Learning in Numbers

There is strength in numbers, but is there wisdom?

I’ve heard from multiple sources the claim that parenting, paradoxically, gets easier after the fourth child. There are several simple explanations for this phenomenon: people get more skilled at parenting after lots of practice; the older kids start helping out with the younger ones, etc.

But what if the phenomenon rests on something much more basic about human psychology–our desire to imitate others?

(Perhaps you don’t, dear reader. There are always exceptions.)

As Aristotle put it, man is a political animal–by which he meant that we are inherently social and prone to building communities (polities) together, not that we are inherently prone to arguing about who should govern North Carolina, though that may be political, too. In Aristotle’s words, a man who lives entirely alone is either a beast (living like an animal) or a god (able to fulfill all of his own needs without recourse to other humans.) Normal humans depend in many ways on other humans.

Compared to our pathetic ability to learn math (just look at most people’s SAT-math scores) and inability to read without direct instruction, humans learn socially-imparted skills like the ability to speak multiple languages, play games, assert dominance over each other, which clothes are fashionable, and how to crack a socially-appropriate joke with ease.

Social learning comes so naturally to people that we only notice it in cases of extreme deficit–like autism–or when parents protest that their children are becoming horribly corrupted by their peers.

So perhaps households with more than 4 children have hit a threshold beyond which social learning takes over and the younger children simply seem to “absorb” knowledge from their older siblings instead of having to be explicitly taught.

Consider learning to eat, a hopefully simple task. We are born with instincts to nurse, put random things in our mouths, and swallow. Preventing babies from eating random non-food objects is a bit of a problem for new parents. But learning things like “how to get this squishy food into your mouth with a spoon without also getting it everywhere else in the room” is much more complicated–and humans take food rituals to much more complicated heights than strained peas and carrots.

Parents of new children put a great deal of effort into teaching them to eat (something that ought to be an instinct.) Those with means puree fresh veggies, chop bits of meat, show a sudden interest in organics, and sit down to spoon every single last bit into their infants’ mouths. It is as if they are convinced that kids cannot learn to eat without at least as much instruction as a student learning to wield a welding torch. (And based on my own experience, they’re probably right.)

By contrast, parents of multiple children have–by necessity–relaxed. As a popular comic once depicted (though I can’t find it now,) feeding at this point becomes throwing Cheerios at the highchair as you run by.

Yet I’ve never seen any evidence that the younger children in large families are likely to be malnourished–they seem to catch the Cheerios on the fly and do just fine.

What if imitation is a strong factor in larger families, allowing infants and young children to learn skills like “how to eat” without needing direct parental instruction just by watching their older siblings? You might object that even infants in single parent households could learn to eat by imitating their parents (and they probably do,) but having more people around probably enforces the behavior more strongly, and having younger children around gives an example that is much more similar to the infant. We adults are massive compared to children, after all.

If basic learning of life skills proceeds more easily in an environment with more peers,(for infants or adults,) then what effects should we expect from our current trend toward extreme atomization?

I recently came across an essay about life in a trailer park vs sturdier housing:

To me, growing up in that trailer park meant playing until dark with neighborhood kids, building tree houses and snow forts. Listening out my bedroom window for the sound of my dad’s pickup truck leaving for work in the early morning. Riding my bike down the big hill at the top of the lot, avoiding potholes and feeling safe because there wasn’t much traffic and if I fell and skinned my knee, someone would come out on their front porch and ask if I was okay.

Some of the only happy memories I have of my childhood were from that time in my life, before my parents were thrust into insurmountable debt, before my mother was hospitalized, before I had to go live with my grandmother. Nana had a real house. She didn’t live in a trailer. But when she would scream at me or try to attack me as I squeezed by her and fled upstairs, I wished I had neighbors close by to hear her — to believe me, and to perhaps even help.

The most dysfunctional and unstable years of my life were spent in a real house, with four walls and a slanted roof — where fences went up between the houses so that no one ever had to feel responsible for what went on behind their neighbor’s front door.

This is more about atomization than learning, but still interesting. Is it good for humans to be so far apart? To live far from relatives, in houses with thick walls, as single children or single adults, working and commuting every day among strangers?

