Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Quest for Eudaimonia: A Buddhist Perspective on Happiness

Rocky stairway leading to top part of Vancouver Stanley Park

Instead of starting with an abstract definition of happiness, let us first look at what it is that makes us happy in the first place. Is it a new wardrobe, an electronic gadget, a new car, or an unlimited supply of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Seeing that most of these items are materialistic in nature, why not simply bribe our way through life with money? Would that ensure happiness? Can money actually buy us happiness?

In fact, (a sufficient deal of) money does seem to make us happy. It puts a smile on our face (imagine finding a bundle of large bills on the street or suddenly obtaining a windfall); it enables us to pick up gourmet foods (and partners?); it opens up a host of activities and hobbies that are denied to many others, such as paragliding or traveling around the world.

Yet there is an obvious shortcoming connected to the word happiness itself. It does indeed apply to those situations above. Who can say with a straight face that they categorically do not enjoy sex or that they gladly refuse all types of drugs (I am including coffee, cigarettes, and chocolate on this list, Mormons excluded of course)?

When we describe happiness, what we are talking about most of the time is actually gratification. We gratify our desires, which in turn gives us pleasure. Sex and drugs are good examples here; they give us gratification for a while, but there remains a spot that is never filled or satisfied; an itch that cannot be scratched; a part that seems to be constantly on the run from the grasp of happiness.

What to do then? It may turn out that the type of happiness we are talking about keeps eluding us because we simply do not have the right word designed for - or rather assigned to - it. We may feel trapped in our lack of words in the English language the same way a non-Eskimo purportedly lacks the vocabulary to perceive the slightly variations in a snowstorm. So lacking vocabulary, we have simply a feeling of unease, a certain seemingly unscratchable itch which we do not know the cause of and for which we lack the remedy.

Since we are obviously at odds here, let us borrow a term from the ancient Greeks, those who are mainly responsible for putting us on this path of self-consciousness more than two thousand years ago. We stumble upon Aristotle and his views on (true) happiness, which he calls eudaimonia (often translated as "human flourishing," while Socrates might prefer the term “good demon”).

As we can see the idea of flourishing is much more dynamic and not merely a particular moment, outcome or desire along the scales of time. It cannot be pinpointed precisely as it is in constant bloom (although interestingly the Greeks did assign a certain moment as the climax of one's intellectual accomplishments, as they often ignore the birth and death of an individual and simply state that, for example, Euclid flourished at around 300 BC, while my own flourishing probably took place at around age 16).

In this sense, the emphasis on change and transformation is a rather Buddhist idea similar to the blooming of the lotus flower floating on a grey lake of Mayan ignorance. The thing is true happiness is not (nor can it be) a snapshot or a moment of bliss; it is (or rather should be) a lifetime of joy. It is like moving from the aesthetic self-absorbed (Kierkegaard's first) level to the higher realms of the ethical and / or religious sphere.

Suddenly, we are shifting from a materialistic framework, of that which can be accessed with - and is generally within the reach of - money to a more (for a lack of better words) spiritual view on happiness. Imagine the Buddha after years of mindful meditation, after struggling with demons (not the Socratic ones but the really bad guys with rotten teeth and worse intentions) and all this time the man once known as Siddhartha Gautama is nourishing the growing and glowing light within, in the process of releasing the ego of its human-made shackles (freeing Siddhartha from himself) and finally reaching that sublime and wonderful peak of enlightenment.

After a moment or two of exultation and unspeakable bliss, he might ask himself the following question: Now what? And that is exactly the point here. Every time we overcome a hurdle, every time we smell and taste the delicious flavor of success; every time we have satisfying sex or get that long-awaited raise, there is a push for something else, something more, something different.

And our lives are spent in those myriad moments that we label crudely as either happy or sad, but it is their complementary combination, their complexity, their final culmination or tally that may give us true and lasting happiness, the state of eudaimonia.

For Aristotle, happiness and virtue are permanently entwined in intimate ways. Virtue could be seen as the reign on instant gratification via the controlling faculties of reason. For example, you may have a wonderful and happy union with your wife, and there is suddenly the chance of the gratification of an instant and often hidden desire.

