Friday, March 16, 2007

Good Advice

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from the person I credit for making me into a psych major. He suggested that when you have trouble going to sleep, don't just lie there in bed counting the sheep, get up and do something. Eventually you will be tired enough to fall asleep. I took that lesson to heart and now have another two pages written on my dissertation discussion as well as a more complete outline. And, true to form, I am now more tired. I cannot say I am actually ready to fall asleep though.

So, I'll tell you about this other time I couldn't fall asleep. Looking for a guaranteed soporific, I picked up Elbow Room, a dense but very thin book, almost a pamphlet really, by Daniel Dennett. The first time I tried reading it, I couldn't. I just muddled through it, barely comprehending his message. It was over my head, or so it seemed. Then, insomnia hit and I picked it up again, hoping for a cure, if not a panacea for my situation. As you might have guessed, this all happened during the dark days of graduate school.

Well, wouldn't you know it - I got sucked into the thing. I read it for hours, enthralled in the wee hours of the morning by stuff like sphexishness. I can't recall if the dawn greated me before I admitted defeat and let the paper sleeping pill work its magic, but I can say that Dennett kept me awake even when I desperately wanted nothing but to fall asleep.

It all reminds me of the ancient story of Scheherazade, the Persian virgin who kept herself alive for at least 1,001 nights at the mercy of her murderous and jealous husband by enticing him with story after story that never ended in one night.

Unlike each of his previous wives who were executed each night before they ran the risk of cheating on him, Scheherazade stayed alive because her husband wanted to hear the end of the story.

Not only is this a lesson to women to stay interesting to their husbands - or else(!) - it is also a favorite example of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller who uses it in his fantastically entertaining book The Mating Mind to illustrate mate guarding gone wild.

Mate guarding is a term used to describe what one individual does to prevent his/her mate from cheating. This can take a variety of forms from "vigilance to violence" in the words of David Buss. You can read the JPSP article yourself by downloading the PDF here. It's required reading in my EP seminar.

Vigilance is just paying close attention to where the mate is and who s/he interacts with, but actual mate guarding, i.e. behavior that may actually prevent rather than simply monitor a potential cheater can take some extreme and violent forms. Think domestic violence. EPs, at least some of them, think domestics are essentially about jealous people attempting to prevent cheating. Whether or not this is the case, I do think it is a very interesting theory worthy of investigation.

But back to the Daniel Dennett story and it's relevance to Ms. Scherezade. Was I kept awake by a guy who wrote the book in effort to get laid with pretty young ladies like myself? Who knows, but if you believe the theory Geoffrey Miller puts forth in his book and several academic papers, the answer is YES! And, duh.

Interestingly, I later met Mr. Dennett at a conference. He happened to walk by a poster I was presenting and looked, well, lost. I knew damned well who he was and so, naturally was eager to make his acquaintance. I ended up giving him the location of the poster he was looking for and then kindly and subtly invoked the principle of reciprocity by suggesting that he come back afterward to take a look at my poster. I really did not think I would see him again, however, he returned. Not only did he return, but he mock-groomed an imaginary bug from my hair. Between primates, this sort of thing is certainly socially significant. I could only conclude that Mr. Dennett was interested.