Christianity was my Life Ring

Life_Preserver_PinI don’t remember learning how to swim. In my early childhood, we had a boat on Lake Erie and I am told that I was in the water since too tiny to comfortably admit in the company of more careful parents. My folks told me that I was first put in a life ring  behind the boat with my Dad swimming next to me. Occasionally, the story continues, I’d slip out and my Dad would put me back on the ring, but eventually I learned to let go intentionally and swam.

Religion has many functions (see my post on Various Religiosity). For me, the function it serve me did not involve looking for salvation, prosperity, escaping my sin, desiring to fill the hole in my heart, escaping drug addiction or violence or any other forsaking any other dark element that Christian conversion stories are full of. My adult conversion was pretty simple — probably like most folks, though they may tell otherwise.

My girlfriend was Christian – she was raised in a very religious Baptist family.  Hell, she was the church organist. It was awkward. My two closest friends were Christian and they had both been bugging me the last year. I was going off to college and uncertain about my future, and leery of leaving girlfriend behind and much more. THEN, I found my best friend dead — (see my post here). The year before I had lost two other friends: one to murder and one to suicide.

Pulling my dead friend’s face off his car seat caused me to embrace Christianity full go, right then and there. I grabbed the religion Life Ring. Only later after some more stability in my life and more insight into religion in general, did I deconvert. I was able to let go of the Life Ring. But before that, I was thankful for what Christianity offered me: a huge support group and a more committed girlfriend (well, for a while).

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Pic credit: Life Ring

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Wagamama Alchemy

Driving today, I was daydreaming about a common phenomena we all have been through, then I came up with my own name for the phenomena: “Wagamama Alchemy”.  But before I explain the term, let me ramble a little bit about the words in the phrase.

Wagamama

Some words/phrases are just more succinct in other languages — and that is why we borrowed them into English. For example, imagine if we didn’t borrow these words:

  • bon appétit [French] — enjoy your meal !
  • faux pas [French] — an embarrassing blunder
  • non sequitur [Latin] — something that is not logically consistent with what came before
  • quid pro quo [Latin] — a favor in return for a favor given
  • Zeitgeist [German] – spirit of a historical period
  • Blitzkrieg [German] – a dedicated fast and ferocious attack
  • chutzpah [Yiddish] – audacious, gutsy nerve
  • kibitz [Yiddish] – unwanted advice in a competition
  • kvetch [Yiddish] – to habitually gripe
  • Juggernaut [Hindi] – an immense, unstable thing or force

Other borrowed words, and we have lots of them, just have a better feel in English than their equivalent single word in English. That is why we have many words in English. See my evolution of English diagram shows the various major inputs to English. Some of these inputs have continued having the exact same meaning as the English word, and others have drifted into having different nuances. Here are some examples:

  • guru [Hindi] – teacher
  • sensei [Japanese] – teacher
  • to loot [Hindi] – to steal
  • thug [Hindi] – thief
  • typhoon [Hindi] – hurricane
  • Schnapps [German] – hard liquor
  • Berserk [Norwegian] – violent
  • ghoul [Arabic] – monster
  • sofa [Arabic] – couch

OK, you get the point. Well, “wagamama” is a word I wished we’d import from Japanese. It simply means “selfish”, but you’ve got to admit, or is it just me, “wagamama” sounds a lot more selfish than “selfish”.

Alchemy

OK, moving on. We all know that Alchemy is “Alchemy” has a sordid etymology:

from Greek: Khemia – “land of black earth” [Egypt] where alchemy was a practiced and/or from to pour.
–>to Arabic: al-kimiya
–>to Latin: alkimia
–>to Old French: alchimie
–>to English: alchemy

Alchemy is a complicated philosophical/religious movement and historically meant to purify, mature and perfect certain objects — with philosophical goals of perfecting the human body and soul, and practical goal (among many) of making panaceas to cure any disease, making an elixir of immortality or changing lesser substances into gold. It is this last goal that is the common meaning nowadays. But in English we also use it to mean, “a process that transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way.”  This is the one I am referring to in the phrase.

Wagamama Alchemy

We are all selfish — this brutish reality is often difficult for us to see behind both our evolved social deceptions and our self-deceptions. But should such connivery lead us to despair.  I say, “No!”.  For indeed part of us does not want to be selfish at times, and maybe, just maybe, with a little magic, a little alchemy, people can combine their selfishness in creative, unexpected ways, flavored the broth with our true giving (even if minuscule), to make a relationship (EN) which resonates into something that transcends two simply combined wagamama individuals and instead yields a new pair of magical oneness — cooperative, synergistic wagamama alchemy.  Such an act is never complete but must be a daily practice.

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Intellectuals Are Freaks

“Intellectuals — a category that includes academics, opinion journalists, and think tank experts — are freaks. ”

I have attended many universities and taught in four (see work background here). I also had a short stint in a political think tank as a researcher. I am not a journalist, of course, but just an opinionated blogger. So, does that make me an “intellectual” — some may say “yes”, but most who know me would laugh and say “no”. I’d certainly rather think that I am not.  Not only do I not have the intelligence to be considered and intellectual but intellectuals have tons of defects that I may have escaped.  Some, though, which I may be subject to.  This article by Michael Lind (from whence I stole the title of this post) make some points which I resonate with. Below I quote a few.  Tell us, do you consider yourself an intellectual? What criticism or suggestions would you have from intellectuals?

