Monday, March 17, 2003

Feel Good Society: Steven Pinker, speaking before Leon Kass's Bioethics Committee, makes a comment that seems (to me) to indict the utopia of self-esteem, as it is preached from pre-school to the psychologist's couch, that will sooner or later find a pharmacological solution to any "incorrect" feelings:
There is a syndrome studied by one of my undergraduate teachers, Ronald Melzack, in which some people are born without the ability to feel pain, and first you might think, "Wow, what a great thing. You know, you'd stub your toe and you'd walk away without, you know, swearing and feeling the agony and so on."

In fact, this is a bad thing. The people with that syndrome generally die in their early 20s. The reason is that they don't have the feedback signals that tell them when they're damaging their body, and they suffer from massive inflammation of the joints simply from not shifting their weight when it gets uncomfortable, something that's second nature to the rest of us that feel pain.

That is going to be true of many of the negative psychological emotions that we feel. The ability to feel sad is the other side of the coin of the ability to feel love and commitment. If you didn't feel sad when you child died, could you have really loved your child? If you can't feel anxious, I'm sure I don't have to remind anyone in this room that anxiety gets us to do many things that otherwise we would not have done.
Franzen touches on this (albeit obliquely) in "The Corrections," and it's a part of the book I wish he had made more of. By the way, keep reading down for the Q&A after Pinker's presentation. Psychologist-turned-pundit Dr. Charles Krauthammer has the most interesting questions for Pinker.

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