Sure, it would make you happy, at least momentarily, to engage in an illicit and pleasure-giving activity with another woman, but at the same time it is the unethical or “wrong” thing to do. You would put in jeopardy your continuous time-stretching shot at lasting happiness for the irrational mad pleasure of a single instance. So the voice of reason in this case sounding like a faded version of your parents will (hopefully!) steer you away from “temptation” and put you back into the arms of your wife, on the long and winding road of eudaimonia.

Yes, happiness is not a case of winning the lottery or even fulfilling our dreams; it is rather a continuous patient quest for fulfillment, for growth, for virtue. To give a quasi-mathematical illustration here, tally up all your sexual partners and they will not add up to the love of your one and only steadfast partner.

Eudaimonia or the Buddhist outlook on happiness may be less thrilling and less fun and involve work through dedication and discipline compared to the deliciously impulsive, blind and wild passion; yet eudaimonia will flourish under the temperate climate of the Mediterranean coast and make you truly happy over the long haul, of course.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

We are what we simulate: A Review of Bergen's Book “Louder than Words”

Flying pig drawing book cover by Benjamin K. Bergen
For quite some time I have had two specific concerns on my mind. One of them, in fact, concerns my memory. My memory can be encyclopedic for names and dates (I know who wrote what book or which director made what film when) but ask me to describe what my bathroom looks like or to give details about everyday objects I use and I will draw a blank (literally, I'd draw a blank page!).

My second problem is that I feel guilty about not enjoying detailed descriptions of settings. I have seen other friends and lovers of fiction rave and drool about how Victor Hugo gives such an incredibly vivid image of the sewage system spanning five pages or thereabouts. I am sorry that those descriptions do not stimulate my mind nor fire any neurons on my part. At best, they make me yawn and that is in no way meant as a deterrent or criticism of the aforementioned author.

In fact, that may be the reason why I never attempted to read Les Misérables and why I enjoy Dostoevsky, for instance, who tends to be rather low on physical descriptions (at least if my memory is to be trusted, see concern one). But again I used to feel guilty because I know I ought to salivate over the expansive imagery used in novels, sewers or not. That is until I read Bergen's book.

I cannot recommend this book any more strongly (in the sense that there are no words strong enough to express my support, and not in the sense that there is nothing good to say about it!). Benjamin K. Bergen's Louder Than Words: The New Science Of How The Mind Makes Meaning examines language and meaning-making through what is called embodied simulation over the often vague and rather ill-defined concept of Mentalese.

Let us look at specific examples to illustrate the different approaches of the two theories. Let us assume you are learning French because you want to read Hugo's magnificent sewer description in its original French to be able to savor its full flavor. And you stumble upon a word that looks like nothing you have ever seen before, French or otherwise. What do you do?

The answer is evident: You look up the specific word in a dictionary. So you will find an English definition that is the equivalent of that French term. So far so good. But assuming English is your first and native language, how did you learn your own language in the first place? Did you look up definitions as well? But that is like not knowing any French and looking up a French word in a purely French dictionary. To put it in Bergen's words: What gives?

The explanation that I had been familiar with from my own share of university psych classes was the following: There is a thought language called Mentalese that defines and decodes words and expressions being used in our first, native language. It is like a dormant language program embedded in the brain waiting for the acquisition of language to turn it on. But then what do we use to decode the Mentalese words with? We use a definition of a definition of a definition ad infinitum (or rather ad absurdum).

And hence, embodied simulation steps in to fill in the void. It means we decode the words we find with the help of images we have in our mind. So when we read a sentence, we imagine it in our minds in order to make sense of it. When, for example, “the cat jumps on the table” we see in our mind's eye the properties of what constitutes a cat (of course the image is colored and shaped by our own idiosyncratic tendencies, which are made up of our own previous experiences on the subject).

Then we imagine the action of jumping (something we are probably familiar with since childhood) and we see the table (the place where the cat arrives made of glass, wood or what-have-you). Replace the cat with jabberwocky (cat = jabberwocky) and you might not get as clear an image unless you are familiar with the works of Monty Python and/or Lewis Carroll.

It is rather amazing how as our brain is in the process of simulating, the same neurons associated with respective actions become excited (but do not fire). It is like the state of REM sleep, where we imagine actions, but our bodies do not act upon them.

