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Archive for the ‘Psychology’ Category

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a podcast about a writer who has written a few books, one called War and the other called Tribe. The writer, Sebastian Junger, was originally a war reporter. During the podcast interview, he described that after his time covering the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s (or perhaps the second Iraq War), after he came back to the US, he experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

During the podcast, Junger describes the time when he was waiting in the New York subway and suddenly had a panic attack where he seized up and was overcome with a sense of dread. He had to go hide out in a corner and wait for it to pass.

When I hear these stories, I think back to my own time. I identify closely with people who have this because I, too, have had it. 10 years ago, while I was hiking in Fiji, I had a hiking accident where I nearly died. The day after my accident, I found I had trouble with my memory. I couldn’t remember people’s names whereas I was usually good with them. Days later, I kept forgetting where I would put things like pens, pencils, and even my shoes when I walked in the house (I also lost a blue recycling box somehow). I had trouble focusing and concentrating, and I also lost interest in some of my favorite activities like sponge hockey.

What sealed my self-diagnosis is a series of panic attacks I had when reading a comic in the newspaper. It was about a cartoon dog who got lost from his master, fell into a small ditch and started yelling that he was trapped and stuck. It was a joke because it was such a small ditch and he was exaggerating to get attention. But when I read that comic, I suddenly had a panic attack where my heart started racing (the same flutter you might get on a roller coast, except worse). I had the same experience watching the movie Cliffhanger when a character fell into a chasm, and a third time watching a movie and some characters were just walking through a waterfall, no danger involved. All that anxiety was real and it came over me automatically, no thinking about it involved. How does reading a comic or watching a movie give you panic attacks?

I looked up my symptoms online and it seemed clear I was experiencing PTSD.

As time passed, my symptoms started to go away. My memory returned, I could concentrate again, and I didn’t have panic attacks nearly as often. However, I still have a fear of heights and I don’t like driving along a ledge that has no railing. I freeze up when that happens. When I think about skydiving out of a plane and actually visualize it, I do start to panic a little bit. I have no idea how I went skydiving in Turkey; I think because I had dirka I was distracted.

So, yeah. PTSD is real. It sucks.

It’s mostly gone now, but I feel bad for the war veterans who suffer with it. It has entrenched my aversion to war as being mostly good for nothing.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast where the interviewee was talking about how human beings are wired to avoid pain and to seek out pleasure (or rewards). Or maybe it wasn’t a podcast, perhaps it was in a book. I forget. The point is that we as humans are fairly predictable in our behavior. That’s why we find it so easy to eat ice cream or chocolate and so hard to exercise. One is pleasant, the other is not.

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Of the two of them, the instinct to avoid pain or danger is much greater than the instinct to attain pleasure. The reason for this is due to our evolutionary development. If you were attacked and eaten by a tiger on the African savannah, your reproductive odds of success dropped to zero. You had to avoid that danger in order to survive. On the other hand, if you found a good source of protein or sugar, your chances of survival and passing on your genes increased, but you could always live on to forage another day. Not indefinitely, but one more day.

In other words, the cost of being wrong when it comes to danger and pain is far higher than the payment for attaining pleasure and rewards.

For some reason I started thinking back to bullies in junior high and high school. I don’t remember why I made this connection, and I thought to myself “Do I still harbor grudges against those people who picked on me way back then?”

I read a thread on Quora about how people who used to be bullies feel about their actions. In general, while some bullies are remorseful of what they did in the past, a large proportion of them just think it was “kids being kids.” The degree of harm done wasn’t that bad and people should get over it.

On the other hand, the people who were picked on never forgot that they were picked on. While they may have moved past it, it’s still in their memories.

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When I look back on my own experience, I was bullied every single year from Grade 7 to Grade 12. It was usually a different kid, but sometimes they repeated themselves (e.g., Grade 9 and Grade 12). I knew I was lower on the social pecking order because I was physically smaller and couldn’t fight back; worse yet, I didn’t have the charm or charisma to build my own coalition that would stand up for me, thus dissuading others from picking on me. That is, my own circle of friends didn’t have the influence to stop others from picking on them, either. And as the picked-on kids know, you can’t go to teachers or the principal and report them because that lowers your social status in the eyes of others because it labels you as a tattletale.

In other words, life wasn’t fair back then.

So coming back and reflecting on it now, do I still harbor grudges against the bullies who picked on me?

I can still name their names but the truth is that my memory of them is fading… sort of. I bet that if I were to meet them today that they would all have forgotten how they were as teenagers.

