Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Honesty is a Lonely Word: Lies in Personal and Professional Lives

Lyrics from Honesty song refrain with chords
Everyone is so untrue, Billy Joel complains in his song. It does seem that honesty is lacking in today’s world. No matter where you look, you see that dishonesty is gaining ground. This is not just limited to celebrities and politicians and the media circus surrounding them, it is firmly embedded in daily life.

Its more harmless expression in form of white lies is socially accepted and in some cases even encouraged. But the problem is that these smaller feats of dishonesty appear to signal the message that lies are and ought to be part and parcel of daily interaction and that it is normal and healthy to do so.

Take for instance, people on a first date. That is the breeding ground for lies. We lie to impress the other; we hide (lying by omission) unpleasant facts or details about our lives. Yet in the end, we are deceiving the other person and to an extent ourselves. We show them an image that does not correspond with our inner reality.

Sooner or later, once this house of cards collapses, disappointment ensues and this may be another reason why break-ups are so common-place. People lie to each other, create false impressions and promises and are then disappointed once they realize that they had been led on all this time.

But lies are not limited to our personal lives. They also invade our professional world. From the onset, we lie on our resumes and CVs. We omit the unpleasant facts or weaknesses and expand on our assets. When the interview comes along, we embellish our strengths, lie about or slyly cover up our weaknesses, and in many cases, people claim they have experience and expertise where none of that is existent or grounded in fact.

The employers, it seems, like getting lied to or they are or at least pretend to be naïve in taking all the words at face value. When an honest person comes along and offers them the truth on a silver plate, they ignore him and offer the job to somebody else. Modesty is immediately dismissed as weakness, while lies and gossip are taken as valid truths because that is what people prefer to hear.

This is not limited only to the interview process but continues throughout. Those who spread gossip and hide their lack of abilities by consistently claiming that they are more than qualified and competent, they indeed end up getting promotions. The ones who quietly work away and who are talented and competent get the short end of the stick.

This is worrisome from many points of views. First of all, justice is not served when people get ahead through lies and manipulation; the carefully groomed appearance and persona do not correspond with the inner reality. It also means that people will find themselves in positions they cannot handle in any effective manner. Their decisions are going to be harmful to others working under them and would lead to the demise of the company itself. It backfires, but once the employer realizes this, it may be too late and the damage has already been done.

This is across the board and in a variety of businesses and practices. Those who are elected to positions also benefit from their inflated appearance; they lie and smear their rivals and more often than not end up victorious. They may even be the least competent, but they have the gift of the gab tied with the ability to lie through their teeth.

The other problem is that this constant concern about appearance will mold and influence the person and they will end up losing touch with their real selves. They will come to believe the role they are playing and not only lie to others, but also deceive themselves. A culture that values putting one’s best foot forward and that is concerned with saving face and one’s image ends up encouraging lies and discouraging truth and honesty.

This is the common complaint about people being phony or not being genuine. Instead of speaking their mind or showing themselves as who they are, people like to build fences around themselves and stuff them with commonplace expressions and socially accepted but empty jargon. More often than not they will go with the current streams of mainstream opinion and media because being honest to oneself ironically takes more effort in such an environment.

So yes, Billy Joel is right when he says that honesty is hard to find and that it is what he needs most from his friend or partner. But what the singer may perhaps not realize in all of this is the fact that he is most likely not honest to himself. One needs to take a hard look in the mirror and face the music about oneself. Some truths are hard to swallow; yet pretending the negative traits do not exist or turning a blind eye to the unpleasant facts about oneself is not the solution.

Only if we see the truth about ourselves, the good and the bad, the weak and the strong can we live a more truthful and more authentic existence. And once we learn to see ourselves as we are and stop lying to ourselves, we can open up to those we trust and care about us and reveal to them our true persona in all its colors. Then we can finally have an honest relationship. But in a world that turns its back on honesty and authenticity, that is much harder said than done.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Book Review of Philosophy: A Path to Peace

Book cover and review of Path to Peace
Who does not want peace? I know this is a rhetorical question and I am also aware that there are a handful of people out there who as a rule do no like peace. But for the rest of us, peace is the ideal state we are striving for but why is it so incredibly hard to attain?

