A long journey through physiology, psychology, philosophy and media influences

Dr. Dosti Regmi

Today I saw this young lady in my radiology suite. She looked beautiful, calm and resilient. Yet it juxtaposed with the fact that she was there for Barium swallow study for strictures she had in her esophagus due to ingestion of lye in an attempt to suicide. She had a tattoo itched in her skin in her arm reading “perfectly imperfect”. It was a poignant reminder that even the most seemingly resilient individuals could be battling inner turmoil.

I started musing on the paradox of her tattoo. What determines perfect and imperfect? What determines what we think and do? Are we really in control of what we think and feel and do or are there covert influences that we are not even aware of.

Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all”. Hindus have this satyam-shivam-sundaram, which means truth is beautiful and beneficial. We accept this because it’s pleasant or have we really analyzed it for ourselves? Truth cannot be traded with the pleasure of aesthetics. Morality also should not be captive of the aesthetics. Nietzsche says,” If you crush a cockroach, you are a hero. If you crush a beautiful butterfly, you are villain. Morals have aesthetic criteria.”

What can we really be sure of? Socrates says, “I am sure of one thing, my ignorance”

Recently, I came across this book titled The You, you don’t know; Covert influences on your behavior authored by Webster Riggs, Jr., MD who worked as pediatric radiologist in the Le Bonheur hospital, Memphis, where I currently work.

Here in the book, Dr. Riggs takes us in a long journey through physiology, psychology, media influences and ultimately philosophy to make us more aware of the undercurrents of our behavior and thoughts.

The book’s blurb reads: “You may think we are in charge of your life, but in fact an unpredictable array of subtle factors conspires to influence your behavior every day. From the temporary effects of room humidity on your comfort level to the lifelong impact of genetic inheritance on your appearance and personality, there is a complex interaction of the trivial and the profound operating below the threshold of consciousness. All of this, like the proverbial iceberg beneath the surface, determines the you you don’t know.”

Really, strolling through our daily lives, we blissfully assume we consciously control our behavior by using reason and common sense. Only occasional events – such as forgetting a name or erupting on anger – remind us that we lack total control over ourselves. Actually we are oblivious to our own ignorance, misinformation, and illusions. We are unaware of the overwhelming influence and deception of the popular culture in the form of media distortion, advertising, political rhetoric, and superstitions.

The author intends to make readers more aware of unbounded number of hidden and unreliable influences on our lives.  Just like Socrates saying; “Know thyself” or J. Krishnamurti saying;” Know the truth and truth shall set you free”. The book does not give gimmicks and shortcuts because it is our own responsibility to delve into the truth and save ourselves from the falsehood. He unfolds various possible follies but also reminds us to be responsible for ourselves, “Half of what I tell you is wrong. The problem is, I don’t know just exactly where that half lies.” This is the inexact nature of the reality.

We live in a world of half-truths, buncombe and fibs. Dishonest people are abundant in all walks of lives. We now live in the cosmetic world of plastic surgeries and padded resumes and padded bras. Media distortions and hypes are problematic.  Media decide what is news and for them good news is not a news. For them all aberrant and bizarre picture of the world is news. They tell us what we should think about. They can create a celebrity for us in overnight. They can determine what we pick up in a supermarket tomorrow.

Our laws and ethics are also skewed. Religion can blind fold us. Humans easily take in to the herd instinct and mob dynamics.  Patriotism can be the last refuge of scoundrel.  Eric Hoffer once said,” Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” We are hooked and hosted by the substance. How free are we? In USA in men between twenty-five and thirty five years of age, 83% use alcohol, 46% use tobacco, 22% use marijuana, and 10% use cocaine. We are in a rage against the time. Most of the people maintain that they have little, if any, free time. Predictions were that with machines, we will have more free time. But, like one of the Murphy’s Law, the more time we have to do things, the more things we find to do. As Carlos William once said, “Time has been a storm in which we are all lost.”

Even if the truth is conveyed, will the language be able to carry it? The linguistic is also questionable. Just as a map is not the territory, words are only arbitrary symbols that do not depict independent reality. Some thoughts do not translate into language readily. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Thoughts die the moment they are embodied by words,” and Oliver Holmes says,” The flowering moments of the mind drop half the petals in our speech.”

And finally what is the nature of the reality? Five centuries before Jesus, when Buddha was teaching that human experiences were an illusion, the Sophists in Greece were also creating doubt about the reality. Believing that reality was only what the mind of man created out of it, the Sophists maintained, “Man is the measure of all things.” Eighteenth-century thinker Kant emphasized the difference between our sense experience and reality, using the example of how a stick protruding from the surface of water appears bent. He said that we cannot experience the world as it is before our mind influences it.

We live day-to-day assuming that there is an objective truth, partly because science has constantly reinforced this idea. However, the truth of science, and even mathematics, is shaky. Now everything is questioned with quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and Godel’s theorem of incompleteness depriving us of the absolutes. There is not even an absolute now. The theory of relativity maintained that the faster you move, the slower becomes the time. The object versus wave nature of the electron is determined by the observer.

What are the determinants of what we are and what we do? Some have a fatalistic, deterministic view and some believe in free will. Again as Schopenhauer said,” A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills.’ Existentialist Sartre says, “Man is condemned to be free.” There is ambiguity and paradox in life.

Because our world is changing more rapidly than we can adjust to, we’re like a chameleon tumbling around inside the kaleidoscope. According to the current chaos-complexity theory, we are unable to make accurate predictions. One minuscule event, over time, can produce enormous effects. Like the renowned butterfly effect whose flap of the wing causes a hurricane thousands of miles away?

In concluding chapter, Dr. Riggs celebrates the chaotic welter of fact and fancy that makes up our individual lives: “The overwhelming complexity of your behavior is good news. It is so complicated, so impenetrable, that you should not worry about it… Knowing this should actually heighten your sense of humility and make you more tolerant of others and of yourself. Accept the imperfections of all- and relax. Life is fabulous! Gleefully join the fray and enjoy it.”