The Overweight Brain – A Politics for the People Conversation with Lois Holzman

On Sunday, December 8th, Politics for the People members from 17 states joined Cathy Stewart and author Lois Holzman to discuss her book The Overweight Brain: How our obsession with knowing keeps us from getting smart enough to make a better world.

To find out more about Dr. Holzman, listen to Cathy’s introduction.

Cathy kicks off the call with Dr. Holzman by inquiring about the book’s title – how does our obsession with knowing keep us from getting smart enough to make a better world? Lois, after taking a brief moment to celebrate the P4P reader’s forum explains her take on the title:

If you do an act in your life, whether you’re an individual or community or a nation, on what you know, then you will be doing, acting on and living what has already happened – and that’s, I think, bad enough. Even worse than that is the capacity to create everything that’s known. How we got to create everything that’s known is by not knowing, and if you stifle that capacity to do what you don’t know how to do, then we’re literally paralyzed. Stuck. Fossilized. Heads in the sand.”

Listen to the full response:

Cathy picks up on the issue of cynicism in Lois’ response:

I’m really glad that you raised the issue of cynicism, Lois, because when I was reading the book and thinking about this moment in American political life, I’d been thinking a lot about this issue, because people are so cynical about… about the capacity for change, or people are cynical about the American people, and the list goes on. And I started to think about the connection between cynicism as sort of the emotional political outcome of knowing.”

Lois responds:

I always go back to children, little children. Part of where it came from – I don’t mean that we all came from little children, but I mean from my studying and my insight and my research and the joy of observing and being with very little kids – is that cynicism is not a word we could possibly apply to a two-year-old. They could be emotionally like, really mad and upset and they wanna do this and they wanna do that, but they’re not cynical. So what is it about them, and the rest of our lives, and how do we get socialized into being cynical – it’s that we feel like we have no say and nothing can change, and that somebody there knows what to do, and our job is to learn from them what to do and to become adapted. And the thing about us is that if you only relate to yourself and other people as adaptable to culture, then you’re missing half of what it is to be human, which is to create culture.”

Listen to their full dialogue:

Cathy continues the conversation by asking Lois to explain one of the terms discussed in the book, Lev Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development.” Lois shares:

Our culture socializes us to experience ourselves as separate and individual. We are individuals, but I think we’re socialized to feel individuated, individualized, and that we have to bump up into and bump against other people, and that we gradually become social. So, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is his way of understanding relationality, if you will, understanding what it is to be a human being, to be social, to be cultural, to be historical – meaning we’re all in history, we all live in social gatherings of various sorts, and we’re all impacted on and create culture.”

Listen to the full response:

Cathy then shares an example of zones of development being formed in the independent voter community:

I was recently, this week, out in Colorado meeting with a group of independents who’ve organized western Colorado independent voters. They’ve been doing this for a year now, and they’re sort-of a small, core team of about 12 to 15 people, and then sometimes they get 30 to 50 people at their meetings. And they were sharing the experience of going from being ignored, to being some combination of called by the media for comments, to being told by the Democratic party “Stay out of our primaries,” – they have open primaries in the state – and all of these things that are happening because they did this activity of creating something together, that they had no idea what they were doing or if it would work, and calling themselves something and putting it out there!”

Give a listen:

We then move on to questions submitted by book club participants, the first of which comes from Jenn Bullock of Independent Pennsylvanians. Jenn talks about the challenges her groups faces with other progressive reformists, and asks if a new understanding might be reached through “Non-Knowing Growing,” a term Lois introduces in Chapter Four, “The What and How of Knowing.” She says:

I’m eager to hear any thoughts you might have, because part of the challenge that we have is not so much with hardcore partisans, because they are what they are and they see what is (as you’re talking about), but with fellow progressive reform activists who want to hold on to seeing the two party system as all we have, ‘let’s just make it better or more effective’… I’m eager to hear if you have thoughts on this ‘Non-Knowing Growing,’ and how that relates to our ability to see something new, beyond party-ism at all.”

In her response, Lois references a story Jenn told in her Reader’s Forum response:

So you wrote in the reader’s forum a wonderful post, and you focused on this conversation you had with you father, and you focused on that, in a different chapter, I urged people to take the negative temperature of their conversations (and by that I mean are you just negating either to yourself or out loud what someone says because you don’t like it, you don’t agree with it, etc.), and just see how often you do that and see if you can do something else, see if you can perform curiosities…[there are] many different responses if you don’t go negative, don’t negate someone…can you work to see something new in them?”

