All Realities Are Local
My guess is my first thought after being born was room service is efficient, but the personal touch is lacking. I was born six to eight weeks preterm and spent my first two weeks in a neonatal incubator. Incubators in 1948 were not the marvels they are today. They weren’t downtown upscale hotels, they were cheap motels by freeway off-ramps. But they kept me alive while I gained enough weight to get an honorable discharge from a Chicago hospital. As this was before Uber, I caught a ride with my new parents to my new home.
Today, sufficiently developed preterm babies can be nursed while still spending most of their time in the high-tech womb, but not in the era of my birth. In my initial days, I was not held by my mother in the hospital or at home. Because my mother feared I was fragile, I was bottle-fed by my father.
Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett and neurobiologist Humberto Maturana believe early maternal interaction is the most influential in your life, that it’s the foundation for bonding in relationships. As I think today about how my personal reality developed, I wonder if my early experience influenced that I regard “motherhood” as an abstraction rather than felt. I observe doting mothers with their babies as interesting but as foreign.
This is not a plea for sympathy. I was well taken care of, and even the least woke will regard my life as fortunate. And no one gets out of childhood unscathed. Whether you were coddled, neglected, or anything in between, you have emotional consequences throughout your life for how you were raised. And sometimes, you’ll change your mind how you regard those consequences.
As I’m sure, like nearly everyone else, I’ve fantasized about how I could have had an even better life. For example, if only I realized early in adulthood I was not temperamentally suited for my chosen profession of psychotherapist. I was suited for work that took place in a room, alone. But you don’t get to just change one piece of your history and keep the ones you like. There were many experiences in my childhood and adulthood I could have done without at the time, but I wouldn’t change a thing if it meant I’d give up who and what I love.
Those who go into a career in social science, whether academic or as a profession, often are pursuing their personal issues, but I did not translate my maternal bonding, or lack of, to my career. Instead, that would be my brother, who had a normal gestation and was nursed. Go figure. I can speculate on his interest, but it’s his decision to go there. Rather than maternal, infant bonding, my lifelong interest turned to how people communicate, or think they do, and the trouble that brings.
As I’ll contend over time, we don’t really communicate; we live within our local realities and communication as we typically characterize it is impossible. I used to say, you have to learn to create a bridge to communicate with another. I amend that to you have to negotiate a membrane between you and another to “communicate” with another. A bridge is a door. A membrane is a filter.
My wife and I have been married, as of this writing, for thirty-six years. During that time, we agreed on important things, such as how to raise our children, our values, and the importance of good coffee. On lesser things, such as whether one of us told the other that they would make pasta on Thursday, all hell could break loose. And the argument would have little to do with the promise of pasta and much with who said what. Where’s that surveillance camera to prove the other wrong because the other is obviously wrong?
On the surface, these arguments couldn’t be more ridiculous. What we’re arguing about is whose version of reality is reality.
Neuroscientists (those who study the nervous system) and cognitive psychologists (those who study how perception in both the biological and psychological sense is created) may differ in how they figure how our brain and cognition works, but they agree the world we experience is made up, experience being the important word.
My wife and I argue because of the myth of communication, that we need to simply explain better, but I don’t know what better means. The myth of better communication gets perpetuated by, to use an example close to home, relationship experts, such as marriage counselors. But it is biologically impossible to communicate in a manner where, despite the fantasy life of therapists, the recipients “hear” the speaker, let alone understand what is said. Recipients can’t hear the speaker because we don’t have a shared reality: no form of communication has the same meaning to the speaker and recipient. (I’m using the term “speaker,” in this case, as shorthand for the initiator of an intended communication, whether spoken, written, or paralinguistic, that is, body language.)
We’re limited by our inborn and environmentally-developed nervous system. We’re limited by memory; there’s no such thing as the past, only what we create while thinking “past.” We’re limited by the psychological aspects of cognition, which includes perception filters from learned behavior and culture.
We’re the social species. All the behavioral scientists tell us so. But social does not mean understanding. It means cooperating for our mutual benefit and satisfaction. Relationship experts should spend less effort on pushing people to understand each other and more effort to promote that people cooperate. Here’s why:
All realities are local, and by local, I mean within each individual. The conflicts about politics, religion, entertainment, and the rest won’t go away. There’s only one solution, but it’s not what we typically regard as a solution. It’s a form of surrender, but in a good way. Surrender means we accept we can’t understand each other, but we can still cooperate.
The skeptical reader might notice I have created a paradox: I have stated we can’t understand each other while still promoting “cooperation,” as if everyone understands—agrees—what cooperation means. I could go ahead and define that term using other terms I would have to assume every reader understands as I do. If I could just explain better. See the problem?
A brain doesn’t store memories like files in a computer—it reconstructs them on demand with electricity and swirling chemicals. We call this process remembering, but it’s really assembling.
—Lisa Feldman Barrett
When I was a teenager, my father bought a sailboat. He barely knew how to sail, but he liked the idea of having a sailboat. He liked the idea of having a sailboat so much that, though the first one sat on a trailer and never touched water, he bought a second one. The new thirty-foot trimaran (three-hulled sailboat) rested in a slip south of Los Angeles in the San Pedro Harbor.
My father hired an experienced sailor (I’ll refer to him as the “sailor”) to do custom woodwork in the small cabin below the deck and sail with us to a new slip in Santa Barbara. We set sail in the early afternoon with a crew of the hired sailor, his wife, my parents, my older brother, and me. We were looking at an approximate sail time of three hours. Soon after we left, there was no wind. No problem. We had an outboard motor. Soon we discovered we had the same amount of gas as we had wind. My father wasn’t much for details.
What are our assets?
—The Princess Bride
Stuck off the coast of Southern California, we had no wind, no gas, and we would soon realize, now drifting in total darkness, no running lights. The reason we’re not forever roving the ocean like a no-powered Flying Dutchman is that we had a ship-to-shore radio and a flare gun.
Emergency roadside service in California doesn’t extend west of the Pacific Coast Highway into the Pacific Ocean. Tow trucks don’t float. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) handles emergencies in coastal waters outside the harbor. So my father sent an SOS signal, which was answered by the USRC Cutter Morris.
“We have no wind, and we have no gas.”
“We can’t see your lights.”
“We have no lights.”
Lucky for us, the skipper was piloting a Coast Guard ship rather than a torpedo-equipped submarine.
Exasperated: “Do you have flares?”
“We have a flare gun with three flares.”
“Shoot a flare. I’ll tell you when to shoot another.”
We were about to be brought a few gallons of fuel by a 432-ton ship to power our 5-ton boat. There’s a carbon footprint we could be proud of.
Thanks to Cutter Morris, we had gas, which we poured into the boat motor gas tank. Things get a little fuzzy from here. My recollection is everyone over eighteen but my mother got sick from the gas fumes. The sailor’s wife felt worse than anyone, so the sailor took her below to the cabin. With my father and the sailor out of commission, my brother and I took over navigating and steered to an interim destination in Ventura. The next morning, we made our way to Santa Barbara. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, and it’s the story, decades later, I told my wife.
Rashomon on a Boat
But that’s not anyone else’s story. My visiting brother had a different memory of who got sick on the gas fumes and who guided the boat. What’s worse, I forgot that my visiting cousin from Chicago was on the trip. My memory was that the trip took place after I was let out of high school that day—a recollection because I recall wearing new deck shoes (rubbered-soled shoes designed to grip a boat deck) to school for the occasion. However, my cousin would have been still going to school in Chicago and not visiting at the time.
My parents were deceased, so obviously would not be contributing to this discussion of past events, but my wife had her laughs while my brother and I told divergent stories, and later my cousin had yet another variation.
Oh, one more thing. When my wife read this, she said, “you’re wrong; your parents were with us when you told your versions.”
If you wrote your autobiography or went to a psychotherapist, you would tell your story: This is how I grew up. This is what my parents and siblings were like. This is what happened to me at school. This is what happened in my jobs or career. This is what happened in my marriage(s). You have a story you carry in your subconscious at all times. These aren’t memories, they’re your stories, and they change over time.
Simone Biles Gets the Twisties
You don’t have to be history’s greatest gymnast to experience the “twisties”—losing your internal map of three-dimensional space—as Simone Biles did in the 2021 Olympics. Years ago, I was training in Aikido. Every class began with warmups that included the practice of rolling forward and backward over one shoulder. Along with other means of falling safely, skill in rolling in Aikido is necessary because training entails being thrown repeatedly.
After several years of practice, suddenly, I could no longer roll backward over my right shoulder. After wrenching my neck trying to correct, I cheated and practiced my backward rolls on only my left side. Thankfully, I was never called out by our sensei. My rolling troubles lasted a few weeks and disappeared as suddenly as they appeared.
Simon Biles’ navigation through space is the most complex of any sport in history; it’s no wonder the slightest mental glitch can lay waste to her confidence.
