In praise of an empty brain

How do I love thee, Age? Let me count the ways… Well, actually I’m not actually going to, because of late, I’ve fallen out with it. Perhaps it’s just my memory that’s falling, though: I was about to parody Shakespeare -it’s what I knew I knew, and yet I didn’t (it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I checked). A simple mistake, perhaps, and yet, once again, the hubris of my years led me along the wrong neurons. I feel embarrassed about it now, but suppose I had offered it to someone as a valid Shakespearean quotation and, out of respect for my age, I had not been contradicted? For that matter, what if I’d felt there was no need even to look it up?

Although I am now retired after a long career in medicine, people still ask for my opinion. I answer them, of course, but I do wonder if what I say is still up to date and correct. And often as not, I will look up the answer when I get home. Whether it be age or temperament, the assumption of knowledge I do not possess sits poorly with me. Nowadays, I am far more likely to shrug and admit that I do not know the answer to the question asked -or at least admit that I am uncertain.

However for an expert, I suppose it’s a matter of pride to speak with certainty, even if that confidence is apt to block, or even deride other viewpoints. It seems to me that knowledge is never a locked door -we can always learn by opening it from time to time.

Of course I have never been able to keep track of my keys, so I suppose I am particularly vulnerable. The other day while I was meandering through my apps, for example, I stumbled upon an intriguing essay in Psyche: https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-cultivate-shoshin-or-a-beginners-mind

The author, Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist, writes that ‘The Japanese Zen term shoshin translates as ‘beginner’s mind’ and refers to a paradox: the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning.’ He cites several historical examples of the inability to accept new findings, including one that promises my increasing years the hope of new clothes: ‘belief in the legendary Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s ‘harsh decree’ that adult humans are unable to grow new neurons persisted for decades in the face of mounting contradictory evidence.’

But, of course this is hardly confined to academia. Expertise in any field breeds hubris. ‘Merely having a university degree in a subject can lead people to grossly overestimate their knowledge… participants frequently overestimated their level of understanding, apparently mistaking the ‘peak knowledge’ they had at the time they studied at university for their considerably more modest current knowledge.’ In fact, ‘there is research evidence that even feeling like an expert also breeds closed-mindedness.’

Jarrett then suggests something obvious: ‘Approaching issues with a beginner’s mind or a healthy dose of intellectual humility can help to counter the disadvantages of intellectual hubris… being intellectually humble is associated with open-mindedness and a greater willingness to be receptive to other people’s perspectives.’

Good idea for sure, but how can a dyed-in-the-wool expert stoop to conquer their own hard-earned arrogance? One way that I thought was clever was ‘to make the effort to explain a relevant issue or topic to yourself or someone else in detail, either out loud or in writing. This exercise makes the gaps in our knowledge more apparent and bursts the illusion of expertise.’ It also makes me think of that famous quote from St. Augustine: What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

But, I have to say there is another method that Jarrett suggests, almost as an addendum, that has to be my favourite: ‘deliberately invoking in oneself the emotion of awe. Several studies have shown that awe quietens the ego and prompts epistemological openness’. In other words, ‘Gaze at the night sky, take a walk in nature, or listen to a stirring symphony. Any activities that invoke in you the emotion of awe (wonder at the enormity and beauty of the world) will increase your feelings of humility, and inspire a more open-minded perspective.’

The essay reminded me of something that happened to me many years ago while I was in the thrall of my freshly earned medical degree. Nancy, my date and I had been invited to her uncle Arvid’s house for dinner, and I suppose I felt a little intimidated sitting across the table from a recently retired professor of history. I don’t know why I was uncomfortable. He was an absolutely delightful man who was so energetic when he spoke that his arms seemed to explode upward as if they were spring-loaded. He wore his snow-white hair long and each time his hands unfurled to make a point, a curly lock would roll onto his forehead and his eyes would twinkle in response as if he found the whole thing hilarious. Sophie, his wife, was all smiles, as well, although she wore her hair short and could only resort to smoothing it out each time she laughed.

It was clear from the start that they wanted to put me at ease, and Arvid was careful that he didn’t seed his usually witty remarks with historical references; he didn’t even mention the university position he had held. But I wanted to let Arvid know that I, too, was interested in history and knew something about his area of specialization: the French Enlightenment. Well, actually I only started reading about it when Nancy told me about the dinner.

During a lull in the conversation when we were helping ourselves to dessert, I decided to make my move. “Is it true that the Little Ice Age may have played a part in the French Revolution, Arvid?” I asked, as casually as I could manage.

Arvid smiled at me as he scooped some strawberries from a bowl onto his plate. “Climate was probably a factor, G,” he replied pleasantly. “But all of Europe was affected by that as well.”

“I suppose I was drawing a bit of a parallel with current climate change issues -although certainly not an Ice Age…”

“You mean the effects that major climate shifts may have on political stability?” He seemed genuinely interested.

I nodded and took my turn with the strawberries. “I suspect that our crop yields may suffer as they did in France with the climatic upheavals of the time…” I left the sentence open so he would know I was only offering it as a possible result.

