Tag Archives: psychology

Being There

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We think of wilderness as an absence of sound, movement and event. We rent our rural cottages ‘for a bit of peace and quiet.’ That shows how switched off we are. A country walk should be a deafening, threatening, frantic, exhausting cacophony.


If today’s shorn, burned, poisoned apology for wilderness should do that to us, just think what the real wild, if it still existed, would do. It’d be like taking an industrial cocktail of speed, heroin and LSD and dancing through a club that’s playing the Mozart Requiem to the beat of the Grateful Dead, expecting every moment to have your belly unzipped by a cave bear.

All humans are Sheherazades: we die each morning if we don’t have a good story to tell, and the good ones are all old.

Up for a bit of time travel? No, no, no, not in the sci-fi sense of physically transporting to another era. But in the mostly imaginary sense of picturing oneself in a prior age. Well, maybe more than just picturing, maybe picturing with the addition of some visceral experience. Charles Foster has written about what life is like for otters, badgers, foxes, deer and swifts, by living like them for a time. He wrote about those experiences in his book, Being a Beast. He wonders, here, how experiencing life as a Paleolithic and a Neolithic person can inform our current understanding of ourselves.

I thought that, if I knew where I came from, that might shed some light on what I am…It’s a prolonged thought experiment and non-thought experiment, set in woods, waves, moorlands, schools, abattoirs, wattle-and-daub huts, hospitals, rivers, cemeteries, caves, farms, kitchens, the bodies of crows, museums, breaches, laboratories, medieval dining halls, Basque eating houses, fox-hunts, temples, deserted Middle Eastern cities and shaman’s caravans.

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Charles Foster – image from Oxford University

His journey begins with (and he spends the largest portion of the book on) the Upper Paleolithic (U-P) era, aka the Late Stone Age, from 50,000 to 12,000 years ago, when we became, behaviorally, modern humans. Foster is quite a fan of the period, seeing it as some sort of romantic heyday for humanity, one in which we were more fully attuned with the environments in which we lived, able to use our senses to their capacity, instead of getting by with the vastly circumscribed functionality we have today.

Interested in the birth of human consciousness, he puts himself, and his 12 yo son, Tom, not only into the mindset of late Paleolithic humans, but into their lives. He and Tom live wild in Derbyshire, doing their best to ignore the sounds of passing traffic, while living on roadkill (well, I guess they do not entirely ignore traffic) and the bounty of the woods. They deal with hunger, the need for shelter, and work on becoming attuned to their new old world.

We’re not making the wood into our image: projecting ourselves onto it. It’s making us. If we let it.

In one stretch Foster fasts for eight days, which helps bring on a hallucinatory state (intentionally). Shamanism is a major cultural element in the U-P portrait he paints. It is clearly not his first trip. He recalls an out-of-body experience he had while in hospital, the sort where one is looking down from the ceiling at one’s physical body, seeing this as of a cloth with a broader capacity for human experience. He relates this also to the cave paintings of the era, seeing them, possibly, as the end-product of shamanic tripping. This section of the book transported me back to the 1960s and the probably apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda.

Social grooming was important to ancestors of our species. But, with our enlarged brains able to handle, maybe, a community of 150 people, grooming became too cost-intensive.

To maintain a group that size strictly by grooming, we’d have to groom for about 43% percent of our time, which would be deadly. Something else had to make up for the shortfall, and other things have. We have developed a number of other endorphin-releasing, bond-forming strategies that don’t involve touching [social distancing?]. They are…laughter, wordless singing/dancing, language and ritual/religion/story.

It sure gives the expression rubbed me the wrong way some added heft.

He has theories about religion, communication, and social organization that permeate this exploration. He posits, for example, that late Paleo man was able to communicate with a language unlike our own, a more full-body form of expression, maybe some long-lost form of charades. There is an ancient language, thought to have been used by Neanderthals, called HMMM, or holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and memetic communication. It is likely that some of this carried forward. And makes one wonder just how far back the roots go to contemporary languages that incorporate more rather than less musicality, more rather than less tonality, and more rather than less bodily support for spoken words.

