The Endless Ratiocination of the Dysphoric Mind


My endless inquiries made it impossible for me to achieve anything. Moreover, I get to think about my own thoughts of the situation in which I find myself. I even think that I think of it, and divide myself into an infinite retrogressive sequence of ‘I’s who consider each other. I do not know at which ‘I’ to stop as the actual, and as soon as I stop, there is indeed again an ‘I’ which stops at it. I become confused and feel giddy as if I were looking down into a bottomless abyss, and my ponderings result finally in a terrible headache. –Møller, Adventures of a Danish Student

Moller’s Adventures of a Danish Student was one of Niels Bohr’s favorite books; it reflected his own difficulties with cycles of ratiocination, in which the mind protects itself against conclusions by watching itself think.

I have noticed a tendency on the left, especially among the academic-minded, to split the individual into sets of mental twins–one who is and one who feels that it is; one who does and one who observes the doing.

Take the categories of “biological sex” and “gender.” Sex is defined as the biological condition of “producing small gametes” (male) or “producing large gametes” (female) for the purpose of sexual reproduction. Thus we can talk about male and female strawberry plants, male and female molluscs, male and female chickens, male and female Homo Sapiens.

(Indeed, the male-female binary is remarkably common across sexually reproducing plants and animals–it appears that the mathematics of a third sex simply don’t work out, unless you’re a mushroom. How exactly sex is created varies by species, which makes the stability of the sex-binary all the more remarkable.)

And for the first 299,945 years or so of our existence, most people were pretty happy dividing humanity into “men” “women” and the occasional “we’re not sure.” People didn’t understand why or how biology works, but it was a functional enough division for people.

In 1955, John Money decided we needed a new term, “gender,” to describe, as Wikipedia puts it, “the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity.” Masculinity is further defined as “a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with boys and men;” we can define “femininity” similarly.

So if we put these together, we get a circular definition: gender is a range of characteristics of the attributes of males and females. Note that attributes are already characteristics. They cannot further have characteristics that are not already inherent in themselves.

But really, people invoke “gender” to speak of a sense of self, a self that reflexively looks at itself and perceives itself as possessing traits of maleness of femaleness; the thinker who must think of himself as “male” before he can act as a male. After all, you cannot walk without desiring first to move in a direction; how can you think without first knowing what it is you want to think? It is a cognitive splitting of the behavior of the whole person into two separate, distinct entities–an acting body, possessed of biological sex, and a perceiving mind, that merely perceives and “displays” gender.

But the self that looks at itself looking at itself is not real–it cannot be, for there is only one self. You can look at yourself in the mirror, but you cannot stand outside of yourself and be simultaneously yourself; there is only one you. The alternative, a fractured consciousness, is a symptom of mental disorder and treated with chlorpromazine.

Robert Oppenheimer was once diagnosed with schizophrenia–dementia praecox, as they called it then. Whether he had it or simply confused the therapist by talking about wave/particle dualities is another matter.

Then there are the myriad variants of the claim that men and women “perform femininity” or “display masculinity” or “do gender.” They do not claim that people are feminine or act masculine–such conventional phrasing assumes the existence of a unitary self that is, perceives, and acts. Rather, they posit an inner self that possesses no inherent male or female traits, for whom masculinity and femininity are only created via the interaction of their body and external expectations. In this view, women do not buy clothes because they have some inherent desire to go shopping and buy pretty things, but because society has compelled them to do so in order to comply with external notion of “what it means to be female.” The self who produces large gametes is not the self who shops.

The biological view of human behavior states that most humans engage in a variety of behaviors because similar behaviors contributed to the evolutionary success of our ancestors. We eat because ancestors who didn’t think eating was important died. We jump back when we see something that looks like a spider because ancestors who didn’t got bitten and died. We love cute things with big eyes because they look like babies because we are descended mostly from people who loved their babies.

Sometimes we do things that we don’t enjoy but rationalize will benefit us, like work for an overbearing boss or wear a burka, but most “masculine” and “feminine” behaviors fall into the category of things people do voluntarily, like “compete at sports” or “gossip with friends.” The fact that more men than women play baseball and more women than men enjoy gossiping with friends has nothing to do with an internal self attempting to perform gender roles and everything to do with the challenges ancestral humans faced in reproducing.

But whence this tendency toward ratiocination? I can criticize it as a physical mistake, but does it reflect an underlying psychological reality? Do some people really perceive themselves as a self separate from themselves, a meta-self watching the first self acting in particular manners?

Here is a study that found that folks with more cognitive flexibility tended to be more socially liberal, though economic conservatism/liberalism didn’t particularly correlate with cognitive flexibility.

I find that if I work hard, I may achieve a state of zen, an inner tranquility in which the endless narrative of thoughts coalesce for a moment and I can just be. Zen is flying down a straight road at 80 miles an hour on a motorcycle; zen is working on a math problem that consumes all of your attention; zen is dancing until you only feel the music. The opposite of zen is lying in bed at 3 AM, staring at the ceiling, thinking of all of your failures, unable to switch off your brain and fall asleep.

Dysphoria is a state of unease. Some people have gender dysphoria; a few report temporal dysphoria. It might be better defined at disconnection, a feeling of being eternally out of place. I feel a certain dysphoria every time I surface from reading some text of anthropology, walk outside, and see cars. What are these metal things? What are these straight, right-angled streets? Everything about modern society strikes me as so artificial and counter to nature that I find it deeply unsettling.

It is curious that dysphoria itself is not discussed more in the psychiatric literature. Certainly a specific form or two receives a great deal of attention, but not the general sense itself.

