Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

On Marriage and Maintaining the Relationship

In Marriage on December 27, 2009 at 9:49 am

Love between two people does not usually last without the support of friends, relatives and other well-wishers who are willing to provide an atmosphere of growth, security and realistic expectations. While the bride and groom carry most of the responsibility for the success of their marriage, in a very real sense each actually marries the other’s entire family. If you can’t stand your in-laws then you should not be surprised to learn that your marriage is going to be difficult.

I don’t suggest that a couple planning marriage should be dominated by well-meaning others, or that Mom and Dad are the best judge of how to handle these matters. I do suggest getting input from as many people that you trust, as you can, while you can. And that the bride and groom, as a minimum, talk to each other, members of each other’s  families, and perhaps one or two long-time friends of the family. Find out up front what is important to each of them, and what is not—before making one of the biggest decisions you will ever make during your lifetime.

By understanding what is important, we understand the person for whom it is important. The question is: Can two separate views of the same issue coexist under the same roof without major adjustments? The older we get and the longer we let these issues fester, even a trivial difference of opinion can become an irritation that eventually becomes a hill to die on, from which there is no return. Divorce does not occur because two people stopped listening, but because they never started—at least, not the important stuff.

Most of us are just winging it, with only wishful thinking as our guide. Ideally, we would agree up front on major differences of opinion and on how we are going to handle fundamentally different views, held by the most important people in our lives. To do this well, the wedding couple needs to document, as a minimum, what is important and why it’s important.

For example, you might write:

  • Jane was raised in the Episcopal Church; John is currently an agnostic, but is thinking he might eventually choose atheism. We have decided that neither of us will proselytize the other, and that our children will be provided opportunities to understand their parents’ choices, without pressure to do likewise, beginning at age 13. Prior to age 13, on any given Sunday, the children are welcome to join their Mother at the church of her choice or stay home with their father. After age 13, we will encourage our children to learn more about the various world religions, without expressing a preference.
  • [ Views on Managing Money ]
  • [ Views on Parenting ]
  • [ Views on Abortion ]
  • [ Views on Politics ]
  • [ Etc ]

You might list some general behaviors, as well, such as:

  • We will never criticize each other in public, to friends and confidants, or in front of our children
  • We will do our best to resolve all differences equitably
  • We will strive to always show respect for each other
  • We will raise our children using only one, agreed upon, consistent approach, i.e., we will not undermine each other
  • [ Etc ]

No more than 1 or 2 pages, but short, succinct descriptions that both review and sign, on every anniversary, for mutually accepted changes.

It takes about a year to get to know someone, and the likelihood is that they are not going to change, even if confronted and a promise is extracted. Changing any behavior in a mature adult is quite difficult for reasons that are both physiological (physical brain mapping which organizes how the brain will deal with the outside world) and psychological (personality traits, or how I see myself).

One can be on their best behavior in short bursts, but the brain maps our habits and encourages us to follow these maps (unconsciously). We think of these behaviors as our personality, as defining who we are, and nobody is going to mess with who I am! But a minimum wait period of one year will almost always reveal true character.

Marriage is such an important decision that, like all of life’s important decisions, we do not know how to decide until we actually decide and observe the feedback. In the initial stages of developing (or discovering) our relationships, we often focus on only one or two attributes. Most of the time, the dominant attribute is physical attraction.

  • Too little of this attribute and there is no interest to spur us on to the next step in courtship
  • Too much of this attribute and we find ourselves in arrested development, and our lives thrown out of balance

However, we should not view ourselves as having arrested development solely on the basis of feeling an attraction to more than one person (regardless of marital status). The likelihood is that the new attraction is based on a similarity that does not have the same level of richness or intensity as the original. (If this is not the case, some reevaluation of the original relationship is in order.)

Often, exercising caution rather than acting on such feelings will remind us that what we do matters more than how we feel. It has more impact. Inaction provides time to evaluate how we really feel. For me, the test has always been to look into her (or his) eyes, below the surface, and if I still see the face of the woman I married 37 years ago, then I know I am in the right place.