Regardless of the reason, Biles’ mental glitch stemmed from the intrusion of conscious doubt into subconscious fluency. If you’ve ever had a cat, you know the cliché, they always land on their feet, to be true. Cats’ navigation skills never go down because they never worry about getting gold medals and letting family, friends, and country down. Humans are vulnerable to their pathetic consciousness.
All this creation of our “out there” map is done subconsciously. We wouldn’t be able to function for two minutes otherwise. But sometimes, our subconscious navigation system malfunctions. The map function we rely on is suddenly down. This can happen for moments and we quickly recover, or it may result in panic and leave us not knowing up from down, which brings me to the research of Chilean Neurobiologist Humberto Maturana.
According to Maturana, as Simone Biles is operating according to the internal map she’s created through repetition, observers of Simone Biles are creating the image of Simone Biles as she moves through the air. We’ve learned our concept of gymnasts moving through the air through repetition of triggering (or “perturbating” in Maturana’s terms) waves and vibrations that our nervous system organizes for us. Our nervous system is inherited from our genes and modified as we live. Millions of years of evolution will give you time to do the laundry and create an unfathomably complex nervous system.
Imagine, every night, you’re in bed with your eyes closed and being told a story. You hear it so many times you can see the visual descriptions. You’ve created a mental map, which is as real as if you’re moving through so-called real space. Maturana’s experiments with frogs, pigeons, and salamanders imply that all vision, and by extension, all sensory experience is no different from creating that mental map from repeated experiences that started at birth—an ability that begins with species-level genetic inheritance and develops with experience. There’s no such thing as seeing. There are only stories our nervous system creates from the repetition of experience. To the extent we see a Simone Biles comes from our species’ genetic commonalities. To our seeing a different from-each–other Simone Biles stems from our learning from experience. We all see Simone Biles but not the same Simone Biles.
Compare and Contrast, Part 1, the “good” internship
I can teach the comparative anatomy of the beetles in a way which will make little Hitlers out of you all, or I can teach comparative anatomy of beetles in a way which will make you all into, what shall we say, dancers or artists, even, perhaps, Democratic citizens.
In times of war, who do you think would be more difficult to replace? A psychologist treating returning soldiers from the front suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD)? Or a bookkeeper for an Air Force base? Answer below.
During World War II, soldiers returned from battle suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—then known as “shell shock.” Psychiatrists were too busy treating war injuries to work with these emotionally troubled soldiers. This serendipitous event would launch my father’s career. New Air Force recruits were given IQ tests, and my father scored high enough that the Air Force sent him to Stanford University to take graduate courses in psychology. He got A grades in all his psych courses and Ds and Fs in the others. Good enough for the Air Force. He was placed at the Spokane Air Force Base, where he was thrown into treating the troubled soldiers. Corporal Shrink.
While stationed there, my mother took over as the bookkeeper for the base. The Air Force decided to transfer my father to a base in South Carolina, until my mother reminded them that she would be leaving with him. He remained at the Spokane base until discharged.
The war over, my father attended a PhD program at the University of Chicago to train as a clinical psychologist. After he finished his coursework, the now family of four (my brother was four and I was two) moved to Los Angeles, where my father set up one of the first clinical psychology practices in California.
With her experience in bookkeeping, my mother became his business manager. This arrangement suited them both. My mother liked to control finances, my father liked to practice his art as a psychotherapist. While trained as a psychoanalyst, as nearly all psychotherapists were in the day, my father left that ritual behind. He practiced, as the saying goes, by the seat of his pants. As he had gained weight over the years, that was a solid foundation.
As do most offspring, I idealized aspects of my dominant parent, that is, dominant in what I wanted for myself. My father made a good living doing exactly what he wanted. Starting in his early thirties, he worked his own hours and had no boss. I wanted that.
Supervision as modeling
My adventure to land a BA diploma was an odyssey of my own making, without any of the dramatic, entertaining moments that would lead me to give details of why it took me six years. I was somewhere between being a poor student and hardly a student. Still, San Francisco State admitted me to their masters in clinical psych—likely because I had three jobs in the mental health system already, one working with autistic children, a second with teens referred from the juvenile justice system because of chronic drug use, and a third in an acute (short stay) hospital unit for adults experiencing a psychotic episode.
My first year in the program suited this classroom-allergic student perfectly. The eight professors had devised an experiment. They divided the twenty-four first-year graduate students into a group of thirteen who would attend traditional classes and be placed in various internship settings, and our group of eleven, who would have no classes, have an internship placement in a common setting, and have group and individual supervision from our two clinically-experienced professors.
We eleven were placed in a community counseling center south of San Francisco to work with children and families. The experience was beyond stressful. We were all in our twenties, childless, and most were spouseless. Do you see the problem?
At the counseling center, the group of clients and the group of interns had one thing in common. We lacked confidence in our main purpose. They lacked confidence in their parenting, and we lacked confidence in our ability to help them. And yet, the center was glad to have us. It was a poor community, which translated to meager financial support for the center. Our program provided free counselors and free supervision.
Unfortunately, while our two professor supervisors were experts in child psychology and experienced in traditional work with individuals, neither was trained in family therapy. There was no family therapy in the era of their training. So what was their plan to help us inexperienced interns? Place us in a community of need, and hope we’d get bitten by a sympathetic radioactive spider trained in family therapy.
The help we did get came in a manner I did not appreciate until years later. What the professors did have was faith in us and our ability to hang in there and figure it out. We were given a we have confidence in you, message throughout. But the message was implicit, never stated. What was that about?
The hint came from a single statement from my individual supervisor. He said all his work with clients meant to convey one message: you don’t need me. Those four words packed a lot. The following is my interpretation:
He was saying to his client, you’re a grownup who’s come this far in life with sufficient competence to deal with setbacks and find solutions. His message was, losing confidence is not the same as losing competence.
We all know life eventually hands us discouraging signals we need to get past. But the you can’t do it, you’re a loser messages begin early in childhood, a vicious circle of failure ensues, and demoralization sets in. The families we served were culturally low-status and were targets of more critical messages than most, from well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning educators, welfare agents, workplace bosses, and so on.
How do you get past demoralization? A little bit of success goes a long way to reverse a vicious circle. As the cliché goes, failure breeds failure and success breeds success.
By showing faith in their students to work with clients, our professor supervisors were shoring up our courage to take the first steps as counselors, and not be discouraged by perceived setbacks. But they were doing more than that. They were modeling how we should regard our clients as competent people who just need that same message to take the first steps to improve their lives—that losing confidence is not the same as losing competence. Our professors regarded us as they anticipated we’d regard our clients. Attitudes, good and bad, are infectious. During my career, I developed less subtle methods, but those methods were always in the service of that original approach: I regard you as capable and will help you take steps to regard yourself as capable.
Compare and Contrast, Part 2 The “less-good” internship
When I started my second internship at a community clinic, each of us four interns had to choose a supervisor.
My psychologist father: “I hated Dr. B, but I learned a lot from him.” At the time, I still listened to my father’s advice. I picked (who I’ll call) HB, a choice that became a nightmare for both her and me.
This dogma won’t hunt
HB ran a de facto psychoanalytic clinic within a community mental health center. The rest of the counseling staff was either onboard, cowed, or indifferent to her role as self-appointed mother-superior. Her official role was the intern supervisor, but she lorded over the clinical staff meetings.
My first year of training was free of explicit clinical theory. That would change. During an initial conflict between HB and me, she made it clear: we speak psychoanalysis (and only psychoanalysis) here. And as I learned, for better or worse.
Case presentations are a mainstay in medical training. They put difficult clinical problems in front of multiple eyes, which can help the clinician find a new path. Case presentations have been adopted in many counseling clinics, but at this clinic, rather than provide help, they were rituals designed to absolve clinicians of responsibility for their work. Discussion of a client’s issues invariably concluded with excuses why the counseling was getting nowhere. Invariably, the clinical case presentation ended with HB expressing sympathy for the clinician: “This is a very difficult client.” In the absence of useful ideas, another clinician would fill dead air with, “how do you see this person diagnostically?” If you can’t help them, label them. Label them as unqualified to benefit from the church of Freud.
If I had to characterize my first internship with one word, it would be respect. Our professor supervisors respected us student interns, and we passed that respect to our clients. If I had to characterize my second internship with one word, it would be contempt. HB and her minions displayed contempt towards non-submissive interns (well, me) and contempt for the clients who refused to get better, despite our most excellent clinical efforts. But they saved their most profound contempt for the process of learning that thrives on curiosity and questioning.
And yet, regardless of how I felt then, my two internships complemented my development. I’ve had to relearn this lesson repeatedly: there’s no such thing as an experience you don’t gain from. For the last twenty years, I’ve practiced either Aikido, karate, or Tai Chi. For short periods, I’ve had instructors I’ve found wanting. Those experiences let me appreciate the excellent ones. When I learn of a possibly interesting book, film, or TV show, my first inclination is to read the negative reviews. When I’m attracted to a new idea, I look for the criticism.