Certainly the downsides of being among relatives are well-documented. Many tribal societies have downright cruel customs directed at relatives, like sati or adult circumcision. But that doesn’t mean that the extreme opposite–total atomization–is perfect. Atomization carries other risks. Among them, staying indoors and not socializing with our neighbors may cause us to lose some of our social knowledge, our ability to learn how to exist together.

We might expect that physical atomization due to technological change (sturdier houses, more entertaining TV, comfier climate control systems,) could cause symptoms in people similar to those caused by medical deficits in social learning, like autism. A recent study on the subject found an interesting variation between the brains of normies and autists:

So great was the difference between the two groups that the researchers could identify whether a brain was autistic or neurotypical in 33 out of 34 of the participants—that’s 97% accuracy—just by looking at a certain fMRI activation pattern. “There was an area associated with the representation of self that did not activate in people with autism,” Just says. “When they thought about hugging or adoring or persuading or hating, they thought about it like somebody watching a play or reading a dictionary definition. They didn’t think of it as it applied to them.” This suggests that in autism, the representation of the self is altered, which researchers have known for many years, Just says.

This might explain the high rates of body dysmorphias in autism. It might also explain the high rates in society.

I remember another study which I read ages ago which found that people basically thought about “God” in the same parts of their brain where they thought about themselves. This explains why God tends to have the same morals as His believers. If autists have trouble imagining themselves, then they may also have trouble imagining God–and this might explain rising atheism rates.

Even our rising autism rates, though probably driven primarily by shifts in diagnostic fads, might be influenced by shrinking families and greater atomization, as kids with borderline conditions might show more severe symptoms if they are also more isolated.

On the other hand, social media is allowing people to come together and behave socially in new and ever larger groups.

For all their weaknesses, autists are probably better at normies at certain kinds of tasks, like abstract reasoning where you don’t want to think too much about yourself. I have long suspected that normies balk at philosophical dilemmas such as the trolley problem because they over-empathize with the subjects. Imagining themselves as one of the victims of the runaway trolley causes them distress, and distress causes them to attack the person causing them distress–the philosopher.

And so the citizens of Athens condemned Socrates to death.

But just as people can overcome their natural and very sensible fear of heights in order to work on skyscrapers, perhaps they can train themselves not to empathize with the subjects of trolley problems. Spending time on problems with no human subjects (such as mathematics or engineering) may also help people practice ways of approaching problems that don’t immediately resort to imagining themselves as the subject. On the converse, perhaps a bit of atomization (as seen historically in countries like Britain and France, and recently AFAIK in Japan,) helps equip people to think about difficult, non-human related mathematical or engineering problems.

Thoughts?

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The Female Problem

 

800px-otto_hahn_und_lise_meitner
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory, 1912

As Pumpkin Person reports, 96% of people with math IQs over 154 are male (at least in the early 1980s.) Quoting from  Feingold, A. (1988). Cognitive gender differences are disappearing. American Psychologist, 43(2), 95-103:

When the examinees from the two test administrations were combined, 96% of 99 scores of 800 (the highest possible scaled score), 90% of 433 scores in the 780-790 range, 81% of 1479 scores between 750 and 770, and 56% of 3,768 scores of 600 were earned by boys.

The linked article notes that this was an improvement over the previous gender gap in high-end math scores. (This improvement may itself be an illusion, due to the immigration of smarter Asians rather than any narrowing of the gap among locals.)

I don’t know what the slant is among folks with 800s on the verbal sub-test, though it is probably less–far more published authors and journalists are male than top mathematicians are female. (Language is a much older human skill than math, and we seem to have a corresponding easier time with it.) ETA: I found some data. Verbal is split nearly 50/50 across the board; the short-lived essay had a female bias. Since the 90s, the male:female ratio for scores over 700 improved from 13:1 to 4:1; there’s more randomness in the data for 800s, but the ratio is consistently more male-dominated.

High SAT (or any other sort of) scores is isolating. A person with a combined score between 950 and 1150 (on recent tests) falls comfortably into the middle of the range; most people have scores near them. A person with a score above 1350 is in the 90th%–that is, 90% of people have scores lower than theirs.

People with scores that round up to 1600 are above the 99th%. Over 99% of people have lower scores than they do.

And if on top of that you are a female with a math score above 750, you’re now a minority within a minority–75% or more of the tiny sliver of people at your level are likely to be male.

Obviously the exact details change over time–the SAT is periodically re-normed and revised–and of course no one makes friends by pulling out their SAT scores and nixing anyone with worse results.

