Musings, news, and research about neurology, brain physiology, psychology, and behavior. Particular focus on Autism, ADHD, and depression.
In computing, algorithms are an unambiguous set of instructions like:
- go in the house
- hang up your coat
- sit down
But what if I have a problem getting in the house? What if the door is locked? If/Then subroutines are context dependent algorithms allowing for variation without failure.
- find key
- use key to open door
But what if I can’t find the key? As the story plays out, deeper levels of algorithmic problem solving are exposed to rescue us from a dead end.
- search for key
- in pockets
- on the ground
- in the car
You can probably imagine further subroutines and variances to each step. And all this for something that only comes up in the rare case of being locked out of the house.
When enough such related algorithms are grouped together usefully, they can become the human version of a program or app, ready to run when needed. We all have tons of garden variety apps installed, some are innate and essential and some are highly individual choices.
The opening example of being locked out isn’t an app by itself but it shows one at work. I call this one the”What-If” app, and I consider it to be a part of the Human Operating System (or HOS) which is a very important sounding thing I made up one day to refer to the totality of our preprogrammed behavior. If the troubleshooting steps made sense as you were reading them it’s because you actually have this “What-If” program in your head and use it regularly. We never think of it in the abstract this way, as an always running background app. We never think of it at all because we rely upon this internalized application to appear with some answers the instant it is needed. The framework delivering those answers is as taken for granted as having a hand to pick up a cup. This program deconstructs any problem and triages potential solutions to create an “order of operations” that determines the most logical first step and then orders the cascade of “If-Thens” by logical position and least effort required to succeed. An example is the old tech support truism of starting with the question “Is it plugged in?” We briefly touch base with this app hundreds of time a day whenever “Uh Oh, what if ?” thoughts arise. Often these thoughts and the suggested reactions are so short-lived that we don’t even notice them happening. In stressful situations, we can sometimes better observe the process in action as we focus on a particular worry. A decision tree forms in your mind and the outcome branches order-rank themselves from likely success to likely failure. What-If is like an indefatigable Jeeves to our fretting Bertie Wooster. While the “What-If” app comes installed in every human being, the quality of the program varies with individual common sense and can be impacted by the “having a shitty day” phenomena, which is known to affect decision making. It is also a perfect amoral slave to any sort of nonsense or evil we are pursuing, the mad scientist and the selfless philanthropist rely on it equally to achieve their ends.
Mutually Dependent Apps
If a person had never used a key on a locked door or even seen another person use a key, they wouldn’t have the introductory example with its various sub-responses already in place. Decision trees need solid ground to grow. Our keyless protagonist has the WI program though, and it would fall back to a more general level of What-If. What if you arrive at your destination and you mysteriously can’t enter? When What-If hits this sort of new blank problem, conscious effort and even struggle are required to establish the baseline realities and possibilities. If you had no help, coming up with the idea of a key would be comparable to a minor scientific breakthrough. It’s a good thing we have the “What the Hell is Up with That” app, aka WHUT to tinker with mysteries, develop theories about them and update those theories as needed. WHUT creates the conceptual givens that What-If needs in order to work.
Eventually, sufficient familiarity with the basics of the situation and frequent practice will transform the skill into an autopilot function that no longer requires conscious effort and doesn’t interrupt us to stop and think about it anymore. This silent efficiency is a trait of well-integrated apps. A frequent partner to What-If and WHUT is an essential global app I’ll call Gleaning Useful Information from Everything, obviously known as GUIE. This foundational human app is always adding to its database of potentially important knowledge and it doesn’t always require direct personal experience. I would guess that most of us have successfully dealt with at least one situation based on information gathered from television or the internet. This was GUIE handing off useful ideas to What-if, who shoots and scores. One of the most essential, always on, global apps is “Endlessly Scanning for Danger” (ESD) which often triggers the “What-If” app to generate getaway or fight back plans. Usually, these plans aren’t needed as many danger signals turn out to be false alarms. Those getaway plans evaporate instantly when we get confirmation of a false alarm but just imagine how many of these survival scenarios your brain has generated and trashed over your lifetime. Global apps like these aren’t chosen, they come pre-installed as modules of the HOS because we could not function without them.
But many human skills are chosen and often for deeply personal reasons to express our souls or achieve our goals.
We can learn a huge variety of specialty programs like driving a car, performing brain surgery, cooking a dessert or dancing ballet. Continue reading
I have a theory that the reason that many different neurological types maintain consistent percentages per capita year after year is that somehow it’s useful for constructing human communities. As an incomplete example, I’m talking about:
- High functioning sociopaths (cold-hearted leader/organizer types) 4%
- Bipolar disorder (frequently leaders or very creative) ~2.6%
- Autism Spectrum (technological and scientific innovation) 1.7%
- ADHD (novelty generators) 5% to 11%
- Schizophrenia (visionary thinking in any discipline) 1%
I’m not certain how the predictable gay and lesbian* population percentages factor into this exactly but as a guess, they have historically not been focused on raising children. As a predictable percentage of the population not absorbed in raising families and often positioned as outsiders in their own surrounding cultures, they would almost guarantee the existence of an alternative subculture where they might generate new ideas not approved of by our final group. 3.5%
Everyone else is good old standard human stock who mostly just want family and security. I think the neurotypical brain which defines this group, is every bit as much a specialized filter as the atypical types mentioned above, it is simply specialized to keep things simple and inside the comfort zone. They respond to social pressure far more seriously than atypicals which makes them a kind of cultural cement. Neurotypical breeders are the low center of gravity for every community that ensures stability. They are neither better than our atypicals, or worse, they are the dominant percentage because life wants a solid base to grow from. There are three structural divisions in this last group. ~90%
- Male and female. ( the transgender variations and shadings of male and female are very small in number compared to “standard issue” they might be classed with the gay and lesbian populations for our purposes. 0.3%) There are obvious cultural roles and practical roles determined here. One astounding but well-documented fact is that during and after wars, a higher than average number of boys are born. The mechanism driving this effect has no useful model within current science but the reason for it is easily understood: “I guess we better make a few more boys to cover losses”. Whatever the mechanism is, it perceives large events at a community level… and adjusts via individual pregnancies. Males ~51.9% Females ~49.1%
- Progressive vs conservative viewpoint, which is strongly linked to personality type metrics and as I’ve explored elsewhere in this blog their “Tension force” creates the defining zeitgeist of every culture. In a polling in June 2010, 40% of American voters identify themselves as conservatives, 36% as moderates and 22% as liberals, with a strong majority of both liberals and conservatives describing themselves as closer to the center than to the extremes (Wikipedia).
- Age-based focus and attitude within the general population. From child to teenager to young adult to middle-aged to elderly there is a predictable staged transition through age-based societal roles***: Student, soldier, young married, worker, settled parents, judgemental elders. In a way, this echoes the division of labor within bee and ant colonies. How do they decide what job to do? As the individual insect ages, it progresses through a series of preset “vocational” roles within the hive. For humans, the most basic example of the age-based behavior difference is the openness of the young to change and the resistant defensiveness of the old. This mechanism makes a cultural shift possible, then limits the amount of change.
According to my half-assed theory, being Neuro-Atypical or sexually atypical is not a random failure to create a normal person. Rather it is a structural role predictably of some benefit to the general population. That would explain why the percentages of these varied types are so reliable. Everyone from the most boring normal person to with wildest transgender bipolar radical conservative has a structural purpose in the diverse needs of the human hive. This points to a real-time reproductive algorithm affecting the population as a whole and somehow sensitive to such temporal events as war. It would be no shock if such a mechanism exists, for it to show other concerns about population balance necessary to keep the community organism in good repair. We see a similar balancing mechanism in other hive creatures. In a sense, it’s like a body generating replacement cells of the right kind as needed.
- * I’m not claiming to have discovered an atypical neurology specific to gays and lesbians. They are here because their population percentage is very consistent over time and they tend to occupy a unique reality niche.
- ** I’m not mistaking transgender folk for gay or lesbian. I’m just placing them in a sex/gender outsiders group.
- *** William Shakespear on this preset aging process:
At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms; And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slippered pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
This test is the most commonly accepted accurate measure of basic personality. These metrics are used in countless psychological studies. In some of my writing, I need to refer to the Big 5 and wanted an easily found reference.
These “big five” are broad categories of personality traits. The test results show you as low or high in each area. Your basic personality type can be understood as the mix of all these traits at the high or low levels measured in the test.
These five categories are usually described as follows:
I’ve seen this before, but just thought of it again. A well intended typical interviewer chats with a housewife who has volunteered (after undergoing a battery of psychological tests) to be observed while experiencing LSD.
She quickly begins the classic, indescribable stages of the LSD journey while being asked to translate it back into the word economy. If you’ve been in her shoes, you know that this is like being asked to communicate with gravel.
She absolutely lights up and you can see her confidently and joyfully finding the ordinary world transformed with meaning and beauty. It’s lovely to see her surprised pleasure. She’s a normal nice looking person at first but she becomes radiant. The part with her takes about 5 minutes. It’s the good part. Then there’s a bit you might or might not care about.
I’m so grateful for my psychedelic experiences, I couldn’t appreciate much of anything as much as I do, if i had not had them. I find myself longing for another taste despite the fact that they can be intimidating. It’s a big place to go with information that normal me can find overwhelming. It’s a bit like if you really believed in an awesome god and you had a mechanism to hear him…you wouldn’t pull that switch lightly…or every day.
I think it’s heartbreaking that psychedelics were lumped with uppers and downers and the only access became through manufacturers outside the law. If you liked uppers and downers you could be certain someone was making enough of those for the universe of self medicators aching to go up or down.
But Psychedelics are reality medicine, the sideways elevator to the sacred hilltop in the wind…It’s not usually crowded up there.
I want to go back.
There’s a lot of important information about human happiness waiting to be learned from some molecules wrongly placed on the “Evil things” shelf long, long ago.
We know it as we speak, we handle words instinctively like tools we’ve used a thousand times. Every time we use words to make someone angry or to comfort them we are producing chemical reactions in their body. Admittedly, our physical presence plays a part in intimidating or calming, but in a low sensory telephone call, or a zero sensory letter, the disembodied words can still bring horror or joy. Naturally most words aren’t used to flood the listener with stress hormones. A great book can grow a world around the reader. A great comedian can pull happiness and relief from a crowd of thousands who share the mood like blood circulating in a body. And of course there are those who can move crowds past restraint into activity and even violence.
Many words cause changes in our minds and bodies but the context generally defines our reaction. There are words that build up enough charge from the way they are generally used that they often elicit an emotional bump. Please don’t be offended at the following content, it’s only here for demonstration purposes, you filthy fucking whore! Sorry, but I wanted you to pull up short. Did you feel that? It’s easy to find these words, just ask yourself what you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying. Feel what happens in your stomach and in your nerves as you read: Cunt, Nigger, Slut, Kike, Slant Eyes. Was it stress, fear, shame? Probably it was. These words are obvious hooks that make it hard not to react. The connection between words and chemicals is right there, requiring no further test.
Even though it sounds mystical this is why I believe that humans of our state of development could not have been functionally mute, ever. We couldn’t have been ourselves and slowly developed language. Language is innate because it must be. That is circular thinking on the face of it, but I don’t mean it as a place to sit contentedly. I mean that it’s tangled up with something about the evolution of species that we have developed no foundation for. The reason I can feel so certain is that humans, but without language makes as much sense as a fully functioning car, but without an engine.
Words are the catalytic enzymes of the human domain.
This is so obvious as to be invisible. Words (and language) are the answer to the question “How will these complicated primates get their complicated business done?.” Language points to the human foundation of society. Language is about humans as a group, and about the group as organism. Innate language ability is the “human genome” of thinking and relating.
And species wide, our many languages speak to the same issues. That is, no language is alone able to discuss some angle on reality that others are not. No one language holds a surprising- one of a kind function that others can’t touch. If it’s difficult to imagine what that kind of exception would even be, that may point to why it doesn’t exist. It’s not in our presets for communication. The fact of innate language with a common range points to some underlying structures: A library of recombinant symbols and memes the we use both to interpret and explain.
And that’s up next in this category.
“The Human Memeome”.
“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.
Step back and look at this from an unfamiliar angle.
Your relationships with family, friends, and workmates become codified after a while, don’t they? They develop a pattern that eventually becomes impossible to alter. If you pay close attention you can feel yourself in these different contexts morphing into a person with a well-understood way of greeting, a style of listening and a way of holding yourself. Buried in the same file are your ways of seeking information, making jokes, expressing camaraderie, or concern, etc. etc. You probably have different versions of these things prepared for specific people. You don’t think about it. You didn’t plan these things… they arose from your chemistry and relationship as the two of you worked out how to be with each other.
There’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just pointing out how much of your life of is evoked and context-driven behavior. It’s something observable that we all do, I think it’s safe to say it’s global, it’s innate human behavior. We subconsciously monitor our environment for a sense of what it’s proper to be doing right now. We react quickly to signals during social interaction and run instantly through appropriate poses and expressions to answer those signals. Shame is never more than a stupid comment or a fart away, and shame burns. It burns more than seems reasonable or proportionate. Shame hurts because in spite of ourselves there is human machinery in us that cares a whole lot about what people think.
The biggest challenge to closely observing human social behavior is the seamless matrix of the stuff inside us making it all but invisible. Anything you notice has to stand out against a contrasting background and human behavior IS our background. Your entire life in proximity to others is shaped by automatic animal rules of engagement.
This video is from Candid Camera long ago but it’s amazing. Watch these people completely mess with the minds of innocent strangers.
This really makes us look like puppets, doesn’t it? And you have to wonder what weird behaviors have us turning in circles and taking our hats off and putting them right back on again except that nobody is pretending in order to prank us. Famous old-school psychological tests showed that most people would deny the evidence of their own senses if others claimed to see something different and that many “decent people” would willingly torture an innocent person if simply pressured to by an authority figure. This is what Arthur Koestler meant when he said that more of mankind’s horrors come from self-negating behaviors than self-asserting behaviors. Being cooperative is a certain number of steps from just following orders.
Ex. 20:5 – “I,(…) am a jealous God, punishing the children for the father’s sin, to the third and fourth generations …”
(As usual, I am publishing a rough draft to force myself to keep writing.) 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 alters inheritance multi-generationally. It affects both physiology and neurology.
The evidence is in. Pain and suffering flows 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 I think has some fears of 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 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. But scientifically it’s probably not so. 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 limitations to the number of generations the damage is “paid forward” is irrelevant because the suffering of each new generation is likely enough to paint over the hopes of 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 knowledge places responsibility on our shoulders once we know.