“The unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”. — Klaus Conrad
More simply, Apophenia is seeing connections and meaning in data because we want it to be there, not because it really is.
3 Forms of Apophenia:
- Confirmation bias – From a background of randomly distributed items; associating items that have no connection except that they fit the story you are already telling yourself.
- Rejection bias – Ignoring or denying information that DOESN’T fit the story you are telling yourself.
- Pareidolia – (less impactful, but related) A sensory stimulus that is interpreted by the mind as something else. For example, being in the shower and in the sound of the running water, you keep thinking you hear your phone ringing. It is also, the faces we see in teapots, trucks, and clouds. It is seeing Jesus on a piece of toast, or a happy dog face in random shadows and light.
However, I think rejection bias “piggy-backs” on confirmation bias and is more like an implicit corollary than a different category. And Paradolia is more like the confirmation bias of the senses which may or may not be taken seriously. If it is taken seriously and defended, is it has turned into garden variety confirmation/rejection bias.
One classic example of confirmation bias is a gambler, excitedly seeing meaningful patterns in random information and sensing a coming streak of good luck based on nothing real. But interpersonal confirmation bias is very common and typically awful for both parties. I once had a painful encounter with this in myself, in a social situation where I consistently misunderstood social signals until I lost a friend. It’s shocking how compelling and believable your own apophenia can be. The dawning realization of having been completely wrong and completely certain is mortifying but also frightening: You’ve been out of touch with reality, and you were not in a relationship with another person, just yourself and your dream. How can you feel sure of any footing once you’ve led yourself to disaster? “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” but in this case, all the fooling and all the shaming is on me. Damn it, brain. I suspect this sort of apophenia correlates strongly to an emotional need for comfort. It’s an opium-like form of self-reinforcing belief that takes away the pain even as it sets you up for more.
The most basic survival need for any organism is to recognize the meaningful information and patterns around it. A little anomaly in the shadows of a bush might mean a tiger. A twinkle of a certain color in the distance could be fruit. If a sudden unexpected sound or movement puts you on alert it means your copy of this software is up and running. The neurology of patterns and meanings is essential from raw survival to subtle nuances of communication. There are patterns to be recognized in faces, voices, and body language: There are patterns in the weather and in the nightly news. This function is our guardian and navigator in everything we do. Discerning the signal from the noise is the foundation of being in touch with Reality. This isn’t Apophenia, this is pattern recognition.
Apophenia is the name given to this sense of pattern and meaning at the point that we become partisan and embellish our subjective perception, emphasizing the preferred meaning of a pattern.
There is a healthy version of Apophenia and a toxic version. Healthy Apophenia is generally invisible because it creates no (serious) conflict with reality. Almost everyone’s spiritual and political beliefs are healthy Apophenia. Not healthy in the sense of highly recommended, more like not poisonous. Toxic Apophenia can be viewed as a spectrum disorder because it emerges directly out of these same essential brain functions but as beliefs that war with the outside world.
I’ll use the example of Autism as a spectrum disorder for comparison.
All of us fit somewhere on the Autism spectrum. This does not mean we are all autistic, just that autism can only be measured and described in contrast to “Not Autism”. We have our personal “settings” for all the well-known issues of ASD people such as sound sensitivity, dislike of eye contact, social deficits, etc. We might be socially warm, making intimate eye contact, and not at all bothered by noise but we are on the same spectrum or there would be no contrasting perception describing Autistic behavior. What makes a person “Autistic” is the degree to which their personal settings cause friction with the “normal” world. We stop calling people Autistic when the friction is mild enough that a diagnosis isn’t necessary. This is simply where we stop measuring the spectrum, not where the spectrum stops.
Toxic Apophenia is recognizable friction between OUR reality and REALITY itself. It is a meaning disorder. It is the dangerous stalker or the unstable zealot.
If we have any kind of subjective outlook on life, we have a case of high-functioning apophenia. Subjectivity and “reality favoritism” are unavoidable because to have any point of view, we highlight certain data points in the world as more meaningful than others. We prefer these data points. They support the narrative. Of course, there is no absolute objective reality that we could all be perfectly in touch with. Significantly, THAT belief (in one real truth) is a common symptom of toxic apophenia. A properly functioning person is loaded with biases and subjectivity. A bit of Apophenia is universal and we can consider it part of our homeostasis. It’s part of how we have a fix on our personal life and beliefs. If it means we gloss over a few discrepant facts or get into some arguments, there’s usually no serious price to pay. A bit of friction is just human background noise.
