This Post May Kill You

March 3, 2010

So take it on a full stomach.

Well now, the thing is, I had been writing an entry that began with a discussion of the popular phrase regarding the definition of insanity—you know the one. The one that’s been floating around in common usage since about the mid-90s, often winding up in business seminars as a means to promote other businessy things, like “thinking outside the box.” It is as follows, and note that its wording has been paraphrased many times over the years, so it possibly bears the wear and tear of conversational license: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Various sources will attribute it to the likes of Albert Einstein and Mark Twain. Long-dead, very learned guys with (surprisingly similar) crazy white hair seem like incredibly trustworthy originators, don’t they? (Can’t you just see the first moron to create this mix-up: “Einstein said it. Hmmmm, yes. Or was it Mark Twain? Dammit, their pictures are SO SIMILAR!   They’re pretty much the same thing.”) Other sources will say that both of these are incorrect, and that the origin is likely Rita Mae Brown in her 1983 book Sudden Death. Which puts its inception much more recently, not shockingly.

Ya see, from my tender teenage years, I was practically raised on this phrase. My dad does tend to recite it like a mantra when the situation calls for it, and while I understand how it’s a helpful reminder to try something new (calling to mind images of silly people who realize a foreigner can’t understand English, so they just continue to repeat the same English phrase at the foreigner, only louder), that particular bit of paternal dogmatic endowment always stuck in my craw. Do I have a craw? I’m not sure. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I have a craw. That is where that phrase has embedded itself.

And my profound apologies for the discrepancy, father, if you read this. I just never happened to like this one.

I had started this entry off that way, intending to make some point, and then I put this entry—half-finished—off to the side to cool for a few days. I was about to pick it back up again, when wing-nut Joseph Stack decided to do a kamikaze off his good judgment and steer his airplane into an IRS building last month, effectively killing himself and tragically one other person who worked inside the building. The reason this had tripped me up is that he had written a suicide “manifesto” before going through with his actions, as I’m sure you’re aware. In it, he had said, “I saw it written once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same process over and over and expecting the outcome to suddenly be different. I am finally ready to stop this insanity. Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.”    …Mmmhmm.    O_o

Well…crap. Since this was plastered all over the news, discussing this phrase now possibly falls under the “too soon” category, or potentially will not be able to stand on its own as a separate discussion, because people are all focusing on his message. Furthermore, I am generally not in favor of giving this guy any more spotlight than was necessary to simply report the tragedy of his innocent victim, nor do I wish to seem like I’m having a rational discussion about the recent words of a kook with an airplane.

And then I decided to—you know what? Fuck it.—finish it and post it, since really the phrase is only the initial part of this entry. And furthermore, I think this guy actually illustrates why this phrase sort of sits ill with me. And that reason is that it is an over-generalized phrase which is not literally correct. “Insanity” is a strong word, and an important one, considering that it’s accepted a sound reason to completely dismiss a person’s statements or actions as unintentional or unable to be helped, ergo rendering the originator inculpable. Weighty stuff. So it somewhat irks me when it’s lobbed about to fit whatever little thing people deem silly or possessing of a low ROI. And god knows we’re a society obsessed with ROI. (Though, of course, my annoyance refers to formal or didactic uses of the word “insanity,” not when people are using conversational connotations of it. I’m not about censoring things that make language colorful; like, it really affects me very little when people are all, “Dude, did you check out the wicked hot bartender? His body is insane!” Sure, whatever. Why not. I refer to people using it when speaking with authority on something.)

Yeah. Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting to get different results is the definition of redundancy with a learning curve. Or something along those lines, not insanity. By contrast, the actual definition of insanity is, usually, unsoundness of mind often affecting legal responsibility. To illustrate—giving money you don’t wish to give to the IRS for your entire adult life and expecting the system, which you find unfavorable, to change on its own is “redundancy with probably a steep learning curve” (the “steep learning curve” bit lying in the expectation of change part, not the recurring behavior. You are, sadly, legally bound to continue paying your taxes, I am sorry to inform you). Alternatively, Mr. Stack’s assumption that the way to clearly break this dismally futile pattern is suicide/homicide with a side helping of structural demolition of a government building is “insanity.” Note the difference. (Also note that when a legally insane person utters, “I am finally ready to stop this insanity,” it means they are about to take a bath in it.)

Okay, so the real purpose of this entry, aside from my nitpicking over this modern definition not being the definition of insanity but rather an occasional indication of it, is that this definition of insanity phrase has gotten so oversaturated in popular American culture that we forget sometimes that doing the same thing over and over again is the definition of “practice.” In that, sometimes it merely makes you better at whatever behavior you’re repeating, and that leads to different results, too. I think the prevalence of this definition of insanity phrase is a great indicator of how the notion of patience has completely slipped through the cracks of our modern, instant-gratification society, but that’s neither here nor there. Really, it had me thinking about the Tower of Hanoi.     …and why wouldn’t it?

