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Weird experiences: ??? (the case of Henry Darger)

This post is a collection of quotes from About Henry Darger, a marvellous review of John MacGregor’s Henry Darger: In The Realms Of The Unreal. It is hard to diagnose Darger, so judge for yourself. (Further reading: Henry Darger on Wikipedia.)

He was a janitor in a hospital. After he died, his landlord discovered that he wrote a 15000-page novel illustrated with 10-meter watercolors. From Wikipedia:

In the Realms of the Unreal is a 15,145-page work bound in fifteen immense, densely typed volumes (with three of them consisting of several hundred illustrations, scroll-like watercolor paintings on paper derived from magazines and coloring books) created over six decades. Darger illustrated his stories using a technique of traced images cut from magazines and catalogues, arranged in large panoramic landscapes and painted in watercolors, some as large as 30 feet wide and painted on both sides.

He also wrote a 5000-page autobiography:

In 1968, Darger became interested in tracing some of his frustrations back to his childhood and began writing The History of My Life. Spanning eight volumes, the book only spends 206 pages detailing Darger’s early life before veering off into 4,672 pages of fiction about a huge twister called “Sweetie Pie”, probably based on memories of a tornado he had witnessed in 1908.

Today Darger is a somewhat famous artist, and his illustrations are sold as standalone works. Here are some:


Here’s a quick sketch of who Darger was, which will hopefully give you an idea of why I find him so fascinating. He was a reclusive man who worked various dishwashing jobs for most of his life. He only had one real friend in the course of his life, and although he occasionally interacted with the other residents of his apartment complex, they just saw him as a peculiar, taciturn eccentric. But when Darger was on his deathbed, his landlord Nathan Lerner began to clean out his room and discovered something incredible. Unknown to everyone around him, Darger had been writing and painting. Writing and painting a lot.

Darger’s novel, In The Realms Of The Unreal

Among the objects Lerner discovered were fifteen massive volumes comprising one continuous fictional work entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. In total, the typed, single-spaced text was 15,145 pages long – one of the longest fictional works ever produced by a human being, if not the longest.

In The Realms Of The Unreal is, in some very broad sense, a fantasy novel. It takes place on a planet far larger than Earth, which Earth is said to orbit as a moon. This planet is mostly composed of Catholic nations, of which the most important to the plot are Angelinia, Calverinia and Abbieannia. [...] The story is about a war between the Catholic nations and the atheist nation Glandelinia, which is inhabited by evil, sadistic people who practice institutionalized child slavery.

“In the Realms, there are numerous characters named after Darger”

In the Realms, there are numerous characters named after Darger. There’s a framing device in which the text is supposed to have been written by a journalist named Henry Darger who followed around the Christian troops, though this is often abandoned. There’s a Christian general named Henry Darger, and the leader of a secret society, the Gemini, is named Hendro Dargar. (The names slip sometimes, so that certain characters are sometimes Darger, sometimes Dargar.) There’s also a Glandelinean General Henry Darger. There’s mention of someone named Dargarius, a name which Darger (for some reason) sometimes used in real-world correspondence. These Dargers do not all seem to be distinct in the author’s mind, and it’s often confusing which one is being referred to in any given instance.

“Darger’s paintings are filled with prepubescent girls”

Darger’s paintings are filled with prepubescent girls – usually the Vivian girls, but there are also sometimes anonymous child slaves, etc. They are usually depicted naked, even when there is no good reason for this. (This accords with nothing in the text; the Vivian girls lose their clothing from time to time, but there’s no stipulation that they just go around naked all the time.) The little girls usually, but not always, have penises. (They’re pretty clearly supposed to be girls, though, and there’s no mention of genitals anywhere in his writing, much less an explanation for the anomalous genitals he laboriously drew onto each of his female heroines.)

“[Darger] saw the fictional war between Christians and Glandelineans as a way of punishing God for taking [his newspaper clipping] by causing harm to millions of (fictional?) Christians”

The inspiration for writing the Realms was the loss of a particular newspaper clipping, a photo of Elsie Paroubek, a little girl who had been murdered, and whose murder was all over the Chicago papers for a short time. Darger’s journals express no particular interest in this picture until he discovered that he had lost it. After that, he spent much of the rest of his life in a profound state of anger at God, who he believed had taken the picture from him. He saw the fictional war between Christians and Glandelineans as a way of punishing God for taking the picture by causing harm to millions of (fictional?) Christians. In his mind, Elsie Paroubek and Annie Aronburg seem to have merged: in the text, characters occasionally refer to the loss of a picture of Annie Aronburg, and some of the characters contend that the anger of some man named Darger on account of this loss – rather than the actual death of Annie Aronburg – is the true cause of the war. (The characters are understandably baffled as to how the loss of a picture could cause a war, and they are also confused as to whether the Darger in question is the Christian general or the Glandelinean general. Near the end of the story, it is revealed that the two men both claim ownership of the lost picture.) Again and again in his journal he threatened God, telling him that if the picture wasn’t returned, he might let the Glandelineans win the war. He never found the picture. (There are hauntingly beautiful passages in which the ghost of Annie Aronburg appears to Darger, beseeching him to give up his anger at God. But she never convinces him.)

Darger’s autobiography, The History Of My Life

Darger’s 5000-page work The History Of My Life is putatively an autobiography. However, that word does not accurately describe the vast majority of its contents. The first several hundred pages of the work are indeed an account of Darger’s early life. However, after describing a scene in which his younger self is entranced by the sight of a powerful storm, he apparently gets distracted by the storm and spends the remaining 4000-some pages of the text describing the wake of destruction caused by a fictional twister called “Sweetie Pie,” with no further mention of his own life whatsoever.

Weird experiences: aphasia (a collection of examples)

Aphasia is a wide range of language impediments caused by brain damage – usually a stroke. Those impediments can be very specific – for instance, a person might be able to say “walk” as a noun but not as a verb.

The Man Who Lost His Language

From Sheila Hale’s The Man Who Lost His Language (available on LibGen).

Unable to recall certain classes of words

Some aphasics who can’t speak can sing the words of familiar songs. Proper names are difficult for some aphasics – as, indeed, they are for some normal people. Guy Wint was at first unable to recall the names of the friends who visited him in hospital. But he could remember their telephone numbers, and so would report to his wife that Sloane 2381 had been to see him, or the flowers had been brought by Mayfair 9643.[1]

Some have difficulty with other classes of nouns, colours for example.[2] There are aphasics who can demonstrate that they experience colours normally; they can match different hues or put the correct colour on a black-and-white photograph of, say, a banana or grass. But they have problems naming or understanding the names of colours, and will frequently, for example, identify ‘blue’ as ‘green’.

[1] G. Wint, The Third Killer, 1965.

[2] A. R. Damasio and H. Damasio, ‘Brain and language’, Scientific American, Sept. 1992.

Unable to pronounce familiar words

Some aphasics are disproportionately impaired for long, unusual words, others for the shortest and most familiar words, such as and, the, was, in. A recovered Swiss aphasic described in his memoirs having had more difficulty pronouncing the French for if and since than Nebuchadnezzar and Popocatepetl.[1]

[1] Gardner, The Shattered Mind

Can speak verbs but not nouns, even when the word is the same

Some have more trouble with verbs than with nouns and vice versa. Some can speak nouns but not verbs, but when reading aloud it is the other way round. There are aphasics who can say or read aloud certain words, such as park, walk, play, as nouns but not the same words in their verb form, or vice versa.[1] A case has been reported of a man who can say the plural noun cuts but cannot say, read aloud or even repeat the final -s of the third person singular of the verb ‘to cut’.

[1] S. Chiat and E. V. Jones, ‘Processing language breakdown’, in M. J. Ball (ed.), Theoretical Linguistics and Disordered Language, 1988

Can read the names of musical notes in the key of G but not in the key of F

It seems that all languages can be impaired by damage to the language centres, even those that rely on right-hemisphere specialities like tone or the analysis of visual input. Any system of communication that consists of discrete arbitrary symbols ordered according to abstract rules is vulnerable: tone languages like Chinese, deaf and dumb sign languages, even musical notation.

Performing musicians and composers may lose the ability to read or write music but still be able to play and sing from memory. An Italian-based team of researchers recently reported the case of an aphasic professional organist who could read the names of musical notes in the key of G but not in the key of F, although she could recognize both keys when she heard them and could play in both on the piano at sight.[1]

[1] Schön, D., Semenza, C., & Denes, G. (2001). Naming of Musical Notes: A Selective Deficit in One Musical Clef. The quote is not precise – the actual paper says “The deficit on which we focused was her inability to read orally the bass (F) clef, often substituting it with the violin (G) clef.”

Bilingual people can forget one language while retaining the other

In bilingual or polylingual people different languages may be affected in different ways. There are bilingual German Jews, who have refused to speak German since childhood, only to find either that they have mercifully lost it altogether or that they are unable to communicate except in German.

