15 October 2007

Pop psychology; Personal syllabus

"Most Mammals Mark Their Territories With Excretions. Domesticated Primates Mark Their Territories With Ink Excretions on Paper." (p 68)

Ever read any Freud? Up on your stages of development?

I haven't, and really am not. Sure, I've heard about the concepts of oral fixation, imprinting, fight/flight, Alpha males, and even brainwashing, but really hadn't read even the most basic text about them.

Enter Robert Anton Wilson's Prometheus Rising, a sort of "owner's manual for the brain." It may be out of print -- my copy took months to get here from Amazon -- but you can download the PDF for free from this site (4 MBytes).

Written in an informal, swear-laden manual that reminds me of the hippie classic Steal This Book, Prometheus Rising summarizes the psychologies of Freud, Jung, and even Carl Sagan. I like it because it's full of insights that I wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

The book is structured on Wilson's discussion of eight (perhaps classical) brain "circuits," such as:
  • "The Oral Bio-Survival Circuit. This is imprinted by the mother or the first mothering object and conditioned by subsequent nourishment or threat. It is primarily concerned with sucking, feeding, cuddling, and body security. It retreats mechanically from the noxious or predatory - or from anything associated (by imprinting or conditioning) with the noxious or predatory..."
As he explains, "Of course, on top of the hard-wired imprinting of the bio-survival circuit comes 'softer' conditioning. This allows the safe-space perimeter to be generalized outward from the mother's body to the pack or tribe - the 'extended family.' | Every social animal has, in addition to the Darwinian 'instinct' (genetic program) of self-preservation, a similar 'instinct' to protect the gene-pool. This is the basis of altruism, and social animals could not survive without it. | ... | As civilization has advanced, the pack-bond (the tribe, the extended family) has been broken. This is the root of the widely diagnosed 'anomie' or 'alienation' or 'existential anguish' about which so many social critics have written so eloquently. What has happened is that the conditioning of the bio-survival bond to the gene-pool has been replaced by a conditioning of bio-survival drives to hook onto the peculiar tickets which we call "money.' | ... | Welfare-ism, socialism, totalitarianism, etc. represent attempts, in varying degrees of rationality and hysteria, to re-create the tribal bond by making the State stand-in for the gene-pool. Conservatives who claim that no form of Welfare is tolerable to them are asking that people live with total bio-survival anxiety and anomie combined with terror. The conservatives, of course, vaguely recognize this and ask for 'local charity' to replace State Welfare - i.e., they ask for the gene-pool to be restored by magic, among people (denizens of a typical city) who are not genetically related at all."

"On the other hand, the State is not a gene-pool or a tribe, and cannot really play the bio-survival unit convincingly. Everybody on Welfare becomes paranoid, because they are continually worrying that they are going to get cut off ('exiled') for some minor infraction of the increasingly incomprehensible bureaucratic rules. And in real totalitarianism, in which the bogus identification of the State with the tribe is carried to the point of a new mysticism, the paranoia becomes total." (52-53)

Anyhow, each chapter I've read introduces a new primal bio-circuit that is followed by a discussion of what behaviors it induces. A particularly interesting collection of chapters is about brainwashing, in which victims are re-imprinted (with loyalty to their captor) by bringing them to a defenseless, infant-like state and following a method outlined in the book.

There is also an ongoing discussion - a "layering" - of the impact of each brain circuit on one's personality; for example, he discusses a personality grid whose quadrants cover imprint types such as: Hostile Strength (I'm okay; you're not okay); Friendly Strength (I'm okay, you're okay); Hostile Weakness (I'm not okay; you're not okay); and Friendly Weakness (I'm not okay; you're okay).

Also... I haven't read Finnegan's Wake, and I know nothing about literary analysis, but you might get a kick out of his translating the novel's repeating nonsense sounds into strings of cuss-words of our early reptilian brains.

I'm clearly doing a poor book review here. I recommend you take some time out to flip through the text, whose PDF I attached above. It might give you a new perspective on your business meetings!

Do You Have a Personal Syllabus?
In reading some of your blogs, I notice that many of us are still configuring, in our 30s, how best to spend our 24 hours of a day to achieve various personal goals. (Which, after subtracting various demands, becomes 3-4 hours a day, or less.) I see you having hobbies, reading books, writing analytical papers, riding bicycles, raising children, and generally smelling the roses.