It also explains why athletes who visualize scoring goals or bowling strikes tend to score more goals and bowl more strikes when in action! As we are mentally rehearsing, our muscles do the same and we are ready to turn our mental picture into real action. (Interestingly, the reverse is true as well: visualizing that you fail will increase your chances of failure!). So better to visualize a knock-out performance before your next job interview and romantic date, and you just might get the job and the girl!

But language can be tricky, as Bergen demonstrates as well. Let us look at the word “clubbing.” Now I tend to think of a pouncing room with sweaty people dancing their hearts out, but others might be thinking of getting hit by a club. It turns out that when there is conflicting information, our brains tend to adjust the information and the context at hand.

Bergen looks at a number of metaphors, and he actually uses the idea of “clubbing the reader over the head.” In this scenario, nobody gets hurt, physically-speaking at least. So while we first simulate the unpleasant fact of being hit on the head with a club-like object, the brain corrects the statement and understands that this is not meant to be taken literally. That is also why idiomatic expressions, such as clubbing someone over the head can bring about veritable headaches for those who are learning English as a second or foreign language.

Louder than Words is filled with a number of scientific studies testing this embodied simulation hypothesis. We also learn about cultural differences since the relationship between words and actions can become a completely different experience across cultures. For example, while Westerners would wait (and simulate the act of waiting) in a sitting position, the Chinese prefer to squat instead. So the simple and commonplace act of waiting depends on cultural contexts and takes on different proportions or stances in one's mind's eye.

Language is a very personal experience and not an objective means of communication. Our previous experiences, both personal and cultural, strongly influence how we make meaning of words and expressions. And this explains why reading (simulating all those words into actions in one's mind) sometimes tires me, why having dreams about work exhaust me and why I should log them as extra hours or overtime.

For all the so-called multi-taskers out there, the brain cannot do two things at once, the same way, as Bergen puts it, the mouth cannot chew and whistle at the same time! Since the mere thought - and by extension simulation - of something puts your neurons on alert, ready to fire at any moment, it also makes talking on cellphones (hands-free or not) or even simply worrying about an issue a hazardous undertaking while driving.

This also gives us useful knowledge about language learning and teaching, for example, why foreign students may have difficulty understanding certain concepts even after looking them up in their own language. I strongly recommend this book for language teachers and educators out there. It also gave me an interesting glimpse of the scientific process and rigors, even though my bruised head smarted afterwards, metaphorically speaking.

All in all, this book is definitely worth its salt (and I haven't even touched upon its wit, humor and its recurring analogy of "flying pigs" -- for a glimpse see the book cover above). If you want stimulating and intelligent reading, go no further. You will find out if you are a visualizer or a verbalizer (I am a verbalizer and I assume “great brains simulate alike”) and it might just help you to avoid pitfalls and manipulation of language so that we can make sure that we are communicating more effectively in our daily lives.

Because, in fact, we are what we speak and words can have tremendous impact on our lives. They are not only used for the purposes of this post, but they also help us to make heads and tails of the world. Words can start and end wars and crusades, relationships and marriages, and may lead to success and failure in our professional world. In other words, let us not underestimate the power and influence of words nor take their meaning-making lightly.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Memory on Film: From Implants to Mind Manipulation

Memory respresentation as a warrior woman

I had to remind myself not to forget to write this post since once an idea is forgotten, it ends up in the trash can of no-man's land (located at the intersection of the Bermuda Triangle). I wonder how many brilliant books and movies have been heaped upon the dustbin of lost, abandoned or never-realized projects. It happens everyday everywhere to everyone; we tend to forget to put on paper ideas that would have (potentially) made an impact on our lives.

Memoryis essential for our everyday existence; it is the glue that connects our yesterdays with the present moments to create a (somewhat) cohesive picture of ourselves, of our lives. Any disconnect will disrupt our sense of continuity and create a dent or hole in our personality and being. In fact, such disconnects, especially if on repeated basis, will not only confuse but create a thickening cloud of insanity.

Memory has been portrayed in a number of films, most notably in the modern era where one has shifted from accepted given absolute truths to a more personal subjective and fallible view of reality. And this sense of disorientation and confusion, coupled with technology is best viewed in dystopian movies like Total Recall and Dark City among various others. Please keep in mind that there might be minor movie spoilers ahead though I will not divulge any endings.

