Tag Archives: Psychology

Smurf-intensity

If you talk about economic goals, people say “hmm…” and nod gravely. They perfectly know what you mean. The ideal of earning money, usually the kind of which we are all victims. But if you think about it for a moment, economic goals can (and should) be far more complex than that. Are we talking about long-term goals? Selfish economic goals or the more sustainable kind? Goals that support economic growth, or goals that support economic stability? With the possible exception of economists, people generally don’t quickly ask such questions. That it because the word economy has quite a high smurf-intensity: its definition is unclear, and yet people understand each other when they use it.

Smurfs can smurf smurfs and smurf exactly what other smurf smurfs. This is part of their smurf, because they are used to using the word smurf all the time and look deeper into its meaning. We humans are not smurfs, or at least we don’t seem to be, but have a certain capacity to do the same. The problem for us is, that the meaning of a word with a high smurf-intensity depends on the subculture we find ourselves in.

The word ‘love’ has a cosmic smurf-intensity. It’s a word everyone has a strong connection to, and everyone has a personal definition for. One calls it partnership, the other friendship, another calls it passion, someone else thinks of it as community and yet one more describes it as a divine rush. But if we talk about love, people generally don’t feel a strong need to truly define the word. There is a silent mutual acceptance of the differences in understanding, and the impossibility to pin it down.

Words that are slightly less smurf-intense have this silent agreement only within specific communities. At the same time, they bind and define the community in which they are used. Take the word “energy”. That’s a great adhesive for the New Age communities. A sentence like “this place has great energy”, says something about a place, but it also sets the identity of the person who uses the word. This is a person who explicitly understands the world in flows and vibrations. Subtly using the word energy in this sentence affirms this person is  part of this culture. Only people from within that community truly get the sentence.

People from outside such communities are often quickly annoyed, precisely by smurf intense words and precisely because of that high smurf intensity. The words God and Allah are good examples. Many people spend much effort attempting to dismantle them. They do so in the name of truth, but miss out on the bigger picture: the community they would tear apart if they were to succeed. This also highlights another property of smurf intense words: within the community they have immunity to the kind of criticism that threatens its understanding as existing beyond the imagination. This means that being overly critical on smurf-intense words typically excludes you from the community in which it is smurfed.

Pointing at a word’s smurf intensity during a debate is an effective technique to divert an argument. As an example, you could answer the statement: “It really is becoming time that humans protect nature.” with “well, humans are part of nature”. The second speaker has broadened the definition of nature, and the first speaker now has to spend effort finding more precise wording. By that, speaker one loses terrain in the battle. A typical weakness of using smurf intense words.

The use of smurf-intense words can also distinguish the expert from the amateur. Biologists among themselves would never speak of ‘biological’ phenomena, because that’s far to broad. They would specify if they are speaking about cellular processes, animal physiology or ecology, for example. At the same time, a sentence such as, ‘well that’s just my biology’ is meaningful among all other people. In this case, avoidance of a word with a high smurf intensity may indicate above average knowledge on the meaning of the word.

Smurf intense words are the big fish of the verbal sphere. Using them successfully helps you speak to a broad public. At the same time, you risk being misunderstood because of the innumerable interpretations it causes. But every word has a certain smurf intensity. Being aware of the smurf intensity of a word can help you take a distance  from it, and worry less about its roots in reality. This way, you can take a look and appreciate that high smurf intensity can be a cozy and innocent thing.

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Slippery Ice

The war is on.
They have taken Brussels.

Isn´t that a thrilling opening of a text on a contemporary issue? I think so.

I remember screaming “No War in my Name!” on a massive march of the Luxembourg city schools towards the American embassy, back in 2003. The Bush government had just played the Saddam Houssain card, after ‘Al Qaeda’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’ had failed to convince the European leaders to join the war on terrorism. I had to pass by the nurse to get a throat pastil the next day. And it worked: France and Luxembourg didn’t join. England did. Houssain was, after all, a badass motherfucker, and he had to be burned out of his hole.

