Know your limits…

Listening to the BBC’s In Our Time on French mathematician and polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), I rather enjoyed Napoleon’s quote on his old teacher – whom he briefly made Minister of the Interior for all of six weeks.

Wikipedia is fulsome in its praise of Laplace:

His work was important to the development of engineering, mathematics, statistics, physics, astronomy, and philosophy. Laplace is remembered as one of the greatest scientists of all time. Sometimes referred to as the French Newton he has been described as possessing a phenomenal natural mathematical faculty superior to that of any of his contemporaries. He was Napoleon’s examiner when Napoleon attended the École Militaire in Paris in 1784.

Napoleon clearly rated him, but soon realised not even the finest minds are good for everything…

“Geometrician of the first rank, Laplace was not long in showing himself a worse than average administrator; from his first actions in office we recognized our mistake. Laplace did not consider any question from the right angle: he sought subtleties everywhere, conceived only problems.”

But the killer line is this:

Il portait enfin l’esprit des ‘infiniment petits’ jusque dans l’administration.

In the end, he brought the spirit of the ‘infinitely small’ to matters administrative.

Poor old Laplace; but having worked in universities I know exactly how Napoleon felt… Allez!

Simple Pleasures

No-one would have wished for the pandemic. But it does help with one thing – the appreciation of simple pleasures.

Last evening we had our favourite Chinese takeaway and enjoyed ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ as a family.

This morning: a fry up with sausages and bacon all round. And I sneaked a cheeky fried egg into the pan, just for me. I can’t remember the last time I had a fried egg.

A simple pleasure indeed.

Easy Listening

I can’t believe I’m now listening to The Archers omnibus…

Kicking off with Sunday Worship, the BBC News, Sunday, News & Papers and now Tweet of the Day, I’ve learnt about the Dipper:

Tulip lasagna:

The Coen brothers:

Democracy (or the increasing lack of) in Hong Kong:

The life of Des O’Connor:

And am now facing Desert Island Discs with Labour leader Kier Starmer… Enough!

I’m accumulating cups of tea.

And my head is going to explode if I have to stay tuned to any more thoroughly-middle-class ‘easy listening’. Sorry, I love the BBC but this is too much.

So why am I doing it?

Because I’m supervising this little bundle of life, who is bringing joy, and leaping, and pouncing, and chewing, and chasing into our lives again.

BBC Radio 4 is intended to bring soothing narcolepsy to her new kitchen home.

Happy days!

It’s like having a baby again; bursts of all-action energy and spells of total inactivity. Still, it’s doing me good.

I read a good piece of advice in the week, which is, whatever your faith (or lack of it) everyone should have a Sabbath; a day of rest where you sit, relax and put jobs aside. I’ve not been properly idle forever.

Despite The Archers, it’s good to sit still for a few hours on a Sunday; especially with a warm puppy in your lap.

Shocking

After years (and especially the last year) of constant emails, texts and troubles, this week the tone has changed.

My last two jobs have been all about problems: building failures, system crashes, unhappy people, complaints, campaigns, strikes and unreasonable and unrealistic senior folk.

As a result every time I put my phone down I was expecting another electric shock to come my way – via text, WhatsApp or email. Saturday morning, Sunday afternoon pick your hour, there’d be someone who’d find something to trouble me about.

Of course 2020 takes some beating for stuff going wrong (plus a tree smashed our studio and the dog has now died) but in truth, I’ve been suffering pretty much constant electric shocks from work since 2005.

So imagine my delight this (Saturday) morning to find no new problems in my inbox. No texts. No WhatsApps…

How long it will last who knows. But not having to look after the reputation of a national institution or the operations of a multi-campus university certainly made my day today.

Peace at last!

Back on my feet

A difficult week given the untimely demise of our beloved pup; but I am finally released from the shackles of a job which often made me feel helpless and hopeless.

