Sunday, August 31, 2008

Schemata, Cognitive Dissonance and Being Simply Open-minded

Well-dressed man with a green apple as his face

We all need to categorize our information. I'm not talking about carrying an agenda or notebook with you but something that your brain does for you automatically; otherwise you would be buried under information overload. Our brain has different departments if you will where all the info is stored, and they are called “schemata.”

A schema, as Piaget has stated, is the category we build for a specific item. For example, the schema “dog” would include all the necessary information and trivia, characteristics, even personal opinions and experiences related to the topic of dogs. Anything remotely canine goes into that department.

It is something we do since childhood, and we need to assimilate and accommodate incoming data. That means our schemata could grow by incorporating additional information about the topic in question. This is something that helps us activate a schema and gain more knowledge about a specific topic. It is a process called assimilation, and we are glad that our schema has grown and gotten more complex. This is what we experience when we learn something new and welcome that new knowledge.

However, a problem may occur when the incoming data is not conforming to our already existing schema. That is we would need to “accommodate” information that is at odds with our previously held beliefs and assumptions. That's when we might experience a serious problem. It's when you think that dogs are cute and peaceful when suddenly one of them bites your hand for no apparent reason whatsoever. Your schema is then shaken up.

Still we often have an innate tendency to protect our own beliefs and will even use defense mechanisms to do so. It causes stress to abandon what we thought to be correct and replace it immediately with a new schema. Of course, it depends on the topic in question and your affective response to it. You can ignore the biting dog and attribute it to a single random case of violence, yet still hold intact your belief that dogs are cute, fluffy, and harmless.

When there is no strong emotional tie to the schema, it is easier to abandon or change it. If somebody tells you cats are not as loyal as dogs whereas you used to believe it to be the case, your reaction might not be stressful. You will embrace the new information and simply change your schema.

But when it comes to more personal issues, then it is another story. If somebody tells you that your partner, whom you believed to be loyal, is seen holding hands with another person, then you most likely would feel distress. You may accept the information and reformulate your schema, “my partner is not as loyal as I thought him or her to be,” or you simply deny the facts and stick to your own schema, ignoring your friend's comments or even attacking him or her for making such outrageous claims.

It would be even more painful if it is a long-held cherished belief. Imagine you spent all your life with specific religious or political beliefs and suddenly realize that you were wrong, that your previous outlook has been shattered and you need to change your view. It is probably a common fact that elderly people tend to be more conservative than younger people, for the latter still have fresh and dynamic schemata and a complete changeover would not cause them as much pain as to those who have invested and poured years (and energy and perhaps money) into that belief.

In cases like these our mind or ego tries to protect us by searching for equilibrium. If the information is at odds with our schema, we tend to find a middle ground and as such slowly let it filter through and change the preexisting category. As such, it does not come as a complete shock or surprise, and we don't feel distress.

This whole conflict is called cognitive dissonance, the feeling of acting in a certain manner not consistent with our personality. We may consider ourselves a moral person but then engage in an immoral act. This makes us feel at conflict, hence it is “dissonant” or not "congruent,” but we might find various ways of integrating this new aspect into a more holistic view of ourselves.

It is important to note that cognitive dissonance is not really a bad thing. It opens us to various truths about ourselves and our behavior. If you believe you are leading a healthy lifestyle but still smoke, you might need to change your smoking habits to fit into your own category of a healthy life-style.

What does being open-minded mean? I think it comes down to those points of accommodation and cognitive dissonance. People who are flexible enough and are ready to admit their errors, whether in logic or behavior, those to me are open-minded. They are ready to change their schemata and do not conveniently deceive themselves by holding onto false erroneous beliefs despite strong evidence to the contrary.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What’s Philosophy got to do with it?

Main waiter at fancy restaurant talking philsophy to employees
What's the use of philosophy really? Is there any? Philosophy amounts to not much more than futile intellectual exercises for the few academically inclined people. That's all there is to it, isn't it? Forget the high and lofty aspirations of the ancient Greeks and modern philosophers trying to get to the essence of life, figuring out the reason and objective of our existence here, answers that would illuminate the hidden mysteries of life. In the end, a philosophy degree won't even get you a job now, so what's the point?