After my first long hitchhiking trip in summer 2004, I was waiting for my train back home in the Gare du Nord in Paris. France had by then let itself be persuaded to join the fights in Afghanistan. The speakers called upon the owner of an abandoned backpack, ordaining to come and pick it up. It repeated the call after a minute. Two minutes more and a special police unit entered the station. They cleared the area with red-white ribbon, and blew up the backpack. I laughed out loud. Earlier that month a driver had told me that some tourists had lost their passports in such an explosion. Precautionary measures after an earlier attack somewhere around.

It’s 2015 now. Europe is still bombing North Africa, and a small group of marginalized Arabs is still giving their lives to end it. Meanwhile, some say that Europe cracks by the thirst for power of old rivals, new members and the descendents of the ancient philosophers of our civilization. Refugees couldn’t cause the closing of the borders, but now, a handful of delinquents can. As if someone wanted this to happen.

I think fear is an excuse. Something people hold up in order to justify their thrill. The events in Paris and their out-of-proportion political response have kept the continent occupied for over a week. Code four in Brussels is the first news topic of all European newspapers. Second, third and fourth remain info on the victims, witness reports and head hunts… We can follow the latest events on live blogs and join the discussion on whether we should keep having fun or start taking terrorism seriously.

The constant becalming of our desires has numbed us. We have been able to buy off our troubles, put a stamp on them, and send them to countries all over the world. Our lives have become boring, so we seek excitement. We click and scroll, compelled by sensation that both hides as well as reveals a bloody debt of Western society at large. It is not about the victims, it never was, we are merely consuming the latest adventure, following the same brainless urge these terrorists feebly attempted to wake us from. Meanwhile, our leaders, perhaps driven by a similar thrills, temporarily pass through a number of police state measures, silently acquainting the mass with a new, safe societal equilibrium. It never hurt to show some strength.

We have lived a youth where war on our grounds seemed impossible. I’m starting to doubt it now. Not because of some angry Arabs, but because of the eagerness with which my people seem to see it happen. Or maybe that´s my thrill. I wish I could still say this war wasn´t in my name.

Education

People sometimes use the word education when in fact they mean brainwashing. I’m quite sure that most people who do that are not aware of the fact that they do so because they have been brainwashed themselves.

An example: “We should put more funding in education of African countries so that they can build a democracy from the bottom up”. Great idea, but how would this look in practice? Money would go to certain organizations, monitored by their funders according to Western standards. They would employ people to build education programs, benchmarked along Western thought, then train people to teach the deep truths that stand at the base our beautiful democracy, powered solely by light and guided by the highest ethics. Then, at the end, of course, they are checked for optimal performance.

Such structures provided by nation states are often seen as education. Mandatory programs, packages of concepts, knowledge that is transferred and tested, ranking the students into their overseeable life paths, may lift society to a different standard, but they are only a limited part, a controllable bit, of a collective learning process that could also be tuned to enlivening, respect and curiosity-driven exploration of whatever it is that the human mind is eager to find out. I would say real education starts at the point where teacher and student receive the space and the freedom to show each other their views on reality in all its colours.

Transmission of knowledge is important, but we should honour the pathway through which this occurs. That pathway would in my view be called mutual trust. The possibility that another might see something out there which you don’t, not because he or she is more or less capable or suitable to see it, but merely because that other stands on a different position. Exams and profiles undermine such trust.

To translate this back to the omnipotent West, perhaps indeed, there was a time when our long fought for ideals made sense and empowered society at large. But these ideals are starting to take the form of dogmas, heritage we should protect and keep in place with tighter rules and regulations. Our knowledge is growing old, expiring, starting to fail us and begging for fresh inputs from the same societies we have kept in the enlightened dark for centuries.

And yet more importantly, I think we should all allow our inner wise guys to sometimes shut up and listen to the voice of the weak and silent for a change. The fact that we still understand education in a top-down way, taking all these quality checks for granted, shows us a whole lot about our status quos. If only we could see that in the mirror…

Fear Spiders

If I dream about fear, my own fear, it is often embodied by a poisonous spider. The spider in my dream frightens me especially on moments when I cannot see it.

