an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘psychology

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

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Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? – part 1

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He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity… manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. 

Trump, when asked who he consults with on foreign policy

You might be forgiven for thinking the above description is of the current US President, but in fact it’s a 19th century account of the change wrought upon Phineas Gage after his tragically explosive encounter with a railway tamping rod in 1848. It’s taken from neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. A more fulsome analysis is provided in Antonio Demasio’s landmark work Descartes’ Error. The 19th century account is provided by Gage’s doctor.

Due to an accident with blasting powder the iron tamping rod blew a large hole through a part of Gage’s brain, exited through the top of his skull and landed some eighty feet away ‘along with much of his left frontal cortex’ (Sapolsky). Amazingly, Gage survived, though with great changes to his behaviour, as described above . Before the accident he had earned a reputation as a highly skilled, disciplined and reliable railway team foreman.

I was quite happy to be reacquainted with Gage’s story this morning, because in a recent conversation I was expounding upon Trump’s pre-adolescent nature, his tantrums, his solipsism, his childish name-calling, his limited language skills, his short attention span, his more or less complete ethical delinquency and so forth, about which my companion readily agreed, but when I suggested that this was all about a profoundly underdeveloped frontal cortex, she demurred, feeling I’d gone a bit too far.

Of course, I’m not a neurologist, but…

Any full description of Trump’s apparently missing or severely reduced frontal cortex needs to be evidence-based, but Trump is as likely to submit to any kind of brain scan or analysis as he is to present his tax returns. So the best we can do is compare his behaviour to those we know to have frontal lobe impairment.

Sapolsky tells us about the importance of the frontal lobe in making the tough decisions, the kinds of decisions that separate us from other primates. These are decisions in which our emotions and drives are activated, as well as higher order thinking involving a full understanding of the impact upon others of our actions.

Interestingly, in the case of Gage, his personality transformation meant that he couldn’t continue in his former occupation, so for a time he suffered the humiliation of being an exhibit in P T Barnum’s American Museum. I find this particularly intriguing because Trump has often been compared to Barnum – a showman, a con-man, a self-promoter and so forth. So in some ways – for example in Trump’s rallies, which he clearly loves to engage in – Trump has a dual role, as exhibitor and exhibit.

More importantly though, and this story is I think far more important than his injury and humiliation, Gage recovered almost completely over time – a testament to the brain plasticity which has recently been highlighted. On reflection, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Gage had been a person of rectitude and responsibility for decades before the disaster, and the neuronal pathways that his habitual behaviour had laid down, perhaps since early childhood, had only to be recovered through memory. It’s astonishing how this can happen even with subjects with less brain matter than ‘normal’ humans. Different parts of the brain can apparently be harnessed to rebuild the old networks.

The case of Trump, though, is different, as these higher order networks may never have been laid down. This isn’t to say there isn’t something there – it’s not as if there’s just a great hole where his frontal cortex should be. It’s more that his responses would map onto the responses of someone – a teenager or pre-teenager – who reliably behaves in a certain way because of the lack of full development of the frontal cortex, which we know isn’t fully developed in normal adults until their mid-twenties. And when we talk of the frontal cortex, we’re of course talking of something immensely complex with many interacting parts, which respond with great variability to different stimuli among different people.

But before delving into the neurological issues, a few points about the recent New York Times revelations regarding Fred Trump’s businesses, his treatment of young Donald and vice versa. The Hall & Oates refrain keeps playing in my head as I write, and as I read the Times article. What it suggests is a gilded, cosseted life – a millionaire, by current financial standards, at age eight. It seems that right until the end, Fred Trump covered up for his son’s business incompetence by bailing him out time and time again. This adds to a coherent narrative of a spoilt little brat who was rarely ever put in a position where he could learn from his mistakes, or think through complex solutions to complex problems. Trump senior clearly over-indulged his chosen heir-apparent with the near-inevitable result that the spoilt brat heartlessly exploited him in his final years. Fred Trump was a business-obsessed workaholic who lived frugally in a modest home and funnelled masses of money to his children, especially Donald, who basically hoodwinked the old man into thinking he was a chip off the old block. In the usual sibling battle for the parents’ affection and regard, Donald, the second son, saw that his older bother, Fred junior, was exasperating his dad due to his easy-going, unambitious nature (he later became an alcoholic, and died at 42), so Donald presented himself as the opposite – a ruthless, abstemious, hard-driving deal-maker. It worked, and Donald became his pretend right-hand man: his manager, his banker, his advisor, etc. In fact Donald was none of these things – underlings did all the work. Donald was able to talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk – he had none of his father’s business acumen, as the Times article amply proves. In the late eighties, with the stock market crashing and the economy in free-fall, Trump made stupid decision after stupid decision, but his ever-reliable and always-praising dad kept him afloat. He also bequeathed to his son a strong belief in dodging taxes, crushing opposition and exaggerating his assets. The father even encouraged the son’s story that he was a ‘self-made billionaire’, and it’s not surprising that the over-indulged Donald and his siblings eventually took advantage of their ailing father – enriching themselves at his expense through a variety of business dodges described in the Times article. By the time of his death, Fred Trump had been stripped of almost all of his assets, a large swathe of it going to Donald, who was by this time having books ghost-written about how to succeed in business.

