives our life structure and stability. It can be a clarifying moment, if we open our eyes, allowing us to understand and appreciate what we otherwise failed to see.

The pandemic affords us this opportunity. What is important? Basic needs: food, shelter, health, and safety. We discover that those who are essential for providing these are not sports “heroes”, media celebrities, or hedge fund managers. The heroes are nurses, health care workers, doctors, and hospital cleaning people; truckers, delivery people, mail carriers, and supermarket employees; police, firefighters, utility workers, and trash collectors. They risk their lives for the greater good, and have performed these tasks, every day, before the pandemic—and with few exceptions, have been invisible, unappreciated, and underpaid.

The previously simple act of driving to the market to buy supper is now a considered act of anticipation (when is the best time?), hope (have they run out of…?) and consternation (will I be able to feed myself and my family?). It is also an act made possible by a dense network of rules, regulations, policies, and fiscal commitments by the government. The extent of this is so enormous that only a small set of examples are needed to make the point.

Get in your car. There is standard, mandatory equipment, critical for travel, such as breaks, headlights and taillights, windshields, wipers, etc., etc. Driving requires everyone to follow an array of rules and regulations, otherwise commerce and travel would be nearly impossible; stay on the righthand side of the road, “stop” on red, “go” on green, etc., etc. All drivers are required to be licensed to guarantee universal understanding and competence. Once we begin our drive, the hidden governmental structures making possible the roads we travel also fill volumes—and we have not even arrived at the market, which possesses its own vast edifice of governmental structures and supports. A simple drive to the market, so critical for sustenance and now a conscious focus of concern, is supported and made possible by the “deep state”. And this is only a single, simple act. Almost everything we do in our modern life would be impossible without government, which enables complex collaboration, commerce, and exchange among over 300 million citizens. The past 40 years has been marked by the rise of a powerful political movement that has marched to the slogan, Government is not the answer, it is the problem. One of the aims of this movement have been to dismantle programs that arose during the New Deal, such as Social Security, and subsequent programs, such as Medicare. “Wasteful, inefficient, and unnecessary resources given to the undeserving” is chanted under this banner. It has been more than 75 years since the Great Depression and World War II, when we were confronted with a global crisis like the pandemic1.

Individual initiative, drive, and intelligence, as well as corporate profit-making and market forces, are powerless to effectively confront the challenges posed in these times of crises. Government is not only the answer, it is the only answer. Massive marshaling of resources, creation and coordination of agencies to address a single aim, and new agencies and regulations for banking, commerce, fiscal markets, and corporate conduct are needed, as is deficit spending and government programs to provide food, shelter, health, and safety.

The pandemic, like previous global crises, requires massive government intervention, unprecedented deficit spending, and a new “rulebook”, which is in the process of being written as we go. Very few of either political party object, and there is near universal agreement of the necessity to multiply the size of national debt. And who is at the head of the line, hat in hand, demanding a governmental handout? Captains of industry, CEO’s of investment firms, small businesses owners, and other ardent proponents of Government is the Problem.

Crises expose.

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Genitals of the Universe

TRIGGER WARNING!

This post contains explicit sexual images and material.

The intent of this post is to pander to prurient interests and alert to the pan-sexual nature of life. While prurient, this post also introduces an admittedly crude reclassification of the familiar. To de-nude, if you will, our usual nomenclature. But offered in Latin, for scientific purposes.

Shame and Embarrassment

Freud was right.1 We spend enormous mental energy denying, repressing, and sublimating our primal preoccupation with sex. Sex inhabits us, pervades us, surrounds us; it is in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the liquids we drink, the decorative patterns we desire, the gifts we give. We engage in elaborate mental gymnastics to transfigure the explicit erotic and sexual nature of our activities, while also joyously continuing our active, enthusiastic participation.

We are a curious animal; singular in our shame about the act of procreation, idiosyncratic in our embarrassment about our genitals. Ironically, we also use our shame and embarrassment to heighten sexual attraction and desire. Mass nudity, ubiquitous undress, bores. But put patches over our genitals, design alluring coverings, pouches, and peek-but-not-boo adornments, we then create “private parts”. The mundane is transformed to the mysterious and highlighted as off-limits. And, thus, is eroticized.

