Tag Archives: psychology

Review 154: :59 Seconds

:59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman

(If you want, I’ll give you one marshmallow now. If you read through the whole review, however, I’ll give you two. Ready? Let’s go!)

Do you have problems? Of course you have problems. We all have problems. Maybe you want to land a new job, or lose weight or finish a project you’re working on. Maybe you find that you procrastinate too much, or you don’t get along with people, or you can’t be creative. Maybe you just want to be happy, you poor, sad little person.

These are the kinds of problems that have spawned an entire industry of books – the Self Help genre. Go to your local bookstore and look around. There are countless books that tell you how you can make yourself better through positive thinking, creative visualization, listening to Mozart or joining up with groups. They’ll tell you that if you want to find romance, you should look for an opposite, you should play hard to get, or you should plan a perfectly romantic evening. They’ll cite ancient wisdom or have countless testimonials from people who have tried their methods, and almost all of them have one thing in common: they don’t work.

The self-help genre rests on a foundation of common sense ideas, things that sound like they should work, rather than an understanding of how the human mind actually does work. Often, much to our chagrin, our minds don’t follow the rules, and we fail. Take positive thinking, for example. The general gist of positive thinking is that you should never allow a negative thought to enter your mind. If one pops up, just push it away and focus on the positive.

Quick experiment: I want you, for the next minute, to not – I repeat not – think of a pink hippopotamus. Ready? GO!

(Waiting… waiting… waiting…)

How’d you do? I don’t know about you, but my pink hippo is rather contentedly sitting on my sofa right now. The fact is, the more we try not to think of something, the harder it is to not think about it. You then end up obsessing over the thing you’re trying not to think of, which is what you were trying to avoid in the first place!

It’s an idea that sounds like it should work, but it doesn’t, and that’s what Wiseman has collected in this book. Wiseman is a psychologist from the UK, and he has a particular interest not only in the science of self-help, but also magic, optical illusions and the paranormal. In other words, he’s very good at knowing how we humans fool ourselves. And boy, do we know how to fool ourselves.

We want to believe that humans are rational creatures, intelligently designed evolved to make the best decisions. We spent years studying the world around us, trying to figure out how to motivate ourselves and others, and operating under the assumption that we know what our brains are doing at any given time. Problem is, we don’t. We have no idea what our brains are doing while we’re trying to get things done. The good news is that there’s are entire branches of psychology that are doing their damndest to figure it out. Wiseman combed through the literature, looking at scientific studies on human psychology and behavior to try and find simple, clear and effective ways of making your life better. The bonus is that many of these things can be done in under a minute.

Some of the things he presents are so simple that you don’t want to believe they’d work. For example, do you want to be a little more cheerful, to have a brighter outlook on life and be generally more pleasant to be around? Go get a pencil and hold it with your teeth, making sure your lips don’t touch the pencil. Your mouth will basically be making a grin, which will have a positive impact on your mood. Seriously. While you’re at it, sit up straight, use more expressive gestures when you talk, and try to use a wider range of pitch in your speech. Your body and mind are hooked up in such a way that your body can tell your mind what it’s feeling. So if you have a grin on your face, and you’re talking in an animated and upbeat way, your brain will think, “Well, these are all physical conditions that are associated with happiness, so… I guess I must be happy.”

You can use the same trick on a first date. Instead of a nice, placid picnic in the park or a boat ride on the river, go to an amusement park and hit the roller coaster together. The fear and excitement will make your date’s heart beat faster, breathe harder, and generally be more excited. These are also physical reactions to being attracted to someone, and your brain really can’t tell the difference very well. It feels your heart pounding, your blood rushing, your adrenaline flowing, and it thinks, “Huh. I guess I must really like this person.” So, once you get off that ride, you have a little window of opportunity to increase the attraction you have for each other.

Now let’s say you’re angry about something. I mean, you’re hitting George Constanza levels here, and all you want to do is just hit something. There is a way of thinking that says you should go hit your pillow. Or go to the gym and do some work on the heavy bag, punching your anger away. If you live far enough away from others, maybe you could do some primal screaming or something. It makes sense, right? You have to let your anger out somewhere, right?

Wrong. Studies have shown that kicking and screaming and beating up your pillow will make you more aggressive and irritable, not less. It’s like trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline. What you should do, then, is to look for the benefits to your experience. Researchers asked subjects to think about a painful and unpleasant incident in their lives and to focus on their anger. Another group was asked to instead focus on the benefits – they had learned an important lesson, had become an emotionally stronger person, or had otherwise changed for the better. When questioned later, the second group turned out to be much less angry than the first, and to be more likely to forgive the person who had hurt them.

Okay, one more – you want to be creative, right? We all want that. So, should you brainstorm with your colleagues? Focus on the creative task at hand? Listen to Mozart? No, no and no, although there’s really never any reason not to listen to Mozart. Again, research has shown that people tend to work less hard in groups than they do on their own. Being in a group makes you lazier, so if you want to get good ideas from a whole bunch of people, have them work alone first. You’ll get more and better ideas that way. As for focusing on the problem at hand, other studies have shown that the best thing to do is to distract yourself with something totally unrelated so that your unconscious mind can get some work done. Work on a puzzle, draw a picture, think of a hundred ways to use a brick – anything but the problem you’re trying to solve. Then, when you come back to the problem, you’re more likely to generate better ideas.

As for the Mozart, it turns out that listening to Mozart does make you slightly more creative and intelligent…. for about fifteen minutes. Neither you nor your baby will become a genius if you listen to Wolfie’s music every day. What’s actually more effective is modern art – especially art that breaks our expectations. In one study, two groups were given a creativity task. One was seated in a room with a large print that featured twelve dark green crosses on a light green background. The other had almost an identical picture, except that one of the crosses was yellow, and they came up with the more creative ideas. Why should this be? The idea is that the impression of unconventionality, of a pattern being broken, may be enough to stimulate our own creativity. Now it won’t turn you into DaVinci or anything like that, but it should help at least a little.

And that’s what this book is – lots of little ideas that are designed to help you out. Put a mirror in your kitchen, put a baby photograph in your wallet, buy small gifts for no reason. Put a plant on your desk, start keeping a journal, and don’t praise your kids for how clever they are – praise them for the work they’ve done. Everything Wiseman puts in this book is a small thing, a little effort, but when put together they add up.