Copyright © 2010 by Tad Laury Graham

012 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on December 16, 2009 at 8:43 pm


The theory restated: your brain constructs a plausible representation of everyone you know, including you, from limited real world data. Particular care is given over to individualizing faces because faces are important for you to know with whom you are dealing. Beyond face recognition, approximations seem to be acceptable for navigating the world as we know it.

Some Examples from last time:

  • There is limited evidence that we appear differently to different people based on how each of us “feels” about that person. (If we like them, they are attractive; if we don’t, they are unattractive).
  • There is evidence that the brain constructs an interpretation of everything we see, hear, touch, smell or taste.
  • That the brain paves over the gaps in radio transmissions.
  • That the brain acts as though a missing limb isn’t missing.
  • That our  brain tells us how to feel.
  • That the brain fragments what we see, and stores the pieces separately.
  • That the brain controls which brain maps will be changed (body maps extend into our comfort zone and define our space to include this zone).
  • And that the 26 modules of the brain act independently of each other.

All of these examples tend to support the idea that what exists appears to be a very sophisticated biological robot platform, minimally, or a creation of god (the other end of the spectrum), using many of the techniques currently used by man to build metal cousins to our human species. Over the top? Yeah, probably, but I think there is something to it, and the field of robotics has at least a few crackpots who may show us something more, one day.

If none of this suggests the same to you, then ponder this: software is nothing more than instructions. Most of our nervous system works based on inferred sets of instructions. The fact that the brain isn’t binary, that the skin, bones and organs are alive, or that the model is more sophisticated than any robot on earth shouldn’t be cause for rejection before you take at least a critical, hard look.

It’s been fun, but I am taking some time off, starting tomorrow, ending on January 6th. Before I leave tonight, I will convert the evaluation system to “Nero” (thumbs up or thumbs down). If you want to hear some more of this silliness, then give me a thumbs up (before the 6th of January); otherwise, I have no way of knowing if anyone is actually interested in continuing. (Although we are getting a lot more hits than before we started down this path.)

Have a great Christmas, or whatever other holy day you may choose to observe.

And Happy New Year …
Copyright © 2009 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

011 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on December 12, 2009 at 5:08 pm


The right question isn’t, “Does god exist, but does god make a difference?” The first question is irrelevant, albeit this is where most of us get stuck, but the second question is important: whether or not god exists, the “idea of god” can influence events and change outcomes. If the perception makes a difference, it doesn’t really matter if he exists or not—what matters is that he makes a difference.

On the other hand, humans must exist to have an impact. If we are not present, we are ignored. Because we examined the case for including god vs the case for excluding god, and because the question of our existence is more problematic than the question of god’s existence, I began to take a look at deriving a comparison (a bit tongue-in-cheek, at first). The results follow.

Please keep in mind that this discussion is over simplified to improve the reader’s ability to understand the arguments presented without wading through a lot of technical jargon.

The “I” that I Call Myself is Actually a Construct that Does NOT Exist

A Construct is what you get by combining or arranging a number of existing parts or elements in a logical order to construe, interpret, or explain a theoretical concept. We might also refer to it as a real-world model. In our example, the parts used to build our construct are analogous to the parts used to build a computer. We use the computer because nothing else comes closer when trying to model the part of the human body that defines the “I” that we call ourselves.

I propose the theory that we can build a construct, using analogies between the human body and the computing machine that will cause us to question our reality, and our membership in it. At the highest level, the construct is made up of hardware, firmware and software (obviously analogies to computer parts on a functional level). What we are not saying is that a human is nothing more than a computer. What we are saying is that these computing parts are the functional equivalent of biological robotics.

  • The hardware is made up of a computer-like device (the Brain) and wires and cables (the Neurons).
  • The firmware (the genetic code) is read-write, though it is usually “read” when carrying out its instructions and “write” when a glitch occurs in the genetic encoding (or, a change is made to our brain maps, see below).
  • The software is the Electro-Chemical Messenger System that provides the mechanism for executing programs in the brain, in conjunction with various methods of input / output, storage and retrieval, and brain maps.

in this model, the hardware exists

Consider the human eye. We used to believe that we see everything as is, but now we have come to understand that all we actually “see” is created by our brain using limited data outside of ourselves, built primarily from variations in light intensities. These data are collected by the eyes and sent to the brain, where the data are deciphered, and the model for the real object is created. It is our brain that creates a representation of everything we see. We “see” with our brain, not with our eyes.