But the general point holds true, regardless of our adjustments, because people bond with folks who think similarly to themselves, have similar interests, or are classmates/coworkers–and if you are a female with high math abilities, you know well that your environment is heavily male.

This is not so bad if you are at a point in your life when you are looking for someone to date and want to be around lots of men (in fact, it can be quite pleasant.) It becomes a problem when you are past that point, and looking for fellow women to converse with. Married women with children, for example, do not typically associate in groups that are 90% male–nor should they, for good reasons I can explain in depth if you want me to.

A few months ago, a young woman named Kathleen Rebecca Forth committed suicide. I didn’t know Forth, but she was a nerd, and nerds are my tribe.

She was an effective altruist who specialized in understanding people through the application of rationality techniques. She was in the process of becoming a data scientist so that she could earn the money she needed to dedicate her life to charity.

I cannot judge the objective truth of Forth’s suicide letter, because I don’t know her nor any of the people in her particular communities. I have very little experience with life as a single person, having had the good luck to marry young. Nevertheless, Forth is dead.

At the risk of oversimplifying the complex motivations for Forth’s death, she was desperately alone and felt like she had no one to protect her. She wanted friends, but was instead surrounded by men who wanted to mate with her (with or without her consent.) Normal people can solve this problem by simply hanging out with more women. This is much harder for nerds:

Rationality and effective altruism are the loves of my life. They are who I am.

I also love programming. Programming is part of who I am.

I could leave rationality, effective altruism and programming to escape the male-dominated environments that increase my sexual violence risk so much. The trouble is, I wouldn’t be myself. I would have to act like someone else all day.

Imagine leaving everything you’re interested in, and all the social groups where people have something in common with you. You’d be socially isolated. You’d be constantly pretending to enjoy work you don’t like, to enjoy activities you’re not interested in, to bond with people who don’t understand you, trying to be close to people you don’t relate to… What kind of life is that? …

Before I found this place, my life was utterly unengaging. No one was interested in talking about the same things. I was actually trying to talk about rationality and effective altruism for years before I found this place, and was referred into it because of that!

My life was tedious and very lonely. I never want to go back to that again. Being outside this network felt like being dead inside my own skin.

Why Forth could not effectively change the way she interacted with men in order to decrease the sexual interest she received from them, I do not know–it is perhaps unknowable–but I think her life would not have ended had she been married.

A couple of years ago, I met someone who initiated a form of attraction I’d never experienced before. I was upset because of a sex offender and wanted to be protected. For months, I desperately wanted this person to protect me. My mind screamed for it every day. My survival instincts told me I needed to be in their territory. This went on for months. I fantasized about throwing myself at them, and even obeying them, because they protected me in the fantasy.

That is very strange for me because I had never felt that way about anyone. Obedience? How? That seemed so senseless.

Look, no one is smart in all ways at once. We all have our blind spots. Forth’s blind spot was this thing called “marriage.” It is perhaps also a blind spot for most of the people around her–especially this one. She should not be condemned for not being perfect, any more than the rest of us.

But we can still conclude that she was desperately lonely for normal things that normal people seek–friendship, love, marriage–and her difficulties hailed in part from the fact that her environment was 90% male. She had no group of like-minded females to bond with and seek advice and feedback from.

Forth’s death prompted me to create The Female Side, an open thread for any female readers of this blog, along with a Slack-based discussion group. (The invite is in the comments over on the Female Side.) You don’t have to be alone. (You don’t even have to be good at math.) We are rare, but we are out here.

(Note: anyone can feel free to treat any thread as an Open Thread, and some folks prefer to post over on the About page.)

Given all of this, why don’t I embrace efforts to get more women into STEM? Why do I find these efforts repulsive, and accept the heavily male-dominated landscape? Wouldn’t it be in my self-interest to attract more women to STEM and convince people, generally, that women are talented at such endeavors?

I would love it if more women were genuinely interested in STEM. I am also grateful to pioneers like Marie Curie and Lise Meitner, whose brilliance and dedication forced open the doors of academies that had formerly been entirely closed to women.

The difficulty is that genuine interest in STEM is rare, and even rarer in women. The over-representation of men at both the high and low ends of mathematical abilities is most likely due to biological causes that even a perfect society that removes all gender-based discrimination and biases cannot eliminate.

