Category Archives: Psychology

The VR Carrie Mathison psychosis app of my dreams

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I am all for conserving trees, but I really miss the days where everyone owned a fully-loaded printer. I’m a very visual learner and spatial processor. I need to see the information all around me, spread out in a circle or across the living room floor, covering walls, black text annotated in fucking gel pens and highlighters to distinguish what is what and what should be where in the chronology. The sprawl is part of the process, as is filing is all away when the project is complete.

Many of us have been adapting to this idea of containing our workspaces within a 13-inch screen, switching tabs and documents and removing the clutter. All my possessions at the moment fit into a single suitcase, so I am experimenting with working in an unusually confined manner. Still though, I may be a digital native, but half the weight of whatever I am carrying with me at any given moment is paper. I love the clutter of the tangible expression of thought in the physical world. I need it.

When I create in my preferred mode, and I’m working on a research project or a feature-length (>1,500 words) article, my work space basically turns into Carie Mathison’s apartment. This is my ideal virtual reality app: a 10x10x10 cube with blank walls where I can pin all the different pieces of the puzzle I am trying to solve, and quickly connect the dots free from the distractions of all the other things that lurk inside our 13-inch screens.

Carrie gets a lot of shit for that in Homeland. Someone always walks in, sees her beautiful mind murals, and stands there with their hands on their hips because they know she’s been off her meds. Leave Carrie alone! If I wrote a fanfiction alternate ending to Season 2, Carrie would quit the CIA, ditch her lithium, and move to some Buddhist country to become an artist. I mean look at this fucking mandala:

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Back to work.

Snake oil enchantress

Yesterday I was wandering around Barcelona getting lost accidentally on purpose, and I walked past a store filled with little jars. As soon as I passed it, I got a whiff of all the good smelling things inside, so I backed up and went in. Immediately this woman approached me. She was pretty but not striking, but she was jubilant in her demeanor. To her, I was the only person in the room, possibly the only person she cared about in life. A similar approach executed in a different scenario would be terrifying. If someone came up to me like that while I was at the gym or something, I would be super creeped out. I suppose there’s a fine line between being creepy and completely mesmerizing, but she was on the safe side. She asked me if I wanted to try some. I didn’t even know what it was, but yes.

Turns out she was selling a variety of different sea salts. She led me over to a circular sink with foot pump levers in the middle of the room, never once breaking the lazer-like focus of attention on me. She picked up the jar and waved a scoop of the oily mixture under my nose. It probably wasn’t the smell, but something about the way she offered it to me that made the serotonin release in my neck, the way it does when you get a back rub, or do hot yoga, or are in the womb. She scooped out a clump of each different scent of salt and presented it to me in that way until I was basically putty in her hands. Then she took me through the actual tutorial of scrubbing my hands until they were baby soft.

So I wound up buying like €30 worth of patchouli lavender vanilla-scented bath items. And you know what?

I just took a shower and I smell like fucking heaven. But that women could have been selling snake oil, and I’m sure she has and would. I probably would have been able to tell the difference, but maybe I wouldn’t have. It made me realize what a valuable human skill this economic seduction is, especially in areas where the economy is in the gutter.

It also reminded me that I am a horrible salesperson. If something doesn’t have a purpose, and the transfer of its possession from one human being to another wouldn’t result in a substantial net positive effect, I have no desire to spend my time convincing someone else they should acquire the thing. There is already too much worthless crap taking up space in the world. If I know of something you should want in theory, that I am able to provide to you, I will recommend or offer it to you. If you can’t see it’s appeal, its quality, its substance, even after a short explanation — you’re clearly not worthy of the thing being offered, and I will move on.

So here we are, in a world where less and less people focus on making things of quality and more and more people focus on improving their ability to sell crap. Then more and more consumers emerge not being able to tell the difference between what is crap and what is quality, reinforcing the value of crap and prizing the ability to sell crap as the most worthwhile skill of all. We’re tending towards a society where there’s no point in playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma because we’ve already lost. Default or deal with it.

But building a life (or a company) on snake oil is risky, because when the bubble bursts and the illusion dissolves, it will all be worthless. Things of substance, and people of substance will be resilient to environmental turbulence, but the phonies will be screwed. So I’m going to keep doing what I do, and trying my best to resist the charms of enticing salespeople. Or maybe I’ll give in long enough to convince them to work for me so they can fool the people who are used to buying snake oil into buying something of substance.

Pattern recognition and Icelandic Lady Gaga imposters

A few weeks ago I noticed my brain doing something weird. I was in Iceland at a Steed Lord show with two of my favorite Icelandic tech lady friends, and we’d had a few beers and a shot they call a “magic carpet” (Redbull and Amaretto, actually pretty good). I was in a crowded room and knew nobody, but those two, had never seen the band before, but I kept thinking that the performer’s look and everything about her was terribly derivative of Lady Gaga.

street-lord-interview-live-show-2013I started thinking about the fact that the people of Iceland really did not give a fuck about Lady Gaga, just like very few Americans probably knew who Steed Lord was except for maybe some of the Williamsburg types I used to order coffee from. I contemplated how where I was was as west as I would be, geographically and otherwise, for the next 10 months; that as I carried on eastward, my surroundings and cultural references would become dimmer and more removed from the reality that I’ve known my whole life.

