Winds of Change.NET: Liberty. Discovery. Humanity. Victory.

Formal Affiliations
  • Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto
  • Euston Democratic Progressive Manifesto
  • Real Democracy for Iran!
  • Support Denamrk
  • Million Voices for Darfur
  • milblogs
Syndication
 Subscribe in a reader

One of Your Most Important Choices

| 33 Comments

My recent post on Decision-Making and Bias (The Bad, The Good & the Ironic) sparked some very intelligent exchanges. Just to keep going on the human mind angle for a sec, Kathy Sierra of Passionate has a truly fascinating post: Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain. If folks wonder why I make a point of stuff like posting good news and throwing in interesting items about the positive things our civilization does, well, science says it's a smart move. And Kathy explains the key mechanisms involved:

Robert Scoble, announced the unthinkable a few days ago: he will be moderating his comments. But what some people found far more disturbing was Robert's wish to make a change in his life that includes steering clear of "people who were deeply unhappy" and hanging around people who are happy. The harsh reaction he's gotten could be a lesson in scientific ingorance, because the neuroscience is behind him on this one.

Whether it's a good move is up to each person to decide, but I've done my best here to offer some facts. [Disclaimer: I'm not an authority on the brain! I have, however, spent the last 15 years doing research and applying it, both in my work and also because I have a serious brain disorder, and my brain knowledge could be a matter of life and death. Another disclaimer: I haven't spoken with Robert about this; I'm simply offering some science that supports the decision he may have made for entirely different reasons.]

Before we talk about applying any of this to debates, I'm going to ask everyone to suspend that reflex for a minute and go read it. It's very readable, very thought-provoking, and has stuff in it that could really change your experience of your life.

33 Comments

Yup. This ties in with much of the work done by the "Learned Optimism" folks (one (the?) spearhead of that approach to psych being Marty Seligman). The meaning of the mirror neuron stuff is still debatable. The other cognitive-level stuff is less so, in my view. I've posted a take related to some of these issues on my blog, about "indignant (self-)dopes. (Y'all come!)

In the work of Seligman's that I've read, he tries to draw careful distinctions among pessimism, helplessness, anxiety and anger, including trying to create and emply evaluative tools that distinguish them. That said, there is a lot of clustering of those traits and states.

It's of course the case that some of those most easily made indignant by the claim that being indignant is addictive will deny it. Indignantly.

By the way, Seligman and some associates have recently opened a website called Reflective Happiness. Yeah, they offer some services for a subscription fee, and the approach might or might not take for any given person, but they're not mountebanks -- at least so far.

Joe,

Good pickup! I am very hip on the OB (original blog) and am agreeable. Once, my wife and I went to visit my grandmother who was nearing the end of her life and my mother & brother were there. We walked in and the color was very gray. My wife who is usually very happy & bubbly was such a burst of sunshine, it was contagious and almost immediately she changed the entire scene from a sullen depression to a happy situation.

I like the debunking of the happy person is a bubblehead myth. It isn't true. More often the happy person is much more able to control situations and overcome problems rather then become angry and lose control of the situation.

Similar myths exist about "nice people".

Yes, anger at times is appropriate but the person who is generally happy is usually able to control and productively harness their anger. The unhappy or constantly angry person is given to overreaction or throwing down their toys and giving up right away.

What does all this say about TV and movies that constantly glorify a culture of sex, violence, insensitivity, egotism, revenge, drug use, etc etc. Do these "entertainments" cause people to mimic what they see. Is this good for society?

What about journalists, media companies, and bloggers, that try to advance their careers, profits, or noteriety, by exclusively seeking, publicizing, and spinning, cases of wrongdoing, and incompetence. How does this effect society?

It is very difficult for a person to surround himself with a culture that promotes positive values such as selflessness, compassion, love for others, cooperation, etc.

In the news every day, it is clear that the western way of life is under attack from from various cultures and immigration patterns. Could this be due to a cultural vulnerability actually created in the west where our media whice we encourage by our patronage is causing us to develop cultural defects that are leading to our own self-destruction?

So when I watch Hamlet, I'm being bombarded with mind-warping negative neurons and emotional pathogens? What's a safe level of annual exposure to Sophocles, in millirems?

Bring it on! Do your worst! I fear no foul and pestilent congregation of neuro-vapours. I'll take Schopenhauer, and you guys can have Barney the Dinosaur and Tom Freaking Cruise. Get thee to a Scientology Giggling Clinic, and quickly too!

And furthermore, before everybody gets too loaded up on nitrous oxide, remember to rip the book of Job out of your Bible lest it give you cerebral cooties. Likewise Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and the last half of all the Gospels. What the hell, throw the whole thing away and get a talking Big Bird doll instead. Don't you feel better already?

Like Nietzsche said - on second thought, I'd better not tell you what he said.

Lol. True enough. The original sunday morning entertainment couldnt be much more rife with all the bad things. Sex? How about incest with your two daughters that got you wasted... right after seeing your villiage nuked and your wife turned to salt? Violence? Revenge? Look, if i know one things its that the big man upstairs loves him some revenge. Forget about keying your car- murdering an entire civilizations first born, now thats gettin er done. Heck, you cant get through the first chapter without fratricice, rape, theft, an attempt at child murder, a 'regular' genocide, and a global genocide. You try to make a movie directly based on the bible and they wouldnt be able to show it on network tv.

Glen makes a good point, albeit in an elliptical way: are we then to have no contact with dark emotional people and content?

