Using Quantum Physics to Explain Human Cognition and Behavior

Using Quantum Physics to Explain Human Cognition and Behavior

In Praise of Melancholy

photo credit: Michelle Brea

Some eloquent thoughts concerning our tendency to settle for vanilla, complacent “happiness” in place of the reality of life and true emotional diversity.

The psychological world is now abuzz with a new field, positive psychology, devoted to finding ways to enhance happiness through pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Psychologists practicing this brand of therapy are leaders in a novel science, the science of happiness. Mainstream publishers are learning from the self-help industry and printing thousands of books on how to be happy. Doctors offer a wide array of drugs that might eradicate depression forever. It seems truly an age of almost perfect contentment, a brave new world of persistent good fortune, joy without trouble, felicity with no penalty.

Why are most Americans so utterly willing to have an essential part of their hearts sliced away and discarded like so much waste? What are we to make of this American obsession with happiness, an obsession that could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse, that could result in an extermination as horrible as those foreshadowed by global warming and environmental crisis and nuclear proliferation? What drives this rage for complacency, this desperate contentment? (…)

I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life’s enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill. (…)

Suffering the gloom, inevitable as breath, we must further accept this fact that the world hates: We are forever incomplete, fragments of some ungraspable whole. Our unfinished natures — we are never pure actualities but always vague potentials — make life a constant struggle, a bout with the persistent unknown. But this extension into the abyss is also our salvation. To be only a fragment is always to strive for something beyond ourselves, something transcendent. That striving is always an act of freedom, of choosing one road instead of another. Though this labor is arduous — it requires constant attention to our mysterious and shifting interiors — it is also ecstatic, an almost infinite sounding of the exquisite riddles of Being.

To be against happiness is to embrace ecstasy. Incompleteness is a call to life. Fragmentation is freedom. The exhilaration of never knowing anything fully is that you can perpetually imagine sublimities beyond reason. On the margins of the known is the agile edge of existence. This is the rapture, burning slow, of finishing a book that can never be completed, a flawed and conflicted text, vexed as twilight.

Excerpted from an essay by Eric G. WIlson, which is adapted from his book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melanchonly, being published this month.

Conversation Clock

Microphones record an ongoing conversation, graphing the audio in concentric rings, differentiating voices by color. The further inward the rings, the further back in the conversation. Patterns reveal themselves such as individual people not speaking, interrupting, dominating, etc. Arguments and group silences become immediately tangible. A projector displays the data on a table in front of the participants. Further development is planned using pitch and pattern recognition to extract higher level dialectic features.

It follows that increased self-awareness leads to behavior modification. I’d love to break this out while discussing a group project or debating the finer points of living with my housemates – applications are endless.

On the Brain, Nonlocality

image credit: Andrew Mason

Did you know that magnetic fields focused to stimulate certain sections of the brain can change your mood, improve attention, break habits and enhance creativity? It’s called transcranial magnetic stimulation.

image credit: David Gorgojo

OK OK, but what about using mild electricity to induce out-of-body experiences?

(…) according to recent work by neuroscientists, they can be induced by delivering mild electric current to specific spots in the brain. In one woman, for example, a zap to a brain region called the angular gyrus resulted in a sensation that she was hanging from the ceiling, looking down at her body. In another woman, electrical current delivered to the angular gyrus produced an uncanny feeling that someone was behind her, intent on interfering with her actions. (…)

The research shows that the self can be detached from the body and can live a phantom existence on its own, as in an out-of-body experience, or it can be felt outside of personal space, as in a sense of a presence,” Dr. Brugger said.

The whole thing paints a nice image of the center of consciousness as some kind of magnetically/electrically charged nucleus. Give enough of a tug and you can stretch outside your body, at least enough to induce a nonlocal perspective. Think solar flares, jet lightning, Wooly Willy

If all else fails there’s always good old-fashioned virtual reality. Mount a camera behind your head, strap your eyes into the live video feed and you’ve got a readymade virtual avatar. Finally you can speak of yourself in the third-person and be justified. For virtual fun or virtual surgery:

The Pirahã

Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations. It is a language so confounding to non-natives that until Everett and his wife, Keren, arrived among the Pirahã, as Christian missionaries, in the nineteen-seventies, no outsider had succeeded in mastering it.

