Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"A Special Education"

... the title of this New York Times piece, in which the author relates his experience of suffering from what sounds like would be diagnosed nowadays as oppositional defiant disorder, and consequently being sent to a special education school in which he quickly stopped picking fights because the kids "fought like grown-ups. If you hit someone in the arm, he might hit you back in the face or the genitals." Despite the frequent violence from his peers and common apathy from "the system", he finds himself wondering about the value of the experience: 

Was riding the short bus for three years a good or a bad thing for me? I’m not sure. When I graduated from high school, I could not find New Jersey or Connecticut on a map. But one incident that happened in that first tumultuous year in fourth grade makes special ed invaluable in my adult eyes.

I realized after I got on the bus one morning that I’d forgotten my lunch and that there wasn’t any place near the office building to get food. When lunch period came, I was fearful, not because I’d go hungry, but because any public mistake was routinely seized upon by the other kids. “Idiot forgot his lunch” would make great fodder.

While the others unwrapped their sandwiches and unscrewed thermoses, I waited silently, looking down.

“Hey, man, why aren’t you eating?” a kid asked.

“F’rg’t m’lunch,” I muttered.

A whisper was passed down the table; here it comes, I thought.

A rectangular object wrapped in shiny foil whizzed through the air and hit me in the chest. I opened it and found half a bologna sandwich. An apple rolled my way, followed by half a turkey on rye, which I caught in midair. A bag of chips was slid down to me.

I looked up and all at the table were smiling at me.

“What do you say, Josh?” the teacher asked.

“Thank you,” I whispered to the class.

“Don’t mention it.”

“No problem.”

“You’re welcome, doofus.”

I held my breath in response to the sudden volcano in my belly and quickly shifted my gaze to my shoes, but it was no use. I knew how to squelch emotion in response to violence, but had not known mercy, kindness and warmth, and was not prepared for the waterfall erupting from my face. I sprang up from the table to run away and hide my feelings from the class, but was blocked by one of the teachers’ aides. I ran full speed into her arms, burying my face. She wrapped both arms tightly around me and maneuvered me quickly out into the hall, quietly closing the door behind her. She held me while I gasped and sobbed, my tears and snot staining her dress. She didn’t ask me what was wrong; she just held me. I looked up after a minute and saw she was crying, too.

In that moment I felt for the first time what it was like to be supported and accepted, taken care of rather than yelled at, punished or shunted off, which is how most people react to children who are violent or feral. Special ed got me directly in touch with a deeper place in the same way music would later on.

I think a lot of people see adult sociopaths and gate them and fail to see that they just happened to be born with that disposition with childhood experiences that triggered the development of those traits. I know that children with issues are easy to get angry at and to want to punish or scare straight. If those tactics worked, I would be 100% behind them too. But they don't. Not on these kids. So how can you justify treating a child like that? They may not seem as innocent as other children, but they can't help the way they are anymore than any other child can.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

More on neurofeedback and EMDR

From a reader:

I found your Neurofeedback article highly interesting. Actually, many of your contemplations recently have been thought provoking for me, and quite useful in testing some of my own understandings.

In your post, you wrote the following:

my talk therapist suggested that the problem with the neurofeedback technology and techniques are that the brain changes are there, but that they don't last.

I posted a comment encouraging you to challenge the idea that the neuroplasticity you experienced can only be temporary. In the comment, I noted that EMDR can be similar in that it can provide temporary new pathways that fade. However, my experience was that those EMDR sessions in which I changed a belief were all that was needed to make permanent changes. The key is the change in underlying belief. I'll give you some examples for reference.

It took one session for me to let go of the need to impress my narcissistic father because I changed my belief from "I need Dad's approval" to "I'm an adult and I look after myself." Seriously, sorted right there. The following interactions I've had with him have been totally different in nature and I feel comfortable relating to him as a fellow adult. I can see his narcissistic behaviours and don't take them personally.

EMDR wasn't successful in helping me get over my relationship with the psychopath, A., (whom I've referred to previously as the FNP.) It did provide temporary relief, but I was still clinging to him in my mind.

