November 3, 2008

Human Nature: Maelstrom or Multi-threaded

           
The day before the American presidential election seems as good a day as any to launch a multi-part article on Human Nature, this being the intro or overview to the whole article.

Maelstrom is defined by Random House as 'a restless, disordered, or tumultuous state of affairs: the maelstrom of early morning traffic.'  Synonyms are pandemonium, and bedlam.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word comes from the old Dutch malen, 'to grind or whirl,' and stroom, 'stream.'  Literally, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a maelstrom is a 'grinding-stream.'  Very nice imagery there, for our purposes.

From the same link, the Online Etymology Dictionary has the name Malestrand being given to a whirlpool off the northwest coast of Norway by Dutch cartographers in circa 1560.  In keeping with that imagery, Wordnet 3.0 (Princeton University) defines maelstrom as 'a powerful circular current of water (usually the result of conflicting tides).'

'Conflicting tides,' and almost anyone's imagery of the current American presidential election, would seem to coincide.  I have received multiple emails from both sides, republican and democratic, of this tumultuous conflict, written in panic-stricken language, that the world is most likely going to end if the other side of this conflicting tide has its day.  Seriously, folks, the American political scene has been built around this exact type of tug-of-war for the last 232 years.  The ebb and flow won't end tomorrow.

So get a grip.

Instead, take a step back and try to look at an even bigger picture of life, focused specifically on your own life, for a bit.  Now I'm no political expert.  Nor do I hold myself out as either a religious or philosophical expert.  But isn't it true, my friends, that from the time anyone first began writing about humans, humans have been in constant disputes with each other over something?  And we are still here ... so far.

So what's all that about?  All these disputes, I mean.

Well, have you ever been in conflict with just yourself?  I don't mean just the little annoyances of what to do next.  Those small types of annoyances are often decided by some equivalent of a coin flip.  No, I mean the really big, monstrous annoyances about what to do next, or about how to deal with something that has just happened to us that does not seem to fit our view of the world.

The 'conflicting tides' that create the maelstrom of human affairs often seem to begin in our own heads, or crash against some shoreline we've erected in our minds.

Some of us get sick enough from the conflicts that arise inside of us to physically bang our heads against a wall or a floor or against the windows of a police car.  Even toddlers will bang their heads against something if they don't get their way, or if they get overly frustrated while trying to make some toy or object work to their satisfaction.  Yes, it's true:  we don't always use our heads to do the banging.  Instead, we might just bang our fists against another object.  But sometimes that other object is our own head.  Who among us has never ever reached up and held their own temples and shut their own eyes in anger or frustration?  We all know where this type of pain is coming from.  Our brains.  Or, if you prefer, our minds.

Multitasking is defined by Random House as 'the concurrent or interleaved execution of two or more jobs by a single CPU.'   CPU stands for 'central processing unit.'

Let's dig a little deeper.

From the same link, the Free Online Dictionary of Computing defines multitasking as 'a technique used in an operating system for sharing a single processor between several independent jobs.'  Also from the same link, multithreading is referred to as a specialized kind of multitasking with 'no protection of tasks from each other,' where 'all threads share the same memory.'

Multithreading is further defined by the Free Online Dictionary of Computing as 'sharing a single CPU between multiple tasks (or "threads") in a way designed to minimise the time required to switch threads.'

How do these terms relate to the way our brains work?

A brain that can multitask can temporarily suspend one task while it contemplates and processes another task.  Preparing breakfast in one room while listening to the morning news being broadcast on a television in the next room is a good example of the advantages of multitasking.

On the other hand, a brain that is texting on a cell phone while also engaged in driving an automobile to work can cause a massive wreck in which people die.  This is a good example of a serious risk imposed on oneself and others by multitasking at an inappropriate time or in an inappropriate way.

The distinction between multitasking and multithreading is perhaps too minor for our purposes to bother with.  If that is how you feel, then don't bother with the distinction.  Multitasking, as risky as it may be at times, still strikes me as being just a little bit too orderly to accurately describe Human Nature.  Maelstrom, on the other hand, while not a bad analogy, still strikes me as being just a little bit too chaotic to accurately describe Human Nature.

Multi-threaded seems just about the right way to describe Human Nature.  Not too orderly, but not too chaotic, either.

When asked how anyone can know what the truth is, I have responded in the past by saying that our understanding of the truth is like a large bowl of spaghetti.  Start pulling on one strand, or thread, and the whole bowl starts to move.  Everything is interwoven and connected.  Without getting into how many trillions of neural synapses make up the brain, I think we can all accept the fact that the human brain is an enormously complicated organ that operates on many levels at once.  It, too, is like that large bowl of spaghetti.

What conclusions, then, if any, can we draw from the sheer complexity of the processes by which our brains operate to make plans, contemplate 'truths,' reach decisions and take actions?  It may seem presumptive, but on the eve of the 2008 presidential election, let me draw at least one conclusion about the election:  neither the democratic nor the republican party have all the right answers regarding all the complex issues facing the American people.

Perhaps that conclusion does not shock you.  I sure hope it doesn't.  In fact, it is so non-shocking that I'm tempted to suggest that the conclusion is self-evident, but I won't.  Instead, I will draw another conclusion, which I think is similar in nature, and connects us back to the topic at hand:  each of us, using our own brains as skillfully as we can, probably cannot be right all of the time about all the complex issues facing ourselves, our families and our friends.

Duh.

Okay, so recognizing that it is very difficult to be right all the time, and recognizing that untangling the threads of complex topics is also difficult to do, let's nonetheless take a stab at examining, if not untangling, the threads that make up Human Nature.

I've identified at least eight ways to look at Human Nature.  There are undoubtably dozens of other ways to characterize, subdivide or analyze our human behaviour patterns.  You might identify four ways, or you might identify twenty ways.  Either way, I encourage you to pursue your own analysis as you critique mine.  As of this writing, and in no particular order, here are eight ways of  'characterizing'  Human Nature:

Selfishness
Religiosity
Emotions
Rationality
Values
Physiology
Forecasting
Altruism
 
To keep things flexible, I preserve my right to add to, subtract from, or alter my list as I write about these 'characterizations' of Human Nature in my future blog postings.  And I don't expect to write about these topics without digressions to other fun topics.   In fact, unless I'm somehow motivated otherwise, I expect to write about only one or two of these topics each month.  They are way too serious to write about on a daily basis.
 
And as for the presidential election tomorrow  - -  whoever wins it, it will be history in the making.  And then we will all begin the process of pointing out what the winner does wrong in the future.  That's just Human Nature.

      

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