About roses, foxes, puppies and humans

          A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine bought a puppy. She had been longing for it for quite a while; more than two years, in fact. She waited until now to make it happen, since she will have a few more hours a day to take care of the animal. The good thing is she found what she wanted: a maltese female, small and perfect for a downtown apartment: it does not take up too much room, neither does it bark loudly, nor does it get things too messy.

          Now, of course, she is crazy about the puppy… She loves it and takes care of it proudly. She wouldn’t change it for anything else. She chose it -let’s say- ‘definitely’. And that’s the big point to reflect on. How does a relationship begin? Making the matter extensive to humans, which is the precise instant in which we select someone to connect with? In many cases, we indeed make a ‘definite’ choice… (no matter the relationship then not lasting a lifetime). And although in other cases the decision is not ‘definite’, it’s still a choice anyway.

          There is a delicate moment in which the puppy is no longer a hope and becomes the reality that we prefer above any other pet of its kind. We all like puppies, but ‘like’ is an understatement if that puppy is ours. It probably happened in the kennel when my friend identified one individual in particular among the whole group, without precisely knowing what motivated her to do so. Or it probably took place when the vet arbitrarily placed in her arms that furry ball that goes <<wooif>>… and that one became inexorably irresistible. How to make another choice? How to think on another one?

          In a sublime metaphor about human relationships, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry approached the matter with the following words: Continue reading

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The delicate balance: between belonging and individuality

          Human beings are innately social. We are made to connect with each other, something that social psychologists call <<eagerness to affiliate>>. Except for cases such as autism and very few people with characters prone to ostracism -anomalies-, we all look forward to bonding. Because, in fact, we need it. We are internally ‘wired’ for that.

          However, such inclination to have friends, to build relationships and to socialize coexists with other kind of motivations. Once we are included in a certain group, for instance, we may seek standing out within it. The friend who always arranges parties, the most energetic player in the team, the most ambitious employee of the department, the cousin who always acts up in family meetings…

          One of the most intriguing alternative motivations -when it comes to fulfilling that drive to relate with others- consists in a concern (not minor at all) to keep a certain distance from the demands that surge in any relationship. Anthropologist Michael Wesch holds that people crave both connection and freedom. Such dichotomy generates a tension that leads us to sometimes open up… and close off in other occasions. As Sep Kamvar and Jonathan Harris highlight (authors of We Feel Fine) we are frequently torn between building relationships and maintaining freedom from the constraints that those relationships impose.

          This might be, in terms of relationship dynamics, one of the hardest challenges of our modern life. We must surely know that girl who went through a lot of pain to seduce her boyfriend but nowadays has strong arguments with him about preserving her personal space. Or that guy who is not able to conciliate work with social life. None of these people are inconsistent. It is just that, as everyone, they face a particular unease derived from the internal conflict of interests. Continue reading

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About deservingness

          And since in the previous post we talked about forced happiness as an advertising resource and a social paradigm, let’s approach here another issue –not less controversial. The culture of false deservingness.

          I walk along the street and I see a huge sign of a beverage claiming: <<the taste you deserve>>. Then I open the newspaper and I read this big ad on mattresses: <<get the rest you deserve>>. And so my mind starts to relate all those messages which apparently remain hidden but in fact consolidate a concrete pattern in our way of thinking. Certain political propaganda: <<the change you deserve>>. A department store announcing their new clothes collection: <<Pamper yourself. You deserve it>>. A brand new apartment building: <<the luxury you deserve>>…

          I imagine the comic strips of Quino, and his Mafalda suddenly screaming… Stop it! Do I really deserve so many things? If so, why can’t I have them all at once right now?

          That’s exactly the problem. And, again, it is not limited to advertising. There is a whole culture of false deservingness in which easy access to pleasures and goods (and even worse: to achievements and rewards as well) is unrestrictedly promoted. As though we had done the necessary and right things to get them. The truth is sometimes I feel pretty uncomfortable to realize motivational speakers and self-help authors restlessly brainwash people’s heads about: <<harvest the success you deserve>>. Does really everybody deserve ‘success’? Continue reading

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The demand of happiness

“the happiness factory”

          Suddenly we are aware that a very particular kind of advertising has spread all around us. It appeals to happiness as a lifestyle, ‘accessible’ through the consumption of certain products. This kind of advertising threatens to become as copious as the eroticism and the almost-naked bodies that have been used for years in jeans and perfumes. Which products are associable to a good mood spirit, to emotional welfare and to the fact of allowing ourselves joyful episodes within a life full of demands? Those in mass consumption, food and beverages, of course.