As a technology management consultant, I've worked at a lot of large companies all over North America. One thing I find in common is the similar attitudes of some of the workers! I get the "nowhere could be as bad as this" people everywhere I go. Given time, each of them will sit down and tell you the 20-30 stories about how their company is so messed up. One guy I knew had such a good memory that, given any current subject, he could take you back ten years and repeat every mistake that was made, including meetings and participants, almost verbatim! One guy, given any new idea or possible solution, could instantaneously tell you a list of over a dozen reasons why it wouldn't work. This wasn't just for my ideas, or a few topics. I saw him shoot down dozens of ideas from all kinds of people over the period of a year. it almost got enjoyable to watch. (as a side note, he never did anything with his career, and is very bitter about having failed to make any progress) Negativity can sometimes be very rewarding in the business sector, at least to a limited extent. Some women managers have a difficult time transmitting negative information in a positive manner: identifying problems is one thing, emotionally unloading is another.

These people will kill you, make no mistake. They will tap your energy, dilute your positive outlook, and destroy your life and career. And when it's all gone, you'll be one of them!

So do I stop watching Hamlet? Do I stop immersing myself in the media? One commenter even brought immigrants into the mix, although I'm not sure why.

I think that, much like disease, a good emotional immune system is critical, especially with so much negative media content in our lives. I think we build this immune system by exercising it. A good, sollid, positive outlook on life has to be tempered with a lot of reality checks. I've gotten so I enjoy the negative people in the world -- to a point. They're the best people to have around you when trying to find problems, as they know all of them by heart. But you have to learn how much you can take and stay healthy. I've also learned that in management, people bring you all the negative stuff they can't deal with and drop it in your lap. These are tricky emotional waters to navigate. I don't think telling people just to "stick around happy folks" is workable. As one of our recent presidential candidates, old horse-head, used to say, the subject is very "nuanced."

Mark, read the article closely and note the importance of a social transmission mechanism. Which means there's a big difference between content and people.

Note, too, the difference between the literal content of the Bible and the social content of, say, those Sunday Christian church services. In some case, the literal and social content are very, very different (in some cases, not). It's obvious which one wins.

The human angle is the focus of this article, and properly so. The content angle is deeply secondary.

As for tragedy of the literary, musical or theatrical kind....

"The classic discussion of Greek tragedy is Aristotle's Poetics. He defines tragedy as "the imitation of an action that is serious and also as having magnitude, complete in itself." He continues, "Tragedy is a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear. Its action should be single and complete, presenting a reversal of fortune, involving persons renowned and of superior attainments,and it should be written in poetry embellished with every kind of artistic expression." The writer presents "incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to interpet its catharsis of such of such emotions" (by catharsis, Aristotle means a purging or sweeping away of the pity and fear aroused by the tragic action)."

So no, you don't have to give up Hamlet. Or Metallica. I enjoy both. Come to think of it, many of Hamlet's problems might have been solved if he hads listened to Metallica regularly. But I digress....

Of course, if you walked into someone's house and all they had was horror novels and movies, you'd probably be creeped out and not without reason. Those choices don't matter as much as the people choices, but if they're deeply disproportionate they can matter.

Why do you think Lewy14 doesn't do Hatewatch any more, Mark? And I understand that, because covering many of the subjects we do here at Winds, I can feel the same pulls, and effects. And you've got to be in control of it and be able to step back or walk a different road for a while, or it is going to control you instead.

For most folks, however, it's not really experienced as a choice - and there's the crux.

What you put into your head, and who you hang with, is a choice. Know why you're making any given choice.

As for this amusing/sad story from Daniel:

"One guy, given any new idea or possible solution, could instantaneously tell you a list of over a dozen reasons why it wouldn't work. This wasn't just for my ideas, or a few topics. I saw him shoot down dozens of ideas from all kinds of people over the period of a year. it almost got enjoyable to watch."

Management was incompetent to keep him under these circumstances; the amount of money he cost them probably makes his salary look like chump change. They were doubly incompetent not to put him in a role like risk management, where his huge talent and skill (and yes, this is both a talent and skill) could have been channeled productively and made part of the process (in later stages) without having the authority to abort new ideas.

A good carpenter can build a sturdy house with all kinds of wood, each in its proper place. In craft, in war - and in life. But the carpenter chooses which wood to put where, and why.

Choose.

I wanted to comment on this post, but the spam filter disallowed anything that contained either the text string yawhoow.com or blawgspowt.com (both spelled phonetically here to avoid triggering it again)

You're exactly right about that guy I used to work with, Joe. He should have been moved into risk management. As it was, he was an old mainframe programmer who was trying to "pick up the new stuff" and get involved with client-server computing, which back then was really hot.

We visited him many years later. Our wives had not met, and while he and I were talking shop his wife mentioned to mine that he just didn't have the "marketing skills" to advance his career like I had mine. There was a lot more than marketing skills at issue there, but you can only do so much.

I asked him about his current contract, and then I listened for about an hour while he lamented the management, the technology, the people, and the chances of success. It had been many years, but it was the same guy! Doing the same thing, in the same job, with the same complaints. There's a huge lesson there for anybody paying attention.

On the positive side, I've worked for people where the building could be on fire, and they would have us singing campfire songs and roasting marshmellows. Talk about great managers and employees! I love working with those types of people. Those were the ones that accomplished anything they put their mind to.

It is always fun to watch one person from the far side of "grumpy gus" meet with one of the "cheerleaders". Sometimes I wonder, like matter and antimatter, if there won't be some kind of explosion, perhaps creating a wormhole to some Monty Python world. But usually the happy person just tones down, while the grumpy person continues on their sullen path. It's just anecdotal, sure, but I've seen the social transmission effect many times.

In the last 5 days, we're over 300 trackback spams from the big Y - and there's also a spam domain called h o o . c o m we've been hit by. I'll report them to Y! and explain the effect they're having, hopefully they'll be sued into oblivion.

Blogspot is an issue we've discussed here a few times before. You can leave a modified blo*gspot..com URL that people can decipher if you want them to follow a link. Others have had success with TinyURL and it will work for now.

"Negativity can sometimes be very rewarding in the business sector"...a couple of b-school profs have analyzed one way in which this happens; see "The Smart-Talk Trap"
http://photoncourier.bl*gspot.com/2005_07_01_photoncourier_archive.html#112214675699901548

(note that the link has to be corrected, due to overealous spam filter)

Good post, David.