The movie Total Recall (I am only referring to the original Verhoeven film as I have not seen - nor am I interested in - the more recent remake) asks us a simple but terrifying question: What if we could create fake memories? The protagonist takes advantage of an inexpensive (virtual-reality) trip in which the memory of a vacation on Mars is implanted as authentic / real-seeming as any other memory we have of our own past experiences.

Something goes wrong, (or does it?) and the protagonist becomes confused with his own identity. Did this experiment help him retrieve or dig out his own original and actual memories of his real life, his buried past as a secret agent? Is he not a construction worker but rather a high level secret agent whose memory has been erased so that he could blend in with society as a construction worker? Confused? Well, not half as much as our befuddled protagonist.

Let us say that we have the technology to erase / implant memories as was the case in the sublime film with the awkward title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (I know it's taken from a Pope poem but it still rings awkward for a Hollywood movie title). In the movie, the main character decided to erase all the memories associated with his doomed love affair, which would seem like an ideal manner of escaping unpleasant memories and previous experiences. But the end result is other than expected since memories are not as clear-cut as they seem; they dangle on a slippery slope.

But what if you wake up one morning and feel strongly that you are someone else. How do you know that you are who you think you are? Do you check the mirror, your wallet? As a matter of fact, we can never be really sure since we could be deluding ourselves, or worse, we might be suffering from a mental illness.

Surely, we would lock up anybody who seriously thinks to be Napoleon or even Jesus (see the excellent and hilarious The Ruling Class to this effect, thanks dear Vincent for pointing out this precious gem to me!). It is easy to dismiss those famous alternate personalities, but what if you choose a random person nobody has ever heard of, say Arash Farzaneh?

Now this becomes a bit more existential here. We need others to confirm our identity in the sense of "I see you, therefore you exist." When I wake up and my wife greets me as the person I think I am (see above), then there you go; we have the confirmed evidence to go with the assumption. Right?

Not so fast if you are in the dilemma of Mr Nobody who on his deathbed with an ailing and confused memory tries to piece together his possible pasts to understand his actual present! But it is not always merely a metaphysical puzzle; it can also be that others are messing with you!

And this brings us to the somewhat overlooked and underrated cult film Dark City. Here the premise is that highly technologically advanced creatures have come to not only implant memories but to switch them overnight wholesale. 

So you would fall asleep as a couple slightly above the poverty line eating potatoes in a shack and wake up on a large dining table with servants serving you up steaks and fine wine. The transition would seem rather seamless because not only you buy this drastic change, but so does your wife to confirm this, and vice versa. Suddenly you are a completely different person with matching memories of that particular individual!

To take this question further (and to fry our brains a little more) what would happen if we could implant not only memories but transplant whole brains. It is one thing to be told embarrassing stories about some event in childhood that may have never happened and that you, through repeated telling, take as actual fact; it is quite another to have someone literally switch your brain with that of someone else's.

We may look at our face in the mirror and feel that something is amiss that somehow the name and the memories do not match the face, but there is no hard evidence. And think about it; we may be like the main character in Memento who has a mental condition affecting his short-term memory making him unable to create new stable memories; he would only remember a 90 second stretch and then forget everything. Suddenly he would look around and ask himself how he got to where he is and what he is doing with a wine bottle in the bathroom while not feeling drunk in the least.

This shows us that once we lose trust and faith in our memories, our identity and our whole world that we have created around us fall apart like a card-house. In a world where we constantly look for tangible facts, it seems strange that our personality is so brittle that a simple knock on the head in real life can erase it all. We end up being not who we thought we were (is somebody messing with our minds or are we doing it to ourselves?), but the question remains, who were we in the first place? Can we really trust our memories on this one?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Dexter and Raskolnikov: Beyond the Laws of Crime and Morality

Dexter written in Capital Letters with Blood

Imagine Bruce Wayne as a police blood spatter expert by day and wielding an assortment of knives to take out or rather slice up the bad guys at night. Replace the fancy bat costume with plastic wrap (used mainly to tie up victims and eliminate traces of DNA). And oh yes, most importantly, Dexter contrary to Batman, not only finishes off his victims, but enjoys doing so; it has become a ritual that soothes him the same way yoga or beer would calm us ordinary folks.