When things are in place, you feel tranquil and at ease; when things are out of place you agitated, always aware of the sense of crawling out of your own skin. People will try any number of things to turn off the dysphoria; a schizophrenic friend reports that enough alcohol will make the voices stop, at least for a while. Drink until your brain shuts up.

But this is only when things are out of place. Healthy people seek a balance between division and unity. Division of the self is necessary for self-criticism and improvement; people can say, then, “I did a bad thing, but I am not a bad person, so I will change my behavior and be better.” Metacognition allows people to reflect on their behavior without feeling that their self is fundamentally at threat, but too much metacognition leads to fragmentation and an inability to act.

People ultimately seek a balanced, unified sense of self.

It is said that not everyone has an inner voice, a meta-self commenting on the acting self, and some have more than one:

My previous blogs have observed that some people –women with bulimia nervosa, for example– have frequent multiple simultaneous experiences, but that multiple experience is not frequent in the general population. …

Consider inner speech. Subject experienced themselves as innerly talking to themselves in 26% of all samples, but there were large individual differences: some subjects never experienced inner speech; other subjects experienced inner speech in as many as 75% of their samples. The median percentage across subjects was 20%.

It’s hard to tell what people really experience, but certainly there is a great deal of variety in people’s internal experiences. Much of thought is not easily describable. Some people hear many voices. Some cannot form mental images:

I think the best way I can describe my aphantasia is to say that I am unaware of anything in my mind except these categories: i) direct sensory input, ii) unheardwords that carry thoughts, iii) unheardmusic, iv) a kind of invisible imagery, which I can best describe as sensation of pictures that are in a sense too faint to see, v) emotions, and vi) thoughts which seem too fastto exist as words. … I see what is around me, unless my eyes are closed when all is always black. I hear, taste, smell and so forth, but I dont have the experience people describe of
hearing a tune or a voice in their heads. Curiously, I do frequently have a tune going around in my head, all I am lacking is the direct experience of hearingit.

The quoted author is, despite his lack of internal imagery, quite intelligent, with a PhD in physics.

Some cannot hear themselves think at all.

I would like to know if there is any correlation between metacognition, ratiocination, and political orientations–I have so far found a little on the subject:

We find a relationship between thinking style and political orientation and that these effects are particularly concentrated on social attitudes. We also find it harder to manipulate intuitive and reflective thinking than a number of prominent studies suggest. Priming manipulations used to induce reflection and intuition in published articles repeatedly fail in our studies. We conclude that conservatives—more specifically, social conservatives—tend to be dispositionally less reflective, social liberals tend to be dispositionally more reflective, and that the relationship between reflection and intuition and political attitudes may be more resistant to easy manipulation than existing research would suggest.

And a bit more:

… Berzonsky and Sullivan (1992) cite evidence that individuals higher in reported
self-reflection also exhibit more openness to experience, more liberal values, and more general tolerance for exploration. As noted earlier, conservatives tend to be less open to experience, more intolerant of ambiguity, and generally more reliant on self-certainty than liberals. That, coupled with the evidence reported by Berzonsky and Sullivan, strongly suggests conservatives engage in less introspective behaviors.

Following an interesting experiment looking at people’s online dating profiles, the authors conclude:

Results from our data support the hypothesis that individuals identifying
themselves as “Ultra Conservative‟ exhibit less introspection in a written passage with personal content than individuals identifying themselves as “Very Liberal‟. Individuals who reported a conservative political orientation often provided more descriptive and explanatory statements in their profile’s “About me and who I‟m looking for‟ section (e.g., “I am 62 years old and live part time in Montana” and “I enjoy hiking, fine restaurants”). In contrast, individuals who reported a liberal political orientation often provided more insightful and introspective statements in their narratives (e.g., “No regrets, that‟s what I believe in” and “My philosophy in life is to make complicated things simple”).

The ratiocination of the scientist’s mind can ultimately be stopped by delving into that most blessed of substances, reality, (or as close to it as we can get.) There is, at base, a fundamentally real thing to delve into, a thing which makes ambiguities disappear. Even a moral dilemma can be resolved with good enough data. We do not need to wander endlessly within our own thoughts; the world is here.




To Know Thyself is the Hardest Thing

The problem with understanding oneself is not so much the internal, self-reflective aspect, but understanding others well enough to place oneself in relation to them.

For example, being a very small, shy, quiet, and generally oblivious to the world around me person, who has always felt like the rest of the world was loud and brash and big and violent, I conceived of myself, growing up, as more peaceful and less prone to violence and aggression than others.

In more recent years, I’ve come to realize that this is not quite accurate. While I do feel more fear than others, I also get madder–perhaps some exaggerated “fight or flight” response.

People are very, very bad at realizing how they compare in traits to other people. Take the Anti-Violence organizers who beat the shit out of their ex-Roommate. “…Nikole Ardeno and Emanuel Velez, who allegedly jumped the man as he was walking down the street on Tuesday. Police say the defendants kicked the victim as he was unconscious, causing him to have seizures and vomit blood.

Police Chief Chris Luppino says Ardeno was still wearing the same “Stop the Violence” T-shirt that she had on the night before when she led a march in the city protesting two recent shootings.”

I suspect these two folks do not know themselves very well.

(And I am glad to at least be able to say that I am a saint next to them.)

Unfortunately, Dumb people don’t know they’re dumb, and smart people don’t know they’re smart.

“Across four studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.”

So the big question is, how the hell do we figure out what we are dumb about, and what we’re smart about? Or whether we actually get angry a lot and need to cool down more, or if people are just being jerks about our legitimate concerns? How do we achieve some clarity of thought about our place in reference to those around us?