I was listening to Mahan Khalsa the other day talk about this. (I recommend the tape set if you do any sort of technical consulting) He was saying that he consulted in a big technology firm where the customers -- people who liked them! -- thought of them as "brains on a stick". They were just analytical to the point of intolerability. It's very hard to distinguish hard analysis from mindless negative nit-picking, especially when the language is layered with jargon and techno-babble.

In the technology sector, for some strange reason, we look smart when we "go negative" Over time, as my friend learned, it can poision your career. But in the short term, it makes you look smart and considerate. And as all politicians know, it only takes a few well-chosen negative words to have the same effect as a hundred positive words. People respond more quickly to pain than pleasure.

There is no doubt we live in the real world and we must be around people and messages of anger and sadness. However, the key idea is not to go out of ones way to seek out anger and sadness and to learn to control it.

There is this popular myth that those who suppress the outward signs of rage (and sadness) are disingenuous or are actually harming themselves. You know the primal scream therapy thing. I have found the opposite to be true.

I don't like to work or be around people who are prone to angry outbursts or fits of tears at the slightest provocation. One guy I worked around shoved (by grabbing him by the neck) a colleague into the wall and nearly tipped a TV stand (with a TV on it) in the process (nice big dent was left in the wall). I want level headed people who can think when things go bad. The guy who was shoved in the wall confided to me that even though I wasn't the top programmer in the class he'ld rather work with me than the top two. Joe Angry is prone to angry and violent outbursts when things go badly (in this story Joe is the guy who shoved the guy in the wall) and Josephine Sad is prone to tears when things go badly. Neither is good.

We all have seen what the negative sourpuss can do. You have a team of 10 people who are upbeat and confident of what their team can do. A negative sourpuss is put on the team and very shortly you will have more than one negative sourpuss on the team.

Several articles lately have suggested that the "self-esteem" push in the schools has resulted in graduates, now entering the workplace, who have extreme attitudes of entitlement. It's going to be very important for companies to avoid hiring a critical mass of these people...if there are only a few of them, then their attitudes may improve, but if critical reach is reached, then the organization will soon become dysfunctional.

I think that this article, which I had already read, bookmarked and saved, is simple truth.

It's part of why I say again and again that people who are is some way seriously bad, or chronically rage-driven, or foul-mouthed and nasty, or as in the latest media flap dishonest as to their identity, should be cut off socially - cast out in effect.

I've seen good people hurt and a very good one emotionally wrecked by dealing with evil and with people who do evil. The good feel obliged to make sense of things, to bring truth and order out of wrongness. It's in their nature, and commendable in itself, but it becomes self-destructive when it leads to chronic engagement with things that inherently resist redemption, with people who are addicted to negative emotional situations and are constantly trying to foster them, and even worse with people who are seriously, chronically false in their character.

The descent into useless suffering begins with good people - exceptionally genuine (and thus rare) carers seeking rehabilitation (or even redemption), but it ends in perpetual crisis management and a would be helper who is also sinking into perpetual emotional crisis. It's a horrible waste, and really the only solution is to find a different job with people who are genuine about making their stories end happily.

(By the way - here is my out for drama. A play like Ajax may be distressing - OK, it is - but in the end it does add up. It's great, constructive art. However, there are kinds of art that intentionally don't add up, that are by design just senseless and emotionally negative, and there I'll say: yes, avoid them.)

Pop psychology tells us over and over that we should confront our problems, not avoid them. What I've seen is the negative consequences of confrontation that has no resolution - and there are lots of people with whom positive resolutions are not possible. Instead, it takes intense and unrewarding self-discipline to not wind up shouting back or matching them cold lie for lie.

Now, often there is no solution, or there is not much of a solution, because in the real world we have a limited control of our environment. The boss whose word means nothing, the sleazy co-worker, the neighbourhood scold who loudly berates her hen-pecked husband and her daughter the scold-in-training are just facts of life. They're bad for your head, but the damage is not to be avoided.

But to the extent that you can cut them off, you should. All of them.

If only because there are so many good people out there that might thrive on being allowed to be a good influence.

There was a retarded girl who used to come to - OK, be brought to - an ice rink near me. I haven't seen her in ages, and I miss her. She was nice - don't ask me how I know, it's just "gut instinct" - and she smiled. I know she was up to making my whole day. She was quite an influence.

I don't know if that did her any good - but it can't be bad, can it? Her family certainly treated her like an important person.

That stuff people say about the severely handicapped still being able to lead meaningful lives, to help others if only with the language of pure love, isn't just carers trying to make meaningless low-quality lives sound meaningful, it's the truth. It's a very important truth.

I think the more we're willing to be mirrors for the sunshine of beautiful spirits, the better.

Be well, friend.

Joe:
... by catharsis, Aristotle means a purging or sweeping away of the pity and fear aroused by the tragic action.
Yes, good old catharis. [Example here: http://canisiratus.bl*gspot.com/2005/06/deep-inside-hillary-clinton.html]

But there is a major problem reconciling this with the supposed mechanism of mirror neurons. Catharsis is thought to be a good thing because negative feelings are purged through the harmless action of a play.

However, the mirror neurons supposedly work at the unconscious level. How does your unconscious mind know that it's just a play? The damage would be the same either way. Furthermore, if catharsis still works in spite of this, it would work the same way when the subject is witnessing real-life tragedy.

On the other side of the coin, consider Lawrence Olivier's performance as Richard III. Throughout most of the play he is a relentlessly happy person, just bubbling over with glee as he slaughters everyone in sight. What a positive influence. What a great guy to have around the office. Is this what your brain is soaking up?

Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy that Greek tragedy was actually intended to force the audience to accept the horrors of real-life existence by presenting them as entertainment. If Nietzsche was right, then all tragedy screws up your neurons and has to be avoided without exception.

David:
However, there are kinds of art that intentionally don't add up, that are by design just senseless and emotionally negative, and there I'll say: yes, avoid them.
Then I take it that you would have to avoid the entire work of David Lynch, with its images of death and despair that are entirely unredeemed by any moral or even by any rational narrative structure. Maybe Mulholland Drive is not your thing, but do you really think it causes you emotional damage?

The mirror neuron thing is pretty interesting, but there is more to it than just the finding that neurons involved in planning a movement respond perceptually (that is, when you see someone else perform that same movement). That is true, of course. But we seem to have mirror systems for other things as well: For example, Tania Singer at University College, London, put women in an fMRI scanner with a mirror setup that let them see their own hands and their husband's hands (Science, 2004). Singer then applied a painful stimulus either to the woman's hand or to the husband's. The pain circuit has two parts: a sensory part, that reports things like the intensity of the pain and its location on the body; and an affective part, which gives the 'experience' of the pain. The 'affective' part (but not the sensory part) was active equally when the woman's hand received the pain stimulus and when her husband's hand got it. So, it wasn't just a matter of imitation - this was empathy, experiencing what another human being was experiencing, a rather more substantial and human mental state.

Secondly, there's more to the mirror neuron idea than simple imitation, even in the motor system. I suggested in the earlier thread on this topic that there are two notable things about humans: (a) we are very complex animals, and (b) we live in groups. As a result, our survival is facilitated if we have some access to the mental contents of others, so that their feelings and actions are less likely to take us by surprise. But how are we to internally represent (that is, to represent in our own minds) something as complex as the mental state of another human being? The answer seems to be that we base our internal representations of other people's mental states on an internal representation of our own self, because that is the only thing we have to work with that is commensurably complex. So, mirror activity occurs as we use our own mental resources - motor plans, affective states, intentions - to create a picture of someone else's mental contents. Chris Frith and his colleagues are doing very interesting work along these lines, at UC London. Here's a recent article by Frith.

But this now presents a fascinating problem: if we are to have good access to someone else's mental contents, we need to create a pretty good 'simulation' of that other person in our own minds. We base that simulation on an internal representation of our own self. But how do we then keep the two straight? How do we know which one is our own self and which one is our representation of someone else? Is it possible that we could get the two (or more) confused and not know whether a thought was ours or someone else's? Or is it possible that, in making sure we never get them confused, we put too much distance between our internal representation of ourself and our internal represntation of others, and become quite unfeeling and insensitive?

This is a very new area, but the study of how we know what other people are thinking and feeling, how we internally represent other people's mental states, is wildly interesting and, unless I miss my guess, it's going to be very important in the next ten years.

#17 from Glen Wishard:

David:

However, there are kinds of art that intentionally don't add up, that are by design just senseless and emotionally negative, and there I'll say: yes, avoid them.

Then I take it that you would have to avoid the entire work of David Lynch, with its images of death and despair that are entirely unredeemed by any moral or even by any rational narrative structure. Maybe Mulholland Drive is not your thing, but do you really think it causes you emotional damage?

I loved David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990), and I do not recognise this total lack of redemption you speak of. Unfortunately I missed Mulholland Drive (2001) so I can't comment on that.

But I am serious about saying that some kinds of art are best avoided. I don't think Dada (link) is good for your head. If you are going to spend a lot of time dwelling on an art style, I think you'd be better off with Art Deco (joy!) or Art Nouveau (happy smile!) or almost anything else.

Good booze is still booze, and it can still be bad for you. A fine cigar is still a tobacco product, and while you may appreciate it, your lungs probably won't. Anti-art based on "absurdism, nihilism, deliberate irrationality, disillusionment, cynicism, chance, randomness ..." (from the Wikipedia article) may be skillfully done, but it has an obvious potential down-side. And yes I think that getting your brain mirroring seriously nasty people on the movie screen (as well as in real life) is an obvious risk. It's the sort of thing that is likely to be bad for you, emotionally.

As with the cigars, you may decide that the damage is worth it. I am not advocating censorship. It's your choice.

I'm just saying I think there are better and worse choices from the point of view of emotional health, and the people - including fictional people - that you choose to associate with is an important set of these choices.

Without thinking that it was flawless and perfect in every way, I saw The Island (2005) twenty times (in other words till the theatre stopped showing it), and bought the DVD (and one for a friend), partly because I really like Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta. I want to be on their wavelength. I'm happy to have them walking around in my head, as it were. I'm happy to react a little more as Lincoln would have reacted, and I think that I do.

There are movies that would rate much more highly with critics that I would never do that with, because I'm not going to have Hannibal Lecter or whoever walking around in my head, whether this is fine art or not. I'd prefer the emotional influences I reflect to be healing rather than injurious.

Quite likely some of the girls who saw Titanic (1997) over and over were doing the same thing with Rose and Jack. And good for them.

I think that choice makes sense.

Why do you think Lewy14 doesn't do Hatewatch any more, Mark?

Yes, it got to be a bit of a downer, but as you can see from a recent photo I'm doing much better now, thanks.

By the way, if I ever start a blog (and I've thought of it - and so far the answer's no way), would I imitate the rule that started this thread? (link):

It was that moment that I decided to moderate my comments here. Yes, I am now approving every comment here. And I will delete any that don't add value to either my life or the lives of my readers.

This is a huge change for me. I wanted a free speech area, but after having a week off I realize that I need to make a change. That, I'm sure, will lead to attacks of "censorship" and all that hooey. Too bad. I'm instituting a "family room" rule here. If I don't like it, it gets deleted and deleted without warning ó just the same as if you said something abusive in my family room I'd kick you out of my house. If you don't like that new rule, there are plenty of other places on the Internet to write your thoughts. Start a blog and link here. Etc. Etc.

Yes of course. And Donald Sensing's former rule too: swear in the Rev's space, and you're gone.

