Many more people in the United States now identify as transgender and/or non-binary than in the recent past. This increase is most dramatic among younger generations.
There are two major causes of this change, and for political reasons it’s essential that we acknowledge both.
My spouse was recently speaking to a colleague and (cheerfully) described the increase as being due to our nation’s changing culture. In my opinion, we still have a long way to go, but many people are much more accepting than in the recent past. As the perceived risk decreases, people will be more likely to reveal their true identities.
But that isn’t the whole story.
The chemical make-up of our world is radically different than in the recent past. As a (lapsed) organic chemist, I’m quite proud of human ingenuity and our ability to synthesize so many wondrous medicines, small molecules, and industrial materials. The technologies we have access to are amazing! We can live so much longer, and our quality of life during that time is pretty awesome.
We’ve dramatically altered the environment, though. Industrial run-off and medicinal metabolites are present at high concentrations in our water supply, including lots of “endocrine disrupting chemicals.”
Endocrine disrupting chemicals often resemble naturally-occurring hormones and signaling molecules. Many of these chemicals are known to induce non-binary sexual development among other animals – in recent years, there’s been a dramatic increase in the proportion of wild animals born with intersex characteristics.
We humans are also susceptible to this altered chemical milieu. The environment in which human brains and bodies develop during gestation is chemically different now from in our recent past.
Intersex is different from transgender or nonbinary. “Intersex” describes physical morphology and can be assessed for non-human animals; “transgender” and “nonbinary” describe what’s going on inside a person’s brain. But brains are a product of biological development. It’s reasonable to assume – although it would obviously be unethical to test or prove – that endocrine disrupting chemicals capable of changing external sexual morphology also impact developing brains.
Children are more likely to self-identify as transgender or non-binary now than in the recent past, partly because they are growing up in a different culture, partly because their brains and bodies developed in a different chemical environment.
We don’t yet know how much of the shift has been caused by which factor: maybe the explanation is 10% cultural, 90% biological; maybe both contribute equally; maybe the shift is more due to culture than biology.
But it’s essential for us to acknowledge both contributions – especially because a large portion of our nation’s population espouses conservative or traditional values that decry the cultural change.
Yes, the Democratic party’s policies celebrating diversity have shifted the culture; the Republican party’s policies promoting business and minimizing environmental regulation have shifted the chemical environment.
Whether or not we are happy that gender fluidity is on the rise, it’s important to note that both major political parties in this country have contributed.
I’m no biological determinist – from my perspective as a masculine autistic person who’s chosen to focus on caretaking, I like to imagine that I’m transcending my biological inclinations – but those of us who celebrate liberal values and diversity do ourselves a political disservice if we fail to acknowledge the impact of our shifting environment on gender.
Children will be safer when we make clear that these aspects of their identities aren’t a choice. This is who they are. Personally, I think that’s great. But some people don’t. And so we need to convey that political policies that those people supported helped make children’s lives today different from the way the world used to be.
The way we speak about these issues matters. If we want to include as many people as possible in these conversations – which we must, if we’re going to move forward as a nation – we have to include the whole complex breadth of the world.
Even when it feels uncomfortable.
. . . .
Header image by Ted Eytan.
Frog image by John P Clare — although I should acknowledge that not only is this frog living in Ireland, not the U.S., but I’m also not a herpetologist and can’t tell you this frog’s biological sex. But it’s a good looking frog!
My spouse, two children, & I recently visited an amusement park called “Holiday World.” We stood in line to ride the Halloween area’s “Scarecrow Scrambler,” which was, aside from a small painted scarecrow, apparently identical to amusement park Scramblers around the world.
A “Scrambler” is a giant metal hinged contraptions that send passengers hurtling toward each other, and toward the concrete outer walls, at alarmingly high speeds. Again and again, the Scrambler evokes an illusion of narrowly avoided collision. Certain death.
Phew, that was a close one!
My spouse and our five-year-old rode in a car together. My spouse had loved this ride when she was growing up in Albany – and, since her family was often broke, she typically could only ride it after winning tickets from the local library’s summer reading program. Her glee was intense. Her laughter and loud “Wheeeeee!”s filled the air, a nice contrast to the wooshing wind that rushed past my ears each time my car accelerated toward another wall.
At the end of the day, our five-year-old unhesitatingly announced that the Scrambler had been her favorite ride. Happiness is infectious. It helps to have an unremittingly joyful tour guide.
On the Scrambler, I’d sat in a car with our seven-year-old. She too was laughing and giggling – but also, midway through the ride, she turned to me and said, “You’re not enjoying this much, are you?”
Amusement park rides are interesting. The counter-intuitive physics of each contraption, the illusions they create, the sensations evoked inside the human passengers’ bodies – all of that is interesting.
And I’d even argue that the rides are psychologically helpful for most people. In contemporary society, we suffer from an unfamiliarity with death. A reckoning with our own mortality can help us re-calibrate our priorities – what matters to us enough that we should spend our time on it, given that our time is fleeting?
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Christ-like character Myshkin speaks repeatedly about how it might feel to be pardoned from imminent execution. (An experience that Dostoevsky himself went through. He was sentenced to death for revolutionary activity, stood with his co-conspirators before a mock firing squad, then learned with mere moments to spare that the Tsar had pardoned them all. At least one person suffered an irreparable mental breakdown. Dostoevsky became a reactionary conservative.)
To feel certain, at one moment, that your life is ending. And then to find yourself reprieved, given time to make amends, to live and laugh and love some more. The world might seem so bountiful! There’d be no reason to squander time. No reason to waste hours worrying – each mere moment might be seen, again, as the precious gift it is.
During graduate school, I earned extra money as a study subject for Stanford’s psychology department. A team of researchers wanted to show that thoughts of impending death make people more likely to want to spend time with family members and close friends. So they had me listen, daily, to a twenty minute meditation on my own mortality.
“We do not know what will happen next, but one thing is certain: this life is drawing to a close. You will die. We all will die.” And on it went, in a nice calm voice, for twenty minutes.
My brain tends toward depression. Even without the guided meditation, I think about death fairly often. Daily? Yes, probably. During bleak times, perhaps hourly. My first love in philosophy was Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. His reasoning seemed sensible to me. Before determining how we should live, first ponder: should we?
Still, the meditation was nice. Helpful, even. In ways that, for my brain, the Scrambler was not.
In July of 2020, I attended a funeral for a twenty-nine year old friend. He’d died of a heroin overdose. His death was almost certainly intentional.
My friend had also overdosed the week before. That time, somebody had Narcan’ed him back. Often, people return to life swearing and angry. Narcan blocks opiod receptors, so a person sharply transitions from extreme placidity into a world of hurt. With Narcan, suddenly the whole body aches.
But my friend had resumed breathing, blinking and beatific. A smile bloomed across his face. “That was so easy,” he said.
A week later, he was gone.
The word ‘easy’ hurts. Lots of people experience a moment, here and there, when it seems as though it would be better to be dead. But the act of transition would be hard – it is difficult to kill oneself. And that difficulty can save us. That difficulty gives us time to reflect, to consider all the other people whom our absence would hurt, all the future happiness that a present act might steal away.
Our nation suffers from an epidemic of gun violence. These deaths are ill-tracked – the NRA aggressively opposed all efforts to collect data on gun deaths, and the CDC didn’t begin studying the problem until 2019.
But it appears that around 60% of all gun deaths are suicides. And it appears that around 50% of all suicides are gun deaths.
Humans are a rather dangerous species. Especially among young men, it’s common for arguments to flare into bursts of physical violence. People can kill each other even with sticks and stones. With swords, with knives, with slingshots.
But guns make death come easier. There’s less time for friends or bystanders to break up a fight – within seconds, the fight is over. Somebody might be dead.