After crying my eyes out on Tuesday as the vet put Romeo to sleep, on Wednesday I began to tackle the domestic to do list: tidying and odd jobs. By yesterday evening I’d got as far as completing my tax return… a process and sense of achievement nicely encapsulated by Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, here:

Today I have cycled, walked, made sausage sandwiches for breakfast, sorted our evening meal, done my washing, and now am sitting socially distanced outside a little cafe with a nice flat white. I feel a bit like Atlas the robot below, tentatively upbeat…

But there’s no getting away from the fact that this week will always be remembered for our lost little dog; he tried, but after his stroke, never could quite get back to his feet.

Aversion Therapy

The great Dutch philosopher Spinoza has always appealed to me; but all the more so now I’ve studied more psychology.

Baruch Spinoza 1632 – 1677

Spinoza’s ethics are ‘naturalistic’ and spring from simple real-world causes. There is no divine origin or human uniqueness. Everything stems from the simple proposition (as Michael LeBuffe explains in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that:

Human beings desire whatever will bring joy and are averse to whatever will lead to sadness.

This fits beautifully with modern psychological theories that, along with animals, we have one of two basic reactions to everything: approach or avoid. And it all stems from a simple, unquenchable, animalistic drive which Spinoza describes thus:

Both insofar as the mind has clear and distinct ideas, and insofar as it has confused ideas, it strives, for an indefinite duration, to persevere in its being and it is conscious of this striving it has.

Spinoza’s ‘passions’ are the manifestations of this striving, as LeBuffe describes them:

Human passions are for Spinoza changes, that is, increases or decreases, in the power with which we, or parts of us, strive.

And again, as modern psychology suggests, Spinoza suggests a lot of what drives us is subliminal and below the level of consciousness:

Between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that desire is generally related to men insofar as they are conscious of the appetite. So desire can be defined as appetite together with consciousness of the appetite.

And the mind is constantly on the lookout for ‘perfection’ via more ‘joy’ and less ‘sadness’.

By Joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by Sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection.

All of which drives our actions or ‘striving’ accordingly:

We strive to promote the occurrence of whatever we imagine will lead to joy, and to avert or destroy what we imagine is contrary to it, or will lead to sadness.

And virtue for Spinoza is simply ‘correctly’ striving:

Consciously trying to preserve oneself is right and neglecting to preserve oneself is wrong.

The more each one strives, and is able, to seek his own advantage, i.e., to preserve his being, the more he is endowed with virtue; conversely, insofar as each one neglects his own advantage, i.e., neglects to preserve his own being, he lacks power.

All very simple – but we’re pretty complex in our motivations aren’t we? All that complexity comes from our reaction to other people and things; or as Spinoza has them ‘objects’.

There are as many species of Joy, Sadness and Desire, and consequently of each affect composed of these (like vacillation of mind) or derived from them (like love, hate, hope, fear, etc.), as there are objects (i.e. things) by which we are affected.

And a key part of achieving virtue, and correctly developing and using our ‘power’ of right action, is developing ‘clear and distinct ideas’ on things. As LeBuffe explains:

When I do something that fails to help me to persevere, it’s because the ideas on which I based my action were confused; that is, I thought I knew what would help me to persevere, but I was wrong.

When I do something that does help me to persevere, though (unless I have simply been lucky in acting from an inadequate idea), it is because I acted on clear and distinct ideas or, in other words, genuine knowledge about what would help me to persevere.

And this of course is a life’s work; coming to know ourselves, understand others and appreciate how the world works.

But does this mean there is no objective good and bad? Looks like it… For Spinoza:

As far as good and evil are concerned, they also indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another. For one and the same thing can be good, and [evil], and also indifferent. For example, Music is good for one who is melancholy, [evil to] one who is mourning, and neither good nor [evil] to one who is deaf.

Truth is, as Spinoza sees it, they are the other way around:

It is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.

LeBuffe concludes we need to stop kidding ourselves:

The ideal we set before ourselves will be a person who possesses the greatest possible power of action. This would be, in effect, to correlate our systematically distorted ways of perceiving ourselves—as free agents pursuing as an end a model of human nature—with the causes that really determine our actions.

So does this mean anything goes?

No, because we live in community, society and constant connection with myriad others, each with their own delusions, desires, passions and ideas of what’s good and bad; and that 100% creates our context.

