Psych-Out :: by michael joseph lmsw


thoughts on the erotic

July 3rd, 2011

Her seven button
Three undone.

Jeffrey Winke, Coquette (a collection of sensual Haiku)

The erotic is the arousal of our sexual sense through the slowing of attention. The erotic is sexuality, not sex. The erotic refuses to rush past. It rebels against compartmentalizing sexuality to sex, or the bedroom, or erections and orgasms. It slows us down, takes notice, can happen beneath the covers, in a crowded restaurant, cooking a meal, or over a game of chess.

The erotic pays attention. It notices a fold, a texture, a scent, a nuanced gesture with a wink of delight. The erotic is neither the whip nor the whisper, but the lingering of attention to how either, or both, strikes the senses.

Stop the rush of time to notice that peach’s texture as you take your first bite…

…and the feel of a pair of fresh nylons slipping up over your legs…

…and how her hands work the knife when slicing a fresh vegetable.

Lean in and whisper to your spouse, lover, or friend when it would be just as easy to speak in your normal voice. Lay in bed before your morning shower, attuning yourself to the sparrow, neighbor’s voice, and that passing car. And when you finally step into that shower, notice where skin-pleasure inclines you to let the water fall.

The erotic requires no end other than drawing a moment out with a sensory detail. The erotic can see the universe in a grain of sand and satisfy a craving for love through the subtle touch of the hand. “We are obsessed with an insatiable appetite for ever more vivid sensations,” Isabel Allende writes in her book Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. “…a subtle caress, the pleasure of skin against skin, or of sharing a peach is not enough anymore.”

The erotic is our body electric carefully listening, touching, tasting, smelling – stopping time and refusing to not take notice.


Kerouac: “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose”

May 2nd, 2010
Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

List of Essentials by Jack Kerouac

1.  Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

2.  Submissive to everything, open, listening

3.  Try never get drunk outside your own house

4.  Be in love with yr life

5.  Something that you feel will find its own form

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock

6.  Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind

7.  Blow as deep as you want to blow

8.  Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind

9.  The unspeakable visions of the individual

Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q

Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q

10.  No time for poetry but exactly what is

11.  Visionary tics shivering in the chest

12.  In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you

13.  Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition

14.  Like Proust be an old teahead of time

15.  Telling the true story of the world in  interior monolog

16.  The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye

Pollock, untitled

17.  Write in recollection and amazement for yourself

18.  Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea

19.  Accept loss forever

20.  Believe in the holy contour of life

21.  Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind

22.  Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better

23.  Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning

24.  No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

“Dear Mama”  Tupac Shakur

25.  Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

26.  bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form

27.  In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness

28.  Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

29.  You’re a Genius all the time

30.  Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

By Jack Kerouac, “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose”

Death in the Afternoon

March 7th, 2009

“A querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring… It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home.  It does not show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on.Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway

We all have a beast within, a bull to kill…whether it be a habit, a troublesome attachment, a pattern of thought, a sorrow, an addiction, a mood, a fixation, a fear, or something that brings us to rage.

Know that bull.  Study where it’s taken its place of refuge.  That place in your life where it burrows in.  It could be in a bottle of scotch.  It could be a room in the house, a chair, your garage, or even in front of your TV or computer screen.

…in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.

It could be a state of mind, or that way in which you address your lover, kids, husband, or wife.  It could be a place in your imagination where you return again and again to relive a conversation, an encounter, or a past or future dread.  It could be a thought, or a cherished belief.

“The bull may take up his querencia in a place where a horse has been killed in a previous fight, where he smells the blood;  a place where he has tossed a bullfighter, or any part of the ring for no apparent reason at all;  simply because he feels at home there.”

In that place, your bull will be confident, brave, and secure.  When you, or anyone else, attempts to challenge it there, you may feel its stubborn refusal in your brooding, or snapping, or numbing, or anger, depression, anxiety, or irritation.  The bull has lifted its horns for the goring.  Pity the poor loved one who tries to step toward it there.

Like a great matador, we need bring the beast out from it’s place of safety.  After a long day’s work, refuse to let it establish its place in your ring.  Risk making it uncomfortable.

“The bull must be brought out;  but he is gone completely on the defensive and will not respond to the cape and will cut at them with his horns, refusing altogether to charge.”