Even if you don’t really need a lot of alteration to your life – maybe you’re as happy as happy can be – it’s still a fascinating look into how our minds work, and the different ways that they can be hacked.

(Good work! Here are your marshmallows!)

————————————————————————-
“Now if you take part in a study and the researchers explain that they need your telephone number in case of a hard-disk failure, they are up to something.”
– Richard Wiseman, :59 Seconds

All images in this post come from Despair.com – go and give them money. They’ve earned it.
Richard Wiseman on Wikipedia
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Filed under nonfiction, psychology, Richard Wiseman, science, self-help

Review 147: When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter

You’re a good person, right? Of course you are, I never doubted it for a moment. We all like to think were good people – fair, honest, generous, all that. Very few people, if asked, would say, “Well, I’m a right bastard and I don’t care who knows it!”

So imagine that you – a good person – do something bad. Genuinely bad. You cheat on your spouse. You lie to a friend. You steal from your boss. You commit an act which, if someone else did it, you would roundly condemn them, forcing them into public shame and ignominy. What kind of heel, what kind of cad, what kind of a bastard would do such a thing?

Well, you, as it turns out.

Now you have a problem. The vision of you that you carry in your head – the good, honest, kind, humble (let’s not forget humble) person – directly conflicts with the nasty, dishonest thing that you have just done. They’re grossly dissonant views, and there is no room for both of them in your head. So what do you do?

Your first option is to reduce your opinion of yourself. Maybe you’re not that good a person. Maybe you are a bit of a dick. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, you’re just a jerk who knows how to hide it. That right there is some painful truth, and very few people are willing to face up to it.

So you turn to your other option: justify what you did. The spouse you cheated on? Well, maybe if they paid a little more attention to you,you wouldn’t have to do it. The friend you lied to? Well, was he honest about that “business trip” that made him miss your annual Memorial Day Meatapalooza Barbecue? Hell, no. He was “in the hospital,” visiting “his sick mother.” As for work, well if your boss actually paid you what you were worth, you wouldn’t need to steal from the register.

You rationalize what just happened, which allows you to not only move on with your life, but paves the way for similar actions in the future, making it that much easier to cheat, lie, and steal the next time.

Welcome to cognitive dissonance.

The classical view of humankind was that we were, ultimately, rational animals. That if you show a person sufficient evidence, that person will alter his opinion accordingly. So, under that model, our Imaginary You ™ would admit to your inherent badness when confronted with the evidence if your misdeeds.

Well, I can't argue with that. Light 'em up!

In the 20th century, however, psychologists were noticing that this wasn’t true at all. In fact, in a lot of cases the direct disconfirmation of a belief merely made that belief stronger. Show a smoker data on how dangerous cigarettes are, and she’ll tell you that they help her relax, or they only take off the bad years at the end. Show a climate change denier data on the warming of the planet, and you know who you’ll hear from only minutes after the first snowfall of the season.

Humans, as it turned out, were a lot less rational than we had suspected. By being able to hold two thoughts in our minds that are mutually incompatible, we set ourselves up for mental disaster, and the only way out is to fool ourselves.

In the mid 1950s, the authors of this book were looking into this phenomenon, especially as it applied to groups and millennialism – the belief that the world is rapidly in danger of ending. They looked at various historical examples, such as the early Christian church, who believed that Jesus’ return was right around the corner, the Anabaptists of the 16th century, the followers of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century and the Millerites of the nineteenth. They all believed that the end of the world was at hand, they all collected groups of followers who believed wholeheartedly that they were right, and they were all, without exception, wrong. Despite that, not only were they not swayed from their beliefs, they actually became more convinced that they were, ultimately, right.

What could account for such patently irrational behavior? Festinger and his partners believed they knew what it was, and set out five simple conditions under which the phenomenon could arise. In brief:

The monkeys in my head tell me you're CRAZY!

1. The believer must believe implicitly and that belief must have an effect on how he or she behaves.
2. The believer must have committed him or herself to the belief, performing actions that are difficult or impossible to undo. For example, giving away all their money, quitting their job, etc.
3. The belief must be specific, related to the real world, and able to be proven unequivocally wrong.
4. Evidence disconfirming the belief must occur, must be undeniable, and must be recognized by the believer
5. (and most important) The believer must have social support for his or her belief system.

Under these conditions, Festinger hypothesized, not only would a person persist in their belief, but they would become more convinced, and likely try to convert more followers. After all, if more people believe that you’re right, then maybe you are.

But how to test it out? Their best cases, after all, were at least a hundred years gone, and time travel hadn’t been invented yet. Fortunately, they got wind of a group of UFO believers who held that the earth was going to be ravaged by floods and that aliens would rescue the faithful to make them the new enlightened rulers of the species. Led by a woman out of Chicago who was receiving messages through automatic writing, this group held that the event would take place before dawn on December 21, 1954.

Knowing a good chance when they saw one, Festinger and his colleagues managed to infiltrate the group and observe their progress, attitudes and beliefs up to, during, and after the event that never happened. In the book, they go through the timeline and touch on all the major players – names changed to protect the innocent, of course – and watched to see if their hypothesis would hold. Would the media-shy Mrs. Keech do an about-face once the disaster didn’t show? What would happen to people like Dr. Armstrong, who sacrificed his job and his good name in order to assure that he would be picked up by the aliens? How would the group handle predictions that never came true, follow orders that never worked out, and rationalize this fundamentally irrational behavior?

They're here! They're here! They're... No, wait. They're not.

The study does have some fairly glaring flaws, which the authors themselves point out in the epilogue. For one, they had barely enough time to get involved with the group, and gaining entry was a matter of brute force more than finesse. For another, it was almost impossible not to influence the group. Observers were taken as believers, and expected to act as such. Acting undercover, they couldn’t record meetings or, in many cases, take notes until after the fact. Any meeting with the academics had to be carefully arranged so as not to blow their cover, and the long hours, erratic schedule and generally high tension of the group made being an academic double agent very difficult indeed.

