“I didn’t really have a self at all.” Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas.

There is an emerging genre of books on neurodiversity, including everything from autism to genius and enlightenment. It should also include sociopathy. Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight is a fascinating read. M.E. Thomas describes her life a sociopath. Like other books on neurodiversity, it has the reader wondering how much they identify with the phenomenon and how much is just normal variation. Good questions.

I was fascinated with the passages on the sociopath’s lack of a sense of self. “First, I didn’t really have a self at all. I was like an Etch A Sketch, constantly shaking myself up and starting over.” I accept the statement, but I struggle to understand it. How can a sociopath have a weak sense of the self while also having a very strong self-interest? Thomas describes how she takes care of herself at the expense of others, and only look after others when she feels she own them. It sounds like a very robust sense of self.

And this passage:

Several things that I had come to believe were mirages, and when I inspected them closer they disappeared, leaving absolutely nothing. I quickly realized that, almost without exception, this was true about everything in my life. All of the stories I had recently been spinning about my life were illusions—gaps occupied by part of my brain to fill in a hole, the same way our brain will sometimes fill in gaps in an optical illusion. I had told myself that I was normal, perhaps just a little too smart, but that my feelings were genuine and typical of a young woman my age. Now I felt like I had woken up from a dream. Without actively spinning stories, I had no self. If I had been Buddhist on my path to seeking Nirvana, this lack of self would have been a huge breakthrough, but I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment at having achieved that state. Instead I felt the only way anyone can ever feel without a sense of self—free.

Is there any difference between a sociopath’s lack of a sense of self and Buddhist enlightenment? Is the Buddhist emphasis on compassion making up for something? I’m just throwing it out there. Personally, I think the dissolution of self may not be particular to sociopaths, but may be a step in human maturation for all people.

Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, by Esther Perel

I know you look at others, but I can’t fully know what you see. I know others are looking at you, but I don’t really know who it is they’re seeing. Suddenly you’re no longer familiar. You’re no longer a known entity that I need not bother being curious about. In fact, you’re quite a mystery. And I’m a little unnerved. Who are you? I want you. Accommodating the third opens up an erotic expanse where eros needn’t worry about wilting. In that expanse, we can be deeply moved by our partner’s otherness, and soon thereafter deeply aroused. I’d like to suggest that we view monogamy not as a given but as a choice. As such, it becomes a negotiated decision. More to the point, if we’re planning to spend fifty years with one soul—and we want a happy jubilee—it may be wiser to review our contract at various junctures. Just how accommodating each couple may be to the third varies. But at least a nod is more apt to sustain desire with our one and only over the long haul—and perhaps even to create a new “art of loving” for the twenty-first century couple.

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Stealing Fire, by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal

Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence.

So while ecstatic states (which are brief and transitory) aren’t the same as developmental stages (which are stable and long-lasting), it appears that having more of the former can, under the right conditions, help accelerate the latter. In short, altered states can lead to altered traits.

At least as far back as the French Enlightenment and Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore, I am), we’ve relied on our rational selves—what psychologists call our “egos”—to run the whole show. It’s a Maslow’s hammer kind of reaction. Every issue we encounter, we try to solve by thinking. And we know it’s not working. Even a quick glance at today’s dire mental health statistics—the one in four Americans now on psychiatric medicines; the escalating rate of suicide for everyone from ages ten to seventy-eight—shows how critically overtaxed our mental processing is these days. We may have come to the end of our psychological tether. It might be time to rethink all that thinking.

Rather than treating our psychology like the unquestioned operating system (or OS) of our entire lives, we can repurpose it to function more like a user interface (or UI)—that easy-to-use dashboard that sits atop all the other, more complex programs. By treating the mind like a dashboard, by treating different states of consciousness like apps to be judiciously deployed, we can bypass a lot of psychological storytelling and get results faster and, often, with less frustration.

