The neurology of cross-cultural authority?

So I was thinking the other day about the question of why do people go along with others and do things even when they know they believe (or know) they shouldn’t. As Tolstoy asks, why did the French army go along with this mad idea to invade Russia in 1812? Why did Milgram’s subjects obey his orders to “electrocute” people? Why do I feel emotionally distressed when refusing to do something, even when I have very good reasons to refuse?

As I mentioned ages ago, I suspect that normal people have neural circuits that reward them for imitating others and punish them for failing to imitate. Mirror neurons probably play a critical role in this process, but probably aren’t the complete story.

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.[1][2][3] Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. …  In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex, the supplementary motor area, the primary somatosensory cortex and the inferior parietal cortex.[6] (Wikipedia)

These feedback loops are critical for learning–infants only a few months old begin the process of learning to talk by moving their mouths and making “ba ba” noises in imitation of their parents. (Hence why it is called “babbling.”) They do not consciously say to themselves, “let me try to communicate with the big people by making their noises;” they just automatically move their faces to match the faces you make at them. It’s an instinct.

You probably do this, too. Just watch what happens when one person in a room yawns and then everyone else feels compelled to do it, too. Or if you suddenly turn and look at something behind the group of people you’re with–others will likely turn and look, too.

Autistic infants have trouble with imitation, (and according to Wikipedia, several studies have found abnormalities in their mirror neuron systems, though I suspect the matter is far from settled–among other things, I am not convinced that everyone with an ASD diagnosis actually has the same thing going on.) Nevertheless, there is probably a direct link between autistic infants’ difficulties with imitation and their difficulties learning to talk.

For adults, imitation is less critical (you can, after all, consciously decide to learn a new language,) but still important for survival. If everyone in your village drinks out of one well and avoids the other well, even if no one can explain why, it’s probably a good idea to go along and only drink out of the “good” well. Something pretty bad probably happened to the last guy who drank out of the “bad” well, otherwise the entire village wouldn’t have stopped drinking out of it. If you’re out picking berries with your friends when suddenly one of them runs by yelling “Tiger!” you don’t want to stand there and yell, “Are you sure?” You want to imitate them, and fast.

Highly non-conformist people probably have “defective” or low-functioning feedback loops. They simply feel less compulsion to imitate others–it doesn’t even occur to them to imitate others! These folks might die in interesting ways, but in the meanwhile, they’re good sources for ideas other people just wouldn’t have thought of. I suspect they are concentrated in the arts, though clearly some of them are in programming.

Normal people’s feedback loops kick in when they are not imitating others around them, making them feel embarrassed, awkward, or guilty. When they imitate others, their brains reward them, making them feel happy. This leads people to enjoy a variety of group-based activities, from football games to prayer circles to line dancing to political rallies.

Normal people having fun by synchronizing their bodily movements.
Normal people having fun by synchronizing their bodily movements.

At its extreme, these groups become “mobs,” committing violent acts that many of the folks involved wouldn’t under normal circumstances.

Highly conformist people’s feedback loops are probably over-active, making them feel awkward or uncomfortable while simply observing other people not imitating the group. This discomfort can only be relieved by getting those other people to conform. These folks tend to favor more restrictive social policies and can’t understand why other people would possibly want to do those horrible, non-conforming things.

To reiterate: this feedback system exists because helped your ancestors survive. It is not people being “sheep;” it is a perfectly sensible approach to learning about the world and avoiding dangers. And different people have stronger or weaker feedback loops, resulting in more or less instinctual desire to go along with and imitate others.

However, there are times when you shouldn’t imitate others. Times when, in fact, everyone else is wrong.

The Milgram Experiment places the subject in a situation where their instinct to obey the experimenter (an “authority figure”) is in conflict with their rational desire not to harm others (and their instinctual empathizing with the person being “electrocuted.”)

In case you have forgotten the Milgram Experiment, it went like this: an unaware subject is brought into the lab, where he meets the “scientist” and a “student,” who are really in cahoots. The subject is told that he is going to assist with an experiment to see whether administering electric shocks to the “student” will make him learn faster. The “student” also tells the student, in confidence, that he has a heart condition.

The real experiment is to see if the subject will shock the “student” to death at the “scientist’s” urging.

No actual shocks are administered, but the “student” is a good actor, making out that he is in terrible pain and then suddenly going silent, etc.

Before the experiment, Milgram polled various people, both students and “experts” in psychology, and pretty much everyone agreed that virtually no one would administer all of the shocks, even when pressured by the “scientist.”