The Language Instinct

From Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (available on LibGen).

An internal account of how a stroke feels

One of these victims, who eventually recovered his language ability, recalls the event, which he experienced with complete lucidity:

When I woke up I had a bit of a headache and thought I must have been sleeping with my right arm under me because it felt all pins-and-needly and numb and I couldn’t make it do what I wanted. I got out of bed but I couldn’t stand; as a matter of fact I actually fell on the floor because my right leg was too weak to take my weight. I called out to my wife in the next room and no sound came — I couldn’t speak. ... I was astonished, horrified. I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me and I began to feel bewildered and frightened and then I suddenly realized that I must have had a stroke. In a way this rationalization made me feel somewhat relieved but not for long because I had always thought that the effects of a stroke were permanent in every case. ... I found I could speak a little but even to me the words seemed wrong and not what I meant to say.

An example of speech of a person who can not remember nouns

The neuropsychologist Kathleen Baynes describes “HW,” a business executive who suffered a stroke in this general area. He is highly intelligent, articulate, and conversationally adept but finds it virtually impossible to retrieve nouns from his mental dictionary, though he can understand them. Here is how he responded when Baynes asked him to describe a picture of a boy falling from a stool as he reaches into a jar on a shelf and hands a cookie to his sister:

First of all this is falling down, just about, and is gonna fall down and they’re both getting something to eat ... but the trouble is this is gonna let go and they’re both gonna fall down ... I can’t see well enough but I believe that either she or will have some food that’s not good for you and she’s to get some for her, too ... and that you get it there because they shouldn’t go up there and get it unless you tell them that they could have it. And so this is falling down and for sure there’s one they’re going to have for food and, and this didn’t come out right, the, uh, the stuff that’s uh, good for, it’s not good for you but it, but you love, um mum mum [smacks lips] ... and that so they’ve ... see that, I can’t see whether it’s in there or not ... I think she’s saying, I want two or three, I want one, I think, I think so, and so, so she’s gonna get this one for sure it’s gonna fall down there or whatever, she’s gonna get that one and, and there, he’s gonna get one himself or more, it all depends with this when they fall down ... and when it falls down there’s no problem, all they got to do is fix it and go right back up and get some more.

More examples of forgetting only certain classes of words

The mental thesaurus, in particular, is sometimes torn into pieces with clean edges. Among anomic patients (those who have trouble using nouns), different patients have problems with different kinds of nouns. Some can use concrete nouns but not abstract nouns. Some can use abstract nouns but not concrete nouns. Some can use nouns for nonliving things but have trouble with nouns for living things; others can use nouns for living things but have trouble with nouns for nonliving things. Some can name animals and vegetables but not foods, body parts, clothing, vehicles, or furniture. There are patients who have trouble with nouns for anything but animals, patients who cannot name body parts, patients who cannot name objects typically found indoors, patients who cannot name colors, and patients who have trouble with proper names. One patient could not name fruits or vegetables: he could name an abacus and a sphinx but not an apple or a peach.

Weird experiences: visual form agnosia (the case of Dee Fletcher)

The patient, Dee Fletcher, loses the ability to visually recognize shapes, objects, or people. She knows there is something on a table, but doesn’t know that it is a pencil or how it is oriented on the table. She can still perceive color and texture, and recognize materials. Intriguingly, something in Dee can still recognize shapes – for instance, she knows exactly how to position her hand to grab the pencil from the table – but this knowledge is not available to her consciousness.

Everything in this post is quoted from the Open Philantropy 2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood, Visual form agnosia in Dee Fletcher.

Dee goes through coma

In February 1988, Dee collapsed into a coma as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an improperly vented water heater in her home.

Dee loses recognition of shapes and objects

After a few days of recovery, it became clear that Dee’s vision was impaired. She could see colors and surface textures (e. g. the tiny hairs on someone’s hand), but she couldn’t recognize shapes, objects, or people unless (1) she could identify them via another sense (e. g. hearing someone’s voice, or touching a hand), or unless (2) she could guess the object or person’s identity with color and surface texture information alone, for example if a close friend visited her while wearing a distinctively blue sweater.

[...] Dee often had trouble separating an object from the background. According to her, objects seemed to “run into each other,” such that “two adjacent objects of similar color, such as a knife and fork, will often look to her like a single entity.”

[...] Dee’s problem is not that she struggles to verbally name shapes or objects, and nor is it a deficit in remembering what common objects look like. G&M-13 reports:

Dee has great difficulties in copying drawings of common objects or geometric shapes [see image below]. Some brain-damaged patients who are unable to identify pictures of objects can still slavishly copy what they see, line by line, and produce something recognizable. But Dee can’t even pick out the individual edges and contours that make up a picture in order to copy them. Presumably, unlike those other patients, Dee’s problem is not one of interpreting a picture that she sees clearly — her problem is that she can’t see the shapes in the picture to start with.

Dee couldn’t recognize any of the drawings in the left-most column above. When she tried to copy those objects (middle column), she could incorporate some elements of the drawing (such as the small dots representing text), but her overall copies are unrecognizable. However, when asked to draw objects from memories she formed before her accident (right-most column), she did just fine, except for the fact that when she lifted her pencil and put it back down, she sometimes put it back down in the wrong place (presumably due to her inability to see shapes and edges even as she was drawing them). When she was later shown the objects she had drawn from memory, she couldn’t identify them.

Dee can still recognize colors and texture

[...] When G&M showed Dee a flashlight made of shiny metal and red plastic, she said: “It’s made of aluminium. It’s got red plastic on it. Is it some sort of kitchen utensil?” Given that she couldn’t see the object’s shape, and only its surface colors and texture, this was a sensible guess, since many kitchen tools are made of metal and plastic. As soon G&M placed the flashlight in her hand, she immediately recognized it as a flashlight.

Weirdly, Dee can actually recognize shapes just fine, but she can not consciously use this knowledge

[...] However, despite her severe deficits in identifying shapes, objects, and people, Dee displayed a nearly normal ability to walk around in her environment and use her hands to pick things up and interact with them. G&M report the moment they realized just how striking the difference was between Dee’s ability to recognize objects and her ability to interact with them:

[In the summer of 1988] we were showing [Dee] various everyday objects to see whether she could recognize them, without allowing her to feel what they were. When we held up a pencil, we were not surprised that she couldn’t tell us what it was, even though she could tell us it was yellow. In fact, she had no idea whether we were holding it horizontally or vertically. But then something quite extraordinary happened. Before we knew it, Dee had reached out and taken the pencil, presumably to examine it more closely… After a few moments, it dawned on us what an amazing event we had just witnessed. By performing this simple everyday act she had revealed a side to her vision which, until that moment, we had never suspected was there. Dee’s movements had been quick and perfectly coordinated, showing none of the clumsiness or fumbling that one might have expected in someone whose vision was as poor as hers. To have grasped the pencil in this skillful way, she must have turned her wrist “in flight” so that her fingers and thumb were well positioned in readiness for grasping the pencil — just like a fully sighted person. Yet it was no fluke: when we took the pencil back and asked her to do it again, she always grabbed it perfectly, no matter whether we held the pencil horizontally, vertically, or obliquely.

How could Dee do this? She had to be using vision; a blind person couldn’t have grabbed the pencil so effortlessly. But she couldn’t have been using her conscious visual experience, either, as her conscious visual experience didn’t include any information about the rotation of the pencil or its exact shape.

G&M soon put this difference to a more formal test. They built a simple mailbox-like slot that could be rotated to any angle (while Dee closed her eyes), and then they gave Dee a thin card to “post” into the slot. When asked to “post” the card, she had no difficulty. However, when she was asked to merely turn the card so that it matched the orientation of the slot, without reaching toward the slot, she performed no better than chance. She couldn’t consciously see the orientation of the slot, but nevertheless when posting the card into the slot, she had no trouble rotating the card properly so that it went into the slot.

The diagrams [above] show Dee’s performance relative to healthy control subjects, with the “correct” orientation always shown as vertical even though the slot was rotated to many different orientations. Video showed that when posting the card, Dee rotated it well before reaching the slot — clearly, a visually-guided behavior, even if it wasn’t guided by conscious vision.

“Something it’s like” to be a chess-playing computer

From the Open Philanthropy 2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood:

On this way of talking, phenomenal consciousness is real, and so are phenomenal properties, and there’s “something it’s like” to be me, and probably there’s “something it’s like” to be a chimpanzee, and probably there isn’t “something it’s like” to be a chess-playing computer, and these “phenomenal properties” and this “something it’s like”-ness aren’t what they seem to be when we introspect about them, and they don’t have the properties that many philosophers have assumed they must have, and that is the sense in which these features of consciousness are “illusory.”

I think there definitely is “something it’s like” to be a chess-playing computer, it is just that the computer lacks an awareness of it. It is probably possible for humans to lose this awareness too, given how much fucked-up stuff can apparently happen to our brains.

