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The Human Equation : UC Irvine theoretical psychologist Vladimir Lefebvre uses mathematics to show who we are.

March 31, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — A couple of decades ago the late author Donald Barthleme penned a short story in which researchers manage to photograph a human soul as it travels through space. The soul, it turned out, looks like a rusted cast-iron skillet with a wart in the middle. Nobody in the story was particularly happy about this discovery.

Folks may feel no more flattered by UC Irvine theoretical psychologist Vladimir Lefebvre's model of human consciousness. The stocky, personable Russian-born psyche scientist believes he has found a way of expressing who we are in an algebraic equation, and, reduced to some Xs and little numbers on a blackboard, we don't look like much.

"Instead of talking about consciousness as some quasi-mystical thing, I tried to pictorialize it with the help of mathematics," he said last week in his cramped campus office as he used the side of one hand as a chalkboard eraser to make room for more numbers on the murky board.

"I show a subject at readiness to choose between two poles, good and bad. It is an uncertain condition, like in quantum mechanics, a mixture between plus and minus. And this theory predicts the measure for that mixture. I give you a scale to predict this tendency."

Unlike physicists' applications of quantum mechanics, Lefebvre in his recently published little red book, "A Psychological Theory of Bipolarity and Reflexivity," is factoring in such items as "the axiom of free will" and "the axiom of non-evil intent." One variable denotes the amount a person "underestimates the degree of negativity of his image of the world."

When these and other factors are plugged into his equation, he says, he gets some curious results. One is that when people are faced with choices on which they have no strong feelings or knowledge, their decisions naturally skew to 62%, one way or the other.

This holds true, he finds, whether voting on indistinguishable ballot initiatives or sorting near-identical beans into "good" and "bad" piles on his desk.

Lefebvre's ideas have sparked some serious and heated consideration in his field, and there doubtless is more to them than this writer can accurately convey here. For starters, the theoretician speaks with such a heavy Russian accent that at least once I thought he was saying, "Natasha, is moose and squirrel again!" Additionally, his equation could be the formula for Ovaltine, for all I know about algebra.

Last, I've noticed sometimes that a subject can make a statement that's brimming with implications and deeper questions that I don't always follow up on. At one point while Lefebvre was pondering whether it is possible to mathematically express qualities that have previously been the province of philosophers and saints, this was our actual tape-recorded exchange:

Lefebvre: "A hypothesis we have to check is whether we can quantify belief . It might give a greater range where we receive not 62% but 71. We don't have enough data. I'm not sure that this prediction is correct and I don't know yet how to measure intensity of belief."

Washburn: "Are these pinto beans?"

*

There is a high-stakes debate over Lefebvre's mathematical model of consciousness. If it is correct, says one colleague who believes it isn't, psychology will have to be reinvented from the ground up.

Lefebvre, meanwhile, claims that many previous explorations of consciousness such as Freud's and Jung's may have been great literature or fine philosophy, but they haven't followed the scientific method of constructing a formal model, such as his equation, and seeing if the world behaves in accordance with it.

For his part, he doesn't see expressing the mind with math as dehumanizing.

"Mathematics is just a manifestation of the laziness of human beings. Instead of using many, many words and implications, sometimes we can use a few formulae instead. Mathematics is a great abbreviation. It is a form of poetry," he said, with some enthusiasm.

His numbers, curiously, do indeed meet up with aesthetics.

Since the ancient Greeks, there has been a ratio referred to as the "golden section" in classical art and design, considered the most harmonious, most pleasing proportions to humankind. That ratio is 62% (OK, 61.8 if you want to be picky). That same ratio is used when tempering the musical scale, corresponding to the perfect fifth, the most harmonious interval.

It is the same ratio he gets when he's had groups of people sort his pairs of beans (yes, pinto) into good and bad piles, the same 62% that he's found to be the decisive margin averaged over 100 years of California ballot initiative results. He chose to study the initiatives because he suspects most voters act as he does: "I'm a busy person and don't have time to investigate them. So it's a bit like the beans. I read the description and go 'yes or no, yes or no.'

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