And so as Susan Jones explained in Philosophy Bites in December 2007, Spinoza’s sage advice is to find a ‘community’ whose values you share – as he himself did. Because given how small our ‘power’ to influence events, people, ourselves and human nature truly is, you won’t make much headway in changing one you don’t.

And this piece of Spinoza’s advice – from across time and place – is part of why I’m changing jobs next month.

Fingers crossed🤞🏻

No laughing matter…

One of the things I noticed on completing my latest Coursera psychology course is that I’m not laughing much these days…

Having checked out the late Chris Peterson’s Strength Based Perspective on Mental Illness – I found I’m suffering a bout of ‘dourness’.

Here’s Peterson’s table:

Peterson’s work bears more than a passing resemblance to Aristotle’s virtues, strengths and character deficits:

Notably Aristotle doesn’t have ‘humour’ in his list per se; instead he has ‘wittiness’ in the virtue of ‘conversation’ and ‘friendliness’ in the virtue of ‘social conduct’.

Now, following Aristotle’s logic, I can see why I’m not laughing much – laughter is a social thing more than a personal humour, joking or consuming ‘funniness’ thing. You need people for laughter. It’s infectious and contagious. And given the other infectious contagious thing out there right now, we’re just not rubbing along with people as much. Too little witty conversation and not enough scope for seeing friends. No wonder I’m laughing less.

And this chimes with Professor Sophie Scott’s work on laughter – in a nutshell you’re 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with somebody else than if you’re alone…

We typically link laughter and humour very profoundly, but the link may not be as close as we imagine. When I started working with laughter, as part of my work into vocal emotional expressions, I always used to refer to it as “amusement”. However, our lay understanding of laughter is not quite on the ball – while we do laugh at jokes and comedy, we laugh most in social situations.

Watching comedies on my own on Netflix (as I’ve tried) doesn’t really do the job. Watching comedies with the family does… Not so surprising, as Scott’s research shows:

Laughter, like yawning, is behaviourally contagious, and we can catch it easily from other people, especially if we know them.

And it matters too – Peterson is right ‘dourness’ is bad for you and as Sophie Scott concludes:

In short, we do laugh because of humour and jokes, but we laugh mostly because of love and affection. We laugh to share meaning and understanding, to make ourselves feel better, to reaffirm relationships and to make new ones. It’s probably time to be taking our laughter more seriously.

So laughter is far less about ‘funnies’ and far more about conversations and friendship. On reflection, I have actually been laughing a bit lately – on Zooms with people at work.

Laughter is a highly infectious social phenomenon, and Scott’s work explains why the other one – Covid-19 – is getting in the way; I need to phone a few more friends!

The dojo

A recurrent theme of 2020 is can anything else really go wrong? And then it does! I exchanged as much with a most excellent and special friend yesterday in the following text message exchange:

Just inside the door from the wreckage in the back garden, our lovely little dog lies paralysed with a spinal stroke.

He can’t stand up unaided, and is making little progress as we enter the third week since he collapsed. Poor lad.

So what’s going well?

Not so much if I’m honest, but a good psychology resource has been helping this month – Dr Karen Reivich’s ‘Resilience Skills’ from the University of Pennsylvania currently available for free on Coursera.

There is so much to like about Dr Reivich’s exceptionally well-evidenced and practical explanations: the dimensions of resilience and how you can cultivate them, the killer ‘thinking traps’ which bring us all down, and how to disrupt them; plus how to manage anxiety and cultivate positive emotions – even in the worst of times.

As an illustration here are Reivich’s five ‘thinking traps’:

  1. Mind-reading – I already know what you’re thinking and what you’re going to say and do to me (no, I really don’t)
  2. Me – it’s all because of me and it’s all my fault (no it isn’t)
  3. Them – it’s all because of them and it’s all their fault (nope, not that either)
  4. Catastrophizing – it’s bad, it’s going to be terrible and then the walls will cave in on me (notwithstanding the image above, not wholly likely)
  5. Helplessness – it’s hopeless and there’s nothing I can do (but there always is…)

Reivich’s point is if you get into a negative spiral with these five, you just circle down and down. Which is a great insight – but what are you supposed to do about it?