In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that coevolution—when two different species come together, often without knowing it, to advance each other’s self-interest—also extends to humans and intoxicating plants. In return for helping mind-altering plants propagate and outcompete other species, these same plants have evolved even greater psychoactive properties for us to enjoy. “Plants,” Pollan explained in a recent essay, “evolved to gratify our desires. . . . [In return], we give them more habitat and we carry their genes around the world. This is what I mean by the ‘botany of desire.’ Our desire . . . for intoxication, for changes in consciousness, [is] a powerful force in natural history.”

A lot of people have been pointing out that the modern world is in crisis. I don’t know if I agree with the most pessimistic of those assessments, but I do know it takes significant cognitive flexibility to solve complex problems.

“Look,” Potter once explained, “I know the dark secret. I know my options. I can sit on a cushion and meditate for two hours and maybe I get a glimpse of something interesting—and maybe it lasts two seconds—but I put on a wingsuit and leap off a cliff and it’s instantaneous: Whammo, there I am, in an alternate universe that lasts for hours.”

Psychedelics overwhelm the senses with data, throwing so much information at us per second that paying attention to anything else becomes impossible. And for action and adventure athletes seeking flow, risk serves this same function. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning,” Samuel Johnson once remarked, “it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

… considering all the recent advances in brain science and wearable sensors, meditation was pretty low-tech. So Siegel decided to build better tools, birthing the field that has come to be called “enlightenment engineering.”

Don’t become a Bliss Junkie.

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NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman


I had just became comfortable with calling myself an introvert when I discovered Steve Silberman’s book, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. What started as an article on the increasing frequency of autism diagnoses in Silicon Valley evolved into a comprehensive investigation that became his book. I wonder if I might have been identified as autistic as a child. I shared the traits: literal thinking, shortness of expression, dysfunction in processing social information, problems with affection, anti-authoritarianism, bookishness, self-soothing behaviors, unusual sensory interests. The label might have fit, at times. Many of us have these traits to some degree — that is why autism is understood as a spectrum, fitting more or less. It is often said, if you meet once person with autism then you have met once person with autism. Still, labels are sometimes useful, e.g., getting special provisions for a child’s education. If I were to pick a label, I would choose “neurodiverse” over “autistic.” I prefer the positive connotation.

Autism is misunderstood, says Silberman. Leo Kanner is the scientist who coined the term, autism, from the Greek word for self, autos, “because they seemed happiest in isolation.” Kanner is a villain in NeuroTribes for blaming parents about their children’s condition, and for failing to acknowledge Hans Asperger’s original and more positive research. Asperger believed that success in science and art required a “dash of autism.” Silberman tells the story of Temple Grandin, an accomplished scientist and one of the first adults to publicly identify as autistic. She might have been institutionalized as a young person. She credits mentors who believed in her and helped liberate her creative gifts. Silberman tells more stories of other brilliant scientists with autism, Henry Cavendish and Paul Dirac. Not everyone with autism is a genius, but many are high functioning, endowed with unique insight and cognitive abilities.

Casting autism as one type of neurodiversity puts the subject in a new light. I share Silberman’s positive view that autism and other disorders such as dyslexia and ADHD may represent natural variations in the human genome, often useful for adapting to the complexity of life.

Yin and yang play out in many complex ways in straight and gay relationships. “The Way of the Superior Man” by David Deida.

The Way Of The Superior ManIt took me weeks before I felt ready to write a review of The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida. I had to think it through. You see, I am no stranger to writing about masculinity. In the nineties I worked as a group counsellor for men who were violent in their relationship. I wrote the agency’s counsellor’s manual. You can be sure it was politically correct, both well-informed and limited by its feminist perspective. One of the reasons I left that job was that after four years I felt a part of me was lying. Overall I think women benefited from the counselling given to their men. I am not so sure about the fate of the men. In the decades since, I have watched young women make wonderful advances in equality and power in society. I have witnessed young men flounder, fearing the violent legacy, lacking an alternative vision. Masculinity needs a reboot. Still, there is reason to be cautious.

