Blind Tasting for Exams and Competitions

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When it comes to blind tasting, there can be no substitute for experience and practice. Do not merely fall back on your strengths, however impressive they may be. The best way to improve is to work at your weaknesses. Attending as many tastings 
as possible can really help to bring things together, as can visiting wineries and wine regions, talking to wine people, and reading the wine press and literature. More important still is to find or form a dedicated study group. Aside from the purely social aspects, the benefits of a study group include: imposing structure and discipline, sharing knowledge and experiences, shaping and strengthening indistinct impressions, uncovering blind spots, and, last but not least, dividing expenses.

Also key is familiarity with timing, as time pressure in exams and competitions is often intense. Put yourself through timed practices that mirror the format of the real McCoy. When you blind taste, say, a Pomerol, you taste it with everything that you know about Merlot and right Bank Bordeaux, indeed, everything that you know about wine. Last minute cramming is not going to turn you into an overnight supertaster, and might even serve to confuse you. Better to spend the run-up to the exam or competition relaxing and sharpening your mind and senses.

In the hours leading up to the event, it can be helpful to taste a familiar benchmark such as a Rheingau Riesling to calibrate your palate. If your palate is poorly calibrated for a particular variable such as acidity, alcohol, or quality (more likely if you are ill, stressed, hungry, or dehydrated), you will be losing marks right across the board.

For competitions, if tasting in a communicating team (in which members can confer with one another), the top taster should take the lead. If there is no clear top taster, one of the stronger tasters should be designated as captain to streamline decision-making. If it becomes apparent that the captain is having an off day, he or she should immediately yield the captaincy to another strong taster. If tasting in a non-communicating team as in the Oxford and Cambridge varsity match, the team is only as strong as the sum of its parts, and gains most from the stronger tasters training up the novices.

For exams, be sure to read the questions carefully and to answer them directly and comprehensively (although not necessarily exhaustively). If short of time, choose breadth over depth, as marks are likely to be distributed across a number of domains, for instance, across several aroma groups. Elaborate only if it seems appropriate, or if you are specifically asked. If you get stuck on a particular wine, come back to it later if you can.

For many exams, it is very important to use the prescribed tasting method, including the tasting format, lexicon, and grading scales. Committing the prescribed method to memory also increases your speed while decreasing your chances of missing out key elements such as tannins or oak.

If, say, six marks are allocated to ‘nose’, be sure to write down at least six items about the nose, across all the principal domains. In particular, do not omit to comment on a defining element such as notes of honey and honeysuckle in a botrytized wine, or notes of vanilla and toast in a wine with reams of new French oak. Conversely, be careful not to imply something that is not there. For instance, ‘coconut’ is so closely associated with American oak as to imply its presence, even if you meant it in a completely other context.

When writing descriptions, use only very specific terms: instead of ‘citrus fruits’, prefer ‘lemon’, ‘lime’, ‘grapefruit’, ‘clementine’, or ‘orange’. Other cluster headings that can be elaborated upon include ‘red fruits’, ‘black fruits’, ‘green fruits’, ‘stone fruits’, ‘nuts’, and ‘spice’. Do not hedge: instead of ‘youthful’, plump for either ‘young’ or ‘developing’. Similarly, avoid broad, imprecise, subjective, or fanciful terms such as ‘mineral’, ‘fairly high’, ‘feminine’, and ‘broad shouldered’. In short, be as precise and concrete as you can. At the same time, do not fall into the opposite trap of being needlessly technical by, say, providing an estimate of the residual sugar level in grams per litre. Describe each wine in the absolute, without referencing the other wines in the flight. For instance, avoid writing that a wine is ‘more aromatic than the previous wine’ – unless specifically asked to compare the wines.

Try in as far as possible to be consistent and coherent within your tasting note. It is surprisingly easy to inadvertently contradict yourself, sometimes even within the same sentence, for example, by describing the hue as ‘deep lemon’ but the colour intensity as only ‘medium’. More broadly, if you think that a wine is obviously young, do not write down notes such as petrol or marzipan that suggest a fair bit of development.

Take care not to confuse a descriptor with a conclusion. ‘Likely fermented in stainless steel’ is a conclusion not a descriptor, and used as a descriptor is unlikely to attract a mark. Also unlikely to attract marks are negative descriptors such as ‘no sediment’, ‘no tannins’, and ‘no evidence of new oak’.

