Time and Being

There's an unnoticed convergence between two strands of academic literature on schizophrenia: 1) a neurological 'soft signs' approach that reveals subtle but pervasive dysmetrias -- abnormal postural homeostasis and eye movement, disordered temporal structuring of events occurring closely together, phase-lagged reaction to stimuli leading to atypical crossmodal binding, proprioceptive anomalies due to retarded corrollary discharge, quirks of synchrony measured by EEG, and so forth; and 2) a phenomenological 'first person' approach that articulates the connections among diverse subjective disruptions -- weakened or distorted ipseity (sense of self), disorders of passive synthesis (gestalt formation), loss of natural self-evidence (common sense), changes in social attunement, and so on.

The point of convergence might as well be called autoaffectivity: the essential core from which all the other symptoms spring seems to be a temporal disorder of reafferance. Our own action gives off endogenous information which is re-incorporated into our expectations and helps us structure our perception and proprioception concurrently and dynamically, as well as providing the fine structure of our affectivity and motivation; even tiny but ubiquitous disruptions in the timing of these signals can alter our sense of volition and reality (the so-called 'positive symptoms' of schizophrenia), as well as destabilizing the normal formation of intention and its satisfaction (the so-called 'negative symptoms').

The schizophrenic person is constantly surprising themselves, both negatively and positively; the increased prediction error triggers wild swings in dopamine release, leading to abrupt swerves of attention and abnormal meaning-formation; the world as manifest to them becomes increasingly uncoupled from consensus, and they get trapped inside themselves while still moving around in the world. They can't communicate properly because the usual attunement to objective events and other people's microexpressions is off kilter, and because they can barely even think in a straight line even on their own terms.

There is typically a long-simmering prodromal phase where the basic autoaffective disorder is sub-clinical, and which may never develop into psychosis or even be discernible as more than quirky or irritating to friends, family, or the person themselves. Depending on the vagaries of genetics and biography the manifest personality type can look vaguely ADHD-avoidant or PTSD-anxious, but the cardinal sign is a proneness to absorption and emotional lability -- what's most vaguely called 'being sensitive'. Due to the fragility of your own endogenous rhythms, exogenous stimuli are particularly invasive; other people are experienced as having a disproportionate influence over one's being, and either avoided because this is felt as threatening or clung to because it's felt as affirming.

As kids these people are typically physically and socially awkward, and prone to have vivid imaginations (often more keyed in to phantasy than reality); as they progress to adulthood they usually acquire sophisticated coping systems which allow them to pass as mostly normal. The smarter you are, the better your chances of passing. Traumatic events are the single most powerful predictor of how the condition progresses: the earlier, more frequent, more various and more severe the traumas, the worse the prognosis tends to be. This appears to be because trauma is excitotoxic, and it's pretty easy to disrupt brain rhythms by killing off interneurons and damaging white matter.

I'm one of the lucky ones. Some of my friends have not been as lucky.


So, here's something interesting.

Every now and then I come across a scholar whose work strikes me as extremely valuable and relevant, yet has almost fallen unnoticed into obscurity. The most recent example is William S. Condon, who discovered the 'dark matter' of psychology about forty years ago, to practically no fanfare.

What he did was quite simple and tedious: using film with a high frame rate, he taped people having conversations and did exhaustive frame-by-frame analysis of every little movement people made as they spoke or listened -- every eye jerk, facial twitch, finger curl, head tilt, elbow bend, etc. What he found was remarkable: not only did people's movements occur in rhythm with the articulated sounds of their own speech, but that of the other person's as well -- establishing a high degree of temporal correlation between the movements of both conversation partners, locked in rhythm with a phase-lag of about 40ms or so.

Now, mind this: the correlations are mediated by micromovements so brief that you can really only pick them up on a film running in the range of 24-48 fps -- faster than your mu/alpha rhythms. This is gamma-band shit, and might well be mediated by a direct brainstem/cerebellar level circuit with minimal cortical involvement. If so, in addition to being invisible to normal attention due to the short timescales, it would be relatively informationally closed to cortical circuits -- possibly as autonomous as, say, sinus rhythm is from our volitional control. There is an invisible dance going on in our every interaction, the consequences of which are probably enormous. Think about things like the mood of a room, or about first impressions formed in the first few moments of meeting someone, or the strange caprices of attraction and repulsion. For a start.

Condon got curious about this and checked a few other things. For one, you can observe this effect in newborns fresh out of the womb, who while they can't talk back still make micromovements in rhythm to speech they hear. For another thing, autistics are bad at it: there's a marked delay in their bodily responses to sounds, often lagging by a quarter of a second or more. (It's actually a bit more complicated than this, but that's the short version.) For a third thing, there are recognizably different rhythms associated with different languages, dialects and cultures. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to hash out some of the implications for things like language acquisition, interpersonal dynamics, and (mis)understanding.

