When is a person not a person?

 

There’s a Buddhist story where the sage tells her pupils about a master craftsman who creates artisan carriages.

She describes the carriages in detail, from the quality of the polished wood to the smoothness of the wheels.

But what happens, she asks, when you remove the seat? Unhinge the sides? Hide the wheels? Look at what remains: is it still a carriage?
The lesson is designed to raise questions about what constitutes the whole. What is the function of the separate parts? What makes a carriage whole?
When is the carriage not a carriage?
The questions are intended to be provocative rather than answerable, and I wondered, when is a person not a person?
The query arises as I consider my step-father, who died this week.
Physicians in the 19th Century considered a person “dead” when the heart ceases beating. Is a person no longer a person when the heart stops?
In our current century an individual’s heart can stop beating while machines pump blood, keeping him vital: the heart can be removed and replaced. And the individual is considered alive.
Today we look to the mind as the keeper of the person’s flame.
If neurons cease firing an individual might be classified as “brain dead,” for which there is likely no recovery, in terms of mindfulness.
When is a person still a person?
When we consider the carriage, now a hunk of wood–a carriage stripped of its pieces–we no longer consider the item a vehicle. It no longer looks like a carriage and no longer serves the function of a carriage.
But at what point does the carriage not constitute a carriage? When there’s only one wheel? When the carriage can no longer carry us?
Some folks–including members of my family and friends–believe that, although a person might lose the function of a heart or brain, he continues to be a person.
Some cultures, including many American Indian communities, believe the “dead” person continues to be present, even in her buried state, and that the remains should never be removed.
My training as a social scientist invites me to reduce the carriage and person to its functioning bits: wheels and hearts. This allows the researcher to examine each part, separated from the whole.
My upbringing as a member of a family and a community urges me to consider the whole entity, regardless of the missing parts.
That’s because we can imagine the whole–remember the person–who continues to live in our memories, long after the ashes have blown away.
#nativescience
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Crazy Horse’s Law

A shirt experts think was worn by Crazy Horse is inspected at the National Museum of the American Indian during my 2010 fellowship

A shirt experts think was worn by Crazy Horse is inspected at the National Museum of the American Indian during my 2010 fellowship

Maybe we should call it Crazy Horse’s Law.

Mainstream North American culture brings some truths that we all acknowledge but rarely question.

Take Murphy’s Law.

The suspicious part of our shared-American cultural nature presumes that no matter how much we prepare for life’s challenges, things will go wrong.

What can go wrong, will go wrong.

We call it Murphy’s Law—according it an undeserved status as a law, although it is neither legally nor empirically sound.

The origin of Murphy’s Law is unknown—at least, according to Wikipedia.

There is a scientific side to Murphy’s Law, in the sense that if you test something over and over, you are bound to get a false positive result.

What that means is, even if you are not pregnant, the test will say you are pregnant. The test is wrong: a false positive.

As a social scientist, I acknowledge that 5 percent of the time my assumptions may be—well, wrong.

We give ourselves a 5 percent margin of being wrong.

But the way we use Murphy’s Law in everyday discourse is more a reflection of our sometimes-pessimistic temperaments.

I wonder how much of this temperament is formed by a personal history of “things going wrong.” Continue reading

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Take Viagra with your politics

Images from today's Washington Post story include Senator Tom Cotton and a Viagra ad. Photo credit Danny Johnston, Associated Press

Images from today’s Washington Post story include Senator Tom Cotton and a Viagra ad. Photo credit Danny Johnston, Associated Press

How fitting.

Today’s breaking news story about a clutch of Republicans who defied reason and protocol by sending a letter to Iran’s leaders without Congress, the Senate, or the President’s sanction is accompanied by an ad for Viagra.

When I opened my tablet computer this morning the Washington Post had a photo of Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican Senator–one of the 47 who signed the letter–flanked by the American flag and an ad for Viagra.

Look into Viagra, the blonde model says. Viagra helps guys with ED get and keep an erection. Continue reading

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Beware the sales pitch

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We can learn a lot from used-car sales folks.

Noted psychologist Robert Cialdini urges his students to study the techniques used that entice you to buy.

Go to a used-car lot and see how the seller pitches the product, Cialdini advises.

He calls them Weapons of Influence: reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. Continue reading

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Be careful when you grab the gold

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There’s a lot of eye-rolling when you teach theory to college students.

I get it.

Students want to discover the practical matters of communication. Business. Success.

I assure them they’ll thank me later.

Eyes roll.

Recently I heard from a former student confessing he has come to love theory. Today he teaches communication and is completing his PhD.

The student made the link that theory underpins practice.

Lately we’ve been talking in class about human foibles and how we make errors in judgment because of the ways our minds work.

Theory and research are soundly behind the idea that we’re prone to make errors in judgment. Continue reading

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Sounds deadly

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I can see the scenario unfold:

The desk sergeant asks the officer what happened.

“Granola. Crunchy granola,” the officer states.

Seems a couple had a fight and the husband was stabbed with a spoon.

The wife couldn’t take it anymore.

The sergeant shakes her head.

“Another case of Misonphonia. When will it ever end?”

Misonphonia sure sounds like some kind of misery.

Mis refers to dislike while phonia refers to noise.

They’ve finally found a word to describe the reaction when folks can’t stomach the sound of people slurping their soup, chomping on Crackerjacks or snorting snot in their throats.

While some folks spend their days looking at ways to cure Ebola or end hunger, I spend my time avoiding folks who munch.

In my youthful days, eating in front of someone was considered rude, and food was banned on the metro and in classrooms.

So it’s hard for me when a fellow bus-rider scarfs down a burrito at our stop.

Even libraries today serve up coffee and scones, and my fellow professors down burgers and fries in department meetings. One of my colleagues even licks the top of her yogurt container.

It drives me nuts.

Barron Lerner, a professor of medicine, wrote recently in the New York Times that some individuals are so sensitive to the affront of smacking they become enraged.

And while it may not lead to mariticide like in my homemade scenario above, Lerner says the condition is real: Chewing, sniffing and sucking can send people like him and me around the bend.

I can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Or someone snapping their gum.

And when we have ice cream at home, my husband’s tongue runs laps around the bowl.

But the worst is the sound of crunchy granola at 5 in the morning.

Time to hide the spoons.

#Nativescience

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Think critically

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When a politician recently ranted that universities shouldn’t be concerned with truth but rather serving the workforce, critics sharpened their pencils.

The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, wants to gut support by 13% and refashion higher education’s mission in his state.

He wants to strike the motto that universities should seek the truth.

Pretty bold for a guy without a college degree. Continue reading

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