Of course it can be argued that Trump has one real talent – for self-promotion. This surely proves that he’s more than just a spoilt, over-grown pre-teen. Or maybe not. It doesn’t take much effort to big-note yourself, especially when, due to the luck of your family background, you can appear to walk the walk, especially in those rallies full of uncritical people desperate to believe in the American Business Hero. Indeed, Trump’s adolescent antics at those rallies tend to convince his base that they too can become rich and successful idiots. You don’t actually have to know anything  or to make much sense. Confidence is the trick.

It’s not likely we’ll ever know about the connections within Trump’s frontal and prefrontal cortices, but we can learn some general things about under-development or pre-development in those regions, and the typical behaviour this produces, and in my next post – because this one’s gone on too long  – I’ll utilise the chapter on adolescence in Sapolsky’s Behave, and perhaps other texts and sources – apparently Michelle Obama brought Trump’s inchoate frontal cortex to the public’s attention during the election – to explore further the confident incompetence of the American president.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm

Who will ultimately take responsibility for the boy-king?

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I’ve not read the book The dangerous case of Donald Trump, which seeks to highlight the POTUS’ mental health issues, because like many an ignoramus, I consider myself already an expert on these matters. The term ‘boy-king’, used by Sam Harris among others, sums up this individual quite nicely. ‘Spoilt brat’ is another term that comes to mind. It’s a term that would repay some simple analysis. Food, or a holiday, or a romantic evening, that is spoilt usually can’t be unspoiled. It’s gone, it’s done, you need to start again with another meal, another evening, another holiday. A spoilt child, unfortunately, is the same. He’s spoilt forever – that’s why early childhood is so important. I’m sure the psychologists analysing Trump have focused particularly on his childhood, as it is always key to understanding the adult, as the famous Dunedin longitudinal study and countless other studies have shown. Think also of a spectacular and tragic example – the Romanian orphans discovered after the fall of Ceausescu, not spoilt brats of course but permanently damaged by extreme neglect. And another – Masha Gessen’s  biography of Vladimir Putin provides insight into his horrifically malign personality through glimpses of a bizarre childhood in the devastated post-war city of St Petersburg.

I don’t know much about Trump’s childhood, but I imagine it to be very much like that of the proud patrician Coriolanus in one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Coriolanus is both spoilt and il-treated by his mother, so that he struts about from the get-go with an air of privilege and power, a sense of self-importance which is completely unearned. Trump is much the same – too smart to actually learn anything, too important to need anyone’s advice. Of course, Coriolanus is a brave warrior, while Trump is a coward. And yet, in the field of business he’s also a scrapper, relishing the language of macho thuggery.

But enough of the literary guff, Trump’s less than adequate upbringing is plain to see in his solipsistic, tantrumming output. Amongst many screamingly serious red flags was his question to a military authority, ‘If we have all these nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?’ Apparently he asked this question repeatedly. It’s a question an adolescent, or rather a pre-adolescent, might ask (most adolescents are pretty sophisticated these days). It can be interpreted two ways – he wasn’t being serious, he was just attention-seeking, or he was being serious and he genuinely couldn’t grasp the enormity of what he was saying. Both interpretations, and they could in some sense both be true, are indicative of a pre-adolescent mind-set. And by the way, so is his constant repeating of the same phrases, which reveal the lack of language skills of the pre-adolescent. And there are many other examples – the nasty name-calling, the transparency and ineptitude of his lies and attempted cover-ups, the neediness, the impulsiveness, the attention deficit, everything he says and does just about.

But here’s the problem I keep coming back to. Trump’s pre-adolescent behaviours have been on display since his pre-adolescent days, much more publicly than with your common or garden spoilt brat. So why was he ever allowed to make a tilt at what Americans would undoubtedly describe, with much reason, as the most responsible position on the face of this earth? THIS is the greatest conundrum of the Trump presidency. Americans like to argue that anybody can become President, as if that’s one of the things that makes America great. It’s a very very very very bad argument.

Another screamingly obvious point: this spoilt brat should be removed from office because, as a perpetual pre-adolescent, someone who will never become an adult, he’s totally incompetent for this position. Yes he has probably committed crimes, but that’s not why he should be removed. It’s because he’s actually just a little boy. He’s not responsible for his actions. It’s not his fault that can’t think clearly, that he’s impulsive and tunnel-visioned and profoundly insecure and pathologically self-absorbed. In fact, if he’s ever indicted, he should probably be tried as a minor, because that’s what he is. But that he is President, that will forever be America’s shame.