Deida makes his most valuable point right up front. Masculinity and femininity are not locked to body parts. The yin and yang of gender play out in many complex ways in straight and gay relationships. There is no right configuration. More often than not, though, males assume the masculine identity, and females the feminine. He acknowledges that some couples have a more balanced relationship, something he calls “neutralized”, almost holding his nose. He is right that sexual polarity is a source of energy. Put another way, polarized sex roles are an incompleteness, a drama, an illusion, energetic, but only sustainable for period, finally demanding resolution and truth. I prefer truth over drama.

A happily married man for decades, I learned a couple of relationship truths I should have learned sooner. The feminine tests the masculine. Call it nagging if you must, it only challenges sloppy masculinity. Learn to love her for it, she will not change. Men need to rise to it. She looks to you for leadership, and can relax into the feminine more easily when you provide it.

The feminine is a source of energy for men. We are taught to feel ashamed of our attraction to women. Enjoy the energy, with all women. In truth, that yin polarity is available in everything, a constant source of  energy.

It is important for men to define their current mission — something outside the comfort zone, and something realistic. Stop making excuses. Men should challenge each other’s mediocrity. It is through a mission that the masculine finds expression and satisfaction.

I am rounding the edges of some of Deida’s language. He is more titillating. “Press your belly into her. Smile. Scream and then her lick her face. Do whatever it takes to crack the shell of her closure ….” Okay. There are some places he goes I just cannot follow. He talks about ravishing her. He says not to take her “no” seriously. He tries to distinguish this from loveless pornography and rape but I am not convinced. As I read the book, the vicious rape stories in India were surfacing on the news. I also read a story reporting a rape a minute right here in North America. Sorry Deida, no means no.

I do not write reviews of books I do not like. Deida has important things to say. I look forward to discovering more and better books, reinventing masculinity energetically and respectfully for men and women.

Reading in the Brain by Dehaene. Still waiting for the digital codex.

Reading in the BrainEarly into Reading in the Brain I knew I had found a very good book, packed with research and informed insight. As I began to read it, however, I noticed something odd. I was struggling with the Kindle edition I had purchased. I found myself wanting to physically grapple with the device more than the buttons would allow. The book contains diagrams that are useful to consult when reading the text but I could not easily cross-reference them. The book is lengthy and I found it difficult to track progress without the thickness of a print book. I had already enjoyed a few novels on my Kindle without this problem. This material was more challenging. I have read many similar scientific books before but always in print. For analytical reading the absence of tangible pages felt like a phantom pain. What was happening? Dahane’s book was compelling enough, and the digital challenge troublesome enough, to merit a second purchase of the more expensive print edition. The completed reading answered my question.

The reading paradox

Dahaene begins with the reading paradox. Our brains evolved over millions of years without writing. How is it that we can read? The hardware of our brains has not evolved in the mere 5000 year history of writing. New studies repeatedly show that the brain is more plastic that we thought but no so plastic as to invent new structures for reading. Dahaene explains that reading became possible for humans because we had the good fortune to inherit cortical areas that could link visual elements to speech sounds and meanings. Our limited plasticity allowed us to recycle existing brain circuitry.

Learning to read still takes years of training. It starts with visual recognition of shapes, e.g., “T” and “L”. The brain learns to detect subtle differences in words, e.g., “eight” vs “sight” while ignoring big ones, e.g., “eight” vs “EIGHT”. We do not scan words letter by letter from left to right like a computer program, but instead encode units of meaning for easy look-up, e.g, the morpheme “button” in “un-button-ing”.  The brain uses two pathways in parallel, sound and meaning, to reconstruct the pronunciation of the word. With sufficient training and practice reading seems virtually effortless.

We are not born to read. The only evolution that occurred was cultural — we optimized reading over the centuries to suit the brain. One more thing is needed. Why are cultural phenomena like reading so uniquely developed in humans? Dahaene attributes it the evolution of our prefrontal cortex. “My proposal is that this evolution results in a large-scale ‘neuronal workspace’ whose main function is to assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge.” The workspace allowed us to exploit the cognitive niche made possible by neuronal recycling.

My brain needs re-training for reflective reading of e-books

I was struck by the tight coupling of brain structures with their physical counterparts in the world. Learning to read, the brain becomes encoded with the specific shapes and sounds of words. The aim of reading is still to reconstruct the original physical speech utterances. The skills required for processing text should be mostly transferable from print to digital books. After all, the text is still there. Indeed I find the reading of light or familiar material to be nearly equivalent on an e-reader.