The Tower of Hanoi shows us the importance of doing something over and over again, because it illustrates that we build muscle memory. Even if our psychological process isn’t learning anything from repetition—although it often does—our physical process learns for us. Which is all kinds of neat.

The Tower of Hanoi (above) is a puzzle where one has to figure out how to get the four ascending-sized pieces of a puzzle from their pyramid shape on the first nozzle (in a set of three nozzles) to the third nozzle in that same final pyramid shape, one piece at a time (see the link for an illustration of how it’s done and hopefully a less ridiculous understanding of it than I was able to give you).

This puzzle generally takes awhile for people who aren’t Good Will Hunting to figure out. What was interesting here was that they found that amnesiacs doing the puzzle day after day eventually improved their ability to solve it competently, when they didn’t ever remember doing the puzzle before, or even the person administering the puzzle. These experiments were used by psychologists to show that we have muscle memory: increased levels of physical precision through repetitive behavior, in addition to our experience-based memory. Cool.

And then a barrage of existential questions hit me (and pardon me if they twist about in a rather labyrinthine way here). Aside from building muscle memory, which we seldom do intentionally, why do we do things again and again when, the probable majority of the time, it isn’t yielding results? I assert that doing this is not insane (as some would prefer to hyperbolize) because repetition is such a common human behavior—common enough that a vague cultural definition-of-insanity phrase had to be created and reiterated ad nauseam to discourage it. Is our proclivity toward repetition derived from a desire to preserve the action in our memories, rather than from stubbornness or stupidity?

And what is the purpose of making memories, other than merely learning to avoid danger—or is that it? No, certainly there’s something having to do with a memory’s purpose that distances humans’ minds from those of mere animals, which operate on instinct. We strive so hard to preserve certain memories, even ones that are ultimately detrimental to our health (whether we do so consciously or not), so surely there’s more to our collecting of memories than the instinctual survival of the species.

I consulted an interesting article on cryonics (of all things), about how memory intertwines itself with identity and whether preserving memory is the most important part of sustaining life, in the hopes of better understanding why we make and keep memories:

“To some people, preservation of memory is the most essential task of cryonics, whereas others regard feeling as being more critical. I am somewhat skeptical of both these views, but I do not have an alternative thesis — I am searching for one. If memory is critical to identity, why do I perceive that in the last year I have added memories, but not altered my identity? If some memories are more critical for identity than others, what are those critical memories and where do they reside? It may be true that to abolish all my memories would abolish my identity — but it is also true that stopping my heart abolishes my identity. That does not prove that my heart is the essence of my identity.”

I don’t know that I agree with this person’s dismissal of the firm bond between identity and memory, but at least it got me thinking of how they were interrelated. If the reason we do something again and again actually is moreover to make a memory, as I had hypothesized, are we doing it therefore to extend or preserve our identities? Isn’t that why we say doing menial tasks again and again builds character? Or is that just a platitude to alleviate the unpleasantness of it?

Memory is altered over time, as we know, and it is often shaped by personal perception. Does this indicate that over time my identity actually shifts, and that’s what causes my memory to alter? Could be. A progressed or evolved state of personal identity yields a changed perception in me and accordingly adjusts my memories to fit that perception? Or even, adversely, if my memories simply modify over time due to other factors—and many will—will it cause my identity to correlationally shift over time if memory and identity are inseparable? I mean…my tastes change over time, and they are integral to my identity.

To give an oversimplified example, I used to like to wear lots of dangly, clanky jewelry hanging all over myself. It made me happy. It made me feel comfortable. Now I like less stuff hanging all over me. So my tastes have evolved. How I prefer to present myself has evolved. How I see myself has evolved. And ergo there’s been a slight shift in my identity, right? I would testify so. Our tastes are just an expression of who we are or who we want to be—identity. And clearly identity has the ability to evolve. Again, I realize this is over-simplified, but it accomplishes my point.

On the other hand, certain aversions which memory has taught my body to create have evolved over time. For example, I got sick once eating tuna and couldn’t eat it for about a year, even though I know that all tuna isn’t going to make me sick. It’s a common defense mechanism of your body. But now I love tuna again. This indicates to me that my unconscious memory had created a taste aversion to preserve my body from whatever in that tuna made me sick, and that the particular unconscious memory seems to have left me along with the aversion. Bam!—memory alteration. (Oh god. Did I just become the Emeril Lagasse of mind-numbing conversation topics?) So, considering that identity and memory both evolve and assuming that the two are interwoven, does identity alter memory, or the other way around? Is it the chicken or the egg?

