Emotion regulation–and the lack thereof–explained using physics

Given my understanding of classical mechanics, I think of causation (from an observer’s perspective) often using this two-object scenario: one object is moving (i.e. has observable velocity), and the other object is at rest. When the two meet–the trajectory of the first making it inevitable that there is a moment in time when they get close enough to touch–some or all of the momentum of the first object is transferred to the second object, and then I conclude: the first object caused the second object to change trajectory.

The one great insight that Albert Einstein brought to physics is that of relativity: the understanding that there is no absolute frame of reference. In other words, there is a valid way of looking at the two objects in the above example, in which the roles are completely reversed. And that is, naturally, the frame of reference in which the first object is “at rest” and the second object is moving towards it. Einstein understood that both perspectives must be and are equally valid objective descriptions, thus undermining our gut intuition of causality (which came first? which object was moving before the collision?).

In our daily lives, we often face the same conundrum when it comes to how we perceive causation in the social (inter-personally mental) domain: we may see ourselves, each in turn, to be more or less mentally stable (at rest)—that is to say, in the absence of an external event, of something interacting with us, our mental state would remain what it is. And we further perceive other minds as transferring mental momentum to us, say, by saying something which makes us angry or laugh.

Unfortunately, that kind of perspective, the strict notion that we are victims of external events, that we have no agency over what happens to us (mentally), creates a huge problem: we lose the ability to control how we feel! We no longer have any means to escape a collision event. We may hope or pray that we will not meet someone who criticizes us—because we know that once that happens, we will feel lousy and down, but if it happens, we no longer have any control over the change of state which will, inevitably it seems, happen to our minds.

There is, however, one very, very important difference between the classical mechanics objects example and the situation where two minds meet: even a single mind, on its own, can change its state. Imagine you are sitting at your desk, your mind is wandering around, thinking about the past or future, and suddenly you think of a wonderful day you spend as a child on vacation with your family. How do you feel? Do you still feel the same way as you did mere seconds ago? What caused you to think of this day?

The first important aspect I want to highlight is that, other than a single object that cannot change its own momentum, a mind can change its state on its own. It is almost as though, if the second object in the example wanted to avoid or alter the course of the collision, it could decide to do so, and take steps in that direction. And that is what, at least when it comes to the affective state of one’s mind, emotion regulation provides:

As a quick detour, I want to explain about James Gross’s first attempt of modeling the different approaches to emotion regulation and their outcomes. His model contains two broad kinds of strategies, situation selection—in terms of the two-object example above, the second object could simply avoid the collision altogether—or some form of action the second object takes to alter the way in which either the collision takes place (situation modification) or its consequences unfold (attentional deployment, cognitive change, or response modulation).

To be clear, each and every of these five strategies requires that the second “mental object” (a person correctly anticipating an impact of a mental event that would typically lead to an altered emotional state) accepts its agency over the outcome: the anticipated change is not inevitable! Once this is accepted, a strategy can be chosen:

  • the incoming object can be avoided in the first place (for instance by deciding to avoid seeing the person, something I think would change my emotional state)
  • the incoming object could move into a slightly different position, thus changing the resulting outcome trajectories of both objects
  • the incoming object could, theoretically at least, alter one of its properties–imagine the object becoming more massive, allowing it to simply absorb the momentum
  • for cognitive change I find it relatively more difficult to find an adequate analogue, but the idea is that, after the collision occurred, the second object would alter some of its inner workings which would, in turn, alter its trajectory change
  • finally, the second object could simply change its trajectory after the collision had occurred

As a practical example, I would just want to point out that in an emotionally heated exchange between two people, it is fairly common for both sides to claim to be provoked into more and more ferocious responses (and between nations, this goes as far as going to an outright state of war). Each party in this repeated exchange could describe the situation as him or herself being forced to react in a certain way, and each party will also fail to consider that one’s own actions are potentially causative for an equally strong (or stronger) re-action from the other side…

Which brings me to the second important aspect: as long as people think of themselves as mental objects at rest they may fail to consider that, all along, they are probably perceived to be moving (as causative agents) by others. The failure to appreciate the impact our mental actions (in particular what we say or do casually) have on other minds very easily leads to situations in which someone else is impacted by us, may show a reaction, and we mistakenly assume we had nothing to do with it.

The most egregious example I can think of off the top of my head is the (seeming) failure of Donald Trump to appreciate, understand, or correctly represent the affective consequences of his actions in others. Whenever asked about one of his past actions–which, understandably for the majority of outside observers, led to some kind of grudge in someone else–Donald Trump exhibits an almost complete lack of understanding for how his actions could be considered responsible.

In other words, Donald Trump is the prime example of someone who considers himself to be perfectly at rest (someone with the best temperament). He only happens to reacts to outside events (as necessary) and fails to grasp a) that he actually has a choice for how to react (going on twitter tirade after twitter tirade) and b) that what he says about others may well cause emotional pain in those people in the first place.

How we deal with “otherness” and “being right”.

The primary campaign season of the U.S. Presidential elections is coming to close, and I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on where I, in the past year, have ridiculed and disrespected others’ opinions. Why? Because I believe that the idea that my beliefs, my ideas, my thoughts, and my knowledge is superior–something I intuit many people experience while being exposed to others’ beliefs, ideas, and thoughts–is at the heart of much of the conflicts we experience in our day-to-day lives as well as through mass and social media.