In general, when concluding, it is not nearly enough to ‘get it right’. To score full marks, you also need to back up your conclusions with evidence, explanations, and context, in proportion to the allocated number of marks. Should your conclusions prove incorrect, your reasoning could ensure that you score at least partial marks. You are unlikely to be given rare, unusual, or atypical wines, so do not stray too far off the beaten track with an Alto Adige Sylvaner, a Bío-Bío Gewurztraminer, or a Mornington Nebbiolo.

If you are also asked for a quality assessment, do not hold back from being critical. However, be sure to back up your conclusions with evidence and explanations. For instance, do not merely state that a wine ‘will not improve with age’, but argue that it is ‘lacking the concentration and structure for further ageing’. Similarly, do not merely state that a wine is ‘balanced’, but make the case that ‘the full body and high alcohol are offset by the high acidity’. Verify that your quality assessment is externally and internally coherent. If you noted further up that a probable Bordeaux has green tannins, do not conclude that it is at the level of a classed growth; and if you claim that a wine is of poor quality, do not argue that it will improve with age.

Ahead of the exam, it can be useful to draw up differential lists for recurring problem areas such as ‘mineral whites’ (Chablis, Muscadet, Savennières, Sancerre, Riesling…), ‘aromatic whites’ (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Muscat, Torrontes…), ‘light reds’ (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo…), ‘soft reds’ (Gamay, Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Barbera, Valpolicella…), and ‘spicy reds’ (Southern Rhône blends, Northern Rhône Syrah, Rioja, Chianti, Nebbiolo…). For each variety or style, write down the most important distinguishing features. Everyone is different, with different trouble areas, triggers, and tricks, so it is important that you draw up your own lists.

For example, this is a list for spicy reds.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Grenache dominated blend)

  • N Rhône Syrah: darker fruit, black pepper, higher acidity, lower alcohol, chewier tannins
  • Rioja: brick red, less herbal, lower alcohol, more oaked and often with American oak
  • Chianti: brighter with higher acidity, higher and firmer tannins, drier finish
  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins

You can then rejig the list to put it in terms of another variety or style.

Chianti

  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape: garrigue, less cherry fruit, lower acidity, lower and softer tannins
  • Rioja: brick red, less bright, lower acidity, softer tannins, more oaked and often with American oak

Here are some more differential lists to get you started. Try, with the help of your peers, to formulate such lists in your blind tasting practices. Start with just a couple of varieties or styles, and then, over several tastings, gradually extend and refine the list.

Chablis

  • Muscadet: paler, slight effervescence, lees character, lighter body, lower acidity and alcohol, less mineral
  • Savennières: more aromatic, fuller body, higher alcohol, bitter afternote
  • Sancerre: more aromatic, notes of gooseberry and grass
  • Riesling: much more aromatic, petrol, possible residual sugar

Gewurztraminer

  • Viognier: no pink tinge, more stone fruit, less exotic, often less oily, dry, lacks bitter finish
  • Pinot Gris: pear or stone fruit, no lychee, often less oily, higher acidity, greater structure
  • Muscat: grapey, orange blossom, lighter body, lower alcohol, often drier
  • Torrontes: lacks lychee note, less oily, more mineral

Gamay

  • Pinot Noir: no blue tinge or estery notes, higher acidity, alcohol, and tannins, often oaked
  • Dolcetto: darker colour, more ‘Italian’ cherries and bitter almonds, lower acidity, higher alcohol and tannins, drier finish
  • Barbera: more cherry than strawberry, higher acidity, more often oaked, drier finish
  • Valpolicella: sour cherry note, higher acidity

Pinot Noir

  • Gamay: blue tinge, estery notes, lower acidity, alcohol, and tannins, rarely oaked
  • Grenache: spicier, higher alcohol, lower acidity
  • Tempranillo: brick red, less finely etched fruit, lower acidity, often oaked with American oak
  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, fuller body, much higher tannins

Cabernet Sauvignon (e.g. Left Bank Bordeaux)

  • Merlot: plums, no cassis or green pepper, more earth and less gravel, lower acidity, higher alcohol, softer tannins
  • Syrah: black pepper, no cassis or green pepper, lower acidity, less structured
  • Cabernet Franc: more aromatic, lighter fruit, lesser structure and tannins
  • Cahors: inkier, earthy mineral notes, higher tannins
  • Argentine Malbec: fuller body, higher alcohol, lower acidity, softer tannins

Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Concise Guide to Wine 2e

The Dangers of Dehumanisation, Or, Why Trump’s Rhetoric Is More Than Just Wrong.

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Dehumanisation is a kind of deception—of the self, of others, or both—that paints other people as less than human, so as not to have to think about them and/or feel guilty for overlooking or abusing them.