Step away from that computer.  Change your tone of voice.  Refuse to spend the night brooding in that chair.  Reach for that novel you’ve wanted to read, instead of the TV remote.  Pull out that bike, camera or drawing pad, instead of cracking open that beer, marijuana, or bottle of Xanax.  Kiss your partner, instead of barking out that complaint.  (Or stamp your feet and yell, instead of that half-hearted kiss, if that’s where the bull chooses to live.)  Go to that movie by yourself, instead of waiting by the phone.  Cook that delicious meal, instead of another night of pizza or take-out chinese.

That pint of ice cream you seem ever destined to eat?  Look it square in the eyes, then show it your cape.  Weekends get you down?  Drink too much?  Take a canoe trip, instead of burrowing in and letting that bull raise its surly horns through your boredom, or list of domestic chores.

“…a bull who knows how to use his horns and who cannot be made to leave his querencia is as dangerous for the man to come within range of as a rattlesnake….”

Be brave.  Be clever.  Change it up.  Break routine.  Coax it out.  If just for an afternoon, flash your cape, and by surprise, slay the fear that owns you.   Olé!


Death In Afternoon, Ernest Hermingway.  p150-151

Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.

January 24th, 2009

Tune in. Turn on. Drop out. This slogan was uttered by Timothy Leary to 30,000 hippies in Golden State Park. It was 1967 — prelude to the Summer of Love. Hippie culture and the language of psychedelia broke from our television sets right into our suburban living rooms.

The Age of Aquarius has given way to the Age of Silicon. Where once LSD and psilocybin churned the neural circuitry of a few hippie brains, now my entire species is being doused by the continuous humming, buzzing and bleeping of pockets, purses, and hip-holsters alive with electronic gadgetry. Cellphone? Check. Blackberry? Check. I-pod? You betcha!

Plug in, turn up, and tune out suburbia. And suburbia is everywhere.

Now, I’m not a Luddite grinding my axe in anticipation of some anti-technology uprising. But something is unsettling about all this bleeping. As a psychotherapist, I’ve noticed a drastic rise in psychological troubles tied directly to the hows, whens, and whys of technology usage. Whether it be cyber-gaming, cyber-love, endless interruptions of one’s personal life by e-mail, cellphones and text messages, people feel their flesh-and-blood lives have indeed been broken into. One personal friend of mine counted with horror that he’d spent the equivalent of a full seven months out of his year locked inside that 3 by 4 foot space around his computer screen. (And that didn’t include work hours!)

Who needs LSD? We have Youtube.

Age of Aquarius, from electronica

It was Marshall McLuhan who taught us how the form of a medium, more than its content, alters our senses. All of this electric circuitry plugged into our ears and before our eyes has morphed into an extension of our central nervous systems – a kind of technological skin we can now wear to restaurants. We even live our lives and conduct our relationships inside of these gadgets.

How many times have I tried to leave my cell phone at home, or not check my e-mail for the umpteenth time, or avoid plugging into one of the many technological contraptions that I keep around for my comfort and entertainment, only to find myself feeling as if tweaked by a phantom limb. Try it. Notice how long before the panic sets in.

I braced myself. I committed. My cellphone would remain on SILENT. No walking, nor driving when using it – and away from public. I’d portion my e-mail to twice a day. And watch that internet surfing! For the first 36 hours I went through something I can only characterize as withdrawal – anxiety, restlessness, emotional hand-wringing. But once I slipped free from the urgings of my technological skin to graft itself back in, low and behold, it’s as if I’d awakened to my real skin. I came to an eerie sensation that I’d come back into my body.

Beam me back down, Scottie.

Timothy Leary’s slogan didn’t really mean that we should drop out of the world and do a lot of drugs. His urging was that we do what it takes to open our minds to everything in and around us.

Tune in — interact with the world. Externalize, look around.

Turn on — activate your neural and genetic equipment. Access the layers of consciousness that are available by virtue of your human wiring.

Drop out — free yourself from all those unconscious and involuntary commitments not of your choosing. Amen!

We humans evolved over a span of a few million years hunting and gathering within wide-opened African savannas. Our senses evolved to respond to a simpler, yet more physically demanding pleistocene world. We’ve plugged ourselves into all of these comfort-gadgets for only a microsecond in relative time. Our genetic wiring has not adjusted. It’s making us all a little crazy.