I've said before that if bloggers don't like comments they should just get rid of them. People reacted as it I was taking an extreme attitude for effect, but I simply meant it. Melanie Phillips (link) banned comments, and it was the best thing she could have done. She was being baited by some antisemitic gits who were cleverly staying just within what she would allow. According to misguided ideas of fairness it was up to her to defend her views if she could. But there's more reality in saying that Jew-baiters are being nasty, and if you want to live in a nice environment, you exclude them like cockroaches. Silencing pro-social comments at the same time was not too high a price to pay for a bit of psychic hygiene.

Angry, negative people are bad for your head, and there's no moral obligation to absorb their negativity or to make the constant effort required to have them around but not give in to emotional contagion.

By the way, this thread has some good comments, and thank you Patrick Brown for #18. That was very interesting.

Re: #20 from lewy14: Yay! :)

I honestly feel sorry for Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs and Robert Spencer at Jihad Watch. What they are doing it important work. I'm grateful to them. We need to know what's out there. But looking at it every day can't be good for Charles or Robert's heads.

An aphorism I've found helpful:

Be careful what you put into your head, because you will never, ever, get it out.

What is this turning into, The Stepford Blog?

David, I can't believe you actually used the term psychic hygiene. But if you really want a mental health theory of aesthetics, I think you need to proceed more carefully.

I happen to like Art Nouveau a lot. But you wouldn't learn much about the coming insanity of WWI, Communism, and Nazism from studying it. You get a much better picture of that from Dada. Allegedly "positive" art can produce the opposite effect when it presents a picture that is too remote from reality. (Imagine how starving Russian peasants must have felt looking at Bolshevik propaganda posters of happy, well-fed workers.) "Negative" art, on the other hand, can mediate between the individual and the tragic reality that surrounds him, by expressing it as shared human experience.

I'm glad you mentioned the 1997 Titanic, because it's a perfect example of false-positive "art". It is in fact an extremely vile film (there are very few truly vile films: Oliver Stone's JFK is another), not because of the silly cliches and anachronisms but because it is so full of mean-spirited spite that by the time the ship sinks, you get the idea that 99% of the passengers deserve to die. In fact, I recently saw a 1943 Nazi film about the Titanic (in which the hero is a German ship's officer and everyone else on board is an evil, greedy, imperialist plutocrat) that was so similar that Josef Goebbels could sue if he wasn't dead.

If we are absorbing subconscious, pre-rational vibes (positive or negative) from art - and from people, too - then superficial form must triumph over substance. Not at my house, it doesn't. I'll take emotional contagion over emotional manipulation any day.

Glen, you still fall well within my formulation, which differs somewhat from the article and is described above:

"For most folks, however, it's not really experienced as a choice - and there's the crux.

What you put into your head, and who you hang with, is a choice. Know why you're making any given choice.

....A good carpenter can build a sturdy house with all kinds of wood, each in its proper place. In craft, in war - and in life. But the carpenter chooses which wood to put where, and why.

Choose."

Glen is right that negative art has a role to play. Life has an inherent tragic dimension, and it's worth trading feel-good for understanding (boot camp hurts, too, but that doesn't mean you can skip it). You just need to understand why you're doing it, and what the point is, and be conscious about it, and consume a balanced mental diet.

The alternative is to let folks put mental junk food in your head because it was the path of least resistance. Too many folks already do that.

I'll further note that outside of certain defined contexts, relentlessly negative people have no such useful role.

#24 from Glen Wishard: "What is this turning into, The Stepford Blog?"

I hope not. I'm not talking about trying to control anyone else. I'm just saying I think there are benefits to making certain personal choices, for yourself alone, and that you have the moral right to make them. There is no moral obligation to invest time or money in art that you don't think is good for you, and that doesn't seem to have benefits that for you outweigh the negatives.

#24 from Glen Wishard: "David, I can't believe you actually used the term psychic hygiene. But if you really want a mental health theory of aesthetics, I think you need to proceed more carefully."

The term I'm uncomfortable with on looking back at what I said is "cockroaches". That's mean and not cool.

But I don't like creepy Jew-haters. There's a definite type, that wants to push people's buttons because they know it hurts, and they like that, they want to hurt a Jew.

We came in on "angry/negative people" and their harmful effect through "mirror neurones" and "psychic contagion". I think cruel and personal antisemitism qualifies as "negative". It can create a feeling of pollution. People aren't supposed to be like that. You wouldn't want any of that cruelty to rub off on you. Scrubbing your environment clean of people like that does seem to me to be a healthy thing to do.

By the way - I don't have a mental health theory of aesthetics. I actually have a religious theory of aesthetics, one that is seriously unconventional, and trust me on this, I don't and you shouldn't want to go there.

The main issue in the post we began with is not whether what is healthy for your brain is thereby beautiful and what is not healthy for your brain must therefore not be beautiful (which would indeed be a mental health theory of aesthetics), but whether some people (angry/negative people, in life and in art) are bad for you and ought not to be let into your head if what you want are optimum emotional health outcomes.

According to neuroscience, the answer would seem to be: yes. If you are looking to your emotional health, there is a preferable option. Points one and two, "mirror neurones" and "psychic contagion" would seem to support that.

The secondary issue in the post we are taking off from is in point three, "happy people". Does going for these benefits, if you choose to do so, necessarily entail shallowness? And we're about to get to that ...

#24 from Glen Wishard: "I happen to like Art Nouveau a lot. But you wouldn't learn much about the coming insanity of WWI, Communism, and Nazism from studying it. You get a much better picture of that from Dada."

Maybe Dada is good for that.

But you don't get from it a clue on what it took to stand up to and beat these insanities.

#24 from Glen Wishard: "Allegedly "positive" art can produce the opposite effect when it presents a picture that is too remote from reality. (Imagine how starving Russian peasants must have felt looking at Bolshevik propaganda posters of happy, well-fed workers.)"

Sure.

