Musings, news, and research about neurology, brain physiology, psychology, and behavior. Particular focus on Autism, ADHD, and depression.

 Connecting some of the subjects here recently: The Blending Problem, Holons, etc. here’s a natural, earthy synthesis. It proves nothing, I think you see it or you don’t. It’s fascinating too how paradoxical individuality is from this point of view. Every individual is a colony but every colony is built of individuals. bee
From Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy:

“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:

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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

Phillip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison experiments shockingly revealed the flexible nature of our identity in regard to ingroups and outgroups. It showed how completely uncharacteristic behaviors can be evoked by placing ordinary people, randomly into the roles of Guards and Prisoners. The young men assigned the role of guards quickly fell into astonishingly cruel and harsh treatment of the “prisoners” even knowing perfectly well that they were just their fellow students and hadn’t done anything wrong. It was merely “staging the show” that transformed them into ugly, alien strangers. Meantime the “prisoners” quickly took on the helpless, angry, calculating roles typical of people in that situation. Perhaps our behaviors are almost all situational and generated by context:If so it may be that we gravitate to whatever context feels most natural to us and simply don’t notice behavior being evoked…we just see it as our behavior.
But I see what happened here as evidence of uninhibited “us and them” behavior in an uneven power balance.  People have wondered how nice young German men with no background in sadism or abuse could turn into the men machine gunning families in a ditch. Well this is that. This is the cruelty of ethnic cleansing but also of schoolyard bullies. Your childhood memories almost certainly contain a few of these dramas, whatever side you were on. Like all play, it’s practice for adult life.
We know that the roles played in this drama are the main evoker of this pattern, modulated by the level of demonizing toward the victims. It ought to be basic training for anyone headed for such a situation to be aware of this mechanism.

Blue eyes brown eyes

In the Blue eyes/ Brown eyes experiment – “racism” or “class privilege ” is evoked in children within hours…minutes even in this experiment. As one group embraces a sense of privilege and a convenient rationalization for it the other group immediately tastes the bitterness of insults and lower status. Humans like privilege and take to it like ducks to water. That means that they probably maintain an unconscious alertness for people who could be grouped beneath them because privilege rests on that foundation. Furthermore since we are discussing groups as well as individuals, consider how likely it is that “unconscious conspiracies” to pick pariah groups actually take place in cultures around the world.

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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.

  1. The very young imprint the culture, taking it at face value.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Does it sound like I’m imagining some sort of overseeing entity? Not really. I’m not so much describing what drives this process so much as pointing it out. We don’t understand what drives the balanced population dynamics of hive insects for example. How do they maintain the right population numbers of different castes and such? We know they do, and we don’t know how. If there are principles driving these real-time population adjustments at the hive or even species level, we don’t know what the hell they are or even what mechanism could accomplish it. Science has to patiently build scaffolding closer and closer to any mystery before the answers it finds are truly scientific and not guesses. Along the way, it has to settle all the preliminary questions underlying the big question. We are a long way from solid answers here. Perhaps understandably, most scientists don’t like or respect weird mysteries because there isn’t anything they can say that wouldn’t be wild speculation. They tend to respond neutrally if at all, often suggesting that there’s no evidence for the mystery itself. What is certain though is that human life is coordinated somehow at the community level as well as for the individual. The most practical way I can pursue answers is by looking for patterns of coordination at the obvious level of the world around me. The patterns may start to reveal something of the mechanism as we study them and their relationship to each other.
I have always been intrigued by the Placebo effect. Especially the fact that drama and style are part of how it works. For example a red pill or a bigger pill will often have a bigger effect. We know that the effect is real and that people experience real relief from symptoms, and often improved health generally. This raises some interesting questions. 
  • If a doctor (say, on a desert island) had no real medicine left, just some sugar pills, wouldn’t it logically  be ethical for him to hide this fact from his patients and even do his best to play up the theatrical side to deliver the strongest “dosage” possible? 
  • Doesn’t it mean that tribal style shamanic healers were actually doing what they could for their patients? And at least to a degree succeeding? 
  • When drug trials get to the human testing level, do the experimenters take the effect into account? When judging results do they allow a sort of fudge factor both for the control group and the test group? Because they would both be affected. How do they “zero out” the effect?
  • How to understand the impact of things like size and shape and color (and communicated expectations) on the prescriptions we use daily? 
  • Would it ever be medically unethical to tell someone experiencing a benefit that it was only a placebo?
  •  If we know it helps the effect for the pill to have some “show biz” should real prescription pills be designed also to impress? Are they already? 
Interesting also that there is a Nocebo Effect evidenced in people with very negative expectations and fears. They can experience apparent psychogenic discomforts from sugar pills or real medicine. It’s believed that this can also be a factor in patients who experience more side effects. 

Mental health is an area where the suffering is frequently increased by shame. Many people who struggle with anxiety or depression or ADHD develop a sort of secret life where they “pass for normal” daily while feeling like simply maintaining is a struggle. In many cases this fear of exposure is founded in reality, whether the fear is about social acceptance or maintaining employment. There’s a lot at stake for people who are already facing big challenges and announcing to the world that you might be a little weak and vulnerable is risking much for very nebulous gain.

There has a been a thaw over the last few decades in public acceptance where it has truly become less of a stigma and better understood. But these improvements are far from universal and I think it’s deep in the human character to want to appear strong. Perhaps it’s even a need to feel strong. Psychologically it’s easy to imagine that “coming out” to others, especially when feeling overwhelmed would be a terrible humiliation. The worst thing would be to have the external world completely reflect your inner struggle and support the idea that you are “damaged goods”. In this light, not telling others could be in a sense, healthy. The problem is that this denial and hiding is very isolating and it often extends to family and friends. The person who can afford it least, is sunk into a very lonely secret struggle.

It’s not that I think my writing or perspective is essential to anyone but I would like to raise my hand as one more person daylighting the reality of the struggle. I have ADHD and anxiety and exist somewhere on the gray zone of the autism spectrum. In my youth I suffered from periodic crippling depression. I’ve learned some hard lessons about it and have managed to stay out of its grip for over 20 years. But it is a permanent vulnerability, I have to be watchful and proactive. I am not a mental health professional and I am not claiming universal accuracy in my characterization of depression, but for the kind I had and for the kind I have seen in many friends over the years I think I have something to say worth hearing.

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What would it look like if you attempted to sketch out a script for a real cat? Let’s leave out the some of the foundations like the guidelines for building the cat’s body in the first place and maintaining all the various physiological systems, or whether the cat is old or young, or sick or whatever. Just a generic cat on a generic day.
Cat {
Danger [A. Maintain alertness for danger – loop always
A1. If danger is sensed:
*Danger 1 – serious – run helter skelter away FAST far – hide. Watch & Listen. loop till:A2
*Danger 2 – moderate – run away fast moderate distance – hide. Watch & Listen. Loop till:A2
*Danger 3 – mild – skulk into hiding. Watch & Listen. Loop till:A2
A2 – no danger is sensed] Check B

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The “binding problem” is the question of how our various senses blend and synthesize into a smooth, unified flow. Nobody knows how right now. Francis Crick came up with the 40 hertz synchronization theory to explain the biological causes of consciousness but it seems very empty and thin. And unlikely.

All neurons process something. So at some level, each neuron is an experience and in a tiny way, an experiencer. We know different areas of the brain specialize in different areas and kinds of processing but these areas are not simple lumps of processing material, they are massed armies of neurons …gigantic rock concert crowds talking to each other and responding to the show on stage in front of them. When the band yells out “Hello Cleveland!” and the crowd roars back…it becomes like a single entity, made of millions.