Still, technology is not a devil I’ll ever want to exorcise completely, even if I could. These layers of technological devices are woven intricately into my day to day, and I must admit their benefits. No, this is a devil with whom I’ll have to dance. I’ve grown too accustomed to writing on a computer to ever go back.

Besides, where would I stop if gripped by some whack-brained effort to extricate myself completely? The manual typewriter? The quill? Chisel and stone? And how I still love surfing YouTube, and the intimacy of my I-pod where I can saunter down the street shuffling from Sinatra, to Talib Kwali, to Zepplin and Incubus. As for the cell-phone, nothing frees me up more when I need to touch base with my kids or confirm whether it’s chicken breast “with or without the bone.” It’s time for a strategy — for hard fought middle ground.

Marshall McLuhan reminded, “there is no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” For me I need stop and think at every point when I have that urge to plug in. It’s to be my new norm, not an exception — to live more hours unplugged than plugged so I not forget the play of the flesh and blood world upon my senses.

What’s that? It’s a real voice. A real set of eyes. A real person un-mediated by some byte of technological wizardry. Everyday I remind myself with this reworked mantra from the Summer of Love, “tune in, turn on, and drop out.”

Face-to-face eye-gazingRemember that?

So when that cell phone rings or that e-mail flags demanding some immediate response? “Sorry, man – you’ll have to improvise. I’m unplugged, right now.”


December 25th, 2008

rock climber

“Improvisation is based on building from what is already given, accepting it, and taking it one step further,” writes comedian Andy Goldberg. One of the first rules of improvisation, any improvisation, DON’T DENY. Accept what’s been established. In improvisational comedy, denial is “refusing to give up a preconceived notion of what is going to happen next in a scene.”(1)

Denial stops action. Denial is our refusal to accept the unfolding moment.

Saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker never stopped mid-riff if he didn’t take to a particular chord. His saxophone flourishes wove themselves throughout whatever augmented 7th or diminished 9th flashed his way. Another bird, basketball legend Larry Bird, never stopped action mid-game to complain, “I don’t like the way you’re defending me!” Whatever the defenses threw against him, he found a way.

Both birds were great improvisers. They excelled at playing the moment. Playing the moment is the second golden rule of good improvising. Every action builds from the previous one. Each response leads to the next. Goldberg writes, “You can’t be so busy thinking about what you are going to say or do next that you miss what is going on.”

Keith Johnstone, another master of comedic improvisation writes, “Good improvisers seem telepathic; everything looks pre-arranged.” Why? Because good improvisers accept all offers. (2)

Great improvisers are great listeners. Their senses are ever alert to what’s in front of them. A basketball player scans, a chef smells and tastes, a musician hears. Great improvisers don’t deny what’s in front of them. They don’t resist it. They don’t sit back brooding and wishing things were different. “Bring it on!” is their mantra.

Rock climbing pioneer Arno Ilgner talks about “hoping” and “wishing” as passive mental states that bleed off our capacity to respond in the immediate. (3) When on a difficult part of a climb it’s useless to escape into wishing that a particular hand or foot hold be different. You still have to push past. (See Lynn Hill climbing video below.) Yet, it’s a trap into which we all can fall. How often do we sit fixated on a past conversation, or replaying a long gone moment, or wishing that we weren’t in the spot we were in and that things will somehow magically turn out differently?

Rock Climber, Lynn Hill

Survival expert and trainer John Wiseman knows a thing or two about improvising. “When facing a disaster it is easy to let yourself go, to collapse and be consumed in self-pity,” he writes. “But it is no use giving up or burying your head in the sand and hoping that this is a bad dream that will soon pass.”  (See PsychOut post entitled Shame.) Stay confident. Accept your circumstance. Use everything in front of you to the fullest. (4)

In life, we all find ourselves in tough spots or in new and unfamiliar circumstances. When there, don’t deny. Accept the moment. Keep your senses engaged. Take what’s given. Think of the two Birds. Improvise!

