Lapidarium notes RSS

Amira Skomorowska's notes

"Everything you can imagine is real."— Pablo Picasso

Lapidarium

Tags:

Africa
Age of information
Ancient
Anthropology
Art
Artificial intelligence
Astronomy
Atheism
Beauty
Biography
Books
China
Christianity
Civilization
Cognition, perception, relativity
Cognitive science
Collective intelligence
Communication
Consciousness
Creativity
Culture
Curiosity
Cyberspace
Democracy
Documentary
Drawing
Earth
Economy
Evolution
Friendship
Funny
Future
Genetics
Globalization
Happiness
History
Human being
Illustrations
Imagination
Individualism
Infographics
Information
Inspiration
Internet
Knowledge
Language
Learning
Life
Literature
Logic
Love
Mathematics
Media
Metaphor
Mind & Brain
Multiculturalism
Music
Networks
Neuroscience
Painting
Paradoxes
Patterns
Philosophy
Poetry
Politics
Physics
Psychology
Rationalism
Religions
Science
Science & Art
Self improvement
Semantics
Society
Sociology
Storytelling
Technology
The other
Time
Timeline
Traveling
Unconsciousness
Universe
USA
Video
Violence
Visualization


Homepage
Twitter
Facebook

A Box Of Stories
Reading Space

Contact

Archive

Sep
14th
Wed
permalink

Steven Pinker on the mind as a system of ‘organs of computation’

                      

I present the mind as a system of “organs of computation” that allowed our ancestors to understand and outsmart objects, animals, plants, and each other. (…)

Most of the assumptions about the mind that underlie current discussions are many decades out of date. Take the hydraulic model of Freud, in which psychic pressure builds up in the mind and can burst out unless it’s channeled into appropriate pathways. That’s just false. The mind doesn’t work by fluid under pressure or by flows of energy; it works by information.

Or, look at the commentaries on human affairs by pundits and social critics. They say we’re “conditioned” to do this, or “brainwashed” to do that, or “socialized” to believe such and such. Where do these ideas come from? From the behaviorism of the 1920’s, from bad cold war movies from the 1950’s, from folklore about the effects of family upbringing that behavior genetics has shown to be false. The basic understanding that the human mind is a remarkably complex processor of information, an “organ of extreme perfection and complication,” to use Darwin’s phrase, has not made it into the mainstream of intellectual life. (…)

I see the mind as an exquisitely engineered device—not literally engineered, of course, but designed by the mimic of engineering that we see in nature, natural selection. That’s what “engineered” animals’ bodies to accomplish improbable feats, like flying and swimming and running, and it is surely what “engineered” the mind to accomplish its improbable feats. (…)

What research in psychology should be: a kind of reverse engineering. When you rummage through an antique store and come across a contraption built of many finely meshing parts, you assume that it was put together for a purpose, and that if you only understood that purpose, you’d have insight as to why it has the parts arranged the way they are. That’s true for the mind as well, though it wasn’t designed by a designer but by natural selection. With that insight you can look at the quirks of the mind and ask how they might have made sense as solutions to some problem our ancestors faced in negotiating the world. That can give you an insight into what the different parts of the mind are doing.

Even the seemingly irrational parts of the mind, like strong passions—jealousy, revenge, infatuation, pride—might very well be good solutions to problems our ancestors faced in dealing with one another. For example, why do people do crazy things like chase down an ex-lover and kill the lover? How could you win someone back by killing them? It seems like a bug in our mental software. But several economists have proposed an alternative. If our mind is put together so that under some circumstances we are compelled to carry out a threat regardless of the costs to us, the threat is made credible. When a person threatens a lover, explicitly or implicitly, by communicating “If you ever leave me I’ll chase you down,” the lover could call his bluff if she didn’t have signs that he was crazy enough to carry it out even though it was pointless. And so the problem of building a credible deterrent into creatures that interact with one another leads to irrational behavior as a rational solution. "Rational," that is, with respect to the "goal" of our genes to maximize the number of copies of themselves. It isn’t "rational," of course, with respect to the goal of whole humans and societies to maximize happiness and fairness. (…)