In real life, spiders only scare me if they are larger than my hand and faster than my arm. In dreams they emotionally disrupt me. They often co-occur with the collapse of my house. In a recent episode, there are giant moths involved, about 30 cm long, which have been eating the foundations of a wooden top floor. They live symbiotically with a black widow in her nest made of half composted, tar-smeared branches. The spider is hiding somewhere deep inside, behind the eating larvae which quickly evolve and fly off. I know I will encounter it when I clean up this nest. And it won’t be happy.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who, albeit below the surface, has a fear for spiders. I do wonder what causes that because honestly, they’re not that dangerous. Only a few exceptional specimens could kill you, but you’ll have plenty of time to find the antidote. It would make far more sense to dream about poisonous snakes or about an aircrash or a bulldozer falling un top of me, because those events are far more threatening. Why the spider?

A spider is generally blackish and has eight legs with which it runs rapidly and with a very light tread. More often, it sits still, hiding in a dark corner, or somewhere on its self-built sticky and artistic web. Most spiders have beautiful patterns on their back which deserve a better look. They are hunters. Top of the food chain. Prevent the blood from clotting, then suck their victims dry. To humans mostly harmless.

My mom and sister used to panic when there was a wolf spider in the house. Motioning after them, I did too. As the man of the house, I had to gradually learn that the easiest way to get a spider out of the bathtub, is to let it walk onto your arm, get outside and push it off the place of your body were it felt comfortable to stay. A spider is most scary when it runs, because we don’t know where it is going. The aspect of the unknown. I think her sudden speed also reflects the suddenness with which our fears present themselves to us.

Do spiders in my dream reflect my mothers fears from when I was a kid? The explanation is interesting in combination with the collapse of my house. The loss of control over my limited, constructed understanding of myself and reality. Is this fear culturally inherited? Is it psychologically entangled with the cognitive challenges of our childhood?

There’s another hypothesis I’d like to propose; one of more mystical nature. It’s connected to the number eight. The sacred geometry of it. In semi-dream mode I sometimes have visions of octangular, tunnel-like structures that seem to be a passageway to a certain insight or to my subconscious. The vision sometimes evolves into spider shapes, and even into highly detailed images of spiders with nice, colourful back patterns and fangs. It seems meaningful sometimes, as if these spiders have something to do with the access to my subconscious. Hiding in the dark, unknown corners of my mind.

The spider. A small, powerful entity that makes our imagination go wild. One day, she’ll trap the bug that ate from my corpse.

Social media do not a prison make, nor avatars a cage

The demonization of social media is a trend on social media. Social technology causes isolation, leads to blind consumption and causes blood and explosions. People have coined terms like iDisorder and mobilegeddon, and some even blame global environmental issues on the blind indulgence in cyber illusions. We have witnessed a collective behavioural shift and are shouting that out to the world.

I was in my adolescence during the coming of mobile phone age. Some of my classmates had mobile phones, others did not. I personally was against it. Imagine. We had that option back then. Nonetheless, I remember having a conversation with one of my teachers, where I told him that I thought it would be easier to date girlfriends with a phone than without. You could just ask their number, send them a text and go out. The thought seemed to surprise him.

Of course, there aren’t many things more annoying than people checking their phone all the time when you’re having diner, or strangers who bump into you on the street because they are not looking (this happened to me). And if it’s yourself, yes, it’s exhausting to deal with having countless pages open twenty-four seven. But I believe that’s a phase. There are barriers to overcome, and yes, that needs effort. We are forced to learn to deal with this increasing pressure of information. We need to jointly establish proper codes of smartphone conduct. We need to master our new gift.

One field of this debate where I fundamentally disagree with the main stream is on the question: is digital contact less real than physical contact? Many suggest that it is. Consider this: whose face do you see when you look at someone’s face? Does the air blur your sight? Do your eyes change their shape? If you touch? What more is it, really, than a stream of electricity from brain to brain? People say social media distract us from reality, but physical appearances equally do. Don’t we like beautiful young women more than ugly old ones? Aren’t we more likely to believe deeper voices than higher ones? People wear masks in real life, which they sometimes release on the net. It might sometimes be easier to have real contact with people on the web, because distractions there have different shapes.

I perceive it almost as my duty as a writer to state that sometimes, a carefull selection of words in a text can be more physically stimulating than a kiss. What I want to say is that real contact is not dependent on physical circumstances, real contact is a joint choice. It’s about the attention you give.