The number one prime example for me are my thoughts about supporters of Donald Trump, at least at the beginning of his campaign. It seemed so obvious (from my perspective) that to follow a man willing to call an entire people rapists or make allegations against all followers of a specific region must come with a certain kind of mental defect. And only over time did my perception change. It still seems a much more readily available thought, even now, but it no longer is the dominant one. Instead, now I believe that the lives of many have been developing so far away from what we have come to see as “the norm” that their anger at politicians not even acknowledging this state of affairs has led them to a sort of “anyone but them” position. And no matter what else I may think about Donald Trump, he certainly is not the “average politician” in any regard.

More generally speaking, my experience is that when it comes to comparing “what I know” with what other people’s behavior reveals about their mental life is that, most of the time, I consider myself on the “right side” of things. I believe, for instance, that my approach to engaging with strangers–such as on my daily commute to and from work–is somewhat superior to other people’s approach. Naturally, given my longterm goals, my approach probably has some advantages, but upon reflection, I could never conclude that it is free of problems either. And clearly, whenever I compare approaches, it is difficult to do so conditional on my goals, because then I would have to compare two sets of things all at once (my approach and my goals to those of others). After all, human brains seem to have a lot to do already comparing two things…

And with that limiting factor in mind, I slowly begin to understand that most judgments of “inferiority” do not stem from differences in believes per se, but rather from my inability to consider someone else’s mental structure as a whole, his or her overall background and backdrop in front of which all cognitive decisions take place.

To give a (hopefully) much less controversial example far away from politics, religion, or social mores, I recently imagined meeting someone from the 17th century unfamiliar with developments in physics since his or her time. This person would most likely consider me to be a crazy person if I told him that, on the most fundamental level, all material things are made from the same “stuff”: small charged particles (something a person from the future may also consider me crazy for, by the way) that are bound together by a force so strong that “chemical reactions” are unable to overcome it, and thus form stable “elements”. Instead, this person would insist that wood, metal, and glass for instance are so obviously different in their properties, that is it preposterous to assume they could ever be made of the same stuff!

By analogy, the same applies to humans. When we encounter one another, one of the most fundamental cognitive processes that happens is a part of “social cognition”: we categorize others effortlessly in classes of gender, race, age group, social status (for instance by virtue of observing their clothing or speech patterns) and others. And while most of these classes may seem relatively benign and harmless, they each carry with them expectations, prejudices, and valuations. In a situation of an emergency, for instance, we tend to profess greater concern for children and women, whereas in the context of politics most people still seem to have strong objections and react with scoldings for women who, like Hillary Clinton, act closer to what their male counterparts might do: seeking power.

On the whole, labeling others in this way often allows us to no longer “care” (in a positive way at least) about people, by creating a kind of mental representation of this person no longer deserving our support and shared resources. As a society, we have been observers of tremendous amounts of harm, pain, and suffering in our very midst, and yet we have not done much to alleviate any of it. Why? One typical thought might be the doctrine of capitalism, which tells us that each and every person is foremost responsible for their own situation and place in life. As such, a homeless person doesn’t deserve our support.

But this extends far beyond the economic sphere. Just this weekend, two major stories that have dominated the headlines are the case of Brock Turner, a young man who in a moment of opportunity didn’t have enough respect and civility in him to not do what he did, but instead raped an unconscious women. What lack of valuation for another human being’s life must be at play, I ask myself? And the same is true for the man who went to a gay night club in Orlando, possibly to send a message of religious zealotry, that our society should not tolerate and accept homosexuality, but at the same time treating the humanity of his victims as nonexistent.

Overall, I believe that to the extent that we believe to be “right”, we are unable to empathize (why would we need to anyway?), as we lack the motivation to understand the “other” (or otherness). And only when we take the mental liberty of exploring what lies behind someone’s behavior, actions and words alike, can we begin to have an open conversation about how life can be valuable and better for all, and not dominated by those with the most firepower.

An open letter to supporters of Donald Trump

You must be so tired of hearing from or about people trying to make you think Donald Trump is no good, am I right? And people in big media and also in politics clearly have no clue what’s going on in this country! So, they should just shut up already. At the very least, they shouldn’t pretend as though everything is going well with the U.S.

All they write about is how Trump would be bad for the US in this way or that way: how his policies would ruin the economy, and on, and on, and on… But what about the people who have run this country into the gutter? They spent the past 30 or so years trying to tell us that things are great. But you just need to look around to see the truth! You very well remember a time when things were so much better! What the f*ck happened? How could the people who were supposed to protect you let it come to this?

So… Why am I writing?

Well, I’ll do my best to tell it like it is: I’m angry and I’m also scared. What I’m not is a historian, and no economist either, and I’m certainly also no genius who can predict the future. What I do know is that I feel like things are getting out of control. And I’m not saying that that’s on you! And it’s also not on Donald Trump either!

You only have to open any news paper, or turn on the news on TV, or go to a news website online to see it. Pretty much anything that happens is bad. And isn’t someone supposed to protect us from all that sh*t? I mean, seriously… This country was at the very top not too long ago, and now everything feels like we’re losing big time.

So, yeah, I agree there is much to be angry about!

For one, I’m super angry about people who have been telling us, that if there are more people looking for work than there are jobs, the people simply have to accept lower wages. It’s what they call a free market! Of labor!! And then they have been telling us that it’s a great idea to move jobs to countries where people work for way less than half of what those jobs paid in the U.S., go figure!

It’s really no surprise at all that wages have not gone up since the 1980’s! I mean, come on!! And, naturally, the people who own a lot will get even richer. Cause, believe me, whatever they save by having stuff produced in other countries is not going to push prices down as much for you or me.

