Things that keep us from thinking clearly

Firstly, fear.  There are at least two ways that fear keeps us from thinking clearly.  When we’re afraid, our brain exists in a ‘flight, fright, or freeze’ state.  That we can think at all in that state is extraordinary and commendable.  Unfortunately, chronic fear can limit the breadth of our thought.

Additionally, we are sometimes afraid of the ‘thought-crime’ of thinking certain thoughts, which often results in either obsession with not thinking that thought, failure to explore that thought and find out that it’s really not a thought-crime (and that perhaps the opposite is) – or both.

Next there is anxiety and stress.  This has a similar affect to fear in shutting down access to parts of the brain.  Ever left the house in a rush only to realise that you’ve forgotten some essential item?  Or worse, been in such a hurry that you’ve accidentally hurt yourself picking up a hot skillet or tripping in the street?  I generally find that slowing down and doing one step at a time actually helps me complete a task more accurately and quickly, because I don’t make a mistake and have to repeat the action.

Then there is hope.  We want something to happen or be so badly that we ignore signs to the contrary.  Our eyes pick out the evidence that we hope for and convinces us that things will turn out the way we dream of.

Then there’s language.  The words we use come with all sorts of connotations.  Sometimes it’s the connotation of badness or goodness.  Other times it’s the implication of connections between different ideas.  Words like ‘money’, ‘company’, and ‘war’ all come with associated ideas that keep us from thinking about their essence.

When we know what can keep us from thinking clearly, we can take steps to lessen the role of those things in our life.  It’s also instructional in our interactions with others.

If you encounter someone who doesn’t think clearly, confronting them in a way that may increase fear, anxiety, or stress will be counter-productive.  On the other hand, if you help alleviate their fears, relieve their stress, and remove the source of their anxiety, they’ll start thinking more clearly, seeing the big picture, and making better decisions.

What do dinosaurs and Greek statues have in common?

It turns out that birds are avian dinosaurs.  They belong to the group of dinosaurs called theropods.  They’re not ‘evolved from dinosaurs’, they are dinosaurs, because biologically, they aren’t different enough to be something else.

Many other dinosaurs also had feathers.  The first feathers were not for flight, they were for warmth, intimidation, and communication.

It also turns out that ancient and classical Greek statues weren’t white.  Their clothes were painted with bright patterns and their hair, skin, and even eyes were painted in bold, natural colours.  Greek buildings weren’t white either.  The reliefs were painted, the columns were painted in contrasting colours, even the ceilings were painted – with patterns.

The reason you don’t see this in the museums is because until relatively recently, the paint remains used to be scrubbed off the statues.   If you visit the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, you can see a variety of newer finds that haven’t been scrubbed.

What these two facts have in common is that they both challenge an idea we held as a culture, about the world.  And it can be challenging to accept the new idea, simply because the old idea has become important to us.  We’re used to looking for the missing link between dinosaurs and birds, wearing white togas, and thinking a lot of U.S. government buildings look a lot like ancient Greek architecture.

I love these kinds of facts for exactly this reason: they stretch the mind.  Thinking about things in a new way keeps the mind flexible and ready to learn and discover more.

Every time I see a bird now I look at it and think, ‘that’s an avian dinosaur, a theropod’ and try to wrap my head around it.  I find this quite fun and generally try to engage the person I’m with in the exercise.  I hope my friends don’t find this annoying.

My office has in the lobby a replica of a ruined Greek statue, head and arms missing, paint faded.  There is a place for such things.  But why don’t we ever see replicas of what those statues would have looked like new, paint and all?  I’d like to see some of those.  My guess is they were coloured with the same expert artisanship with which they were carved.

I’d like to invite you to share with me more ideas that stretch the mind, in the comments section here.

Why I Don’t Like the Carrot and Stick (Being Teachings about Heaven and Hell)

Today, black tea in the hopes of waking up enough to finish packing before the movers get here.