The famous fable of the Emperor’s new clothes comes to mind. In this variant, everybody tries to pretend they can’t see that their President is a little boy. Some of his long-time associates or playmates quite genuinely support him, are possibly quite genuinely oblivious of his profound stuntedness, perhaps because like is attracted to like. Others have found him a ‘useful idiot’ to be cynically manipulated for their own ends. Most of those opposed to him prefer to pretend he’s fully adult so that they can punish him and all his cronies to the full extent of the law. But another over-riding reason for all the pretence is that nobody around the President, or indeed in the whole country, wants to take responsibility for allowing a little boy to become their POTUS. A little boy who’d been quite clearly a little boy since he was a little boy, some sixty years ago. And it didn’t take anything like a degree in psychology to see it.

A spoilt, brattish, hurt little boy with the power of the POTUS in his hands is a very frightening thing. Bringing all this to an end isn’t going to be easy, but doing so as quickly and painlessly as possible has to be the highest priority.

And what about Pence? If Americans come to their senses and realize that all of a little boy’s political decisions, whether in office or before, should be invalidated because he’s a minor, then they’ll avoid the post-Trump disaster of President Pence. Will they do that? Very very unlikely. That would be a very adult undertaking indeed.

Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2018 at 2:28 pm

On Maoris, heavy culture and political correctness

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a Maori meeting-gate, entrance to a Pa (fortified village). the figure on the left is female, with chin tattoo

Canto: So we spent time at the Ibis Hotel, Hamilton, NZ, which is owned and run by a Maori organisation. Many but not all the staff were Maoris – of course I can’t always tell who is Maori and who isn’t, and I’m ignorant of what precisely constitutes being a Maori (or an Australian Aborigine, or a native American, or a Jew, or an Arab, or a Kurd, or a Romany etc etc etc) – and they were unfailingly friendly and helpful. Many of the guests, too, or at least people milling around at the reception and bar/dining area, appeared to be Maori, including the occasional bloke with facial tattoos associated with Maori culture.

Jacinta: Presumably you didn’t have any doubt that they were Maoris. So I know you’re not a big fan of the tattoo fashion that’s everywhere these days.

Canto: No, this has been a trend for way over twenty years now and I thought it would pass but it seems to have intensified. But as with all things designed or pictorial, there’s the crass and the clever, the subtle and the silly, the banal and the truly tragic…

Jacinta: Okay, but the Maori tattoos that we’ve seen here, in the Ibis and elsewhere, these apparently deeply culturally significant tattoos of Maori identification, what do you think of them? Do you dare to voice an opinion?

Canto: Well I’ll give voice to an observation. I’ve never seen a woman with those kinds of tattoos.

Jacinta: Would you be happier if you saw women with them?

Canto: Not happier. As you’ve said, I’ve never been and never will be a big fan of tattoos – a fact of no major significance of course. Nobody needs to pay the slightest attention to me on these matters. But I like the raw, unadorned human body, the product of many hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. It would be sacrilege to tattoo a leopard, or a lion, or an antelope – their bodies are magnificent evolutionary products…

Jacinta: But you miss the point. Those animals don’t tattoo themselves. We tattoo ourselves. Because we can. That’s our magnificent evolutionary product, a brain that can transform our bodies, not to mention our planet.

Canto: Okay, I grant that, but I still object to tattoos on aesthetic grounds. I just think they’re mostly fugly. And as you know I hate trendiness and groupthink.

Jacinta: Okay, let’s get back to Maori tattoos and women. As you know, women in general are getting tattoos at a greater rate than men, and, yes, Maori women are getting tattoos in increasing numbers. Sacred chin tattoos – so, different from the blokes.

Canto: Hmmm, well as you know, I’ve always been more comfortable with the profane than the sacred…

Jacinta: Well, ‘sacred’ sounds a bit heavy; they seem to be ‘belongingness’ tattoos, but that sounds a bit wishy-washy. In any case there’s a whole history behind Maori ‘skin art’ or Kiri Tuhi…

Canto: Which sounds to be strictly regulated on gender lines – those aggressive ‘warrior’ facial tats for men and the more restrained ones for subordinate women.

Jacinta: Maybe. You’re worried about ‘heavy culture’ aren’t you?

Canto: Heavy and patriarchal culture, which I’ve always been pretty down on. I prefer nature over culture, to be simplistic about it. Or rather, I prefer a culture which questions itself, so deeply as to undermine itself, usually through understanding the nature of culture. It’s binding and blinding nature.

Jacinta: Very good. So maybe we should look at Maori culture in particular, and the way it binds and blinds.

Canto: So what about chin tattoos? Are they for women only?

Jacinta: Well the traditional Maori tattoos are called Ta Moko, and they’re carved into the skin with chisels rather than drawn with skin-puncturing needles. Every tattoo is individualised, and they represent family and tribal history, status and the like.

