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Sunday, March 19, 2017

I Remember When I Lost My Mind

A Lesson in Cognitive Dissonance

Good music is hard to find nowadays.  Most pop music is formulaic and repetitive It might have a good beat, or be danceable, but it’s nothing special. A song that’s memorable, or touches you in some way, is a rare find nowadays.  A few years back I found one that resonated with me.  The song is Crazy, not by Patsy Cline, but by Gnarls Barkley, as written by Cee Lo Green.  I know crazy when I see it, even if I only see it in hindsight. Let's look at the lyrics.

I remember when,
I remember, I remember when I lost my mind
There was something so pleasant about that place
Even your emotions have an echo in so much space

I do remember when I lost my mind.  I think there were 4 times in my life I went crazy, and not in a good way.  Each one had a name: Vicki, Robin, Lora, and Rita.  For a musical artist like Cee Lo, crazy might be a pleasant place for creativity, but my emotions in that crazy space were very unpleasant.


Crazy is a vague term and encompasses too much odd behavior.  Perhaps calling it a nervous breakdown is more like it.  I didn’t think of it this way in the moment, but looking back I can see “crazy” much better as "nervous breakdown.”

I’ve had some interesting lessons recently about nervous breakdowns.  I feel I understand them better nowadays, and that makes me more resilient to life and able to avoid them.  In order to understand nervous breakdowns, we need to look at one particular theory of reality, or should I say realities.

Reality is tricky thing.  We tend to think reality is perfect and absolute.  Maybe it is, maybe there is a single objective reality.  On the other hand, reality can only be evaluated when we, as humans, perceive it.  Each individual perceives reality, but perceives it using his or her own senses.  Is reality the same to a blind man and sighted man?  No.  The subjective realities are very much different because they are based on different senses and different information. 

It gets even more tricky.  We each view the world through personal biases and mental filters.  These biases and filters that distort the information we perceive in sometimes subtle, sometimes drastic ways.  They’re Instagram filters on reality.  Everybody interprets reality differently.  The trouble is that we seldom know which filters we’re applying. The filters and biases we apply are so ingrained into our psyches we don’t even know they’re there.

Only robots can perceive objective reality. For all of us, reality is subjective, yet we successfully use our subjective realities to explain the way the world works and to live out our lives.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, has an interesting analogy.  It’s as if you’re at the cinema and there are two, or more, movies playing out in front of you on the same screen.  In one, the villain and hero play out their standard roles.  In another objectively identical version of the movie, the villain is a sympathetic character and the real hero is a supporting character, not the star.  All you have to do to see the other version is to put on your free sympathy glasses.  Which filters do you apply?  Which version are you watching?

If you don’t believe it, consider that right now some of you are in a reality where you perceive that Eric has some interesting ideas.  Others are in a reality where you think I’m full of it.  Both realities stem from the same identical blog text.

And when you’re out there, without care
Yeah I was out of touch
But it wasn't because I didn't know enough
I just knew too much

You see, my nervous breakdowns were a result of being out of touch, away from reality.  I was operating in a perceived reality that was highly incompatible with most other people’s reality.  I perceived the same events, same behaviors as other people, but I filtered the information in ways I didn’t understand. I took the reality I perceived, and added too much useless and erroneous information.  My brain was operating under the rules of a reality that was badly programmed into me since childhood.  Perhaps you could say I was functional, yet delusional.  But where does the nervous breakdown come into play?

At some point, a person in one particular subjective reality will be confronted with an alternate version of that reality.  A poor subjective reality will sometimes clash with a better alternate reality.  The clash provides a dramatic conflict of rationality.  This situation is called “cognitive dissonance”, the presence of two conflicting explanations for the same reality trying to exist at the same time in one poor little brain, resulting in very dramatic emotional responses.  When a person’s reality comes under attack, the person will go to great lengths to defend his reality.  Rational thinking goes right out the door.

Suppose your reality is that your significant other is the most loving, honest and loyal person in the world.  Then you’re confronted with indisputable evidence your other has been cheating.  Collision of realities!  You first dismiss the evidence, then you vehemently deny the evidence, then you become angry, then you start throwing things.  Rationality goes right out the window and the emotional drama starts. Let the nervous breakdown begin!

Don’t believe me?  The next time a friend of yours makes any assertion, just say “You’re absolutely wrong.”  Watch what happens.

Does that make me crazy?
Does that make me crazy?
Does that make me crazy?

Possibly

Cognitive dissonance.  Sometimes it’s mild, sometimes it’s violent.  In general it’s not a pretty picture.  All you have to do is look at the news nowadays.  Cognitive dissonance is an epidemic right now.  There are examples of it everywhere.  For the last several months (late 2016 to early 2017 as I write this) it has been pretty dramatic, and, of course, dramatic stuff makes the news.  Whether it is crazy or not.

Come on now, who do you
Who do you, who do you
Who do you think you are?
Ha ha ha, bless your soul
You really think you're in control?

Well, I have some bad news for you.  (Please keep the cognitive dissonance to a minimum.)  You’re NOT in control.  Every day, every where you look, there are people who are trying to persuade you to change your reality to match theirs.  The science of persuasion has been studied extensively, and the techniques are well known nowadays.  The techniques might be used innocuously to convince you to buy a brand of toothpaste, or more perniciously to influence your vote for a particular political candidate.  In fact, the latest U.S. presidential campaign was probably the first nuclear-level persuasion battle to define your reality.  Don’t believe me?  There were two opposing realities, and one had to overcome the other by definition.  The fallout is still there.  Look for the cognitive dissonance!  Look for the fake news!  Look for the crazy people!

Are you one of them?  Would you know if you were?

There are more serious and ominous signs of persuasion out there, but you would think me a looney conspiracy theorist if I told you what to look for. (cough, cough, Russian hackers, cough, cough.)

Well
I think you're crazy
I think you're crazy
I think you're crazy
Just like me

So who is going to define your reality for you?  Movies?   Television?  I’ve already addressed how wrong movies and TV are.  How about commercials? Fake news? Twitter?  Facebook? The Drudge Report? 

Or are you going to wake up before you experience the cognitive dissonance and have the nervous breakdown?

Maybe I'm crazy
Maybe you're crazy
Maybe we're crazy

Probably ooh hmm
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