Monkeys, Mirrors, Metacognition, And Me…

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“You should take a long look at yourself in the mirror,” anybody could have said. 

It could be a case of: not completely liking what you see, liking it a little to much, or not even recognising that the thing in front of you is actually you. 

There are times when I look deeply into the person who stares at me from the mirror and I try to see if we are truly as one. If I look long enough, I see the image bleed-out its precision until only a blur stands before me. Eyes change, mouth changes, hair changes until I am an amorphous mass with out any meaning. I have to blink in order to resume normality.

From Science:

Strange as it might seem, not all animals can immediately recognize themselves in a mirror. Great apes, dolphins, Asian elephants, and Eurasian magpies can do this—as can human kids around age 2. Now, some scientists are welcoming another creature to this exclusive club: carefully trained rhesus monkeys. The findings suggest that with time and teaching, other animals can learn how mirrors work, and thus learn to recognize themselves—a key test of cognition.

“It’s a really interesting paper because it shows not only what the monkeys can’t do, but what it takes for them to succeed,” says Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist at Hunter College in New York City, who has given the test to dolphins and Asian elephants in other experiments.

The mirror self-recognition test (MSR) is revered as a means of testing self-awareness. A scientist places a colored, odorless mark on an animal where it can’t see it, usually the head or shoulder. If the animal looks in the mirror and spontaneously rubs the mark, it passes the exam. Successful species are said to understand the concept of “self” versus “other.”

By Virginia Morell

 

I found it interesting that humans did not actually have this cognitive skill inherent in their circuitry whereas other animals do. It’s taken me a goodly time to realise that the person in the mirror is actually me and not some distant memory.

It appears that the little rhesus needs to be trained to accept that the thing it is looking at is itself and not another. And when it looks around the edge of its reflection, there is nothing there. Other creatures have an initial reaction that oscillates between fear, surprise, and aggression. Yet writers have often journeyed into that territory beyond the mirror, that otherness, and that is where I have been for this last year and a half.

It is that otherness that lies through the looking glass that has helped me to rediscover that self that almost became extinct (before I wondered in and through the false assumption that a mirror is just some frame of material that reflects light rather than absorbing it).

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

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Must dash now.. I’m late for something that is very important.

 

 

 

 

Theft and the Tragic Cycle

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The thing about coincidences is that they do tend to happen, if only by coincidence. Take my daughter’s bike for example; as somebody did the other day.

In the great pantheon of stealing, bike theft comes in at a very low ranking.

If Aristotle was to pronounce upon it, he would state that bikes in themselves cannot be seen as tragic. Bikes are not high status and therefore do not deserve to be invested with tragic qualities. The theft of a bike is the taking of a shell from the seashore.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, may have been a secret cyclist, if they had had them in his day. He could have written a play about Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins and his tragic flaw. A working title could have been, Measure for Measure in Plastic Bags. Other great writers may have also wanted to add to the genre with EM Forster and his Froome With A View, Alan Silitoe and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Ride, and Robert Pirsig’s, Men and The Art of Road Bike Maintenance. How the world would have spun on its axle.

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And this is where coincidence rears its expected head. As well as being a coincidence that these great writers of our shared cultural past did not write one word on the travails of  turning the wheels (or having them stolen), it was a coincidence that on the morning of the bike theft that my wife and I deleted photographs of the bike in question from my iPhone. They had been there in order to sell it. It didn’t sell, but we don’t have to worry about that now – do we?

One last addition to the growing list of Tour de Force literature could well have been Lord of the Big Ring by a bloke called Tolkien.

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I do hope that bike burglar meets his Mordor.

Going nowhere on a tragic cycle…

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The problem with tragedy is that it never has a happy ending.

Tragedy ends in death.

It starts with a bad decision, leads on to disgrace and downfall, scrapes you through a period of suffering that appears never likely to end before there is a realisation, ‘Fuck, that’s what I did wrong’ or, ‘Fuck, I still don’t know what I did wrong.’ Regardless of self-awareness or not, the tragic circle wants to play itself out.