It does not benefit me one bit if STEM gets flooded with women who are not nerds. That is just normies invading and taking over my territory. It’s middle school all over again.

If your idea of “getting girls interested in STEM” includes makeup kits and spa masks, I posit that you have no idea what you’re talking about, you’re appropriating my culture, and you can fuck off.

Please take a moment to appreciate just how terrible this “Project Mc2” “Lip Balm Lab” is. I am not sure I have words sufficient to describe how much I hate this thing and its entire line, but let me try to summarize:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with lib balm. The invention of makeup that isn’t full of lead and toxic chemicals was a real boon to women. There are, in fact, scientists at work at makeup companies, devoted to inventing new shades of eye shadow, quicker-drying nail polish, less toxic lipstick, etc.

And… wearing makeup is incredibly normative for women. Little girls play at wearing makeup. Obtaining your first adult makeup and learning how to apply it is practically a rite of passage for young teens. Most adult women love makeup and wear it every day.

Except:

Nerd women.

Female nerds just aren’t into makeup.

Marie Curie
Marie Curie, fashionista

I’m not saying they never wear makeup–there’s even a significant subculture of people who enjoy cosplay/historical re-enactment and construct elaborate costumes, including makeup–but most of us don’t. Much like male nerds, we prioritize comfort and functionality in the things covering our bodies, not fashion trends.

And if anything, makeup is one of the most obvious shibboleths that distinguishes between nerd females and normies.

In other words, they took the tribal marker of the people who made fun of us throughout elementary and highschool and repackaged it as “Science!” in an effort to get more normies into STEM, and I’m supposed to be happy about this?!

I am not ashamed of the fact that women are rarer than men at the highest levels of math abilities. Women are also rarer than men at the lowest levels of math abilities. I feel no need to cram people into disciplines they aren’t actually interested in just so we can have equal numbers of people in each–we don’t need equal numbers of men and women in construction work, plumbing, electrical engineering, long-haul trucking, nursing, teaching, childcare, etc.

It’s okay for men and women to enjoy different things–on average–and it’s also okay for some people to have unusual talents or interests.

It’s okay to be you.

(I mean, unless you’re a murderer or something. Then don’t be you.)

Tesla, Edison, Genius, and Loneliness (part 2/2)

Part 1 is here.

“If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.” — Confucius

This quote is one of my personal mottoes, but I have added a corollary: “If I am walking with only one man, I still have two teachers, for I may learn to achieve goodness from a man’s good side, and to avoid evil from a man’s bad side.”

At any rate, Edison is a man whose goodness instructs us on how to take brilliant ideas and build the structures necessary for them to benefit humanity. Edison is a man who literally built civilization and deserves credit for both seeing how the structures needed to fit together to work, and for having the skills necessary to actually bring people together and build those structures.

Tesla is a lesson on how society should not manage its creative geniuses, (and I don’t mean the dumb pay dispute with Edison.)

Tesla is an interesting character. He appears to have been one of the world’s exceedingly rare true short sleepers, which appears to be a genetic condition:

“Ying-Hui Fu … studies the genetics and other characteristics of short sleepers at her neurogenetics lab.

“Currently, Fu knows of three types of genetic mutations that are related to the ability to function well on minimal amounts of sleep, which often runs in the family. In a 2009 paper published in the journal Science, she described a mother and a daughter who shared the same genetic mutation of the gene DEC2 that allowed them to thrive on six hours of sleep per night. So far Fu has identified about 50 families of short sleepers.

“This group of short sleepers is unique,” Fu said, describing them as optimistic and energetic, often holding more than one job. …

“Interestingly, these high energy levels typical of short sleepers can sometimes reach behavioral extremes. For instance, a 2001 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research that examined the sleep patterns and personality of 12 short sleepers, researchers found some evidence of subclinical hypomania — a milder form of manic behavior, characterized by euphoria, disinhibition and, in fact, a decreased need for sleep.”

Please note that drinking 10 5-hour-energy drinks in a row is not the same as having a genetic mutation that lets you get by on less sleep. Chances are extremely likely that you, my friend, are already not getting as much sleep as you need for optimum health. Also, since very few short sleepers have actually been studied, what we think we know about them may not be entirely accurate; they may suffer long-term consequences that have not yet been documented, for example. I do wonder if chronic lack of sleep eventually got to Tesla, reducing him to a state of waking-dreaming toward the end of his life, when he began going obviously loopy.