Similarly, people attempt to end their own lives in myriad ways. With ropes, with knives, with pills. Or by making increasingly risky decisions. But guns make death come easier. Less time passes between making a (bad) decision and a person’s life ending. No nearby friend can Narcan you back from a bullet.
For some people, it’s helpful to make the approach of death seem easier. Recently, researchers have tried using psychedelic medication as a part of hospice care. Someone who is near the end of their life is given a vision of the infinite. Often, these patients report that their fear of death has waned. They are better able to enjoy the limited time they have remaining.
But for a young, healthy person with depression, we wouldn’t want the sensation of hurtling toward death to feel easy or familiar. That might reduce the likelihood that bad decisions would be second-guessed. That dangers would be avoided. Subsequent suicidal ideation might have a concrete vision to latch onto – this is what the car crash would feel like in the moments before impact.
In Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Lauren Hough writes:
The fundamental misunderstanding of depression is the idea that the suicidal want to die. I didn’t want to die. But some misfire in my brain treats existential pain like a dog reacts to vomiting: Fuck it. I’m gonna dig a hole to die in.
Even on a good day, my brain will point out a few easy ways out: Take a hard left in front of that truck. It’ll be over before you feel it. But when it’s dark, when I’m hopeless, I’m just white-knuckling my way through the nights for no reason but instinct.
Rides like the Scrambler ought to exist! For a lot of people, they probably have great benefit! The sensations are scary, but also safe, and that makes them fun!
Yes, fun! Big surprise twist here, which surely you’d never guess from the long line of people waiting their turns to get on: amusement park rides are fun!
And also: folks with minds like mine probably shouldn’t be on the ride.
This is part of a series of essays prepared to discuss in jail.
Our bodies are chaos engines.
In our nearby environment, we produce order. We form new memories. We build things. We might have sex and create new life. From chaos, structure.
As we create local order, though, we radiate disorder into the universe.
The laws of physics work equally well whether time is moving forward or backward. The only reason we experience time as flowing forward is that the universe is progressing from order into chaos.
In the beginning, everything was homogeneous. The same stuff was present everywhere. Now, some regions of the universe are different from others. One location contains our star; another location, our planet. Each of our bodies is very different from the space around us.
This current arrangement is more disorderly than the early universe, but less so than what our universe will one day become. Life is only possible during this intermediate time, when we are able to eat structure and excrete chaos.
Sunlight shines on our planet – a steady stream of high-energy photons all pointed in the same direction. Sunshine is orderly. But then plants eat sunshine and carbon dioxide to grow. Animals eat the plants. As we live, we radiate heat – low-energy photons that spill from our bodies in all directions.
The planet Earth, with all its life, acts like one big chaos engine. We absorb photons from the sun, lower their energy, increase their number, and scatter them.
We’ll continue until we can’t.
Our universe is mostly filled with empty space.
But empty space does not stay empty. Einstein’s famous equation, E equals M C squared, describes the chance that stuff will suddenly pop into existence. This happens whenever a region of space gathers too much energy.
Empty space typically has a “vacuum energy” of one billionth of a joule per cubic meter. An empty void the size of our planet would have about as much energy as a teaspoon of sugar. Which doesn’t seem like much. But even a billionth of a joule is thousands of times higher than the energy needed to summon electrons into being.
And there are times when a particular patch of vacuum has even more energy than that.
According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, time and energy can’t be defined simultaneously. Precision in time causes energy to spread – the energy becomes both lower and higher than you expected.
In practice, the vacuum energy of a particular region of space will seem to waver. Energy is blurry, shimmering over time.
There are moments when even the smallest spaces have more than enough energy to create new particles.
Objects usually appear in pairs: a particle and its anti-particle. Anti-matter is exactly like regular matter except that each particle has an opposite charge. In our world, protons are positive and electrons are negative, but an anti-proton is negative and an anti-electron is positive.
If a particle and its anti-particle find each other, they explode.
When pairs of particles appear, they suck up energy. Vacuum energy is stored inside them. Then the particles waffle through space until they find and destroy each other. Energy is returned to the void.
This constant exchange is like the universe breathing. Inhale: the universe dims, a particle and anti-particle appear. Exhale: they explode.
Our universe is expanding. Not only are stars and galaxies flying away from each other in space, but also empty space itself is growing. The larger a patch of nothingness, the faster it will grow. In a stroke of blandness, astronomers named the force powering this growth “dark energy.”
Long ago, our universe grew even faster than it does today. Within each small fraction of a second, our universe doubled in size. Tiny regions of space careened apart billions of times faster than the speed of light.
This sudden growth was extremely improbable. For this process to begin, the energy of a small space had to be very, very large. But the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that – if we wait long enough – energy can take on any possible value. Before the big bang, our universe had a nearly infinite time to wait.
After that blip, our universe expanded so quickly because the vacuum of space was perched temporarily in a high-energy “metastable” state. Technically balanced, but warily. Like a pencil standing on its tip. Left alone, it might stay there forever, but the smallest breath of air would cause this pencil to teeter and fall.
Similarly, a tiny nudge caused our universe to tumble back to its expected energy. A truly stable vacuum. The world we know today was born – still growing, but slowly.
During the time of rapid expansion, empty vacuum had so much energy that particles stampeded into existence. The world churned with particles, all so hot that they zipped through space at nearly the speed of light.
For some inexplicable reason, for every billion pairs of matter and anti-matter, one extra particle of matter appeared. When matter and anti-matter began to find each other and explode, this billionth extra bit remained.
This small surplus formed all of stars in the sky. The planets. Ourselves.
Meditation is like blinking. You close your eyes, time passes, then you open your eyes again. Meditation is like a blink where more time passes.
But more is different.
Our early universe was filled with the smallest possible particles. Quarks, electrons, and photons. Because their energy was so high, they moved too fast to join together. Their brilliant glow filled the sky, obscuring our view of anything that had happened before.
As our universe expanded, it cooled. Particles slowed down. Three quarks and an electron can join to form an atom of hydrogen. Two hydrogen atoms can join to form hydrogen gas. And as you combine more and more particles together, your creations can be very different from a hot glowing gas. You can form molecules, cells, animals, societies.
When a cloud of gas is big enough, its own gravity can pull everything inward. The cloud becomes more and more dense until nuclear fusion begins, releasing energy just like a nuclear bomb. These explosions keep the cloud from shrinking further.
The cloud has become a star.
Nuclear fusion occurs because atoms in the center of the cloud are squooshed too close together. They merge: a few small atoms become one big atom. If you compared their weights – four hydrogens at the start, one helium at the finish – you’d find that a tiny speck of matter had disappeared. And so, according to E equals M C squared, it released a blinding burst of energy.
The largest hydrogen bomb detonated on Earth was 50 megatons – the Kuz’kina Mat tested in Russia in October, 1961. It produced a mushroom cloud ten times the height of Mount Everest. This test explosion destroyed houses hundreds of miles away.
Every second, our sun produces twenty billion times more energy than this largest Earth-side blast.
Eventually, our sun will run out of fuel. Our sun shines because it turns hydrogen into helium, but it is too light to compress helium into any heavier atoms. Our sun has burned for about four billion years, and it will probably survive for another five billion more. Then the steady inferno of nuclear explosions will end.
When a star exhausts its fuel, gravity finally overcomes the resistance of the internal explosions. The star shrinks. It might crumple into nothingness, becoming a black hole. Or it might go supernova – recoiling like a compressed spring that slips from your hand – and scatter its heavy atoms across the universe.
Planets are formed from the stray viscera of early stars.
Our universe began with only hydrogen gas. Every type of heavier atom – carbon, oxygen, iron, plutonium – was made by nuclear explosions inside the early stars.
When a condensing cloud contains both hydrogen gas and particulates of heavy atoms, the heavy atoms create clumps that sweep through the cloud far from its center. Satellites, orbiting the star. Planets.