You can get your doctorate in philosophy, and end up working in a restaurant. You can be an educated waiter who can chat about deep philosophical issues hoping to get at least a “sympathy tip” from the customer. Or drive people around in a taxi and proclaim the truth, converting one client at the time to the truths of Socrates and Kant while hoping to make ends meet, to have enough for tomorrow’s meal and next month's rent.

It's a shame really. Not that philosophy was ever really well-paid. Philosophers have often been ridiculed, ostracized and trampled upon. As a profession there is the erroneous deep-seated belief that philosophers (even worse than artists and writers) don't contribute anything to society. But is it always necessary to contribute to society in order to be useful and valuable?

The problem is actually much more complex. Fields like philosophy have become the sole domain of academia; they have become too complicated, intricate and specialized for the common man or woman and what he or she does not understand often turns into fear and rejection. It might be one of the main reasons why intellectuals in general do not get the attention and the praise they deserve.

There is, however, a growing branch of philosophy that deals with the more practical aspects of life, called “applied philosophy.” It deals with various situations in our daily life and sheds light on them through the lens and the previously accumulated knowledge of philosophy. However, as in any endeavor in humanities or arts, and unlike science, there are no conclusive results.

Today's society, mostly in North America, is focused on a cost-benefit, pros and cons analysis, namely, the financial and pragmatic advantages of each action. If I spend this many years and that much money to get a degree, I would rather choose something that will get me a good and decent job that pays well. If science and technology or business administration and economics will land me definite high-paying salaries, that would be the “best” choice out there.

Philosophy, humanities, the arts are all seen as fields with no future, with no tangible value. It is not unusual to overlook the spiritual aspects when you are living in a materialistic society. All that cannot be seen, that is not tangible or measurable, that does not give you visual results and outcomes is seen as a waste of time, money, and energy. But at least, you can have a great chat with a philosophically-inclined waiter, and please, don't forget to tip them well!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Plato’s Cave, Tunnel Vision and those Shadows on the Wall

Cave as tunnel vision revealing deep inside a construction worker
Mammoth Cave Canyon
Imagine what it would be like to be in Plato’s Cave. All bound, hands and feet, our head looking only in one direction, as we follow flickering shadows on the walls and are enthralled and entranced with them.

Wait a minute. That is exactly how most of us spend our time, isn't it? We experience “tunnel vision” our whole perception and attention is on the glowing little screen in front of us. We may not be bound, physically that is; we can get up and go to the washroom anytime or grab another beer from the fridge. We sit there, with our feet stretched out, our beer at reach, and a bowl of peanuts and nachos at our free disposal while watching the tube or the computer screen.

When Plato wrote his cave myth, he meant to show us that we were erroneous in believing that the “appearance” of the world was the ultimate reality. The prominent Greek philosopher believed that the physical world is nothing but a shadow, and where there is a shadow, there must be a fountain of light.

This is what one the “cavemen” experienced as he broke free from the mob and took a peek outside. He was amazed by the bright rays of the sun and saw everything bathed in its divine light. No more somber shadows but pure light delight!

“Man”, he said, “wait 'till my homies and bros get a load of this!” So he returned to the cave and to his surprise nobody believed him. Or if they did, they were comfortably nestled in their cave, on their stone couches and did not want to lift a finger … unless it was for switching channels. “Step outside? No way, man, you crazy or what?”

Seeing the “light of truth” and coming back to tell the others, sounds like a pretty crazy idea to me! One should learn from other people's mistakes. Any prophet can vouchsafe that unless you don’t value your own life, unless you are “lebensmüde” as the Germans say, you'd better keep your mouth shut.

The cave is our culture of consumption, where we see the shadow of reality, or rather a reflection of a shadow on the captivating screen, while the media spoon-feeds us information, binding and blinding us with conventional thoughts and values.

Doubtless to say, Plato would be "pissed" if he came back. In fact, I could see him retire from modern civilization, join an Amish or Mennonite group and be completely and quite happily ignorant of who and what Britney Spears is.

Yet I would love him to become a blogger, sit with his laptop at the foot of a mountain by the side of a flowing river in a Grecian town and post all his frustrations with the modern world on his own official site: Plato against the rest of the

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Place called Golestan

Colorful Persian miniature painting of beautiful woman in flowing dress

This story of mine which was published in Arabesque Print Literary Journal in 2006 was written in moments of fear and isolation. It contains some personal motifs and deals with the problem of identity for Iranians in the Western world.