Canto: You can’t get more heavily cultural than that, to have your cultural pedigree, such as it is, inscribed on your face. I myself haven’t the slightest awareness of my cultural pedigree and I want to keep it that way. Does that make me a pariah?

Jacinta: It makes you just another feature of life’s rich tapestry. Women were traditionally tattooed only on the chin, around the mouth and sometimes the nostrils. All this tattooing faded for a while in the nineteenth century, with increasing assimilation pressures, many of them internalised, but it’s come back with a vengeance with renewed emphasis on native pride and such.

Canto: Hmmmm. I presume Maori culture was very patriarchal? Once were warriors and all that?

Jacinta: Yes, a warrior culture but strongly influenced and supported by women, in maintaining the stories of an oral culture, and in the upbringing of children. The Maori argue that, at the time of the ‘white invasion’, Maori women generally had more status in their society than white women had in theirs. They retained their own names after marriage, they dressed similarly to men, and their children didn’t consider their maternal kinship group as less important than the paternal. I presume the chiefs were male, but overall, Maori culture was no more patriarchal, historically, than our own.

Canto: Yes, I have to say they all look pretty scarily macho, male and female, but they turn out to be so nice and friendly.

Jacinta: It’s good for business. Yes I haven’t seen too many gracile Maoris, they all seem to belong to the robusta domain. Maybe it’s the diet.

Canto: The genes, more likely. Influenced by diet. Kumera’s a pretty robust vegetable.

Jacinta: You are what you eat? But to get back to culture and its binding and blinding, it’s perhaps a good thing that a culture can bind people in a shared history and a collective memory, even if memory often plays false, but one of the problems is that it blinkers them to other connections, other perspectives on the world…

Canto: And it’s often backward-facing…

Jacinta: And it has a reifying effect, making these connections to a shared history – which is often mythical – more real than real, so that a ‘Maori perspective’ becomes entrenched and valorised above a collective, largely progressive, open-ended, human perspective.

Canto: The problem of identity politics. It’s actually a difficult one for those cultures that feel themselves under the gun – oppressed, minority… I’ve said that I don’t really care about my Scottish-Australian cultural pedigree – or is it mongrel-ness – but I suppose it’s because I belong to the dominant culture; white, anglo-saxon and increasingly atheist. That culture is so broad and deep that, although you can easily lose your way in it, you’re rarely ever challenged for being a part of it.

Jacinta: And as part of this dominant culture we get to look at these minority cultures – which of course add to that all-embracing diversity we’re so proud of – with fascination, with condescension, with alarm, with disgust, with starry eyes, with guilt, with humour, with exasperation, with a mixture of some or all of these feelings or impulses, without being called out for it in any serious way.

Canto: But aren’t we being called out for having the wrong attitudes? Isn’t that what political correctness is all about?

Jacinta: Well, political correctness is a fascinating thing, and not such a bad thing. It’s a kind of unspoken, largely unconscious vigilante force to avoid hurt – to old people, fat people, gay people, disabled people, people who look, dress or act differently (in a more or less harmless way) from the norm. So we internalise our criticisms and anxieties, we restrict them to our internal monologues, or to conversations with like-minded others, and we never quite know whether this is civilised or cowardly behaviour.

Canto: It certainly helps us to get along.

Jacinta: Well, more than that, I mean it doesn’t just help us to avoid unnecessary battles, it helps us to reflect on first impressions, to question them, to challenge them, to deepen them. There’s more to political correctness than meets the eye.

Canto: You mean we shouldn’t judge political correctness by first impressions…

Jacinta: Which takes us back to Maori culture. We’ve not just seen the Maoris running our hotel in a professional and friendly way, we’ve been to a traditional Maori ceremony, somewhat ‘westernised’ for us tourists, and we’ve watched their men and women perform for us, in mock-warrior and lyrical mode, with dignity humour and a lot of tolerance for the goggle-eyed, muttering global trade of people shuffling through and holding up their mobile phones and clicking distractingly, while obscuring the view of we polite, politically correct watchers, pathetically torn between appreciating the Maori scenes on the stage, and being irritated at those around us who weren’t being as politically correct as ourselves…

Jacinta: That’s modern life, in the ‘first world’….