Arvid seemed to think about it as he scooped some ice cream on top of his plate of strawberries. “That’s an interesting comparison, G.” He took a tentative sample of the dessert and studied the spoon for a moment. “I must say we historians sometimes content ourselves with the proximate causes of events: endemic corruption, increased taxes, and the unaffordable price of bread in the case of the French Revolution…”. He tasted the heaping spoonful and then attacked the dessert more seriously. “I think you have a point, G. I must look into that a bit more…” he added between bites, then glanced at his wife who had been largely silent so far.

Their eyes touched briefly and she smiled indulgently as she no doubt always did when hosting dinners for his many students over the years.

How much do warnings help?

Is my skin becoming too thick? Too insensitive to those things I want to feel? Need to feel? Or has it merely developed callus over areas too frequently assailed?

These are questions that I’m beginning to ask as I notice the burgeoning warnings on virtually every television channel that whatever follows may not be suitable for all audiences, or that parental discretion is advised. Curious as to what offence is about to be committed, I find myself more engaged in searching for possible misdemeanours than attending to the substance of the program -a minor diversion, to be sure, but nonetheless a distraction from the evaluating the presentation of the subject matter.

I suppose these warnings are the polite thing to do, although they are certainly missing from the business of everyday life. Still, if there are people out there who feel compelled to guard themselves or their children from strong language, or upsetting scenes of violence, I do not begrudge them that -although I do wonder how they manage it elsewhere in their day.

And I certainly don’t want to see gratuitous savagery in a program purporting to educate me about poverty and how different jurisdictions are managing it. We all have our boundaries, and individual thresholds are sometimes hard to gauge, but perhaps our sights are set rather low on programs whose subject matter should be obvious from their titles. If I choose to watch a crime drama, or a documentary on the ravages of war, I would likely have factored in the probable contents before I tuned in. And if I’m being warned about the content of language I might hear, well, good luck walking past a school at recess, or even along the average city street.

At any rate, I’m beginning to question the motivation for these warnings. Does everything require a warning, or are they mainly hedges against possible lawsuits, or something? And perhaps more importantly, do the warnings actually work? Are there such things as ‘triggers’ whose very presence could cause serious injury unless stringently avoided? And what if I warn, but you do not heed? Would I then be at fault -or would it be you, for not listening…? I wrote about this subject a few years ago: (https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2016/07/06/the-trigger-warning/) but I’m wondering how much we have learned about these triggers in the intervening years.

More recently, I came across an essay in Aeon that I hoped might shed some new light on the issue. https://aeon.co/ideas/trigger-warnings-dont-help-people-cope-with-distressing-material It was written by Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist and a senior editor at Aeon. He too, it seemed, was conflicted about trigger warnings: ‘the use of trigger warnings has since spread… to educational institutions around the world, and further: into theatres, festivals and even news stories. The warnings have become another battlefield in the culture wars, with many seeing them as threatening free speech and the latest sign of ‘political correctness’ gone mad.’

And yet, ‘Ideology aside, one could make a basic ethical case for giving warnings in the sense that it’s the considerate thing to do.’ But is there any proof that a warning is helpful in avoiding psychological damage in people with a history of trauma, or painful memories similar to what is being warned about?

Jarrett cites some evidence that, far from helping those sensitive to the issues because of past traumas, ‘trigger warnings enable survivors of trauma to avoid re-experiencing the negative associated emotions, [and] critics argue that the avoidance of potentially upsetting material is actually a counterproductive approach because it offers no chance to learn to manage one’s emotional reactions. As a result, fears deepen and catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged.’

I don’t think Jarrett is totally convinced of the evidence -much more study is required- but at least there are competing considerations in the management of so-called triggers. In fact, ‘On the question of whether trigger warnings give people the chance to brace themselves emotionally, a spate of recent studies suggest that this simply isn’t how the mind works.’

Fair enough, I guess -although I personally wouldn’t want to upset someone by mistake. However, he goes on to mention the concept of ‘coddling’ -as developed in a book by ‘ the attorney Greg Lukianoff and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, authors of the book The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) – namely, that these warnings encourage a belief in the vulnerability of people with a history of trauma and, in fact, in people’s vulnerability in general. For instance… Harvard research found that the use of trigger warnings increased participants’ belief in the vulnerability of people with post-traumatic stress disorder – an unwelcome effect that the researchers described as a form of ‘soft stigma’.’ In other words, not being able to talk through issues for fear of upsetting the other person -avoiding the subject altogether, and hence, treating the person ‘differently’.

But, as Jarrett reiterates, much more study is required to determine the benefits of ‘trigger warnings’. ‘Yet already the results are surprisingly consistent in undermining the specific claim that trigger warnings allow people to marshal some kind of mental defence mechanism. There is also a solid evidence base that avoidance is a harmful coping strategy for people recovering from trauma or dealing with anxiety. The clear message from psychology then is that trigger warnings should come with their own warning – they won’t achieve much, except encourage maladaptive coping and the belief that folk are sensitive and need protecting.’