1) Goldberg, Andy. Improv Comedy. Hollywood: Samuel French Trade, 1991.
2) Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1979.
3) Ilgner, Arno. The Rock Warrior’s Way. La Vergne, TN: Desiderata Institute, 2003.
4) Wiseman, John “Lofty. SAS Survival Handbook. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

To my son after sitting the bench an entire game…

December 14th, 2008

Dear Son –

I often spend my evenings writing.  Well, while writing, I found myself thinking about your first game experience with the JV team tonight.   One of the strongest mental qualities anyone can cultivate is learning how to turn a disappointment into an advantage.  It’s part of what I call resilience – resilience meaning the ability to recover quickly after difficult circumstances.  If fed and nurtured it will take you far in life.

I know those feelings of heartbreak, anger and embarrassment when you sit the bench the entire game.   It’s a good thing to let yourself feel those feelings.  Don’t block them out.  Use their burn to feed that hunger you have to be out there on that court.  Playing hungry motivates, encourages risk, boldness, and strength of spirit.

Hungry players make things happen for themselves and their teammates.  Harry Sheehy — the once basketball coach and now athletic director of Williams College — wrote that every player should have the experience of working their tails off for a whole season while having to sit the bench.   It creates mental toughness, a strong work ethic, along with humility and respect for the game.

Those who are given their chances easily, without having to work hard for them, are those who will have a harder time later in life when facing challenges, obstacles and setbacks that require hard work and perseverance.   You’re learning what it is to bust your butt with no guarantee of succeeding, but are choosing to do it anyway.  It’s a quality to admire and that will take you far.

Watch Mugsy Bogues, 5’3″ NBA player (warning: uncensored strong language)

It’s no lie, as a small guard you will have to work three times harder, play three times smarter, and be three times tougher than everyone else out there.  So be it! Keep at it, challenge yourself, challenge your teammates, hone every aspect of your game in the secret of the practice court — away from the fans, your friends, and the public eye.  When your opportunity comes you will be ready.  (And it will come.  It’s only the first game of a very long season.)

There have been many times in life I’ve had my back against the wall, or I’ve faced setback, embarrassment, or disappointment.  It’s the lessons I’d learned facing these moments in my sports life from which I’ve drawn to pull me through.

Phil Jackson, the former coach of the Bulls, and now coach of the Lakers once said, “There’s more to life than basketball, and there’s more to basketball than basketball.”  If you never a play a minute the whole season (which won’t happen), yet keep pushing yourself just the same, you’ll learn life lessons that will take you far beyond the high school basketball court.


He Got Game, Public Enemy

I’m Certain!

November 3rd, 2008

“…the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”    Leo Tolstoy.

Life besets us with gambles.  Do I invest in stocks or stash my money under the mattress? Do I leave my job for more money now, or wait it out for that promotion? Is it Obama, or McCain? Yet, choose we must. And, it always feels better coming to the table knowing that our choice is absolutely the right one.

Our feeling of certainty is seldom the result of logical analysis.  In reality, it’s an involuntary mental sensation firing off deeply in our brain’s circuitry.  First, we think a thought.  Then, we make an involuntary assessment of the accuracy of that thought.  When that assessment lights up our reward circuitry, we glow beneath that hot, intoxicating feeling “I am right!”

Archimeses shouting, "Eureka!"

Archimedes shouting, "Eureka!"

Our perceptual circuitry has evolved to reinforce our conclusions, whether or not the information we receive is convincing. During elections, how many of us actually go seek out information against our pet candidate, party, or issue.   In fact, if you’re honest with yourself, you might have to agree that any thought of doing just that is met inside your head with a resounding “No!”

Research has shown that we determine whether something is good or bad within a quarter of a second.  The rest is mental fine tuning.  Once that evaluation is made, we are primed to seek out evidence upholding that initial evaluation and avoid, or spin, information that contradicts it.  First impressions are highly weighted in our perceptual system, and thus powerful cues to the formation and sustaining of our beliefs.

Ask a subject to evaluate a person’s happiness, or sociability, or likeability on the basis of a list of adjectives describing him.  Envious.  Stubborn.  Critical.  Industrious.  Talkative.  Intelligent. If the list is given in the above order, the subjects will rate the person negatively.  Reverse the order — same words, same person — the subjects will rate the person positively (Myers, 2007).

