10 March 2007

Pattern Recognition, Part 2: Labeling and Mind-Reading

Tolstoi famously said every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; but it's the other way around. Every dysfunctional group has a great deal in common with other dysfunctional groups. There's a limited set of games, thank God; we can learn to recognize the moves.

Your family of origin is the first group / system you experience; what you learn there, you take with you into every other system you encounter. School, church, the office, the bowling league, the bridge club... all of these are groups, all operate as systems. All have their own group dynamics, roles, and taboos.

We can learn to recognize healthy groups, unhealthy groups, bullying, cliques, and so forth. What we are doing, in a sense, is learning to read the 'group mind'. It's not arcane wisdom; it's just 'street smarts', but it's happening in the office or the rectory. And we are also using labels; we label certain behaviors as healthy, others as unhealthy. Or productive and unproductive; mature and immature.

Now let's take that idea one step further. If it's possible to read a 'group mind', assess group dynamics, even label and predict group behavior, then it must also be possible, to some extent at least, to do something similar at the individual level. After all, every group is composed of individuals.

But, in this culture, there is a prevalent assumption that it is 'bad' to label. That it's not possible to know what someone is likely to be thinking in certain situations, or guess how they might react. That's called 'mind-reading', and it's culturally held to be an impossibility - sacrilegious even to contemplate - because we human beings are complex, unfathomable mysteries, each one of us utterly unique.

Not quite.

Consider - for just a moment what life would be like - if this were literally and completely true.

There would be no language; how could there be? Your vocalizations and mine would be - utterly unique. If we could be said to ascribe any meaning to them, such meaning would also be - utterly unique.

Social organization would be likewise impossible. Without basic commonalities, human interaction would be complete and utter chaos.

At the ultimate extreme, we as a species - could never even have been a species; if each of us were truly unique, we would have no commonality on even the genetic level. How would we reproduce? Humankind could not exist, if we were each utterly unique and distinct.

This, of course, is an exaggeration - but the cultural position sometimes seems that extreme; and it's often defended almost as extremely.

Let me present a provocative alternative. Let us suppose that 'labeling' and 'mind-reading', rather than being forms of social sacrilege, are actually essential daily activities that we engage in more or less continuously, in many different ways and on many different levels - and that, in some instances, even keep us alive.

If you are diabetic, aren't you grateful for the 'label' that has literally saved your life? Being 'labeled' diabetic means that you get medication to correct an otherwise fatal metabolic abnormality - that can be managed and compensated for - because you know what it is. You know what to watch, and how to watch it.

If you have migraine, aren't you grateful for that 'label'? The one that tells you: when you start seeing shimmery things in your left eye, you have about 20 minutes while the shimmery things [scotoma] move across your visual field, before the headache hits, so take your medication / do your biofeedback / get into bed with a heating pad now?

These labels allow us to name, demystify, and manage situations that otherwise might kill us. And that's also true of labels such as: alcoholism. Codependency. Bipolar disorder. Depression...

Here's another provocative notion.

If 'mind reading' is such an awful thing, and so impossible to do; if each human being's interior reality is an utterly unfathomable mystery that cannot ever be understood by comparison to any other human being's inner workings....

Then how can anyone ever diagnose 'depression', 'bipolar disorder', or any other similar problem? How can there be prognoses for these conditions? And how can any of the medications and therapies for them even work?

The truth of the matter is - we are all built from the same basic blueprint, GATTACA GATTACA GATTACA... and that blueprint can be flawed in certain ways, with certain predictable effects. We are also built to grow at a certain rate, to learn certain things at certain times, and to respond to certain stimuli in certain ways. If something interferes with these processes, we are likely to react to that interference in certain specific ways.

There is nothing demeaning or reductionist about any of this. It is, on the contrary, comforting. It does not mean that we are identical automatons; Milton, Van Gogh, Mahalia Jackson, Leo Kottke prove and prove again just how rich the varieties of human experience can be. What it means is this: the darkness is not totally without form, and void; it is only a lack of knowledge, not absolute chaos.

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Blogger CZBZ said...

Thank you, Storm. That helps a lot.


04 November, 2008 16:24  

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