VIDEO: Meaning

This discussion of meaning led by Owen Flanagan at the Moving Naturalism Forward workshop, October 2012, has recently been uploaded to YouTube, so we wanted to share it here as well.

Participants include Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, David Poeppel, Massimo Pigliucci, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, and Steven Weinberg.


Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke University Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He works in philosophy of mind, ethics, and comparative philosophy. His book, The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility was published in 2016 from Oxford University Press. Flanagan is a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

What Does Narrative Identity Do?

AdobeStock_33693277.jpeg

Note: This post is an excerpt of “Narrative Identity: What Is It? What Does It Do? How Do You Measure It?” published March 1, 2018 in Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. Read the full article here.

 

Psychology’s turn toward narrative in the 1980s was a logical extension of its gradual emancipation from the behaviorist grip. It may have been inevitable that once empirical psychologists defied the strictures of behaviorism to peer inside the black box of the human mind, as they began to do in the late 1950s and 1960s, they would eventually happen upon the idea of story. After all, human beings the world over love to tell and hear stories, as Bruner (1986) and Sarbin (1986) both observed. Human beings routinely adopt a narrative mode of thought and expression, Bruner wrote, when it comes to explaining why people do what they do. He distinguished the narrative mode from the paradigmatic mode of thought, which employs logic, evidence, and argument to explain instead how the (physicochemical) world works. Sarbin went so far as to anoint narrative as the new root metaphor for psychological science. Human beings are storytellers by nature, Sarbin argued. Human conduct seems to obey narrative rules. People think about their own lives, and the lives of others, in narrative terms, as stories unfolding over time (Polkinghorne, 1988).

 

Outside of psychology proper, social scientists and humanists of many different persuasions became enamored with narrative in the 1980s and 1990s. A central question running across many disciplines during this time concerned the function of narrative: What do stories do? First and foremost, they entertain us, some scholars argued (Brewer & Lichtenstein, 1982). Stories engage human emotions, and when they do not, they fail. What is the worst thing you can say about a story? That it is boring. From the parables of Jesus to Dickens, stories also provide instruction on virtue and morality, on how to live a good life (Coles, 1989). Throughout human evolution, even before language when people enacted narrative in gesture and dance, stories have functioned to simulate social experience (Mar & Oatley, 2008). When we read a good story or watch a good movie today, we observe social interactions up close. We witness the clash of human intentions and the timeless social conflicts and motivational dilemmas that characterize so well what human life has always been about. It is probably no exaggeration, then, to claim that stories teach us how to be human (McAdams, 2015).

 

Narrative identity is a special kind of story—a story about how I came to be the person I am becoming. With this special status comes the special function, a function that Erikson (1963)assigned to identity itself. It is the function of integration. Narrative identity brings things together, integrating elements of the self in both a synchronic and a diachronic sense (McAdams, 1985). Synchronically, narrative identity integrates different social roles (Dunlop, this volume), values (Pasupathi et al., this volumeWang, Song, & Koh, this volume), attitudes, and performance demands in the variegated here-and-now of life. A person’s story, thus, explains how he or she continues to affirm a sense of “inner sameness and continuity” (Erikson, 1963, p. 251) across different situational and role contexts. The life story also integrates life in a diachronic sense, that is, over time, ideally showing how the self of yesterday has become the self of today, the very same self that hopes or expects to become a certain kind of (different but still similar) self in the future. Concerns about both synchronic and diachronic integration—self-unity in space and time—are salient in Holm and Thomsen’s (this volume) study of self-event connections, self-concept clarity, and dissociation.

 

Since the 1980s, psychologists have identified a number of other potential functions of narrative identity. As the most notable example, Bluck and Alea (2011) have enumerated (and developed a measure to assess) three primary functions of autobiographical memory in everyday life. People may call upon stories about their personal past to serve social, directive, or self functions. Telling autobiographical memories may promote social relationships; people enjoy sharing stories about their lives with each other. Autobiographical memories may also provide guidance (directives) for life. When confronting a difficult decision, for example, a person may call up memories of similar events in his or her life, consulting them for advice, mining them for insights that may prove helpful in the current situation. What Bluck and Alea put into the domain of functions serving the self includes promoting self-continuity (diachronic integration) for sure, but it also includes the ways in which memories may be called upon to boost morale or sustain positive self-regard. In this light, Liao et al. (this volume) found that positive meaning making in self-defining memories predicted enhanced self-esteem one year later.

 

In adopting a developmental framework for understanding narrative identity, Fivush, Booker, and Graci (this volume) bring together issues regarding both function and form. They point out that life story construction is constrained by the exigencies of the developmental period during which a narrator aims to make sense of the past. The same event, then, can mean very different things for the same person at two different points in time (Josselson, 2009). At an early age, for example, the narrator may lack certain skills in autobiographical reasoning that would otherwise enable him or her to discern a significant theme or insight from the event, or connect the event to similar others (Habermas & Bluck, 2000). When those skills come online later in development, the person may now understand that same event in very different terms. In this regard, McLean, Breen, and Fournier (2010) have shown that unlike older individuals and unlike females, early-adolescent boys who narrate negative experiences in highly elaborative ways do not enjoy higher levels of psychological well-being. Young adolescent boys may lack the autobiographical skills to process aversive life events in a psychologically productive manner.

