Useful Concepts -#10- Lawrence of Arabia’s Trick

Here’s a scene from one of my favourite films:

LAWRENCE: Allow me to ignite your cigarette.

He strikes one of the SERGEANT’S matches and lights the CORPORAL’S cigarette. Then, he extinguishes the match by very slowly closing his finger and thumb upon the flame, his face very attentive the while. It is a trick the other two have evidently seen before but which evidently still fascinates.

SERGEANT (dispassionately): You’ll do that once to often. It’s only flesh and blood.

LAWRENCE returns to his work, murmuring: Why, Michael George Hartley, you’re a philosopher.

CORPORAL (amiably): You’re barmy.

(…)

The CORPORAL is preoccupied with a burning match which he proceeds to extinguish between his fingers.

CORPORAL: Ow! (Indignantly) It damn well ‘urts!

LAWRENCE: Certainly it hurts.

CORPORAL (cajoling): Well what’s the trick then?

LAWRENCE: The trick, William Potter, is not minding if it hurts.

I have not been able to find any evidence that this scene depicts anything that the historical TE Lawrence did or said. Though there is certainly evidence that the scene is consistent with some of his actions and strongly held beliefs.

So, for example, one of his biographers, Robert Graves tells us about Lawrence’s behaviour at the time Lawrence was supporting the Arab Revolt:

“A few days later Lawrence began hardening himself for his coming campaign, tramping barefoot over the coral or burning-hot sand. The Arabs wondered why he did not ride a horse, like every other important man.”

From another biographer, John E. Mack, we have evidence that TE Lawrence felt that it was important not to express grief or pain. After TE Lawrence’s brother Frank was killed in the first World War, Lawrence wrote to his mother:

“If you only knew that if one thinks deeply about anything one would rather die than say anything about it. You know men do nearly all die laughing, because they know death is very terrible, and a thing to be forgotten till after it has come.

There, put that aside, and bear a brave face to the world about Frank. In a time of such fearful stress in our country it is one’s duty to watch very carefully lest one of the weaker ones be offended: and you know we were always the stronger, and if they see you broken down they will all grow fearful about their ones at the front.”

Or how about this scene? On one campaign in the desert, Lawrence noticed that one of the men, Gasim, was missing and the man’s camel was found riderless. Despite the risks to himself and his entire undertaking, Lawrence turns back to retrace the day’s journey to find him. Eventually he does. The man is confused, nearly blinded by exposure to sun and dehydrated. After Lawrence gives him water and puts him on a camel, Gasim moans and cries about the pain and thirst. Robert Graves describes the scene that ensues:

“Lawrence told him to stop, but he would not and sat huddled loosely so that at each step of the camel he bumped down on her hind-quarters. This and his crying spurred her on to greater speed. Lawrence was afraid that she might founder, and again told him to stop, but Gasim only screamed the louder. Then Lawrence struck him and swore that if he made another sound he would be pushed off and abandoned. He kept quiet then.”

So Lawrence’s trick could be read as being simply about an unhealthy repression of pain and suffering. Certainly some of his biographers have found plenty of opportunities to interpret his actions, words and behaviours as results of repressed pain and traumatic experiences. But a strategy purely of repression doesn’t fit with what we know of the deeply introspective man who was given to psychological self-examination and wrote about himself and his motives openly in letters and in his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Still, if it was the case that Lawrence’s trick was purely about not giving voice to pain, he might still have some support, even in these times of public outpourings of grief, social media oversharing and celebrities baring all their emotions, from people who reckon that the immediate expression of our feelings following traumatic experiences isn’t as helpful as is widely thought.

In his book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, Timothy Wilson writes about the evidence for the effectiveness of a widely applied method of treating people who have suffered traumatic experiences, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD):

“The premise of CISD is that when people have experienced a traumatic event they should air their feelings as soon as possible, so that they don’t bottle up these feelings and develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In a typical CISD session, which lasts three to four hours, participants are asked to describe the traumatic event from their own perspective, express their thoughts and feelings about the event, and relate any physical or psychological symptoms they are experiencing. A facilitator emphasizes that it is normal to have stressful reactions to traumatic events, gives stress management advice, answers questions, and assesses whether participants need any additional services.”