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2018 at 5:24 pm

bubblemouth Trump

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I’ve made the prediction that Trump will be out of office by the end of 2018. Not just defanged, due to next year’s congressional elections, but out on his capacious rump. That’s a hope as well as a prediction of course, but there are various areas from which the end can come. It might be the women’s lobby, with apparently more allegations to come about sleazy sex stuff from bullish males, on top of a current rating of 24% among women for Trump. It might be the Mueller inquiry, and Trump’s attempt to stop it. It might be the backlash from the tax bill thievery, and Trump’s unpredictable and violent response to it, or it might be some entirely new disaster created by Trump’s ‘I alone can fix it’ fantasies. It’s quite likely that some voted for Trump as a joke, to see what would happen if an administration worthy of a Marx Brothers movie took over their country, but for those types the joke has worn thin. Others may have seriously hoped that he would rid their world of all those losers who stopped them from getting ahead. They’re the types who are less easily shifted, because they’d be blaming first all those nasty liberals who are blocking Trump’s policies. However, a realisation of Trump’s basic lack of humanity is starting to trickle down to them, if nothing else ever will. The tax bill is hugely unpopular, and will probably be even more so if it’s enacted. African-Americans and women of all backgrounds are finding their voice. Democrats are winning local elections against Trump’s urging…

But in this post I don’t want to focus so much on Trump’s appeal or his demise, but on his character. In the past I’ve always treated him as a bad joke and so I’ve switched off, either literally or figuratively, every time he came into view. Recently, though, I’ve been focusing on him, as much as I can bear.

So here’s my amateur, and only partial, psychoanalysis of Trump, for what it’s worth. I don’t think anyone would deny that he’s a liar, though the degree of outrage caused by this runs across the whole spectrum. On this topic many have described him more as a bullshitter, taking their cue from Harry Frankfurt’s classic (but not entirely persuasive) essay. Another regular criticism is that he’s not really an adult – the White House cabinet being described as adult day carers, coddling the Prez and hiding many disturbing aspects of reality from him lest he react in uncontrollable and destructive ways.

I certainly agree with both these strains of thought. Children aren’t held to the same standards of truth as adults, as they’re still ‘finding themselves’, seeking to assert themselves in the world. This self-assertion, in early childhood, is seen, generally, as more important than ‘getting things right’ – with some obvious exceptions. I’ve experienced, with great delight, a precociously articulate child at age three or four, telling the most grandiose story of her heroic rescue of a grandparent from a shipwreck at sea. Whether she got this story from a dream or a TV drama or from the immediate environment (at the time I was carrying her along a walkway on a small island smacked by ocean waves), or a combination, I can’t say, but I could see she was relishing her story and her central role in it. I was thrilled by it, and full of wonder at her imagination, and I could also see that she was thrilled by her central role, and the question of the truth of the story seemed irrelevant. My own part was to encourage the narrative.

This child is now a teenager and would be both embarrassed and intrigued by this story, I’m sure. She is a very different person now, and certainly no Donald Trump. But the story of her story is instructive. I think it’s common for young children to confabulate and make themselves the heroes of their lives, until reality knocks them into having a different perspective. But that all depends on upbringing and what we’re allowed to get away with. We often talk of spoiled children, by which we usually mean kids who are over-indulged, never corrected, allowed to get away with all sorts of unacceptable behaviour. And when they’re rich spoiled kids, the damages can be commensurate. Trump clearly fits the spoiled rich kid category, though of course every spoiled kid is spoiled in its own unique way. There are doubtless many ways in which Trump has been spoiled, but one of them is this never-corrected, and probably encouraged, tendency to confabulate, to say things because they’re appealing, either to himself or to his audience, but preferably to both.

Trump loves his own words. They comfort him, they fortify him, they give him a boost, especially when they’re received warmly by others. That’s why, when talking to the press the other day, he spoke as if he was back on the campaign trail, with people chanting and cheering his every sentence. And he loves to contemplate the things he says, because they emphasise his power and glory. For example, when he says aloud, ‘We’re going to rebuild the FBI’, he takes great pleasure in those words. They are magnificent, glorious. And he doesn’t say ‘I will rebuild the FBI’, for that would be too vain, he would be generous and accept the help of others. And when he says ‘the FBI’ he has only the vaguest sense of what that entity is, all he needs to be aware of is that it’s a Big Thing, which it would be mighty to rebuild. He might’ve said ‘we will rebuild the Giza Pyramid (or the Earth, or the Universe) and it’ll be bigger and better than ever’, but that would be to lose perspective. It’s not as if he’s crazy or anything.

So he observes these words coming out of his mouth like beautiful big bubbles, so beautiful to see in his mind’s eye that he’s tempted to repeat them, and often does – ‘it’s terrible what’s happening at the FBI, really terrible. It’s really so terrible.’ You might not think these words are so beautiful, but Trump does. President Trump. They’re his magisterial words, his godlike judgment on the FBI, or the Obama administration, or NATO or whatever. And he has gained this authority through the nation’s reverent acclamation of his magnificence. He will vanquish his enemies, who are hacks, lightweights, losers, such lovely words, such definitive judgments, He’ll say them again….

