Do Porpoises “Write” Poetry?

Porpoises and close kin dolphins may be a lot smarter than we give them credit for.  Recently, researchers have discovered that, when dolphins encounter a stranger of their species, they introduce themselves with a greeting that appears to consist of their own distinct names and other information.*  That is amazing for many reasons, such as that they have the self-awareness to identify themselves as individuals and that they have social protocols similar to our own.  Although researchers are hesitant to call the structured dolphin whistles language, these sounds do seem to convey fairly complex meaning.  Just how like us are the dolphins, and what questions about them reignite questions we ask about ourselves?  Could they construct poems?  Are they motivated to?

The question about porpoises writing poetry came up in a discussion of imagery at another blog,).  I was caught by the question and wondered how it applied to humans and poetry.  I think it is far too early in our understanding of our ocean cousins to be concerned with dolphinian poetry, but it does raise the old question about why they or we would write poetry to begin with.  (I’m using the word “write” metaphorically, of course.)

Poetry can be a fraught topic.  Students often dread studying it, while poets and academics complain that too few people read poetry.  Nevertheless, amateurs write rhyming stanzas for family reunions and retirement parties.  Teens and young adults, in particular, write free verse describing their angst.  Purists deplore retirement party poetry and angst-poetry as travesty, claiming it diminishes all poetry by being just plain bad.  There’s a disconnect about motivation in that complaint.

Many years of education have taught me that poetry is based on economy, community, memory, emotion, and what I’ll call grounding.  Poetry began in oral culture, when people could pass along stories and ideas only by memorizing them in some form.  The appealing rhythms and structural devices of poetry, such as rhyme, made the stories and ideas easier to remember, as well as adding something similar to musical pleasure.  Because poetry had to be memorized, it depended on economy, or packing as much information and feeling as possible into as few words as possible.  That economy was largely accomplished by calling on community memory through references to other poems, mythology, and well-known events as well as through symbols and images.  Imagery and metaphor have the advantage of touching us viscerally and grounding us in our environment.  If we speak of autumn leaves falling, we can call up physical memory, sadness about or fear of winter (which also calls up the idea of death), and personal experiences of autumn and winter or the ideas they represent.  Over thousands of years and through the invention of writing, poetry has become refined into a variety of conventions and forms, as well as processes of economy and enrichment.

Often, for students, all this becomes merely a puzzle they lack the life-experience and motivation to solve.  Sometimes we try to compensate for the life-experience with footnotes, but we do little to encourage the motivation to read poetry.

I have a theory about writing and reading.  It is that our first natural desire is expression, followed closely by the knowledge-seeking of reading.  This means that writing or forming language to communicate is our first impulse, so why shouldn’t that apply to poetry as well?  What if we taught the economy and elements of poetry—even at the college level—mainly as tools of expression rather than only reception or knowledge-making?

I can tell you what would happen, because I’ve tried it.  You would get lots of bad poetry.  But, so what?  It’s like the ridiculous comic paradox: you can’t go in the water until you know how to swim.  All expressive experience with language gradually makes us better speakers and writers of language.  Why not of poetry as well?

Encouraging people and giving them the tools to write poetry would have the added health advantage of helping them refine experience and emotion.  A former colleague who is a biologist once told me that, after he would write up his field research for potential publication in a science journal, he would sit down and write a poem about it in order to express the wonder and other emotions he experienced.  Although he didn’t intend to share his poetry, doing this helped him understand his reactions as he tried to reshape them into the economy and grace of poetic language.

So, do porpoises write poetry?  If they have language and the desire to express and remember their life experience, then my guess is they do.  When you think about it, it’s natural.

*“Bottlenose dolphins appear to engage in formal greeting ceremonies while at sea.  The ceremonies involve exchanges of signature whistles, which likely contain information such as name, sex, age, health status, intent and more.”