In more serious Apophenia, beliefs become obsessive. Not because the person simply has bad information, because that bad information takes root and grows disproportionately important, inflexible, and unquestionable. Mistakes aren’t corrected, they are defended. Apophenia almost behaves like an allergic response; eventually, any truth outside the story is treated as antigen. It is an inflammation of belief. That belief becomes our prime motivator, a terrible advisor, and somehow, an essential part of our self-definition. It shows up as an opportunistic infection alongside addiction and co-dependency. It is dogmatic and generates black and white stories. Often it is a willful rejection of any relationship to others, becoming a protective wall around mono or megalomania. Apophenia is the mechanism and the very foundation of conspiracy politics. Viral memes and vulnerable people are the breeding ground.
Examples of Hot Zone Apophenia:
- Stalkers: Celebrity or otherwise. A false story of romance is woven into an obsession and the focal person must be forced to recognize it.
- Religious Extremists: A religious map of reality becomes more real than the daily world. In the worst cases, the world must be forced to recognize it.
- Conspiracy theorists: A weird idea becomes a raison d’etre. A monomania.
- Racists: Everything becomes about “The Jews”, or “The blacks” ad-nauseam.
- Ultra-Nationalists: It starts with culture appreciation day and ends with ethnic cleansing.
Notice how isolated they all are. In some cases, a natural group of “new best friends” comes with the obsession. Unfortunately here, a like-minded community only reinforces the seeming importance and truth. All backs are turned against the outside world and all its damned lies. As the levels of obsession rise, barriers of acceptable behavior are knocked aside. In the worst-case scenario, there is a literally terminal stage when violence and self-destruction occur. These are people it is hard to feel compassion for because they all display unpleasantness or worse but my gut tells me that way back when the obsession is just a tiny glimmer, coming into being, that hopelessness, loneliness and a desperate need for meaning are the sparks that start the fire. The new obsession arrives feeling like a lifeboat, like a rescue, like an escape to a safe place. Much like serious depression, it cuts the person off from the world and rejects opposing views. For many with serious Apophenia, the story leading to their downfall must feel like an answered prayer and a reason for living.
All these people are desperately filling a painful void with a poison that they have mistaken for an antidote. In apophenia, you don’t hold the belief, the belief holds you.
In Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” the titular character is a beautiful, dissolute and privileged young man. As his portrait is being painted he wishes to never age, and that the picture should suffer the consequences of Dorian’s actions, not his own face. Dorian becomes a selfish monster, a cruel and destructive plague on those who know him. To all appearances though, he is an innocent fresh-faced young man. Meanwhile, carefully hidden away, the picture keeps a meticulous record of every bad deed, showing Dorian aging and growing coarse, cruel, and even slightly insane. When someone else sees the evil thing, Dorian kills him to protect his illusion and his reputation.
Donald Trump’s world, lacking an inner life and a true self, projects ugliness and failure onto other people, and all glory and success onto himself. DT doesn’t actually have a relationship with anyone but himself. He lives in a mind that is perpetually unhappy, and even whiny. He feels empty and poorly treated. Nothing fills him no matter how he gobbles and shoves larger and larger “successes” down his gullet. Each one is a disappointment tasting of cardboard. His internal monologue is about how amazing he is and how he’ll crush any opponents. Other people fall into one of two camps: Those who support him and those who oppose him. Being rich and powerful he has always surrounded himself with people who either agree with him or see clearly enough to not dare to disagree. Those who are profoundly loyal to Trump become almost real to him because they have made themselves into an extension of him, working his will remotely. In this camp, we find the insider Trump loyalists but also the huge crowd of strangers assuring him that he can do no wrong. As he stands before them, his world makes sense. It’s as if the air is finally composed of the right mix of gasses to feel happy. Maga rallies are Trump’s crack-pipe. For minutes at a time, it is almost enough. He must return to this experience again and again mainly for this personal satisfaction but also to keep alive the relationship with his virtual guard dog composed of MAGA people. He regularly shakes their chain to make sure they are ready to hunt.
His behavior would better be understood by an alpha baboon than by journalists.
When people are strangers and not clearly on one side or the other he finds ways to assert dominance over them. “Grab them by the pussy” is closer to Trump’s bizarre handshake yank than it is to sex…as is actual sex. People must be violated and knocked off balance in obvious and subtle ways until they appear to accept his mastery (by not complaining) or disappear into the outer darkness of evil ones: “The Haters”.