In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock,[1] though many were very uncomfortable doing so; at some point, every participant paused and questioned the experiment; some said they would refund the money they were paid for participating in the experiment. Throughout the experiment, subjects displayed varying degrees of tension and stress. Subjects were sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin, and some were even having nervous laughing fits or seizures. (bold mine)

I’m skeptical about the seizures, but the rest sounds about right. Resisting one’s own instinctual desire to obey–or putting the desire to obey in conflict with one’s other desires–creates great emotional discomfort.

To Be Continued.

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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.

Therefore:

  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.

Is Disgust Real? (Part 2 of a series)

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

One of the theories that undergirds a large subset of my thoughts on how brains work is the idea that Disgust is a Real Thing.

I don’t just mean a mild aversion to things that smell bad, like overturned port-a-potties or that fuzzy thing you found growing in the back of the fridge that might have been lasagna, once upon a time. Even I have such aversions.

I mean reactions like screaming and looking like you are about to vomit upon finding a chicken heart in your soup; gagging at the sight of trans people or female body hair; writhing and waving your hands while removing a slug from your porch; or the claim that talking about rats at the dinner table puts you off your meal. Or more generally, people claiming, “That’s disgusting!” or “What a creep!” about things or people that obviously aren’t even stinky.

There is a parable about a deaf person watching people dance to music he can’t hear and assuming that the people have all gone mad.

For most of my life, I assumed these reactions were just some sort of complicated schtick people put on, for totally obtuse reasons. It was only about a year ago that I realized, in a flash of insight, that this disgust is a real thing that people actually feel.

I recently expressed this idea to a friend, and they stared at me in shock. (That, or they were joking.) We both agreed that chicken hearts are a perfectly normal thing to put in soup, so at least I’m not the only one confused by this.

This breakthrough happened as a result of reading a slew of neuro-political articles that I can’t find now, and it looks like the site itself might be gone, which makes me really sad. I’ve linked to at least one of them before, which means that now my old links are dead, too. Damn. Luckily, it looks like Wired has an article covering the same or similar research: Primal Propensity for Disgust Shapes Political Positions.

“The latest such finding comes from a study of people who looked at gross images, such as a man eating earthworms. Viewers who self-identified as conservative, especially those opposing gay marriage, reacted with particularly deep disgust. … Disgust is especially interesting to researchers because it’s such a fundamental sensation, an emotional building block so primal that feelings of moral repugnance originate in neurobiological processes shared with a repugnance for rotten food.”

So when people say that some moral or political thing is, “disgusting,” I don’t think they’re being metaphorical; I think they actually, literally mean that the idea of it makes them want to vomit.

Which begs the question: Why?

Simply put, I suspect that some of us have more of our brain space devoted to processing disgust than others. I can handle lab rats–or pieces of dead lab rats–without any internal reaction, I don’t care if there are trans people in my bathroom, and I suspect my sense of smell isn’t very good. My opinions on moral issues are routed primarily through what I hope are the rational, logic-making parts of my brain.

By contrast, people with stronger disgust reactions probably have more of their brain space devoted to disgust, and so are routing more of their sensory experiences through that region, and so feel strong, physical disgust in reaction to a variety of things, like people with different cultural norms than themselves. Their moral reasoning comes from a more instinctual place.

It is tempting to claim that processing things logically is superior to routing them through the disgust regions, but sometimes things are disgusting for good, evolutionarily sound reasons. Having an instinctual aversion to rats is not such a bad thing, given that they have historically been disease vectors. Most of our instincts exist to protect and help us, after all.

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

Little White Lies and What They Mean

Back on my post about society lying, I mentioned a category of untruth that we might generally consider “little white lies”.

In our society, these lies are generally feel-good statements, like, “everyone is beautiful,” or “don’t care what others think–be yourself!” If you believe these things too literally, you’ll get in a lot of trouble, because reality doesn’t work that way. But if you try to point out that these are lies, you’ll meet a lot of resistance–people are very committed to their lies. Sometimes large chunks of their identities or interaction with the world rest on these sorts of lies.

So what’s up with that?

I mentioned in the previous post that I was over-simplifying, and I am. You see, I have only explored the situation so far from the POV of someone like me–someone who takes things literally and prefers factual analyses over emotional ones.

Most people aren’t like me.

Most people, (as far as I can tell,) do most of their functional thinking via their emotions, and use words not in precise ways to convey actual facts about the world, but wield them like the blobs of paint in an impressionist painting to convey the emotions they feel on a subject.

Confusing one approach for the other leads to great miscommunication. The facts-and-numbers person misunderstands the feelings-person, and starts rambling off about a bunch of irrelevant fact-things that the feelings-person either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about. The only thing that is clear to the feelings-person is that the facts-person is a humorless jerk who keeps saying their feelings are wrong. The only thing clear to the facts-person is that the feelings-person makes no damn sense because they keep saying stuff that is wrong.

