Monthly Archives: June 2009

Of Clydesdales & Kangaroos


For years I have used this animal metaphor to discuss issues arising from linear vs. non-linear thinking; and we will get there anon, but not before some digressions. [Guess whether my cognitive style is linear or non-linear.] A news item, posted on the BBC on 25 June 09, might have escaped your notice, so I will give you the website [news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/asia-pacific/8118257.stm], and the title: “Stoned wallabies make crop circles.” Funny story. True story. “Australian wallabies are eating opium poppies and creating crop circles as they hop around ‘as high as a kite,’ a government official has said.” Turns out Australia is the source of “50% of the world’s legally-grown opium used to make morphine and other painkillers.” It’s a small world, after all.

As you may know, a wallaby is the slightly smaller, “sports model” of a kangaroo. Likewise, one might consider Hanoverian Warmblood horses the “sports models” of draft horses [such as Clydesdales]..except for this 18 hh individual, pictured with my 5’8″ self. “Owen” was his barn name [what we, his owners, called him]. Since his was the grandson of Bolero, and therefore in the “B-line” of German-bred Hanoverians, his birthname had to begin with “B.” Having run out of all the cool International-sounding names, like Brentano and Brentina, his German breeders saddled him with the dorky name, “Be Happy.” [If you want to look him up in the Studbook, his number is 254. But don’t get any ideas. Like this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, he came to us a gelding.]

Before we had Lili the dog, we had Owen the Hanoverian; and before we had him, we had Dusk the QuarterHorse mare [who may feature in a future post]. Just as Owen’s height exceeded his parents’, so our elder daughter’s height exceeded ours; and there came a point where 16hh Dusk was no longer “a good fit” for her. [Later, alas, there came a point where the charismatic, sweet-natured, and talented Owen was no longer a good fit for our family budget, so he is currently inspiring a wealthier owner to Be Happy.]

So, do all these tangential excursions drive you crazy; or do they mirror your own stream-of-consciousness thought patterns? If the former, then you are more of a cognitive Clydesdale. [As tall as Owen, but wider-bodied and with shaggier feet.] Metaphorically, here’s what’s “good” about Clydesdales: they work well under harness with their teammates, obeying the commands of the driver, and get the job done in a timely manner. [They bring the beer.] Most school curricula are made by and for Clydesdales, as are many of society’s regulated activities [such as which side of the road to drive on, and how fast, and where it is permitted to park].

If, however, you routinely fail to “follow the rubric” for a school (or work) assignment [or even know that there is one], if you can always think of alot reasons why the rules of the road should not apply to you, if you prefer to zig & zag through life, rather than follow the arrow, then you–my friend and fellow traveler–are a cognitive Kangaroo [perhaps, even a Wallaby]. It’s not awful, folks–only highly inconvenient. [And you’d better believe that Albert Ellis, who coined that phrase, was a ‘Roo.] Isn’t it obvious what’s “good” about ‘Roos? They’re quick. [Okay, so sometimes they leap to conclusions without being able to “explain how the result was obtained.” It just came to me.] They’re curious [“Ooh…red flowers…down the hatch.”], and are therefore more likely to make off-the-wall discoveries. Their non-linear cognitive style is the basis for all humor; and (as they say on Coronation Street), “You’ve got to laugh, entcha?”

“All very well,” I hear a Clydesdale objecting, “but what has this to do with your so-called blog topic, The Wolf?” Glad you asked, you lovable, predictable beast of burden. Clydesdales who are the parents, teachers, or partners of Kangaroos are often angered by the intrusion of that”Ooh-ooh! Have-to-say-or-do-whatever-pops-into-my-mind, even-if-it-interrupts-others” thing. Particularly, the parents of ‘Roos [even if they are crypto-Roos, themselves], fear the consequences of their offspring’s impulsivity, which might cause pain & suffering for the child, the parents, and the general public. So, the parents, teachers, and partners of ‘Roos say humiliating things to the “Didn’t-d0-it-on-purpose-just-the-way-I-am” creatures, which in turn provokes anger in them [the ‘Roos, in case you’ve lost the thread, through all my zigs & zags].

Ways to improve relations between the two cognitive camps will be taken up in future posts. Meanwhile, a bit of self-disclosure. Although I am a life-long, purebred Kangaroo, I was never a Wallaby (a metaphorical poppy-eater). I figured my take on life was already weird enough, without the addition of mind-altering substances. I discovered the joys of wine and beer when I was 23, though, so I’m not a total Goody-Two-Shoes. (More of a ‘Fraidy-Cat.)

Incidentally, in my brief blog-blurb, I say I learned more about human nature @ acting school than grad school; and here’s an example of what I mean. In a class on “How to Get Hired As an Actor (Without Losing Your Soul),” we were told, “Know your type, and love your type.” So, if the role is for an ingenue, and you look, um, sadder-but-wiser, don’t waste your time at the “cattle call” for a naive heroine. Show up for auditions where they’re looking for “the Auntie Mame type.” If you know you’re a ‘Roo, don’t expect to be hired, when the job ad says “Only Clydesdales Need Apply.” [Unless you are a Very Good Actor, of which more later…]

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Filed under altered states, non-linear thinking, sharks and jets

"A Highly Trained Individual"


Ever since the Regrettable Incident(s) at the Playing Fields, Lili is on-leash in that area, except for a brief “Ally-Oop” session, where she responds either to that command or to my 3-note whistle, to jump back & forth over an athletic bench or a blue barrel a few times. Now that school is out, a no-nonsense, gruff-looking man has been preparing part of the field we traverse, for a football training camp for Fall Freshmen. Of course, we skirt their playing field; but the boys are always intrigued by the “wolf-dog” as we pass by, offering her catcalls and wolf whistles, trying to get her attention.

I got the vibe that the coach was not amused, so Lili & I just “keep our eyes in the boat” and quick-march by, on our way to and from the woods. Yesterday, as the boys were doing an exercise involving jumping in and out of tractor tires laid on the ground, some of them were again distracted by Lili. So, here’s what the coach told them: “Just let that big dog alone. ‘He’s’ working. That is a highly trained individual.”

How cool is that?

Stand by for the metaphor. Doing daily “wolf-work” [trying to gain mastery over one’s amygdalar arousal, by asking, “Now, what just got up my nose?” then pausing, and redirecting that angry energy into more useful actions] pays off, in the long run. When I first encountered this guy painting stripes on the field, I thought, “Oh, man! Just when school’s out and the fields become “community property” [like on weekends], this grumpy dude [body language, facial expression & failure to respond to my greeting] is making me feel like the trespasser (humiliation, intrusion, and the ever-present fear of consequences for Lili). I considered avoiding the fields altogether, by taking the back path to the woods; but since the last storm, a too-big-to-move-without-a-Bobcat tree [with bayonet-like broken branches] completely blocks the way. [Actually, I was just able to clamber over it, but Lili nearly impaled herself on it; and I got poison ivy on my arm for my efforts, anyway–pain & suffering all around.] So, through the fields we strode on our appointed rounds, shoulders back, eyes front, no Lame Gazelle subtext here: we were neither the “grumpy” dude’s enemy, nor his victim.

I felt not only proud, that the dude had affirmed Lili’s progress, but also sheepish, that I had mistaken his aloof manner for disapproval. What a rookie cognitive distortion on my part, especially given all my years in and around military settings!

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Filed under gets right up my nose, limbic system, power subtext, semiotics

Drunkard’s Fallacy


Two lads are making their way home, after some jars at the bar: “Seamus, would you give over circlin’ round that lamppost? You’re makin’ me head spin!” “Ahh, but Desmond, I’m tryin’ to find me feckin’ keys.” “Oh, now, Seamus, I t’ink I heard a ‘clink’ when we was coming t’rough de alley, back dere.” “Yeah, me an’ all, Desmond; but de light’s better under dis lamp.”

This shocking stereotype of Irish inebriation and false logic was offered to us in graduate school, in a course on research design, to illustrate the “Drunkard’s Fallacy” [the tendency for researchers to “search where the light is better,” and thereby overlook the “keys in the alley”]. Sir Francis Galton, for instance, believed that intelligence was highly correlated with head circumference [which is easily and cheaply measured]; and he tried to encourage fatheads to marry other fatheads, for the improvement of Mankind. Later, Dr. William Sheldon put forth the theory that one’s body type–fat, muscular, or thin [which is evident, even to the casual observer]–was highly correlated with 3 distinct sets of personality traits. All of which would be highly amusing, except that their “scientific evidence” has been used as the rationale for eugenics–most notoriously, but not exclusively, by The Third Reich.

These days in neuropsychological research, there is often a generous sponsor “paying the light bill,” who then–sometimes blatantly, but other times subtly–sets the agenda for “where to search.” Senator Charles Grassley has done Menschlich work, in my opinion, by doggedly insisting that medical researchers disclose the source of their funding, so that consumers can then take their “findings” with a grain of salt. But what if the funding source is Uncle Sam? Could there still be a tendency to “circle the lamppost,” rather than “go down the dark alley,” in search of scientific “truth”?

In 2005 the journal Nature Neuroscience published the results of an NIMH-funded study, which followed over 200 individuals from birth to 26 years, to assess their risk of becoming “depressed” by Stressful Life Events, and its correlation to the presence or absence of “the Serotonin Transporter Gene (5-HTTLPR)” in each individual’s DNA. Don’t you just know, the researchers found the two factors–“depression” in response to bummer events, and the presence of that specific gene–to be highly correlated. Well, the media was all over it like a cheap suit. Cute articles about “Blue Genes” came out like a rash. And the always-only-sleeping-not-dead eugenics lobby began to bang on about genetic screening for 5-HTTLPR, rationalizing that the opposite of bumming out at bad news was Being Resilient; and who wouldn’t want to breed Resilient kids, in these troubled times?

Also–and here’s the Beauty Part, if you’re a government agency, trying to contain costs for Mental Health treatment–if bumming out is “all in your genes,” no need to wander down that dark [time-consuming] alley of “trying to understand what got up your nose, which made you angry, which then made you depressed.” That’s like fiddling while Rome burns. Like trying to understand why your body has become insulin-resistant, or why your arteries are clogged. What you need is a chemical–not an insight. Faster, cheaper, better for Mankind [and the bottom line].

So, here’s the thing. In this week’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association: a meta-analysis of all studies which could possibly have replicated the ballyhoo’d NIMH results found no correlation between the two factors. Bupkes, nowt, Nichts. [Incidentally, their n = 14,250, of whom 1,769 were classified as having “depression.”] Do you know what was significantly correlated with “depression” in all the studies these researchers meta-analyzed? Stressful Life Events.

Well, Seamus, I guess it’s back to the dark alley, if we ever want to find those feckin’ keys…

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Filed under confounds, murky research, pro bono publico

"Hidden Idiot"


Back in the early 60s, when a computer took up a big room, a family friend of ours was working on a subset of Artificial Intelligence called Machine Translation, between English and Russian. (Quelle surprise!) With formal speech, it did well enough; but it “choked” on idioms, such as “Out of sight, out of mind” [which it rendered “hidden idiot”]. Even as a kid, I took exception to the linguistic inference that being out of one’s mind was the same as being an idiot. [Surely, that would be “out of brain”?]