Contrasts help you discern, help you think. Without letting contrast into your awareness, you live in a presumption bubble where you filter out everything you don’t already believe.
A Smile is a Bite That Isn’t
Analogical and digital communication, part 1
When I was about seven, my parents, my brother, and I drove to a farm area outside Los Angeles and came home with a Shetland Sheepdog we named (not very creatively), “Shep.” A couple of years later, we stopped again in farm country, adjacent to a herd of sheep, and the four of us and Shep got out of the car. Shep had never seen sheep before, but in moments, he began to run around and herd them into a cluster. It was fun to watch. And while we never had serious doubts, it was nice to be assured Shep wasn’t a dachshund in a sheepdog costume.
Shep was untrained but would come when called, except for when he spotted a cat. He would dash after the cat and refused to be called off, with one exception. If my father was around, one “Shep!” and Shep would execute an action-movie U-turn.
My mother fed him, my brother and I played with him, but Shep’s master was the one who paid the least attention to him. When my father returned from work, Shep would go nuts. He’d run around my father’s legs, barking and carrying on, until my father put down his briefcase and lifted the twenty-one pound fur ball to his chest for a quick man-to-dog hug. The weirdest part of the pre-lift frenzy was Shep would bare his teeth in what we humans would call a smile. That smile was a growl that wasn’t.1
The two modes of communication
Using broad categories, there are two modes of communication: analogical and digital.2 Analogical is communication found throughout the animal kingdom and the natural environment. Digital is communication invented by humans. For example, an analog watch (the kind with a face and rotating “hands”) is an analogy to the sundial. A digital watch uses a stepped (ordinal) number system. There are no numbers found in nature. Body language, a communication mode that humans share with other animals, is analogical. Verbal languages are human-made, a digital mode of communication.
Humans mix analog and digital modes, either naturally, as when conversing, or artificially, as when creating a graph from a spreadsheet. Because analogical communication is more primitive (not meant as an insult), it’s more easily accessible. A quick glance at a graph gives you the lay of the land.3 Digital is more precise, as when you hone in on individual numbers in your spreadsheet. In discourse, a sweeping gesture relates a generality, such as spreading your hands to denote “huge.” Verbal language (though you’d never know it by its use by politicians, academics, and marketers), can create relative precision. Mathematics, another digital language, is even better at precision.
Both analogical and digital communication can cause misunderstandings. Analogical: you’re on a date with someone new, and you laugh, nervously; your date takes it as being laughed at. Digital: you make a verbal tease, intended as affectionate; it’s taken as an insult.
Far easier to spot is when the mixing of analogical and digital language is contradictory, such as when your discourse and body language don’t match. But even then, the complaint is usually not “despite what you said, your body was saying no,” it’s “but you said.”
There is no negation in the unconscious.
Sigmund Freud’s precocious teenage daughter, Anna, put down her iPhone for a minute and asked her father, “What does that even mean?”
Papa Freud explained: “You have a new patient and you’re filling out the intake form with the standard questions, one of which is (Freud blushes, faintly), ’Do you collect women’s shoes?’ Assume your patient is not a fashion-obsessed character from Sex and the City, but a blushing man. He states assertively, ‘I do not collect women’s shoes.’ Later, during a session, this patient relates an erotic dream that features women’s feet. In psychoanalytic theory, dreams are a message from the unconscious—you can’t have the dream and contend you’re not having the dream.”
Whether you’re dreaming, or a creative idea wells up in your mind from who-knows-where, you have no ability to deny that dream or the spontaneous creation. So if your nightly dreams or free association on the couch includes erotic references to feet, you don’t get to deny your unconscious: that’s the premise that there’s no negation in the unconscious.
There’s no negation in the unconscious because the unconscious4 is analogical. Dreams and arts are sourced from the subconscious. And there is no negation, no way of saying I am not thinking this, I am not dreaming this, I am not creating this art.
Dogs that show their teeth are not-biting. Pay attention to the hyphen. The only way they can tell you they’re smiling is to propose they’re biting while simultaneously not biting. Smiles in humans, primates, and dogs, as with Shep when greeting my father, are probably (nothing in animal behavior can ever be proved)5 messages of not-biting—the other analogical messages of what we humans call smiles. There’s no “no” in an analogical message, which makes sense. Until verbal languages were created by humans, and subsequently, civilizations, there wasn’t the need for the precision of “no.”
Why the Metaverse Ain’t Gonna Happen
Analogical and digital communication, part 2
Anyone who’s had the rare non-pleasure of encountering a car salesman who’s just finished a sales workshop may undergo the following:
If the salesman is sitting, he’ll shift his body towards you. He’ll sit with his arms resting on his sides and palms open. He’s in empathetic, receptive mode, ready to sincerely understand your concerns and reservations about signing a contract for tens of thousands of dollars.
If you’re not too anxious to attend to the moment, you might feel something incongruous emanating from him. What your feeling is, rather than his body language transmitting empathy and understanding, it’s exposing a pretense of empathy and understanding. He’s not sitting naturally but is employing a technique he learned in the workshop. If you’re creeped out by someone subconsciously, it may be you’re spotting a clumsy con.
Most people do not attend sales workshops that teach fake emotions. The other kind of incongruity is easier to spot when words and body language contradict each other, such as when you meet her ex, and force a fake smile as you say “glad to meet you.”
Thank you, subconscious
Imagine you’re reading one of those difficult books. Could be fiction or non-fiction. In either case, it’s the kind of book where you must read the paragraph five times to understand. Now imagine these paragraphs are coming at you in fractions of a second—no chance to read slowly or reread. Now assume this was happening simultaneously with multiple books. That’s what it’s like to “read” the body language of one or more people near you. And we humans are pretty good at that because our subconscious has been trained (the potential, genetically inherited) since birth to get good at reading body language.
Look again at the car salesman. He’s consciously presenting a gross (non-subtle) version of his understanding of empathetic body language. But just as the difference between a fake and a genuine smile isn’t in the mouth but rather the eyes’ region, he’s unlikely to get his body language just right. As do fake smiles, that difference will creep you out.
Zuck’s last stand
As others have pointed out, we have current limited versions of virtual reality (VR) that work well. They’re called massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, such as World of Warcraft. The very few most-played games have multiples of tens of millions of accounts, but most of the even popular ones are played by less than a million. Compare to Facebook’s current 2.85 billion accounts.
These MMOs work because the interaction among participants is limited to a narrow scope of behaviors—nearly always cartoon battles with other players or a player group. Conversing and cooperating with other players is motivated by forming a group to battle other groups and is usually limited to discussing tactics or exchanging banter.
If not before, most of us have done the Zoom or FaceTime thing during the Covid pandemic. If video conferencing felt like conversing through a keyhole, that’s with good reason. Recall where I describe our facility to field enormous amounts of analogical information from gestures. To perceive the onslaught of rapid, numerous gestures, we need presence.
If you’re extremely familiar with someone, a close relative or friend, that is, if you have years of context with someone, you don’t need the same level of presence to be comfortable. You’ll be able to sense quite a lot, even in a phone call just through a familiar voice. But Zuckerberg suggests we’ll be living much of our social and business life in his metaverse.
If I were being cynical, I’d suggest Zuckerberg was promoting the metaverse to level the playing field for people such as him, those who aren’t good with people, and those who aren’t sensitive to the onslaught of subtle gestures. But my take is more damning. I think Zuckerberg and his ilk don’t know any better. They’re insufficiently sensitive to others to understand the interactional deficits of a metaverse.6
To keep his empire dominant, Zuckerberg hopes his ad-addled metaverse will replace a likely fading income stream. That ain’t gonna happen. Our species are not going to replace the richness of intended analogical communication of everyday life with a signal-impoverished metaverse.
Not Julia Child
Habitability, part 1
At age eighteen, as most boys in that era, I left home with no homemaking skills. I was living alone in a tiny cottage while attending my first year of college and working with autistic children to augment a no-frills living allowance I got from my parents.
Trigger warning if you’re a vegetarian.
With no experience whatsoever, I attempted to prepare my own dinners. I’d buy a pound of cheap ground beef and bake the entire inch-thick rectangular block in the oven. I’d cook frozen peas in water (pre-microwave era). I’d eat the pound of ground beef and the peas. I may have been able to sustain this for the school year if not for the interference of my girlfriend’s mother.
My girlfriend still lived with her parents. Her mother, on occasion, would give me dinner leftovers in a clay pot to take home. I don’t recall why, but I never ate them. It might have been I wasn’t sure how to warm the food. (I didn’t know clay pots could be put in an oven.) Most likely, I was just that lazy.
