Thursday, December 29, 2016

Whatever You Think, You Don’t Necessarily Know Your Own Mind

David Blackwell/Flickr
David Blackwell/Flickr
by Keith Frankish, Aeon:
Keith is an English philosopher and writer. He is a visiting research fellow with the Open University in the UK and an adjunct professor with the Brain and Mind Programme at the University of Crete. He lives in Greece.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

Neuro-Linguistic Programming: The 1970s Neurobollocks that Just Refuses to Die
on Neurobollocks:

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was invented in the mid-70s by Richard Bandler (a psychology and philosophy graduate) and John Grinder (a linguist). It originally grew out of observations made in therapy, and a metaphorical extension of some of the concepts of Chomsky’s transformational grammar.

In the fertile grounds of the 70s Californian therapy and self-help movement, it soon blossomed into a multi-faceted set of techniques and philosophies. By the 80s it was being widely touted as a novel therapy technique and attracted some serious attention from researchers. However it was relatively quickly understood that there was no empirical basis for its key claims, and as its practitioners began to make ever more outlandish claims, serious interest from professionals waned.

This didn’t stop the NLP-faithful though. People like Tony Robbins (who studied with Bandler) made incredibly successful careers out of the motivational speaking/books circuit.  Despite this undeniable popular appeal, NLP is nowadays widely-regarded as pseudo-scientific bollocks of a particularly refined and rarefied strain.

It’s actually quite hard to pin down exactly what the key principles of NLP are. This is partly because its founders and practitioners use such vague and amorphous language, full of metaphors and pointless jargon, but also because of the diversity of its supposed applications; from ‘traditional’ therapeutic settings, to sports coaching, to corporate training seminars, to (creepily) seduction. It aspires to include something for everyone; the best way to maximise the market and therefore the potential profit.

One relatively common theme is focused on teaching communication skills in order to facilitate the learner’s personal and professional relationships. On the surface this sounds reasonable, but the communication theory that its based on has absolutely zero empirical support. The wackier variants incorporate all kinds of other bollocks like hypnosis, and many NLP-whackos talk about being able to ‘reprogram’ their own (and other’s) brain, often by claiming to influence the subconscious mind in some way.

Despite being nearly 40 years old, and a ridiculous, facile hodge-podge of concepts from psychology, philosophy, linguistics and new-age twaddle with absolutely no support from any reputable sources, amazingly, NLP is still very much alive and kicking. Bandler has kept on developing (and ruthlessly trademarking) a load of new techniques including ‘Design Human Engineering™’, or ‘Charisma Enhancement™’.

A lot of his recent work also appears to include hypnosis. His website is essentially one big advertisement for his books, CDs and speaking gigs; and there are literally thousands of individuals, businesses, and ‘institutes’ offering NLP training for a bewildering variety of purposes and people. Bandler has even latterly jumped on the ‘Brain training’ trend with a new company called ‘QDreams‘ (‘Quantum brain training!’; ‘Success at the speed of thought!’ FFS…).

Searching on Twitter turns up many, many people earnestly tweeting away about the benefits of NLP. Why is it so persistent? Partly this is because of Bandler’s clear talent for slick marketing, re-invention and dedication to innovative bull-shittery, and partly because NLP was never really clearly defined in the first place, which makes it highly malleable and adaptable to any pseudo-scientific new-age trends that come along. Despite a hiccup in the mid-90s (when Bandler tried to sue Grinder for ninety million dollars) it seems to be as popular as ever, and to be attracting new adherents all the time.

In my opinion the real stroke of genius in NLP, and perhaps the reason why it’s been so successful, is simply the name. These days we’re used to putting the ‘neuro-‘ prefix in front of everything, but back in the ’70s, this was way ahead of its time. Obviously there’s nothing remotely ‘neuro’ about it, though. Plus the ‘programming’ bit has a deliciously Orwellian appeal; promising the potential to effect change in oneself or others, if you just know the right techniques.

But effecting genuinely meaningful behavioural change in yourself is hard work. NLP derives from the quick-fix mentality of the self-help movement and is doomed to failure because of it. Does it actually help people? Perhaps, on some level, but any anecdotal results are almost certainly derived from a version of the placebo effect. Because of its vague nature, it’s not even really clear how its effectiveness would be meaningfully assessed anyway. Until we discover the genuine low-level programming language of the human brain we’ll probably always have to put up with this kind of bollocks being peddled.

There’s another really good article on NLP at the Skeptics Dictionary.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Here’s to the Lost Art of Lying Down

<em>The Sleeping Gypsy</em> 1897, by Henri Rousseau. <em>Courtesy Wikimedia</em>
The Sleeping Gypsy 1897 by Henri Rousseau (Wikimedia)
by Bernd Brunner, Aeon:

Bernd is a travel and history writer whose work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Wall Street Journal and Die Zeit. He has written books on a variety of subjects, such as The Art of Lying Down - A Guide to Horizontal Living (2013) and Birdmania: Remarkable Lives With Birds (publishing in 2017), among others. He lives in Istanbul and Berlin.

The legendary Roman dining couch, known as the klinai, was made from wood or stone, covered with cloth, and designed for lying down. I sometimes wonder how comfortable it really was. Then again, since people 2,000 years ago weren’t acquainted with comfort in the modern, well-cushioned sense, they probably enjoyed it much more than we would today. The klinai was perfectly adequate for the purpose of munching grapes, drinking wine, exchanging philosophical opinions, and meeting potential lovers.

As a sophisticated art form, however, lying down was perfected much later. Take the divan. The word means different things under different circumstances: a Turkish divan consists of a mat on the floor or a flat ledge that can run along an entire wall. In a French boudoir, a divan means an upholstered bench, often decorated with tassels and fringe, in the middle of the room. The term can even be used for a row of chairs clustered around a raised platform.

Ultimately, divans and couches came to be associated with ‘oriental’ behaviour and a kind of literary dilettantism - thanks to the likes of Thomas De Quincey, the 19th-century English essayist and wastrel, who succumbed to opium while reclining on a chaise. Later, writers ranging from Truman Capote to the former US poet laureate Charles Simic would confess to producing their best work while horizontal.

Until recently, lying down was seen as the horizontal counterpart to the dreamy rambling of the melancholy flâneur, walking about without pursuing any goal in particular. When we lie on our backs and direct our gaze up toward the ceiling or sky, we lose our physical grasp of things. We relax our state of hyper-vigilance, and our thoughts soar.

The Chinese author Lin Yutang wrote in 1937 that ‘our senses are the keenest in that moment’ when we are lying down, and added that ‘all good music should be listened to in the lying condition’. Our mental makeup and even the structure of our perception can change with a shift of posture. Responses that seemed perfectly natural a few minutes earlier, when we were standing upright or sitting, become inexplicable. Questions that were so important appear in a different light when we view them horizontally. Voices and even the ringing of a telephone might no longer reach us with the same urgency as when we were standing.

Yet, these days, the art of repose is under assault. With the advent of smartphones, hardly any vertical or horizontal position is safe from the disturbances of the outside world. We ruin our sleep by exposing our retinas to the bright blue light of our screens just before bed. We put our phones next to our pillows or on the bedside table, and our first action in the morning is to reach over to check the messages that have arrived overnight.

The concern about the scarcity of our attention is not without precedent - or at least it can be seen as the latest chapter in a long-running story. With the rise of the novel in the 18th century, long reading sessions became common practice among the educated classes. Paintings abound of women lolling on couches, sometimes in states of undress, as if absorption in a book would bring about the dissolution of the social body. A reclined pose was seen as both a marker of indulgent over-stimulation and proof of indolence in a fast-changing world.

Now that idleness is harder and harder to find, even sleeping might soon be regarded as a mere necessity, a way of simply making yourself ready to be productive the next day. With the rise of sleep-tracking apps - and technologies to radically reduce how much shut-eye we need - the instrumental and quantifying logic of the market has finally conquered one of the last domains that was reasonably free from economic concerns.

‘There will be sleeping enough in the grave,’ said Benjamin Franklin, the wakeful polymath and a founding father of the United States. If both dreaming and daydreaming are under attack, will lying around be reserved for late age and, perhaps, death?