Musings, news, and research about neurology, brain physiology, psychology, and behavior. Particular focus on Autism, ADHD, and depression.
1. Self Asserting
Like the articles on Tension Force and the balance of Progressive to Conservative, this is about the population pattern spread of personality types that defines the way a group behaves. Although it might seem like I’m simply being pro-self-transcendence, this isn’t a moralistic issue and there are unexpected outcomes. And while it clearly overlaps a teensy bit on the subject of right and left wing politics it only has a solid connection to that out at the edges where the saints and sociopaths hang out. It’s hard to talk about this without paying the most attention to the extremes but the wide middle of this spectrum is in “normal” range. A healthy happy person probably has a good balance, but there’s more than one kind of happy.
There are satisfactions that come from looking out for number 1, and the kind of people who make a point of only looking out for number 1 assume that these are the ultimate satisfactions. Coincidentally, Donald Trump is an exaggerated archetype of this point of view. There are obviously rewards for self assertion but self transcendence for something you love can be a full time high filling you with renewed energy. Only in people who are cartoonishly on one side of the spectrum or the other are these traits expressed as absolutes. Trump is cartoonishly self asserting. But self assertion also powers any serious goals and ambitions. It’s the oomph of aspiration. Gandhi and M.L.K. would have gotten nowhere without it. Any poor, hardworking kid who made something of themselves, has used this power.
In fact, consider this: Have more of the horrors and tragedies of the human race come through self asserting behavior or self transcending behavior? Self transcending can be beautiful and saintly but it also drove the selfless nazi and it drives the true believer ISIL volunteer. Giving yourself wholly to a powerful cause is amoral. In MLK it was moral, but only because of the framework of that transcendence. Passionately pursuing a personal goal is amoral. The internal values of the goal determine the good or ill.
The strongly self asserting are often cruelly disinterested in what happens to anyone they don’t personally know and love. Dick Cheney for example only giving a damn about gay and lesbian rights because his daughter came out. If she hadn’t, he never would have seen any point in supporting that position, after all what was in it for him? Strong self asserters aren’t necessarily aggressive or intense but the only important question for them is “How does this affect me?”
Extreme self assertion might rob banks, or investors. But for true horror and cruelty, self transcendence is the big winner. There is no genocide without people who give up everything to kill whoever the great plan points to.
Trees in a forest have a network of communications through their roots and a web of fungus. The trees share information and nutrients. They nurture young trees and even direct toxins at plants they “want” to suppress.
Years ago, when he was little I was explaining the word sentient to my son as “being aware of being aware”. I asked him if dogs were sentient. “Yes” he said. “Are rocks sentient?” I asked “No” he replied. “How about trees?” I said. He paused, then: “I’m not sure about that.”
Honestly, I’m not either.
Some trees exude that strange feeling of presence, but that’s a soulful, poetic way of thinking. There isn’t anywhere to go with that idea scientifically. The behaviors described above are so complex that to say that no mind is involved highlights a gap in our understanding of biology and evolution and minds. If not a gap, at least an area stretched to the breaking point. Evolutionary biology would say that the trees are mechanically behaving as their fit ancestors did, said ancestors being lucky recipients of random chance mutations. Yet the trees in the stories I put at the top are aware, somehow of each other, which implies also aware of themselves. They assist some, basically the young and the needy (charity or care or generosity?) and attack others meaning they have friends and enemies? Preferences at least? Even a sort of strategy. And the “Wood wide web” connecting them is obviously a complex symbiotic partnership.
You could take the reductionist point of view that the way I described this was too human-centric. They are helping those they share genes with and suppressing invaders. Perhaps they help “needy” trees because diseased trees represent a health threat to the whole forest. But as cold as we may say it, these trees are active participants and they are AWARE of those young relatives, sick neighbors and enemies. There is a communicating, receiving, evaluating and responding going on here and that if does not require a mind, it then requires some alternative to mind that we do not have a scientific model for.
Giant stands of Broccoli they are not. But the “mind” here is what exactly? Aware of conditions and correct responses but not aware of itself? Is it an individual, or a kind of community mind? A swarm entity?
Around us and in us are living systems by the millions handling virtually everything without the benefit of a conscious mind. In fact a number of studies have shown that our conscious mind is given prompts about what to do, being informed milliseconds before becoming aware of the impulse or decision. Who is this shadowy internal decider, this Dick Cheney within? And how does it not make consciousness itself a subsystem of larger, unconscious system? Does it not force us to imagine how the hell an unconscious actor truly operates, prioritizes and decides?
Consciousness itself, unwitting and bordered by shadows needs to be reimagined as well. Consciousness is like a balloon with a story in it. This fretful, monologuing self seems like it’s stuck with the job of rationalizing our actions and representing a human social unit to all the other human social units. It may be that consciousness, which we tend to think of as the highest evolution of nature is more like a jail cell where each of us keep our separated, parceled out selves. It may be that something extraordinary is going on right outside but we can’t hear it, because we are sealed in.
It might be the voice of the forest.
In comparison to the mental states and accomplishments that normal folks take for granted: Remembering, initiating and persevering.
ADHD is the Cerebral Palsy of executive function. Having ADHD is like living in a world where the gravity increases and decreases randomly, but it only affects you. One day you are bouncing along with everyone else, carrying school books and groceries and the next day your arms and legs are unresponsive. You crawl. If you don’t keep up, your grades will suffer, or you may not keep that job. Too bad. You look flakey, lazy and self indulgent. Your story about gravity changes nothing, it means nothing to anyone. People tell you to try harder but you don’t know how. You can’t establish any traction between you and the problem.
Deciding to act and beginning to act are neurological functions. They require a chain of cellular transactions and feedback just like any other biological process. In healthy people these are as natural and unconsidered as reaching out to pick something up. When the ADHD person says “I don’t know why, but I can ‘t do this… ” It’s mystifying to most people – because they don’t recognize this mental function as a distinct process that can have a kink in it. What they generally say is: “Of course you can! ” Having ADHD is like living in a world where time speeds up and slows down in crazy ways ways but it only affects you. Deadlines hover lazily in the distance and then slam forward in a disjointed way that doesn’t make any sense and you scramble awkwardly to complete the work, buy the present, or pay the bill. Even though this has happened to you all your life you won’t understand the next deadline any better than the last one. We are time blind. We are driving through fog and can see about 20 feet in front of the car. Every neurology has a view of time. The common sense of how long a month or an hour is, describes the neurological norm for this function. ADHD people have an unpredictable function in this area which is comparable to incorrectly gauging how near or far objects are and crashing into them over and over. Normal brains look at this behavior and understandably ask: “What is WRONG with you?” Continue reading
Social network moralizing is a Punch and Judy show.
Listen to us, every fucking thing we say about politics and philosophy is about who is good and who is bad.
I believe many of the answers to the questions that sort of torment and enslave us are available one or two floors above where we do our thinking. I don’t especially mean it in a “spiritual” way as much as in a biological way.
You literally cannot ask or answer any question that isn’t shaped by your hardwired domesticated primate brain. You have free will, but only inside a box of rules.
It never includes a higher insight into why things like racism and war are clockwork for us. These are species quandaries, the well known and poorly understood “fine messes” we are perpetually getting ourselves into. Until we see how they really work and why they truly happen, nothing we say about them helps to change anything. The problem is that war and racism (for example) are aspects of our operating system, they are problems we are not supposed to answer.
Imagine if dogs had competing societies. They would totally relate to the idea”I’ll build a wall!”. Some would say “We need to do a lot more barking!” & some would say “We should all just roll in fish TOGETHER”. They would glamorize alphas and make fun of betas and deltas. They would make inappropriate “racist” statements about cats. And all of their damn Facebook comments would be about how “somedoggy” was or was not a good boy.
Autistic characters in drama have become almost stereotypical stock roles.
Asperger’s was added to the character of Sherlock Holmes in the recent BBC version with Benedict Cumberbatch and in many ways it’s a good fit. We find a form of it in earlier shows like Star Trek with Spock and Commander Data. “Rain Man” has become a phrase that instantly summons up a farther range of the spectrum, even less socially competent, more obsessive and rigid. These characters are often given an awesome savant talent, further increasing pressure on autistic people to entertain us with magical-weirdo-brain-tricks like playing any song after hearing it once or lightning calculation. Further out still are the lost children (you almost never see an adult) spinning plates and squealing.
What people often fail to realize is that this spectrum has them on it too! We are all on this spectrum even if we are sitting in the comfortable normal box.
Consider the classic issues that come up for people on the right hand side of this image.
- Overwhelmed by social intensity. (attention, crowds, eye contact)
- Sensitive to noise
- Sensitive to little somatic distractions like a scratchy tag in their shirt.
The difference between you and some poor soul melting down from these isn’t one of kind but of degree. It’s just a question of the amplitude it requires to send your needle into the red. Have you ever heard of police trying to drive people out of a house by blasting music at it day after day? Or similar techniques focused on someone under interrogation? This is a conscious attempt to push people into the breakdown zone that ASD people reach with far less intensity.
We all have these same vulnerabilities but ASD people have less insulation on their wires.
Imagine yourself wearing a shirt of spun fiberglass. In a 12 hour death metal battle of the bands. Surrounded tightly by a crowd of strangers who keep staring at you and touching you.
Welcome, you have arrived at weekdays for autistic folks. Have a seat and pay attention. Don’t act up.
- go in the house
- hang up your coat
- sit down
- find key
- use key to open door
Continuing my theme of the hybrid SELF that forms when people interact: The third mind. I’m not trying to create the idea of some kind of mystical entity. The third mind is simply a lens or filter for understanding ourselves.
There really is no “You”.
“Um, But I’m right here.”
Friendship: Every person you know and love has a bond with you like a chemical signature. You think you visit them but you don’t. You visit US. You are a different you with Tom and Petra and Janine. When you visit Janine you think you are seeing her, but you are seeing US.
You know that great way you have fun with her, cooking together and joking around? It isn’t exactly like that with anyone else. That isn’t you and it isn’t her. That’s the third mind. The US. The thing is, your friendship isn’t you and her. It’s what she brings out in you and what you bring out in her. Your friendship is the magic spot where those unique things overlap. This is really reminiscent of the Observer Effect in physics. You can’t study the thing without influencing and effecting it. There is no abstract, pure Janine. You can only know her the way she is when you are looking at her. She can only know you the way you are when she looks at you.
You get together with Janine and your mutual friend Petra. You don’t really know the way Janine is with Petra. You know how Janine is with YOU and Petra. You are standing there with Janine before Petra comes inside. You make a funny literary reference and she laughs and reminds you to keep thinking about that thing you talked about earlier. Why? Because when Petra is part of this molecule the sense of humor is different, maybe earthier, and you’d never really bring up that sort of serious thing for discussion because it would be the wrong kind of discussion. You guys LOVE Petra, you love being together. It’s wonderful, but it’s wonderful in a different way. So you tidied up business with the You and Janine molecule before the well understood transition into the 3 of you molecule.
The personality “You” was evoked in a unique way with one other person and then in another unique way only possible with that exact combination of the three of you. And if you leave, Petra and Janine have a different relationship. If you let yourself ride this idea it’s a hoot because there is no real you, there’s just what can be brought out of you by different people. And since the same is true for them there’s no real anybody anywhere. There are only the unique creations of relationships. In “The Four Loves” C.S. Lewis wrote a beautiful thought on our subject which I have to paraphrase here. Talking about the death of a friend: “If Jim dies I don’t just lose my unique friendship with Jim, I lose the way Jim used to laugh at Robert’s jokes.”
Friendship can be a lovely, lifetime thing in many cases because there is this enjoyable facet of you that you only get be in their company and they evidently have their own version of that joy. One note and another note being played at the same time are not those notes. They are a chord. And the easy, warm cruising of friendships across time is helped by its episodic nature, you don’t ALWAYS have to be that expression of yourself but you can return to it…like an old friend.
You might argue that the real you is when you are alone but you are wrong, and stop being so argumentative!
That is the you evoked by being alone. By being in relationship to no other. And it’s actually rather limited. You can’t be that warm, loving guy or the funny guy or the good listening guy. In some ways being alone is all the things you can’t be. Now for creative types (and introverts) there can be a special and productive relationship to being alone but it’s still a selective filter that isn’t real in any other situation.
The principles of the third mind are laid out simply above and they don’t change with strangers or those closest to us. What changes is the impact or “side effects”.
Romantic love adds an element that only happens in its domain. Limerence. That dazzling infatuation which when reciprocated turns the third mind into a nearly visible glittering ball between the two people. This is where the third mind transforms into a different entity, almost literally an entity pulling intense emotions and hormones to the surface from the couple. It grows larger and practically seals the lovers inside. Of course this is the human mating dance. This is the REAL honeymoon, a time of being swept up in something huge and electric and magical. When people look back on this phase, the third mind can seem like anything from a horrible deception to a lost golden age. If it does the job nature intends, a family follows.
Family: With family relationships we are playing with forces that help to define us. Mom and Dad are together in a tight pair bond, founded in romantic love. When baby makes three there’s a deep change in the orientation of the parents. Very much a team but a team that doesn’t have a lot of hot sex anymore and a team embarked on a shakedown cruise with a new person. Before the baby is old enough to a political player in the family there’s this period of adjustment to the altered definition of the pair bond. “We are now people who discuss what poop looked like.” This can also be a time where new facets of self come up in Mom and Dad because parenting builds a new floor onto the edifice of YOU. Your way of relating to the kid becomes a bit of new wild card. It’s natural and fine for Mom and Dad to be on somewhat different pages about parenting. But what it does here can be an alteration of the third mind in a way that adds stressors and subtly distances them. It only deepens when the child is a distinct personality, becoming triangulated and heating up any of those parenting issues. At times each feel parent will feel double teamed or manipulated and new kinks in the flow develop. Whatever the couple’s third mind started as it has morphed and tilted. Not necessarily in a terrible way, but forever. There is no going back. And something strange starts to happen here. It can feel like the power of this mind exerts such pressure that you begin to actually possess the characteristics projected onto you. As if the third begins to alter and edit you often in ways that are not pleasant. If people have a common complaint about family it’s probably this: The weird way you can’t help either becoming a certain person around them or putting all your energy into resisting it.
Children grow up with the family mind, a sort of interactive group sense of self: A growth medium made up of ourselves and a variety of subjective, overlapping reactions to us.
Marriage: God knows there are lovely, happy and vital marriages out there. And where they exist they probably have a rare relationship where the couple feels a great ongoing enjoyment with what gets brought out of them into the world by the other. This mutual bringing forth: “I love her and I love who I am when I’m with her.”
It’s easy to imagine the reasons things that can become stultifying and even miserable in some marriages. First, unlike friendship, this relationship has no easy come and go. It is your default and almost fulltime existence So it’s more serious from the start but also, people change. Especially as they grow up through their 20s and 30s and 40s. You could hardly help and nor should you, being different after all that. But that means that the unique signature of your personalities as they evoked each other when you married is gone. Perhaps not wholly but substantially. Even without inner change over time, the signature shifts as people reveal their more intransigent sides, as issues become wearisome and people become resigned.
But finally there’s this: It becomes deadening when you only get to be one version of you year after year. Especially if that version of you is largely defined by a long history of ups and downs, tensions and compromises. Inside ourselves we know we are a 360 degree personality and this arrangement lets you express only a familiar, comforting, reliable constellation of all the possible YOUs for the sake of another person’s security and happiness.
It’s no wonder people struggle. There’s this tremendous investment in a situation that feels gradually less like home because you aren’t really getting to be yourself there or at least the version of you that you’d like to be. And fixing a marriage that feels very stuck is so challenging because even the medium for discussion can only be within the petrified and weary third mind.
There is no one real YOU, there are thousands.
“A colony of honeybees is, then, far more than an aggregation of individuals, it is a composite being that functions as an integrated whole. Indeed, one can accurately think of a honeybee colony as a single living entity, weighing as much as 5 kilograms (10 pounds) and performing all of the basic physiological processes that support life: ingesting and digesting food, maintaining nutritional balance, circulating resources, exchanging respiratory gases, regulating water content, controlling body temperature, sensing the environment, deciding how to behave, and achieving locomotion.”
There is an idea gaining credibility that just as hives behave as individuals made up of the independently moving “cells”, that primate brains are almost like hives unto themselves…vast collectives of caste system individuals handling tasks that cumulatively produce the neurological reality experienced by the individual. This can’t be described as a final proven fact, but the model holds up, right down to the notion of specific cells that are needed being produced. algorithmically to changing needs. This extends to decision-making, which is the main subject of Honeybee Democracy. The bees exercise a collective intelligence that mimics not just small-group decision-making but the cognitive deliberations of our own brains:
“We will see that the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of bees in a honeybee swarm, just like the 1.5 kilograms (3 pounds) of neurons in a human brain, achieve their collective wisdom by organizing themselves in such a way that even though each individual has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes first-rate collective.”
Like many biologists, Seeley sees a bee colony as not just a collection of individuals but as a sort of super-organism. He continues:
In this post I’m bringing together some diverse psychological research. The idea I want to support is that human beings have strong and predictable reactions to power and weakness. Each of these videos alone makes an interesting (and often disturbing) point but together they show what happens to people given “the upper hand” and some of what happens to the people they hold it over. It’s important to me as a foundation for some of the next ideas I’m going to be laying out. This is difficult collection. They are worse together than alone. It feels like a damning indictment of the human race but I’m not looking to scold so much as to understand . The important thing is establishing a clear picture of our native relationship to power and privilege. I think of this post a bit like evidence before the court. I’m going to cite this post in later articles.
There are fascinating and dark things here, but many of these videos are too long for casual viewing. The exception might be the last one, “Money on the mind” which is also very interesting and much cheerier than the rest.
Stanford prison experiment
Blue eyes brown eyes
Every human blends a wide range of psychological variables. Each variable in this list is a spectrum and everyone is somewhere on each spectrum in this list. I don’t think this is some complete list, just some that I was mulling over. And they don’t follow some meaningful rule concerning their position to the left or right. I mean for example that “daring” and “submissive” are not in any sense related because they both appear on the right. There may be some overlap between some of these characteristics that could justify a connection but it’s imperfect and I’m not intending that meaning. I also don’t think that good is on one side and bad on the other.
Every trait on this list is a spectrum.
It seems human groups naturally create a spread of these traits because I can’t think of any culture outside of science fiction where there is a real uniformity of these characteristics.
The old sci-fi tradition often portrayed a trait as a species. Remember Star Trek? Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans, Ferengi? Each of these takes all the variables for a self and mashes them through a single psychological template.
Imagine how profound (and awful) the effect would be on a culture if they exclusively doubled down on the most extreme range of the traits above. In theory, you could have an entire population very unbalanced in a certain direction. But it never seems to work out that way, does it? Perhaps the whole thing is absolutely random but there could be within us a sort of community algorithm to keep a healthy range of steady but flexible groups. Some flexibility in the system would allow different tribes to investigate the effects of leaning more this way or more that way as a group. I don’t mean the tribe would look at it that way, just that cultural differences would naturally emphasize different traits and there could be an impact on survival as a result.
There are also structural, age-based ranges for a number of important psychological factors concerning the community’s ability to preserve it’s form but also change if it needs to.
- The very young imprint the culture, taking it at face value.
- The young adult/teenager range is the most progressive, the most likely to question things being this way. It’s a cultural version of questioning your own parents.
- Families, mated and settled are the meat in the sandwich. They essentially express and live the culture in a moderate conservative way. Naturally, they tend to embrace it but the cracks and stressors show up here too. In worrying about their own children they worry about all children and what world they will live in. Again, this tends toward conservatism but enough worry can turn this.
- The old of course tend to be convinced that everything is going terribly wrong and we ought to back the hell up. They are the paragons of cultural retention.
These behaviors are emergent from the developmental moment of each but across a culture the impact is factorial.
I think this is rather like the age-based division of labor in insect hives. We have a non-random, predictable political range (“tension force” if you read my other stuff on conservative/progressive). I suspect evolution is a little bottom heavy with more people in the conservative mode but always with enough wild-ass adventurous and rebellious types to keep stirring the pot.
I have a half-assed thought that neuro-atypicals such as Autism spectrum and ADHD people may figure in population dynamics as a necessary element. Autistic people famously helping to advance technology with their obsessive interests and keen observations and ADHD people (I like to think) because their restless love of novelty may contribute in its own way.
I also believe that high functioning psychopaths and narcissists have a place. Their utter lack of concern with others and cold desire to get all the goodies CAN act as an organizing mechanism creating political or religious movements or starting big businesses, etc. Someone sufficiently convinced of their right to rule over others can collect followers like a magnet collects iron filings.