Despite that, Festinger and his group present a textbook case of group cognitive dissonance that follows the pattern they expected it to. Believers who met all five criteria were much more likely to seek out new believers than the ones who, for example, were not with the group when the world didn’t end.

Of course, the reason I picked up the book was because of the May 21, 2011 Rapture prediction by Harold Camping. He had the Rapture scheduled down to the minute, and had attracted followers who met the initial criteria set out by Festinger more than fifty years ago. Sure enough, when the Big Day came and went, Camping and his followers kept to the script. They saw that the Rapture hadn’t come, then revised their predictions and went out looking for people to convince.

More interestingly, though, is how this can apply to other group dynamics. It can be applied to political parties, regional differences, racial differences, bigotry of every flavor and color. It can be connected to celebrity worship and religious fervor, to economic theories, institutional groupthink and scientific biases. Almost any common belief that can gather a crowd is an open invitation to Festinger’s five criteria. Look at people who cling to the belief that organic food is inherently better than conventional food. Adherents to market capitalism, homeopathy, religions of every size and shape. The antivaxxers, conspiracy theorists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Wall Street Occupiers, Klansmen, environmentalists, educators…. I could go on all day.

So what does this do for us, other than make us skeptical of anything that more than five people believe at a time? Just that: it keeps us skeptical. When you know what to look for, you can figure out who is likely to be persuaded by reason and who is not. You know who is a valid source of information and who is not. You know who you want to trust, and who you do not.

Most importantly, it allows you to check yourself, to see if you’re being as skeptical as you should be. None of us are exempt from this little psychological phenomenon, but we are all equipped with the ability to deal with it properly. Let Mrs. Keech and her UFO cult serve as an object lesson.

——————————————————

“When you stop and think of it, it seems rather cruel to drown all these people just to teach them a lesson, doesn’t it? The way to teach people a lesson, or the way to educate people is to educate them slowly; you can’t educate them with one big jolt. And it seems rather silly to drown people and hope to educate them in the astral life. It doesn’t seem very logical, does it?”
“Fred Purden”, in When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails on Wikipedia
Leon Festinger on Wikipedia
Stanley Schachter on Wikipedia
When Prophecy Fails on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, cults, disaster, Henry W. Riecken, Leon Festinger, nonfiction, psychology, skepticism, Stanley Schachter, UFOs

Review 141: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

As all dedicated readers out there know, there is a rule when it comes to books that are made into movies: the book is always better. [1] With a book, you have more time to really savor the story, to think and consider the plot and the characters and the motivations. You can go back and re-read, stop and give the story some thought and, most importantly, let the characters come to life in your own mind. This is key, and part of what makes reading so much fun. The author gives you a basic outline of who each character is, but the details of that character will vary from reader to reader, and I guarantee – my Randle Patrick McMurphy is different from your Randle Patrick McMurphy.

And my Randle Patrick McMurphy is most certainly not Jack Nicholson. I know there’s a lot of love out there for Jack, but let’s face it – Jack Nicholson was the non-comedy equivalent of Jim Carrey in his day. The same way Carrey is the default choice for “Wacky” these days, I’m pretty sure producers back in the 70s and 80s said, “We need someone who can play nuts – get Nicholson!” And he’d come out and give That Nicholson Look which made you think that he was liable to tear your throat out at any second and that’s it. I’m not saying he’s bad at what he does – he plays one note, but he plays it well.

This is a face you can trust.

The problem is that McMurphy isn’t actually nuts. He’s brash, temperamental, insolent, contrary, but not crazy. And, to borrow from the perspective of the narrator, Chief Bromden, I don’t think that Nicholson was big enough to be McMurphy. I’m not sure if I know who would have been.

So after all this about who McMurphy isn’t, let’s take a look at who he is.

There is a mental institution up in Oregon, which caters to all kinds of mentally ill patients. They care for them as best they can, keeping a close eye on the men in their care and making sure they stay in a rehabilitative state. Through the use of regular counseling sessions and the occasional narcotic therapy, they are trying to make these men back into functioning members of society, if that is at all possible. Not all of the patients can be helped – some suffer so badly that they will live out their remaining years in the institution. But there are others who have a chance, some self-admitted, even, who are looking to move towards the path to wellness. The hospital, and especially the Head Nurse of the ward, Nurse Ratched, are devoted to their tasks and do whatever they can. This being the middle of the twentieth century, their methods are, by our standards, barbaric at times – the liberal use of electroshock, for example, or even occasionally resorting to lobotomies. But mostly Nurse Ratched uses her own innate ability to cajole, nudge, scare and shame these men into line so that her ward operates as a smoothly-running machine.

No, THIS is a face you can trust...

Until the appearance of McMurphy, a man who is not ill but is rather facing madness to get out of working on a prison farm. As soon as he appears on the ward, he becomes a threat to the Big Nurse’s clockwork kingdom. He has no patience for her rules, and indeed sees her as a challenge – how soon can he get that perfect, porcelain facade to crack and show what’s really underneath? He’s sure he can, and he’s willing to sacrifice his own freedom to do it. In doing so, he shows the other patients on the ward that they don’t have to be afraid – of her or of the world.

The book is a cracking good read, and well worth your time, just as a story of a perfectly ordered world tipped upside-down. As an allegory, of course (and a very clear one, at that) it’s even better. This is a story about order and chaos, about freedom and security. Nurse Ratched has a very well-ordered world over which she exerts perfect control. The men in her ward are taken care of, if not exactly helped, by her and her crew. There is no freedom for them, but no danger either, and for many of the men, that’s a life they can live with, if not enjoy.

McMurphy, then, is chaos. He’s the sand in the gears, the hair that won’t go where you want it to go no matter what kind of salon goop you put in it. He’s the rebel who will break the rules just because they’re rules and who prizes freedom above all else. This isn’t to say that he’s a saint – McMurphy spreads his own brand of freedom mainly by manipulating the other patients. In that way, he’s very much like Nurse Ratched, though I think he’d strangle anyone who said that to his face. But whereas the Big Nurse gets her pleasure from watching men get cut down and made docile, McMurphy gets pleasure from men finding their strength. And if he manages to make some money or have some fun of his own while he’s doing it, then all the better.

