Category Archives: crazy like a fox

“hooked on the sound like it’s nicotine”

This apt metaphor comes from the current BBC Radio 1 hit, “Make Peace Not War” by the BritRap DJ, Skepta (known to his Nigerian-born parents as Joseph Junior Adenuga). I highly recommend its addition to your MP3 player, if only for the addictive hooky sample, “Everybody Dance, Now.”

As you may have guessed, the nicotine addict pictured above is not Skepta, but my own dear, long-since departed father (known to his Irish-born parents as “Red,” and to his shipmates as “Rosie”). Indeed, this picture comes from the official Naval book, U.S.S. WALKE, Korean Cruise, October 1950 to August 1951. What’s he like, eh? While everyone else in the book is pictured in uniform and smiling, the editors chose to let the Executive Officer’s inner wolf flag fly: “The Exec…If you felt you’d been [on deployment] too long, if you weren’t completely happy with your work, if you had any little problem at all, you just brought it in to this kindly old soul. He knew just how you felt.” [Note the use of the Poetic Speech function.]

A propos Memorial Day weekend, I will quote further from the book: “At 0740, June 12, 1951…a heavy explosion. In one stunning moment the full agony of war came home to us. In that moment 26 shipmates lost their lives and 40 more were wounded. Out of disaster came heroism and determination. The wounded were brought to safety and then we saved the ship. In the ordeal that followed a good ship became a great one…and the WALKE and the men who sailed her lived to fight again.”

One is tempted to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, North Korea!” However, alas, it was Rosie, and many of his fellow Americans, who did the smoking; and this post is yet another attempt to understand why.

The research I will quote comes from an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, published on 17 June 2010: “Nicotine Addiction,” by Neal L. Benowitz, M.D. He begins with the usual grim statistics. “Cigarette smoking remains a leading cause of preventable disease and premature death in the United States and other countries. On average 435,000 people in the United States die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each year; smoking causes 1 in 5 deaths. The chance that a lifelong smoker will die prematurely from a complication of smoking is approximately 50%.”

So, what gives? Are all those smokers (including smart, brave, stoical Rosie) just Crazy Like a Fox? Maybe. “The pharmacologic reasons for nicotine use are enhancement of mood, either directly or through relief of withdrawal symptoms, and augmentation of mental and physical functions.” Wait, what? Don’t tell your “Kangaroo” [aka attention-challenged] children; but Benowitz cites lab animal & human research studies suggesting that nicotine improves concentration and adherence to task. The evidence is more compelling [and also ethically distressing] in the rat studies, since one would presume that the rats are responding only to the cholinergic effects of the nicotine, not to the learned social cues and expectations so exhaustively explored on MadMen.

To totally simplify his neuroscience-speak, the initial chemical effect of nicotine on the brain is to increase available dopamine [leading to a sense of calm well-being & “in-the-zone” mental/physical performance]. But soon the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (known to their friends as nAChRs) become desensitized, “demanding” ever higher doses of nicotine, just to forestall (in rats) “anxiety-like behavior and the release of corticotrophic-releasing factor (CRF) in the central nucleus of the amygdala.” Aha! Our old nemesis, the howling wolf [amygdala, yah?] is flooded with toxic CRF, resulting in (unaccountable) fear (aka anxiety), and pain & suffering. No wonder those in nicotine withdrawal are so cranky!

Benowitz is not a big fan of [comparatively inefficient] nicotine-replacement delivery systems [such as gum or trans-dermal patches]. He believes in shielding the nAChRs from the depredations of nicotine in the first place. Short of psychosurgery or serendipitous Traumatic Brain Injury, however, no such nicotine-eluding technology yet exists.

Like a hooky song you can’t get out of your head, once you take “Nico” on board, you may have a “shipmate” for life.

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Working on a Clear Round


Those of us who have watched our share of televised equestrian events tend to put the sound on “mute,” to avoid hearing this inane, now-you’ve-jinxed-it phrase, which seems to guarantee that horse & rider will knock over the next fence. In the first place [where this “doomed” equine/human team are now not likely to finish], why state the obvious? It’s not a radio broadcast. Anyone who cares about the outcome of the event will be able to work out if all the jumps have remained up so far, or if some rails have fallen. It’s not a judgment call. As for time penalties, there is usually a graphic in the corner of the TV screen, keeping track for the viewers [but not the rider, who has to make an elaborate, on-the-hoof compromise between haste & accuracy, to win this zero-sum game].

