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Posts Tagged ‘rational intellect’

Irrational behaviour

Sunday, August 6th, 2006
Fragmented Mind, Mear One

Fragmented Mind by Mear One, Anchorage graffiti artist

“If you do not rest upon the good foundation of nature, you will labour with little honour and less profit. Those who take for their standard any one but nature – the mistress of all masters – weary themselves in vain.”
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

“People who make irrational decisions when faced with problems are at the mercy of their emotions, a study says.” So says the BBC in its report on a study published in Science journal by a team from University College, London. The report goes on to describe the study:

“The researchers found some people kept a cool head and managed to keep their emotions in check, while others were led by their emotional response. In each trial, participants motivated by the promise of real money were first offered a starting amount of £50.

“They were then presented with one of two “sure option” choices, either to “keep £20”, or to “lose £30”, as well as the opportunity to take an all-or-nothing gamble.

“Although both sure options left players with the same amount of cash, £20, people were more likely to gamble when faced with the prospect of losing £30.

“Given the “keep £20” option, volunteers played it safe and gambled only 43% of the time.

“When asked if they wanted to “lose £30”, they gambled on 62% of occasions.

“The decision to gamble was irrational, since in every case the amount of money they stood to gain was the same, while everything could be lost by gambling.”

Yet, rather than the study participants’ behaviour being irrational, it’s the premises and the conclusions of the study itself that appear to be a complete no-brainer.

“Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.”
Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918)

Firstly, why on earth do we need a “scientific” study to demonstrate that our behaviour is as much governed by our emotions as our rational intellect? Isn’t it a fact of daily existence blazingly obvious to each and every one of us? No decision can be isolated from its context, and the survival of the species is best served by both feeling and rational responses to context. If our feelings are triggered, then there will be a feeling component in the decision which, depending on the strength of the trigger, may predominate. And if not, there won’t. Sometimes the emotional and rational components in the decision will coincide. Sometimes they won’t, in which case the decision, if swayed by the feeling component, is described as “irrational” (with the implication that it’s also nonsensical) . But it’s all entirely dependent on context and the propensity of any one individual to react in a predominantly feeling or rational way to it.

And any feeling-based reaction which appears at first glance to be nonsensical usually reveals its own logic in due course which, in turn, throws a spotlight on the largely false and arbitrary dichotomy between “emotion” and “rationality”.

Secondly the study (or at least according to the report of it since the study itself isn’t freely available) asked people to choose between an all-or-nothing gamble to potentially gain the full starting amount with the odds against winning equivalent to the guaranteed gain/loss split, or to be given a guaranteed, no-risks fraction of the initial sum. So what is being demonstrated, from whichever standpoint (the “gain” or the “loss”), is people’s propensity to take a chance on a potentially greater gain. This isn’t necessarily an irrational decision, so describing acceptance of the guaranteed sum as keeping “a cool head” and “emotions in check” perhaps reveals more about the pervasive (and irrational) delusion that emotions are in some way inferior to rationality (as opposed to a different, but no less essential, part of our being).

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”
Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

The study demonstrates a clear bias towards a willlingness to gamble from the standpoint of a reaction to a framework of “loss” as opposed to “gain”. In other words, as a group the subjects were more likely to play safe if they thought they had something to lose (the “gain” tests) than if they thought they’d already lost most of what they had (the “loss” tests), despite the actual amount in both cases being the same. It highlights an instinctive component in risk tolerance – something that can be observed everywhere in nature (species will take greater risks when threatened with loss of the essentials for survival and will take fewer risks when their environment serves them well) as well as in human society. One would expect the results of offering increasing amounts to show that, in aggregate, the more that particpants stood to lose, the less they were inclined to gamble. After all, we can see that operating every week on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

The part of the brain which registered most activity during this study – the amygdala – is not concerned with emotion per se, but with emotionallearning and memory conditioning, particularly in response to fear. With money being such a key element of survival in our society, people’s attitudes towards it can be complex, deep and multilayered. Within that wider context, the range of responses in this study, as well as being entirely predictable, appear to make perfect sense. To attempt to separate them from this context – particularly since the amygdala’s involvement is signalling involvement of long-term memory – and derive conclusions about a pervasive lack of rationality based solely on the parameters of the study seems to be what is somewhat lacking in rationallity here.

What seems even more irrational is that taxpayers are paying good money for studies like this …

And once again fragmented, literal, linear thinking shows itself for what it is.

Study: Frames, Biases, and Rational Decision-Making in the Human Brain. Benedetto De Martino, Dharshan Kumaran, Ben Seymour, Raymond J Dolan. Science 4 August 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5787, pp. 684 – 687

“The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first,
nature is incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on,
there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine beings
more beautiful than words can tell.”
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Curative amnEASYa

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2006
Dr Christian Friedrich Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). Image W Howard

Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of Homeopathy

“The highest ideal of cure is rapid, gentle and permanent restoration of health, or removal and annihilation of disease in its whole extent, in the shortest, most reliable, and most harmless way, on easily comprehensible principles.”
Samuel Hahnemann, Organon of Medicine, 1842

A while back I was talking to a colleague who was expressing frustration and incomprehension at how it is that even people who’ve had some of her best and most successful homeopathic prescriptions still go running back to their MDs/GPs next time something’s amiss, and only come back to her after a series of prescriptions have failed to address the problem and it’s become more intractable in the process. It’s probably something that most homeopaths have experienced at one point or another, at least in countries where the biomedical model predominates, and it does seem a bit puzzling.

