Boredom, Competence, Poetry, Satire

A Flock of Sparrows for Majel: Bless! Bless the Passionate Red Lights of Christmas!

A Flock of Sparrows for Majel

(About a 2 minute read)

I interrupted Evelyn before she had properly asked her question.
“A poetry slam in Manitou? Sure I’ll go! You bet!
Now what were you going to ask?”

That was yesterday. Tonight I’m thinking, “How rude of me!
When was the last time I interrupted someone?” But then,
Twenty years since your last slam is time enough to get hungry.
Besides. Besides, I’m probably almost over the trauma of it, I hope.

Continue reading “A Flock of Sparrows for Majel: Bless! Bless the Passionate Red Lights of Christmas!”

Bad Ideas, Citizenship, Class War, Community, Competence, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Democracy, Education, Equality of Opportunity, Freedom and Liberty, Ideologies, Intellectual Honesty, Knowledge, Learning, Life, Living, Obligations to Society, People, Political Issues, Politics, Privilege, Quality of Life, Skeptical Thinking, Society, Talents and Skills, Teacher, Teaching, Thinking, Tomoko, Values

The Value of a Teacher

SUMMARY: Teachers in the US are poorly compensated for the work in comparison to teachers in Japan.  Outside of the best public schools and elite private schools, students are educated to become loyal, obedient citizens with adequate job skills.  This contrasts sharply with earlier educational goals in America.

(About an 8 minute read)

My second wife, Tomoko, spent her early years in Tokyo, Japan.  She attended an elite school whose students were mainly the sons and daughters of government and corporate leaders.

Tomoko’s father, for instance, was an American on loan from Motorola to Sony who headed up Sony’s East Asian quality control during the years Japanese goods became synonymous with “quality”.   Her cousin, who tutored her growing up, was at one point the head of North American sales for Toyota.  His major accomplishment was taking Toyota products from about 6% of the car market in the US to over 22%.

Continue reading “The Value of a Teacher”

Allies, Altruism, Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Community, Competence, Competition, Cultural Traits, Culture, Ethics, Evolution, Fairness, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Ideas, Justice, Life, Memes, Morality, Morals, Nature, Obligations to Society, Quality of Life, Science, Society, Values

Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider

(About a 6 minute read)

The spider had been stalking the fly for minutes.  There didn’t seem to be anything on the barren patch of ground to attract a fly.  I expected it to finish its investigations and leave.  But it would only buzz away a few inches when the spider approached it, then in a minute or two return.

Sometimes it would allow the spider to get very close before flying off.

Continue reading “Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider”

Abuse, Bad Ideas, Competence, Cultural Change, Cultural Traits, Culture, Equality, Equality of Opportunity, Ethics, Fairness, Fantasy Based Community, Freedom and Liberty, Guilt, Honesty, Human Nature, Idealism, Ideas, Ideologies, Intellectual Honesty, Justice, Liars Lies and Lying, Morality, Morals, News and Current Events, Obligations to Society, Oppression, Political Ideologies, Political Issues, Politics, Privilege, Quality of Life, Racism, Reality Based Community, Reason, Shame, Skeptical Thinking, Society, Thinking, Truth, Values, Village Idiots, Work

Who is Privileged and Who Is Not?

(About  5 minute read)

Growing up, I had a keen sense that I could get away with a good amount of rule-breaking.  Not just little things, but some fairly sizeable offenses too.  I didn’t usually push things as far as I sensed I could, but I did have the perception I could get away with a whole lot of things — if only I wanted to.

The sense stayed with me when I got older, although it became a little vaguer.  When I was in my late teens, early twenties, majoring in philosophy I was aware that I wouldn’t have much trouble getting a good job upon graduation — despite some warnings that my major was impractical.

Continue reading “Who is Privileged and Who Is Not?”

Abuse, Bad Ideas, Competence, Fun, Human Nature, Life, Magic, Magical Thinking, People, Play, Poetry, Quality of Life, Reason, Science, Superstition, Thinking, Truth

Magic Got the Upper Hand in Her Calculations

(About a 2 minute read)

I once knew a woman, very pleasant.
Middle aged, a real estate agent.
She smiled and laughed easily but
She had no grasp of technology,
Let alone the principles of science,
Let alone the cosmic division
Between natural causes and the gods.

