BB #35: Definition of Sanity

sanityYou sometimes hear the quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It’s most frequently attributed to Albert Einstein although it is sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin or author Rita Mae Brown.

None of them said any such thing. And poor Albert, he gets more silly quotes (incorrectly) attributed to him than anyone else. I suppose the idea is that, if Einstein said it, it must be right. I’m not sure the actual author is known, but the quote is commonly found in Alcoholics (and others) Anonymous where it references the repeated addictive behavior.

I’ve always thought the insane thing was the quote itself.

fishermanAsk any athlete, musician or fisherman about doing the same thing, the same way, and getting different results. For that matter, the activities of political and social action groups often consists of trying and trying until the message finally gets through.

Consider the ancient adage, “Try, try, and try again (until you succeed).”

If you followed the advice of the quote, you’d try something, fail and just give up.  Pretty silly, right?

Do you know the old joke about the couple from the Midwest visiting New York City for the first time? As they walked around, they get a little lost in the big city, so they approach a shabbily dressed street musician playing his violin.

“Do you know the way to Carnegie Hall?” they ask.

The violinist looks up with a sigh and says, “Practice, practice, practice.”

violinistWhen I was learning piano I played scales. The same way every time, time after time. And while practice never made me perfect, it absolutely improved me.

The basketball player shooting free throws, the baseball pitcher throwing curve balls, the football place kicker making field goals — practice, practice, practice.

[By the way: I mean no offense to those who find value in the phrase. If a tool is useful to you, then great! Beauty, eye, beholder; totally!]

Recently I stumbled on a quote that I think nails the topic. It’s due to Lawrence Kubie (1896-1973), a rather unknown neurologist and psychotherapist. He’s so unknown that the only reference I can find is in the French Wikipedia plus a handful of works citations.

The quote I have comes as a chapter preface from science fiction author David Brin’s (delightful book) Sundiver.  One of these Sci Fi Saturdays I may write about David Brin and his Uplift series (and other books). Brin is one of my favorite contemporary (SF) authors.

Brin is a scientist and writes generally “hard” science fiction. Sundiver is the first of the Uplift books and concerns a manned expedition into the chromosphere of our sun. It’s part adventure, part murder mystery, part first contact and generally a great read (would make a great movie).

None of which has anything to do with the Kubie quote, so here it is:

“The measure of [mental] health is flexibility (not comparison to some ‘norm’), the freedom to learn from experience… to be influenced by reasonable arguments… and the appeal to the emotions… and especially the freedom to cease when sated. The essence of illness is the freezing of behavior into unalterable and insatiable patterns.”

Now there’s a definition of (in)sanity I can get behind. Brin apparently elided parts of it to bring out the definition’s essence.  The source of the quote is not provided, so it may be hard to track down (but I’ll try).

But for a non-clinical definition, I think it rocks. Basically it’s about the mind’s ability (if healthy) to grow and change.  I particularly like the part about “insatiable patterns.”

SundiverSo much of our behavior seems insatiable these days (and insane to my eyes). The need for the latest and greatest cell phone or car or whatever. The insatiable love of mindless destruction and violence. Have you checked out video games or movies (or even TV) lately? Have we completely given up trying to stem this awful tide?

Slap a warning label on it and that’s good enough?

The interesting thing about that quote is, by that measure, an awful lot of people aren’t doing too good in the mental health area.  If you, like me, sometimes feel you live in a world that’s lost its mind, well,… yeah, maybe it has!

As an interesting connection, one of my favorite David Brin books is a standalone novel, The Practice Effect. In that book, a scientist finds himself on a world in which practice really does affect reality. If you start with a crudely made shirt and wear it every day, it practices being a shirt and over time becomes a fine garment. A crude stone axe becomes a finely crafted metal (or diamond) axe through use.

And when you stop using (“practicing”) something, it slowly reverts to its crude origins.  It’s a delightful idea, which is part of what I so love about science fiction.

It’s also a pretty rippin’ yarn and would make an outstanding movie.  I can never understand why Hollywood doesn’t use more of these great stories!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

19 responses to “BB #35: Definition of Sanity

  • bronxboy55

    I recently read an explanation of the choices Hollywood makes, and I think there may be something to it. While domestic sales are very important for a film, the real money is in worldwide distribution. That would explain the lack of subtlety or nuance, and the replacement of good writing and storytelling with crassness and vulgarity. It’s playing to the masses and their universal language.