My psychologist just didn't understand the depth to which the hooks had sunk. I knew, but didn't know what they were latched to in my own mind. Understanding finally that my psychologist couldn't help me, I helped myself. Probably exactly what I needed to do!

I've used many different resources recently to change my behaviour, my philosophy and my very self. Of these, the most useful have been Christopher S. Hyatt's books, particularly Undoing Yourself with energized meditation and other devices and Energized Hyposis: a non-book for self change. These are all about brain-change willed. And they've worked.

I'll share a journal entry with you. I hope it inspires you to continue in whatever direction you choose.

I finished working through the Energized Hypnosis book, at least those parts I can do now - the body scan exercises at the end are progressive.

The basic tenets of the book are that:
Under rumination and behaviour, there are feelings. Under the feelings, there is a belief. These belief-driven pathways are patterns that were most likely encoded at a very young age (before 7 or 8), before the brain was mature enough to understand scope and context.
The beliefs served a useful purpose then. They are most likely limiting now.
You can change your beliefs while still meeting the useful purpose.

Those were the biggest insights for me. The book leads you to understand these insights in a very practical way (which is why Hyatt and Iwema call it a 'non-book'.)

It didn't take me long to move past A. and go deeper. That wasn't exactly easy, mind you, but it was made easier by understanding my feelings of fear that no one will see me or understand me were driven by some belief... now where did that come from?

Well, guess, lol.

Book: To change a belief or behaviour, engage with it at its own level of communication and always be respectful to yourself.

So I went a bit deeper and a part of me said this:
I don't know where I am or what I am supposed to be doing

That's the part of me that has been hiding my whole life. The part that is petrified of not being noticed.

So I told that part of myself that I will listen to it. I will practice listening (the book encourages you to speak kindly as if to a young child who is scared or upset.)

Then, that part of me said of my father:

He scared me. I had to be either very, very quiet or do wild things so he would notice me. Wild things that he wanted to do. Him, not me.

The book then takes you through some steps for changing the underlying belief - identifying it's useful purposes and finding better, more suitable behaviours for NOW. The good thing is that my psychologist was already encouraging me to do new things (like booking this holiday) and I have been doing things of my own volition... so all of this is cascading very pleasantly for me.

A friend of mine has said I am "primed for change."

So here is what I wrote as my preferred behaviours (rather than squashing my own feelings and preferences and deferring to others; and always feeling I need to handle things on my own):

I will trust my own self to protect me.
I will ask questions to understand and to collaborate
I will present my ideas and solutions
I want to collaborate and grow and develop my practices. I want this to flow from the spring of energy inside me.

My new beliefs are:

I can take care of myself
I am curious, intelligent and adaptable
I have great energy!

The book also suggests adopting a new, unrelated behaviour which acts as another signal to the brain that change is occurring. I have chosen to clap my hands three times in the morning, evening and at any other appropriate time. 

Honestly, I feel good. I feel that all this stuff is resolving. I have new tools to understand my mind and how it works, and all the possibilities I have dreamed of are far closer. I am glad to have worked so hard on my philosophical understandings because the next step is truly mine; I diverge from Hyatt at this point, as I should. I think, from reading other material, that he sees power as the greatest good, the way of obtaining the happiest life. I, however, see power only as a factor in the pursuit of freedom, with freedom to choose being the greatest good. And this freedom comes from knowing your own mind rather than controlling external factors.

So that's pretty personal. I feel that it's resolved, although I did worry for a few days. I feel genuinely free and able to pursue my own interests in full trust of my own being.

I don't know if the end result for me is relevant to you, but I do think you can become more of who you are and be a genuinely self-willed human. 


PS re

"Making the little green boat move with my brain waves while keeping the red and yellow boats still in the little electronic regatta made me realize: (1) my thought patterns are a lot more fixed and beyond my control than I realize and (2) because I consciously process so much information as it comes into my brain, I am less open minded. By the latter I mean that my very mechanism of trying to consciously process as much information as I can rather than letting the subconscious deal with it requires me to quickly categorize the data as being interesting or important or not, and always according to my pre-existing criteria. I've always thought that this made me function higher cognitively because less is getting past me, but I realized that it also has the weird but predictable effect of making me search for familiar patterns and thus be closed minded to truly new things, concepts, or types of information."

