Monday, July 31, 2017

Path of freedom

“ ... [I]f it is true that a spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities (e.g., by a place in which one can move) and interdictions (e.g., by a wall that prevents one from going further), then the walker actualizes some of these possibilities. In that way, he makes them exist as well as emerge. But he also moves them about and he invents others, since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisation of walking privilege, transform, or abandon spatial elements. ... [T]he walker transforms each spatial signifier in something else. And if on the one hand he actualizes only a few of the possibilities fixed by the constructed order (he goes only here and not there), on the other he increases the number of possibilities (for example, by creating shortcuts and detours) and prohibitions (for example, he forbids himself to take paths generally considered accessible or even obligatory). He thus makes a selection.”
From Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press, 1984; p. 98.

Authorities try to plan and guide behaviour, but people are free and follow their own paths.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Forget it

Social media distort your self-image. They distort your personal identity, as well. That’s what we have seen last week. But it’s only an extreme consequence of the phenomenon that we tend to forget our experiences and that we forget selectively. You and I remember mainly only what was important or what made a big impression. Sometimes we explicitly try to retain memories by taking photos and making videos; by writing about our experiences in diaries and letters; or even by erecting memorial stones. The latter happens when a dear one has died, for example by placing a stone on her grave. But we forget much of what we experienced and what happened to us. Maybe it was not important – or we think so –, or it happened so long ago that the memories fade away. In addition, there is the weird phenomenon that someone tells you the story of something she experienced and later you think that it was you who went through it. I’ll leave this further aside, but we can say that all these distorted memories make that actually you are not the person who you think you are. Or maybe you are your self-image, for it’s your self-image that you represent towards others, but the person you think to represent is then not the person you actually lived. It’s why Julia Shaw ends her book The memory illusion with the statement: “Our past is a fictional representation, and the only thing we can be even somewhat sure of is what is happening now.” (p. 255).
This distorted self-image or even double distorted self-image, if we think of the impact of the social media, is not only an individual phenomenon. It happens also on a collective level. What we see everywhere is that groups, groupings and bigger collective units like nations tend to forget their bad and criminal actions in the past and stress what they think they can be proud of, even if the latter is often a clear exaggeration. Many point or pointed after Germany, which was responsible for the holocaust – but which is also one of the few countries that tried to account for its criminal past –, but few countries acknowledge the anti-Semitism within their own borders. White countries try to hide their contributions to black slavery or depict it as less worse than it was. Many countries have persecuted their minorities and but don’t mention it in their historical records. These are only a few big facts. The smaller distorted “facts” are even more frequent. I think that every reader understands what I mean, and I mention it only in order to illustrate that we see distorted identities on all levels: the levels of personal identity, group identity – not discussed here – till national identity.
We find a kind of forgetfulness also on a level where you may not expect it: the level of daily life; the level of the most ordinary things around you. In fact, it’s hardly possible to talk here of forgetting, for if you see but don’t watch, you don’t notice. Nevertheless there are many things around you that you know they are there and nevertheless, when they are out of your sight, they are out of your mind, even though they help to constitute the world you live in. Without them, your world would collapse, or – which happens more often if not most of the time – be a little bit more complicated or less pleasant. Following a description by Sarah Bakewell, I mean the things that make up your “barely noticed social, historical and physical context in which all our activities take place, and which we generally take for granted.” Look at the photo at the top of this blog. Probably most of you have seen a thing like that. Maybe there is one in your street. It took me some time to find out what it is, but it is a distribution box for electricity – if I am right! Nevertheless, if I would ask you to describe your street, you would probably forget to mention it, even if you know that there is one. It seems so unimportant that it doesn’t pop up in your mind. Nevertheless, how unpleasant would your life be today without electricity, so without such distribution boxes. But you have walked often along it, maybe you have bumped into it, and still you forget that it is there. It makes up your life world a little bit but mentally it doesn’t belong to it. So it is with much in your life world and with your personal identity as well. You pass it over, for it doesn’t stir your mind. Forget it!

Sources: Sarah Bakewell, The existentialist café. London: Vintage, 2016; p. 130; Julia Shaw, see blog dated July 10, 2017.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Social media and identity