 

Whereas developmental level may constrain meaning making in narrative identity, meaning making efforts may also catalyze development. Fivush et al. (this volume) describe the process of making narrative sense out of life as a mechanism for self-development. The performance of narrative identity may function, therefore, to refine meanings and thereby help the narrator attain a better understanding of self and reach a higher developmental plateau. Elaborating upon the distinction between narrative as window and narrative as process, introduced by Grysman and Mansfield (this volume)Fivush et al. (this volume) contend that narrating life experiences is indeed a window into the current developmental dynamics and parameters that prevail in a given life, but also a process that may promote development itself.

 


Dan P. McAdams is the Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and former chair of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. He is the author most recently of THE REDEMPTIVE SELF:  STORIES AMERICANS LIVE BY (Oxford University Press, 2013) and THE ART AND SCIENCE OF PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENT (Guilford Press, 2015), and President of the Association for Research in Personality. McAdams is a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Barriers to Empathy

37185524801_f7df7e2c6e_z
“Empathy Tent”. Photo by Roger Jones.

 

Note: This is part 3 of a 3-part series “Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Self-Transcendence” based on a talk at the University of California, San Diego by Candace Vogler in June 2018 for WISDOM, COMPASSION, AND LONGEVITY.

 

Suppose you are ready to undertake the other-perspective form of imagination.  There seem to be three crucial aspects of the task.  The first is simply activating your capacity for perspective-taking.  The second is trying to adjust and correct for the virtually inevitable egocentric bias.  And the third is getting accurate information about the other you hope to understand.  We can encounter difficulties in any of these three areas.

 

We can fail to involve ourselves in the task of understanding another person’s perspective because seeing the person’s distress and moving quickly to help can impede any effort to understand how things are from their perspective. In this sense, the kind of image that can inspire us to donate to charities right off may be keeping us from trying to understand the perspective of those whose suffering has us reaching for credit cards.  More generally, we can fail to try to understand how things are for the other person because it is harder to try to get a sense for someone else than it is to stick with our own perspective.  There is ample evidence that we do what comes easily rather than what takes effort whenever possible.[i]  We can substitute the imagine-self variety of perspective-taking for the required imagine-other variety without even noticing ourselves making the shift.

 

This difficulty is related to a second one—the problem of adjusting for egocentric bias.  Even as adults, it can be very hard for us fully to realize that others do not see things the way that we do.  If you have ever had a friend who keeps a straight face when teasing others, you likely have a friend who is not always aware that what his target might take the joke seriously.  It’s obvious to the teaser that he’s teasing.  It is not always clear to the target that she is being teased.[ii]  The need to adjust for egocentric biases can arise more than once in imagine-other perspective-taking.  Epley and Caruso put the point this way:

 

[P]eople’s attempts to adopt another’s perspective are likely to retain some residue of their own.  When there are few cues that others are likely to see the world very differently, people may not adjust or correct an egocentric bias at all.  When the cues are ambiguous and there is some uncertainty about others’ perspectives, attempts to adjust one’s own perspective will tend to be insufficient, and resulting judgments are likely to be egocentric….[iii]

 

The third hurdle that we need to overcome if we are to engage effectively in imagine-other perspective-taking centers on having accurate information about the other whose experience we are trying to understand.  The first two difficulties arise because we are strongly inclined to use ourselves as guides to how things are for others.  And, of course, no matter how good I become at imagine-other perspective-taking, the imagination I build for how things are going for you is my imagination at the end of the day.  I do not disappear from my own sense of the world just because I am training my efforts on making your situation more vivid for me.  What I can do, initially, is draw from the whole field of my experience and understanding to begin to get a sense for you.  If you and I have some history together, I can draw from that interpersonal history.  I can train myself to notice things about you or yours that are striking and surprising to me—points where our perspectives are likely to diverge.  I can practice patience and humility in my efforts to understand you better—listen more than I speak, notice more than I show, and so on.  In all of these ways, I can work to develop my capacity for empathy by working to strengthen my capacity for imagine-other perspective-taking.

 

Empathy and Self-Transcendence

If I am successful in learning how to see how things are for others accurately, then empathy, as I am teaching myself to practice it, can help me to nurture a self-transcendent orientation to the world that we share.

 

[i] See, for example, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Part I, pp.19-108.

[ii] See, for example, Yumi Endo, “Division in Subjective Construction of Teasing Incidents: Role and social skill level in the teasing function,” Japanese Psychological Research, Vol. 49, No. 2, (May 2007), pp. 111-120.