Genitals of the Universe

B. Kilban

The depictions above are the imaginative work of B. Kilban, a noted cartoonist for Playboy magazine in its heyday. The cartoon is funny because it draws attention to the bizarre, weird, and ludicrous shape of human genitals. Oh, what devilish humor doth random mutation possess! And no wonder the embarrassment—for that species possessing a bit of self-awareness.

Kilban’s genitals of the universe bring into relief awareness of the fantastical shape of our own genitals. But we need not speculate about extraterrestrial sex organs to gain this appreciation, for the riotous forms of terrestrial genitalia, and the sexual activity that abound among those with whom we share the planet, are beyond our wildest imaginings—should we care to notice. Indeed, these cartoon genitals are but pale, simple sketches when compared to what occurs in our midst. We do not notice because we use “formal wear” in our language, which serves to cloak our participation in the bumptious debauchery of life. To fully appreciate this debauchery, we must disrobe the “formal wear”; hence this post. Many beautiful, strange, outrageously bizarre forms of genitalia, and the manner of their use, flourish, but space limitations require parsimony.

De-nuding and Disrobing

LABIA MAJORA FLOS.2 (Conventionally called ‘flower petals’) (Often accompanied by an alluring fragrance to enhance sexual contact). There are a number of varieties including:

Labia Majora Flos Laetus.3

Example of Labia Majora Flos Laetus
Conventionally called “Sun Flower

Labia Majora Flos Immanemque.4

Example of Labia Majora Flos Immanemque
Conventionally called “Daylily
What better way to say “I love you?'”or “Be My Valentine?”then by giving the gift of these alluring sexual genitalia?5

Labia Majora Flos Periculo.6

Example of Labia Majora Flos Periculo
Conventionally called “Fishhook Cactus flower” 7

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OVUM MATURESCERE.8 (Conventionally called “fruit”).

Example of Ovum Maturescere.
Conventionally called “apple
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Varieties include:

Ovum Suci9 (conventionally called “fruit juice”)

Example of Ovum Suci
Conventionally called “orange juice”

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Ovum Induravitque10 (conventionally called “nuts”).

Example of Ovum Induravitque
Conventionally called “walnuts”

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MAMMALIUM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM.11 (Conventionally called “dairy products”).

Example of MAMMALIUM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM
Conventionally called “cows milk”
Example of MAMMALIUM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM
Conventionally called “ice cream”
“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!”

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AVEM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM12

Example of AVEM GENERATIUA PRODUCTUM
Conventionally called “eggs”

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SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS.13

SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS Particle
Conventionally called “pollen”
(Macro image)

Each day, the newspaper publishes the pollen count, giving the values for pollen levels in the air of the various plants and trees that can cause respiratory and allergic difficulties. These, of course, are sperm clouds that we inhale with every breath.

SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS14 (Conventionally called tree seeds). A cousin to SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS, these are the reproductive missives that float through the air, helicopter from the sky, and rain down from tree branches.

Example of SPERMA NIMBOSTRATUS
Conventionally called “Maplewood seeds”

SEXUS INTERSPECIES.15 We are appalled, and alarmed, at the thought of humans having sex with other animals; bestiality is the common word used, and it is a crime in most localities. However, cross-species sex is a fundamental strategy for the propagation of life. The proverbial birds and bees, along with butterflies, ants, beetles, bats and flies, engage in interspecies sexual commerce that enables much of flowering life to reproduce.

Example of SEXUS INTERSPECIES
Hummingbirds and flowers
“Oral Sex”
Example of SEXUS INTERSPECIES
Butterfly and flower
“Getting it on”

Next Time

Next time you buy flowers for a loved one, or to beautify your house or garden, or take time to nestle your nose in the petals to ‘smell the roses’; next time you pick a floral pattern to wear or decorate; next time you go to the grocery store and squeeze the grapefruit for the juiciest, fondle the apples for the ripest, or sip your morning orange juice; next time you savor your berries and nuts; next time you quaff your milk, nibble your buttered toast, or indulge yourself with ice cream; next time you devour your omelette, or delight in your cookies, cake, brownies, or pie; next time you sneeze, wheeze, cough or your nose runs; next time you admire a hummingbird licking nectar from a flower, a butterfly slowly undulating its beautiful wings on a bloom, or bees humming from blossom to blossom—AWAKE! We are intimates in the throbbing, surging urgency of life on this planet, seeking to thrust itself into the future.