As I surveyed the crowd of dancing bodies, singing along with lyrics that I didn’t know, my eyes caught on someone who looked like a friend of mine, tall with dark hair piled on top of her head in a loose bun. She has a face that’s unique when you’re the only half-French, half-Chinese chick in NYU, but in Iceland that kind of Bjorkish facial structure is quite common. I realized it wasn’t her in a split second, but the disappointment lingered. Because in my previous life, it could have been. Even though there are 8.2 million people in NYC, I developed patterns of behavior similar to so many of the ones I liked the best such that by the end of my time there, I ran into someone I knew almost every time I went out.

For the rest of the set, everywhere I looked I saw someone who could have been someone I knew, fully knowing that it wasn’t, that it couldn’t be. Some logical part of my brain had grasped my new-found geographical estrangement, while some mechanical pattern-abiding part couldn’t yet accept it. It was sad, exhilarating and scary all at once. Could I really last 10 months without seeing a familiar face in familiar places? I’d have to, so yes. I remembered that I went through the same thing when I first moved to New York. It took time, but gradually that strange and intimidating cesspool of human struggle and triumph transformed from an overwhelming blur into something so normal I couldn’t be bothered to look out the window of my airport cab upon returning home from a short business trip.

In that club, the reason I saw my friend in that setting is because she would be in a setting like that. Thinking about it now, the brain does this in so many ways — it looks for people and things to fill the roles we expect of them. It didn’t take too long to stop expecting to see my friends in Iceland, and to focus on meeting new people in the moment. So now I realize I have quite a bit of unraveling of expectations to do on many levels. The whole world is at my feet right now, and I can redefine my expectations of new people however I see fit. And so can anyone, no matter where they are. It’s all a matter of perspective. Because hey, I take spontaneous and sloppily planned trips to Iceland to encounter fake Lady Gagas and write about it so you don’t have to.

 

On exquisite isolation for literary purposes

Growing up as an only child, I spent a lot of time alone.

I was the youngest person in my class, and therefore the last person to get my driver’s license in November of my junior year. In high school I kept a hand-written list of phone numbers tacked to my bulletin board. Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons I would go down the list, contemplating the likelihood that each number could provide an escape from my teenage prison. Methodically, I would pick up my translucent, purple cordless phone, hold my breath, and dial.

Occasionally a friend would drive over and pick me up, and we would gleefully attempt all the debauchery we could fathom (which usually amounted to no more than a car ride in search of phantom parties casually mentioned in notes passed by boys desperate to impress us). Most nights though, I would sit alone in my room with my books and my TV/VCR combo and my journals.

It was in these moments of agonizing boredom and loneliness that I began to really process the world. It was also in those times that I allowed my mind to spiral into the pits of despair, taunted by the false certainty that everybody else was out doing something exciting and I was the only girl in the world steeped in isolation. Other factors compounded what some might call “normal teen angst” and at times I resigned into pure hopelessness, unable to anticipate the freedom that I now enjoy, certain that I would be alone forever.

So I wrote, and I poured all my anger toward my oppressors, my disbelief at the lack of justice in the world, my innocent but burning desires into the blank pages that I would hide in the deepest crevices of my 100 square-foot bedroom. My mother would periodically hunt them down and read them, then use their contents as evidence for why I should sit and stew in loneliness for my own protection. “You’re your own worst enemy,” she would say. One day after I discovered this violation I burned an entire journal and buried the ashes in the backyard (since igniting any type of flame, including the stove, was an offense punishable by further imprisonment). “Never write anything you don’t want other people to read,” she would taunt me, dismissing my outrage. Even at age fifteen my insomniac habits were fully-formed and I would stay up all night writing fictional tales of the life I imagined I was supposed to be living at the moment while catering to an imaginary audience of nosy and sadistic adults.

When I left home for college at seventeen, my writing habits stayed with me. I would pour over journals with all the bottled-up intensity of a shaken jar of kombucha, reflecting on my youth and disregarding all lessons of discretion my mother had advised. The only person I cared about reading what I wrote was her because she was the only person with the ability to censor me in the pre-production phase of writing. After a few successful stints with literary pseudonyms, I finally decided to live my life as an open book (which isn’t to say that I don’t have my secrets but they’re only secrets because I haven’t gotten around to writing about them yet).

I never set out to be a writer. It’s always just been something that I’ve compulsively done. But now that I am a writer, I won’t permit those moments of torturous youth to have been in vain. Though I am now surrounded by friends who gladly remedy my slightest twinge of loneliness with the greatest of adventures, I make it a point to isolate myself every now and then, mining that past agony and tapping into it only so much as to benefit my current productivity. It’s taken a while to hone it, and I’m sure I haven’t yet completely, but I’m getting closer. I think that soon I’ll be able to control it entirely, whereas once it controlled me. It’s washing over me now, and it’s divine.