You, if you be the tragic hero, have been brought low for a reason: hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hamartia, or just the fact that the unknown gods are wanting to have a bit of fun with your oh-so-mortal concerns, once it happens, you are doomed.

And then you die.

Not fair, but then apart from democracy what did the Greeks ever do for fairness? As far as I can see, they spent their time in white sheets, bestriding the known world, creating stories that spoke of our eventual doom, admiring each others’ butts and keeping their wives in a state of servitude that made slavery look humanitarian. Deeply flawed themselves, the enlisted a guy called Aristotle to run out a series of rules that would govern the purity of tragedy. It wasn’t the Bee Gees but it did stay at number one for an awful long time.

So, Mr Morbid philosopher, why is it that you are so interested with me at this moment in time?

Reminders of tragedy surround me. I walk into a school or college and Macbeth springs out. Willy Loman makes a dramatic entrance or Tess Durbeyfield ambles along. And at the back of all this is me, the witless teacher who is being employed to stand in front of groups of young people and explain the importance of the tragic. Some deep irony, I am thinking.

Now, if what Aristotle says is to be believed, there is no way out for me; I’m as good as a gonna already. What’s the point?

The point is that I have to earn my right to be released into the dark embrace of an even darker infinity of complete darkness. Why struggle when the fisherman of fate has got you, hook, line and sinker, and he’s pulling you from the waters of Styx by your very own testicles. What a ball-ache? No wonder we are leaving the Common Agricultural Policy – it’s got Greek written all over it! Tragic.

So, back to me and my little problem with being trapped in the role of a tragic character.

I am not a hero, never wanted to be, not even when I had a Jesus complex. I have not committed any great error of judgement, unless one thinks that going into the teaching profession was significantly grave to determine that I should be staked out on the bare rock of Mount Olympus in order to have my eyes eaten out and my liver exhumed (only for it to be played out again at the next day’s matinee showing).

Yet here I am, standing at the foot of some great precipice, staring up at dark clouds that are threatening to dump their even darker load of shit upon me just for the sake of theatrical rules. It is simply not fair.

I am an ordinary man. I have had moments (usually sleep or drug induced) when I may have thought otherwise, but after much self-evaluation and expert analysis, I can sadly say that I am normal. So, why, why, why am I being employed as a plaything of the Gods?

And what makes it ever so galling is that these bloody gods are not my gods or anyone else’s gods as they have been bloody well dead for centuries. It’s like being stalked by a ghost of somebody who was, in life, and agnostic a non believer, a sceptic. You don’t bloody exist, this tragic wheel on which I have been tethered does not exist, these coincidences of literature that my students are studying do not exist in the way that a non-existent Fate would have them exist. But when I look at my arms, I realise that the reason that I can’t move them is that they are tied to some forever turning wheel that will not let me get off unless I completely check-out.

Reminder to self: what strategies can I use to get out of tragic proceedings?                    

 

Just Another Fryday

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Out of the frying pan and into the weekend. 

I have always thought that the working week has been organised by somebody who doesn’t read the label; Fragile, This way up!

So, after a reasonably long working week, we get two days off to celebrate, relax, commiserate and fret.

Weekends are the product of the need to work and the need to show thanks and obedience to God and our other masters. We give thanks for not having been dragged off for lunch by a Dire Wolf or not having succumbed to a deadly dose of Black Death. Nose, arms, ears, feet, toes and our pleasure bits are still in order so let’s make hay. The problem is that the hay is just as much an illusion as the expanse of weekend that lies before us. Two bloody days! Forty-eight hours! Such a tiny amount of time to rebalance our bodies and minds.

But the fact that I am not in charge of an unruly tribe of early teens (unruly in the terms of a viking raiding party) means that I am not as incapacitated as I would have been. Kids now call me Mike. They thank me for lessons. They say nice words to my face. I may have died and entered some surreal world of educational derangement but it’s alright by me and long may it last.