But I won’t have forgotten. While I understand that kids are kids, I also understand that I did nothing to deserve the treatment I got from them.

I think to myself No, I don’t harbor a grudge nor do I wish ill on the people who picked on me, nor do I think about it. But at the same time, if one of them randomly asked me if they wanted to meet up for old time’s sake (like go for a cup of coffee), I’d hesitate to say yes. I might never say yes. Heck, if they even wanted to be friends on Facebook, I might not approve the friend request.

Why is that?

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I’m fortunate that this has never come up in real life, and it probably never will. Yet the fact remains that if it did, I know how I’d react – it’s the way that people say you’re not supposed to react; you’re supposed to forgive the person and let bygones be bygones because it’s better for you to let it go.

But if I am honest with myself, I wouldn’t let it go. I’d go out of my way to avoid talking to those people. And I think the reason is that I am biologically programmed to avoid pain.

In my mind, those people are associated with psychological pain. I felt bad around them; belittled, embarrassed, demeaned. Because of the way our memories work, a strong emotional experience forms lasting memories. And, those episodes of being picked on by bullies were strong experiences and so they are forever etched in my memory and encoded as a negative experience.

So, even if I could potentially attain a reward for being friends with these people (e.g., acquire a new friend, get an apology [unlikely], get new insights), the desire to avoid pain outweighs my desire to attain a reward. Even though this all occurred in the past, my current ability to think logically is superseded by my strong negative experiences of the past, and that wins out. My brain is not capable of separating the past from the present. It conflates it into one.

That’s how are brains are supposed to work.

I am not being a bad person by wanting to avoid others from my past who mistreated me. But rather, my brain remembers what happened last time I encountered them and made sure to encode it so that it was easy to recall, and warn me in the future to stay away next time the opportunity arises.

I think that this is a powerful feature of our brains, and it goes to demonstrate that the way we treat others matters. We don’t operate logically (or maybe we do?).

Am I missing out on something? Maybe. But I have plenty of friends who have never mistreated me.

Am I holding a grudge? Maybe. But I don’t dwell on it except when I write blog posts, and I also sympathize with others who go through the same thing.

I may never get over this.

But frankly, I’m okay with it.

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I visited Auschwitz

Last year, the wife and I visited Slovenia; Budapest, Hungary; and Krakow, Poland. It was a good trip, I ate plenty of bread and discovered I liked a bunch of foods I never used to.

But for me, one of the things that stands out in my mind is our day-trip to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp 50 miles west of Krakow in present day Poland.

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About 1.1 million people were killed there, out of a total of 1.3 million deported there. Auschwitz was a “work” camp although it was never intended to be a place where serious work was done. The people who ran the camp overworked and underfed them, the goal was to kill as many people as possible by any means possible. At first, the goal of the Holocaust was to deport all of the Jews out of Germany and eastern Europe, kicking them out of the country and sending them to Madagascar. That was at the beginning. However, as the final solution firmed up, starting in 1942, the Nazi government decided to simply kill them all.

Auschwitz was open for 3 years, from 1942 to 1944, closing in 1945. That means that they killed an average of 1000 people per day.

My emotional reaction to seeing the death camp was a mixture of overwhelming sadness at the scope of evil committed there, contempt for the people who committed it, and disgust at what humanity can do.

The Nazis went to great lengths to improve their killing efficiency. On the way to the death camps, they would tell all the prisoners to bring a trunk or bag of personal belongings, leading them to believe that they would get them back after. As they got off the train, they would separate them into different groups and lead the weak ones away immediately – older men and women, and all children, as well as the sick – to the gas chambers which they said were showers, and that they would need to be cleaned (the train ride took a few days).

The Nazis installed fake showerheads in the gas chambers that were never hooked up to water. They would then drop poison gas through vents in the ceiling and wait for the screams to subside, that’s how they knew everyone was dead. They would then go in and paint over all of the blood and human fluid remains with white paint so that the next batch of victims would never know that they were going into a death trap.

They did all of this so that the next group would not suspect anything was amiss, avoiding panic. They wanted to streamline the process of killing everyone.

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The bottleneck in the Nazi killing plans was not how many people they could kill per day, it was how many bodies they could dispose of. They resorted to burning the bodies in ovens. The ones they have within the camp today are replicas; the Nazis took them all down as they left the camp.

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The thing is that they knew what they were doing was a crime against humanity. When the Soviets started getting closer, the Nazis decommissioned all of the ovens in order to hide the evidence so that others wouldn’t know what they had done there.