Part of this is because we live in a rapid world where we want everything and we want it now. I remember when Internet and computers were a new thing (yes, I am that old) and we had dial-up connections. That meant that websites loaded at a crawling speed; the top part of the image would appear and then the rest of the website came into full view after three to fifteen minutes of anxious and anticipated waiting. There it is, we would shout out with glee!

Today we see people cringe and roll their eyes when the infamous loading sign appears. Patience is one of the virtues we have lost mostly thanks to modern technology. Everything is faster, more immediate and in your face. So when we speak of peace, we want it right now, not days, months or, God forbid, years down the road!

Therein lies the problem because peace is something that needs to be fostered and must be given room to grow within ourselves. For a basic set-up of such a state and the steps you need to take, you can consult P. Jey’s book Philosophy: A Path to Peace, which shows you the ropes in a simple, clear and brief manner.

Jey’s book draws heavily on Buddhist thought and practice and in this I completely agree with him. It may seem to be (and in fact is) based on common sense but more often than not we eschew the simple answers for more complicated ones. Yet the simple is often more difficult to do.

The first half of the book consists of direct self-help advice and guidance with Buddhist precepts. One thing that Buddhism and many philosophers stress is to keep everything in moderation or as Jey puts it to have nothing in excess. He gives the example of a self-confident person; this person neither draws too much attention to themselves unlike an arrogant person or a braggart nor does she shy away or hide her own capabilities.

Then, Jey extends his nothing in excess stance to everything in life and that is where he will meet resistance among many people. Why make more money than is needed for our sustenance? Why chase things we do not (really) need? Why overindulge ourselves in work and making money by neglecting or hurting other vital parts of our lives, such as our own well-being or quality time with family and friends?

His ideas seem in conflict with the notion of ambition. We strive for success and that is something we are good at or at least we have been programmed to do most of our life. But in the whole process we devote significant amounts of time and energy to achieve this. It is our driving force but it is also both directly and indirectly a possible source of suffering.

If we are content with what we have, not too much, not too little, then we would be much more content. That would help us also to cease or at least diminish our expectations (another source of suffering, especially when they are not met). We would suddenly get rid of stress and take it easy and focus on the more important things on our life, such as establishing and fostering relationships with ourselves and others.

Ambition in itself is not bad, but when it becomes the overriding factor in our life or the sole measure of success, then it can be rather harmful. Success can be measured in other currencies than money and may take many different forms. Certainly, money can serve to increase our happiness and without it, we would have no peace and calm, but once we have a sufficient amount, we need to also focus on other aspects of our life and not neglect or dismiss them for the sake of a fatter bank account.

As Jey aptly puts it, overthinking is another problem that interferes with peace and calm. In other words, we worry too much. I find myself guilty of this. When somebody is late for an appointment, many thoughts float through my mind. I come up with scenarios what could have happened, what it could mean, why all and any of this was happening, when, in reality, none of it is the case. We are rarely satisfied with nor do we go for the simple answer, such as a traffic jam but we tend to exaggerate the events: a heart-attack, a car accident, a personal slight or even complete rejection of our friendship.

All this interferes with the enjoyment of the here and now and it also wastes my energy. Instead I could learn to silence my mind so I do not overthink but relax (of course easier said than done and involving a significant amount of mindful practice) and then I would not miss out on those precious moments of the present. Anyhow, my worrying will not make the person arrive on time.

And yes, the present is the only time that exists. We all know that. But so much time is spent either thinking about the past or worrying about the future that we do not even perceive these fleeting moments move away from our grasp. Rarely do we realize the full potential and beauty of the present moment.

The other significant piece of wisdom is that everything will happen in due time. Patience again is needed, and we should not force things. The universe, nature, fate or God follows its own course and has a purpose in mind. We need to be stoic and accept the results and know that in the end it is the best outcome. We may not see it at first or miss important blocks of the big picture, but there is a plan behind it all.

Many might object to that because they either think they are in complete control (they are not) or they may reject or question the benevolence of the universe in a violent and seemingly random and irrational world. But nothing happens in isolation. I like the example of the domino effect that Jey provides to illustrate this point. Everything has been set in motion by other dominoes and our actions and existence will add more pieces that will have repercussions and topple future dominoes. Where we are at any moment of time has been caused by other moments and have further influences down the road.