    Maybe. But it still feels as though we’re standing on the deck of the Titanic. Play on, my friend.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think there are a number of objective measures by which it’s possible to say, “Nope, it’s not the same old thing; new stuff is happening (and it’s not good).” Never in the history of the world have so many been so closely and instantly connected. Never in the history of the world has it been, not just possible but easy, for so many to generate content. Never (…etc…) have we had so many voices speaking at once. And never have there been so many potential buyers for greedy sellers.

      Now that I’m retired I have the time to check out TV shows I’d heard about but never viewed, and it’s appalling how vile some of it is. Just to pick one drop in a bucket, I really like James Spader, and I’m glad to see him back on TV again (loved Boston Legal, and he was a stitch when he appeared for a while in The Office!), but when an episode of The Blacklist opens with the cold-blooded shooting murder of a pregnant woman and a NYC cop… I find myself asking myself, “Just exactly how much do we like James Spader?”

      Or to compare two very related shows from basically the same people: NCIS and NCIS:Los Angeles. The former is (deservedly) the best drama on TV. The latter is a fairly shallow, silly show where you’re just about guaranteed at least one gun battle in which several people are shot (and presumably killed). But they’re just “Bad Guys” so, hey, no worse than paper targets, right?

      What’s scary to me is how casual we’ve gotten about it. It’s like no one even notices anymore.

  • dianasschwenk

    The Practice Effect sounds awesome! I wonder what my 15 year old Toyota would be by now! 🙂

    I never looked at that insanity quote the way you layed it out in this post. You make a valid point!

    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Your Toyota would be a top-of-the-line, ultra-plush, totally safe, smooth and perfectly running vehicle that probably just needs a bit of sunshine for all the power it needs. Heck, after 15 years, it could probably run you to the store by itself without you needing to drive at all! It really is a great book and would be a great movie. It’s got an exciting climatic aerial battle (with a ground battle leading up to it), a love story (with a princess!) and a little “alien” critter that’s a kind of comic relief. (Plus it’s got a jail-break, a good villain and a revolution!)

      For the quote, again no disrespect to those who find value in it. Quotes can be like ink blots and allow you to find your own meaning in them. No doubt in its usual context (various x-anon groups), many do find value it in. But as a (sort of) musician and a (sort of, former) fisherman, it’s always bugged me. It denies the very essence and value of practice!

      • dianasschwenk

        hmmm I was kinda hoping my Toyota would be a Jaguar or something…oh well. 🙂

        I agree with your philosophy on quotes. In regards to practice one would repeat behaviours. In regards to say job hunting, if I’m never getting a job, perhaps I need to evaluate my approach!

        How are you doing otherwise Smitty?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Absolutely it would be a top-of-the-line, ultra-plush… etc… Jaguar! 🙂

        The two ways of looking at the same quote: that’s exactly what makes life so interesting (and challenging). No one size fits all, and there’s almost always (at least) two ways to look at the exact same thing and yet see it differently. (Classic three blind men and an elephant parable.)

        If you apply for a job at ten places (and don’t get it), who’s to say you won’t at the eleventh? But at the same time, if one can truly conclude a behavior is futile, then continuing it would clearly be the insane choice.

        That’s why I like the “insatiable” part of that Kubie definition. It applies to how x-anon groups use the quote (addictive behavior is surely insatiable), and it could apply to futilely applying for jobs. Problem is, the Kubie quote doesn’t fit so nice on a bumper sticker or wall plaque! 😕

        This is all kind of why I tend to always say that quotes should be the starting point of a discussion. It’s very cool how you do that on your personal blog! Produce a quote, say what it means to you, and then let us discuss it.

  • elizabeth2560

    I had also previously questioned that quote and I do prefer the alternative Kubie quote you offer (which I have never come across before. Another quote that irritates me along the same line is ‘Carpe diem’ (seize the day). Well, if we all did, none of us would bother to practice, practice, practice to become the perfect pianist because we would all be down at the beach having a great time 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Is this the one that you and I had some discussion about when Diana posted about the quote? That was a nice discussion! In my experience, anything short and vague (like poetry or quotes or bumper stickers; anything subject to interpretation) can have ink blot properties. We bring our own worldview to that interpretation. As I’ve said often, such things should be the beginning of discussion, not the sum of it.

      Totally with you on how you’re interpreting Carpe diem. There’s even a modern “texty” form: YOLO — You Only Live Once. And while I do place great value on the basic concept, I think we live in times that have taken it a bit too far. Indeed, too many are “down at the beach having a great time.” Or put another way: fiddling while Rome burns around them.

      The new opiate of the masses is cellphones and Facebook (and all the other social media). These tools, in and of themselves, are great things, but people seem to have lost all perspective. I’m not sure I believe this stat, but I heard recently that 1-in-5 people admit to using their cellphone during sex. I have read studies indicating people would give up shoes or sex rather than their cellphone. Hopefully we out grow this silliness before the race dies off, but some days I’m not so sure.