  • My point is that people who specialize in the life of ideas tend to be extremely atypical of their societies. They — we — are freaks in a statistical sense. For generations, populists of various kinds have argued that intellectuals are unworldly individuals out of touch with the experiences and values of most of their fellow citizens.
  • Whether they are professors, journalists, or technocratic experts, contemporary intellectuals are unlikely to live and work in the places where they are born. In contrast, the average American lives about 18 miles from his or her mother. Like college education, geographic mobility in the service of personal career ambitions is common only within a highly atypical social and economic elite.
  • In their lifestyles, too, intellectuals tend to be unusually individualistic, by the standards of the larger society.
  • The fact that we members of the intellectual professions are quite atypical of the societies in which we live tends to distort our judgment, when we forget that we belong to a tiny and rather bizarre minority. [I know my judgement is distorted]
  • I was the guest of honor at an Ivy League law school dinner some years ago, when, in response to my question, the academics present — U.S. citizens, except for one — unanimously said they did not consider themselves American patriots, but rather “citizens of the world.” [I too feel this way]
  • The social isolation of intellectuals, I think, is worsened by their concentration in a few big metro areas close to individual and institutional donors like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. (where I live) or in equally atypical college towns. [True. But outside of those towns, we stand out as just odd.]
  • it might not hurt if every professor, opinion journalist, and foundation expert, as a condition of career advancement, had to spend a year or two working in a shopping mall, hotel, hospital, or warehouse. Our out-of-touch intelligentsia might learn some lessons that cannot be obtained from books and seminars alone.[Agree, because unlike many intellectuals, I have done these things, and since realized school does not make smart and that the smart folks can be the most stupid folks — self-deluded.]

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The Bilingual Brain: Curse or Blessing

“Around the world, more than half of people – estimates vary from 60 to 75 per cent – speak at least two languages.” And that reminds me of a joke:

Do you know what you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. How about a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And do you know what we call a person who speaks only one language? An American.

In my part of America, the vast majority of the people I know are monolingual. No fault of their own, of course, this country [the Northern half, at least] is largely a linguistic island.

Nonetheless, having been somewhat bilingual in Japanese (even if years ago), I often feel a large difference when relating to monolinguists. Often I feel the blessing of richness another language offers me, but at other times, thinking in another language estranges me from normal monolinguists.

Oh to be normal, to feel what the crowd feels.

I don’t want to get lost trying to define “bilingual”, but whatever it is, it certainly is not even close to what any American High School or even college student gets after studying four years of a language. Instead, if a second language possess you, competing with your mother tongue for thought space, dreams and feelings, then you are in the bilingual realm.

In this  fun Mosaic Science article , from which my first quote was taken, Gaia Vince explains why monolinguists and bi/multilinguists experience their worlds differently. As an enticer, below are a few quotes, which I organized into three sections.  I also added my comments in brackets. After reading, if you are bilingual, tell us your experience. When is bilingualism a blessing or a curse for you?

1. Our Brains built to be Bilingual

  • We can get some sense of how prevalent multilingualism may have been from the few hunter-gatherer peoples who survive today. “If you look at modern hunter-gatherers, they are almost all multilingual,” says Thomas Bak, a cognitive neurologist who studies the science of languages at the University of Edinburgh. “The rule is that one mustn’t marry anyone in the same tribe or clan to have a child – it’s taboo. So every single child’s mum and dad speak a different language.”
  • Our Brains are built to be multilingual.
  • In Aboriginal Australia, where more than 130 indigenous languages are still spoken, multilingualism is part of the landscape.

2. We taste the world differently using another Language because it is soaked in culture.

  • Being so bound up with identity, language is also deeply political. [For this reason, history is replete with stories of languages being banned.  We are blind to our identity preferences. So language is like religion, tied to identity. Really, the thing is, the a large part of our minds, our selves, is always grabbing after identity.]
  • Ask me in English what my favourite food is, and I will picture myself in London choosing from the options I enjoy there. But ask me in French, and I transport myself to Paris, where the options I’ll choose from are different. So the same deeply personal question gets a different answer depending on the language in which you’re asking me. This idea that you gain a new personality with every language you speak, that you act differently when speaking different languages, is a profound one.
  • [The -ing grammar in English] makes English speakers much less likely than German speakers to assign a goal to an action when describing an ambiguous scene. [In Japanese, the pronoun if often excluded in sentences, making it much more vague than English. Americans, who whose Japanese is weak, pepper their sentences with ugly, direct, loud pronouns [or so a Japanese speaker would perceive it.]