And then I’m angry at people who keep telling us that everyone earning enough to have a decent standard of living would break the economy. Where’s the proof? It all comes back again to this one question: how much is a certain job worth paying for? Clearly, if we believe the economists and, no surprise here, almost everyone in either of the two big parties, they would say, it’s only worth as much as the market pays.

Well, here’s another way looking at this: imagine, even for one moment, that not the number of people qualified to do a job, say cleaning toilets, is what determines the supply of labor, but instead the number of people who actually want to do that fucking job, given what it pays. Don’t you think that many, many jobs would suddenly become much more valuable?

And, yes, it sounds like a fantasy, like a fairy tale, something that could never, ever work in reality. But WHY NOT? I’ll tell you why: because the people who own things, who own factories, and who own hospitals, and who own prisons–in short, the people who do not do any actual work, but only sit on their assess, counting their belongings, would make far, far less money than they do today. And the people who own things are the ones spending soooo much money on elections, that people like you and me certainly don’t have a chance.

Then comes Donald Trump, and at last someone is as angry about how the country is being run as I am. Only, he is one of the rich guys. So, I’m skeptical. Would he really make life better for me? For you? Or what is it that he really wants?

And, honestly, I’m also a bit scared of some of the things Donald Trump has to say… If I take him at his word, all of our problems would be solved if only we could get the illegals out of the country, and stop Islamic terror, and get China to not export so much cheap stuff, and a few other things. Oh yeah, and of course get all those stupid people out of Washington! Super simple! Whenever I let my anger about how bad the people in D.C. have run the country run high, I can even see it: let’s get all those who have no right to be here out, and things must get better!

Then again… I think that as long as we are fed the lie that jobs are only worth something if there aren’t that many people who could do them, and if there are many people that can do a job, like doing someone’s laundry, or flipping burgers, then it isn’t worth shit, because we can just wait until someone sells his or her soul just to earn those couple dollars to buy some scraps and leftovers from the banquets of the rich, we will not be free. We will be slaves of a system that Trump supports just as much as anyone who’s been born on the rich side of life. And I don’t blame them, they’re just looking out for their own best interest!!

There is one guy, who so far has, for almost all his life, said he is fighting for the regular guy, with the low-paying jobs. And that’s Bernie. So, yes, if you’re angry, maybe you’re not angry enough. It’s the system that needs changing!

Lacking mindfulness: a common vulnerability in the collective psyche of humans

Just yesterday, I was reading the news that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf will soon be published in a new edition with almost as much text in historical annotations and comments by a German institute, on which the authors spent three years of research. This inspired me again to think however not so much about what made Adolf Hitler into such a “monster”, but instead my thoughts turned to the question of what exactly is it that turns people showing no prior signs of extremist or violent views into supporters of some of the most extreme measures one could think of when an entire class of supposed enemies is concerned?

One of my initial hypotheses—which I admit remains untested—is that it seems related to a form of vulnerability, something that if triggered leads down a path of irrational (mainly emotionally driven) fear and anger, towards hatred and acceptance of violence in the name of protection. What then are the ingredients and how could such a vulnerability be best characterized, maybe in a way that unites inexplicable displays of violence on a group level?

Given that fear of an imminent threat seems to be a necessary part of such a scenario, the question then kind of becomes how is it that (some) people are so incredibly susceptible to a message of fear? And after some thought my intuition more and more solidifies around the lack of acceptance (or mindfulness) of the fact that many things in life “happen to us” outside of our control, things we typically don’t like. And where the combination of experiencing this lack of agency is paired with the imagined outcome becoming so unbearable that a person is willing to throw any moral standards, including the most important tenet of “do no harm”, over board, then violence can take its course.

In short, if people have been conditioned to perceive a threat, and the threat is further characterized in such a way that individual action (agency) is lacking towards averting the threat—something certainly true for a constant message of terrorists undermining our way of life—then all it takes is for someone else to jump into the fray and promise to deliver the people from this threat. And clearly a penchant for simplification and an attitude of “not-taking-no-for-an-answer” would be very helpful to get those people’s support who feel the lack of control the most. It worked, for instance, with a former U.S. administration embracing torture to gain control over a situation perceived as threatening without much else to be done.

If one were to accept such a (combined) hypothesis, one thing becomes almost immediately clear: in the current situation, where a sizable part of the American People is willing to accept a list of political positions and measures, which to many others in the same nation seem abhorrent and incredibly immoral, two sides that may otherwise be perceived as opponents are in fact (even if unconsciously so) working as two parts of the same machinery:

The media and Donald Trump are, as much as both sides are insisting they don’t like each other—something I believe to be true—working jointly towards a state of mass frenzy, panic, and finally the acceptance of a violent resolution to a conflict that may, largely, be happening inside the minds of those who have become so committed to a perception of continuously being threatened that nothing else could explain their suffering. And unfortunately, having a panic-inducing page one headline is a selling argument…

It’s important to state that the threat that is being felt by many is not without a base in reality: as a nation, the U.S. have been threatened and attacked in the past. What I am proposing is not that people are delusional about the threat itself, but possibly about its magnitude—how many people have actually been affected personally, for instance?—and most certainly about whether or not the proposed counter measures are really addressing the perceived threat in a way consistent with our moral standards. If a threat, real or imagined, is able to so easily make us forget who we are as moral beings, then maybe we aren’t moral beings after all…

I sincerely hope that this time there will be a considerable portion of “We, The People” that will take both the constantly repeated (and thus likely over-attended-to) threat of foreign terrorism as well as the idea that some of our fellow Americans would be willing to turn to a demagogue with enough grains of salt to not themselves be whipped into a frenzy of their own—that the world is becoming “unsafe” and more “dramatic actions” are required. It would be the same game, only played by “the other side”…

A measured response, if following this logic, must contain the element of keeping a cool head, by first accepting the fact that indeed many things in life happen that one simply cannot control. What remains to be done is to take charge of those things that can be controlled: one’s own actions, including how one treats those fellow humans showing signs of having issues with exactly this dilemma. Engaging one another in dialogue, possibly coming to a position of sharing the fears, and not denying their existence, and a sharing of the burden of the fact that while the threat cannot be denied, it must not be given the power to control our own fates either! Otherwise, we most certainly have lost control already, without even noticing it.