The world to her was still magical,
She was so like a child in that way.

And least you think she was a happy person
Or a good person to always be around,
Rather than merely visit now and then.
She couldn’t fathom why light bulbs
Must burn out someday, and would blame
You or the last person in the room,
For messing with her bulbs.

“Did you screw with my bulb”, she’d say.
Truly! She’d say that!
And she wasn’t kidding you.

It was like being blamed
When you were a kid for Steve’s misdeed.
No one believed you, you’ll recall,
Thought you were lying like a child
When you pointed out the true miscreant.
She wouldn’t believe you, you see.
She had it all wrong, and you were the child.

She’d take you back, back to kidhood,
In so many ways.

Magic once excited me but it grew up
Strong and brave to become the sciences.

Some of us still long for our youth
And the fun we had taming talking rabbits,
Or flying on the throw rugs of our dreams.
But I tell you it’s not really pretty
When an even pleasant, cheerful person
Blames you for the crisis in her life.

I suppose somewhere back of her mind
Was the prize winning Nobel knowledge
That her bulbs sometimes burnt out
For reasons lesser than your malice,
Your bad character, and ill-will.

But magic usually got the upper hand
In her intellectual calculations,

Much helped, I think, by our Age,
A frightening Age when all of us clearly see
That truth has become comfortably
Relative, and easy to access.

Just look deep inside, the deeper the best,
To check your proposition X
Against the movements
Of your intestinal gas
To see if X feels good to you.

“What’s true for you
Is not true for me
And you’re not my reality check.
I’ll consult my intestines for that,
Thank you kindly.”

Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Competence, Cultural Traits, Culture, Happiness, Human Nature, Learning, Life, Quality of Life

How Not to Miss Out on More Than Half Your Life

I think it must have been Hollywood that began the cult of youth in this country — a cult that has now spread to most industrialized nations.   There is something about the medium of film that makes youth more attractive than it really is, and age much less attractive than it really is.

Much less attractive!

I’m pretty sure it works like this: Most of what makes age attractive is internal.  That is, the attractiveness lies chiefly in internal things such as intellectual, emotional, and spiritual maturity.  But film has a much harder time capturing those things than it does the attractiveness of youth, which lies chiefly (but not exclusively) in the beauty of youth — an external thing.

Continue reading “How Not to Miss Out on More Than Half Your Life”

Abuse, Adolescence, Adolescent Sexuality, Alienation, Art, Artist, Attached Love, Attachment, Celibacy, Competence, Erotic Love, Ethics, Free Spirit, Horniness, Human Nature, Lovers, People, Political Issues, Quality of Life, Relationships, Self, Self-Knowledge, Sex, Sexuality, Sexualization, Values, Wisdom

I Dumped Her When She Soaked Me With Buckets of Love

(About a 6 minute read)

Ask nearly anyone to sum up adolescence in a few words and most likely one of those words will be “confusing”.  Whatever else it is, that word is just as focused on a key truth as a teenage boy is focused on his friend’s suddenly perky nipples the very first time he espies them by the light of the werewolf moon.

What is often not mentioned, however, is how frequently adolescent confusions turn all manner of relationships into cruel ropes that jerk their victims back when they try to run from a bad situation.  Even blind or unintended abuse is magnified by the fact kids bond so quickly and firmly to each other.

Continue reading “I Dumped Her When She Soaked Me With Buckets of Love”

Belief, Competence, Education, Honesty, Intellectual Honesty, Intelligence, Learning, Logic, Reason, Skeptical Thinking, Thinking, Truth, Values

Mom Blinded Me with Logic!

(About a 4 minute read)

I find it curious how much it seems to be uniform worldwide that we fail to recognize and value the contributions our mothers make to our intellectual lives. Not so our fathers — we are often acutely aware of what they’ve done for us. But our mothers are almost universally another matter.

Few people I’ve heard say, “Mom taught me how to think”.  Instead, she has taught us just about everything but how to think.  She has especially taught us how to feel warm and fuzzy about people and things.  Which seems to me quite at odds with how to think — at least with how to think rationally.