“let’s spread laughter”

          Some weeks ago Clarín published a very good article analyzing the phenomenon: Coca-Cola with its “happiness factory”, Beldent with its “let’s spread laughter” and the already popular <<Riquelme is happy>> are just some examples.

          Overstimulation on happiness, however, is not exclusive of advertising. This is only the tip of the iceberg. The issue is truly deeper. Advertising industry is lately seeking solid grounds, and what else can be better than science for that matter? (Haven’t we seen that commercials have also filled with anti-bacteria analyses, proteins and physiological effects in the body?) As for this new trend, advertising is supported on another wave –not minor at all- of disciplines that have recently resourced to study happiness, such as Economics and ‘positive’ Psychology. We only have to cast an eye on the cover of Time magazine (6th June) to understand that optimism science is ‘in fashion’. The wave becomes tsunami as we see the tons of self-help books that have appeared as fungi for the last ten years, promoting a life in which we must be happy.

          So, what in the beginning might have stood for a way out –inspiring us to think positive and live with a smile- ends up establishing a new social demand. A whole new trend of thought regulates positivism. Not feeling happy begins to be wrong. Not thinking positive begins to be socially objectable. Not feeling good all the time seems to show there is something weird with us. Continue reading

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That swan named Natalie Portman…

          Good actors achieve awakening in their audience the same emotions that they know how to convey in the play. In that huge emotional lab called cinema, empathy connects us with the experiences of the character. However, some figures occasionally show up who do not only play their role well but moreover perform in a brilliant manner and dive so deeply in the character that end up living it in full expression. That’s the case of Natalie Portman.

          Members of Hollywood Academy knew very well how to reward Portman’s acting skills. I suspect that as soon as they watched The Black Swan they realized there was nobody else to compare the actress with. She went straight to the nomination and no scales to the statuette. 2011 Oscar was hers from the very first moment. The matter is that Portman is a young and living example of what seduces in the seventh art: an overwhelming emotional display.

          Led by Darren Aronofsky (the same director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream), Portman truly turns into Nina and immerses us in the world of Ballet. In the world of pain, of bruised feet, of competition (“they were trying to eat you alive …”), of subordination, of effort, of the colleagues’ arrogance and the exclusion of ‘the oldest’. Furthermore: the subjugation to vocation, to the theatre company, to a mother that much resembles Carrie’s mom. Only that Carrie of ’76 (inspired in the character by Stephen King) murdered outwards. Nina murders inwards. And also inside of us.

          Nina… sorry, Natalie, lost so much weight to embody pure duality that her face was skinny. She endured the camera just a few inches of her face the whole movie. Colossal. And to leave us speechless, her expressions said it all. Something that Paul Ekman –that psychologist who studied hundreds of facial emotional configurations one by one, tiny muscle by muscle- must surely be jealous of.

          Nina displays such a repertoire of emotions that seldom has it found precedents. She is rich in self-demanding (“I want to be perfect”) and discipline, suffering with half grapefruit breakfasts and exhausting after-hour training sessions. Continue reading

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The Placebo and Nocebo effects

          When scientists perform studies that involve administering substances to patients, the latter are usually divided into groups, one of which is the ‘control group’. Instead of being provided the true chemical or medicine, this one is given a neutral ingredient which has no effects. For instance some pill made of sugar. Of course, individuals are not revealed that they are not being supplied the real substance. This allows controlling the non-specific psychological and social effects of a certain treatment.

          But some people in the control group truly experience benefits and remarkably heal with mere inert pills. This is the famous placebo effect. The matter has always been uncanny for the world of medicine, because those benefited by the placebo may vary between 30% and 60% of the patients. Let’s notice that these heal basically because they believe that they are receiving the original medicine!