If I were (or could be) running for president…

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for becoming the Presidential Nominee of the Republican Party on June 16, 2015, I have experienced many moments in which I found myself thinking about what I perceive to be the relevant issues that politics need to address in the United States of America (and worldwide, as well).

And, sooner or later, my thoughts then frequently pose the question: what would I do if I were (or rather even could be) running for President? What would be the topics I believe should be “front and center” of any campaign, and how would I talk about them?

Importantly, one of the first things I would point out is that–from the way I understand the constitution and the mandate for the President of the United States, as well as the limitations imposed–many campaign “promises” by current candidates seem unrealistic and disingenuously made

Anyway, for those of you who experience similar moments, I would appreciate receiving feedback, mostly for these purposes: to improve my understanding of these issues and also to generate additional ideas for potential solutions.

On the whole, I perceive a few, separable, clusters of issues and questions:

  • human rights
    • constitutional rights: what can our government do to improve and subsequently ensure these unalienable rights: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?
    • racial relations: how have members of different races treated each other in the past, and how do we wish for this to change, going forward? –this includes, for instance, the situation of African-Americans in prisons, and how this has led to several ripple effects, creating a series of related problems
    • abortion: to what extend can people accept this as a situation in which two individuals’ rights are inevitably pitted against one another? and could we find ways to not increase this tension, but avoid it altogether except in rare circumstances? –I would like to include whether, given the progress in the science of neuropsychology, as well as current philosophical debates, we can come closer to a realistic understanding of the “beginning of life” in terms of neuronal activity as a precursor for sentience
    • freedom of (opinion and) expression: how can the government protect this freedom where other interests threaten it? where has government itself in the past undermined these liberties? and what could be done to re-balance this liberty with any others, and also not at the cost of some people having “more political-expressional freedom” due to their wealth or power, as this would go against the institution of democracy
  • ecological matters
    • pollution prevention: how can we improve the track record of industrially producing goods our societies rely on, by at the same time encouraging economically sound behavior?
    • energy consumption: what can government do to balance the needs of humanity, i.e. additional resources vs. having a planet that sustains humanity in the first place? –as long as our entire human culture is based on the concept of future generations enjoying a “better life”, it seems obvious that access to energy as a resource will have to be greatly increased (in perpetuity!)
    • population density: what incentives can governments create to control population increases and migration in ways that minimize conflicts with human rights?
  • economy
    • productivity and technology: how can advancements be shared with regions and countries that do not yet have access to them, without encouraging general “laziness” and long-term dependence on the part of those underdeveloped regions/countries?
    • fiscal and free-market policies, including taxation and redistribution: to what extend and how should government control and regulate markets, so as to ensure that the positive function of flexibly allocating resources to provide desired products and services is not undermined by unrealistic notions of accumulating wealth and power in the hand of relatively few individuals beyond any such limits acceptable in a democracy?
    • monetary policies: given the increased world-wide trade interdependence of nations and peoples, do we need to think about how countries, in which people experience structural disadvantages due to their deficit in purchasing power, can be treated, so as to avoid large migratory movements in the 21st century that would threaten both emigration and immigration-hit countries? –this will also have to address the fact that technological advances could easily make an entire industry obsolete at any moment, requiring massive interventions to avoid humanitarian disasters!
  • security
    • response to geo-political conflicts, such as between Russia and its neighbors (Ukraine), in the Middle Eastern region (both the situation of Israel and the threat of the Islamic State), and between the two Koreas: what avenues are generally open to engage with the parties that do not involve military action? have these avenues been used to their fullest extent? if so, what military means can be justified, and how are they then best implemented?
    • mass-destruction armament: how can international relations be improved to reduce (or even eliminate) the need for storing and threatening with weapons of mass destruction?

So, yes, these would be roughly the topics I think come to mind regularly. One of the most saddening experiences for me in the past few weeks has been the absence of content in any debates or “ask-the-candidates” interviews. Instead, the simple “solutions” being touted seem incredibly like coming from quacks to me–which is true for both Democrats as Republicans… New knowledge from the overlapping sciences of human behavior and economic decision making is simply just waiting to be integrated into smart policy making!

And while I appreciate the difficulty of presenting more than soundbites in a media landscape which, just like the rest of the economy, is simply following the trend of making reporting ever more efficient–by reducing important arguments to their cartoon or caricature versions–I still think that most Americans would be able to understand even the most heated and difficult topics if they were presented in less emotionally charged ways.

As an example: I have no problem contemplating that for someone who greatly cares about protecting every human life on this planet, it seems not only natural but downright imperative to feel outraged about the idea of women being allowed to terminate a developing human being, particularly in circumstances in which many alternative choices could have been made at several points prior to that decision. At the same time, I can also understand the notion of suggesting that such an attitude, when paired with the desire to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of people simply for engaging in possibly unlawful but otherwise non-society-threatening behavior–such as drug use–, could be perceived as hypocrisy. So, maybe what is needed on both sides is to understand why there is a conflict of interest, and to what the antecedents are.