[iii] Nicholas Epley and Eugene Caruso, “Perspective-Taking: Misstepping Into Others’ Shoes,” in Keith Markman, William Klein, and Julie Suhr, editors, Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), p. 304.

 


Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. 

Empathy and Shifting Perspectives

Ready to Race
Photo by Chris Smith.

 

Note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series “Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Self-Transcendence” based on a talk at the University of California, San Diego by Candace Vogler in June 2018 for WISDOM, COMPASSION, AND LONGEVITY.

 

Empathy and Shifting Perspectives

The term ‘empathy’ can cover a very wide range of our responses to another creature’s distress.  It can cover the rush of feeling that comes of seeing images of starving children or abused pets—the sort of responses that sometimes lead us to reach for our credit cards and donate to the Red Cross or one or another Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  It can cover the sense that I might begin to have for one of my students who has suffered the loss of a loved one.  It can cover the slow, developing understanding I can have for the situation of parents struggling to raise their sons and daughters in my neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, or the situation of my mother and her friends in the retirement home as they confront the varieties of loneliness and disappointment that come with challenges to mobility and cognitive functioning.  I will focus on the sort of empathy that grows out of cultivated capacities to track what is going on with others.

 

This sort of empathy requires having some understanding of what other creatures think, feel, suffer, enjoy, and want.  And although any sentient creature could be a focus of such empathy, most of the research I know concerns empathy for our fellow human beings.  And much of the research is predicated on the thought that if I am to empathize with you, I must have some capacity to understand your perspective on your situation.  Perspective-taking is key to this sort of empathy.  Nicholas Epley and Eugene Caruso describe things this way:

The ability to intuit another person’s thought, feelings, and inner mental states is surely among the most impressive of human mental faculties.  Adopting another’s perspective requires the ability to represent the self as distinct from others, the development of a theory of mind to realize that others have mental states in the first place…and explicit recognition that others’ mental states and perceptions could differ from one’s own.  Humans appear to be born with absolutely none of these capacities but instead develop them during the first few years of life.  Developing these perspective-taking abilities appears critical for many good things in social life, from empathy, to cooperation, to possible acts of altruism.  Not all humans develop these skills to equivalent degrees, and those who do not develop these skills to any degree are among the most puzzling (and occasionally horrifying) members of society as they look perfectly human but act completely unhuman.[i]

 

Like any of our capacities, our perspective-taking capacity can be underdeveloped or badly used.  We can fail to engage in perspective-taking when we ought to engage in it, and we can make many errors when we try to understand what is going on with others.  The empathy of interest to me depends upon perspective-taking.  And accurate perspective-taking, in turn, depends upon breaking free of egocentric bias.

 

There are two very different sorts of questions that researchers can ask when working to elicit empathy in their subjects.  They can ask subjects to think how they would feel if they found themselves in another person’s situation.  This sort of question, notice, leaves things entirely in the purview of the self.  Alternately, they can ask people to imagine how the other person feels.  This sort of question shifts the focus from the self to the other.  Daniel Batson calls efforts to imagine how things would be for me in your situation the ‘imagine-self perspective’ on your circumstances.  He calls the request to think how things are for you the ‘imagine-other’ perspective.[ii]  It turns out that these two forms of perspective-taking yield dramatically different results.  The difference is so dramatic that the self-perspective orientation may not count as empathetic at all.  Batson describes the difficulty with an example:

When the other’s situation is familiar or clear, imagining how you would feel in that situation may not be needed for sensitive understanding and may even inhibit it.  Hearing that a friend was recently ‘dumped’ by a romantic partner may remind you of your own experience last year when you suffered the same fate.  You may get so caught up reliving your own experience that you fail to appreciate your friend’s pain.  Especially if you found it easy to rebound, you may contrast your own experience to that of your friend, who is struggling.  Rather than sensitive understanding and empathetic concern, you may respond with impatience and judgment.  The role of an imagine-self perspective in evoking empathy is, then, indirect at best.[iii]

 

In Batson’s review of relevant research, there is significant evidence that subjects engaging in imagine-self perspective-taking show patterns of neurological activity importantly different from the sort characteristic of subjects engaging in imagine-other perspective-taking.  The two groups think differently, feel differently, and exhibit different patterns of neurological activity.  In effect, imagine-self perspective taking does nothing to disturb the egocentric bias so characteristic of our kind.

 

[i] Nicholas Epley and Eugene Caruso, “Perspective-Taking: Misstepping Into Others’ Shoes,” in Keith Markman, William Klein, and Julie Suhr, editors, Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), p. 297.

[ii] Daniel Batson, “Two Forms of Perspective-Taking: Imagining How Another Feels and Imagining How You Would Feel,” in Keith Markman, William Klein, and Julie Suhr, editors, Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), pp. 267-279.

[iii] Daniel Batson, “Two Forms of Perspective-Taking: Imagining How Another Feels and Imagining How You Would Feel,” p. 268.

