The Homunculus

Psychology, Anthropology, Evolution

Archive for December, 2009

Look beneath the floorboards

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 17, 2009

Probably my favorite Sufjian Stevens’ song, John Wayne Gacy Jr ends with stanza ‘And in my best behavior / I am really just like him  / Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid.’ But are we really just like John Wayne Gacy, who put up a facade of respectability while he murdered a string of boys?

Technically no. It was earlier mentioned that psychopaths have an impaired capacity to detect fearful expressions. In his book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer wrote about Gacy’s inability to feel for his victims. These stem out of malfunctions in the brain. Thankfully, there is a very small percentage of people who are like these.

In the sense that we are capable of doing much evil, then yes. From the history of world genocides and human brutality, we have seen that much of these has been done not by psychopaths, but by ordinary citizens caught in senseless and difficult situations. Theorists and social scientists have proposed their share of theories to explain this behavior: Milgram’s obedience studies, Zimbardo’s studies on roleplaying and others.

So perhaps, evil in the sense of doing wrong, is just all too human.


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from de Waal & Dawkins

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 12, 2009

Society is not really made to be a purely competitive operation. And I think we have learned that lesson, but I don’t know for how long. The whole argument that nature is red in tooth and claw, and for that reason society ought to be like that, is flawed. Because nature is not like that. If you look at our close relatives, you see animals who survive by cooperating. Yes, there is competition. There is dominance, hierarchy. They sometimes fight. They sometimes even kill each other. But they stick together because they survive together much better than alone.

Frans de Waal, primatologist and author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society

“The position I have always adopted is that much of animal nature is indeed altruistic, cooperative and even attended by benevolent subjective emotions, but that this follows from, rather than contradicts, selfishness at the genetic level.”

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene

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The comfort of sad songs

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 9, 2009

We were in a Richard Poon event in Eastwood last night. The Fil-Taiwanese jazz singer played a series of songs revolving around heartache/heartbreak, teasing the audience if they were in tears yet. He admitted he only got the habit of singing continuous slow sad songs from a fellow singer, and didn’t get the point of ‘paying a fee to get your painful experiences relived to you.’ But that he had noticed that it worked.

So why does it work? Why do we want to hear sad songs just when we’re sad? According to neuroscientist David Huron, listeners of sad songs feel an empathy similar to what they would feel hearing the voice of a loved one and that sad music triggers cues of our own experiences, which gives us the ‘they’re playing our song’ moment.

He adds that when music makes us cry, we release prolactin. The release of this hormone, along with oxytocin and dopamine mimics what we feel when we bond with others. “I suggest that the pleasure of musically induced weeping arises from cortical inhibition of the amygdala, and is linked to the release of the hormone prolactin . . . Weeping shares a deep kinship with laughter, frisson (‘chills’), and awe (‘gasping’) — responses that philosopher Edmund Burke called the ‘sublime emotions.’” Crying  over music makes us happy, comforts us, no matter how paradoxical that sounds.

[this is just a lame excuse to write about Richard Poon who did a Nobody jazz medley with the standard clap/steps, and who, uh, melted my, uh, heart. OK enough now.]

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Scream all you want

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 8, 2009

That’s John Wayne Gacy Jr. Known as the Clown Killer, Gacy Jr. would dress up as Pogo the Clown and go to children’s parties to entertain. He was also father, a husband, a political activist, and a respected member of the community. During an investigation of a boy’s disappearance, policemen came inside Gacy’s home and smelled the odor of corpses coming from a heating duct. Gacy had killed more than 30 boys, most buried under his floor. He joked that he was guilty of ‘running a cemetery without a license.’

In a paper published  by Marsh and Blair on individuals with antisocial behavior and the recognition of facial expressions, antisocial populations were found to have a significantly impaired detection of fearful expressions. These populations  were those showing presence of antisocial behaviors (aggressive, criminal etc) and those with both antisocial behaviors and personality traits such as lack of remorse/guilt often termed as psychopathic. Normal individuals have a basic range of emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, the expressions of which are universal across cultures. .

Bering notes that fear has been argued as the distress signal of individuals, more than sadness, as it signals a more urgent need. Psychopaths do not recognize this fear. Bering writes about a task where a psychologist (Marsh’s colleage) showed a murderer a picture of a fearful face. “I don’t know what that expression is called, but I know it’s what people look like right before I stab them,” said the murderer.   


John Wayne Gacy Jr. wiki entry

The problem with psychopaths

Details in facial affect recognition among anti-social populations (PDF)

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Cognitive Science 3D Mind Map

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 7, 2009

CogSpace has a wonderful 3D mind map of cognitive science which plots the six academic domains of cognitive science which are: psychology, linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience, computer science, and philosophy on the Cartesian system. Subdomains like Neurolinguistics, Computational Neuroscience and others plotted accordingly, according to proximity and relations to these fields.

From the abstract:

“With this dynamic arrangement of organizational factors, the model renders a unique integral perspective and informative cartography of the “terrain”, and provides a “navigational instrument” for our explorative traversing across the frontier of consciousness research. By plotting each sub-domain in scope of the relative positions of all other domains, areas of knowledge and research concentration and lack of concentration (“unexplored regions”) become apparent. When referencing any particular disciplinary sub-domain within the manifold model, where it is at and what color it is can suggest something about it’s qualitative proximity to either more discrete and concrete or more continuous and abstract types of knowledge and research. .. The closer a sub-domain is to the exact center, the closer it is to blending and fusing with an absolute, unified, and direct knowing and application of consciousness itself…”

Michael Gaio, who is currently developing the map, has placed instructions for better navigation, so you can play around with it for some geeky fun.

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from Jared Diamond

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 7, 2009

“We study the injustices of history for the same reason that we study genocide, and for the same reason that psychologists study the minds of murderers and rapists… to understand how those evil things came about. “

– Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel

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finally, a reason to discuss pole dancing

Posted by Joy Icayan on December 4, 2009

Tim Kurtz and Kally Whitehead discuss the shift of meanings with regards to pole dancing, from an activity that potentially objectifies women (as performed in strip bars usually subject to male gaze) to a form of aerobic exercise and as something that women enjoy and feel good about.

It is necessary to note that in instances of oppression (whether perceived or real), the ones oppressed often find ways to retrieve power back. This can be seen by how colonialized cultures assimilate their cultures to the dominant one, or how homosexuals have shifted the meaning of ‘queer’, and women of ‘bitch’. Language too, is power play.

(Pole dancing link comes from Patrick of Secret Vespers.)

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