 1 comment   2019  

Lucid vs normal writing: an example

Usually it’s hard to give writing advice, because finding/inventing examples is just so annoying. But this time I found a perfect example – two reviews of the same book.

The book is “Unlocking the Emotional Brain” – a form of therapy where you get rid of wrong beliefs by empathizing with them really thoroughly before thinking about how wrong they are. I can confirm that it works better than “get rid of wrong beliefs by not empathizing with them at all and just obsessing over how you’re not allowed to have those beliefs”.

The reviews are by Scott Alexander (link) and Kaj Sotala (link).

If you don’t want to read the excerpts, skip to the table below and then get back.

Scott’s review (lucid)

Scott’s review immediately begins with:

So in one of the book’s example cases, a man named Richard sought help for trouble speaking up at work. He would have good ideas during meetings, but felt inexplicably afraid to voice them. During therapy, he described his narcissistic father, who was always mouthing off about everything. Everyone hated his father for being a fool who wouldn’t shut up. The therapist conjectured that young Richard observed this and formed a predictive model, something like “talking makes people hate you”. This was overly general: talking only makes people hate you if you talk incessantly about really stupid things. But when you’re a kid you don’t have much data, so you end up generalizing a lot from the few examples you have.

Kaj’s review (normal)

A parallel portion of Kaj’s review begins on the second page:

UtEB’s first detailed example of an emotional schema comes from the case study of a man in his thirties they call Richard. He had been consistently successful and admired at work, but still suffered from serious self-doubt and low confidence at his job. On occasions such as daily technical meetings, when he considered saying something, he experienced thoughts including “Who am I to think I know what’s right?”, “This could be wrong” and “Watch out – don’t go out on a limb”. These prevented him from expressing any opinions.

From the point of view of the authors, these thoughts have a definite cause – Richard has “emotional learnings according to which it is adaptively necessary to go into negative thoughts and feelings towards [himself].” The self-doubts are a strategy which his emotional brain has generated for solving some particular problem.

[...] Richard had experienced his father as being assertive as well as obnoxious and hated. His emotional brain had identified this as a failure mode to be avoided: if you are assertive, then you are obnoxious and will be hated. The solution was to generate feelings of doubt so as to stop him from being too confident. This caused him suffering, but the prediction of his emotional brain was that acting otherwise would produce even worse suffering, as being hated would be a terrible fate.

Comparison table

The excerpts above provide a beautiful comparison, but I promised a table, so here we go:

Scott Kaj
So in one of the book’s example cases UtEB’s first detailed example of an emotional schema comes from the case study
a man named Richard of a man in his thirties they call Richard
sought help for trouble speaking up at work suffered from serious self-doubt and low confidence at his job
He would have good ideas during meetings He had been consistently successful and admired at work
felt inexplicably afraid to voice them when he considered saying something, he experienced thoughts including [...]
Everyone hated his father for being a fool who wouldn’t shut up Richard had experienced his father as being assertive as well as obnoxious and hated
Richard observed this and formed a predictive model His emotional brain had identified this as a failure mode to be avoided
something like “talking makes people hate you” if you are assertive, then you are obnoxious and will be hated

But honestly, you won’t get anything out of the table if you don’t reread the excerpts at least three times. C’mon.


Isn’t the first example so much more reada— ahem. This was supposed to be a show-not-tell, sorry. So, no conclusion here.

If you want to write like Scott, he has a post about his style of writing: Nonfiction Writing Advice. Steven Pinker’s Why Academics Stink at Writing might be even better, but only at the tactical level – giving advice like “don’t use ‘I would argue’”. Scott’s advice is more like “if your point is really complicated, give a dozen examples before stating the point itself”.


What if by being less readable actually works in your favor in the long run? E. g. it forces people to read slower, or to reread several times, etc, and they remember your ideas better. Surely some people will give up, but it’s better to have a few dedicated followers, than a lot of readers who easily go through each of your casual and entertaining pieces but promptly forget everything.


 1 comment   2019   writing

The Last Psychiatrist on narcissism

The Last Psychiatrist is one of my favorite blogs, and one of the best places to learn about narcissism. This post serves as an index to narcissism-related TLP posts.

I expect that this post will be primarily useful to people who suspect they might be narcissists. If you only read one quote from this post, read this one:

It’s a mantra: narcissists don’t feel guilt, only shame.

Guilt implies an internal sense of right and wrong. [...] Narcissists don’t feel guilt – based on objective right and wrong – they feel shame – based on exposure.

You wouldn’t say you were ashamed unless you have been observed, caught. Shame is a conflict with reality: I think I’m this kind of a person, but now this other guy has external evidence that I’m not.

Table of contents (use Ctrl+F)

  1. What is narcissism?
  2. Where does narcissism come from?
  3. Shame and guilt and defense against change
  4. Development of superego / right and wrong
  5. “Know thyself”
  6. Sexuality
  7. More on defense against change
  8. What now?

What is narcissism?

If This Is One of The Sexiest Things You’ve Ever Seen, You May Be a Narcissist

The narcissist believes he is the main character in his own movie. Everyone else has a supporting role – everyone around him becomes a “type”. You know how in every romantic comedy, there’s always the funny friend who helps the main character figure out her relationship? In the movie, her whole existence is to be there for the main character. But in real life, that funny friend has her own life; she might even be the main character in her own movie, right? Well the narcissist wouldn’t be able to grasp that. Her friends are always supporting characters, that can be called at any hour of the night, that will always be interested in what she is wearing, or what she did. That funny friend isn’t just being kind, she doesn’t just want to help – she’s personally interested in the narcissist’s life. Of course she is. [...]

A comedian I can’t remember made a joke about actors in LA, but it’s applicable to narcissists: when two narcissists go out, they just wait for the other person’s mouth to stop moving so they can talk about themselves. [...]

A narcissist looks the same every day; he has a “look” with a defining characteristic: a certain haircut; a mustache; a type of clothing, a tatoo. He used these to create an identity in his mind that he will spend a lot of energy keeping up.

This Is Not A Narcissistic Injury

The worst thing that could happen to a narcissist is not that his wife cheats on him and leaves him for another man. He’ll get angry, scream, stalk, etc, but this doesn’t qualify as a narcissist injury because the narcissist still maintains a relationship with the woman. That it is a bad relationship is besides the point – the point is that he and she are still linked: they are linked through arguing, restraining orders, and lawyers, but linked they are. [...]

The worst thing that could happen to a narcissist is that his wife cheats on him secretly and never tells him, and she doesn’t act any differently towards him, so that he couldn’t even tell. If she can do all that, that means she exists independently of him. He is not the main character in the movie. She has her own movie and he’s not even in it. That’s a narcissistic injury. That is the worst calamity that can befall the narcissist.

Any other kind of injury can produce different emotions; maybe sadness, or pain, or anger, or even apathy. But all narcissistic injuries lead to rage. The two aren’t just linked; the two are the same. The reaction may look like sadness, but it isn’t: it is rage, only rage.

Psychopathy, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Narcissism

Narcissists appear to have emotions, feelings, empathy – they cry, laugh, feel your pain, etc – but none of this is real. They don’t feel it. It’s not linked to anything internal. They’re crying at the funeral, for sure, but on the inside they’re wondering why it doesn’t hurt as much as they think it should. They’re proud at their daughter’s ballet recital, but not actually proud, inside they’re wondering about their promotion, or that jerk at the store, etc. He may feel pride that she’s his daughter, but not empathy, nothing about her as a separate person.

[...] Narcissists don’t feel guilt – based on objective right and wrong – they feel shame – based on exposure. When they get caught, they’re answer is always the same: “wait, that’s not really who I am...”

[...] The reason a psychopath kills is because he is bad. The reason a narcissist kills is so that no one finds out he is bad.

Narcissism is not grandiosity

The Other Ego Epidemic

“Looks like you were right, even the popular press is catching on to the increase in narcissism—” [...] These articles aren’t saying narcissism is on the rise, they are saying grandiosity is on the rise. They are conflating the two. Even psychiatrists get this wrong, they are not the same.

Leave aside for now what is the distinction. Look instead at the result: by focusing on the grandiosity, it leaves you, the reader, with an out. “Look at these grandiose idiots. That’s not me.” By virtue of the fact that you aren’t famous, important, grandiose, you must therefore not be a narcissist. It creates a self-satisfied sense of importance because you’re not like them. That’s narcissism. These articles actually reinforce your narcissism.

Grandiosity is only one possible manifestation of a psychic process that went awry. The essence, the defining characteristic of narcissism is the isolated worldview, the one in which everyone else is not fully real, only part a person, and only the part the impacts you.

A Generational Pathology: Narcissism Is Not Grandiosity

“If it’s not grandiosity, then what is narcissism?” Shame over guilt; rage over anger; masturbation over sex; envy over greed; your future over your past but her past over her future...

Imagine what you look like to another person. Now recall what you looked like in the mirror this morning – that’s really what they see. They are making instantaneous judgments about your personality based on that mirror image. They are hearing your voice like it comes from a recording, not as you hear from your mouth. You’re the only person who experiences yourself as you do.

Narcissism has a fail-safe: since you know you tricked [your partner] to get them, you can’t believe them when they say they love you. The fact that she loves you means she’s not smart enough to know what love is. That’s why you default to measurable quantities of love: how fast did she get into bed with the past guys?

Just because she thinks you’re awesome, doesn’t mean you can really feel her.

Where does narcissism come from?

Can Narcissism Be Cured?

[...] Instead of asking, “why do I feel disconnected?” ask the reverse question: “what would I feel if I wasn’t disconnected?” Be specific, say the answer out loud.

Go ahead, take some time, think about it. What does connecting feel like? I’ll wait.

Let me guess: you have no idea.

All you have for an answer is images, fleeting thoughts. Nothing concrete. Some words, some phrases, bits and pieces of conversations you may have heard or that you daydreamed.

Now ask yourself, where did you get these images and phrases?

Imagine two people: real, or from TV or movies, that are in love. Pick two people whose love you’d like to emulate. Imagine them kissing, looking into each other’s eyes. Imagine them making love.

You wish you had a love like that, but you don’t, and every time you try, to get it, it is failure. Here’s the reason: are you imaging real people, or TV characters?

[...] TV taught you how to love, it showed you what love looks like, feels like. But when you’re actually in love, it doesn’t look like that, so you secretly suspect you don’t have the capacity for love, that there’s something wrong with you.

Same goes for sadness. And it’s worse when you’re in the presence of someone else’s sadness, you have no idea what to do. All you really know about experiencing these emotions is the script you got from TV. “Oh your husband died!? Oh my God, that’s terrible! I’m so sorry for you!!” But you don’t feel any of that. Nothing.

So you think to yourself, what the hell is wrong with me? This woman’s husband died – sure, I can fake it, but am I such an empty monster that I feel nothing?

Of course you feel nothing. Why would you? – it’s not your loss. What’s wrong isn’t your lack of feeling, but that you think you have to feel something, that you have to tell this woman, remind this woman, how horrible is her loss. You think the only way to connect with people is to have their emotions. You think she wants to connect with you. You think she wants your help.

The problem isn’t your lack of feeling, it is that you think that unless you feel it’s not real. You forget that she has a life that doesn’t have you in it.

What you should say is, “I’m very sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?” and that’s it. But that feels insufficient. You think this because you think that there is something you can do, that the sadness is not real for you so it must not be real for her and you thus have the power to change it.

She’s not looking for you to be sad, she’s not looking to you for anything, her loss is bigger than you. If she needs anything from you, it’s sympathy, not empathy.

But no one taught you this. So you fall back on the character “man helping grieving widow.” Action!

The problem isn’t that you don’t know how to connect; it’s that when you do connect at all, you don’t know what to do next. It’s your unrealistic expectations of what connecting is supposed to be. TV is always about beginnings, not middles. Like love. The love you feel doesn’t resemble the TV love because the TV love is the first three days of love, copied and pasted into a decade of episodes. But since you have no other reference point, after a real decade, you think, “I guess must not be in love anymore.”

[...] The problem wasn’t TV, the problem was the absence of adults, real adults who took seriously their responsibility to the next generation, who lead not by words, but by behavior. Who, even if miserable or unfulfilled or unconnected had the decency to fake it for the next generation, for the people they touched. Who didn’t cheat on their wives not just because they loved them, not just because it was ethically wrong, but because what kind of an example would that be to their daughters?

I know, everyone will disagree. Everyone, except daughters under 20.

Shame and guilt and defense against change

Infidelity And Other Taboos, Media Style

The story that is making the internet and morning TV rounds: Two people [...] divorce their spouses and get married.

The twist is that they announced their marriage in the Style section of the New York Times, because, of course, they hooked up in style. The further twist is that they semi-shamelessly recount in the Times how they fell in love while they were still married to other people.

[...] Hardly uncommon; hardly newsworthy, but a little – brazen? – to reveal you were basically cheating. [...] Why not simply say “we met and fell in love?” Or better yet, why not just say nothing? [...] They didn’t have any other choice.

It’s a mantra: narcissists don’t feel guilt, only shame. Well, it’s not completely true, sometimes they do feel guilt, but you have to be hitting on a taboo to feel it.

Even the most hardened narcissist feels some passing guilt when their spouse is sobbing on the kitchen floor. How do you get over that? (Pills won’t help, but psychiatry is happy to tell you they might.)

This is how narcissism eradicates guilt: it rewrites the story, or as the po-mo mofos say, “offer a competing narrative.” [...]

it all changed two years later when Partilla invited her out for a drink at a local watering hole, the first time they had gotten together away from their spouses. “I’ve fallen in love with you,” Riddell recalled Partilla as saying. She said she beat a path out of the bar, only to return five minutes later to tell him, “I feel the exact same way.”

Dress it up in the language of a story, of overcoming, of finding a soul mate, of mid-life romance, of self-actualization. These two were fortunate enough to be able to make it an actual story – in which they are the main characters and everyone else is supporting cast and the readers – you – will focus on the main characters. You may hate them, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are the main characters. That turns guilt into shame, and if there’s no shame

We are really proud of our family and proud of the way we handled the situation. There was nothing in the story to be ashamed of.

They win. That’s how narcissism discharges guilt. [...] putting their otherwise quite shameful story in the NYT wasn’t dumb, poor judgment, or even damaging to their reputations no matter how many people end up hating them. It was necessary to their own emotional survival. As long as you hate them for it, they don’t have to hate themselves.

But what you need to get out of these stories is how this generation and forwards will deal with guilt: externalizing it, converting it to shame, and then taking solace in the pockets of support that inevitably arise. Everyone is famous to 15 people, and that’s just enough people to help you sleep at night.

It is, in effect, crowdsourcing the superego, and when that expression catches on remember where you first heard it. Then remember why you heard it. And then don’t do it.

This Man Killed His Family And He Doesn’t Know Why

Guilt implies an internal sense of right and wrong. Whether it originates from your religion or your parents or the penal code or Star Wars isn’t relevant, only that external rules are then internalized, and you then build an identity around them. So that when you violate them and there is no way anyone noticed, it still gnaws at you because it conflicts with your ego, who you are. Id exists from birth, so superego has to precede ego.

Shame comes not from the action but from the exposure. You wouldn’t say you were ashamed unless you have been observed, caught. Shame is a conflict with reality: I think I’m this kind of a person, but now this other guy has external evidence that I’m not.

A narcissist can’t feel guilt because, while he admits to external rules (religion, ethics, etc) those rules are always secondary to his identity. As long as the identity is intact, you didn’t do anything really wrong. There’s no internal conflict with your sense of self because your identity has one superseding rule: self preservation. You will sacrifice anything, including your life, to preserve that identity. That’s why your boyfriend killed himself to get (back at) you.

Development of superego / right and wrong

Shouting vs. Spanking

The [article] describes parents who (of course) wouldn’t spank their kids, who thus end up yelling.

Psychologists and psychiatrists generally say yelling should be avoided. It’s at best ineffective (the more you do it the more the child tunes it out) and at worse damaging to a child’s sense of well-being and self-esteem.

This is absolutely TERRIBLE advice.

The problem is neither the yelling nor the spanking, the problem is when. When these parents yell or spank, it isn’t in response to intrinsically bad behavior, it is in response to behavior that burdens the parent.

“I’d like to think that most of the time we have a good interaction based on reason,” Lena Merrill said of her 4-year-old daughter, whom she has never spanked. But then there are the times when “she’s done something like poured milk on the floor or ripped a page out of a book,” Ms. Merrill said. “I just lose it.”

The yelling isn’t just disproportionate to the behavior, it has nothing to do with the behavior. She’s angry about other things, but she’s yelling about the milk.

The kid has learned nothing about good and bad behavior. In fact, they’ve learned that “bad behaviors” merit only calm discussion, while things that annoy Mom or Dad are met with wrath.

Consider a mom and a kid in a toy store. The kids starts whining about buying something. He gets loud. The mom hisses through clenched teeth, “wait till I get you home.”

I understand she’s frustrated. But why is she whispering it? At home she would have yelled, why not just yell now? She’s willing to carry the anger by car to another location – is the behavior that serious?

She’s whispering because she’s embarrassed, not at the kid’s behavior but about what it says about her as a parent to onlookers. And she’s even more embarrassed by her reaction. She can’t let other people see her rage when it appears to other people that it is only about a kid wanting a toy.

But if she catches the kid stealing, then she’ll let him have it, right there in public, because then there’s no shame in her yelling – it reflects well on her.

The yelling isn’t the problem, the problem is that yelling is used for the wrong things.

The single problem of modern parents, mothers and fathers alike, is that they are trying to be something – “good parents” (an identity construct) and not doing what is good for the kid only for the sake of the kid. [...] They may be doing good for the kid, but they are also trying to reflect themselves as good parents, they are also considering their shame. That cannot work, ever. The kid will sense this, and the lesson they will learn is that there is no absolute right and wrong, only pleasing the boss.

I’m not judging you, untoggle the caps lock, I am trying to help you understand where it all goes wrong.

If the parents had simply been real – angry when something angers them, more angry when it is worse and less angry when it is not as bad – they’d feel better, and their kids would learn much better life lessons. [...]

One Way Our Schools Are Training New Narcissists

A bunch of first grade boys and girls were playing soccer at recess. One boy, Devastator, was particularly aggressive and slide tackled two kids. [...] A girl says, “hey, no slide tackling – you’re going to hurt someone!” [...] Soon, he slide tackles another boy. The same girl, in defiance of Devastator, yells, “hey, no slide tackles!” [...] Devastator approaches slowly to close the distance, then suddenly sprints towards her. Another boy just manages to grab a shoulder but can’t hold it, so he slows Devastator down for only a second, but long enough for the girl to get a head start running. He chases her – she runs to the teacher and he quickly doubles back to the soccer field.

The girl tells her story, and the teacher responds, “just don’t go near him. I’ll talk to him. Go play a different game, I don’t want him hurting you.”

Later, the girl tells her mother, who calls the school. The teacher tells the mother that they have had a lot of trouble with that boy already, they are handling the problem, but in the meantime it’s best if the girl simply stay away from him. “She was really brave, but we don’t want her to get hurt or for him to fixate on her, so it’s best if she stays out of it.”

This girl stood up to the bully not to protect herself but for the sake of others – and rather than supporting this behavior, the school crushed it in the interest of expediency and “safety.”

If there is any value you do want to encourage in kids, it’s looking out for each other. [...] But the school fostered the reverse value: “don’t get involved, take care of yourself, let the Watchers handle it. That’s their job.” Note that the school didn’t inadvertently teach her not to look out for others, it specifically instructed her not to look out for others. “We’ll handle it.”

I’m not saying she should have fought him (and I’m not not saying it, either), but what kind of school doesn’t want a kid to stand up to a bully, especially when they’re doing it to help someone else? What kind of crazy school wants you to back down – and get someone else to protect you? What kind of school indoctrinates kids that power is only possessed by a) bad people; b) the state?

Oh. All of them.

“Know thyself”

The Second Story Of Echo And Narcissus

This is the story you know:

“Narcissus was a man who was so in love with himself that he fell in love with his own reflection. No one else was good enough for him. He stared into the pool, and eventually wasted away.”

But that’s not the whole story.

When Narcissus was born his mother, Liriope, took him to the blind seer Tiresias and asked him for a prophecy: “will he have a long life?”

[...] Tiresias gave Liriope his cryptic prophecy:

“He’ll have a long life as long as he never knows himself.”

Forget about whether the prophecy is true. Ask instead, “what would the parents have done once they heard it?” [...] And so when Narcissus’s parents heard the requirements for their child’s long life... they would have done everything possible to ensure that he didn’t know himself.

No one knows what Liriope and Cephisus did, but whatever they did, it worked: he didn’t even recognize his own reflection. That’s a man who doesn’t know himself. That’s a man who never had to look at himself from the outside.

How do you make a child know himself? You surround him with mirrors. “This is what everyone else sees when you do what you do. This is who everyone thinks you are.”

You cause him to be tested: this is the kind of person you are, you are good at this but not that. This other person is better than you at this, but not better than you at that. These are the limits by which you are defined. Narcissus was never allowed to meet real danger, glory, struggle, honor, success, failure; only artificial versions manipulated by his parents. He was never allowed to ask, “am I a coward? Am I a fool?” To ensure his boring longevity his parents wouldn’t have wanted a definite answer in either direction.

He was allowed to live in a world of speculation, of fantasy, of “someday” and “what if”. He never had to hear “too bad”, “too little” and “too late.”

When you want a child to become something – you first teach him how to master his impulses, how to live with frustration. But when a temptation arose Narcissus’s parents either let him have it or hid it from him so he wouldn’t be tempted, so they wouldn’t have to tell him no. They didn’t teach him how to resist temptation, how to deal with lack. And they most certainly didn’t teach him how NOT to want what he couldn’t have. They didn’t teach him how to want.

The result was that he stopped having desires and instead desired the feeling of desire.


What The Miss USA Pageant Says About Us

If there is one thing that makes Americans – or at least the media, which both reflects and creates American tastes – nervous, it isn’t sex, but sex that it can’t control.

Maybe it’s a uniquely American thing, maybe not: as long as sex/iness comes with a price tag, we’re ok with it. Controlled, manufactured, artificial – safe. Lingerie shoot? “She had to do that for the pageant.” Oh, so that’s the answer. It’s not real.

But if she’s caught stripping for fun, then... what does that say about me?

The feminist argument is it sets a standard for women that they are forced to at least wonder about. “How can I compete?” But it’s worse for men. Playboy is fine. Girls Gone Wild drives us bananas. “They do it... for nothing? They’re willing to get naked on camera for nothing... yet every time I try to be nice and buy one of them a drink, they won’t even look at me... I don’t get it, I don’t get it...”

Amy Schumer Offers You A Look Into Your Soul

But why is there even a market for sexy but unfunny female comics? The answer is that it’s hot to hear a sexy girl talk openly about sex, and the only safe way a woman can talk openly about sex is..... as a joke, as parody.

[...] There is a group of you who will read this and feel enraged by a double standard, in front of men women get to be sexy, talk about sex, flaunt it, but men can’t introduce the topic, can’t ask questions, can’t pursue – can’t even look – because then they’re labeled as predators. If you’re in this group you don’t get it. The censorship doesn’t come from women, it comes from you. If you feel like you can’t ask her about her sex because you’ll sound like a repressed stalker, you are, in fact, a repressed stalker. You’re not going to kill her, ok, fair enough, but you aren’t going to leave her alone, ever. If Trina rolls bleary eyed into the cubicle and says, “wow, I got totally plowed by this guy last night” not only are you not going to get any coding done that day, but you will make it impossible for her to ever get any coding done or keep her cell number because of your subtle pushes for more stories and passive aggressive inquiries about her relationship status and near constant innuendo.

Defense against change

Amy Schumer Offers You A Look Into Your Soul (again)

[Say] you yell every day at an/your eight year old girl for sloppy homework [...] and eventually she thinks, “I’m terrible at everything” and gives up, so the standard interpretation of this is that she has lost self-confidence, [...] but there’s another possibility which you should consider: she chooses to focus on “I’m terrible at everything” so that she can give up. “If I agree to hate myself I only need a 60? I’ll be done in 10 minutes. ”

It is precisely at this instant that a parent fails or succeeds, i.e. fails: do they teach the kid to prefer (find reinforcement in) the drudgery of boring, difficult work with little daily evidence of improvement, or do they teach the kid to prefer (find reinforcement in) about 20 minutes of sobbing hysterically and then off to Facebook and a sandwich? Each human being is only able to learn to prefer one of those at a time. Which one does the parent incentivize?

[...] The goal of your work is to be done the work, not to be better at work. For a great many people this leads to an unconscious, default hierarchy in the mind, I’m not an epidemiologist but you got it in you sometime between the ages of 5 and 10:

<doing awesome>

is better than

<feeling terrible about yourself>

is better than

<the mental work of change>

You should memorize this, it is running your life. “I’m constantly thinking about ways to improve myself.” No, you’re gunning the engine while you’re up on blocks. Obsessing and ruminating is a skill at which we are all tremendously accomplished, and admittedly that feels like mental work because it’s exhausting and unrewarding, but you can no more ruminate your way through a life crisis than a differential equation. So the parents unknowingly teach you to opt for <feeling terrible about yourself>, and after a few years of childhood insecurity, you’ll choose the Blue Pill and begin the dreaming: someday and someplace you’ll show someone how great you somehow are. And after a few months with that someone they will eventually turn to you, look deep into your eyes, and say, “look, I don’t have a swimming pool, but if I did I’d drown myself in it. Holy Christ are you toxic.”

[...] Self-loathing is the defense against change, self-loathing is preferable to <mental work>. You choose misery so that nothing changes, and the Ambien and the drinking and the therapy placate the misery so that you can go on not changing.

Every time you crowdsource the superego a piece of you is split off as bad keeping the rest of you intact as good. “I’m not a bad person, I just did a bad thing.” [...] People will do whatever has worked for them since childhood, which in this case is split off unpalatable pieces of themselves and disown them, protecting the rest. “I did that, but it’s not who I am.” When “it” is really bad you move to Step 2: find someone who can substitute for your atrophied superego to confirm “you’re not like that”, and you’re good for a decade of emotional stagnation and the following crazy sentence: “I’ve changed a lot in ten years.” Ha, yeah – wait, you’re serious? Dude, no one who is not you agrees. No one. Ask anyone. Not even your therapist.

