Remembering Boredom

A few days ago, I had a strange vision (I wasn’t sleeping, and no drugs were involved). I was just sitting there, allowing my mind to drift, when suddenly my mind was flooded with images of memories from my past. The memories seemed to be sequential, starting at about 4 years old. The first memory was of sitting in a shopping cart at Hamady’s (a local grocery store) as my mother shopped. The next was sitting in the back of the car waiting for my father to finish buying something at the store — I was small, so my visibility was limited to the sky and some portions of a roof and a sign. Then came a memory of sitting bored on the couch while my parents socialized with their friends at some strange house. The images came rapidly; hundreds in all, and a few seconds per image. I just let it happen, curious to see what it would show.

The images were all still images, attached to an emotion. The emotion was always some sort of emptiness, boredom or hopelessness; and the images were washed out, like old Polaroids of beach scenes. As the images flashed past, I knew that the emotional memory was accurate — these were all times in my life when I felt a terrible despair and empty boredom. It was quite unpleasant, since I haven’t felt that way for at least 15 years. I had forgotten what it was like.

Despite the unpleasantness, I avoided the urge to break my attention. I knew I had to stay passive if I wanted to understand what was happening. And I noticed something interesting. Those moments were very common in early childhood, but became less and less common as time went on. I also noticed that the strong negative emotion had washed off on many things in the environment. To this day, I don’t like certain colors, certain types of party mix treats, certain shapes of end tables, and so on. These were all present during those moments.

Soon I became anxious. If these memories were so prevalent in my distant past, and had been suppressed for more than a decade, was this a sign that my life would soon feature these sorts of experiences again? Was it purely luck that banished those moments, and now my luck was running out? The thought was almost unbearable.

I quickly dispelled the anxiety, though. I’m a very different person today, and I can easily keep my mind occupied in any environment. Ability to keep mentally occupied is like a muscle, and I am no more likely to lose my mental muscles than I am to lose my physical strength and revert to a 4 year-old level.

Next, I realized that these moments accounted for a huge portion of my childhood, but the memories had been suppressed. I suspect that this is true for most children. More than half of their lives are occupied with a terrible despairing boredom, but when they get older, they suppress these memories and only remember the high points. This is utterly fascinating to me. Life would be miserable if we remembered all of these moments as vividly as we remember the high points. People often act as if selective memory is a bad thing, but I suspect that selective memory is not only inevitable, but a very good thing.

Some other interesting questions arise:

  1. If it is that bad at age 4, what about age 3? If we extrapolate backwards, it would seem that 90% or more of a two year-old’s life is pure suffering. But perhaps there is some cognitive phase shift that happens, before which it is impossible for children to suffer in this way? It’s well-known that children don’t remember things before a certain age, but is this simply because it is 90% suffering and they suppress the memories? Or is the lack of memory formation actually the thing that prevents the suffering from even being experienced in the first place?
  2. Long term memory formation requires a level of attention and arousal that causes a glutamate response. Why did these specific events trigger a glutamate response?
  3. Although I’ve lived more than a decade without experiencing this sort of boredom, and don’t expect to experience it anytime soon, what about when I’m older? Do elderly people revert to this childhood condition, and does it worsen as we age? Does the default state evaporate as we age?
  4. My escape from the despair happened largely accidentally. Is it possible (or even advisable) to accelerate this process in children? Is is possible to improve beyond the point where I am now; even a new phase level that would make my current mentality seem like suffering in retrospect?

When Helen Keller Became Human

So I’ve been exploring this idea that suffering and joy are correlated to cognitive ability. Just yesterday, The OFloinn posted a fascinating excerpt describing Helen Keller’s subjective experience of “becoming human”. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here is one short quote:

On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken [earlier that day, in a tantrum]. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

Apparently, Helen Keller’s anecdotal experience is quite similar to mine, and could be seen as support for my more general thesis. OFloinn makes some interesting connections to theology that I never thought of, as well.

Of course, neither Helen Keller nor I were recording our experiences in a theology-free context, so it’s possible that our contexts colored our memories. But these anecdotes suggest that it could be worthwhile to investigate using more reliable techniques.

Are Autistic People Evil?

Simon Baron-Cohen is director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, and has been instrumental in showing that Autism is caused by a defect in the empathy system. Now, Baron-Cohen is seeking to banish evil by boosting empathy:

His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy — a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.

In the article, he talks about his lifelong quest to understand how the Nazis could have committed such atrocities against the Jews, and his conviction that a lack of empathy was the cause:

Baron-Cohen also sets out an “empathy spectrum” ranging from zero to six degrees of empathy, and an “empathy quotient” test, whose score puts people on various points along that spectrum.