Let’s use the Trolley Problem as an example. Suppose a trolley is about to kill a bunch of children who have accidentally wandered onto a railroad track, but you could save them by pushing another person in front of the trolley. You know the problem.

Present this problem to a feelings-person, and imagining trolleys killing children will make them unhappy and sad and the alternative of murdering someone will also make them unhappy and sad. The feelings-person concludes that you must be a terrible person because you asked them this question that made them feel so terrible. What kind of monstrous person goes around thinking about trolleys murdering children?

The facts-person, meanwhile, has gotten totally annoyed at the feelings-person for not answering the hypothetical and turning this nice, reasonable discussion of utilitarian calculi into a flame war about their totally irrelevant feelings.

So when dealing with feeling-people, the important thing to remember is to try to understand what they mean, rather than what they say. When a feelings-person says, “Be yourself!” what they actually mean is, “I think society should be generally more accepting of certain forms of quirky and essentially harmless variation, and people should be generally less concerned with what others think. I pledge not to be too judgmental of people who are a little different in ways that aren’t too weird or disruptive, and may myself be a little quirky.” This is a fine message; you just have to understand that this is what “be yourself!” actually means, and not mistake it for actually encouraging you to go to work naked (or whatever you would do if there were nothing stopping you.)

(Likewise, feeling-people, when dealing with facts-people, they aren’t trying to be kill-joys. They just require a lot of tolerance and clarity.)

Feedback Loops

I am pretty sure that neurotypicals (normal people) have “feeedback loops” in their brains that reward them for conformist behavior and punish them for non-conformist behavior.

We can call this “mirror neurons”, though I understand that’s probably an oversimplification.

Americans tend to glorify being non-conformist in their words, but are actually pretty darn conformist in their actions. The average person seems to think of themselves as a radical noncomformist, while going along with whatever ideas happen to be in their vicinity. Then they loudly trumpet about how great it is to be a nonconformist like them and how terrible it is to be a sheep.

Such people are annoying.

In reality, conformity actually has a lot going for it. You learn to talk by imitating the people around you. If you can’t imitate, then you probably won’t learn to talk, and you’ll be fucked for life. Other people do tons of things right, every day–hence why they are alive. Imitating other people is actually a good way to learn how to do lots of useful things.

In the state of nature, if everyone in your tribe eats the blue berries and avoids the red ones, its probably a good idea to eat the blue berries and avoid the red ones. Even if your fellow tribesmen give you a totally dumb reason for avoiding the red ones, like, “Thors blood got on them,” you should probably avoid them.

Likewise, if you’re out collecting berries one day and a fellow tribesman runs past, yelling “LION!” it’s probably not in your interest to say, “Are you sure it was a lion?” You should probably imitate him.

These feedback loops may not just encourage you to imitate others, but also punish people for non-imitation. That is, people may feel deeply unsettled or uncomfortable if they find themselves out of sync with others. This provides strong incentive to fix the problem, or if unfixable, may create long-term psychological stress.

Downsides to these feedback loops:

1. Sometimes, everyone around you is wrong.

2. Sometimes, you cannot conform to everyone, especially if everyone does not conform to each other.

3. These loops may induce great discomfort in people merely observing other people non-conforming.

If I have a strong urge to conform at all times, and that urge utilizes mirror neurons to tell me what other people are doing, and then I observe you non-conforming, that may induce the same reaction in me as if I were the one non-conforming. Then in order for me to feel psychologically at peace, I have to make you stop non-conforming.

Study: Aspies don’t lack empathy; they have too much

Theory claims that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t lack empathy – in fact if anything they empathize too much

A couple of quotes:

“Children are asked to watch two puppets, Sally and Anne. Sally takes a marble and places it in a basket, then leaves the stage. While she’s gone, Anne takes the marble out and puts it in a box. The children are then asked: Where will Sally look first for her marble when she returns?

Most 4-year-olds know Sally didn’t see Anne move the marble, so they get it right. By 10 or 11, children with developmental disabilities who have verbal IQs equivalent to 3-year-olds also get it right. But 80 per cent of autistic children age 10 to 11 guess that Sally will look in the box, because they know that’s where the marble is and they don’t realize other people don’t share all of their knowledge.”

“When it comes to not understanding the inner state of minds too different from our own, most people also do a lousy job, Schwarz says. “But the non-autistic majority gets a free pass because, if they assume that the other person’s mind works like their own, they have a much better chance of being right.” ”

You know, I’ve been saying that. I’ve been saying.

