Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Compassion and the (a priori) Imagination: Thinking Creatively About People Who Piss You Off

So, this post inspired by three or so things. First, I read This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace. Second, my mom always talked to me about driving and getting angry at people and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Third, these two ideas clicked and popped together while I was driving back from New York.

So, Foster Wallace. This is Water was a a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. Opening didactic joke: Two young fish are swimming along and they hapen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says' Morning boys. How's the water?' one fish looks at the other fish and says 'What the hell is water?' Basic point being that the things that are most familiar to us, and facilitate our actions the most often slip beneath our awareness.

When applied to humans, Foster Wallace is mainly referring to people's tendency to find their own subjective reality so totally absorbing that we fail to consider other people's points of view. He uses the example of being tired and having to go to the grocery store, and having thoughts like 'Why are all these people in my way? Why are they so stupid and can't just keep their carts to the side and let me get by? I just need to get this food and get home because I am going to flip out.' Or being in traffic and blaming people in similar ways, 'Why is this giant SUV in my way? Why do they have to buy such a stupid car, taking up so much room. BEING IN MY WAY! WHY CAN'T I JUST GET HOME BUT THESE PEOPLE ARE IN MY WAY!" So, the basic idea is that it is really easy to just get frustrated and tired and absorbed with your own life to the point that you don't even consider they way other people are thinking.

He gives a few counter-examples that are useful. What if those people in the grocery store are equally tired, and they are yelling at their kids because they have been up for the last three nights at the hospital with their spouse who is dying of cancer. Or maybe the people in traffic are having a heart attack, or they are having a baby, and you are in their way. Most days I am sure it is the case that other people are having a far harder time than I am. Most likely a lot of people are having terrible things happen to them. It is up to me to exercise a little bit of control over what I think about and how I think about it.

He says that this is the task of a liberal arts education. Not to teach you how to think, as is often said. But to teach you to exercise a little choice about how and what you think about. Cause it is very easy to think and judge without choosing. It comes naturally, at least for Foster Wallace, and for me too. It's easy to just rip people apart and treat them like they are interfering with your immediate goals and frustrations. So it is up to us to extend our minds, to force them outside of our own immediacy, to challenge ourselves to imagine that someone somehow has circumstances that however difficult, or however complex, that it justifies their behavior and allows us to forgive them in a certain sense. Someone cuts us off in traffic, imagine that they are having a really hard time at work or at home, or whatever. But that sort of deliberate, imaginative compassion might allow us a bit more peace than condemning them.

Part of me has this idea, that when we imagine that someone has offended us because they are stupid, lazy, or something else negative like that, we are somehow damaging our own minds. Think of it like this: in order for us to attribute stupidity to another person we have to go through the process of imagining how it is that someone could behave that way (block the aisles, drive poorly) based on stupidity, ignorance, carelessness, etc. Now, I have read experiments where they have individuals imagine either the mind of their favorite professor or the mind of a soccer hooligan. Then they ask people to write whatever thoughts come out as they attempt to imagine these other minds. Then a general intelligence test is given, and it shows that those people who imagined their professors mind performed better while those imagining hooligans did worse. The conclusion drawn: imagining intelligent minds can make you more intelligent. Interesting idea, it conforms with many other things I think, and if I ever post my enormous long essay, then you will see that I am trying to explore this and other ideas in depth.

Now, when it comes to imagining explanations for other people's behavior, couldn't something similar be happening? When we imagine that a person has gotten in our way based on stupidity, or based on anger, or based on ignorance, aren't we forcing our minds to occupy a space that is saturated in that negativity? And aren't we therefore bathing our minds in that negativity? Aren't we forcing our mind to become a mind that it hates? This goes back to a major question: is it possible to understand another person's mental state (or believe we have understood another person's mental state) without internally imagining/simulating that frame of mind for ourselves? This all hinges on mirror neurons, and, again, is discussed at length in this huge post I am still working on.