Continue reading “Mom Blinded Me with Logic!”

Business, Competence, Honesty, Miscellaneous, Sales, Work

One Thing Most Extraordinary Salespeople Have in Common (Part II)

Please Note: This is the second and last part of a two part series on the art of person-to-person persuasion — or selling, as the cads call it.  I strongly recommend you read the first part first before reading this part, because the first part is funnier, much funnier. It can be found here.


(About a 4 minute read)

As you’ll recall, Chuck was not merely a successful salesperson, but almost in a category of his own.  He had, for instance, set a hundred year sales record for his corporation. Then, the very next year, he broke his own record — just like a turnip joyously smashed against a concrete sidewalk by a man passionate to live his life fully.  And again the following year!  But this time, as easily as a watermelon jack-hammered to the merest juicy pulp — and by a man extremely prejudicial against that particular melon, and no other melon.

Three years running, before Chuck retired from the company to start his own business.

Chuck was also my mentor, and the approach to selling that I am going to discuss in this post is faithful to the one he taught me over the course of a year.

So far as my own experience has confirmed, Chuck’s approach is so effective, so powerful, that just about anyone who is willing and able to practice hard enough to learn and apply it will — at a bare minimum — greatly improve their success.

But here’s a catch: The approach looks deceptively simple, and I also fear many folks will take a superficial look at it only to conclude they have “heard it all before”.  I would encourage them not to.  The approach worked for Chuck, and it even worked for me — who had much less aptitude for sales than Chuck.

So,  I do not ask that you decide to try it, I only ask that you thoroughly and thoughtfully study it before deciding what to do with it.

The next thing I have to say might surprise anyone who harbors a stereotypical view of salespeople as essentially dishonest.  Honesty was once a major issue for me in my early years as a salesperson.  Almost more than anything else, I found myself at war with my own sense of honesty and fair play.

It seemed to me that persuading people to buy something almost required a fair bit of BSing them.  I wasn’t at all comfortable with that.  I was even less comfortable with aggressively pushing or tricking people into buying.  If that sounds extraordinary, consider where my feelings came from.

I was raised in a small town where doing such things could quickly gain you a reputation — a reputation that in turn would make you all but a pariah.  Only a psychopath can end up a habitually pushy liar growing up in that environment.

The last thing I expected from a professional sales trainer was a solution to those problems.   But that’s what Chuck did: Showed me an approach to sales so deceptively simple, yet so powerful, you neither had to lie to your customers, nor push them into buying.  Instead, once you learned how to actually apply it, the customers would push themselves into buying.

So, you might ask, “What is this fabulous secret approach? Fork it over, Sunstone, you insufferable assassin of melons!”

I will right after this important message from our sponsor (that would be me again, I’m the sponsor here):  The approach is not secret. Far from it, it has been around for ages and is well known.


I’ve never seen it properly taught.  Not by trainers, not by books.  Only in that singular sense is it a real secret.  Least of all have I seen it properly emphasized.  Now, that being said, here we go:

Perhaps you’ve heard of FAB.  If you haven’t, FAB stands for Feature-Advantage-Benefit, and most salespeople have at least heard of it.  But many (I often suspect most) do not consistently apply it or — if they do — they do not apply it in the most powerful manner possible, which chiefly consists in perfectly tailoring it to each individual customer.  So let’s turn to that now.

First, a simple way to grasp FAB — at least at first — is to imagine that every sale proceeds from the salesperson telling you the features of his or her product, to their telling you how those features will be of an advantage to you, to their wrapping up by telling you how you will specifically benefit from their advantages.

To illustrate, suppose you wanted to sell a drill bit to a man who came into your hardware store telling you he was shopping around all the stores that day for the best price on a quarter inch bit.

Would you tell him a price right off the bat?  If you would, you’re like the vast majority of salespeople. And what happens when he comes back at you with, “That’s not low enough.  Jones and Dogs is selling the same bit for a buck less. Can you beat that?”

