TraumaZone

A still-frame from the BBC documentary series "TraumaZone" by Adam Curtis

For the majority of us who’ve never visited, lived-in, or studied Russia, trying to understand Vladimir Putin and the collective culture and psychology of the nation he and his inner circle control can feel almost futile. Not only does Russia embody both Eastern and Western mores in a way that few, if any nations do, but it has also experienced a variety and degree of tumult that barely any of us can imagine.

I’ve just watched a 7-part BBC documentary series on Russia, entitled ‘TraumaZone: What it Felt Like to Live Through the Collapse of Communism and Democracy.’ I can’t recommend it enough—as not just the bizarre and spellbinding romp through recent history it is, but as an object lesson in how collective trauma impacts the perceptions and behaviour of groups.

Director Adam Curtis presents a collage of random story vignettes drawn from old BBC archival footage to give us a sense of what it was like to live through Russia’s turbulent and destructive emergence from the Cold War years, between 1985-1999. The old video montages are a cross between Instagram video reels, and the ‘No Comment’ segments from Euronews. There is no formal narration per se—only sparse titling marking important milestones in the story.

Curtis implicitly shows us, masterfully, the devastating experiences that have shaped the Russia we see—behaving as it does—on the world stage today.

His narrative ends with the instalment, by Russian Oligarchs, of a much younger and more spritely Vladimir Putin into the country’s presidency—a final desperate act to stave off collapse caused by a fast-and-furious embrace of liberal democracy which was ill-suited to Russia, and promulgated by the West.

You can watch the series on BBC’s iPlayer in the UK, or on YouTube where the episodes also run.

Polarization Op-Ed in the Globe

We have another opinion piece running in the Globe and Mail today about increasing polarization in Canada, ritualistic opposition in politics, and the misuse of the party system to those ends. We argue that political parties have a beneficial cooperative function, too, beyond the tools they’ve become for senseless bickering.

You can read the piece here.

Canada’s UFO Files

old black and white photo of a UFO

Having penned a non-fiction book about Sasquatch lore, it was only natural that I’d be commissioned to write a review of a book about the little-known history of the UFO phenomenon in Canada, right?

My writeup of Matthew Hayes’s Search for the Unknown: Canada’s UFO Files and the Rise of Conspiracy Theory, a most interesting work, is appearing in the July-August 2022 issue of the Literary Review of Canada.

The review is entitled “Eyes Like Saucers.”

Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Matter With Things’

The Matter With Things Iain McGilchrist

I’m half-way through The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World by psychiatrist and scholar, Iain McGilchrist. The book is an epic exploration of the impoverishment our culture’s strictly left hemisphere view of the world compared to the right-brain’s—which sees a reality that is infinitely more rich and holistic. As the subtitle of the work suggests, it is a big picture journey through human condition and describes where we’re headed as a race unless we change our mode of thinking. It is an astounding and profound work.

McGilchrist’s magnum opus, ten years in the making, builds upon his other notable work entitled, The Master and His Emissary. That preceding book lays the foundations about the relationship and differences between the brain hemispheres and their impact on human culture across the ages.

McGilchrist argues in both books that in a healthy mind the left and right hemispheres work in tandem, but that the right brain—or “master”—should be dominant over the left—”the emissary.” This is because the right brain has much greater gravitas and capacity to both “see” and make decisions. It experiences the world more broadly, is more receptive, and aims at understanding, whereas the left hemisphere is grasping, controlling and focused on detail. In other words, the right brain has a wider view of reality. However, western culture has been hijacked by left-hemisphere thinking, which has de-throned right brain, causing endless problems and dysfunction due to its autistic nature when functioning largely on its own.

McGilchrist recently appeared in an interview with Mark Vernon on YouTube in which he discussed certain features of our left-brained world. The below quote from the Q&A about linear thinking  struck me as poignant and describes one aspect of the left-brain’s approach to the world. But it also defines the root of many long-term problems that imperil humanity: the idea of endless economic growth, deforestation, overfishing, urban sprawl, identity politics, social justice, artificial intelligence, Covid-19 policies, the Ukraine war, and a lot more:

There is a good point at which to stop pushing in a certain direction. That is something we absolutely don’t understand anymore. We think that things are just linear and if you keep on pushing in a certain direction you’ll achieve further and further distance from what you wanted to leave behind. Actually and unfortunately space is curved and mental space is curved and time is curved. And what happens as you push is that you achieve the precise opposite of what it was you meant to achieve. So, as you say, there is a part of our brain that is devoted to helping us to survive. It is a bit of an irony that it is actually that part of our brain that is now making us effectively soon extinct.

You can watch his excellent interview with Mark Vernon, here.