Furthermore, assuming identity is attached to memory, if I wish and wish for a painful or uncomfortable memory to be erased from my mind, is it because I merely don’t wish to carry it with me, or is it, more deeply, because I seek to alter myself?

More importantly, can identity exist without memory? Think of amnesiacs, for instance, or Alzheimer’s patients. Are they without identity? Much of our identity has to do with how we uniquely react to circumstances, our individual process of doing things, how we learn, and how we grow. While memory strongly affects each of these, the absence of memory wouldn’t leave us without these abilities. An auditory learner who gets clunked on the head by a falling ACME anvil may become an amnesiac (…you know…if they live through the subsequent cartoon-like effect of being hammered a full meter into the ground with just their appendages sticking out in alarm, the 4-inch bald lump that later rises from their head, and, naturally, all their teeth falling out like so many piano keys), but I would wager they’ll still likely be an auditory learner (short having incurred brain damage beyond amnesia) after the anvil event, as opposed to a visual learner (on the heavy assumption that their ability to see, hear, or learn hasn’t been altered by the cranial reception of an anvil). That’s because it’s ingrained in their identity, I think, the way their genes have determined they’re neurologically wired.

Dig it:

“Spiders can weave intricate spiderwebs, but this complex behavior is not learned — it is built-in neurological machinery. A female bird that is hatched and reared in isolation from other birds is still capable of building a perfect nest…”

“Even when learning does occur, neurological wiring may dictate which experiences result in learning and which do not. Many birds learn to form a strong emotional bonding at birth to any nearby distinctive and animate object — a process known as imprinting. Many animals develop strong aversion to a tasty food following a single experience of nausea after eating it.”

Our actions are a part of who we are, and they are present whether or not our memory is. Like the Tower of Hanoi. A person who had lost their memory midway through life was able to ingrain a behavior without neurological or psychological memory—their muscles learned to do something, and to do it a certain way. The person has no accessible memory of ever doing this.

Does this person have identity? Is their identity forever stunted from altering itself after they quit making new memories? Or does a neurological wiring to perceive muscle memory show that their hard-wiring is crafting an identity for that person, accessible memory or not? Are their behaviors, reactions, and sensibilities being stored somewhere other than the “tangible” memory, thus perpetuating who they are without their consciousness? Are we then predestined to be who we are, at least somewhat? Clearly our genetics can’t account for the circumstances and events in our lives that will occur and spark a change in us, but does our hard-wiring determine which of these experiences we will learn from and which we won’t on an individualized basis—whether we’ll experience pain, pleasure, or fear from the experiences?

The answer, darling class, is I don’t know. Possibly our identities can remain somewhat intact without the aid of memory. Possibly they’re also strongly influenced by memory, and we continue to make memories or strive to memorize in order to have a more well-rounded shape to our individual selves. Perhaps doing the same thing over and over again is comfortable for us because it triggers the feeling that we’re memorizing, which gives us the psychological ease that our identities will be preserved. Or maybe we do it because practice makes perfect. Regardless, repetition is not the definition of insanity; it is very human and very common. And sometimes, it’s the only thing that yields progress.

Whew. Who needs a nap?


On what would happen should same sex marriage be recognized and protected at a federal level:

“Then pedophiles would have to be allowed to marry 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds,” she predicted. “The man from Massachusetts who petitioned to marry his horse after [gay] marriage was instituted in Massachusetts. He’d have to be allowed to do so. Mothers and sons, sisters and brothers, any, any combination would have to be allowed.”

– woman speaking in simulcast in videos produced by supporters of Proposition 8 (story)

Ooookay. What is so difficult to understand, folks, about the difference between keeping our country’s laws in check to equally protect and promote the rights of its citizens—especially minorities that might not have the benefit of majority popularity, and thus equal media coverage and equal funding—versus just opening up our laws to complete social entropy? Honestly, where does that societal chaos switch flip on for you? This is entirely preposterous and would be comical, were this woman actually joking.

To begin with—this is an issue of equality, not of religion or the American family or anything of that nature. Religions don’t have to agree to recognize same-sex unions. And a great multitude of American families are run successfully and lovingly right now (and have been) either by same-sex parents or with homosexual family members in them. Not all heterosexual marriages result in progeny that is the genetic result of both parties, nor would we find it even remotely within our right to insist that they do. So marriage as a means to create offspring is not a valid argument. Don’t be taken in by those who would otherwise obscure the focus of the examination of Proposition 8 from a discrimination matter to touchy-feely buzzwords like “family,” “America,” or “moral” in order to draw a halo above their agenda. It is not about religion or the American family. Both survive just fine right now with the concomitant occurrence of homosexuality in American families.

