Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Path to Success

I once recommended Al Fin to Connie and Kim du Toit as a research resource (and a search of Kim's sidebar shows his agreement) because of the mass of data he has accumulated on his blog pages. By combining the wealth of information residing in the host of links Al Fin maintains in his own sidebar with a judicious sampling from the labels he categorises his posts in, it is quite possible to gather together the basic background material from which to craft your own rendition of the Kevin Baker Uberpost for which that gentleman is justly famous.

Ordinarily I prefer an extra helping of bran in the morning and a few more glasses of water over the course of the day to relieve such a condition, but this occasion warrants a shot or two of Kevin U-p, I'm afraid.

Al Fin has written about neurological function several times now and from contrasting perspectives. In none of the above (nor anywhere else that I'm aware) does he rely upon his own opinion or unsupported claim to expertise regarding the subject, which is why I find him so reliable a source of information for topics so far outside my own limited range of experience. One particular Al Fin post has unexpected relevance to a topic more commonly associated with Kim, Kevin or even myself, and I wish to pursue that connection further.

I don't pretend to any expertise regarding neuroscience certainly, but I am able to read what others have to say on the discipline. Having done so leads me to believe that reasoned argument alone may be more susceptible to simplistic counter-suasion then is commonly argued to be the case.

Consider this explanatory quote from the Al Fin post linked above:

86 participants completed pre- and post-test measures of reading achievement (i.e., Woodcock-Johnson III, Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing, Test of Word Reading Efficiency, and Test of Silent Word Reading Fluency). Students in the experimental group completed a 4-week intervention designed to improve their timing/rhythmicity by reducing the latency in their response to a synchronized metronome beat, referred to as a synchronized metronome tapping (SMT) intervention. The results from this non-academic intervention indicate the experimental group’s post-test scores on select measures of reading were significantly higher than the non-treatment control group’s scores at the end of 4 weeks. This paper provides a brief overview of domain-general cognitive abilities believed effected by SMT interventions and provides a preliminary hypothesis to explain how this non-academic intervention can demonstrate a statistically significant effect on students’ reading achievement scores. {Sources are provided, follow the link for details.}

This particular experiment involved high school students, but I think I can support my contention that the result applies to more mature humans equally well.

The idea that neural pathways, unconscious intellectual connections leading to a preconceived decision (aka: belief) if I'm understanding the phenomenon correctly, seems to be both well established and to display unexpected effects. It is these effects that I find particularly interesting as they seem to explain why reasoned argument so frequently fails to prove persuasive to those who don't already possess receptive modes of thought. In a nut shell, the well known preaching to the choir effect, if you will.

I offered the following comment to Al Fin's post:

I wonder what relationship exists between this metronome technique and the reputed history of Morris (Moorish) Dancing from the Crusades period of English history? Reputedly, the dance steps were performed to percussion instruments setting a beat for the purpose of enabling the dancers to become more effective fighters. No weapons or obvious combat maneuvers are employed, however.

A bit of simple research on my part would have shown that this particular line of thought has been called into question by subsequent researchers. Even so, the enduring legend supports my belief that patterns of thought can be altered by seemingly unrelated structured activity. Case in point, that Moorish dancing worked to alter the practitioner's unconscious neural paths from those of the purely individual fighter into those of the group-oriented combatant. Specifically, that individuals practised in Moorish dance routines were more likely to instinctively respond to chaotic battlefield events in a structurable and controllable fashion then would those not so indoctrinated.

I'm not suggesting any sort of "Manchurian Candidate" level of brainwashing in any of this. Athletic team training does very much the same thing for it's practitioners, I suggest. How else explain why any reasonably intelligent person would deliberately position himself to violently collide with another during the course of an American football or rugby match, yet just as unthinkingly perform equally athletic maneuvers to avoid bruising physical contact outside that limited game parameter?

A less violent example can be found in two common household products, the disposable tissue and the cotton swab. I would venture to guess that 95+% of (US) Americans think of these two items by their most effectively marketed brand names, Kleenex and Q-Tips respectively. I know from personal experience that non-American english speakers (you know, the English?) don't make these linguistic associations and I believe that is because they aren't subject to the advertising campaigns that serve to create the necessary neural pathways to emplace this specific non-cognitive association in their brains. Since advertising is routinely targeted to specific audiences, I submit that this supports my belief that neural pathways can be deliberately channelled in people of any age to be receptive to the means chosen to do so.