I just happen to think that simply imposing one’s view about what is right and wrong on others will never get us any closer to coming to an agreement. In that regard, I believe what American politics is lacking is not the passion for having an argument, but rather the ability to listen and, at least temporarily, suspend one’s disbelief in another’s position, so as to understand the reasons behind the opposition.

As such, if I were to run for President, I would do my level best to never say: “I’m right and you’re wrong!” Instead I would try to say, “please try to explain why you think that way, as I want to understand what it is that you need.

Why I think the “war on terror” is fought the wrong way…

For more than 10 years now, I have lived with the notion that what I once believed was a more or less cohesive block of nations and peoples, sometimes referred to as “The West” or “Western Cultures”, are fighting the “War on Terror“. And for the most part, I have also lived with the perception that this war is fought well, mainly as a military conflict. But after the recent events in Paris, where the offices of the French satirical weekly “Charlie Hebdo” were the scene of a shooting, I have spent quite some time thinking about what we (and whoever it is on the other side) are actually fighting over, and consequently how this fight can and ought to be fought.

One of the main provisional conclusions I have drawn is that, contrary to many other past conflicts fought with military and guerrilla tactics, this war is not primarily about resources. As much as those behind it may also want to protect the riches they hold, it seems to me that even if there was a way to (plausibly and believably) guarantee to the people who have taken up arms against “The West” that their resources will not be taken from them, this would only have little impact on the ferocity with which this war is fought–on the side of what has been hastily and summarily judged as Islam or Muslim countries and occasionally been named the “Axis of Evil”.

What then is this evil? Some immediate notion might be the entire religion of Islam, but I hope that I can make an argument that this may very well not be the case. As a disclaimer, I am no expert on Islam or any other major religion, although I believe I have had sufficient exposure to all of them to understand that all of these major religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam alike–have aspects in their respective creeds that, at least when regarded from a secular and scientific point of view, seem extremely unlikely to be true. No, I don’t think it’s the religion itself, but something that is claimed to be based on the religion.

I can make out at least three major points–all of which I believe are somewhat linked–in which the perpetrators of violence (in the name of Islam) differ from the Western world that from a cursory reading of Islamic scripture seem either unsupported or shaky in their foundation at best:

  • a violently achieved dominance of the male over the female in all aspects of relationships linked to power, influence, and decision making; and while not necessary the same, I believe that “honor killings” (when men in a family take the life of a woman to remove a “stain” of dishonor) stem from a common notion: the superiority of men over women; to my knowledge, there haven’t been any women directly linked to any of the attacks, which I find highly suggestive–but it seems also the case that all major religions seem to consider the male as more important or at least strongly differentiate between genders, as a photoshopped front page in an Israeli newspaper recently demonstrated deftly, but moderate Christians, Jews, and Muslims no longer suppress women with physical force
  • the denial of capitalist ideas, that decision making power comes with owning financial resources and that, if one wishes to attain power, activities in life therefore must include or even be dominated by the pursuit of financial wealth; instead the other side seems to hold the values of fighting and warfare prowess as far more appealing–which may in part explain why even relatively well-off (but mainly younger and physically able) males from European countries and the U.S. are joining this cause
  • and finally a much more general reattribution and re-prioritization of the values that make up the meaning-of-life, which in Western cultures originally was dominated by ideas of Puritan and Enlightenment ideals, but has over time more and more shifted towards values such as (feelings of) pursuit of happiness, personal security, freedom of expression, general equality of all human beings and, in terms of meaning, pursuit of intellectual perfection and increase in knowledge–something which unfortunately has become more and more lost in the claws of a capitalist notion that values life and individual growth of one’s personality as less important than the improvement of wealth (of only a select few)

As far as I can tell, this war cannot be won with physical weapons. In fact, fighting this war with bombs, drones, or other military “solutions” plays into the hands of those we call terrorists, as it corroborates the notion that our ideals are worthless once put to the test. What are their weapons, really?

My contention is that as much as each attack costs lives, the true damage is not a physical one, but an ideal one. This war is a war of ideas and ideologies, and as such the weapons ought to be thoughts, opinions, and strong voices–which is exactly what this last attack has demonstrated: the target was not one representing our interests in the oil resources that exist in the Middle East, such as the headquarter of Shell or B.P., but rather a small newspaper that mocked and tainted the ideas on the other side of the argument.

Insofar I believe that our response should equally one based on ideas and this can be summarized in two separate but equally necessary “weapons”:

  • strengthening our defenses, our own ideas and ideals, by not allowing small-scale attacks to completely unravel the progress that our cultures have seen over the past centuries; part of this will require to instill security in the people we live with, rather than sowing fear–and this is the crux, as the powers that we have delegated into our governments, but that truly are given to each one of us, do not have a strong interest in our sense of security, as they themselves thrive in times of fear and terror
  • weakening the enemy’s arsenal and power, their ideas and ideals, by revealing the true nature of the consequences if those ideals were to be reality everywhere; the choice between a liberal and civil society–albeit currently an imperfect one with many flaws–and a society built on force wielded by violent, powerful men, used to suppress women and all those who are (physically) too weak to object should be clear as day to everyone

And as a quick hint: we have become experts in fighting enemies with “thoughts and ideas”… During most elections, candidates simply dig up all the dirt about their opponent, and once made public, this is usually sufficient to bury him or her. Why not deal with this situation equally and finally put the information gathering services that were built in the name of our protection to good use?

How, why, and “am I right?”