 

Tesla’s rigidity of personality, behavior, and dress are reminiscent of the compulsive, repetitive, and restrictive behaviors associated with autism/Asperger’s Syndrome (now just another part of “autism” in the DSM,) eg,

“People with Asperger syndrome display behavior, interests, and activities that are restricted and repetitive and are sometimes abnormally intense or focused. They may stick to inflexible routines, move in stereotyped and repetitive ways, or preoccupy themselves with parts of objects.

“Pursuit of specific and narrow areas of interest is one of the most striking features of AS.[1] Individuals with AS may collect volumes of detailed information on a relatively narrow topic such as weather data or star names, without necessarily having a genuine understanding of the broader topic.” (Wikipedia.)

I’ve long thought it a problem that these definitions/descriptions make no effort to distinguish between “Aspies” and genuinely intelligent people, who simply have more ability to memorize facts of any sort and will learn about any subject in more depth than someone of ordinary intelligence. If we want to define high IQ as a mental disorder, then, well, I guess we can, but it seems like a bad idea to me.

Autistic children apparently also have difficulty sleeping, which is why many of them are being prescribed melatonin as a sleep aid (as I discussed back in Melanin, Sexuality, and Aggression.) However, these autistic kids appear to actually need more sleep than they’re getting; they just seem to have trouble turning off their brains and keeping them off long enough for a proper sleep.

Anyway, to get extremely speculative: Much like Fu’s short sleepers, the autistic people I have worked with personally (N=small) seemed like they had brains on overdrive. Imagine that a normal brain is an Amish buggy, going along at a nice, reasonable clip, and their brains are Formula One race cars. Brain speed in this case may have nothing to do with IQ, per say, or may in fact be detrimental to it–autistics are far more likely than the general population to test as mentally retarded–but I favor a theory that having a small quantity of autistic-like traits may be useful for people in fields or occupations that require high IQ, but large quantities of autistic-like traits cause too many negative side effects, resulting in full-blown autism. In Tesla’s case, he got the benefits of the massively high-powered, sped-up brain, with a side effect that he couldn’t turn it off long enough to get more than a few hours of sleep and lacked the normal social instincts that lead people to marry, have children, and generally form stable relationships with other people.

There’s a certain irony to Tesla advocating for sterilization of the unfit and hanging out with Nazi propagandist George Sylvester Viereck at the same time as the Nazis were ignoring Hans Asperger’s plea that his subjects be employed as codebreakers and executing them as mental defectives instead. But then, the Nazis are kind of a great big case of how not to treat your smart people.

To be fair, this is not evidence that Tesla actually supported the Nazis or their policies.

Back in Is Genius Fragile?, I discussed a recent paper in Molecular Psychology that claimed to have studied 1,400 students with IQs of 170 or above, and found no rare genetic alleles that were more common in them than people of normal or low IQ, but did find rare, deleterious alleles in regular/dumb people.

Edit: I just realized that for scheduling reasons, “Is Genius Fragile” actually got moved to mid-November. The Molecular Psychology paper is here.

But are such alleles actually deleterious? Tesla never married and had no children; neither did Isaac Newton. Einstein had three children, but one of them seems to have died in infancy and one was institutionalized for schizophrenia.

In other words, perhaps some of these alleles they’ve noticed aren’t deleterious, but actually helpful in some way. Perhaps, for example, there is an allele that codes for processes that help you turn off your brain at night and transition to certain sleep states. Without that allele, your brain is more “on” all the time, you feel more alert and can think more clearly than others without getting tired, but ultimately there are some bad side effects to not sleeping. Or perhaps the brain’s ability to see patterns is normally regulated by another mechanism that helps you distinguish between real patterns and false matches, which might malfunction in people like John Nash, resulting both in increased pattern-matching ability and in schizophrenia. By the way, I am totally speculating and might be completely wrong.

Please note that from the evolutionary POV, traits–like IQ–are not inherently valuable. A trait is adaptive if it leads to the continuation of your DNA into future generations, and is deleterious or maladaptive if it hinders the continuation of your DNA. If high IQ people do not have children, the high IQ is maladaptive and being selected out of the population. (Please note, also, that different environments, both physical and cultural, select for different traits. Had Tesla remained near his family back in Croatia, they might have helped arrange a marriage for him, leading eventually to children and romantic entanglements with someone who wasn’t a pigeon.)

