Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Obstacles To Real Human Connection On Skype

            One of the most important trends in psychotherapy in recent years has been the appropriation of Skype as a medium for therapeutic encounter between therapist and patient.  No longer does a patient have to be physically present in juxtaposition with a therapist in the therapist’s office.  The patient can be hundreds or thousands of miles away from the therapist and still engage in the focused conversation, that, whatever the structure of the therapy, will hopefully transform the patient so that his symptoms and sources of suffering are diminished or even eliminated.  The idea is that the physical presence of the therapist is not required.  What is required is the visual image combined with the vocal transmission of the therapist.

            Among other things, Skype allows some people in isolated communities to see therapists and other people to continue with a therapist with whom they have been making progress, even though they have to move to another city.  It allows people who have different kinds of emotional impairments to see a therapist, even though such people would find it psychologically impossible to actually make a trip to a therapist’s physical office.  Someone with agoraphobia or a crippling manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder, for instance.  Of course, many people just do Skype therapy out of convenience.  Supposedly, they can have all the benefits of psychotherapy from the comfort of their home or backyard.  What difference does it make, after all, as long as one is still having a therapeutic experience with a therapist?

            The answer is that the therapeutic encounter with a therapist on Skype is very different from such an encounter with a therapist in his office.  And the therapist in the Skype presentation is not really the same therapist as the therapist seen in his physical office.  More precisely, the experience of the therapist is not the same, because the therapist is not alone.  He is merged with another complex entity.  He is merged with the computer or smartphone.  Because the therapist is on a computer or smartphone screen, he appears as a presence composed of discrete pixelated mini-figures against a vacuum background.  The therapist lacks material substance.  He is a vacuumized pixelated presence floating in space and not grounded in a physical office that can provide a template where therapist and patient can bond and commune, and where a therapist can make a deep therapeutic imprint that is preserved.

            The screen acts as a barrier to organic grounding, but is a mirror for and model of the remote highly defined discrete mechanical processes of the computer.  These processes merge in the flat remote pixilated image of the therapist, which has absorbed the machine presentation.  The movable pixels in the therapists face – in his expression – are like the movable parts in a machine.  So the patient is bonding with a machine image of his therapist.  And the patient unconsciously imitates the fragmented remote presentation of his therapist on the screen.  He unconsciously becomes more machine-like, even as he, the patient, absorbs the insights of his therapist.

            On Skype, the deepest bonding, the deepest communion that a person can have in order to heal emotionally is done in a situation where there is no meaningful sensory bonding or sensory communion.  The cognitive insights are given in a relative sensory vacuum.  The cognitive capacities of the patient are stimulated in a remote mechanical way.  Insight data are absorbed.  Modalities of mental processes are created that mimic the machine processes of the computer on which the therapeutic experience for the patient is initiated.  Healing is configured such that , with the mirroring and modeling from the computer aspect of the therapeutic experience, the patient develops an aspect of flatness and remoteness as part of his healing to become a more functioning independent person.  And a pixilated presence of a therapist leads to a tendency to absorb lots of mini discrete data – lots of isolated insights or directions for actions without necessarily putting them all together effectively into a coherent self.

            Psychotherapy should not just be an encounter with a semblance of the presence of a therapist.  It is important for it be conducted in a good comfortable office, ideally one that reflects the decorative tastes of the therapist.  In such an office, there is a sensory immediacy to the connection that can be created between the therapist and the patient.  A properly created office is a template that allows not only for the therapist to leave the imprint of his insights on the patient, but also one where the patient feels comfortable enough to make himself unusually vulnerable by opening himself up to the transformative effect of the therapist’s insights.  The office should offer a sensory backdrop of comfortable blendable continual decorative stimuli to create the experience of a good grounded template.

            This kind of experience is simply not possible in a Skype-based therapy.  The patient is in the comfort of his home or his yard, and I would suggest that by not moving himself into his therapist’s physical territory, he is able to maintain the internal mental furniture of his defenses, just as he is able to sit in the protective backdrop of his own physical surroundings.  In other words, he is less vulnerable but also, less open to the transformative effect of his therapist’s insights.

            There is another aspect of the therapeutic interaction that is also less available in a Skype encounter.  On a focused screen, one is not as likely to pick up the full nuances of another person’s body language.  This makes it particularly more difficult for a therapist to understand different levels of meaning in what a patient is saying.  It also makes it more difficult for the patient to pick up cues such as the calm confidence that allows him to appreciate the authority behind the therapist’s insights.  Also, cues of quiet warmth and concern create the foundation upon which both mirroring and modeling can take place.  In mirroring, a patient sees himself through the therapist’s reactions.  In modeling, a person models himself after the therapist.