Humans have an almost irresistible urge to categorize things. Personally, I have always hated being “put into a little box,” such that someone could say anything fixed and static about me. It feels limiting. At the same time, I acknowledge that it comes, to a certain extent at least, naturally for me as well. And part of the initial instructions any infant’s brain comes equipped with is the natural tendency to categorize, to extract statistical regularities in the environment and create “natural kinds,” sets of objects and rules: things that are more similar than dissimilar, and transitions that are more likely to occur than others. How else are we supposed to survive if not by having some kind of model–or at least an inkling–about what is happening.

Having said that, I hope you will all forgive me. Equally as I do not approve of others putting me into little boxes of “how I am,” it just occurred to me that one way to “tell people apart”–that is to say to make a rather more than less useful distinction between them–is to ask whether they are How, Why, or “I’m right” people, or a combination thereof, and which aspect wins. What do I mean by that? Let me start by making a few observations…

Just as children have the almost super-natural capacity to learn without being actively taught, simply by engaging in and interacting with an environment–or can you actually remember how you learned your very first language without even having one to begin with?–they come, so it seems, filled to the brim with the desire to answer two fundamental questions in life.

The first one is really the most natural to ask: how do things work? I would describe this kind of curiosity as a necessity in such a way to be able to improve control over one’s environment. If I know how plants transform light into storable energy, I can try to mimic the mechanism, and if I know how people react to certain comments, I can slip them in at just the right moment–or not–to produce an effect. In short, answering the how question allows me to lead a better life by improving my chances of making correct predictions about the future, and I would call asking and correctly answering this question as being a model scientist.

The second big question comes just a little later in life, but, once it awakens, is probably even more daunting: why do things happen and people do the things they do? Even if I know all the mechanisms in the world–which, by the way, I would argue I never can or will, given that all thoughts and ideas can only ever be models, and not reality itself–I have this one nagging question remaining in my head, why? And this question can be asked already when I have no idea of a mechanism at all. And sometimes the question can be relatively trivial at first, such as for instance, why my mother decided to stop smoking during her pregnancies. But in the end, I believe, it always leads to the fundamentals: why am I? And why do I feel so lonely, lost, and in pain? Asking and at least attempting to answer these questions I would call being a model philosopher.

Unfortunately, children are often discouraged. They ask too many questions, some of which seem too hard to answer, either because we don’t know yet–how does gravity really work? How does evolution jump not gradually between species? How is it that I can only keep 6 or 7 words in working memory, but you still know, I hope, how I started this very blog post?–or because the answers can be painful to contemplate–why can’t we all be more peaceful? Why does evolution need to be so violent? And why do I have to die at all?–and so adults, the very same people who once themselves asked so many questions, often will say: “Because!”

It seems that the only alternative left is to then become what I call an “I am right” person. What do I mean by that? Well, in the absence of asking either how or why questions, it would seem that our minds still need to be doing something. Given the fact that we are extremely prodigious at categorizing, it would also seem a very great waste of resources not to make use of that capacity. And I would argue that our brains are simply propelled to be judgmental. And instead of attempting to make judgments that help–i.e. improve my ability to maneuver myself through an inexplicably complex reality–I form judgments that hurt.

The most fundamental and probably quite frequent judgment then would be, of course, “I am a bad person.” In light of all the things we are constantly being denied, we would love to ask the question, why? Why can I not have this or that, and why does this person not treat me the way I want to be treated? But asking those questions is no longer an option, and in the absence of an answer, it seems almost inevitable to conclude that I must be unworthy. And with that general background attitude, everything becomes a battle, a war. And instead of seeking to improve not only my but all lives, the motivation of self-preservation against the omnipotent enemy of self-doubt propels people to engage in some of the most self-destructive behaviors possible: suicide, homicide, or genocide.

As some final thoughts, I would say that (almost) all of the characters in stories that I love and admire are How or Why people; they are fearless, and non-judgmental. They take the risk of being wrong, because that’s the only way to learn anything. And they take things with enough humor. How do real people become (or maybe just stay) this way? I think by experiencing that being wrong is bliss, that making mistakes is just a natural part of existence, and that as long as we ask questions, we make progress.

On the importance of meaning and purpose in my life…

Saturday afternoon I went through a short and yet intense moment of experiencing the sense of loss over a past relationship, contemplating what exactly it was this relationship represents, and why it seemingly meant and still means so much to me. An intriguing possibility occurred to me, one I hadn’t really thought of before as clearly, but that at least at the moment seems to be fairly plausible: When I initially developed feelings for this person, I distinctly remember having a fresh sense of “this is what I want and need”, something that has been diminishing for quite a while. However, my subsequent decisions and the outcomes I observed didn’t make sense to me. So, what I have been and partly still am attracted to and obsessed about may be the idea that this relationship could give my life meaning and purpose, together with the enhanced experiences of agency and self-efficacy. And I want to flesh out each term a bit more.

My experience of agency, which, briefly put, is perceiving that actions I’m taking are self-determined, allowing me to actually take charge of my life. A typical example from psychology is that by making a decision I can bring about a specific outcome, and I would argue that spending time with someone I feel close and attracted to, interacting with that person, and observing the feedback I’m getting clearly constitutes a situation with a heightened sense of agency.

Closely related but not identical is the concept of self-efficacy. While agency can be experienced in good and bad outcomes alike–as long as it has been my actions that bring the outcome about–self-efficacy is specifically linked to positive outcomes that are congruent with my goals. As such, being with someone and observing that person’s increased sense of well-being as a direct consequence of my actions creates a higher sense of self-efficacy.

