Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A tale of seduction: Der Erlkönig

From a friend:
To my favorite sociopath-

Musings on the art of seduction and Schubert’s Der Erlkönig, poem by Goethe.

Goethe sets us up with a seduction that leads us slowly to the Erlkönig's lair. First we think we see him, but others (the father) assure us that it's just mist. Then we hear him, but others say it's just the wind. Finally, we see him, but others see only a tree.

Schubert’s music takes it all to another level- listen to the range of the Erlkönig. He pleads in a magnificent and tender high range. First he offers beautiful and expensive items, then he offers experiences, servants, dancing. In his final persuasive moment he says that he loves you -- then he says he will take you by force! All the while Schubert builds the tension of the boy and father to unbearable heights, while the voice of Erlkönig is our only relief. We slip with the boy into a sweet death. It is only in our final submission that others consider the awful reality that our senses were accurate and theirs dull, but it is too late.

And so is seduction.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Sociopathic Buddhism: tautology or contradiction?

One of the most sought after sociopathic traits by normal people is the ability to be "zen" in the face of stress or danger. I've always suspected there may be a connection to the sort of consciousness that sociopaths experience and that sought to be attained by Buddhists, so I was glad when a reader took the time to explain the connection to me:

Consciousness is something that has always fascinated me, but until recently I've only explored it intellectually, not directly. I've been experimenting with Zen meditation for a few months now, and it occurred to me one day that there are some interesting parallels between sociopathy and Zen Buddhism, such as emotional detachment, no strong attachment to a self, not buying into belief systems, and having a focus on the present. Also, Buddhists, like sociopaths, can appear to outsiders as unemotional, or emotionally cold. However, Buddhists do appreciate emotions and actions that are spontaneous, and from the gut, just not those arising from the intellect. Given the above, I wonder if Buddhism, in spite of being a religion, would hold a special appeal to the sociopathic mind?

Is it possible even that the sociopathic mind is closer to enlightenment? Empaths identify so closely with emotions and find emotions so compelling, that I wonder if they would have a harder time attaining Buddhist awareness than logical, less emotional individuals, and might be more likely to fall into the trap of merely chasing after a spiritual high? Or would sociopaths, in spite of their detachment and greater awareness, have a harder time letting go of the scheming?

Being fully in the present requires letting go of the attachment to all thoughts, including concepts such as empathy, sociopathy, conscience, power, control, good, evil, and most importantly the self. It also requires letting go of the attachment to feelings, which are also a type of thought. You have to stop both thinking and feeling. As long as we are thinking (or feeling), we are busy either reflecting or anticipating. We're making a story from what is happening around us, and caught up in some illusion or other. Buddhists maintain that we suffer because we live in such states of illusion perpetuated by our thoughts. Giving up attachment to our thoughts brings awareness, and with awareness comes freedom from illusion, and thus freedom from suffering. With awareness also comes compassion. The compassion arises from experiencing directly, through meditation, our connection to everything and everyone. It doesn't matter if you are an empath or a sociopath. According to Buddhists, we all have this Buddha nature, even if we don't know it. We are all the same.

Looking at it this way, the difference between a sociopath and empath is only an illusion.

Here is a quote from "No self. No problem" by Anam Thubten, that I liked, that puts it well: "When one illusion doesn't work then we become disillusioned and we go around with our antennae up looking for another illusion. We look for one we don't associate with any memories of being disillusioned, one with no sense of disappointment. We look for something new, something different, something better. When we don't find an illusion we like, we make a big deal out of it. We say we're having a spiritual crisis. We're going through the dark night of the soul. We feel that the ground beneath our feet is shaky. We don't like being in darkness, in emptiness. We want to find an illusion that gives us comfort, that gives us what could be called a psychological massage. Soon we find another illusion, one that is full of promise."

You could say that, in a way, the sociopaths give empaths a psychological massage.

And from the other side of the fence, here is an excerpt from an article criticizing Buddhism (quoted here): "Even if you achieve a blissful acceptance of the illusory nature of your self, this perspective may not transform you into a saintly bodhisattva, brimming with love and compassion for all other creatures. Far from it—and this is where the distance between certain humanistic values and Buddhism becomes most apparent. To someone who sees himself and others as unreal, human suffering and death may appear laughably trivial. This may explain why some Buddhist masters have behaved more like nihilists than saints. Chogyam Trungpa, who helped introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the United States in the 1970s, was a promiscuous drunk and bully, and he died of alcohol-related illness in 1987. Zen lore celebrates the sadistic or masochistic behavior of sages such as Bodhidharma, who is said to have sat in meditation for so long that his legs became gangrenous."

The darker side of Buddhism, or the misunderstanding of an unenlightened mind?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Power of empathy?

From researcher Brene Brown on the distinction between empathy and sympathy, among other characteristics of empathy:

It's interesting that Brown quotes another scholar, Theresa Wiseman, who studied professions in which empathy is (allegedly) important. Wiseman came up with four main qualities of empathy based on these studies:

  1. Perspective taking (ability to take perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth)
  2. Staying out of judgment (not easy when you enjoy it as much as most of us do)
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people 
  4. Communicating that 
To me, I can say yes to all of those things. I can take people's perspective, as well as other people (maybe better?). I stay out of judgment (no bandwagon angry mob public shaming). I can recognize emotion in other people and communicate it back to them, it's why I am so good at reading and manipulating people. My main problem is recognizing emotion in myself. But Professor Brown then concludes that empathy is "feeling with other people." Ok, maybe that is what it is, or maybe that is what it feels like for most people (whether or not that's even possible or if people are just projecting their own emotions on the empathy target). But if the four main qualities don't include "feeling with other people," is that what is really valuable about empathy? If I can do the other four things, am I basically covering all of the important empathy bases?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

What the Grinch Teaches us About Good, Evil, and the Possibility of Change

I love the Grinch story/movies. For those that haven't experienced them, the Grinch is a bad guy (or tragically misunderstood?) who has a turnaround and his heart grows three sizes. How does it grow three sizes? It wasn't because he was shamed.

I got some pushback on my dislike of shaming as an enforcement method in the recent post "6 Surprising Findings About Good and Evil." (Some people found the scientific findings so surprising, they flat out disagreed with them.) People did not like my suggestion that we stop using gossip and public shaming as blunt instrument enforcement mechanisms for ensuring conformity of moral and social behavioral standards. And this was even before the Justine Sacco fiasco, where a Sarah Silverman style joke was the impetus for people who had never given half a thought to the AIDS crisis in Africa to judge her worthy of the equivalent of public social stoning.  One person's criticism: "Your solutions are always based on the whole world changing, but not you. . . . This is the self-delusional part of your diagnosis that has to change in order for you to see a change in how the world accepts you." I think the gist of that comment is that people could simply avoid being shamed by always acting properly (or that social change is not possible or not desirable in this instance?).

The problem is that no one behaves properly all of the time. Whether it is a tasteless joke, or a deeply held belief that is politically unpopular, every single person has done, said, or thought something that, if widely publicized, could ruin them. So often these people who have been shunned by society are not necessarily better or worse overall than most people, they are largely just unlucky (or have too much integrity to change their values due to the pressures of the crowd?). And for that lack of luck (or abundance of virtue however misguided we believe their virtue is?), we collectively destroy them. And I think this is wasteful, unnecessary, and suggests that people must really enjoy shaming to do it as often as they do because that seems to be the major benefit.

I think ruining people's life over one thing they did is generally a bad idea because people are dynamic -- they change their beliefs and their loyalties and their values many times over their lifetime. Think of the violent criminal who mentors and assists his fellow prisoners while incarcerated or the Grinch whose heart grows three sizes. Society is also dynamic -- an idea that was once politically unpopular becomes the norm and vice versa. You may think you're very right in the moral judgments and punishments you invoke against strangers, but so do the people who publicly stone people for otherwise consensual adultery. I'm not saying that society is wrong or needs to change to accommodate me. I'm just saying, these are some of the easy and not even original to me critiques of the prevalent and severely effective blunt instrument that is social shaming to ensure compliance of social norms. Furthermore, as I previously posted, shaming doesn't work how people would like it to. If someone shamed you, would you change your heart or just try to stay more under the radar? There is actually evidence that restorative justice is actually more effective than retributive justice (like shaming and the subsequent social fallout), both in terms of victim satisfaction and offender accountability. For instance, wasn't it because the Grinch was the recipient of restorative justice (allowing him fully back into society after he brought back the Christmas he had stolen) that he was able to change his heart? Or do we no longer give people the benefit of the doubt or even acknowledge that they have the power to change? Maybe we would have preferred for the Grinch to live his life in isolation in his cave, forever shunned from polite society?

I guess it's easier for me to see the negative aspects of shaming than the positive because I have seen so many people in my life make radical changes -- it's why I don't hate my parents for things that happened in my childhood and why I have an appreciation for the redemptive power of spirituality and religion in people's lives. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Ask a sociopath: high-functioning

This blog has been a good outlet for me -- in the past couple years that I have been writing it, I have had a more stable life. I've answered questions and had questions answered, I've seduced and been seduced, I've lived vicariously through you and you through me. It's been a very unique experience -- fascinating to see the breadth and depth of humanity and to be forced to contribute regularly to that type of dialogue, particularly since I would never do so otherwise (I get very bored with purely philosophical discussions). Anyway, I thought I would share just a few recent questions and answers.

I asked a socio reader what it was like to be in a relationship with another sociopath: "What we were able to share was more than manipulation and sexual mind games. It was a simultaneous hollow connection that would eventually come to an end due to lack of further interest, or one of us ultimately winning."

One socio reader who describes herself as low-functioning but high-functioning enough to recognize it asked me, "How is my perspective interesting to you?" I answered:
I think everyone that has their feet in two different worlds (e.g. you being both high/low functioning) is interesting. For instance I am interested in someone who is transgendered, or black but light enough to pass for white, or poor but very educated. They are about the only people I trust to speak honestly about their own circumstances because they have a rare objectivity about what it really means to be a certain gender, or a certain race, or a certain social class. It's an objectivity about one's own personal circumstances that I think I lack in a lot of ways.
Another question, "How functional are you? like in maintaining an image?"
I'm single, so do poorly at relationships, but haven't really wanted to be in a committed relationship yet either (not enough). I've never been to prison, but have been "officially disciplined" several times, discharged from my employment a couple times, progressed from career path to career path while still managing to "climb" rather than slide in terms of prestige and money. Right now I have a relatively stable life in which I basically do what I want within reason in a field where micromanaging is frowned upon as stifling of creativity.
"Have you ever been this low in your life?"
No, but yes in some ways. I have made mistakes before and had my bad actions revealed to everyone that mattered, lost my good reputation and had to start over from scratch. Does that count?
"How did you manage to change yourself?"
I had a problem with self-deception, believing my own lies, which got me into trouble because I was blinded to the real risks inherent in my actions. Recognizing self-deception as being the root of my problems, I went on a dishonesty fast for about a year until I could trust myself to lie to others while still maintaining a knowledge of the truth for myself. Sometimes I fear that I have again strayed too far into self-deception, but I don't have the luxury of another complete fast from being dishonest at my current stage in life. Instead, I try to be as honest as I can and only lie if it is necessary.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Maria Konnikova writes for Scientific American Blogs about the psychology behind gift giving. She cites research on how generosity is a winning game theory strategy, even seen from an self-maximizing economic perspective, because it is so difficult to tell whether you'll ever see that person again:

A group of psychologists from UC-Santa Barbara set out to test the long-standing conundrum that even in anonymous, one-shot games—in other words, in situations where you know that (1) you will never again encounter your partner and (2) no one has any idea what decision you’ve made—people more often than not choose to incur costs themselves in order to allocate benefits to others; an irrational behavior by traditional economic standards if ever there was one. In their model, the team managed to isolate an asymmetry that had previous been ignored: in an uncertain world, it is far more costly to incorrectly identify a situation as one-shot when it is in fact repeated than it is to mistake an actual one-shot encounter for a repeated one. Put differently, it is better to always assume that we will in fact encounter the same partners over and over. So costly is it to make a mistake in the opposite direction that, even absent any reputational or other mechanisms, it makes sense for us to behave generously to anyone we encounter. As the study authors conclude, “Generosity evolves because, at the ultimate level, it is a high-return cooperative strategy…even in the absence of any apparent potential for gain. Human generosity, far from being a thin veneer of cultural conditioning atop a Machiavellian core, may turn out to be a bedrock feature of human nature.”

That makes a lot of sense to me. Often people ask me, as a sociopath, whether I would leave a tip for a service professional whom I thought I would never see again, but I find that hard to imagine because one time I was accosted outside a restaurant by a service professional who felt that I undertipped him. Tipping generously not only had prevented that from happening since, it has also made a positive impression on my some of my dining companions that have had the chutzpah to actually check the tip that I've left, to ensure it was generous enough. So I find the hypo of never seeing a victim again difficult to imagine.

And if you're going to bother giving a gift, better make it count by getting something that they would particularly appreciate, or perhaps that could only come from you. Ariely describes these gifts:

Instead of picking a book from your sister's Amazon wish list, or giving her what you think she should read, go to a bookstore and try to think like her. It's a serious social investment.

The great challenge lies in making the leap into someone else's mind. Psychological research affirms that we are all partial prisoners of our own preferences and have a hard time seeing the world from a different perspective. But whether or not your sister likes the book, it may give her joy to think about you thinking of her.

I understand exactly what Ariely is talking about, having always made this type of tailor-made gift-giving myself. Konnikova suggests that people could do just as well with empathy (or maybe she is saying that this can only be done with empathy?):

Ariely singles out this type of gift as one that makes the mental leap from your own vantage point to that of someone else. It’s a leap that is incredibly difficult to take—exhibiting empathy, let alone perfect empathy to the point of complete confluence with the mind of another person, is a tough feat even in the most conducive of circumstances—but that may be worth taking all the same. For, even if you fail to make it as accurately as you may have wanted, the effort will be noted. The actual accuracy is somewhat beside the point. What matters is that you try to make the shift from your own mindset to someone else’s, that you make the effort to think about what present would be best suited to another person.

What if you don't use empathy to make the leap from your own vantage point to that of someone else? Is it still the thought that counts? 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Film: Nightmare Before Christmas

When I was younger I really identified with the film Nightmare Before Christmas (currently streams on Netflix). It's about Jack Skellington and the people of Halloweentown, whose job is to scare people ("that's our job but we're not mean" because "life's not fun without a good scare"). They end up taking over Christmas and making a mess of it, largely because they can't quite grasp the concept of it (regarding stockings hung by a fire, "Oh, yes! Does it still have a foot? Let me see, let me look. Is it rotted and covered with gook?"). Their misplaced attempts at Christmas reminded me of this idea, from a father of an autistic child regarding his philosophy in placing autistic individuals in places of employment that take advantage of their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses:

 “A weed is a beautiful plant in an unwanted place,” he says. “An herb is the same plant where it is wanted. Who decides if something is a weed or an herb? Society does.”

Jack Skellington and his band undoubtedly do bad things, chief among them ruining Christmas. And he does it all gleefully and selfishly, although unintentionally. Rather, he just does things in a way that comes naturally to him but is wholly inappropriate for that particular context. I really identified with that growing up. There were plenty of bad things that I actively intended, just like Jack's terror filled Halloween celebrations. But there were also times when I felt like I was using my prodigious (I thought) talents for good. Like Jack, those times were largely because I misunderstood the complexity of what I was trying to imitate. For instance, Jack in trying to decipher the secret of Christmas magic finally gives up, assuming that it can't be as complicated as it seemed:

Or perhaps it's really not as deep as I've been led to think.
Am I trying much too hard? Of course. I've been too close to see.
The answer's right in front of me.
Right in front of me.
It's simple really, very clear,
like music drifting in the air.
Invisible, but everywhere.
Just because I cannot see it doesn't mean I can't believe it.
You know, I think this Christmas thing
is not as tricky as it seems.
And why should they have all the fun?
It should belong to anyone.
Not anyone, in fact, but me.
Why, I could make a Christmas tree.
And there's no reason I can find
I couldn't handle Christmastime.
I bet I could improve it, too, and that's exactly what I'll do.
(evil laugh)

There were many times as a young sociopath that I felt similarly about the emotional worlds of others. Even though I didn't relate to my own emotions or feel empathy, I figured that there couldn't be that much to it, so I didn't tinkering around with the emotions of others.

Jack decides that although he is naturally talented and well suited for scaring people, he would like to try something new -- bringing Christmas cheer. Once Jack decides to take over Christmas, there is nothing that he won't do to accomplish his goals, largely through manipulating his minions. He tells the trick or treaters Lock, Shock, and Barrel to kidnap Santa Claus, appealing to their pride and love of the nefarious ("The job I have for you is top secret. It requires craft, cunning, mischief.") He tries to explain the spirit of Christmas to the residents of Halloween but when they don't get it, he decides to instead just tell them what they want to hear in order to get their support -- the story of the monster Sandy Claws ("Everyone, please! Now, not so fast. There’s something here that you don’t quite grasp. (Well, I may as well give them what they want…)"). It's clear that they never quite understand the spirit of Christmas because when news reports of Jack saw that he is "mocking and mangling this joyous holiday," they cheer.

When Jack realizes he has utterly failed, he is disappointed for a hot minute ("how could I be so blind . . . everything's gone so wrong"). This sentiment falls just short of repentance and he is soon feeling quite pleased with himself and his ability to do as much as he did: "for a moment why, I even touched the sky." So pretty resilient self-esteem. Again I related to this, the knowledge that I had spectacularly failed, but never really seeming to feel badly about it all or change my behavior.

So, is there a role for Jack Skellingtons in this world? Or are they weeds wherever they sprout?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sociopaths = slightly less violent than toddlers

David Dobbs writes for the NY Times about the progression from violent toddlers (everyone), to become less violent children (most everyone) to becoming hardly violent at all adults (a lot of people):

To understand the violent criminal, says Richard E. Tremblay, imagine a 2-year-old boy doing the things that make the terrible twos terrible — grabbing, kicking, pushing, punching, biting.

Now imagine him doing all this with the body and resources of an 18-year-old.

You have just pictured both a perfectly normal toddler and a typical violent criminal as Dr. Tremblay, a developmental psychologist at University College Dublin in Ireland, sees them — the toddler as a creature who reflexively uses physical aggression to get what he wants; the criminal as the rare person who has never learned to do otherwise.

In other words, dangerous criminals don’t turn violent. They just stay that way.
“It’s highly reliable,” said Brad J. Bushman, a psychology professor at Ohio State University and an expert on child violence, who noted that toddlers use physical aggression even more than people in violent youth gangs do. “Thank God toddlers don’t carry weapons.”
The rate of violence peaks at 24 months, declines steadily through adolescence and plunges in early adulthood. But as Dr. Tremblay and Daniel S. Nagin, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, found in a pivotal 1999 study, a troublesome few do not follow this pattern.
To Dr. Tremblay, the findings suggest cause for optimism: that humans more readily learn civility than they do cruelty.

We start as toddlers. We learn through conditioning, as we heed requests not to hit others but to use our words. We learn self-control. Beginning in our third year, we learn social strategies like bargaining and charm. Perhaps most vital, we use a developing brain to read situations and choose among these learned tactics and strategies.

I wonder if the non-violent sociopaths were the ones that as children started focusing more on negotiation and charm to get their way (as opposed to the violent sociopaths who remained heavy-handed in their techniques).

The rest article is interesting, especially when it discusses how Tremblay became interested in human violence only because he grew up with a father who was a professional football player and was fascinated that there were certain areas of life in which violence was not only accepted, it was praised. See also, glorification of violence in media, video games, and many other areas of our entertainment lives.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

6 Surprising Findings About Good and Evil

From Mother Jones, moral psychologist Joshua Greene and author of the recent book "Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them", presents "6 Surprising Scientific Findings About Good and Evil". Some of the more salient points for this audience:
  • According to Greene, while we have innate dispositions to care for one another, they're ultimately limited and work best among smallish clans of people who trust and know each other.
  • "We have gut reactions that make us cooperative," Greene says. Indeed, he adds, "If you force people to stop and think, then they're less likely to be cooperative."
  •  We also keep tabs and enforce norms through punishment; in Moral Tribes, Greene suggests that a primary way that we do so is through gossip. He cites the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found that two-thirds of human conversations involve chattering about other people, including spreading word of who's behaving well and who's behaving badly. Thus do we impose serious costs on those who commit anti-social behavior.
  • [J]ust as we're naturally inclined to be cooperative within our own group, we're also inclined to distrust other groups (or worse). "In-group favoritism and ethnocentrism are human universals," writes Greene. What that means is that once you leave the setting of a small group and start dealing with multiple groups, there's a reversal of field in morality. Suddenly, you can't trust your emotions or gut settings any longer. "When it comes to us versus them, with different groups that have different feelings about things like gay marriage, or Obamacare, or Israelies versus Palestinians, our gut reactions are the source of the problem," says Greene.

His conclusion:

Based on many experiments with Public Goods Games, trolleys, and other scenarios, Greene has come to the conclusion that we can only trust gut-level morality to do so much. Uncomfortable scenarios like the footbridge dilemma notwithstanding, he believes that something like utilitarianism, which he defines as "maximize happiness impartially," is the only moral approach that can work with a vast, complex world comprised of many different groups of people.

But to get there, Greene says, requires the moral version of a gut override on the part of humanity—a shift to "manual mode," as he puts it.
To be more moral, then, Greene believes that we must first grasp the limits of the moral instincts that come naturally to us. That's hard to do, but he thinks it gets collectively easier.

Maybe one of the quickest way we can do that is to stop using gossip (i.e. public shaming) as a blunt instrument enforcement mechanism for misplaced social (not really even moral) enforcement (see also Duck Dynasty scandal).

Friday, December 20, 2013

Sociopath treatment

There is no "cure" for sociopathy, but it can be managed well or it can be managed poorly. Sociopaths don't respond very well to punishment, but they do respond to incentives. As discussed in this little blurb, referencing the successful treatment of teenage sociopaths:
Psychopaths aren’t murderers and criminals by their nature, they’re simply people without compunction. Naturally this can make them callous and cold, but it doesn’t automatically make them dangerous. In fact, in cases where it has been demonstrated and proven to psychopaths that they will personally benefit from abiding by rules, then it is possible they can become relatively well assimilated into society. Let me explain, where traditional treatment is used, (like psychotherapy or counseling), the sessions merely act as a kind of unintentional specialized training to help psychopaths more effectively mimic healthy emotional behavior. They are not treated or helped by traditional therapy as any insane (or sane) person might be. But Dr. Robert Hare developed a system whereby by accepting that the psychopath may never be anything but rational and uncaring, and used logical process to demonstrate that it is in their own interest to behave appropriately. Apparently there are criminal rehabilitation systems which are testing out this process, offering instant rewards for psychopathic subjects who follow the rules, appealing to their need for instant gratification and it is shown to be relatively effective. This is the first treatment in the history of psychopathy that has been been effective at all.
What is the difference between a successful sociopath and a less successful one? Sometimes I wonder if it's a matter of chancing upon a good thing first and sticking with it rather than a bad one -- like we're monkeys in an experiment, and if you press one button you get heroin, if you press another you get food, and if you press another you somehow get sexual pleasure. Once you find a good thing, you'll probably just stick with it, right? I always got good results being legit, ever since I was little, but if I didn't, or if my first good results came from being less legit, I'm sure I would have gone that way.

But if you want to "manage" yourself or someone else, I do think the key is incentives and immediate gratification. The caveats are that the incentive cannot be discretionary (because sociopaths will see it as arbitrary and not actually associate it with their own behavior) and the reward can't seem too good or the task too hard, otherwise he will spend all of his time trying to figure out how to trick you into giving him the reward without actually completing the task.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


I was talking to a sociology professor acquaintance of mine, who also has been diagnosed with Asperger's (interesting combination). She was discussing the process of getting an experiment approved by her institution. I am always interested to hear different iterations of ethical codes, so I started asking her about the sociological approach to ethics, which is apparently very different from the psychological approach and is abhorrent to anthropologists. She told me that sociologists have a bad reputation from studies like Tuskegee syphilis experiment (arguably not even a sociological experiment) and the Milgram experiment.

To me the Milgram experiment is just good science. Get some ordinary person via a classified ad, put them in a room, instruct them to torture a third person, and see how far they are willing to go, based solely on the "authority" of the person conducting the experiment.

The sociologist acquaintance of mine thought that the Milgram experiment is harmful to test subjects because people want to believe that they are a good person, not someone who is capable of doing horrific things, and the test deprives them of that belief. I told her that the experiment did society a favor by forcing at least some of its members to face hard facts, i.e. almost anyone is capable of the world's worst horrors, if only put in the right situation. My argument was that if we fail to understand our capabilities for evil as well as for good, than we are doomed to repeat the atrocities of yesteryear. We agreed to disagree about this point.

Later in the conversation, however, she began talking about how she uses her charisma and the structure of the class to get her students to realize that they are racist, that they have knee-jerk reactions unsupported by any evidence, and that the logical conclusions of their positions would be tenets that they would be unwilling to acknowledge as their own, despite being the root of their misinformed views. Of course I support her manipulating her students to the point of shaking the very foundations of their beliefs, but I did mention to her that I thought it was a little hypocritical that on the one hand she thought it was "unethical" to expose experiment subjects to the realization that they too could be torturers given the right circumstances, but she was willing to basically tell her students that their belief systems were completely flawed. People in her classes cry when they realize how small-minded they have been. How is this any different than the Milgram experiment, I asked? Because if it is different, it seems to only be a matter of degree of harm, not type.

When I finally got her to realize my point, she gave me a look as if she were going to cry too and started asking me if I believe in the "soul" and why would I be asking all of these questions. I felt bad for having let the mask slip (apparently, although I thought we were just having a reasonable discussion). I tried unsuccessfully to backtrack saying things like your students arguably impliedly consent to this treatment by signing up for your class (no they don't, the class is required, she is the only one who teaches it), or for going to university in the first place (can you really be said to consent to being the mental plaything of your professors by going to university?). I woke up the next day to a very long email (Asperger's) going into aspie detail with sentences like this "When we assess the consequences of policies or laws or teaching philosophies that are driven by normative and evaluative ideological considerations, the assessment can be shifted from 'right' or 'wrong' to 'functional' or 'dysfunctional'" and "And of course, one could argue that by making assessments on the basis of what is functional/dysfunctional for society (vs. individuals), we are also saying, as a normative/evaluative issue, that the well-being of society is more important than giving effect to the norms and values of sub-groups in society. This is especially (ethically) problematic in that what is functional for society may actually serve to further marginalize vulnerable minority groups (antithetical to certain democratic values), but if the society is not healthy, then the rest becomes moot (maybe)." And then she basically went on to say that society values critical thinking skills, so jacking with her student's minds is fine, ethically speaking.

I think this is illustrative of the true point of systems of ethics, which is -- let's agree on some random value system that we'll call "common" or "normal" and either enforce it past the point of bearing any resemblance to what it was meant to accomplish in the first place or ignore it whenever it is convenient. If the end is always going to justify the means, what is the point of even discussing the ethics of the process?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A utilitarian view of justice? (part 3)

From the reader again:

I wonder if empathy is a refuge for people who don't believe in god but find utilitarianism too cold as a basis for morality. Or maybe people who have an excess of empathy find it abhorrent to be utilitarian, because it's somehow dehumanizing (ie, being utilitarian means you make an impersonal calculation about the greatest good for the greatest number, as opposed to treating everyone like as individuals)?

I'll share a story with you, which you're also welcome to publish on your blog: I was flying home from Africa a few years ago, and was seated beside a Moroccan woman and her son, on their way to visit family in Montreal. At one point, she asked me about my religion. I told her that I didn't believe in god, which immediately distressed her. I recall her almost frantically reassuring me that I was probably a good person anyway, and that I looked like I loved my family, and so on. I think she was, in her own way, trying to be nice to me and not make me feel bad about my atheism!

Her apprehension of me makes sense, I think.  Her morality derives from God. She doesn't kill, steal, or eat pork because Allah forbids it. Then she meets me, and not only don't I believe in Allah, I don't believe in any god at all. If I don't believe in god, then what stops me from killing and stealing? In her eyes, nothing! And yet I don't look like a monster. How is that possible? What prevents people from being monsters if not god? I think some empaths feel the same way about sociopaths and empathy.

I'm guessing that some empaths think about someone like you, who doesn't experience any emotional empathy, and freak out like the woman beside me on the plane did. Their morality is based on empathy/god. You have no empathy/don't believe in god. Therefore you have no morality. You now become completely unpredictable to them, hence the fear.  You eat pork and don't pray, so maybe you also murder?  You don't cry when others are in pain, so maybe you can kill someone and not feel badly about it?

This last part of the story reminds me a lot of this.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A utilitarian view of justice? (part 2)

From the reader, additional ideas about this post on utilitarian morality:

I sent this in because of a discussion I was having at that time with my husband.  He is an uber-empath who is extremely open minded, except when it comes to psychopathy.  He’s afraid of you and worries when I read your blog, which cracks me up (I think he worries that psychopathy is contagious …. would that it were, lol)!  We were talking about whether you could have a morality not based on empathy, and to my surprise, he disagreed that such a thing was possible.  “Disagree” is putting it mildly - he was deeply repulsed by such an idea, which surprised me because he’s normally very open.

To him, morality and empathy go hand in hand, in the same way that for religious people morality and god go hand in hand (both he and I are atheists).  Oddly, he sees how ridiculous (wrong) is it for religious people to impose their god-oriented morality on non-believing people, but he doesn’t think twice about imposing a morality based on empathy on the world. I am less convinced that empathy is necessarily a part of morality, and am more of a utilitarian, which is why I am interested in the utilitarianism of pre-modern cultures and decided to send this into you. 

Fyi, I very much share your instinctive fear of crazed mobs, most especially when they are fueled deeply felt sense of righteousness. I have seen groups of people in the clutches of religious fervour and other deeply felt emotions, and it is frightening beyond belief.

My response:

I think your analogy is spot on. Your husband's perspective is very interesting and hard for me to understand (but I lack empathy, so...). I can't even really reason out what the connection is between empathy and morality for most people. We don't do "bad" things because we feel the pain that our victims feel? What if there is no victim? Also, we sometimes do hurt people but for "good" reasons. For instance, we punish children, even though they are hurt when we do, for their own "good". Where does that assessment of "good" come from if not from a utilitarian point of view? This is especially true when you consider all the limitations of empathy. Might as well construct a view of morality that values the needs of your own loved ones and tribesmen over everyone else... 

Monday, December 16, 2013

The aspie's charm

I have written before about how people with asperger's seem to be, if not loved, tolerated--at least better than sociopaths or people from some of the other empathy challenged groups. I was thinking about this when I saw a youngster driving around with a "driver in training" sign on the car and a much older person in the passenger seat. The person was going much too slow for the conditions and later was causing a bit of a problematic traffic situation on an unprotected turn. For that sort of poor driving, people might usually honk or aggressively swerve around the slow driver, perhaps emitting a few profanities about getting off the road. But no one did that in this situation. Everyone waited patiently for them to finally find a gap big enough in oncoming traffic to make their turn safely. Why?

And does this same principle (whatever it is) have anything to do with why people don't find aspie's to be as morally offensive as sociopaths?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

If murder were legal

A reader sent me this clip. I thought it was a refreshingly candid take on the importance of context in people's assessment of morality and how both extremes of morality are looked down upon.

Favorite quote: "The law against murder is the number one thing preventing murder."

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Liking people

From a Canadian reader about liking people, and what effect that might have on your behavior:

Good morning,

I believe myself in many ways to be a borderline sociopath living somewhere between the majority of the population and those rare outliers completely divorced from emotional reasoning (an oxymoron if there ever was one, and yet it seems pretty obvious that most people use emotion very frequently in decision making).  

I have a decision making process that is driven by factors such as responsibility, politeness, practicality and reason rather than difficult to qualify 'squishy' emotional considerations.  I am a good father and husband because that is what I am supposed to be, having allowed my life to go down that road, admittedly because of a lack of passion to take it in any alternate direction. 

But I know what sort of behavior is appropriate and correct, what sort would be frowned upon, and I take pains to conform to the former in the interest of living a simple life.  I don't take great satisfaction in social interaction, but I am quite accomplished at it should I choose to turn on the 'charm switch'.  As my dentist, with whom I am quite close, says, I may be a bit crazy, but I present very well so the minor oddities are overlooked.  Dentists are interesting people, working all day, every day with people that they are putting in discomfort.  An ideal career for a sociopath I would think, as one would not feel any reservation or guilt about all the drilling and poking and constant one-sided conversations to which the victim/patient cannot respond.  But I digress.

On your website you have covered a number of comparisons between sociopaths and other categorizations of  non-standard mental positions, i.e. narcissists, and you often touch on subtleties between behaviors and mental states that are sociopathic vs indicative of somewhere else on the psychedelic rainbow spectrum that is the human mental condition.  I haven't seen any mention of misanthropy however, and I often wonder about the applicability of that particular label to a sociopath.

Not liking humans in general could apply to sociopaths, and yet I think someone truly absent of a moral compass feels neither love nor hate for other forms of life, human or otherwise, but sees everyone as simply a tool to be used or discarded as needed for amusement or practical considerations.  But I do find that so much of human society disappoints me, and that everything would be better if only there were far fewer humans around mucking things up, packing into my subway car, leaving their shopping carts in my way, and fouling the oceans and air with stink.  Anyway, I'd be quite curious to learn of your stance toward humanity in general at some point.  Perhaps one's opinion of the value of human life has nothing to do with a sociopathic mental state, and I'm confusing issues.  Possibly misanthropy is itself an emotional response, and thus misanthropic thought is evidence counter to a sociopathic mindset.

I try to exercise thought problems such as this with my wife or best friend, but oddly enough they are both two of the most empathic people I have ever met in my life - they both refuse to even consider the trolley problem, for example.  Isn't it odd that someone who considers himself to have a very weak moral compass, and sees the practical value of being able to set aside one's emotions when making decisions, should be so close to two people that would feel guilty if they accidentally make someone feel sad?  I think I could spend days simply discussing guilt with someone, and the extent to which foresight of guilt factors into our decision making.  Oh, to have been able to hang out in a bar with Nietzsche, chatting over beers and perhaps throwing some darts. 

Anyway, I want to thank you for the book.  It was an interesting read, and I will be loaning it to all of my full-blown empathy-saturated friends.  I rather wish I knew you or someone like you personally, as you seem like a fascinating individual and I do feel that I have more in common with someone with your sort of mindset than with just about everyone in my social circle.  Of course, I'd have to manage to obtain some sort of insurance against you attempting to ruin me for sport, but sorting out that too would be an interesting challenge.  


My response:

I think that sociopaths aren't necessarily misanthropic, although if they are misanthropic, there's not a lot keeping them from being very much so and without any sorts of constraints of guilt. Maybe introverted sociopaths tend to be more misanthropic for the reasons you cite, i.e. the crowds and the stink?

I generally like people. They are nature's greatest creation. Even when they are behaving irrationally, I find them to be fascinating -- endlessly unpredictable. There are times when I am annoyed by them and times when I like them less, but I'm self-aware enough to realize that has more to do with my own shifting moods than them actively doing anything to drastically disappoint me. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Making it work with a sociopath?

A reader has started a blog: Empath in a Socio World talking about how she relates to the sociopaths in her lives. It's pretty interesting, for instance, in one of her recent posts she talks about possibly having picked up an STD from the sociopath she is dating. Her reaction might surprise some:

Now, I have to admit, part of me wants to scream and yell at him and ask him why he would ever put me at risk. But as I have learned been trained by my S to do, I waited a couple of days until I was feeling better, both physically and mentally, and had a mature conversation with him. I told him that since I don't know either way what the issue is, I wouldn't dream of accusing him of anything. I then told him that I get it if he wants to have sex with other women, I know him and I know his sexual appetite. He was quick to deny that he has been with anyone since he and I first began dating and I stopped him from continuing.

I explained that I realize that we operate differently and that while I would never sleep with anyone else I don't expect him to uphold that on his end. My only three requests are:

  1. That he cannot be in relationships with any other women. Meaning that if it is sex only, then I get that, but that I don't want him investing into anyone else.
  2. That he wears a condom and gets checked for STDs on a regular basis for my health if not his own.
  3. That he never tells me about it. I do believe that what I don't know can't hurt me (especially if he adheres to rule #2.

I'm pretty sure that I shocked him. He said that he was really impressed by how I handled the situation and that if it was possible, he loved me even more because of it.

Maybe I'm crazy for being open enough to give him the ok on this, or maybe I am incredibly smart for giving my S the freedom he really craves while showing him that I am not worried about other women.

Bottom line: I know my wonderful, sexy S loves me. I really do. He knows that I am devoted to him entirely and that he is my world. Our little world works for us.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Loving unloveable people

My sister told me that I should listen to the most recent episode of This American Life.

It's really interesting, particularly for people who often hear that they are unloveable, because the show really questions what it really means to love. The first half of the show is about a family who adopts a Romanian orphan. The mother believed strongly that people should do things that they're capable of, and she felt capable of adopting a child, even one with special needs. The son, Daniel, was ok for the first 6 months, then rapidly deteriorated when it finally became clear to him that his birth parents had abandoned him to spend his first 7 years living in a crib, and he misdirected his hatred to his adoptive parents.

Daniel was diagnosed with attachment disorder, characterized by a lack of empathy and lack of conscience. Daniel threatened his parents several times, including holding a knife to his mother's throat. His mom stopped teaching him how to read because, in an era of Columbine, she worried that he would independently research ways to hurt her or others. When asked how she could love someone who is homicidal, she responded "Because he was my son! I mean you have to love him or else there's no way out of it. . . . I don't think I ever questioned my love." His mom stayed with him even after the dad had to hire a bodyguard to protect the mom from the son's outbursts, even when an acquaintance of hers and a friend and mentor of Daniel's, also diagnosed with attachment disorder, committed cold-blooded murder.

Daniel started attachment therapy, including a period of 8 weeks in which he could not be more than three feet away from his mother. After that, he ceased to be violent but still stole. He then began "holding therapy", where for 20 minutes a night his parents would cradle their thirteen year old hulk of a son in their laps and feed him ice cream while looking in their eyes and trying to bond. Daniel began to transform, began to help around the house, made friends, and had his old furniture moved back into his room (previously removed as a throwing hazard). His parents raised him to be Jewish, hoping that the religious instruction would help him acquire something of a conscience. After years of being a very poor divinity student, to the extent that he would frequently be taken away from the temple in police cars, he was finally given an award for best student in his confirmation class. In his speech he thanks his parents, saying that he loved them very much. His mom says that it was the most spectacular moment of her life.

Despite all of this, his mother still thinks that it is not possible to teach love. "I don't think the goal was ever love, the goal was attachment . . . I think you can work really hard to create an environment where you can form attachment. You want to create these situations where it's more advantageous for them to attach than to keep doing things their own way and being in their own world, isolated." When asked if she feels loved by Daniel, "Yeah, I feel love . . . I don't think he wants to hurt me, I don't worry about that at all." Although this is not the type of "love" that most people think of as love, the narrator imagines that the mother's pragmatism is exactly what has made her so successful:

"If you're the kind of person who actually needs love, really needs love, chances are you're not the kind of person that's going to have the wherewithal to create it. Creating love is not for the soft and sentimental among us. Love is a tough business."

I liked the idea that a practical approach can really be effective in instilling a sense of attachment (love?) in someone who otherwise seemed incapable of attachment. You can't force someone to love you, but you can indirectly influence them, incentivize them to want to attach. I feel like there are a lot of interesting pieces of advice for parents of a sociopath.

Other interesting parts include the first 5-10 minute discussion about how it used to be a Truth in psychology that parental love was unnecessary and even unhealthy for children. It makes you realize how young and flawed a "science" psychology is.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Profiling the mentally ill

Andrew Sullivan had an interesting NY Times op-ed about profiling the mentally ill. The impetus was that a Canadian woman, Ellen Richardson, was denied entry into the U.S. on her way to a Caribbean vacation because of mental health diagnosis of being clinically depressed. Why stigmatizing mental illness is a bad idea for everyone:

People in treatment for mental illnesses do not have a higher rate of violence than people without mental illnesses. Furthermore, depression affects one in 10 American adults, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pillorying depression is regressive, a swoop back into a period when any sign of mental illness was the basis for social exclusion.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prevents employers from discriminating against people who have a mental illness. If we defend the right of people with depression to work anywhere, shouldn’t we defend their right to enter the country? Enshrining prejudice in any part of society enables it in others. Most of the people who fought for the right of gay people to serve in the military did so not because they hoped to become gay soldiers themselves, but because any program of government-sanctioned prejudice undermined the dignity of all gay people. Similarly, this border policy is not only unfair to visitors, but also constitutes an affront to the millions of Americans who are grappling with mental-health challenges.

Stigmatizing the condition is bad; stigmatizing the treatment is even worse. People who have received help are much more likely to be in control of their demons than those who have not. Yet this incident will serve only to warn people against seeking treatment for mental illness. If we scare others off therapy lest it later be held against them, we are encouraging denial, medical noncompliance and subterfuge, thereby building not a healthier society but a sicker one.

If Physical Diseases Were Treated Like Mental Illness:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The similarities in personality disorders

I thought this was an interesting analogy about how vultures who are vultures and storks who look like vultures came to look and act so much alike:

What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is not that New and Old World vultures may not be related but that two possibly unrelated groups of birds have come to look so alike. They differ externally only in the longer and functional hind toe of the Old World vultures and the open nostrils (you can see right through from one side to the other) of the New World vultures.

This similarity is the result of a process called convergent evolution. It’s the selective pressures of the lifestyle that shape an animal, not the shape of an animal that dictates the lifestyle — given sufficient time, that is. So when different animal groups share the same ecological niche independently of one another there is a tendency for them to reinvent the wheel, finding the same solutions to the same challenges and ultimately coming to look very much alike.

Could this explain the similarities between narcissists and sociopaths too? Between borderlines and sociopaths? Could it be that sociopaths actually are on the autism spectrum but just look like vultures (personality disorders) because they've developed to react to different things?

Monday, December 9, 2013

A utilitarian view of justice?

From a reader:

I am an empath who has been reading your blog with interest. I thought I'd share with you something I read recently about the Moï (a pre-modern society), from an older British book (from the 50s) about Vietnam and Southeast Asia (the book is called "A Dragon Apparent" by Norman Lewis). What's interesting about the Moï's view of justice is that it's very utilitarian and doesn't involve any special kind of outrage at anti-social activities. It's an example of a system of justice that isn't based on morality, but on expediency. Feel free to use this in your blog, if you find it interesting as I do (keeping in mind that Lewis is a journalist and travel writer, not an anthropologist).  Here's an excerpt:

"The other aspect of the Moï way of life that seems to have created the greatest impression upon those who have studied them is that, although, by Occidental standards, crimes are few, the conceptions of right and wrong seem to be quite incomprehensible to them. In their place, and incidentally governing conduct by the most rigid standards, are the notions of what is expedient and what is not expedient. The Moï is concerned rather with policy than justice. Piety and fervour have no place in his ritual observations. Contrition is meaningless. There is no moral condemnation in Moï folklore of those who commit anti-social acts.


"Among the Moïs retribution is swift and terrestrial. The wicked – that is, the ritually negligent man – is quickly ruined. If he continues to pile up spiritual debts he is certain of a sudden death – the invariable sign that the ghostly creditors, becoming impatient, have claimed his soul for nonpayment.

"The thing works out in practice much better than one might expect. Crimes against the individual such as theft or violence are viewed as contravening the rites due to the plaintiff’s ancestral manes. The aggressor, however, is seen as no more than the instrument of one of the spirits who has chosen this way to punish the victim for some ritual inadequacy. The judge, therefore, reciting in verse the appropriate passage of common law, abstains from stern moralization.


"There is no distinction among the Moïs between civil and criminal law and no difference is made between intentional and unintentional injury. If a man strikes another in a fit of temper or shoots him accidentally while out hunting, it is all the work of the spirits and the payment to be made has already been laid down."

 Excerpted from A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis (first published in 1951) 

I remember there was some discussion a while back about the benefits of restorative justice over retributive justice. Despite the proven benefits of an amoral justice system over one that demands blood for blood, people insist on clinging to an idea of people as being evil and deserving of punishment for the crime yes, but particularly for the temerity to challenge the conventional moral and social order. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

When saw we thee a stranger?

I grew up in a very welcoming church in which the primary doctrine was that we are all children of God (spirit siblings) with the divine potential to become gods ourselves. Over the recent holiday I asked my uncle how he converted to the church. He told me a story of being 17 years-old, searching for truth, and finding it in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I asked him what were the church teachings that inspired him to make such a change. He said primarily the belief in the pre-existence -- that we had spiritual lives before this one and that we each chose to come to this planet and receive a body to have a physical existence.

After he answered my questions he turned it back on me. He had read the book and wanted to know what about the church made me keep believing, despite being the way I am. The truth is that I have always believed and never doubted. My mother thinks that is a gift of the spirit. But I've also never had reason to doubt. The teachings of the church have always felt as true to me as anything else people have told me. But I told my uncle, I have learned that everyone has their own view of any belief. There are no identical Mormons -- there are no identical political conservatives, or feminists, or humanists, or even sociopaths. Even though you can categorize people into big groups, people really are special snowflakes and they will not always fit the mold in the way that other members of that group will expect. That doesn't mean they don't belong to that group or groupings are not useful, We were never meant to be the same and we're all too complex to describe with just a few categories or characteristics. For instance, I used to fixate on the "criminal" description of criminal sociopaths, thinking that they must be the "low-functioning ones." It wasn't until I interacted with some that I realized that "criminal" didn't really mean everything I had just sort of assumed it did. Now I don't have such rigid views about how I expect people to manifest their personality disorders or other mental issues.

But bringing it back to religion, I liked this talk from a LDS Bishop about gay mormons:

Even in the Church, among brothers and sisters, we are sometimes strangers. We have a tendency to judge one another for failure to understand the gospel as we understand it or abide by the commandments as we ourselves do. In every ward there are members who speak disparagingly of those who are different, who question the devotion of their brothers and sisters on some basis, who treat them as strange.

In Romans, Paul emphasizes the importance of the saints having tolerance and charity for those who are different. To those who may make judgments about others in regard to their eating habits, for example, he says, “If a man is weak in his faith, you must accept him without attempting to settle doubtful points. For instance, one man will have faith enough to eat all kinds of food, while a weaker man eats only vegetables. The man who eats must not hold in contempt the man who does not, and he who does not eat must not pass judgement on the one who does; for God has accepted him” (14: 1-3, New English Bible; hereafter NEB). Disputations about the Sabbath day are seen in the same light. “This man regards one day more highly than another, while that man regards all days alike. On such a point everyone should have reached conviction in his own mind. He who respects the day has the Lord in mind in doing so, and he who eats meat has the Lord in mind when he eats, since he gives thanks to God. For no one of us lives, and, equally, no one of us dies, for himself alone. . . . Let us therefore cease judging one another. . . . Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life” (14:5-7, NEB). Building that common life is our common stewardship and when we take it seriously we progress as individuals and as a Church.

