Clashing Symbols

Dear Friend,

After Hurricane Irene hit parts of Vermont with a destructive force, a rabbi friend reached out to ask how I'd fared. "We were fine down here in the lower elevations," I reported, "but when the warm, saturated air reached the cooler mountain tops, it rapidly precipitated out, roared down the narrow streams, and overwhelmed them."

My friend smiled at me, "We say HaShem did that."

Forward to this week in Chicago.

"Take this coffee mug," I said, holding up an ordinary hotel-conference-room, hot-beverage container. "it has essential qualities. It has a size, a volume, an insulating capacity, the way the handle responds to my hand, and the rim to my lip. All of which allow it to do its functionally useful job of conveying a hot beverage."

"And that same mug may have your brand or university logo on it, was made by a potter you know, or might have been a gift, a souvenir, or even a family heirloom. In which case it has a story adhered to it. And the story doesn't allow it to do its functionally useful job any better, but those stories convey meaning, affiliations, identity."

Last week, I retold the story of my grandfather's mild hazing of me when I joined him on a seasonal house maintenance project. Another of the retellings was for a leadership team. My powerful connection to my late grandfather isn't lost on most.

As an example of the power of our symbolic awareness, I pointed out that if you wanted the hotel mug, I'd readily give it you, but if that exact same mug, with the same look, feel, and functional quality, had been given to me by my grandfather, I likely wouldn't part with it.

Our research and experience with cognition allows us to recognize these powerful differences in response to what could be the same object. And we recognize that each one of us has a different strength of these responses. Some of us adhere no symbolic meaning to objects. Stuff is stuff. Then again, as an altar boy, I participated in a ceremony that transformed an ordinary flour and water wafer into the literal body of Jesus. "It's a mystery," the nuns told us.

When Hamlet saw his father's ghost speaking to him, Horatio said there was no such thing as ghosts. I'm a scientist and study the reality bounded by Newtonian physics, and yet, I believe with Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Hmmmm. Is it Hamlet or Horatio who's failing to grasp reality?

I do the work of promoting the awareness of cognitive differences to engage self-understanding and to reduce conflict and friction. This powerful difference of how we can attach meaning to things is the toughest one to bridge. We have different perceptions of reality. But we can find ourselves reluctant to accept that others have powerfully different experiences of reality.

Medicine has long been uneasily aware of the placebo effect -- an inert medicine or ritual treatment that, nonetheless, creates a documentable healing response. It can be powerful enough that in controlled studies it can be hard to tell the effectiveness of the "real" medicine against the "imitation" medicine. In a recent study published by Harvard Medical School, "The researchers discovered that the placebo was 50% as effective as the real (emphasis mine) drug to reduce pain after a migraine attack."

This measure of 50% was from a statistical average of all participants. However a close reading of the study suggests that the effect of the symbolic medication was powerfully centered on a portion of the subjects. Between 10 and 15 percent of the participants achieved complete relief depending on how the symbolic medicine was presented.

Hmmmm, say that again, Horatio: which one was "real"?

As I write, I'm realizing this is too big a lift for a single post. I'll offer more on this next week.

That is, Deo volente.

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