Kaliningrad: Inconspicuous Enclave

A postcard showing the city of Konigsberg, which is today Kaliningrad, Russia

As a travel writer drawn to obscure and remote locales, I’ve developed an interest in a mysterious territory tucked between Poland and the Baltic states. The place is called Kaliningrad—a Russian province and enclave located within Europe and behind NATO lines. Formerly German Königsberg, it became part of the Soviet Union when it was awarded to Stalin after World War Two, in 1946.

Today, the region of roughly one million people contains Russia’s only northern warm water port and is one of its most strategic military perches. It houses Moscow’s Baltic Sea fleet—among other weapons of war—and is situated an uncomfortable stone’s throw away from several European cities.

Most people have never heard of Kaliningrad because it’s been a restricted area for decades. You couldn’t just go there on a whim if you were an independent traveler backpacking through Europe, for instance. Even on maps it has an ambiguous countenance that makes it nearly invisible, or at least easy to forget if you manage to see it in the first place.

Its geostrategic and military relevance, given the deterioration of relations with Russia, is now undeniably heightened.

For those interested, I’ve written a short opinion piece with my colleague, John Bell, about Kaliningrad in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago entitled, “As Tensions Between NATO and Russia Increase, Look to Kaliningrad.”

Ukraine Op-Ed in the Globe

I’ve co-authored an opinion piece with my colleague John Bell which ran in today’s Globe and Mail about the war in Ukraine. It argues for a more nimble approach to the conflict by the West in light of the dangers of nuclear escalation.

You can read it on the Globe’s website.

If the paywall gets in the way, you can access it on The Conciliators Guild blog.

The Attention Factor

My Dinner With Andre

As a freelancer I’ve spent many years (prior to the pandemic) working in coffee shops. As those who work in cafés know all too well: you become inadvertently and unavoidably privy to the conversations of the others sitting at nearby tables. That comes with its plusses and minuses, though largely the latter.

But one fascinating thing I’ve noticed, beyond some of the very unusual and personal topics discussed, is there tends to be a default dynamic at play in many of these meetings between people. 

Often one of the interlocutors dominates the discussion, while the other, or others, sit passively and do the listening. Put in a different way, one person receives most of the attention, while someone else does the giving. The frequency with which I’ve seen this over the years is staggering. It operates in people as if it were an unspoken contract, and often in excess: too much talking in one person, too much listening in another. 

I’ve often imagined the people involved unconsciously seeking out one another to play-out those specific, complimentary roles.

Certain traditional cultures have known for a long time that humans have an innate need to both give and receive attention. It’s a sort of nutrition. Just the right amount fulfills us. Too much giving or receiving (as anyone who’s been stuck listening to an interminable rambler who has been holed up for too long on their own, knows), throws us off. It can even make us grossly inefficient.

This is such a powerful factor in human affairs, that much of what we do, in fact, is driven by disguised attention motivations arising out of that need: both at the individual and collective levels. We often rationalize our desire for it—one look at the state of social media demonstrates that. And yet, in our modern culture, as with other tendencies, we’re largely unaware of it. At most we might give disapproving lip service to “attention-seeking” in overactive children or misbehaving adults. We don’t see the subtler, wider ranges of that tendency that operate daily in ourselves. 

Social interaction is a very good and necessary thing. Covid lockdowns have underscored that fact. But one also wonders: if we were more cognizant of our attention needs, and thus managed them better, how many of those asymmetrical café discussions—or other excessive reflexes born out of a similar deprivation—would need to take place?  And how much more selective might we become with whom, or what, we give our attention to—including those who may need it the most?

Do Pasta Shapes Actually Taste Different?

varieties of pasta

I have friends, a married couple, who for years have stubbornly argued over the question of whether different shapes of pasta actually taste different.

She, the more sensory-driven and less logical personality, is adamant that this is the case and that every type of pasta triggers a subtle flavour difference, its own unique taste signature. He, an avowed atheist and arch-sceptic of anything that remotely smacks of magical thinking, denies that such a thing is even possible.

Being a pasta fanatic and having tried nearly every nomenclature of noodle, I see the validity of the question as well as both sides of the debate. And much to their chagrin, I have never taken sides. But as I’ve mulled the issue further I’ve grown to sympathize more with the perspective of the Mrs. There is something at play between a pasta’s shape and its taste.

Here’s an explanation, after which I’ll get into why this interests me at all:

A pasta’s shape—whether rigatoni, angel hair, or elbow macaroni—will create a slightly different eating experience. And that, in turn, will affect the way we perceive flavour, because more than just taste alone is involved in how we experience flavour. Texture, shape and consistency, we are told, alter how a thing tastes.

Rigatoni’s ridges, thickness and tubular shape, and the way it holds the sauce, will register in the brain differently as we eat, then say, angel hair, which will have a completely different sensory impact. Even the way those pastas look on the plate and how you attack and chew them will also change the overall eating experience from one to another.