** Memoirs of a Husk, in a post titled, “If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words” (


The Dangerous Rich

People with a lot of money don’t impress me–at least not because they have money and rarely for any other reason.  Wealth doesn’t impress me because it can be acquired in many less-than-admirable ways.  It can be inherited, of course, which is no accomplishment. Money can also be acquired through criminal acts, as with mobsters, the so-called “smartest men in the room” at Enron, Bernie Madoff, and drug pushers.  Even when money is acquired through legal means (technically speaking), that acquisition can violate the Golden Rule (if you are religious) or fundamental fairness (even if you’re not religious).

But that isn’t why I wanted to write about the dangerous rich.  I had intended to write a piece about the research showing that wealthy and powerful people can be less compassionate, more selfish, and more unethical than people with less money.  My concern is political.  The rich are powerful at any time, but now they are on the verge of what can only be called a coup.  So I started gathering the original research articles to make sure I understood what I was writing about.  I’ve listed the ones I gathered below, some with quotes and my own emphasis (sometimes using the popular press headlines to summarize more succinctly).

I found some studies that may in part explain the 2008 economic collapse:

“Share Traders More Reckless Than Psychopaths, Study Shows.” Der Spiegal, 9/26/2011. Report of research at University of St. Gallen in Switzerland by Pascal Scherrer (forensic expert) and Thomas Noll (administrator at a Swiss prison).

Quote from Der Spiegel article: “Particularly shocking for Noll was the fact that the bankers weren’t aiming for higher winnings than their comparison group. Instead they were more interested in achieving a competitive advantage. Instead of taking a sober and businesslike approach to reaching the highest profit, ‘it was most important to the traders to get more than their opponents,’ Noll explained. ‘And they spent a lot of energy trying to damage their opponents.’”

Buckholtz, Joshua W., et al.  “Mesolimbic dopamine reward system hypersensitivity in individuals with psychopathic traits.”  Nature Neuroscience 13,419–421(2010) doi:10.1038/nn.2510   Published online14 March 2010.  Reported in “Psychopaths’ brains wired to seek rewards, no matter the consequences.” Vanderbilt News;  Posted Mar. 16, 2010 — 12:42 PM

DeCovny, Sherree.  “The Financial Psychopath Next Door CFA Magazine.  March/April 2012, Vol. 23, No. 2: 34–35  (doi: 10.2469/cfm.v23.n2.20)

Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. By Paul Babiak, Ph.D., and Robert D. Hare, Ph.D.; published by ReganBooks, (Web); 353 pages.

Marshall, L.A. & Cooke, D.J. (1999). “The Childhood Experiences of Psychopaths: A Retrospective Study of Familial and Societal Factors.”  Journal of Personality Disorders, 13, 211-225. [Reported in Bennetto, Jason. “Q: What’s the difference between a politician and a psychopath? A: None.” The Independent. 04 September 1996.]

While most of the bankers and traders who brought down the economy are indeed rich (at our expense—which I will address later), they are actually part of a “perfect storm” of uncompassionate conservatives, including the religious right.  Consider this study….

L. R. Saslow, R. Willer, M. Feinberg, P. K. Piff, K. Clark, D. Keltner, S. R. Saturn. My Brother’s Keeper? Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/1948550612444137

These studies of the ethics of rich and high status people should inform and alarm us in relation to the massive campaign donations allowed to the rich and the conservative ideology that favors the rich:

P.K. Piff, D.M. Stancato, S. Cote, R. Mendoza-Denton, D. Keltner.  “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1118373109.

In two tests, researchers found that upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other cars and pedestrians at crosswalks. The researchers used age, vehicle make and appearance to assess drivers’ social class.

In another series of tests involving undergraduate students and adults, researchers found that those who considered themselves “upper class” were more likely to take valued items from others — including candy, even after they were told that whatever was left over would be given to children.

Others exhibited a greater willingness to lie during negotiations and cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize.