So, my answer as of now: to have any understanding/explanation of another person's mental state we have to imagine and simulate that mental state that we are ascribing to that person for ourselves. So, while on the road or in a grocery store, and we see something that offends us, and we ascribe it to stupidity or something else negative, we are forcing our mind to enter that space. We are forcing our mind to enter a space where stupidity and ignorance govern behavior, and I doubt that we can imagine those things without somehow exposing our own mind/brain to traces of it.

So, then, this whole process of imaginative compassion can have two benefits. 1. It will allow us to behave more compassionately towards others, we can forgive mistakes more easily. This will improve our stance towards humanity in general. Cause it is hard when, in your mind, everyone is stupid and your enemy. But this way people will all be an ally of sorts, every mistake becomes an exercise in identification. We are all dealing with the painful monotony that is modern life, we are all frustrated and trying to get home, we are all tired of standing here surrounded by each other. And maybe that makes it okay somehow. We can have a sort of general identification with every mistake and short coming we see in other people.

And 2. by exercising this sort of imaginative compassion for others, we are deliberately creating the more general space of our mind. We are creating a mental space in which we exist as people inclined towards forgiveness. We are setting the default modes of our own thought. I guess that is what Foster Wallace means about saying 'this is water, this is water, this is water.' We have to remember that we have the ability to glide through our every day thoughts and actions totally without reflection. It is easy to operate on autopilot. And, unfortunately, autopilot often turns out to be self-absorption and a lack of imaginative compassion.

So, the liberal arts education, it can sensitize us to our own mental workings. Can make us aware that we are ascribing meaning to the world. I haven't really mentioned this yet, but Foster Wallace talks about it. We sit around trying to ascribe meaning to a novel, only to find that we can do it in a plethora of ways. It teaches us to recognize our mind's ability to plaster meaning all over the world, to create it from raw experience and evidence that isn't conclusive. Similarly, when someone swerves on the highway, or blocks the aisle at the grocery store, we only have evidence. We have one action, and somehow our mind takes that as a way to write off a person as a whole. 'What an idiot' 'Aren't they paying attention?' etc. But if we can start to monitor our minds we will recognize that maybe we can start exercising a little more choice over how we think about these things.

It interests me as the idea of cultivating an imagination, and starting to direct that imagination towards ourselves. Ask ourselves how we are thinking and why we are thinking about it in that way. Then imagine that you are wrong. Imagine that other people are also struggling with life and we need to give them a break, so that we can give ourselves a break. Life is hard, and we should imagine that other people are trying hard too. Even if it is only for the sake of our own mind, and the pain that we expose our own imagination to, we should try to imagine circumstances that somehow let us forgive people for what we see as their mistakes, or their offenses to our existence, or to the world.

So, I mentioned my mom at the beginning of this post. Because she always basically said the same thing Foster Wallace says. I am happy that Foster Wallace uses driving and the grocery store as his main examples. They are so common, and they are always what my mom talked about. Don't honk at people to say f you. Don't flip people off. You have no idea what is going on in their lives. They may have a dying mother. They may have dying children. They may be contemplating suicide. They may have blah blah blah blah. You shouldn't assume that people are stupid.

But as I have learned a little through experience, a little through observation, and a little from Foster Wallace, it is very to easy to slip back into a default mode where you forget what water is. Where you forget that your immediate reality is not the only thing out there. Where you forget that other people are hurting too, and you might be in their way, and not the other way around.

So it pleases me to reflect on how my mom always told me that. And how Foster Wallace makes a general connection between this idea and the liberal education. And I feel like I have a connection to make between all of this and the imagination. In particular, I would like to talk briefly about the idea of the 'a priori imagination.'