When I went to school, the official theory was that kids needed only art that reflected "innocent delight," which was assumed to be all that they/we were experiencing. Not exactly.

They say Christmas is the cruellest time, and there's truth in that. A misguided theory of "happy art," coercively applied for others, can make it "Christmas" every week of the year, in the wrong sense.

""Allegedly "positive" art" makes it pretty easy for yourself though - scare quotes around the "positively" and an "allegedly" to boot makes it look to me like the positive horse better not run, except perhaps hobbled and blinded, or it'll win.

#24 from Glen Wishard: ""Negative" art, on the other hand, can mediate between the individual and the tragic reality that surrounds him, by expressing it as shared human experience."

I deny this "on the other hand". And I think it runs right into point number 3, the "happy people" misconception, in the post we are referring to. (link) Positive ain't shallow, emotionally negative ain't rational (of itself) and neuro-science backs this up.

Positive art isn't, and (because we're discussing neural mirroring) positive people, in life or in art (as sources of "emotional contagion" that we allow ourselves to be infected by) arenít, on the wrong side of a dichotomy where it's the other side that "can mediate between the individual and the tragic reality that surrounds him, by expressing it as shared human experience."

As so often with me, Joan of Arc leaps to mind: positive, pugnacious, optimistic - and in touch with something profound, Far more capable than others of engaging with the tragic reality that surrounded her. There's nothing shallow in that, nothing that fades in the crunch and does not come again.

On the contrary, it's "smart talk" laden with negativity that is shallow, in that it makes a keen impression without however having anything special to back up the implicit claim of remarkable intelligence. (Thanks to a previous poster for links that pointed me to information on that.)

I'm not saying art should portray life only with false and insipid mildness, only that the people you "invite in your head" are important, and the preferable - healthier - choice is often clear.

For my examples: Joan of Arc is a good person to invite into your head, and her companion Gilles de Rais, "Bluebeard" is not. One was sublime, the other vile, and there is no advantage in profundity, toughness or anything else to compensate for this.

#24 from Glen Wishard: "I'm glad you mentioned the 1997 Titanic, because it's a perfect example of false-positive "art". It is in fact an extremely vile film (there are very few truly vile films: Oliver Stone's JFK is another), not because of the silly cliches and anachronisms but because it is so full of mean-spirited spite that by the time the ship sinks, you get the idea that 99% of the passengers deserve to die. In fact, I recently saw a 1943 Nazi film about the Titanic (in which the hero is a German ship's officer and everyone else on board is an evil, greedy, imperialist plutocrat) that was so similar that Josef Goebbels could sue if he wasn't dead."

I thought the scenery was great (and I don't mean good I mean great), Jack was gallant and Rose was nice - and sensational in the buff, posing for Jack the artist to paint. (grin)

"Vile"? Or rather "extremely vile"? I don't think so. But it's not a movie that greatly interests me personally, so I'm not keen as mustard to discuss and debate that movie in particular.

In general though - if to make the negative/angry approach look preferable in some sense you have to pit it against what you define as "extremely vile", "mean-spirited," spiteful, evil stuff, then I think that concedes that people and art that are simply and genuinely positive are also walk-over winners. You wouldn't have to hobble the other horse if your horse could actually run.

#24 from Glen Wishard: "If we are absorbing subconscious, pre-rational vibes (positive or negative) from art - and from people, too - then superficial form must triumph over substance. Not at my house, it doesn't. I'll take emotional contagion over emotional manipulation any day."

I deny that's the choice, and refer again to "happy people" and the positive, charitable attitude of Joan even in flames, and apparently, according to the judgment of her own religion, Hell-bound. If someone in that plight can tell the soldier who is holding up a cross for her final consolation that he must get back, so as not to be burned, if a habit of tough-minded charity even to enemies can extend so far, then I don't think we need to look to "negative/angry" people in order to find something robust and real either in life or in art.

It's OK to go negative. That's fine. As I said with the example of the cigar: it's your choice and you may well and rightly decide that any negative health impact is well worth it for the experience you want. What I'm saying is that systematically going positive is a valid, healthy (and it seems scientifically well-founded) option that doesn't entail the shallowness that the "happy person" myth implies.

To sum up: I strongly agree with Kathy Sierra that anger and pessimism are not virtues, though since the toxic Sixties they have been sold as virtues and there is now an entire segment of political culture devoted to them. The Primal Screamers had their science, too, and it's a very bad use of science (be it good or bad science) to treat it as revealed wisdom in defiance of experience and reason.

We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

To the extent that this is so, it's a serious problem, not a sound basis for a personal philosophy.

The rational mind goes beyond superficial appearances and tells us that the sun does not revolve around the earth, that all that glitters is not gold, and that (as Hamlet puts it) "One may smile and smile and be a villain." Either we have no faith in the rational mind (and therefore we must quarantine ourselves emotionally) or we believe that the unconscious mind has a non-rational but god-like power to make correct choices for us.

It is bad for you, intellectually, to only listen to people who tell you what you want to hear. It seems equally wrong to only associate with people who make you feel the way you want to feel.

But... that still leaves one big issue: is "catching" only positive emotions a Good Thing? Does this mean surrounding ourselves with "fake" goodness and avoiding the truth? Does surrounding ourselves with "happy people" mean we shut down critical thinking skills?

I'm not satisfied with the answers to these objections. Kathy does not answer them by shooting barrel-fish like "happy equals stupid" and "anger is morally/intellectually superior". Disposing of those false assumptions, she adopts new ones:

Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain.
Happy people are better able to think logically.

I don't care how many scientific studies and cortisol-measurements "suggest" this. In dealing with life, art, other people, and the world, these are two suggestions that you can absolutely do without.

A very minimal amount of experience tells you that many people who confront you with anger are not afraid of you, or of anything else. They use anger because they have found it a useful way to control other people. Displays of "positive" emotion can be put to exactly the same use, and which side of the brain they come from is irrelevant. Since we are selfishly concerned with our own mental health here, it makes no difference whether the emotional energy that bombards us is genuine or calculated.