Our brains have evolved in favor of rapid evaluation about the world around us.  First impressions bring us to certainty most quickly.  In low complexity, high danger situation, it’s highly adaptive to go with “gut instinct.”  We give up accuracy, yet gain in our capacity to leap quickly into action. In more complex situations, especially ones where we have more time to think, this mental tendency leaves us vulnerable to prejudice, premature judgment, and possibly costly error.

If you want to be truly fair in your evaluation of a circumstance and you’re not running from a saber-tooth tiger:  question your initial perceptions;  spend time looking for evidence that you are wrong;  in forming an impression of a person (or object) try to break your judgment down into his (or its) separate qualities without letting any strikingly good or bad first impression influence your opinion about the remainder; and,  practice suspending judgment, especially in light of that great feeling of “I know I’m right!”

Finally, beware of people who claim absolute certainty on matters where certainty is impossible.  As neurologist and “certainty” researcher Robert Burton suggests, “Intuitions, gut feelings and hunches are neither right nor wrong but tentative ideas that must then be submitted to testing. If such testing isn’t possible (such as in deciding whether or not to pull out of Iraq), then we must accept that any absolute stance is merely a personal vision, not a statement of fact.”

Rummy’s “Theory of Knowing.”


Lehrer, J. (2008). The Certainty Bias: A Potentially Dangerous mental Flaw. Scientific American.

Mlodinow, L. (2008). The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives. New York: Pantheon Books.

Myers, D. G. (2007). The Powers and Perils of Intuition. Scientific American Mind, Vol. 18, No. 3, 24-31.

Smells like teen spirit

October 19th, 2008

Okay, so my son sags his pants. When I was 15, the hem of my raggedy bell-bottoms dragged under my shoes. A dozen fights with horrified mom and dad. A dozen garbage rescues. In all primate species — whether we’re talking about humans, baboons, or macaques– the young are most likely to have the accident doing some foolhardy thing, while their elders shake their heads and cluck “I told you so.”

Ahhhh…those foolhardy skater dudes!

And yet, it’s the young who often push the world forward. Alexander the Great founded his first colony at the age of 16. Joan of Arc led the French army before the age of 20. The Beatles were 17 year old kids when they took the world by storm in 1960 and changed the sound of pop music forever.

1960 Beatles — and we’d never be the same

Something new? It’s not mom and pop who embrace it. It’s the same with all primates. When japanese snow monkeys discovered washing food in seawater, it was the youngsters who picked up the practice. The old folks looked on dumbfounded, if they looked on at all. Have a computer problem? Who would you trust more, the retired accountant across the road, or your 14 year old saggy panted son?

Snow Monkey at play

Snow Monkey at play

Some researchers point to the prefrontal cortex, which has been shown to be not yet fully formed in the teen brain. As a result, teens may find it difficult to override certain impulses in face of logic. Researcher Robert Epstein says not so fast. Correlation does not mean causation. According to him, the idea of a teen brain different from an adult brain is “a hoax, pushed to some extent by drug companies who are funding research.” Research in mental functioning has shown that teens are as competent as adults across a wide range of abilities. Studies of intelligence, perceptual abilities and memory function show that teens, in fact, are in many instances far superior to adults.

Paul Anka croons Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”??

One thing for sure, all social primates have evolved a tendency for its youngsters to take off into the wilds and leave the safety of their own group. In chimps it would be the girls. In the Old World monkeys, like baboons, it’s the boys. According to neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, “It’s a simple fact driven by genetics and evolution: if everyone stayed on, matured, and reproduced there, and if their kids stayed on, and their kids’ kids too, then ultimately everyone would be pretty closely related.” (Sapolsky p. 78) Genetically, not a good idea.

Still, what’s going on in our primate genes, hormones, and neurotransmitters to make us hit the road? Why would we risk predators, disease, and loneliness? Animals hate novelty. And according to basic behaviorist theories, we tend to do things for which we are rewarded and tend to avoid things for which we get punished. And it’s not that we primates are pushed out. We choose it!

“We don’t know,” Sapolsky admits. “But we do know that following this urge is one of the most resonantly primate of acts. A young male baboon stands riveted at the river’s edge…To hell with logic and sensible behavior, to hell with tradition and respecting your elders, to hell with this drab little town, and to hell with that knot of fear in my stomach.”

