solitude and selfishness

I do not like the word “solitude”. To me, it implies that you are doing something intentional, goal-oriented, and temporary (perhaps because of its association with structured religious exercises?). And, since it’s the only positive word for alone-ness we have, it has the effect of shaping the limits of what kind of alone-behavior is acceptable. This emphasis is reflected in the research I’m involved in. Besides my personal, petty annoyance with some social interactions, our society’s conception of alone-ness has terrible consequences when applied to individuals with autism, for whom social interaction is non-intuitive and outrageously stressful (in extreme cases). There’s a sense in which our society links alone-ness with selfishness, and it privileges social gestures like smiles and compliments and physical touching as ways of demonstrating that we care about other people. Individuals with autism have particular difficulty recognizing or reciprocating these face-to-face signals of compassion, but many of them nevertheless care deeply about what others think of them. (People with autism tend to like exchanging gifts, doing someone else’s chores, playing video games with others, or other activities that are social but don’t involve face-to-face interaction.)

Apparently, I’m very exercised by this issue! I will surely tackle this issue more rigorously and coherently in a future post.

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running as fast as I can just to stay where I am: self-improvement and journal-writing

In the famous “Red Queen’s Race” scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, our heroine Alice, running as fast as possible to keep up with the Red Queen, notices that the physics of Wonderland do not track with her eathbound intuitions:

‘Now! Now!’ cried the Queen. ‘Faster! Faster!’ And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, ‘You may rest a little now.’

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in OUR country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

The allegory of the Red Queen’s Race has not only been heavily alluded to in modern literature by authors such as Isaac Asimov, but has also been marshaled by physicists to explain the relativistic effects of light in an expanding universe, and by biologists to explain the observation that species that seem well-adapted to their environments are nevertheless constantly evolving. For me, personally, the Red Queen’s Race brilliantly captures both the futility and the necessity that characterize my pursuit of self-improvement.

As I’ve mentioned previously, writing these blog posts is –at the moment anyway– aversive and time-consuming. I am so accustomed to the scrutiny-free wonderland that is my private journal entries that my public writing needs to be heavily edited for content and style before I consider it publishable. It concerns me to think that “making a blog post publishable” might in practice amount to “sanitizing and obscuring my raw thoughts to the point where they no longer correspond to my actual thoughts”. This general concern has occurred to me before, though it did not trouble me at the time as it does now. As I was writing essays for college, I found it easier to write what sounded sophisticated and persuasive rather than what how I genuinely felt. I got the same grade regardless of how much effort I invested. In retrospect, it seems pretty clear that this approach to writing essays retarded my ability to organize my thoughts and express them in a way that accurately reflects my actual point-of-view. My other mode of writing has traditionally been my journal, which has proven no more salutary for effective blogging. This is not to say, however, that my journal-writing is not been a boon to me in other ways…

I consider myself an assiduous diarist. My journaling career began in July 2007, when I developed an intense crush on one of my co-workers that was as obsessive as it was unrequited. Since (shockingly!) no one in my social circle seemed interested in my romantic melodrama, I took up journaling in search of a safe and sympathetic space in which to express myself. So, what began as a mere outlet for my neurotic nonsense, but has since become a useful tool for self-organization and self-improvement. To be sure, the impetus for most of my current journal entries continues to be catharsis, usually in the aftermath of some perceived indignity. But the narrative of the entry generally shifts from reactive to proactive once I talk myself down from my original upset state. I reflect on recent developments in my life, deliberate on upcoming decisions, and, more often than not, chastise myself for not living up to my high expectations. Eventually, I turn from the abstract and theoretical to the concrete and practical, doing things such as compiling all my outstanding tasks, ranking them according to priority, and then generating schedules. This is the primary means by which my journal entries foster self-improvement. Or at least the illusion of self-improvement. (The question of whether or not I am deluded in my pursuit of self-improvement is something I am keenly aware of, and to which I intend to devote a future blog post.)

There are other aspects of keeping a journal entry that appeal to me, not least of which is the aesthetic joy of transducing my messy state of mind into neatly structured paragraphs.