Most salespeople who can will immediately cave to the lower price.  But suppose you applied FAB.  Your first step would be — not to tell him your price — but to ask him what he wanted the bit for.  And unless you do that just right, it can sound pretty weird to him that you want to know.

But suppose you get past that hurdle and he tells you he wants to hang some shelves in his apartment.  So you ask him “What for?”  Well, it turns out his fiancé will only marry and then move in with him if and when he gets all his books off the floor and properly shelved.  And that’s your golden opportunity.

“I’d say that was a good reason to buy a drill bit! Congratulations on getting married, then.  Frankly, you’re in luck!  Our bits are a bit more expensive than the ones over at Jones and Dogs, but we’ve got a special going that’s a real opportunity for you. Allow me to explain.”

“This month, we’re giving customers who buy even just one of our premium drill bits the opportunity to purchase a mattress at a 15% discount! What newlyweds aren’t about to wear out their old mattress and be in need of a new one?”

Yadda, yadda, yadda.  Now, let’s look closely at what’s going on here:

The guy comes in for a drill bit.  The bit is the feature.

The guy reveals he needs the bit to hang shelving.  The hole the bit will drill is the advantage — you can’t hang shelves without it.

Getting married is the benefit — the real or ultimate reason he wants a drill bit.

Last, the mattress is called an “upsale” — I’ve tacked that on to the core FAB sale just to show you one of the things FAB selling can set the stage for, but an upsale is not actually essential here.  It’s icing on the FAB cake.

Feature-Advantage-Benefit, almost nothing looks simpler.

In practice, it’s as hard to learn as returning a speeding tennis ball.  There are details upon details to it — and they can only be learned through persistent practice in situation after situation.

I have said nothing yet more than the equivalent of,  “You should aim to hit the ball into the other court and out of range of your opponent”.  It’s important to know that, it’s crucial to know that, but knowing it is not the same as doing it.  Far from that.

So here’s my first tip:  Look into selling something worth the effort you’re going to put into each sale.  Obviously, if you’re only selling drill bits, your payoff will never be great enough to justify going through FAB with each and every sale.  Think big.  Think, say, selling houses, where a single sale can net you thousands.  Or — think major corporate sales.

Next, begin practicing whatever it is you’re selling by role-playing the sales with a friend, or even all alone and just in your head. Try to think up a new and different FAB each time you role play.  In the end, you are likely to find considerable similarity in the advantages people are looking for, but perhaps great variation in the benefits.

For instance, two prospective home buyers might both want the advantages of locating in a good school district.  But the first might have college aspirations for their offspring, while the second might only be concerned with their kids “doing whatever they decide to do.”  How would you drive home the benefit of good schools to each? Should you probe the second prospect further to find new and different benefits?

Last — and this is key — keep in mind how crucial is the questioning stage.  You can seldom if ever apply FAB entirely correctly if you fail to gather enough information at the onset — especially in some complex sale, as is generally found in corporate sales.

The power of this approach lies squarely in how accurately you can tailor your FAB presentation to a specific individual.  In a way, uncovering those benefits is a cat and mouse game — more often than not you will need to learn how to be very skillful at probing for them or you will get fatally misled.   But the payoff from getting good at that can be huge.

And that is the approach summed up in a ridiculously too superficial manner.  Yet, the approach fully grasped and applied can be motivational beyond expectation.  You don’t need to lie, to use tricks, or pushiness to sell with it.  People will motivate themselves to buy once they grasp the chance you are giving them to realize their dreams.

I think most people will forget this post by tomorrow, and that’s ok.  I’ve found it difficult, more difficult than even I suspected at first, to adequately describe in a mere blog post what FAB is really all about. I can’t blame anyone for all too easily dismissing it.  Except Teresums, I can blame Teresums.

As for everyone else, I’ll make a deal with you, if you’ll make a deal with me.  Assuming you want to learn as much as I have to teach you about FAB and all that can go into it, simply email me with any questions you have.  I ask that you email me, rather than ask your questions in the comments, because my response will usually — but not always — be as detailed and informative as I think useful to you.

By the way, FAB can be applied to any situation in which you seek to persuade someone to do — or even to not do — something.  So feel free to contact me about, say, how to best go about persuading you partner to quit cooking yucky deep-fried mac and cheese for Tuesday’s diners, and switch to deep fried roadkill instead.