Again, if we are basing our associations on exposure to superficial displays of positive and negative emotion, then we either abdicate our own rational judgment, or we assume the existence of a subconscious mind that makes correct choices for us.
Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.
That is a very good personal credo. But we're not talking about peronal credos, we're talking about other people, as in Sartre's "Hell is Other People". Adopting happiness as a habitual outlook on life tells us absolutely nothing about how other people might use "happiness", to deceive or to manipulate. Or might use anger, to communicate something worth knowing.

And if we are truly correct and secure in our choice of happiness, why should we fear exposure to the unhappiness of others? If Dionysus be for us, who can be against us?

Finally, I'm deeply mistrustful of ideas like this, because they are abused by certain pseudo-religions which teach that exposure to "negative" people (including mentally ill or disabled people) is harmful. I'm not suggesting that Kathy Sierra holds any such repulsive doctrine; I'm just saying that she's wrong. Blessed are the poor in spirit.

Angry dog, you assume the the Dionysians were "happy".
We weren't "happy", we were mad. ;)
What a sad mistake for a greco-roman scholar of your standing!

And, I could be a lot happier if the rest of you weren't so godawful stupid.
;)

I agree with what Kathy Sierra said in her post, pretty much generally.

If you want to make a change in your life that includes steering clear of people who are chronically angry and unhappy and hanging around people who are by default happy, and if you want to implement that choice by actions such as moderating comments at your blog to minimise anger, attacks and sheer negativity, I think that's a valid, reasonable choice, not one to be ashamed of; and psychology seems to support the idea that it's a healthy choice.

I think hanging around a girl who in purely secular and materialistic terms hasn't got much to offer but a nice smile is a good thing. There seems to be happiness behind that smile, and my brain might mirror that, whether I know it or not. I'd like that. That's not why I smiled at her in the first place. But it's good that there are material benefits in the brain.

I think time spent around chronically angry people is like time spent breathing badly polluted air: sometimes, or a lot of the time, it's unavoidable, but I cut that time to the least I can, because I think it's unhealthy for me. Science seems to say that's right.

I'll go further with and further than David Foster (post #12) Danial Markham (post #13): I think it's reasonable to be suspicious of relative superficiality in those who are perennially negative, pretentious and apparently super-intellectual, because of "the smart-talk trap." One of my favourite sayings is: "Desire of appearing wise often prevents us from becoming so." It's reasonable to suspect that those who habitually tend to the sort of overly complex, nuanced, jargon-filled and negative talk that quickly impresses people but impedes open, constructive dialogue and fails to get to the point of what should be done and what will work are habitually falling for the trap of optimising the mere appearance of wisdom.

So I don't look for profound wisdom in, let's say John Forbes Kerry speeches. As soon as I see people going into that "I am a genius" dance that's meant to make it hard to get any positive recommendations out of them, I think "there's another empty vessel". He may say the truth is "seared - seared! - in his brain" but I don't believe him. That's not the kind of person who has the truth, and it didn't surprise me that facts were found to prove that.

I also suspect that the negativity and verbal nastiness of "people" like Michael Hiltzik / Mikekoshi / Nofanofcablecos is bluster that hides profound inner emptiness. Ultimately chronic nastiness comes from nothing but a void that hates substance for being substantial. There's no "there" there.

I don't want to be a mental mirror of chronic negativity, falsity and vacuity, no more than I have to be.

I don't think that minimising chronic negativity and hostility in our lives costs us anything in terms of wisdom, profundity and the ability to engage properly with reality. It's more like chasing away empty shadows that are wasting the time and love we should give to those who are open to what goodness we can give them.

And again, science does not indicate that sour-er is smarter.

(With one exception I know of. I'm a keen chess player, and science does seem to indicate that people inclined to suspiciousness perform better at chess. At the chess-board, it doesn't seem to hurt you at all if your temperament inclines you constantly to think: "What's behind that move? Harmless? I don't think so! It's some dirty trick he's planning, or some strategy directed to my harm!" If you've ever wondered why chess champs often seem as paranoid as Hollywood stars are vain and shameless, now you know why... But like I said, you may realise that a nice bottle of port and a few fine cigars are bad for you, and rightly go ahead regardless.)

... We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

#27 from Glen Wishard: "To the extent that this is so, it's a serious problem, not a sound basis for a personal philosophy."

One would think that facts were an excellent basis for a personal philosophy.

In my case, though, my personal philosophy is based on faith and not ultimately on facts. But eventually even a personal philosophy of faith has to get to practical recommendations, and these have to be examined in the light of facts, and it pleases me that the facts seem to support what I, like Robert Scoble, was inclined to do anyway. Science says: yeah, go ahead and reduce the anger and negativity in your environment: psychology backs you up. And I say: "Thank you science, now I feel even better, and I'll follow that course more confidently and with an easier heart!"

#27 from Glen Wishard: "It is bad for you, intellectually, to only listen to people who tell you what you want to hear. It seems equally wrong to only associate with people who make you feel the way you want to feel."

I don't feel obliged to spend my time hearing out people who tell me things I don't want to hear, like that I should buy product X and join church Y, and equally I think there's no obligation to hear out pitches by emotional contagion for "products" like chronic rage.

#27 from Glen Wishard: "Since we are selfishly concerned with our own mental health here, it makes no difference whether the emotional energy that bombards us is genuine or calculated."

A reasonable concern for your health is not selfish. It's good for you and for everybody around you if you avoid becoming infected by something nasty, like rage. (link)

And I think - and this goes beyond the science, which I hope will later back me up - that chronic falsity and chronic genuineness are to some limited extent imitable, capable of being mirrored. In other words, if you hang around people who are false and manipulative pretty well all the time, you may become more that way too, if only in self defence, while if you hang around people who are generally pretty genuine, you have an option to accept that influence and become a bit more genuine yourself. (I think that's a Good Thing.)