The power of social media and smartphones is not that it provides us with illusions. The illusions were already there. The power of social technology is that it actually facilitates a type of getting to know each other that did not exist before. It enables us to be continuously in touch with a large number of real, existing friends. It allows us to keep building on lasting relationships all over the world. Today, that statement may not surprise you, but if you think about it, that truly is magical.

The Dark Side of Stories

One of the main current marketing trends I perceive is storytelling. Whether they are visual or written, whether the target group are everyday people, economists or permaculturalists, many influential players have backed from numbers and cold facts, but provide something to believe in. And who wouldn’t, if you can ask double the price for a piece of chocolate with a picture of a happy farmer on it, than for the same piece without picture.

Stories speak to the imagination. They lift us, carry us, and drop us on a different place. Marketeers understand quite well that emotional release triggers the willingness for a financial release. They are parallel things. It works in the same way as the hot girl next to a car, which makes a guy want to show off and buy it. Marketeers know, better than ourselves, how to trigger us. And so they take over the role of journalists. Controlling our minds by shaping our realities.

At this point, I should ask myself: what am I doing? Am I writing a story to convince you that you should not believe in stories? Is this where I make it personal, just to draw you even deeper into my own little fear of being manipulated so that you will buy my constant disagreement with society and make it your own? The answer is yes. But let’s move on to Freud and Jung. I feel they can bring back some general credibility.

The way I understand the disagreement between Freud and Jung, is that Freud thought Jung’s worldview was a story in his head. He did not support Jung’s tendency to guide people into the belief of a supernatural world of synchronicity, explaining experiences as going beyond the limits of the individual existence. According to Freud, Jung cured people by showing them the error of their own beliefs, then making them believe in his own. He deemed this ethically wrong. Jung, on the other hand, believed that Freud did not engage his clients to develop their full potential of personal transcendence. Both of them were great psychiatrists.

Stories connect separate events into a coherent whole. One cannot show the entire series of events, just that small selection that happens to be remembered. Or chosen strategically. All stories are lies, yet they inspire us with a sense of looking at a bigger whole. As if we grasp reality better through the stories we believe about it. A piece of chocolate is not just a piece of chocolate and a car is more than a car. We buy them, and are happy that way.

I could use a coke…

Programmed soul

I recently had a conversation with a webdesigner about The Grid. The Grid is a website builder that uses ‘Artificial Intelligence’ to design websites according to the demands of the user and makes it look attractive. It will launch soon, and I’m considering to try it out. My conversation partner told me he believed human minds will always be necessary for this kind of thing. I replied that I wasn’t sure. One of the most striking films I recently saw on this topic was Her. In it, a program and a human become friends. I don’t want to spoil too much, but at some point the AI composes a jolly song. It’s fiction of course, but the story is self-explanatory and makes it credible. I bet it’s not the first time you hear that Artificial Intelligence is rising and taking over our jobs or even our lives, but have you ever really believed it? I’m starting to. If you would have asked a person before the war if a computer would ever be able to beat a human in chess, the answer would have been “No!”. Today, computers beat all champions. You could argue that chess is limited to the board and the predictable movements of the pieces, and therefore easy to calculate. Then, you could say that thoughts and words are unlimited, and that their sounds and meanings are too subtle for a computer to get, let alone to create with it. My answer would be: maybe. It might depend on how you program the AI. Let me take writing as an example. I’m not a grandmaster, but I’ve been doing it for a while now. A big part of it is technical: you attract attention with a title, build a structure of intro, middle and end, and try to choose your words such that they mean something. Build in some contrasts, break some grammatical rules. I don’t think people would disagree that the technical part is easy to learn for Artificial Intelligence. It’s the lived aspect that is harder. The part where emotions come in. Where meaning comes in. Where the sounds of the words dance around in your head. Where senses are triggered. The rhythm. Knowing what works and what doesn’t. Re-reading. Disagreeing with yourself. Making impossible choices. Creating symbols and metaphors. And yet when the text is done, there was only so much that a writer could do: the rest is what the reader creates for herself. If google can learn to recognize voices, can’t there also be a recognition of emotions in the tone of the voice? It’s all sounds, no? If facial recognition is possible, aren’t facial expressions the next step? With the increasing sensorial finesse of AI based systems, it could well be a matter of time before AI can discern a good wine from a bad one. Or a good story from a bad one. Give it control over the story, and it might improve it. I think another crucial thing to program is hunger. The insaturable need to take up information. To learn. The program should have limits, which force it to create. Digest, get stuff out. And it should be able to grow, but with a limited speed. Those are probably the hardest things to program, yet they have been attained with bacteria. Peristalsis, perhaps? I’m not an expert. Finally, to increase its status as a creator, the AI should have a drive to be acknowledged. If nowadays you can measure much of your societal recognition by the amount of views and likes of your webpage, then a ‘like = good – no like = bad’ algorithm should do the trick. Of course, you could further improve it with video information of people reading the words. Add up the factors and computers could become better at creating art, marketing themselves and being loved than humans ever have been.