      • elizabeth2560

        The quote from Diana was the Roosevelt quote (the man in the arena).
        Agree about the cellphones. My daughter did a 40 hour famine for charity and one of her classmates could not participate as he was diabetic. The others convinced him to give up his phone for the 40 hours instead. So guess who found it the hardest and caved in – the ones who gave up food, or the one who gave up his phone?

        Your comment about fiddling while Rome burned made me think of meditation (forgive me if you are a zealist) because I always think of meditation as not achieving anything. By that, I mean if one is stressed about life, isn’t it better to get stuck in and solve the problem rather than zoning out.

        Thich Nhat Hanh broke away from his contemplative life as a monk and founded “Engaged Buddhism”; getting into the community and helping (although he is a Zen master so I suppose he combines the two). He also had an influence on Martin Luther King.

        Not sure why I thought of these last two points. You must have triggered one of those touchstones.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I can easily believe the one who tried to give up their cellphone couldn’t pull it off. (Why am I suddenly reminded of the Seinfeld episode where they all try (and all fail, IIRC) to give up masturbation for a week?) We’re pretty sure from studies now that it is an addictive behavior on par with, say, a gambling addiction. There’s an “asynchronous reward” factor (“ding… you have mail”) that messes with your dopamine system. It’s interesting how many people I’ve heard disavow the whole thing… only to fall under its spell.

        I suppose there are many ways to “escape” (ignore) reality. Mindless entertainment, withdrawal in meditation or religion or scholarship (i.e. the “white tower”), drugs, even just turning your back and trying to go another (cross-current) way (such as some communes or survivalist groups do).

        I’ll be honest: in my case, I’ve pretty much given up hope that the world will get its shit together. I truly believe we’re doomed (in so many ways) and that its just a matter of time. And I find I no longer really care, either. I’ve reached the point where I believe the human race deserves to kill itself off. When I consider the totality of human experience, I find less and less that redeems it.

        Regardless, I also consider the world to have gone mostly insane, so I increasingly want less and less to do with it. My escape is through books (and baseball). I look at the lives and writings of MLK and Gandhi (who also influenced King) and find great value and appeal therein, but the current world seems to wash away much of their effort and effect. We live in an increasingly violent world, and progress made by civil rights, peace activists and feminism seems constantly being eroded away.

        To my eyes, the heart of humanity is corrupt. We’ve not just lost our moral compass but have lost the entire concept of what one even means. It’s a heart-breaking world to live in!

      • elizabeth2560

        The passing of Mandela was sad because it symbolized the end of those great movements you spoke of.
        Our new Prime Minister here is doing his best to return Australia to the dark ages.
        I too am stuck a bit in the ‘what is the world coming to’ thought process rather than doing anything about it.
        The power of one…. not much really.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The trick may be to stop trying to change the world (or people) and focus on our own little corner. The more people who do that, the more little corners of sanity and goodness there are. Maybe the motto should be, “Think locally, act locally.” (Our friend, Diana, I know is a shining example of that.)

        But until we somehow learn to forsake materialism and overcome ignorance, nothing will really change. I just wish I knew how to foment that growth!

      • elizabeth2560

        I have been thinking about your comments about how we have lost the great trends of the 60s and 70s. Then I thought of polio. They have nearly eradicated polio from the world. This has been a phenomenal achievement over the last twenty years.
        A positive sign, a glimmering light remains!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Non-industrialized countries have seen changes in the last couple of decades. The vaccine was invented in the 50s and in widespread use in industrialized countries by the 60s. WHO began a global effort in 1988 and reduced cases from 350,000 (in 1988) to 483 (in 2001). It has remained at roughly those levels since, with somewhat lower numbers in the last few years. The battle is still being fought in some places; polio is one of two diseases with a global eradication program (Guinea worm disease is the other).

        That latter is, perhaps, an even better example of modern efforts. Awareness began in the 80s with a determination to create a global eradication program in the 90s. These efforts are largely due to former USA president Jimmy Carter. In the early days, reported cases numbered over three-million per year. Those numbers were greatly reduced by the 90s. By 2007 less than 1000 cases were reported, and the (provisional) count for 2013 is 148.

        These are, perhaps small drops in the bucket, but they do show that (at least some) people do care and are trying to do good works.

  • reocochran

    I like Lawrence Kubie’s quote because it is open ended and includes all facets that I think are missing in the oft quoted, but wrongfully attributed first quote that spurred you into this post! This took some digging and I appreciated how you covered it in such detail, Wyrd!

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