Lets extend this observation by talking about our hearing. When a radio station broadcasts a program, there are actually silent gaps throughout the transmission. There is enough delay between each transmitted pulse to be highly annoying, if we could actually hear the gaps. But our hearing is so slow that we cannot hear the gaps, because our brain covers them up, and we hear our favorite music, or stock reports, or perhaps a baseball game, courtesy of our inability to hear as well as other animals.

Our brains are physical realities in the real world. A single brain is actually a collection of no fewer than 26 modules, all of which have functions that must be performed, but none of which is in charge of ensuring overall success. It is remarkable how well they usually work together (in a healthy mind). However, when you are having that bad hair day, it could very well be because no module is boss, and all of them are vying for attention, leaving us little room to deal with the resulting emotional states.

More importantly, there are periods of time when these modules perform less than optimally, e.g., the prefrontal cortex (located in the forehead) does not fully develop until the body is fully developed, which occurs perhaps as late as our early-20’s. This causes problems for teenagers especially, who are already under the influence of hormones, and in combination causes inconsistent and sometimes uncivilized behaviors throughout our teen years.

Lets take a look at how those pesky modules we introduced might function in a way that supports my theory. Specialists in neurology have determined that we don’t control how we feel. That happens in a primitive area of the brain called the limbic system, and we are only along for the ride. The limbic system not only tells us how we feel, but it does it before we sense it ourselves. In fact, it tells us how we feel before we feel the emotion itself. The brain literally identifies our emotional state and pushes for a response from us in such a manner that we are certain that the “I” I call myself was ahead of the game.

Another quick example where the brain is messing with us in the background is the loss of a leg or an arm in an accident and the “I” that I call myself believes it is still attached (phantom limb syndrome). We would probably continue to experience the pain in the space where the missing limb used to be because the brain, independent of us, thinks the leg is still there. The reason? The brain map has not changed. The limb is severed,but the brain map doesn’t yet know it. (With some coaxing, we can influence the brain to fix this disconnect.)

the firmware exists

One of the most important discoveries of our time is that we operate in accordance with brain maps. And these brain maps can change their own structure, and even change their own function, well into advanced age. We say that the brain is plastic and self-directed because the brain can change, but all you or I can do is influence the brain to change in the direction we prefer. We don’t actually make the changes. Further, the brain is subject to many influences—the 26 modules, our own preferences, the group we hang around, or work with, or avoid, etc.

We can continue doing what we have always done, in which case the brain will execute in “autopilot” or we can choose to do something else, in which case the brain maps will alter them-selves to accommodate the new skill. It has been estimated that repeating a new fact for about fifteen minutes will change a brain map forever, assuming that periodic reinforcement of the change continues. The other side of that coin is if we don’t use what we know, the brain will stop maintaining the skill, gradually, until it disappears altogether after about ten years.

The brain literally seizes the space required for new thoughts and new ideas, and lets go of a part of our past that has fallen into disuse. This is why most immigrants after only one generation have lost prior language skills, and assimilated their new language. We no longer think that the brain retains every thought we ever had. We now know that the brain must overwrite old thoughts with new thoughts in order to accommodate what is important today.

Because our storage capacity is not infinite, the brain also uses what might be thought of as “data compression.” Most of what is stored in the brain is stored as an attribute. As a child, I might have a red fire truck, and my best friend might have a red bicycle. The brain takes the attribute of redness and stores that attribute in one place, linked to other attributes for the toy and for the bicycle. The greater the difference between the two, the less reinforcement occurs and vice versa. In other words, our firmest memories are in general polluted with a lot of variation, unrelated to the original item. (People make very poor witnesses.)