In setting a profile of desirable people to hang out with, you don't have to choose between "superficially happy and false" and "uses anger to convey genuine things that are worth knowing".

Assuming that genuineness and chronic falsity are to some limited extent capable of being mirrored, you can set your profile to seek "genuine, and happy by default" (as everyone is angry and unhappy sometimes, episodically and over specific things rather than chronically), versus "phoney, angry and negative". And that's pretty much how I see it.

(Of course if you take this view, you have a strong motive to cast out and exclude those who have been proven to be seriously false, as you don't want your brain often to be mirroring serious dishonesty without your being aware of it.)

#27 from Glen Wishard: "Again, if we are basing our associations on exposure to superficial displays of positive and negative emotion, then we either abdicate our own rational judgment, or we assume the existence of a subconscious mind that makes correct choices for us."

It seemed to me that Kathy Sierra was exercising rather than abdicating her rationality.

Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

#27 from Glen Wishard: "And if we are truly correct and secure in our choice of happiness, why should we fear exposure to the unhappiness of others? If Dionysus be for us, who can be against us?"

Leaving aside the fact that you've got the wrong god, I think that "the good" is perpetually threatened because there is an empty malice that hates substance for being substance. We may be as innocent as sunflowers turning our faces each day to the happy sun; but there are people who aren't like that, and thanks to people like Mohammed Atta, disaster can strike out of a clear blue sky if we don't watch out, and ultimately if we don't fight and perpetually beat those who have chosen to cast their lots with chaos and endless night.

For Tolkien fans - and oh it's good to be a Tolkien fan! - this mini-sermon should translate perfectly if you think of the goodness symbolised by a star, and the perpetual return of the shadow.

#27 from Glen Wishard: "Finally, I'm deeply mistrustful of ideas like this, because they are abused by certain pseudo-religions which teach that exposure to "negative" people (including mentally ill or disabled people) is harmful. I'm not suggesting that Kathy Sierra holds any such repulsive doctrine; I'm just saying that she's wrong. Blessed are the poor in spirit."

I am pro-life, broadly so, and in favour or protecting, including and respecting many people that others think may and even should be killed with impunity. I hope not to be misunderstood on that.

Thanks for the link. Allow me to submit the following, which is supported by philosophy, philosophy of the mind, and cognitive science:

Happiness is not silliness, or pleasure, or optimism. It is not momentary, and it is not anecdotal. Nor is it the absence of pain and discomfort. Rather, in the face of tragedy, it is a sustained acceptance and a steely determination.

True happiness does not "happen." It is achieved. It is a submission to--and a subliminal trust in--the unseen forces around you, and an understanding of where one fits into the grand pattern of Event. It is pride and humility in one compact gesture to the world--and to the abyss.

Check out this example of a martial arts program for at-risk teens. As 'Sensei Dave' (aka. former gang member Staff Sgt. Dave Armstrong) puts it:

"Because the mentoring takes place in an informal environment, the teens often do not realize they're learning life lessons.

"They don't know they're being mentored," he said. "What I'm doing is effective -- I know it is because it helped me. Youíre around positive influences, and you don't realize you're improving until it's done."

So contagion cuts both ways.

RE: Happiness, Aristedes has the right of it, I think.

The Sensei Dave link (link) is good. I'm glad I checked it out.

There is no teacher like the one who knows you can change because they've been where you are and they've done it. You can't see the difference between that knowledge, and the mere appearence of confidence that a teacher might put on, but I always felt that it helps. Now I know why it might be able to. It can be part of a package of positive signals that you respond to whether you are aware of them or not.

Leave a comment

Here are some quick tips for adding simple Textile formatting to your comments, though you can also use proper HTML tags:

*This* puts text in bold.

_This_ puts text in italics.

bq. This "bq." at the beginning of a paragraph, flush with the left hand side and with a space after it, is the code to indent one paragraph of text as a block quote.

To add a live URL, "Text to display":http://windsofchange.net/ (no spaces between) will show up as Text to display. Always use this for links - otherwise you will screw up the columns on our main blog page.




Recent Comments
  • TM Lutas: Jobs' formula was simple enough. Passionately care about your users, read more
  • sabinesgreenp.myopenid.com: Just seeing the green community in action makes me confident read more
  • Glen Wishard: Jobs was on the losing end of competition many times, read more
  • Chris M: Thanks for the great post, Joe ... linked it on read more
  • Joe Katzman: Collect them all! Though the French would be upset about read more
  • Glen Wishard: Now all the Saudis need is a division's worth of read more
  • mark buehner: Its one thing to accept the Iranians as an ally read more
  • J Aguilar: Saudis were around here (Spain) a year ago trying the read more
  • Fred: Good point, brutality didn't work terribly well for the Russians read more
  • mark buehner: Certainly plausible but there are plenty of examples of that read more
  • Fred: They have no need to project power but have the read more
  • mark buehner: Good stuff here. The only caveat is that a nuclear read more
  • Ian C.: OK... Here's the problem. Perceived relevance. When it was 'Weapons read more
  • Marcus Vitruvius: Chris, If there were some way to do all these read more
  • Chris M: Marcus Vitruvius, I'm surprised by your comments. You're quite right, read more
The Winds Crew
Town Founder: Left-Hand Man: Other Winds Marshals
  • 'AMac', aka. Marshal Festus (AMac@...)
  • Robin "Straight Shooter" Burk
  • 'Cicero', aka. The Quiet Man (cicero@...)
  • David Blue (david.blue@...)
  • 'Lewy14', aka. Marshal Leroy (lewy14@...)
  • 'Nortius Maximus', aka. Big Tuna (nortius.maximus@...)
Other Regulars Semi-Active: Posting Affiliates Emeritus:
Winds Blogroll
Author Archives
Categories
Powered by Movable Type 4.23-en