Friday, December 26, 2008

Brain concepts and divorce rates

In my recent book, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, I argued that one of the root causes of human misery can be traced to the fact that our acquired, post-natal, brain concepts– be they that of a house, a car, a symphonic rendering or a lover - are a synthesis of all the experiences that we have had of that particular attribute. But the individual example – of a car, or a house or a lover - that we experience at any given moment may not satisfy the synthetic concept, thus leading to disappointment and misery.

Disappointment can be defined as a failure to come up to expectation. But expectation with respect to what? A synthetic brain concept of course.

I recently read an interesting account of Japanese divorce rates which seems, on the face of it, to support this view in an important domain. Apparently, Japanese divorce rates have soared in the past few years. Husbands and wives are, seemingly, deeply disappointed with one another.

What is it that has brought this sudden increase about?

According to a BBC report, it is the retirement of the husband in a society where longevity has improved (aided as well by a new law which allows a divorced woman access to her husband’s pension). The retirement creates, according to the report, the opportunity for the married couple to spend more time with each other. Apparently, especially disastrous has been the post-retirement cruises in foreign lands, when the spouses find themselves even closer to each other.

Proximity of course increases the opportunity for experiencing something different from the synthetic brain concept of a lover, or a husband, or a wife that an individual may have; hence increases the opportunity for disappointment as well.

After all, Dante was never disappointed with Beatrice because he virtually never spent any time with her. All he did was to see her on two or three occasions. She smiled at him on one and not the other. She then married a rich banker and died young. He did not experience her long enough to be disappointed with her. Instead he could exalt his brain concept of her. He tells us as much in La Vita Nuova: I shall write of "la gloriosa donna de la mia mente" (the glorious lady of my mind) as no man has written of any woman.

In one version of the famous Majnun-Leila legend, when after a long separation Majnun had the opportunity of seeing Leila, he said ”Be gone from me. My concept of Leila is so much more beautiful than you”. He did not want to experience her!

In one of her love songs, the legendary Egyptian singer, Oum Kalthoum, declares: “I suffer in your presence; I need the mercy of distance.”

Just in case there is any misunderstanding – this is not a Japanese phenomenon at all. According to a Daily Mail report in 2006, there has been a similar tendency in Britain. Also, not all couples who see a lot of each other become disappointed; in a highly variable system there is bound to be a percentage whose brain concept of their lover or spouse is never disappointed But a sufficiently large number do so to make the divorce rates in Western societies approach about 48%, significantly greater than in Japan. Their acquired brain concept of what a spouse or partner should be is, apparently, not satisfied by their experience of the spouse or lover.


Anibal said...

So, our brains are "platonian machines" seeking to grasp abstract concepts from reality exemplars to compare them, that in turn could produce negative effects: misery, if this comparison fail.

I looking forward to read your new book, Prof. Zeki

mrG said...

but why the sudden epidemic? Leisure retirements (and extended unemployments) are not new, even if we posit expectations from annealing imagery acquired from mass media, this still should have exploded some 40 years ago.

Although, maybe that is true: My parents had a great deal of trouble understanding modern mores of likes and dislikes over duty and responsibility, and their parents even more so, whereas I find youth today will reject things simply because the colour is not 'right'.

and myself, caught in the middle generation, I now wonder: Could it be because our mass media once upon a time only showed the stylistic mainstream-perfect ordinary mom-in-pearls Life-Magazine abstractions, which while artitificial were nonetheless at least partially attainable, whereas today's mass-market images, competing for the Long Tail attention, favour the completely unattainable ultra-enhanced supercharged sensational extreme abstractions?

mrG said...

Anibal, it may be premature to say our brains are 'Platonic Abstractors'; in AI there is a phenomenon of multi-layer neural-network perceptrons where inner layers do tend to align to 'abstract' qualities (I call this the "Little Red Riding Hood Effect after the experiment using the features of characters show Grandma vs wolf clusters forming), so there may be similar clustering in our heads.

On the other hand, consider the new Photoshop effect Fractalius (see which shows some correspondence to 'schizophrenic' (if you believe in such things) paintings; I'm reminded of something audio-researcher Diana Deutch said to me in a conversation about reharmonizing in jazz and the tritone illusion, she said, "Nature only gives us as much information as we need" and the brain then fills in the gaps to give the illusion of a smooth complete reality picture.

Could it be the abstracting and these fractal images have something in common? Morita therapy sometimes asks people to draw some very familiar landmark from memory (eg their own front door) and then asks to compare the perspective of the drawing to the actual scene seen almost daily -- curiously the drawing is most often from a viewpoint which the persons has in fact never seen!

Bring that back to divorce and expectations (a good post-Christmas topic ;) and perhaps it isn't just the generalizations which partners fail to meet, but a fractal simplified restructured reconstituted mind model which the spouse has no hope of meeting, and hence the Morita (ie Shinto Buddhist) advice to attend to and embrace the reality, and not the fantasy expectation.

Jade Booth said...

Great points. Sounds like the book will be an interesting read.

"Proximity of course increases the opportunity for experiencing something different from the synthetic brain concept of a lover ...hence increases the opportunity for disappointment as well."

- after thinking for a while about this.. in my experience I think this also includes a habituation of the qualities of the person that exemplified the synthetic brain concept. And then all you can see is the differences from the synthetic brain concept.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Halewyn said...

We have also to remaind the Bottom-Top approach (not only the Top-Botton one -related to the mentioned "Synthetic/Platonic Brain"), as "mrG" points out, because our minds, as well as any system, are in the need of both approaches to evolve. In this sense, and as we all know, if you don't evolve, then nature "evolves" you! (to dust -in this case-)

In a personal relation (as a particular case of a general one) there would be 2 ways of not evolving, and therefore.. "dying" in it; as easy as just following only one of the approaches.

Of course there could be historical fluctuations (at personal or social level) that translates the center of that equilibrium to one or the other extreme, but.. going back to earth, I imagine what Don Quixote would think about what I said..

Murph said...

"After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true."
-Mr. Spock