            The therapist’s whole body gives a kind of physical context, a visual grounding for his insights much the way his office does.  But on a Skype screen, the body is cut off, truncated, a vacuumized figure fragment floating in the vacuum space of the vacuum screen along with the vacuumized figure fragments of pieces of furniture and other artifacts that are floating on the screen.  It is not a propitious configuration of therapist and accoutrements with regard to setting up a meaningful connection between therapist and patient.

            Perhaps the limitations I have pointed out in Skype connections between therapist and patient can also be said to apply, to a certain extent, to any social connection that is carried out on Skype.  Yes, it is nice to see people who are physically far away and talk with them.  But the relationship is subtly transformed.  A Skype person image is a two-dimensional, non-substantial, vacuumized image that simply does not allow for full communication and full communion.  There is something unreal, ethereal about a Skype image.  It is difficult for people to leave meaningful psychological imprints without the three-dimensional sensory component.  The discrete verbal messages are transmitted, but not so much the grounded non-verbal messages.  It is hard to make or receive a full personal imprint in connection to a person experienced as a bundle of pixels.  The vacuumized fragmented two-dimensional image becomes part of the message and also a part of the internalized self-image.

            Whenever possible, a person should avoid long-term Skype therapy relationships and, even if it means a certain amount of travel, should opt for a three-dimensional primary experience encounter with a therapist in his office.  A Skype therapy is a therapy with a built-in distorted presentation of the therapist.  This distorted presentation has long-term unanticipated consequences that lead to the opposite of an organic mental health.

The topic for this article was suggested to me by Dr. Jorge Cappon.

© 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Machines That Seem To Understand Us

An ongoing theme in my articles has been how interaction with complex modern machines affects the psychological development of human beings.  I have discussed how, for young humans, complex modern machines like video games, computers and smartphones become unconscious models for their behavior patterns.  I have also explored how these complex modern machines mirror young human beings such that they, the young human beings, interpret their own behavior through the machine processes that they experience and with which they create an emotional connection.  More recently, I have discussed how intense interactions with machines lead to a fusion of images of machine and human in the minds of people.  And it seems that more and more scientists and engineers are trying to find new ways to blur the boundaries between human and machine on the path to making the fusion between human and machine complete.  One of the means by which this fusion will be advanced further is emotion recognition technology.

            Scientists are developing the technology by which machine software will be able to “read” human emotions on the basis of vocal expression and human gesture.  Machines talking with humans on the telephone for sales calls will be able to adjust their presentation according to how this software perceives a person’s voice: the inflection, the pitch, the tone, the speed and the volume.  For any human-machine interaction, the main purpose is to make the interaction as smooth, as frictionless as possible.

            The purpose of this more frictionless communication is not just so that people and machines can actively commune.  Rather, emotion recognition technology allows some machines to make ongoing adjustments in their presentation in order to control and manipulate the flow of the conversation.  But there is no doubt that one result of these adjustments is that machines will appear somehow more human to humans.

            With facial expression, other machines are able to read many different points on the face like the corners of the mouth or the curve of the eyebrows.  Notice that this process is done by reading discrete points of the human face.  Here we are again back to defined discrete stimuli.  Humans are reduced to a series of discrete points, because modern complex machines operate on the basis of discrete stimuli.  The continual flow of a facial expression, which is the basis of human intuitive interpretation, is completely lost in this process.  There is a synthetic wholeness to a facial expression which is greater than the sum of its parts.  This wholeness provides for a greater variety of nuance than can be simply reduced to discrete emotional categories like happy, angry, depressed.  It is like the machine is breaking up the human face into pixilated fragments to facilitate interpretation.

            The purpose of visual emotion recognition technology is for the machine to monitor the flow of engagement of a human with other people in a social situation, as, for example, a student in a classroom.  The way the machine does this is by reducing the vast blendable continual emotional range in a person’s facial expression to a discrete finite series of emotional categories.  The machine is programmed to respond according to which emotional categories are activated by its sensors.  But the response is not going to be nearly as subtle, as nuance as that of a human being who responds intuitively to a whole flow of blendable continual emotional social communication.  The machine is responding to categories or to combinations of categories – combinations of emotional pixels.  The machine has a diminished infinity of responses with its limited awareness based on finite discrete categories of emotional signals from humans.  The response of an emotion recognition machine will never be as fine-tuned as the natural response of one human to another.

