Posts tagged ‘Psychology’

Mother Earth by Matthaeus Merian

Mother Earth, who nourishes all things, an engraving by Matthaeus Merian from alchemist Michael Maier’s Atalanta fugiens (1617).

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Anne Hull

Consider the substantial reality of an abstraction like love. We see the sacrifices people make for one another every day in the name of love as evidence of love’s existence. But what we mean by love varies a lot by context.

We all know that loving pizza and loving power are quite different, both in quality and magnitude; likewise, brotherly love and sexual love are quite different (unless your brother is your lover). Love doesn’t even have to be reciprocal, at least not to the same extent. I love my dog and cat, but not equally; they both love me, but not equally. Ain’t Love Grand?

Mother love is the sort of love we as a culture get most mushy and sentimental about, especially unconditional mother love. If you were lucky enough to experience this, you certainly miss it when it’s gone. My mother loved me unconditionally (my father, not so much). I consider myself very lucky. She’s been gone more than 13 years, but I still think of my mother every day.

We gush about mother love even though not all mothers seem to love their offspring instinctually. But we’ve made up our minds; don’t confuse us with the facts!

The love of a mother for her child and the love of a child for a mother are among the most powerful motivators we know, far stronger than even money, power, or prestige. Research has shown that when babies are not kissed, patted, and talked to as their diapers are changed and bottles of milk supplied, the lack of “mothering” can result in mental disorders, lowered intelligence and even death for the unfortunate child. Failure to thrive, in medical terms.

It works both ways. How many elderly mothers molder away in nursing homes neglected by their offspring? Such social isolation leads to death. Old people with regular interaction with their children and loved ones live longer and stay healthier in both mind and body.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, neglect and apathy can be as powerful as either fire or ice, and will suffice — to end the world. Ignoring what’s going on around us in the natural world as well as the political world won’t make it any less potentially deadly.

Why isn’t our love for Mother Earth strong enough?

Frederik Pohl and Milly

Me and Milly

Psychologist Emile van der Zee, at the University of Lincoln in the U.K., is studying how dogs perceive differences between objects. When a human being hears the word “ball” he forms a visual image of something marked by its roundness — the most marked trait he observes by looking at it and handling it.

His dog, however, does not rely on those inputs. Its principal source of information is its mouth, and it isn’t clear what traits it considers most significant when dogs handle things with their mouths, which seems to suggest that size and texture are more important.

Researchers taught a collie dog named Gable made-up names for some objects, one of them being a horseshoe-shaped thing they named a “dax.” Asked to fetch a “dax,” Gable brought something larger or smaller, but not necessarily retaining the “shape” bias.


Researchers led by Andrew Jarosz at the University of Illinois at Chicago devised an experiment to check the conviction, held by some, that an author’s work desk is not complete without a typewriter, some paper and (at least) one open bottle of beer. They gave 40 men either a vodka and cranberry drink or a non-alcoholic one, after which they all took a test which required them to link groups of words with a given concept.

The vodka drinkers solved 38 percent more problems than the teetotallers and reached the correct answer faster. And so (identities withheld) are vindicated at last.

Frederik Pohl and Milly

I have the dog. . . .

For the science-minded among us, there’s a home scientific experiment that you might like to try. For it, you will need the following research materials:

4–6 little opaque cups with lids
1 piece of tasty dog food
1 baby about 1 year old
1 pet dog
1 domesticated wolf
(optional) 1 each bonobo, chimpanzee, gorilla and other great ape

Procedure: In a room where none of the animals are present put the piece of tasty dog food in one of the cups, cover it and line them up on a table. Admit one of the animals. Point to the cup containing the dog food. Observe the response of the animal.

In general, if the animal used in this trial is either the pet dog or the baby of about 1 year or more in age it will then attempt to open the cup. If successful in that effort, it will then eat the piece of dog food. If it is any other kind of animal, it will probably pay little or no attention to your signal but will sniff each of the cups, perhaps attempt to lick your face or simply wander around the room.

You will probably suppose from this behavior that the dog and the baby have inferred that you are calling attention to the one cup that contains a reward — the piece of dog food — for the subject animal and thus attempt to find out what that reward is, whereas none of the other animals will appear to draw that conclusion. At least, that is the conclusion reached by the team of ethologists led by Jozsef Topal at the Institute for Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.

Interestingly, no other kind of living creature displays this ability to interpret a human signal except for the domestic dog and the human baby, which begins to be able to solve the problem of interpreting this nonverbal human signal around its first birthday. The wolf is the closest relative to the domestic dog, but even a wolf that has been raised since birth in the company of human beings, as well as any of the great apes, the closest species to human beings, fails miserably at this task.

It is suggested that this innate quality of dogs is what has made them particularly easy to domesticate.

Part 7 of “Alfred Bester and Frederik Pohl — The Conversation,” recorded 26 June 1978 at The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

Alfred Bester, ca. 1964.

    Alfred Bester, ca. 1964.