It is an issue of equal rights for minorities. This is an issue that is steeped in our country’s history and has provided much of our historical political turmoil. For those of you who claim true patriotism, you of course know that the reason our government instated and uses judicial review is to protect the rights of its citizens.

To quote Justice Washington, speaking of judicial review on behalf of the Marshall Court in an 1829 case, “We intend to decide no more than that the statute objected to in this case is not repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, and that unless it be so, this Court has no authority, under the 25th section of the judiciary act, to re-examine and to reverse the judgment of the supreme court [of the state from which the case had originated]…”

I can’t think of anything more repugnant to the Constitution of the United States than ignoring or blatantly denying the rights of any of our law-abiding minorities. Doing so comes into direct conflict, I feel, with our Fourteenth Amendment. This amendment was initially created to protect freed slaves and their ancestors from discrimination in the Southern states after the Civil War. It states, ““Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This is one of the fundamental amendments used to protect any minority in this country. “…nor to deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Same-sex unions are not given equal protection of the laws, currently; this is why Prop 8 should—and eventually will—be subject to judicial review and found unconstitutional on a Federal level in our country.

But… ya see, then there are those people who prefer to throw a sack over their head and start screaming about the dying of the light. Which, in turn, leads to ideas like this woman’s (quoted at the top of the page), and many of the other Prop 8 supporters’. People will marry children, animals, bottles of water, mounds of dirt, statues, and fountains. Clearly.

The difference between this Prop 8 supporter woman’s over-inflated, neurotic, paranoiac, crudely bigoted imagination and any basis in the reality of same sex marriage is the ultra-important issue of consent! For us, marriage is when consenting individuals enter into a commitment where they agree to legally, financially, and otherwise lovingly support one another. Generally speaking. I see no disparity between definitions if this is made to allow the same right to consenting same-sex couples.

The reason you can’t marry an animal is because animals can’t consent. And if you think they can, you’ve been up in the mountains too long. No, animals cannot consent to a marital union, and ergo no marital union can legally occur. I’m sorry, are you new? Were you dropped?

Likewise, minors can’t consent either. Altering the laws to protect the rights of same-sex unions doesn’t actually even touch laws having to do with the legal age of consent for children, as we plainly saw after the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas invalidated sodomy laws in 2003. The courts made certain to remind us that they still uphold that the age of consent is the same for both heterosexuals and homosexuals, under Romeo and Juliette laws. So if allowing sexual acts between same-sex individuals doesn’t mean legalized sex between adults and children, or just between children, why should allowing marriage of same-sex individuals mean anything at all about marrying kids? Are you under the impression that we’ve all gone nuts, or that with the legalization of same-sex marriage, our court system is just taking a massive hit off some (now legalized) California reefer? This is silly stuff, people.

It was the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote. Well, shucks. Why not centaurs? Why not babies??? Because the Nineteenth Amendment didn’t make us all lose our sense of reality and proportion. Voting was guaranteed protected for every American citizen of age. And note—we never lost sight of the fact that centaurs can’t vote because they’re mythical. Babies can’t vote because we don’t recognize them as adults and know they would be incapable of competently voting. Come on.

The same applies to why same-sex unions will not lead to the legal disintegration of any other nationally treasured belief of ours. It’s nonsense, and furthermore it’s offensive on an immeasurable scale.

But fear of the dissolution of the American family or of any sanity regarding the institution of marriage is not really, I think, the reason for statements like the one quoted in this Prop 8 video. These ideas of people marrying children or animals are images thrown out by certain Conservative opinion leaders and stakeholders in order to intentionally obfuscate the point and to shock and confuse those who are too intellectually lazy to form their own opinions. I believe this. I have a deep enough love of this country and of our people to want to believe that there is NOT such a vast majority of us who are really so full of hatred, or who are willing to hate something they don’t understand, that they would knowingly campaign to rob their neighbors, brothers, and sisters of rights that they themselves so freely enjoy. I have to believe this Prop 8 business is just the result of ignorance and the bafflement caused by a precious few hate-mongers who misuse religion and money to fill this ignorance. I think most people are good at the very heart, and that they’re misled. I only hope that they can find it inside themselves to see through the intolerance and homophobia disguised as righteousness and to consciously decide to do what they can to help end the inequality.  I have to believe they will, and I will spend my time and energy opposing them until they do.

I have much hope for us yet.