          For skeptical medicine, placebo effects are considered in the best case irrelevant. Still… if we approach the issue in a serious manner, research involving placebos provides critical information about how mind, body and culture contribute to heal. We can assume placebo as a very useful tool: evaluating factors that enhance placebo may contribute to a science of healing.

          What does this have to do with emotions, anyway? Continue reading

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“We want to build a machine that will be proud of us”

          That was the motto of the <<Thinking Machines Corporation>> which Daniel Hillis had co-founded in the ’80s decade. At that moment Hillis was carrying out his PhD thesis at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the area of massive parallel computing. A kind of computational processing which is really complex, related to Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). The sentence identifies with humor one of the major ambitions of people who research how to design a machine that can be truly ‘intelligent’.

          Once the joke is over, underneath that humor the ambition is really serious. A.I. as a discipline seeks getting to the bottom of how circuits should be connected in order to treat information in the same way our brain does. The idea of neuro-computing is that, if all our thoughts and feelings are supported on the fact that our neurons manage information, that management could be replicated with another kind of circuitry -not necessarily biological. And as an ultimate goal, scientists could create a machine which would think by itself and would have emotions. Topics of so many movies… From AI by Spielberg to Terminator by Cameron, and even the famous Matrix.

          But the point I want to highlight here is not related to A.I. itself. In fact, modern neuroscientists have identified a whole series of chemical mechanisms that involve neurons and the rest of the body as well (immune and endocrine systems, for instance) which would make insufficient the model that a machine might feel only thanks to managing information through electrical impulses. The point I want to make here rests within the same sentence of the title.

          Sometimes, taking a sentence out of its context allows us to discover what lies behind the intentions and concerns of the person who pronounced it, which does not necessarily have anything to do with the issue in discussion. In this case, I believe the sentence speaks more about a core human motivation than about anything else. Let’s notice that we do not want a machine <<that shows indifference or scorn to us>>. We aim at creating something that admires us, that owes respect to us, that appreciates us. Continue reading

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Two in distress makes sorrow less

          We were four workmates sitting at the table of a coffee shop. Middle morning of a labor day, the place was full of people asking for their thermal cups and taking them away to drink their ‘latte’ and eat some ‘muffin’ (these words are fashionable in Buenos Aires nowadays… when I was a kid we just took coffee-with-milk and biscuits). The flow of people was such that the queue to order and pay stretched almost up to the door, close to which stood our table. The flow of people was also such that turned out to be ideal for thefts of things over the chairs and their backs. And what a coincidence! Exactly theft was what we were victims of.

          When two of us went to the counter to order breakfasts for the whole team, a rascal took advantage of our mates being distracted and took with him the notebooks from over the table. Our colleagues kept looking the other way when we came back and they only realized our computers were gone at the same time we did. I confess I was pretty pissed off to see my laptop was stolen. There was no way to catch anyone: not even in the street were we able to follow any trace. I immediately evaluated all that I had lost together with it and had to moderate my anger towards the ‘distracted’ who had been taken two portable PCs right in their faces. Two instead of one. Come on! We were office pals! Were they unable to pay attention for a miserable couple of minutes? Irritated…

          But, precisely, there had been two thefts. I hadn’t been the only guy. The colleague who had accompanied me to get the coffees had been stolen the notebook too. If I was a fool, at least I was not alone. In fact, I myself expected to be outraged. Really mad. But I was not. OK, I admit I put my mind at ease by thinking that I should have taken responsibility of my own stuff. Anyway, looking back, I believe that the fact I was the victim of 50% of the case must have contributed. It must have given me some kind of comfort…

          Is it logical? Of course not, but emotions do not have a logic. Well, yes, they do. Their own logic, which is not rational. Social psychologists currently demonstrate that our brains keep doing comparative assessments of our situation against the situation of those around us. We compare ourselves in a practically permanent way. We judge who is fatter or thinner than me, who is better or worse dressed tan me, who is more powerful than me and who does better or worse in similar circumstances to mine. And all that mental activity is carried out in a spontaneous manner. Continue reading

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