After all, the best prescriptions fulfill all Hahnemann’s criteria (left) for cure which, by general standards, are pretty stringent. Surely something so comprehensively effective would impress even the most hardened sceptic and be enough to elevate homeopathy into the position of first choice when it next became necessary to seek medical attention, as well as providing just the sort of data evidence-based medicine requires? Not so in every case, it seems. So what’s happening here?

It’s something I’d thought about off and on until I had first hand experience just before Christmas which threw a spotlight on the issue.

I started to come down with a succession of symptoms which told me a major cold was on its way. I get one every 2-3 years and this one felt like it was shaping up to fairly monstrous proportions. First there was the cold sore, then the loss of energy and vague nausea, then the sinus headaches with that peculiar pregnant sensation in the sinuses which warns you that in a few hours’ time you’re going to be drowning in exceedingly large quantities of catarrh. Usually I somehow manage to forget to treat myself, but on this occasion the prospect of being floored by a bad cold in the run-up to Christmas with all the school plays, carol services, choir concerts, shopping, etc, etc, was enough to get me out of bed (where I was trying unsuccessfully to sleep off the sinus headache) and onto the computer to run my symptoms through the remedy-selection process. The remedy was blazingly obvious – just as well since I could barely see straight, let alone think. I took a single Phosphorus 200C, crawled back into bed, and promptly fell asleep.

When I woke up a few hours later, the headache had gone and so had the pregnant sinuses. I made myself a hot drink and got an early night. By the next morning I was back to normal and even the remnants of the cold sore had disappeared. My state had completely changed and I just got up and on with my life as if nothing had happened. It took me a full 12 hours to get round to thinking about how I’d been feeling the previous day, at which point I was marvelling at my lucky escape, and another few hours after that to finally remember that I’d taken a remedy for it!

Clang! The penny dropped. If even a homeopathic practioner had been capable of forgetting that she’d taken a remedy and experienced the highest ideal of cure, what hope was there for those whose lives don’t involve living and working with homeopathy on a daily basis? It had all been just too easy. My state had changed. There was nothing that remained to remind me of the previous state I’d been in and therefore it simply didn’t impinge in any way on my consciousness.

Then thinking back to other times when I’d managed to get it together to find a remedy for myself in similar acute situations, I realised there had been a fair few such occasions. There was the time when I’d been very much under the weather and had dreamed of meeting an old and respected figure from homeopathic history who told me to take Rhus toxicodendron! I was highly sceptical (even though describing my state as “under the weather” should have rung peals of bells had I been in any state to think), but when I looked up my symptoms, it was the indicated remedy. It worked brilliantly.

So why, with all this good and powerful experience under my belt (not to mention the number of times I’ve witnessed it in action in others) doesn’t it instantly occur to me to treat myself homeopathically whenever I fall ill? Perhaps it has something to do with Michel de Montaigne’s assertion (below), and with the fact that under stress we tend to revert to knee-jerk conditioned behaviour rather than a plan of action derived from an intelligent assessment of past remedial strategies. For those who’s conditioned reaction is to go consult their GP/MD, then that’s what they do.

“Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

This “curative amnesia” also seems to be reflected in the number of patients who never return for follow-up consultations after first coming to a homeopath. When I first started in practice, I used to think all the non-returners were my dismal failures, but many of them subsequently came back months, sometimes years later to report that they simply got better and forgot all about their return visits. (This is something that no doubt a lot of homeopaths will recognise.) After realising this, I took to making it plain to people that they didn’t need to worry about coming back if they got better, but that it would be very nice to know they’d got better. It hasn’t made an ounce of difference. Once consciousness of the state disappears, it disappears.

Experiencing it for myself first hand like this brought to mind J T Kent’s (a well-known 19th/early 20th century homeopath) comment about symptoms being essentially something that impinge on our awareness (unfortunately I can’t lay my hands on chapter and verse right now). Also brought to mind an article I’d recently read which threw into sharp relief just how little of our existence and behaviour is governed by our rational intellect (see the articleUnscientific Attachment for another angle on this):

“Burgeoning understanding of our unconscious has deeply personal and also fascinating medical implications. The realization that our actions may not be the pristine results of our high-level reasoning can shake our faith in the strength of such cherished values as free will, a capacity to choose, and a sense of responsibility over those choices. […] According to cognitive neuroscientists, we are conscious of only about 5 percent of our cognitive activity, so most of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behavior depends on the 95 percent of brain activity that goes beyond our conscious awareness.”

Just 5%. Leaving 95% not only unexplained but unregistered. So much for our precious intellect. In this context, the much-vaunted aims of evidence-based medicine do start to look a little less glowingly straightforward than they might first appear.

“The poets did well to conjoin music and medicine, because the office of medicine is but to tune the curious harp of man’s body.”
Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Thanks to the current insanity revolving around homeopathy in this country, in both media and blogosphere, it's become necessary to insult your intelligence by explicitly drawing your attention to the obvious fact that any views or advice in this weblog/website are, unless stated otherwise, the opinions of the author alone and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you choose to take anything from here that might be construed as advice, you do so entirely under your own recognisance and responsibility.

smeddum.net - Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard