Written and narrated by Dr. Samantha Brooks.
Greek Sirens and willpower
The Sirens were first described in Homer’s The Odyssey as half-women, half bird, with upper bodies of the most beautiful women with enchanting singing voices, and their lower bodies were winged like birds. They lived on a rock island near Troy, enticing passing warriors on ships to their deaths who were unable to resist the beautiful songs and the sight of the beautiful women promising all sorts of pleasures.
The word siren derives from the Greek word, ‘rope’, or to ‘entangle’ – describing those who bind or entangle through beautiful songs and the anticipation of pleasure.
On his way back from the Troy, to rejoin his wife Penelope in his home of Ithaca, Odysseus, having heard the rumours about the enchanting songs the Sirens sang to sailors, wanted to hear what these songs were for himself. So, he plugged his men’s ears with wax, and ordered them to tie him tightly to the ship’s mast, and under no circumstances, no matter how much Odysseus begged, were the men to untie him.
Odysseus, on hearing the beautiful songs of the Sirens and their enchanting dancing, begged his men to untie him. But they only tied him tighter to the mast, unable to hear the songs themselves. As the Greek legend has it, if anybody heard the Siren’s songs but managed to pass them, the Sirens would kill themselves by drowning in the sea. This is what happened when Odysseus withstood their allure – with the help of his men.
Similarly, in another Greek story, when the Argonauts passed the Sirens, Orpheus was able to drown out their singing with his own music.
There are wonderful similarities between the willpower exerted by Odysseus – albeit superficial via actual physical restraint – Orpheus who used his own mental abilities to resist the Siren’s seductions, and modern-day need to exert willpower.
The Sirens in these stories could represent any manner of desires we experience as difficult to withstand today. The most common ones are high calorie, ultra-processed foods that give us short-term satisfaction and pleasure. Or the abundance of sexualised images in the media. Or advertising campaigns that persuade us to consume goods and services because we need them, or because it seems as though they satisfy our basic emotions.
We buy the latest gadgets, the biggest cars, the smartest televisions, fashionable, disposable clothes – all to feed corporate need to make profit – because we are seduced into believing that people will love us more, respect us more, will want to quell our over-worked loneliness by wanting to be in our company if we have the latest ‘it product’.
We drink too much alcohol and take drugs, both illicit and legal, to fill the empty spaces left in our minds when we don’t experience the promised satisfaction from these latest ‘it products’.
Like the Sirens who tried to entice the men in passing ships, the desirable commodities we see around us all the time, can only lead, in the end, to unhappiness and entanglement.
This could be why, when we are encouraged by corporations to find fulfilment in this way, that the lack of fulfilment in eating too much, buying too much, consuming too many synthetic substances, is related to increasingly higher rates of mental and physical ill-health.
We need to tie ourselves mentally to our own inner mast, to prevent us from jumping from our own ship as it charts its Meaningful Path to a better future, achieving the goals that are important to us. We need to listen to our own stronger song that can drown out the enticing distractions in our ever-busier world, so that we keep in mind our goals and stick to them.
The Greek stories of the enticing Sirens is a meaningful story, especially when we think that it seems impossible to resist all the seductions in society today. These stories are more meaningful when we consider the metaphors of Odysseus and Orpheus who resisted the temptations that others failed to.
Both physical restraint and mentally rehearsing one’s own songs – one’s own goals – is what a strengthened prefrontal cortex, with the daily use of CYa, will enable you to do. In neuroscience, these skills are referred to as response inhibition and working memory respectively. And without metaphorically ‘tying oneself to the mast of our own ship’ or ‘rehearsing our own favoured songs,’ we run the risk of succumbing to the seductions that can easily lead to our downfall and suffering.
So join the Meaningful Paths movement, and use CYa to help strengthen your willpower, that will ultimately keep your own beautiful ship on a meaningful course!
Dr. Samantha Brooks is a Reader of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology, Faculty of Health, Liverpool John Moores University, UK, and a Chartered member of the British Psychological Society. Her research specialises in the neural mechanisms of impulse control in various psychiatric conditions (e.g. addiction, eating disorders). Previously, Dr Brooks worked as a lecturer for six years at the University of Cape Town, South Africa and co-led the Psychiatry Neuroimaging Group. Before working in South Africa, she completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Uppsala University, Sweden, where Dr Brooks continues to collaborate on projects examining the brain processes underlying eating disorders and adolescent-onset mental health disorders. She gained her Ph.D. at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, where she learned clinical neuroimaging techniques, such as structural and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Dr Brooks has published book chapters and over 100 papers to date in high impact journals with a current H Index of 42, continuing to present her work at international conferences. Her research on impulse control in eating disorders and addiction has so far attracted over 1 million Euros in international funding and collaborations with international experts in the field.