But actually when it was properly studied, it turned out that people who have undergone CISD have more post-traumatic stress disorder, were generally more anxious and depressed and less content with their lives. Wilson concludes that “making people undergo CISD right after a trauma impedes the natural healing process and might even ‘freeze’ memories of the event.” Another approach, championed by Wilson turns out to be more effective: Instead of debriefing the traumatised person, “we could ask him to complete, on four consecutive nights, a simple exercise in which he [or she] writes down his [or her] deepest thoughts and emotions about the experience and how it relates to the rest of his [or her] life. That’s it—no meetings with trained facilitators, no stress management advice—just a writing exercise.” As it happens the conclusion about the writing exercise is more positive:

“In the short run, people typically find it painful to express their feelings about traumatic experiences. But as time goes by, those who do so are better off in a number of respects. They show improvements in immune-system functioning, are less likely to visit physicians, get better grades in college, and miss fewer days of work.”

So the point  is not to repress painful experiences, but neither is it just to express pain, whether in a controlled or uncontrolled way.

“Not minding if it hurts” is exactly the point. “Minding” suggests letting the mind do its work with something, in this case with the pain. Letting the mind take a grip of it, churn it, amplify it, crystallise it,  freeze it.

The trick is not minding if it hurts.

But neither the historical, nor the Lawrence of the film knew about these studies. Here are three points about dealing with pain from Lawrence’s biography:

  • Practising the endurance of pain in small ways when you don’t have to, so that you’re better able to endure it when you’re forced to. This is what TE Lawrence was doing when he was walking on the burning sand. In that way he endured in a small way the thing that he must have endured in a massive way during the massive feats of endurance that were his desert marches. On one of these occasions, according to Robert Graves

When he started he was very weak with dysentery brought on by drinking the bad water at Wejh: he had a high temperature and also boils on his back which made camel-riding painful. With a party of thirteen men […] he set out at dawn through the granite mountains on his hundred-and-fifty-mile ride. He had two fainting fits on the way and could hardly keep in the saddle.

  • Being mindful of the impact that expressions of pain or grief could have on others. His treatment of Gasim seems cruel and inhumane. In order not to panic a camel, Lawrence threatens a human being who spent a day suffering physical and mental anguish with further pain and possible death.  But that inhumane treatment might have stemmed precisely from the belief in the ability of the human being to do otherwise than simply expressing the pain that he was suffering in the moment, while the animal can’t help but act on the cries it hears. The same principle is also in evidence in Lawrence’s advice to his mother not to show her grief at a son’s death openly, in case it makes others worry over “their ones at the front.”
  • That ability to do otherwise stems from a fundamental understanding of what it means to be a human being. TE Lawrence wrote in 1927:

“It’s my experience that the actual work or position or reward one has, doesn’t have much effect on the inner being which is the important thing for us to cultivate.”

This belief in an inner being that is untouched by external conditions – pain or freedom from pain, comfort or discomfort, life or death – looks fundamentally Stoic to me. But Lawrence also saw it in the culture and beliefs of his companions in the desert campaigns, and in the desert environment itself:

“The common base of all Semitic creeds, winners or losers, was the ever present ideal of world-worthlessness.”

“The desert Arab found no joy like the joy of voluntarily holding back. He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self-restraint… His desert was made a spiritual ice-house, in which was preserved intact but unimproved for all ages a vision of the unity of God.”

Useful Concepts – #9 – Experience Machines

Quite possibly the first use of the adjective “superduper” in philosophical literature occurred in the mid-1970s in this paragraph by Robert Nozick:

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences of, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

Nozick gives three answers:

  1. We want to do certain things, rather than just have the experience of doing them. (But even Nozick asks, but why?)
  2. We want to be a certain way, to be a certain person. If we plug in, we’re just an “indeterminate blob.” Nozick asks, is the person in the tank courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? How could we know? How could they be?
  3. Plugging in “limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.”

The experience machine has created a whole literature, not to mention any number of sci-fi films. People have worked out variants, for example where you never emerge from the machine until your biological death, in order to get rid of the idea that you could ever become conscious of spending a lot of time just being a body in a tank, and so on.

People argue over whether Nozick got the right reasons to reject the machine. Some people may also take pleasure in the intellectual bravado of saying that they would plug in, that they see no reasons not to. That would be a typically annoying undergraduate posture to take up. (I’d know, I did for a whole afternoon. It was many years ago.)

The ongoing discussion just shows how great a concept the experience machine is. But the rejection of it, for most people who aren’t undergraduates in philosophy, is immediate and from the gut. (Not every belief or conviction that is instinctive and intuitive is necessarily right, though this one is.)