From his POV, Trump’s metaphorical portrait showing his ugliness is any evidence of his guilt and everything that is “not-self”. That’s why an anti-immigrant platform is the most natural one in the world for him to choose. That’s why he argues that he will kick out and eradicate all enemies, that is his inner, personal platform as well. His vision of himself is the eternally beautiful and fresh-faced Dorian. Trump is so simple inside, so psychopathic even, that other people are only real if they are by some definition, him. Ultimately everyone will either accede to his dominance or find themselves his declared enemy. Flunkies and toadies who once served with a properly selfless attitude become the enemy as they display a self-interested concern for their own wellbeing. Their story, like all others, must be rewritten to punish them and deny their humanity. Once he became President it was instantly clear to him that he IS America and that all must be brought to heel, to celebrate his successes and accept his every word as gospel. Checks and balances be damned, he is the only one capable of judging his actions. Outsiders who judge and criticize must be destroyed. His will to power never tires, learns, laughs at itself, or suffers a trace of compunction.
The externalized portrait of Dorian Trump, the ugly otherness that must be squashed or transformed into SELF is any remaining objection, in any form, to his dominance. The structure of the United States government, its constitution, and agencies of self-protection are on the hit list because they resist rule by the one single real living person on earth. The haters are under the illusion that they are real too, the enemy is any “not-self” asserting equal humanity with Trump. We are now acting out on a global scale, one man’s unimaginably shallow madness, and obsessions. Worse yet, his fragile, incomplete self is vicious when attacked. If he is sufficiently backed into a corner and pulled down there is potentially no limit to what he would attempt. He is unaware of anything more important than maintaining both his absurd lie of goodness and his agency to have whatever he wants. In the original story, when someone sees Dorian Gray’s portrait, now grown ugly to the point of horror, and tries to tell the world the truth, Dorian kills him to preserve the lie. Trump will do the same, and if the shocked witness is the United States of America, so be it.
-* *The only exceptions (i.e. also real people) are tyrants more powerful and despotic than himself, in particular, Putin, who to Trump’s astonishment (and secret satisfaction) tricked him, leashed him with a choke chain and entirely dominated him. Trump is showing us his rules: If dominated, be compliant, obey without complaint.
Post Script: One detail I left out is the complete lack of a spiritual dimension, lacking spiritual values he has no conception of nobility, justice, even goodness. He pretends to value these things at times because otherwise, he will destabilize his position. When he does though, you can tell it’s an imitation of how a human being would talk, but uninformed by humanity.
Without spiritual value, nothing in his universe is worth more or less than its material value on the market. The closest he comes to a spiritual value is how esteemed a thing is (in fashion and pop culture) for being high value, “The Greatest”, “Only the best”.
The shitty, empty shiny artifacts he acquires are his “spiritual” accomplishments, his personal value. His entire life is nothing more than taping gold-leaf over a howling void.
Every organism has a survival strategy. Survival strategies are species and subspecies templates for living. They describe a specialized role within an ecological niche. Their roles are defined by exploiting a particular angle on making a living and by the adaptations of their bodies toward this goal. The amazing anteater for example makes a living…anyone? Anyone? Correct, eating ants. And has adapted in an amusingly specialized way with powerful claws for ripping into nests and long sticky tongue.
That is a deep, deep commitment to eating ants. But not really any deeper a commitment than most other species: The overall species strategy is a highly specialized job with a body increasingly adapted as a tool to do that job.
But not us. We are constantly looking for new angles to play and new ways to play them. In pursuit of that goal, we may vary our focus, lifestyle, and ecological niche. But except for phenotypic variations based on local weather, our bodies don’t adapt. We don’t specialize via our bodies, we specialize via technology: A spear is a 7-foot long claw that can fly. Well sewn clothing is a thick warm pelt, opening our way toward the ice caps. Horses turn us into ten-foot-tall monsters moving at the speed of antelopes. Farming is a “Game of Life” survival cheat code the levels us up. Sufficient change in technology equals a virtual shift of species with an altered template for life.
Our technology transforms us personally and as social animals. The rules for hunter-gatherers are not the rules for farming villages. We reorganize ourselves in a bottom-up that unpacks itself through the individual daily actions of each human playing the new game. Pyramids and kings pop into being from the right tools and population sizes. Each shift redefines the group size that we consider to be: Us. Ourselves. Are we 50 people, a thousand people, a million people? Ask the tools, they make the rules.
When the human community becomes large enough and complex enough it becomes a virtual ecosystem unto itself. The specialized work of individuals mirrors the variety of organisms in a wild ecosystem. Enough complexity makes a self sustaining virtual ecology. AT least until the robots throw us all out of work.
Cultural Variation as a strategy
Every human group that can define as “US” creates culture. That culture expresses local traits with one unique voice. Varieties of approaches to mating, religious dogma, openness to outsiders, etc. equal a real-time experiment in how successful these traits are as a human survival strategy. The values for these different traits emerge from the tension force within the community. Authoritarianism is a strategy, so is liberal democracy, so is theocracy. Winning could mean stability or expansion. I call this expansionist trait “Virality”. One culture may make it’s people happy and healthy but virally dominant cultures can take them over.
(That’s draft one. As usual, if you found this intriguing check back once in a while. I do update and re-write.)
“I am a man, nothing human is alien to me.”
A while back I wrote an article here about understanding the autism spectrum. I wanted people to understand that the classic expressions of autism like sensitivity to sound and not liking eye contact weren’t alien and weird. Those are expressions of normal humanity just with a different threshold for discomfort. If the”slider control” of sensory sensitivity is set for most people at 20 to 30 (on this completely arbitrary scale I’m making up) then Asperger’s might be at 50 and profound Autism at 80. It helps to clarify our relationship to ASD people. They are ourselves in extremity.
But that’s also a limited way to look at it. The spectrum of human neurology isn’t a little train track with stations scattered along it. In the current diagnostic map, there are a set of boxes available to bean-bag toss people into. But many people are profoundly affected by different kinds of “out of tolerance” brain quirks and kinks and they don’t meet the 4 out of 6 diagnostic criteria for this or that disorder. Therefore, whatever is up with them is bundled into the set of things that don’t officially exist and therefore can’t be recognized and treated within the current therapeutic sphere. The same people may be treated anyway by being placed in one of the existing boxes. Without wanting to pathologize everything, or unduly blame the caregivers, this is a bit like being treated for one illness because it sort of reminds your doctor of a different illness she’s more familiar with.
Asperger’s Syndrome, which officially doesn’t exist anymore, had a very distinct behavior profile. It’s understandable that Hans Asperger could recognize this signature in the boys he studied. As his model gained acceptance, more and more people were noticed by their similarity to the profile. More and more people appeared as outliers. In a sense, it’s like looking at a very busy wallpaper full varied shapes and configurations and only noticing one.
Understand me, I’m not suggesting that the world will be a better place if we invent a syndrome for every complaint or complexity. A diagnosis is only a blessing if it helps to make you whole. My son, like me, is a complicated piece of work. Earlier in his school experience, we struggled very hard to create a really good IEP for him with his teachers. This is basically a guide to how the school will understand this kid and deal with his issues. He had a provisional diagnosis of Asperger’s but he might as well have been given an XXX-Large cowboy hat for how well it fit him. At one point I found online what sounded like a remarkable match for his constellation of issues. It was in the European version of the DSM but it wasn’t in the American version. The result was that it couldn’t even be considered because, for all practical purposes, that syndrome existed only in Europe and not in the United States. Imagine if you had diabetes and sought help and were told: “Diabetes isn’t a real thing, at least not in this county”.
As I understand it it’s better to have ADHD in at least some areas of the United States than in most of Europe. Apparently over there they still hear a lot of: “That’s not a real thing.” Over here a surprising number of people with some sort of processing issues are equally likely to be placed in the ADHD box OR the high functioning autism box. Because even at the state of the art level of diagnosis this stuff isn’t crystal clear. We don’t have truly differential diagnostic tests and subjective impressions and biases play a large and rather random role.
Maybe the most important thing to consider though is that the level of the supporting science is very different for this and say cardiopulmonary disorders. Sometimes one gets the idea that medical science is a big vehicle carrying everyone forward at the same rate. We also tend to fall into the mistaken thought that just because there’s a treatment assigned to all things recognized as an illness that that treatment is basically successful. There are plenty of medical issues where the recognized best practices are really not very effective but are still treated as if hand delivered by Moses rather than probationary best practices that should be constantly studied for efficacy.
When it comes to Autism, knowledge has increased impressively since Hans Asperger. But there is a huge crowd of us weirdos sitting in the waiting room hoping to have our problems recognized as real not so we can wear the special cumberbund of victimhood but so we can stand a chance of improving our lot. Right now, even if your processing issue is recognized, the most that is likely to happen is the creation of a small list of best practices and some medication suggestions based on early, provisional research. The results of these at best are generally teeny, tiny incremental improvements in quality of life. Let me tell you, the communities of neuro-atypicals are all out there on the web appealing to each other for hope with the intensity of a family member looking for a lost child. The medical communities that treat them tend toward a kind placidity because they embrace the idea that having a treatment on the books is good enough. I’m not blasting caregivers for not dropping everything to research our crabby and confusing brains but what would help is recognition that what we know now is far from successful and sufficient.
For now, it would be useful to take the spectrum and give it height and width and depth as well as length, to give it some range and subtlety. And let’s not start by recognizing a single pattern and trimming the real human beings to fit. Let us take excellent measures of our many variables and begin to map an overall system of ourselves and our range of possibilities. Let us map atypical neurology like a range of islands and discover their proximity and relationship to each other. Patterns WILL emerge and we will all find our place together in a broad and subtle map of human nature.
(“So Bob, what line of work are you in?” “I frighten mice, like my Father and Grandfather before me..”)
Scientists taught white mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms.
The offspring of these frightened mice were never subjected to this cherry blossom trauma but mysteriously, they also feared the smell.
More amazing still, the grandchild generation of the original trauma mice, also never subjected to the treatment, reacted with fear.
This is the classic cited example of Epigenetics or Soft Inheritance. The traumatic experience memory is passed along not by DNA, but by methylation changes on the DNA. It’s the DNA equivalent of working memory between generations.
In the old synthetic theory, without soft inheritance:
Two squirrels are living at the same time, in the way, way back when. Along comes a saber-tooth cat. Both squirrels run but the faster one survives and the slower one doesn’t.
Ergo->Faster squirrel genes move one step forward and thanks for playing, slower squirrel genes!
And now, with epigenetics:
Same time, way, way back when. Two squirrels again, different scenario. One squirrel has a close encounter with the saber-tooth cat and gets away, badly shaken but alive. The other squirrel was obliviously examining his nuts in a tree nearby. He never saw the cat, and he is unaffected. Squirrel number 1 has babies and they are born with a fear of cats or at least an extra sensitivity to “something moved!” Squirrel number 1 has enhanced his reproductive status by communicating a mission-critical message to the next generation and the one after. They are literally BORN with more “street smarts” than squirrel number 2’s offspring.
What does it mean if a creature inherits some of the important EXPERIENCES of at least two generations of its ancestors and possibly more? This breakthrough model is fascinating because it describes a form of parental teaching of life lessons to the young in species that can’t archive data or tell stories. Instead, they attach a little chemical post-it note to their genes saying “Beware of Cat”.
If asked “how could the genes know “Cat”? I’d answer “The same way they knew about cherry blossoms.” It’s staggering to think of the sophisticated mechanisms involved and questions rise like mountains in the near distance. Actually, it’s one question, repeated.
1. Something terrifying happens and a sort of snapshot of the event is taken within the organism. How?
2. Which (snapshot) captures details of the experience. How?
3. Ranking some as meaningful. How?
4. And retaining them. How?
5. Before initiating a process that hands this information off to the sex cells for the next generation. How?
6. This new generation “knows” this life lesson as if they’d lived it themselves. But How?
We have now reached the “Talking out of my ass” section.
The thing that gives me shivers (of excitement) is the list of things that must take place for this to work.
- There’s got to be a threshold of some kind. How intense does the experience need to be to “make the cut”?
- There must be a mechanism that takes these “Must know” memories out from all the other memories and decides to engrave them on gametes.
- There must be some crazy-ass coding that allows methylation changes on DNA to communicate details like the smell of cherry blossoms. That would be a highly specific molecule banging into the olfactory brain possibly for the first time ever, and setting off the fire alarm…through code.
- Also, the code is obviously not a complete memory falsifying the experience of the animal receiving it, but close enough that when the real world and this knowledge construct line up, it causes an autonomic emergency deja vu.
I think the “Camera” that could take that memory snapshot is perception/working-memory and the developing chemicals would be concentrations of fight or flight stress hormones that “develop and burn-in” the image. It could also be triggered by something less obvious, like the moment of relief at reaching safety, with the adrenaline fading and your little squirrel heart going like mad. That could prompt a rewind and transcription of the last minute of memory. Who the hell knows?
2, 3 & 4. I imagine the salient details are the Bold and Italic sensations of that experience, the ones that loom and glow in memory as you look back on it, momentarily experienced again. Long term memory is the most economical way to retain this information and would occur naturally. Perhaps mentally reliving the event (including within dreams) a critical number of times prioritizes passing it forward.
5. I got nothing.
It seems certain to me that many classic human knee-jerk fears like spiders, toadstools and snakes are among our deeply reinforced examples of this process. And that brings up some issues closer to home. Presumably, every human baby is born with some of these “presets”. It seems like the nearly global ones must become default elements of our standard inheritance. Is there some process that triggers the elevation of a methylation memory to DNA proper? Is there some tipping point of reinforcement that causes that? Like if PARENT has a trauma experience coded and CHILD does too, (as their own direct experience, not passively) would the two copies being present in CHILD pass on the message to GRANDCHILD with more urgency? For example, could two doubly reinforced people merging their four copies at the moment of conception cause a crossover to DNA inheritance? That question is kind of rhetorical, I’m just shaking my head at the amazing possibilities of this system.
