Tag Archives: unconscious

Excepts From Interviews with David Dunning and V.S. Ramachandran

venn.pptxMany have argued that human rationality grants us special access to the depths of psychological and metaphysical realities. Current advances in social psychology, neurology and cognitive science are beginning to demonstrate otherwise. For all its usefulness human cognition is full of bias, errors and wayward tendencies that limit as much as liberate us.

For example, in 1999 Cornell professor of social psychology David Dunning and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, published, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments.” In their paper Dunning and Kruger argued that when faced with complex tasks and decision-making incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. This became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. And in 2010 The New York Times’ Errol Morris interviewed David Dunning, as well as  celebrated neuroscience V.S. Ramachandran, about some of the implications of humans being systematically “blind” to their own capacities. Excerpts below:

DAVID DUNNING:  Well, my specialty is decision-making.  How well do people make the decisions they have to make in life?  And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true.  And I became fascinated with that.  Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them.  Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.


DAVID DUNNING:  If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute.  The decision I just made does not make much sense.  I had better go and get some independent advice.”   But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.  In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer.  And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas.  And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

ERROL MORRIS: Many other areas?

DAVID DUNNING: If you look at our 1999 article, we measured skills where we had the right answers.  Grammar, logic.  And our test-subjects were all college students doing college student-type things.  Presumably, they also should know whether or not they’re getting the right answers.  And yet, we had these students who were doing badly in grammar, who didn’t know they were doing badly in grammar.  We believed that they should know they were doing badly, and when they didn’t, that really surprised us.

ERROL MORRIS:  The students that were unaware they were doing badly — in what sense?  Were they truly oblivious? Were they self-deceived?  Were they in denial?  How would you describe it?

DAVID DUNNING:  There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth.  We literally see the world the way we want to see it.  But the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that.  Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it.  Left to your own devices, you just don’t know it.   We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.

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NeuroIn the comment section of a previous post I made the following claim:

I’m a little worried about making a strong distinction between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’. Knowing and communicating are also embodied actions – activities with worldly consequences. Our values and ontologies do influence our perception and our intentions/motivations.

And Dirk responded by asking the following:

I still don’t know what it would literally mean to have an “ontology?” or how such a thing(?) would actually work in/to our actual doings/projects (can someone give me a thickish example of what they mean by this, i.e. where/how would I find an ontology and how would I track its effects?)

I think Dirk’s apprehension with the terminology is well-placed. He is asking us to be more specific and to pay attention to the details. And I can certainly appreciate that and would like to make attempt at ‘thickening’ my version of what I think is going on in this regard. I never want to suggest that ideas and imaginings are somehow independent of the bodies that generate them. Ideas are not objects. Human phantasy and ideation is what knowing and expressing bodies do. We generate, project and communicate symbolically via a capacity for individualized neuronal coding and recall (memory) and social exchange. Ideation is an enacted and embodied cognitive activity always in-process, and only ever relatively stabilized and concretized in external material codes (writing). Whereas writting and symbolic artifacts are objects in the strict sense – and thus capable of affecting and being affected, and so become part of the general ecology (within which we must cope – ideation is a living sublte and imaginative human activity.

So, to begin, I think it would be useful to make a distinction between ‘ontologies’ as 1) external linguistic codes/theories (texts) and 2) as internal or embodied habits of recall (codes) and interpretive semantic association. Of course the interaction between 1 (texts) and 2 (imaginative bodies/brains) is complex and dynamic but if we can agree on the empirical basis for making such a distinction – between texts and humans – then I think we are well on our way to thickening out the details of how non-theoretic onto-logic cognition works.   

First, ontologies as textual narratives are fairly uncontroversial. We can pick up Graham Harman’s book The Quadruple Object, for example, and follow his statements and tenants far enough we begin to get a sense of a generally explicated onto-story (as Bennett calls it). Harman tells the reader a story about how the world works using particular words, sentences and sequential references. Which is to say, all texts are ‘structured’ in a particular way via the syntax, grammar and conventions of the language in which it is written in order to convey meaning. And we know from linguistics that meaning is structured by a series of differences and linkages. And so the text itself is a relatively autonomous artifact with specific codes and material characteristics capable of being transported to different locales and entering into or exiting different networks of readers. And ontology texts are assemblages/objects with particular and meaning-full narrative structures.  