Or "freedom"

It’s a novel of freedom, naturally. It’s about people choosing their own destinies (even if the people in this book are mostly men – with the exception of Nurse Ratched, women don’t come off so well in this book.) It’s also about freedom as a society. The Nurse and her minions represent a culture that insists on conformity, that finds comfort in rules, regulations and regularity. Called “The Combine” by the book’s narrator, it would rather cut people down to size, because that’s the only way it can exert control. McMurphy shows us that we are the ones who should be in control of our lives. It’s hard, it requires risk, but the rewards are far, far greater than blind, sheeplike obedience.

The book is narrated to us by one of the more far-gone patients, a half-Native American man named Chief Bromden. He has been in the hospital for many years, and as far as the others are concerned, he’s a deaf-mute. McMurphy catches on that he’s faking pretty quickly, though, and manages to make Bromden feel like the big man he used to be. But as a narrator, it must be remembered that Bromden is unreliable – he occasionally drifts off into hallucinatory visions, and his interpretation of events is filtered through the strange, paranoid reality he’s constructed where the world is run by an Illuminati-esque “Combine” that replaces people with machines. In fact there’s a line in the very first chapter that made me wonder about the whole story: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. And it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

Two guys playing chess under an oddly-shaped chandelier. What?

So how much of the story is real? We have no idea. The Chief tells us everything he can in the best detail he can, and is an excellent relater of the tale. But knowing that he’s rather biased, we have to wonder if the heroism of McMurphy and the wickedness of Ratched are as bad as they’re made out to be, or if Bromden’s mind has changed them, made them into the avatars of freedom and control that he feels represent the way the world works. We can never know, and if you assume that he is reliable, the story is excellent.

A small confession, though: I feel kind of sorry for Nurse Ratched. I know, I know, it’s like saying, “Yeah, Hitler was bad, but I see where he was coming from.” She is undoubtedly one of the best villains in modern American fiction – frankly, between her and Darth Vader, I think she’d have him sobbing like a little baby within ten minutes (“Mister Skywalker, do you really think that this habit of choking people is beneficial to you? Would it not be more mature to discuss your feelings of disappointment? What would your mother say if she could see you like this?”) But I am a fan of order in general. I know how it feels to have a well-ordered routine get screwed up, and I think it sucks. So, putting myself in her shoes, I can see how she’d view McMurphy as a threat, and try to beat him in the only manner she knew how.

And she does beat him. But she has to cheat to do it, so I can’t really say that she wins.

—————————————
“All I know is this: nobody’s very big in the first place, and it looks to me like everybody spends their whole life tearing everybody else down.”
– R. P. McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
—————————————

[1] The exceptions are Lord of the Rings, where I like the movies better, and Watership Down and The Princess Bride, both of which I hold equal to the books.

Ken Kesey on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Wikipedia
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Amazon.com

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Review 139: The Science of Fear

The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

Imagine, for a moment, one of our early human ancestors. A first-generation Homo sapiens, exploring his world with an amazing brain that would be the envy of the animal kingdom. If they understood envy. He, and his children, and their children and grandchildren will spread across the Earth as hunter-gatherers, the first beings (so far as we know) who can look at the world and attempt to pass on what it knows and learns. Their threats were simple: survive or don’t. Find food or starve. Hunt or be hunted. And those fantastic brains did such a bang-up job that their descendants are still walking around, thousands of generations later.

Now, take that Paleolithic man – swift of foot, sharp of eye, strong of hand – and drop him in the middle of modern-day Times Square. And, as his minder, give him a bored, easily distracted teenager – one who knows the world, but can’t be bothered to do the work to make decisions.

We are all of us Captain Caveman.

Congratulations. According to Daniel Gardner, we have just constructed a fine metaphor for how the human brain works. Part of it is very old, able to make decisions in an instant based on the slimmest of clues. The other is newer, more rational and savvy, able to put together reasoned, logical arguments, but doesn’t have the sheer speed and force that is prehistoric partner has. And as much as we want it to be true that the rational, modern part of our mind is in charge,the sad fact is that out inner caveman has far more influence over us than we care to admit.

Gardner begins the book with an interesting story about the most terrifying thing to happen in the last decade – the attacks of September 11th in the United States. By the time the towers fell, people around the world were watching, and anyone who didn’t see it live would surely see it soon enough as it was replayed over and over again. It was truly terrifying to watch, unlike anything Americans had seen before in their country, and it scared the ever-loving hell out of people. Many people, as a result, chose to forgo air travel in favor of driving.

Now, as Superman famously told Lois Lane, flying is statistically the safest way to travel. In fact, the most dangerous part of any trip that involves flying is usually the drive to the airport. But, in those days and months after the attacks, people were scared to fly. So they drove instead. And, according to a five year study of traffic fatalities in the U. S. after 9/11 by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, 1,595 people died on the roads who otherwise would not have.

They were afraid, and that’s understandable. But they were afraid of the wrong thing. So they died.

Gardner sets out in this book to figure out why it is that people in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous nations on Earth – in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous era of human history – live in a state of near-constant fear.

As long as he doesn't insist on eating children halal, I don't care...

A lot of it, as the intro implies, comes down to the fact that our brains, which evolved over millions of years to be very good at judging risks that might be found on the savannah, are simply not prepared to do the same in a modern technological world. Our brains can’t tell the difference between risk in fiction and reality, between something that happened to us and something we saw on the news. When it comes to risk, our brains play it very safe, which is great out in nature. Is that shadow in the bushes a tiger? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it’s probably a good idea to get the hell away from it. We can’t say the same thing of that guy sitting on the bus who looks like maybe he might be a Muslim.

We also tend to assume that if we’ve heard of something recently, then it must be more common. Again if you’re out in nature and you saw a bear yesterday, there’s a decent chance that the bear is still around today and you might want to be wary of that. But what if you see constant news coverage of a high-profile child abduction? It’s on every show, being talked about on every blog – does that mean that the chance of your child being abducted has increased? Of course not, but your brain doesn’t see it that way. Your brain thinks that your child will be taken from you the moment you look away, and all the reasoning in the world won’t change its mind.