Okay, so horse people are “a breed apart,” notoriously superstitious; but so are theater folk. It’s bad luck to wish an actor “good luck” before a performance: hence, the Poetic [as in, “I mean the opposite of what I’m saying”] phrase “Break a leg.” In the UK it’s bad luck to say “Macbeth” [especially if that’s the show you’re in]: hence, “the Scottish play.” My favorite line from the 1947 musical comedy send-up of Irish-American folkways, Finian’s Rainbow, is “Don’t be superstitious! It’s bad luck!”

So, that’s my excuse. I’m a horse-loving, theatrical, Irish-American. What’s yours? Cuz everyone is superstitious about something or other. Black cats? Friday the 13th? Announcing that you’re expecting a baby before all & sundry have guessed, anyway? This latter, culturally supported taboo falls squarely in the “working on a clear round” category. It avoids an air of hubris; of “pride goeth before a fall”; of “counting your chickens before they’ve hatched” [as it were]. We all remember that obnoxious student in high school, usually [not always] a girl, who after every test would set up a caterwaul of doom: “Oh, I just know I failed it!” And the rest of us just knew s/he got an A, maybe even the highest grade in the class, and were less than sympathetic with this ritual of “needless” worry. Ah! But it does not seem needless to the hand-wringer [any more than compulsive hand-washing seems optional, to the compulsive hand-washer]. It is a magical, albeit Highly Inconvenient, attempt to counter the fear of Bad Outcome. Sometimes, as in the post-test-hand-wringer scenario, it is an attempt to counter the anticipated humiliation of getting anything less than a perfect score.

However, and this is the point, these little anti-hubristic peregrinations most of us indulge in are the lesser of two evils, compared with not trying at all. One summer day, while riding hired horses through the Vienna woods, my elder daughter & I overheard our guide ask her young son, “Max, bist du brav? ” [which we took to mean, “Are you brave?” but Cassell’s dictionary translates as “Are you well-behaved, a good boy?”]. Then she directed him & his mount to jump a newly-fallen tree trunk, which they did, after a few false starts, much to everyone’s delight [and our relief]. Now, when we are facing a daunting challenge, where the odds of success seem long, we ask each other “Bist du brav?” If what it takes, to be brav enough to put all our effort on the line, is a bit of “aw, shucks, I probably will make a dog’s dinner of this” lowering of expectations, than so be it.

Whatever helps you to take that leap. [Incidentally, this is the fallen tree described in the “Timber Wolf” post.]

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"What Was I Thinking?"


My currently fave BBC 1 radio presenter, the young-but-sage Dubliner Annie Mac, was hosting a Bank Holiday Weekend show, reading texts from listeners recounting their shenanigans. “Annie, I woke up in a wheelie bin [trash can on wheels] this morning,” wrote one reveler. Annie deadpanned this response: “Now, what made you think that was a good idea? Surely, you would have been more comfortable, lying face-down on the lawn. Ah, well, you’ve survived it; and now it’s an anecdote.”

Brilliant! Here’s why I love what she’s done there. Without appearing to be goody-two-shoes preach-y about the perils of demon drink, she has deftly imputed internal locus of control to the texter-in. Rather than focusing on how he came to be so “trashed” that [presumably] his so-called friends decided to “bin” him, she [Poetically] implies that the decision to pass the night in a garbage can was his; and questions the wisdom of that. Under the rubric of “If you can’t be good, be careful,” she points out that he could have lessened his pain & suffering by stretching out, in the recommended Recovery Position, on some soft grass. [Coincidentally, last week the Manchester Guardian ran a feature on 10 common, potentially lethal, misconceptions about rendering first aid; and one was to “lay a drunk person on his/her back.” Several show-biz fatalities were cited, as evidence that this is a Bad Idea.]

By implication, she suggests that the reveler might now be having a bit of retroactive fear [as in, “Bloody hell! I could have died from that!”] and humiliation [as in “Bloody hell! I just told an audience of millions how stupid I am!”]; but she reframes his shenanigans as a Lucky Escape: an event not to be repressed or dissociated [as in, “That was not me, I’m not like that.”], but to be told and retold, until the ostensibly Crazy Fox’s behavior is understood well enough to answer the question: “What was I thinking?”

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Who You Callin’ Field Dependent?