The a priori imagination is R.G. Collingwood's idea. His writing on it: the connection between fiction and history. Often novelists will say they don't really feel like they wrote the end of their novel, or any part of it maybe. They have merely created characters and put them in certain circumstances, and the way these characters behave isn't really something they have created but just the way it unfolded in their imagination. In this sense, the imagination isn't something that we make happen deliberately, but it is the part of our brain that presents us with imaginative sequences or possibilities. We don't force it, we guide it, but the imaginative process is beyond our direct control and therefore has an a priori element to it. It just happens. Collingwood says that it can be similar with historians. That they don't rationally construct the narrative of history, but their knowledge of the individuals and the era under study just coalesce into a sense of what happened, and it is unpacked and elaborated by the a priori imagination. In short, in the context of both fiction and history, the imagination is often beyond direct control, and exists in our mind as a sort of presentation, a production from something else, an unfolding of events and images in our mind. Basically, the imagination just happens, we can guide it, but its musings follow its own logic.

So, my question: what if this default mode, this being absorbed with ourselves, of writing other people off as stupid, is a function of an a priori imagination that we aren't quite aware of. When we blame these people for their actions, it seems so natural, it seems so easy to attribute it to stupidity that we wouldn't even regard it as an imaginative process. It just seems like the logical conclusion. But we aren't scientists. Are brains don't work through deduction. They work through imagination and internal simulation (mirroring, look up mirror neurons). So, I bet that the process of ascribing meanings to others actions that it always involves the imagination. It is always about the internal simulation of another perspective, and that is what allows us to ascribe a value judgment to it. But it is just that the a priori imagination operates so below the radar that we don't even realize that we are imagining another person's perspective.

So, the task, then, as Foster Wallace says, is to start exercising control over what we think about, and how we are thinking about it. So in this case, it means diverting our mind from negative value judgments towards a more (deliberately) imaginative frame of mind that lets us think that perhaps this behavior is justified, or at the very least forgivable. We have to force ourselves to imagine that maybe these people are having a much harder life than me. Perhaps these people hate their life and I should cut them some slack. Foster Wallace talks about how hard it is to do that, and that some days it is just too hard. You are just too stressed or too tired.

But one thought: what if we force our brain's to enter this more calm frame of mind so frequently that we begin to make this our default way of thinking about it, what if we can change the water we swim in, so to speak, what if we can modify the a priori imagination?

This book I am reading right now The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Is making a very relevant argument. This guy, J.M. Schwartz, focuses on people with OCD, and how repeated acts of deliberate thought, reconceptualizing, and redirecting thought can overcome the malfunctioning neural connections associated with OCD. Basically, with OCD people's brains have become locked into a certain path of neural networks. Neural connections become strengthened when they are used over and over again, so you can literally become 'rutted' in the way that you think. But Schwartz claims that by consistently redirecting their thoughts when they feel a compulsive urge, forcing yourself to work in the garden or sow every time you get a compulsive urge, you can reshape the way in which your brains neural connections work. You would be strengthening to the connections associated with sowing, a 'healthy' activity, while weakening the connections associated with washing or whatever, the 'unhealthy' activity. So, with mental effort, with deliberate thinking or will power, you can change the default settings of your mind, you can physically restructure the way that the brain works.

I haven't finished the book yet, but it seems like the connections are already obvious at this point. He says he thinks the book sheds light on the mind/brain issue in general, and has applications beyond OCD. So here seems like an obvious one. If we can consistently force our brains to imagine situations/circumstances that would allow us to forgive people when they make us angry, then we would be able to reconfigure the way our brain begins to respond to these situations in general. Assuming that the mind has something like an a priori imagination, that our mind automatically produces imaginative explanations for other people's behavior, and that the easiest a priori imagination to have is a self centered and unforgiving one, then we can and should start putting in a little bit of work into shaping the way our brain works on a pre-reflective level. We have to start calling into question our default assumptions and start placing them in a more deliberately imaginative forgiving space, then perhaps, over time, our brains will start to occupy this more forgiving space as a default.