What now?

Can Narcissism Be Cured? (again)

The wrong question.

“But I want to change, I want to get better.”

Narcissism says: I, me. Never you, them.

No one ever asks me, ever, “I think I’m a narcissist, and I’m worried I’m hurting my family.” No one ever asks me, “I think I’m too controlling, I’m trying to subtly manipulate my girlfriend not to notice other people’s qualities.” No one ever, ever, ever asks me, “I am often consumed by irrational rage, I am unable to feel guilt, only shame, and when I am caught, found out, exposed, I try to break down those around me so they feel worse than I do, so they are too miserable to look down on me.”

If that was what they asked, I would tell them them change is within grasp. But.

“So all is lost?”

Describe yourself: your traits, qualities, both good and bad.

Do not use the word “am.”

Practice this.

“I feel like I am playing a part, that I’m in a role. It doesn’t feel real.”

Instead of trying to stop playing a role – again, a move whose aim is your happiness – try playing a different role whose aim is someone else’s happiness. Why not play the part of the happy husband of three kids? Why not pretend to be devoted to your family to the exclusion of other things? Why not play the part of the man who isn’t tempted to sleep with the woman at the airport bar?

“But that’s dishonest, I’d be lying to myself.” Your kids will not know to ask: so?

The Other Ego Epidemic (again)

“Help me, please, I think I’m a narcissist. What do I do?”

There are a hundred correct answers, yet all of them useless, all of them will fail precisely because you want to hear them.

There’s only one that’s universally effective, I’ve said it before and no one liked it. This is step 1: fake it.

You’ll say: but this isn’t a treatment, this doesn’t make a real change in me, this isn’t going to make me less of a narcissist if I’m faking!

All of those answers are the narcissism talking. All of those answers miss the point: your treatment isn’t for you, it’s for everyone else.

If you do not understand this, repeat step 1.

Vipassana, etc. – part 1

Recently I attended a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat, specifically one in the tradition of S. N. Goenka. Here are my observations.

I. Meditation is a good way to find out how often you get distracted

The first thing that becomes apparent during meditation is that a large chunk of your thoughts is completely useless and prevents you from spending time productively. We’ll go deeper into “completely useless” in later sections. For now, let me describe how to replicate this result if you want a show-not-tell.

Sit on the floor. Ensure there are no distracting lights, sounds, smells. Keep your spine and neck straight; don’t lean against anything. Make yourself comfortable, perhaps with the help of several pillows. Close your eyes. Observe your breath.

Ideally, do this for ten hours every day – but even two hours could be enough, I’m not sure. If you’re meditating on your own, consider warning people around you – especially if you’re stubborn and would rather die than meditate for [less than ten hours] when somebody tells you that you can do [ten hours].

  • Day 1: observe your natural breath. Pay attention to every inhalation and exhalation. If your mind wanders away, don’t judge yourself – think “my mind has wandered away” and return to observing the breath. Try also doing it during your “normal” life, outside of the meditation hours.
  • Day 2: now that you can stay focused on the breath – start observing how the air touches your upper lip, how the temperature of your nostrils changes when you inhale/exhale, how sometimes your upper lip can feel tingly or sweaty or pulsating, etc. Just whatever happens to your upper lip and nostrils, observe it.
  • Day 3: same, but slightly harder – the insides of the nostrils are excluded from observation.

Why breath? First of all, it’s always with you and so you can practice at all times. Second, it’s one of the few things that happens naturally and can also be controlled (if you find it hard to focus on the natural breath). Third, it is connected to your emotional state and so you can notice how your emotions affect you physically – which will be useful later.

For me, the result was that sometimes I would lose track of my breath every 5–10 seconds. Not great.

II. You get distracted mostly at “I want X” and “I don’t want Y”

Let’s look at distracting thoughts more closely. Goenka categorizes distracting thoughts into “cravings” and “aversions” categories (happy/unhappy), and further notes that they are mostly about the past or the future; this matches my experience.

  • Happy thoughts: I am getting back to specific moments in my past, or thinking about something that will happen in the future, over and over – merely to feel good. Even worse – when I ask myself “would I fast-forward my life to the moment when X finally happens?”, the answer is often “I shouldn’t but I kinda want to”.

In theory, the categorization above is incomplete. There could be more kinds of thoughts: productive analysis of something that happened in the past, productive planning of something that could be done in the future, or general observations like “my life sucks/is awesome” or “hey, what is happening is kinda interesting”. However, in practice those occur rarely compared to {craving, aversion} {to past, to future} kind of thoughts.

III. An interlude: show-not-tell is great

The reason I’m not spending much time describing cravings and aversions is that they are much easier to grasp if you have actually observed them flashing through your mind in real time. It also makes it much easier to believe that they are the predominant concern of your mind, as opposed to “eh, maybe 20% or so”.

Vipassana is quite explicit about this. Specifically, they identify three kinds of knowledge (or “wisdom”, in Buddhist terminology):

  • Received knowledge: somebody told you that X is true.
  • Intellectual-level knowledge: you have decided (hopefully by some rational process) that X is true.
  • Experiential knowledge: you have observed that X is true.

Then they flat-out tell you that experiential knowledge is the best and the other two are somewhat useless. This, by the way, sounds like a great thing to keep in your mind whenever you are teaching somebody – if they are not getting experiential knowledge, look for a way to change that.

Thanks to the controlled environment, vipassana instructors are able to demonstrate: “Look, you’ve been given a really simple task. Observe your breath. And hey, you’re failing it! Such a simple task, but you’re failing it. This is because your mind wanders a lot. And look where it wanders – craving and aversion. Mostly just craving and aversion.” Then you can look at your life prior to the retreat, remember all the tasks that you have failed because of your wandering mind, and categorize the distractions into cravings and aversions. Intellectual-level knowledge becomes experiential knowledge post hoc.

As a side note, this is also why “giving names to things” is a useful practice in general. By recognizing something as a Thing That Happens, it becomes easier to remember when it happened previously, and notice it when it happens in the future. You can’t collect experiential knowledge on X if you don’t make sure to put all X-related things in the same bucket – and the way you construct this bucket is by giving X a name.

IV. I’m claiming that happy and unhappy thoughts are useless

My indictment against both happy and unhappy thoughts is that a) they are useless and b) they prevent me from mastering whatever I am doing right now.

With unhappy thoughts, you could make a case that being unhappy about something can help you avoid it; I have nothing to say about this except for “yeah, you would think so”. In reality, being afraid of X mostly just makes me avoid any thoughts about X, including “how can I solve X”, so it doesn’t help. There’s no reason why this must be the case, but empirically, this is what happens.

The case for happy thoughts is more interesting. You could object:

Happy thoughts make you feel good and this is an Intrinsically Valuable Thing. Don’t you want to feel good?

Counterobjection: there’s a difference between happiness (emotional well-being) and satisfaction (evaluation of life). Happiness is feeling good right now, satisfaction is looking back at your life and thinking “okay, this was good”. Can I prove that you should strive for a satisfying life as opposed to moment-to-moment happiness (or even the feeling of satisfaction)? No, if only because bridging the is-ought gap is a fool’s errand.

Again, this is as far from a well-developed argument as you can possibly get, so treat it as a statement along the lines of “I’m going to believe this until I find something better”:

  1. Worrying doesn’t let you avoid danger.
  2. Happiness doesn’t make you more satisfied.
  3. So don’t worry and don’t be happy. Think something useful instead and you’ll get better at avoiding danger and at being satisfied.

V. “Can you clarify this thing about happiness vs. satisfaction?”

One of the best introductions to “happiness vs. satisfaction” is long-winded, rambly The Tower. You will like it if you like The Last Psychiatrist and sam[]zdat. Here goes an extensive quote.

The question is thus: why don’t we choose to be happy?

For those who doubt humanity’s anti-joy stance, look no further than the sci-fi concept of Wireheading. If in the year 20XX the Hegemony announces a Guaranteed Happiness Machine, would you use it? There’s no catch. [...] The feeling it gives you isn’t mere hedonistic pleasure, it is limitless understanding, loving and being loved, progress and growth—whichever nouns or adjectives you prefer, the sum feeling is happiness. [...]

I have no doubt that some readers would hit the ON button so hard they’d break a metacarpal. Not unreasonable, if you are depressed or a hippie circa 1967. I can’t question your axioms, I’ll drop a few nickels when I pass by on Telegraph Ave. Those of you who reject suicide by Hallmark, I agree, but please note that instead of happiness, equanimity, transcendence, or any other internal state postulated as the ‘meaning of life,’ you are prioritizing something that is not a feeling at all.