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Songs From The Crib

Долпхин

What in the world is this?

If you have recognized that this might be a word written in a foreign language, you have made a huge cognitive leap; recognizing that bizarre shapes can stand for letters that, in turn, stand for sounds that, when combined, can create the sound of a word that, when spoken, has a shared meaning with others.1 We forget just how strange, magical, and shocking written language is. Or how difficult to learn.

Literacy is not natural, does not come unbidden like spoken language; it is a cultural invention, not a biological imperative. It is a tool, not unlike the wheel, that aids mental rather than manual labor. Like all tools, it extends human action in ways that take us beyond our biological capacities. It becomes an extension of ourselves, deeply altering ourselves and our community.

Literacy is the key for entry into the hallways of our highly complex, highly technological culture. It requires many, many years of hard labor, sitting in a chair, stationary, in deep concentration for hours at a time—another unnatural imposition on a body that is biologically primed for movement, action, and activity, especially so during the critical years for gaining the foundations of literacy; from 4 to 10 years of age. We frequently overlook this topsy-turvy upending of biology, as school has replaced the natural world as the environment requiring adaptive responses; survival in today’s world means survival in an environment scribed in print.

The reach of literacy in our lives is so pervasive and profound that to be illiterate is to be bereft of significance; to be consigned to a life of ridicule, hardship, and a dead-end future. Publish or perish describes life in academia, where failure to have an authorial presence in the scholarly community is to cease to exist as a meaningful entity within that community. This phrase can be altered to Read or die, to encompass the significance of literacy in the broader culture.

Oral and Literate Cultures

One of the consequences of literacy, and the intense, prolonged training it requires, is that music and dance have been relegated to extracurricular, after school activities. The placement of these activities embodies the transformation from oral to literate cultures. The segment occupied by literacy in the long arc of human history is quite brief. The first written language appeared only 5500 years ago, and of the 3000 languages that have been identified, 78 have had writing.2

Unlike literate cultures, music and dance are the foundational axis of life in oral cultures—the predominate form of culture for most of human history. Lacking writing, these cultures use song and dance to remember, recount, recreate history, and preserve tradition; to celebrate important ceremonial events, evoke the presence of gods and spirits, conduct rites of passage, and enact rituals of religious significance. Music and dance are the repository of culture, which is inscribed, not in a book, but in the body.

The environment of literate culture overlooks the primal power of music and dance in human life, and can lead to the conclusion that these are “after school” activities; auxiliary endeavors with little importance or evolutionary significance. Indeed, this is the conclusion of some noted cognitive neuroscientists.3 But music and dance make their appearance, developmentally, long before school starts, providing essential scaffolding for the emergence of speech, language, and the attainment of literacy.

Songs From the Crib

Music and dance begin in the crib. Human neonates are the most helpless beings born into this world and, from the first moments of life, are beholden to others for the most basic needs; to be fed, clothed, moved, sheltered, protected, and soothed. These urgent needs, requiring immediate care and attention, are expressed in urgent ways that are clear and unambiguous; through vocalizations, bodily movements, and gestures.

Neonates are exquisitely perceptually attuned to the presence and response of others. They make remarkable discriminations in human speech sounds (e.g., distinguishing “p” from “b”), orient toward the human voice (especially female voices), and can identify the voice of their mothers. Neonates are primed to orient toward the human face, can discriminate and imitate facial features of another, and are capable of expressing recognizable emotions through vocalizations, most notably crying, and through facial and bodily gestures. These abilities are quickly elaborated as infants become capable of nuanced, complex, extended communications.

Attunement is mutual. It should not be surprising that adults of a species are especially sensitive and responsive to the signals and cries of their newborns. Adults, without training or experience, understand the meaning of infant cries, distinguishing hunger cries form cries of pain, and also discriminating cries of healthy infants from those at risk for various developmental difficulties.