Hence, it is important that we fully embrace and clearly understand our present situation to be able to take mindful action that will resonate with our core being. In order to reach that state we should not be swayed by overthinking or by having unrealistic expectations. For example, if we want a job that pays extremely well and that is not possible, we may suffer and even blame ourselves for our lack of skills and abilities. This vicious cycle can be stopped by clearing one’s mind of too many desires and by appreciating and living in the present moment.

Jey uses the metaphor of water often mentioned in Taoism, which stresses the importance of adapting to the environment and situation. Water can adapt itself easily to any type of container and can flow freely. It is open and flexible. Yet a mind set in stone will not be able to shift views or change opinions and will only block itself in the process eventually leading to frustration and exhaustion.

But as Jey also points out water can also change its movement and be rough and violent when the occasion arises. Think of storms and floods and you will recognize the power that water can harness for its own purposes. In other words, adapting does not mean resigning oneself to the status quo; it means to seek appropriate action under the given circumstances.

Sometimes while we are busy trying to push through one door, another one opens unexpectedly. We should be aware of this and change directions when we deem it necessary and beneficial. But if we have a one-track mind we are not only knocking at closed doors, we do not notice anything else going on around us. We miss the moment and many important opportunities that way and spend our time in a constant state of tension.

Nonetheless, sometimes we do need to continuously knock or even break down that door. If it is something that is vital to our well-being and/or that of others, then we should not merely give in or accept consolations or compromises. All this, of course, depends on the circumstances, and they are best evaluated with open eyes and a clear and calm mind. They should not occur on the heated spur of the moment.

Finally, I want to focus on the advice that would make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. It can be summed up in the following words: This too shall pass. This is a source of sadness for those who are happy and one of comfort for those who are suffering. What this means basically is not to get (too) attached to the present conditions as life has its natural rhythm of ups and downs. We should not try to desperately grab onto shreds of happiness nor lose hope when we feel down because all things will pass.

So will our lives. This only emphasizes the importance of all those fleeting moments that make up a life. If we worry too much, chase what is not essential or even necessary for us at the expense of neglecting all that is important, we will lose out on important elements of our life. We need to know ourselves and let ourselves be and not be dictated by what others think or want from us. We cannot be at peace if we are not grounded firmly in our own identity yet we should remain open for change and growth and flow with time.

I enjoyed P. Jey’s book. It may not have given me any new insights but it has only stressed the importance of those concepts so that I keep them in mind and practice them. We often lose sight of what is important and rarely consider the implications of the big picture; we often worry about unnecessary things or end up climbing unnecessary hills.  This slim book with its sparse style shows us a possible path to find peace and how philosophy can guide us along the way, but in the end we ourselves have to take the first steps.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Lifelong Bilingualism and its Effects on the Brain: UBC Quinn Memorial 2016

Ellen Bialystok: Lifelong Bilingualism: Reshaping Mind and Brain
It was that time of the year again for me to attend the next Quinn Memorial Lecture at UBC. This annual event is filled with distinguished key speakers and the 2016 version presented us with Dr. Ellen Bialystok, the Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University with a lecture entitled “Lifelong Bilingualism: Reshaping Mind and Brain.” 

Considering that I myself speak five languages fluently and that my son is growing up immersed in two simultaneous languages, English and Spanish, I was personally most interested in learning about the consequences and the beneficial and / or possibly harmful effects of bilingualism.

In fact, I am so dedicated to this wonderful series that I tried my utmost to battle against my own fatigue and budding migraine to physically make it to this talk. It was a busy day as I rushed quickly home to have a quick early dinner and then headed out to UBC to make it there on time.

Arriving at UBC, I was slightly at a loss vis-à-vis the recent structural changes and ongoing, seemingly everlasting constructions, and I must admit I felt a little embarrassed of temporarily not knowing my way around despite having spent more than eight years at this great university. But its face and façade have become almost unrecognizable due to the demolitions of older buildings and creations of new modern architecture, and I sincerely miss the look and feeling of my beloved university.

But let us get back to the lecture. It seemed less attended than previous talks, and I was able to seat myself firmly and visibly in the second row, which was almost empty. I awaited with keen interest the arrival of the guest speaker, and the whole lecture started surprisingly on time and included fewer opening sessions and diversions but rather jumped right into linguistic matters.