It’s easier to dehumanise a person or group if they’re already marked out as different, perhaps by gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability, or even a different manner of speaking or dressing. For example, it’s all too common to witness people in uniform, such as waiters, cleaners, bus drivers, and police officers, being treated as mere automatons without human attributes such as feelings or families.

In April 2011, riots broke out in Bristol, England over the opening of a new supermarket. During the riots, one Benjamin Cyster dropped a five stone concrete block from the top of a building onto an advancing line of police officers. The block caught PC Nicholas Fry square on the shoulder, crushing him to the ground. Instead of expressing anguish or remorse, Cyster continued rioting, and even exclaimed, “I want to find that copper I hit on the head. I want to do it again.”

Diane Davies, a 62-year-old grandmother of nine from Anglesey in Wales, was holidaying in one of the most exclusive areas of Barbados. One day, in broad daylight, she was brutally raped by a complete stranger. One year on, in November 2011, she decided to talk about her ordeal in a national newspaper. She felt certain that she would have been killed, had she not remembered reading that a victim of attempted rape should talk to the rapist so that he might see her as a person rather than an object of gratification. “So I told him I was a 61-year-old grandmother with four children and nine grandchildren and felt he slightly softened. I think talking to him saved my life.” Similarly, in the UK Brexit referendum, areas that voted for Remain tended to have a much higher level of immigration than areas than voted for Leave.

Unfortunately, dehumanisation is not limited to thugs and rapists, and may also be used by politicians and other so-called decent, middle class people. For example, it is commonly used by healthcare professionals to cope with distress at loss, grief, disease, and death, with patients referred to by their diagnosis rather than their name (“the stroke in bed number 6”, “the fractured hip in the ER”…), or just being thought of in terms of a long line of faceless ‘patients’.

One notable politician who regularly engages in dehumanisation is, of course, Donald Trump. He tends to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, splitting off the American “we” from “these people”; and to refer to minority groups by using the definite article ‘the’, as in, “I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks”, or “I love the Muslims.” Other, less subtle, ways in which Trump dehumanises people is by stereotyping, belittling, or even objectifying them. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he said, “You’re not going to support me, because I don’t want your money. You want to control your own politician.” Of Mexicans, he said, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Of women, he said, “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.” Of grief-stricken Gold Star mother Ghazala Khan, who stood by her husband Khizr as he criticized Trump, he said, “She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” He has questioned the competence of a federal judge on the grounds of his Mexican heritage; called his opponent Hillary Clinton a criminal who should be jailed or perhaps even killed; and even questioned the citizenship, and hence the legitimacy, of America’s first black president.

Dehumanisation is more than just wrong. It quickly becomes normalised, serving to undermine morality and the rule of law, and incite and endorse discrimination and violence. In the early 1970s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison with hidden cameras and microphones in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. The researchers selected 24 undergraduates, mostly white, middle class men, and randomly assigned them to the roles of either prisoner or guard. The ‘prisoners’ were to remain in the mock prison round the clock, while the ‘guards’ were to ‘work’ in three-men teams over eight-hour shifts. The experiment had been scheduled to run for 14 days, but had to be stopped after just six days owing to the aggressive and abusive behaviour of the ‘guards’ and the extreme adverse psychological reactions of the ‘prisoners’. Even Zimbardo, who had been acting as the prison warden, overlooked the dehumanising behaviour of the guards until a graduate student voiced objections. In his book, The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo wrote candidly that, ‘Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class.’

Dehumanisation is often witnessed during times of crisis or war. If certain people or groups can be seen as less than human, they become dispensable, and any atrocity can be justified. Josef Goebbels, the Minister of ‘Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’ in Hitler’s Nazi regime, exploited all contemporary methods of propaganda to inflame anti-Jewish sentiment. By pinning the blame for all the economic and social ills of the time on the Jewish people and then lampooning them as an ‘inferior race’, he prepared the ground for the progressive elimination of their rights and freedoms and, one thing leading to the next, for the mass genocide of the Holocaust.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the EmotionsHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook

Plato on Democracy, Tyranny, and the Ideal State

In any Greek city, there are perhaps no more than fifty good draught-players, and certainly not as many kings. —Plato, Statesman

In one of Plato’s books, the philosopher Protagoras tells a genesis story. Once upon a time, the gods moulded the animals by blending earth with fire, and asked Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to equip each animal with its proper qualities. Taking care to prevent the extinction of any animal, Epimetheus assigned strength to some, quickness to others, wings, claws, hoofs, pelts, and hides. But by the time he got round to human beings, he had nothing left to give them. Finding human beings naked and unarmed, Prometheus gave them fire and the mechanical arts, which he stole from the gods Athena and Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Prometheus did not give them political wisdom, and so they lived in scattered isolation, at the mercy of wild animals. Each time they tried to come together for safety, they treated one another so badly that they once again dispersed.