Drawing a classic bell curve on a graph, Baron-Cohen says that thankfully, the vast majority of humans are in the middle of the bell curve spectrum, with a few particularly attuned and highly empathetic people at the top end.

Psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder sit at the bottom end of the scale — these people have “zero degrees of empathy.”

This is quite remarkable coming from a guy who studies autism. Autistic people aren’t known for being evil. If you torment an autistic person, he might bite or pummel you and run away, but that’s just self-preservation. He’s not plotting to turn anyone into a lampshade. I’ve worked with plenty of people with Asperger’s, so I know that they can be deceptive, stubborn, and egotistical. But they are generally far more honest and less malicious than the average person.

Conversely, it seems that violent criminals have problems other than lack of empathy. Poor impulse control and hair-trigger insecurity come out near the top. And there are several other neural defects that have been clearly linked to violent sociopathic behavior which have nothing to do with empathy.

So, I’m not convinced. In my experience, a strong empathic system can help to inhibit sociopathic aggression. But the root cause of evil aggression is not a lack of empathy. And, more importantly, if the root causes of the aggression are strong enough, the empathic system will be overridden and enlisted in aid of the aggression.

Neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran discusses many of the neurological defects that underpin sociopathy in his new book “The Tell-Tale Brain“. He also discusses Simon Baron-Cohen’s research, and suggests his own novel technique for improving empathy and “curing” autism — he suggests giving recreational drugs to children!

A possibility—one that I suggested in an article for Scientific American that I coauthored with my graduate student Lindsay Oberman—would be to try certain drugs. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that MDMA (the party drug ecstasy) enhances empathy, which it may do by increasing the abundance of neurotransmitters called empathogens, which naturally occur in the brains of highly social creatures such as primates.

If administered sufficiently early, cocktails of such drugs might help tide over some early symptom manifestations enough to minimize the subsequent cascade of events that lead to the full spectrum of autistic symptoms.

Again, I’m not convinced. Baron-Cohen wants to “banish evil” by “boosting empathy”, and empathy can certainly be boosted by boosting empathogen levels, as Ramachandran says. Feeding mind-altering drugs to kids seems like a profoundly bad idea.

In any case, empathy can be used for evil as well as for good. Perhaps to be wicked requires a lack of empathy, but to be truly evil requires empathy.

Cauterize Your Empathy

This post is more personal than normal, and very long. The current medical consensus is that autism is caused, in part, by a malfunction of the mirror neuron system. My personal experience growing up tends to support this theory.

I was born with an over-active empathy system. I would look at a person’s face and feel exactly what that person was feeling. I couldn’t inhibit it, so I was at the mercy of wherever my eyes landed. This was very stressful, and I spent a great deal of effort learning to avoid these involuntary empathies. I have many distinct memories of this learning process. For a young person, the easiest way to control my feelings was to control my eyes. I only looked at faces I could trust, and avoided the rest. Looking at faces was dangerous.

We grew up without a television. It was only when I was 16 that my mother explained why. When I was two years old, my parents had a TV. Apparently, some of the people on the TV would set me off, causing me to freak out inconsolably. My parents solved the problem by getting rid of the TV.

Written words were safe. My mother taught me to read before I started Kindergarten. There were two different reading styles. In one style, I would read a book aloud to my mother and keep an auditory rhythm — I had to read ahead several words before speaking, so that I could get the inflection right. That required attention and focus. The other style was when I was silently reading a book like the encyclopedia, enthralled by the world of experiences it opened up.

I did well enough on the aptitude test to start Kindergarten at age 4. This was a serious problem, since I was taken away from all the faces I trusted. I bonded with the first kid I met on the bus, because he was wearing the same shirt as me. His name was David, and the shirt was a purple “Grover” shirt. He was the first and last person I would bond with that year. The teacher’s face was stern. The class “work” was boring, and the patterns on the walls and ceiling were interesting, so I completely ignored the teacher. Classmates were a new quantity, but there were far too many kids to keep track. I attempted some social experiments that ended in disaster. After the first couple of weeks, I was made to sit at the desk with my head down during much of every class. I was rarely allowed to go to recess. I internalized Kindergarten as the “dark head down place”.

A few weeks into the Kindergarten year, the teacher called me to the front of the room. She had been told that I knew how to read, but she didn’t believe it. She gave me a book and asked me to read it aloud, so I did. Her face was confused, and she asked me to sit down. I was happy, but it was only for the day. After that, Kindergarten remained a “dark head down place”.

One day, we were all taken to a room where we sat on the floor to watch a movie. I watched as the teacher rolled out the movie projector. I had learned not to look at the faces of the other kids, so I didn’t notice that they were all looking at the wall instead of the movie projector. I watched the beams of light gleam forth from the movie projector, and listened to the sounds. When the movie finished, all of the other children broke into applause. It was only then that I realized they were all looking at the wall opposite the movie projector. I had missed the entire movie.

First grade was somewhat easier, since we were allowed to read. I made a friend based purely upon us sharing the same last name. After my humiliating movie experience, I was more venturesome in looking at other children. On the playground, I could watch other kids and experience exactly what they were experiencing. I could watch the fastest kid chasing the soccer ball, and I was there. It was as if I were projected into the other person’s body. I could feel the wind blowing through my hair, feel every muscle twitch, and see what he saw. I could feel the thump each time my foot hit the ball. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never experienced this — I literally experienced as if I were the other person. It was exhilarating!

Unfortunately, this dramatic empathy was dangerous. In those days, the boys loved to play “marbles”. One day, I was projecting into another boy’s body and enjoying a race toward the soccer ball. My consciousness was 50 yards away, completely unaware that another boy had placed his coffee can full of marbles on the ground near where my body was standing. As the soccer player ran with arms swinging, my arms swung simultaneously. When he reached the ball and kicked, my leg kicked simultaneously. His foot hit the ball, while my body’s foot hit the coffee can full of marbles. The marbles scattered everywhere. I vaguely became aware of a boy screaming, “HEY! WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”. Then I saw someone running toward me with murder in his face. I ran away and hid, barely escaping violence. I had learned my lesson. Mirroring was danger, and I shut it off.

When we saw our first movie that year, I remembered my Kindergarten experience, and proudly looked at the wall instead of the projector. I was finally like the other kids! It was a movie about some cartoon vegetables. At some point in the movie, one of the cartoon vegetables started strangling another. As the dying cartoon vegetable’s eyes started to water, my eyes started to water. As his face turned red and then purple, my face flushed. As he choked, I was unable to breathe. I thought for sure I was going to die. It was one of the most horrible experiences of my young life. At some point, I noticed that all of my classmates were laughing and pointing at the screen. They were laughing at the violence! It was a shocking and formative experience for me. I instantly decided that they were defective and dangerous. I couldn’t believe that anyone would voluntarily watch a movie like that, let alone get enjoyment from it. Whatever those kids were, they were not like me. I decided to shut off my empathy when watching movies, and learned not to expect anything of other children.

Second grade was bad. Mrs. Rogers smelled bad and was full of hate. Every morning, she made all of us sit in a circle on the floor, holding hands, while she played Kenny Roger’s “She Believes in Me” on the record player. She would make us sing along while she sat in the middle of the circle with her bad smell. She forced us to gaze at her while we sung. Afterwards, she would spend the day explaining why she didn’t believe in us. It was an excruciating fraud.

I hadn’t done any classwork or homework in the previous two years, and I wasn’t about to start. I couldn’t. The patterns outside the window were mesmerizing, and it was impossible to pay attention to Mrs. Rogers. There were too many patterns within the classroom, too, and I couldn’t focus on the classwork. Mrs. Rogers took it personally, certain that I was out to defy her. In her mind, it was all about her; teachers can be narcissistic like that. It never occurred to her that my mind was elsewhere. The less I responded to her, the more she tried to force me. I was never allowed to go to recess. She would stand next to me and scream in my ear. In frustration, she would sometimes grab my arm and use it like a lifeless stump to write out problems on the classwork. I hated being touched, but I could project my consciousness outside and escape the unpleasantness. I never did any classwork.

Mrs. Rogers convinced my mother that I needed to be punished. Every day, when I arrived at home, I was made to stand in the corner for an hour or two. Then I was made to stare at my homework. I never did homework, either. I have no idea why they graduated me to third grade. I suspect that Mrs. Rogers didn’t want to have to deal with me again.

Third and fourth grade were relatively easy, since there was no classwork or homework to speak of. I mastered the small amount of material effortlessly, and only had to deliver on tests, which I enjoyed immensely. I was able to pass as normal, although there were plenty of embarrassing incidents caused by my cauterization of my mirroring instincts. More than once, I forgot that the other kids existed and withdrew into my imaginary world, only to be yanked out of it by the sound of the whole class laughing and pointing at me while I did something strange.

Fifth grade was interesting. The tests were easy, but the teacher placed great importance on classwork and homework. She also insisted that we maintain a puzzling organization scheme for our desks. The other students easily met these requirements, but I was incapable. She took my incapacity personally, convinced that I was out to get her. Teachers can be narcissistic like that. One day, she had a meltdown and started screaming at me in front of the class. She physically picked up my desk, shook it upside-down over the floor, and threw away most of my stuff. She told me that I was no longer allowed to have a desk, and that I would have to sit on the floor at the front of the room, facing the other students. She said that she wanted me to see all of the other students looking at me, so I could be embarrassed. That is where she kept me for the rest of the year.

The teacher insisted that I would never graduate without finishing all of my classwork and homework. That was inconceivable, so I got used to the idea of sitting on the floor forever. I was shocked when they graduated me to sixth grade anyway.

In sixth grade, my friend was a kid named Marc. Like me, he was only semi-present, but for different reasons. His home life was terrible. His mother went through a sequence of boyfriends who would punch holes in the walls and doors of his home, and essentially left him to raise himself. His idea of fun was to cut himself and put salt in the wounds, or put salt in his eyes. He was obsessed with the depraved porn that he found in his mother’s nightstand, and loved pro wrestling. We both had a talent for electronics, and our sixth grade teacher usually let us leave class for hours at a time to build circuits in the lab. The times in the lab without a teacher nagging me were some of my favorite school experiences up to that point. I lost touch with Marc after sixth grade, and later learned that he was sucked into a machine and killed at his factory job shortly after graduating high school.

Sixth grade is when I was forced to stop hiding from the mirroring. A handful of the boys started going through puberty, and grew large and aggressive. They would torment and bully the other kids mercilessly. There was a distinct inflection point early in the year when I realized that I could no longer hide or run from them, so I would have to cope with them. I made the effort to mirror them, talk to them, and build a rapport. It was exhausting at first, requiring attention and focus. But later it became surprisingly easy. In a few short weeks, the bullies began to think of me as a friend, and became my protectors. I was one of the only non-bully kids who was liked and protected by the bullies; a pattern that would continue throughout the remaining years of school. I didn’t exactly think of them as friends, of course. They were more like dangerous wild animals that I was forced to train, lest I be mauled by them. But it was nice to have other kids to go talk to when I got sick of Marc trying to turn everything into a conversation about anal sex.

My empathy system was overpowering, and too exhausting to regulate. I would’ve preferred to leave it shut off, but I needed it for survival. From sixth grade forward, I built up the skills I needed to regulate effectively — opportunistically at first, and methodically as I got older. By about age 16, the skills had become effortless enough that interaction with groups of strangers became more enjoyable than stressful. By age 19, social situations were even more fun than math. By age 20, I pitied the masses who didn’t share my neuronal aptitude for mirror immersion.

There are many other anecdotes I could use to illustrate the point, but you get the idea. Those days are far behind me, but my regulation of my mirroring system is still conscious and deliberate. For most people, it’s a natural capability, but it’s prosthetic for me. And I still need to shut down the mirroring completely from time to time; most often when I’m stressed or focused on a difficult intellectual challenge. Those are the times I go into “robot mode”, seeing other people as robots.

In one sense, I’m the exact opposite of autistic. Many high-functioning autistics don’t have a problem with the regulation; it’s the ability to mirror that they need to build prosthetically. But I suspect that the mechanism in early childhood is often the same — the kid’s mirror system gets overwhelmed, and the traumatized kid starts to instinctively shut things down. We know that autistic people have fewer mirror neurons in some important areas, but I suspect that this is as much a result of cauterization as it is a cause. It’s probably analogous to the way that the hippocampus shrinks in depressed people, and a smaller hippocampus then contributes to depression. In autistic kids, the process may just be triggered very early, and quickly becomes irreversible.


Arturo Vasquez on poetry:

It occurred to me while thinking about this how we naturally assume that prose is the “first” language and that “poetry” is a development from it. But why should this be so? Surely animals are born, copulate and die quite efficiently (sometimes more efficiently) than the “speaking” animal. Were the first words spoken by humans “Sell consols and buy blue chip”? Don’t you think it would have been more like:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus,
that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.

This sums up what we’ve lost in the modern age. What is called “poetry” today is not some fanciful embellishment that we use to “pretty up” our prose. It’s our original, most authentic, and purest way of expressing. In modern times, we give priority to objectivity, and thus we value analytical and reductive prose. But that’s quite recent in evolutionary terms. We wear analytical prose like a hairshirt. Our bodies and minds weren’t designed for analytical reductiveness; we were made for participation.

