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Queen, home, memory, homeostasis
I’m going to get a bit personal in this post, so be forewarned. Queen Elizabeth died last week. I confess I was overwhelmed by my reaction to this not-completely-unexpected event. Even though I would not describe myself as a staunch monarchist and even though I’m well-familiar with some of the dark side of British history and the behaviour of kings and queens, I am, I discovered, beneath it all, still a Briton. I revealed to my younger sister (and now to you) that I felt as though I’d lost my mother again. She confessed that she felt the same way. I cried a few times. What the actual?
It’s taken me a few days to come to terms with this unexpectedly visceral response—still going through it a little to tell you the truth. I’ve figured out that it has nothing to do with any kind of naïve support of a monarchy and empire that, let’s be honest, has inflicted quite a bit of suffering across the world, and more to do with personal history, home, identity, and place. These are all things that interest me intensely in my personal and my professional life, so perhaps not surprising that lots of triggers have been pulled.
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My sister reminded me that our mother used to say that she felt as though she was oddly twinned with Queen Elizabeth. They were born within exactly two months of one another. They both had four children—three boys and a girl—and they both spent much time in London. When Princess Elizabeth made her first public speech at the tender age of 14, broadcast on the radio in 1940, it was a message of support to children who had been evacuated to the countryside to escape the bombing of London during World War II. I don’t know whether or not my mother listened (hard to imagine that she hadn’t), but she was one of those children and had told me many stories of her unhappy experiences living on a farm away from the Blitz but also her family. Given that background, I suppose it isn’t that surprising that I’ve been so affected by the loss. I’m not a sentimental fool (ok, well not always), but I have some deep personal history here and, despite my occasional arguments to the contrary, I actually do have a deeply felt attachment to the place where I spent my first few years of life in England.
The Queen’s death seems to have come at a pivotal time in human history. I sometimes wonder whether people of a certain age (let’s call it the youth of old age) always feel this way, but it seems as though world events are careening out of control. We are gripped in the jaws of an environmental catastrophe which is no longer unfurling in slow-motion but is in the headlines daily, the world is rent with geopolitical conflict that could have existential consequences, democracy seems under threat everywhere, and people generally seem so overwhelmed with it all and so anxious and afraid that extremist right-wing politics are in the ascent. Even here in sleepy little Canada, a newly elected leader of one of our national political parties seems to have some concerning aspirations that might well tilt us towards a fascistic state. So, given all of that context, it is perhaps not surprising that the death of a monarch who has symbolized a part of what I considered my spiritual home for as long as I have memories, a part of my life history’s stable base that extends to a time before I was even born, has made my soul restless and anxious.
As an environmental psychologist, I’m always deeply curious about how things that go on in my surroundings affect how I feel and behave, and this is no exception. Still very personal, but last night my wife and I decided to sit in front of a small outdoor fire in our tiny little backyard firepit. When it started to rain, we decided to stay outside. We put up a beach umbrella to give us a little dry shelter. We both felt remarkably comforted to be in a cocoon of refuge, facing some warming flames, and the thought passed through my mind that a part of this response might have come about as a reflex act of protection against a world that seems to be whirling out of control, with yet one more symbol of continuity suddenly gone.
For the past little while, I’ve been thinking about these kinds of things quite a lot. I think that one way of interpreting the human response to the world’s wicked problems is that, deep down, we yearn for the stability of simple stories, fables, allegories that might help us to make sense of things. In my own case, my voracious reading habit, which normally sees me devouring a couple of non-fiction titles per week, has slowed down. I’m yearning for good fiction, feeling a conviction that the stories I might find in good literature will do me more good than struggling to make sense of more and more facts. And it’s not just me, or just the Queen or the war against Ukraine, or melting glaciers that have made me feel all of this, I don’t think. Humans have always had a predilection for story: simple narratives that, though they may gloss over the fine texture of the facts, reveal deeper, simpler, unassailable truths of a sort that we can rely on to never change. For me, in some odd kind of way, I think the Queen symbolized something like that. Somewhere in the recollections of seeing my mum and dad, heads bent towards our old Bush radio, listening to the Queen’s Christmas message, watching the precision and pageantry of royal rituals, whether in person at the Palace or on television from the colonies had constituted for me, though unwittingly, a proclamation that there was continuity, at least in some things.
