In the Wilson Quarterly, Daniel Akst writes about the importance of friendship and the fact that modern distractions are seducing Americans into failing to appreciate or maintain valuable friendships. He defines friendship as “a state of strong mutual affection in which sex or kinship isn’t primary.” What are the important things that friends do?
It’s available to everyone, offering concord and even intimacy without aspiring to be all-consuming. Friends do things for us that hardly anybody else can, yet ask nothing more than friendship in return (though this can be a steep price if we take friendship as seriously as we should).
Here are the disturbing statistics. Half of American adults are unmarried and more than a quarter live alone. A recent survey shows that Americans had one third fewer friends than we did two decades earlier. “A quarter of us had no such confidants at all.” None of this is surprising given that so many of us find ourselves rushing around working so that we can afford things we don’t really need. Akst also cites to the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, who suggest that we fail to develop friendships like we used to because it takes too much of an investment. She blames the “cult of conspicuous busyness” which we pursue to attain “status and perverse comfort even as it alienates us from one another.” Stir in children, spouses and our all too willingness to move in search of jobs that pay more, and we have a social environment that is downright hostile to friendships. None of this is mitigated by the 130 “friends” that the average Facebook user has.
What are we doing in search of this mutual affection in the absence of friends? We have lots of talk therapists, of course. As Akst notes, Americans also own immense numbers of non-human pets, and these seem to be serving as substitutes for friends.
Akst has written a thoughtful piece on friendship in which he stirs in psychology, sociology, philosophy and this conclusion:
[Friendship is] one of life’s highest pleasures… It’s time for us to ease up on friending, re-think our downgrade of ex-lovers to “just” friends, and resist moving far away from everyone we know barely because it rains less elsewhere.
A recent post on the Good Math blog called “Fuzzy Logic vs Probability” reminded me of a coping skill that I take for granted, yet most people probably don’t know about. The post linked above is about the essential difference between probabilities and values in fuzzy logic.
Fuzzy logic is a sort of analog approach to Boolean logic. Boole constructed a rigid logical framework containing only two values: True and False. In Fuzzy logic, every statement has a rating of how true it is, from 0 to 100%. Decisions can therefore be made when there is not any binary certainty about the input parameters. The result is a degree (or percentage) of how true is the resulting compound statement.
But how can this be a coping skill?
Let’s say a spouse asks if you want to go out for dinner. If you absolutely refuse, or eagerly must, then the answer can be Boolean (Yes or No). But that No might just lead to an argument. A grudging Yes may breed resentment.
What if you are tired, but hungry, and not feeling sociable, nor like more driving, but also would like some entree that you are not likely to get at home, yet thinking about the money? You can go either way. One might call it 40% “want to go out”. By myself, under half is a “No”.
But here is the spouse, and the spouse has also had a hard day with different characteristics, and leans toward going out (as indicated by the issuing of the question). She might counter my 40% with a more urgent 80%. This 80% indicates a willingness to stay home, if I really want to. But the average (logical union) of our two values is 60%. So we go out, each understanding how strongly the other one feels about it.
If there is a near tie, we cast another ballot. As with a flipping coin in the air, one often has second thoughts about which way we want it to land. It does take a little practice to use percentages in gauging each others desires. But it really saves on arguments.
I was reading an article called “15 Styles of Distorted Thinking” when it struck me: People who are extremely action-oriented often make unconscious use of these 15 mental distortions. Further, people of action often fail to think things through carefully. Let me offer a few examples:
1. Filtering: You take the negative details and magnify them, while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. A single detail may be picked out, and the whole event becomes colored by this detail. When you pull negative things out of context, isolated from all the good experiences around you, you make them larger and more awful than they really are.
2. Polarized Thinking: The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous choices. Things are black or white, good or bad. You tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground. The greatest danger in polarized thinking is its impact on how you judge yourself. For example-You have to be perfect or you’re a failure.
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I’ve previously linked to Wikipedia’s pages for memory biases and cognitive biases. But I’m linking to them again because these pages make great checklists for figuring out what went wrong (cognitively speaking) almost every time I listen to any of our political or religious leaders speaking. And might as well throw in this long list of fallacies for good measure. Many of these problems usually apply to anything you hear on the national stage.
BTW, I hear a lot of people (mostly academics) attacking Wikipedia, and I don’t understand the frustration. Wikipedia is an amazing free resource (and many other people acknowledge this, among them, many academics). Name any other single research tool that offers so much. And then consider that it is free for users.