There are people who will do the right thing even when there is no extrinsic reason for them to do so.  To some people this sounds obvious – to others it comes as a surprise.

It came to me as a surprise.  I was raised to believe that people only acted based on extrinsic motivation.  That was why you shouldn’t trust people who weren’t Christians.  Without “love for God” pulling them and fear of hell burning behind them, they’d rape, lie, cheat, and steal whenever no one was looking.  After all, we are all born with a fallen sin nature which is totally and completely corrupt and we would all do every possible thing wrong if we had not been saved by the grace of God and had our sin nature replaced by God’s grace.

It came as a surprise to me when people who didn’t believe in God or hell could have hurt me and gotten away with it, but didn’t.  It came as a surprise to me when I experienced random acts of altruism from atheists.  And that was how I learned the very important fact that some people don’t need the carrot and the stick to do the right thing, or go beyond it.

And at that point, this aspect of some religious teaching began to bother me.  I don’t see the ethics of convincing twelve year old girls that they would be sleeping around, taking drugs irresponsibly, and shoplifting if they had not, by God’s grace, been a part of that church.  It certainly isn’t true and it doesn’t give them an accurate and useful understanding of themselves and others.

I also have a problem with the presentation of the carrot and the stick.  Perhaps in some religious systems, the carrot and stick kick in only for those psychopathic personalities that need it in order to behave at all ethically.  But when you terrify normal, decent people into stopping to trust their instincts towards ethical action (because “the heart is deceitful and wicked above all things – who can know it?” – all our natural inclinations are towards ‘evil’) and replace their natural moral compass with the carrot and stick, you create a situation where a person can be ethically manipulated by moving the carrot and the stick.

When you have people who can be ethically manipulated by moving the carrot and the stick, you get carrot and stick holders (priests, respected ethical teachers, etc) overriding natural ethical boundaries with what God ‘really’ wants.

So you’ve taken psychically normal individuals (those born without psychopathology), people who have an internal moral compass, and gotten them to act like psychopaths, that is, to base action on extrinsic rewards.  Only 4% of American are psychopaths, but far more than 4% act based on extrinsic rewards (being heaven and hell).   Some people who have full capacity for internally guided ethical action are instead lying, deceiving, even killing (terrorism) because of carrot and stick manipulation.

Many people think carrot and stick motivation is good – but it’s only when they get to say where the carrot and stick get placed.  Problem is, once you detach someone from their moral compass and attach them to the carrot and the stick, you don’t necessarily get to decide how the carrot and stick are used on them.  You’ve just made them easy to control, and what happens when they aren’t controlled by you?

Does Altruism Exist?

Today I need to wash and sell my car (light blue 2008 Toyota Yaris with 40,000 miles, anyone?), get an official copy of my birth certificate, and finish packing for the movers coming tomorrow, among other things, so I don’t really have time to make a blog post or sit down with a cup of tea.  But I think that’s part of the experiment of this tea blog: write daily, even when there doesn’t seem to be time.

The tea box said Tension Tamer.  It’s nice, a little minty.

I want to start writing about altruism today.  I don’t know if I’ll finish the post today or if I’ll have to go on tomorrow.

One morning a few weeks ago I was walking from my friend’s house to the train station in York, suit cases in tow.  A lady in her front yard stopped me.  She told me about a new short cut to the train station that would cut five or so minutes from my journey.  I thanked her and went on.  (And took the short cut.)

This lady did not receive anything from me by helping me.  I was clearly leaving – she would not see me again and helping me would not raise her profile in the community.  Yet some people would tell me her action was not altruistic.  They’d point out that helping me made her feel good, so it was a selfish act.  Then they would smile smugly as if what they’ve just said matters and haven’t they stumped me now with their brilliant analysis of how altruism does not exist.

