Showing posts from July, 2009


The magic sugar pill.
By request. Repeats a bit from other posts but who cares.
Here's an interesting experiment for you to try. Sit quietly somewhere and collect yourself, as the saying goes, so that you're in a state of relaxed focus. Give yourself a few minutes to get into this state. Then close your eyes and say "I'm getting warm" quietly, over and over (the quicker the better) and without a pause between each instance. And don't will yourself to be warm, say the words as if they mean nothing to you at all, as if the movement of your mouth in saying these words is completely meaningless, with no thought about warm-ness at all.
Maybe you got warmer. I find this does work, but the critical and most interesting thing is that if you introduce any element of will or trying into the process, it immediately fails. You must say the words as if you were completely disinterested in the outcome, and also physically mouthing the words, even in a whisper, makes the effe…

Doing Something Different 2

So Fletcher discovered that people with 'bad habits' got rid of them completely and with almost no fuss simply by changing tiny, seemingly unrelated things in their other activities. No working on their body or their mind.

I've seen those with a cognitive bent find this a bit hard to swallow. That's not just cognitive scientists or therapists, but the average Joe in the street too. Many of us are deeply convinced that thinking is the central, controlling part of our whole experience, so are also convinced that unless you 'understand' your problems, you'll be stuck just fiddling around the edges of them.
We don't even seem to notice that plenty of the time we're not thinking at all, in the way we usually mean that term. We're just immersed in whatever it is we're doing, responding to the people and events around us without 'stopping to think' (revealing phrase) at all. The committed cognitivist counters here with mystical mumbo jumb…

Do Something Different 1

Never judge a book by its cover...
Would you buy this book? Never in a million years. It looks like part of that wall of dumb you find in bookshops under self-help and New Age.
But I bought it. Not because I need to lose weight, but because the author is a serious, respectable psychologist, Professor Ben Fletcher, whose work includes one particularly remarkable discovery. And he describes it very clearly in this book, which makes it worth having even if you've never had a day's problem with your weight, like me.
Fletcher works in what's called behavioural psychology. He's spent a lot of his career wondering about and working with people and their habits, particularly those stuck with chronic habits and problems. What he's discovered is that habits get the better of us because we make one mistake in understanding them - we look at them one at a time. Rousseau (think it was him) once noted that a society always has all of its rules and laws at once. Each law is par…

Perception. Erections. Do Something Different.

Following on from the Cartesian mind-fiddlers, how do you best understand a person as a 'whole' thing? Not body and mind or body and brain, or even person and environment?
The part of the puzzle that often gets missed here is the world itself that we're a part of and in which we live every day. For example nearly every book or piece of information you will be able to find, at any level of sophistication, about how your body works will talk about the body. Period. A bit like watching Top Gear dribbling over the latest Aston Martitn or Lamborghini, in isolation from the fact that the vast majority of people in the world firstly could never afford one, and secondly have roads that would render these pure-breds rattling heaps in super quick time (thanks to Dorothy over at Loon Pond for reminding me of the dangers of focusing just on the 'engineering').
Our bodies evolved as part of the world. Take the world out of the picture and you're basically dealing with a cada…

Mind Fuckers

Rene Descartes. 1596-1650. The granddaddy of the mind fuckers.
Pardon the French in the heading there, it's not a phrase I use but it is commonly used and with a specific intent. Not a French Rene would have understood either, although every image of him I've seen is so likeable, like the one above. He always looks perky. Mind fucker is a derogatory term often used to describe people who work with other peoples' minds. Often saved for psychologists and psychiatrists, but I think unfairly, as there are plenty of mind-botherers out there under various guises.
Now I should be very clear here that I don't have anything against mind-botherers because I think they should leave the mind alone. There are plenty already in that camp, often with some axe to grind because of some treatment they received. For me the problem with just about everything you see and read about the mind is that it's all based on a complete fiction, which I've talked a bit about here before. That …


Couples come in all shapes and sizes.
There seem to be some general categories of couples, and many more than will get listed her. But there are a few types that I see a lot.
One is the clingy couple. I know a few couples who must have 'best' friends. You're either almost living with these people 4 days a week, or you're off their radar altogether. Often the clingy couple will move from one couple to another as their 'best' friend, like Proustian romances. Between break-ups the level of intimacy can become almost familial, again with couples just about living in each others' houses. (This sort of couple makes me want to run a mile.)
Then you have the social couple, who can't do a thing alone. Not clingy in the same way as the clingy couple, but almost completely unable to spend time together alone, as a couple. This sort of couple regularly holidays with other couples. (This really isn't my scene either, holidaying with other couples seems extraordina…