The result of these differing factors seem to be that our perception of flavour is transformed ever so subtly from one to the next. It is as if it we experience a minor form of synesthesia—the ability to register one sense through another. In this case, it would be an ability to actually discern a slight taste sensation from shape. More people than just my friend’s wife have remarked on this phenomenon, which does on the surface seem to defy logic.

Various fresh pasta shapesWhy does this absurdly narrow and seemingly insignificant question matter enough to warrant mention at all? Because it illustrates, albeit on a smaller scale, the importance of context. When one factor in a set of factors changes, even the tiniest one, the whole is transformed as a result.

Returning to the example of Italian food again: two plates of the same pasta, say, a seafood linguini, made in the same way using the same cooking utensils and ingredients, might still ‘taste’ sufficiently different depending on whether they ate eaten al fresco at a table metres from the sea, or inside of a dark old rustic home on a hilltop 20 km inland with no view of the coast. Eating that dish with its shrimp, clams and mussels, al fresco as you inhale the sea breeze and watch and hear the waves lapping shore would likely make your meal taste more ‘fishy’ and fresh.

I remember back in the day when I used to shop for new music CDs at the HMV store, you could ask to sample the album at a listening station with headphones. I often found that new music which I sampled in-store, which I liked and then purchased, sounded very different when I later played it at home. Because of that I tended to return most new CDs I chose that way because it turned out that I didn’t really enjoy the music after all.

The same thing happens today when I hear a new song I like blaring at a bar or restaurant and then use the ‘Shazam’ app on my smartphone to identify and download it later at home: the song afterwards usually sounds unrecognizable and feels like a bit of a dud.

It may be the same song playing at both locations, but the context—where you are, who you’re with, your mood and state of mind, the sound system, and the room’s acoustics—might differ enough to change the overall experience of it.

So, what’s the takeaway?

Context is everything. Circumstances alter cases. Too often we equate one thing with another without considering the unobtrusive differences that might make them sufficiently different.

Many examples on a larger and more significant scale abound.

Why Groups Tend Towards Mediocrity

Lemmings running off a cliffMany of our achievements stem from our special ability to band together and work in groups. By doing so we not only generate social dividends, but also enhance and magnify our effectiveness as individuals (for which the social benefits are likely an evolved incentive). Cooperation is how gargantuan pyramids get built and astronauts propel themselves to the moon and back—and how a million smaller successes are achieved.

But there is a serious paradox built into this usually-advantageous group dynamic: the collective, in its zeal for cohesion, can often stifle and predispose itself to mediocrity and failure.

The reason for this isn’t hard to grasp. Whether we are on the hunt, fighting a war or building a mega-structure, a high degree of group cohesion—a single-mindedness of purpose and action—is required for success. Too much disagreement and working at cross-purposes is counter-productive, which is why we both consciously and unconsciously seek out like-minded people and demand conformity in our groups. It’s hard-wired in us.

But that tendency, like anything else, can overreach with negative consequences. In excess, it can negate one of the greatest assets of any group: dissenting views and a diversity of perspective.

We’ve all seen or experienced this drive towards uniformity. Companies, organizations and other collectives tend to cherry-pick their recruits based on a certain ‘type.’ Once brought in, they are further homogenized through various pressures. Groupthink dynamics create a singularity of perspective. Dominance hierarchies and status considerations discourage the less influential from sharing dissenting views that might more accurately reflect reality and be beneficial for the group.

Matthew Syed Rebel IdeasMatthew Syed, in his book Rebel Ideas, argues that these group dynamics can be deadly for organizations and companies as it creates monocultures and encourages myopic thinking that result in cognitive errors or mistakes.

Syed cites the failure of the CIA to predict the September 11 attacks and the bad team decisions at the heart of the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest climbing expedition made famous in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air.

He adds that mistakes that cost lives in both the healthcare and airline industries have occurred when subordinate staff were too intimidated to contradict their superiors who had made errors in judgment. Airline pilots and surgeons wield military-like authority over their juniors. I’ve also seen similarly poor outcomes result from discouragement of dissent during my time working as a television news writer and producer. The hard news business can be just as hierarchical and fanatically top-down in its decision-making as the most martially-structured collective.

So, what is the takeaway from this?

Syed says groups can avoid the crippling damage that this myopia can cause by actively seeking and building what he calls “cognitive diversity.” He defines this as group diversity marked by differences in perspective, experiences and thinking styles among its members. When diversity in a group is embraced and encouraged, it results in a kind of easygoing natural feedback, “rebel ideas,” which provide a wider range of options for the collective for seeing the world and navigating it.

“Groups that contain diverse views have a huge, often decisive, advantage,” he writes. Those collectives tend to make far better decisions resulting from seeing a the bigger picture, while still retaining the necessary cohesion, leadership and hierarchy required to effectively channel its energy to get things done.