Nothing more complicated than atoms can form inside stars. It’s too hot – the belly of our sun is over twenty million degrees. Molecules would be instantly torn apart. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded planets – are peaceful places compared to stars.
Molecules are long chains of atoms. Like atoms, molecules are made from combinations of quarks and electrons. The material is the same – but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Some atoms have an effect on our bodies. If you inhale high concentrations of oxygen – an atom with eight protons – you’ll feel euphoric and dizzy. If you drink water laced with lithium – an atom with three protons – your brain might become more stable.
But the physiological effects of atoms are crude compared to molecules. String fifty-three atoms together in just the right shape – a combination of two oxygens, twenty-one carbons, and thirty hydrogens – and you’ll have tetrahydrocannibol. String forty-nine atoms together in just the right shape – one oxygen, three nitrogens, twenty carbons, and twenty-five hydrogens – and you’ll have lysergic acid diethylamide.
The effects of these molecules are very different from the effects of their constituent parts. You’d never predict what THC feels like after inhaling a mix of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen gas.
An amino acid is comparable in scale to THC or LSD, but our bodies aren’t really made of amino acids. We’re built from proteins – anywhere from a few dozen to tens of thousands of amino acids linked together. Proteins are so large that they fold into complex three-dimensional shapes. THC has its effect because some proteins in your brain are shaped like catcher’s mitts, and the cannibinoid nestles snuggly in the pocket of the glove.
Molecules the size of proteins can make copies of themselves. The first life-like molecules on Earth were long strands of ribonucleic acid – RNA. A strand of RNA can replicate as it floats through water. RNA acts as a catalyst – it speeds up the reactions that form other molecules, including more RNA.
Eventually, some strands of RNA isolated themselves inside bubbles of soap. Then the RNA could horde – when a particular sequence of RNA catalyzed reactions, no other RNA would benefit from the molecules it made. The earliest cells were bubbles that could make more bubbles.
Cells can swim. They eat. They live and die. Even single-celled bacteria have sex: they glom together, build small channels linking their insides to each other, and swap DNA.
But with more cells, you can make creatures like us.
Consciousness is an emergent property. With a sufficient number of neuron cells connected to each other, a brain is able to think and plan and feel. In humans, 90 billion neuron cells direct the movements of a 30-trillion-cell meat machine.
Humans are such dexterous clever creatures that we were able to discover the origin of our universe. We’ve dissected ourselves so thoroughly that we’ve seen the workings of cells, molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.
But a single human animal, in isolation, never could have learned that much.
Individual humans are clever, but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you need more humans. Grouped together, we are qualitatively different. The wooden technologies of Robinson Crusoe, trapped on a desert island, bear little resemblance to the vaulted core of a particle accelerator.
English writing uses just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form several hundred thousand different words, and these can be combined to form an infinite number of different ideas.
More is different. The alphabet alone couldn’t give anyone insight into the story of your life.
Meditation is like a blink where more time passes, but the effect is very different.
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before Jesus began his ministry, he meditated for 40 days in the Judaean Desert – his mind’s eye saw all the world’s kingdoms prostrate before him, but he rejected that power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity.
Before Buddha began his ministry, he meditated for 49 days beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering.
Before Odin began his ministry, he meditated for 9 days while hanging from a branch of Yggdrasil, the world tree – Odin felt that he died, was reborn, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering beneath him.
The god Shiva meditated in graveyards, smearing himself with crematory ash.
At its extreme, meditation is purportedly psychedelic. Meditation can induce brain states that are indistinguishable from LSD trips when visualized by MRI. Meditation isolates the brain from its surroundings, and isolation can trigger hallucination.
Researchers have found that meditation can boost our moods, attentiveness, cognitive flexibility, and creativity. Our brains are plastic – changeable. We can alter the way we experience the world. Many of our thoughts are the result of habit. Meditation helps us change those habits. Any condition that is rooted in our brain – like depression, insomnia, chronic pain, or addiction – can be helped with meditation.
To meditate, we have to sit, close our eyes, and attempt not to think. This is strikingly difficult. Our brains want to be engaged. After a few minutes, most people experience a nagging sense that we’re wasting time.
But meditation gives our minds a chance to re-organize. To structure ourselves. And structure is the property that allows more of something to become different. Squirrels don’t form complex societies – a population of a hundred squirrels will behave similarly to a population of a million or a billion. Humans form complex webs of social interactions – as our numbers grew through history, societies changed in dramatic ways.
Before there was structure, our entire universe was a hot soup of quarks and electrons, screaming through the sky. Here on Earth, these same particles can be organized into rocks, or chemicals, or squirrels, or us. How we compose ourselves is everything.
The easiest form of meditation uses mantras – this is sometimes called “transcendental meditation” by self-appointed gurus who charge people thousands of dollars to participate in retreats. Each attendee is given a “personalized” mantra, a short word or phrase to intone silently with every breath. The instructors dole mantras based on a chart, and each is Sanskrit. They’re meaningless syllables to anyone who doesn’t speak the language.
Any two-syllable word or phrase should work equally well, but you’re best off carving something uplifting into your brain. “Make peace” or “all one” sound trite but are probably more beneficial than “more hate.” The Sanskrit phrase “sat nam” is a popular choice, which translates as “truth name” or more colloquially as “to know the true nature of things.”
The particular mantra you choose matters less than the habit – whichever phrase you choose, you should use it for every practice. Because meditation involves sitting motionless for longer than we’re typically accustomed, most people begin by briefly stretching. Then sit comfortably. Close your eyes. As you breathe in, silently think the first syllable of your chosen phrase. As you breathe out, think the second.
Repeating a mantra helps to crowd out other thoughts, as well as distractions from your environment. Your mind might wander – if you catch yourself, just try to get back to repeating your chosen phrase. No one does it perfectly, but practice makes better. When a meditation instructor’s students worried that their practice wasn’t good enough, he told them that “even on a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
In a quiet space, you might take a breath every three to six seconds. In a noisy room, you might need to breathe every second, thinking the mantra faster to block out external sound. The phrase is a tool to temporarily isolate your mind from the world.
Most scientific studies recommend you meditate for twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day, each and every day. It’s not easy to carve out this much time from our daily routines. Still, some is better than nothing. Glance at a clock before you close your eyes, and again after you open them. Eventually, your mind will begin to recognize the passage of time. After a few weeks of practice, your body might adopt the approximate rhythm of twenty minutes.
Although meditation often feels pointless during the first week of practice, there’s a difference between dabbling and a habit. Routine meditation leads to benefits that a single experience won’t.
The poem opens with advice – we should keep in mind pleasures that we were privileged to experience.
remember not only how much you were loved,
the beds on which you lay,
A narrative of past joy can cast a rosy glow onto the present. Our gratitude should encompass more, though. We should instruct our body to remember not only the actualized embraces,
those desires for you
glowed plainly in the eyes,
trembled in the voice – and some
obstacle made futile.
In addition to our triumphs, we have almost triumphs. These could be many things. On some evenings, perhaps our body entwines with another’s; other nights, a wistful parting smile might suggest how close we came to sharing that dance. In another lifetime. Another world, perhaps.
But we have the potential for so many glories. In basketball, a last shot might come so close to winning the game. If you’re struggling with addiction, there could’ve been a day when you very nearly turned down that shot.
Maybe you’ll succeed, maybe you won’t. In the present, we try our best. But our present slides inexorably into the past. And then, although we can’t change what happened, the mutability of memory allows us to change how we feel.
all of them belong to the past,
almost seems as if you had yielded
desires – how they glowed,
in the eyes gazing at you;
trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.
Consciousness is such a strange contraption. Our perception of the world exists only moment by moment. The universe constantly sheds order, evolving into states that are ever more probable than the past, which causes time to seem to flow in only one direction.