Psychoindustry – II

This is a school.

More precisely, it is a secondary Montessori school, which is one of the freer kinds of Dutch schools, where children are supposed to follow their own curiosity and where the role of the teacher is to facilitate that. This school hosts about 4000 people, who spend the majority of their adolescence here. It’s where their minds take shape.

In 1973, Edward Relph wrote his dissertation on ‘Place and Placelessness’. In it he worked out a theory on how the place we find ourselves in shapes our feelings, our beliefs and behavioural patterns. We identify with our places, and partially become them. The theory is used by some architects, and proof for it is accumulating in psychological studies.

Take a look at the school again. Straight, squared lines, regular shapes. The rooms enable just distribution of space, equal for all students. The place is fair, overseeable, easy to cope with, efficient and justifiable to whichever authority paid it. An efficient school to efficiently educate kids into efficient members of society. It does look a bit like an industrial grid, doesn’t it?

Without looking at important factors such as the educational rules and programs of this school, or the structure of society in general, I think this building has huge impact on the development of the personalities of the younger generations. To speculate: it may increase a person’s preference for a predictable life where he or she feels in control. It may subconsciously decrease creativity, openness to the unknown and innovative thinking, but strengthen skills such as the capacity to structure data, perceiving people as numbers and following rules. I believe that school buildings such as this one stimulate more machine-like, cold and lifeless attitudes than, for example, a school composed of little huts in a forest. More industrial minds, capable of more industrial decisions. In that sense, the building fits the age.

Dark Light

A little hole in the clouds opens up. I see the sun and the moon. I yell: ‘wohoo!’. The eclipse is not complete, and the hole is there for just five seconds, but it’s enough to propel me back to a field in Luxembourg on August 11th, 1999. It’s the vivid darkness of the moon’s shade.

As kid I was very much drawn to the stars. I used to look up at night. Walking, in the car… Still do, in fact. Especially during the end of my teenage years, I knew a lot about the stars and the planets, and how they all align. The universe. Whatever explanation you wield for their existence, there’s something magical about the way they flicker in that eternal, deep darkness. There’s something mesmerizing about the fact that they float in a space that seems so infinitely big. Those bright lights in that vast darkness are just beautiful.

It must have been March that year when I picked up the phone and heard the voice of my uncle. He didn’t ask for my mom, but presented the news to me. Something spectacular was going to happen, and he and his friends would like to come over to our little farmers’ village in Luxembourg to check it out. I was instantly convinced. In the months that followed, I looked for all the information I could find about eclipses. How they occur, how they look and how exceptional they are. In books and papers, we didn’t have internet back then. I looked so much forward to seeing the sun’s corona.

When the day finally came, we drove out to some fields slightly further south, to have a longer view on the dark totality. Cars were parked alongside all farmers’ roads. For the only time history, it was hard to find a spot. But we did, and got out. My uncle yelled ‘follow the leader’ and up we went, a group of ten, fifteen, in the middle of crowded Luxembourgish nowhere.