My email is

Other than that, I wish you the best of luck!

Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Business, Competence, Miscellaneous, Sales, Work

One Thing Most Successful Salespeople Have in Common — Plus: One Thing Most Extraordinary Salespeople Have in Common (Part I)

(About an 8 minute read)

As a former salesperson, I have long known for a fact that most successful salespeople are every bit as good at their jobs as the very cutest puppies are outstanding at selling folks on adopting them.

I mean that in the most encouraging way possible — if you are both in sales, and just as likeable as a puppy, then congratulations!  You are almost certainly well on your way to  a successful career, assuming you are not already successful.

And let’s face it, almost everyone of us these days is in sales to at least some extent — or when was the last time you had a job that did not require you to persuade someone to do something.  Because that’s all selling is — the art of person to person persuasion.

So whether you’re trying to persuade your boss to give you a raise — or more likely, given what I know of my noble and esteemed readers — you are trying to persuade your partner to wear that sexy chicken outfit you just had-to-have and bought at an obscenely inflated price from that ridiculous, young, door-to-door preacher who was wearing it because he was still too shy to preach the Gospel in the flesh — regardless of whether it’s a raise or a chicken outfit, you are in sales. At least, now and then.

In my book, the fact you are in sales means I might be able to help you.  No, not with the chicken outfit.  If you’ve already gone that far, then not I, nor even a highly skilled professional therapist, is likely to be able to still help you (So, you might as well use it tonight, right?  Go for it!).

But to return to the issue: How can I help you become adept in the fine art of persuasion?  Simply allow me to point out a vital key to maximizing your likeability. Be certain, absolutely certain, to use a quality lubricant!

To maximize your likeability, be as real as possible. Be authentic.  That’s it.

Yes, you can do a whole lot of other things, and you probably already know what at least some of those things are, but authenticity is both the single most powerful first step you can take, and it is often overlooked — especially by inexperienced salespeople.

You see, a lot of us folks think you must somehow change yourself to be maximally likeable.  There’s a little truth to that.  If you are doing something obnoxious, then you need to stop, you need to change.  But if that’s not the case, then focus on being yourself first and foremost.

Why?  I’ve found no better explanation of why than what Tony recently wrote:

…you know how you stubbed your toe this morning and wished damnation onto the whole world? Your prospect can relate to that.

You know that jalapeno you ate and it’s burning a hole in your mouth that’s wider than a river? Your prospect can relate to that.

You know the homegrown excitement your town has for their sports team? Your prospect can relate to that.

Being likeable is simply being a conscience human, doing the right thing and coming across as a real person.

Real respects real – remember that it’s coming across as a real live human – flaws, scars and all is what brings people closer together, not your super cool product with all the gadgets and gizmos!

Show your authentic self and make authentic connections.

Tony is a man to watch: I just quoted from the chapter of a soon to be published book that he gave me, along with some cash, for an old chicken outfit I used to wear while preaching, and I must say: Obviously, he knows his stuff.

Being authentic makes you human, makes you less of a threat (and who isn’t a little bit threatened on some level or another by someone soliciting them in a chicke?), and in making you less of a threat, allows you to all the more connect with your customer. People don’t buy from people they don’t trust, and they don’t trust people they think are “fakes”.

But people do indeed buy from people they like.  In fact, some pretty savvy salespeople have told me that “selling yourself” is not only the key to any sale, but is often all that is really needed to make a sale.

I myself am a little skeptical of that.  I know being likeable is something most successful salespeople have in common.  And I do know it takes you far – very far — all by itself.  But I doubt you could actually build a career on it alone.  You need, for instance, a decent product or service to sell.  And, among other things, you need to hustle your butt off — there are few substitutes for hard work.

But yeah, being likeable is still key. If you want to be truly successful in sales you will do what you can to be likeable — and generally speaking, the single most important thing you can do is be yourself.  Don’t put on airs.  Don’t try to change yourself unless that’s absolutely necessary.  Just be yourself.

Naturally, some folks won’t like the real you, but the ones that do like you, will like you so much better than any false front you can concoct — unless, perhaps, you’re a professional actor.