This cuts to the core of your sense of self: with coupling this intimate even in something as non-committal as a conversation, it becomes almost mandatory to think of 'your' nervous system as something that extends well past the anatomical boundaries of your body, and overlaps considerably with other people's as you become entrained to each other. We are not in the habit of thinking this way, but if that's the way reality points . . .


Christian says: "If you want to understand Russia, imagine the Khanate riding into every town, taking the thirty most beautiful women and killing the thirty most able men -- every few years for a hundred years. Everything after that makes a bit more sense."

The Russians have run LJ into the ground -- I have no further use for it. Future writing will be done here.

Glasgow Kiss (Male'ah ha'aretz kinyanecha)

"It's like love! Only it hurts more."

"I disagree."

"What, that it's like love?"

". . . no. Nevermind."

I don't know why I said that, but I suspected then, and know now, who really heard it.

* * * * *

"The people you think will help you, won't; the people you don't expect, will. . . . If you can't, then you must; if you must, then you can."

Himy was not wrong about either of these things.

There is at least one thing to be gained by having someone not be there for you when you need them most: Taleb calls it "convexity to disturbance". More colloquially it's sometimes called courage.

* * * * *

I still think of myself as weak, undisciplined, unskilled -- most of the time. Then I pull my head up and look around at everyone else, including my former selves, and extrapolate five years ahead. And smile. I'm doing pretty alright. Head back down, keep humping along.

Against my expectations and intentions, it's shaping up to be a magical year.
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    Pat Lepoidevin -- "The Moonwolf Departure"
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Department of things you'd know if you paid attention in high school chem

. . . and little things that make me sigh: people who will acknowledge that frying with vegetable oil is unhealthy and yet think that polyunsaturated fats are good for you in low-temperature cooking. Increasing ambient temperature is just one way to facilitate (lipid) oxidation; lowering ambient pH is another. What do you think is happening when you bathe vegetable oil in hydrochloric acid? Durr.

This is why you must care about science. We're not talking topological field theory or even quantum chemistry here. Just knowing the basics of a lot of fields and integrating them into your day to day thinking is like having the magical superpower to see right and wrong where other people see a haze of maybe and sorta and perhaps and itsallsocomplicated.

(NB: I make vinaigrette with olive oil like any other gourmand. Some things are just worth it.)

Model Error

"The mean value of acute fatality risk by radiation exposure resultant from an accident of a nuclear installation to individuals of the public, who live in the vicinity of the site boundary of the nuclear installation, should not exceed the probability of about 1x10^6 per year."

That's the Japanese Nuclear Commission in 2003, via Nassim.

Better (I): Atemporal Living

I've experimented a bit with what makes me more effective at getting stuff done while staying sane, with more failures than successes. Here is one thing that works for me: schedule as little as possible. At first it seems like a terrible idea because in lieu of a clear agenda you tend to just do the first thing that grabs your attention, and can end up merely faffing around a lot with tasks that don't add up to anything. But this is a symptom, not the disease: it made me notice just how much scheduling atrophies your phronesis by offloading the burden of making decisions now to an idealistic plan made back then. It makes you face your akrasia squarely.

If you then put the work in to get lucid on what your true priorities are (which requires a high degree of internal honesty), you start learning to judge at any given moment what's most important (and to tell this apart from what merely seems urgent). Once you learn to recognize automatically whether you're falling off-point or not, the distractions gradually become less distracting. You incrementally gain integrity, your actions become more purposeful. The skill that makes this work is self-monitoring. The major trap to avoid is falling into a guilt spiral. (I'm making these things sound easier than they are.)

I find it also encourages me toward faster, tighter OODA loops: if something comes to my attention which seems important, I see if I can do it right now. If not, I dump it into a "later" pile with no particular time pressures associated, which I mine through when I need to decide what to do next. Often a lot of it looks unimportant at second glance, and ends getting chucked to /dev/null. Only if I absolutely must do I assign something a specific spatiotemporal location, i.e. if I need to coordinate with someone else; schedules are something one makes for other people, not oneself.

Shedding Error

Difficult admissions:

* I find it easier to be uncomfortable than to be comfortable. That is not to say I enjoy it more; merely to say that suffering comes a little too naturally to me. This needs to change, not merely for my sake but for that of those I'm close with.

* I can't labor any longer under the delusion that I don't care what people think if they're not kin. For better or worse I'm exquisitely sensitive to expectations, and I may as well own that trait and start leveraging it by taking an active role in making people expect me to be the kind of person I need to be.

* Small really is beautiful. I get more enduring psychological benefits from having accomplished something concrete and imperfect than chasing after the perfect abstraction. Something is always going to be wrong; just keep fucking going.

* The point of having money is so you don't need to think about money, and it really is okay to sell your art. Fear of losing integrity is for people who don't know where their core really is. Howard Roark was a piker.

Quote of the Day

"... the whole system is a fine case of the proverbial self-licking ice-cream cone, not to mention a substantial source of distraction, or as we naively call it 'employment' ... this is after all one of the main purposes of the university system: to employ extremely intelligent people, who might otherwise be out causing trouble, in tasks that consume their spare brainpower."
-- the Bug