The paradoxes of happiness

There’s no absolute standard for well-being. A Paleolithic hunter-gatherer should not have fretted that he had no running shoes or central heating or penicillin. How can a brain know whether there is something worth striving for? Well, it can look around and see how well off other people are. If they can achieve something, maybe so can you. Other people anchor your well-being scale and tell you what you can reasonably hope to achieve. (…)

Another paradox of happiness is that losses are felt more keenly than gains. As Jimmy Connors said, “I hate to lose more than I like to win.” You are just a little happy if your salary goes up, but you’re really miserable if your salary goes down by the same amount. That too might be a feature of the mechanism designed to attain the attainable and no more. When we backslide, we keenly feel it because what we once had is a good estimate of what we can attain. But when we improve we have no grounds for knowing that we are as well off as we can hope to be. The evolutionary psychologist Donald Campbell called it “the happiness treadmill." No matter how much you gain in fame, wealth, and so on, you end up at the same level of happiness you began with—though to go down a level is awful. Perhaps it’s because natural selection has programmed our reach to exceed our grasp, but by just a little bit. (…)

The brain as a kind of computer; information processing system

I place myself among those who think that you can’t understand the mind only by looking directly at the brain. Neurons, neurotransmitters, and other hardware features are widely conserved across the animal kingdom, but species have very different cognitive and emotional lives. The difference comes from the ways in which hundreds of millions of neurons are wired together to process information. I see the brain as a kind of computer—not like any commercial computer made of silicon, obviously, but as a device that achieves intelligence for some of the same reasons that a computer achieves intelligence, namely processing of information. (…)

I also believe that the mind is not made of Spam—it has a complex, heterogeneous structure. It is composed of mental organs that are specialized to do different things, like seeing, controlling hands and feet, reasoning, language, social interaction, and social emotions. Just as the body is divided into physical organs, the mind is divided into mental organs.

That puts me in agreement with Chomsky and against many neural network modelers, who hope that a single kind of neural network, if suitably trained, can accomplish every mental feat that we do. For similar reasons I disagree with the dominant position in modern intellectual life—that our thoughts are socially constructed by how we were socialized as children, by media images, by role models, and by conditioning. (…)

Many people lump together the idea that the mind has a complex innate structure with the idea that differences between people have to be innate. But the ideas are completely different. Every normal person on the planet could be innately equipped with an enormous catalog of mental machinery, and all the differences between people—what makes John different from Bill—could come from differences in experience, of upbringing, or of random things that happened to them when they were growing up.

To believe that there’s a rich innate structure common to every member of the species is different from saying the differences between people, or differences between groups, come from differences in innate structure. Here’s an example. Look at number of legs—it’s an innate property of the human species that we have two legs as opposed to six like insects, or eight like spiders, or four like cats—so having two legs is innate. But if you now look at why some people have one leg, and some people have no legs, it’s completely due to the environment—they lost a leg in an accident, or from a disease. So the two questions have to be distinguished. And what’s true of legs is also true of the mind. (…)

Computer technology will never change the world as long as it ignores how the mind works. Why did people instantly start to use fax machines, and continue to use them even though electronic mail makes much more sense? There are millions of people who print out text from their computer onto a piece of paper, feed the paper into a fax machine, forcing the guy at the other end to take the paper out, read it, and crumples it up—or worse, scan it into his computer so that it becomes a file of bytes all over again. This is utterly ridiculous from a technological point of view, but people do it. They do it because the mind evolved to deal with physical objects, and it still likes to conceptualize entities that are owned and transferred among people as physical objects that you can lift and store in a box. Until computer systems, email, video cameras, VCR’s and so on are designed to take advantage of the way the mind conceptualizes reality, namely as physical objects existing at a location and impinged upon by forces, people are going to be baffled by their machines, and the promise of the computer revolution will not be fulfilled. (…)

Q: What is the significance of the Internet and today’s communications revolution for the evolution of the mind?

Probably not much. You’ve got to distinguish two senses of the word “evolution.” The sense used by me, Dawkins, Gould, and other evolutionary biologists refers to the changes in our biological makeup that led us to be the kind of organism we are today. The sense used by most other people refers to continuous improvement or progress. A popular idea is that our biological evolution took us to a certain stage, and our cultural evolution is going to take over—where evolution in both cases is defined as “progress.” I would like us to move away from that idea, because that the processes that selected the genes that built our brains are different form the processes that propelled the rise and fall of empires and the march of technology and.