As human beings shared in the divine nature, they gave worship to the gods. Zeus, the chief of the gods, took pity on them and asked his messenger Hermes to send them reverence and justice. Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute these virtues: should he give them, as for the arts, to a favoured few only, or should he give them to all?

‘To all,’ said Zeus; I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.

At the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, the last major battle of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans captured the Athenian fleet. The ship carrying the news of the defeat arrived in the Athenian port of Piraeus at night, and, in the words of the historian Xenophon,

…one man passed it on to another, and a sound of wailing arose and extended first from Piraeus, then along the long walls until it reached the city. That night no one slept. They mourned for the lost, but more still for their own fate.

Mercifully, Sparta resisted calls to execute every Athenian man, sell every woman and child into slavery, and turn the site of the city into pastureland—as it had once done to the city of Plataea. However, Athens had to agree to Sparta’s terms of surrender and became a Spartan territory under Spartan control. Sparta suspended the political institutions that had been the pride and symbol of Athenian sovereignty, determined that Athens should be ruled by a pro-Spartan oligarchy, and sealed the appointment of the so-called Thirty Tyrants.

As they blamed the democrats for their defeat, the Athenians initially lent their support to the Thirty; but the oligarchy proved so brutal and oppressive as to alienate all but its most fanatic supporters. After the democratic forces in exile defeated the oligarchic forces and the allied Spartan garrison, Sparta reluctantly restored a limited form of democracy to Athens.

After the death of his uncle Critias, the first and the worst of the Thirty, Plato once again contemplated a career in politics. At first, the restraint and moderation of the restored democracy led him to believe that he could find his place in the ecclesia (the Athenian assembly), but the trial and death of his teacher Socrates put paid to any fragile illusions that he might have entertained about Athenian politics. In any case, after the fall of the Thirty, his name had turned from asset into liability: he had lost all his political friends and allies, and his background, politics, and association with Socrates all sat uncomfortably with the mood of the times.

Like Plato, Socrates had once considered becoming a politician, but his inner voice had dissuaded him from doing so on the grounds that he would soon have been killed and made of no good to anyone. At his trial, he sought to explain his lack of public involvement to the five hundred jurors:

For I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago and done no good either to you or to myself. And don’t be offended at my telling you the truth: for the truth is that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly struggling against the commission of unrighteousness and wrong in the state, will save his life; he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one.

Having experienced the limits of both tyranny and democracy, Plato sought to devise another and better system of government. In the Republic, which have been nothing more than a thought experiment, he conceived of an ideal state ruled by a small number of people selected, after close observation and rigorous testing, from a highly educated elite.

These so-called guardians would not hold any private property. Instead, they would live together in housing provided by the state, and receive from the citizens no more than their daily sustenance. In spite, or because, of these deprivations, the guardians would be the happiest of men. Were a guardian become ‘infatuated with some youthful conceit of happiness’ and seek to appropriate the state to himself, he would have to ‘learn how wisely Hesiod spoke, when he said, ‘half is more than the whole.’

For Plato, if a person is to give good advice on the highest affairs of state, he or she must have expertise in justice, which is a part of virtue and self-knowledge. The person who rushes into politics without having found self-knowledge falls into error and makes himself and everyone else miserable. He who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom.

The tyrant, who is the most unjust of people, is also the unhappiest. The tyrant is constantly overcome by lawless desires which lead him to commit all manner of heinous act. His soul is full of disorder and regret, and is incapable of doing what it truly desires. The life of the political tyrant is even more wretched than that of the private tyrant, first, because the political tyrant is in a better position to feed his desires, and, second, because he is everywhere surrounded and watched by his enemies, and becomes at first their prisoner and at last their victim.

The best and most just of all rulers are those who are most reluctant to govern, while the worst and most unjust those who are most eager. Therefore, if the state is to be well ordered, it must offer another and better life than that of ruler, for only then will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. And the only life that looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy.

