Preposterosity

What is it to be absurd? Can we even wrap our heads around the concept when to do so threatens to unravel the fabric we each wear from day to day, risks unweaving the very rainbow we have come to worship?

But, just because something doesn’t make sense, doesn’t necessarily make it absurd, of course. Many things don’t make sense until we invest some time and effort into interrogating them further. And even if the effort comes up fruitless, we often throw a pattern over it to make it accessible -or should I say acceptable? Without a framework to compare it to, there is a tendency to reject it -or worse, to regard it as nonsense. Pointless. Unsettling.

Still, is there a universal threshold for absurdity -something everybody would agree makes no sense? Or is that a silly question, and one that is dependent on culture, expectations, or previous exposure to inexplicable incongruity?

In that regard, art springs to mind, I suppose -abstract art in particular, perhaps. Depending on the type and the artist -Kandinsky, for example- it is sometimes just a jumble of different colours with a title attached to it. Sometimes resolvable, yet equally often not, it is difficult to know how to process it. Eventually, however, it is usually possible to step back and appreciate it as, well, interesting, if not beautiful. But is it still absurd, in that case? Or is it just the expectation that was created by its title that was confusing?

Maybe the ultimate example of artistic absurdity would be Malevich’s Black Square -a black square of paint. I’m certainly not an art critic, and although I know a little bit of its history and subsequent versions, as well as his intention of having it symbolize a sort of beginning: “It is from zero, in zero, that the true movement of being begins” a black square is difficult to process meaningfully; we have to judge it differently. Of course, perhaps that is the point… In which case, it is no longer absurd.

Clearly, I have to admit that I find the very concept of absurdity a little absurd, and this confusion no doubt contributed to my interest in an essay by the science writer, David Robson: https://psyche.co/ideas/a-touch-of-absurdity-can-help-to-wrap-your-mind-around-reality

‘Many works of art deliberately challenge our understanding of the world in this way, including other films by Lynch [of Mulholland Drive fame], the writing of Franz Kafka and the humour of Monty Python, to name but a few. All feature illogical and incongruous elements and the uncanny juxtaposed with the familiar… According to research on the ‘meaning maintenance model’ of human reasoning, surreal and absurd art can be so unsettling that the brain reacts as if it is feeling physical pain, yet it ultimately leads us to reaffirm who we are, and sharpens the mind as we look for new ways to make sense of the world. The findings also suggest new ways to improve education, and even help to explain our responses to some of the more absurd political events of recent years.’

‘Heine [psychologist Steven Heine] and his team proposed that our mental representation of the world is like a delicate web of interconnected beliefs, documenting the relations between ourselves and the people, places and objects around us. When we are confronted with an apparently inexplicable event that appears to break that framework, we feel profound uncertainty – the ‘feeling of the absurd’.’

Heine describes three ways in which we might process the absurd: building a new mental representation to incorporate the inexplicable event, reinterpreting the event so that it fits our existing mental model, or strengthening other beliefs and values -even those relating to a completely unconnected domain- and then retreating to a safe place where the world makes sense again: so-called ‘fluid compensation’.

I can see how using absurdity might have an interesting affect on education –‘teachers could deliberately create feelings of uncertainty to prompt students to look harder for meaning in the material they’re studying.’ On the other hand, I suspect this would only make sense in situations where the students are prepared for this beforehand; I don’t think it would work for everybody, either -me, for example.

I think back to when my daughter was small and, of course, bringing back artwork from her kindergarten and Grade 1 classes. One of them I remember well. It was a largish sheet of white art-paper with random sine-wave type squiggles on it in green crayon, and then a straight red line through it diagonally across the page.

I smiled when I saw it, and by now I was used to her drawings so I started to put it on the fridge door with her other creations.

“No, no Daddy,” she almost shouted at me, “That was just an extra that I didn’t hand in.” She was quite adamant about it and went into her usual arms-across-her-chest scowl. She did that whenever she thought I didn’t understand something.

I took the magnet off and put the drawing on the kitchen table. “Why didn’t you hand it in, sweetie?” I asked.

She climbed on a chair and looked at the paper. “ ‘Cause I made a mistake, daddy…” She studied my face for a reaction.

“Oh,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could and examined the drawing more closely. “It’s nice, though…” I stopped, because I hadn’t the slightest idea what she’d been drawing. “What were you drawing?”

She screwed her little face up and stared at me as if I really should have known. “It’s attack art, of course…” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s not s’pposed to be anything…!”

I had to think about the word for a moment. Was she telling me it was meant to offend the viewer…? She sometimes got new words mixed up, though, so it could have been anything. I just nodded my head as if I suddenly understood why she hadn’t handed it in. I didn’t, of course.

“So, what did the drawing you handed in look like?” I thought maybe I could figure it out from that.

A little smile surfaced on her lips and her eyes twinkled at me. “Same thing, but I did the wavy lines in blue…” She thought about it some more, and then added “Except for the straight line, of course.” She fixed me with a knowing stare. “You only put the straight lines in when you’ve made a mistake and want everybody to know.”

I thought about her drawing that night after she went to bed. ‘Attack art’? And it’s not supposed to be about anything…? Then, suddenly it dawned on me: she meant Abstract Art. I went into the kitchen and revisited the drawing. I thought it was pretty good for abstract art, you know -although I agreed with her, the squiggles would  probably look better in blue.

The things they were starting to teach kids about in school impressed me. In my day, if I’d handed in something like that to the teacher, my mother would have got a phone call from the school counsellor that evening… or did they even have counsellors then?

To this hour bewail the injury

It seems I grew up in a male purdah -I think all men did, and perhaps most still do. And yet, the triumph of women in academics, business, and sports in particular, has begun to open the male curtain a little. No longer would most of us be surprised to find women competing at the highest levels in sports as disparate as, say, rugby and tennis, soccer and hockey -albeit in their own leagues for now. Still, this is a fairly large departure from the days when sports were largely -if not completely- male dominated.

Women were not thought to have either the temperament or the musculature important for effective competition that their male counterparts so obviously possessed. Add to that their differing hormones which suited them for the roles to which society had long assigned them, and males felt they could relax in their smug complacency, secure in the knowledge that there were things that women just could not do -and also had no desire to.

Furthermore, because of the nuisance of the cyclic fluctuations in female metabolism, sexual differences were often discounted as too expensive and too variable to be taken into account in medication design and testing, so many of the drugs available on the market that were only tested on males were assumed to work as well in either sex. Unfortunately -although predictably- this led to problems in both outcome and side effects. In fact, I discussed some of these issues in an essay I wrote several years ago: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2016/10/12/women-are-from-earth/

More recently however, although many sports have become increasingly aware of the different types of dangers in their respective competitions, it comes as no surprise that there was an assumption that the occurrence of concussions in female athletes mirrored the frequency, symptomatology, and outcome in their male cohorts.

I don’t wish to embark upon a gendered jeremiad, because studies and evidence of sex difference is slowly accumulating, and in the more gladiatorial sports, there still seems to be a preponderance of men, so perhaps it makes sense to start with the effects of concussions on them -but nevertheless…

Thank goodness there was an interesting essay on female concussions in an article in BBC Future entitled, helpfully enough, Why women are more at risk from concussion written by David Robson: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200131-why-women-are-more-at-risk-from-concussion

‘Concussion is changed neurological function as the result of a bump, blow or jolt to the head. The violent movement of the head causes a momentary release of various neurotransmitters that throws the brain’s signalling out of balance. It can also cause the neural tissue to swell and reduce the flow of blood to the brain – and along with it, the glucose and oxygen – starving our nerve cells of their fuel… The potential long-term impact of concussion is now well known and has led many sports associations to change their rules and procedures to reduce the danger of injury. But there is low awareness of the potentially higher risks to female players and the possible need for differing diagnosis and treatment, including among healthcare professionals… Recent research… suggests that female athletes are not only more likely to sustain a concussion in any given sport; they also tend to have more severe symptoms, and to take longer to recover.’