I think I’d even go so far as to suggest that our need to find stability is written deeply into our nervous systems. As a researcher with a background in vision science, I’ve been fascinated by the vast gulf between what information about the external world is brought to us by our senses and the tidy, coherent version of the world that our brains construct for us. I wrote about this a little while ago in my discussion centre and periphery in vision. The periphery of vision brings us a blurry, monochromatic world and the central fovea brings us colour and fine detail. They are entirely different, yet at a casual level we see the world as a coherent whole. Much hard work goes on behind the scenes and without awareness in order for that carefully crafted version of our senses to hold sway. I’ve been slightly pre-occupied with the “illusion” that I’ve just stumbled upon below. If you click on the video and expand to fill your screen (p.s. this is unlikely to work on a phone so do try with a larger screen if you can!) and then fixate on the central red dot, you’ll notice some very interesting stuff happening (1).
What this demonstration is meant to show is that our brains compensate for the differences between centre and periphery, essentially making guesses about what’s out at the edges so that we devolve to the simplest possible explanation of the scene. In a nutshell, our brains assume that what’s at the edges is the same as what’s at the centre because this is the simplest way of accounting for things.
It might seem an enormous reach to go from this demonstration of a fact of perception to the psychological impact of the death of the Queen (2), but the general point I’m trying to make is that the whole point of us seems to be to snatch some kind of constancy, reliability, predictability and, yes, safety, from a world that is really churning erratically. When that churning spins out of control, as seems to be happening these days, we seem more willing to take bolder, simplifying leaps to make sense of things. It’s an even bolder leap to go from peripheral vision to totalitarianism, but I do think that our gravitation to simple stories that defy known facts and our attachment to charismatic leaders who are willing to tell those stories all spring, in a way, from the same source: a visceral need to make sense of everything, sometimes no matter what the cost.
What I’m reading
As mentioned, I’m thirsty for fiction to soothe my angst but still currently reading non-fiction. I’ve been reading Antonio Damasio’s Strange Order of Things, which is, as far as I can see so far, the argument that what underlies much of human behaviour is a drive to homeostasis (basically just a system that works to maintain a steady state in the face of change) and that this is the same drive that works all the way down in life to the behaviour of bacteria. It’s a cool idea, birthed in some pretty deep physics I think and there’s probably a connection with what I was writing about above. That deep tissue need that we have for psychological stability could be thought of as a kind of homeostatic mechanism. I hadn’t noticed until right now that the other book I’m reading, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, also features the word Order and, though I’m not very far into it yet, I’d be willing to bet that there’s some overlap with the Damasio book. I feel as though I’m getting close to something important that I want to understand with these readings but I’m not quite sure yet what it is.
What I’m eating
My life has now flipped from the idyllic sabbatical in which I have lots of leisure to read, write, and think to one in which I have to somehow add in teaching classes, talking to students, attending meetings and so on. I realize, as I struggle to recall one notable thing that I’ve eaten in the past two weeks, that this is also reflected in my diet. I could have just left this section blank (does anyone read this far anyway?) but just as a pro forma contribution I’ll mention these miserable looking (and tasting) pancakes. My wife claims that my cooking never fails, so this, if nothing else, is testament to the fact that this isn’t true. In an effort to pamper my beloved lady, I constructed bespoke pancakes using flour made from locally grown wheat and ground in a nearby stone mill. This might have been a good idea if I hadn’t inadvertently used baking powder that had expired about 3 years ago. Note to self: expiry dates on baking powder are for realz
(1) I’ve jammed this here in a footnote to give you a chance to discover the effect for yourself before I give away the answer. But what you’ll probably see if you’ve got the size of the image and the distance of the screen right is that the dots in the periphery seem to become just as precise and sharp as those in the centre, even though if you look directly at those outer dots, they’re clearly quite blurred.
(2). Ok. It is. But I’m a scientist. I know what I’m doing here. Kinda….
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