Now the issue of ontological thinking is a bit more messy. When I say “our ontologies influence our perception and our intentions/motivations” what I am really saying is that our habits of thinking (both fast and slow) influence the kinds of information we pay attention to. Habits of thought flow from and recursively re-condition complex formations of neuro-circuitry that generate dispositional feelings, cognitive patterns and generalized but often obscure motivations.[1] In brief, an individual’s ‘ontology’ is the sum total of those habitual neuro-semantic associations which lead to routine assumptions and anticipations about the world. We accumulate and accommodate our experiences in memory through symbolic coding/self-organizing and differential participation in public codes/language/narratives. These neuronal instantiations and habits (potentialized memories) form neuro-cognitive-dispositions (NCDs) then generate/manifest particular behaviors, attractions, aversions, and communicative and deliberational patterns. NCDs allow us to organize our experience and make-sense of the world in order to navigate, anticipate, cope and generally adapt. And it is when external codes (texts) interact with internal codes (NCDs) through memory, recall and lived communicative action (reading, discourse, conversation, etc) that all sorts of adjustments, rationalizations, rejections, adoptions, and re-codings become possible. So when people talk about ‘worldviews’ or cognitive ‘frameworks’ they are loosely referring to these socially acquired, personally adapted and ultimately affording but limited NCDs for organizing attention, memory/coding and recall.

But why use the short-hand of ‘ontology’ to refer to these widely dispersed living neuro-cognitive-dispositions? Because I think it is useful to sort out different dispositional sub-routines within general NCDs. A person’s ‘ontology’, then, would refer to that particular set of deeply instantiated neuro-cognitive-dispositions (NCDs) which organize our experience and behavior viz. the particular symbolic contents (knowledge) guiding our assumptions about the nature of things. The specific neuro-semantic content we code/memorize characterizes the different patterns and potentials generates by NCDs. NCDs are never strictly composed or explicit ‘theories’ but rather loosely connected neural habits/networks capable of activating low grade image-associations and decision-making routines. And certain NCD modes and sub-routines lead to particular sensitivities, reactions and actions in different contexts/situations.

So to tie it all back to Dirk’s original request for clarity, I would say that ontologies influence us as both tangible artifacts and neuro-cognitive-dispositions enacted in the ecological interplay between bodies, languages, texts, and media in-action. Moreover, the human use of informal and formal conventions as coherence across strata and systems exhibits a type of temporal continuity (or basin of attraction) in exchanges and relations between cognitive function (NCDs), public language (with its syntax and grammar) and social recognition (collective memory). This systemically accessible continuity is a type of dynamic assemblage, or ‘regime of attraction’ enacted as specific bodies, materials and energies interact, impact, express and exchange information – a more or less choreograph-able ‘dance of agency’ (cf. Pickering) between things with a systemic relatedness or “structureality”.


[1] For example recent neuroimaging studies of conditioned fear, attention to threat and interpretation of emotionally ambiguous stimuli indicate common amygdala–prefrontal circuitry underlying these processes, and suggest that the balance of activity within this circuitry is altered in anxiety, creating a bias towards threat-related responses. Anxious individuals show increased attentional capture by potential signs of danger, and interpret expressions, comments and events in a negative manner. The biological mechanisms and neural circuitry underlying the acquisition and extinction of conditioned fear-based cognitive biases have been widely explored:

One of the stereotypical notions that are used to characterize the post-modern turn is that “It” championed the end of grand/meta-narratives, but it might be more useful these days to focus on how various “micro” studies (ethnographic, phenomenological, etc) have brought to light the lack of any actual common standards/norms of measure at work in our practices, so we must be wary of attempts to re-vitalize/naturalize underlying/overarching themes/cycles/etc.

see also:

In this podcast Stephen Turner, plenary speaker for the theory stream at this year’s BSA conference, talks about his new book Explaining the Normative. The discussion explores changing theories of normativity and the different meanings they hold for philosophy and social science.


In this essay I want to discuss suicide from within a Heideggerian perspective as a form of freedom. In doing so I will be making the distinction between suicide-as-event and suicidality-as-possibility. To deepen the discussion I will be drawing on Stoic accounts of possibility and fate, situating suicidality in terms of Baudrillardian seduction, theories of sublimation and briefly connecting the discussion to contemporary psychotherapeutic practice. I intend to open a discussion on the place of suicide and suicidality after the post-nihilist turn and to recognise in it not only the moment of despair but also a path toward the sense of liberation and opening of possibility that a catastrophia inflected post-nihilist praxis sees as the pre-requisite for living after nihilism.


 ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide’ (Camus 2005, p.1): this is how Albert Camus  opens his book The myth of Sisyphus. It is a book that forms Camus’s elaboration of his ideas on the Absurd, ideas that have a more readily accessible form in his novels such as The outsider and The fall. At the outset of The myth of Sisyphus Camus is setting up the question of whether we should live or die as the paramount philosophical problem. In this way of thinking about suicide, it is presented to us as a question, a provocation and, at the same time, as an accusation. The question is: what is the status of suicide, and what is the status of life? Camus is quick to state that to treat this question as a purely social phenomenon in the manner that Durkheim did, and that Franco Berardi does today, is to evade the centrality of the question. It is to flee from the intimate proximity of the suicidal person to themselves and to the terrain of their life. As Camus puts it

 An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (2005, p.3).

Within the silence of the heart the suicidal act is locked into Beckettian profounds of mind; the urge to kill one self lurks subterraneous and mute, being prepared but without communicating to the one who prepares it. This is a work, ‘like a great work of art’, that writhes beneath the everyday consciousness  in ferocious activity; working itself out, but unknown to the one who will put the gun to their head or tip the pills from their crumpling plastic cup. This is almost like the kind of process that Charles Bukowski somewhere speaks of in the ideal experience of writing poetry: you should not write unless the poem surges from your mind onto the paper, a torrent lashing from the fractured sky. And just like the great work of art there is a sense of culmination, of destiny fulfilled, of the work coming to fruition, as if all preceding acts were merely rough sketches, vague gestures, and preliminary experiments in style. Prepared in the silence of the heart, it is as if Camus thinks of suicide as a great love or a great sadness that can finally confess itself to a world that it spurns, as if suicide were its mode of intimacy with that world, like the cruelty of a rejected lover. As a great work of art suicide may be the smallest act in a vast and cold universe devoid of final salvations or consolation, but it is sublime nonetheless and even perhaps because of it.

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This is a brilliant post from Brian Holmes on Guattari and our struggle for sensible self-determination within and among the contemporary regimes of dominance. How are we to navigate such layered complexities which both afford our mode of existence as well as limit our possibilities? How are we to even begin to think this?


“How can we escape from the subtler encoding machines that would scan our neuronal mesh at the molecular level, and synchronize it with the algorithms of computers? The flexible economy confronts us with the paradoxical trap of our own freedoms. What I’d like to do with the help of Guattari’s later works is to spark off some conversations about the models of existence that we bring into play, in hopes of leaving behind the dominant patterns that shape our destinies. The question is how you rearrange the stars above your head, to open up unexpected paths on the ground beneath your feet.” – Brian Holmes

* See Also: How does Schizoanalysis Work? or, “how do you make a class operate like a work of art” – via deterritorial investigations unit

Continental Drift

or, the Pathic Core at the Heart of Cybernetics


[This text was developed through a large number of improvised presentations. Thanks to all who listened and responded. The very first, in Chicago at the invitation of Jon Cates,  is archived here. – BH]


A desiring mind seeks infinity, and finds it today in a proliferation of signals: electromagnetic waves beaming down from the skies, fiber-optic cables emerging from the seas, copper wires woven across the continents. The earthly envelope of land, air and ocean – the realm of organic life, or biosphere – is doubled by a second skin of electronically mediated thought: the noosphere. It’s a vast, pulsating machine: a coded universe grown complex beyond our grasp, yet connected at every pulse to the microscopic mesh of nerve cells in our flesh.

Such is the contemporary circuit of communication. Its existence raises two basic questions. What…

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Daniel W Smith discussed Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s works Anti-Oedipus & A Thousand Plateaus at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum 2009. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University, is a leading expert of Deleuze and Guattari’s work. In these lectures, he lucidly outlines the theories and implications of the most political sections of Deleuze and Guattari’s work while giving special attention to the primary source materials and philosophical arguments that the authors utilized to make their argument.

Day 1: Anti-Oedipus & Desire
In this talk, Smith discusses Deleuze and Guattari’s ambitious reworking of psychoanalysis, especially with their notions of desire and the unconscious.

Day 2: Anti-Oedipus & The Human 
On this day of talks, Smith describes the anthropology chapter of Anti-Oedipus. In the first lecture, Smith covers the Savage and Despotic formations. Unfortunately, the second lecture, in which Smith described the Capitalism formation, was not recorded.

Day 3: A Thousand Plateaus & Nomadology
On this day, Smith presents Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadology from A Thousand Plateaus, with an eye to their description of society without a state. The second lecture is dedicated to question & answer.

More Here: Deleuze’s Politics: Psychoanalysis, Anthropology, and Nomadology