The foregoing is generally true for all but faces. We are excellent at face recognition (stored in one location), but often can’t get the name right (stored in another). A very large part of the brain is reserved for faces, probably because there is survival value in knowing who you are doing business with.

but the executing software DOES NOT EXIST

When computer software is still in its wrapper, sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be installed so it can come alive and do its job, we think of it as something tangible with a physical presence in our universe that can be defined and understood in its proper context. We agree on what it looks like, what it is supposed to do, and whether or not it does it.

But take it out of the wrapper and install it, and if the development phase has achieved it’s goals, you move into the realm of self-contained decision making based on predefined criteria. In other words, the programmer, the end user, and the internal parts are all part of a system, in general, that operates independently of its creator.

Only the dead no longer execute the software in their brains. The living continue to run their programs around the clock. This very action suggests that we are programmed for something—perhaps that mythical quest we are all supposed to be on, and that we must complete before we die. And the “I” I call myself is actually a construction by the brain to represent all of the systems that define body conciousness that could not otherwise exist.

Put another way, biological software is the set of instructions that define the ego, which makes the transformations that define our lives. Software operates like a set of switches that must be thrown for each pathway chosen. This biological software does not have a human creator. It is generated by our bodies from experience, and from our genetic encoding. The new question is, “Do I really exist or am I just a construct of my brain?”

In school, we learn that behaviors are learned and unlearned, which suggests that we are always in charge. But “learned” is the wrong paradigm. Changes in humans are not learned, they are merged as physical changes to the brain, which is why it takes so long to “unlearn” negative behaviors.  The “me” that I am is wholly dependent on these physical representations and changes.

The “who am I?” in all of this is that I realize “I” am a construct:  the sum of all I do and all things done to me; embodied in flesh, brain cells and nervous system the “I” that is not much more than the sum of the influence of my parts. It is the “me” in motion, the executing program instructions formed by the wiring and chemistry of my computer-like brain. And nobody is in charge.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”

010 The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales

In Meaning of Life on December 4, 2009 at 6:46 pm


There are some, I am sure, who will choose to continue believing what they have always believed, regardless of the opinions expressed here, but this is not an issue. It is precisely because we don’t know for a fact what is true, that we construct religious belief systems around opinions.

Some of these opinions are quite well-reasoned, enough to create the possibility of belief (a theory of belief, if you will) and can easily be applied to both camps (believers vs non-believers), and can be used to support either position—which further demonstrates the inconsistencies in things attributed to god.

This is my way of saying there is nothing to argue about. You are probably both right. All you have to do is spend an afternoon trying to understand the behavior of “quarks” to know that this universe is even more amazing than we could ever have believed. Quarks (the building blocks of life) literally alter the physics of life.

The Last Word on the Inflluence of Religion on the Meaning of Life

The only topic left to talk about with regard to the role of religion is this: Do we need god in order to explain the meaning of life? Not do we need to exclude god, but do we need to include him? Remember, we only introduced the subject of god because the claim is made in almost every faith on the planet that you don’t have to die if you know and follow the required ritual.

Yet there is still another possible explanation why we can put god in one box, and the world in another, and still talk meaningfully about the meaning of life. Consider the artist who creates a work of art. Once the work of art is complete, do I need anything more from it’s creator? How about a novel, or a poem. Once written, do we still need an author? Does music still need a composer? A computer need an engineer? Or any other technological gizmo?

The answer is a resounding no! Even the black widow understands this on a biological level. Once created, the creator is a short-lived non-essential presence. No wonder he is never around once he creates the miracles. So in the final analysis, we will let the churches and philosophers oversee the religious aspects of life, and the rest of us will continue the search for the meaning of life, rather than the meaning of religion.

Next week, we take a side excursion in which we attempt to demonstrate that we do not exist. If we do not exist, then there is no meaning of life. If we do exist, then we have the first hint of proof that life has meaning. This may not be the most efficient way to solve the riddle (we would need a great deal more than one instance), but it does satisfy our requirement to lighten up on occasion by spinning a tall tale.

Copyright © 2009-2010 by Tad Laury Graham

“The Meaning of Life and Other Tall Tales”