Other random questions:
- Could that kind of double reinforcement play a part in paralyzing phobias?
- How long does it take from trauma to rewritten gametes? If the survivor conceived the next day would the information be ready?
- Men replenish sperm at a rate that shows tremendous optimism, and a woman’s eggs are more or less archived, or at least they travel like a slow and stately parade in comparison to sperm. Does this mean these memories are sex-linked?
- Since our gametes are so different would there have to be separate mechanisms to do the encoding? Do eggs get these “critical updates”?
- Are there equivalent positive messages about life success, not just skin-of-our-teeth escapes? It makes some sense to me that success heuristics belong in the system too, but would be harder for us to demonstrate experimentally. Perhaps that’s more of a learn by observation thing. Animal parents can demonstrate life skills but can’t demonstrate how to avoid a monster attack.
- Can these messages be annotated in the trip from say, a grandparent to a grandchild?
- Could separate, different messages from different parents ever blend and synthesize into something unique?
- Is there a decay time for these messages? Do they fade across generations if not reinforced? Is there a mechanism protecting normal healthy species behavior from being dangerously rewritten or overridden by these alerts?
In summary, we are talking about an evolutionary mechanism which fills a couple of the gaping holes in Darwinian theory.
A Tautology for a Theory: “Survival of the fittest” is a fugue idea, chasing its tail. The fittest can only be described by their survival. The Darwinian mechanism is really about the elimination of gene-pool competitors leaving “the fittest” still standing and reproducing. Kinky!
Time: There is no mechanism for the fittest to develop their adaptive advantage except endless friggin’ time and lucky mutations. Evolution has happened much faster in reality than jives with Darwin’s crawlingly slow “change through random accident and mutation” story. Instantly this makes much more sense than calling upon eternity to explain your mechanism.
Random Changes: Random mutations have been studied constantly since the theory launched. In an experiment replicated many times, random mutations have been generated in thousands of generations of fruit flies in the lab by radiation. Not a single lucky mutation resulted. No change in that population resulted.
Galapagos finches have fitness-enhancing beaks but no practical way to acquire them. Deprived of support from randomness and eternity, Darwin is an empty lab coat. We have reached a happy upgrade to our thinking.
Evolution is sophisticated, multilayered, and complex. It stacks the deck in any way it can. It behaves at the very least, as if strategic. We are arriving at theories that mirror the subtlety of reality. We are finally getting better at this.
Early and raining
Slow line of cars, kids climb out
asshole cuts in front
It’s hilarious how much cultural “values”, the dos and don’ts, are exactly like the preferences and peccadilloes of a particular person. These Japanese “no-no”s sound like a description of things that one random person might have very strong feelings about… but in fact, a whole country is ready to be very disappointed in you.
You have your likes and dislikes; your quirks and peccadillos. Put enough of them together in a somebody and you have a personality. You and your love have a relationship, with predominating moods and flavors, things you both love and hate, as recognizable to both of you as each others faces. That is the personality of your relationship and you could almost call it a culture of two. You and your family have a kind of extended self, absolutely made of individuals, but having a corporate nature. Again, moods, styles, activities, and traditions: The personality of your family: The culture of us, ourselves.
Your town and state have cliches and classic types, local foods, music, religions, sports, and jokes. Your area may even have unique social faux pas. You have your classic regional moods, so well defined that Hollywood can set a story in your area as shorthand for the tone of the movie. Your country likewise has these same locally famous traits but pulled from many distant points and due to this diversity, the warmth of these traits is much more diffuse. Americans from Maine might enjoy funny Florida cliches but they don’t evoke the tenderness of good old home-cooked cliches. These taste of home because they are the personality of your region: The self that you are actually a piece of even when parted. If you have been away a long time from the place that is unquestionably your home, odds are that the sight of some hideous local billboard or despised local celebrity might well thrill you and soften your heart. This is you, a tiny particle of that place sensing the correct SELF of belonging and yearning toward it.
Culture is personality flowing bottom-up from a community. It’s the basket holding that composite soul together and in place. It is also the background that makes outsiders visible against it. It’s the recognizable border between us and them. Humans produce culture as naturally as spiders weave webs. The tension force within the culture creates the tone of inclusion tempering exclusion and vice versa. Tension force determines the “temperature” of how cold or warm the welcome is to outsiders.