One of my favorite books ever is Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior, by Geoffrey Miller (2009). I have lately been interested in trying to locate lower level personality differences that are predictive of political attitudes, and Miller offers such an analysis in chapter 9. To begin the chapter, Miller discusses “the central six,” which […]
Mind over matter, right? When your body aches and begs to stop running, you tell it to keep moving. When your body wants to go to sleep, you exert the will to make it to stay awake, or you make its arms pour coffee into its mouth. We make our bodies drive our cars to work lest those utility bills don’t get paid and “We” will suffer the consequences.
Nietzsche began Chapter V of the Gay Science with the following quote as an illustration of his own conception of fearlessness (attributed to Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne (1611-75) a great French general):
Sometimes during a battle he could not help trembling. Then he talked to his body as one talks to a servant. He said to it: “You tremble, carcass; but if you knew where I am taking you right now, you would tremble a lot more.”
“We” are in charge, right? Except when we are not. I can think of no better example than when we are nauseated, and our body dramatically takes over, the reverse peristalsis hurling out the offending food, dominating even our minds, until it’s over. Only then can “we” take over again. Consider food traveling in the other direction, too. So many of us tell our bodies to stop eating, yet our bodies keep eating. Day after day. We remind it to look in the mirror and we tell it about our tighter-fitting clothes, yet our bodies don’t care.
In the December, 2010 edition of Discover Magazine, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio sets forth his understanding of human consciousness. Damasio has recently published a new book on this topic, Self Comes to Mind. Here’s a short excerpt from page 66 of his deeply thought-provoking article at Discover (not available yet online):
Conscious minds result from the smoothly articulated operation of several, often many, brain sites. The ultimate consciousness product occurs from those numerous brain sites at the same time and not in one site in particular, much as the performance of a symphonic piece does not come from the work of a single musician or even a whole section of an orchestra. The oddest thing about the upper reaches of a consciousness performance is the conspicuous absence of a conductor before the performance begins, although as the performance unfolds, a conductor comes into being. For all intents and purposes, a conductor is now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the conductor–the self–not the other way around. Building a mind capable of encompassing one’s lived past and anticipated future, along with the lives of others added to the fabric and the capacity for reflection to boot, resembles the execution of a symphony of Mahlerian proportions. But the true marvel is that the score and the conductor become reality only as life unfolds. The grand symphonic piece that is consciousness encompasses the foundational contributions of the brainstem, forever hitched to the body, and the wider-than-the-sky imagery created in the cooperation of cerebral cortex and sub cortical structures, all harmoniously stitched together, is ceaseless forward motion, interruptible only by sleep, anesthesia, brain dysfunction, or death.
Damasio, well known for his groundbreaking work in his early book, Descartes’s Error, takes special care to describe the complexity of the mind, the marvel of this emergence of consciousness, and he specifically points out the importance of the emotions for a thorough understanding of consciousness:
Emotions are complex, largely automated programs of actions concocted by evolution. The actions are carried out in our bodies, from facial expressions and postures to changes in viscera and internal millieu. Feelings of emotion, on the other hand, are composite perceptions of what happens in our body and mind when we are emoting. As far as the body is concerned, feelings are images of actions rather than actions themselves. While emotions are actions accompanied by ideas and certain modes of thinking, emotional feelings are mostly perceptions of what our bodies do during the emoting, along with perceptions of our state of mind during that same period of time.
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Lots of cognitive scientists are studying why humans like, make and listen to music. Carl Zimmer discusses some of the recent research in the Dec 2010 edition of Discover Magazine.
One of the scientists studying music is Robin Dunbar, and Zimmer describes Dunbar’s ongoing work (which extends his earlier work on verbal grooming):
Dunbar has spent much of his career studying bands of primates. One of the most important things they do to keep the peace is groom one another. Grooming triggers the primate brain’s hypothalamus to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that ease pain and promote a feeling of well-being. Our early ancestors may have engaged in similar behavior. As humans evolved, though, they started congregating in larger groups. By the time the average group size hit about 150, grooming was no longer practical.
Music evolved, Dunbar proposes, because it could do what grooming could no longer do. Large gatherings of people could sing and dance together, strengthening their bonds. In a few studies, researchers have found that listening to music can raise the level of endorphins in the bloodstream, just as grooming can.