The experience of meaning or meaningful outcomes–and I think it is important to distinguish meaning from the other concepts–is something I can more or less attribute to a situation. To some degree, it is both guided by and subsequently guides future goals I have in life. As an example, even an initially negative experience I make, such as the person I feel for not returning those feelings, can be seen as meaningful if I end up with a thought that, one way or another, this experience helped me in reaching one of my goals. As such, it is highly independent from agency, as even outcomes that are seemingly caused by others or maybe even random events can be perceived as meaningful.

Semantically overlapping with the concept of meaning, I would yet separately name my sense of purpose. I would argue this sense is an expression of how I translate my appreciation of life as a whole into what I intend to do for seeking meaningful experiences. In short, it is the one highest-level goal I have in life. Obviously I can’t look into the future, but I guess that if I could, a very good reason would probably be that I’d want to verify that I will reach this high-level goal. In that sense it is like the hypothesis and synthesis of future meaning, and whenever I manage to move closer toward this goal I’m experiencing an increased sense of meaning. And for me, being with someone in an intimate way is clearly part of the purpose and meaningful.

Finally, I would add the experience of things making sense. And I think it is important to also distinguish this from both meaning and purpose. In a situation where I made a mistake and incur some form of punishment or cost, the painful part of the experience at least makes sense–which is different from a situation where I experience pain without understanding why it happened. I would say that my implicit belief in cause and effect has very little room for randomness, and I often have a fairly strong need to understand what exactly caused the things happening to me, particularly the painful ones, which is why in a situation where outcomes do not make sense they at least must be meaningful to be bearable.

More generally speaking and related to what I see as the preliminary thoughts on a neuro-computational model for human experience as a whole, I would argue that once the more basic needs we experience as human beings are satisfied–those that guarantee our physical well-being and survival–we are left with the challenge to look after those still requiring satisfaction, which I speculate could be one of the reasons why people in positions of great power might at some point become incredibly dissatisfied with part of their experience.

Coming back to my own situation in life: working in the field of psychology, albeit not as an academic in the strictest sense, has always been a continuous source of meaning. The way in which I came to the job, however, did not entail the experience of agency and purpose, at least I would argue that how I ended up working in this field came about more as a coincidence. And I somehow sense that a slow but noticeable decline in perceived meaning may very well have contributed to the intensity with which I have attached myself to the idea of finding meaning elsewhere, say in this relationship turned to obsession.

Consequently, I am now wondering to what extent my sense of loss is, to a considerable degree at least, the expression of the needs for meaning and purpose, and that if I were to find those two by other means, especially if I were to experience them with agency and self-efficacy, the sense of loss would be highly diminished. Naturally, it seems tempting to simply go for another relationship–that would afford me with a renewed sense of “that’s what I want and need.” However, I have to ask myself how stable this experience would really be, given that I have witnessed how easy it can also break apart…

The relationship between fear and violence

Over the past week or so, on a few separate occasions, I was reminded of how fear can make people accept the infringement on personal liberties, question the rights of others to exist, and even participate in horrible acts of violence towards others:

  • with me being German but (luckily) Germany not having been victorious at the end of World War II, I quite often think of how Nazi propaganda was used to instigate fear in the population against both political enemies of the NSDAP and an ethnic group, eventually leading to people either accepting or ignoring the genocide of the Jews
  • the recently (U.S.-) released movie “The Act of Killing” shows, from the perspective of a group of men who have killed hundreds, how in the mid-1960s the Indonesian population had to endure one of the worst mass-killings, when fears over a communist  take-over of the country were used to justify cruel and atrocious acts
  • even though the Civil Rights Movement changed America forever, to this day people of color, particularly men, are often faced with implicit prejudice about their intention, whether or not they pose a threat, making them the target of even non-police suspicion, as happened when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin
  • since the 9/11 attacks, America has been struggling with how people of Muslim background, whether or not they are religious or fanatic, are subject to extreme scrutiny and Muslims in America are probably suffering from the continued classification as “potential terrorists”
  • the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine seems to be based on fears on each side that the respective other side’s main motivation is to inflict harm and pain on the own population, leading to ever renewed outbreaks of violent acts, such as bombings and retaliative airstrikes
  • recent Russian legislation now threatens people who either identify as gay or sympathize with the struggle that gay-identifying persons are facing, with the justification being that homosexuality threatens the Russian society, and the most recent events of a gay man being killed and a Dutch man being detained may just be the beginning of a much larger “campaign” that could result in a lot of violence

And the list could easily be extended… On the outside, the people involved may have strong rational sounding opinions about why the conflict, suppression, or violence continues. Often, the reasons entail a perceived but at least at face value plausible threat to society or individual well-being, and the measures taken are made out to be necessary to restore or uphold peace and justice.

However, in all of these cases, I would argue that the base issue is that one group of a population either already holds the belief or is being made to believe that another group is to be feared because of their intention to cause harm. And these fears then bring about condoning or even participating in the infringement of rights and, in part, even violence against anyone suspected to be part of the feared group.

In some of these instances, there may even be factual reasons to be vigilant. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 actually happened, and it is normal for people suffering such a painful loss to react with fear of subsequent acts of violence. However, what is hardly ever considered is that the people on the “other side” of the conflict who are cheering at the results of these violent acts may be ultimately motivated by the same reason: fear. But is fear truly helpful when it comes to improving a conflict?

One of the results of Americans being afraid for their lives in everyday situations, I believe, can be seen by the fact that the USA is leading the statistic for number of guns per residents. Unfortunately, it seems that being afraid for your life and owning a gun doesn’t make life safer. On the contrary, overall I would argue that more or less constantly fearing for your life is probably an enormous stressor itself. And at the very least the number of people owning a gun seems to be correlated with the number of deaths by firearms.

