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Archive for October 26th, 2009

Can you feel the music?

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“Remember when the music
Came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire
And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire,
For we believed in things, and so we’d sing.”– Harry Chapin, Remember When the Music

Sometimes I wonder why many of the musicians that I really like seem to be dead. I wonder what that means. Poets and musicians as well as other artists sometimes have incredible insights into what we are as a species. The refrain from the song above “And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire” might be quite literally correct if not simply artistically correct. Music, and the emotions that it can stir, plays an incredibly important part in the human makeup. Some music can literally drive you to tears, evoke warm and wonderful memories, stir the spiritual side in us or bring forth nationalistic tendencies. When I am driving in a small convertible I have, there is nothing quite like ZZ Top songs, “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen, or “Hotel California” by the Eagles to make the time fly by on a trip (and hopefully not lead to a speeding ticket).

Some insight into music’s place in our brain is made more evident by stories about people who have illnesses or accidents that affect their relationship to music. Oliver Sachs, the noted neurologist, author and educator, in his book “Musicophila” describes a man who had no particular affinity out of the ordinary for music, but a few weeks after being struck by lightening developed an incredible urge to listen to and write piano music. While the etiology of the change is unknown, the man described events and memories from the strike that led Sacks to state that the emotional parts of the brain, the amygdala, the cortex and the brainstem may have been involved.  He further speculates that the lightening strike may have set off temporal lobe seizures. This short circuiting may have effected the higher functioning centers of the brain like the cortex (responsible for self, language, thought, consciousness, memory etc.) and the core components of the brain like the amygdala where emotions seem to germinate and the brainstem responsible for autonomic functions like respiration, sweating and maintaining homeostasis in the body. In other words the higher order functions of his brain were put more directly in touch (my speculation) with the basic core components of the brain and the result was an urge to listen to and create music. Is that a reason why music is sometimes so powerful, so moving, because it more directly connects our higher centers of thought processing with our elemental core components – a sensation that many of us might find pleasurable?

You can learn something about this by not only looking at “normal” people who develop issues, but by also examining the other end of the continuum – “abnormal” people and how the issue around music might play out with them. Paul Babiak and Robert Hare are the authors of “Snakes in Suits, When Psychopaths go to Work”. A psychopathic person is someone without conscience, unable to empathize with others (seeing things from another’s perspective or understand another’s feelings), incapable of guilt and are loyal only to themselves. They as a group are responsible for some of the more horrific crimes that get described in the media and generally are not able to show any remorse for their actions as they lack the ability to be remorseful. A significant portion of those in prison are psychopathic. And while many of us may not be surprised that there are psychopaths in prison, we may be somewhat more surprised by some studies that suggest that psychopaths are also found in corporations. The authors repeatedly warn in their book that just because an individual may exhibit a single characteristic that could be labeled psychopathic, without a whole series of other corroborating psychopathic characteristics, you are in all likelihood not dealing with a psychopath. However one study of corporate managers in the UK put the percentage of psychopaths in management at about 3.5% as opposed to 1% in the general population. There is currently no effective treatment for psychopathy.

Hare states in an interview with Fast Company (July 2005), “There are certainly more people in the business world who would score high in the psychopathic dimension than in the general population. You’ll find them in any organization where, by the nature of one’s position, you have power and control over other people and the opportunity to get something.” Babiak as a rationale states, “The psychopath has no difficulty dealing with the consequences of rapid change; in fact, he or she thrives on it. Organizational chaos provides both the necessary stimulation for psychopathic thrill seeking and sufficient cover for psychopathic manipulation and abusive behavior.” Entrepreneurs almost by definition are not psychopathic. Entrepreneurs want to build, want to create something that outlasts themselves, psychopaths tend to take advantage of and abuse what already exists.

One very interesting quote from Babiak and Hare’s book jumped out at me. It stated, “Some researchers have commented that psychopaths ‘know the words but not the music’, a statement that accurately captures their cold and empty core”. So, from Sach’s work we now have a situation in which the brain when injured or due to some other circumstance, has some of the higher thought processing areas more in touch, better connected with the emotional core, the result is a desire to listen to, or create music (some experience musical hallucinations). And from Babiak and Hare the notion that psychopaths (including those at work) don’t seem capable of connecting their higher thought processes with the understanding that an emotional component brings, often times at great detriment to the organization or society as a whole.