Do any of you have (for lack of a better term) a "personal syllabus?" Is there a collection of skills or knowledge you'd like to acquire?

Lately I've been splitting the two, sharpening my knowledge (say) of optics or more math than I was able to pick up in college and grad school -- but also wanting to read fiction, gain better limb independence in bebop drumming, programming in some real language (C++), blah, blah, blah.

Throw this into a blender and I get... nothing. Dilettante-ville. So I gotta pare down.

I don't know what the final reading list is yet. I can bench the optics for a bit, having spent many (many) hours with a few deep texts through which I've gotten to the point that I finally see that some things might just be approximate models of nature rather than some complete picture which fails to exist (and hence I just don't get it). I don't really have the opportunity to practice the drums seriously, either. This leaves me with:
  • C++ Primer (4e), a book on C++ programming staring back at me
  • An even thicker tome about a software application called Mathematica
  • Several math volumes that I've been paging through the years, which is an awfully unproductive way to learn things
  • The books Prometheus Rising and Consilience; and
  • A new private study, just for me, at home, which is a great recharging-area for an introvert like me.
Perhaps by setting these possibilities here I'll be more likely to pick a few homework assignments and stick to them.

Do any of you go through this pruning-of-intellectual-curiosities in the name of actual progress? Like, back-to-school, but at home?



RLM said...

I haven't thought about my overall goals as much as you have, but my big thing when I want to do something intellectual on my own is to take a new language every few years (as you probably were aware). Hebrew or Japanese might be up next, whenever I get around to it, or maybe more Russian (so that I can have more than about a dozen vocabulary words). The other thing that's been high on my list for a while but that I have yet to do anything about is to learn to play acoustic guitar. And I'd also like to take a music appreciation or history course or something, since I've played music all my life but actually know very little *about* it. And of course, there's a neverending pile of classic works of literature, stuff from "the canon," that somehow I've managed not to have read yet, but feel that I should (if only to feel less inadequate when talking to Flavia! :) ). I do feel that there's not enough time to learn everything I'd like to learn... too bad we have to work for a living, eh?

wubbahed said...

First, if you want to dabble and work on your C++ coding, check out this site, http://www.topcoder.com/

It's setup as an ongoing code competition for developers and one section of it is an Algorithm competition. In this they give you a series of simple problems, and you have to solve it in your programming language of choice (Java, C++, etc.). It's a great way to quickly dive into a language but more importantly you can look and see how hundreds of different of programmers answered the same problem. It's brilliant and, to me at least, the perfect way to start picking up the basics of a language and learning its built-in data structures and libraries.

As for me and my personal goals, I try to split my time evenly between two categories. First, are new things that I would like to learn from scratch. This would be something like learning Spanish. Second, are things that I already know, but would like to master even more, like becoming a *really* good guitar player instead of just an okay one. The big thing with these two categories is that it helps me when it comes to time management. I can spend 10 minutes a day playing guitar, and I as long as I do it consistently, I'll get better. But if I want to learn Spanish, initially it's going to be a much bigger time commitment (at least an hour a day) so if I'm serious about that project, it's going to require more discipline on my part to make it happen.

Needless to say, right now I'd like to learn Spanish and to play more advanced guitar stuff. ;)

GEB said...

It must be a testament to your optimism versus my surrender, or maybe I've just been spending too much time writing about Hinduism for my dissertation, because my mental personal syllabus is usually titled, "Things I'd Like To Do in Another Lifetime." I think of it as those paths that no one who knew us would ever guess we had a hankering to pursue. Mine include becoming a botany expert, able to walk outside and identify every plant and its properties. Also, graphic arts, particularly designing fonts; carpentry, especially restoring old houses and furniture; designing formalwear; mastering an orchestral instrument; running a marathon; learning half a dozen more languages; reading all of the books on Harold Bloom's list in the back of the Western Canon; and knitting an Alice Starmore Fair Isle sweater with something like 20 colors in subtle gradations. The last one is the one I have the best chance of getting to...if I ever have the $200-300.

G-Fav said...

Hi you guys (and gals),

Thanks for taking the time to share what skills and knowledge you'd like to acquire.

I know that I can't read your minds and I don't know your schedules, but I bet you can all learn the stuff you've listed... and more. (Okay, maybe you have to timeshare between running marathons and designing fonts. I suppose you could run with a notepad.)

But I have convinced myself that we can accomplish a lot by "chunking" our time. At least, that's worked for me for a whole week now...