In terms of strict biological evolution, it’s impossible to know where, if anywhere, our species is going. Natural selection generally takes hundreds of thousands of years to do anything interesting, and we don’t know what our situation will be like in ten thousand or even one thousand years. Also, selection adapts organism to a niche, usually a local environment, and the human species moves all over the place and lurches from life style to life style with dizzying speed on the evolutionary timetable. Revolutions in human life like the agricultural, industrial, and information revolutions occur so quickly that no one can predict whether the change they will have on our makeup, or even whether there will be a change.

The Internet does create a kind of supra-human intelligence, in which everyone on the planet can exchange information rapidly, a bit like the way different parts of a single brain can exchange information. This is not a new process; it’s been happening since we evolved language. Even non-industrial hunter-gatherer tribes pool information by the use of language.

That has given them remarkable local technologies—ways of trapping animals, using poisons, chemically treating plant foods to remove the bitter toxins, and so on. That is also a collective intelligence that comes from accumulating discoveries over generations, and pooling them amongst a group of people living at one time. Everything that’s happened since, such as writing, the printing press, and now the Internet, are ways of magnifying something that our species already knew how to do, which is to pool expertise by communication. Language was the real innovation in our biological evolution; everything since has just made our words travel farther or last longer.”

Steven Pinker, Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist, Organs of Computation, Edge, January 11, 1997 (Illustration source)

See also:

☞ Steven Pinker, Harvard University Cambridge, MA, So How Does the Mind Work? (pdf), Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005

Sep
8th
Thu
permalink

Curiosity as a mechanism for achieving and maintaining high levels of well-being and meaning in life

"A primary interest [of this study] was whether people high in trait curiosity derive greater well-being on days when they are more curious. We also tested whether trait and daily curiosity led to greater, sustainable well-being. Predictions were tested using trait measures and 21 daily diary reports from 97 college students.

We found that on days when they are more curious, people high in trait curiosity reported more frequent growth-oriented behaviors, and greater presence of meaning, search for meaning, and life satisfaction. Greater trait curiosity and greater curiosity on a given day also predicted greater persistence of meaning in life from one day into the next. People with greater trait curiosity reported more frequent hedonistic events but they were associated with less pleasure compared to the experiences of people with less trait curiosity.

The benefits of hedonistic events did not last beyond the day of their occurrence. As evidence of construct specificity, curiosity effects were not attributable to Big Five personality traits or daily positive or negative mood. Our results provide support for curiosity as an ingredient in the development of well-being and meaning in life.”

Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, and Michael F. Steger, Assistant Professor in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University, Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors, SpringerLink, Volume 31, Number 3, 159-173

See also:

☞ T. B. Kashdan, P. Rose, and F. D. Fincham, Curiosity and Exploration: Facilitating Positive Subjective Experiences and Personal Growth Opportunities (pdf), Department of Psychology State University of New York at Buffalo, 2004
Jonah Lehrer on the itch of Curiosity
Our brains are hardwired to fear creativity, Cornell University
Curiosity tag on Lapidarium

Jul
15th
Fri
permalink

The Pursuit of Happiness. People who take part in their communities and governments are happier than those who don’t


"Today, economics, with its misapprehension that human beings are cost/benefit calculating machines, has come to dominate our politics and our lives. We’re left with an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus. (…)

Economists and leaders have begun to search for alternative ways to value the lives of individuals and evaluate the success of nations. Since many of the questions they’re raising are philosophical, voices from the past may be helpful.

The Greeks, for instance, were very interested in well being. Aristotle thought happiness was the goal of human activity. For him, true happiness was something more than simply “Eat, drink, and be merry,” or even the honor of high position. Real satisfaction didn’t depend on the pleasures of the senses or what others thought of you. You could find genuine happiness only in a life of virtue and just actions. President Kennedy alluded to Aristotle when he defined happiness as “the full use of one’s talents along the lines of excellence.”