Though I wouldn’t be able to find it back, the spot is still here in my memory. There were quite some trees on the north side, growing around a long fence, reaching over the fields. We had a good view over some meadow hills to the south.  It wasn’t that special, really, but it would be fun to return there once. The sun was already quite blinded when we arrived, but we had some time to go, in which we looked at each other in expectancy. After some twenty minutes, gloom approached us over the hills. Birds stopped singing, as we saw the moon silently move in front of the sun.

That deep darkness, surrounded by bright light. The quiet. It seemed so tangibly close. Not the surrounding light, but the darkness itself spoke up that day. Spoke out. Speaks out. It was with me when I ‘wohood’ last week.

In the early 19th century, Johan Wolfgang Goethe experimented with light and dark. He is known as a poet, but Goethe himself was of the opinion that his poetry was average. What really counted to him, were his studies of colours, where he disagreed with the already deceased Isaac Newton on some points. In his view, black light and white light were the two basic forces. All colours were a result of the interplay between the two. Yellow, he saw as white light weakened by dark light. He learned this from staring into a flame in a dark room. Blue, on the opposite end, was black light weakened by white, as occurs in the sunlit blue sky, reducing the vast darkness of the universe. His approach largely reflected the dualistic christian worldview of the opposites ‘good’ as light and ‘bad’ as darkness.

The dominating scientific belief of today teaches that Goethe was wrong. Based on earlier ideas by Newton, darkness is the absence of light, and the colours with their wavelengths together compose white light. Goethe’s response to this idea was that perception is an essential aspect of colour which can not be excluded from the equation. Adding a prism to the experiment means interacting with light, and can thus not be seen as an objective experiment. Goethe’s work still has influence in art. His intention was not to provide explanations, in fact he was against them, his intention was to describe his observations. For him, the psychological impact of light, the question how it moves us, how it triggers our imagination, was an important part of the study.

The room where I grew up could be blinded to total darkness. Most of my friends had night lights, I didn’t. I couldn’t sleep with them. I liked it dark. But I do remember feeling presences. Sometimes I turned the lights back on to check if something was lingering under the bed. That act changed the atmosphere entirely. The feeling of a presence was gone as soon as I turned on the light. As I grew older, I learned that it was my imagination playing tricks on me. Since the eclipse of March 20th, I’m suspecting the darkness itself.

Doesn’t the darkness feel closer than light? More intimate? Or inward focussed at least. For me it has always been a presence, not an absence. Closer than my carotid. It compelled me in 1999, and I saw that again last week. The memory of a beam of black light.

I wonder what the world would have looked like, had Goethe´s ideas been followed in the same way as Newton´s. Would children still fear the dark?

Wiggle

In the series of ascribing names to emotions I know no name for, I’d like to discuss ‘wiggle’. Now, wiggle is not a new word, it has been used mainly for wavy physical movement, sometimes with sexual connotations when done with the ass. Yet it fits excellently.

I think that the best way to grasp wiggle is to go out on a sunny day, take your shoes and socks off, sit on the grass with legs straight in front of you, watch your toes, then move them a little. Not too much.

To me, wiggle resides in the heart. It feels a little like a flower that gently opens and unfolds slowly, thereby revealing its colour to itself and the world. But wiggle is more reserved, it has no need to show off. And it literally feels wavy, with slight ups and downs. Yet the base tone is joyful.

What can trigger wiggle? Comfy blankets, cute animals, the arrival of spring, gentle sounds, meeting lovely people. But the state of mind is important here. Wiggle can easily be buried under more intense sensations, and it can be easily spilled. For me it only really unfolds if I’m ready to receive it, give it my attention.

In essence, wiggle has something in common with Outsling, but it is not directed. It is contained. The outside world does not perceive its effects, except perhaps by gentleness or a slight smile. Wiggle is fragile, it has an unstable balance that can easily over stretch. It can be smothered and lost. Instead, when it is cherished, it can turn more subtle.

But even if carefully nourished, wiggle does not last. Sometimes I think it exists as a transition, a subtle unblocking of something that was stuck. Like a refreshing drink that releases its intensity while slowly providing gratification. Tiny sips prolong the joy, but at some point it will end. Still, if I manage to seize wiggle without disturbing it, if I let it seize me, it imprints my state of mind with delicateness. It leaves me in touch with a finespun lineament of the web of life and by that, it changes everything.