I recommend reading about beginner's mind.

Our "original mind" includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few.
-- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

not the best article, but ok: http://zenhabits.net/how-to-live-life-to-the-max-with-beginners-mind/

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sociopathic diversity

I am always interested to hear different perspectives from people who identify as being sociopathic. I think it's easy to hear from people who are at different stages in their lives or who have had different experiences and co-morbidities or different intensities of the sociopathic traits. For instance, before I ever experienced anxiety (about 5 years ago), I would have never thought myself capable of it and if anyone had told me that they thought they were sociopathic but experienced anxiety, I would have thought that couldn't be true. (It's a mixed blessing to now not be so sure of myself about things like that or anything else really).

I thought this description from a reader illustrated some of this diversity:

Its such a relief to know that I am not alone. So much of what you have said on this blog rings unbelievably true. Ive never been a very honest person. Honesty has never been priority because i know that if people really knew my motivations, intentions and feelings that i would be socially outcasted. My ability to change personalities to fit into and mimic whatever social scene I am in is the only way i can fill the strange lack of feeling that ive experienced ever since i was a child. 

 I am exhausted from being villainized and shamed for my sexuality and inconsistency and impulsive actions. Maybe i am just projecting when i say this, but I cant accept that I am worse or not as worthy of life just because I lie and have flexible ethicals. Other people cause just as much, if not more, harm to their fellow man with honesty and set value systems. Everyone is selfish and careless at some points in their lives, or at least they should be. I think having flexible character and morals is so much more valuable then having identities and morals that you would go to war over. 

I have fit into many places and situations with wild success by mixing beautiful concoctions of lies and the truth. These partial narratives have created my outward identity. But in these narratives i do give glimpses of truth and with this i have been working on piecing together my true personal identity. What i have found about myself, is that I am complicated and have a rich story to tell. 
I will never identify as a sociopath because it feels like a betrayal. I have tried to "define" or "identify" myself as many things to cover up for some of my unconventional behaviors. Ive tried being a sex/love addict to explain my cheating and jumping from partner to partner, or bipolar to explain my sometimes wild actions. Ive claimed that people close to me have died just to explain being unnecessarily emotional, so no one will know where my anger or agitation is really coming from.  The truth is though that i don't have an excuse that i can give people, other then coming out as a sociopath. But If i claimed the title "sociopath" i risk making the term inauthentic to myself. 

I Had a good childhood. no real traumas. I am successful and privileged and damn lucky in my exploits. I have no reason to think that this world is lonely, random and inescapably disastrous. But thats how i know the world to be. And whats interesting is that that doesn't bother me. we as individuals are too small for it to matter what we go through because for all we know the universe as we know it is just a micro combustion; the spark of a flint striking steal in a bigger picture we can not see or conceive of.  

That was sort of a long winded rant but I needed to share it for some reason with someone who might understand because you shared with all of us. you really are an inspiring character and excellent example of a slice of society no one wants to look at. 

I really identified with this: "I have no reason to think that this world is lonely, random and inescapably disastrous. But thats how i know the world to be." I think it describes well the way the world looks like when you don't have any of the usual emotional/love/hope/etc. wool over your eyes like others do (but obviously still other types of wool -- sociopaths are not immune to their own delusions about themselves and the world.).

Monday, September 21, 2015

"How psychopaths can save your life"

... is the title of a Kevin Dutton piece in the Guardian that I retweeted. Here are some quotable quotes:

This “new science” of psychopathy has met with resistance from many clinicians. And with good reason: their job means they only get to meet bad psychopaths. I’ve met them, too. But I have also met people more likely to save your life than take it. I wouldn’t go for a curry with many of them. But if a kid of mine had a brain tumour or my other half was on an airliner that had been taken over by al-Qaida I know who I’d like to see scrubbing up or storming the aisle. Those who go where angels fear to tread often have more in common than you might think with the demons they rub shoulders with.

