Alien hand syndrome and the Buddha

A recent video over at the intellectual web site aeon got me thinking about the phenomenon of alien hand syndrome. (I’ll link to it here but it’s not really essential that you watch it.) Alien hand syndrome is a condition experienced by people who have had their left and right brains separated (usually as a treatment for epilepsy) where one hand acts outside of the control of its owner. The hand may start undressing its owner, or slapping them, or doing various other often anti-social behaviors.

Concurrently to all this, I’ve been reading Robert Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True.” In a recent section, he gets into the Buddha’s notion that there is no self. Part of how the Buddha made the case was to ask whether we (our selves) really have complete control over various components such as our feelings, our perceptions, a few others, and our bodies.

Well, that would seem to get right into the alien hand syndrome and loss of control over the body. But that’s a kind of a special case, one could say. These are people whose brains have been split.

Having said that, after reading this I started paying close attention to my actions. And I do notice a kind of disconcerting lack of control. I wash my hands and wipe them on the towel and while I may in some sense control the overall plan of action, I find my hands basically running on automatic for the specific movements. Clearly they are running learned programs and don’t really ask for specific input from my conscious self (which may not exist according to the Buddha.)

This isn’t really news to anybody. We all understand that we don’t finely control our actions when riding a bike or walking. Indeed, if we try to consciously monitor and control our actions while doing these things, we can easily screw ourselves up. But I do feel like I’ve stumbled onto an insight into how automatic much of our behavior is. In a sense, we all constantly experience a mild version of alien hand syndrome.

What is sexual assault?

There’s a recent survey by USA Today that finds that 94% of women in the entertainment industry have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Of course, this opens up an obvious question: what is the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault? You’d think the answer would be well known and explained in most articles about the topic but, from what I can gather, lots of people have different interpretations of these terms.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. I’m wondering whether an awful act—sexual harassment—is being grouped together with a really awful act—sexual assault—to make things seem worse than they really are. For instance, if 90% of women experienced sexual harassment and 4% experience sexual assault, the USA Today findings would be true. But they would also be true is if 4% of women experienced sexual harassment and 90% experience sexual assault. I think most of us would agree those are two quite different scenarios.

To really gauge how awful things are we need to understand what these terms mean. Fortunately USA Today has an article that dives into this question. They investigate how each of these terms is defined by by various sources. The terms as defined by government are reasonably clear: sexual harassment is verbal while sexual assault is physical. I’ll quote the Justice Department’s definition of sexual assault here:

Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.

Even that seems a bit unclear. Is grabbing a breast and patting a butt sexual assault? I would presume yes, but the above definition seems to focus on pretty heavy crimes—sodomy, forced sexual intercourse etc.

What stands out in the article is how different the legal definition is from the “people’s definition.” As the article notes:

In a March 2017 survey of U.S. adults conducted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), 60% of women and 48% of men considered “unwanted verbal remarks that are provocative or unsolicited” to be sexual violence or assault (setting — i.e., workplace or not — was not specified).

So merely talking is considered, by a lot of people, to be sexual assault.

I should be clear about some things here. I’m all for the #MeToo moment and I’m overjoyed to see people like Weinstein etc. taken down. But I think until we have some kind of consensus on what these terms mean, we’re going to be doing a lot of talking past each other.

How do we know what we see or hear is good or bad?

I was lying in bed this morning and it struck me that you can only judge the positiveness or negativeness of certain sensory modalities by how they effect a different sensory modality.

Now, I imagine many of you are saying, “Yes, Wil, that is a wise and sage truth.” But some of you may be saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?” so I will try to explain.

Let’s consider vision. We can imagine some positive images and some negative images. A positive image might be a fuzzy kitten or our favorite meal being presented to us by a naked, attractive movie star. A negative image might be medical diagnosis paper that says “Cancer!!” or a horrible automobile accident.

But what makes them positive or negative? There’s nothing in the image that does this; it’s all how they make you feel. Positive images give us a warm, good feeling of calm and happiness while negative images may cause our heart to race, our gut to tighten, etc. In essence, we need our felt feelings, particularly in our internal body, to “know” whether this image is positive or negative.

(I believe that one test for psychopathy is showing people disturbing images and tracking their skin conductivity (which changes with stress.) Psychopaths can look at horrible imagery and not be disturbed.)

Let’s consider hearing. A positive sound might be a happy dog barking, or someone saying, “You just won the lottery.” A negative sound might be your girlfriend announcing she is leaving you because you are sexually inadequate, or your boss announcing your termination.

But, again, how do we know these things are good or bad? Because we feel sensations upon presentation of the stimulus. There’s nothing inherent in the stimulus.

We can say the same for smell, taste, even our vestibular (balance) sensation. It’s how they make us feel that denotes their character. Presumably if you simply had no feeling, you would have a hard time judging the sensations.

Of course, vision can be annoying on its own – bright lights are an example. So can sound when it gets too loud. But that has nothing to do with the object or objects being represented by the sight or sound. If you find yourself looking at an incredibly bright image of a chair, it’s not annoying because you don’t like chairs but because you don’t like incredible brightness. An overwhelmingly loud recording of a kitten mewing is just as annoying as an overwhelmingly loud recording of grating machinery.