Experience machines exist, of course, and many of us plug ourselves in quite willingly. Some of those superduper people, for example, can help us flood our brains with a  bitter, white crystalline purine, a methylxanthine alkaloid that is chemically related to the adenine and guanine bases of deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid. This blocks the action of adenosine on its receptor in the brain and stimulates the autonomic nervous system. It makes us less drowsy, more alert, physically faster and better co-ordinated. It can increase our heart rate and pulse. You’ll be aware of course, that we don’t have to plug into electrodes and float in a tank for this. And the superduper people aren’t neuropsychologists, but more likely baristas. This experience machine is just a regular cup of coffee.

But physical symptoms and mental states are a two-way street. Research has shown, for example, that, even when you feel you have no reasons to, you can smile for a while and your mood will improve, or you can clench your fist for a while and that can make you more aggressive. And so this experience machine can give us the impression that we’re well rested and refreshed (not in any way drowsy or tired) or that we’re facing an amazing, interesting experience (alertness, fast pulse) or a fight-or-flight type situation (heart beating faster, sudden alertness) even when it’s just a routine Monday morning and we’re on our way to the day-job.

There is, of course, also the type of organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group is bound to a saturated carbon atom. This is an experience machine that can give us the desirable experience of being socially less inhibited, much more certain that other people find us entertaining and generally convinced that we’re all round great people. It can be ingested in pleasant-tasting drinks like wine and beer.

And anyone who has ever seen a small child on a sugar rush may also find it easy to believe that sugar provides a desirable experience of enjoyment and mental energy, not least by activating dopamine in the brain in a way that is similar to stronger drugs.

I’ll call things like coffee or alcohol  “mini experience machines.” After all, the effect lasts a much shorter time than a session in the superduper neuropsychologists’ floatation tank experience would. And it gives us not so much a whole set of new experiences that are wholly separate to what we’re doing and who we are, but it puts a little layer of, say, additional (alternative) reality, over and above that reality.

I’m not saying that coffee, alcohol and sugar are therefore bad things or that we need to reject them with the instinctive vehemence with which we would reject the idea of plugging into an experience machine. But it probably helps to be aware of the “experience machine light” effect of such things.

I also find some of the tools some of us work with are a bit like experience machines in that they give us an interface to interact with the world in a way that, as much as possible, reduces reality to things that pop up on a screen. So I know that people want to give me some information or want me to do something in something like the following way (that’s not my real inbox, by the way):

I  can have conversations and exchanges with lots of people and all the while I’m just “plugged in” to a screen.

So, in fact, there may be lots of mini experience machines that interact in various ways to put layers of differing experiences across “real” life on a day-by-day basis. And although we may not have the same reasons to reject these mini experience machines – after all, they are more time-limited, localised in terms of their effect and less intrusive in the way we can link up to them – maybe we should aim to be suspicious of them, particularly if we’re veering to more extended use (both in terms of timing or in terms of range of experience), so if one or more of the following are true:

  1. We use them in high doses, frequently or on a daily basis.
  2. They give us experiences that we worry we wouldn’t otherwise have enough of in our lives – excitement, connection, attention, confidence, mental energy.
  3. We would be forced to live our lives differently, if we didn’t have them.
  4. We couldn’t function properly in our daily lives without them.

But since I’ve declared so many things mini experience machines, would we even know whether we’re using them too much?

First of all, it is possible to take stock of the mini experience machines we use. We can then try not using them. Or, if that is too difficult, we could ask, what would the consequence be for the way I live my life, if I didn’t plug into this experience machine? How would I have to deal with the tiredness or the lack of challenges in my reality if I didn’t have coffee to simulate alertness? Why am I so inhibited when meeting people that I need alcohol to have its effect? What energy rush or feelings of enjoyment would I like that I currently take from sugar rushes?

And presumably, finding out about these things is what lots of people do these days when they sit down and pay attention to their breathing, to their mind and their thoughts with minimal stimulation from mini experience machines or communication technologies (particularly first thing in the morning when the body has processed all the ingested experience machines from the previous day). Maybe then they can listen to the real experience and find out if the like it, or not.

Or it may be away from screens in green spaces and in nature surrounded by other life forms who are less prone to plug into experience machines. Or it may be something we do while deeply involved in community, voluntary or religious activities. (These practices, by the way, have all been demonstrated to increase wellbeing.) They may also all help us to access the things in Nozick’s three reasons for rejecting experience machines:

  1. We may gain a better understanding of what we are doing in our lives, rather than just having the experience of doing them.
  2. We can ask ourselves and learn about what kind of person we are or want to be (rather than being an indeterminate blob).
  3. And we may even access a world that is deeper or more important “than that which people can construct.”