They didn’t get rid of everything, and there were still survivors in the camp when the Soviets arrived in January 1945.

A couple miles away from the original camp is Auschwitz II (Birkenau). This camp is much, much larger and it was built specifically for the purpose of being able to execute and dispose of more people. There aren’t as many buildings still standing because the Polish people reclaimed a lot of the materials after the war in order to rebuild the local towns.

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As I said above, my reaction to Auschwitz was a complicated mixture. I was overwhelmed by just how much torture the people who lived there were put through. Most of them were there only a short time but some somehow lived for weeks or even months; a handful even got out alive. I don’t know how I ever could have survived there.

That’s the part that saddened me.

But my more powerful emotion was a blend of disgust and contempt. In order to perpetuate the Holocaust, an entire nation (or at least the military leadership and the government) had to have a blinding hatred of a group of people so deep and so irrational that they were willing to undermine their own war effort in order to perpetuate this atrocity.

The Nazis killed about 6 million Jews in War War II in their death camps. This means that rather than putting them to work in the German war machine to help with the war effort, they completely lost all of that potential labor. Moreover, they diverted resources away from the war effort – time better spent building military hardware, or training, or medical services, or anything – and instead built and maintained the infrastructure to round up, transport, kill, and dispose of 1000 people per day, every day, for three years. They were acting against their own interests for years, on purpose.

No empathy, no one stepping up and saying “Um, is this the best use of our resources?” Nothing.

Classical economics tells us that people are mostly rational and act in their own best interests, and people are basically looking to optimize their long term. Markets are efficient at regulating that. But no. Instead, the Nazi government – along with the rest of a nation – decided to optimize death and destruction at their own expense.

That’s the part that disgusted me.

And what else got to me was the helplessness of the situation. The Jews didn’t do anything to deserve what they got, and the Nazi government rounded them up to kill them. What struck me was the realization that if this ever happens to me, there is no one coming to help.

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That was a tough part to swallow. We like to think that there is someone watching out to keep the bad people in check – there’s the police, or the government. But when things get out of hand, if you are targeted, there is no one coming to your rescue.

During this current US Presidential election, one of the candidates (Ben Carson?) said that the Nazis tightened gun control laws and that contributed to the Holocaust. It was a comment about gun control. He got in trouble because the Nazis actually relaxed them in order to allow their supports to get access to firearms, and therefore (so his opponents claimed) having loose gun control is not a good argument because his example was invalid.

That counter-argument fell on my deaf ears. I’m not a gun rights supporter, I think that the US’s prevalence of guns contributes to the outsized gun deaths in this country. However, the Jews who didn’t fight back were sent to the death camps and died. The Jews who did fight back died in battles against the Nazis. Fight back or not, it made no difference.

But at least they fought back. And took some with them and that’s better than nothing. Because no one was coming to help.

That hit me, too – my aversion to violence won’t help me if I get into trouble of this sort because if it happens, I’m on my own. Then what?

The Holocaust did not eradicate all of the Jews in Europe, but it did eradicate nearly all of them in some countries – in Poland, 97-99% of them were killed. I have a lot of Jewish last names in my family history living in Poland, and it’s quite likely if I do, indeed, have Jewish heritage, most of them died in the war.

 

A couple of days later, the wife and I went to visit the Oscar Schindler museum, the German who is famous for saving about 1100 Jews (and the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List). However, it was closed.

Fortunately, next door was another museum of contemporary art. It contains reflections of modern artists, and they have a section dedicated to the Holocaust.

The part of this museum that stuck with me is this picture:

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You can’t that because my phone doesn’t take good pictures, but they are all pictures with a bit of pain on them, and above reads a line of text “There will be no more Baghdad”, “There will be no more Srebenica”, “There will be no more Darfur”, and so forth, referring to another city where genocide took place. The message is that genocides occur and humanity is shocked by the horror of, vowing that it will never occur again.

But it does occur again. And we repeat the same vows.

When does it end?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

My experience at Auschwitz was solemn. When I hear US presidential candidates talk about bombing other countries, even carpet bombing, I let out a sigh of sadness. Why do we keep trying to solve our problems with death and destruction?

But at least we have memorials to events like these. We shouldn’t forget that stuff like this can happen. I’ve read up on the problem of evil, and I’m not so sure I can excuse myself from something like this. What side would I have been on?

I don’t know. But I do know that something like this mustn’t happen again.

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Do you have a relative like this?