3. Bilingual Brain are different from Monolingual Brains

  • These different mindsets are continually in conflict , however, as bilingual brains sort out which language to use.
  • To choose between languages, the ACC in the frontal cortex must be strong, The consequence in bilinguals is shown by ”
    A steady stream of studies over the past decade has shown that bilinguals outperform monolinguals in a range of cognitive and social tasks from verbal and nonverbal tests to how well they can read other people. Greater empathy is thought to be because bilinguals are better at blocking out their own feelings and beliefs in order to concentrate on the other person’s.”
  • In fact, says cognitive neuropsychologist Jubin Abutalebi, at the University of San Raffaele in Milan, it is possible to distinguish bilingual people from monolinguals simply by looking at scans of their brains. “Bilingual people have significantly more grey matter than monolinguals in their anterior cingulate cortex [ACC], and that is because they are using it so much more often,” he says.
  • [With this added ACC], bilingualism seems to protect against dementia.  The bilinguals showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s some four to five years after monolinguals with the same disease pathology,
  • However, it is no good simply to have learned a little French at school. The effect depends on how often you use your bilingual skill.
  • Bilingualism can also offer protection after brain injury.

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Seeing Shapes as Ideas

In part of my post called “Meta-Thought“, I share how images of WeiQi patterns often pop into my mind when I am talking to people.  Not because I am daydreaming, but because my brain is actually translating the ideas of our conversation into shapes and puzzles from the game of WeiQi.

Alissa Greenberg, in her article What’s It Like to See Ideas as Shapes? (The Atlantic) tells the story of a synesthete who sees ideas as shapes. My story is far less bizarre than his, but I wonder if perhaps we all experience synesthesia, albeit some more that others.  In my post called The Mountains Breathe, I speak of another common somewhat synesthesia experience I have.

Below are a few quotes from Greenberg’s article to perhaps entice you to give it a quick read:

  • synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that has long been defined as the co-activation of two or more conventionally unrelated senses.
  • Jackson sees his thoughts as shapes. Every person he meets, every sentence he reads, and every decision he makes are presented as data points on a kind of continuously moving mental scatter plot, creating figures he compares to constellations.
  • When he makes a choice, his gut feelings are visually laid out in front of him.
  • A native Californian, Jackson went east to Massachusetts for college—that’s where he met Linscott. From there, he moved to Princeton to study the cognitive science of religion, examining the ways the human mind acquires and shares religious belief. “I wanted to understand how other people thought,” he says.
  • Our ideas and our senses are inextricably linked, he says, and that means (at least in the case of synesthesia) that one can’t exist without the other.

 

 

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Three Articles Struck Home

In the last two week, I have read three articles that really stuck home.  This articles are not about politics, hobbies, travel, food or literature — but simply about how some minds works. All three articles illustrate how parts of my mind are colored. In the next three posts, I will share a few notes from three articles. But for now, here are the articles:

  1. What’s It Like to See Ideas as Shapes? (by Alissa Greenberg: The Atlantic) [my post]
  2. Intellectuals are Freaks (by Michael Lind: The Smartest Set)[my post]
  3. Why being bilingual helps keep your brain fit (Gaia Vince: Mosaic)[my post]

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Brain Governance Metaphors

brain_gov
Metaphors! Metaphors communicate quickly and efficiently, yet they are prone to all sorts of errors. But given the lacks of facts about any given topic, and the limitations of brain power we have to hold together the complex relationships between those facts we do have, there are often no literal explanations (if, “literal” can really be thought of as the opposite of “metaphor”), that can substitute pleasingly enough for a metaphor, and thus, we are stuck with metaphors. Metaphors!

With that intro, what metaphor is best for how our minds work? Using models of government is one approach. William James (1890) felt we had a dictatorial neuron (“pontifical cell”) that ruled our consciousness. But in 1941 a physiologist, Charles Sherrington argued against a dictatorship and instead for a democracy of nerves: “a million-fold democracy whose each unit is a cell.”

Biology professor Ari Berkowitzis and director of the Cellular & Behavioral Neurobiology Graduate Program at the University of Oklahoma wrote a fun article for Scientific American exploring various neural government metaphors. My diagram above shows three models he discusses and the neural examples he state fall in each model.

Berkowitzis tells us that crickets and crayfish have pontifical cells (giant single spike neurons) — these cells are dictators and await no other cell’s input before making the organism react.  But those organisms also have back-up oligarchy (small set of neurons) which act more slowly but ready to help when needed. The human brain uses neuronal oligarchies to recognize human faces.

As for democracies, most neural systems sum together the input of huge groups of neurons, weighing them in various ways and sum or average the input for a final output.  This is a slow but more accurate method of analysis.

But no one system rules. It seems we can simultaneously have many different forms of neural government working simultaneously. Read this fine article if your are interested in a more careful discussion.

Here at Triangulations I use the many-selves model of consciousness, which can accommodate these many governmental models.  For at any time, among our many-selves, is could be a dictator, or an oligarchy or the summation of democratic input that determines any given particular behavior.  I’d say that the truth is too complex for any metaphor, but that is always what we’ll end up with — a metaphor. So my suggestion, keep your mind full of many metaphors for the same issue.

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