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The Incredible Shrinking Mind

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Within the last few decades a dizzying array of scientific disciplines and "explanations" of the motivating forces behind the profound enigmas of human behaviour have emerged: sociobiology, cognitive psychology, game theory, experimental psychology, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, "existential" neurology, social psychology, genetics, and other attempts at interdisciplinary thinking. Each, according to its own reductive approach, strives to separate, isolate, examine in laboratories and through experiments extracted from real-life experience, and thereby "understand" the most complex aspects of being human - including our subjectivity; morality and altruism; our economic survival and our irrational biases that affect it; our innate need for religion and wonder; and the cross-cultural stalwart, humour.But as Gerald Alper argues in his exciting and challenging new work, this sort of contemporary balkanization of the human mind actually achieves the opposite of its purpose. Rather than unraveling and illuminating the Ur source of a particular behaviour or mindset, it merely shrinks the richly threaded tapestry to a single frayed thread dissevered and abstractly disconnected from the everyday experiential realities of human existence.Examining the assertions and fallacies of the theories conceived (or contrived) by some of today's most brilliant scientists and thinkers (including Dan Ariely, John Barrow, Pascal Boyer, Frank Close, Nicholas Humphrey, Richard Dawkins, Stanley Milgram, Oliver Sacks, and Carl Sagan), Alper explores why these varied attempts at joining the world of experience and the world of measurement so regularly fail, how consciousness explained is really a concentrated effort to explain away the subjective phenomena of consciousness.From the psychic rat to the gorilla in the room, from British double-agent Kim Philby to comedian Steve Martin, The Incredible Shrinking Mind not only offers a provocative and entertaining critique, but also a profound and practical solution: the psychodynamic approach, which takes seriously the question of meaning and not solely observable behaviour, which combines the quantitative and the experimental with the human and multidimensional, which seeks to understand not just how but why. No single equation, no theory, no dazzling fMRI image of the hidden brain can ever accomplish this for us. It must be patiently done, one person at a time.

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Chapter One: The Psychic Rat

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This is the creature that has burrowed its way into the minds of patients, that can haunt their dreams, that can induce an almost instant trauma if it turns up unexpectedly in places where it is least wanted. To native New Yorkers, who increasingly find themselves infested with rodents, it may be the most alien life form of all. As a therapist, therefore, over the years I have listened, had to listen, to patients' hair-raising accounts of discovering, disposing of and sometimes finishing off trapped but not yet dead rats.

Here is Marshall on being woken in the dead of night by his wife's screams:

Maggie had gone into the kitchen because she thought she heard some kind of rustling noise. It seemed to be coming from a sewing basket she keeps on the counter so she lifted the lid. Right there on the bottom was a large, grey rat.

Marshall, a big and burly cabinet maker, pauses and makes a queasy face:

So I went into the kitchen, and didn't hear anything. I put the lid back on the basket, picked up the basket and carried it out of the house. Two blocks away, I deposited it on the curb and left if there.

 

Chapter Two: If you could Save the Entire Human Race from Perishing by Strangling to Death One Innocent Child…

ePub

It was a question no less paradoxical today than when I was a starry-eyed NYU undergraduate majoring in philosophy. The course was ethics, the teacher the late Paul Edwards, and I can still picture the mixture of gravitas and dialectical relish with which he had framed our dilemma. No less earnest than our mentor, we struggled as a class with the impossible question until it dawned on us there was no right answer. It was wrong, of course, to let the human race die; it was more than wrong, it was unthinkable, to strangle to death an innocent child, and perhaps most despicable of all was the one who copped out, who dodged his or her sacred responsibility to make a crucial life-and-death decision by simply refusing to choose.

But to choose, I would passionately argue with myself, was tantamount to playing God, and that had to be immoral. I was not copping out, I was simply listening to the inner voice of my own individual conscience, something that transcended social responsibility. I was making an existential decision that only I could make for myself. I was dealing with a situation that could not possibly occur in real life. After all, there are certain questions, Paul Edwards himself had once told us, that only came up in philosophy classes and this, I decided, was one of them.