One more thing: we don’t get numbers. The news tells us that the rate of certain risks is up by 10%, but they don’t tell us what the original figure was. We hear about millions of starving children in Africa, but don’t do anything unless we get a personal story of one. We don’t understand probability at all, we can’t deal with randomness, and this lack of innate numeracy (compounded by an educational culture that makes it hard to teach kids to become numerate) costs us billions. Or more, as the recent economic Clusterthing has shown, when you have people who are good with numbers deliberately exploiting this flaw in order to profit.

Numeracy is also useful for getting certain kinds of jokes.

We think that correlation equals causation. We believe stories over facts. We think we don’t have biases that we clearly possess. We assign high risk to things we don’t like and low risk to things we do, regardless of how risky they actually are. And on top of all that, we know how to exploit others’ fears in order to gain money and power for ourselves. It’s easy to do, and it works like a charm.

Reading this book won’t make you into a magically unflappable person, mainly because all of this stuff is pretty well hard-wired in our brains. Even Gardner, who should have known better, tells a story about hunting through the slums of Lagos in the middle of the night to retrieve a photo of his children from the wallet that had been stolen from him. He had plenty more, but at that moment, his brain was convinced that losing the photo meant losing his children. Irrational, yes, and it nearly got him killed, but that’s just one example of what a powerful force this primitive brain is.

Never overlook an opportunity for a Green Lantern reference.

The good news, though, is that you can strengthen the newer, more recent brain – the lazy teenager from the initial example. By knowing how you make mistakes, how you can be fooled into fearing things that you don’t need to fear, you can better understand your own reactions to events and make better decisions. You can educate yourself about the things that are actually dangerous, and stop losing sleep over the things that are not a threat. Being afraid is not your fault – it’s an ingrained biological feature. Staying afraid, on the other hand, is something over which you have control. With enough will power, even you can overcome great fear.

Sorry. Nerd moment there.

Are there terrorists who want to destroy the United States? Sure. But they won’t, because doing so is indescribably harder than certain politicians would have you believe. Are there creepy child molesters who want to abduct and defile your children? Yup. But the chances of that actually happening are so low that the odds of any specific child becoming such a victim are nil. Are there angry teens who want to come to their school and kill everyone they see? Of course. But when you look at the incidence of school shooting compared to how many kids go to school every day, you can see that the odds of your children being caught in a school shooting are slim to none. In fact, there are many parts of the country where your children are probably safer in school than out of it.

There are real risks in our modern world, but they’re not spectacular and they’re not viscerally terrifying. A car accident, a heart attack, a diabetic death – these things don’t make the news. Imagine a 9/11-style attack happening every three days, 3,000 dead each time. It would be an outrage, a national disgrace, and people would be scared to their bones. But it would take just about 233 attacks to equal the number of deaths in 2001 that occurred from cardiovascular disease in the United States.

The nearly nonexistent chance of being killed by terrorists is enough to get people to submit to any number of indignities and intrusions on their persons and liberties when they travel, but the very real risk of death from a heart attack isn’t enough to get people to go take a walk once in a while or stop eating junk food. So enjoy that delicious moment of irony the next time you go through the TSA molest-a-thon and get a seriously overweight screener taking liberties with your person.

The fact is that we have it damn good compared to our ancestors. We live longer, we live better, even in parts of the world that are still developing, and it looks like the future will progress that way. But we still insist on needing to be afraid, even as we have less and less to actually fear. So put down the newspaper, turn off the 24-hour news, and take some time to figure out what is actually a threat. Give that bored teenager something to do with his time and let the caveman go back to his cave.

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You don't see a lot of these anymore. There's a reason for that. (photo by Steve Cornelius on Flickr)

“Anyone who has spent time in a Victorian cemetery knows that gratitude, not fear, should be the defining feeling of our age. And yet it is fear that defines us. We worry. We cringe. It seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.”
– Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear

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Filed under culture, Daniel Gardner, fear, media, nonfiction, psychology, science, security, society, terrorism, The United States

Review 126: Supersense

Supersense by Bruce Hood

Like many of you who are reading this, I can’t throw books away. Even thinking about it makes me uncomfortable, so there is no way I could possibly hold a book over a garbage can and just let it drop. Ugh.

I don’t know why this should be, to be honest. I mean, they’re just books, right? Paper and ink that anyone can buy. And not even special books – first edition, author-signed, sold to me by my beloved grandmother on her deathbed.

NOOO!! Take it down, Jimmy, take it down!!

I would be hard-pressed to throw away even bad books. Mein Kampf, Dianetics, A Series of Unfortunate Events – I would save even these from the trashpile. Not because they’re worth reading, but because they’re books.

I’m not a squishy, sentimental man, either. I can tell dead baby jokes without flinching. I’ve participated in the burning of an American Flag. I’ve flipped off the White House (it was the Bush era – I couldn’t NOT flip it off), and if you give me a photo of the Pope, I’m pretty sure I can tear it up on live TV.

So what is it about these mass-produced blocks of paper that instills in me such reverence? This question is part of what Bruce Hood discusses in his book Supersense, appropriately subtitled, “Why we believe in the unbelievable.”

Hood is a psychologist by trade, and this book is an investigation into why we persistently believe in things for which we have no evidence. This can range from religious adherence and the firm belief in things like “holiness” and “sinfulness” all the way to haunted houses, superstitious behavior, and the belief that evil acts can somehow “taint” a physical object. In one demonstration that he refers to throughout the book, Hood offers a cardigan to his audience. It’s a nice enough sweater, perhaps a little out of date, but clean and it looks comfortable. It’s the kind of cardigan you might wear on a chilly autumn evening and think nothing of it.

The Wests? Naw, they're fine people. Perfectly normal.

Then Hood tells the audience that the sweater belonged to Fred West. For those of us who are not from England, Fred West is one of the most notorious serial killers of the last century. Over a span of twenty years, he and his wife tortured, raped and murdered at least twelve girls, two of whom were their own daughters. They’re very well-known in England, and as soon as people found out that the nice comfortable cardigan had belonged to Fred West, no one wanted to touch it, much less put it on. Even though there’s no rational basis to believe so, many people believed that there was some kind of contamination linked to the sweater, and feared that Fred West’s evil would somehow transfer to them.