In the 1970s H. Witkin & colleagues took an interesting difference in human cognition (between those who tend to See the Big Picture & those who tend to Notice Details), and ran with it, turning it into an all-out, Kangaroos-vs.-Clydesdales, smackdown. By 2002 here’s how The Dictionary of Psychology [ed. Ray Corsini] was talkin’ ’bout Field Dependence: “A tendency to uncritically rely on environmental cues, particularly deceptive ones, in tasks requiring the performance of simple actions or the identification of familiar elements in unfamiliar contexts. Passivity…is associated with field dependence.” And Field Independence? “The general capacity to orient the self correctly despite deceptive environmental cues (e.g. not being distracted by incidental elements in making a decision). Field independence is highly correlated with analytic ability, high achievement motivation, and an active coping style.”

Now let me tell you how physiologically field dependent [or do I mean feeble-minded] I am. You may recall my mentioning how frequently [and inconveniently] car-sick I was as a child. Know what cured me? A 1960 Mercedes Benz 190, which my father bought in the UK and–mercifully–shipped back with us upon our return to the USA, where it served as our one-and-only family car, until its debacle [rear-axle disintegration] in 1978. Aside from looking way cooler than our ’54 Buick or my grandparents’ endless succession of Caddies, it had a Very Stiff Suspension, so that a bump in the road was experienced as one short, sharp jolt [rather than a series of wallowing undulations]. What you saw was what you got. That’s what we F-D folk need, to avoid that nauseous feeling. The classic informal test for F-D involves something not everybody does anymore: sitting in a Northbound train at the station. When the Southbound train on the opposite track pulls out, does it feel as if your stationary train is moving forward? Welcome to my world.

But–talk about leaps of logic–how do we get from that kinesthetic phenomenon to Corsini’s & Witkin’s broad-brush character attributions, such as “requires externally defined goals and reinforcements”…”needs organization provided”…”avoid telling [an F-D] too many facts.” Can you hear my howling wolf cry “humiliation“? Compare that to their descriptions of F-InD folks: “Has self-defined goals & reinforcements”…”can self-structure situations”…”interested in new concepts for their own sake.” I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and deduce [which is what we F-D types do] that Witkins & Co. are/were [I can’t be bothered to check their bios, to find out who’s still with us] cognitive Clydesdales.

Lemme tell you some of the other descriptors they use for those oh-so-kinesthetically-savvy F-InD types, though: “impersonal orientation”…”learns social material only as an intentional task”…”motivated by grades, competition, by [being shown] how the task is valuable to them [not to other people].” Sounds a little…um…solipsistic. No? [Also sounds like the profile of the person Mostly Likely to Get Hired, in the current economic climate. Hence the Crazy Like a Fox remark, at the end of the previous post.]

So here’s my point. [Same old point, as ever.] There are not just two cognitive types of people; there is a continuum. Not every Analytical thinker [F-InD] is a brilliant scientist with no social skills; and not every Global thinker [F-D] is an intellectually lazy People Person…although I can think of a Prominent Politician who fit that description. All y’all Clydesdales need to climb off your high horse [as it were], and realize that you need us Big Picture Kangaroos, with our non-linear cognitive style, if only for comic relief. We all ought to see the value of both Flakes & Geeks, and to realize that every one of us is a hybrid of both.

Say, what’s that, hanging from a branch in that big old tree in this picture? Or didn’t you notice it?

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Filed under crazy like a fox, murky research, sharks and jets

Solipsism


Briefly, to lay the groundwork for a longer post on Field Dependence, here is Seamus, when he was a (rescued) kitten in Philadelphia, enacting the philosophical notion that one can only know one’s own mind. That the rest of the world might only exist as a product (figment?) of one’s own imagination. If Seamus wakes up, we might all go poof!

Currently, grown-up Seamus lives in Chicago, “imagining” the rest of us.

In psychology solipsism has been regarded, variously, as a psychotic delusion (a form of megalomania) or merely as an unattractive character trait (as in, “It’s all about me. Welcome to ‘The Me Show.'”)

Until the next post, just for fun, make a mental list of the people you’re aware of, who regard you [and the rest of us] as mere bit players in their Big Show. Could be a politician, or a movie star, or even someone in your family. [In a family setting, this person is often referred to, jokingly, as “King/Queen of the Universe.”] We all know someone solipsistic. Could be they’re just crazy like a fox.

Next time, we’ll consider the alternative.

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Filed under crazy like a fox, lesser of two evils, object relations theory