When words are less familiar some slowness is to be expected. As Dehaene explains, we perform extra processing to decipher letters for rare or novel words before attempting to access their meaning. When words, sentences and paragraphs combine to express complex ideas much more processing is required. Reduced reading speed can be expected for reading abstract and challenging material regardless of the medium. To be sure, I wrestle with print books, snapping pages when I am unconvinced, wearing the binding from too much turning, attacking the text with a pen. I experienced this with the print edition of Reading in the Brain. I experienced a greater challenge when using the e-reader. How come?

I speculate a connection between reading technology and access to the neuronal workspace. Dahaene argues that literacy changed to suit the structures of the brain. The print book, the codex, is two thousand years old, a design that surpassed the scroll. It is an evolution of technology, finely tuned to our neurons to optimize reading. I can compel its knowledge. We assume the e-reader represents an advance on print because it embodies digital technology. Integrated with the web, it is easier to discover, purchase, search and link to other material. The text is readily ported to an e-reader and I can adjust its font-size for readability or play it aloud for listening. Still, the pages are continuous like the older scroll format. More important, I think, the global analysis functions are inferior to that of a print book: the single stream of focus, parallel access to pages, easy turning and cross-referencing across any two points. These are reflective reading functions that are used to “assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge,” the functions served by the neuronal workspace. If you think I am cutting too fine a point, recall the tight coupling between brain structures and the world.

I am certain that my brain is already being reprogrammed to work more efficiently with e-books. It is happening to all readers. This phase of re-training  explains some of the fourty year delay in the popular adoption of e-books. If my speculation is correct, e-reader design must evolve again if it is to finally compete equally with the print book. We have only seen the invention of a digital scroll but have yet to witness a truly digital codex. What would a digital codex look like? I offer a suggestion. The print codex introduced facing pages, a dual pane interface that has been mimicked by some e-reader designers. This effect could be amplified using multiple tabs like modern browsers, but within the e-reader. Better yet, I would like to be able to create any number of independent digital pages (or portions thereof) on a single digital desktop, all available at once in full-size for parallel processing. This is not the same as a browser with web content. It matters that the content is still unified within a dedicated reading device.

Reading is always at risk

E-books only make us stupid because we argue about them. While print is still the superior technology for reflective reading, if a truly digital codex was invented I would be the first in line to get one. Dehaene’s book focuses my attention on two more serious concerns. First, we are not born to read. The alphabet and literacy are cultural inventions finely tuned to our brains. Every generation must go through the hard work of learning to read. The internet does not offer a shortcut to knowledge. Second, the invention of reading re-purposed existing neural circuitry. Dahane suggests the mental “letterbox” we use for recognizing letters may have once been used for identifying animal tracks, a skill we have lost. Cortical reorganization is a competition, a zero sum game. As we re-train our brains for digital technology what skills will be lost? The capacity for long-form reflective reading, perhaps. Reading is always at risk.

The Introvert Advantage by Martin Olsen Laney. A hundred light bulbs went on.

The Introvert Advantage“I’m not an introvert. I like people.” It is a common misconception. We are all social beings, but introverts process information differently. It can be a challenge. Introverts are typically outnumbered by three times as many extroverts. It is no wonder if introverts feel out of place. It can also be an advantage, as shown by Marti Laney in her book, The Introvert Advantage. (It is the second last book in my Double Space series of books I read and reviewed a few years ago before I started blogging.)

Introverts have increased blood flow in the brain and it follows a different pathway, engaging memory, problem solving, and planning. The pathway is long and complex, activated by the neurotransmitter, acetycholine, which stimulates a good feeling when thinking or feeling. The extrovert path is activated by dopamine, fired by adrenaline – they need external stimulation to feel good. Extroverts like to experience a lot, and introverts like to know a lot about what they experience. Introverts find that outside activity raises their intensity quickly. It is like being tickled – the sensation goes from feeling good and fun to ‘too much’ and uncomfortable in a split second. Their brain may shut down – brain freeze, ‘vapour lock’. Social encounters are rich in stimulation and introverts process them deeply, sometimes needing to limit the encounter, “It’s time to go now.”