What does any of this have to do with shooting, you ask? Let me describe a recent occasion of my experience by way of explanation.

I have had occasion to remark upon my friendship with Mike on these pages before. He and I have been friends for a dozen years now and we have taken many of the opportunities that have arisen over those years to discuss our thoughts on the ramifications stemming from the history and practice of a varied enforcement of the 2nd amendment to the US Constitution; you know, talked about guns and shooting. Not actually bragged, you understand. We're much too good of friends to casually allow such an opportunity for mockery to go by, so we're neither of us about to risk any such behavior as that. I can't honestly say that any of that keeps me in any way humble you understand, but I absolutely can take a joke and give at least as good as I get because of my friendship with Mike. I'm not claiming this makes me any nicer a guy or anything, just a better one.

In short, I know the man and he knows me.

Holiday and other commitments keeping us otherwise occupied, we settled on last Friday night to go to dinner and take in a movie we both wanted to see. As is my habit, I checked to see that all my normal pocket trash was present then transferred my carry gun from it's storage place to my pocket just before heading out the door.

Mike's reaction was to ask, "Do you really think that's necessary?" I could tell the question bothered him, but since he almost immediately followed it up by saying, "I hope you have all the required documents along as well", I condescendingly reassured him that was the case and out the door we went.

As I said, I could tell that the impulse to even ask such a question bothered Mike. It's not like he was unaware of the recent multiple murders of unarmed people that had occurred only the week before. And it's not like he and I hadn't had numerous conversations over the years regarding the general desirability of carrying a gun (consensus: it's a pain in the ass but a desperately necessary one on thankfully rare occasion), so to say that the assumptions underlying his question were more than a little shocking to us both is a large understatement.

I've had opportunity to mull this over since and I've come to a few tentative conclusions. One of which is that whatever measure of intellectual support firearms ownership and use may receive, there is almost certainly nothing like that same response at the unconscious level of thought; the level closest to the neural pathways that govern unthinking reaction to stimulus. Mike knows we are each responsible for our own welfare for at least the first few minutes of an attack and he knows I'm licensed to carry a gun. All that notwithstanding, he still responded to the stimulus generated by the neural pathway he acquired from somewhere to initially react negatively to my carrying a gun.

I further think that attempts to persuade people to a pro gun ownership viewpoint will never be effective enough as long as those opposed to such a viewpoint have unobstructed opportunity to develop and maintain the neural pathways that work to undermine intellectual efforts at persuasion to do so. If this be true, then it would seem to behoove we who encourage more widespread gun ownership to develop mechanisms to instill and support neural pathways that compliment our efforts and that also work to counter the labors of those who object to our views.

I think it fair to describe this last as a species of viral marketing that operates at the unconscious level of the human brain in as indirect a fashion as possible. Not "subliminal advertising" or anything so obvious as that, but something much more effective, I think. By establishing as a neural pathway that "independence of action - pro choice, if you will - is a generally good circumstance" for example, and doing so in as many nonthreatening situations as we can contrive, we put in place a neural pathway that supports the independence to actively create safety that ownership of a gun empowers.

See? Indirect, but supportive, while being hard to justify objecting to on it's own terms. For so long as we don't make a better effort to counter the neural pathways that seem to be inherent in so much of modern media, we will not be able to generate anything like the level of acceptance necessary to inhibit the nihilistic impulse that people seem more inclined to resort to in recent decades. Attaining that level of inhibition should be a specific objective of ours and is a positive result that, quite frankly, no level of private gun ownership is likely to achieve on it's own.

So, I put it to you, my shooting brethren, that the concept of neural pathways is one that we would benefit from studying, that learning to recognise the mechanism's used to instill such paths in people should be identified, that mechanism's for instilling and supporting beliefs conducive to our own should be developed and, finally, that creation of a mindset that rejects indiscriminate violence towards others ought to be a specific objective of our efforts in it's own right, in that it supports one of the basic tenants of gun ownership.

How say you all?

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