You can hear their full conversation here:

The next question comes from Steve Richardson of the Virginia Independent Voter Association. Steve connects threads of thought that come from Zen teachings and weaves them together with what he’s gleaned from reading Lois’ book:

…there’s a thread that runs through Zen teaching also that knowledge is overrated, but there’s another one that I wanted to bring up here, which is that they also teach that suffering is largely from this perception that we have that there’s actually a distinction between self and other…”

Lois has this to say:

Well, we become more of who we are through others…maybe this is the case in Zen and in social therapeutics, and what I think is that the connection is first. So, psychology for example teaches us whether we ever took a course or not, we have the understanding that first of all, we are a self. First of all, we are an individual. And secondarily, we are social. But that, I think, is dangerous, destructive, leads to quite a lot of pain and misunderstanding, because then what we’re trying to do is get along with these others – because we are a self, and we are our own unique person. But we can be our own unique person which came about through others, through the fact that we’re connected first.”

Listen to their full conversation:

Cathy adds her own thoughts on “the self” and “the other”, pondering their relationship with democracy:

It just occurs to me, as we’re talking about this, that there’s a profound connection between reevaluating the self/other relationship and revitalizing democracy.”

Listen to the discussion:

The next to submit a question is Catana Barnes of Independent Voters of Nevada, asking:

I wanted to know if you think that the rise in violence in our society has to do with the fact that we, particularly as adults, are not encouraged to play – free play like we do as children – and in fact are labeled ‘odd’ when we do?”

Lois responds:

It’s so sad, the number of studies…that link the lack of play to so many of the antisocial things going on in the world. It’s staggering, and yet the resistance reinitiating play, even for children, is so, so strong and so institutionally embedded into our cultures. That’s what makes me sad…the usual thing is to call play an outlet – even if it were just an outlet for depression, anger, frustration, I think it would lower the level of violence – but I think it’s much more than that. It’s a connection.”

Listen to her full response:

When questions are opened up to participants of the call, Dr. Jessie Fields is the first to jump into the fray. Jessie speaks about the opportunity that the book gives independent activist to see the crisis in American democracy in relation to the crisis in American life currently. She asks Lois about the failure of the “knowing paradigm” in relation to the political world, and if it’s changing conversations:

So, on the one hand, the two parties and two-party driven ideological, problematic politics as we’ve been talking about (as Jenn was saying) is very dominant, and is how government and politics functions (or, probably more accurately, fails to function), and on the other hand, many people and certain independents (like us, like all of us) are trying to break out of this straight jacket of party domination. But ‘knowing’ ideology is still very determining, and as you say at the beginning of the book the continuation of war, poverty, inequality are undiminished. So, given this failure of the ‘knowing’ paradigm and the political structure as it is overall, in your work, I wanted to ask you if you could talk about new developments that you may be seeing, and if you’re having new kinds of conversations with political leaders, political activists, change agents, folks like us around the country and in other places?”

Lois responds to Jessie with what’s changed in the attitude of the conversation recently:

…there is a recognition of development. Not in the fundraising sense…but development as creating of new emotions, new intellectual abilities, new learnings, new ways to problem solve, new ways to relate to each other, qualititatively new…”

Listen to the full response:

Jan Wootten asks Lois about our obsession with knowing and the politics of it:

…These are the obsessive kinds of questions that have no answers, but it’s a form of life and I wondered if you could talk some about how you see this kind of obsession – an obsession with trying to find out answers to questions that there are no answers for – and what do you think about the politics of that obsession?”

In her response, Lois takes the term “form of life” and builds off of it, saying:

Obsession is a form of life and knowing is a form of life and obsessing about knowing is a form of life…it’s what people have learned to do, and I think it’s so restrictive and causes so much pain…it causes so much pain that it hardens us into being ideological, and that is very political. I mean, what’s more political than being ideological?”

Listen to the full response:

The next question comes from Michael Maxsenti, who asks about conversational tools and how to use them in group settings. When Lois asks him for clarification on his question, Michael explains:

Well, you put it so succinctly when saying that knowing is what matters and ‘I know better’, and people have that attitude that because they know – and they’re locked into a particularly ideological silo – they think that they know the answer and what they know is better, so they don’t listen.”

Lois replies to Michael with a question of her own:

Well, I mean, I do think there are some people that just aren’t – they’re just not engageable, but I don’t think the vast majority of people. So, how do you create the environment for some open playfulness in the conversation? And by that I mean, for one minute, two minutes, five minutes, suspending truth – meaning my truth and your truth…so think, how can you create an environment where people will do something, talk somewhat differently – slightly differently from how they’re talking – and can you make that explicit?”

Listen to their conversation:

We wrap up the P4P call with a timely message of love and perseverance from Alvaader Frazier:

You can listen to the full call below:

The Overweight Brain

How our obsession with knowing keeps us from getting smart enough to make a better world

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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