So that’s Trump, the man who loves towers, who wants to tower, who has now been given the chance to tower over his enemies. And yet, thankfully, he’s managed little in power over the last year, though the terrible tax bill looms large and his damage to the judiciary will outlive him. His beautiful bubbles aren’t enough, he vaguely knows that, though that won’t stop him from producing them – he may finally be reduced to doing nothing else. These bubbles have a truth to him that’s inexplicable to anyone else. When he says, for example, ‘I love China, I’ve read hundreds of books on China’, this has a truth to him which is far more vital and beautiful than actually reading a load of books on China (an activity only fit for drones and lightweights), it describes a new-minted aspiration which is masterfully fulfilled through the act of speaking. Trump’s bullshit is intended to deceive himself first, others second. And it’s not really deceiving, I feel, it’s more delighting, enlivening and consoling, like so many bubbles, as I don’t think Trump has ever gotten beyond the stage of talking for the sake of narrative. For him, truth isn’t really an issue, and that’s why science and evidence mean so little to him. His thought processes never reached that level. He’s stuck with his bubbles.

Another way of saying all this is that a large part of Trump’s conscious activity is that of the pre-schooler who invents adventures for himself and succeeds in all of them, largely oblivious of the world around him. For the sake of that real world, he needs to be cut free from his minders and enablers, and vanquished once and for all.

Written by stewart henderson

December 18, 2017 at 9:50 am

embodied cognition: common sense or something startling? – part two. language and education

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Canto: There isn’t much detail in Lobel’s book about how sensations or the senses can be harnessed to education, but she tantalisingly offers this:

Several studies have shown that peppermint and cinnamon scents improved cognitive performance, including attention and memory; clerical tasks, such as typing speed and alphabetisation; and performance in video games.

Jacinta: Right, so we spray peppermint and cinnamon about the classroom, and genius rises. But is there anything in this approach specifically for language learning?

Canto: Well, a key insight, if you can call it that, of embodied cognition is that not only does the mind influence the body’s movements, but the body influences our thinking. And the relationship can be quite subtle. It’s known from neurophysiological studies that a person’s motor system is activated when they process action verbs, and when they observe the movements of others.

Jacinta: So that’s about mirror neurons?

Canto: Exactly. The basic take-away from this is that activating mirror neurons enhances learning. So as a teacher, combining gestures, or ‘acting out’ with speech to introduce new language, especially verbs, is an effective tool.

Jacinta: Playing charades, so that students embody the activity? This can be done with phrasal verbs, for example, which students often don’t get. Or prepositions. The teacher or students can act them out, or manipulate blocks to show ‘between’ ‘next to’, ‘in front of’, ‘under’, etc. This would be a useful strategy for low-level learning at our college, really engaging the students, but it would also help with higher level students, who are expected to write quite abstract stuff, but often don’t have the physical grounding of the target language, so they often come out with strange locutions which convey a lack of that physical sense of English that native speakers have.

Canto: Yes, they use transition signals and contrast terms wrongly, because they’re still vague as to their meaning. Acting out some of those terms could be quite useful. For example, ‘on the one hand/on the other hand’. You could act this out by balancing something on one hand, and then something of equal weight on the other hand, and speaking of equal weights and balancing in argument, and then getting the students to act this out for themselves, especially those students you know are likely to misconstrue the concept. ‘Furthermore’ could be acted out both by physically adding more to an argument and taking it further in one direction. ‘Moreover’ takes more over to one side. You could use blocks or counters to represent contrast words, a word or counter that shifts the argument to the opposite side, and to represent the additive words, with counters that accumulate the arguments on one side.

Jacinta: So this acting out, and gesturing, all this is very suggestive of the origins of language, which might’ve begun in gestures?

Canto: Yes it’s a very complex communicative system, which may well have begun with a complex gestural system, accompanied by vocalisations. Think of the complexity of signing systems for the deaf – it’s extraordinary how much we can convey through hand gestures accompanied by facial expressions and vocalisations, or even partial vocalisations or pre-vocalisations – lip movements and such. Other primates have complex gestural communisation, and it was in monkeys that mirror neurons were first discovered by neurophysiologists examining inputs into the motor cortex. They are the key to our understanding of the embodied nature of language and communication. When we learn our L1, as children, we learn it largely unconsciously from our parents and those close to us, by copying – and not only copying words, but gestures which accompany words. We absorb the physical framing of the language, the tone in which certain words are conveyed, words and phrases – locutions – associated with physical actions and feelings such as anger, sadness, humour, fear etc, and they fire up or activate neurons in the motor cortex as well as in those centres related to language processing.

Jacinta: I’ve heard, though, that there’s a competing theory about the origin and evolution of language, relating to calls, such as those made by birds and other animals.

Canto: Not just one other. This has been described as the hardest problem in science by some, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it, but I recently watched an interview with Giacomo Rizzolatti, whose team discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, and he strongly favours the gestural origin theory, though he also says we need more neurophysiological evidence, for example of mirror neurons in other areas of the brain, or the absence of them, before we decide once and for all. He finds the debate a little ideological at present.

Jacinta: Well the origin of language obviously involves evolution, but there are few traces discoverable from the past. Spoken language leaves no trace. So it’s always going to be highly speculative.