            Nevertheless, it will have a profound effect on humans, if they have to respond to these machines on an ongoing basis.  The machines will stimulate unconsciously how humans start to configure their emotional responses to other humans.

            In particular, they will start to act as a primary source of mirroring for people.  People will start picking up unconsciously the gross limited patterns of reaction these machines display.  In turn, they will start utilizing these patterns with other people, thus diminishing the quality of the rich vibrant interactions that are so important for making, preserving and receiving meaningful imprints.  Human interactions will increasingly become implicitly more patterned and formulaic.  More based on patterned figure responses in an emotional vacuum.  People will not necessarily be conscious of this shift, but it will make relationships less satisfying and less strongly bonded.

            And as organic connections start to suffer, people will become more remote from one another.  And without the strong organic rejuvenation that comes from them, people will gradually become more machine-like.  And as they become more machine-like as a result of all these intense interactions with machines – machines monitored by emotion recognition software – they will fall into a state of mind where they will be highly susceptible to being controlled and manipulated just like machines.  Rather than having a coherent sense of self, the people who interact regularly with machines monitored by emotion recognition software will develop a fragmented pixilated sense of self.

            More and more technology innovators are focusing on ways to blur the boundaries between machine and human.  More precisely, the focus is on making machines behave more and more like humans.  In the marketplace, we want machines to do more and more of the tasks of humans, because machines are thought to be easier to control and manipulate and they are cheaper to maintain.  But as we work to bring machines up more and more to the level of human behavioral complexity, we start to increasingly bring humans down to the behavioral limitations of machines.  As long as machines work primarily on the basis of discrete stimuli, discrete data, they will never be able to truly imitate the rich behavioral capacity of humans.  For sure, they may develop a greater ability in those areas of behavior that involve solving rich complex puzzles like playing a chess game.  But ordinary daily life cannot be reduced to a puzzle that has to be solved.  Human interactions are too ambiguous and filled with complex ambiguous intentions.  These complex ambiguous intentions are the basis of both comedy and tragedy.  In other words, people don’t always follow a simple straight line from point a to point b in their relationships with other people.  But emotion recognition software tries to reduce the complex vibrancy of human interaction to as much of a straight line as possible.  It tries to make machine interaction with people smooth and frictionless in order to achieve a particular goal.  Emotion recognition technology is simply another example of a technological innovation that will end up sucking the life out of life and converting people into robots.

The topic of this article was suggested by Dr. Jorge Cappon.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow

Friday, November 8, 2013

Trying To Guarantee The Existence Of Immortality

            One of the themes in my articles has been the human’s awareness of his mortality.  Humans, more than any other organism, have a unique level of consciousness as a result of their superior brain development and a corresponding unique concern about death.  As a defense against death, humans have developed varying theories about the life of the spirit after death.  But because there hasn’t seemed to be any definitive empirical evidence of this immortality that could be discovered while living this life, most people have developed the backup of surrogate immortalities of imprints made on the human field of experience and then preserved, so that they would survive in some form after their corporal deaths.  I have pointed out that developing the technological structures present in our modern technological living environments was a means to lift people somehow above the organic perishability present in traditional living environments, so that they could be in vacuum environments where the human imprint could be more easily protected and preserved.

            Nevertheless, for some people, the symbolic aspects of surrogate immortalities are not enough to satisfy their need for a certain real immortality.  This article is going to deal with two distinct approaches that have been developed for creating some kind of certainty in a real immortality while in our present sensory world.

            For some people, if they themselves are unable to pass over to an afterlife while they are living here on earth, at least perhaps there is a way for them to communicate with people who have already passed over.  People are always trying to communicate with the dead, and they do it through mediums: people who become like empty vessels that dead spirits can use to communicate with other human beings.  Kate and Margaret Fox were two girls in Hydeville, New York, who in 1848 started to become mediums for a spirit who inhabited the house in which they lived with their parents.  The spirit communicated by using knocks in a kind of coded language.  Margaret, the older sister, later admitted that the spirit communication was a fraud and the knockings or rappings were created by her own big toe as well as by the big toe of her sister Kate.  This didn’t stop many people from continuing to believe in the sisters’ supposed spirit communication.  As a matter of fact, it became the basis for a whole new religion called Spiritualism.  The existence of this belief stimulated the activity of many other people who claimed to be mediums.  Many famous people got swept up by Spiritualism.  Arthur Conan Doyle, a man known for writing novels about a meticulous rational detective – Sherlocke Holmes – was a believer in Spiritualism.  And Spiritualism was used not only to communicate with deceased family members, but with famous people from history as well.