A second thought experiment re: that something. Suppose that your behoodied Silicon Valley boss offers you an all-expenses-paid vacation to virtual reality paradise. [...] Alas, for copyright reasons, any memories of the vacation will be wiped upon your return, any skills you acquired will be unlearned, and any metadata of your adventures will be destroyed. [...] I’m more tempted by dreamland than the empty calories of wireheading, but even so I recognize that both choices are fundamentally the same: an ecstasy that leaves no trace vs. bland but tangible reality. The decision is almost binary. If you would spend a year in the Matrix, why not twenty? Why not the rest of your life?

These concerns are not theoretical.

In the study, Kahneman and colleagues looked at the pain participants felt by asking them to put their hands in ice-cold water twice (one trial for each hand). In one trial, the water was at 14C (59F) for 60 seconds. In the other trial the water was 14C for 60 seconds, but then rose slightly and gradually to about 15C by the end of an additional 30-second period.

Both trials were equally painful for the first sixty seconds, as indicated by a dial participants had to adjust to show how they were feeling. On average, participants’ discomfort started out at the low end of the pain scale and steadily increased. When people experienced an additional thirty seconds of slightly less cold water, discomfort ratings tended to level off or drop.

Next, the experimenters asked participants which kind of trial they would choose to repeat if they had to. You’ve guessed the answer: nearly 70% of participants chose to repeat the 90-second trial, even though it involved 30 extra seconds of pain. Participants also said that the longer trial was less painful overall, less cold, and easier to cope with. Some even reported that it took less time. (Summary by this website, source Thinking Fast and Slow)

Ur-Rationalist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between the experiencing self, which reacts to the bartender’s “you’ve had enough” with pain fiber shocks of disbelief, and the remembering self, which, subject to biases such as duration neglect and the peak-end rule, leaves the two star Yelp review. The cold water experiment is a brilliant demonstration of how, as in the wirehead and dreamland examples above, our remembering and experiencing selves often disagree. This should be intuitive: consider the TV series ruined by the finale, the regret that follows junk food bliss, or the bad date that turns into a comedic memory.

Except Kahneman doesn’t take his idea far enough. Consider the motivations of a suicide bomber. The experiencing self knows nothing save immediate pleasure and pain. It has no interest in martyrdom. It will only pull the trigger to end some greater agony, such as during sickness, when some elemental part of you literally does “want to die.” The remembering self is what chooses to endure the flu, since it knows from its internalized stories that all pain eventually subsides; failure of this mechanism is the cognitive basis for depression. At times, the remembering self will even coax the experiencing self into discomfort, e. g. work, in exchange for a future reward, e. g. dough. But the case of a kamikaze, the remembering self is willing to die not for its own postponed pleasure, but so that some other remembering self can look back on its behalf.

VI. Goenka goes further and claims that desires are harmful

Vipassana approaches the topic from a different angle: thoughts are not just “happy” and “unhappy”, but cravings and aversions. They lead to suffering either directly or indirectly. Thus, they must be eliminated.

If you crave something you cannot get, you are miserable; if you cling to something you already have, you will be miserable when you eventually lose it. If you get attached to your beliefs, you will be miserable when you come in contact with people who have opposing beliefs; and since some of your beliefs are necessarily false, you will suffer when they get shattered by reality.

This immediately poses a problem: if you don’t experience craving or aversion towards anything, how can you decide how to act? The answer is that empirically, action (and “will” in general) does not require craving or aversion. You don’t have to be afraid of fire to know that you shouldn’t put your hand in it. Or, speaking more generally: the mechanism of goal attainment does not have to be implemented via punishment and reward.

This is a very fun road, and it can lead you to interesting places. For instance, if you had a general habit of viewing people as optimization machines, maximizing some utility function that gets more and more convoluted with every thought experiment thrown at you, consider a blue-minimizing robot. There are things for which the best model is not “optimizing”, but “executing a behavior”. What if you are like this, too?

Goenka implies that you can kill certain emotions – judgment, craving, aversion – and still function either the same way, or even better than you functioned before. He does not make a terribly convincing case for it, but it seems plausible. (He also argues that killing those emotions is the first step towards achieve nirvana, i.e. a liberation from repeated rebirth. I will skip this part.)

VII. If you don’t think you can get by without desires, wait till I claim that you can get by without free will

“Desires are optional” is not where the road ends. Read Weird experiences: free will mishaps, where I argue that the whole concept of free will is rather dubious and that you do not even need an internal monologue to function.

To be continued

Getting rid of craving and aversion seems to be the first step towards enlightenment. In the next post I will talk a bit about why I don’t want enlightenment – there are more reasons than merely not wanting to become a philosophical zombie – and then switch to unrelated matters.

At some point I will write a longer post against “System 1 is a petulant child”


The idea is: you have a Judgment Machine. System 1, intuition, whatever you want to call it. Note: this idea is significantly oversimplified (in Kahneman’s book too), read The Rationality Quotient for more details. But it’ll do.

The important part is that you don’t have access to its internal workings. It lets you just look at things and boom – you know the right thing to do.

Or the wrong thing to do! You’ve listened to it so many times and got burned so many times. Blurted out things you shouldn’t have said. Kept wearing that pair of jeans you like, even though you’ve been told by enough people that it makes you look like a homeless person.

You notice it happening time and again, and you get tired of it. “Oh, my system 1 keeps overpowering my system 2! I gotta learn how to control it. Shut it down. I’m not against laughter and joy, and I will not abandon my values – but I won’t let system 1 tell me how to achieve those values. Nuh-uh.”

So now, whenever system 1 tells you “you could try X”, you get suspicious. You treat it like a child who never grew up. “I don’t like this guy, true – but I won’t fire him just because I don’t like him! That’s the child-in-me speaking.”


Except that – it’s not a child. It grew up with you. All your mistakes were happening right before its eyes. It has read all the same books that you’ve read, and liked the same posts you liked. Scott Alexander, Yudkowsky, Kegan, The Last Psychiatrist, whatever, you scrolled them right past its eyes.

Yeah, sometimes it still says “this guy has mustache, I don’t like him”. True.

But sometimes it also says “hey, this sounds awfully like a class of disastrous situations described in ten or so different posts I’ve read in the past two years” — which is quite a bit more useful, and sometimes life-changing. By routinely dismissing system 1’s input as “child’s babbling”, you lose access to a huge library of associations that it has amassed over the years. At some point it will bite you back.

 No comments   2019  

Kegan, 4 to 5

Every once in a while I try to explain transitions between Kegan’s stages. It takes a lot of different explanations to get the idea; this one is done from the morality point of view.


There are several axes of “bad”. If you want an exhaustive list, go through normative ethical theories and moral foundations. I will use an abridged one I made up.

Let’s say you did something. [X]. Will DSM-5 diagnose you with Asshole Personality Disorder?

  • A point if X caused suffering.
  • A point if X was illegal.
  • A point if you did X without someone’s consent and they had a right to be asked for consent.
  • A point if you violated an explicit promise or contract.
  • A point if you violated an implicit expectation, or somebody relied on you and you failed them, or other [betrayal].
  • A point if everyone is appalled at you.
  • A point if you feel no remorse / would do it again if given a chance.
  • A point if you knew what the consequences would be and did it anyway.
  • A point if the victim of your actions is already in a bad place in life.
  • A point if you didn’t compensate the harm X did (or rather, a point off if you did compensate the harm; cf. ethics offsets).

Write these down, and try to draw a bright line across a ten-dimensional space of behaviors. A gentle breeze of “ugh, why is everything so complicated” will wash over you. Whatever weights you assign to those axes will look arbitrary. You will feel bad.


But you will also keep trying to make sense of this chaos, for several reasons – partly because you don’t trust your judgment (anymore); partly because it’s useful to have a set of rules that you can demand other people to adhere to; and partly because everybody wants different things from you, and you need to figure out which of those people you would be justified in telling to fuck off.

Eventually this leads to radicalization. Solving the problem with all axes present is impossible, so some of them must be stupid. Libertarianism and utilitarianism both fall into this category.

Luckily, it’s easy to “refute” any of the axes by demonstrating several examples where it fails spectacularly. Thanks to philosophy, there’s an abundance of thought experiments designed just for that purpose. Once you are left with just one axis, you arrive at some sort of repugnant conclusion. If suffering is the only thing that matters, welcome to the world of wireheading – or perhaps killing off all people is more of your thing. Giving the ultimate authority to laws (or contracts) breaks down when you remember that people can and will pass absolutely dumb laws (or get intoxicated/tricked and enter absolutely dumb contracts). Etc. If I haven’t given your preferred objections, you are smart enough to come up with your own.