Canto: Well it may not always be, but it long has been that’s for sure. Apparently the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all present and future debate on the origins of language back in 1866, so we could get arrested for this post.

Jacinta: Yeah, a bit hard to enforce that one. So we have no idea about when human language evolved, or did it evolve gradually over hundreds of thousands of years?

Canto: Well, that’s more speculation, but there are continuity theories (language is this extremely complex thing that came together gradually with the accumulation of changes – mutations or brain-wirings – over an extended period), and there are discontinuity theories that favour, for example, a single transformative genetic mutation.

Jacinta: And what about the song theory – that’s one I’ve heard. That song, and therefore music, preceded language. I suppose that’s romantic speculation – right up our alley.

Canto: Okay so this is very interesting and something to follow up in future posts, but we should get back to our main subject, the implications of embodied cognition for language learning today.

Jacinta: Aren’t the implications fairly straightforward – that we learned language, that’s to say our L1 – in a thoroughly embodied way, within a rich sensory and physical context, as highly active kids, and so it’s a battle to get students to learn their L2 or another language, because neurons that fire together wire together, and there’s this thing called brain frugality which makes us always look for short-cuts, so we always want to convert the L2 into the familiar, wired-in L1, rather than trying to grasp the flow of a foreign language. We want to work in the familiar, activated channels of our L1. So, as teachers, we can help students to develop channels for their L2 by teaching in a more embodied way.

Canto: Here’s a thought – I wonder if we can measure teaching techniques for L2 by examining the active brain and the feedback mechanisms operating between cortices as students are being taught? Have we reached that level of sophistication?

Jacinta: I doubt it. It’s an intriguing thought though. But what exactly would we be measuring? How much of the brain is ‘lighting up’? How long it’s remaining lit up? And how would we know if what’s being activated is due to language learning? It could be active avoidance of language learning…

Canto: I need to learn much more about this subject. I’ve heard that you can’t and shouldn’t teach an L2 in the way we learn our L1, but what does that mean? In any case, it’s true that the way we teach, in serried rows, facing the front with too much teacher talk and a general discouragement of talking out of turn and even moving too much, it really does smack of an old dualist conception, with disembodied minds soaking up the new language from the teacher.

Jacinta: Well surely you don’t teach that way any more, shame on you if you do, but there are ways in which a more embodied approach can be used, with role-playing, framing and other forms of contextualising.

Canto: Yes, clearly contextualising and incorporating action, sensation and emotion into language teaching is the key, and getting students to use the language as often as possible, to learn to manipulate it, even if ungrammatically at times and with gestural accompaniment….

Jacinta: So, like learning L1? But we ‘pick up’ our L1, we absorb it like little sponges, together with context and connotation. Is that really how to learn an L2? Is the idea to replace the L1 with a thoroughly embodied L2? Or is it to have two – or more – fully embodied, firing-and-wired transmitting and feedback-looping  language systems alongside each other. What about energy conservation?

Canto: Okay so let this be an introductory post. I clearly need to research and think on this subject a lot more…

the brave new world of neurophenomenology, apparently

the brave new world of neurophenomenology, apparently

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 22, 2017 at 9:50 pm

embodied cognition: common sense or something startling? part one – seeing red

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Canto: So I’ve just read a book that details experiments highlighting the effects of, for example, colour, odour, physical comfort and ’embodied metaphors’ on mood, decision-making and creative thinking…

Jacinta: Embodied metaphors?

Canto: I’ll explain later, or not. What I want to do here is lay the groundwork for a future PD talk on how these findings can improve our educational settings and teaching.

Jacinta: So you’re saying our environment can be manipulated, perhaps, to bring out better results in students?

Canto: Yes, think about it. Will sitting in a soft chair help you to think more creatively or efficiently than sitting in a hard chair? Will standing or walking around improve your thinking? Don’t forget Harry Stottle and the Peripatetics. And can these effects be measured? What about the temperature of the room? The view from the window? Inside or outside?

Jacinta: Okay, so can you give me some solid research data on anything that can improve, say, test scores?

Canto: For a start, don’t ask females to indicate that they’re female on the test booklet when they’re sitting a mathematics test. Their results will be impaired. The very act of writing that they’re female apparently brings to mind the idea that girls can’t do maths. The same has been found with African-Americans and maths. This phenomenon is well known in the literature, and has been called stereotype threat.

Jacinta: Okay, but is this really an example of what you were talking about? I thought it was all about the effect of colour, temperature, lighting etc?