He writes about a time when everything, not just people, were seen as having a soul, some inner self that exists separately, although living within a body, a tree, a hare, a blade of grass. This sort of worldview makes it a lot tougher to hunt for reasons that did not involve survival. And makes understandable rituals in many cultures in which forgiveness is begged when an animal is killed. This becomes much more of a thing when one feels in tune with one’s surroundings, an experience Foster reports as being quite real in his Derbyshire adventure. This tells him that Paleo man was better able to sense, to be aware of his surroundings than almost any modern human can.

Foster has a go at the Neolithic as well, trying to see what the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture was like, and offers consideration of the longer-term impacts on humanity that emanated from that change. This is much less involved and involving, but does include some very interesting observations on how agriculture revolutionized the relationship people had with their environment.

…the first evidence of sedentary communities comes from around 11,000 years ago. We see the first evidence of domesticated plants and animals at about the same time. Yet, it is not for another 7,000 years that there are settled villages, relying on domesticated plants or fixed fields. For 7,000 years, that is, our own model of human life, which we like to assume would have been irresistibly attractive to the poor benighted caveman, was resisted or ignored, just as it is by more modern hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers only become like us at the end of a whip. Our life is a last resort for the creatures that we really are.

He notes that even when farming took root, many of those newly minted farmers continued living as hunter-gatherers for part of the year.

He finishes up with a glance at the contemporary. More of a screed really. He notes that phonetic writing severed the connection our languages have with the reality they seek to portray. Pre-phonetic languages tend to be more onomatopoeic, the sounds more closely reflecting the underlying reality. He sees our modern brains as functioning mostly as valves, channeling all available sensation through a narrow pipeline, while leaving behind an entire world of possible human experience that we are no longer equipped to handle. To that extent we all have super-powers, of potential awareness, anyway, that lie waiting for someone to open the right valve, presuming they have not been corroded into inutility by disuse. He tells of meeting a French woman in Thailand whose near-death experience left her passively able to disrupt electronic mechanisms. She could not, for example, use ATMs. They would always malfunction around her.

He takes a run at what is usually seen to indicate “modern” humanity.

I’ve come to wonder whether symbolism is all it’s cracked up to be, and in particular whether its use really is the great watershed separating us from everything else that had gone before.

He argues that trackers, for example, can abstract from natural clues the stories behind them, and those existed long before so-called “modern man.”

He calls in outside authorities from time to time to fill in gaps. These extra bits always add fascinating pieces of information. For example,

Later I wrote in panic to biologist David Haskell, an expert on birdsong, begging him to reassure me that music is ‘chronologically and neurologically prior to language.’ It surely is, he replied. ‘It seems that preceding both is bodily motion: the sound-controlling centers of the brain are derived from the same parts of the embryo as the limb motor system, so all vocal expression grows from the roots that might be called dance or, less loftily, shuffling about.

Foster is that most common of writers, a veterinarian and a lawyer. Wait, what? Sadly, there is no telling in here (it is present in his Wiki page, though) of how he managed to train for these seemingly unrelated careers. (I can certainly envision a scenario, though, in which we hear lawyer Foster proclaiming to the court, “My client could not possibly be guilty of this crime, your honor. The forensic evidence at the scene clearly shows that the act was committed by an American badger, while my client, as anyone can see, is a Eurasian badger.”) It certainly seems clear, though, from his diatribes against modernity, where his heart is. In the visceral, physical work of dealing with animals, which lends itself to the intellectual stimulation of a truer, and deeper connection with nature.

The first time (and one of the only times) I felt useful was shoveling cow shit in a Peak District farm when I was ten. It had a dignity that piano lessons, cub scouts, arithmetic and even amateur taxidermy did not. What I was detecting was that humans acquire their significance from relationship, that relationships with non-humans were vital and that clearing up someone’s dung is a good way of establishing relationships.

In that case, I am far more useful in the world than I ever dreamed.