The next step is nihilism: “since it’s all arbitrary, everything is a-OK”. There’s a certain genre of writing that you know I can’t resist, so:

Everyone deserves to figure out the meaning of life at least once or twice. We’re talking late teens and early twenties, when work is too easy and finding better work too hard. Turning the post-acid feeling of cosmic oneness into a fridge-note to-do list is harder than expected, but whatever man, MWF pass/no pass. Start from the basics. Matter is math, mind is matter. Determinism except for the quantum stuff. Time is a flat circle, space is a mobius strip, morality is aesthetics and aesthetics is quantifiable. Big Bang and billiard balls of 1s and 0s colliding and uncolliding on loop. “Though existence has no inherent meaning,” you tell your ex over chamomile, “in the end, all we have is each other.” Reply: something about how all behavior is an expression of the ancestral Art that is shared by our collective unconscious. “Um, yeah,” annoyed, “I thought that was obvious.”

Ah, surprise surprise, turns out your inch and footnoted masterpiece was predicted by the Greek philosopher Fuchylus in 380 B.C.E. Like, you could have right-clicked that guy’s papyrus for synonyms. Not to mention the next twenty-three hundred years of middlebrow philosophy you somehow missed. Why did you think your reductionism was original? Even your doodles are boring. Wolfram plays coy. The rock band turns to sediment. Making a fool of yourself drunk won’t get a rise from fate and sobriety gives a hangover too. Atoms don’t touch they just brush electrons; the sky magnifies the sun onto the anthills of man. Spilled soda on the counter and cashed bowls on the kitchen table; it’s the witching hour, and some guy in an Neff beanie is asking if you have any Xanax. And the meaning of life strikes again, that sacred cosmic oneness, how strange it is to be anything at all – but just for a second. And with the wisdom of a philosopher, you reply, “Dude, I need to sleep.”

That’s when the open-mic audience would start finger-snapping and I would do a handle pull from whatever was available, probably Seagram’s. Look, we’ve all been there. And to the best of our abilities, I hope we’ve all moved on.


Nihilism is neither pleasant nor useful, so eventually people snap out of it – unless they are stubborn enough, in which case they don’t. If they do, they realize that – hey, maybe it’s all arbitrary, but treating bad things as bad somehow prevents them from happening. And maybe you can even treat people who do bad things as bad people, and piggy-back on the mechanism of social ostracism! A treasure trove of life hacks, indeed.

Except that by this point you already know that a) consistency is kinda nice and b) you can’t always trust your intuition if you don’t want to be completely ashamed of yourself five years from now. So you try to be more consistent and careful than before, while also paying attention to what other people think because they have also spent many years figuring out the whole consistency thing and you can steal what they came up with. And this is Kegan’s stage 5.

 No comments   2019   kegan

Being dangerous


Being dangerous seems useful.

Radiating “I’m dangerous” decreases the probability that people will treat you badly. It’s also questionable whether it’s possible to radiate “I’m dangerous” without actually being dangerous, so you might just as well.

Note that by “radiate” I mean something akin to Don’t ask forgiveness, radiate intent. Except that the thing you’re supposed to radiate is “if you mess with me, you will face consequences”.

Peterson talks about this in his Personality lectures, but it’s hard to point at a specific place. The Last Psychiatrist talks about this When Was The Last Time You Got Your Ass Kicked?, so let’s look at that.


[...] Louie CK and a date end up at a late night donut shop. Five teens roll in, obnoxious and expansive, and Louie turns and tells them to keep it down.

One teen comes over and threatens Louie. He does it in the pseudo-friendly, control the conversation way that is 100% the sign of someone trying to size you up; the longer it goes on, the more sure he is. [...]

“Hi, my name is Sean. What’s your name?” And extends his hand.
Louie sighs. “Nice to meet you,” he says resignedly.
“’Nice to meet you?’ Is that your name? ‘Nice to meet you?’”
“No, it’s Louie.”
“Oh, Louie. Hmm. Hi, ‘Loo-ey.’” [Smirks.]

Etc. It escalates to threats, “tell me, Louie, how long has it been since you’ve had your ass kicked?” and ends with the kid forcing Louie to beg: “Please do not kick my ass.”

Right before he leaves, the kid says, “that was painful to watch.” He’s right.

Observation #1:

The question no one ever asks is: how did the 17 year old know he could pick on you?

Observation #2:

An observation about the middle class: they have it deep inside their psyche that though they are taught to make prejudicial judgments based on hearsay, they are not allowed to show that they made them. The middle class think they are lawyers.

That kid was up to no good. You knew it as he walked to Louie’s table, even before he opened his mouth. You knew it. But Louie/we were constructed to act only on what happens, not what you think is happening. Since the kid was polite, Louie had to be polite back, even though the kid was obviously being a bully – you’re not allowed to respond to that. “Hey, I was just being friendly!” And prove he wasn’t. The kid offers to shake Louie’s hand, “Hi, I’m Sean,” and Louie has to shake it because so far the kid is being polite. We relate things to our future cross examination: “isn’t it true, sir, that sticks and stones can break your bones but names can never harm you?”


Back to Louie. When that kid appeared at his table, everyone knew why he was there. So this is how the scene should have gone, though I’ll admit it wouldn’t have been theatric enough for TV:

“Hi, my name’s Sean, what’s your name?”
“Get your punk-ass away from me, I don’t want to know you.”


I suspect that “how did the 17 year old know he could pick on you?” can be applied to a great deal of things.

How did that girl knew she could cut in line in front of you? How did that guy know he would get away with that joke he made at your expense? Also, how did you end up working on the weekend again?

How do other people manage to keep winning over you in the game of chicken?

Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground:

Sometimes on holidays I used to stroll along the sunny side of the Nevsky [...] I used to wriggle along in a most unseemly fashion, like an eel, continually moving aside to make way for generals, for officers of the guards and the hussars, or for ladies. At such minutes there used to be a convulsive twinge at my heart, and I used to feel hot all down my back at the mere thought of the wretchedness of my attire, of the wretchedness and abjectness of my little scurrying figure. [...]

[The officer], too, turned out of his path for generals and persons of high rank, and he too, wriggled between them like an eel; but people, like me, or even better dressed than me, he simply walked over; he made straight for them as though there was nothing but empty space before him, and never, under any circumstances, turned aside. I gloated over my resentment watching him and ... always resentfully made way for him. It exasperated me that even in the street I could not be on an even footing with him.

‘Why must you invariably be the first to move aside?’ I kept asking myself in hysterical rage, waking up sometimes at three o’clock in the morning. ‘Why is it you and not he? There’s no regulation about it; there’s no written law. Let the making way be equal as it usually is when refined people meet; he moves half-way and you move half-way; you pass with mutual respect.’

But that never happened, and I always moved aside, while he did not even notice my making way for him. And lo and behold a bright idea dawned upon me! ‘What,’ I thought, ‘if I meet him and don’t move on one side? What if I don’t move aside on purpose, even if I knock up against him? How would that be?’ This audacious idea took such a hold on me that it gave me no peace. I was dreaming of it continually, horribly [...]


Wearing a tie might help. Also posture:

As you sit there reading this, imagine that for some reason quick and powerful action might be required at any minute. Perhaps there are predators on the horizon and you need to scan near and far to see if one is approaching. Prepare to exit your chair and sprint out of the room if necessary.

Now examine your posture. You are probably sitting nearer to the edge of your seat and not using the back support. Your feet are probably arranged with a solid connection to the floor. Your pelvis is actively engaged with its base of support on the chair. Your spine is well balanced over the pelvis and ready to move in any direction. Your head and arms are free to move.


What might help even more is having a value system.

A stupid value system also works, it just has to be consistent. It’s hard to argue with somebody who is 100% sure they are right, because if you get defeated, you will spend the whole day brooding and who wants that? Better keep arguing with them in your head – this way you get to win without either of you suffering any real-world consequences (other than them getting what they wanted).

Kegan’s stage 4 is relevant here.


A similar, but distinct, concept to “radiating dangerousness” is “radiating authority”.

Try proving to a kid that stealing is bad – without sitting them down and saying “Okay, class, welcome to Philosophy 101”. Actually, even if the kid is really bright and you are allowed to go Philosophy 101 on them, you still can’t. This is, like, a Hard Problem.

So, if you subscribe to “I must always be able to justify everything from first principles!”, even a kid can beat you in a debate, and we are back to square one. If you don’t subscribe to it, at some point you have to say “you can think whatever you want, but you should be doing X”. This is authority. And if you haven’t rehearsed this phrase, along with its variations, really well, then you are screwed.

(Bonus points for saying “you should be doing X because Y”, grab the Y from the value system shelf above.)

Open questions

Radiating your value system is useful because it makes you dangerous but not threatening: “here’s my value system, here’s what is unacceptable, if you don’t do anything unacceptable you have nothing to fear”. What other things can make you less threatening?

Why is falling back on “you should be doing X” scary? At which point does “you have to justify everything from first principles” became a first principle?

How far along the way can you get just by behaving as if you have authority already? 50%? 90%?

Earlier Ctrl + ↓