While Batman works rather quite closely with the authorities to catch the bad guys, Dexter operates on a completely different mode. Dexter follows a specific code supposedly established by his adoptive father Harry (who incidentally knew about the dark side of this strange boy) and wanted to find a way of channeling this dark energy for “good” purposes. Hence, Dexter, a serial killer by nature, specializes in killing those who deserve to be killed, which turns him effectively into a vigilante.

Apart from the pleasure he derives from killing - a main staple, drive and incentive for serial killers - Dexter wants to ensure that justice is served. And the problem of the law is that it has its own fair share of cracks and holes; many a criminal can slip and slide through them given a good lawyer, defense, influence or money, for instance. To make sure that there is swift punishment and that the atrocities stop immediately - before more harm is done by these heartless and, more importantly, loose criminals - this cold-blooded serial killer takes justice into his own blood-stained hands.

These ideas may ring like Old Testament philosophy, the “eye for an eye” type of justice (except that it contains little personal motive apart from an abstract love for justice and a hatred of injustice on Dexter's part). The fact that the people Dexter kills are, for the most part at least, despicable individuals seems to make the killing acceptable.

It is, unlike other serial killings, connected to an albeit twisted sense of morality. The dark hero acts in the name of unwavering and steady justice, ignoring any room for readjustment or repentance. We might ask ourselves if people change, but I agree with Dexter on this issue, more often than not, they do not.

Yet there is also another problem at issue here. Dexter feels privileged about overstepping the boundaries of law. Sure, it is the Machiavellian view of means justifying the end, with Dexter leading the path to a more peaceful and just society via the elimination of established threats. But there is also the feeling that somehow Dexter is beyond the law, as if he were given full immunity and a carte blanche to do as he please.

Such an idea is not new. Raskolnikov, the character from Dostoevsky's famous novel Crime and Punishment had similar, but admittedly less noble, ideas about law and morality. Raskolnikov believes that as a superior individual, he is exempt from the restraints of common law. The law is made for all the ordinary folks, who need guidance and guidelines for moral behavior, but they do not necessarily nor automatically apply to him personally.

Raskolnikov sees himself as a prototypical Nietzschean master, modelling himself somewhat after Napoleon, who can step out of what constitutes “regular” morality of the masses; in fact, he defines and redefines what is moral by allowing room for killing and looting if it suits his needs as the passionate elite-warrior that he claims to be. In such a way, it boils down not to a matter of justice, but of entitlements provided to the exceptional hero.

So both Raskolnikov and Dexter believe to be part of an elite group of society; they simply make the rules for the rest of us (or rather they evade them for their own convenient purposes) and they live and act in tune and according to their nature and personality. In the novel, Raskolnikov tries to demonstrate his superiority by killing without a clear motive, a kind of gratuitous act; this perhaps demonstrates his own independence along with a lack of constraint from standard morality and commonly established and accepted rules. In an absurd way, he becomes - or at least sees himself as - a revolutionary of his times.

In the movie Pickpocket, Bresson's modernized adaptation of Dostoevsky's novel, Michel is a petty thief who picks pockets not necessarily out of economic necessity (though given his living arrangement it must play somewhat of a role!) but because he enjoys it, and he is good at it. The fact that he escapes the law and is not caught by the police only reaffirms to himself that he is an exceptional individual. His main observation about the life of crime is that there needs to be a social balance between those who follow the rules and those who break them, i.e. criminals.

This type of motivation is also expressed in the movie Lord of War (2005), which deals with an arms dealer who has far exceeded his economic needs and is immersed in wealth and riches, but still continues with this immoral profession merely because he is so good at it. All of this gives the “be yourself,” “be who you are” or simply “do what you are good at” philosophy an absurd after-taste.

I must say that I personally have little sympathy for Raskolnikov and Michel his modern French off-shoot, but I cannot help falling for the charismatic Dexter. The reason might be that he combines both elements of good and evil in a dangerous but strangely satisfying cocktail.

Yet there is something else at work here. We all would like to be those individuals. We would like to have the courage to break laws; part of why we do not do so is the fear of punishment, of retribution, the consequences of the full force of law.

Were we as good at killing others like Dexter, or as good at picking pockets like Michel, or as good at forging checks like Frank Abagnale, then we would also engage in those activities and sneer at the authorities and the law and taunt them with the catch phrase: Catch me if you can!