Not only are adults attuned to infants expressions, they also sensitively adjust their communications in ways that maximize infants attention and involvement. Adults exaggerate and pace their vocalizations creating rhythmic, periodic, tonally heightened expressions. These exaggerated expressions, called motherese, are non-conscious engagements automatically used by adults and children across cultures. Similarly, exaggerated facial and body expressions serve to heighten the salience of communicated meaning.

The resulting communicative exchanges are ballets of sound, movement, gesture, and posture. Infants’ communications, such as a cry or smile, possess their own unique body/sound signature that are distinctive, obvious, and unmistakable. And powerful. They compel a response—a response that is distinctive, obvious, and unmistakable.4

Music and dance, grounded in our bodies from birth, possess the power to sway, to enchant, to entrance, to overwhelm.5 Oral cultures are the natural outgrowths of these biologically given forms of human communication. Although literate cultures relegate music and dance to “after school” status, we are, to the core, creatures of song and dance.

If you can’t say it, you sing it, and if you can’t sing it, you dance it…6 7

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The Time of Our Life

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.    St. Augustine

We typically segment time into three clearly demarked, independent parts. Past: over, done, gone. Present: now, ephemeral, ever-evaporating. Future: yet to be, a horizon beyond the rim of the present. This makes much intuitive sense, and presumes an objective river of time that carries us along in its current, a stream parceled into a regular metronome of moments, pacing off seconds, minutes, hours… We thus can situate ourselves within the surge of time: it is now January 1, 2020, at 10:31.09 AM. Which, of course, is immediately consigned to the past as the present rushes into the future. The flux of time is thus given some measure of order, stability and control.

Physics of Time

This ordering, however intuitively obvious and useful, does not snare time. Modern physics offers a very detailed understanding of the remarkable and bizarre features of time as a physical phenomenon. In the smallest of durations, in the quantum zone inhabited by subatomic and virtual particles, time becomes unmeasurable and merges with mass and energy. What does this even mean? When considering cosmic time of vast dimensions, time and space are welded, and in the proximity of entities of unimaginably huge masses, a time horizon appears beyond which time disappears down a black (rabbit) hole. And everything, including time, began with the Big Bang1. No metronome of regular moments here.

Psychology of Time

The physics of time does not exhaust time’s possibilities. Psychological time, our personal experience of it, is as powerful, meaningful, and complex. Here, too, time manifests itself in multiple guises. Our experience of duration is intimately entangled with our encounter with the world. Searing, inescapable pain creates an eternity of seconds. Joy and surprise can halt time.  Boredom, pleasure, play—indeed, the entire range of our emotional life—all have their unique temporality.

Furthermore, while segmenting time into independent zones of “past, present, future” helps order and understand our experience of time, these zones also interpenetrate, mutually influencing each other.

Future present tense: My goals, expectations, wishes, desires, hopes, and fears—how I thrust myself into the future—all these focus and structure my attention in the present. What captures my interests, what priorities I give to my immediate efforts are shaped by the gravitational pull of the future. As I change my goals, aspirations, and expectations, I change my life as lived in the present.

Future past tense: This same tug of future’s influence extends into the past. How I construct and understand my past is shaped by what I expect, hope, fear. The past, while over, does not sit inertly in my life. What facts do I remember? What meaning and value do I attribute to them? What is forgotten? Our memory is not a photographic plate impassively recording events as they scroll by. It is an active process influenced by attention and expectations, thereby under constant reconstruction and renovation.

Past present future tense: The past reaches into the present and shapes our anticipations of the future. What we have experienced organizes how we act and respond in the present and guides our expectations for the future. Our experiences in childhood, our prior traumas, trials and triumphs, our relationships of significance with others, and much else in the past have enduring influence on our present and future. Habit and memory are powerful ways the past grips the present and reaches into the future.2

Present past future tense: The grip of the past and the pull of the future meet in the present; it is a temporal vortex not only influenced by past and future, but exerts its own power, “on the fly”, on the past (testing, reinforcing, revising, altering, and creating new habits and memory) as well as the future (testing, abandoning, revising, renewing, and forging new expectations and anticipations).

