Saturday, November 04, 2006


In the last post, I highlighted a recent neurophysiological finding reported by Assistant Village Idiot that, if verified, links psychological insight to an area of the brain that is responsible for memory:
All three studies suggest that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is specifically involved in lack of insight. The DLPFC and the cingulate gyrus are important parts of working memory, and the decreased volume in those areas suggests that working memory is strongly related to insight and awareness.

As I noted, this is amazing stuff; and makes quite a bit of sense. Think about it. Memory is absolutely essential for the ability to develop insight. If you cannot remember events and their antecedents or their consequences, then you would be unable to put these events into any kind of context or perspective. If you forget how you thought or felt about these events yesterday, then you cannot easily review the process of how your thinking or feelings altered or consider why.

This line of thought has some interesting socio-political implications. For example, by altering the "memory" of a people or a nation (i.e., distorting the historical narrative), you could easily alter the context of events, manipulate emotions about those events, and inevitably control or limit the development of psychological insight in the population at large. If, for example, you have repeated the meme that "Saddam had no WMD's and no ties to terrorism" often enough so that people believed that it was fact (despite a decade of evidence--and memory--to the contrary); then you might actually believe that it was reasonable to float the idea that "Bush made Saddam's WMD program information available to Iran". Those who are able to retain memory for the past and reflect on the absurdity of this claim can only laugh at such self-delusion.

You can see how "forgetting" --whether a deliberate or unintentional process--could easily lead to rampant psychological denial , projection and any number of primative or immature psychological defenses.

To further support that hypothesis, this article written by Victor Davis Hanson shows quite clearly how "the assumptions of a forgetful chattering class" about Iraq have resulted in their inability to appreciate the magnitude of what is happening in the middle east. In other words, because they have forgotten the facts of the situation prior to the US invasion of Iraq, they have no insight into the current situation there; nor can they put it in any perspective:
What is written about Iraq now is exclusively acrimonious. The narrative is the suicide bomber and IED, never how many terrorists we have killed, how many Iraqis have been given a chance for something different than the old nightmare, or how a consensual government has withstood enemies on nearly every front.

Long forgotten is the inspired campaign that removed a vicious dictator in three weeks. Nor is much credit given to the idealistic efforts to foster democracy rather than just ignoring the chaos that follows war — as we did after the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan, or following our precipitous departure from Lebanon and Somalia. And we do not appreciate anymore that Syria was forced to vacate Lebanon; that Libya gave up its WMD arsenal; that Pakistan came clean about Dr. Khan; and that there have been the faint beginnings of local elections in the Gulf monarchies.

Yes, the Middle East is “unstable,” but for the first time in memory, the usual killing, genocide, and terrorism are occurring in a scenario that offers some chance at something better. Long before we arrived in Iraq, the Assads were murdering thousands in Hama, the Husseins were gassing Kurds, and the Lebanese militias were murdering civilians. The violence is not what has changed, but rather the notion that the United States can do nothing about it; the U.S. has shown itself willing to risk much to support freedom in place of tyranny or theocracy in the region.

Instead of recalling any of this, Iraq is seen only in the hindsight of who did what wrong and when. All the great good we accomplished and the high ideals we embraced are drowned out by the present violent insurgency and the sensationalized effort to turn the mayhem into an American Antietam or Yalu River. Blame is never allotted to al Qaeda, the Sadr thugs, or the ex-Baathists, only to the United States, who should have, could have, or would have done better in stopping them, had its leadership read a particular article, fired a certain person, listened to an exceptional general, or studied a key position paper.

Read it all to see how losing one's memory and rewriting the past makes it entirely too easy to slip into all sorts of delusion and distortion about the present.

Why do individuals and groups of people do this? Why would anyone allow their memories to be distorted or manipulated, or even erased in this fashion?

As I have said in many other posts, immature psychological defenses such as denial, projection, and paranoia represent a creative synthesis by the individuals who use them so that they can avoid unpleasant or unpalatable truths about the real world. Their use, however, only temporarily reprieves that individual or group from the consequences of reality; and almost never serve the individual's or group's interests in the long run. Nor are they every beneficial for one's interpersonal relationships with others or society at large.

To paraphrase what I wrote in this post about repression (the unconscious altering of memory): Insight is a wonderful thing. The power or act of seeing into a situation and apprehending the inner nature or motivation of one's self--especially the why--can be extremely liberating, because only by paying constant and vigilant attention to reality can one explore and gain control over the truths we hide from ourselves and our own inner motivations.

Insight can also sometimes be quite devastating, particularly when it forces you to rethink your assumptions or dearly-held beliefs or ideology. There are many situations where achieving insight and understanding the motives behind one's behavior (as well as what one can and cannot control) could generate deserved guilt and shame. By doing so, insight, while painful, can be productive and initiate a change in behavior for the good.
There is an inner courage required to look at one's self in the mirror of insight and truly know the person looking back. All of us are capable of the most horrible behavior; just as we are capable of finding ways to rationalize it and cover it up or blame others for it. Psychological health requires that we look into that mirror frequently and understand our own motivations and behaviors and not flinch in recognizing the truth about ourselves.

Without memory and historical context, and without the psychological insight and awareness necessary to evaluate them in the present reality; individuals and societies will go off careening off in all the wrong directions--directions that take them further and further away from reality and truth; and which can never lead them to effective solutions for the problems they face.

Ultimately, the development of self-awareness and psychological insight are the keys to solving all those human dilemmas that lead to unhappiness, misery, and the characteristically pathological behavior of individuals, as well as entire societies and nations.

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