As someone who tries to be rational as much as possible, I have found myself wondering why I hold on to beliefs that I know are fundamentally irrational. I wonder it even more when I watch the news or surf the internet and see how many people believe in things like “healing energy,” homeopathy, guardian angels, magic spells and the like. “What century are we living in?” I ask myself as I curl up into a ball and weep. The Enlightenment was only two hundred years ago – why are we backsliding?

Thinkers and scientists such as Richard Dawkins believe that this kind of fundamental irrationality is a learned trait. Parents pass it on to children, who then pass it on to theirs. Dawkins even goes so far as to consider bringing your child to church to be “child abuse,” and believes that if only we can break the chain of superstition, a new Age of Reason will emerge.

Waiting 200 years and counting....

Hood disagrees, and he makes a pretty compelling case. He doesn’t argue for the existence of the supernatural at all in this book, but rather the sense of the supernatural – the Supersense, as he calls it. This is the feeling that someone is watching us, the belief that one object is somehow more “special” than another, identical object. It is the reason we plead with our computers when they don’t work, why we anthropomorphise so many things is our world, and why we revere the remains of saints and shun the sweaters of murderers. It is a sense that there should be a supernatural world out there, even if we can’t prove it.

Hood believes that the origin of this supersense is in the way our early minds develop as infants. In that very early stage of life, we try to make sense of the world as best we can. Babies are little scientists, testing reality against their observations again and again, and coming up with hypotheses about how the world should work. This need to understand the world is hard-wired into our brains as part of our “mind design,” and not only can we never get rid of it, it may be essential to our development into fully-formed human beings.

A smiling sun is not always a good thing.

By testing children and how they observe the world, Hood tries to see how the mind develops from birth onwards, without the years of cultural indoctrination that Dawkins and those of similar opinion decry. These tests show how children expect reality to behave, and what happens when their expectations don’t match their observations. He looks at how children imbue the world with life and purpose – the Sun, always smiling in children’s drawings, exists to give us light, trees to shade us and the grass is there for us to play on. This endowment of purpose, or telos, if we’re going to be philosophical and pompous, is something we continue to do even into adulthood.

The more we learn about the world, the more we find out that it doesn’t follow the common-sense rules that we laid down in our infancy. It’s hard to accept, for example, that we aren’t the end product of evolution – even worse, evolution has no end product in mind. What’s more, after our brains went through years and years of classifying the world into neat little categories such as “living/non-living; intelligent/non-intelligent; plant/animal,” it’s jarring to know that we’re only 5% of the way off from chimpanzees and 50% off from being bananas!

Children intuit the world as they grow, and that is part of the mind-building process. This is the architecture of our minds. More often than not, it produces a rational picture of the world and how it works, but not always – the trade-off is that some supernatural ideas come along for the ride. While the mind-building process does prepare us to exist in the greater world, it also makes us fundamentally irrational beings. Some people are more able to overcome this irrationality than others, but even the hard-core skeptics may find it difficult to put on the sweater of Fred West, or have trouble not smiling when they’re in the presence of the sweater of Fred Rogers.

Ahhh... I feel better.

In a way, this book was both a disappointment and a relief. I have always hoped that one day humanity would rise above its irrationality and start appreciating the world for what it is, instead of wasting time looking for things that just aren’t there. But if Hood’s hypothesis is correct, that’s never going to happen. As long as we are human, there will always be a streak of the irrational in us. Try as we might, we will always have superstitions, strange beliefs, and we will always be looking for things that we cannot see.

And of course, perhaps this is a good thing. This irrationality is what gives us passion, it’s what connects us together as a species and as societies. This belief in the sacred, for example, is what gives rise to shared values in a community and a shared sense of what is important and what is forbidden. Without it, we’d be a species of Lex Luthors – fundamentally selfish, sociopathic and without the ability to connect to others.

NO.

On a personal note, it means that maybe I don’t have to be so hard on myself. I mean, being rational is great and all, but when you get to the point where you find yourself thinking something like, “Yeah, what is the big deal about incest?” then you know that it’s time to give the prefrontal cortex a break. And instead of beating myself up for not being able to completely disavow all the goofy little supernatural things that I cling to, perhaps I can just accept them as part of what makes me who I am. I know there’s nothing truly special about my books, but the supersense tells me otherwise. It may not be right, but at least it gives my life a little more color.

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“If it’s true that our beliefs can be supernatural but unconnected to religion, then it must also be true that humans will not necessarily evolve into a rational species, because a mind designed for generating natural explanations also generates supernatural ones.”
– Bruce Hood, Supersense
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Bruce Hood on Wikipedia
Supersense on Amazon.com
Bruce Hood’s blog

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Filed under Bruce Hood, children, nonfiction, pseudoscience, psychology, science

Review 56: Tales of a Wounded Healer


Tales of a Wounded Healer by Mariah Fenton Gladis

It’s not often I get to review a book written by someone I actually know. The last time was back in aught-six, when I reviewed my uncle Ron’s book, Faster, Smarter Digital Photography, which he co-wrote with M. David Stone (and which all you photo buffs should run out and buy right now). This book is by his wife, my aunt Mariah and is, needless to say, a little different.

The book wasn’t what I thought it would be. What I thought it would be was an account of Mariah’s life, especially her struggles with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. You see, nearly thirty years ago, she was given two years to live. Even now, most of those with ALS only survive three to five years, so to come this far is an extraordinary feat. Indeed, she does go into detail about how she discovered that she had the disease, and what course it put her life on. (As a note, there’s one passage where she describes my uncle Ron’s reaction to hearing the diagnosis – “Pack your bags, we’re leaving. You’re not dying and we have a life to live.” My overriding thought at that point – “Damn, my family rocks.”)

But this book isn’t about my aunt, or her own personal struggles. In fact, once she gets through giving us her CV of Trauma, as it were, we don’t really hear that much more about it unless it’s germane to the topic she’s addressing. Which, as you read on, makes a lot of sense.

Mariah is a therapist, specializing in Gestalt Therapy – a kind of active, experiential therapy method that postulates that the mind and the body are inextricably interconnected. Healing cannot take place simply by talking about it – there must be thought and feeling and emotion and movement involved. As near as I can tell, which is why I put the Wiki link down there, in case I screwed it up. This woman, who has been dealt a hand that, let’s face it, has the potential to be utterly crushing, has spent her life making sure that other people are able to be healed. In learning to face the Bad Shit in her life, she’s been able to help others face the Bad Shit in theirs through what she calls “Exact Moments of Healing.”