The introvert and the extrovert are the tortoise and the hare. Introverts tend to be slower and steadier, while extroverts are faster and take bigger risks. The tortoise strategy tends to work better in the long run. Introverts have the ability to focus deeply, and to understand how a change will affect everyone. They have a propensity for thinking outside the box, and the strength to make unpopular decisions. They help slow down the world a notch.

A hundred light bulbs went on when I read Laney’s book. At the time of the reading, I identified myself as an introvert off the scale, but I have since met people who are much more introverted. Laney’s book recommends several excellent coping strategies. Wake early and gently to let the brain engage. The introvert’s nervous system causes food to metabolize quickly, so graze through the day. Avoid rewinding and replaying words after social encounters (I do this). Speak to extroverts in short, clear sentences (hilarious but true). Introverts tend to have fewer, deeper relationships, which is great, but the best of advice I received from this book was to accept that relationships can be light as well as deep. It makes the world a friendlier place.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Offloading our memory to the web only spares us the work of learning, preventing a growth of intelligence.

The ShallowsThe debate over technology and books has reached new heights this year. Amazon just announced that e-books have overtaken hardback sales. At the same time, there has been an intensification of debate about the effects of online reading on our brains. At the center of this debate is Nicholas Carr’s, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Do your kids still do memory work at school? Have you wondered if memorization matters much now that we can access information online anytime? Carr clearly shows that it does. When we read, information is placed in working memory and requires time before it consolidates in long term memory. The process requires the synthesis of new proteins for anatomical changes in the brain. Complex memories require concerted action across the brain. Any distraction can interrupt this process and the internet is a distraction machine. “When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information — when the water overflows the thimble — we’re unable to retain or to draw connections with the information already stored in long-term memory” (125). Human memory is gradient, organic, alive. It gains in richness with each remembering. Only in our heads can we form the complex neural connections linking new information to our previous ones, giving them context and meaning. Biological memory is a completely different thing than computer memory. Offloading our memory to the web only spares us the work of learning, thus preventing a growth of intelligence.

That technology changes our brain is not a new idea. Everything changes our brain. The topic of brain plasticity is also popular this year, following research showing that our brains never stop learning. As Carr observes, it is good news for the brain injured in rehabilitation but it also means that our good mental habits cannot be taken for granted. Neglected pathways get pruned away. MRI studies demonstrate that online readers uses different mental pathways. While book readers are active in areas associated with language, memory and visual processing, online readers are engaging the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving. The high distractability of the web means online readers must constantly make choices between different reading paths, reverting to being decoders of information, not deep readers. If we don’t use the skills we will lose them. Citing McLuhan, our tools numb the part of the body they amplify, in this case, the brain. Online reading has its virtues but intelligence requires complementary deep reading, best facilitated by reading books.

The call to literacy may not appeal to millennials. In my book, Slow Reading, I touched on my Gen-X experience that Carr calls a two-act play. Our Analogue Youth was a time when memory work was still a required educational practice. I was compelled to repeat a poem again and again to extreme boredom, discovering only then how I was truly becoming the poem, ultimately winning first prize for my recitation in a regional contest. Like the Baby Boomers, we fully share a memory of the time when print was still the dominant information technology. The second act is our Digital Adulthood. Unlike the Boomers, we were mere teenagers when computers went mainstream. Like the millennials we grew up learning digital technology. Gen-X’ers may be uniquely called upon to make the bridge to literacy for millennials.

Any book that starts with McLuhan and ends quoting Heidegger has my interest. The book extends the question Carr asked in his 2008 article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” I share Carr’s feeling. It is palpable, but I have not been able to put my finger on it till now. In The Shallows, Carr nails it. The richness of my memories has diminished, and “I miss my old brain” (16). As books continue to change along with the web, we need the solid research and analysis that Carr provides on literacy and deep reading.