Little bastard-devil on my shoulder is now up on tip-toes and whispering in my ear.

Like dandruff, I have metaphorically dusted him off.

God on Sex…

God wishes men to make love to their wives regularly. It’s a duty, a religious observance, so why block the bedroom door?

For men of independence, it is every day.

For labourers, it is twice a week.

For donkey drivers, once a week.

For camel drivers, it is once every thirty days.

For sailors, it is once every six months.

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So these are the lessons of becoming independent. Relying on nobody else to put food on your table means a better share in the end.

Blessed be the NUPTUALLED.

The Moon and Masturbation

EXTRA, EXTRA, READ ALL ABOUT IT!

Luna gives the adjective lunaticus. This appears in the Vulgate (405) of the Dalmatian Christian writer Saint Jerome (Eusebius Hieronymus, 348–420) as an epithet for “a moon-struck” person, whence “crazed, insane, lunatic.” It was used of epilepsy, from the notion that the seizures were precipitated by moonlight. The paroxysmal nature of the disease was thought to be dependent upon the phases of the moon.

Lexicon Orthopaedic Etymology

 

I was just wondering if it was the moon-landing that was responsible for my oft’-felt bouts of mental illness. It was probably about his time that things started to happen for me: walls closing in; God-bothering; sleepwalking. In previous times, I could have been successfully charged with being a witch. In a much more benign age, I would have merely been sent to a mental institution, a place I know that at least one on my relatives went to. This is my claim to a luna-lineage.

 

Below is a list of reasons that could have prompted a stay in the local loony-bin.

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I must admit that the first thing that drew my eye was the inclusion of masturbation. It gets five mentions, and this is not counting the implied listings. On second glance, after stopping again and considering the implications of Deranged Masturbation (there is a disturbing picture in my minds’ eye), I read, Novel Reading. Now, I think that I tick a number of these boxes although I have never fallen from a horse in war. I did, however, like Ralph Harris’ hit song, Two Little Boys. Now, however, I find this less palatable that it appeared in 1969, when it was first released. There’s that year again, spooky. There is something to my original hypothesis.

 

I was seven when a bunch of adventurous Americans set foot on the moon. I was seven years of age and the world was still in black and white. I was seven and sitting crossed-legged on the parquet-flooring of my junior school’s assembly hall. I was seven and the universe had touched us. I was seven and life, for a moment, offered unlimited possibilities. Being seven meant that the men from the moon had almost another fifty years to work on my mind.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I am not blaming moon-men or masturbation on my mental fragility; I have never met a moon-man. But now, things are starting to make sense. What if, on re-entry, one of the astronauts still had some luna-dust beneath his finger nails? Ha, ha, I hear you say (voices again).

 

And yet there is method in my muddled machinations.

Psychiatrists were once known as alienists because they cared for individuals who were thought of as alienated from both society and themselves.1 In the past 150 years or so, the terms psychiatry and psychiatrists have become more prominent and are used almost exclusively. Despite origins in the mainstream of medicine and the medical training of its practitioners, psychiatry is often not seen as a medical specialty or as scientific.2 Other medical professionals might see psychiatry as touchy feely and lacking intellectual rigour, resulting in poor recruitment and retention.

Dinesh Bhurgra   first published The Lancet   August 12th 2014

 

A big IF, but what IF that moon-dust got into our atmosphere and started to work its magic? People wouldn’t be thinking of me as some undercooked fantasist who spent his time inventing any range of reasons why he’d started to bark at the proverbial moon, would they? Look at the dates. August 12th is just a couple of weeks after July 21st and, considering that alien incubation roughly takes place over thirty-five years, it’s definitely possible that Dinesh, if I may be so familiar, had stumbled on something. Is it not strange that other members of the medical elite failed to take psychiatry seriously? The words, ‘touchy feely’  suggest that it is a practice performed by art or drama teachers. Hey, I’m onto something here. They can’t get people to apply for the jobs that psychiatry has to offer and, when they do, they can’t keep them. Something is rotten in the state of mental illness. 

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You may have gathered that I am writing this as a way of warding off the darkness. The last few days, it has been waking, stalking me, trying to pull me back into its embrace. It’s a real thing, not touchy-feely but Scary-Mary.  In the middle of the night, while everyone else sleeps, it creeps up  and suffocates me with its black pessimism. It sucks the wind from my newly-found sails and leaves me at the mercy of some approaching squall.  And when I wake, finally wake, to the world of my wife and children, there is something tainted about my belief that hope is just beyond the horizon.

 

So I sat down this morning, with my old friend and Apple Mac in order to summon up the words to drive it off into it’s own world. 

I didn’t know where any of this was going before I started to write. I still have only a nebulous idea, but it has brought it out into the open. We have glimpsed each other across the battlefield and now I am able to mask my anxiety. It seems a long, long time ago since this thing turned up in the middle of the night and kicked my arse all over the house. It kicked so hard that it almost kicked my out of my own life. Yet now, I think I know a little bit more about it.

 

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Every day, in every way, I getting better and better.

Say it quietly.

 

Love of a Bargain

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Perhaps I was born with the need to fall upon ‘bargains’ like a bird of prey upon its ‘prey’.

I was brought up in the 60s, post war, but not yet post poor. In truth, bargains did not exist back then. There were no reductions for ‘sell-by-date’ as there was no defined date at which something was ‘best before’. The rule of thumb was that if it stunk to high heaven, was mushy to the touch, ticked all the boxes of ‘rank’, it was not good to consume. Sometimes we consumed it anyway and this steadied our constitution.

I heard the rumour that spicy food was invented to hide the taste of food that was well into the dead zone. In northern England, there was no such thing as spices and, during the mini ice-age that descended upon Yorkshire during my childhood, there was little chance of anything ‘going over’.

The early part of my life was spent eating food that was only seasoned by conservative smatterings of salt and pepper. Only when I reached the age of sixteen did I discover the joy of curry.

No, that’s not fully true. My elder sister went to work at a store called Marks and Spencer. This was a posh store frequented by those people who had the money to indulge their indulgences. The food was so expensive that it was light years away from any diet that we could ever expect to participate in. That was when I first heard the term, ‘waste’.

Waste was the stuff that hadn’t been sold. It was the foodstuff that was likely to go off if it were to be saved over the weekend. And good old M&S thought it a good idea to give it to their employees for a very reasonable price. So followed lasagnes, chilli con carne, curries, pheasant pies and a whole range of sweet dishes most men had never previously dreamt of. Our family table became a cornucopia of all things tasty and exotic. My cup runneth over.

My love of good food continued alongside my love of a ‘bargain’. So when some bright spark in Europe decided that it was a good idea to label foods with ‘best before’ a whole frontier of bargains was suddenly declared officially open. Could life get any better?

As an older shopper I no longer have the desire for a bargain (he lies). No, I have. I just don’t tell any body. Actually, again that is an untruth. I love bargains especially when they come from relatively expensive stores. And it is that completion of the circle that brings around Marks and Spencer once more.

My town is moderately wealthy with lots of silver surfers who are often really quite wealthy. Some time ago, I started to adjust my shopping times in order to slide into the ‘best before’ reduction slots. This allowed me to grab a bargain whilst also playing the role of a modern hunter-gatherer. Things were going well until the ‘silver surfers’ began to turn up.

Before long the aisles of M&S were crowded with the trolleys of these affluent pre-dead. They had a certain way of pushing their trolleys by bending over them and using the potential energy of a promised fall to propel the shopping vehicle forward. They would wait in aisles waiting for the moment to pounce, and boy could they pounce. Once infront of the food reductions, a number of them would block off the entrance to ‘bargainsville’ and pick away at their leisure before leaving with a ridiculously and amoral amount of ‘best before’ at ridiculously and unethically low prices.

The world had turned.  

Farewell all that is good with waste.