A Place Called Golestan

Aref dreamt that his apartment had caught fire, and he tried to save his most cherished belongings -- a few photo albums, a bunch of books and CDs.

The next morning he was following the news, while having his frugal breakfast – some cereal and a cup of coffee – when he heard about how foreign troops had invaded the country of his ancestors. The news agitated him, and he did not finish his bowl of cereal.

Once upon a time an eager but very timid five-year old boy had been assigned to crush grapes with his little bare feet. His trampling and constantly moving feet had been stained with the squirting warm dark-red juice. Aref always enjoyed this activity. He knew that his grandfather, who was watching him with a smile, would use the juice to make wine; that he would pour the fruit of his trampling efforts into a large machine in the garden shed at the back. His grandfather used to tell his oldest grandson: “One day, you will be old enough to have a taste of your own accomplishment.”

Aref had waited in vain. War and politics had created an immense gulf between their lives and, reluctantly, his family had decided to leave it all behind - home, family, job and career - to embark on the quest for other more peaceful shores.

Not much did he know or remember about his country, the place where he had seen the light of day, the ground on which he had learned to walk and where his first impressions of childhood had been formed. He had always shared the belief that people were similar to wine; they would soak up and absorb a certain flavor of their region, which meant, in his case: the vast range of mountains, the sweet fragrance of rose gardens, the ornamental architecture of mosques and palaces, the thin bread, the fresh cheese, lyrical poetry.

However, his lack of knowledge about his roots and culture embarrassed him, he who was used to a tightrope-balancing act between North American life and a Western European upbringing. But he had ended up as a man without culture, an unidentified man suspended in mid-air without solid ground to fall upon, the prototypical restless nomad who never stays at one place, but, like his parents, must wander onto new horizons, to new hopes - and kept walking in formless circles.

“Have you heard?” he asked his sister on the phone.

“Yes, I tried to call there, but all the lines are busy or disrupted. I hope they’re all right. I sent an email though.”

“Yes, good thinking. Are you busy today?”

Aref felt more lonely than usual and longed for her company.

“Ah, Aref, I will see what I can do. Doubt it though. You know, got a big exam coming up tomorrow.”

“That’s OK, Shaydah,” a somewhat disheartened Aref responded.

“But I’ll be over tomorrow afternoon. Right after the exam. What do you say?”

“Sounds good. See you then.”

He hung up. Their form of communication was a borrowed language. The knowledge of his native tongue was slowly fading away.

Unfortunately, he had never bothered to learn to read and write Farsi and suddenly, despite of his North American education, he felt like an illiterate. He had spent years studying and developing French language and literature at the expense of neglecting his own background.

He called his parents and got the answering machine. In broken Farsi he told them he would call back later in the evening.

Slightly depressed and overwhelmed by these newly sprouting sensations, he decided to go to the public library to find some information that would appease his sudden craving.

As he was walking through the busy smog-filled streets of downtown, passing by students, beggars, couples, corporate people, he could not shake off the thought that, in the eyes of the world, he was nothing but a second-class citizen.

In Germany, where he finished his secondary education, he always stood out with his dark hair and dark-brown eyes. He knew that should he have applied for citizenship there, he would have never fully become a German citizen. Besides, he had felt quite reluctant to have to give up his original nationality, something that his host country Canada with its dual citizenship standard did not deny him.

He went to the public library, sat down at one of the computers and began his search on the Internet. With amazement he gazed upon the various photos of temples and fountains, read fragments of stories and legends and felt like reverting back to ancient times of padshahs, courageous fearless heroes, and beautiful princesses.

On his way back home he bought a bottle of red wine and a miniature Persian carpet. The latter he put ceremoniously on the center of his studio. Then, he opened the wine wanting to imitate the great tradition of mystic Sufi poets, who had used this ancient heavenly drink as a symbol for illumination and acquired knowledge. He drank to himself in his modest lodging and read poetry from the books he had signed out from the library.

How his philosophy of love and life coincided with the lyrical passages and descriptions in those books! How, he resembled the Majnun, the mad man, the wild sensitive young man who had lost his sanity because of his passion and love for the beautiful and incomparable Layla! How often had he been lying there on those sleepless tormented nights, suffering from love and picturing the smile of his beloved, the girl of his dreams, who had many faces, but who always evaded him throughout his life!