However, being likeable will probably not make you a once-in-a-hundred-years salesperson — an extraordinary salesperson.  For that you need something more — something so powerful that if you were actually disgusting, but still employed it, you’d have people buying from you.

For complete information on exactly what that is and how you too can master its power to make yourself rich, simply send $29.95 in unmarked dollars and cents to Uncle Sunstone’s Newest Scam, PO Box 69, Charging Bore, Colorado  80103, and include a nude selfie if you suspect you’re my type. Act today, and get a free g-string in the same style as the one I found stuck in my teeth this morning when I woke up in the club parking lot!

Now — getting serious for a moment — some folks are going to think what comes next is easy and simple to do.  It’s not, but it can be mistaken as such.  In truth, if you decide to go this route, you very much need to commit yourself to getting your nose bloodied a few times.  This is not easy stuff to master, no matter how easy it looks, and I can guarantee you will be sorely embarrassed when you flop your first few times in front of a customer.

Then again, let me tell you a true story.

I sucked — sucked — for years as a salesperson.  Don’t ask me why I stuck with it, because I don’t really know, but for years I was one of those guys we all know who is eternally on the verge of being fired for failure to perform his job — and perhaps you can imagine how I felt about that!

But I got lucky.  I went to work for a corporation that — though small — was one of the most profitable companies in its industry.  It had both the money and the will to invest heavily in training its small sales force of about 18 people.  So it made a faithful decision.

It went looking for the best sales trainer in the country, and it found Chuck.  Chuck’s fee was a flat $5000/day plus expenses in early 1980s dollars.  That would be over $12,000 today — for one day’s work.

Naturally, at those prices, my company checked him out. I’m told his references were so encouraging, the company called him within a day or two.

As you might guess, Chuck had been in sales before he went into sales training.  His former employer was a Fortune 500 that had been around for over 100 years.  Chuck rose through the sales ranks until he was in their top sales position with an annual quota set in the tens of millions of dollars.

Within a short time — no more than three years, if I can recall such a detail now — Chuck had not only exceeded his quota, but had set a 100 year sales record in dollars adjusted for inflation.

The next year, he broke his own record.

The year after that, he broke it again — and this time, he quit.  He quit to set up his own consulting business, but not before he was able to lure a senior vice-president away from the Fortune 500 to run the business side.  How many senior VPs would risk such a thing?

Chuck was an exceedingly persuasive man, even by the standards of professional salespeople.

But a funny thing happened when Chuck came to train us salespeople at five grand a day: I was just about the only one who took him seriously.

Yeah, I know.  You would expect all of us to.  But that’s not how the real world always works.  Unfortunately, the others dismissed Chuck as trying to teach them an impractical method.  Or they dismissed him as trying to teach them what they already knew (but actually didn’t).

Frankly, I myself was far too desperate to ignore Chuck.  So I set myself to learning. And my education was helped along by the fact that Chuck apparently took a particular liking to me — probably because I was paying attention.  Everyone else got seminars.  Several three day seminars.  I got the seminars too, but Chuck also convinced the management to pay for his going on sales calls with him. Again, at five grand a day. One on one tutoring.  How good can it get?

So what happened?

Well, it didn’t happen overnight.  Chuck was no miracle worker.  It took me about a year to catch on.  By which I mean, it was like learning tennis. You can’t learn tennis — you really have not caught on to it — until you can play a game.  Yes, that sounds obvious, but consider.  Some people think you can learn to sell by memorizing techniques from a book and then easily apply them to real life situations.

Hogwash.  To sell like Chuck, you have to practice, practice, and practice.  You have to go from customer to customer well past the point you are sick and tired of screwing up.  Then maybe, if you’ve worked hard enough, it starts coming together, it starts clicking.

At this point, my post is already too long for most folks to have read this far.  So I’m going to save the rest for another post, which I will publish soon — perhaps as soon as a day or so.  Stay tuned!  The payoff might be immense. Imagine!  Your very special someone could be wearing that chicken outfit to bed with you this very week!