Let’s consider the aphorism, itself: “Out of sight, out of mind.” Piaget and his followers did clever experiments to demonstrate at what age a child develops Object Constancy–the belief in Things Unseen [such as a high value treat, first out there in plain sight, then covered up by a cup]. Until this cognitive stage is reached, life is one big magic show, where objects randomly appear and disappear. [For some of us, the magic show is still in town, featuring tricks with our keys.] [If you are Irish, you realize that the Fairies have taken your keys; and that They will return them, in Their own good time.] A game which is thought to hasten the development of Object Constancy involves a Kindly Grownup pretending to vanish behind a handkerchief, and then suddenly reappearing, with the incantation “Peek-a-Boo!” Playing the game too soon in a baby’s cognitive life is likely to provoke tears of fear–sometimes at the “disappearance,” sometimes at the “reappearance.” It becomes clear that the kid “gets it,” when he puts on his own magic show, by “hiding his eyes” with his hands and saying the magic words. What is less clear is whether he thinks he has made you, or himself, vanish. The first is just dumb [but we do it all the time–it’s called denial]. The second is just crazy [except when Irish grownups do it–and it’s called magical thinking].

Magical thinking, of course, is an accepted part of many other cultures. Think voodoo, think bending spoons with your mind, think predicting [or causing] the next card to be dealt at BlackJack. It’s not an Altogether Bad Thing. It often gives us the courage to attempt risky [but necessary] endeavors, such as to fly jets [where it’s called “The Right Stuff”] or to run into burning buildings [where it’s called Fire Fighting]. It also, alas, gives teenagers and young adults carte blanche to engage in all manner of hare-brained and hair-raising activities, because of a belief in their immortality. “The laws of physics, logic, and probability do not apply to me.”

Pseudocyesis [false pregnancy] is often attributed to magical thinking [even though it occurs frequently in dogs, cats, horses, and goats]; whereas its opposite–pregnancy denial–is, so far, documented only in humans. In either case, the body mimics most of the signs and symptoms of the desired condition–whether that is to be with, or without, child. A bizarre case of the latter is in the news this week, in which a “caring mother” of two teenage boys has now confessed to the killing at birth of 3 subsequent babies [two of whose corpses she stored in the family’s deep freeze], allegedly without her husband’s knowledge of any of it. How could he be unaware of her pregnancies? She “didn’t show.” I can just about buy that. There is medical precedent. How could she maintain the persona of a “normal” wife and mother for 4 years, knowing that she had stashed the incriminating evidence right in their house? My guess is that she used a combination of denial and magical thinking. There is no jury, but the judge’s verdict is still “out,” as to how culpable this woman is. Astonishingly to me, her husband has already been exonerated. Infuriatingly to me, he admonished the judge, “You should not try to understand us.”

The fact is, we all use denial [Do you fly? Do you drive a car? Do you drink water?]; and most of us use magical thinking. [If I promise to donate $20 to the SPCA, Napster will come home.] At the brain level, I believe that both defenses are useful in calming amygdalar alarm [but at the cost of reality testing]. Sometimes, that cost is very high.

Incidentally, the “hidden idiot” in the picture is not Lili. It is myself, hiding behind the tree on her right. [See my sleeve?] As readers of the post “Crazy Like a Fox” will know, I was anything but “out of [Lili’s] mind,” as she launched herself up the hill to find me. Unlike the woman in the news story, Lili has a highly developed sense of Object Constancy, and knew I was just playing “Peek-a-Boo” with her.

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Filed under magical thinking, object relations theory

Risky Menschlichkeit


Sounds like the wheelman for Meyer Lansky, no? Mensch is a Metalingual minefield, having come full circle, to mean its exact opposite, even after you tiptoe through the “Man/Mankind” lunar dust. In German, it originally meant “a man,” whereas in Yiddish it means “a standup guy” [a unisex term]. Nowadays, Menschlich has come to mean either “humane” or “all-too-human, warts and all.” A vignette from my 1988 visit to Vienna: I was walking through a U-Bahn station when I saw a young woman with a baby buggy, poised at the top of a flight of stairs, like the opening scene from Battleship Potemkin. I rushed up to help her carry the buggy down the stairs, when an old woman began shrieking, “Schade! Schade!” [“Shame! Shame!”] Who the hell was she angry at? Did she think I was trying to kidnap the baby? “Wo sind die Menschen?” she asked, rhetorically. [“Where are the men?” or possibly, “Where are the standup guys?”] “Wir sind die Menschen!” I quipped [“We are the standup ‘guys.'”]; and the young woman shook my hand, in the formal manner of pre-millienal Viennese young people, before high-fiving went global.

