Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton

The autist’s greatest strength–and weakness–is his deficiency in the neural mechanisms of mimicry. Without the necessary feedback loops, he fails to subconsciously adopt of his peers’ words, actions, and beliefs, leaving him is free to develop his own–caring little about how strange they seem to everyone else.

At his most unfortunate, the infant autist lacks even the instincts necessary to imitate the mouth-shapes and mouth-sounds of his parents, leaving him unable to develop speech. Some of these autists understand speech perfectly well, but simply cannot produce it.

At his most fortunate, the autist, immune to other people’s preconceived notions, revolutionizes some field of science or math–or both:

Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race! He was born on 25 December 1642, and died on 20 March 1726/7.—Translation from G.L. Smyth, The Monuments and Genii of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and of Westminster Abbey (1826), ii, 703–4.[115]

The Neurology of Cross-Cultural Authority? pt 2

As we were discussing yesterday, I theorize that people have neural feedback loops that reward them for conforming/imitating others/obeying authorities and punish them for disobeying/not conforming.

This leads people to obey authorities or go along with groups even when they know, logically, that they shouldn’t.

There are certainly many situations in which we want people to conform even though they don’t want to, like when my kids have to go to bed or buckle their seatbelts–as I said yesterday, the feedback loop exists because it is useful.

But there are plenty of situations where we don’t want people to conform, like when trying to brainstorm new ideas.

Under what conditions will people disobey authority?

As we previously discussed, using technology to create anonymous, a-reputational conversations may allow us to avoid some of the factors that lead to group think.

But in person, people may disobey authorities when they have some other social systtem to fall back on. If disobeying an authority in Society A means I lose social status in Society A, I will be more likely to disobey if I am a member in good standing in Society B.

If I can use my disobedience against Authority A as social leverage to increase my standing in Society B, then I am all the more likely to disobey. A person who can effectively stand up to an authority figure without getting punished must be, our brains reason, a powerful person, an authority in their own right.

Teenagers do this all the time, using their defiance against adults, school, teachers, and society in general to curry higher social status among other teenagers, the people they actually care about impressing.

SJWs do this, too:

I normally consider the president of Princeton an authority figure, and even though I probably disagree with him on far more political matters than these students do, I’d be highly unlikely to be rude to him in real life–especially if I were a student he could get expelled from college.

But if I had an outside audience–Society B–clapping and cheering for me behind the scenes, the urge to obey would be weaker. And if yelling at the President of Princeton could guarantee me high social status, approval, job offers, etc., then there’s a good chance I’d do it.

But then I got to thinking: Are there any circumstances under which these students would have accepted the president’s authority?

Obviously if the man had a proven track record of competently performing a particular skill the students wished to learn, they might follow hi example.

Or not.

If authority works via neural feedback loops, employing some form of “mirror neurons,” do these systems activate more strongly when the people we are perceiving look more like ourselves (or our internalized notion of people in our “tribe” look like, since mirrors are a recent invention)?

In other words, what would a cross-racial version of the Milgram experiment look like?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anyone has tried it (and to do it properly, it’d need to be a big experiment, involving several “scientists” of different races [so that the study isn’t biased by one “scientist” just being bad at projecting authority] interacting with dozens of students of different races, which would be a rather large undertaking.) I’m also not finding any studies on cross-racial authority (I did find plenty of websites offering practical advice about different groups’ leadership styles,) though I’m sure someone has studied it.

However, I did find cross-racial experiments on empathy, which may involve the same brain systems, and so are suggestive:

From Racial Bias Reduces Empathic Sensorimotor Resonance with Other-Race Pain, by Avenanti et al:

Using transcranial magnetic stimulation, we explored sensorimotor empathic brain responses in black and white individuals who exhibited implicit but not explicit ingroup preference and race-specific autonomic reactivity. We found that observing the pain of ingroup models inhibited the onlookers’ corticospinal system as if they were feeling the pain. Both black and white individuals exhibited empathic reactivity also when viewing the pain of stranger, very unfamiliar, violet-hand models. By contrast, no vicarious mapping of the pain of individuals culturally marked as outgroup members on the basis of their skin color was found. Importantly, group-specific lack of empathic reactivity was higher in the onlookers who exhibited stronger implicit racial bias.

From Taking one’s time in feeling other-race pain: an event-related potential investigation on the time-course of cross-racial empathy, by Sessa et al.:

Using the event-related potential (ERP) approach, we tracked the time-course of white participants’ empathic reactions to white (own-race) and black (other-race) faces displayed in a painful condition (i.e. with a needle penetrating the skin) and in a nonpainful condition (i.e. with Q-tip touching the skin). In a 280–340 ms time-window, neural responses to the pain of own-race individuals under needle penetration conditions were amplified relative to neural responses to the pain of other-race individuals displayed under analogous conditions.

In Seeing is believing: neural mechanisms of action-perception are biased by team membership, Molenberghs et al. write:

In this study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how people perceive the actions of in-group and out-group members, and how their biased view in favor of own team members manifests itself in the brain. We divided participants into two teams and had them judge the relative speeds of hand actions performed by an in-group and an out-group member in a competitive situation. Participants judged hand actions performed by in-group members as being faster than those of out-group members, even when the two actions were performed at physically identical speeds. In an additional fMRI experiment, we showed that, contrary to common belief, such skewed impressions arise from a subtle bias in perception and associated brain activity rather than decision-making processes, and that this bias develops rapidly and involuntarily as a consequence of group affiliation. Our findings suggest that the neural mechanisms that underlie human perception are shaped by social context.