Pohl: I want to tell you something about this arrogance that you were talking about. It is not just editors, although the best in science fiction have been pretty insufferable in one way or another. We’ve mentioned Horace Gold, who was also demented. John Campbell clearly had a very decisive personality and impressed it on everybody around him all the time.

Some years ago two psychologists decided they wanted to find out what science-fiction writers were like. They sent out a questionnaire to a bunch of science-fiction writers and asked them to answer the sort of questions you get on psychological-testing papers. How do you feel about your mother and this and that. And from these they prepared a group psychological profile of science fiction writers.

They compared it with a similar group profile for some other kind of writers and for a third group of people. They found out that the science fiction writers were in many ways similar to most human beings! There were a couple of differences, and one was in what is called “aggressive” versus “withdrawn” “cyclothymia.”

Bester: What is “cyclothymia”?

Pohl: It’s a kind of lunacy. [Editor’s note: Cycling mood swings, but short of actual bipolar affective disorder.] But the question was not whether you had it, but if you had it which way you would go. Withdrawn cyclothymic people are more or less passive and tend to let things go; they overlook something that is wrong. The people who tend the other way are stubborn and won’t take nothing from nobody, and have their own opinions which you’re not going to change with an ax!

And science fiction writers were like that — the stubbornest, most difficult human beings alive!

Audience: How do writers get along with their readerships?

Bester: Fine, splendid. People ask me questions, and I answer them. People ask for autographs and I sign them. People want to talk to me. They’d like to be writers, so l try to help as hard as l can. I get along fine with readers.

Fred, have you ever been attacked by a reader?

Pohl: Not physically, no! But I went to a meeting in Boston some years ago; it was a Mensa meeting, and I was supposed to talk about science fiction and discuss it with somebody else, and this person came up to me and handed me a copy of one of my books.

I said, “Oh, you want my autograph.”

And he said, “No, I want to give it back to you. I hate it. I don’t want it in my possession.” And that’s the closest I ever came to being attacked. Of course, I started out as a fan.

Bester: So did I. I read what’s his name’s Amazing Stories when I was only that high. I couldn’t even afford to buy any. I used to read it on the newsstand. Until they chased me, and I’d come back five minutes later and I’d finish the story.

Pohl: Well, I didn’t do that. I bought them in secondhand stores and got them for a nickel. I identify more closely with readers than I do with most writers. I still read science fiction for pleasure. Not all of it, because who can? 1,200 books a year is more than I can handle. But when I have finished reading what I have to read professionally in science fiction, I read some just for fun.

Bester: Fortunately I don’t have to read it professionally. I read it just for fun, and I do read science fiction regularly.

Alas, there is not as much fun for me today because now that I’m a professional writer, always in the back of the mind is the critical writer, saying “Oh man, you loused that scene, you could have done it better.” That kind of thing kills a lot of stories for me. But occasionally a beaut comes along.

Continue reading ‘Me and Alfie, Part 7: Cyclothymia’ »

New York Times Magazine

I admit I do, and as a matter of fact have since I was twelve years old, although my reasons changed as the years piled up. Of course the first draw was the plentiful and profusely illustrated ads that made me first to grab that section on Sunday mornings: What twelve-year-old boy doesn’t enjoy photos of pretty young girls in their underwear? Then it was the twin pull of the Sunday crossword puzzle and the cooking page.. I never tasted a single one of those dishes except in imagination, but in that form every one was delicious. And, of course, for decades on end doing that huge Sunday crossword puzzle was a ritual for half the families in America.

But the Times still holds me. It’s one of my greatest extravagances, by which I don’t mean its dollars and cents cost but its exorbitant price in hours and minutes. By the time I get through the world news section and the national, and Books, Travel, The Week in Review and the Magazine, the day is pretty well shot, and I haven’t even opened Business, Sports or any of the eight or ten other sections that come tumbling out of their plastic sheath.

But I’m fond of the ones I do read. Unfailingly they provide me with little nuggets of knowledge I might not otherwise possess. In one issue of the Magazine, for instance, I learned that if I have a little naturally occurring lithium in my tap water the chance of my committing suicide is lessened — so reported the neuropsychiatrist Takeshi Terao, after a study of communities in Japan’s Oita Prefecture. And if you pull out those old sixth-grade snapshots of yourself and study them, are you smiling? Psychologist Matthew Hertenstein reported that when he compared the top ten percent of childhood smilers with the bottom, the nonsmiling kids grew up to have five times as many divorces.

In that same issue of the Magazine, I learned that we now have a third option for what to do with our corpses when we’re through with them in addition to the old standbys.of burial or cremation. It’s called resomation, and it’s ecologically sound, neither increasing the carbon burden nor taking priceless land out of productive use. It was pioneered by the Mayo Clinic as a means of disposing of donated cadavers when no longer needed, and is now beginning to become available to commercial undertakers in a few states. In resomation, the corpse is heated in a potassium hydroxide solution for three hours, after which all that’s left is a soft, white cremation-like ash, plus shiny dental fillings and surgical implants, if any existed, and a brownish liquid which, being 100-percent sterile, can be poured away with waste waters.