The authors of the study said the differences in ethical behavior can be explained, at least in part, by the upper-class participants’ more favourable attitude toward greed. [As summarized in a report appearing in The Huffington Post,

Jennifer E. Stellar, Vida M. Manzo, Michael W. Kraus, Dacher Keltner. “Class and compassion: Socioeconomic factors predict responses to suffering.”. Emotion, 2011; DOI: 10.1037/a0026508  Reported in“Lower Classes Quicker to Show Compassion in the Face of Suffering.”  Published online inScienceDaily (Jan. 5, 2012)  A more thorough report is available from U.C. Berkeley at:

“It’s not that the upper classes are coldhearted,” Jennifer Stellar, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley and the lead author of the study, is quoted as saying in a press release. “They may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”

“Rick Santorum:  ‘I Have No Problem With Income Inequality.’”  The Huffington Post, 12/20/11.

Association for Psychological Science (2008, December 23). “Are Power And Compassion Mutually Exclusive?”. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 15, 2012, from­ /releases/2008/12/081217124154.htm

M. W. Kraus, S. Cote, D. Keltner . Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy. Psychological Science, 2010; 21 (11): 1716 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610387613  Reported in “Upper-Class People Have Trouble Recognizing Others’ Emotions.” ScienceDaily (Nov. 23, 2010)

Quoting from an article by Max Abelson ( on the Bloomberg web site we can see that the wealthy seem to want empathy and compassion even if they’re not able or willing to give it:

If successful businesspeople don’t go public to share their stories and talk about their troubles, “they deserve what they’re going to get,” said Marcus, 82, a founding member of Job Creators Alliance, a Dallas-based nonprofit that develops talking points and op-ed pieces aimed at “shaping the national agenda,” according to the group’s website. He said he isn’t worried that speaking out might make him a target of protesters.

“Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” Marcus said. “Are you kidding me?”

Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co, was another financial leader quoted in the Bloomberg article: “Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it.”  You may remember JPMorgan Chase & Co has been in the news quite a bit lately.  In an article titled “JPMorgan Chase’s 11 Biggest Problem” by Mark Gongloff (, Gongloff outlines a few of the issues:

[Dimon’s] bank, JPMorgan Chase, the biggest bank in the U.S., unveiled a long list of lawsuits and regulatory probes in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday. One of the most noteworthy was the fusillade of subpoenas and lawsuits hitting the bank from around the world as part of its alleged involvement in the manipulation of Libor, a key lending rate.

But Libor is far from the bank’s only problem: It is being sued and investigated for everything from its $5.8 billion loss on crazy credit derivatives bets to its alleged manipulation of electricity markets.

Normally I would summarize and explain all these articles myself, without just listing them with a few quotes and comments.  However, the more I gathered and read the research, the more depressed I got.  I was reading all this against the background of the nightly news reporting on the effects of the Citizens United ruling on campaigns as well as reporting on the Republicans’ successful voter suppression efforts in most of our 50 states.  It was depressing, very, very depressing.  I found myself trying to combat the depression with methods I’ve used before when humanity seems completely horrible and doomed.  As the methods began to work, I decided to abandon writing about the dangerous rich and instead write about the things that make me feel good about humanity.

However, in order to get to the place where you could understand my humanity-caused depression and efforts to raise my spirits, I felt that I had to explain all that you’ve read above.  Now that I’ve written it, I’m depressed again.  Maybe I’ll explain my depression-relieving methods another day—providing they work this time.

Photo credit:

I, Hologram

Photo credit below.

In my last post on disappearing and being seen (June 6), I asked a question I didn’t answer:  When we disappear, what is it that disappears?  I also admitted that, in cynical moments, I doubt we ever really see each other.  So, first, perhaps I should consider the question from that perspective:  When we see each other, what do we see?

My title for this piece uses a hologram as a metaphor.  A hologram is an image which appears to be 3-dimensional or real even though it is only a projected or printed image.  When my doubts take over, I suspect we’re all holograms to each other.  Rather than truly seeing each other, we see images created by our minds.  Even taken literally, this isn’t as farfetched as it may seem.