I still remember the words we once used to describe the symptoms in boxers towards the end of their careers: punch-drunk. Of course, I was fairly young then, but I don’t remember the word ‘concussion’ being used with any frequency; I assumed an appreciation of the concept was fairly recent, and yet ‘Concussion is thought to have first been distinguished from other types of brain injury more than 1,000 years ago, by the Persian physician Rhazes, but sex differences in concussion have only been the subject of serious research within the last two decades or so.’ Then again, ‘The sex differences in concussion were also obscured by the fact that many of these injuries are the result of accidents in sport, and girls and women were historically less likely to compete in events where concussion has attracted most attention.

‘Tracey Covassin, who is now based at Michigan State University, has been one of the leading researchers looking at potential sex differences in concussion… In soccer, basketball and softball…  she found that female players are almost twice as likely to suffer a concussion as male ones.’ And their symptoms were often different. ‘While male concussions are more likely to be followed by amnesia, for instance, female ones are more likely to lead to prolonged headaches, mental fatigue and difficulties with concentration, and mood changes… Female athletes also seem to require more time for those symptoms to disappear.’

The problem is that sometimes the differences were attributable to sexual stereotyping and hence glossed over. That’s a fraught subject with many of the (largely male) therapists, but where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. For example, ‘Some researchers have proposed that it may be due to the fact that female necks tend to be slimmer and less muscular than male ones… the brain is free to move within the skull – it is like jelly tightly packed into a Tupperware container – and this means that any sharp movement of the head can cause it to shift around, potentially causing damage.’ So, ‘anything that helps to protect the skull from sharp movements should protect you from concussion – and that includes a sturdier neck that is better able to buffer a blow.’ Currently, there are a few team physiotherapists who have devised exercises to help strengthen these muscles -especially in rugby players where padding and helmets are certainly not de rigueur.

There are other theories why female concussions are different. For example, ‘small anatomical differences within the brain itself. Female brains are thought to have slightly faster metabolisms than male ones, with greater blood flow to the head… if a head injury momentarily disrupts that supply of glucose and oxygen, it could cause greater damage.’

There is even some evidence that the cyclic nature of female hormone production may also play a role in susceptibility to concussions. For example, ‘Researchers at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry… found that injuries during the follicular phase (after menstruation and before ovulation) were less likely to lead to symptoms a month later, while an injury during the luteal phase (after ovulation and before menstruation) resulted in significantly worse outcomes.’

Clearly research of female concussions is still in its early stage, but even these preliminary findings might suggest some possible mitigating strategies. For example, some studies have demonstrated the benefit of suppressing endogenous cyclicity in hormone production with, say, oral contraceptives.

And yet, perhaps the most hopeful thing is the recognition of the dangers of concussion in both sexes. It isn’t something that only occurs in high-contact sports like rugby or hockey; it’s something which crosses the gender divide with seeming ease. It’s the mask we’re beginning to see through, the condition that finds itself harder and harder to camouflage.

Illeism, or Sillyism?

Who would have thought that it might be good to talk about yourself in the third person? As if you weren’t you, but him? As if you weren’t actually there, and anyway, you didn’t want yourself to find out you were talking about him in case it seemed like, well, gossip? I mean, only royalty, or the personality-disordered, are able to talk like that without somebody phoning the police.

Illeism, it’s called -from the Latin ‘he’- and it’s an ancient rhetorical technique that was used by various equally ancient personages -like, for example, Julius Caesar in the accounts he wrote about his exploits in various wars. It’s still in occasional use, apparently, but it stands out like a yellow MacDonald’s arch unless you’re a member of a small cabal, sworn to secrecy.

Now that I mention it, I remember trying it once when I was very young, and blamed our cat for scattering cookies all over the floor; but I suppose that doesn’t count because my mother instantly realized I was actually using the third-person-singular in its grammatical sense, and sent me to my room for fibbing -without the cat. I didn’t even get a hug for my clever use of ancient rhetoric.