Although it all ended with smiles, it could have been just another instance of “No good deed goes unpunished.” As a Social Science major in the 1960s, I was familiar with the admonitory tale [perhaps urban legend, if you read modern critiques] of Kitty Genovese, who was mortally attacked over a 3-hour period outside her apartment complex in Queens, NY, while 38 of her neighbors [allegedly] “did nothing.” Even if the real story is less black & white, it became the anecdotal evidence for the theory of Diffusion of Responsibility: the more onlookers to a calamity, the less likely any one of them is, to do the standup thing and try to help. Phil Ochs even wrote a song about it, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, with the tag line, “Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain; but Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game.”

So, what prompts anyone to perform an act of Menschlichkeit, like Wesley Autrey, the subway hero, who jumped to the aid of a stranger who had fallen onto the tracks as a train approached, and covered the stranger’s body with his own, as the train passed over them both? Did Wesley just have a broader definition of who was in his “Small Circle of Friends,” than the other folks on the platform? Some put it down to his Naval service, that he had been trained to [override his amygdalar freeze mode, let his hippocampus problem-solve, and so…] “act bravely and quickly.” I’ll go for that; but I know lots of fellow Naval veterans who would have averted their gaze and stayed on the platform [the other definition of Menschlichkeit]. If it hadn’t worked out so well for Wesley and the stranger, I bet it would have been reported as a double suicide.

One of my favorite aphorisms is “It’s not ‘brave,’ unless you’re scared.” [It’s just bad judgment.] There was a time 1970s Manhattan when there had been so many murders of taxi drivers [who knows why], that a cabbie put a now-famous sign on the passenger side of his plexiglass barrier saying “Though thou shalt kill me…” It made New Yorkers–even those of us who rarely had the price of cabfare–realize what Menschen [the unisex, heroic term] cab drivers were, years before the hit TV series.

So, how Menschlich are you? Would you be willing, like Zanzibar the cat, to take a good, close look at “the wolf”? It might not be the “comforting presence” it seems to be for Zanzibar; but it’s still worth getting to know.

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Filed under pro bono publico, reference group, sharks and jets

"Tomodachi"


What’s your definition of friendship? Whom do you consider your peeps, your posse, your reference group? Think about who, by you, are “PLU” [a code acronym well-heeled British mothers used with their eligible offspring–often preceded by “not”–at public gatherings, to indicate that a would-be friend or suitor was…well, not suitable, not People Like Us]. To which their children replied [or thought], “Never mind the why or wherefore. Love can level rank…” It is a fictional motif that never grows old–from Shakespeare to Slumdog Millionaire.

How true is it, in real life? Do friendships and marriages last longer, when two individuals are similar “on many dimensions,” or when they are [to use a Cockney expression] “Chalk and cheese”? Most on-line match-making services are based on the premise that similarity breeds compatibility. “One of your own kind, stick to your own kind,” as her Latina friend sings to Maria in West Side Story. Otherwise, if you go with that Italian boy, it will all end in tears.

Pre-millenial sociological studies tended to support this view. Using factors such as Socio-economical status, education, faith tradition, and race, researchers found that the closer two people “matched,” the longer they stayed together. I think times have changed, but I don’t have the statistics to prove it.

Let’s go tight and inside [the brain], to formulate a theory of “peep-ness.” I had a patient in Detroit whose love life was full of drama and bad judgment, and who consequently spent long stretches of time on her own, except for “the comforting presence” of her Springer Spaniel, Bouncer. He “lowered her level of amygdalar arousal,” just by being near, welcoming her touch, and listening to her tell of her sorrows. Dogs, horses, and cats specialize in this; but humans can offer this “comforting presence” to one another, too. Some of us feel better in high-density living situations, just knowing [hearing] that neighbors are nearby. Some of us seek out membership in more than one reference group, so that if we feel slighted by one group or Special Individual, we can get a “second opinion” as to our okay-ness, later on that day, to neutralize the humiliation, pain & suffering, or even fear that rejection by Someone Whose Opinion Matters has aroused in us.