Owen Barfield was an expert on the poetry and history of the English language, and often made this same point. Just yesterday, I discovered a fascinating blog, which has a great post about Owen Barfield’s “Unancestral Voices”:

Now, I just finished reading the first three chapters of Barfield’s Unancestral Voice , and my brain is on fire. In this short expanse of prose, Barfield turns Darwin on his head in a reverse manner to the way that Marx supposedly turned Hegel on his head. There was no inchoate, unreasoning, unKnowing process that willy-nilly resulted in man’s rational and linguistic capacities. His single phrase “The interior is anterior” liberated me to see what he had been saying all along. The “unfree wisdom” was what nature had all along. All of it, Plato, Aristotle, Jefferson, Einstein, was there, somewhere, encoded into the warp and woof of Creation, but it wasn’t free. It wasn’t yet self aware. And it wasn’t the result of material processes. And at the center of it was the Incarnation.

How I Die

A few weeks ago, I got my DNA test results from 23andMe. They analyze approximately one million SNPs from your DNA and store the results in a database. They match your DNA to scores of known disease risks, and deduce several other things from your genes. In addition to the many things they test for, you can do your own queries to see how your SNPs match up with almost any study you find. On prompting from relatives, I manually looked up the SNPs associated with Neanderthal admixture, and confirmed that I do have Neanderthal ancestors (as nearly all of us do).

My primary motivation for running the test was to see if I was at risk for Alzheimer’s. My mother’s father died from Alzheimer’s, so I had reason to be concerned. And ever since reading “Flowers for Algernon” at age 12, I’ve felt that Alzheimer’s would be an especially poignant way to die. Since age 17, I’ve kept current on Alzheimer’s research, taken supplements intended to slow Alzheimer’s, and done brain exercises intended to keep my mind in shape.

Although 23andMe don’t directly test for Alzheimer’s, you can get a good picture by manually looking at a few SNPs. It turns out that I am at very low risk for Alzheimer’s. I have been outrunning the wrong disease my entire life.

Instead, I’m at elevated risk for prostate cancer, which doesn’t worry me much. Nearly one third of men with my specific genetic variation will get prostate cancer by age 90, as opposed to a bit more than one sixth of men in general. Prostate cancer is quite survivable, and I know how to manage it.

If I’m going to die of a genetically influenced disease, it will probably be esophageal cancer. One in 300 men with my specific genetic variation get esophageal cancer by age 90, as opposed to something like 1 in 600 generally. I’m addicted to Hunan and Sichuan food, which increases my odds. Even if that triples my chances (and I doubt it), that’s still only a 1% chance of getting esophageal cancer. However, those odds are uncomfortably high, since esophageal cancer is painful and deadly. Atheist Christopher Hitchens and actor Michael Douglas are both attempting to fight esophageal cancer right now. Since America is financially bankrupt and politically gridlocked for the foreseeable future, I’m pretty sure that now is the best level of healthcare I’ll ever see in my lifetime. It’s all downhill from here; at least for the next 30 years. If I contract esophageal cancer, a cure is vanishingly improbable, and I’ll hope at best for good hospice care and cheap painkillers.

So, I will lay off of the spicy food.

Other than my 0.3% chance of dying a painful death from esophageal cancer, my genes look pretty good. For Christians, in particular, Alzheimer’s poses some extremely difficult questions. I’m happy that I can passively evaluate those questions now; I no longer have a dog in the hunt. The fact that a Christian would find a painful death from esophageal cancer vastly preferable to Alzheimer’s is quite revealing, and probably interesting to those who are curious about the Christian mentality.

Ambiguously, I’m genetically suited to be a sprinter rather than a distance athlete. This matches my experience. On nearly every other score directly measured by 23andMe, I win the genetic lottery unambiguously. Genetic variations associated with IQ, memory, and general health — 100% positive.

Should I direct these advantages entirely toward thwarting the primary risk for HOW I DIE? To do so would be to commit McNamara’s Fallacy, and I’m certain to die one way or another, eventually. Obsessing about only those factors that I can measure is probably counterproductive. I continue to take supplements and stock the Tamiflu, IOSAT, and other emergency supplies. And I will cut back on the spicy food. But I will ultimately die some “how”. Only now, it’s not likely that my death will involve severe dementia, schizophrenia, or other mental breakdown. My new poignant death to outrun is a slow and painful death, and that’s OK by me.