Besides the expected productivity boost that results from any such structured, pragmatic thinking, writing journal entries has another salutary effect: temporary freedom from distracting environmental stimuli and the neutoric monologue of my consciousness. I’m by no means a consistent or capable meditator, but strongly suspect that the wellbeing I experience while journaling is neurologically and phenomenologically similar to that of a meditation practicioner. Or, perhaps it’s more similar to what the positive psychologist Mihaly Cziksentmihaly called Flow, “a state of effortless concentration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems”. In addition to being cathartic, practical, aesthetic, and occasionally numinous, journaling is also intensely comforting activity. Merely imagining the sensation of my fingers alighting upon the keyboard, words spilling onto the page, noticeably lowers my blood pressure and heart rate. There’s something about the sheer familiarity and the underlying sense that I’m doing something constructive that calms me. I am greatly interested in biofeedback and neurofeedback, and would like to empirically verify this someday using actual sensors. The tactile, kinesthetic delight I get from writing these entries is probably similar to the comfort smokers derive from the ritualized hand motions involved handling a cigarette.

compersion

Last June, I came across the word compersion in a book about non-monogamous relationships. The book was Opening Up, by Tristan Taormino. It’s styled like a self-help book, but it’s more akin to a survey of the different kinds of non-monogamy (polygamy, polyamory, swinging, etc.), as well as some of the practical and emotional aspects of open relationships. The author doesn’t advocate for open relationships over strictly monogamous ones, but suggests that –given the difficulty many people have with long-term monogamy– people ought to know about the range of options available. Opening Up doesn’t dwell on the philosophical or moral implication of non-monogamy (the author assumes she has an open-minded audience), but she does make a persuasive ethical argument in the beginning of the book. After reviewing the statistics about divorce and cheating, she suggests that people in our society not only have unrealistic expectations about their own capacity to remain satisfied in monogamous relationship, but are frankly (and perhaps more damningly) uncreative in finding workable solutions. Because of the taboo on discussing open relationships, many rational, ethical solutions are never discussed or implemented. For many people, when they observe monogamous relationships break down after episodes of cheating, the conclusion is that sex/intimacy outside monogamy is the problem. Taormino suggests that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex itself, but, rather, the violation of trust. This feeling of having one’s trust violated is contingent on an expectation of monogamy, and insofar as the expectation of monogamy is eliminated in an open relationship, that feeling of violation is also eliminated. The upshot is that a broader conception of successful relationships that includes non-monogamy is ultimately salutary to healthy relationships.
So, I felt that summary would be useful before I introduced compersion. Compersion is a neologism, and is often defined as the opposite of jealousy. Whereas jealousy makes you feel negative when your partner experiences satisfaction with someone else, to feel compersion is to feel enjoyment when your partner experiences satisfaction with someone else. Just as one can feel jealousy outside the context of romantic/sexual relationships, compersion can also be applied to experiencing happiness when your co-workers, children, and friends succeed; more on this later, but for now I’m going to focus on romantic and sexual compersion. (Alarmingly, compersion is often confused with cuckoldry fetishes, because they both involve deriving satisfaction from seeing your partner take pleasure in someone else. However, they are very different. Whereas compersion is empathy that you feel toward your partner after rejecting strict-monogamous values, cuckoldry fetishes involve becoming sexually excited by a simulated violation of those values.)
Also, it is a myth that people in open relationships don’t feel jealousy; they do, but they can weigh their jealousy against their coexistent feelings of compersion. Taormino doesn’t mention it, but an analogy can be made to friendship. Sometimes you feel jealous of your friend’s other friends, but you weigh these feelings against your desire to see your friend happy and fulfilled. Perhaps its a stretch, but don’t friendships follow similar norms to open relationships except without the sex/romance? People are tolerant of the different ways people express their desire for friendship in a way they are not for romantic/sexual relationships. If someone wants to have a few close friends, lots of acquaintances, or one best friend and many auxiliary friends, these personal choices are decoupled from morality (although one can imagine in which some “friendship orientations” are stigmatized”). In fact, the only kind of friendship orientation that is stigmatized is the friendship equivalent of traditional monogamy: a friend who insists you spend time only with him, forbids you from having other friends, and begrudges you for even thinking about other friends. Perhaps someday the different flavors of open relationships will be as decoupled from morality as friendship is currently.
I can already tell that compersion, its history and its implications will be a fruitful source of future posts! Here are just a few outstanding thoughts on compersion that I’d like to share:
  • Compersion is a sparkling example of how merely having a word for something makes it more real. I can now recognize a whole category of (compersive) feelings that were always there in my mind, but for which I have heretofore had no language to describe them. There’s a fascinating essay on Edge.org by the psycholinguist Lera Boroditsky about the influence of language on how we perceive and parse the world. It’s titled, aptly, “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think”, and I plan on dedicating an entire post to it fairly soon. It expands on what I regarded as the most interesting sections of Steven Pinker’s book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, in which he reviews the psychological experiments that purport to show profound differences in perception between speakers of various languages. An analogy to the way in which the concept of compersion has shaped my experience might be found in the phenomenon of differential color perception between English and Russian speakers. Boroditsky writes:

“To test whether differences in color language lead to differences in color perception, we compared Russian and English speakers’ ability to discriminate shades of blue. In Russian there is no single word that covers all the colors that English speakers call “blue.” Russian makes an obligatory distinction between light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). Does this distinction mean that siniy blues look more different from goluboy blues to Russian speakers? Indeed, the data say yes. Russian speakers are quicker to distinguish two shades of blue that are called by the different names in Russian (i.e., one being siniy and the other being goluboy) than if the two fall into the same category.”

I strongly suspect that knowledge of the word compersion will promote the kind of non-jealous, generous and deliberative thinking that most of us would consider normative. I would be thrilled to see an effort by social psychologists to investigate the prosocial effect of compersion.

  • Not only is compersion a helpful concept, but the word itself is practically tailor-made for my thinking style. Contrast it with the terms frubbles and frubbly, which, according to Wikipedia, are synonyms for compersion. I like formal words and I don’t like most slang. The same goes for my thinking. It’s for this reason that I doubt I would have latched onto this concept so readily if frubbles were the only term out there. I suppose I am kind of an Anti-Orwell in that I am a Latinate-word chauvinist. With its prefix and suffix, compersion sounds like it could be a real, technical word with a distinguished pedigree (and perhaps someday it will be), and thus I don’t feel embarrassed to think in terms of it.
  • Compersion sounds like compassion, which has a uniformly positive connotation. I think that association alone makes compersion rhetorically powerful in debates about the acceptability of nonmonogamy. This might seem irrelevant, but perhaps it might explain part of why the concept has been so memorable to me.
  • In practice, compersion is a mental tool that helps you empathize with certain people in certain situations. When I refer to empathy here, I mean it in the sense of “meaningfully connecting to someone else by imagining yourself in their situation”. Since the concept of compersion integrated itself into my mental life, I’ve realized something important about empathy (for me, anyway): empathy is really really hard. More specifically, motivated empathy is hard. There’s a visceral kind of empathy that most people feel when they see someone stub their toe or cut themselves with a paring knife, where you literally cannot help but feel some analog of their pain. But there are a lot of situations (for me, anyway), where on some level I know I ought to feel empathy, but I don’t because to do so would require mental exertion and to overcome that mental exertion would require motivation. A good example of a situation where I know I ought to feel empathetic is when I read a newspaper article about the followers of Harold Camping (the guy who predicted the end of the world on October 12, 2011) who sold their homes and all their belongings in anticipation of an apocalypse that never came, and are now penniless and humiliated. My initial reaction was non-empathetic: these people are credulous fools, and deserve to suffer and be ridiculed. And yet, part of me knew what the more rational, constructive, and empathetic reaction should have been: these people were fooled; if I were in their situation, I probably would’ve made the same decisions. Since I would expect sympathy from others if I were in their situation, I will extend my sympathy to these people and withhold ridicule. In this example, it is my understanding of the psychology of belief (and my belief in the non-existence of free will) that allows me to empathize with religious people for whom my instinctive reaction was disdain. Similarly, my understanding of the unrealistic expectations of monogamy and the concept of compersion help me to empathize with romantic partners. Indeed, the concept of compersion has even helped me retroactively empathize with people in my past, mainly girls who I had crushes on but resented because they were already partnered. :D&~
  • Oh yeah. Like all emotions, compersion needs an emoticon. Seeing that there was none, I heroically stepped in to make this: :D&*~. (It’s you feeding your partner a pretzel to assure them that you are happy to see that they are happy… Yeah, I’ll keep working on the emoticon.)
  • Like I mentioned earlier in this post, compersion isn’t just relevant to romantic/sexual relationships. It’s also applicable to feeling happy to see your friends, children, colleagues, and pets succeed. I have often felt jealous of my peers, and I think that my lack of vocabulary for describing my delight in their qualities and achievements made it difficult to be rational. Perhaps I’m in the minority in believing this (and do please tell me your thoughts), but I think that sometimes jealousy is a rational and salutary emotion. It can spur you to identify things about yourself that you ought to improve, and sometimes it jealousy can discourage you from investing time and resources into competing with people who are insurmountably better than you at something or another.