GRIPES
Foster can be off-putting, particularly to those us with no love of hunting, opening as he does with I first ate a live mammal on a Scottish hill. (Well, as least it wasn’t haggis.) I can well imagine many readers slamming the book shut at that point and moving on to something else. Will this be a paean to a manly killing impulse? Thankfully, not really, although there are some uncomfortable moments re the hunting of living creatures.

Sometimes he puts things out that are at the very least questionable, and at the worst, silly. Our intuition is older, wiser and more reliable than our underused, atrophied senses. Really? Based on what data? So, making decisions by feelz alone is the way to go? Maybe I should swap my accountant for an inveterate gambler?

He sometimes betrays an unconscious unkindness in the cloak of humor:

The last thing I ate was a hedgehog. That was nine days ago. From the taste of them, hedgehogs must start decomposing even when they’re alive and in their prime. This one’s still down there somewhere, and my burps smell like a maggot farm. I regret it’s death under the wheels of a cattle truck far more than its parents or children possibly do.

I doubt it.

One stylistic element that permeates is seeing an imaginary Paleo man, X, and his son. Supposedly these might be Foster and Tom in an earlier era. It has some artistic appeal, but I did not think it added much overall.

All that said, the overall take here is that this is high-octane fuel for the brain, however valved-up ours may be. Foster raises many incredibly fascinating subjects from the origins of religion, language, our native capabilities to how global revolutions have molded us into the homo sap of the 21st century. This is a stunning wakeup call for any minds that might have drifted off into the intellectual somnolence of contemporary life. There are simply so many ideas bouncing off the walls in this book that one might fear that they could reach a critical mass and do some damage. It is worth the risk. If you care at all about understanding humanity, our place in the world, and how we got here, skipping Being a Human would be…well…inhuman. It is an absolute must-read.

We try to learn the liturgy: the way to do things properly; the way to avoid offending the fastidious, prescriptive and vengeful guardians of the place. Everything matters. We watch the rain fall on one leaf, trace the course of the water under a stone, and then we go back to the leaf and watch the next drop. We try to know the stamens with the visual resolution of a bumblebee and the snail slime with the nose of a bankvole and the leaf pennants on the tree masts with the cold eyes of kites.

Review posted – 9/17/21

Publication date – 8/31/21

I received an ARE of Being a Human from Metropolitan Books in return for a modern era review. Thanks, Maia.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

By my count this is Foster’s 39th book

Foster’s bio on Wiki

Charles Foster (born 1962) is an English writer, traveller, veterinarian, taxidermist, barrister and philosopher. He is known for his books and articles on Natural History, travel (particularly in Africa and the Middle East), theology, law and medical ethics. He is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He says of his own books: ‘Ultimately they are all presumptuous and unsuccessful attempts to answer the questions ‘who or what are we?’, and ‘what on earth are we doing here?’

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Going underground: meet the man who lived as an animal – re Being a Beast by Simon Hattenston
—–New Books Network – Defined by Relationship by Howard Burton – audio – 1h 30m

Items of Interest from the author
—–Emergence Magazine – Against Nature Writing – on language as a barrier to understanding
—–Shortform – Charles Foster’s Top Book Recommendations

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Bear Grylls – a British adventurer – mentioned in Part 1 as an example of someone more interested in the technology of survival than the point of it (p 62 in my ARE)
—–Wiki on Yggdrasil – mentioned in Part 1 – humorously (p 85)
—–Wiki on the Upper Paleolithic
—–Dartmouth Department of Music – a review of a book positing that Neanderthals used musicality in their communications Review Feature – The Singing Neanderthals:
the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen – Foster addresses this in this discussion of the origins of human language
—–Wiki on Carlos Castaneda
—–Discover Magazine – Paleomythic: How People Really Lived During the Stone Age By Marlene Zuk Like it says – an interesting read

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Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr

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Our threat response is automatic, but what we fear is largely learned.

…I’m looking at how we experience fear biologically (and the consequences of continuous heightened fear states), how we construct fear socially, and how we interpret it psychologically.

… These are my adventures in fear.