Much is written about the stigmatisation of mental illness, but we still have a long way to go. What headline writer worth their weight in bold would dream of vilifying autistic individuals or victims of depression or PTSD in the same way that they pillory “psychos”? Last year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, I and my co-authors presented the first published evidence that psychopathic traits – especially those linked to the personality dimension “fearless dominance” – are positively associated with holding leadership and management positions as well as high-risk occupations, such as police work and firefighting.

Next time you hear the word “psycho” spare a thought for the functional diaspora of card-carrying psychopaths who aren’t “psychos”. Who by their ruthlessness and fearlessness do good. And who, with their low-fat consciences and sugar-free emotions, execute the knife-edge transactions that can improve the lives of the rest of us. “You never know,” as Andy McNab points out, “next time you use the word ‘psycho’ it might even be as a compliment.”

Saturday, September 19, 2015

"My experience of you" vs. "real you"

It's funny once you become aware of something and it's on your radar, you start both (1) seeing other instances of it and (2) you understand what's going on in those instances. For instance, I remember at one time in my life not understanding the meaning of the Fleetwood Mac song Landslide, and I also remember there being a very specific (although I've forgotten it now, ha) moment in which I suddenly understood it and it applied perfectly to my situation at that time.

I've always liked this Bjork song, but a few months ago I finally understood it:

I watched the first episode of the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, sort of an odd couple dynamic between two women whose husbands leave them for each other. Frankie is hippy dippy, Grace is rich white lady. But it also had an example of the sort of defining someone's identity that I mentioned in the last post:

Frankie: I lost my best friend. You don't even like Robert. 

Grace: You have no right to judge me. You don't know us. 

Frankie [clears throat] I'm sorry, I was judging by my experience of you, not the real you. That was wrong of me. 

I thought, that's a good distinction to make -- judging by our experience of a person versus whatever the real them is. We would never assume that we know all there is to France and French people after watching a French film or visiting Paris. Why do we feel so sure of ourselves in terms of our ability to judge someone's character after seeing a similar small sliver of the real them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Defining others = emotional abuse

One thing that I liked about the way the neurofeedback guy approached the whole dream interpretation thing, though, is that he didn't try to tell me who I am or what my dream meant. He asked me. My therapist is also huge on that -- will let me drift and drift and drift for months and years even until I learn a particular principle for myself. He says it's because that's essentially the best (only?) way for lasting change.

Sometimes I see people in life and here trying to tell people their truth, and I certainly have been 100% guilty of that in the past. I'm not sure if the impulse to dictate someone's truth is more likely to come from a largely ignorant or mislead desire to help or from a more ego driven desire to tear someone down or to build ourselves up as the keeper of Truths (capital T) about the world and other people. One thing that I have learned from therapy is how sacrosanct people's concept of identity is, and how so many behaviors can be traced to their identity, often negative behaviors occur when people believe that their identity is being threatened or has been mangled somehow. And one major type of psychological/emotional abuse is for the perpetrator to pretend to have the power to define the people in his or her life -- either as explicitly negative things like being stupid, no good, incompetent, ugly, or even as things that appear to be neutral but still are oppressive because some outside force as deigned to tell you what your thoughts, feelings, motives, etc. are and to try to impose their view of the world on you. These efforts are as emotionally violent to a person's sense of self or identity as punching them in the face, in fact most people would probably prefer to be punched in the face and have that unwanted invasion of one's personal space than they would an assault on the very thing that makes life seem worth living for most and what Victor Frankl credits in part to his survival in the concentration camps -- the no matter their circumstances, they still have absolute control over how they choose to view their circumstances and the power to define for themselves what they know to be basic and unassailable identity truths.