 

 

Useful Concepts – #8 – Just Going for It

The first thing to be aware of is the so-called “paradox of choice.” This provides the background for some useful concepts for making decisions. The paradox is that we expect more choice to be better for us and to make us happier but it doesn’t. Psychologists have found that once we have too much choice, say 24 flavours of jam or types of breakfast cereal rather than 4, we become less able to choose, more worried about the consequences of our choice, more likely to be stressed out about making the choice, potentially even anxious about whether we’ll regret it, and eventually less happy with our choice in retrospect.

Of course there are strategies and techniques for dealing with the problem of too much choice. For example, there’s the distinction between optimising and satisficing. Optimising is a strategy whereby you keep considering further options until you’ve convinced yourself that you have the best one. Satisficing is a decision-making approach whereby you set yourself some criteria that have to be fulfilled, and as soon as you find an option that fulfils them, you go for it. So, if you’re dining out and choosing a main course from a menu, you might set yourself the criteria green, vegetarian and rich in carbs and as soon as you arrive at the spaghetti al pesto, you look no further.

Beyond the strategies and techniques, there are useful insights from the philosophy of practical reason. This looks at what it means to have reasons for action or to act on reasons. When I read certain philosophers on this subject, I can’t help having the image in my head that we are like characters in one of those video game where you walk through an environment and jump to avoid a hole in the ground, duck to avoid flying objects, or swerve to collect objects for bonus points. In those games, if you fail to take the right action, you may lose a life. If you take it skilfully, you get bonus points or reach the next level. Much like real life then.

Let’s accept then that as rational animals we just are responsive to certain features of the world we live in which are reasons for action. They are not in any way magical entities. Having a bottle of water available when we are thirsty could be a reason to drink it.  Seeing someone who looks lost or distressed may be a reason to help them. Wanting to improve our health and fitness may be a reason to go to a gym.

But here’s a minor difficulty: our environment is a bit more complex than that of a video game. That’s partly because there is no reason to believe that the world is designed in such a way that in any given situation there is just one reason available to us that is the right one for us to act on. There may be many reasons available to us and some of them may be reasons for actions that are mutually exclusive.

So, say for example, that in the past I promised to visit a friend on a given day. That is a reason to make a visit. But – assume I’m also a tennis obsessive – at the same time suddenly and surprisingly someone gives me a ticket to see the Wimbledon finals. Now I have a reason to do that. So now I have a dilemma. Some people might say that the reason provided by a promise I made trumps the prospect of the relatively selfish pleasure of watching a game of tennis. (But you could imagine that my visit could be easily re-arranged, that my friend had alternative things to do and is quite happy not to be visited, that the tennis was going to be the last public appearance of a great player…) And the dilemma could just as easily be between two strong moral reasons for doing something.

These dilemmas caused by competing reasons can be large, serious and to some extent painful. But they can also be positive. Once or twice people have come to me and said things like: “I need advice. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve been offered a new job, but then my current job is also getting really interesting and there may be an opportunity for promotion here…” The first thing to understand is that these are not desperate, overwhelming situations in which it is necessarily the case that one choice is right and the other wrong. When seen in perspective a positive dilemma is actually a relatively pleasant situation to be in. It is a mistake to think that just because we are asked to choose between alternatives, one must be right and the other wrong. Or just because we have several options, they can be ranked in order of goodness and one is clearly the best. The strength of the reasons available to act upon may not even be measurable by the same yardstick. Again, there just is no reason to assume that the world is organised for us in such a simple way.

So maybe what we need is some useful concepts to help us with the fact that reasons for action can pull us in different directions at the same time. Here are some of them.

1. Just doing something: This is a favourite of mine. Once we understand that the world is not organised in a way that guarantees that there is always a right choice and only ever exactly one, and once we have acquired a feel for what it’s like to be in such a situation, it is easier to just do something. In philosophical literature this is sometimes inelegantly described as “plumping” for a choice. This is definitely valid for times where we run out of further criteria or reasons to choose one way over another. (It may be more advisable for relatively trivial choices.)