 

Tomorrow, June 7: Barriers to Empathy


 

Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. 

Empathy and Self-Transcendence

4908597640_06f39856a6_z
“Empathy” | Photo by Sarah Barker.

Note: This is part 1 of a 3-part series “Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Self-Transcendence” based on a talk at the University of California, San Diego by Candace Vogler in June 2018 for WISDOM, COMPASSION, AND LONGEVITY.

 

Introduction

Some colleagues and I are in the process of bringing a grant project to a close.  The project has given all of us a chance to think together about the relationship between working to be a good person, leading a meaningful life, and being happy.  These three need not coincide.  I could be working hard to deliver medical supplies, food, and drinking water to refugees in desperate circumstances.  I am helping set up a clinic in their camp, say.  New people keep arriving, fleeing the genocidal violence across the border.

 

Chances are that I have a strong sense of purpose.  There is meaning in the life I’m leading.  Chances are that I am a reasonably good person.  On some understandings of the term ‘happiness’—the sort associated with having a happy birthday, say, or a happy holiday—I am probably not particularly happy. But there is a kind of happiness I might have even in the camp.  I might get a profound sense of satisfaction from my work.  I might be exultant if we are able to save the lives of people who are half-dead when they arrive.  And I might be cheerful.  If profound satisfaction and the ability to maintain some balance and some capacity for joy amid immense struggle is what we mean by ‘happiness,’ then I am happy.

 

Our grant project was not explicitly directed to the situation of humanitarian aid workers and those who need the help they bring. We were mostly thinking about ordinary people who understand themselves as belonging to a middle class in places like North America.  We wanted to understand what might be involved in finding meaning and real satisfaction in leading ordinary lives in the kinds of extraordinarily fortunate circumstances middle class people around these parts enjoy.  We argued—in various ways, across various academic disciplines—that the key to bringing together efforts to be a good person, deep satisfaction, and a strong sense of meaning in one’s ordinary life was to be oriented to some good larger than one’s own success and the welfare of members of one’s circle.  Being entirely oriented to my own success, my own pleasures, my own comfort, my own prospects, is not a recipe for leading a good life.  It does not become a recipe for leading a good life even if I extend the sphere of my primary concern to cover the pleasures, comfort, security and prospects of my friends and family.  Finding meaning in my life, finding my life profoundly satisfying, putting my efforts to be a good person in their proper place—these things require being alive to participating in a good that goes beyond me and mine.

 

There are many ways that this can happen.  I can understand my life in the context of a multigenerational family that began long before I was born and will, with any luck, continue long after I die.  I inherited the benefits of the struggles of my ancestors.  I want to carry the good forward for my descendants—people I will never meet, whose names I will not know, but whose lives grow out of the life I lead.  Or perhaps it is like this—I work toward environmental sustainability, or I am devoted to social justice, or my religious faith animates my sense of my world and our place in it.  Lots of roads are made of good larger than the worldly gains of me and mine.  Following any of those roads can amount to living a life where ordinary things are meaningful, where life is deeply satisfying even when it is not much fun, and where the ordinary ethical struggles I face are worth the courage and effort it takes to begin to remedy my own failings.

 

One way of putting the central insight that animated our grant project, then, is this—to lead a life that is good in three senses—successful, satisfying, and ethically sound—we must break the spell of selfishness.  Breaking the spell of selfishness is not easy.  I will focus on one of the ways that we can loosen the hold of what Immanuel Kant called ‘the dear self’ today.  I will talk about the variety of compassion at issue in empathy.

 

Tomorrow, June 6: Empathy and Shifting Perspectives


Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. 

Cultivating virtue & living wisely

On the desktop are: a clean white sheet of paper, a simple pencil, old books, pocket watch on a gold chain and a kerosene lamp. Retro stylized photo.This post is an excerpt of “Living Within Reason” on the blog “Virtue Insight”, of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue, available here.

 

Cultivating virtue helps us to live well within reason. But how are we to understand the kind of guardrails reason provides? Why suppose that reason can govern action and emotion in the way that neo-Aristotelian theorists of virtue seem to suggest that it can?

 

After all, there is an impressive body of empirical research suggesting that people frequently fail to live up to their own ideals. Worse, there is a lot of evidence that resentments, strong and unwelcome desires, and emotional scarring from old psychological injuries—aspects of our inner lives that rarely occupy conscious attention—may have more influence on what we do in some areas of our lives than thinking about what to say or do. And spending a lot of time thinking out what to do can itself be a symptom of a failure of sound self-governance. One of the characters on a popular television series in the U.S. these days is a moral philosopher who is effectively paralyzed by treating all decisions—what sort of soup to order in a restaurant, for example, or what to name his dog—as situations requiring long and careful deliberation.