However, even if high-IQ people never reproduced under any circumstances, their existence in a population might still be advantageous to the population as a whole–you probably enjoy having lightbulbs, electricity, cell phones, and other such things, for example. The development of vaccines, industrial agriculture, and modern theories about nutrition and hygiene have vastly expanded the Earth’s human population over the past hundred years, and would have done so even if the people involved had not had any children at all.

This is a somewhat complicated issue that depends on the interaction of a lot of variables, like whether society can consistently produce high-IQ people even if the high-IQ people themselves do not have many children, and whether the innovations of modernity will actually help us survive (the Amish, after all, have more children than your average person with a cell phone.) See: “How–and why–genius is group selected–massive cultural amplification” for some more discussion on the subject.

Regardless, I am operating under the assumption that society benefits from the existence of people like Tesla (and, of course, Edison.)

Anyway, back to Tesla and his job difficulties.

In “The Improperly Excluded,” Micheal Ferguson theorizes that there exists a maximum IQ difference between two people beyond which they cannot effectively communicate, which he places around 20 IQ points. (I think I discussed it here and here.) So a person with an average IQ of 100 can understand and communicate with someone with a 120 IQ, and someone with a 120 can understand a 140, but the 100 and 140 are essentially speaking Greek to each other; the 100 IQ person cannot make heads or tails of the 140’s thoughts, nor distinguish their claims from those of a crazy person or charlatan. If the 100 trusts the 120, the 120 can take advice from the 140 and recommend it to the 100, but beyond that, people of, say, 160 IQ are just too far removed from the average population to even get their ideas effectively communicated. Extremely high IQ people, therefore, may be improperly excluded from positions where they could actually do important work just because average people have no way to understand what they’re saying. Additionally, since extremely high IQ people are very rare, they may have to cope with a world in which almost no one they meet is within their comfortable conversation zone.

Note: see Hollingworth Fan’s comment below for some very interesting quotes on this subject.

Tesla, a guy who could do integer calculus in his head, was undoubtedly brilliant far beyond the common walks of man, and so seems to have faced the constant frustration of being surrounded by idiots like Edison. Upon Edison’s death, Tesla opined in the NY Times about his former boss:

“He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene … His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense.”

That idiot Edison, by the way, had six children, none of whom seem to have died in infancy or gone crazy. Three went into science/inventing, two were women, and I don’t know what happened to the fourth boy. Edison was undoubtedly helped in life by living in the same country as his family, but he also seems to have just been a more stable person who successfully managed to balance his work and social life. Edison: better adapted to his environment than Tesla.

Tesla’s genius was undoubtedly under-utilized. Tesla could not manage his own affairs, and so needed, at the very least, the strong structural support of a family that would prevent him from doing stupid things like gambling away his tuition money and dropping out of college, as well as a sound employer or university that would manage the business end of Tesla’s laboratory expenses and design implementation. Immigration to the US left Tesla without the support of his family, and his own stubbornness lead him to quit what would otherwise have been a productive career.

Additionally, Tesla’s ideas may truly have been too far ahead of their time for even other smart people to appreciate and understand. There were few people in the world at his level, and he must have spent much of his life completely isolated from anyone who could understand him. Even an employer willing to finance his schemes might not have been able to understand (and thus implement) some of them.

Isolation, I suspect, leads eventually to madness. Not because (or just because) isolation makes people lonely, which makes them depressed. But because the human animal is not designed to work in isolation.

In the extreme example, we know from observing people in solitary confinement that it breaks their brains and drives them insane.

In everyday life, our brains require regular feedback from others to make sure our ideas and impulses are correct. To give a trivial example, suppose I mention to my husband that a friend of mine did something today that really annoyed me, and he responds that I am misinterpreting things, that he heard from my friend’s husband that morning about some extenuating circumstances that explain her behavior and that I should not be annoyed with her. Likewise, he might come to me with a story about a co-worker who seems to be stealing his ideas, and I could help figure out if the guy really is.

Isolation removes this feedback, leading to more and more incorrect ideas.

