Disclosing Dross and Dreams

A recent Ted Talk by Paul Bloom explores what happens in the human brain when it learns, via various synaptic firings, that something it thought was genuine turns out not to be genuine at all. Certainly, many of us have purchased or at least been offered one of those  genuine gold Rolex watches, perhaps behind the mammoth pillar of an anonymous train station, foreign or domestic. That’s what happened to my former brother-in-law. People who make the purchase may eventually ask a jeweler for an appraisal in order to insure our bargain.  Even though it only cost $500, one wants to make sure that its full worth is authenticated should it go astray by any means or method.

rolex watchThen, as inevitably as day follows night,  the jeweler looks up from his loop, pulls it away from his eye and says, “This is a fake!” Shock, disgust, rage, disgust, and finally shame, run their way up and down your emotional keyboard like a bad rendition of Mozart.  You argue.  You question.  You shake your head.  But ultimately, you have to accept that the ego, which bought the watch, overrode the brain that now is saying, “I told you so.” And the watch, still lying there on the felt jeweler’s mat, the crystal buffed to a star-like brilliance, the links uniform as soldiers and gleaming with what you thought was a classy matte finish, it has changed before your eyes, from a time piece anyone would be proud to wear , to a badge of dishonor and tainted worth.

Curiously, It is the same watch that served you well for many months. Why reject it now?  Bloom says that Thorstein Veblen or Alan Wolfe might claim that the reason we like the real thing, the original, the genuine article, is because “…we are snobs. We are focused on status.”  We like such objects largely because they are scarce and we want to be the holders, owners of those more precious items. These educated assertions may be true, but it may also be true that our responses to certain things, or certain people, “…are conditioned on our beliefs about what they really are.  Where they came from. What they are made of, and what their hidden nature is,” says Bloom.  Studies have been done to test the reality of this response.  If people are given a wine to drink and told that it is a very expensive wine, made from grapes that grew on bushes grafted from plants owned by the ancient and wealthy Rothschild family, the brain of each super superior sipper of wine will light up certain pleasure areas like a neon, “This is great stuff” sign.

In other words, our brain, striving as always to give us everything we need and want, will, on cue, access parts of itself that will intensify our response, gratification, and feelings.  It is no accident then, as Bloom points out, that our spouses or partners, should we be happily so engaged, look much better to us than to anyone else who sees them.  Our friend the brain has made it so in order that we can take more pleasure in their company, conversation, and touch.  One person’s Honey Boo Boo is another person’s, “Let me tell you, honey, you need to get yourself a makeover…NOW.”

Thus, what we believe a thing to be, who we trust a person is, impacts the profound nature of our attachment.  For proof of this, you have only to look around your house or in the attic. Mentally pull out those artifacts of your family history that, if lost in an earthquake, could never be replaced.  I have a prehistoric walrus tusk given to my grandfather when he was visiting Kodiak Island in the 1920s.  In those 15 inches of smooth eggshell to clotted cream-colored ivory lives my grandfather’s adventures, his time away from the family in Seattle, the gold he dredged a hundred miles north of Nome, and the five daughters who awaited his return from Alaska every fall.  A single object retains the scent, flavor, and magic of those moments.  So, if someone said it was plastic and not ivory at all, that reality would sweep away all the connected history and leave emptiness.

Denis Dutton, art historian, has explained that “the value of an artwork, [for instance], is rooted in assumptions about the human performance underlying its creation.”  A Picasso is better than a print of a Picasso. Why? Picasso had intimate knowledge of and effect on the Picasso.  Some huge machine in an industrial area miles outside Paris churned out the prints by the hundreds of thousands to sell on postersrus.com.  With the actual Picasso, we can conjure up the artist in his studio, brushes peeking out of a can that formerly held Moroccan ground coffee. For the actual Picasso, we can envision the genius picking up a brush, tilting his balding head to check the strokes from a different angle, and then, gently daubing just the right amount on the nipple of what could be a breast or a hose cover.  All those layers of understanding, pleasure, association. and attachment are available to us through the genuine Picasso.  Not so the print.

Not surprisingly, the same holds true for pain as for pleasure.  Experiments have demonstrated that broken heartif the subject believes someone is hurting them on purpose, the pain is more excruciating than if they believe the pain is occurring by happenstance.  Perhaps this last is why people feel such desolating anguish when he or she whom they have loved and trusted is doing something intentionally painful.  All the years, the memories, and the life shared, eons deep and containing billions of brain cell impressions, is shattering; jagged, needle-sharp points piercing the spirit as they tumble slowly to the ground. It hurts in direct proportion to the perception of intent and the power of the emotion.

Our pleasures and our pains are bound up in what we believe things and people to be.  The more layers of response stimuli we have, the more intense will be either emotion. Our brains have designed it so.



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