What scares you? It varies for most of us, but certainly death and personal, physical harm will come out at or near the top. It certainly should. Alongside that would be a fear of harm to those close to us. But there are plenty of other things that are probably, ok, certainly listed in a wikiphobia somewhere. Some of our fears are well-grounded, others not so much. Fear of heights makes sense. Fear of open places certainly originated before homo sapiens was the planet-wide apex predator. Fear of snakes sure sounds like a sound Darwinian reaction. Fear of the number thirteen, hmmm. But whatever the cause there is a biological element to fear and that is a primary focus here.

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That’s Kerr on the splat side addressing a fear of heights

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross may have given us On Death and Dying. Atul Gawande gave us On Mortality, the Sy-Fy network and premium cable keeps us well filled with entertainments designed to scare the bejesus out of us. But Margee Kerr, in Scream, has written a nifty look at fear itself. Kerr is both a scientist and a practitioner of the frightening arts. No, you won’t see her on any version of the Walking Dead, Chiller Theater, Creature Features, American Horror Story, Grimm, Penny Dreadful or any of the other frightfests that fill our cables and airwaves. And you will not find her name on the binding of books occupying the same section of the bookstore or library as Stephen King. But Kerr could probably explain exactly how each of the above does what it does to you. She is your goto gal for figuring out why the long-haired ghosts in j-horror get screams from Japanese audiences and a much more tepid response from Western viewers. She can tell you why it makes sense to hold someone’s hand when you are frightened, and can explain in some detail, on a biological level, not only how being scared can be a really good thing, but how it has steered our evolution.

Kerr, with a doctorate in sociology, has one foot firmly planted in the realm of academia, research of the library and real world varieties, and the other in the realm of applied fear-mongering. No, she does not work for Fox News. But she does want you to be scared, and she knows how to make that happen

thrilling activities provide a safe space to give our impulse-control police a break (and for those who believe that screaming and being scared are signs of weakness, being in a situation in which it is OK to express fear can feel pretty good

She keeps her focus primarily on physical, immediate fear experiences and scoots across the planet to sample the fear menus far and wide. Why would she do this? Well there are two reasons. She has an academic interest in learning the mechanisms of fear. And the other interest is a bit more down-to-earth. She works for one of the nation’s best known haunted house venues, Scarehouse, in Pittsburgh. She has spent umpteen hours studying peoples’ reactions to the frights they receive there. So she was, in addition to pursuing her academic interest, researching ways to improve the Scarehouse product, and reports at the end of the book on how she applied what she learned. Ok, maybe a third reason is that this is huge fun for her.

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Kerr puts herself through a fair range of scary experiences, not all of which were part of an entertainment venue. She begins with roller-coasters, noting their beginning with 17th century Russian Ice Slides, scary not merely for the usual thrill of sliding downhill very fast, but for the deeper thrill of knowing that reliability and safety were far from certain. These days the rides may be wilder, and perhaps a bit more challenging, not only to one’s sense of balance, but to one’s ability to keep down that regrettable pair of hot dogs you might have scarfed down prior to boarding the roller-coaster car, (an uncle of mine in the wayback was famous for spewing his partaken beer and partially digested Nathan’s Famous over an unfortunate date at Coney Island) and one’s ability to remain conscious. (I confess I passed out momentarily on one such, in Hershey Park) But the fear of mortal peril has been pretty much eliminated.

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You know who, from you know what

Screaming, appropriately enough, comes in for some attention

There’s something freeing, and even a little bit dangerous, in screaming as loud as you want. Screaming is part of our evolved survivor tool kit, protecting us by scaring away predators and alerting others of danger nearby. Pulling our face into a scream is also believed to make us more alert, intensifying our threat response just as squinching our nose in disgust blocks foul odors from going into our nostril). Adam Anderson at the University of Toronto found that when people made a frightened expression, they increase their range of vision and have faster eye movements and a heightened sense of smell from breathing more rapidly through their nostrils. Not to mention, when we scream, our eyes widen, and we show our teeth, making us appear all the more intimidating to any predators.

She indulges in a range of fears, from leaning out over the top of the CN Tower in Toronto in challenging a fear of heights, to searching for ghosts in some supposedly haunted places, including spending some quality alone time in a notoriously haunted former prison, to looking at infrasound as a possible source for many spectral experiences, to checking out haunted houses in Japan (got scared her out of her wits), to hanging out in a Japanese park noted for the number of suicides that occur there, to fearing imminent personal peril on the streets of Colombia. She also goes to a noted researcher to have her own fear indices checked out, and gets a bit of a surprise there.

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Kerr has a spooky time at Eastern State Pen – from EasternState.org

Kerr takes a wider view in some chapters, moving past the how-can-we-scare-ourselves-for-fun mode to actual application of scientific insight into fear with a look at PTSD and why some folks are more susceptible than others. In another segment she looks at the impact of a shredded safety net (the GOP 2016 platform?) on how difficult and exhausting it is for people to deal with the chronic stress, fear, trauma and violence that results. She also looks at how memories are formed, and at attempts to erase some of those, and offers some intel on the influence of parental helicoptering on one’s ability to manage stress, and on the significance of and elements that make up “high arousal states.” She offers plenty of hard-science intel which I very much appreciate. But Kerr also gives readers plenty of you-are-there experience, sharing some of her personal material, beyond the immediacy of the location and thrill. It is this combination of science and personality that provides the strength of Scream.

Of course Margee is anything but a scary sort herself. Check out her vids, thoughtfully noted below, and you will see for yourself. Kerr’s bubbly and engaging personality comes through quite well. This does not come through quite so well in the book, which felt a bit meandering, drifting a bit away from her core material at times.

In the CV posted on her site, Kerr says

My current research interests involve understanding the relationship between fear and society. People are reporting they feel more afraid today than 20 years ago and many scholars argue we live I a ‘fear based’ society.

Has she watched the evening news, or read most national or local newspapers? One of the things that modern communications has done most successfully is to create an environment in which fear is the top story, above the fold, below the fold, on page Six, and on the nightly news. If it bleeds it leads. We thrive on fear, or seem to. One of our major political parties has a set of policies based almost entirely on fear. Bowling for Columbine did an excellent job of highlighting the fear culture in which many of us live.

Fear is how those in charge control those who are not. Whether it is fear of the other, of jail or of poverty, death panels, jack-booted federals coming for your freedom, the red menace, yellow peril, illegal immigrants, police, street thugs, alien invaders, the zombie apocalypse or rampaging jihadis, we are a nation driven by fear. The fact is that fear does an excellent job of getting past our filters. We live in a cry wolf economy and business is howling. I suppose on a biological level there is some internal chemistry that says, “Well, it sounds like bullshit, but if it isn’t I could die, so why take the chance?” And it does not have to be about death, although that is the all time best seller. It could be about one’s ability to compete in the world, which really is a subtle message about death, the death of your DNA anyway. Too fat? Too bald? Too gray? Too tall? Too short? Too ugly? No one will love you. You will never have children. Better buy our product to ensure that you attract a mate. Buy our product or you won’t get a job. You and your children, if you have any, will starve. Kerr does not ignore this terrifying element of contemporary culture, particularly in her chapter on Colombia, but I do hope that when she dives into these waters again, she gives it more of a look.

FDR was wrong. There are plenty of real things to fear out there, just maybe not the things we are told to fear. In any case, whether one’s fear is justified or not, how our biology copes with fear is consistent. And it is not only well worth learning about, Scream provides an entertaining, enjoyable way to learn. There’s nothing scary about that.

My beloved picked this item up for me from the author at a book fair in return for an honest review.

Review posted – 10/9/15

Publication date – 9/29/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Items Specific to Scarehouse
—–The Scarehouse site
—–A behind the scenes look at Scarehouse by Heather Johanssen
—–The Scarehouse youtube channel
—–Margee’s overview
—–Profile of Margee
—–Margee on Uncanny Valley
—–Why are clowns so scary

A nifty article on the scariness of the simple triangle

One of the places Kerr visited (twice in fact) is Eastern State Penitentiary

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain