Overweening Generalist

Monday, May 13, 2013

Neurotheology: Awe V. Closure

"He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed."- Einstein
The person who makes statements that she "belongs to the universe," or that he "is but one of the creatures of Earth" are probably the sorts of folk who are more prone to awe. And it is my opinion, as of the above date, that some sense of awe surrounding the wonder of our existence...is the only prerequisite for the healthier senses of what I'll call "religion." Note: no Church required. No Holy Book needed. No Father-God-Sky-Daddy Who Judges needed. It's not necessary for an earthly spiritual "expert" to tell us what It All Means. Sombunall people can have the Holy Man, the Book(s), the Church, etc, and still have awe. But I'm guessing that most of those who need one or all three of those do not encounter the ineffable AWESOME very often at all. 
There's some interesting research on awe. What it seems to boil down to: a sense of personal smallness combined with some sort of connection to something Vast. Something - whether the size of the multiverse, the oddity of Space/Time, the improbability of one's own existence (for one: all of your direct relatives had to have avoided death before conceiving a child...and this presumably goes all the way back to the Primordial Ooze and the first molecular replicators! on a Goldilocks planet no less...), the unfathomable complexity of all living things, or some uncanny sense experienced in an instant of the infinitude of social interactions and thoughts in people's heads all around the planet, at any given moment, the totality of emotions and visualizations, the possibilities...
What prevents awe? There's some compelling data surrounding the need for closure. For whatever sociobiological reason, a significant number of our brothers and sisters have a low tolerance for confusion, ambiguity and uncertainty. Those feeling are difficult to endure. So they seek "closure" on whatever issue or question is at hand. These can be questions philosophical in nature, political, personal, and moral. It seems difficult to tell whether this need for closure is unconscious or conscious, but it's probably a bit of both, with unconsciousness getting the upper hand.
This grasping at closure seems an epistemic "bug" that may prevent our species from existing for another 200 years on this rocky, watery, life-teeming planet. 
Some of the dynamics of closure-seeking:
  1. information weighted before closure seems pressured 
  2. the information assessed will tend to fit the unconscious biases
  3. the information assessed was chosen in the first place in order to easily make the cognitive manipulations in order to achieve certainty
  4. certainty was needed, quickly, because ambiguity was very unpleasant, so the information chose to be assessed would help to ease the sense of uncertainty quickly
Cognitive psychologists have developed the NFCS (Need For Closure Scale), based on a series of responses to questions. Those who have a high need for closure prefer order and rules and predictability (this mathematically correlates with a low level of novelty seeking and information flow-through); they are decisive; they dislike uncertainty; they tend towards dogmatism and authoritarianism; and they have a high desire for structure in their lives. One study, according to my barely readable handwriting from notes I took in some library who knows when, associated people with a high need for closure with "truncated perceptions of possible behavioral choices" and "unstable moods."
Those who score low on the NFCS were creative, fluid with ideas and ideation, embraced complexity, and were impulsive.
Let us pause to consider how wildly implausible our existence is. I mean: we could've been born as someone else. Mathematically, there seems virtually an infinitude of possibilities: we might not have been born; the homo sapiens might have never really got going as a successful species; an errant nemesis asteroid could've wiped us out just as Things Were Getting Good, say around the time of Galileo? Or your mom's parents decided to not move to the town where she met your dad: your maternal grandma and grandpa suddenly got a better job offer in another town. Some flu in your great great great great great great grandparent, aged 12, turned into an infection that proved fatal. Etc, etc, etc.
Finally, it seems that, if anything, Buckminster Fuller's line that "scenario universe is non-simultaneously apprehended" seems understated. Just about all of the truly interesting questions are freighted with uncertainty, and the more appropriate responses to them run more towards awe and tolerance for ambiguity. We may have our "positions" on issues, and we may even be able to articulate our stances well, but if we cultivated more of the religion of Awe, we might not take ourselves and our positions so seriously. We might embrace uncertainty a bit more. We might conceptualize systems as much more "open" than closed. All of us tend to grasp for "answers" under stress. We need to be aware of this, and cultivate coolness and chill. I think most of us desire some structures in our lives, but we need be aware how psychologically hampering those structures can be, how those structures we once settled for now suddenly seem to fit like straitjackets, and foreclose on our creativity. 
"Today I saw a red and yellow sunset and thought how insignificant I am! Of course, I thought that yesterday too, and it rained." - Woody Allen, "Sketches From The Allen Notebooks"
Some sources:
"Why We Need Answers: The Theory of Cognitive Closure"

The nature of Awe

The Authoritarians


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. It reminds me of a recent episode of "The Big Bang Theory" and Sheldon's need for closure.

During Mozart's childhood his family members would annoy him by playing the first seven notes of a major scale and omitting the final tonic. Mozart would rush to the keyboard to resolve the seventh. Sheldon had a similar experience.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the tale of Giordano
Bruno, when he handed them a concept
which defied closure, the response
was to burn him alive. Pointing out
that this still goes on is also a
form of heresy.

Since the idea of universal education
was developed to screen a nations
young for soldiers it has revolved
around the presentation of ideas with
neatly summed up forms. It's doubtful if this serves the interests of the victimized.

It does make holding discussions
a lot more interesting though since
you can trigger those pavlovian

Believe nothing, advocate fiercely,
defend vigourously, but don't trap
yourself in certainty...GRIN

michael said...

@Eric: When I taught kids guitar/music theory I ALWAYS did that first 7 notes thing to talk about how the major scale has the strongest gravitational pull to the root note, and that's why the other modes are usually said to "deviate" from it. Even a kid who's never played, when you play the major scale and stop on the 7th and just let it hang there...you can see their body language and face light up. We all know the major scale, whether we "know" it or not. Best first ear-training: Tell the student you're going to improvise in the key of C major. Then just go all over, up and down the scale, improvise furiously, then end on the dominant 7th V chord...then ask them to sing the root note. Almost everyone can do it. They feel like, "Maybe this 'theory' stuff isn't as hard as it sounds!"

michael said...

@Anonymous: You nailed what I was tryna get at, pretty much on the nose.

The Bruno example seems perfect-o.

A basic non-openness to uncertainty, infinitude, "the map is NOT the territory", statistical probability, fallibility, relativism of all sorts...in the aggregate...seems a killing thing to me. It may be the biggest flaw/bug in the mind of the homo sap...and could end up being a major contributor to the end of the human experiment on Earth.

Jeez, I know that sounds like I'm being a drama queen, but, hey: I had to sound my barbaric yawp on this.

Thanks for being such a careful reader/thinker. And then commenting here. You add value to anyone who stumbles onto the OG stuff.

Eric Wagner said...

I had a friend in Arizona who worked with kids, and he often wore t-shirts with positive slogans on them. I always wanted to have one made for him which said "Emancipate the Dissonance" with pictures of smiling kids and musical notes and perhaps a grinning Arnold Schoenberg.

michael said...

I used to challenge students to come up with the most dissonant voicings of chords: stacked minor 2nds are a natural, but if you're playing guitar in standard tuning, it's a challenge.

"See if you can get two minor 2nds, a diminished 5th, and a major 7th crammed in there."

Slonimsky came up with a "Grandmother Chord" for piano, in which you take a yardstick (or two?) and press down all 12 keys in a tone row at once. That is some righteous clang.