(…) The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition. Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (“the man is walking down the street,” “the man is wearing a top hat”) into a single sentence (“The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street”).

John Colapinto in “The Interpreter”, New Yorker (emphasis added)

Singled Out

A National Geographic study reveals the distribution of single men and women around the country. Blue and orange represent an excess of single men and women respectively. It’s middle school all over again – the boys grouping up on one side of the continent and the girls on the other. Those Mormans in Salt Lake City are totally making out.

Seeing Red

image credit: Ro Irving

Paul Broks contemplates the mystery of conciousness in a recent essay written in response to Nicholas Humphrey’s latest book: Seeing Red: A Study in Conciousness.

Phenomenal consciousness is about the temporal “depth” of the present moment. The subjective “now” is, paradoxically, extended in time: it is “temporally thick.” We experience it not as an infinitely thin sliver of time but as a moment in which times present, past and future overlap. We travel through life as in a “time ship,” which “has a prow and stern and room inside for us to move around.” The problem is that the notion of the “extended present” is fundamentally incoherent to the commonsense mind. Our experience (“the thick moment"—an amalgam of past, present and future) is at odds with our understanding of the linearity of time. We can’t get our heads around those ineffable qualities of consciousness because, as the philosopher Natika Newton points out, the very nature of the X factor makes it, "analytically, ostensively and comparatively indefinable.” According to Humphrey (…) it is precisely this that gives consciousness its mysterious, out-of-this-world qualities, and creates the irresistible intuition of mind-body duality. Nature has performed a stupendous conjuring trick: the illusion of the soul. It is an illusion that at once creates and valorises us as conscious entities. It is thereby an adaptive illusion. Consciousness matters, says Humphrey, “because its function is to matter. It has been designed to create in human beings a Self whose life is worth pursuing.” Even beyond death.

Memory, Growth, Love

photography used slightly out of context: Simon Pais

While i’m all down for remembering everything i ever read, just imagine the havoc wreaked on courtship by remembering today. First off, you “remember” interactions that never took place because you read the details of her blog before you even met. Next, all of those blog entries you wrote reminds you of your own emotional naiveté because you were in lurve. And now you have the snarky emails and IMs and texts that show that you’re a complete dickwad and are the root cause of all relationship woes. You have the video of your breakup that you watch over and over again to see what you could’ve done better so that you don’t feel like such shit. Oh, and you have shelves of DVDs that prove that your relationship looks nothing like what “normal” relationships should look like (proof through Molly Ringwald). Somehow, just as you’re starting to feel better, you think that it couldn’t _really_ hurt to look at her MySpace. Only you found that she erased your very existence in an effort to delete the relationship out of memory. And you wonder why you’ve stolen every emo MP3 out there. (…)

Media has made it difficult for cultural memories to fade. We don’t remember the days of house calls for courtship because society moved away from that rather quickly (and few read beyond the Crib Notes of 11th grade English texts). But thanks to TV and movies, we “remember” past practices and norms. Does this mean that culture will have a much harder time evolving with the times? Or perhaps it means that there will be an ever-increasing disconnect between the generations because even though your mom didn’t fall in love like Ingrid Bergman, she’s still gonna imagine that this is how it’s supposed to be. How does the non-forgetfulness of archival media influence our culture’s ability to shift over time?

We are building technology with the implicit desire to remember everything. Every interaction, every feeling, every idea. Why? Perhaps this isn’t such a good thing. I for one would like to see my digital memories fade into hearts and flowers.

Some thoughts from Danah Boyd on the implications persistent digital memory (IM/email archives, blogs, images, video) has on culture, relationships, etc.