This would involve a good deal of vigilance, though. It is so easy to slip into an unreflective state of mind where we become absorbed with our reality, and tend to condemn more easily than we forgive. So, two things. First, Schwartz is very concerned with the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. He talks about a term 'bare attention,' where we just accept all incoming information in a process of calm observation. Focusing on your breathing, one breath in and out, thoughts come and go, and we don't chase them, we don't do anything with them. Reality just sort of flows and comes. But there is also a sort of mental note taking, but you just acknowledge things as they come. Umm, so what does this have to do with self vigilance? I'm not sure really. I guess, it is an intense awareness that also comes with an intense peace of sorts. So I guess this would be the end result of a self-critical process. You would gain an understanding of yourself that would allow you to be in a very self aware frame of mind pretty consistently. My ideas on this don't make sense to me, but I'll finish this book, and I need to start reading more stuff that is explicitly on Buddhism.

The second thing that I think of when I think about this self critical crafting of the a priori imagination, the deliberate creation of our default mindsets, is Foucault and the care of the self. Not the book the care of the self (Volume III history of sexuality), but just the general theme that ran through a lot of ancient philosophy. I started reading The Hermeneutics of the Subject, his lectures at College de France in 1981-82. Also, pretty much all of Volume II of the history of sexuality, The Use of Pleasure, is about practices/techniques of the self in ancient Greece. But the idea is that it is an idea that fell out of the mainstream of philosophical and political reflection. But that it is an idea that involves a life long critical stance towards the self, that is always about mastering yourself through the internalization of certain principles, an understanding of how to conduct yourself. Translating a moral code into ethical behavior. Constituting yourself as a moral subject of that knowledge. It is always about transforming yourself.

Foucault says that he thinks the major change that took place was how it is that subjects gained access to truth. He uses the idea of a 'Cartesian moment,' which he admits is a bad phrase. But this Cartesian moment is when the subject is able to gain access to truth from knowledge alone. For example, one I have scientific knowledge of the physical world, then I have accessed truth. He claims this is in stark contrast to how the ancient idea of the care of the self framed the relationship between the subject and truth. For those involved in the philosophy of the care of the self, the subject's access to truth always depended on the transformation of the subject. You always had to somehow change yourself, engage in a process that would enable you to achieve a greater understanding. It wasn't that knowledge was out there in the world waiting to be discovered, but that you had to transform yourself into someone who was capable of exercising greater control over yourself, forcing yourself to become someone who is capable of understanding truth. Hmm, so I mean, very generally, I dig this idea of the care of the self a lot. I mentioned it in my last post in relation to the internalization of logos. This idea is very closely related. The a priori imagination, I mean.

So, my concern here: thinking of a way to craft your unconscious imaginative thoughts into a generally more forgiving default frame of mind.
Neuroplasticity: If you can deliberately force your mind to enter different perspectives, more forgiving ones, for example, then your mind can eventually reconfigure its neural connections and function that way on a more regular basis.
Foucault and care of the self: The care of the self is a life long process that is about ascetic ideals that would result in the internalization of certain rules of conduct that would transform into a sort of conscience. We would become so familiar with our ideals of conduct that they would become part of our unconscious thought processes.

So these three things, Foster Wallace and shaping our defaults, neuroplasticity and deliberately rewiring our brains, Foucault and the care of the self, seem like they all contribute to this idea. That we need to somehow overcome our daily default perspectives that tend to be harsh, so we can achieve a new and more balanced view of ourselves and others. That it is possible to reconfigure default brain settings, proving that we can exert mental force to shape the way our brains will function on an unconscious level. And that there are philosophical ideas about how it is that caring for yourself can involve the modification of the unconscious through deliberate mental training.

I think I should write a post on a few things. 1. the moral code that we are attempting to internalize, does it exist? how can we build it or refine it? how can we apply it? what does it have to do with the idea of simulation? can simulation be a way to apply it? is it something like expanding the empathetic palette? would that involve memory and personal reenactment? would that involve an intuitive theory? does the a priori imagination involve something like an intuitive theory? Steven Pinker and innate concepts? Ummm, these are questions for later I lost track of my thoughts a minute ago.

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