You can think of the process by which we observe the world using our senses in this way.

1) Incoming sensory stream hits sense organ (light hits eyes, sound hits ears, etc.).
2) Our brain objectifies what it observes in this sensory stream (we recognize we are looking at a bear or hearing a pretty song).
3) Brain sets off a process by which we feel positivity or negativity about the object(s) we are observing (bear evokes fear, pretty song evokes joy).

My synesthesia

You may be familiar with synesthesia, the cross-wiring of certain sensory modalities. People who experience synesthesia (a minority of the human population) “hear” colors, or “taste” sounds, among other abilities.

For years I read about synesthesia and thought it was weird but unrelated to me. But at some point, I read about a certain type of synesthesia and realized that I had synesthesia as a child (and to some degree still do.) In the book “Incognito”, author David Eagleman describes my brand of synesthesia as “letters and numerals experienced as having gender and personalities.”

When I was a kid, numbers and letters had easily defined genders. I’ll list some numbers here paired with my sense of their gender.

1: Male
2: Female
3: Male
4: Female
5: Female
6: Female
7: Male
8: Male
9: Male
10: Male
11: Male
12: Female
13: Male
14: Female
15: Female
16: Female
17: Male
18: Male
19: Male

From there, a number’s gender was determined by the first numeral. So 26 was female because the first character, 2, was female. Same for 2,459.

But there was more to it than that. There were familial and social relationships between the numbers. 1 and 2 were married and their children were (I believe) 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. 4 was kind of a best friend to 5. 7, 8 and 9 were the older brothers of the family; they sort of bossed around their younger siblings. 10 was married to 12 and 11 was 10′s good friend.

I’m not absolutely certain about these statements but that’s my sense of my younger self’s interpretation of things.

Letters also had gender. I’ll run through the first part of the alphabet.

A: Female
B: Female
C: Male
D: Male
E: Male
F: Male
G: Male
H: Male
I: Male
J: Male
K: Female

There were also relationships at play here. A and B were good friends. A was kind of bossy, like a mom. C and D were pals. J and K were married.

It strikes me that all this makes an interesting point about gender. There’s a bit of debate these days about how fixed the binary properties of gender are—are we either essentially male or female, or do we exist on some sort of gender gradient? The fact that I saw these characters as having defined gender implies that a strong notion of gender was “built into” my brain, e.g. innate.

Except that I do recall that various numerals and letters had different balances of masculinity and femininity. T, for example was a very masculine letter (perhaps because it sort of looks like a broad shouldered man?) C was more of a passive man. Most of my female letters were “mom types”; they weren’t real sexpots. (My mind did not have the notion of MILFs at that point.) Interestingly, Q was a letter I have a hard time recalling the gender of.

Anyway, that was my take on it as a kid, and I still maintain a sense of it. I just think about a character and “know” its gender.

Awful sentence alert

I’m always on the lookout for egregious sentences, especially when found in major media. This article in Barron’s contains a real whopper.

Thill, who has a Buy rating on Facebook stock, and a $225 price target, thinks the “Watch tab” on Facebook, a place where it puts video on a user’s page that just got going this year, can turn into a $1 billion business by 2019, and can be as much as $12 billion, or 12% of revenue, by 2022.

That makes me feel a lot better about my writing.

Americans in more pain?

I’m in the midst of a relaspse of the hand pain that plagued me years ago, so I’m back to exploring the idea that much pain is psychologically induced or augmented. This idea has actually become something of a growth industry, with a lot of doctors and even web apps taking this approach to pain.

Today I stumbled across a very interesting news article relevant to this. A recent poll notes that Americans are both becoming unhappier and in more pain. The opening paragraph sums it up.

Americans “are in greater pain than citizens of other countries” and have been growing steadily more miserable for decades, according to a new working paper by David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick.

Later in the piece is a chart tracking people in various countries who have had aches and pains in the past month. The US is at the head of the pack with 34%. Towards the bottom are countries like the Philippines, Taiwan and Croatia at 11% and at the bottom is the Czech Republic at 9%.

Why are we in so much more pain than the Czech Republic?

Letting the Id speak

Lately I’ve been doing a kind of journaling based on the ideas of the recently deceased Dr. John Sarno (whom I have discussed in the past.) The basic concept is that, while writing, you are letting your subconscious speak, letting it vent and rage and cry. You are releasing the steam valve on all these pent up emotions. (I’m not even sure what a steam valve is, but I think that’s the right metaphor.)

It’s safe to say that my journal writing would probably cause a significant portion of American society to faint. I am offensive, very politically incorrect; I use language denigrating gays, people of color and women and a host of other thought crimes. And I’m not bragging about it; I’m acutely aware this stuff would be very hurtful if it was read by anyone other than me. (I always destroy what I’ve written.)