As my previous essay hinted, I am still undecided about the value of these warnings. I would not knowingly wish to offend anybody, nor traumatize them by something I say, but it can be devilishly difficult to know what might need to be avoided. Every topic is a potential minefield, and yet surely part of the onus is on the recipient to choose -and therefore avoid, or at least warn the offending party- what they find problematic. To be sure, sometimes the extent of effect on them is unpredictable, or a surprise -for both sides- and yet if the subject is presented in a sensitive manner, one would expect much of the damage could be mitigated.

Communication, after all, is the exchange of information, but as much as we might try to soften the blow, it will not always pleasant; to pretend that it will be, is disingenuous, at the very least.

Do you understand why I am confused…?

Make not your thoughts your prison

 

What can we do with those who flout the laws of the land or openly disrespect the prevailing mores? The usual answer is to punish -to retribute, either by restricting the offender’s rights, or their freedom. And sometimes, depending on the crime, even ending their lives.

Prisons have traditionally been the means to rid ourselves of the problem -out of sight, out of mind. Until they’re not, that is -because unless we intend to keep convicted offenders incarcerated and off the streets forever, there will come a time when we will have to deal with them again.

Of course, this uncomfortable inevitability was not lost on everybody, and through the ages there have been sporadic attempts at rehabilitating people once justice had been seen to be done and they were scheduled for release -more recently, things like parole in which the prisoner could be conditionally released into the community before the sentence had been fully served; or even indeterminate sentencing where the duration of incarceration lies somewhere between a minimum and a maximum time, depending upon the behaviour and signs of presumed rehabilitation exhibited by the prisoner.

Unfortunately, recidivism rates have been high and this has frustrated continuing reformation in various countries. So many things are not as they seem, not as we would hope. Even in this age of algorithms and Wikipedia, the reasons are not always forthcoming -at least, not the ones we expect. Maybe that should not be a surprise, though: we are not omniscient, nor, more importantly, are we prescient.

An article in BBC Future series on criminal myths addressed an aspect of the problem that had not occurred to me. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180430-the-unexpected-ways-prison-time-changes-people  As the author, Christian Jarrett, put it, ‘Day after day, year after year, imagine having no space to call your own, no choice over who to be with, what to eat, or where to go. There is threat and suspicion everywhere. Love or even a gentle human touch can be difficult to find. You are separated from family and friends. If they are to cope, then prisoners confined to this kind of environment have no option but to change and adapt. This is especially true for those facing long-term sentences.’

‘In the field of personality psychology, it used to be believed that our personalities remain largely fixed in adulthood. But recent research has found that, in fact, despite relative stability our habits of thought, behaviour and emotion do change in significant and consequential ways – especially in response to the different roles that we adopt as we go through life. […] Particularly for anyone concerned about prisoner welfare and how to rehabilitate former convicts, the worry is that these personality changes, while they may help the prisoner survive their jail time, are counter-productive for their lives upon release.

‘Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation by others), and the requirement, day after day, to follow externally imposed stringent rules and routines. […] [T]here is widespread recognition among psychologists and criminologists that prisoners adapt to their environment, which they call “prisonisation”. This contributes towards a kind of “post-incarceration syndrome” when they are released. […] The personality change that most dominated their accounts was an inability to trust others.’

The article reports on a large number of interviews on prisoners done in the UK by Susie Hulley and her colleagues at the Institute of Criminology. The prisoners described a ‘process of “emotional numbing”. […]  “As the long-term prisoner becomes ‘adapted’ – in the true sense of the term – to the imperatives of a sustained period of confinement, he or she becomes more emotionally detached, more self-isolating, more socially withdrawn, and perhaps less well suited to life after release,” they warned.’

In another paper, led by Jesse Meijers at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, it was felt that ‘the changes they observed are likely due to the impoverished environment of the prison, including the lack of cognitive challenges and lost autonomy.’

So, what are we to do with those individuals who have broken the law and for whom society demands retribution? Does the loss of freedom and privacy necessarily engender adaptive personality changes? ‘The current evidence suggests that the longer and harsher the prison sentence – in terms of less freedom, choice and opportunity for safe, meaningful relationships – the more likely that prisoners’ personalities will be changed in ways that make their reintegration difficult and that increase their risk for re-offending.’

Well, from a distance at least, it seems to me that prisons should be the solution of last resort -merely getting offenders off the street has consequences. Some, no doubt, would be a continuing threat to public safety if they were to remain at large, but some -maybe most- would not, and they are the ones on whom changes in our idea of retributive justice should perhaps be focussed.

The very idea of ‘punishment’ needs to be revisited for many crimes, I believe. But the strange need for vengeance is so thoroughly stamped in our minds, that even the idea of anything other than the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ code of Hammurabi, seems unthinkable. Unjust. Of course there should be consequences for actions -but commensurate ones. Prisons and jails have too long been places where troublemakers could be warehoused and essentially forgotten. But, as we are realizing to our dismay, the problems do not go away -they often merely fester, albeit out of sight. For a while…

I don’t have any truly heuristic solutions to crime, or the wages of evil that seem to follow us through the ages. I was not granted an epiphany in my long journey amongst the ever thinning years, but I do suspect that the answer does not lie in punishment alone. We are missing something that perhaps our genetic atavism will simply not allow us to see.

And yet, perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of it, however opaquely, those many years ago: The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.