I have to wonder, and I have seen some research that confirms this, that one marker of psychopathy would be people who when shown disturbing pictures can process the content intellectually but an electroencephalograph (EEG) of the brain would show a lack of response in the emotional centers of the brain. Either they were born with or due to injury or other circumstance their emotional centers of the brain appear to be somewhat detached from the higher thought processing centers. And of course this condition would not be binary but rather would reside along a continuum, meaning that being psychopathic is not necessarily an all or nothing condition. Like almost all other things that effect humans in comes in varying degrees. At some point the person would be far enough away from the average to be considered pathological. Another thought crossed my mind, “Do psychopaths enjoy music as much as the rest of us”? Psychopaths certainly can create or listen to music, Charles Manson for instance who is certainly psychopathic, was an aspiring musician prior to the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson cult, but was there any enjoyment, any emotional connection by him out of the musical experience? My guess is that it is unlikely.

Some managers within organizations can be emotionally challenged, lacking empathy or the ability to see things from the perspectives of others – they literally do not understand the pain they may be causing others or may view it simply as a necessary condition for the businesses to function or thrive. (This does not mean that they are psychopaths). They may understand the business consequences of their actions but be unable to understand the emotional impact on those affected.

While I don’t think of it as a particularly rare case, I remember that a number of years ago I had a fairly senior manager, prior to doing a really terrible thing within his organization, describe to me that what he was about to do was “just business” and had to be done because of, from his perspective, “lost opportunity”.  His actions would disrupt and possibly destroy the lives of many employees. He showed only a surface level of concern to those that would be affected by this event. The “just business” component of the rationale may have been a rationalization within his own head to justify how he could do what he was about to, or it could indicate a real lack of ability to emote with others, a lack of conscience, and a lack of loyalty to those so effected. On the surface what may appear to be a lack of ethics, may actually indicate a deeper pathological illness. I wondered if after the event whether this particular manager felt any remorse, or guilt? My guess is that he did not. And while it is unlikely that this particular manager was psychopathic he was certainly emotionally challenged, most likely narcissistic, and unable to understand how others would “feel”.

“It is just business”. Is that a rationale that should be rewarded? The investment community seems to cheer at times when callous leaders are put into place to shake up an organization. Do you remember what Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap did to Sunbeam or Scott Paper? (His lack of emotion may be epitomized by the fact that he did not attend either of his parent’s funerals).  How about what Paul Bilzerian did to The Singer Company? (He is also known for serving time in prison on charges of corporate fraud.) Did the “Queen of Mean”, Leona Helmsley deserve the title for being emotionally disconnected from her employees or was she simply misunderstood? (She was so emotionally unattached to other humans that she left millions to her dog – the dog being one of the few who stood by her). And of course there is the litany of more current plunderers by executives at places like Enron and WorldCom. Did the executives of those organizations feel remorse or guilt at the employees who lost their life savings or retirement pensions? Is it “just business”, or is it something more than that, maybe something more sinister?

It has been a very long time since I worked in the area of employee selection and in my rather limited, dated knowledge of employee selection, I wonder if anyone has looked at musicality as selection criteria (not for just musicians). Would there be a benefit in evaluating a candidate on whether they can emotionally connect to music? Rather abstract and there are certainly more direct ways and more conventional ways to measure psychopathy or other emotional issues, but never-the-less the results of a study in this area would be fascinating and would potentially tell us a lot more about who we are.

There are some terrific work places out there. All sorts of places strive to get on the “best of this or that list” and it would be interesting to see if we evaluated a list of some of the best places for the role that music plays in the work environment.  An organization where people literally “whistle while you work” may be a signpost of an emotionally healthy workplace, one where the environment has been created that allows people to connect their higher thought processes with their emotional cores. A not uncommon phrase is that “this place really hums” or a manager stating that “this place can really sing”. That simple phrase may be taping into a very deep construct imbedded into the very wiring of our brains and be intimately connected with our emotions.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 26, 2009 at 1:03 am

Cause and Effect

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“Maybe she sat on the couch, on the same exact spot he had sat upon and that is how she got pregnant”? So hypothesized my young daughter on discussing how one person she knew may have conceived. What is very interesting about her comment, after the smile that is brings, is that she knows it is not possible to conceive that way. She is an avid fan of the Discovery and Science channels and watches all shows that have anything to do with how babies, whether human or another animal, are conceived and born. So why would she have responded that way?

Prior to making that hypothesis she had a conversation with my wife regarding this pregnancy. She was curious how it was possible since this person she knew was not yet married and so did not fit her definition of when babies were to be conceived. In her world babies were conceived when two individuals got married and began living together. Her notions did not fit this new situation and hence she was looking for a new answer as to how it might have happened, even if the answer was one she knew was incorrect.

Cause and effect, what causes what? That is a sometimes very difficult question to answer, especially when the answers staring at you may not fit your preconceived notions or cherished beliefs.  