For the Greeks, excellence could be manifest only in a city or a community. Since human beings were political animals, the best way to exercise virtue and justice was within the institutions of a great city (the polis). Only beasts and gods could live alone. A solitary person was not fully human. In fact, the Greek word “idiot” means a private person, someone who is not engaged in public life. It was only in a fair and just society that can men and women could be fully human—and happy.

This is what the American Revolution was all about. Jefferson declared that the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable right, along with life and liberty. The story goes that Jefferson, on the advice of Benjamin Franklin, substituted the phrase “pursuit of happiness” for the word “property,” which was favored by George Mason. Franklin thought that “property” was too narrow a notion.

But what exactly did “happiness” mean to the colonists? It was a topic of lively discussion in pubs, public squares, broadsheets, and books. Was happiness individual prosperity, or something else?

Conservatives argue that the American Revolution exalted the individual. Certainly, the colonists didn’t want the British Crown telling them what to do. But the Revolution wasn’t just about getting the government out of people’s lives so the Founders could pursue their private desires.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had nice houses. They could have enjoyed contented private lives. But it was not just about their property. They believed that you attained happiness, not merely through the goods you accumulated, or in your private life, but through the good that you did in public. People were happy when they controlled their destiny, when their voice was heard, when they participated in public events, when the government did not do things to them, or even for them, but with them.

The American revolutionaries wanted to have their voice heard and to participate in government. After all, their slogan was not “No taxation”—which is such a popular rallying cry today—but “No taxation without representation.” Representation was critical to happiness. The Founders’ long recitation of grievances set out the numerous ways in which they couldn’t control their destiny. They were subject to England, while they wished to be citizens of America. As citizens, they were able to take control of their government and create a just state where the rule of law was respected, domestic tranquility assured, and defense maintained.

As political animals, human beings need a city, a nation, in which to flourish. People can develop their talents only in society. The good society nurtures many talents, and the political system makes that possible by what it rewards and encourages. (…)

This brings me to jobs. After the crash of 2009, banks have been saved, corporations are prospering, and people are still unemployed. My father would have seen something wrong with this picture. He believed having a good job was the key to happiness. “The root problem,” he said, “is in the fact of dependency and uselessness itself. Unemployment means having nothing to do, which means nothing to do with the rest of us. To be without work, to be without use to one’s fellow citizens, is to be in truth the invisible man of whom Ralph Ellison wrote.” (…) “I helped to build this city. I am a participant in its great public ventures. I count.”

It’s not only through our jobs but through participating in public life that we help build the city. In fact, research shows that people who take part in political activities such as voting, advocating for laws, and helping to make government work for themselves and their community are happier than those who don’t. (…)”

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend served as Maryland’s first woman lieutenant governor. She now works in finance in Washington, a member of the Kennedy family, The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant—And Didn’t, The Atlantic, June 20, 2011 (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

See also:

☞ Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, What Makes Life Worthwhile? GDP Won’t Tell You, The Atlantic, June 13, 2011
Get Politically Engaged, Get Happy?, Miller-McCune, Feb 14, 2011

Mar
30th
Wed
permalink

Kevin Kelly on the Satisfaction Paradox

“What if you lived in a world where everything around you was just what you wanted? And there was tons of it. How would you make a choice since all of it — 100% — was just what you liked?

What if you lived in a world where every great movie, book, song that was ever produced was at your fingertips as if “for free”, and your filters and friends had weeded out the junk, the trash, and anything that would remotely bore you. The only choices would be the absolute cream of the cream, the things your best friend would recommend. What would you watch or read or listen to next?

What if you lived in a miraculous world where the only works you ever saw were ones you absolutely loved, including the ones that were randomly thrown in? In other words, you could only watch things perfectly matched to you at that moment. But the problem is that in this world there are a thousand times as many works as you have time in your long life to see. How would you choose? Or would you? (…)

The paradox is that not-choosing may not be satisfying!

We may need to make choices in order to be satisfied, even if those choices lead to less than satisfying experiences.
But of course this would be less than optimal satisfaction. Thus, there may be a psychological dilemma or paradox that ultimate satisfaction may ultimately be unsatisfying.