One reader posted in the "resources" post a book from this psychologist, that has coined the term "verbal abuse" and has written several books on the phenomenon:

It's interesting, she suggests that men who do this are much more likely to be trained out of it -- she believes because they have been accidentally trained into it as part of their socialization to be a "man" in this society. My brother said something like that to me once -- that he realized that he was a horrible boyfriend and was always undermining his girlfriend's sense of self in subtle ways to get her to be more what he needed and wanted her to be. After he realized what he was doing, he was able to stop. But there are others who have slipped into this behavior who apparently are not self aware enough to stop. She believes that most women emotional abusers fall into this category only because they're less likely to have stumbled into the behavior accidentally from a place of otherwise psychological normalcy. Consequently, if it shows up in women (despite all odds), there's likely something fundamentally psychologically wrong with them that is causing both the impulse to define others in this way and also is likely preventing some self-reflective insight that would help them see the truth of their behavior and get them to stop it. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Dream interpretation

This is the dream description I sent to the neurofeedback practitioner:

A bad guy (or multiple?) are after me for most of the dream. It gets resolved, and the bad guy gets caught. For some reason, he has hands that are like just flat circles, like the shape of a thick hamburger patty -- like a skin and flesh mitt that has been placed over his hands or that his hands have been burned and deformed intentionally that way by whatever "good guys" got him (cops?). His face is also deformed and scarred. I think his lips have been fused together so he can't talk. I think this is part of his punishment somehow for being bad, that they tried to neutralize his ability to do harm while still allowing him to exist. He doesn't get locked in prison, though, he gets locked in a walk in closet in a master bedroom suite of what sort of looks like my parent's house. I'm also staying there. Some night some time after that, we go to check on the bad guy, but he's not in the closet (we don't realize this at first for some reason, even though the door is open, maybe we think he's hiding). Then I notice bloody footprints from the sliding glass door entrance from the bedroom to the outside -- footprints that go to the closet, and then continue into the house. The other bad guy let this one out and now they're both on the loose. That's about when I wake up.

His interpretation was to ask me what the "bad guys" wanted from me. I told him that it felt like they wanted to make me like them, to disfigure me, so that I wouldn't be fit for a normal life anymore and then I would have to be with them. It reminded me a little of what the protagonist/antagonist in Boxing Helena is trying to do (that film has had such an odd lasting impression with me that I either watched that film either way too young in my development or it struck some chord of truth with me that resonates and haunts still today, I wrote about it a little here). He loves the object of his desire to much that he wants to ruin her for anyone else. Or the Crazy Love documentary, in which a woman whose ex-boyfriend that hired thugs to blind her by throwing lye in her face ends up marrying him because he was the only man “who she knew saw her as stunning rather than blind and disfigured.” I was afraid to become this woman, or to have people attempt to make me become this woman.

The neurofeedback guy suggested that maybe these bad guys  were not trying to make me like them so much as they already were parts of me that I (at one time) didn't want to be -- that they were really just aspects of myself that I had disassociated from and they were haunting me because that's still who I am at some level but have chosen not to deal with it. I actually found that to be a pretty compelling interpretation. It felt right to me, and it's odd, the dream was actually a nightmare -- it was hard to fall back asleep from it and it still haunted me a little in the days subsequent. But the moment I saw those bad guys as just these castoff parts of me, it was a light had been flicked on, so quickly did my paradigm shift. Instead of fear and confusion, I felt compassion and sorry that I had done this to myself -- I had mangled my own self. I was sorry for my childhood self and my teenage self and my young adult self and every other self that I have contorted and distorted to fit whatever my purposes were at the time (to appear to fit in, to get something out of a situation, to achieve something or maintain something that society requires a certain degree of conformity for). I sort of resolved then and there to not do that ever again, as much as I could help it. I started to think of the things that day or week that I had been trying to ignore, suppress, or repress about myself. I started doing little things to try to more openly acknowledge and express those aspects -- something as similar as getting in touch with certain friends or acquaintances or reading articles about those worlds.

The whole thing was such a revelation to me that I now wonder if dream interpretation typically has such drastic results, or if this was just a one off? It also made me think of how many other things about myself that I am oblivious too.