The wine started to go to his head, and he became drowsy, so he decided to take a short walk outside. He always found that whenever his body was in motion, his thoughts regained momentum. As he looked upon the various colorless, brick and wooden buildings under the gray light of an overcast sky and impending rain, he mused about what it must have been like to walk on the turf of his country.

Suddenly, he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. He turned around very slowly. There was nobody there. Yet the space behind him started to transform before his eyes. Like a black and white movie that gradually turned into color, the scenery changed and came to life. The gray district was suddenly glazed in bright vivid colors, the walls were being repainted with floral motifs and calligraphy, vines began growing and interlacing on the cracked buildings, olive trees sprouted upwards from the asphalt, and branches with fresh green leaves extended their arms.

And the passage below his feet had turned into a soft bed of roses and lilies and orchids. Red tulips burst open from dead solid rock and reached up towards the sun. Eagles and sparrows took over the skies.

With a knowing smile, he entered the long-sought garden.

Historical Origin of 7 Superstitions

Drawing of black cat with yellow eyes

We often hold onto superstitions in a blind and rather stubborn fashion despite evident knowledge of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. We label superstition as child play and fancy, yet secretly cross fingers or knock on wood.

It’s not easy to dismiss something that has been practiced for several centuries. Superstitious beliefs did not just pop up overnight but have gradually evolved and been transmitted from generation to generation. They make up a large part of our culture and are resistant to the many onslaughts of reason.

Probably most of us engage in superstitious acts once in a while. When someone praises me, for example, I cannot help but look for a piece of wood to knock on. When a mirror breaks in our house, I am filled with worry and count down the next seven years of bad luck coming my way.

But how did these superstitious beliefs evolve; what was their starting point? And why are certain random seeming acts considered an omen of bad luck? Here is a list of seven popular beliefs and their historical origin:

1) Walking under a ladder brings bad luck. The reason is simple; the ladder and the wall come to represent a triangle and, as such, it becomes a symbol of God, the Holy Spirit and the Son. Entering that triangle demonstrates disrespect towards holiness and leads to bad luck.

2) The previously mentioned knocking on wood comes from pagan beliefs of good spirits living in the woods. They can be found in trees and all wooden material. By knocking on a wooden surface they are supposedly released and can come and protect you from envy and harm.

3) Spilling salt is a sign of misfortune because of the history of salt. It used to be a highly sought-after and very expensive commodity. It was also used for medicinal purposes. So wasting it would have been a capital offense. Let alone that people at one point used to get paid in salt and hence the word sal-ary.

4) Why is Friday the 13th a day of misfortune? Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and he was surrounded by 12 disciples with one of them out to betray him. Noah's flood supposedly started on a Friday; Adam and Eve were apparently expelled on one such day. Also whenever 12 witches get together, their 13th member is the devil himself. And then there's good old Jason ...

5) You should not open umbrellas inside the house. Umbrellas were used not only to protect against rain and sun rays, but also to ward off evil spirits outside. Opening them inside was a sign of disrespect.

6) Black cats are a sign of bad luck. This belief also has Christian origins. The Egyptian goddess Bast's symbol was a female black cat. Christian priests who wanted to wipe out her influence once and for all, claimed that black cats cut you off from God and block the entrance to heaven. Also during the witch hunt, black cats were believed to be personifications of other more experienced witches.

7) And finally, breaking a mirror brings you seven years of bad luck. This goes back to the Romans who thought that the reflection of the self also contained the soul. When mirrors broke, a part of the self was thought to be harmed. The good news was that Romans believed that you can recover from your "broken self," but you would have to be patient: For them life renewed itself every seven years.

So believe and follow them or dismiss them as folly, but superstitions have been deeply embedded in our cultural and religious psyche and heritage. In other words, they are not that easy to get rid off. And we can be on the safe side and give them some type of nod or acknowledgement. After all, there may be a kernel of truth in them or else superstitious beliefs would not have survived so long.