Canto: I’m talking about embodied cognition, or physical intelligence, and yes that research is an example – by getting someone to write their gender before sitting a test, it makes them more aware of their gender; their embodiment is brought to mind. But I’m going to give some quite striking examples of the influence of the colour red on test results. A team of American and German researchers conducted a number of experiments, the first involving 71 American undergrads. Each subject was tested individually. They were told they’d be given an anagram test, in which they had to unscramble sets of letters into words. These were of medium difficulty. After a practice run, the students were randomly divided into three groups. All students were given the same anagram tests on paper, with one difference – each participant was given a number, but with one group, the number was coloured red, with another the colour was green, with the third the colour was black. The number on the top of the paper was called to the subjects’ attention at the beginning of the test, with the excuse that this was necessary for processing. The difference in the test results was striking – those who saw a red number at the top of each page performed significantly worse than the green and black groups.

Jacinta: They saw red, and fell apart? But why would they do that? Has this study been replicated? Maybe the group with the red numbers were just bad at anagrams?

Canto: Good questions, and of course it’s the sort of study that could easily be replicated, but the results are in line with similar studies. Unfortunately I could only read a brief abstract of the original study as the detail is behind a paywall, but all these studies have been written about by Thalma Lobel in her book Sensation: the new science of physical intelligence, and, according to her, this particular study took into consideration the abilities of the groups and made sure that this wasn’t the cause of the difference. Also, the same researchers did a follow-up test in Germany, with altered experimental conditions. Instead of using anagrams they used analogy tests, such as:

legs relate to walk like:

1 tongue to mouth

2. eyes to blink

3. comb to hair

4. nose to face

Jacinta: Right, so the correct answer is 2, though it’s not the best analogy.

Canto: Well, eyes to see might be too easy. Anyway, 46 subjects were given 5 minutes to come up with 20 correct analogies. The analogies were presented on paper, each with a cover page. The subjects were divided into 3 groups and the only difference between the groups was the colour of the cover page. The first group had red, the second green, the third, white.  This time their exposure to the colours was shorter – only seconds before they were asked to turn the page, and they weren’t exposed to the colour during the test itself, after they’d turned the page. Still the results were much the same as in the first experiment – exposure to the red cover page resulted in poorer scores.

Jacinta: Sooo, red’s a colour to be avoided when doing tests. What about the other colours? Were any of them good for improving test scores?

Canto: No, not in these experiments. And again, Lobel assures us that the study controlled for the variable of differential ability. The researchers conducted other studies on a range of participants – using verbal and non-verbal (e.g. mathematical) tests, and the results were consistent – exposing subjects to the colour red, and making them conscious of that colour, resulted in poorer scores.

Jacinta: And they have no explanation as to why? Presumably it’s some sort of connotative value for red. Red is danger, red is embarrassment…

Canto: Nature red in tooth and claw – but red is also the heart, the rose, the Valentine. Red has all sorts of contradictory connotations.

Jacinta: So isn’t it the way that red is seen in our culture? What about controlling for cultural connotations, however contradictory?

Canto: You mean trying it out in Outer Mongolia, or a remote African village? It’s a good point, but you know red is the colour of blood..

Jacinta: And of my life-producing vagina.

Canto: Yeah but look at the wariness with which women are treated for having one of those. Anyway I’m not sure they’ve done the study in those places, but they’ve varied the settings – labs, classrooms, outdoors – and the age-groups and the test-types, and the results haven’t varied significantly. And they did other tests to measure motivation rather than performance.

Jacinta: So you mean how seeing red influenced people’s motivation? Presumably negatively.

Canto: Yes. The same research team tried out an experiment on 67 students, based on the assumption that, if you’re an anxious or under-confident employee, you’ll knock on the boss’s door more quietly, and with fewer knocks, than if you’re a confident employee. That’s assuming you find the door closed, and you don’t actually know why you’ve been asked to see the boss. Reasonable assumptions?

Jacinta: Okay.

Canto: So here’s the set-up. The 67 students were told they would be taking one of two tests: analogies or vocal. The students were shown a sample question from each of the tests, to convince them of the process, though it was all subterfuge basically. They were given white binders, and asked to read the name of the test on the first page. They found the word analogies printed in black ink on a coloured rectangle. The colour was either red or green. Next they were asked to walk down the corridor to a lab to take the test. The lab door was closed, but it had a sign saying ‘please knock’. It was found that those who saw the test title on a red background consistently knocked less often and less insistently.

Jacinta: So they were de-motivated and made more anxious simply by this sight of red. Again, why?

Canto: Learned associations, presumably. Red with danger, with anger, with disapproval.

Jacinta: But – just seeing it on a binder?

Canto: That’s what the evidence says.

Jacinta: Okay – I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced, but all this is a bit negative. Granted we could avoid exposing students to red just in case it inhibits learning, but what about studies that show what might be done to improve learning? That’s what we should be aiming for, surely?

Canto: Okay, so now we’ve eliminated the negative, I promise to accentuate the positive in the next post.

Jacinta: Good, we really need to latch onto the affirmative, without messing with Ms In-between…

 

I like

I like

Written by stewart henderson

January 5, 2017 at 8:39 pm