 

Chapter Three: Homo Economicus

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Trust, above all things, was what Charlotte valued. It was what had kept her for over twenty years at the small Manhattan publishing firm that had hired her soon after she had graduated from City College. She trusted, in spite of the dismal rate of pay, that they truly believed she had the makings of a first-rate fiction editor. It was trust that was the indispensable glue for any durable, authentic relationship, and it was exactly the missing ingredient that explained the ultimate failure of her first marriage. It was what had emboldened her, only a week after she had opened up her first savings account, and against all her normal cautionary instincts, to invest in Pax World. After all, she had proudly told me, thirty-seven years ago this had been the first company to introduce socially responsible mutual friends in the United States. And for nearly twenty years, Pax World had repaid her trust, slowly but inexorably, seemingly managing itself, more reliable and trustworthy than any single person she had ever known.

 

Chapter Four: One on One with God

ePub

As Duane would tell it to me:

I was sitting in the front row when Mailer came in, and I was surprised by how old he looked. While he was being introduced, for some reason, he started to stare at me. I had no idea why. It made me very uncomfortable. I would've walked out, but it would have been embarrassing.

He gave a pretty good talk on literature and at the end I asked him a question about the Deer Park. That interested him, and looking straight at me, he gave a long, thoughtful answer.

Why would anyone, I wondered, much less Norman Mailer, need to bully Duane—a wool-gathering graduate student who never had been involved in a fist fight in his life—who was an aspiring composer closing in on a doctorate in music at Yale and who had nothing but youthful reverence for the brilliant iconoclast? Was it just one more instance of what the writer himself was fond of referring to as “my combative ego”?

It had been the first thing I thought of when I learned that Norman Mailer had died. Maybe because I couldn't believe such a dynamic, larger-than-life figure, who had been more like a force, a Zeitgeist incarnate, had been permanently silenced. Famous at twenty-five, he had been part of our national consciousness for over fifty years. He had boasted, in Advertisements for Myself, of “hitting the longest homerun”—in regards to someone finally writing the Great American Novel—that anyone had ever seen. And from the very first time I had encountered Normal Mailer in a television interview, nearly forty years ago, he had struck me as the most articulate intellectual I had ever seen. Even more, he had seemed for a writer the most naturally talented amateur philosopher I had come across.

 

Chapter Five: Sound Bites from the Cosmos

ePub

To travel from the world in which we live to the realm of high-tech, cutting-edge neuroscience can seem, as I have said, like entering a parallel universe. This book has been about why attempts to join these two universes—the world of experience and the world of measurement—so regularly fail. A central theme has been that psychologists, overly zealous in their quest to impose an idealised experimental control, have unwittingly created an artificial dichotomy that can distort as much as it reveals. Much of the book has been one long argument showing that what social scientists claim to have discovered in their laboratories and with their fMRI machines simply does not do justice to the ever-changing complexities of real life, especially as revealed to the psychodynamically attuned clinician.

In this final chapter, I offer a few examples that personify this conflict and, not incidentally, inspired me to write a book about it.

Robert Provine is an experimental psychologist who in 2000 devoted an entire book, Laughter, to a disarmingly simple proposition: that most of what passes for humour in everyday social situations is not funny. To prove his hypothesis, Provine recorded countless chance encounters of people waiting at train stations, standing in lines, gathering at the water cooler in offices, milling about in classrooms, cafeterias, and city streets. After exhaustively tabulating and analysing his results, Provine decided that less than fifteen per cent could possibly be judged as “humorous”. Many of the exchanges typically eliciting a chuckle or laugh were of the form, “Well, off I go…”, “I'll see you later…”, “I know I should not do this, but I probably will…”. Provine was forced to conclude: humour, at bottom, is an interaction-bonding mechanism, a “social phenomena”, and its evolutionary purpose is to relax people in order to facilitate group dynamics.

 

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