Psychopharmacology will always occupy a special place in my heart, because it was through addiction research that I became interested in neuroscience. My memory of my intellectual development is generally quite fuzzy, but I can clearly remember the formative experience that sparked my interest in psychopharmacology. Through the College Now program, I was taking an introductory neuroscience course at CUNY Queens College despite the fact that I was still in high school. During the unit on psychoactive drugs, the professor mentioned that ADHD drugs like Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Aderrall (amphetamine) are routinely used as cognitive enhancers by students and professionals. This was the first time I had ever heard of these drugs being used recreationally, and I distinctly recall that my first reaction, based on the little information that I had been presented, was not just skeptical but positively censorious: these drugs represented a threat to the meritocratic ideal of education, and the case for prohibiting them seemed airtight. Then, one of the other students asked the professor a question about the ethical issue of using such cognitive enhancing drugs, making an invidious comparison between her own unassisted work ethic and her friend’s dependence on these drugs. The professor began his response by pointing to the cup sitting on the student’s desk, which was clearly coffee. He went on to say that caffeine is also a stimulant that improves attention and memory, but no one would think of stigmatizing someone who drinks coffee to improve their performance on an exam. This was a revelation to me, and a lesson: do not make scientifically uninformed judgments, or you will pay a cost in public criticism and private embarrassment. Outside of this general lesson on intellectual humility, my interest in the neuroscience of psychotropic drugs was kindled. As I read more into the subject, I increasingly realized that psychotropic drugs resided at the nexus of so many other fascinating intersectional issues:

  • Evidence of evolution, and encouraging doubt in religious explanations. “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. This was the title of a 1973 essay by evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, and this notion is absolutely critical in order to make sense of psychotropic drugs. Dobzhansky’s essay was a rebuttal to creationists who argued that evolution could not possibly explain the complexity of life, but it serves just as well as a reminder to biologists not to immediately assume that any structure or behavior they observe in an organism has adaptive significance. A recognizable example is the human appendix, which has no known function other than to become infected and then burst; and removing it has no obvious medical consequences. If you are a creationist, a patently maladaptive organ like the appendix presents a problem. Without recourse to evolutionary theory, your options are limited to (a) postulating a conspiracy among doctors to hide the true, magnificent function of the appendix, (b) ascribing the appendix to a malicious designer god or demon, or (c) ignoring this piece of counter-evidence entirely, hoping nobody notices. Anything but consider the evidence supporting evolution. From my perspective, the sheer maladaptiveness of drug addiction, and the way it nastiness cuts across populations both godly and secular, is so salient that ignoring it is impossible, and religious notions like demonic possession and inherent sinfulness have to be marshaled. The fact that these nonsensical  psychotropic drugs of abuse are persuasive to so many is less important than the fact that religious authorities consider it a priority to immunize their flock against the reality. This suggests that as the lingo, major concepts and ethical implications of the neuroscience of addiction increasingly trickle down into the general population –as they are in the process of doing– religious explanations of addiction will be replaced with scientific facts. And, hopefully, the manifest conflict between religious dogma and settled science will propel more people towards rationality an skepticism.
  • The myth of a hard distinction between evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology. There is a corresponding –though far less pernicious– form of evolution denialism that has been espoused by left-leaning scholars and scientists (e.g. Steven J. Gould) whose values I otherwise share, one that recognizes the primacy of evolutionary explanations when it comes to physical traits like height and automatic behaviors like the knee-jerk reflex, but when in comes to the mind privileges environmental explanations over evolutionary ones even in face of contrary evidence. This tendency, which was the subject of Steven Pinker’s masterpiece, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, is at the heart of much of the criticism of evolutionary psychology, and is the product of lazy thinking that makes a sharp distinction between the body (which evolution acts on) and the mind (which is shaped by the environment). Such a hard distinction is incompatible with modern neuroscience, which reveals that the mind is a byproduct of the workings of the brain, and the brain is the product of evolution by natural selection. In my estimation, psychotropic drugs are the most compelling evidence for the interrelationship between mind and brain. Whereas most kinds of scientific evidence are accessible only to experts in the field, any layman with a dose of LSD can verify the extent to which the mind is influenced by the physical factors (in this case, the binding of drug molecules onto receptors, triggering the cascade of events that corresponds to the experience).
  • The sociology of addiction. In Fall 2009, during my abortive semester at Skidmore College, I was fortunate to have taken a course called “Neuroscience and Addiction”. Unlike most introductory psychopharmacology courses, this one emphasized not only the biology but also the societal impact of addiction. The first unit of the course examined the impact of drugs on human societies, both throughout history and among various countries. Far from being tangential, these historical and cross-cultural perspectives were crucial to understanding how misguided, provincial, unscientific, and unethical the current U.S. drug policy is. A theme of the course was that drugs/addiction are highly moralized in our society in a way that is not only uncompassionate to those afflicted, but also counterproductive with respect to prevention and treatment. More so than any other aspect of our national policy, the screwiness, unfairness and futility of the War on Drugs holds a special place in my heart as the most sparkling example of government incompetence.

I have some truly remarkable insights regarding the kind of cognitive enhancing drugs that I mentioned before that, alas, are too small to fit in the margins of this post. However, I look forward to dedicating an entire post to this engrossing topic (about which I consider myself an somewhat knowledgeable) in the near future.

a particularly beautifully bound book

A few years ago, I brought home a book from my grandmother’s house. It contains 3 stories from Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Eugene O’Neill, but its contents are less important than the physical book itself. It’s so beautiful that I need to show you pictures:
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Notice the glossy, embossed cover, and that bookmarking ribbon.

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The edges of the sheets are gold! And the book is bound with string instead of glue.

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The inside and outside covers have this nice swirly design.

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The book has these stylized illustrations of the authors

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The paper is very high quality. The two-column layout with large page borders is very good for reading.

I’m sure my delight in this book is testing your patience. The takeaway message is that the physical beauty of the book really enhanced the reading experience for me, and I wonder why books this beautiful aren’t available today. This particular book was apparently one that you bought from a catalog. Even an assiduous Kindle reader like me would surely read more physical books if they were as durable and aesthetically impressive as this one.

an update for my patient readers

popcorn fat cat spectator
Enjoy the show!

As you, the reader, have probably noticed, I have not written any blog posts in 16 days. I didn’t expect how difficult it would be to produce anything coherent and interesting. Despite the anxiety that this writer’s block has caused me, I am nevertheless grateful to have identified these issues now as opposed to later. Unlike a competitive job environment, this blog is a safe space to work on becoming a more consistent, less perfectionistic writer. Truth be told, the prospect of analyzing and ultimately overcoming this challenge is quite exciting! My suspicion is that the solution to my writer’s block will depend less so on scholarly research and self-reflection (both of which I enjoy doing) than on consistent practicing and a conscious effort to lower my standards for what constitutes a publishable blog post (which I dread!). I am fortunate, also, to have the support of friends and family in this endeavor to improve myself.