 

For all that, developing various habits of reflection is likely our best hope of living up to our own standards and leading lives that we find satisfying and meaningful. The very psychologists and philosophers whose work draws our attention to our tendencies to lose track of what we find most important when making concrete decisions at work or at home also provide some guidance on ways of counteracting these problems in practice.

 

TIBERIUS ON THE REFLECTIVE LIFE

In The Reflective Life: Living Wisely With Our Limits, Valerie Tiberius discusses the importance of developing a core and structured sense of the things that matter to us in life—family and friendship, for example, or health and an acceptable level of material security—that can provide some basic guidance in making major decisions. But Tiberius hopes to bring the study of major life choices down to earth in thinking about the more  mundane business of daily life.

Business cartoon of a wise businessman meditating on a cliff, his coworker is looking for 'some business wisdom'.

She argues that we need to work against tendencies to cynicism, to work toward realistic optimism, to be open to entertaining alternate perspectives on matters of conduct and policy, and to be mindful of our own tendencies to see ourselves in lights brighter and more favorable than will be strictly warranted. Humility and gratitude, she urges, are crucial to the kind of self-awareness we need if our own senses of what matters most to us are to shape our choices. Lively awareness of considerations of fairness can help to counteract our tendencies to acting on self-interested impulses (and to hide such tendencies from ourselves). Tiberius is not a Thomist and Aquinas did not have access to the empirical findings that inform Tiberius’s work on practical wisdom. Nevertheless, the thought that working to develop the habits associated with secondary virtues—cultivating fairness, humility, and gratitude, for instance, and thereby articulating and supporting cardinal virtues—alerts us to the ethically salient aspects of our circumstances and helps us to make wise decisions is in keeping with the spirit of Aquinas’s work on virtue. The job of virtue is to provide us with the frameworks that give us a good understanding of our situations and so guide our choices. Leading reflective lives gives reason the right role in self-governance, not through paralyzing, rigid, and frequently deluded insistence on planning every aspect of daily life—as though it was in our power to prevent the world from confronting us with situations that demand a different response—but by helping us to pause and reflect when that is what we need to do.

 

 

EXAMPLES

Suppose, for example, that like most people I find that I tend to make foolish decisions when things that I take to be in my self-interest look to be at odds with things that I ought to do for the sake of my family or for the sake of my job. It’s not as though I will lose my job if I put my interests ahead of what the larger organization looks to need from me. Nor am I likely to alienate my family members if I seek to gratify myself now and then. But I want to be a better person, so I have decided to try to curb my more unattractive selfish side. Self-critical self-awareness is enough to let me know that some change is in order. Suppose that I start small, by reminding myself to step back and think about others. I could work on kindness and generosity, for example, starting small.

 

I decide to begin my self-improvement regime by getting into the habit of greeting everyone at work each morning—both the people with whom I work closely and the people who make our workplace run smoothly whom I tend not to notice as much—administrative staff, people on the cleaning crew, people at the lunch counter, and so on. I make a point of greeting everyone. This takes almost no time, but it helps me to be aware of my fellow human beings. A habit this small can have a profound effect on my decision-making. Through morning after morning of quiet, cheerful well-wishing, the reality of my fellow human beings begins to be part of my basic sense of myself and my world. Concerns about fairness, willingness to compromise, and more generally some sense for others’ interests can begin to inform my daily conduct at work. I have different material for reflection when faced with the tug of the dear self from one decision to the next on the job. And there is some evidence that even this kind of change in the behavior of one relatively highly-placed person in a busy office can begin to have a positive effect on the larger culture of the workplace. My colleagues might wonder what I’m up to, initially, and think that I might have some nefarious scheme afoot. But if I am cheerful, quiet, and steady in my efforts, my innovation can even begin to help my colleagues cooperate more effectively and productively. Reflective self-awareness taught me that I needed to change something about how I was living. Beginning to make the change began to give me better materials for reflective decision-making at work.

 

Working to become a better member of my own family can be at once more necessary and more difficult. Members of my intimate circle often know me better than I know myself, and if I have been as disappointing to my nearest and dearest as most of us have been, those closest to me will likely have developed healthy defenses against being too optimistic about the likelihood that I will improve much. Here, reflection advises me to be open to understanding the ways large and small in which those closest to me may have suffered from my selfish impulses, may have felt invisible to me, and may have had to adjust to a long history of experiencing me at my worst. I need to be able to see and take seriously the effects that my self-involvement has had on my loved ones. They have at least as strong an interest in seeing me change as I do. But they may not share my optimism. At home, I need to learn to listen very carefully to what my loved ones say, to notice and express genuine encouragement and support for them in their efforts at pursuing what matters most to them, to ask in detail about what they are doing and pay attention to what they say, to do my best to track their moods, and more generally to make each of them more vivid in my own mind. Kindness, patience, fairness, gratitude, generosity, and humility all are involved in becoming a better partner or parent or sibling, and the department of justice that demands that I keep my commitments faithfully—if only to give my loved ones a chance to experience a more reliable and trustworthy version of myself than they may have known in the past—all will conspire to guide me in making better choices at home. Among other things, these habits will help me respond better spontaneously to the demands of my home life and identify situations in which I need to pause and think carefully with others to decide how to respond to the challenges that we face.

 

For those of us interested in thinking about the ways that virtuous activity allows reason to effectively guide us in leading better and more fulfilling lives, work on cultivating virtuous habits is just work on learning to live wisely.

 


Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. 

Marc Berman on how physical environment impacts the brain and behavior

This conversation is reproduced from “Common Ground: Emily Talen and Marc Berman,” Dialogo: UChicago Social Sciences. LINK

 

Emily Talen and Marc Berman

Emily Talen and Marc Berman

 

DIALOGO: What big questions motivate your research?

TALEN: I spent my senior year in college in Paris. I was homesick, so I ended up just walking every inch of the city. As a sociology major, I was interested in cities from a built environment perspective and appreciating public space, great architecture, and great urbanism. Paris is different because it’s so planned. There has been forethought put into the way its public spaces, its streets, the frontage quality, everything about the city somebody’s thought about it. That contrasts with the suburban sprawl that I grew up in, where it’s much more driven by the bottom line of buying and selling, and much less attention given to public space mostly. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on what we can do to intervene and actually make things happen. In Paris, there was intervention, and you got Paris. I mean, we have so little of that in the US. In Chicago, sure, you can point to some good public spaces, but the design of the city is just not that thought out. There’s a lot to study there. Why did that happen? Where does it work? Where does it not work? What’s the fall-out of not being good city planners? Why does that happen and what’s the effect? It’s been a rich source of things to tap for a research agenda.

BERMAN: I’m interested in how the physical environment affects brain and behavior. A lot of people have this misconception that because humans have so much control over the environment, that we’re sort of immune to it — but the environment plays a huge role in our behavior, and we’re not even aware of it. We started to do some studies where we had people walk in nature versus more urban environments, and we found that people could improve their memory and attention by about 20% if they just went for a short walk in nature, versus a walk in a more urban environment. Much of our research is trying to figure out why. And also to touch on what Emily was saying, that at least in the US/North America, we haven’t done that good of a job in terms of designing cities for human psychological functioning. It’s good for moving goods and for housing people efficiently and things like that. But is it good for having a populace be the most productive they could be, or to have the highest wellbeing? I think we’re lacking in that area. As a lab, we are working to incorporate some of these elements of nature that we think are good for human psychological functioning, for human brain functioning, and retrofit those elements into cities.

TALEN: To me, a baseline question is how much attention is paid to the public realm, as opposed to the private realm. You go to some cities and think to yourself, “They’re really focused on the private world.” As an example, I usually pick on Phoenix because that’s where I was for some years. That built environment is reflective of people having their own internal worlds. You drive down the street, it’s nothing but walls separating different housing pods. How much of the public ground was cared for? That means everything from how the building meets the street to actual public spaces to the width of the sidewalk. How are people moving around in the city? Is it efficient for them to do, and do they have to rely on a car, which is bad for the environment? Even electric cars, self-driving cars, aren’t that great either because there’s a lot that goes into fabricating and manufacturing of an electric vehicle. I want people to just walk. To what degree are cities good for human beings to go out and use their two legs? In some ways, it’s just that simple.

BERMAN: That’s a big problem. Think about how much in this country, too, we have problems with obesity and lack of exercise. It’s difficult to take time out to exercise, but if walking is a part of your daily routine, you will get some exercise there. I mean, that’s kind of what recent Nobel laureate Richard Thaler says, “If you want somebody to do something, make it easy.” We make it really hard in our current society to exercise and do other healthy behaviors. I mean, we’re not meant to just sit in a car and go places. We’re meant to move around — there’s all this research about how exercise is good for cognition and mental health, not just good for physical health. That’s a huge element to this. Also, by having these huge roads many of the natural elements that you could have if you had a more walkable kind of space are destroyed.

To pick up on that idea of what’s natural, how do you define natural when you’re looking at these questions?

BERMAN: In the first study where we had people walk in an arboretum versus in a busy urban environment, we made the distinction ourselves. We’ve done studies where we show people pictures of nature versus pictures of built spaces. They’re not as strong as actual walking, but they are similar and suggest that there’s something about the visual aesthetic of nature that might be contributing to these cognitive benefits. Could it be the fractalness of nature, the amount of curved edges, the color palette? People have lots of different conceptions about nature versus urban. To someone who is an avid hiker, for example, a city park might not seem that natural. To somebody who is a very urban person, it might seem quite natural. The kind of nature that we’ve been researching thus far has been nearby nature in cities.

TALEN: Do you worry about defining cities as unnatural? If the urban is unnatural, we might somehow forgive poorly designed urbanism because, well, it’s not natural.

BERMAN: This is a good point. And people do see naturalness in buildings. We’re doing a study now where we’re showing only buildings to people, and they are seeing nature in some of these buildings. A Gaudí building in Barcelona is rated as more natural than a very 1960s cubic kind of architecture, which is rated as very unnatural. Our algorithms can predict whether something will be perceived as natural or not because it mimics patterns in nature, even though there’s nothing “natural” about it. It’s an entirely built structure. Look in this room here. This room has a lot of patterns in it that mimic nature, so you can construct environments that look like nature, even if they aren’t nature. That’s not exactly what we’re advocating for, although I think we should be thinking about that as well.

Do definitions of nature play into the way neighborhoods and cities have been managed?

By Lynn Betts / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24785226

By Lynn Betts / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24785226

 

TALEN: This is how we’ve gotten into trouble. In some ways, suburban sprawl is a quest to be near nature, right, but it ended up backfiring, with people having a sense that they’re closer to nature when really they were undermining nature. That’s set up a tension and confusion about how we should be designing cities and the place of nature in cities while we’re trying to be compact and have a lot of proximity between what people need in their daily lives and where they live. How do you bring nature into that in a way that doesn’t then spread everyone out and end up being bad for nature? That’s an interesting urban design question. In some ways, Paris has been good at bringing in nature in a way that is not destructive, and still being very compact and dense. They’ve sort of formalized nature, nature exists in very manicured small settings. When we bring nature in here, it’s all these big parks, or it’s suburban sprawl. We don’t know how to have the best of both worlds.

BERMAN: I think another area to touch on, too, is the physical space and the pattern of behavior. Suburbs might have more “green space” but people’s behavior is less natural, right? You’re going into your car, you’re zipping around. In cities, if you’re walking to places and if your social interactions mimic the environments that humans have lived in for a longer period of time, that in some sense is more natural than living in the suburbs, even though there might be more green space there. That’s another layer to add onto the physical environment —interactions with that environment and the patterns of the human behavior.

Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data for Cook County (O’Hare airport excluded) with 7 landcover variables plotted; Dark green = Tree Canopy, Light Green = Grass/Shrub, Pink = Bare Soil, Blue = Water, Red = Buildings, Orange = Roads, and Gray = Other paved surfaces. Within a county, there is notable variation in the balance of urban and natural elements.

TALEN: Have you heard of the transect? It’s a way of thinking about cities along a transect, a line, where you cut a line from rural to urban, and at every spot along that line you try to form cohesive environments depending where you are on the line. If you’re on the rural end, you don’t get those urban level services. As you move in and you don’t have as much nature, you have lots of services. Some people have been trying to think about zoning our cities that way. Zoning is a total mess, total disaster, it makes no sense. If we zoned our cities to be those immersive kind of coherent environments along the transect, we’d have better cities.

Does looking at how things have historically been organized in cities like Chicago help explain how things got this way? Does it suggest how we can get out of it?

TALEN: I’m focusing right now on retail, working with a post-doc and looking at small, independent, mom-and-pop shops. Where they are in the city, and where they’re dying. There’s an existential crisis in retail — first it was the big boxes, now it’s e-commerce. So what does that mean for our street life? If it’s not going to be retail, then what’s it going to be? The big boxes are not so good at activating street life. Streets are the most public land that we have in the city, by far. Do we want our cities to be composed of streets that are just conduits for cars? So we’ve been mapping out every block in the city of Chicago, looking at where are the mom-and-pop stores and what kinds of environments are they located in. And now I’m sending students out with a survey to ask these retailers how they are doing. Are they connected to the neighborhood? What is the future from their perspective?

There’s been a lot of hand wringing about bad decisions that were made — basically, everything between 1930 and 1990 was a total disaster for urbanism. The focus on urban renewal, tearing things down, putting in big highways. Really, really bad mistakes were made, globally. There’s a lot of attention paid to not repeating those mistakes. That’s why I brought up autonomous vehicles. The circles I run in, which is all about walkable urbanism, are very leery about that because it’s the next technological fix, and it sounds so much like the discussions that were going on in the 1950s: “Oh, look at these big highways. Everybody will be able to just drive everywhere.” You’ve seen these utopian “Jetsons” kind of worlds that were envisioned, and it’s the same thing going on now.

There’s not a lot of nature in those images of the Jetsons future.

TALEN: Right. No, no. There’s no nature there. I show some of these films in my classes, and the students are just amazed at the thinking that was going on. Futuristic city thinking, but we actually constructed a lot of the nightmare that didn’t pan out. That’s why relying too much on technology makes me nervous. How do you think, Marc? Do you agree?