A couple of these meals sat in the refrigerator until even sub-forty degrees Fahrenheit couldn’t keep the food from rotting. Ugh. I’d have liked to embalm and bury the food in their clay coffins with a respectful ceremony. But my realistic choices were either to return the food containers and hope I sufficiently sanitized the pots of mold odor or to break up with my girlfriend. I made the mature choice: I procrastinated and returned to my focus on cars and motorcycles. I stayed out of the putrid-smelling kitchen until I moved out (yes, I finally cleaned those pots and returned them) and ate Big Macs and French fries every evening for the balance of the school year.
My first try at creative cooking started with stealing an idea from my older brother. He created a meal where he poured a can of beef and vegetable soup into a saucepan and sprinkled ground beef into the broth. I went with his recipe for a while but gradually altered it until all that was left was the hood ornament. As a connoisseur of sloppy joes, I first added baked beans, then, over time, more and more random stuff from the refrigerator. I called this “hamburger delight.” It prompted my brother’s friend (who would randomly show at dinner time) to invariably quip, “After that meal, I feel like I need a shower.”
I made hamburger delight many times, and until I made it for a couple, I figured it was a tasty meal. The husband, a gourmet cook of sorts, tasted it while it was cooking and laughed. After the wife scolded her husband, she decided to educate me. She added salt, chili powder, and a few other spices. The result wasn’t great, but it had flavor. Spices for favor: why didn’t anyone tell me? I thought that’s what pickles in a Big Mac were for.
Until I got married at thirty-six, most of my adult years, I lived alone. I ate better than fast food but as simply as possible, My regulars were chicken breast, baked beans, and salad, or red snapper, frozen peas, and salad. I learned only one “fancy” dish I could make for others—pasta with a marinara sauce.
My marinara sauce got a good share of “Likes,” even from those who tasted it. But while my food skills have expanded to include (mostly) other kinds of pasta, I’ve developed a dubious cooking habit. I don’t know how to taste a meal in progress. I don’t know how to spice.
PT-109 is the famous story of President Kennedy’s Patrol Torpedo boat being sunk by the Japanese when he was a Navy soldier during World War II. My PT 109 is how many times I’ve attended physical therapy appointments for various self-inflicted ailments. When I work out, I don’t know whether one more rep will give my muscles just the correct amount of stress or whether one more rep will cause injury. I usually give it the correct amount, but every couple of years, it’s one rep too many. I’m less careful with my cooking; it’s nearly always one rep of spice too many. The MRIs on my tuna-noodle casseroles, alone, may bankrupt us.
Habitability is designing in-process rather than imposing a preconceived structure on a project. While habitability as a concept started with architectural design, it has spread well beyond architecture, first to software development, then to other domains. It’s deciding when to add spice to food, one more rep to a workout, or, as I’ll get to next, one more room to a house.
Habitability, part 2
It was fun growing up with a brother close in age. There weren’t many kids in our neighborhood, so we invented two-player games of baseball, football, basketball, and even hockey using roller skates, golf clubs, and tennis balls. But when I reached my teens, I thought it would be handy to have a sister who could help decrypt the code of girls.
The closest I got to having a sister was visiting my three cousins in Chicago, two of whom were girls. My favorite memory with them was sitting in their little kitchen alcove, sipping (pre-drip era) percolator-brewed coffee in the morning and gossiping about who knows what. My cousins were funny and pretty, but what I didn’t understand at the time was the contribution of the kitchen alcove.
Architecture is a prediction, and all predictions are wrong.
Let’s say I’m an extrovert who likes big parties (I’m neither, don’t throw me a surprise party), so I invite fifty people to my home. Thirteen don’t enjoy the party and leave. The remaining thirty-seven are having a good time and suggest since we get along so well, they’d like to stay for an indefinite time but feel my modest-sized house is too small. It needs more bathrooms for thirty-seven dwellers. And another refrigerator. And a larger dining table. And so on.
I call my architect, Jay, who designed our modest home. He sighs: The house wasn’t planned for expansion. It was planned for two adults and two children, a finite nuclear family. He won’t attempt to re-design on-the-fly.
If you have thirty-seven people in your home, chances are at least three have done carpentry. That’s an absolute fact I just made up. And the group probably includes a painter, an electrician, and a plumber. The carpenters, electricians, and plumbers begin to add bedrooms, bathrooms, and a larger dining area. I recall my fun with my cousins: “Don’t forget the breakfast nook!”
The expansion takes considerable time. From the outside, my house starts to look like a spiked punk hairdo, but it’s comfortable—comforting.
To my shock, Architectural Digest is impressed and does a cover feature. The magazine story is a big hit, and all the trendy people hire architects to design one just like it for their nuclear families. Well, not just like it. Architects have to prove their value and have to attract new customers. Each house they design is a billboard. The hired architects soften the punk look and make other changes that improve its outside appearance. The rooms inside, of course, have to be molded to the modified dimensions. Ironically, the architects’ versions would defy the hallmark of the original, the ease of modifying the house for changing needs.
In my larger, now crowded house, over the years, dwellers come and go, old people die, children are born. The house continues to get modified as needs change. Eventually, though, almost everyone has moved on. The house is sold, and a conventional MacMansion is built on the lot.
The architect-designed versions are hated by their owners and sold.
Christopher Alexander, mathematician turned architect, and Cal, Berkeley professor of architecture, was a philosopher and theorist of optimal layout patterns in communal spaces, such as public buildings, hments, public squares/d any place people live and congregate. He writes about what and why there are living spaces that attract people, such as the cozy alcove in which my cousins and I sat.
Alexander’s books assert two principles of design for living spaces. First, most architectural and city planning design is too abstract in that it doesn’t take into consideration the living experience of the dwellers. He came to believe rather than a space designed whole, dwellers need to live within an initial structure, the roots of a living space, and grow the space as they feel the need. Second, living spaces should conform to spatial patterns people have enjoyed through the ages.
An Alexander ideal is the farmhouse, where you start with a big kitchen and add rooms as needed for a growing family. For example, as he began his career as a college professor, my yet-unmarried brother bought a one-room cabin on a lake. A wife and three children later, the cabin had grown to a two-story, four-bedroom house. My wife, who was raised in rural western Pennsylvania, explained it was common for families to start with a basement and add a first floor as their needs grew.
We shape our buildings, and afterwords, our buildings shape us.
Notice I used biological terms “roots” and “grow” to describe Alexander’s ideas. These terms imply a co-evolution of dwellings and dwellers. If some dwellings give people worse psychological comfort and some better psychological comfort, then those dwellings are shaping those who live (or work) within. And if the dwellers are sufficiently sensitive and capable, they can regard the initial structure as a root and grow that structure to improve their psychological comfort.
Alexander’s ideas of patterns are not limited to dwellings. His 253 patterns include cities, public squares, cathedrals, and other spaces used by humans in their daily lives.
Alexander’s concept of designing from within, modifying a current dwelling for comfort and need while using his ideal patterns as guides, was named “habitability“ by Richard Gabriel, a software language developer. Software developer? Alexander’s influence has long gone beyond design for living spaces to (my characterization) designing from within, with patterns, in non-material domains, such as software development.
Alexander acknowledges that all buildings are designed initially by an architect. But if the building has been designed by an architectural Tetris player, where every space is tightly interdependent, it defies modification. The building cannot be changed for need, only torn down and rebuilt. The changing needs of the dweller are rendered insignificant. Contrast with the traditional country farmhouse that can be modified for need endlessly.
Most people now live in the city or suburbs, in bounded homes, whether houses or apartments. Real estate marketing has replaced user home-building skills7 and has colonized our imaginations: we once had roots and growth farmhouses, now we have “starter homes,” “homes for growing families,” and “downsizing.”
Whereas we used to live in our home, we now squat on our asset until we need to exchange our current asset for one of the three home assets above. Building codes, created for safety, now primarily serve conformity and “property values.”8
Just one of many below-our-awareness frustrations that influence our lives.
Habitability, part 3
As I stated in my last post, Spaces, Christopher Alexander’s ideal is to “design from within,” that is, grow your root space using spatial patterns that are psychologically comforting as proven through the ages. Furthermore, Alexander came to believe the building process needs to include those who would live in the developed spaces. And those who will live in the spaces need to be included from the beginning, starting with obtaining the building loans to build the house.
Alexander eventually got to experiment with his ideal: because they felt the project would create less expensive housing, the government of Mexico backed the Mexicali development. They committed to financing thirty houses to be built by Alexander and his architects in a cluster and in partnership with the families that would live in and own the houses.
The Mexican government pulled the financing after just five completed houses because they didn’t look much different from conventional houses. But that the Mexican government abandoned the project shouldn’t be a sign of failure. Governments can be as flighty as crows on a telephone wire. However, Alexander was also disappointed in the completed houses. They did not display the patterns that had the (in his terms) “quality without a name” to his satisfaction. But guess what? The owners/builders liked their new houses.