In reality, the fact that helping me made her feel good is a very important point.  There is every difference in the world between a selfish consequence that depends on a quid pro quo (esteem in the community, monetary renumeration, the expectation that others will treat you well in return, etc.) and a selfish consequence which is intrinsic satisfaction with the act itself.  Helping someone for the joy of helping someone is like having a cup of tea for the joy of a cup of tea or a massage for the enjoyment of the massage – or even painting because you like to paint or programming for the joy of programming.  It’s different from going to your job because you want a pay check or bringing your neighbour cookies because you need to build a relationship with them so that someday they’ll buy a house from you (yes, some sales theory rubs me the wrong way).

Why does this matter?  When we talk about ethics we’re faced with the questions of why people behave ethically and why people help each other.   Some argue that people help each other only because they want something out of it.  But intrinsic satisfaction with ethical behaviour or  with altruism doesn’t count as a quid pro quo.

A psychopath is someone who doesn’t receive intrinsic satisfaction from helping others or behaving ethically.  All of his actions are calculated towards achieving what’s in his best interests.  But we are not all psychopaths.  In fact, by some calculations only 4% of the world’s population are psychopaths (and since this is a tea blog I don’t have to find the reference for you).

The other 96% of us are different because we feel good when we help someone or treat them well (or bad when we don’t).  We do it not because we want anything from them or from society.  We do it because of an arational emotional reward (or punishment) in the brain.

So is there merit to altruistic behaviour if we receive an emotional reward for it?  Who cares?  What is important is that some – most – people behave ethically and altruistically without need for structures of external punishment and reward.

I’ve finished the tea, but I hope to follow this up with some reflections on the religious implications of what I’ve said here.

Touch and Misinformation

A few weeks ago there was a heated discussion on my facebook profile.  I’d posted an article about pick up artists (PUAs) – specifically, about reasons not to buy into ‘the game’ – and a number of men posted to say that there are some good things about the book.  It made them less socially awkward and aware of the way that touch escalates in a beginning relationship, making their dating lives more successful.

I believe the advice given by ‘the game’ on escalating touch is to start with less intimate forms of touch and, over time, escalate to more intimate forms of touch.  This is supposed to make the touch feel natural and the woman feel more comfortable with you.

I’m not sure how most women feel about this kind of touch.  PUAs find that it ‘works’ enough of the time to be worth repeating.  But what does ‘works’ mean for the woman?  Does she actually feel more intimate, or does the continual pushing towards physical intimacy awaken cultural conditioning to submission?  I’m tempted to go with the latter.  I’m tempted to say, ‘men, be careful, you may be stimulating submission rather than desire’.

But it doesn’t ‘work’ on every woman.  For those of us who find it a turn off or a sign of further creepy things to come, it can be the reason the gentleman doesn’t hear from us again.  Men following this pattern of touch may scare away some of the most psychologically balanced prospects, so I think it’s fair to call this aspect of ‘the game’ misinformation that can sometimes backfire on a man.  (And if he achieves submission rather than desire in other women, again it’s a case of misinformation.)

I have to agree with Game proponents that there is a progression of touch.  But I’d like to propose that that progression must take place reciprocally rather than unilaterally if you’re interested in developing a mutual relationship.  If he ‘accidentally’ bumps into her, let her ‘accidentally’ bump into him, or if he touches his arm, wait until she touches his, before he progresses to the next level on the touch hierarchy.

In this way you ensure that the touch is mutually desired,  non-submissive (she’s actively moving things forward with you), and non-creepy (you won’t scare away the same girls).  On the other hand, it’s possible that things won’t move forward as quickly or at all because she won’t touch you back.  You may regret things not moving forward, but comfort yourself with the reminder that she wasn’t ready for things to progress, or doesn’t want them to progress – in which case, it’s a good thing that you didn’t move forward.

That was 18 minutes, no second guessing.  Pushing publish.

An Experiment

The purpose of this blog is to practice writing quickly, without censorship, and daily.  I intend to do this through means of a cup of tea.  That is, every morning I will make myself a cup of tea, start typing, and press publish after I swallow the last sip of tea.