Last week my conclusion was that it is not our memories that make our personal identities but that experiences do (at least, for a part, for elsewhere I have shown that our bodily make-up is also important). However, experiences are not independent of memories: How we experience an event we go through or what we are doing is determined also by how we experienced such events in the past or how we remember what we did before. What we think of a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony depends not only on the performance we hear now but also on what we remember of performances of the same symphony in the past. And after we have heard the symphony several times, maybe we can hum even parts of the melody: When we recall something we did or experienced in the past, we get a better retention of it. When we tell others about what we experienced or when we reread our diary notes, we keep what we lived through better in the mind. On the other hand, we tend to forget what we don’t repeat. One important way for reviving memories is looking at old photos. When we see them again, usually we know what we did then, and in case we have taken the photos ourselves, we can often also tell how we have taken them and where we stood. However, we tend to forget what we don’t repeat by such artificial means or otherwise. What is not in a photo, gradually vanishes from the memory. What is in a photo is highlighted and determines the recollection of the doing or event.
In these days of the internet we share our life experiences increasingly via the social media. Of course, we leave out what we don’t want to share and we share only what we see as highlights or worth to mention. Therefore, as Julia Shaw says in her book on memory quoted last week: “remembering life events through social media is going to enhance memories for those particular events” (pp. 213-4). However, publishing life events in the social media is not a neutral affair. As said, we don’t share everything, but we select. Moreover we present what we present there in a certain way: We don’t share how we are but how we want to be seen. We don’t present in social media our selves but our better selves and our improved selves, on purpose or unconsciously. But since bringing back memories is selective, especially when it happens with artificial means, like photos, in fact we get a distortion of reality. This is the more so, when we bring back memories via what we have uploaded in the social media. This has important consequences for the self-image. As Shaw says, “[w]hat is different about social media is that the prompts are being selected from your online persona so they already represent a distorted, social media appropriate, version of your life. This amounts to a double distortion – distorting the memory in your brain with a previously distorted memory from your online persona.” Even if we originally knew that we are not the way as presented in the social media, in the end we tend to believe in it.
“By having the social media dictate which experiences count as the most meaningful in our lives”, so Shaw goes on, “it is potentially culling the memories that are considered less shareable. Simultaneously it is reinforcing the memories collectively chosen as the most likeable, potentially making some memories seem more meaningful and memorable than they originally were. Both of these are problematic processes that can distort our personal reality.” (p. 215) When this happens it is no longer that we shape ourselves in the social media but that the social media shape us. Then it’s the social media that shape our personalities, even if these personalities are distorted, and by that they shape our personal identities.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Personal identity and memory

The author's memory

What makes a person P2 at time t2 the same person as person P1 at time t1? Following Locke (1689/1975), in contemporary analytical philosophy, this question is usually answered in psychological terms, to wit by specifying a psychological criterion that shows, when continuity or connectedness between P1 en P2 exists: Memory. Although currently memory is no longer seen as the only criterion of personal identity, it is still considered an important determinant of personal identity over time. As a rule reference is made to only episodic memory, so to certain events or experiences in the life of the individual concerned. Other kinds of memory, like semantic memory and implicit non-conscious kinds of memory, are generally ignored by the mainstream of personal identity theorists when they consider what makes a person a person. So it is episodic memory that makes that the little schoolboy who went to school in a provincial capital in the Netherlands is the same person as the man who writes this blog on one of the first days of July 2017. Of course, everybody forgets many of his or her life experiences, but personal identity theorists have thought out several solutions for overcoming this problem of forgetfulness. But is episodic memory really a reliable criterion for personal identity?
When someone forgets about what s/he did or experienced in the past, determining the personal identity is a matter of reconstructing the connection between the person who acted in a certain way some time ago or who experienced then this or that and the person who s/he is now. However, if s/he explicitly remembers what s/he did it seems obvious that the person in the memory and the person now who remembers are the same. But is it really so that we can say that what a man or woman remembers now as something that s/he lived through or experienced some time ago makes him or her the same person as the one in the recollection?
Much has already been written about the unreliability of our memory but I think that the next investigation well substantiates my point:
Memory expert Julia Shaw selected a group of test subjects for what was allegedly a study on emotional memory. First she asked each participant about his or her memory of a true emotional event which Shaw had learned from a person who had informed her about the participant. It might be being bullied at school, fainting on vacation or something else. Next Shaw introduced a false event, telling the test subjects they did something that she knew they actually did not, like telling the participants that they had committed a crime with police contact – assault, assault with a weapon, or theft – or had experienced another emotional event – an animal attack, a bodily injury, losing a large sum of money or getting in trouble with their parents. Shaw did as if someone the test subject knew, like his/her parents, had informed her about the event. At first the participants said correctly that they didn’t remember the event. After a visualisation exercise, which gave the test subjects access to their imagination instead of their memories – which they didn’t know – the participants still hadn’t much to tell about the event. Then they were sent home with the instruction not to talk about the test and to try to visualise the memory at home. One week later in a second interview the test subjects were asked to tell both about the true emotional event and about the false event. Many participants began to “remember” and report of details of the false event. The visualisation exercise was also repeated. Next the participant were sent home again with the instruction of trying to get more details of the false event. One week later in a third interview the second interview session was repeated. “After three interviews”, so Shaw, “... many participants are divulging a tremendous number of details about an event that never happened, talking about them with confidence.” In other words: The false events had really become part of the memories of the test subjects. Don’t think that only exceptional persons “recollect” false memories. Shaw found in her investigations that at least 70% of the participants develop full false memories about criminal and emotional events. Most of us will do in the right circumstances.
Perhaps you think that Shaw’s case is extreme. Maybe it is, but as Shaw shows in her book: Everybody’s mind is probably full of false memories. There are many reasons why we get them and it is unlikely that anybody is free of them.
What does this mean for the view that episodic memory is the most important determinant of man’s personal identity as the mainstream of personal identity theorists maintains? On the base of a false memory each of us could be a criminal while s/he is in fact a honest burgher. Even more, as Shaw makes clear, it also happens often that we adopt recollections told to us by others as if they were our own. If so this would mean – following the mainstream of the personal identity theorists – that such a recollection would give the person with the adopted recollection the personal identity of another person, at least partly. It would literally put him or her in someone else’s shoes. The upshot is: What we remember may be important for us but it doesn’t make our identities. Only what we really lived through and experienced does, but it’s not obvious that we remember all of it nor that we lived through and experienced everything that we remember.