A sense of vertigo washes over me whenever I consider the “Boltzmann brain” hypothesis. This is the speculation that a cloud of dust in outer space, if the molecules were arranged just right, could perceive itself as being identical to your present mind. The dust cloud could imagine itself to be seeing the same sights as you see now, smelling the same smells, feeling the same textures of the world. It could perceive itself to possess the same narrative history, a delusion of childhood in the past and goals for its future.
then, with a wisp of solar wind, the molecules might be rearranged. The Boltzmann brain would vanish. The self-perceiving entity would end.
Within our minds, every moment’s now glides seamlessly into the now of the next moment, but it needn’t. A self-perceiving entity could exist within a single instant. And even for us humans – whose hippocampal projections allow us to re-experience the past or imagine the future – we would occasionally benefit by introducing intentional discontinuities to our recollection of the world.
Past success makes future success come easier. If you remember that people have desired you before – even if this memory is mistaken – you’ll carry yourself in a way that makes you seem more desirable in the future. If an addict remembers saying “no” to a shot – even if this memory is mistaken – it’ll be easier to say “no” next time.
triumphs belong to the same past as our regrets, and we may choose what to
remember. If our life will be improved
by the mistake, why not allow our minds the fantasy? “It almost seems as if you had yielded to
those desires.” The glow, the gaze:
In the short story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” Ted Chiang contrasts situations in which the mutability of memory improves the world with situations in which this mutability makes the world worse. Memories that reinforce our empathy are the most important to preserve.
We all need to know that we are fallible. Our brains are made of squishy goo. The stuff isn’t special – if it spills from our skulls, it’ll stink of rancid fat. Only the patterns are important. Those patterns are made from the flow of salts and the gossamer tendrils of synapses; they’re not going to be perfect.
As long as we know that we’re fallible, though, it doesn’t help much to dwell on the details of each failure. We need to retain enough to learn from our mistakes, but not so much that we can’t slough off shame and regret once these emotions have served their purpose. As we live, we grow. A perfect remembrance of the past would constrict the person we’re meant to be.
imagine that Brett Kavanaugh ardently believes that he is not, and has never
been, the sort of person who would assault a woman. He surely believes that he would never thrust
his bare penis into an unconsenting woman’s hand. And I imagine that Brett Kavanaguh’s current
behavior is improved by this belief. In
his personal life, this is the memory of himself that he should preserve,
rather than the narrative that would probably be given by an immutable record
of consensus reality.
problem, in Kavanagh’s case, is his elevation to a position of power. In his personal life, he should preserve the
mutable memories that help him to be good.
No matter how inaccurate they might be.
The Supreme Court, in its current incarnation, is our nation’s final arbiter on many issues related to women’s rights. Kavanaugh’s narrative introduces a cloud of suspicion over any ruling he makes on these issues – especially since he has faced no public reckoning for his past actions.
someone with Kavanaugh’s history of substance abuse, it could be worthwhile to
preserve a lingering memory of past sins.
I still think that the specific details – pinning a struggling woman to
the bed, covering her mouth with his hand – would not be beneficial for him to
preserve. But I would hope that he
remembers enough to be cognizant of his own potential to hurt people while
memories of the specific times when he assaulted people at high school and
college parties probably aren’t necessary for him to be good, but he would
benefit from general knowledge about his behavior after consuming alcohol. When I discuss drug use with people in jail,
I always let them know that I am in favor of legalization. I think that people should be allowed to
manipulate their own minds.
certain people should not take certain drugs.
Like most people in this country, I’ve occasionally been prescribed Vicodin. And I was handed more at college parties. But I never enjoyed the sensation of taking painkillers.
people really like opiates, though.
Sadly, those are the people who shouldn’t take them.
though, his life would not be that much worse without it. Beer changes how your brain works in the now. For an hour or two, your perception of the
world is different. Then that sensation,
like any other, slides into the past.
whether you drink or don’t, you can still bask later in the rosy glow of
neurobiologists are hardly the first biologists to ascribe consciousness,
feelings, and intentionality to plants.
Darwin, [Charles] Darwin’s grandfather and
a believer in free love, was so taken with the Linnaean sexual system of
classification that he wrote an epic poem, The Loves of Plants, in which
he personified stamens and pistils as ‘swains’ and ‘virgins’ cavorting on their
flower beds in various polygamous and polyandrous relationships.
you were startled, just now, to learn about the existence of risqué plant
poetry. Do some people log onto
Literotica to read about daffodils or ferns?
caught my attention was Erasmus Darwin’s designation as a believer in free
In a flash, an entire essay composed itself in my mind. Charles Darwin’s grandfather was a polyamorist! Suddenly, the origin of The Origin of the Species made so much more sense! After all, exposure to polyamory could help someone notice evolution by natural selection. An essential component of polyamory is freedom of choice – during the 1800s, when nobody had access to effective birth control, people might wind up having children with any of their partners, not just the one with whom they were bound in a legally-recognized and church-sanctioned marriage.
Evolution occurs because some individuals produce more offspring than others, and then their offspring produce more offspring, and so on. Each lineage is constantly tested by nature – those that are less fit, or less fecund, will dwindle to a smaller and smaller portion of the total population.
Similarly, in relationships where choice is not confined by religious proscription, the partners are under constant selective pressure if they hope to breed. When people have options, they must stay in each other’s good graces. They must practice constant kindness, rather than treating physical affection as their just desserts.
proud of this analogy. To my mind,
Erasmus Darwin’s belief in free love had striking parallels with his grandson’s
And it’s such a pleasure when essays basically write themselves. All I’d need to do was skim a few biographies. Maybe collect some spicy quotes from Erasmus himself. And I’d try to think of a clever way to explain evolution to a lay audience. So that my readers could understand why, once I’d learned this juicy tidbit about Erasmus, his connection to Charles Darwin’s theory seemed, in retrospect, so obvious.
I wish it hadn’t, obviously. It was going to be so fun to write! I was ready to compose some sultry plant poetry of my own.
And I feel happy every time there’s another chance to explain evolution. Because I live in a part of the United States where so many people deny basic findings from science, I talk about this stuff in casual conversations often. We regularly discuss evolutionary biology during my poetry classes in jail.
essay wasn’t going to work out. Because
the underlying claim – Erasmus Darwin believed in free love! – simply isn’t
Maybe you have lofty ideals about the practice of science. On the children’s record Science Is for Me,Emmy Brockman sings:
I am a
explore high and low
question what I know
That’s the goal. A good scientist considers all the possibilities. It’s hard work, making sure that confirmation bias doesn’t cause you to overlook alternative explanations.
scientists are human. Just like anybody
else, we sometimes repeat things we’ve heard without considering whether any
evidence ever justified it.
Human Advantage, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel describes how
baffled she felt when she began reading scientific papers about the composition
of our brains.
the literature held many studies on the volume and surface area of the brain of
different species, and various papers on the densities of neurons in the
cerebral cortex, estimates of numbers of neurons were scant. In particular, I could find no original
source to the much-repeated “100 billion neurons in the human brain.”
ran into Eric Kandel himself, whose textbook Principles of Neural Science,
a veritable bible in the field, proffered that number, along with the
complement “and 10-50 times more glial cells.”
When I asked Eric where he got those numbers, he blamed it on his
coauthor Tom Jessel, who had been responsible for the chapter in which they
appeared, but I was never able to ask Jessel himself.
2004, and no one really knew how many neurons could be found on average in the
with the oft-repeated numbers, Herculano-Houzel liquified whole brains in order
to actually count the cells. As it
happens, human brains have about 86 billion neurons and an equal number of
consider the psychology experiments on behavioral priming. When researchers “prime” a subject, they
inoculate a concept into that person’s mind.
The basic idea here is relatively uncontroversial. It’s the principle behind advertising and paid product placement – our brains remember exposure while forgetting context. That’s why political advertisements try to minimize the use of opponents’ names. When people hear or see a candidate’s name often, they’re more likely to vote for that candidate.
Facebook has also demonstrated again and again that minor tweaks to the inputs that your brain receives can alter your behavior. One shade of blue makes you more likely to click a button; there’s a size threshold below which people are unlikely to notice advertisements; the emotional tenor of information you’re exposed to will alter your mood.
When research psychologists use priming, though, they’re interested in more tenuous mental links. Study subjects might be primed with ideas about economic scarcity, then assessed to see how racist they seem.
The first study of this sort tested whether subconsciously thinking about elderlies could make you behave more like an elderly person. The researchers required thirty undergraduate psychology students to look at lists of five words and then use four of these words to construct a simple sentence. For fifteen of these students, the extra word was (loosely) associated with elderly people, like “Florida,” “worried,” “rigid,” or “gullible.” For the other fifteen, the words were deemed unrelated to elderlies, like “thirsty,” “clean,” or “private.”
(Is a stereotypical elderly person more gullible than private? After reading dozens of Mr. Putter and Tabby books — in which the elderly characters live alone — I’d assume that “private” was the priming word if I had to choose between these two.)
After completing this quiz, students were directed toward an elevator. The students were timed while walking down the hallway, and the study’s authors claimed that students who saw the elderly-associated words walked more slowly.
even a graph!
This conclusion is almost certainly false. The graph is terrible – there are no error bars, and the y axis spans a tiny range in order to make the differences look bigger than they are. Even aside from the visual misrepresentation, the data aren’t real. I believe that a researcher probably did use a stopwatch to time those thirty students and obtain those numbers. Researchers probably also timed many more students whose data weren’t included because they didn’t agree with this result. Selective publication allows you to manipulate data sets in ways that many scientists foolishly believe to be ethical.
If you were to conduct this study again, it’s very unlikely that you’d see this result.
Some scientists are unconcerned that the original result might not be true. After all, who really cares whether subconscious exposure to words vaguely associated with old people can make undergraduates walk slowly?
UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman wrote,
care about is whether priming-induced automatic behavior in general is a real
phenomenon. Does priming a concept
verbally cause us to act as if we embody the concept within ourselves? The answer is a resounding yes. This was a shocking finding when … first discovered … in 1996.
Lieberman bases this conclusion on the fact that “Hundreds of studies followed showing that people primed with a stereotype embodied it themselves.” Continued success with the technique is assumed to validate the initial finding.
Twenty years of mistaken belief has given the walking speed study – and its general methodology – an undeserved veneer of truth.
Darwin didn’t believe in free love. But
he did have some “radical” political beliefs that people were unhappy
about. And so, to undermine his
reputation, his enemies claimed that he believed in free love.
people repeated this slander so often that Erasmus Darwin is now blithely
described as a polyamorist in scientific review articles.
did conservative writers feel the need to slander Erasmus Darwin? What exactly were his “radical” beliefs?
Erasmus Darwin thought that the abject mistreatment of black people was wrong. He seems to have thought it acceptable for black people to be mistreated – nowhere in his writings did he advocate for equality – but he was opposed to the most ruthless forms of torture.
Somewhat. His opposition didn’t run so deep that he’d
deny himself the sugar that was procured through black people’s forced labor.
when Erasmus Darwin sired children out of wedlock – which many upper-class
British men did – he scandalously provided for his children.
British society, plenty of people had affairs.
Not because they believed in free love, but because they viewed marriage
as a fundamentally economic transaction and couldn’t get a divorce. But good British men were supposed to keep up
appearances. If a servant’s child
happened to look a great deal like you, you were supposed to feign ignorance.
worse, the illegitimate children that Erasmus Darwin provided for were female. Not only did Darwin allow them to become
educated – which was already pretty bad, because education made women less
malleable spouses – but he also helped them to establish a boarding school for
girls. The contagion of educated women
would spread even further!
This was all too much for Britain’s social conservatives. After all, look at what happened in France. The French were unduly tolerant of liberal beliefs, and then, all of a sudden, there was murderous revolution!
And so Erasmus Darwin had to be stopped. Not that Darwin had done terribly much. He was nationally known because he’d written some (mediocre) poetry. The poetry was described as pornographic. It isn’t. Certain passages anthropomorphize flowers in which there are unequal numbers of pistils and stamens. It’s not very titillating, unless you get all hot and bothered by the thought of forced rhymes, clunky couplets, and grandiloquent diction. For hundreds of pages.
reading about Erasmus Darwin, I learned that some people also believe that he
was the actual originator of his grandson’s evolutionary theories. In a stray sentence, Erasmus Darwin did write
that “The final course of this contest between males seems to be, that the
strongest and most active animal should propagate the species which should thus
be improved.” This does sound rather
like evolution by natural selection. But
not quite – that word “improved” hints at his actual beliefs.
Darwin did believe all life had originated only once and that the beautiful
variety of creatures extant today developed over time. But he thought that life changed from simple
to complex out of a teleological impulse.
In his conception, creatures were not becoming better suited to their
environment (which is natural selection), but objectively better (which
I’m not arguing that Charles Darwin had to be some kind of super genius to write The Origin of the Species. But when Charles Darwin described evolution, he included an actual mechanism to rationalize why creatures exist in their current forms. Things that are best able to persist and make copies of themselves eventually become more abundant.
That’s it. Kind of trivial, but there’s a concrete theory backed up by observation.
Darwin’s belief that life continually changed for the better was not unique,
nor did it have much explanatory power.
biography Erasmus Darwin, Patricia Fara writes that,
end of the eighteenth century, the notion of change was no longer in itself
especially scandalous. For several
decades, the word ‘evolution’ had been in use for living beings, and there were
several strands of evidence arguing against a literal interpretation of the
Bible. Giant fossils – such as mammoths
and giant elks – suggested that the world had once been inhabited by distant
relatives, now extinct, of familiar creatures.
breeders reinforced particular traits to induce changes carried down through
the generations – stalwart bulldogs, athletic greyhounds, ladies’ lapdogs. Geological data was also accumulating:
seashells on mountain peaks, earthquakes, strata lacking fossil remains – and
the most sensible resolution for such puzzles was to stretch out the age of the
Earth and assume that it is constantly altering.
Darwin thought deeply about why populations of animals changed in the
particular way that they did. Erasmus
Darwin did not. He declaimed “Everything
from shells!” and resumed writing terrible poetry. Like:
LOVE! who ere the morn of Time,
outstretch’d, o’er Chaos hung sublime;
into life the bursting egg of Night,
young Nature to admiring Light!
didn’t develop the theory of evolution.
You could call him an abolitionist, maybe, but he was a pretty
half-hearted one, if that. By the
standards of his time, he was a feminist.
By our standards, he was not.
like a nice enough fellow, though. As a
doctor, he treated his patients well.
And he constantly celebrated the achievements of his friends.
Fara writes that,
several years of immersion in [Erasmus]
Darwin’s writing, I still have a low opinion of his poetic skills. On the other hand, I have come to admire his
passionate commitment to making the world a better place.
knows? If Erasmus Darwin was alive
today, maybe he would be a polyamorist.
Who’s to say what secret desires lay hidden in a long-dead person’s
But did Darwin, during his own lifetime, advocate for free love? Nope. He did not. No matter what his political opponents – or our own era’s oblivious scientists – would have you believe.
Header image from the Melbourne Museum. Taken by Ruth Ellison on Flickr.
In the beginning,
subatomic particles careened too quickly to connect. The universe was “hot.” (Temperature is a measure of average speed as
objects jiggle. When physics people say
that our universe was “hot,” they mean that everything was moving just shy of
the speed of light.)
In the beginning, our universe wasn’t very interesting. But then the homogeneous cloud of fast-moving particles cooled as it expanded. Speeds slowed. Soon, particles dawdled long enough in each others’ vicinity that they could interact. Hydrogen atoms formed, then hydrogen gas, then stars.
Stars are interesting – when a cloud of gas is big enough, its net gravity can pull everything inward until the density becomes so high that nuclear fusion begins. This raging cascade of explosions counteracts the force of gravity and the star reaches an unsteady equilibrium until, eventually, it runs out of fuel and collapses or explodes.
An exploding star scatters
heavier atoms across the sky. When these
are incorporated into a new star, they can participate in nuclear fusion events
in turn, producing even heavier atoms.
Then that star might
Eventually, there were enough heavy atoms floating about the universe that a condensing cloud could form both a star and a set of orbiting satellites. On these satellites – planets – atoms combine in more interesting ways than inside the bellies of stars.
After all, the infernal
core of a star is pretty hot, too.
Inside that blazing oven, particles can form atoms, and atoms can
combine to form heavier atoms, but these are too frantic to form molecules
– long strings of atoms bonded together.
The chemical bonds that hold a molecule together are much weaker than the electrostatic and nuclear forces that maintain an atom. But planets – even broiling, meteor-bombarded ones – are peaceful places compared to stars. On the primordial earth, lightning strikes or UV radiation probably catalyzed the formation of complex molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids.
These molecules are just
big amalgams of subatomic particles. The
underlying stuff is the same … but there’s more of it.
More is different.
Consider the behaviors of a single amino acid. An amino acid is complex compared to a quark or electron. It can do acid-base chemistry! Its mix of charged and neutral surfaces lets it interact in neat ways with various solvents.
But if you compare that
single amino acid to a protein – and a protein is just more amino acids
joined together – you’ll realize that the single amino acid is total
Proteins, though …
wow! They can fold into fantastical
shapes. They can function as molecular machines,
their parts churning and twisting and flipping as they shuttle other molecules
from place to place, or even create whole new molecules.
When you glom more and
more and more subatomic particles together, eventually you create things
that are complex enough to imprint patterns on the world. They create more things like themselves. Proteins and RNA make new proteins and RNA.
And then, a cell! A cell is an amalgam of molecules all dissolved inside a bubble of fat. If you thought proteins were cool, check this out! Cells can swim, they can eat, they can live and die.
Or, what if there were more
cells? Then you can make us! With many cells, you can make brains,
which makes consciousness, which can give all those subatomic particles the
ability to work together and realize that they are subatomic particles.
Well, no. One single human animal, in isolation, probably wouldn’t figure that out. Each human, as an individual, can be pretty great – but to form a culture complex enough to study particle physics, you’ll need more people. Contemporary physics papers list hundreds of authors, and that doesn’t even credit everybody who worked to build the equipment, and or worked to grow the food, and took care for the children, or taught the physicists, when they were young, allowing them to one day become physicists …
And each of those
physicists, and engineers, and farmers, and caregivers, and teachers … each is
a collection of cells, which are collections of molecules, which are
collections of atoms, which are collections of subatomic particles. As we transition between scales, we see
qualitative differences in behavior from adding more.
This essay is made from a
set of just 26 letters, but these can be combined to form a few hundred
thousand different words, and those can be combined to convey an
infinite number of different ideas.
We blink many thousands of times each day. Our eyes close, pause, and then open again. We need to blink. Staring at screens – as I’m doing now, typing this essay, and as are you, reading it – causes us to blink less frequently, and that can lead to headaches. But the quality of each blink doesn’t affect us much. Most blinks pass by without our even noticing.
Meditation is just a long blink. Close your eyes and let more time elapse before you open them again.
But more is
different. A blink doesn’t disrupt your
thoughts. Meditation, however, can be a
Many religions praise the value of meditation, especially in their origin stories. Before he began his ministry, Jesus meditated in the Judaean Desert – he saw all the world’s kingdoms before him, but rejected that vision of power in order to spread a philosophy of love and charity. Before he began his ministry, Buddha meditated beneath the Bodhi tree – he saw a path unfurl, a journey that would let travelers escape our world’s cycle of suffering. Buddha decided to share that vision with others.
Before teaching his fellows to reshape the world with words, Odin meditated from a tree branch – he felt that he had died, transcended life, and could see the secret language of the universe shimmering before him.
I’ve been preparing anti-racist material about paganism and spirituality so that we have more things to send to people who contact Pages to Prisoners. As part of this project, I’d like to include information about meditation. After all, neo-paganism is invented – typically quite recently – and, as above, many religions have preserved stories suggesting that their founders’ meditation inspired their faith. These religions don’t always prioritize meditation as a contemporary practice, but many do: Christian monks repeat prayers in a way that’s strikingly similar to mantra meditation, Hindu adherents are advised to sit and experience a simulacrum of Shiva’s asceticism, and even warrior cultures have prized pre-battle stillness as a way to focus attention and more fully inhabit the present.
The scientific literature is also replete with papers about meditation — but most of these are junk. It’s fairly easy to find published studies claiming that mindfulness training can confer disease resistance, immunity to aging, or even paranormal abilities like extra-sensory perception. Scientific papers aren’t inherently more trustworthy than the internet.
But it’s true that your mind is plastic, and your moods can dramatically alter the way you perceive the world. Conditions that affect our nervous system – like depression, insomnia, and even chronic pain – can be treated through meditation. The experiments that scientists use to assess things like “creativity” or “attentiveness” are often open to interpretation, but it’s not unreasonable to imagine that meditation would help.
All people are
creative. Our problem, often, is that
our ideas can flit away before we fully grasp them. Like dreams, they fade, and we’re left with
the irksome sensation that “I feel like I just had a good idea, but …”
Meditation can clear the
turbid waters of your mind. Like gazing
into a pellucid lake, it could become easier to spot your good ideas when they
I’ve never been inside a
prison, so I’ll have to collaborate with friends who have spent time there as I
make the pamphlets. But everything I’ve
read suggests that most prisons are loud, chaotic, stressful, and
dangerous. Which has obvious
implications for how easily people can meditate. If you live near a beautiful glen, you could
probably do well by your brain by simply taking some time each day to sit
peacefully beside some flowing water.
Instead, I’ve been learning about mantra meditation. By silently intoning the same phrase over and over – even if it’s just a nonsense word – you can overcome a fair bit of external distraction. To test, I’ve tried meditating at the YMCA. This place is very calm compared to our county jail, which I’ve heard is itself calmer than a prison, but where I sit, people are usually conversing, and there are a variety of rattling exercise machines.
Several of the guide books I’ve read recommend that you pay somebody a bunch of money to teach you transcendental meditation. During your training, you’ll be given a secret Sanskrit word or phrase. People who’ve taken these training courses have posted a bunch of the words online, and apparently a mantra is selected based upon your age and gender.
That seems silly to me –
although it’s possible that different people’s minds would respond best to
different mantras, my gender isn’t a big component of my identity, nor is my
I did pick out a Sanskrit phrase, which is perhaps a silly choice in and of itself. After all, I can’t speak Sanskrit. But I thought it might be nice to have a set of sounds that didn’t carry a lot of semantic meaning in the rest of my daily life. Although Sanskrit mantras would have held meaning to the original practitioners of this style of meditation, Sanskrit is generally considered a formal, ritual language, not something that people speak at home with their families. Even for native speakers, the chance of crossed wires, in which people were inadvertently saying their special mantras at other times of day, was probably pretty low.
While meditating, there are times when I’m pretty oblivious to my environs, even though I’m sitting in a crowded, noisy place. I assume that I should recommend, for people meditating in prison, that they use a buddy system. Unless somebody you trust immensely was sitting nearby, I assume it would feel too unsafe to allow yourself to completely let go in the way that deep meditation requires.
In case you’re interested
in trying, I can tell you what’s worked so far for me. I’ve been thinking the phrase “sat nam.” I liked the translation when I looked it up
online, and it’s felt convenient to have two discrete sounds – I think the
“sat” while breathing in, and “nam” while breathing out. I’ve read that people aim to spend about six
seconds each on inhalation and exhalation, but I breath much more rapidly than
If nothing too distracting is going on nearby – maybe just some clanking from the ellipticals, treadmills, and stairmasters – I breath in and out once every four to eight seconds. But when people are having a conversation right next to me, I take a breath every one or two seconds, which means I’m intoning my little mantra more often and can do a better job of isolating myself from what’s going on around me.
As far as I can tell, that isolation is the goal of meditation. Our minds evolved to expect constant stimulus during our waking lives. If you reduce the degree of outside stimulation, like with a sensory deprivation chamber, you invite your mind to conjure strange thoughts, visions, and sounds to replace the inputs that it expects. But you have to keep at it long enough.
When particle physicist Richard Feynman described his experience with sensory deprivation tanks, he wrote:
Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
Mr. Lilly had a number of
different tanks, and we tried a number of different experiments. It didn’t seem to make much difference as far
as hallucinations were concerned, and I became convinced that the tank was
unnecessary. Now that I saw what to do,
I realized that all you have to do is sit quietly.
I would like to
have done it at home, and I don’t doubt that you could meditate and do
it if you practice, but I didn’t practice.
I’ve only had a bit of
practice, but when I sit still with my eyes closed and block out the outside
world with a repeated phrase, my mind will sometimes drift. I’ve been trying to sit for twenty minutes,
although I often inadvertently rouse myself after about fifteen – which hasn’t
seemed to be quite enough, for either me or Dr. Feynman. But I get the feeling that it has to be
continuous. Once I’ve opened my eyes and
glanced at the clock, I stop for the day.
Even if nothing much has happened.
On these days, I console myself with a quote from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that I learned from Bob Roth’s Strength in Stillness: “Even in a shallow dive, you still get wet.”
I begin by stretching –
although I’m practicing in a relatively distracting environment, it seems
reasonable to minimize the distractions of my own body. I try not to move while meditating, and it’d
be harder to maintain a single posture if I could feel my body ache.
After I close my eyes, the
first few minutes typically feel like a waste of time. I’m sitting there repeating a nonsense phrase
and I can’t help but think of the myriad other things that I ought to be doing.
As long as I can force
myself to keep at it, though, the experience changes. More becomes different. Undulating phosphenes blossom in the umber
field of my closed eyes. Sometimes I
slip into reverie; if I catch myself daydreaming, I’ll resume intoning my bit
of Sanskrit, which helps me set aside whatever vein of thought led me astray.
Nobody is totally sure why we need sleep, but recent results have suggested that nitrogenous waste and other metabolic toxins can only be cleared from brain cells while we’re snoozing. If you stay awake too long, trash piles up along the roadways of your mind, and all that junk prevents learning, memory formation, and attentiveness.
During my classes in jail, I often work with men who have stayed awake for weeks at a time by taking methamphetamine – they’ve experienced a wide variety of hallucinations, paranoia, and mental turmoil. Amphetamines aren’t very toxic, but loss of sleep can seriously damage a person’s brain.
One day without sleep
won’t kill you. Luckily so – since
having kids, there have been many nights when a little one wakes up screaming
and I never get to rest. But more is
different. After three days without
sleep, the shadow people start talking.
After eight days, my students have started talking back: “I knew they
weren’t real … but I still didn’t want to be rude. But we got into all these arguments.”
Sleep washes away the
argumentative shadow people.
When meditation goes well, I sometimes imagine my mind being cleansed – I’ll sit there thinking sat nam, sat nam and envision a cascade of water flowing over me like Heracles used to clean King Augeas’s stables. But meditation might not help with keeping a brain tidy – those experiments on the waste-clearing function of sleep were done with mice, and (to the best of my knowledge) nobody has taught mice to meditate.
If you trust my spouse’s
subjective evaluation, though, meditation seems to help. I’ve apparently been more pleasant to live
with since I started practicing.
If you’re going to try, aim for at least twenty minutes, maybe once or twice a day for a few weeks. My apologies if it seems pointless at first. I’d recommend you keep at it – just like a single minute won’t give you the same benefit as twenty, it seems reasonable to expect that a single day wouldn’t have the same benefit as a month’s daily practice.
At high doses, psilocybin mushrooms trigger transcendent, mystical experiences. Many researchers are incorporating these into treatments for PTSD, depression, and other maladies that stem from a crisis of meaning or identity.
There are challenges inherent in using medicines that disrupt the workings of a person’s consciousness. William Richards, who conducts psychedelic therapy at Johns Hopkins, writes in Sacred Knowledgethat participants in his studies have felt their sense of self temporarily dissolve after a dose of psilocybin.
commonly, the term “death” is employed as the ego (everyday self) feels that it
quite literally is dying.
Though one may have read that others have reported subsequent immersion in the eternal and experiences of being reborn and returning to everyday existence afterward, in the moment imminence of death may feel acutely – and for some terrifyingly – real.
this sensation is so frightening, most researchers recommend a trip-sitter – in
Richards’s words, “having someone present who one honestly can choose to
trust without reservation. The attitude
‘I can manage on my own and don’t really need anyone else’ clearly can be very
counterproductive in some high-dose sessions when the ‘I’ needs to totally
At times, an arrogant attitude of self-reliance is unhelpful. It is also, unsurprisingly, the attitude with which I approached nearly all aspects of my life. I’m an athlete, an academic, usually in full command of my own mind and body. I mostly work alone (although I’m very grateful that my spouse helps me run this website).
Why wouldn’t I do my own psychotherapy?
I tried psilocybin mushrooms during graduate school. Shortly after we met, the person who is now my spouse asked if we could visit her sibling in Portland for her birthday. We left Stanford at 7 p.m. on a Friday, then drove north through the night. We arrived at about dawn on Saturday morning, collapsed, and slept until noon.
We were visiting a punk house, it seemed, where the bulk of the rent was paid by one person’s trust fund, with others occasionally chipping in money from various odd jobs (there was a nearby sporting event during the second day of our visit, and one of the housemates put on an official-looking reflective vest and charged people to illegally park in an abandoned lot down the street). A dozen misshapen mattresses were strewn about the skunky-smelling attic; I picked the second-least stained to sleep on.
On Saturday night, for the birthday celebration, our hosts threw a party. Several bands played – it was the sort of event where the scrawny white weed dealer’s terrible hip-hop group (bass, drums, and the dealer on the mic) was allowed to play a set. The others were mostly metal bands.
One of the housemates (the faux-parking attendant, as it happens) brewed a large mason jar of psilocybin tea. As he was gamboling about the house, we crossed paths and he proffered the nearly empty jar: “Hey, man, you want these dregs?”
shrugged and drank it.
“Whoa,” he said.
“Just, that was a lot of dregs.”
Which, honestly, was not the best moment to be warned. I’d already drank it. I obviously couldn’t do anything about it then.
Richards and other medical professionals involved in psychedelics research would find it unsurprising that the tenor of the evening turned intensely spiritual for me. Ken Kesey and other psychonauts would find it unsurprising that the goings on seemed exceedingly trippy, as well. I sat on a couch in front of the bands’ performance area and watched as a singer seemed to smear her face across the microphone; soon I saw her with three mouths, the two in her neck relegated to singing harmony.
I felt intense paranoia; as I waited in line for a bathroom, people nearby seemed to be snickering at me. Of course, snickers often follow in my wake at parties – my behavior can be outlandish – and I might’ve been making goofy facial expressions.