Competence, Cultural Traits, Culture, Emotions, Intelligence, Logic, Mental and Emotional Health, Neuroscience, Psychology, Quality of Life, Reason, Thinking

Could Star Trek’s Mr. Spock Really Exist?

(About a 5 minute read)

Like most sensible people, I am firmly convinced that around 2,400 years ago in Athens, Greece, Plato invented Mr. Spock.

Of course, I do not believe that Plato invented all the details of Mr. Spock right down to his curiously arched eyebrows and pointy ears.  So far as I know, those details were worked out by Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and their band.  But the essential notion that a hyper-rational person would have few or no emotions — that was Plato.

In Plato’s view, emotions and thought were clearly distinct, and the only connection between the two was that emotions could mess with thought.  That is, while emotions could cause us to reason poorly, they had little or no positive impact on reasoning.  Apparently, Plato was the first to come up with those ideas — ideas which went on to become commonplace assumptions of Western thought.  And Roddenberry, etc seized on those assumptions to create Mr. Spock.

Of course, there are some rather obvious ways in which Plato was right.  Most likely everyone has had some experience with their emotions overwhelming their capacity for reason.  Every child is cautioned not to act in anger or other strong emotional state, least they do something irrational.  And many of us — perhaps even most of us — know that we tend to be more gullible when listening to someone present their views with a great deal of passion than when listening to someone present their views coldly.  “I don’t think Snerkleson is quite right in his views, but he’s so passionate about them that he must honestly see some merit to them.  Maybe there’s at least some truth to what he says about dog turds replacing petroleum as the fuel of the future.”  There are clearly ways emotions can interfere with thought, as Plato knew.

As it happens, though, the notion that emotions only have a negative impact on thought is not borne out by the evidence.

In the early 1990s, a man — who has come to be known as “Elliot” — was referred to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, by his doctors.  Elliot had applied for disability assistance despite the fact that, “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work”.  His doctors wanted Damasio to find out if Elliot had a “real disease”.

Damasio found that Elliot tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence.  His long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were unquestionably sound. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant.  Yet, when Damasio started digging into Elliot’s past job performance, he found that Elliot had often behaved as if he was indeed stupid and ignorant.

For instance, Elliot had at least once spent half a day trying to figure out how to categorize his documents.  Should he categorize them by size, date, subject, or some other rule?  Elliot couldn’t decide.  Moreover, he had been fired for leaving work incomplete or in need of correction.   And when Damasio studied what had happened to Elliot after his job loss, he found the same pattern of poor decision-making and incompetence.  Elliot had gotten divorced, then entered into a second marriage that quickly ended in another divorce.  He had then made some highly questionable investments that brought about his bankruptcy.  He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. Unable to live on his own, he was staying with a sibling. His life was in ruin.

When Damasio looked at Elliot’s medical history, he found that the turning point for Elliot had come about when he developed a brain tumor.   Before the tumor, Elliot had been highly successful in his business field.  He was even a role model for the junior executives.  And he had had a strong, thriving marriage.  Although the brain tumor had been successfully removed,  Elliot had suffered damage to some of the frontal lobe tissues of his brain having to do with the processing of emotions.

Damasio began testing Elliot for his emotional responses to things.  In test after test, Elliot showed little or no emotional response to anything.  He was, Damasio concluded, cognitively unaware of his own emotions.  Then Damasio had a revelation.  “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio wrote.

Damasio went on from Elliot to look at other case studies of people who had suffered brain injuries preventing them from being cognitively aware of their emotional states.  He found the same pattern over and over:  When emotions were impaired, so was decision-making.

The findings of Damasio and other scientists have largely revolutionized how scientists view the relationship between emotion and thought.  It now seems that emotions are, among other things, the means by which we sort out information: The relevant from the irrelevant, the high-priority from the low-priority, the valuable from the worthless.

And Mr. Spock?  Well, a real life Mr. Spock might spend hours trying to figure out whether to set his phaser to stun or kill.  Without emotions, decision-making becomes extraordinarily problematic.