In dog training class, we were taught to use the Japanese word for friend–Tomodachi–to let our dog know that another [person, dog, what have you] was not to be feared or attacked. Lili and Zanzibar discovered for themselves that they were sympatico, with no cues from their owners.

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Filed under object relations theory, reference group, sharks and jets

Don’t Look Now


“Good eye contact” is entirely overrated. “Look at me when I’m talkin’ to you!” Why? What if I’m one of the 50% of people who process information auditorially, rather than visually, and looking at you just distracts me from what you’re saying? What if I grew up in another culture, where staring directly at my interlocutor [particularly one higher in the pecking order] is the height of bad manners? Even in our own military, when standing to Attention, one is taught to stare “into middle distance,” not into the eyes of the Big Wig addressing one, even when answering questions. In the Navy, it is called “keeping one’s eyes in the boat.” [One is also taught to speak in the third–not second–person: “Would the Admiral care for…?”]

And don’t get me started on prey animals–such as horses–one is handling. Direct eye contact is an amygdalar trigger, provoking “highly inconvenient” reactions, ranging from bolting away to charging the handler. [Remember the Spanish Riding School scenario? Probably started with a stare.] Seasoned stable lads [a unisex term], equine vets, and farriers know to avert their gaze when approaching a horse, as if it were a Roman Senator. [Trivia question: Which emperor was deposed for appointing his horse, Incitatus, a Consul?]

Predators know the fierce power of a direct stare, and use it strategically. Dog spies rabbit; fixes it with a stare; and rabbit [most likely] freezes, at least momentarily. Think back to the dog fights in Top Gun, where the prey jet is “painted” with the laser of the predator, indicating “I’ve got you in my sights now. You’re toast.” Back in the 1920s, before eye contact was considered an Altogether Good Thing, there was a New Yorker cartoon, with two women walking past a man in the street: “He gave me such a look!” The joke is that she is feigning indignation, while secretly enjoying being “in his sights.”

Let’s consider the hard-done-by black & white dog in Dr. Range’s experiment on Inequity Aversion. We know he is angry at the injustice of his pal [Black & Tan] continuing to receive a reward for giving a paw, while he gets bupkes, nowt, Nichts! He demonstrates his displeasure by going on strike [no longer giving his paw], and by averting his gaze–not just from Black & Tan, but also from the experimenter. What’s up with that? Here’s my theory. Like Conrad in the Santa Rita jail, he knows he is “just a number here,” and Black & Tan is “just a number here.” It is not really Black & Tan’s fault that The Man [a unisex term] is being arbitrary and unfair. His beef is actually with The Man, who is the established Pack Leader. [Remember, this is the Clever Dog Lab–ain’t no slow learners here.] Back in the world [as GIs used to say in ‘Nam], he would be able express his anger in a number of ways: attacking The Man [fight], high-tailing it out of there [flight], or going into the “suspended animation” state which Object Relations Theorists call Somnolent Detachment. Here, his options are limited. Attacking The Man is not a clever move, since the Pack Leader is the source of basic rations, not just treats. So, to lessen his temptation to do so, he avoids “fixing The Man in his sights.” If his amygdala is really ramped up, he may actually go into Somnolent Detachment. When human infants do this, they “stare right past” their caregiver, as if she weren’t even there.

This is Crazy-Like-a-Fox behavior: the lesser of two evils. “If you slight me, I’ll ignore you. You have more power than me, but you don’t own my spirit [soul, what have you].” It is a gutsy move, whether you are a clever dog at the University of Vienna, or a PoW near the River Kwai. One has to do it with enough dignity and Stoicism, NOT to be mistaken for a Lame Gazelle. This little dog’s sit-down strike and averted gaze carries the subtext message: “I am not your victim, but I am not your enemy.”

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Filed under Epictetus said..., ethology, lesser of two evils, limbic system, semiotics