What those five houses had was not Alexander’s but the owners’ concept of habitability, much as those owner-built farmhouses Alexander admired. I’ll suggest that it was because the owners built them that those five houses passed the habitability test in the owners’ minds, despite falling short of Alexander’s ideal. Not only could they modify their houses if and when they wished, but because they built them, their houses hold no demons; no sneak attacks of large expenses; no lengthy inconveniences while owners learn those commercials by insurance companies are sales pitches, not reimbursement policies. The owners would not need to rely on expensive hired help to maintain their houses.
As with self-driving cars and peace in our time, the attempts to design modern no- or low-maintenance housing have been a failure. Old-fashioned wood-framed houses need ongoing maintenance, but we already know how to do that. But by “we,” I mean those with the relevant skills that leave most of us out. And that’s the problem.
The Mexicali project was so important to Alexander’s ideas and ideals that the owners/builders had ongoing mentoring while the houses were being built. There’s no reason to believe the owners/builders could have built houses on their own to even their satisfaction.
Those ancient European buildings Alexander based his ideas of comforting spacial patterns were built before the complications of indoor plumbing, electricity, and modern heating. In my recollection of the Little House on the Prairie books I read to my daughter, Pa’s log cabins did not include the complications of indoor plumbing, electricity, and modern heating. So building out the farmhouse as needs changed dealt with only a fraction of what a modern owner/builder would contend with.
Wealth of Nations (but not of its citizens)
The Wealth of Nations was published four months before the United States Declaration of Independence. Author Adam Smith is called the father of the economic system of capitalism, but he was also the uncle of the division of labor, the concept that a workforce of specialized skills would produce more national wealth than a nation of many-skilled Jack of all trades. While Smith was right about more national wealth, the division of labor does not necessarily produce more national well-being.
The division of labor has created a sometimes bizarre level of reward for those who fit a right-place–at–the–right–time niche while leaving those who don’t fit that niche to struggle financially and psychologically.
Masters of a very small universe
In the eighties, the macho hero had morphed from the man who could take care of himself, to the Wall Street stock market hero such as depicted in the film, Wall Street. The most ridiculous (but should have been ridiculing) characterization of the 80s Wall Street hero was published in the Los Angeles Times business section. The article was on men’s sleeve length, and the major point was the more your shirt cuffs extend past your jacket sleeves, the more “power” you exhibit. I hope the journalist got a Pulitzer.
In his novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe used satire to drive a stake through the heartless self-absorption and delusions of grandeur of these crusaders for personal wealth. When the self-proclaimed” Master of the Universe” stockbroker misses his freeway turn, he accidentally steers his Mercedes into a dangerous, violent neighborhood. As he discovers, no amount of exposed cuff would stand up to the Masters of the Bronx. He panics, and a tragicomic plot ensues. Outside his contrived niche, this character is not a master of anything.
An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.
—Nicholas Butler (One-time president of Columbia University)
The spookiest show I’ve ever seen is the TV miniseries, The Haunting of Hill House, based on the novel of the same name. Like all great horror stories, the dread is mostly in anticipation of the unknown, what can spring up for which you’re ill-prepared. But at least haunted house movies prepare the viewer (if not the movie character) for nasty surprises through a change of perspective, lighting, and music.
That people fear change, the unknown, is an insight that deserves a big “duh,” but I propose our fears of change and the unknown have taken a colossal jump because our competence beyond contrived niches has atrophied. We’re buggy-whip salesmen witnessing the introduction of the Ford Model-T.
Those who whip up fear and hatred against scapegoats are exploiting our fears of incompetence, our fears we can be easily “replaced.” Our increasing incompetence is real, brought by obsolete influences:
- The division of labor had advantages for everyone (in first-world countries) when you had lifetime employment at General Motors or IBM. Today, job security doesn’t exist. Instead of job security, knowledge workers (those who work with only words, symbols, and numbers) are advised to develop their “brand” so they can make it as “independent contractors.” Now, everyone needs marketing expertise—Mad Men skills—in addition to their vocational expertise. Tell that to coal miners and store clerks.
- The public school model we use was largely defined in the 19th century in Germany to churn out low-skilled workers for the industrial revolution.
- Higher education (once a gentleman’s club for those who didn’t need to earn a living) is designed to churn out narrowly trained knowledge workers for once-dominant corporations that may now be past their pull date.
The narrow-niche education and training that creates over-specialized competence is no longer viable for the “engine of commerce.” But more than that, narrow-niche education and training has hurt our general competence and psychological well-being. We’re good at not just fewer things, we’re less confident and secure. While most of us won’t ever build our own house to either Alexander’s standards or our satisfaction, we can learn to be less dependent on niche competences that could evaporate within a generation.
Addiction is just a word
They talk of my drinking but never my thirst.
One of the essential things I’ve learned is choice is a distraction, and I use “life hacks” to limit the distraction of choices. I use just an iPhone to write these articles. I wear the same clothes nearly every day. We gave our car away in favor of the bus, train, and putting one foot in front of the other. If it were up to me, I would live in a 600 square foot dwelling and own only enough personal stuff I could fit in a backpack.
But when it comes to minimizing distractions, I’m a novice. Imagine the focus when your only motivation is to get your next drink, score your next mood-altering substance, or win the next match. Some have found a novel method to simplify their world. They have narrowed their needs to have one motivation, one solution to their problems, one thing to think about.
Did you know there are more experts in neurochemistry on Twitter than in academic biology? Addiction, according to graduates of the University of iPhone, is a craving for constant dopamine hits. This is a simplistic and inaccurate explanation of the functions of dopamine, but I suppose it works as slang for a pursuit of a continuous source of pleasure, gratification, or relief.
The description of addiction I and others my age grew up with was simple: a biological habituation to the use of illegal drugs. In more recent generations, legal drugs that act crudely on your biochemistry have been added to that description— specifically, alcohol, nicotine, and overprescribed mood-altering drugs.
To define addiction as substance abuse makes the remedy uncomplicated in theory—get addicts off the drug. Getting people off physical addiction is straightforward: lock them in a ward and help them through withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, for addicts, their loved ones, and whoever is paying for the treatment, substance withdrawal is the easy part. Recidivism rates are such that the main beneficiaries of substance-abuse treatment are treatment facilities.9 Their best customers are repeat customers.
While it sounds glib, the recidivism rate was soberly explained by Gregory Bateson: “The cause of alcoholism is sobriety.” People self-medicate for a reason, and the reason doesn’t disappear when the physical dependency does. A smidgen better than useless, the chief reason residential substance-abuse treatment remains popular is as a handy tool for judges and family to offload the problem abuser for a time.
But what about outpatient clinicians? They, too, need to pay rent and buy groceries. Enter behavioral addictions: gambling, video games, sex, porn, over-eating, sugar, social media, smart-phone use, the Internet, work, and other behaviors people don’t like when other people do them.
A number of billionaires who made their fortunes through creating “addicting apps” have created a second career warning us to not use them. These self-declared experts inform us that we glance at our phone incessantly because we suffer from FOMO, the fear of missing out. I’ve no doubt there’s some FOMO responsible. But I also believe checking your phone may be primarily a nervous habit, used in place of smoking, chewing gum, gnawing your fingernails, or playing with fidget toys. We rejoice that smoking has far fewer devotees. It’s naive, however, to assume we haven’t replaced smoking with other nervous habits, iPhone glancing among them and which is not suspected of causing cancer.
What is addiction?
Addiction as a cliché is seen as risky behavior but it’s the opposite of risky behavior. Addiction is the compulsion to maintain your current condition: a level of alcohol or nicotine in your blood; gambling for the big score; checking your cell phone while ignoring your immediate environment; the pursuit of steady external validation with good grades or cheering fans. No matter how many times you lose all your money, you keep gambling. No matter how many times you awaken with a hangover or behavioral regrets, you resume drinking. No matter how many awards or championships you win, you keep performing or playing. No matter how many times you gorge on junk food and purge in the toilet, you keep gorging.
Addiction is the pursuit of maintenance of wellbeing, but wellbeing as an avoidance of change, wellbeing as keeping your biology or psychology in a steady state even when that steady state is harmful.
Behavioral addictions as regenerative feedback loops
In the fifties, the field of cybernetics was hatched. Named by Norbert Wiener, a mathematics professor at MIT, the name came from the Greek word for “steersman.” Early cybernetics was based on the mathematics of error correction or error amplification following signal feedback. If you’re steering a ferry boat from Seattle to Bainbridge Island, you’re going to aim towards the Bainbridge ferry landing. When windy, the ferry might drift off course. The difference between the direction to the landing and your current heading is negative feedback, used by the helmsman to steer back towards the landing. Positive feedback increases the difference. Given the same circumstances, positive feedback would have you increase the inaccurate direction to the ferry landing.
In their conversion to colloquial use, the terms negative and positive feedback lost their original meaning. The common use is positive feedback is a compliment and negative feedback is criticism. To make these terms more evident, I prefer the accepted substitutes of corrective for negative and regenerative for positive.