Bad Ideas, Belief, Competence, Education, Human Nature, Intellectual Honesty, Intelligence, Knowledge, Learning, Life, Quality of Life, Reason, Science, Truth

Cultivating Realism

(About a 5 minute read)

Human diversity being what it is, I take it as evident that some folks are more realistic than other folks — just like some folks are more athletic than other folks.   But the fact some folks are more realistic than other folks does not mean that anyone is completely realistic.  For better or worse, we humans have not evolved a completely realistic brain.

If we had evolved a completely realistic brain, we would not need science.  That’s because science is basically a group of methods or procedures that have been developed over the ages to compensate for the human tendency towards a lack of realism in thought and belief.  In short, science is a crutch.   It’s a tool for a non-realistic brain (or at least a partly non-realistic brain) to use so that it can function as a realistic brain.  At least that’s one way to look at science.

It’s a great puzzle to me why the human brain is not entirely realistic — given that it’s had several million years to evolve into a purely realistic brain.  It must be that during the entire multi-million year history of brain growth and expansion, selective mechanisms for a realistic brain were never sufficient to produce a wholly realistic brain — despite that there would seem to be great advantages to being wholly realistic.

Either that, or the mutations necessary for pure realism never came about.

On the surface, given millions of years, it seems almost impossible that it has turned out the way it has turned out.  But perhaps it  seems impossible to me largely because I simply don’t understand the odds.

Some days, I think most of us have to be dragged kicking and screaming to realism.   We just don’t like being realistic — we don’t enjoy it — and so, there must be great incentives for us to practice realistic thought, or great disincentives not to practice it.   Hence, I usually think we limit our realistic thinking to only those areas of our lives in which it matters the most to us to think realistically.

I know an automobile mechanic, for instance, who is almost wholly realistic in his role as a mechanic.  But get him in his fundamentalist church on a Sunday morning and he will swallow with childlike trust any and all sorts of quackery from his pastor’s mouth.  Life has face-slapped my friend the mechanic into being realistic in his work.  That is, automobile mechanics has served as a discipline that’s punished him whenever he has departed from realism while engaged in it.  But life has not done him the same favor in his religion.  Hence, he’s a realistic man in his work and a quite fantastic man in his religion.

Some days, as I’ve said, I think we as a species are only as realistic as it is absolutely necessary for us to be.  Wherever life cuts us a little slack, we depart from realism into fantasy.

Over a hundred years ago, Nietzsche pointed out that very few, if any, of us had a strong will to truth.   For most of us, our other wills, interests, passions, etc were much stronger than any will to truth we might possess.  It was a revolutionary thought for its time.  Today, we might not use precisely his language when speaking of the issue, but regardless of whatever words we use to express the idea, the notion that humans are quite often less than realistic is established by modern psychology beyond any serious doubt.

That fact — the fact we are not a realistic species — presents all sorts of problems.  For instance, I do not believe you can understand human politics if you think of humans as an essentially realistic species.  (Perhaps the real question in politics — or in any study of human nature — is not whether humans are unrealistic, but what patterns are there to human unrealism?)

I think it is important — crucially important — to one’s health and happiness for a person to practice a discipline.  When it comes to practicing a discipline, the exact nature of the discipline — the kind of discipline — almost does not matter.  What matters is that one practices a discipline.  Any discipline.

A “discipline”, as I’m using the term here, is an art, science, or craft that to be successfully practiced requires one to be realistic.   It can be nearly anything so long as it requires substantial realism to succeed in it.   The absolute need for realism is what makes it a discipline.

Why should we practice a discipline?  Well, realism is not a side of human nature that comes all that easy to us.  I think we must cultivate it.  Hence, the need for a discipline.  Beyond that, realism seems to be like a crucial nutrient.  Without it, we grow sick, malnourished, or unbalanced.  We might not enjoy its taste, but on some level we need it.

We have all heard over and over again this or that person admonish us to “cultivate our imaginations” or to “dream big, dream often”.   Well, those things are important, but so is realism.  And, so far as I can see, realism does not come easily to our species.  It comes with effort.  So it must be cultivated.  Yet, I believe its cultivation is usually neglected.

T.S. Eliot somewhere said the average person can stand reality for no more than ten minutes at a time.   That might sound extreme until you really start thinking about it.

Originally posted October 9,  2010.