I don’t associate warm with progressives and cold with conservatives as a political bias, but in this context, conservatism means suspicion, standoffishness or even hostility. Conservatives play the role in the cultural ecosystem of tightening the borders while progressives loosen them. And it isn’t always about a literal border, the border can be about how purely insiders display their cultural loyalty. It can be about disapproving of behaviors becoming less hidebound to cultural authority (often acted out by grumpy old people). Either wing, without the other, is dangerously out of balance. Either wing, deprived of this balancing opposing force, becomes a runaway monster seeking enemies within when it can’t find them without. That’s how desperately important opposition really is. When deprived of it the isolated wing has a panic attack and seeks everywhere for enemies to counter itself. The steady opposition between a healthy left and right results in a cooperative outcome: A tension force that protects the community from the weaknesses of each. This is the community organism as a healthy individual with a well-balanced nature.
Donald Trump is the perfect president for this moment, in fact, it’s uncanny.
Obviously not in a good way.
I talk a lot about complexity on this blog. Complexity changes things in incremental ways until there comes a POP of some new emergent thing which is categorically different than all the things it is made of. In fact, that IS Emergence. You can not look at any organism without seeing just such a result. As usual, I’m asking you to put up with me talking about things that appear crushingly obvious.
But listen, single-celled organisms lived contentedly, I’m guessing, for a multiple BILLION years without once feeling the desire to fuck. Suddenly fucking became a fad, a craze. Everybody was sharing genetic material and things got WEIRD. Suddenly there were strangers moving in all around with a bunch of different characteristics. The good old simple ways were gone. Sex was the first sacrifice of autonomy and the first cooperation of individuals making something new and sharing risks and benefits. That’s right. They were cells with benefits.
And then more complex cooperations in the form of more and more complex organisms began to cover the world. But each new multicell organism and lifestyle was a gamble and a loss of autonomy. And there were cells that said “Hell No!” They stuck to the good old proven ways as they have to this day.
Cooperating to build something more complex is the story of evolution. Human beings in their journey to now have reinvented their understanding of “My Group” over and over. This redefining requires flexibility toward the borders of the self. If someone creepy and unattractive asks you to share life’s journey, you pull away, securing your borders. You might say “No thank you” or “Back the hell off!”. Because in so very many ways you don’t want any sharing or blending with them. But even a new friend who takes too much for granted about how good friends you are will elicit at least a bit of the same response. We are scornful when someone suggests an “Us” that we feel is a bad fit. Who we are with is who we are…at least that is it feels inside us, and how we will behave operationally for the life of the contract.
And for people in times of change when the community is being redefined, and always becoming larger and more complex, there is a similar issue triggering acceptance or rejection. At such times there have always been people who balked and rejected the change as not only wrong for them but wrong for everyone. Their gut tells them it’s crazy and wrong. These are conservatives, basically. The tides of human change are strong enough that conservatives are mostly pulled into these new arrangements against their better judgment. Then within one generation, the new situation will be the one they are defending from change and radical new relationships that redefine that SELF.
Communities of people actually ARE some sort of organism, certainly in the sense that bees are. I believe a couple or a family or a town and so on, pop into existence at some level as an autonomous meta-being brought into existence literally by the interaction of the parts. And that when we are busy performing these parts, we have great difficulty perceiving this truth.
And I have a belief system weirder than that. I will admit a little shamefully that I call it reality weather.
Even I am agnostic about this but it’s something I perceive. It is the shifting and scaling up and scaling down of issues and moods and events in the human world. It was visible in the new nations rush to world war one. It’s visible in the wildfire of fascism (and other isms) in the 1920s and 30s. It’s there somehow visible around the sixties and seventies. I think it’s there in mild times as well, but we don’t notice a quiet sunny day. Yep, it sounds dangerously close to astrology but it’s not. I have no dogma around it and I assert no understandable cause. But there’s something there. And we’re in some heavy damn reality weather right now in case you hadn’t noticed.
So why is Trump the perfect president for right now? Because he is absurdly unaware of anyone other than himself. Because he would never have any relationship where he blended and shared with another person. His wives are things. Other people are things. He can’t even hold the concept of what our government and nation mean as a collective and why he shouldn’t just rewrite everything to please himself. He’s that selfish.
Literally the only thing he wants to build is a structural impediment to cooperating and synthesizing at higher levels. A wall. He is the reverse Santa Claus of trust in each other and in our institutions. His mission is to Grinch-ishly take down as much of our system AND faith in that system as possible before the clock runs out.