The very foundation, structure and texture of our lives turn on these dynamic temporal relationships. This is underscored when we try to understand, manage, and change our lives. Temporality is the central focus of all therapy, or any agent of personal change, regardless of its form, offering us different ways to understand our past, comport in the present, and anticipate the future. We change the past by changing our present and future. We change our future by changing our present and past. And so on. They are all dynamically connected. The most final and dramatic way to escape when the weight and pain of these temporal dynamics becomes unbearable is to end time; to commit suicide.

Being and Non-Being

Death, and the decision to choose death through suicide, underscores that we are not just in time, not just an object sailing along in the river of time, but composed of time; a song. We can experience ourselves as a biological entity, as a “human being”, a noun, but we also are “be-ings”, verbs, gerunds of temporality and tense whose plight is shadowed by non-being, death. We are embodied time; a paradox, a befuddlement, an enigma.

We may understand some of the ways time manifests itself that St. Augustine did not. The vexation of time, however, remains, for it is integral to the unfathomable mystery that is our being.

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.    

Songs of Habit Amidst Chaos

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Habit and Time

The biosphere is a teeming, humming, buzzing, riot of life in every earthly nook and cranny; collaborating with one another, competing with one another, eating one another. Each species, each individual, must rely on habits to establish a measure of stability, enabling them to extract the necessary sustenance for survival. Habit forestalls chaos.

All life, in its many forms, from bacteria to insects, fungi to mammals, are beholden to habit, which is as elemental to life as DNA. A primal characteristic of all life is movement and endurance within time. All, also, share a common fate—the end of movement and endurance in time; death.

Habits are fundamental strategies of temporal beings that must anticipate the future. Habits occur when a situation at Time 2 is perceived as similar to a situation at Time 1, evoking the same response at Time 2 that was  adaptive at Time 1. The perceived reoccurrence of familiar events “stops time”, allowing us to steady ourselves in the face of an uncertain future. Habits create routines, establishing an order in time with expected, reoccurring beats. Indeed, survival depends on establishing a vital regularity within the assaultive, chaotic flux of events, circumstances, and contingencies that threaten the delicate, wavering, spider-thread of life.

Habits of Differing Time Scales

Habit is defined as “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance”1. Typically, we think of habit as behavioral routines that derive from individuals learning about their environment; that habit operates within an individual, not the species, at the behavioral, not biological level.

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This definition, however, need not only apply to an individual organism. Consider reflexes. From the perspective of the individual, reflexes are invariant, unchanging; no habits are acquired. Breathing, pupil dilation, digestion, heartbeat, these arise automatically without conscious prompting, effort, or control. However, from an evolutionary perspective, which encompasses the arc of the emergence of life forms and their adaptation, reflexes are, as the definition states, “patterns acquired by physiological exposure that results in increased facility of performance.” From an evolutionary time scale, then, species’ morphology and the attendant neurophysiological organization and functioning, and even DNA, can also be considered habits.  What appears to be the static, immutable biological givens of an individual’s existence—the bones, pulsing blood and breathing—are dynamic properties of an evolving process within an evolutionary temporal frame. We are a composite of the individual habits we acquire over our life and species’ habits conferred to us by our primordial ancestors.

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Culture adds yet another layer of habits. Communally organized daily routines and seasonal rituals organize our bodies to the collective rhythms of our culture. Time is regulated; our calendar and clocks are standardized, establishing a rigid temporal grid that individuals must adopt and internalize if they are to participate in essential communal activities. The year rolls over to the next one on January 1; daylight savings time sets the clock ahead, then it is later set back; school schedules, meal times, business hours, the reoccurring weekday-weekend sequence, and many other micro-cultural regularities pervade our lives. Public holidays, such as Thanksgiving and July 4th, with their attendant rituals, mark time within the broader seasonal round.

Songs

Our bodies are composed of layers of habits, each contributing its own rhythms: the beating, breathing, surging biorhythms that compress eons of prior life; the habits we acquire to adapt to our unique personal challenges and circumstances; and the cultural rituals and routines required for communal life. This complex, multilayered cadence of habits comprises the music that is our song, our lives.

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We are songs of life, sung, for our ever-brief moment, within the roar of flux and chaos. Our plight is most heartrendingly expressed in music:

Music is like the inclusive testimony of a visitor to a wondrous world. As it plays you have everything. When it stops, you are left with nothing. Which is exactly like life itself.2

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