Friday, August 15, 2008

I Me Me Mine: Freudian Defenses of the Ego

Smiling and slightly insane Mel Gibson

The ego, according to Freud, is the executive acting part of our selves. It is that which tries to mitigate between the dark and unpredictable forces of sex, hunger and violence of the “id”, and the unrealistically high and exaggerated moral demands of the “superego”.

No wonder the ego feels stressed out sometimes! Come on, throw me a bone here! It's like working under two demanding bosses at the same time who give you conflicting orders. And you try your best to negotiate and not to piss them off.

The impulses and wants of the id that are not satisfied come back and haunt you in a major way, and then you, I mean, the ego, might lose control, a momentary lapse of reason, and you might end up committing an act you'll regret for the rest of your life. On the other hand, the superego may threaten you with the possibility of severe punishment, and you might be so filled with guilt and remorse that you fall into deep and black despair.

What to do then? The ego, the self, or the voice inside your head that calls itself “I” is smart enough to come up with various mechanisms to protect itself from harm. Of course, some are better and more effective than other methods, but here I shall present a few.

Denial is a simple and very common procedure. We all do it. We turn a blind eye to the facts and say that there is no problem. We avoid confrontations at all costs and pretend that everything is fine. There is no problem. Period. What are you talking about, you crazy, or something?

Displacement is not a good idea, unless you choose a symbolic object like a punching bag. People who use this method are cowards really. They are afraid of standing up to their bosses. They look for easier helpless targets that cannot defend themselves. They go home and kick their dog and even worse, hit their children.

Projection is the perfect way of fooling yourself. While denial was a simple non-acceptance looking-away kind of deal, projection is a little more complex. You transfer unwanted feelings onto others; that way you feel relieved because supposedly you exorcise them, at least temporarily. A faithful husband fighting his attraction for a beautiful and sexy neighbor accuses his innocent wife of acts of infidelity.

Or, if you have homosexual feelings and your superego is on the conservative end, you will try your best to openly attack those who practice what you in the deeper recesses of your being would like to do yourself. I am always suspicious of those who are strongly and very vocally anti-gay. Think about it. Or skip this paragraph because it has absolutely nothing to do with you. Who am I or who is Freud to say something about your personality, right? One of us is definitely a crack-head and it ain’t me!

Sublimation is the best mechanism of them all. Seriously. Here you take your violent and unacceptable impulses and turn them into pure gold. Maybe not gold, but at least, a work of art.

Instead of becoming a serial killer write a book or make a movie about them! That way you will not only save innocent people's lives and stay away from serious jail time, but you may actually be praised for your creativity. I hope Tarantino keeps on making movies and Mel Gibson should be kept busy at all times; I would even put up with another film of the latter for the sake of humanity!

Friday, August 8, 2008

No beans, Pythagoras! (Why the Greek Philosopher put dietary restrictions on his sect)

Pythagoras immersed in reading a book with people around him
Pythagoras was an enigmatic figure, to say the least. We learn mostly about him in mathematics class, regarding his famed Theorem of a²+b²=c². Yet it turns out that many scholars do not credit him with it and claim that it was probably discovered earlier by the Egyptians or the Babylonians, though Pythagoras supposedly added the proofs.

Yet he was much more than a mathematician; in fact, he must have been an icon in his own time. He certainly had his followers and disciples who would voluntarily join his sect. What is uncommon for his times was that he accepted men and women equally in a society where the latter were usually discriminated against.

One of the tenets of his sect was that the soul is immortal and that it transmigrates. He himself believed to be the reincarnation of “Euphorbus”, a warrior of Trojan times, and once he pleaded not to hurt a dog because he apparently recognized the soul of a friend in the dog's body.

His most famous saying was that “all things are numbers;” everything can be explained by mathematics similar to what the character in the movie Pi by Darren Aronofsky believed. Due to its infallible preciseness and absolute general truths, mathematics could be deemed to offer a magical key to unlocking and understanding the cosmos. Everything could be explained with numbers and equations.

He appreciated music because it was equally mathematical. One of his most beautiful claims was that the heavenly bodies were separated along longitudes by chords. These chords vibrated whenever the celestial bodies moved and produced the music of the spheres.