Finding your inner gazelle

I stood there sweating, panting, looking at the 9 other Amazonian women standing with me in a circle.

“After a gazelle gets chased by a lion, if it gets away and doesn’t get eaten, it shakes it out, ” said Rochelle Schieck. “The gazelle doesn’t go to therapy for ten years, it shakes out all its nerves and goes about being a gazelle.” She instructed us to shake out every limb and portion of our bodies without worrying about what it looked like. “Just do what feels good.” I did as I was told.

I was at a Qoya class, a female-only movement system Schieck developed to help women remember. When she said that’s what it was for at the beginning of class, I didn’t really get what she meant. I have a pretty good memory and didn’t feel like I had forgotten anything especially important. But after two hours of wild flailing, yoga, stretching, trust falls, and moving about the room to tribal music while blindfolded, I remembered what I forgot.

Generally in adult life, there is only a small subset of accepted motions that we can do with our bodies: walking, sitting, and standing. If you’re in a gym, you can do some more. If you’re on a dance floor, the subset grows depending on how many other people are dancing, how much space there is, how much you think you might get made fun of if you were to bust a move, and how much you’ve had to drink. Even in dance and exercise classes, movement is relatively prescribed. Even during sex, people typically don’t trust themselves enough or listen to their partners enough to move spontaneously, so they mimic porn instead. Most adults don’t know how to move freely.

Little kids though, they fling themselves in every which way just because it feels good. This class made me remember what it was like to be a little girl in my kid body. I remembered how I used to move around innocently before all the self-consciousness set in, before I felt the weariness of gazes that I worried might judge me, sexualize me, mock me, ignore me. I remembered that we minimize the possibilities of negative events occurring to the detriment of positive ones. I remembered that I didn’t always used to just sit in front of a computer screen all day and jump on the elliptical machine when I got too stressed out to function — I used to be a dancer, for about 15 years of my youth.

The ten of us lay on our backs kicking our legs into the air, something I’m pretty sure my mom has a home movie of me doing when I was like three. The whole rest of the day, I felt the impulse to listen to the pop punk I used to like in high school. I walked over to the Venice Beach shore to watch the sunset, and thought about letting myself love with all the confidence I had before I knew what a broken heart was.

Be more weird. Be the gazelle.

LOLBYEgazelle

Why people are the way they are

I think this is the single most fascinating topic. Sometimes you can spend an entire lifetime researching why someone is the way he/she is, but you can never fully know the answer. True friends are infinite quests.

I get drawn in to a lot of weird situations because when I first meet someone and they come across as mean or cold, instead of not interacting with them, I make it my quest to figure out why they’re acting like that. I can never resist a think wall. Ironically, most of the time, these countenances are a subconscious manifestation of a fear that people don’t want to talk with them, or won’t like them if they do. Sometimes these people are the best, the rare earth gems invisible to amateurs but treasures to the true people connoisseurs. It doesn’t take much to scratch the surface and peak at what’s underneath — a single contextualized question will usually do it. There are plenty of duds, but there’s nothing like seeing that sparkle and embarking on a psychological journey to the center of a person’s being.

Even connoisseurs can be fooled though, as the world is full of con artists. You usually don’t have to look too hard for them, they conveniently pop up near you by a seeming stroke of luck and look pretty close to the real thing. They do such a good job convincing you that you stop digging. You trust them. Then one day, you observe a crack in the varnish, so you peel back another layer and discover they are not who they have been pretending to be. They’ve been playing the part of, a genuine person, a true friend, but deep down they’re a fabrication. Funny how the appearance of these cracks often coincides with the other person getting something they’d been desperately wanting, something you helped them obtain.

It’s kind of like how in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones is enchanted by Dr. Elsa Schneider, but she turns out to be a con artist Nazi who was really just using Indy to find the Holy Grail. These discoveries hurt, but whatever, it’s better to find out sooner rather than later. People who use other people as stepping stones to get what they want generally seal their own fates.

Ok, I’ve taken this metaphor far enough. The moral of the story is that even though the fakes can be disheartening, the real gems make it worth the dig.

The Century of Self

Instead of watching The Oscars last night, I watched a documentary about the father of the American propaganda machine and applied to some international reporting jobs. My friend Molly informed me there were a lot of guys resembling Thor who won awards, so I almost regretted this decision, but the documentary alone was worth it. It explains how Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, invented most of the advertising tactics that penetrate our poor helpless craniums via the media today: product placement, associating products with feelings, even the acceptance of Freudian theory itself. I always thought Freud’s theories seemed too stupid and self-involved to have been accepted by academics, and it turns out I wasn’t wrong. But I guess it at least got people thinking about psychology. The fact that they made it to the beginning of our Psych 101 texts though is indicative of the kind of leverage Bernays had in the world.

Enjoy.

H/t Sheida Jafari for recommending this!