- John Locke, An essay concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975 (1689).
- Noonan, Harold W., Personal Identity. London etc.: Routledge, 2003.
- Shaw, Julia, The memory illusion. London: Random House Books, 2016. You can find the case described on pp. 171-175.

Monday, July 03, 2017

The mind of an introvert

Happy interovert

Suppose a friend invited you for his birthday party, like every year. You know most people that have come there. I don’t know how such parties are held in other countries, but let me suppose it’s a Dutch party with not so many guests, say around ten or fifteen. All sit most of the time at the same place in a circle in the living room, as it happens here. You don’t know the man left of you, who comes for the first time. He seems to be an interesting person, but you don’t know how to start the conversation. You are thinking of all kinds of themes you might start with, but in the end you say nothing. Happily, the man starts to talk with you, and then the conversation develops. Even more, you find it very interesting, and you talk a long time together, for you and your neighbour have much in common.
Do you recognize this? Are you maybe even such a kind of person? If so, then you are probably an introvert. How pity, or so many people think, for introverts have the reputation of being not very social and they could better be avoided. What a weird idea about people who make up at least one third of the world population! But alas, it’s a view that is not quite unexpected in a society where being extrovert pays. The view has been even supported by psychological “insights” for a long time. It’s true that introverts are not as chatty and sociable as extroverts are, or rather, as I would say it, they are chatty and sociable in a different way, for once you know them they are pleasant to get along with, and you can talk a lot with them, albeit often not about superficial things.
This was already known to me, but it became even clearer to me, when I happened to visit the website of Psychology Today when looking for a subject for this week’s blog. There is so much positive about being introvert and remember that people like Newton, Einstein and Wittgenstein were also introverted. It’s true that it has also negative aspects, for as Allison Abrams writes in an article on the theme in Psychology Today: “One of the greatest frustrations introverts experience is squelching [their] gifts.” For example “You’re sitting in a ... [discussion] group when you are suddenly hit with a great idea, as introverts often are. While you’re working up the nerve to voice that idea out loud, the extrovert sitting next to you blurts it out first, of course getting all the credit. You’re devastated and angry at yourself for once again not speaking up.”
But what is then so positive about being an introvert? Let me summarize the seven plus-points that Abrams mentions:
1) Creativity. Introverts have often a big imagination and fantasy which makes them very creative.
2) They can think outside the box, for they feel no need to conform to society’s rules and prefer making their own.
3) Attunement to others. They are sensitive to how others feel, which makes that they have empathy and understanding for others. However, it can make also that they don’t feel at ease in groups, because their sensitivity can become overloaded.
4) Introverts are very good observers. Even if they don’t talk a lot they do see a lot.
5) They are good in overcoming challenges. Introverts are often low in the pecking order. Therefore they are used to overcome obstacles. Moreover, being low in the pecking order has given them understanding of those in difficult situations.
6) Maybe it is so that introverts don’t have many relationships, but they are good in making genuine and reliable connections. Being able to act alone is an asset for them, for having a few – but good – relationships is enough.
7) They can change the world, but they do it in silence or without much ado.
As Liz Fosslien and Mollie West explain on another website, introverts are maybe slow thinkers, but it is because they are deep thinkers, which takes time. Introverts need less stimulation from the world, which makes that they become easily over-stimulated; it makes also that they need less to feel happy (“simply” reading a book is enough). Introverts feel less excitement from surprise and from risk. Introverts process everything in their surroundings and pay attention to all sensory details in their environment, not just to people (which makes that they may seem distracted). And last but not least, the minds of introverts are full of thoughts and they talk with themselves.
All, this sounds rather positive, doesn’t it? But each personality type has negative aspects as well (every introvert can tell you; see also above). Moreover, there are also advantages of being an extrovert; without a doubt. And, oh yet this. Introverts may seem stand-offish and maybe they are not the first to give you a hug, but to quote the end of Abrams’s web article, if they do “feel honored. They don’t let just anyone in. But when they do, their fierce loyalty and empathic nature make them some of the best friends, partners, co-workers and bosses anyone can ask for. Their presence is a gift.”

Sources: For this blog I heavily relied on Allison Abrams, “7 Reasons to Be Proud to Be an Introvert”, . Moreover, on Liz Fosslien and Mollie West, “6 Illustrations That Show What It’s Like in an Introvert’s Head”,