The overall theme of the talk was neuroplasticity, which refers to changes in structure and connectivity of the mind and brain. Language learning is an experience that leaves footprints on the brain and changes the efficiency and automatic processes of the mind. In fact, language learning is intense and based on the whole brain; put differently, there is no specific language switch mechanism operating in the brain turning from one language to another since languages are jointly activated.

Hence, the brain needs to select the target language, and selective attention is required for this. It is not a language switch but rather a spotlight model where the brain must focus its attention and resources or shine its light on a specific domain. This, in turn, leads to changes in some regions of the brain and strengthens and increases efficiency on certain tasks.

However, Bialystok first let us know of the disadvantages of bilingualism; they are indeed few, but there are certain limitations. The main one is a reduced linguistic representation, meaning a lack of words and vocabulary in each language. It makes sense that a person who knows only one language, a monolingual may generally have more words at their disposal than someone who is storing words and information on two or more different languages.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a young Swiss woman years ago. Back then, I was gently bragging about my language skills when she countered to my multilingual mind that it may be so but that it also meant I could not speak any of them as well as a person who knew just one single language. To my shock and surprise, science and research is on her side, at least broadly speaking.

The second disadvantage is a lack of verbal fluency. If you are bilingual, it gets worse with multilinguals, you tend to speak more slowly as you need to focus on the given target language. This is true of myself, especially when I lack sleep AND have no coffee in the morning. It takes me slightly longer to find the appropriate expressions and sometimes words seem to elude me. In other situations, I may have the right word but in the wrong language. And occasionally I dream in all my languages and wake up rather confused and bewildered.

This is also true of my son, especially a few years back when he would speak more slowly than some of his classmates. This was due to the brain trying to locate and then process in the correct domain. However, contrary to the opinion of some monolinguals, my son very rarely confused the words and languages, and he managed that rather well without the aid of coffee.

Apart from difficulty generating words, for example on verbal fluency tests on which bilinguals tend to perform worse than monolinguals as the former do not have the same vocabulary depth, and apart from a slower retrieval of words in speaking, lifelong bilingualism is beneficial in various ways. 

For instance, bilinguals generally perform better on executive function tasks as it boosts their attention system. Especially on complex memory tasks, there is more facilitation and less interference among children and older adults. A curious finding is that generally younger adults show little group difference in terms of ability; they perform about the same. Yet overall bilinguals are better at memory tasks as their executive attention is always on, and they have stronger cognition in relation to memory and attention.

Finally, Bialystok looked at older age and dementia and the corresponding effects of bilingualism. On certain tests like the Stroop effect, older bilingual adults tend to perform better. They tend to have more intact and more robust frontal and medial temporal regions, which affect attention processing as well as memory. As a result, the age of diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease is usually later with bilinguals.

In fact, bilinguals may get Alzheimer’s Disease but show symptoms at a later date. This is because the brain compensates for general regions due to its neural plasticity; certain parts make up for affected regions. In fact, studies in societies that consist of largely bilinguals show lower incidence of dementia. On the downside, it seems that when bilinguals end up getting Alzheimer’s, the disease tends to be in a worse and more progressive state.

As we can see, bilingualism is beneficial for the brain in many ways. It strengthens certain regions and improves focus on attention as well as performance on memory tasks. But what about multilinguals? Does it follow the adage of the more the better? 

Bialystok claims that this is generally so. Learning an additional language is of definite benefit for the brain. Oddly enough, research shows that the advantages increase by language but then stop after the fourth language, after which it plateaus! So knowing a fifth language does not seem to give you any tangible benefit!

This was a very interesting lecture that focused more on statistical analysis and showed clear benefits of learning an additional language. Hopefully, it inspires people to pick up another language! Yet the talk did not address, for lack of time and scope, many other benefits that come with knowing other languages. I see languages as an important and essential tool and a powerful weapon for peace and unity.

Knowing a language gives you a glimpse into another culture and worldview and can increase your ability to understand others and empathize with them. Both these traits, understanding and empathy, are at great risk these days, and leaders around the world should not only fund and promote education but also encourage language learning and literature so that more open minds can be fostered across the world.