Vermeer, Camera Obscura, The Frame, Photography & Painting

Camera Obscura. The room/box.
Different painters do different things with light. But with Vermeer more than most others the light is not 'on' the objects, the objects and people in the paintings seem themselves to be made up of light. The paintings seem to glow with some sort of inner light.
Vermeer painted with a camera obscura, that seems now to be almost universally accepted. The camera obscura is the basic model for all cameras - you have a darkened enclosure/box/room (the camera body), a small opening in one side, sometimes with a lens (the aperture and lens), and a receiving surface for the image at the back end of the box (the film plate). Of course photography was still many years off in Vermeer's time, but I want to argue that the decisive break that some believe that photography made from painting is in fact nothing of the sort.
A common view is that photography somehow captures the image as it really is, and the best painting can do is approximate this 'photo …

Vermeer, Camera Obscura, The Frame

Vermeer. The Astronomer, 1668.
There's something luminous about Vermeer. And that's the perfect word, for me. Luminous, lit-up, illuminated. His paintings seem to be creatures of light.
The pissy little thumbnail Blogger allows me above can't do the faintest justice to the glory of this work. Find it online if you haven't seen it before and look at it filling as much of your screen as you can. If you look particularly at the astronomer's head, it seems to be almost an emanation, a glowing, floating figure of light (does help to find a good sized print online to look at to really appreciate this). And at the same time it looks hyper-realistic, of course one of the attractions of the Dutch painters of the 17th century, to many. But with Vermeer it's not the same sort of drawn realism you get from other realists, the figure has a volume that seems to come from the light itself, not from line or colour or traditonal perspective. And indeed one of the anomalous thing…


Got the flu.
Be back soon.

The Phantom Public

One of the most interesting and least well known issues in politics and social science is what it means to talk about 'we'. In the sense of groups of people (groups, societies, organisations), rather than individuals. Or the 'public', a term most of us use quite a lot, and which seems relatively unproblematic.
Which it is if you're just using it as a name for a collection of people. Although even then does it include the government? And how about the military? Or the clergy? Once you get into it there seem to be many publics. And stick with it a bit and you soon realise that the idea is about insiders and outsiders, the public usually being the excluded (usually large) group on the outside of some other group (of insiders).
The public is a bit strange. We're all members of the public in one way or another, but does us any of us actually have a sense of being in that group? We don't share much in common with a helluva lot of other people in this public. We do…

Numbers, Damned Lies & Statistics Again

Time to get onto what Tarde said about figures, or numbers.
We think about numbers and figures in general all inside out, back-to-front and upside down. If you want to find some of the most committed mysticism in the world today, look no further than the way we all grovel before facts and figures. There's a pretty widespread belief or assumption that when you 'quantify' something you get closer to the reality or truth of it. So numbers and figures aren't just practical things, they have this veneer of mysticism added to them - they somehow access reality better than everyday words can, for example.
Added to that is our usual idea that you can only really say accurate things with numbers when you're applying them to large numbers of things. If you use numbers for small numbers of things, you get what statisticians call a small 'sample size', which creates (apparently) inaccurate results. Social scientists do this all the time, they feel that they can't …

Tarde Again

Puss in Boots. The definitive micro/macro tale.
Back to Gabriel Tarde.
Tarde took (at least) two beliefs we tend to have and turned them inside out and upside down. The first was one I've written about here before - click here if you're interested - about scale. We think there are such things as small things and big things. We talk about the 'micro' and the 'macro' level. Generally we think big, macro things are made up of aggregates of small, micro things, like building a Lego block tower. But we take it a bit further than that, because we treat the macro and micro as distinct things - 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts'.
We think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts because we don't understand wholes, and we don't understand parts. There seems to be more to a government than just all of the different voters added up in some way (why people often talk about 'the government' as if it were some thing floating above us)…

Numbers, Damned Lies & Statistics

Gabriel Tarde, 1843-1904. A genius, but nobody knew.
You can tell a lot about a person by what they think about numbers. Most people in my experience use them in obvious everyday ways, like in counting change at the shops, and don't give them much thought. If stretched outside those everyday uses, they will often go into a mild or even moderate panic, and some exhibit a sort of visceral loathing born from many years of incomprehension in maths lessons.
It's a bigger issue than just numbers though, it's about the difference between what more academic folk would call quantitative and qualitative ways of understanding the world. Nearly always those terms are thought to be opposites - you either study something quantitatively, which means you try to count or measure or calculate it in some way, or you do it qualitatively, which means pretty much everything else. Which is a bit of a clue really, qualitative is one of those terms people invent to capture what's left over after…

Aurora Australis

Had to share these stunning pictures a friend took in Antarctica this week. Imagine sitting out under that sky.