This is the psychological problem of dealing with abundance rather than scarcity. It is not quite the same problem of abundance articulated by the Paradox of Choice, the theory that we find too many choices paralyzing. That if we are given 57 different mustards to choose from at the supermarket, we often leave without choosing any.

The paradox of satisfaction suggests that the tools we employ to increase our satisfaction of choices — filters and recommendations — may be unsatisfying if they diminish the power of our choices. Another way to say this: no system can be absolutely satisfying. (…)

Let’s say that after all is said and done, in the history of the world there are 2,000 theatrical movies, 500 documentaries, 200 TV shows, 100,000 songs, and 10,000 books that I would be crazy about. I don’t have enough time to absorb them all, even if I were a full time fan. But what if our tools could deliver to me only those items to choose from? How would I — or you — choose from those select choices? (…)

I believe that answering this question is what outfits like Amazon will be selling in the future. For the price of a subscription you will subscribe to Amazon and have access to all the books in the world at a set price. (An individual book you want to read will be as if it was free, because it won’t cost you extra.) The same will be true of movies (Netflix), or music (iTunes or Spotify or Rhapsody.) You won’t be purchasing individual works.

Instead you will pay Amazon, or Netflix, or Spotify, or Google for their suggestions of what you should pay attention to next. Amazon won’t be selling books (which are marginally free); they will be selling their recommendations of what to read. You’ll pay the subscription fee in order to get access to their recommendations to the “free” works, which are also available elsewhere. Their recommendations (assuming continual improvements by more collaboration and sharing of highlights, etc.) will be worth more than the individual books. You won’t buy movies; you’ll buy cheap access and pay for personalized recommendations.

The new scarcity is not creative products but satisfaction. And because of the paradox of satisfaction, few people will ever be satisfied.”

Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, The Satsisfaction Paradox, The Technium, March 2011.

Mar
23rd
Wed
permalink

Pascal Bruckner on the history of Western cult of happiness

                               
                                              Elżbieta Mozyro, Happiness like a butterfly

"Notwithstanding the Jacobin leader Saint-Just’s famous remark, happiness was never “a new idea in Europe.” In fact, it was the oldest of ideas, defended by the ancients and pondered by the great philosophical schools. But Christianity, which inherited the notion from Greek and Latin writers, changed it with a view to transcendence: man’s concern here below must be not joy but salvation. Christ alone redeems us from original sin and puts us on the path to divine truth. All earthly pleasures, according to the Christian authors, are but phantoms from the point of view of celestial beatitude. To wish for earthly happiness would be a sin against the Spirit; the passing pleasures of mortals are nothing compared with the hell that awaits sinners who pant after them.

The eighteenth century

This rigorous conception gave way over the centuries to a more accommodating view of life. The eighteenth century saw the rise of new techniques that improved agricultural production; it also saw new medicines—in particular, alkaloids and salicylic acid, an ancestor of aspirin whose curative and analgesic properties worked wonders. Suddenly, this world was no longer condemned to be a vale of tears; man now had the power to reduce hunger, ameliorate illness, and better master his future. People stopped listening to those who justified suffering as the will of God. If I could relieve pain simply by ingesting some substance, there was no need to have recourse to prayer to feel better.

The new conception of happiness was captured in a phrase of Voltaire’s in 1736: “Earthly paradise is here where I am.” Voltaire was, of course, pursued by the Church and the monarchy; he was threatened with death, and his writings were burned. But his proposition deserves attention. If paradise is here where I am, then happiness is here and now, not yesterday, in an age for which I might be nostalgic, and even less in some hypothetical future. In this upheaval of temporal perspectives, poverty and distress lose all legitimacy, and the whole work of enlightened nations becomes eliminating them through education and reason, and eventually science and industry. Human misfortune would be rendered an archaic residue.

After the American and French Revolutions (the first of which inscribed the pursuit of happiness in its founding document), the right to a decent life and the privileged status of pleasure became the order of the day for progressive movements across Europe. It is true that in the early twentieth century, the Bolsheviks curiously rehabilitated the Christian ideal of sacrifice by exhorting the proletariat to fight and work until the great coming of the Revolution; ironically, asceticism returned within a doctrine that denounced religion as the opiate of the masses and that relentlessly persecuted priests, pastors, and believers wherever it took power. But overall, throughout the twentieth century, hedonism’s claims grew ever stronger under the influence of Freudianism, feminism, and the avant-garde in art and politics.