Many years ago, on Facebook, I added one of my cousins as a friend. At the time, I didn’t realize that he was a bit of a racist, chauvinist, redneck. I didn’t have that much interaction with my cousin growing up, but seeing his posts on Facebook makes me wonder “Really? We’re related?”

The thing that always stuck out to me was in his About Me profile, and I forget which field it was (Religious views? Political views?) where he said “Do what you want to do and if anyone doesn’t like it, f*** ‘em!” Seeing his posts later on, it’s clear that he lives by this mantra.

However, the line of thought that he expressed on his profile is a common meme in American and (to a lesser extent) Canadian society. It permeates our culture and our movies – do what you want to do if you believe in it, even if others disapprove of it. My cousin takes it one step further in that especially if others disapprove of it, continue to do what you want even if it alienates them from you. After all, your personal enjoyment is better than the approval you get from others.

But is it?


Our species evolved to care about our reputation

Humans are a social species. We live with and interact with others, it is the way we evolved. It is not possible to live by yourself and hope to survive for long, or at least live well enough so that you aren’t just scrounging out subsistence living (contrary to what most Hollywood movies teach us, people who live alone by themselves in the woods, away from civilization, do not acquire super powers and ultra-trained martial arts skills).

Because we are a social species, we are forced to interact with and rely on one another. And because of this, other people can choose whether or not to interact with us and rely on us. If they choose not to, that greatly lessens our ability to survive because we’ll spend the bulk of our time trying to scrape out a basic life.

The attitude “Do what you want; alienating others is an acceptable outcome” ignores the fact that if you do alienate others, it will affect your outcome. For you see, others have a weapon to use against you – your reputation. If you get the reputation of someone who cannot be relied upon, who treats others poorly, who does not respect the rights of others, who gets in your face and does not consider others, word gets around. That’s why gossip is so powerful, it is a tool that is used to police the group. Gossip serves as a tool to ensure that others behavior is kept in line because it precedes your reputation; you can’t control what others say behind your back.

And if others behind your back are saying that you are not a reliable individual, or trustworthy individual, or care not about others because “F*** ‘em”, then news of this travels. It affects how others perceive you and if you don’t care, your quality of life degrades.


The theory of mind

Not caring about how others perceive you is flawed. Asperger’s patients can see things logically but have difficulty perceiving events from other people’s points of view. And this all stems from what’s known as the theory of mind.

The theory of mind is the idea that we humans live inside our own worlds but we can extricate ourselves from inside our own heads and predict how others will think from their own points of view. And we can go from there to see what others still will think, and how we will react, and so forth. In other words, the theory of mind is that we have our own minds but that we are not restricted to it; we understand that other people have minds of their own, along with their own sets of judgments and values. This is what separates us humans from other species – we have a theory of mind, and they don’t (at least, as far as we can tell; other species might have a theory of mind but it minor compared to us humans).

The theory of mind is possibly responsible for so much of our species’ development. The reason we have big brains relative to our body size (and the accompanying synapse connections between neurons) is because our species evolved to have to interact with other humans, and the theory of mind is one of these things that evolved. We can’t interact with other humans without thinking that other humans have minds of their own, and that means we have to take others’ subjective opinions into consideration when doing our own actions.

This is one theory about why our species developed large brains.


Tying it all together

So the idea that “you can do whatever you want and if anyone disapproves, f**k ‘em” is fundamentally flawed because it violates the theory of mind. It assumes that others may or may not care, but it doesn’t consider the fact that others may retaliate. It is completely ignorant of that possibility, that there may be consequences to your actions, and that’s why it is wrong.

Even if my cousin’s belief considers the fact that there may be consequences, it still dismisses them as inconsequential. “Whatever others may do, it doesn’t matter and won’t affect me.” This reflects our species’ optimism bias – the belief that things will always go in our favor. It also combines it with the self-serving bias – the belief that the things we do in our own interests are justified (i.e., even if others disapprove, I’m doing the right thing).

Yet as Asperger’s patients show us, not being able to view things from others’ points of view does not result in them being able to get along better in society. It is the opposite, they struggle to get along in society much more than the rest of us.

A regular person inherently understands this. They understand that their actions have consequences and are concerned about their reputation. Only people who are much stronger than their peers (such as dictators and despots) can knowingly get away with it; people with exceptional skills that are in demand (such as Sherlock Holmes); and people like my cousin… except in that case it all eventually catches up.

I’m not entirely sure how my cousin came to be like the way he is. But I do feel bad for him.

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