The ideal state is an aristocracy in which rule is exercised by one or more distinguished people. Unfortunately, owing to human nature, the ideal state is unstable and liable to degenerate into timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and, finally, tyranny. States are not made of oak and rock, but of people, and so come to resemble the people that they are made of. Aristocracies are made of just and good people; timocracies of proud and honour-loving people; oligarchies of misers and money-makers; democracies of people who are overcome by unnecessary desires; and tyrannies of people who are overcome by harmful desires.

Plato provides a detailed account of the degeneration of the state from aristocracy to tyranny via timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. Democracy in particular arises from the revolt of the disenfranchised in an oligarchy. The state is ‘full of freedom and frankness’ and every citizen is able to live as he pleases.

These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

However, citizens are overcome by so many unnecessary desires that they are ever spending and never producing, and are ‘void of all accomplishments and fair pursuits and true words.’ As a result, the state is ruled by people who are unfit to rule.

In a later book, the Statesman, Plato contends that there are three forms of government other than true government: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Each of these further divides into two according to the criteria of voluntary and involuntary, poverty and riches, and law and lawlessness. Monarchy divides into royalty and tyranny, oligarchy divides into aristocracy and plutocracy, and democracy may be with or without law.

In ideal circumstances, the king rules above the law, because the law is an ignorant tyrant who ‘does not perfectly comprehend what is noblest and most just for all, and therefore cannot enforce what is best’. The differences of man and actions, and the endless irregular movements of human things, do not admit of any universal and simple rule, and no art can lay down a rule which will last for all time.

So why make laws at all? The trainer has a general rule of diet and exercise that is suited to the constitutions of the majority, and the same is true of the lawgiver, who cannot ‘sit at every man’s side all through his life’. As only very few people are able to attain to the science of government, the general political principle is to assert the inviolability of the law, which, though not ideal, is second best, and best for the imperfect condition of man.

If the multitudes decided to regulate the arts and sciences and to indict anyone who sought to upset the status quo, ‘all the arts would utterly perish, and could never be recovered… And human life, which is bad enough already, would then become utterly unbearable.’ However, things would be even worse if the multitudes appointed as guardian of the law someone who was both ignorant and interested, and who sought to pervert the law. If a guardian or some other person tried to improve the law, he would be acting in the spirit of the lawgiver, but lawgivers are few and far between, and in their absence the next best thing is to obey the law and preserve customs and traditions.

Given this, which of the six forms of government other than true government is the least bad? The government of one is the best and the worst, the government of few is less good and less bad, and the government of many is the least good and the least bad. In other words, democracy is the worst of all lawful governments, and the best of all lawless ones, ‘in every respect weak and unable to do any great good or any great evil’. The rulers in all six states, unless they be wise, are mere maintainers of idols, and no better than imitators and sophists.

What would Plato have to say about today’s democracies? Perhaps that their laws must underwrite sufficient safeguards, or repositories of true aristocracy, to prevent and arrest the rise of an eventual tyrant.

Neel Burton is author of Plato’s Shadow and Plato: Letters to my Son.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook.

The Meaning of Madness Goodreads Giveaway

https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/191277-the-meaning-of-madness

MoM 2e Cover

What is Super-Sanity?

Self-deception is the price that we pay for our sanity.

This self-deception holds us together by shielding us from truths that threaten to undermine our sense of self, or ego integrity. A person on the verge of ego disintegration makes frenzied use of self-deceptive ego defences. The resulting loss of perspective or change in function can in itself count as mental disorder, while the ultimate capitulation of the ego defences leads in particular into the depressive position.

By removing us from fearsome truths, ego defences not only blind us to those truths and thus to reality, but also confuse and constrict our thinking. Their partial or temporary failure can lead to a range of psychological disturbances including anxiety, anger, irritability, insomnia, and nightmares. The more they are challenged, the more exaggerated, compulsive, and inflexible they become. The person is reduced in scope and ability, with little left of the capacities for consciousness, spontaneity, and intimacy that define, elevate, and glorify the human condition.

A vicious cycle takes hold: the more constrained a person becomes, the less he is able to reason; and the less he is able to reason, the less he is able to overcome his constraints. For the philosopher Aristotle, the distinctive function of human beings is to reason, and, therefore, the happiness of human beings is to lead a life of reason. Reason begets freedom, and freedom begets reason, and both together beget knowledge of the truth, which is wisdom, which is the highest happiness.

Once, upon being asked to name the most beautiful of all things, the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic replied parrhesia, which means ‘free speech’ or ‘full expression’. Diogenes used to stroll through Athens in broad daylight brandishing an ignited lamp. Whenever curious people stopped to ask what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’

diogenes

Diogenes looking for a human being.

