Monthly Archives: November 2010

"Softly, softly…"

“…catchee monkey,” goes a proverb so old that its origin is anybody’s guess. Early 20th Century Britons assumed it came from somewhere in Asia [China or India, somewhere with free range monkeys, don’t you know]. It means, “You are more likely to catch a fugitive (thought or creature) by guile, than by charging at it directly, all guns blazing.”

My absolutely fave UK telly show in the early 60s was Z Cars, a cop show, wherein the Baddies were pursued by pairs of what are now called “gavvers” in unmarked Ford Zephyrs [whence the show’s name]. Car chases took a back seat to good character acting, some of it undoubtedly improvised, since the shows were broadcast live. By 1966, our heroes had been promoted to detective status, and appeared in a new show, Softly, Softly. All subsequent cat & mouse, “I’ll trick the truth out of you, Clever Clogs,” police procedural shows owe a debt to these 2 series.

One of these, The Bill, ran from the 80s right up until this year, when its producers decided (gasp!) that the story lines were becoming repetitive and predictable! Give over! That’s part of what we all loved about it. In its first decade there was a dour young Scottish detective who, in every episode, to signify that the villain was now ready to “cough” (confess), intoned, “In your own time…”

Which is the point of this post. “Ticking bomb” scenario or not, centuries of clinical experience and modern neuroscience agree: “You can’t hurry truth. You just have to wait.” Remember how Ronald Reagan excused his filmography of grade-B movies: “The studio had us on a tight schedule. They could have it good, or they could have it Tuesday.” Same thing when it comes to actionable intel. We can, by word or deed, exhort the (putative) Bad Guy to “Spit it out!” and get a quick (possibly false) confession; or we can “go all round Robin Hood’s barn” and catch him up in his own tangled web of lies.

The same choice of strategies applies to our own attempts to recover a fugitive thought. No matter how vital a piece of information may be, if we “rack” our brains for it [as in “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”], we redirect blood away from the hippocampus [the site of memory & problem-solving] to the amygdala [site of “OMG!”]. In academic settings, this is called “brain freeze,” or “an attack of stupid.” Like coaxing a skittish monkey [or dog] across a rickety footbridge to our side, we are likely to get better results with a “softly, softly” approach. Like the Scottish detective, we might try acting less humiliatingly desperate to get our uncooperative brain to “cough” the crucial but elusive intel, and instead intone, “In your own time…”

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Filed under ethology, limbic system

"Dig it"

“…like the FBI, and the CIA, and the BBC.” So goes the Beatles’ shortest song, from the 1970 Let It Be album (now available for legal download on iTunes). Beat musicians had been saying “Can you dig it?” or “Ya dig?” for decades [the American version of “nar’mean?”], to ask “Do you understand what I just said?” but by the time the Beatles used it, the phrase had morphed from the Metalingual [message clarification] speech function to the Phatic. It had come to mean “Listen” [as in “do you want to know a secret?”]

Well, do ya? [Want to know a secret, that is.] In the 60s, Daniel Ellsberg was convinced that we all wanted to know the contents of secret briefing papers on strategies for vanquishing North Vietnam [thereafter known as The Pentagon Papers]. So he dug up some classified information and gave it to the press, for all us quidnuncs to read.

La plus ca change, la plus ca meme chose. Nar’mean? Julian Assange? WikiLeaks? Ya dig?

Guess who thinks Mr. Assange is a swell guy for sharing with the whole [cyber-linked] world the classified information he was able to dig up? Why, Mr. Ellsberg, of course.

Whether you do, too, depends on your reference group. Are you more “The truth will set you free”; or more “Loose lips sink ships”? Far be it from me, to try to get you to switch groups. None of us can predict the effect of the WikiLeaks disclosures on global security. I’m more curious about the precursors. [As in, what got up Assange’s nose, that he decided to crack the code of encrypted websites and report his findings?] Mind you, that’s the basic mission statement of those who work for the FBI, and the CIA, and the BBC.

Our [often fear-based] Need to Know What’s Happening is the key to our individual and collective survival. Curiosity saved the cat, the dog, and us. We all “want to know a secret,” but we don’t all “promise not to tell.”

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Filed under phatic communication, pro bono publico, reference group