I am struck by what Paul says because I think he is trying to teach a very important lesson: there are a number of things about which the Lord seems not to care, in which He gives us choice. It seems there are many issues over which we choose to be divisive, which are of no consequence to God. He doesn’t care whether we are Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, rich or poor, sophisticated or simple. It is probably of no concern to Him if we are vegetarians, eat white flour, have beards, wear colored shirts to Church, or the myriad other things that some of us consider important enough to judge, condemn, or spiritually disfellowship one another over.

Instead of focusing on such trivia, we should, as Paul says, “pursue the things that make for peace, and build up the common life.” Those things generally are love, understanding, tolerance, acceptance, liberality of spirit, magnanimity, and forgiveness.
[T]he following statements by Joseph Smith might prove instructive:

“The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls. We feel we should want to take them upon our shoulders and cast their sins behind our backs.”

“Nothing is so much calculated to lead a people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O What power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.”

“Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and [more] boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.”
The entire burden of Christ’s message is that we should be slow to judge and quick to forgive, that we should consider all people as ourselves, and that we should love one another without regard to our differences. The Golden Rule applies especially to all those whom we consider strange, queer, abnormal—all those whom we might see as different from or less than we are.

The truth is that despite all being special snowflakes, we have much more in common with each other than we would ever have separating us and we are interconnected in ways that we cannot comprehend.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Beauty of destruction

I thought this went well with the post about what is enticing about cruelty or destroying things. From the Tor Blog:

Do not let Martin Klimas near your grandmother’s china cabinet. The German artist “explores the beauty that comes out of chaos” by using a strobe light and a single camera frame to photograph the moment of impact when a porcelain figure drops. He wants to “explore relationships with time, beauty and destruction,” and apparently also explore the relationship between a dragon and the floor. You can see the entire set here, and check out some of his other work here.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Oxytocin as treatment for autism?

I didn't realize that some parents were already treating their autistic children with oxytocin. The NY Times reports that this practice has been recently supported by the results of a recent study:

[T]he small study, published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the hormone, given as an inhalant, generated increased activity in parts of the brain involved in social connection. This suggests not only that oxytocin can stimulate social brain areas, but also that in children with autism these brain regions are not irrevocably damaged but are plastic enough to be influenced.
“What this shows is that the brains of people with autism aren’t incapable of responding in a more typical social way.”

In the new study, conducted by the Yale Child Study Center, 17 children, ages 8 to 16, all with mild autism, got a spray of oxytocin or a placebo (researchers did not know which, and in another session each child received the other substance). The children were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, an f.M.R.I., and given a well-established test of social-emotional perception: matching emotions to photographs of people’s eyes. They took a similar test involving objects, choosing if photos of fragments of vehicles corresponded to cars, trucks, and so on.

During the “eyes” test, brain areas involved in social functions like empathy and reward — less active in children with autism — showed more activity after taking oxytocin than after placebo. Also, during the “vehicles” tests, oxytocin decreased activity in those brain areas more than the placebo, a result that especially excited some experts.

“If you can decrease their attention to a shape or object so you can get them to pay attention to a social stimulus, that’s a big thing,” said Deborah A. Fein, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut.

With oxytocin, the children did not do better on the social-emotional test, unlike in some other studies. But experts said that was not surprising, given the difficulty of answering challenging questions while staying still in an f.M.R.I.

“What I would look for is more evidence of looking in the eyes of parents, more attention to what parents are saying, less tendency to lecture parents on their National Geographic collection,” Dr. Fein said.

But before ya'll go running out to buy over the counter oxytocin, beware these warnings:

A study of healthy men found that oxytocin made them more biased against outsiders. And when people with borderline personality disorder took oxytocin, they became more distrustful, possibly because they were already socially hypersensitive.

I wonder what the neurodiversity thinks about the idea of curing autism by making them ore interested in people and less interested in cars, trucks, and National Geographic. Are people objectively more interesting than vehicles and well-respected science/culture magazines? Is that what we mean by autism "disorder"? And if that's true, does that mean that we should all be medicating ourselves, since some people think that we're all somewhere on the autism spectrum? And where is the sweet spot on the spectrum that we should all be trying to achieve?

Speaking of messing with people's brains to achieve random subjective results, this article on recent research suggesting that brains stimulated in a particular way appreciate art more (at least representational art).

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Substituting you for me

A pilot friend of mine was describing to a dilettante friend of ours the process of obtaining a pilot's license. He talked about what it means to "fly blind," or fly relying solely on the instruments, not being able to see anything out the windows of the cockpit, or at least not looking. Obviously you wouldn't want to fly blindly if you had the option to also see outside, but the point is that sometimes you don't have that option, or sometimes what you are seeing with your naked eye can be deceptive.

While he was describing the sort of psychological self-mastery it takes to ignore everything that you think you know about your situation and instead put all of your trust in fallible tinker toys of gauges (which you may not even understand how they operate), I couldn't help but think of the way I struggle to ignore meaningless but strong impulses or emotional hallucinations.

I have talked before about relying on a prosthetic moral compass to compensate for my lack of conscience. I have also talked about my understanding of the utility of trust. By that I mean, substituting someone else's judgment for my own -- particularly principled people I know who have managed to achieve a stable sort of success and happiness.

A small example of an exercise of trust involves a relative of mine. He is a lover of technology, a proud first adopter. I have never really been a gearhead of any sort, so I always have him choose my set-ups. He is not my advisor for buying/adopting tech type stuff, he actually makes decisions for me. I was talking with a work colleague the other day about it. I told him I admired his laptop, to which he replied I should just buy my own. I explained to him that my technologically more sophisticated relative hadn't told me I should/could, and that he makes all my tech decisions for me. When my colleague suggested that I just do it anyway, I realized he misunderstood the nature of me "trusting" someone else to make decisions for me. If I just bought whatever I wanted when I wanted, then he would no longer be making decisions for me, he would be making suggestions to which I could either follow or not follow, or at best he would be making demands that I could veto. That would defeat the whole point of me putting him in charge of that aspect of my life.

To the extent I believe that there is value in things like "faith" or "trust," it is that you ignore your own ideas about what you think you know and rely on something, not because it is infallible, but because it is a different sort of fallible than you. That's why I don't understand people who say they have faith in something, a religion perhaps, but only when it's convenient or it happens to coincide with how they would have chosen anyway. Maybe this is a downside to my personality, the ability and willingness to just follow blindly. I don't think it is always a good thing, and it certainly has its downsides (as does deciding yourself). But to the extent it is useful at all, I believe it is only in this way.
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