The mistake we make in imagining neurons is seeing them as essentially passive wiring that signals are flowing along like an old telegraph or telephone system with a caller at one end and a receiver at the other. In reality, that level of transmission doesn’t require anything like the amount of neuronal population and activity we have going on. The information coming into the system has to be batch processed, and blended with information from other “departments” to derive the basic picture/sound/smell combination and this has to be refreshed at a rate that feels instantaneous and flowing to the observer. But that’s just organizing the core feed into coherent sensory information. That raw feed has to be examined for context, meaning and nuance constantly while not flooding and overwhelming the human thinking their thoughts, doing their chores, socializing and planning. This is an astounding feat especially since that same brain is the one thinking those thoughts, doing those chores, planning and socializing. Continue reading


I believe attribution should go to Business Insider for these but I’m not certain if they generated them or just republished them. I think this is a nice summary of how and why human decision making sucks elephant butt. If you can remember these and filter your own thoughts for signs of them when they pop up you’ll develop better arguments and be a little more honest with yourself too. It’s not easy. From one angle it’s like a list things politicians do consciously and otherwise, often successfully.

I also find them interesting as a sociobiological thing, this is a list of mind behaviors that evolved with us and have stood the test of time. Somehow or other they may have held some survival or success value. Many feel like something I can see being either advantageous to the individual getting what they want or as socially unifying (and possibly dumb) behaviors. The rest are mostly stubbornness and wishful thinking.


This is a half-baked theory. It doesn’t suggest any particular role for neurons or other physical aspects of the brain. It is about the workings of the mind. It is primarily concerned with the things we learn how to do.

Imagine yourself…the mind you are as a volume of processing power: As an environment with a certain amount of ability to respond to the world. This software-like volume is a hierarchy made up of entities with different roles to play at different levels.

The smallest increment or unit is a “Mindon” (see: Making up crap, H. Miller). Metaphorically it is like a cell in the body, an atom in matter or a byte of computer memory. It is there not because of evidence pointing to it but simply because it belongs logically within the structure of this theory as the smallest unit of work. For our purposes, it creates the image of a tiny individual operator with a bit of processing power.
A new and unknown task is encountered. For example, learning a musical instrument, casting a fishing line or properly cutting an onion. The brain experiences it as if with a kind of touch in the processing centers naturally assigned to the sense data involved in the task (Motor, optical, etc).

Executive function does a kind of “importance triage” focusing on the sense data and relevant memories. Mindons begin to swarm and cluster around the task creating a complex imaginative prototype or map of the skill and begins measuring and comparing the experience of trying the skill against the map, making edits in the map as more information comes in and also making edits in DOING the task. Heuristics are noted and retained. With time and practice the map, measurements, and comparisons become more accurate, detailed and nuanced. Plateaus and benchmarks are hit and become a bit like a saved version of a game or a file, the starting point next time. Essentially this is a matured and organized group of mindons forming a stable repeatable task.

These coherent, informed collections of mindons I would call “Agents”. Something like playing the guitar wouldn’t involve a single agent but many. I imagine agents in this example being like proper holding, finger pressure, picking and strumming, volume and tuning, etc. Each of these areas would be an agent.

The whole coordinated group functioning together would be an Agency. I could use other names, I could call the agency a program and the agents, modules. The terminology isn’t very important but I’d like to not be completely bound by computer metaphors.

This system is far more fluid and flexible than any computer system. The agents are not limited to one specific agency, once established, I believe they can flow on demand into new situations that call for them. Somewhere in the mental map mentioned above would be a process of looking for existing “off the shelf” agents that could hit the ground running on the new task. For example, if you have an agency for driving a car or playing the guitar then when picking up a Ukulele or sitting in a go-cart the agency isn’t fully applicable but many useful agents flow instantly into the task.

So, mindons group at the behest of executive function, and form educated agents which group as a whole agency; “playing the guitar”. Singing would be an agency too so when playing the guitar AND singing there must exist a kind of Meta-agency that allows parallel processing and two-way feedback.  All of this is playing out in a larger framework where the musician is also processing things like audience reaction, etc.

This suggests an overall environment or community of mindons, agents, agencies and…departments? I’m not crazy about the bureaucratic feel of this metaphor but the hierarchical structure is needed.