I have a few more thoughts about how the neurofeedback guy let me come to my own truths and didn't try to tell me what my truths are that I'll put in the next post.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Anachronisms and hubris

I've been watching a period television show (The Knick!) that deals a little with mental illness in one of its side characters. I love period shows in general for the anachronisms. I think it's so easy to assume that whatever we are up to as a society is the best there is to offer (one of my favorite cheesy songs is Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City), but who knows what thing we do now is going to cause future generations to cringe at us for being idiots.

The Knick is often cringe worthy with the old fashioned medicine, depiction of race or gender relations, public shaming, slanted morality, etc. But the episode dealing with the character suffering from mental illness reminded me of one of my favorite SNL skits, "Rick's Model T's", in which Crazy Rick sells used cars with his actually crazy wife: "Don't make me put you back in the attic. . . . Damn it Daisy, I wish I had a more legitimate treatment option other than the attic, but that's just where medicine is at." I have a personal belief that we'll think of our current treatment of sociopaths as the rough equivalent of putting people up in the attic. I know others think that this is the best we can do as a society for sociopaths (or that sociopaths should have it worse than they do?), but I don't know, I still cringe at it.

Somewhat relatedly, I like the opening scenes of A Private Universe, in which Harvard graduates and professors confidently explain the changes of seasons all wrong.

I've tried to recreate this scene a little bit, but millennials in particular all give the right basic answer. They seem surprised that anyone ever thought that the closeness of the Earth to the sun could possibly explain the seasons (why is winter in the northern hemisphere summer for the southern then?). But it's of course not interesting to me so much about what people do or do not know, but whether they are able to recognize what they do and do not know -- how open is their mind, how good is their self-awareness, how humble is their sense of fallibility?

Sunday, September 6, 2015


I have been putting off writing about this because I wish that I knew more and could tell you more, but I also feel like better something than nothing. This past summer I did a round of 15 sessions of neurofeedback along with a friend who really wanted to try it and wanted sort of a buddy in the process, but also because I have always struggled to fall asleep and stay asleep and this was recommended to me as a potential help. I don't really want to try to describe the process completely or even my experience with it (nor give the impression that I endorse it) but I do want to relate a little of my experience with it.

I first started with a QEEG mapping of my brain, essentially (and forgive my ignorance) where they put a cap on your head are tracking your brain waives with all of these nodes placed in different areas of the scalp. This UCLA professor kind of describes its use in neurofeedback here. One thing that I found incredibly credible about the results was that knowing nothing about me (I never told him about my diagnoses of anything), my practitioner told me, in this very cautious way, "I don't want to alarm you or anything, and this is definitely something that we can see in the "normal" population but it is much more common in the autism spectrum, but your empathy and emotional processing regions have abnormally low functioning. Do you ever feel like you are disconnected from your emotions or other people?"

So even though my primary focus was on sleep, brain efficiency, and perhaps increased creativity (if any of these were possible and I was just making a wishlist), my practitioner became pretty fixated on working on the emotional processing. Sometimes he wouldn't tell me outright that was what he was doing for that particular session, I could just tell from the types of questions he would ask me. Sometimes he told me but said that he thought it was necessary to get that up and running before we targeted other things on my wishlist.

Things I appreciated about the experience:

  1. It was a little validating to hear that my brain actually is demonstrably mapped out to be crapped out (at least according to these metrics) when it comes to empathy. 
  2. Making the little green boat move with my brain waves while keeping the red and yellow boats still in the little electronic regatta made me realize: (1) my thought patterns are a lot more fixed and beyond my control than I realize and (2) because I consciously process so much information as it comes into my brain, I am less open minded. By the latter I mean that my very mechanism of trying to consciously process as much information as I can rather than letting the subconscious deal with it requires me to quickly categorize the data as being interesting or important or not, and always according to my pre-existing criteria. I've always thought that this made me function higher cognitively because less is getting past me, but I realized that it also has the weird but predictable effect of making me search for familiar patterns and thus be closed minded to truly new things, concepts, or types of information. 
  3. Certain sessions (again forgive my ignorance) where he wasn't tracking my brain waves but feeding my brain certain waves could be an absolute trip. Once I felt for all the world like I was on an opiate.
  4. I slept really soundly and deeply after almost every session in what felt like deep, restorative sleep. 
  5. I did sometimes feel waves of affection or other very strong emotional moments of truth, either during the sessions or in the days between the sessions, that suggested that there is still (for me) a capacity for less muted emotions. 