Extreme bikers raising the hair on the back of your neck.

So, next time you see a teen with his jeans sagged down to his knees and grinding his skateboard down a handrail, smile and recognize that it’s his version of setting out into the open savanna. He’s following a deep seated urge as old as the hills and programmed somewhere deeply in his other set of genes.

Skateboarder Rodney Mullens — sagged pants and all

“Smells like Teen Spirit” Take 2 — String Quartet Tribute


Epstein, Robert. “The Myth of the Teen Brain,” Scientific American Mind Vol. 18, No. 2 (2007): 57-63.

Sabbagh, Leslie. “The Teen Brain, Hard At Work,” Scientific American Mind Vol. 17, No. 4 (2006): 21-25.

Sapolsky, Robert M. The Trouble With Testosterone. New York: Touchstone, 1998.

The Cobra and the Mongoose: psychics, mindreaders and rogue magicians

October 1st, 2008

Tarot. Astrology. Mind-reading. Channeling. Make these claims to a magician, and be prepared to dodge his bite. In the magician’s world, psychics are at worst liars, cheats, and swindlers who prey on people’s pain. At best, they are self-deceived charlatans — highly intuitive, perhaps –but gullible to their own trickery. (Watch accompanying videos as much for their entertainment value.)

Illusionist Chriss Angel takes on paranormalist James Callahan. (See James Callahan’s full performance by pressing here.)

The fight is as bitter as that between mongoose and cobra. If you’re a psychic in the company of a magician be prepared for the challenge – “dare to show me your psychic gift and I’ll dare to expose the man behind your curtain.” From Houdini’s challenge to famed spiritualist Mina Crandon, to the Amazing Randi dogging psychic healer Doris Collins. Through misdirection, switching, hypnosis, cold reading, and other forms of trickery, contemporary magicians and illusionists such as Penn & Teller, Chriss Angel, David Blaine, and Derren Brown can make a skeptic out of the most die-hard believer.

Mentalist Derren Brown demonstrates “cold reading” technique (click twice for youtube video)

We are most vulnerable when we are in pain. We will turn anywhere for comfort. Sometimes in spite of ourselves, we will choose to believe the comforting wish, over a crueler truth. The shadow side to our capacity to imagine is that we are prey to illusions and unsubstantiated beliefs. A case can be made, albeit an arguable one, that it’s these very illusions that help us endure through troubled, uncertain times, and sometimes to keep us pushing forward when the odds are clearly against us.

David Blaine turns coffee to money. Better than water to wine?

What we perceive about the world doesn’t have to be accurate, only “good enough.” Good enough so we can feed ourselves, protect ourselves, and mate. Throughout two million years of evolutionary history, survival depended on quick judgments. We sacrificed accuracy for reactions that increased the odds we’d not only save our own skins, but also feel better inside our skins when times were hard, cold, and cruel. It’s better to be wrong and safe, mated, fed, certain, and un-alone, than to strive for accuracy and end up dead.

rotating snake illusion

rotating snake illusion

Sight is powerful to belief, even if what we see isn’t exactly what’s before us. (See some interesting optical illusions.) We don’t always see what’s there, but what we expect to see. Or, we tell ourselves a good story that confirms what we most hope, or most fear.

Moreover, we are not prone to being skeptics about our own beliefs. We are given to snap judgments. We are bad at estimating probabilities. We fail to understand that mysterious coincidences are far more likely than we want to believe. (Did you know that in a room or office of 23 people there’s a 50-50 chance that two of those people will share the same birthday?) We look only to confirm that which we want to believe, not seek the evidence against. One of the hardest things in the world for our minds to do is to look for information that disproves the stories and beliefs from which we draw comfort and strength.

James Randi and psychic Maureen Flynn

The psychic upholds our need for comfort in the thought that there’s a place beyond this world and, indeed, we are not alone. The magician will bring doubt to our beliefs in ghosts, spirits, reading the future in the stars, and then show you the trick — “Anything they can do, I can do and better.” Theirs is a complex, illusory reality filled with trickery, misdirection, and disguises. “Face it,” they seem to say, “you are on your own.”