I think a legitimate point to be raised here is whether it’s even a good idea to “let the monster out.” In my case, I think the answer is yes. But that may not be true with other people (psychopaths for example.)

One thing I am trying to do here is recognize that the inner person doing this writing is not me, per se. In a way, the writing puts a distance between me and this dark side, it allows me to recognize this stuff as just thoughts, not some core part of my essence. You are not your thoughts, is a point I see made often in the circles that talk about this stuff.

The inner person writing this stuff is, essentially, my Id (to use the Freudian term.) The Id is a big baby, a complainer, a narcissist, a selfish brat, and largely unconcerned with anything but himself. Perhaps the Id correlates to primitive parts of the human brain but I don’t think we have a way to confirm that scientifically.

Here’s the idea that prompted this blog post. We live in a world of ever increasing restrictions, especially with language. Many ideas and words are termed politically incorrect and are forbidden. And, I want to be clear, there are good reasons for these restrictions; these words and ideas are hurtful. But I wonder if by tamping down on what we can say, even among private company, we are stifling the Id? By silencing it, are we slowly enraging it, leading it to blow (or vote for Donald Trump)?

Now, what I am not saying here is that we should abandon political correctness and feel free to say whatever we want. I think we should be aware of the hurt words cause. But we also need to recognize the dark parts of ourselves and their need to vent and rage. And we should give those parts some release (while recognizing that they are not “us.”)

Double your penis?

Yeah, yeah, I know, I haven’t been posting here much. That’s life.

However, keen-eyed readers may recall that a certain pet peeve of mine is writers talking about numbers in terms of percentages as a way of disguising the fact that the numbers are rather underwhelming. For instance, you might see a headline like “Murder Rate Up 200 Percent in Indiana Town” only to find that the victim count went from three to nine in a year. Not exactly a reign of terror.

This article humorously illustrates the same thing.

Testosterone Injections Caused Patient’s Penis To Double In Length

Is this guy now packing a monster schlong? Umm, no. He had a condition called hypogonadism which resulted in a penis that was 1.9 inches long. After the treatment he was a whopping 3.7.

What are words for?

I’ve been doing some thinking about the limits of words, specifically how words can cordon off the real meaning of ideas. For example, consider that we are all aware of the word “justice.” What does that word really represent? One’s person’s definition might fall towards “social justice,” whereas another’s is more about property rights, while a third person has yet another definition. When these people speak, their use of the word “justice” is out of synch.

I was looking for examples of this sort of thing and I had some vague recollection that two nations either came to blows or almost did because of a mistranslated word in a speech. I couldn’t find the example (which may exist only in my head) but I was surprised to find that Khruschev’s famous “We will bury you comment was a mistranslation.

n 1956, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was interpreted as saying “We will bury you” to Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow. The phrase was plastered across magazine covers and newspaper headlines, further cooling relations between the Soviet Union and the West.

Yet when set in context, Khruschev’s words were closer to meaning “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in”. He was stating that Communism would outlast capitalism, which would destroy itself from within, referring to a passage in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto that argued “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.” While not the most calming phrase he could have uttered, it was not the sabre-rattling threat that inflamed anti-Communists and raised the spectre of a nuclear attack in the minds of Americans.

Dangerous Data

In a recent article on political advertising I said…

Think about what a person’s web activities and Facebook likes reveal. Look at that guy over there who frequents the Huffington Post and “likes” the Black Lives Matter page. A bleeding heart liberal no doubt. How about the gal who hovers over the NRA blog and likes Sean Hannity’s page? You get the picture.

The more I muse on that point, the more I realize how useful Facebook likes are for assembling an political profile of a person. And it’s not only the obvious stuff like whether they “like” a certain candidate or political TV show. A lot can be deduced from the books a person “likes.” Someone who liked (I’m going to stop enclosing like in quotes) author Toni Morrison is assumably a liberal, even a certain kind of liberal (concerned with social justice, less concerned about free trade.) And they might respond better to a specific advertising approach (touchy-feely as opposed to a rousing “let’s get those Republicans!”)

On top of all that, liking Toni Morrison probably exposes something about a person’s culinary taste (open to ethic food), movie choices (dramas and Woody Allen comedies), interest in video games (nada) and so on. And, liking Toni Morrison is only one data point about a person. What if you could access hundreds of data points? (And you can on Facebook.) You could develop a complete picture of a person including some unexpected revelations. Careful analysis might reveal that people who like both Toni Morrison and Grand Theft Auto are also big fans of power tools.

Additionally, likes aren’t the only data point advertisers can access. What if everything a person ever said on Facebook was up for grabs? Maybe he or she never liked Toni Morrison’s page but did once say in a comment, “I’m a big fan of Beloved.” Up until recently, this kind of “conversational” information was been outside of software’s comprehension but AI is changing that. What if software could access ten years of a person’s Gmail email to construct a profile of them? What would it learn?

We’ve heard for years from activists who complain that we are giving away something of great value when we use Facebook and similar data gathering web sites. I’ve tended to blow those complaints off but I’m starting to see the danger. Data is tremendous power.