The neurophysiology of seeing anything is really a complex interpretation process with several calculations based on the data our eyes feed to our brain.   For example, if our eyes were a camera, what we see would blur when we move our gaze.  Instead, the brain stem tells the eyes to move in short jumps, called saccades, which the cerebral cortex then transforms perceptually into a smooth scan.  Our ability to perceive depth, or where something is in space, is based on the stunningly rapid calculations of the brain doing a triangulation based on the input of each eye separately.

Vision requires any number of such analyses of data, analyses which include neurological events such as binocular summation and perceptual constancy, which helps us know that an apple is an apple no matter what angle we see it from.  The calculations depend on or defer to our experience—what we’ve seen before.  In this sense, our past experience predicts what we see.  Using the past helps the brain process information rapidly, making corrections to the experiential predictions as necessary.  That’s why optical illusions trip us up.

Of course, you might say, that’s the literal process of seeing, while what we’re more concerned with is the psychological process of seeing.  I believe the psychological process is just as dependent on predictions from experience or expectation as vision is.

Buddhist philosophy or psychology identifies six human senses rather than five.  The sixth isn’t ESP.  It is the mind itself.  Buddhists believe the mind, like the eyes, is a perceptual sense.  Many things (disease, injury, etc.) can alter the effectiveness of our senses, but the mind has its own specific issue: the mind is conditioned by the world around us.  If you remember Pavlov from your basic psych course, you know what conditioning is.  He conditioned dogs to associate the sound of a bell with being fed, so the dogs would begin to salivate when the bell rang, whether food was present or not.  The human mind is conditioned much more subtly and expansively than Pavlov’s dogs were.  According to the Buddhists, our minds are so efficiently conditioned that we completely identify with the conditioning, and the only way to get beyond it is to seek what they refer to as “no self.”

The Buddhists believe—with discipline and determination—it is possible to escape conditioning, unlike the early 20th Century Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser who claimed that we are all “already interpellated”—that is, we are unavoidably the effect of social interactions.  Ideology creates us.  There is no escape.  Of course, Althusser was more concerned with how the larger social structure “brainwashes” people into accepting who society says they are.  When someone asked him what the individual could do about this, his pessimistic reply was that the individual must strive to overcome interpellations—but should not expect to succeed.

How does conditioning keep us from seeing each other?  Depending on both our social and individual conditioning, we see each other through experiential filters and lenses (to use another metaphor).   Without being as grim about it as Althusser, we cannot help but see the world through the lenses and filters of our upbringing.  Our filters are absolutely basic to who we are (hence the need for no-self).  In most cultures a woman’s experience is different enough from a man’s that each will see the world a bit differently, even though members of the same culture and social class.  Someone born and raised in Singapore is going to see the world differently than someone born and raised in Chicago.  Religious beliefs and political beliefs also shape our filters.  Our intentions and the situation shape our filters.  For example, doctors, nurses, and therapists see us through the filters of symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment strategies—even when they make an earnest effort to see us as individual human beings as well.  In our closest daily relationships, we see each other through the filter of our own needs and fears.

To adapt a military term, the most immediate hindrance to seeing each other clearly in highly charged situations is the fog of emotion.  The term “fog of war” describes the uncertainties and distortions that dominate military engagement.  Through the fog of emotion, our exchanges and interactions with other people become distorted.  Words or actions are exaggerated or misinterpreted by our filters and confusion in the moment.  If we’ve ever regretted what we said in an argument, if we’ve been misunderstood when we really needed to connect, or if we’ve experienced hurt feelings when someone didn’t intend to hurt us, then we know how hard it is to truly see each other in each moment.  This is the curse of being human.

You’d think that acknowledging all the things that keep us from seeing each other would make us less judgmental and less likely to jump to conclusions.  You’d think we would be more open to other interpretations of someone’s behavior.  But that would require cool-headedness, self-examination, and admitting we could be wrong.  It requires seeing ourselves with absolute clarity.