And somehow I have the strong hunch that the level on which people “prepare for an attack”, either by individuals buying guns or the legislature passing new laws against a group of people, or entire countries procuring weapons suitable for fighting wars between nations, is relatively unimportant. As long as actions taken by individuals as well as policy makers are based on fear, I believe that violence is no longer the means of last resort but rather the next logical step…

Contrary to this approach of using force and violence, my personal vision would be to educate the public about a few things related to fear and violence, and that while these two may seem like two links in an inevitable chain of events, I believe that there are certainly methods to reduce the impact of fear–compassion can be thought of as a counter-force for violence and previous research suggests that compassion can be taught.

Eventually, I think that if humanity cannot overcome the impulse to translate being afraid of other humans into violence against the group to which those we’re afraid of belong, sooner or later someone will push the big red button and blow us all to pieces. It’s not so much if but rather when, and so I think it’s probably worth investigating how a reduction of fear can be achieved in favor of trying to find “smart solutions”, that do not overlook the actual dangers present, but do not allow the fear of these dangers to dictate decision making.

Some common mechanism of cognition and science

Coming from recent personal experiences, I have asked myself quite a few times whether and then also why it is necessary for us to interpret other people’s behavior instead of just taking it at face value. For a while I really felt it would be much more factual and less limiting if we could just observe a behavior and then interact with a person based on what they’re doing instead of based on our interpretation of it. But, unless I am much mistaken, this is neither possible nor would it be practical. And that is where I draw the parallel between science and human cognition: reducing reality into as little and compressed pieces of information, which I would call prediction models.

It may seem obvious but I believe it’s yet worth pointing out that the world we live in, even from a mere physical point of view, has way too many moving parts–on all layers of observation, from subatomic particles, energy fields, and transmission phenomena to people in a crowd that could move virtually anywhere. And as much we may sometimes wish that evolution has truly made the biggest leap ever between the great apes and the human species, our cognitive abilities are still fairly limited. Our experience might sometimes suggest we perceive everything around us as pristinely as HDTV compared to the old standard, but that is probably rather an illusion than reality. So what does happen?

Each and every second, our brains are literally bombarded with data coming in through various channels. For some reason is seems to me that most people have developed a strong preference for visual data, such that seeing has become one of the most important input modalities. But seeing is not perceiving… Our brains have a multi-layered and computationally efficient set of modules that incrementally reduce the data that is being received by primary visual areas into a dense stream of information. Imagine walking through your neighborhood and then seeing a family member about 500 feet away, waving at you. A chain ensues, from a first recognition that what you are seeing is another human being to the point where you realize it’s a family member and then, in combination with some memories, remembering you had made an appointment for later in the day, and finally inferring that the waving is a means of grabbing your attention because something needs to be communicated.

At each step of this (hypothetical but I think plausible) chain, different brain areas are involved, providing necessary patterns that allow to form a consistent and seemingly “feature-rich” experience. In reality however, almost all other data–which could have become information–is rejected in favor of this one cognition: your family member wants to communicate something to you. All other possible explanations for the same reality are discarded, as are all unnecessary elements of data that do not support the conclusion that was reached. And while this is all very elegant, efficient, and beautiful, it also means there is always a chance of missing something fundamental.

And how does it work in science? Well, to some degree it usually starts with a somewhat unsystematic but usually significant observation. For instance, the fact that liquids seem to evaporate under certain conditions, and faster so at higher temperatures. However, while this observation might be made repeatedly, in itself it is only a fact and does not necessarily allow to make predictions about the future. And that is, I believe, what drives both the efficiency in cognition as well as the motivation behind scientific discovery: the desire to “know” the future, so as to enhance the chance for making life-supporting decisions.

To be able to do so, one needs not only observations but also something that links observations to a formulation, a model. And such a model can be extremely simple, such as some already fairly old physical models–which by now have been substantially updated or enhanced to incorporate new evidence that would not be explained by older models. Importantly, a model does not necessarily describe the exact mechanism of transmission of effects! As long as it is able to make correct predictions, at least under a broad range of circumstances and contingencies, it is usually accepted and preferred over not having any model. However, if a model also contains hypotheses about the presumed mechanism, it usually is easier to expand it to uncovered circumstances and test directly; otherwise it may be more difficult to explain why it succeeds or fails under those new conditions.

In cognition, there is a direct mechanism to detect inconsistencies in mental models: a neural signal usually called prediction error. Coming back to the example with the family member, it is entirely possible that the family member who is waving has not yet seen or recognized us and is waving at someone else, in which case the prediction we are likely to make that the family member will continue walking toward us could be proven wrong by subsequent events, such as him or her hugging someone else who was standing close by. Our prediction then needs updating, which is signaled to us, possibly associated with the feeling of surprise, and that is where flexibility in mental models becomes important–as well as in science.

One of the basic notions that I belief are important to keep in mind is that whatever we conclude from an observation, such as it adhering to a specific model, should be taken with a grain of salt. For one, we might have missed a crucial element of data on the input side of the equation. For another, our mental models might simply not cover the circumstances. And finally, the model we apply might be too narrow to allow extension in case of new evidence. There are probably other important cases to consider, but those three are for me the main causes of continued misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

In short, we have to interpret reality to make sense of it–it’s simply too complex to be taken as is. But I believe we should always leave room for new data, new contingencies, and new models or extensions to old models. Then, maybe, we can find a way of using this necessary function of reducing reality to a small set of models even more efficiently and life-supporting.