None of these studies shows definitevely whether or not in-group vs. out-group biases are an inherent feature of neurological systems, or Avenanti’s finding that people were more empathetic toward a purple-skinned person than to a member of a racial out-group suggests that some amount of learning is involved in the process–and that rather than comparing people against one’s in-group, we may be comparing them against our out-group.

At any rate, you may get similar outcomes either way.

In cases where you want to promote group cohesion and obedience, it may be beneficial to sort people by self-identity.

In cases where you want to guard against groupthink, obedience, or conformity, it may be beneficial to mix up the groups. Intellectual diversity is great, but even ethnic diversity may help people resist defaulting to obedience, especially when they know they shouldn’t.

A study by McKinsey and Company suggests that mixed-race companies outperform more homogenous companies:


but I can find other studies that suggest the opposite, eg, Women Don’t Mean Business? Gender Penalty in Board Appointments, by Isabelle Solal:

Using data from two panel studies on U.S. firms and an online experiment, we examine investor reactions to increases in board diversity. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we find that appointing female directors has no impact on objective measures of performance, such as ROA, but does result in a systematic decrease in market value.

(Solal argues that investors may perceive the hiring of women–even competent ones–as a sign that the company is pursuing social justice goals instead of money-making goals and dump the stock.)

Additionally, diverse companies may find it difficult to work together toward a common goal–there is a good quantity of evidence that increasing diversity decreases trust and inhibits group cohesion. EG, from The downside of diversity:

IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

As usual, I suspect there is an optimum level of diversity–depending on a group’s purpose and its members’ preferences–that helps minimize groupthink while still preserving most of the benefits of cohesion.

Creativity and Psychoticism

I was discussing the research for the AIDS and California post with a friend the other day, and they reacted with what I recall as shock and horror, protesting that San Francisco was home to Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs (formerly,) and all kinds of fabulous innovations. I thought about this for a moment, and replied something to the effect of, “Creatives are Psychotic.”

Now, I do not mean that creative people are stark raving bonkers and lost connection with reality, nor that they are violent, dangerous, malicious, or anything like that. I do mean that their minds do not function the same as everyone else’s.

Normal people, as I’ve mentioned before, (seem to have) neurological feedback loops that make them imitate other people. This is deep in the wiring of the brain; it’s crucial for things like learning to talk. People who imitate other people are normal, functional humans; people who fail to imitate others generally have severe life impairments. Understanding how these feedback loops work and influence our decision-making processes is crucial, IMO, to understanding the vast majority of humans.

But creative people, by definition, are not imitating others.

There are two obvious ways to be creative:

  1. Not know what other people know/think about something. Therefore, you are completely unable to have any conformist thoughts about it.
  2. Not care what other people know/think about something.

Most people who don’t know what other people know/think are small children, and small children are wonderfully creative. To get the same effect in an adult, in any useful sort of way, your best bet is to look for outsiders. Outsiders aren’t deeply tied into and invested in your way of thinking and doing things, and so can easily see things you’ve overlooked. I tend to think of Jayman’s creativity, for example, as springing at least partially from his semi-outsideriness, giving him a perspective other people lack. (Jay, if I’m wrong, forgive me.)

Creatives who don’t care what other people know see past what everyone else sees. They see new ways to combine things, new ideas, new stuff other people haven’t tried yet.

Normal people either cannot see this stuff, or when they do see it, their neuro feedback loops punish them for having deviant wrongthought.

The normal person experiences reality like a fish experiences water. A creative person is a fish with wings.

A normal person cannot escape from reality. They struggle to produce novelty because their brains only like doing things that are already being done. Normal is their programming.

Creatives lack some aspect of this programming. The normal feedback loops aren’t there. They are disconnected from reality. Not totally, of course–if they were totally disconnected, they’d probably just walk in front of a car and then we’d never hear from them again. They are usually connected enough to function, to eat and sleep and not get run over, but to be frank, all of that normal stuff is often a struggle for them.

Paul Erdős comes immediately to mind. Yes, mathematicians are creatives. This is obvious.

From the Wikipedia:

“Possessions meant little to Erdős; most of his belongings would fit in a suitcase, as dictated by his itinerant lifestyle. Awards and other earnings were generally donated to people in need and various worthy causes. He spent most of his life as a vagabond, traveling between scientific conferences, universities and the homes of colleagues all over the world. He earned enough in stipends from universities as a guest lecturer, and from various mathematical awards to fund his travels and basic needs; money left over he used to fund cash prizes for proofs of “Erdős problems” (see below). He would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later. In many cases, he would ask the current collaborator about whom to visit next.”

Just one case; you may provide many others. Artists who cut off their ears or seem obsessed with vaginas; rock stars with their fiery careers and often spectacular ends; scientists or engineers obsessed with tiny, obscure bits of the world that no one else pays attention to, like eels or gyroscopes.

For San Francisco to be both the source of great technological breakthroughs and improvements, and a place where a good percentage of the population decides to just throw social norms out the window, heh, norms, who needs the damn things? seems entirely sensible. Sometimes not caring what other people think leads to good ideas, sometimes to bad ideas, sometimes to really strange but ultimately neutral ideas.


  1. If you want creativity and innovation in your society, you have to tolerate some crazy, socially-deviant behavior from your creatives.
  2. A certain percentage of “outsiders” will probably help maximize society’s creative output.
  3. Creatives are not always very good at taking care of themselves. If a peripatetic mathematician arrives suddenly on your doorstep, it’s probably best for humanity if you let him sleep on your couch and do math on your table. Society at large may want to keep this in mind, as well.
  4. Don’t believe *everything* creatives say. Sometimes they have great breakthroughs; sometimes they just don’t see the underlying logic for doing things the normal way.


This was not originally my idea–I think it was Bruce Charlton‘s. If not, I apologize.