Rolling Dunderheads

This is a belated Fourth of July musing. I don’t live there any more, but it’s hard not to look back at an accident that you were lucky enough to pass safely by on the interstate.

I didn’t write a July 1st article, even though I’m a long-time Canadian citizen and feel very lucky to live here. It’s just that most Canada Day celebrations have become too much like what I left–marching bands, swaying flags, troops with big guns and uniforms. Enough nationalism and glorification of the military already, if you ask me, which you didn’t, but that has never stopped me before, so why should it now?

Some of my Canadian friends and acquaintances look a little bit askance (politely askance, of course; after all, they’re Canadians) when I tell them that I don’t celebrate Canada Day because it’s too much like the Fourth. They are keenly aware of all of the differences between our three cultures (Canada has at least two), so they can’t see the creeping similarities. (Thanks for that, Mr. Prime Minister!)

But I digress. Here’s the point that sparked this little diatribe:  How much harm is being done to the public weal by the current venom of American politics?
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Another example of our mental complexity

Last time, I wrote about the incredible complexity of the human brain — and of the mind that it creates. Here’s another example, but the point I take from this one is more squarely focused on the idea that what we like to call “free will” and “choice” are more elusive — more illusory? — than we often care to think.

What would it be like never to feel fear? There are people who don’t. Not very many of them, but still.

In “The curious lives of the people who feel no fear” (March 2013), another pay-walled article in New Scientist, Christie Aschwanden relates the story of a woman known as “SM,” a woman who has no fear of snakes, heights, or anything else. The direct reason is that she has no amygdala.

“SM” has the extremely rare condition known as Urbach-Wiethe disease, an ailment that in her case destroyed the amygdala structures in both hemispheres of her brain.

The general understanding of the amygdala is that it is the seat of our most primitive, primary emotions: fear, surprise, fight or flight. Without this anatomical structure, there is no fear, no surprise, no flight.

It’s interesting in its own right, the thought that our reactions to things that terrify and go bump in the night are generated by a specific and primitive part of the brain.

But more interesting to me is how the case of SM reinforces the ever-more evident reality that much, no, most, of what “I” feel and do goes on without much input or control from whatever it is that “I” am. Perhaps without any.
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The compelling complexity of the mind

I’ve been accessing online courses for a while now. I like that I can learn as much or as little as I wish about any subject out there, with no mandatory tests, essays, or lab reports. And without any direct cost.

The most recent course that I’ve been following is “Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life,” by Dr. Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago. This is not the place to go to find sophisticated presentation or innovative instructional methodology, but there sure is a lot of detail.

So much detail, in fact, that I come away from each session with two fundamental thoughts. First, we sure are a smart bunch of primates to be able to figure out all of this stuff. Second, the brain — and the mind it creates — is one damned complicated place.
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Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.

 

Big Data, or Big Brother?

I don’t know what you think of the recent revelations about the extreme-seeming scope of the U. S. anti-terror people’s telephone data collection. I’m of two minds, which is an uncomfortable position at the best of times.

It seems that “impending real attacks” have been thwarted by the surveillance. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? But do we really need to let the government into every detail of our lives? I say “our” even though I’m in Canada, for I have no illusions that Stephen Harper has ever hesitated to share and share alike with the Americans. He’s a natural control freak in the first place, and a sycophantic neighbour into the bargain.

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Do we misunderstand our selves?

In a recent series of articles, New Scientist magazine explored what their lead article called “The Great Illusion of the Self.”

The article gave more space to why we don’t know much of anything about our selves than to what we do know, or think that we know, for “While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.”

According to the article, we are sure of three things about our selves. We are continuous. We are unified. And we are agents.

“All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be” ; yet “as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.”

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New evidence that the self is a mental construct

What does it say about the reality of the outside world if we can be fooled even about the state and composition of parts of our own bodies? And what does it say about the reality of our sense of self if we can’t trust our senses even when they report our apparent body states?

More evidence that the world, including us, is a construct, a mental representation of an otherwise un-experienced world “out there,” crops up in reports of a new study that fools subjects into believing that they have a phantom limb.
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Challenging anthropomorphic physics

Everyone in the social sciences is now aware of the “WEIRD problem,” the built-in sampling bias that permeates the vast majority of psychological studies, the subjects of which are overwhelmingly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

Are the physical sciences also biased? In particular, is the way we typically explain the physics of the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic, with the assumption from Newton to the present that the universe functions the same way that our minds function?

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Falling off the cliff on purpose is dangerous for both Republicans and Democrats

Here I am in California, for another few hours anyway. I’m reading the newspapers, watching the news on TV, and listening and talking to real people. Everyone is paying attention to the Fiscal Cliff dramatics, but with less intensity than you might expect, given the hype about how dire the consequences will be if no deal is struck before midnight rings in 2013 in a couple of days. It seems that no one is really engaged; no one is really expecting much.

One thing that I’m noticing is the nearly universal pessimism, not to mention cynicism, that people down here express whenever the subject turns to the dysfunctional U. S. federal government. No one expects a comprehensive deal, and few hold any hope that the likely deal, to extend the middle class tax cuts and the extra unemployment benefits, will do anything more than yet again defer any comprehensive agreement.

And no one here is expressing faith in the legislators, who will, as they always do, calculate their fiscal principles in the currency of their chances for re-election. Continue reading