Capitalism and the rise of individualism

In the 1960s, two major shifts transformed the right to happiness into the duty of happiness. The first was a shift in the nature of capitalism, which had long revolved around production and the deferral of gratification, but now focused on making us all good consumers. Working no longer sufficed; buying was also necessary for the industrial machine to run at full capacity. To make this shift possible, an ingenious invention had appeared not long before, first in America in the 1930s and then in Europe in the 1950s: credit. In an earlier time, anyone who wanted to buy a car, some furniture, or a house followed a rule that now seems almost unknown: he waited, setting aside his nickels and dimes. But credit changed everything; frustration became intolerable and satisfaction normal; to do without seemed absurd. We would live well in the present and pay back later.

The second shift was the rise of individualism. Since nothing opposed our fulfillment any longer—neither church nor party nor social class—we became solely responsible for what happened to us. It proved an awesome burden: if I don’t feel happy, I can blame no one but myself. So it was no surprise that a vast number of fulfillment industries arose, ranging from cosmetic surgery to diet pills to innumerable styles of therapy, all promising reconciliation with ourselves and full realization of our potential. “Become your own best friend, learn self-esteem, think positive, dare to live in harmony,” we were told by so many self-help books, though their very number suggested that these were not such easy tasks. The idea of fulfillment, though the successor to a more demanding ethic, became a demand itself. The dominant order no longer condemns us to privation; it offers us paths to self-realization with a kind of maternal solicitude.

This generosity is by no means a liberation in every respect. In fact, a kind of charitable coercion engenders the malaise from which it then strives to deliver us. The statistics that it publicizes and the models that it holds up produce a new race of guilty parties, no longer sybarites or libertines but killjoys. Sadness is the disease of a society of obligatory well-being that penalizes those who do not attain it. Happiness is no longer a matter of chance or a heavenly gift, an amazing grace that blesses our monotonous days. We now owe it to ourselves to be happy, and we are expected to display our happiness far and wide.

Thus happiness becomes not only the biggest industry of the age but also a new moral order. We now find ourselves guilty of not being well, a failing for which we must answer to everyone and to our own consciences. Consider the poll, conducted by a French newspaper, in which 90 percent of people questioned reported being happy. Who would dare admit that he is sometimes miserable and expose himself to social opprobrium? This is the strange contradiction of the happiness doctrine when it becomes militant and takes on the power of ancient taboos—though in the opposite direction. To enjoy was once forbidden; from now on, it’s obligatory. Whatever method is chosen, whether psychic, somatic, chemical, spiritual, or computer-based, we find the same assumption everywhere: beatitude is within your grasp, and you have only to take advantage of “positive conditioning” (in the Dalai Lama’s words) in order to attain it. We have come to believe that the will can readily establish its power over mental states, regulate moods, and make contentment the fruit of a personal decision.

This belief in our ability to will ourselves happy also lies behind the contemporary obsession with health. What is health, correctly understood, but a kind of permission we receive to live in peace with our bodies and to let ourselves be carefree? These days, though, we are required to resist our mortality as far as possible. (…)

In France, photos of Jean-Paul Sartre and the young Jacques Chirac holding cigarettes have been retouched to eliminate the offending objects—just as the Soviet empire used to do with banished leaders. Yet by trying to remove every anomaly, every failing, we end up denying what is in fact the main benefit of health: indifference to oneself, what a great surgeon once called “the silence of the organs.” Everyone must today be saved from something—from hypertension, from imperfect digestion, from a tendency to gain weight. One is never thin enough, fit enough, strong enough. (…)

Now that it has become the horizon of our democracies, a matter of ceaseless work and effort, happiness is surrounded by anxiety. We feel compelled to be saved constantly from what we are, poisoning our own existence with all kinds of impossible commandments. Our hedonism is not wholesome but haunted by failure. However well behaved we are, our bodies continue to betray us. Age leaves its mark, illness finds us one way or another, and pleasures have their way with us, following a rhythm that has nothing to do with our vigilance or our resolution. (…)

The Western cult of happiness is indeed a strange adventure, something like a collective intoxication. In the guise of emancipation, it transforms a high ideal into its opposite. Condemned to joy, we must be happy or lose all standing in society. It is not a question of knowing whether we are more or less happy than our ancestors; our conception of the thing itself has changed, and we are probably the first society in history to make people unhappy for not being happy.