“Bad Shit,” by the way, is my term. It saves space.

Before I go on, let me come clean on this much: I have never been to therapy, counseling, or anything of that nature. So anything I think I know about what goes on there is purely speculation.

One of the biggest views of people going into therapy is that there is something Wrong with them. Something that must be, somehow, fixed. In this book, Mariah takes the opposite position – the people who come to her are not people who have problems that must be eliminated. They are people who are trying to be better, but can’t. Because, and this is a kicker, your problems can’t be eliminated. Not ever.

We’re all, in some way, broken. We’ve all been hurt, blocked, abused, kicked, pushed and shoved to one degree or another. Some of us more, some of us less, and usually not in ways that we entirely understand. And as much as these life experiences suck ass, they’re part of who we are. They’ve made us who we are, for good or for ill. The problem comes when we cannot fully understand these traumas for what they were. We don’t know how to deal with them, so they block us up and mess with our heads.

What I got from reading this book is that the way to become free of these psychological millstones is to confront them, understand them and accept them. Fold them into your life, give them their due, and then – and this is important – don’t let them keep you from being who you want to be.

Now, this is really, really, really hard. Gods know it’s hard. Most of us never get that chance to look our demons right in the eye and say, “I know you. And I accept you. Now sit down and shut up.” The idea of Perfect Moments of Healing is that, through counseling, these opportunities can be created. In her workshops, Mariah has re-created the people and situations that generated the traumas that held her subjects down. She goes into great detail about a variety of different cases, and they’re all powerful. With the help of her groups and her students, she’s allowed people to confront the horrors of war, abusive adults, indifferent parents and crumbling marriages, and given them a chance to unburden themselves of the shadowy terrors that had been keeping them from enjoying their lives.

An interesting facet of her therapy is the focus on self-love. No, not that kind, you gutter-brains. The other kind. The really, really hard kind, where you look at yourself, bumps, love handles and all, and say, “I love who you are.”

Damn, I got finger cramps just typing that.

But it’s important to her therapeutic method that her subjects understand that they are indeed worthy of being loved by others, as that is probably one of the most basic needs a human being has. People who’ve been abused or traumatized or just plain on the pokey end of the Stick of Life have a hard time understanding that, so she reinforces the idea again and again through the book. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, it’ll sink in. I still have some work to do….

For those of us who aren’t so fortunate as to be able to have Mariah figure out how to stitch us back together, she does offer good news – a Perfect Moment of Healing is available to you outside of the therapist’s office. By remaining aware of how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking and what you want to become, you can find moments in life to come face-to-face with your personal traumas and accept them for what they were – something bad that happened to you a long time ago. Something that does not need to define who you are now.

These moments aren’t easy to come by, I reckon, and if you have some real hard-core Issues in your past, a professional is still the best way to go. But there are always chances out there. I’ve taken a few myself, from time to time.

One time, inside Chris’ brain….
“Okay, here’s the situation. Now what do we want to do?”
“Run like hell.”
“And we’re not going to do it because…?”
“….”
“Right. Now let’s get in there.”
“But I-”
“Shut up, trust me. Get in there.” 

So to speak.

Anyway, enough of my babbling. I’m probably mangling what is a very interesting, insightful and thought-provoking book. And I’m not just saying that because the author is Family. I’m saying it because it did make me think, and it’ll continue to do so. I saw myself in there a couple of times, and I reckon you will too….

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“You get to travel through this lifetime once. Although the way can unfold, and the terrain can change dramatically, by chance or by choice, to me what matters most is that the road you choose be one where your heart and soul feel a belonging, and the freedom to reach and breathe.”
– Mariah Fenton-Gladis, Tales of a Wounded Healer
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Tales of a Wounded Healer on Amazon.com
The Pennsylvania Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training
ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease
Gestalt therapy

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Filed under Gestalt therapy, Mariah Fenton-Gladis, psychology, therapy

Review 44: Shutting Out the Sun


Shutting out the Sun – How Japan Created its own Lost Generation by Michael Zielenziger

One of the things you learn about Japan when you get here – and you learn it pretty quickly – is that there can be a vast difference between the appearance of Japan and the reality of it. The faces that people show you, or even that the city shows you, is not necessarily their true face.

Take Kyoto as an example: it prides itself on being a city of traditional culture, the touchstone of all that is Truly Japanese. When you first see it, though, you think, “Really? Because it looks like a big ol’ jumbled-up city to me.” And it does – aside from the temples, which remain more or less relegated to the edges of the city, the vestiges of Old Japan have been swept away in favor of concrete and glass. Kyoto Station is a glimmering lump in the middle of the city, and Kyoto Tower, as many have said, is a stake through its heart. But ask anyone and we’ll say, “Kyoto is a beautiful city.” Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

This is how it is to live in Japan. There is a gulf between the true nature of things and the way we want them to be. For someone born and raised here, this kind of thinking is taught from birth, and without the ability to divide oneself in twain, life in Japanese society can be very difficult. These two states have names, too – tatemae is the face that you present to the world, the one that everyone expects of you. Honne is your “true self,” the feelings and thoughts that you hold in reserve so as not to cause conflict with the greater society around you.

The origins of this dichotomy are unclear, although there are those who attribute it to a culture with roots in collective agriculture. If your life and the lives of everyone in your village depends on getting the rice crop in, you have to learn to hold back certain feelings or desires for the good of the group. You sublimate yourself into the group structure, because that’s what has to be done. So, tatemae isn’t a lie, or a deliberate performance designed to deceive people. It’s a bargain between oneself and society – “This is what society needs me to be? Fine. I can be that.” What remains is honne, the inner self that society cannot touch, but can never see.

So what happens when someone can’t hold up their end of this social contract? What happens when the modern world makes demands of people that this ancient compact can’t handle? Well, that’s when things start to go wrong….

For many years, this bargain between the individual and society worked, mainly because society kept up its end of the deal. People were protected, employed, and given a place in the world, whether it was the feudal culture of the Edo era, the wartime mobilization of the 30s and 40s, or the indomitable Japan Inc. of the post-war years. As the world progressed, however, it soon became evident that the old ways weren’t enough. Japan needed to change, or face stagnation and irrelevance.