How feedback affects behavior
Addictions are vivid examples of being caught in a regenerative feedback loop. You’re at the casino and you’re losing money at the Blackjack table. Each hand you lose, you double your bet in an attempt to win back all your loses at once. If you acknowledged corrective feedback, you’d have to conclude gambling is a poor investment strategy. In contrast, using regenerative feedback, each turn you double your bet.
The regenerative feedback loop is behind all addictive behavior. If you suffer from anxiety, you might become anxious about being anxious, commence rapid breathing, and wind yourself into a full panic attack, whereas corrective interventions would be slow breathing, meditation, and other calming techniques.
How addiction happens
In principle, the homeostatic controls of biological systems must be activated by variables which are not in themselves harmful. The reflexes of respiration are activated not by oxygen deficiency but by relatively harmless CO2 carbon dioxide excess.
Bateson is explaining that, in biology because the absence of something (oxygen in this case) in natural systems may be dangerous, corrective feedback comes as a signal rather than as immediate danger. In culture, on the other hand, for example, introducing a foreign chemical to the body such as alcohol or nicotine, or introducing gambling to human psychology, there are no evolved corrective feedback mechanisms, no harmless signals akin to an excess of carbon dioxide that causes an intake of oxygen.
Evolution of a species depends on natural corrective feedback mechanisms that culture lacks. If you’ve been hungry for a long time, or you have psychological desires for food that survive past satisfying your hunger, short of extreme discomfort or death, there are no natural signals to stop eating. If you’re used to eating beyond satisfying hunger, or you’re used to glancing at your phone every three minutes, you no longer notice excess.
Misreading of signals
You encounter a contradiction when you attempt to maintain your mood through regenerative rather than corrective measures. You end up inverting the meaning of the feedback. The more money you lose at the craps table, the more you bet to attempt to maintain your wealth. If your substance abuse stops maintaining your wellbeing, you take it up a dangerous notch.
Addiction results from a subconscious misreading of signals or misunderstanding of the solution. You do the opposite of correction. When the ferry is moving away from Bainbridge Island, you steer away from Bainbridge Island. When you become anxious, rather than taking slow long breaths, you increase your short rapid breaths. When your marriage is breaking up because you have become controlling and abusive, you attempt to maintain it by becoming more controlling and abusive. If you’re drinking because you’re depressed, your solution is more drinking. If video games overtake your time because you’re too anxious to live outside a domain you can control, you attempt to overcome the consequences of incessant gaming with an increase in gaming.
Addiction is just a word
Addiction is just a word, short for attempting to maintain wellbeing by doubling down on the problem behavior as the solution. Flipping the meaning of error signals, from corrective to regenerative feedback, is not limited to the concept we call addiction. It’s also an element in other areas of emotional problems (some already mentioned), such as panic attacks, depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, as well as domestic violence and other family dysfunctions.
As stated above, there’s no harmless corrective feedback in culture akin to carbon dioxide as a signal to take a breath. Nor is there a threshold where another drink or another video game switches from relaxing and enjoyable to a failed solution, or when beneficial familial interdependence becomes (in counselor jargon) co-dependence. Being human is not for wimps.
Behaviors that attempt to maintain wellbeing, which get labeled negatively, will always be with us, all of us. Rather than regard them as mental illnesses or the domain of the weak or oppressed, we can regard them as normal attempts to ward off the anxieties of everyday life.
I spill things and break things. I’m not uncoordinated, I’m clumsy. Joan wifesplains: “It’s because you’re impatient, hurrying as if your services are in demand.” (They’re not.)
I complain to Joan in my head and sometimes aloud when I have to keep my elbows in while we’re at the kitchen counter. When preparing food or coffee, I’m Italian in the handwaving sense, so I’m especially dangerous to dishes in a constricted space. If you’re the visualizing sort, you can imagine me preparing an Aeropress brew—easy to knock over, as I’ll explain below, in an even more constricted space. I have to become more deliberate, or caffeinated beverages will take flight, and broken dishes will be fruitful and multiply.
Our daughter and her family have a newborn, a tiny bundle who punches well above her weight when it comes to a contribution to delight and trying to recall what is meant by “a night’s sleep.” Joan and I wanted to participate in the delight and help in a small way to alleviate the lack of sleep. We decided to spend (as of Aug 1, 2022) a year-plus in their city of Portland to make life a tad easier for them. We’ve moved from a 1650-square-foot house to an apartment one-fourth the size.
The neighborhood we left for our stay in Portland is a few streets occupied more and more by the recently retired. We and several of our neighbors moved here with small children and have remained past when these children can identify with the “young adult” label. In other words, we’ve all been here a while and have had to adjust to many life changes.
The most sustained emotion of being a new parent is that to your you’re their whole world.10 No one can take your place. The most sustained feeling of a person newly retired is that you’re no one’s world. You’re easily replaced. New parents deal with the stress of the responsibility for the completely dependent. The newly retired deal with the stress that on them no one is dependent.
The late Jay Haley was one of the founders of family therapy and wrote what I regard as the best book on the subject. His Uncommon Therapy was an analysis of the work of Milton Erickson, a psychiatrist, and hypnotherapist, who had significant influence in the pioneering field of family therapy. Less well-known than his hypnosis-influenced therapies was Erickson’s belief (the subject of Haley’s book) that most emotional problems stem from the inability to progress to the next stage of life. For example, the most common age for an initial schizophrenic break that occurs in young men is when they leave for college. For women, it’s been when they experience the empty nest.
It’s hard to perceive new parents and the new retired in the same light. New parents must fit 48 hours of effort into a 24-hour day. The just retired must stretch a casual few hours of effort to the same 24 hours.11 But who knew? People aren’t lazy. They prefer that they matter over life in a hammock holding a gin and tonic. Both the over-worked and under-worked deal with the stress of unprecedented change.
How to prepare for retirement
Financial advisors, self-serving as it sounds, suggest people start preparing for retirement–AKA as no one wants to pay you for anything anymore–at a young age. Index funds, blah blah blah. I suggest people also start emotionally preparing for retirement at a young age.
I’m lucky twice. First, I dealt with numerous changes throughout my life: every few years, new neighborhoods, new schools, and new friends. With that as a comfortable habit, or perhaps a compulsion, as an adult, new colleges (six), new cities, new friends, new girlfriends, new jobs, new homes, new children. (Though, just the one marriage.) Second, when I was twenty-seven, the day after I was awarded my master of science degree—irony follows—I discovered I was enormously ignorant of science (more about that another time), and I’ve been motivated since to educate myself. My self-concept as ignorant remains and will remain unchanged, but it pushes me every day.12 In both cases, whether in a life-changing circumstance or in pursuit of knowledge, I was in a persistent state of a need to learn.
Recall my articles on habitability–work from what you know. Habitability can be a too-soft couch you can’t get off or a scaffold for new pursuits. Which it is will decide how you deal with change. Those who lead a life of stability, of few changes, of few adaptations may enjoy the feeling of control stability gives but will have a more difficult time when a change happens to them via illness, divorce, death of a mate, or a move to Portland to help with a grandchild.
The Biology of Local Realities, part 1
During the recent COVID epidemic, as have many others in a vulnerable (i.e., old) population, we stopped spending time indoors in public places and ordered all necessities to be delivered. From how recently an order was made or a notification from the delivery service, we had a good idea of what would be delivered and when, so when a knock on the front door came, we knew what item(s) would land on our front porch and which service would deliver it. When that knock came, my brain created a vision of an Amazon or UPS driver dropping a package on the porch. I did not have to open the door to “see.” I created the vision from repeated experiences with deliveries. Not only did the knock on the door disturb my brain to create the sound of the knock, it also disturbed my brain to create the vision of the delivery. The knock was a disturbance—a perturbation—that my brain, from memory, turned into both the knock on the door and the image of the delivery.
What I find weird is not that I see the delivery without my eyes but that I don’t find that weird. I don’t find it weird that I see without direct input to my eyes but with only the calculations of my brain.
Marie Kondo segued from Japanese housewife to the first celebrity home-decluttering consultant—even scoring a show on Netflix. She created a novel approach to deal with major and minor versions of the modern disease of packrat mania. Kondo eschews the common declutter mindset, which is either to throw or give stuff away, or paradoxically, buy more stuff to organize your stuff. Instead of deciding what to get rid of, Kondo’s technique directs you to a strategy of what to keep. Her book or personal consultation guides you to pile your stuff (one category at a time) and keep what “sparks delight.”
Declutter our senses
In 1959, Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana and friends published the results of his experiments done in Jerome Lettvin ’s MIT lab, where Maturana was a visiting scholar: What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain.