Penn & Teller’s 7 basic principles of magic

The magician’s challenge is as much toward you and me. Be skeptical of what you see. Look for the man behind the curtain. If you see hoof prints think first of horses, even if you’ve come to believe that unicorns do, in fact, exist. (1)

Astrology? Watch at your own risk. (Click twice for youtube video)

1) Cognitive scientists and visual neuroscientists are now utilizing magicians and their tricks to study such phenomena as visual tracking, attention, and awareness. Stephen Macknik, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, and Susana Martinez-Conde, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience, are working with magicians James Randi (The Amazing Randi), Teller (of Penn & Teller), Apollo Robbins, Mac King and John Thomson (The Great Tomsoni).

Seeing is tasting…

September 23rd, 2008

What is life? An illusion,
a shadow, a fiction
For all of life is a dream
And dreams? dreams are dreams
(Calderón de la Barca)

“Food, like eroticism, starts with the eyes…” writes Isabel Allende. Before that first morsel hits our taste buds, they’re primed by what we see. (Doesn’t your mouth start to pucker when staring at the photograph above?) In turn, what we see sets up a cascade of thought, belief, and memory. Our cognition frames our sensations. We taste not only that little morsel rolling across our tongue, but everything we’ve come to expect from that first bite. As the great chef Auguste Escoffier said, “Even horsemeat can be delicious when one is in the right circumstances to appreciate it.”

Fredéréc Brochet of the University of Bordeaux took two middling Bordeaux wines and served it to over 50 wine experts in two different bottles. One bottle was labeled Grand Cru — one of the highest levels of wine classification. The other bottle was labeled as an ordinary table wine. Although the wines were the exact same, 40 of the experts rated the wine designated Grand Cru as highly favorable, calling it “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded.” The other? “Weak, short, flat, faulty.” Only 12 of the experts said the wine designated as an ordinary table wine was worth drinking at all.

Studies of this kind are numerous. A little sprig of parsley added to a food company’s logo (Hormel Foods), the shape of a bottle (Christian Brothers Brandy), adding yellow die to change a margarine from white to yellow and adding a crown to it’s logo (Imperial Margarine), have all been shown to have powerful effects on how those tastes hit our taste buds. When Seven-up added 15% yellow to the green on its can (without changing the flavor a drop), there was a public uproar that the company added more lemon to their favorite drink!

In a recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association subjects were told they would be testing out a brand new pain killer. They were first given a small electric shock, and then given a placebo pill that they were told would ease the discomfort. Half were told the little sugar pill cost $2.50 a pill, the other half that the same pill cost 10¢. 85% of the $2.50 group said the pill reduced the pain, while only 61% of the 10¢ group said so. (Of course, the fact that so many found relief in the first place is startling in and of itself!) In essence, not only do we come to value more those things we perceive to be more expensive, we actually experience them as better.

Our entire library of memories, beliefs, expectations, and desires guide how and what our senses pick up from the world. Is it that our senses are fooled, or are they actually shaped by what our experience brings? To most, a seared steak seems juicier and more flavorful, even though the searing actually dries out the meat. What we in fact are experiencing is the saliva from our own mouths triggered in expectation of that juicy piece of meat hitting our tongues!

Our brain has been wired by the forces of natural selection to believe and trust its own impressions, often even in spite of information to the contrary. Biases feel like facts, expectations are indistinguishable from sensations. For better and for worse, we are wired to experience what we expect, and then believe it without question. The philosopher Donald Davidson wrote, “Without our subjectivity we could never decipher our sensations, and without our sensations we would have nothing about which to be subjective.”

In the simpler, yet more dangerous, black and white world of our evolutionary ancestors, the strategy of “trust your senses” worked good enough to get us through. The shadow side is that what we sense, and often act upon, far too easily fall prey to illusions set in play, and often outside of our conscious awareness, by our very own hopes, fears, wants, and expectations. (Watch subliminal advertisement demonstration by mentalist and magician Derren Brown below!)


Suggested readings

Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Allende, Isabel. Aphrodite: a Memoir of the Senses. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. (A beautiful book on food and eroticism, with great recipes to enliven the senses!)

Gladwell, Malcom. Blink. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2005.

Lehrer, Jonah. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. New York: Houghton Miffin, 2007 (Section on August Escoffier).

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