She has three simple ‘Real Time Resilience’ countermeasures, which are easy to remember and easy to deploy. Each begins with a simple mental ‘sentence starter’.

  1. “That’s not true because…..” insert counter Evidence of facts which challenge the thinking trap.
  2. A more helpful way to see this is……Reframe more realistically or positively by broadening the context.
  3. If x happens, I will y……. make a simple Plan, with a practical step you would take if the bad thing(s) starts to happen.

These can be combined with another practical tool – worst case, best case, likely case, practical plan – which puts outer limits on what might happen (including some cheer-inducing good ones) and prepares the mind and body for action, not yet more rumination.

Sometimes simple is best. Walking and talking in the park with my 13 year old son (sadly without 🐶) he got the thinking traps straight away. The ‘sentence starters’ made sense to him too.

This week’s Penn course covers how to manage anxiety. As per my gazelles the key finding is everyone gets anxiety spikes – what makes the ‘Resilience’ difference is mentally and physiologically how fast you can return to normal function. And that’s a set of skills you can learn.

Locked-in and cooped-up, the biggest Covid-19 challenge is keeping mind and body healthy. 2020 is one helluva dojo, but however many times it knocks you down, the answer is: learn, change your mindset and get up again.

Gritty

I’m learning – both conceptually and practically – the difference between ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ at the moment.

Here’s the lowdown from my latest ‘lockdown’ Coursera course:

Conceptually, grit is distinct from resilience, a term defined differently across authors but generally accepted to be a multidimensional construct describing successful adaptation to overwhelming adversity and stress.

While popular measures of resilience often include perseverance as a component, they tend to include other elements as well, such as equanimity and a balanced perspective on life (e.g., Wagnild & Young, 1993).

Moreover, grit entails consistency of interests and goals over time, whereas the construct of resilience is agnostic on the stability of an individual’s interests.

Claire Robertson-Kraft, Angela Lee Duckworth – University of Pennsylvania

Based on this I’d say, of the two, I’m more ‘resilient’ than ‘gritty’. As per recently: ‘consistency of interests and goals over time’ hasn’t always been my approach to life. I’ve been more opportunistic – a polymath and latterly a specialist-generalist.

Perhaps that’s a function of the jobs I’ve had. I’ve been managing people who ‘know’ more that me since I was 22; and learnt, especially in Government in my mid-thirties, that there are all sorts of perspectives on what good looks like.

And it turns out grit isn’t so much about generic leadership or conscientiousness – it’s about sticking at one thing, a metier, a life project or a single-minded goal.

Grit is different than leadership potential insofar as the arenas in which gritty individuals demonstrate their stamina need not be those that entail organizing and managing other people.

Likewise, grit can be distinguished from conscientiousness, a multidimensional family of personality traits that encompasses perseverance, but also includes tendencies toward responsibility, self-control, orderliness, and traditionalism (Roberts, Chernyshenko, Stark, & Goldberg, 2005).

While correlated with conscientiousness, grit provides incremental predictive validity for achievement outcomes, particularly in settings of high challenge (Duckworth et al., 2007).

Claire Robertson-Kraft, Angela Lee Duckworth – University of Pennsylvania

Perhaps also I’ve just not found the goal that would justify the grit – the pearl that would tickle my oyster.

But talk of grit has helped me a bit this week. I can see I have several very ‘gritty’ people who work with me – who will stick at what we have on our plates come hell or high water.

And reflecting on ‘grit’ myself has helped me to apply resilience, leadership and conscientiousness to the task at hand – not just surviving but getting tough stuff done. And this put me in mind of a quote I received a couple of weeks ago:

Maybe one day it will be cheering to remember even these things

Aeneid bk. 1

Virgil 70–19 BC, Roman poet

So I decided to look up the passage from whence this came. Here is Wikipedia’s summary:

In the manner of Homer, the story proper begins in medias res (into the middle of things), with the Trojan fleet in the eastern Mediterranean, heading in the direction of Italy. The fleet, led by Aeneas, is on a voyage to find a second home. It has been foretold that in Italy he will give rise to a race both noble and courageous, a race which will become known to all nations.