            Here was a way for people who weren’t content with surrogate immortalities as a certain continuation in some form of life after death.  For those people who believed and continued to believe even after one of the Fox sisters admitted their communication with the dead was a fraud, the experiences with mediums increased their sense of certainty that there was a spirit life after death, and that one day they too could communicate through mediums with the living from the spirit world.  Through mediums, it was as if people could temporarily jump over into the space where they would be living after they died. 

            Spiritualism represented an apex of activity in something that existed both before and after it was around as a major cultural force.  Today, there is another vehicle for people seeking a form of confirmed real immortality.  I am talking about the fascination with cyborgs – entities that are part human and part robot.  There is a belief that people can go on forever, if only they have parts to replace those parts of their bodies that wear out.  There is a sense of greater durability in parts made of plastic or metal instead of parts made of organic flesh.  And organic flesh replacement parts are much more difficult to find.  With plastic and metal parts, people can replace their decaying body parts, and replace them relatively easily again and again.  In this way, a human organism could theoretically go on forever.  Here the focus of immortality concern moves from a greater connection to the world of immortality in the afterlife, to the creation of a kind of immortality through technology here on earth.  The spirit world was eternal, because it was a vacuum world.  A vacuum world inhabited by vacuumized figures – spirits - that had just enough self-definition to qualify as distinct entities.

            A different approach is the search for a purely material immortality by becoming a seemingly indestructible cyborg.  Indestructible in the sense of somehow maintaining a core psychological human identity in spite of the need for replacement of material parts.  But is this truly possible.  Isn’t part of the foundation of coherent human consciousness based on having a primarily coherent sense of physicality.  I am not talking here about the effects of the isolated knee replacement or heart valve replacement or prosthetic limb.  Rather I am talking about the gradual replacement of many parts of a human body as they wear out.

            And, in particular, what happens when a part of the brain is replaced with a mechanical implant.  Scientists are already working on this to activate parts of a paralyzed person’s body, which seems like a very positive goal.  But brain implants can be used for many purposes.  For instance, not only control and manipulation of a paralyzed person’s limbs by the paralyzed person, but also control and manipulation of one person’s actions by another person.  In a previous article, I argued that the mind was not the same as the brain, and that it was difficult to reduce all mental ideation to the cerebral activity that was observable in scientific experiments.  In other words, there is still a mind-body dichotomy that nobody has been able to effectively resolve philosophically.  That being said, the notion of a cyborg would certainly test the capacity of changes in the brain to affect mental ideation.  Mind and brain are distinct phenomena, but, for sure, they are connected in some way within a person.  I would suggest that replacing parts of a brain would have to impinge on human consciousness.  A person would be mentally conscious of different foreign kinds of processes occurring in his reconstituted brain.  With mechanical parts, there would be more defined discrete stimuli – more discrete data – and fewer organic blendable continual stimuli.  Human consciousness could start perceiving its field of experience through a kind of internal screen with a content of pixelated figures.  With pixilated figures in the cyborg’s field of experience, the world would be fragmented and ungrounded.  And this would leave the cyborg vulnerable to control by people with more coherent wills.  The cyborg could be subject to being programmed like a robot to perform actions that the human side would not necessarily choose to do.

            So the cyborg would lose the coherent consciousness of a fully organic human being thinking and acting as an independent agent.  The price of this kind of flow of immortal material continuity in this world is the loss of the coherent reflexive awareness that triggered the search for immortality in this world.  The price of being this kind of entity – a cyborg – is a kind of living death.

            There is a Russian multimillionaire named Dmitry Itskov who sees the concept of cyborg differently.  He wants to make a digital copy of a person’s consciousness and personality and upload it to an avatar that could go on for thousands of years.  This notion really begs the question of the mind-body dichotomy, but more than that, if by some chance it were workable, it would mean detaching a person’s mind completely from its organic grounding.  It is truly a way to dehumanize a human in attempting to make him immortal.

            This article has dealt with two different attempts to find confirmation of human immortality.  One attempt has tried to find certainty of spiritual immortality in life after death.  The other attempts to create a kind of material and psychological immortality in this world.  In the first attempt, people have used belief over evidence to affirm that which cannot really be proved in this world.  The second attempt has yet to be fully actualized, but, should it succeed, it would offer life without flavor, without vibrancy, without immediacy, without meaningful engagement in the external world.  The human race has yet to demonstrate that the existence of a meaningful immortality is possible in this world.

(c) 2013 Laurence Mesirow