I didn't continue after 15 sessions because my talk therapist suggested that the problem with the neurofeedback technology and techniques are that the brain changes are there, but that they don't last. Again, I did not do any research to verify that claim, so forgive my ignorance.

Even if the effects did not last, there were certain realizations I made during the process that have lasted. I understand better how my brain takes in raw information and that my most efficient brain processing is not to try to earmark or categorize everything as it is coming in (as I naturally default too now), but rather to try to passively let the information come to me in whatever form it chooses to take -- as if there is a direct tunnel of information from the source straight to my brain and I just need to keep that tunnel clear, not force anything. I realized that I do have strong attachments to my loved ones, even if that feeling of attachment or love does not always seem very accessible to me. My practitioner was also a dabbler in dream interpretations, and I learned that whether or not dreams actually have meaning, there was sometimes useful information to glean from the analysis of my dreams. Maybe I will discuss one particularly clear example in a future post. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Acquired hyper-empathy (or a surgical treatment for low empathy?)

This is an interesting Wired article (link to the full study) about a woman who had part of her temporal lobe removed as part of a treatment for epilepsy and after acquired what her doctors described as a "hyper-empathy":

The researchers are careful to make some distinctions – they say there are two forms of understanding other people’s mental states (an ability known as Theory of Mind): a cognitive variety, which allows us to represent the beliefs and intentions of others; and an affective variety, which allows us to represent their feelings and emotions. They further explain that empathy is separate from Theory of Mind and is about feeling other people’s emotions. The finding from their tests is that Susan has heightened “Affective Theory of Mind” – that is, an enhanced ability to recognize the feelings and emotions of others; and heightened empathy, in the form of an intense response to other people’s emotions.

The tests

The researchers arrived at these conclusions after subjecting Susan to various neuropsychological tests. One of these tapped her Affective Theory of Mind by asking her to rate her agreement with statements like “I am good at predicting how someone will feel”; another tapped her empathy levels by asking her to rate statements like “I get upset if I see people suffering on news programmes”. More objective was use of a French version of the Reading The Mind in The Eyes Test, which involves identifying a person’s current emotions purely from looking at their eyes. Susan excelled at this test compared with ten healthy control women. The researchers also tested Susan’s Cognitive Theory of Mind using a false-belief task. This takes the form of short stories and the test-taker must deduce which character knew what in each scenario. On this, Susan performed no better than controls.

Richard-Mornas and his colleagues conclude that theirs is a “fascinating case of a patient with a hyper empathy associated with exceptional performance in a task of affective theory of mind after right amygdalohippocampectomy [that is, partial removal of the amygadala and hippocampus]”. They note that the regions where brain matter was removed are part of a neural network, together with the prefrontal cortex, that is involved in understanding other people’s minds and feelings. “The present case report suggests that a new permanent cortical organization of attention and emotion processes has developed in our patient that may be responsible for an enhancement of affective theory of mind,” they said.

The article goes on to suggest reasons to be partially or even highly skeptical about the woman's largely self-reported and unverified claims. The author's main argument seems to be yes, it is possible this happened, but we can't be sure it happened to this woman in this way to the extent she says.

But I kind of want to believe it because I started doing a little neurofeedback this summer (I'll try to write more on this when I get a chance), and a large part of the treatment was focusing on stimulating the temporal lobe to get me more up to speed on things like being connected with my feelings and empathy for others. And at least during certain times of the treatment, I did feel an unusual degree of affection and love for the my loved ones -- extremely high for me certainly, and probably high for anyone, give their reactions to my feelings? Or maybe they were just surprised that such expressions of love were coming from me. :)
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