Maturana found a Marie Kondo in our nervous system: decluttering the frog’s sensory signals sparks delight for evolutionary advantages. The frog’s retina detects only motion and variance in illumination, a pattern of signals that aid in the survival of the species—food acquisition, predator avoidance, and reproductive opportunity (#AmphibianMaleGaze).
The map is not the territory.
The map is the territory.
—Heinz von Forester
The dominant model in modern cognitive theory, information processing, proposes that we take in information through our senses, and our brain computes it, transforms it into symbols, and responds. The response can be short-term, ouch! hot stove, or longer term: hot stoves hurt; don’t ever touch them!
The information processing model can be summed in Korzybski’s famous statement above: the frog’s vision detects the change in light and movement as created by possible prey, possible predators, and possible mates. According to the information processing model, the frog’s brain is creating a map from the sensory input from the real world, which can be summarized as the map is not the territory.
But according to Maturana, the frog’s brain is creating a map, not from the real world but from the retina’s result of filtering out unnecessary (for survival) input. The map the frog’s brain is making is a map of the map already supplied by the retina cartographer. By the time the interpretation gets to the frog’s brain, there’s no direct information from the external world. To the frog’s brain, there is no external world, only a map of the map, which can be summarized as the map is the territory.
From the initial research on frog vision, Maturana (joined by student-turned–colleague neurobiologist and mathematician Francisco Varela), developed a concept of cognition based on evolutionary biology rather than the (computer-derived metaphor) information processing model. Maturana developed a hypothesis that the frog’s brain was not processing sensory input but was responding to disturbances to the senses—perturbations. That is, the nervous system has no input from the outside, but is only perturbated. To repeat: the frog’s brain is not processing information; its vision is created by updating its neural system, just as mine was when I heard the sound of the truck and the knock on the door.
The Biology of Local Realties, part 2
What do we mean by “communication”?
You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.
—Inigo Montoya, a character from The Princess Bride
From Gary Larson, the following is in comic bubbles:
What we say to dogs” Okay, Ginger, I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand Ginger? You stay out of the garbage or else!”
What they hear “Blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah…”
We don’t expect much success in interspecies communication, but it’s not much different when I attempt to explain something to my wife about her computing devices. All she hears is “blah blah blah JOAN, blah blah blah.” It’s the same the other way around when she’s explaining the variety of (to me, exotic) ingredients she needs to bake something. She just wants to use her devices, and I just want to eat her baked goods.
But there is (to state the obvious) a difference between conversing with your dog and conversing with your spouse, and I don’t just mean that dogs don’t finish your sentences or interrupt with their own agenda.
Your dog won’t learn to stay out of the garbage no matter how careful an explanation. But if my wife cared to learn about computers, she could. If I wished to learn to bake, I could. But even our son with his computer science degree couldn’t teach a dog about computers. Dogs have their evolutionary path; we humans have ours. Humans and dogs have different potentials from different genetics.
Recall neurobiologist Humberto Maturana’s experiments with the frog: vision does not stem from (the frog’s) processed signals from the environment. Rather, when the frog’s retina is disturbed (perturbated) by outside elements, the nervous system, as structured by genetics and organized by experience, responds to the perturbation with an update to its internal organization that yields the experience of seeing.
Further research by Maturana and his student-turned-research associate Francisco Varela found that all sensory experience comes from within: not just vision, but all five senses are perturbated, and the nervous system responds according to its internal organization. As I’ve stated, there is no communication as we conventionally think. We cannot perceive anything outside our experience of what is possible. That’s obviously true when attempting to communicate with your dog. It’s less obvious but still true when attempting to communicate with another person. This is why conflicts, from international politics to intimate coupling, are inevitable and why it has ramifications for politics, education, marriage (or equivalent), and psychotherapy or any pursuit of behavioral change. And it’s why I’ve named this newsletter, All Realities Are Local.
We hosted a series of Japanese exchange students three decades ago in our home. They were in their late teens and wished to learn to drive. In Japan (at least at the time), it cost the equivalent of several thousand dollars to take driving lessons, compared to a few hundred during their U.S. homestay. Although they drive English style (on the left side of the road) in their home country, a U.S. driver’s license qualifies them for a Japanese license. So while living with us, most homestay students took driving lessons and earned their Washington State licenses.
I recall how envious these fledgling drivers were when I turned a corner without mid-turn steering corrections. Yay, subconscious, because I could also simultaneously steer the car, accelerate and brake, tap a CD player button (no iPhones or iPods in the 90s), sip coffee, operate a manual transmission, and carry on a conversation. So could hundreds of millions of other experienced drivers.
While seemingly miraculous to our Japanese students, I learned this incrementally through repetition and adjustments from corrective feedback. (See, above, Addction is Just a Word.)
The illusion of control
Cars are cars.
I could believe the common conceit that I control the car. Or I might use the anthropomorphic language that I communicate with the car. If I could control the car, would that not mean I could make it fly? Even the greatest race car driver, Mario Andretti, could not make a car fly. Even the best marriage counselor could not help me communicate with my car. All I can do is access the car’s repertoire. I can’t control the car. I can’t make it fly. I can only perturbate the car’s organization via its controls.
An automobile can only operate as an automobile. That’s, as Maturana would say, its structure. I can’t change how the car turns; I can change only how I steer. I can’t change the car; I can change only myself.
Despite the limitations of the car’s repertoire, if I develop my repertoire sufficiently to access the car’s abilities, I can drive it increasingly well. Those who develop their repertoire in concert with their car’s repertoire, well enough, might even become a not-quite Mario Andretti. But even a race car driver can’t control a car more than I can.
Repetitive perturbations of my car and its responses to those perturbations reciprocally perturbate my nervous system, which results in what Maturana calls “structural coupling.” The coupling results from the addition to my repertoire, which is possible because my nervous system can be modified; it can (what we call) learn.
Structural coupling differs from the conventional concept of communication. The car and I interact within only our respective repertoires. A car can’t take me out to lunch at its favorite gas station, and I can’t fill its tank at my favorite deli.
Structural coupling with humans
Not only can I not change the repertoire of the car, I can not change the repertoire of another human being. Structural coupling, as you probably guessed, is more interesting between people than between drivers and their cars. Structural coupling with a machine is quickly learnable and, soon, predictable.13 All I can perturbate with a car is steer, go, and stop. Structural coupling with another human being is a whole other thing.
My years as a marriage counselor did not include a single instance where one member of the couple stated at the outset, “It’s my fault; it’s on me to change.” Whether privately believed or expressed aloud, participants were sure the counseling experience would include vindication that fault in the relationship would not land in their court and that the trajectory of the marital counseling would be to correct the behavior of their mate. Luckily, success in marital counseling is not dependent on accurate self-assessments.14
How do people learn to be with each other? Not by changing their spouse but by changing themselves. This isn’t the best way; it’s the only way.
Humans (and all organisms) also have a behavioral repertoire. As with cars, humans have a structure of components and an organization of how the components work together. Unlike cars (and other machines), humans have a sensory apparatus, which, when perturbated, is not limited to factory settings when reacting. If I remark to my wife, her response may or may not be predictable. The present state of her nervous system that will determine her response is a confluence of her genetic makeup, her upbringing, her premarital history, her history in her social and professional life, her history in our relationship including what might have been said (or done) moments previously, or her memory of a smile from her baby granddaughter.
How does changing your own behavior change that of another? It doesn’t change it; it accesses a behavior within another’s repertoire. That is, it accesses a behavior from the current state of their nervous system from the many influences I described above.
Sometimes I don’t sleep well. If my wife says you’ve been grumpy all morning, whether I have or have not been grumpy, I’ll usually become grumpy in response to her spoken observation. If, on the other hand, she says, sorry you didn’t sleep well, I’m likely to say, “I’m okay,” and feel okay. She didn’t make me behave one way or the other. She accessed something within my repertoire. If I were a more even-tempered person, perhaps I wouldn’t have responded with grumpiness, no matter what she said. If she were conscious and desirous of accessing my more pleasant response, she’d have gone with the “sorry you didn’t sleep well.” All behavior stems from one entity accessing a behavior of another entity within that entity’s repertoire.
As a couple who’ve been together for nearly four decades, my wife and I have had countless interactions. We perturbate the other and the other reacts within their repertoire. While experiencing these mutual perturbations millions of times with each other (and millions of times with others), we believe the fiction that we’re being responded to directly rather than we’ve accessed something within another’s repertoire. These mutual perturbations are the means of structural coupling with other human beings—in conventional language, the means of interpersonal relationships.
I propose that to learn to view relationships as mutual perturbations can be as quieting as meditation and as conflict reducing as competent marital counseling15 while no more elusive than either.
It's All Just Stories
In my early twenties, after being dumped by my girlfriend, I ran off my depression.16 I was ahead of my time. Subsequent research suggests, for common depressive symptoms, exercise is as effective as prescription drugs. But futher studies suggest, I didn’t even need to sweat. Placebos, even when the patients were told they were placebos, alleviate both emotional and physical symptoms.