Coinage of Aenea, with portrait of Aeneas. c. 510–480 BCE.

Juno is wrathful, her favorite city, Carthage, will be destroyed by Aeneas’s descendants. Juno proceeds to Aeolus, King of the Winds, and asks that he release the winds to stir up a storm in exchange for a bribe; Deiopea, the loveliest of all her sea nymphs as a wife. Aeolus agrees to carry out Juno’s orders: “My task is to fulfill your commands”. The storm then devastates the fleet.

JMW Turner – The Shipwreck

Neptune takes notice: although he himself is no friend of the Trojans, he is infuriated by Juno’s intrusion into his domain, and stills the winds and calms the waters. The fleet takes shelter on the coast of Africa, where Aeneas rouses the spirits of his men, reassuring them that they have been through worse situations before.

The key passage is this:

‘O friends, well, we were not unknown to trouble before. O you who’ve endured worse, the god will grant an end to this too.

Remember your courage and chase away gloomy fears: perhaps one day you’ll even delight in remembering this!

Through all these misfortunes, these dangerous times, we head for Latium, where the fates hold peaceful lives for us: there Troy’s kingdom can rise again. Endure, and preserve yourselves for happier days.’

Translation by A. S. Kline

That they have ‘endured worse’ before is a reminder of resilience. The bringer of hope is the promise of ‘happier days’. But the key to grit is the ‘consistency of interests and goals over time’: “to head for Latium where Troy’s kingdom can rise again.”

Still, perhaps the most telling line is the one that follows – where Aeneas’s ‘grit’ meets the challenge of ‘leadership’…

So his voice utters; and sick with the weight of care, he pretends hope, in his look, and stifles the pain deep in his heart.

As for Aeneas, the task at work right now is to ‘pretend hope’, ‘endure’ and ‘preserve ourselves for happier days’.

Aeneas carrying Anchises ca. 520–510 BC. Louvre

Spitting distance

Which comes first the thought or the emotion? Listening to more of ‘Why Buddhism is true’ by Robert Wright – it seems emotions shape more of context than the average rational actor might like to admit.

In essence the argument from ‘evolutionary psychology’ is that we have a number of ‘mental modules’ which operate just below our consciousness. They are sometimes collaborating – but often competing – for our attention. These modules pull our behaviour towards and away from things.

One example Wright gives, is how attracted experimental subjects are to the promise of a ‘busy museum’ or an ‘exclusive private one’ depending on whether they are shown a clip of ‘The Shining’ or a clip of a ‘Rom-Com’.

Study participants who had been exposed to ‘The Shining’ preferred the idea of a busy museum – safety in numbers. Only those who had seen the ‘Rom Com’ clip fancied the more intimate experience…

The argument is that these modules or algorithms are constantly running – and it is our emotional response to stimuli which selects which module comes to the fore. And what is the conscious mind doing while all this is happening? Running slightly behind post-hoc rationalising it all.

There are fascinating experiments which show how readily the ‘inner voice’ co-opts and instantly creates explanations for what we are doing – first to build our sense of infallibility and second so we can explain ourselves to others.

Both of these are highly ‘adaptive’ in evolutionary terms – a strong sense of self-competence gave us the confidence to keep hunting and gathering; and a strong narrative of our own competence meant other hunters and gatherers wanted us on the team. After all, who wants someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or why, as a partner in life, love, homemaking, the hunt, battle or active warfare?

And indeed these different roles we play are thought to have different ‘mental modules’ which put us in the right frame of mind for the actions required. There is a proposed ‘mate attraction’ module which makes us take more risks, a ‘social status’ module we use to assess and promote ourselves; clearly there are ‘fight or flight’ modules which prepare us to ‘punch and run’ – and there are many more which served their evolutionary purpose in keeping us alive and reproducing.