Self-deception, which is often rooted in the unconscious or semi-conscious fear of falling short of familial and societal standards, and in the fear of death, is a defining part of our human nature. By recognising its various forms in ourselves and reflecting upon them, we may be able to disarm them and, even, in some cases, to employ and enjoy them. This self-knowledge, which I call super- or hyper-sanity, opens up a whole new world before us, rich in beauty, subtlety, and connection, and frees us not only to take the best out of it, but also to give it back the best of ourselves, and, in so doing, to fulfil our potential as human beings.

Reasoning is but one route to self-knowledge or hyper-sanity. The other route—more painful, destructive, and uncertain—is mental disorder, or ‘madness’, which involves the failure or complete breakdown of the ego defences. Unlike medical, or physical, disorders, mental disorders are not just problems. If successfully navigated, they can also present opportunities. Simply acknowledging this can empower people to heal themselves and, much more than that, to grow from their experiences. At the same time, mental disorders should not be romanticised or left unattended simply because they may or may not predispose to problem solving, personal development, or creativity. Rather than being medicalised or romanticised, mental disorders, or mental dis-eases, should be understood as nothing less or more than what they are, a cry from our deepest human nature.

Both mental disorder and hyper-sanity place us outside society, making us seem ‘mad’ to the mainstream. Both attract scorn and derision, but whereas mental disorder is distressing and disabling, hyper-sanity is liberating and empowering.

Ultimately, standing out is the price we pay for being outstanding.

Phenomenology as a Cure for Depression and Anxiety

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Phenomena derives from the Greek meaning ‘things that appear’, and phenomenology can be defined as the direct examination and description of phenomena as they are consciously experienced.

Pioneered by philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), phenomenology involves paying attention to objects and their relations so that they begin to reveal themselves, not as we take them to be, but as they truly appear to the naked human consciousness, shorn of superimposed theories, preconceptions, abstractions, interpretations, and emotional associations.

Unlike many other philosophical approaches, phenomenology is not a theory or set of theories, but a formal method for accessing bare human experience as it unfolds, moment by moment. It enables us to study not only the phenomena themselves, but also, by extension, the very structures of human experience and consciousness.

Phenomenology is not quite the same as mindfulness. Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhist spiritual practice, aims at increasing our awareness and acceptance of incoming thoughts and feelings, and so the flexibility or fluidity of our responses, which become less like unconscious reactions and more like conscious reflections. In contrast, phenomenology is more explicitly outward-looking.

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In the early 20th century, psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) brought the method of phenomenology into the field of clinical psychiatry to describe and delineate the symptoms of mental disorder. This so-called descriptive psychopathology created something of a scientific basis for the practice of psychiatry, with Jaspers emphasising that symptoms of mental disorder should be diagnosed according to their form rather than their content. This means, for example, that a belief is a delusion not because it is deemed implausible by a person in a position of authority, but because it conforms to the definition, or phenomenology, of a delusion, that is, ‘a strongly held belief that is not amenable to logic or persuasion and that is out of keeping with its holder’s background or culture.’

Unfortunately, Jaspers and others rather overlooked or underplayed phenomenology’s healing and protective potentials. Potentially phenomenological endeavours such as writing, drawing, gardening, bird watching, and wine tasting remove us from our tired and tortured heads and return us to the world that we came from, reconnecting us with something much greater and higher than our personal problems and preoccupations. Phenomenology can, quite literally, bring us back to life. In The Philosophy of Existence (1938), Jaspers himself described it as ‘a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me’. To describe is to know, to know is to understand, and to understand is to own, to enjoy, and even, to some degree, control. Like mindfulness, phenomenology is a balm not only for depression and anxiety, but also for boredom, loneliness, greed. selfishness, apathy, alienations, and any number of human ills.

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Magnificent Hummingbird (Male), Santa Rita Lodge, Madera Canyon, Near Green Valley, Arizona

If that were not enough, phenomenological practice also offers a number of other benefits and advantages. Wine tasters, for example, often say that wine blind tasting enables them to:

  • set a standard of objectivity,
  • test, stretch, and develop their senses,
  • apply their judgement,
  • recall old memories,
  • compare their analysis with that of their peers,
  • discuss the wine and learn about it, and about wine in general,
  • forge meaningful human relationships, and
  • imbibe the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, wine tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the aromas and flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world.

For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

A Gourmand’s Guide to the Passionate Life

Review of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions by Prof Peter Toohey, author of Jealousy and Boredom: A Lively History

Review article (redirects to Psychology Today)

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