Did you know that there is a relationship between going to the hospital and dying? Yes, there is a tendency for those who are rushed to the hospital, especially by ambulance to die. The casual observer to this relationship could conclude that the last thing you want to do, especially if you are really sick is go to the hospital. Because people who are really sick and go to the hospital have this nasty tendency of expiring. Does going to the hospital in and of itself cause the expiration? No of course not, but the potential to draw erroneous conclusions from that causal relationship is there. There is a concentration of very sick people in hospitals, who have a greater chance of expiring due to their various illnesses and not do to their physical location. I could look at another relationship, the percentage of very sick people who go the hospital and recover vs. the percentage of similarly ill people who don’t go to the hospital and recover and draw very different conclusions.

Observers to causal relationships have been drawing erroneous conclusions for millennia. The phenomenon is exacerbated tremendously when we are observing things that are beyond our comprehension. Arthur C. Clark, the noted science fiction writer and physicist stated that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. I would add “for those who do not understand the technology or the naturally occurring event they are witnessing”. The implication for his statement in this context is that erroneous conclusions could be draw from an observer to an event, attributing the event to “magic”, rather than understanding the advanced form of technology being observed.

A casual observer to an oil drilling platform, one who is completely ignorant of geology, upon seeing the oil rushing out of a newly drilled well, might assume that the Earth, under it’s top layer, is floating on a sea of oil. All you have to do to get at this oil is drill a sufficiently deep hole. If this observer needed some oil of their own and had the resources, based on that limited knowledge, they might conceivable rush around drilling holes here and there, wondering why the drill holes were not gushing with oil. 

So how can we draw correct conclusions from the events we observe? One approach is the scientific one which involves using experimental design with control groups to try to tease out cause and effect, but even then the room for various interpretations, partly due to the limitations of field vs. laboratory experimental design, can be large. For instance, cigarette companies for years put up a strong defense based upon their own “scientific” studies, arguing that the evidence that smoking caused cancer was just not there, was not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Meanwhile millions of people died.

Today similar debates rage around global warming. Do mankind’s activities have enough of an impact on the Earth to cause global climate change or are the changes we are currently seeing simply natural patterns? Part of the flaw in asking the question that way is that it assumes that the answer is one way or the other. Either humans are having an effect or they are not and either we are seeing a natural pattern or not. Maybe we are seeing a natural pattern that is exacerbated by human actions, or humans are having a tremendous impact that is exacerbated by a natural pattern. The question in my mind is largely irrelevant (see Virtuous and Deleterious Cycles) and by the time the definitive answer is known it will likely be too late to prevent a looming catastrophe regardless of the cause. In this case it would seem to be only prudent to limit to a minimum the emissions we as a species emit.

In the world of business cause and effect are often just as muddied; sometimes on purpose to serve a political agenda, sometime due to the limitations of the person doing the interpretation and sometimes due to legitimate differences of opinion. Upon entering a situation where the cause and effect must be divined in order to solve issues, the very first step in helping you draw conclusions is to put off drawing hasty conclusions. Often times in the rush to judgment (I am talking about a real rush to judgment, not the people who want to take a wait and see approach to climate change), people take positions before all or enough of the information is in, positions which may simply become hardened if those people are challenged by differing opinions (after all if I change my opinion I am admitting that I made an initial error, something that cognitive dissonance makes difficult to do). 

I remember an experiment that described how many interviewers, when interviewing candidates for a job, made up their mind about the potential employee within 30 seconds of beginning the interview (that is a rush to judgment). The most effective interviewer training was to train the interviewer to delay their decision making and judgment calls about the candidate for as long as possible into the interview time period, the longer the delay the higher the quality of the final decision.

The human tendency to rush to judgment, to quickly categorize and our sometimes gullibility has been utilized by others, in fact has been counted upon, to shape our opinions. Advertisers count on it when they imply in their ads that all you have to do is use their product and you too will look like the models they employ, or become more attractive, lose weight, or make money on real estate, or advance your career, or never have to buy another kitchen utensil etc.  Politicians count on it when they imply that the effects we desire in our nation can be achieved by signing onto their cause and voting for them.

One trend that I have noticed is the increasing use of “scientific studies” to create credibility around the cause and effect relationship, scientific studies that are anything but. The notion of simply labeling something “scientific” is that it gives instant credibility (however at the same time it can give legitimate science a bad name). Even in the world of survey research I come across work that makes broad generalizations about populations, about cause and effect without proper design or sufficient “n” to justify the conclusions drawn.

The list of individuals and organizations who try to manipulate our understanding of cause and effect goes on and on. I wonder then, given the assault we are constantly under is our ability to determine what is really going on diminished?  So maybe she did sit on that couch, on that exact same spot that he did, but that is not how she got pregnant. (I am pretty sure.) Better not touch any dirty door knobs, you could have twins.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 26, 2009 at 12:48 am

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