The episode kind of put me off third-personism until I read a little more about it in an adaptation of an article originally published by The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, by David Robson and edited for Aeon. He is a science journalist and a feature writer for the BBC: https://aeon.co/ideas/why-speaking-to-yourself-in-the-third-person-makes-you-wiser

It seems illeism can be an effective tool for self-reflection. And, although you may be tempted to opt for simple rumination – which is ‘the process of churning your concerns around in your head… research has shown that people who are prone to rumination also often suffer from impaired decision making under pressure, and are at a substantially increased risk of depression…’

Robson was intrigued by the work of the psychologist Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Canada writing in PsyArxiv which suggests that third-person thinking ‘can temporarily improve decision making… [and] that it can also bring long-term benefits to thinking and emotional regulation.’ -presumably related to the perspective change allowing the user to bypass -or at least appreciate- their previously held biases.

Grossmann, it seems, studies wisdom, and [w]orking with Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan in the United States…  found that people tend to be humbler, and readier to consider other perspectives, when they are asked to describe problems in the third person.’

Hmm…

He read the article with a fair soupçon of wariness. Might this not, he wondered, be academic legerdemain? It managed to fool Robson, but surely not he who reads with not even a hatchet to grind. He, after all, is only a retired GYN who is only accustomed to addressing freshly delivered newborns and their unique anatomical appendages with the appropriate third-person labels. It’s hard to do otherwise with the unnamed. Indeed, it had always seemed situationally germane, given the circumstances. To turn that on himself, however, might be contextually confusing -as well as suspicious.

So, his days as an accoucheur long past, he decided there would be little harm in trying it out in front of a mirror before he unleashed his full third-person on an unsuspecting face in Starbucks.

It seemed… unusual at first: he knew the individual in the reflection as well as himself, and addressing him as ‘he’ felt rude -creepy, actually. He did manage to get around the vertigo by pretending he was actually talking to a younger version of his brother, though, and ignored the fact that his brother was moving his lips at the same time and apparently not listening.

“Your brother,” he started, “is wondering if he should use the third-person approach when he is anxious about whether or not to order the sausage and egg bagel or just a cookie for breakfast at Starbucks.” A sudden thought occurred to him: “he could pretend he was sent to order it for his friend who is currently guarding a table for the two of them.”

He stared at the image in the mirror and frowned, suddenly remembering the cat-and-cookie incident.

He was uncertain where this was going. Was he supposed to ask what he -that is ‘himself’- thought about the idea? And who, exactly, would be answering? The whole thing seemed like an endless hall of mirrors, an infinite regression of Matryoshka dolls.

“Okay,” he added, to assuage the guilt he assumed he would have fibbing to the barista, “He is just trying an experiment in non-gendered, non-directional conversation to solve a personal decisional paralysis. So, he is not trying to be weird or anything. He is actually just asking for your advice: would bagel or cookie be a better breakfast?”

Suddenly, an unexpected epiphany -maybe produced by the comparative ‘better’, but nonetheless apparent in the way in which the third person had phrased his question. Of course the bagel with its protein rich contents was the ‘better’ breakfast! He was pretty sure that First-person-singular would never have seen that with such clarity –could never have seen it. Only by divorcing himself from his stomach, and mentioning it as if he were discussing a friend did it become clear.

He stepped away from his brother at the mirror and smiled to himself. He’d discovered a way of distancing himself from himself long enough to see who he was from an outside perspective. Still, there was a nagging question that kept tugging at his sleeve: who was he when he asked those questions? And did he risk permanently closing the door to the person he used to be, or was it sort of like losing himself in a story and then swapping realities when he closed the book…? But, what if he preferred what he was reading to what he was living…?

Whoa -pretty heavy stuff, that.

You know, it’s harder coming back to First-person than closing the book after a while, and I found myself switching back and forth for the longest time. I really wonder how hard Grossman and Kross had thought this through. And I wonder if Robson got caught up in their web as well. Nobody mentioned anything about collateral damage -but of course, they wouldn’t, would they?

All I can say is be careful, readers -there might be a third-person Minotaur at the end of the labyrinth.