In his recent post, “Mysticism and Pattern-Matching,” Scott Alexander writes:

“Think of top-down processing as taking noise and organizing it to fit a pattern. Normally, you’ll only fit it to the patterns that are actually there. But if your pattern-matching system is broken, you’ll fit it to patterns that aren’t in the data at all. …

“So hallucinations are when your top-down processing/pattern-matching ability becomes so dysfunctional that it can generate people and objects out of random visual noise. Why it chooses some people and objects over others I don’t know, but it’s hardly surprising – it does the same thing every night in your dreams.

“Many of the same people who have hallucinations also have paranoia. Paranoia seems to me to be overfunctioning of social pattern-matching. … When a paranoiac hears a stray word here, or sees a sideways glance there, they turn it into this vast social edifice of connected plots.”

Tesla’s claims to have been working on a “Death Ray” that turned out to be an old battery, his romantic entanglement with a pigeon, claims that “thieves” had broken into his hotel room in search of his “Death Ray” but not been able to find, and the Mythbusters’ thorough busting of his claims to have built an oscillator that nearly brought down the building and had to be destroyed with a sledgehammer all sound a lot like what Scott’s describing. As a guy who could do calculus in his head, Tesla had an extreme talent for pattern matching–perhaps too extreme. Scott continues:

“So to skip to the point: I think all of this is about strengthening the pattern-matching faculty. You’re exercising it uselessly but impressively, the same way as the body-builder who lifts the same weight a thousand times until their arms are the size of tree trunks. Once the pattern-matching faculty is way way way overactive, it (spuriously) hallucinates a top-down abstract pattern in the whole universe. This is the experience that mystics describe as “everything is connected” or “all is one”, or “everything makes sense” or “everything in the universe is good and there for a purpose”. The discovery of a beautiful all-encompassing pattern in the universe is understandably associated with “seeing God”.”

Recovered schizophrenics I’ve talked to report the exact same thing: both a mystical sense of the union of all things, and joy at the experience (though they also report that schizophrenia can be absolutely terrifying, because sometimes the voices are evil.)

And finally (at least for the quoting):

“I think other methods of inducing weird states of consciousness, like drugs and meditation, probably do the same thing by some roundabout route. Meditation seems like reducing stimuli, which is known to lead to hallucinations in eg sensory deprivation tanks or solitary confinement cells in jail. I think the general principle is that a low level of external stimuli makes your brain adjust its threshold for stimulus detection up until anything including random noise satisfies the threshold.”

Isolation/ lack of stimulus has a direct effect of lowering the brain’s threshold for identifying patterns until random background noise gets interpreted as conversation. (The general correlation between schizophrenia and low IQ could be partially an effect of smarter people being better at avoiding severe isolation, and dumber people being more likely to end up in situations where literally no one has a real conversation with them for years at a time.

Tesla seems to have been isolated in his own way, both by being far more intelligent than the vast majority of people, and so unable to converse properly with them, and also by having none of his family, kin, or fellow countrymen around. He even had to communicate primarily in a language that was hardly his first.

Long term, I suspect such isolation had a negative effect on Tesla’s sanity and ability to wisely conduct his own affairs.

 

Tesla is a difficult case, because he willingly walked away from what were probably excellent career opportunities, and there’s hardly anything anyone could do about his family being back in Croatia. However, since most people do live in the same country as their families, we can still draw some general conclusions:

Some really smart people may require significant support from society and/or their families/employers in order to properly function and fully realize their potential. Their families should probably step in and help them get married if they can’t do it themselves, at the very least to help keep them happy and stable.

The Wikipedia quotes physicist Y. S. Kim on the subject of P. A. M. Dirac (one of my favorite scientists)’s marriage to Margit Wigner, sister of Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner:

“It is quite fortunate for the physics community that Manci took good care of our respected Paul A. M. Dirac. Dirac published eleven papers during the period 1939–46…. Dirac was able to maintain his normal research productivity only because Manci was in charge of everything else.”

Dirac and Manci in Kopenhagen
Dirac and Manci in Kopenhagen

Alas, the Wikipedia does not give the details of how an autist like Dirac managed to marry Manci.

Really smart people may have some ideas that are astounding brilliant, and also have a lot of ideas that don’t work at all, because that is just the nature of creativity, but the average person probably can’t tell the difference. They need other people like themselves to bounce ideas off of and generally converse with. Their eccentricities are generally harmless, and the community is better off tolerating them.

Above all, try not to abandon them. Humans are not built to be alone.