Every country chooses leaders in a semi-conscious way that mixes the issues of the day with a tribal totem. Trump was chosen to represent the part of America that doesn’t want to blend, or share or care or change. The Trumpenproletariat. As such, he is an embodiment of not letting ourselves synchronize with others at higher levels of complexity. He symbolizes pure self-assertion and rejection of relationship and cooperation. Any place beyond the borders of our nation has become a rejected OTHERNESS. Just as it also has in England, Turkey, Russia and elsewhere. And all just about simultaneously. As a country enters this kind of period of self-assertion and push-back it reaches into a bag of domineering regressive nationalistic bastards and places the biggest one on its head like a horrible tiara. It doesn’t last forever and it can unfold in surprising ways. The United Nations and the European Union owe their existence to the 360-degree horror of WWII. That’s probably not a comforting thought right now but don’t assume the worst. To some degree, optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as long as we back it up with action. Stay cool and take a reality umbrella, it’s really coming down out there.
Ex. 20:5 – “I,(…) am a jealous God, punishing the children for the father’s sin, to the third and fourth generations …”
The first two links are scientific papers and the third is a popular article from Discover magazine. They are all quite readable though and worth a look. If you search epigenetics in this blog you’ll find a number of related articles.
Scientists taught white mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms. (“So Bob, what do you do for a living?” “I frighten mice.”)
The offspring of these frightened mice were never subjected to this cherry blossom trauma but mysteriously, they also feared the smell. More amazing still, the grandchild generation of the original trauma mice, also never subjected to the treatment, reacted with fear. Now further studies are not only confirming these results but showing that deprivation and stress alter inheritance multi-generationally. It affects both physiology and neurology.
The evidence is in. Pain and suffering flow across time. Cruelty keeps jumping forward like a skipped stone. We don’t know authoritatively how many generations forward these effects can travel but 3 and 4 generations are documented using an animal model. And rather than just imagining separate generations of inherited fear, and the many influences on the phenotype of those people, imagine how many poor choices their inheritance initiated. Imagine the effects flowing into the places they live in and their families and friends. Consider the implications for large communities who have suffered trauma almost collectively. In some places and times that could mean whole generations where virtually everyone is bent and twisted by the suffering of their parents and grandparents. How often will behavior born of trauma result in fresh trauma to another?
There is nothing parents love more than their children, and every parent fears passing along something bad to their children. Our new knowledge means that anyone suffering a serious trauma, or having survived desperate stressful times, can be certain that some effects will be passed to their children from the moment of conception.
It makes an act of profound cruelty almost unimaginably important and scales up the guilt accordingly. In the form of random violent crimes for example the effects are stark enough: One innocent victim becomes how many? 3? 6? Don’t forget the 3rd generation…perhaps 18 people? And the 4th generation as well; let’s say 35 people affected by that injury. They don’t even know, they can’t know who they might have been instead, because that crime made them what they are. They might be more fearful, or angry, or just less hopeful than the hypothetical person without the trauma. We don’t know, but it’s safe to say they are bent AWAY from their strength and happiness.
- Soldiers returning with PTSD
- Black America
- Poor America
- Syrian survivors
When a child grows up shaped by a parent with trauma and then lives in poverty and anxiety, we have lost a well-functioning citizen 20 years in the future. And we’ve lost their offspring 40 years in the future. Epigenetics makes a simple, compelling case for the auto-perpetuation of misery and poverty and violence. It makes a case that democracy builds failure into its future by doing too little to alleviate it. A starving, fearful child is a crime against the future and her community and in a sense, the whole world but we are awfully good at feeling peaceful about that crime.
20% of American children grow up in poverty. It’s certain that many of them are second and third generation poverty. Poverty is Hydrochloric acid for optimism and aspiration. How is this not a self-perpetuating sinkhole of damaged and downgraded people?
“Those people are just like that.” is the kind of statement you might hear people say related to race or culture or class. The poor have been viewed forever as inherently flawed, undeserving, and unfit based on the sordidness and chaos of poverty everywhere. It’s probably more accurate to say people can be that way when they and their parents have been ground into emotional hamburger and left to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There’s a chance that we are living out a dystopian science fiction story where in all cultures, regardless of race, a whole class of people, less happy, strong, and confident is being bred through societal neglect. Any limits to the number of generations this damage is “paid forward” is irrelevant because the suffering of each new generation is likely enough to paint over their hopes of the foreseeable future. Big social programs have been deemed failures when they didn’t produce results in “Political time” but perhaps bringing generational trauma to an end is the work of a couple of generations and therefore almost impossible to convince taxpayers to support. And perhaps our famously cheap and nasty social programs wouldn’t soften the blow enough anyway.
Yet the import of this knowledge places responsibility on our shoulders once we know.