2. Paying attention to the ‘remainder’ and dealing with it: There may be situations in which we have to make a choice, or take an action, from which we just don’t emerge particularly well. (The situation of being double-booked and having to cancel one commitment springs to mind.) Again, where someone is caught in a dilemma, the existence of a choice between several options doesn’t guarantee that one of them is the right action. In those situations it might help to understand that there is a “remainder” to deal with. That is to say an expectation that regret is felt and expressed, an apology, some kind of restitution or compensation made willingly.

3. Character – the kind of person I am or want to be: In her book On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse provides a very serious example of a dilemma:

“Suppose (just for the sake of an example) that whether to ask the doctors to continue to prolong one’s unconscious mother’s life by extraordinary means for another year, or to discontinue treatment now, would be an irresolvable dilemma in some cases.”

She then considers two very different people in that situation:

One might be a doctor herself, someone who had always striven to think of the human body as a living, and hence mortal, thing, not as a machine to be tinkered with; she knows that, if her mother were her patient, she would advise the discontinuation of treatment. The other might be someone who worked with apparently hopeless cases of mental disability, someone who said of herself ‘I never give up hope; I couldn’t do the job if I let myself.’ Faced with some such decision as the one outlined, it seems that each might act differently, each believing, correctly, that she had a (…) reason for favouring the action she elected to take.

And while the situation involved and the possible outcomes just are such that it may look wrong to say the both took the right action, as Hursthouse remarks, it is plausible to describe them as having acted well –

courageously, responsibly, thoughtfully, conscientiously, honestly, wisely – and not just describe them merely as having done what was permissible, which any cowardly, irresponsible, thoughtless, heedless, self-deceiving fool could just as well have done in the circumstances.

So my biography, my standards, my ideals, things that have always been important to me are valid pointers to which competing reasons I should act on. (I always thought that mottos inscribed on coats of arms may function in that kind of way.) This could also help in more trivial and positive situations than the one described by Hursthouse. Choosing from a menu for example, I could say to myself “I like being adventurous, so I will order something I’ve never had that looks a bit unusual.” Or I could say “I know what’s good and what I like, so why shouldn’t I have the same I had last time. After all, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

As someone said, choices when repeated over time become habits, habits over time become character. And character can in turn become a guide to the choices we should make.

 

 

 

 

Useful Concepts – #6 – Foxes vs. Hedgehogs

Apparently, there are two classes of people, those who divide people into two classes, and those who don’t.

Isaiah Berlin was in the former class when he brought the following fragment of the Ancient Greek Poet Archilochus to greater fame as a tool for classifying people:

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

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Useful Concepts – #5 – Adaptive vs. Technical Challenges

I hope my last post didn’t give the impression that I don’t like the genre of leadership literature. I love it and am too easily seduced by its promise that it’s the qualities and skills of individuals that can effect great change rather than, say, luck and events.

One of my favourites of the genre is Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s Leadership on the Line, despite or because of its only slightly paranoid sub-title Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading.

The most useful concept from that book is the distinction between adaptive and technical challenges.

Technical challenges are those for which there are standard operating procedures, a set of available know-how, or authorities and experts at hand.

Adaptive challenges are the other ones.

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Useful Concepts – #4 – Don’t Change Your Life, Use It!

Guess who had the following reading list:

  • Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass
  • Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunriu Suzuki
  • Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
  • Cutting through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa

Yes, it was Steve Jobs, sometime in the seventies, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson. Isaacson tells us this, not least because it provides the intellectual – or maybe better spiritual – background for the minimalist aesthetics of what was to be Jobs’ global brand.

That spiritualism though was messy, often troubled and occasionally troubling compared to the clinical and secular mindfulness approaches we are more used to these days.

And yet…

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Useful Concepts – #3 – Zero Thoughts

This post starts with a discussion between philosophers. That’s not as bad as it might sound to some. One of the philosophers involved is Bernard Williams (who made a cameo appearance in my previous post about psychopaths). The other one – to whom I owe this useful concept – is Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher who thinks and writes about things not many philosophers find worthy of great thought. His bestseller is the book “On Bullshit” which has made him a sought after authority in recent political discourse. But he also has published articles and books about love, not a topic that philosophers naturally gravitate towards.

But back to the discussion…

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Useful Concepts – #2 – Transformational Objects

 

In my previous Useful Concepts post, I mentioned that Adam Phillips was responsible for two of my favourite useful concepts. The second one is the “transformational object.”

Phillips made me aware of this concept, but he actually quotes Christopher Bollas, a professor of English, psychotherapist, and – according to his Wikipedia profile – “one of the most widely read authors in the field of psychoanalysis.”

As their name suggests, transformational objects are things that change our lives.

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