Pascal Bruckner, French writer and philosopher, Condemned to Joy. The Western cult of happiness is a mirthless enterprise, City Journal, Winter 2011, vol.21, no.1. (Published in March 2011).

Feb
10th
Thu
permalink

Daniel Kahneman on the riddle of experience vs. memory

[2:38] “We might be thinking of ourselves in terms of two selves.

There is an experiencing self, who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of re-living the past, but basically it has only the present. It’s the experiencing self that the doctor approaches — you know, when the doctor asks, “Does it hurt now when I touch you here?”

And then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score, and maintains the story of our life, and it’s the one that the doctor approaches in asking the question, “How have you been feeling lately?” or “How was your trip to Albania?” or something like that.

Those are two very different entities, the experiencing self and the remembering self and getting confused between them is part of the mess of the notion of happiness.

Now, the remembering self is a storyteller. And that really starts with a basic response of our memories — it starts immediately. We don’t only tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story. (…)

[6:21] What defines a story? And that is true of the stories that memory delivers for us, and it’s also true of the stories that we make up. What defines a story are changes, significant moments and endings. Endings are very, very important and, in this case, the ending dominated.

Now, the experiencing self lives its life continuously. It has moments of experience, one after the other. And you ask: What happens to these moments? And the answer is really straightforward. They are lost forever. I mean, most of the moments of our life — and I calculated — you know, the psychological present is said to be about three seconds long. Which means that, you know, in a life there, are about 600 million of them. In a month, there are about 600,000. Most of them don’t leave a trace. Most of them are completely ignored by the remembering self. And yet, some how you get the sense that they should count, that what happens during these moments of experience is our life. It’s the finite resource that we’re spending while we’re on this earth. And how to spend it, would seem to be relevant, but that is not the story that the remembering self keeps for us.

So we have the remembering self and the experiencing self, and they’re really quite distinct. The biggest difference between them is in the handling of time.
From the point of view of the experiencing self, if you have a vacation, and the second week is just as good as the first, then the two week vacation is twice as good as the one week vacation. That’s not the way it works at all for the remembering self. For the remembering self, a two week vacation is barely better than the one week vacation because there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story. And in this way, time is actually the critical variable that distinguishes a remembering self from an experiencing self. Time has very little impact on this story.

Now, the remembering self does more than remember and tell stories. It is actually the one that makes decisions because, if you have a patient who has had, say, two colonoscopies with two different surgeons and is deciding which of them to choose, then the one that chooses is the one that has the memory that is less bad, and that’s the surgeon that will be chosen. The experiencing self has no voice in this choice. We actually don’t choose between experiences. We choose between memories of experiences. And, even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories. And basically you can look at this, you know, as a tyranny of the remembering self, and you can think of the remembering self sort of dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need.

I have that sense that when we go on vacations this is very frequently the case, that is, we go on vacations, to a very large extent, in the service of our remembering self. And this is a bit hard to justify I think. I mean, how much do we consume our memories? That is one of the explanations that is given for the dominance of the remembering self.

And when I think about that, I think about a vacation we had in Antarctica a few years ago, which was clearly the best vacation I’ve ever had, and I think of it relatively often, relative to how much I think of other vacations. And I probably have consumed my memories of that three week trip, I would say, for about 25 minutes in the last four years. Now, if I had ever opened the folder with the 600 pictures in it, I would have spent another hour. Now, that is three weeks, and that is at most an hour and a half. There seems to be a discrepancy. Now, I may be a bit extreme, you know, in how little appetite I have for consuming memories, but even if you do more of this, there is a genuine question.

Why do we put so much weight on memory relative to the weight that we put on experiences?