Aspie != Sociopath

I hope that goes without saying. But I’ve been reading lately about sociopathy (okay, I’ve been reading fiction on the subject,) and it struck me that the POV of trying get through life by reducing socialization to a set of rules is, more or less, common to both groups. Sociopaths do it because they don’t have normal human emotions and see humans as objects to use if they’re useful, whereas Aspies do it because they simply lack a normal instinct for copying other people and have to have social norms explained to them in a rule-like fashion or else they tend to screw up.

There’s a big difference here that Aspie people generally mean no one any harm and genuinely want to be nice to others or at least not harm them and want friends for all of the totally normal reasons that everyone else does. (Note: Aspies may differ in the number of friends they desire, but the vast majority probably do want friends). Unfortunately, Aspies seem to process emotions a little more slowly than others and don’t always come up right away with the correct emotional (or verbal or physical) response. This leads to social awkwardness.

Normal people (neurotypicals, if you prefer,) process emotions (and more generally, the world,) in very different ways from Aspies. For example, normal people seem to use words as functional stand-ins for emotions they feel about things. Normal people expect others to respond with the same emotions as they do, in the same ways, mimicking their facial expressions and so on. Without the underlying instincts, Aspie people can end up completely lost.

My own personal experience as an Aspieish person is that I tend to like people more than they seem to like me. In my constant quest to Make Friends and Be a Better Person, I’ve noticed that many of the resources that I find helpful, interesting, or useful get super-duper bad reactions from other people (principally liberals.) For example, Pick Up Artist materials–I have not spent much of my life trying to pick up women, being a heterosexual female, but I have read/watched a few books/episodes on the subject, and found that I could generalize the rules to regular social situations in helpful ways. And yet, most respectable people find PUA materials and people who read them utterly repugnant. Why?

Obviously, everyone loves shitting on losers, and people who need explicit help with dating are the definition of Capital L LOSERS. So are, I suppose, people who need help making friends. Luckily, people who enjoy shitting on the less fortunate for social status are not people I would even want to be friends with in the first place. (See how I inverted their negs on others into a neg on them? That raises my social status by indicating that I am not completely pathetic and can actually afford some standards.)

BUT. There is another, perhaps far more important reasons why people respond badly to PUAs: PUAs come across as sociopaths.

NOTE: I have no idea if any of these people are sociopaths, and I am not accusing anyone in particular, PUA or not, of sociopathy.

However, sociopaths, as mentioned above, do not “get” human emotions in a direct way, do not feel warmth and love for others, view other people as objects to be used, and conduct their socializing via a series of rules about the ways other people operate.

An Aspie and a sociopath trying to write out “rules for socializing with others” might produce very similar looking lists of rules, even though they have vastly different intentions. It would never even occur to Aspies to try to use the rules in ways that would hurt others, though they might have to out of necessity. Aspies are not naturally deceptive, and have to be explicitly taught to do the everyday lying that normal people do all the time without even realizing it.

In short, Aspies are using these rules because they don’t want to get fucked by society. Sociopaths use them because they want to fuck society.

Good People do not want to be sociopaths, don’t want anything to do with sociopaths, and try to stop sociopaths from hurting others. These kinds of Good People tend to be disproportionately Liberals.*

*More on this distinction later–too much to go into here.

Good People interpret PUAs as sociopaths. I do not know if they are correct–it is fairly immaterial to me, as I am neither a PUA nor do I have any friends or loved ones who are. But I think there is a problem that a particular approach to trying to understand humanity is widely denigrated, not because the approach itself is wrong, but because of assumptions about the intentions of the people involved.

This same set of responses starts up in response to virtually any attempt to understand humans or human behavior from a rigorous, testable, falsifiable, scientific angle. The approach is “cold” and “dry” and “impersonal” and “unemotional”, and so must be done by people who are the same, and therefore bad.

This potentially cuts off many people from perfectly valid fields of inquiry and knowledge that could actually help them, without offering anything useful in return (eg, feminist websites are definitely not the place to go for tips on asking out a girl you know.)

Hatred of sociopaths is perfectly reasonable, but screwing over perfectly nice Aspie folks in the process (this is always rationalized under the “well, they’re just LOSERS” doctrine,) is really shitty. And if the only people who are offering up rational explanations for all of the strange, irrational things people do are PUAs and their ilk, then that’s where Aspies will have to go for explanations.

If urbanization leads to the smart people leaving the countryside, then the average IQ in the countryside will plummet. But that doesn’t mean that every farmer is dumb, or that farming is a job for dumb people.