Some psychologists and philosophers are a bit sceptical of all this of course – and so they should be; that’s any scientist or philosopher’s job. There is a suggestion that these sorts of untestable evolutionary ‘fairy tales’ are a bit far fetched. Indeed the whole ‘genealogy’ approach of seeing behaviour and action as highly determined by social context and norms after Nietzsche and Foucault has been unfashionable in British and American Philosophy. More’s the pity as it’s clearly worth a closer look…

Foucault

…And so to spitting. An article I alighted on while looking for more on ‘mental modules’ pulls together genealogy, emotions, culture, behaviour; and one of the most powerful emotions of the lot – disgust.

In the paper by Shaun Nichols he posits that cultural norms which connect with naturally strong emotional responses ( those driven by evolutionary selection processes) will tend to survive – whilst cultural norms which are just cultural norms will come and go. As he puts it:

I maintain that emotional responses will affect the cultural viability of norms as well as other cultural items. In particular, norms prohibiting actions that elicit negative [emotions] will, I argue, be more likely to survive than [emotionally] neutral norms.

And to illustrate his point he uses spitting down the ages… In the Middle Ages spitting norms were getting a bit more strict, for example:

“Do not spit across the table in the manner of hunters.”

And:

“Do not spit into the basin when you wash your hands, but beside it.”


By 1530, apparently, Erasmus’ etiquette book, ‘On Good Manners for Boys’ gives a “slightly more refined set of admonitions”:

“Turn away when spitting, lest your saliva fall on someone. If anything purulent falls on the ground, it should be trodden upon, lest it nauseate someone.”

But by the 1600s it’s no longer enough to put your foot on it…

“Formerly . . . it was permitted to spit on the ground before people of rank, and was sufficient to put one’s foot on the sputum. Today that is an indecency”

By 1729 a handkerchief is expected:

“When you are with well-born people, and when you are in places that are kept clean, it is polite to spit into your handkerchief while turning slightly aside”

And by the Victorian era spitting is quite simply off limits.

“Spitting is at all times a disgusting habit. I need say nothing more than—never indulge in it”

On the one hand norms have evolved – and tightened – but the argument is that compared to other norms which have come and gone over 500 years, spitting norms are more durable because they connect to and easily elicit a ‘core emotion’.

It’s likely that a crucial feature here is that the disgust mechanism is at least predisposed to find saliva and mucus objectionable. That is, we come prepared to be disgusted by certain things and not others (cf. Seligman 1971; Garcia 1990).

…Disgust is a basic emotion (Ekman 1994; Rozin et al. 2000), and by common consensus, body products are at the core of the eliciting conditions for disgust (Rozin et al. 2000).

Indeed, Haidt and colleagues maintain that it’s useful to distinguish “core disgust” which is elicited by body products, food, and animals (especially animals associated with body products or spoiled food) (Haidt et al. 1994).

Similarly, Rozin and colleagues write that “Body products are usually a focus of disgust. . . . There is widespread historical and cultural evidence for aversion to virtually all body products, including feces, vomit, urine, and blood” (Rozin et al. 2000).

It seems to me we can all readily relate to that one!

So emotions – and the approach/avoid – response are always working in the background to bring the evolutionarily correct ‘mental modules’ to the mental foreground. We think we’re thinking – but we’re not; we’re largely reacting and post hoc rationalising.

And that’s good to know. Because once you recognise you’re a ragtag bag of evolutionarily conditioned emotional triggers – for modules which give us proven survival advantage – you can relax a bit. There’s no point trying to ‘control’ emotions; they control us. The point is to trust them a bit more. And be distracted by the ‘inner voice’ a little less.

The inner voice is perhaps more like a sports commentator than the illusory inner Chief Executive (which Richard Wright very much draws into question). The inner voice is all too often completely wrapped up in the ‘game’; excited and involved, telling us ten-to-the-dozen what’s happening now, not entirely wanting to predict the final result but unable to resist a bit of speculation and hyperbole… All rising voices, factoids and oohs and ahs!

…but in fact, it’s the emotions (as throughout evolutionary history) that are the star players.