So I want you to think about a thought experiment. Imagine that your next vacation you know that at the end of the vacation all your pictures will be destroyed, and you’ll get an amnesic drug so that you won’t remember anything. Now, would you choose the same vacation? (Laughter) And if you would choose a different vacation, there is a conflict between your two selves, and you need to think about how to adjudicate that conflict, and it’s actually not at all obvious because, if you think in terms of time, then you get one answer. And if you think in terms of memories, you might get another answer. Why do we pick the vacations we do, is a problem that confronts us with a choice between the two selves.

Now, the two selves bring up two notions of happiness. There are really two concepts of happiness that we can apply, one per self. So you can ask: How happy is the experiencing self? And then you would ask: How happy are the moments in the experiencing self’s life? And they’re all — happiness for moments is a fairly complicated process. What are the emotions that can be measured? And, by the way, now we are capable of getting a pretty good idea of the happiness of the experiencing self over time. If you ask for the happiness of the remembering self, it’s a completely different thing. This is not about how happily a person lives. It is about how satisfied or pleased the person is when that person thinks about her life. Very different notion. Anyone who doesn’t distinguish those notions, is going to mess up the study of happiness, and I belong to a crowd of students of well-being, who’ve been messing up the study of happiness for a long time in precisely this way. (…)

[14:14] We know something about what controls satisfaction of the happiness self. We know that money is very important, goals are very important. We know that happiness is mainly being satisfied with people that we like, spending time with people that we like. There are other pleasures, but this is dominant. So if you want to maximize the happiness of the two selves, you are going to end up doing very different things. The bottom line of what I’ve said here is that we really should not think of happiness as a substitute for well-being. It is a completely different notion. (…)

[16:26] It is very difficult to think straight about well-being, and I hope I have given you a sense of how difficult it is. (…)

[17:01] I think the most interesting result that we found in the Gallup survey is a number, which we absolutely did not expect to find. We found that with respect to the happiness of the experiencing self. When we looked at how feelings vary with income. And it turns out that, below an income of 60,000 dollars a year, for Americans, and that’s a very large sample of Americans, like 600,000, but it’s a large representative sample, below an income of 60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I’ve rarely seen lines so flat. Clearly, what is happening is money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery, and we can measure that misery very, very clearly. In terms of the other self, the remembering self, you get a different story. The more money you earn the more satisfied you are. That does not hold for emotions. (…)

[19:01] How to enhance happiness, goes very different ways depending on how you think, and whether you think of the remembering self or you think of the experiencing self.”

Daniel Kahneman, Israeli-American psychologist and Nobel laureate, notable for his work on the psychology of judgment, decision-making, behavioral economics and hedonic psychology, The riddle of experience vs. memory, TED.com, Feb 2010
(Full transcript)

See also:

Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking
Our sense of time is deeply entangled with memory
The Human Hard Drive: Antonio Damasio and Ottavio Arancio on How We Make (And Lose) Memories
Eric R. Kandel, The Biology of Memory: A Forty-Year Perspective (pdf), Department of Neuroscience, Columbia University, New York
Daniel Kahneman on thinking ‘Fast And Slow’: How We Aren’t Made For Making Decisions

Sep
23rd
Thu
permalink
Dan Jones on the role of positive feelings

“Positive feelings change the way our brains work and expand the boundaries of experience, allowing us to take in more information and see the big picture.” (…) Eye-tracking and brain-imaging experiments, for example, have revealed that positive moods increase and broaden the scope of visual attention, helping the brain gather more information. Feeling good has also been shown to improve people’s creativity and ability to solve problems. (…) Other experiments have found that a good mood improves people’s verbal reasoning skills. (…)

Robert Cummins thinks that this happiness level may have been selected for during evolution. Numerous studies have found that our happiness is pre-programmed to a certain extent, with genetic differences accounting for about 50 per cent of the variation between people. If happiness is controlled by our genes, the idea that natural selection might have pushed the population as a whole towards a certain level of happiness would certainly be plausible. “As long as people can maintain a normal lifestyle, they will experience that level of happiness.” “
— Dan Jones, How to be happy (but not too much), New Scientist, Sep 22, 2010. See also: Jamie Beatson, Happiness Is In The Genes, Say Scottish Scientists, The Daily Record, Mar 6 2008