In my early twenties, after being dumped by my girlfriend, I ran off my depression.I was ahead of my time. Subsequent research suggests, for common depressive symptoms, exercise is as effective as prescription drugs. Did I even need to sweat? Studies also showed that placebos, even when the patients were told they were placebos, alleviate both emotional and physical symptoms—more power to academics for getting grants to affirm what’s ancient news. For example, homeopathy has been around since 1796. Practitioners cure with a vial of water and a story why it will be effective. Most interesting to this local reality peddler (me), the disclosure to the subjects that they’re getting a placebo tells me the homeopath’s story is unnecessary. Patients provide their own curative stories.
Language, the atomic particles of stories
Sigmund Freud said the royal road to the unconscious mind is dreams. To dreams, Gregory Bateson (and likely many others) added art, music, poetry, and paralinguistic communication.The royal road to the conscious mind is language. Our (local) reality is brought forth and maintained by the pitter-patter of our inner dialogue. If you’ve joined the meditation craze, you know that an attempt to suppress inner dialogue is like ignoring the latest sound notification from your pocket or purse. You might not pick up your iPhone, but your focus has changed to I’m not reading that message.
From the autobiography of deaf and blind Helen Keller, made famous in a play and two films, The Miracle Worker:
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.
The only form of communication possible between Helen’s tutor, Anne Sullivan, and Helen was through touch. At the Perkins School, Sullivan was taught the technique of communication by finger-drawing letters on the palm. At first, Helen made superficial progress. She could mimic Anne’s words when touching an object but could not connect the word with the object. Helen could not differentiate between a mug, milk, or a mug of milk, until, in a flash (as described above), she opened the gift marked “shared reality.”
“I recall many incidents of the summer of 1887 that followed my soul’s sudden awakening. I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.” (Italics mine.)
Helen lost her sight and hearing at nineteen months. Imagine the joy when five years later, she begins to recover a connection with the world. Contrast with us adults who do what we can to sever it.
Reality through a pinhole
I learned photography long before the digital era, but film and digital photography work similarly, with the digital sensor replacing film and computer processing replacing the chemical bath that develops the latent imprint on film. The light required to create the latent imprint (or the digital version) is the sum of the size of the lens aperture and duration the aperture opens to let in light, and the sensitivity (how much light is needed to create a latent image) on the film to be developed by the appropriate chemicals (or on the sensor to be processed).
The lens aperture needs to limit its time open because if the exposure takes too long, a moving image or camera shake results in multiple recorded images, effectively, a blur. During the shot, the size of the aperture needs to be limited because the depth of focus and size of the aperture are inversely proportional.
When my wife and I argue, all my senses behave like the camera. My senses act less to capture and more to prevent the disagreeable. I limit my exposure. I limit my depth of focus. I filter her words and turn my eyes away from her. All I let in is the perceived slight or other psychological threat to my well-being.
We think of perceptions as taking in our environment, but they’re just applying for a temp job in our nervous system. “We’ll screen your application and decide whether to have you in for an interview.” With all the sensory advantages a hearing and seeing person has compared to Helen Keller, we don’t allow in much more than Keller could. We don’t let in what threatens our version of reality.
How extreme can preventing the intake of the disagreeable get? Here’s a recent example: a childhood of being constantly demeaned by his father left an ex-president unable to perceive anything but compliments or criticism, loyalty or disloyalty.
Our four-month-old granddaughter, Nova, will soon be uttering “dada” and “mama,” and Mom and Dad will be ecstatic and interact with Nova to turn those sounds into proper nouns. Through these mutual perturbations, Nova will learn to identify, explicitly, someone and something separate from herself. Along with Mama and Dada, her brother, Raiden, becomes someone. Each grandparent become someone. The pet cat becomes someone. Her cloth giraffe becomes something. Household items become something.
Soon, Nova will develop what psychologists call “object permanence.” She’ll call for her giraffe when it’s out of sight.As when Helen Keller began to name objects, this is the beginning of a shared reality. Or is it? We take it for granted that when Nova sees her giraffe, we see the same giraffe, but we have no way of knowing that; there is no test. All we know is we use the same name for the giraffe. Helen Keller made the connection that sharing the names of objects is the beginning of a shared reality, but what’s shared is just the names. Naming objects is the beginning of making abstractions, but that doesn’t mean your abstractions are my abstractions.
As Nova matures, she’ll increase her vocabulary and ability to abstract. Recall my newsletter about the growing house. Start with the basics and add rooms as needed. As we learn, we add metaphorical rooms as needed. These new rooms are filled with thoughts formed by language, increasing in volume and complexity.
Long before Nova has a vocabulary, her parents and grandparents read stories to her. Soon Nova will have enough vocabulary to understand simple stories. Most of these stories won’t come from a book or movie. They’ll come from the oral descriptions of the events around her. Mama will say, “I found your giraffe.” Mama found my giraffe is a story. Over time, the stories will get more complex, and they’ll arrive in local conversation and in media.
Eventually, Nova will learn that some stories are fiction (made up), and some are non-fiction (real events and science). That “fact” will be just another story. We tell stories about the family dog getting into the cat food, and we tell stories about things too small (quantum physics) and things too big (the universe) to be experienced without special instruments. The “things” in the above sentence are also stories. Both cute pet anecdotes and scientific descriptions are textual maps that create our local reality.
Most stories we tell are about relationships, supposedly fictional, that is, novels, movies, and songs. Behavioral and cognitive scientists tell stories that are “non-fiction” but no less made up. Freud’s Oedipal complex, Jung’s archetypes, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, evolutionary psychologists’ genetically determined behavior, Piaget’s stages of development—all stories, all just language.
Recall how I described architects who grabbed onto my made-up house that was created ad hoc and put their own value-added stamp on it, how the owners hated those houses. Behavioral architects do the same. Psychotherapists who are self-labeled as Freudian, Jungian, feminist, humanist or any of the two-hundred approaches are selling that finished psychological home, designed by someone else, and attempting to convince you that you built it yourself. Same kind of marketing, if slightly less directly, comes care of politicians, advertisers, business leaders, civil engineers, social media, designers, journalists, and teachers, who hawk their local reality to society.
You’ve heard the cliché: fish don’t know they live in water. Humans don’t know we live in language. But while we’re rightfully fretful about water pollution, which comes from neglect, we’re not sufficiently fretful about language pollution, which is often conscious manipulation.
What’s to be done? Experts stand in the intellectual highway and proclaim: teach critical thinking! Then the paradox truck runs them over. Each expert’s version of critical thinking is just another completed house you’ll be offered at an attractive down payment and a lifetime mortgage.
Pun unintended, but I endorse it.
Paralinguistic communication is all non-verbal expression: body language, voice inflection, oral pace, etc.
Size of window, plus duration of blinds raised, plus current skin tone or effectiveness of suntan lotion, equals suntan, sunburn, or little effect.
When the photographer wants an out-of-focus background, such as with a portrait or nature close-up, they increase the aperture opening.
Living your life with the primary focus to ward off psychological threats must be the very underpinnings of what we call mental illness.
Mom and Dad permanence is more complicated.