Congratulations to academics for getting grants to affirm what’s ancient news. For example, homeopathy has been around since 1796. Practitioners cure with a vial of water and a story why it will be effective. Most interesting to this local reality peddler (me), the disclosure to the subjects that they’re getting a placebo did not change the curative effect. That means the homeopath’s story is unnecessary. Patients provide their own curative stories.
Language, the atomic particles of stories
Sigmund Freud said the royal road to the unconscious mind is dreams. To dreams, Gregory Bateson, among others, added art, music, poetry, and paralinguistic communication.17
The royal road to the conscious mind is language. Our (local) reality is brought forth and maintained by the pitter-patter of our inner dialogue. If you’ve joined the meditation craze, you know that an attempt to suppress inner dialogue is like ignoring the latest sound notification from your pocket or purse. You might not pick up your iPhone, but your focus has changed to I’m not reading that message.
From the autobiography of deaf and blind Helen Keller, made famous in a play and two films, The Miracle Worker:
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.
The only form of communication possible between Helen’s tutor, Anne Sullivan, and Helen was through touch. At the Perkins School, Sullivan was taught the technique of communication by finger-drawing letters on the palm. At first, Helen made superficial progress. She could mimic Anne’s words when touching an object but could not connect the word with the object. Helen could not differentiate between a mug, milk, or a mug of milk, until, in a flash (as described above), she opened the gift marked “shared reality.”
“I recall many incidents of the summer of 1887 that followed my soul’s sudden awakening. I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.” (Italics mine.)
Helen lost her sight and hearing at nineteen months. Imagine her joy when five years later, she begins to recover a connection with the world. Contrast with us adults who do what we can to sever it.
Reality through a pinhole
I learned photography long before the digital era, but film and digital photography work similarly, with the digital sensor replacing film and computer processing replacing the chemical bath that develops the latent imprint on film. The light required to create the latent imprint (or the digital version) is the sum of the size of the lens aperture and duration the aperture opens to let in light, and the sensitivity (how much light is needed to create a latent image) of the film to be developed by the appropriate chemicals (or on the sensor to be processed).18
The time the lens aperture is open needs to be limited. If the exposure takes too long, a moving image or camera shake results in multiple recorded images, effectively, a blur. The size of the aperture needs to be limited. The depth of focus and size of the aperture are inversely proportional, so photographers often increase the aperture so only the main subject is in focus.
When my wife and I argue, all my senses behave like the camera. My senses act less to capture and more to prevent the disagreeable. I limit my exposure. I limit my depth of focus. I filter her words and turn my eyes away from her. All I let in is the perceived slight or other psychological threat to my well-being.
We think of perceptions as taking in our environment, but they’re just applying for a temp job in our nervous system. “We’ll screen your application and decide whether to have you in for an interview.” With all the sensory advantages a hearing and seeing person has compared to Helen Keller, we don’t allow in much more than Keller could. We don’t let in what threatens our version of reality.
How extreme can preventing the intake of the disagreeable get? A famous recent example: a childhood of being constantly demeaned by his father left an ex-president unable to perceive anything but compliments or criticism, loyalty or disloyalty.19
Our four-month-old granddaughter, Nova, will soon be uttering “dada” and “mama,” and Mom and Dad will be ecstatic and interact with Nova to turn those sounds into proper nouns. Through these mutual perturbations, Nova will learn to identify someone and something separate from herself. Along with Mama and Dada, her brother, Raiden, becomes someone. Each grandparent become someone. The pet cat becomes someone. Her cloth giraffe becomes something. Household items become something.
Soon, Nova will develop what psychologists call “object permanence.” She’ll call for her giraffe when it’s out of sight. As when Helen Keller began to name objects, this is the beginning of a shared reality. Or is it? We take it for granted that when Nova sees her giraffe, we see the same giraffe, but we have no way of knowing that; there is no test. All we know is we use the same name for the giraffe. Helen Keller made the connection that sharing the names of objects is the beginning of a shared reality, but what’s shared are just the names. Naming objects is the beginning of making abstractions, but that doesn’t mean your abstractions are my abstractions.
As Nova matures, she’ll increase her vocabulary and ability to abstract. Recall my previous post about the growing house in the essay, Spaces. Start with the basics and add rooms as needed. Nova will be adding metaphorical rooms. These new rooms are filled with thoughts formed by language, increasing in volume and complexity.
Long before Nova has a vocabulary, her parents and grandparents read stories to her. Soon Nova will have enough vocabulary to understand simple stories. Most of these stories won’t come from a book or movie. They’ll come from the oral descriptions of the events around her. Mama will say, “I found your giraffe.” Mama found my giraffe is a story. Over time, the stories will get more complex, and they’ll arrive in local conversation and in media.
Eventually, Nova will learn that some stories are fiction (made up), and some are non-fiction (real events and science). That “fact” will be just another story. We tell stories about the family dog getting into the cat food, and we tell stories about things too small (quantum physics) and things too big (the universe) to be experienced without special instruments. The “things” in the above sentence are also stories. Both cute pet anecdotes and scientific descriptions are textual maps that create our local reality.
Most stories we tell are about relationships, supposedly fictional, that is, novels, movies, and songs. Behavioral and cognitive scientists tell stories that are “non-fiction” but no less made up. Freud’s Oedipal complex, Jung’s archetypes, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, evolutionary psychologists’ genetically determined behavior, Piaget’s stages of development—all stories, all just language.
Recall how I described architects who grabbed onto my made-up house that was created ad hoc and put their own value-added stamp on it, how the owners hated those houses. Behavioral architects do the same. Psychotherapists who are self-labeled as Freudian, Jungian, feminist, humanist or any of the two-hundred approaches are selling that finished psychological home, designed by someone else, but therapists will attempt to convince you that you built it yourself. Same kind of marketing, if slightly less directly, comes care of politicians, advertisers, business leaders, civil engineers, social media, designers, journalists, and teachers, who hawk their local reality to society.
You’ve heard the cliché: fish don’t know they live in water. Humans don’t know we live in language. But while we’re rightfully fretful about water pollution, which comes from neglect, we’re not sufficiently fretful about language pollution.20
What’s to be done? Experts stand in the intellectual highway and proclaim: teach critical thinking! Then the paradox truck runs them over. Each expert’s version of critical thinking is just another completed house you’ll be offered at an attractive down payment and a lifetime mortgage.
- Technically, this dog-smile is a sign of submission. A dog baring its teeth in a slightly different manner, while accompanied by aggressive body language, is a threatening gesture. ↩︎
- I know I said at the outset, there’s no such thing as communication. I meant, what you intend to get across is filtered to an extent that the recipient doesn’t receive the intended message. Here, I mean the intended communication. ↩︎
- Analogical because graphs are based on the visual perspectives learned in nature. “Lay of the land,” see what I did there? ↩︎
- I don’t speak German, but I assume Freud used “unconscious” the way we commonly use “subconscious.” In either case, it refers to emotions and motivations beyond our awareness. From now on, I’ll use “subconscious.” ↩︎
- We can never know when some new data, or theoretical upheaval that interprets data in a new way, will arise that will contradict an accepted theory—even ten-thousands years from now. Nothing in science is ever “proved” as we understand the word. “Proof” is shorthand for conclusions within the current accepted scientific methodology. A famous example is the Theory of Relativity, which upended Newtonian physics. ↩︎
- To Zuckerberg and his metaverse aspirations, I’ll add the billionaires who want to live in space. No coincidence that the philosopher-king wannabes want to escape to and rule an alternate plane where their interpersonal deficits can be camouflaged. ↩︎
- Those of us less adept can barely find skilled builders to modify our homes because they have more than enough work tearing down old houses and replacing them with bigger houses or multifamily dwellings. ↩︎
- These aren’t just middle-class and-up issues. Less well-off families have the same living-space problems without the means to access the home-sizing ladder. ↩︎
- My psychologist brother informs me that recidivism rates are down in some modern treatment facilities. ↩︎
- Dog lovers will recognize this. ↩︎
- If you miss your work when on vacation, that will be a clue you’ll struggle in retirement. ↩︎
- Those who view me as an arrogant know-it-all have it backward. I’m an arrogant ignoramus. ↩︎
- That’s only theory. I’m baffled by our new washing machine. ↩︎
- I use marriage and marriage counseling as shorthand for any committed coupling. ↩︎
- It could also be included as something to practice during marital counseling. ↩︎
- Pun unintended, but I endorse it. ↩︎
- Paralinguistic communication is all non-verbal expression: body language, voice inflection, oral pace, etc. ↩︎
- Size of window, plus duration of blinds raised, plus current skin tone or effectiveness of suntan lotion, equals suntan, sunburn, or little effect. ↩︎
- Living your life with the primary focus to ward off psychological threats must be the very underpinnings of what we call mental illness. ↩︎
- George Orwell warned us. ↩︎