In this book, Zielenziger tries to figure out how Japan got into the state it’s in – a decade and a half of stagnation, with no end in sight, and the very real possibility of a slide into graying irrelevance by the middle of the century. To do so, he looks first on the human scale, at the people who have given up on Japan’s social contract – the hikkikomori.

Like so many other things Japanese, the hikkikomori phenomenon is said to be unique to Japan. Not quite agoraphobics, not quite dropouts or depressives, the hikkikomori are people – usually men – who have given up on the world. They usually live in a single room, often in the homes of parents who enable their hermit lifestyle, and refuse to come out. They sit in there and read, or watch TV, or think. They see no place for themselves in the outside world, and so they give up on it. The men that Zielenziger interviewed suggested that the outside world was too much for them. In many cases they were bullied by others – a pattern of social control that is unfortunately ingrained here – or they simply looked at their parents and thought, “Is this what I will become?”

An American child, faced with the knowledge that he doesn’t fit with the rest of the world, will probably see it as an opportunity to shape his own identity. A hikkikomori sees it as a personal failure. He knows how Japanese society works, and rather than blame the world for not accepting him, he blames himself for not being able to fit in. Thus, retiring from the world is seen as the only option available, other than suicide. Some hikkikomori spend years in their rooms, refusing to speak even with their parents, who – often out of a sense of shame or the nurturing love known as amae – support their boys’ choice of lifestyle.

At the other end are the people who give their identity over to an outside source. In more dangerous cases, this outside source might be a cult, like the Aum Shinrinkyo group who carried out the deadly sarin attack against the Tokyo subway in 1995. A more benign manifestation, however, is brand mania. Zielenziger talks to women who identify themselves through the brands they buy. These people will spend money they don’t have in order to get a bag from Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Chanel. They distinguish themselves with their brand identity, willingly giving up their own in the process. In a country where one can no longer trust the government to look after your best interests, or the media to tell you the truth, or business to give you a job, putting all your faith in Louis Vuitton – with its worldwide reputation for quality – seems to be a good idea.

It’s a nation in crisis, according to Zielenziger. It’s a country that’s gone from feudalism to full modernity in only a century and a half, but the culture hasn’t changed nearly as much as the country has. It’s a bustling, 21st-century nation built on a foundation that was laid in the 17th century, and things are starting to fall apart. It’s a country that puts society before the individual, but that premise is cracking under the weight of a world that values individuality. It’s a place where responsibility is distributed and accountability doesn’t exist, where mistakes go unexamined lest they bring shame upon those who made them, and where the past is a thing that can be easily ignored if it troubles you. Zielenziger believes that the underlying social structure of Japan is holding it back, leading the entire country to another withdrawal from the world. Much like the hikkikomori that no one likes to talk about, Japan may one day find itself alone and isolated, not knowing its place in the world and not knowing how it can get back to what it used to be.

The book is quite a read, going from small one-on-one interviews to historical and sociological analyses, but it is overwhelmingly negative in tone. Zielenziger isn’t wrong, necessarily, but he is of the mind-set that Japan is irrevocably screwed and that only Western cultural intervention can save it.

He lays the hikkikomori problem – and the problem of parasite singles, NEETs, and all the other dysfunctional youth – at the foot of Japan’s collectivist culture, as well as the intense bond of amae that exists between the parent and child. While he doesn’t say it in so many words, he does imply that the traditional social structure of Japan is simply incapable of keeping Japan competitive in the modern era. He believes that Western values, especially those stemming from Christianity, are what Japan needs to survive.

The bit about Christianity seemed to come from left field, but he does make a case for it. Christianity, he believes, places the onus of salvation on the individual. It is a person’s works (or faith) that ensure his place in the afterlife. This focus on one’s personal responsibility, and ultimate judgment, fosters a Self that is harder to suppress. From that strong sense of individuality, a culture can foster more competition, thereby preventing stagnation.

There’s a long, not entirely interesting chapter on Korea that he uses to illustrate this point. Unlike Japan, Korea – once called “The Hermit Kingdom” – found itself facing economic turmoil and got themselves out of it. Not because Korean ways were better, but because they knew that if they stuck to their traditions they’d be screwed. Korea is a nation strongly influenced by Christianity, and the individuality that Christianity fosters, suggests Zielenziger, is what gave Korea the courage to risk social turmoil for the betterment of their nation.

There may be something to this, but I doubt that adopting Christianity en masse will save Japan from Zielenziger’s dire future. Honestly, it was tough to stay objective while reading this, mainly because of the gulf between what I see, having lived here for the better part of a decade, and how Zielenziger describes the place. If I didn’t know better, I would have read this and thought that Japan was a zombie nation, populated either by hermits or soulless consumers. From what I’ve seen, I know that this is not the case.

Granted, I haven’t completely immersed myself in the culture, mainly because that’s an extremely difficult thing for a non-Japanese to do. Most of the people I talk to are my students, and people with the desire and the resources to study English are probably not an accurate cross-section of the country. So I don’t claim to have any more insight into the Japanese mind than Mr. Zielenziger does, but from my experience it seems that all hope is not lost. Yes, the government is a faceless bureaucracy, the media is completely complacent and the corporate community that once offered jobs for life has vanished. But Japan has proved resilient in the past, adapting to great changes that were thrust upon it from the outside. And a quick look at Japanese history shows that, when the times need it, people emerge to challenge the established order.

That’s what Japan needs now. Someone – or, more effectively, a group of someones – to stand up, stick out and risk themselves for the betterment of their country. It won’t be easy – revolution never is – but it needs to be done. Perhaps one day, instead of shutting themselves in their rooms, there might be young men and women who take to the streets and show Japan that there is value in the individual. I hope I get to see it.

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“To survive in Japan, you have to kill off your own original voice.”
Kaz Ueyama, Shutting Out the Sun
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Michael Zielenziger on Wikipedia
Michael Zielenziger’s Homepage
Shutting Out the Sun on Amazon.com
Hikkikomori at Wikipedia
Amae at Wikipedia

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Filed under identity, Japan, Michael Zielenziger, nonfiction, psychology, society