Pythagoras also cherished silence because it involved deep reflection and meditation. In his monastery, one of the first known of its kind, he would dress simply and follow strict regimens. He abstained from eating meat and hence was one of the earliest proponents of vegetarianism. Following a balanced diet he hoped to purify the body and consequently aid the soul. He believed that the body was a prison of the soul and by eating well one could help the soul aspire to higher truths. However, one of the most interesting facts about his diet was the avoidance of beans.

So why no beans? Would it disturb the silence or break the spiritual contemplation due to possible flatulence among its members? There is probably a better explanation for it. During Greek times, there was a common disease associated with the consumption of beans called "favism", which is a form of hemolytic anemia. So it all came down to rather practical reasons and considerations.

It is really too bad that we know so little about this philosopher. Unfortunately, he left us no concrete written records, so we are mostly left in the dark. What a shame because Pythagoras, the “father of numbers” was a rather interesting fellow!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Reflections on Motherhood, Fatherhood - and Seahorses

Watching a pregnancy first hand and up-close is of course not the same as being pregnant; however, following each of the stages of my wife's pregnancy has provided me with a better idea of the whole process. I must say my heartfelt respect and big old mad props to all mothers out there!

As they say every pregnancy is different and has its own peculiar circumstances; yet overall it involves much more effort and persistence than I had imagined. I am on my way to fatherhood for the first time, and already the slightest pain and disturbance of my wife makes me worried and keeps me on my toes. Especially when she was prescribed bed rest, I would feel the stress waves engulfing me: I had to run errands here and there, cook and track down food for her various unpredictable cravings and her sudden uncompromising hunger attacks and felt like a confused headless chicken.

What would it be like to have a baby growing inside of you, to be able to give life? We men will never experience that. Some claim that might be the reason why we often act aggressively and are territorial or jealous because of our inability to give life. I don't think Freud was right with his theory of penis-envy; it is rather the other way around!

And our only hope as men is to immerse ourselves in our jobs and to measure our success by our worldly accomplishments because we cannot have babies. Because let's face it, we men don't do much; we have all the fun while the women have to deal with the unpleasant consequences where hormones go wild, morning or all-day sickness kicks in and pain and aches become a common daily fact. Not to mention the prospect of unbearable pain during the delivery.

Yet some species are different, and that is where the seahorses come in. It might be one of the few, if not the only, species where the male actually goes through with the pregnancy. The female passes on the eggs to the male who goes through the whole process and actually gives birth. Yet during the whole pregnancy of the male, the female seahorses still come and check up on them once in a while to see if everything is going well. Finally, when the male seahorse gives birth, he will show his empty belly asking for a new patch of babies!

So unless scientific breakthrough makes the movie Junior with Arnold Schwarzenegger a reality, we men will never really know what great sacrifices mothers have undergone to bring us to the world. And we miss out on all the bonds, attachments and the joys that are associated with the ability of giving life!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

New Romantic Pieces of Fiction

Two aliens in conversation in a cartoon UFO spaceship
Cartoon Spaceship by Mark Van Bebber
For all those interested in multilingual websites of fiction, the following site may be of interest at Writers can submit short stories and poems in various languages, and it is a great way to find some extra exposure.

I recently added three of my stories, Tidal Waves, Confetti, Una marciana historia de amor, and they have gained some readership, which is great! All three of them go back to the kind of fiction I used to relish in (and still occasionally do) about romance, poetry, and the quest for the soul-mate, or your other "half of the orange" as they say here in Mexico.

The first one, Tidal Waves, is a more or less biographical account of an ex-girlfriend and the consequences of being an incurable romantic like me (don’t worry: I have recovered though and am happily married, but at the moment I was heartbroken, of course, during most of my young adulthood actually).

The second one, Confetti, is a love story set in the Mexican colonial town of Morelia where we are living now, and it is about two foreign women, one of them looking to find true love and the other having already found Mr. Right trying to console and help her desolate friend. It makes reference to an actual rather odd but highly interesting event that takes place around here on a regular basis (I haven’t been myself - no need to, see above - but one of my students told me of its existence).

The final one, Una marciana historia de amor, is a note, my first Spanish writing attempt, I wrote for my Mexican wife on Valentine’s Day about how I came to Mexico all lost and forlorn - and found her! It is in form of a modern fairy tale including spaceships, Martians and about being different in a conformist world.

Hope you enjoy it and leave me (favorable) comments, or even better, add and share your own tales of woe and happiness!