BERMAN: It’s an interesting question about these autonomous vehicles, and if they just perpetuate this driving culture, that’s not desirable. I guess the technology is going to come whether we like it or not. We’re using some of the technology to quantify the benefits of cities. We’re developing apps like the ReTUNE app so if you want to get from point A to point B, it will give you the most restorative walk or route that has the most green space, the least amount of traffic, and is the quietest, and safest. I think walk-ability is a huge thing, and it also needs to be something that has to be equitable. Naomi Davis, who has a non-profit in Chicago called Blacks in Green, talks about one square mile, about having African American neighborhoods where you can get everything in one square mile (i.e., workplaces, shopping, entertainment, etc.), which is really not true in current times. All these things are highly related to each other and might foster better social interactions, which could have lots of other types of positive downstream consequences.

Another theme that Emily and I talk about is this movement to slow things down. We come up against this with mobile technology and phones. We’re each interested in how interacting with nature gives people a chance to be kind of contemplative and reflective, which is something that people don’t do a lot now because they distract themselves with music, social networking and other things. One of the reasons why we think interacting with nature might be beneficial is that it kind of forces people to be alone with their thoughts, and that’s why when we did the studies we kept cell phones in the lab. We made them go out on their own to force them to interact with the environment. And we found amazing effects. The weird part about the mobile technology is that it’s an addictive technology. Usually, things that are addictive are not really good for you.

Can nature be addictive?

BERMAN: I suppose it could. It’s hard for me to conjure up a lot of negatives. Whenever I talk to people about this and say, “we need to interact with nature more,” nobody ever argues with me about it. They may argue with me about why it works, but nobody argues with me that it does.

One misconception about nature is that it’s all about mood or pleasantness or something. It’s more than that. Something else is going on there. Certainly, people tend to get into better moods when in nature, but that doesn’t seem to be the driving factor for these kinds of attention and concentration benefits that we see. One reason could be that our brains evolved in these more natural types of environments. When we did our study in Ann Arbor, we had people walk at different times of the year. Some people walked in June, when it was 80 degrees Fahrenheit. People loved the walk, and showed these really healthy memory attention benefits. We also had people walk in January, 25 degrees Fahrenheit. People said, “Marc, I was freezing my butt off out there. Why did you make me go out there?” But they showed the same memory and attention benefits as the people that walked in June. You didn’t even have to enjoy the nature interaction to get the cognitive benefit.

Now, the trick is figuring out what is it about this environment that’s producing these benefits? Also, what is it about how our brain’s are organized and how they function that we’re seeing this kind of synchrony between the brain’s processing of natural environments?

Is there room to collaborate on all of these questions? What would that look like?

TALEN: Urban planning is, by definition, very interdisciplinary. There are different wings of urban planning, and certainly the exciting part of urban planning is where it intersects with another discipline like psychology, like architecture, like sociology. “Innovation at the margins of disciplines” —  I think it’s true with urban planning. The trick is to not get too disparate with all these different fields and lose sight of the end game, which is that we want better designed cities. How do we take all that interdisciplinary thinking and corral it back into what is sort of a more narrow focus, which is, can’t we just have cities that look like Paris? Why can’t we?

BERMAN: We want to know how to design the environment for better human psychological health. That can mean a lot of different things. In talking with Emily, she’s brought variables to mind that we haven’t really thought about, like having people map out where all the mom-and-pop shops are — we can incorporate that into our models where we have green space over the whole city, and we have health variables of people all over the city, crime in the whole city. We can start adding all these different variables in and see what’s predicting crime, what’s predicting disease, school performance, things like that. To me, it’s exciting that with big data we may actually be able to quantify some of these things. To say, well, when you have this many mom-and-pop stores, a reduction in car traffic, and you have 12 more trees per city block, you can reduce cardiovascular disease by 3% and crime by 5%. I think we’re moving in that direction. There’s a lot of people on campus that are very interested in these issues. It’s an exciting time.

 


Emily Talen is Professor of Urbanism in the Division and Director of the Urbanism Lab at UChicago. Her research is devoted to urban design and urbanism, especially the relationship between the built environment and social equity. Studying the making and unmaking of neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, Talen (who worked as a professional planner in California and Ohio before entering academia) looks for ways to improve the form and pattern of American cities and neighborhoods so they can be more inclusive and supportive. In a book currently underway, Talen explores the ideal of the neighborhood, comparing a wide range of perspectives on what makes a neighborhood, and the relationship between idealized neighborhood plans and reality. An earlier book, City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form, looked at urban codes over the ages — showing that while many contemporary codes stifle communities, encouraging sprawl and even blight, revised codes can produce a more positive outcome.

Marc Berman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and is involved in the Cognition and Integrative Neuroscience programs. His research centers on understanding the relationship between individual psychological and neural processing, and environmental factors. Berman’s Environmental Neuroscience Lab uses brain imaging, behavioral experimentation, computational neuroscience and statistical models to quantify the person, the environment and their interactions. Recent studies from the lab have determined that the density of trees in a neighborhood has positive effects on individual health comparable to being younger and wealthier, and have identified elemental features of natural and man-made environments that influence individual preferences, and also memory, attention, and mood. He is a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.