I understood only snippets of conversation. A squinty-eyed Thor-looking blonde man named Hyacinth was saying, “I always wanted to get with a Gemini, and then, bam, last winter, I met this older lady with these, like, enormous eyes, and I was like, whoa, and wouldn’t you know it, bam, she’s a Gemini!”
(I later learned that he worked as an, ahem, “intimate massage therapist,” or “hired companion,” that sort of thing. He also cornered me and spent thirty minutes explaining his take on quantum mechanics. His version involved a lot of positive energy radiating from crystals. The abundance of positive energy in his own life is part of what brought him together with that Gemini, it seems. The waning disorientation from psilocybin left me totally unable to extricate myself from the conversation.)
And, as per Richards’s expectations, I felt myself losing a fundamental component of my identity. I temporarily forgot how to speak. Then felt as though I was losing all ability to translate my thoughts into external action.
Perhaps I should’ve noticed that I was still passively influencing my surroundings – nobody else could stand where I was standing, and Hyacinth wouldn’t have stood there simply lecturing the air – but the flickering of my short term memory caused these examples to slip away from me. I felt like a ghost, and the sensation terrified me.
But I was lucky. Even at parties (to be perfectly honest, especially at loud parties), I carry a pencil and paper. That way, I can draw horrible cartoons. Sometimes I try to use these to communicate.
It should come as no surprise that I make few friends at parties.
I found a secluded corner of the party and began to write. And then, minutes later, when I felt another wave of loss of self pass over me, I was able look at the sheet of paper in my hand and see. I wrote that. I did change the world. I am changing it.
I was able to regain a sense of object permanence, despite the ego-erasing effects of psilocybin. If I were a ghost, my marks would wisp from the page like so much abluvion. But here they are.
I can still communicate with the outside world, I still am.
In all, the experience was probably good for me. Someday I could write about why. But for now, I’d simply like to stress that, in that moment, writing saved me. Writing kept me anchored and tamped down the terror sufficiently that I could accept whatever was happening inside my brain. (Indeed, one of the things I wrote that night was, “Without this paper, I’d wander the streets, wake tomorrow in a gutter with a rat gnawing on my eyeball.”)
And I’ve seen the way that writing has saved other people, too. When people fear that they’re turning into ghosts – cut off from the outside world, unable to reach their friends and families – even severely dyslexic men will start sending letters.
held in jail can dissolve a person’s sense of self just as surely as psilocybin
Each week, I bring in another dozen pencils. I occasionally wondered what was happening to the pencils, whether they accumulated like Lincoln Logs in the block. But I kept bringing more because we need a way to write during our class. And I’d let the guys keep them. So much has been taken from these men that I couldn’t bear to ask for the pencils back.
somebody told me. “Oh, yeah, my bunkie,
he writes a lot at night, he always sharpens like a dozen pencils before
in jail aren’t allowed to have pens.
They can’t have mechanical pencils.
And they don’t have sharpeners in their cells.
At night … or if there’s a disciplinary infraction … or if the jail is understaffed … the men are locked into their little cells. Unless they sharpen pencils beforehand, they cannot write. Each broken tip brings an inmate that much closer to enforced silence, unable to communicate with the outside world.
Recently, people have been forming a big line at the pencil sharpener whenever I teach class. I slowly pass out the poems that we’ll read that week, then pass out pencils, then pass out paper, then sit and wait. The waiting takes a while. Guys come with twenty or thirty pencils bristling from the shirt pocket of their orange scrubs, then stand and sharpen all of them. A dozen men, sharpening perhaps twenty pencils each.
At the table, they mention trades they’ve made. Losses, due to theft: “At the beginning of the week I had fifteen pencils; now I’m down to three.” They exhort me to bring more. I say I’ll do my best.
“There’s only one pencil sharpener in the block, and it’s been broken for three months. It’s like that one, a wall mount. The gears are all screwed up. The handle was broken off, but you could sort of still use it then. But now, anybody who doesn’t get to come to your class can’t sharpen any.”
sharpening some for my bunkie,” yells the guy currently cranking the handle. A few of the others nod; they’ll also sharpen
some for charity.
Twenty … thirty … maybe forty sharpened graphite tips. While those last, the guys will be able to write. Time will pass, but they’ll be able to prove to themselves, and to the outside world, that they really do exist.
luck, those sharpened pencils will last all week.
Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years. We’ve been using cocaine even longer. Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience. Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.
Not all drug use is good, obviously. Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost. Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught. I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time. I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking. I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”
Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose. When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.
In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter. Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”
But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled. Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use. Possession is a felony.
Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising. Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments. Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.
In the United States, cocaine
was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of
white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into
monsters. Prohibition was mediated
It’s true that cocaine is
dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the
purified compound. But coca tea is no
more dangerous than earl grey. Indeed,
if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.
Marijuana was also legal in
the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories
about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.
Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative. Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that
No one should ever be arrested
or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it
would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and
grown psilocybin myself.
And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests. I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience. I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests.
For all the people subject to
this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the
current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very
Instead, Pollan centers his
cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.”
That idea is true enough, as
far as things go. Some people probably
shouldn’t use psilocybin. Some people
feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its
influence. But I would argue that arrest
is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance
increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.
And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs. For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin. The drug can hurt someone who uses it. But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain. Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others.
It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery. Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views.
Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink. Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended. But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.
Or consider antibiotics. Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse. With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.
And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs. If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all. But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.
In the past, somebody might
get scratched by a cat … and die.
Any infection could turn septic and kill you.
In the future, a
currently-treatable infection might kill me.
Or kill my children.
But we’re not stopping the
meat industry from using them. We’re not
using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their
misuse. Instead we’ve outlawed
psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that
helps you become a kinder, happier person.
In the United States, people are having sex less often. And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs.
Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside. The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.
The suicide rate has been rising.
It might seem as though we
don’t know how to make people happier.
But, actually, we do.
There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course. Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats. Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectually. Toxoplasma forms cysts in your brain. It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia. It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised. And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.
My advice today is
different. No feces required!
And I’m not suggesting
anything illegal. I mentioned, above,
that people in the United States take a lot of drugs. Several of these boost dopamine levels in
your brain. Cocaine, for instance, is a
“dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure
will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.
But cocaine has a nasty
side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law
enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too
high. And jail is not a happy
Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain. Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain. But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.
The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure. For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain. So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up. If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over. Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex. They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse. From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:
If animals with electrodes
in the hypothalamuswere run for 24 hours or 48 hours
consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance
Perhaps I should have
warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks. Even if you have the tools needed to drill
into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to
boost your mood just to die of dehydration.
After all, happiness might have some purpose. There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy. After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.”
When an activity makes us
feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.
That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service. Or get addicted to drugs.
And it’s how brain
stimulation could be used for mind control.
If you show me a syringe,
I’ll feel nervous. I don’t particularly
like needles. But if you display that
same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of
actually shooting up. The men in my
poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word
“needle” written in a poem.
For months or years, needles
presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.
That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the
If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing. Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.
Still, if you used deep
brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that
person would soon enjoy it.
Or you could make someone
fall in love.
Far more effective than
any witch’s potion, that. Each time your
quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage. The beloved’s presence will soon be
associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure. And that sensation – stretched out for long
enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love
Of course, it probably
sounds like I’m joking. You wouldn’t really
send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall
in love with somebody new … right?
Fifty years passed between
the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use
as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering
researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a
In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.” Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality. Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.
Moan and Heath’s paper is
After about 20 min of such
interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he
was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration. Active intercourse followed during which she
had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense. He became very excited at this and suggested
that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative. In this position he often paused to delay
orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience. Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab,
romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and
the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated. Subsequently, he expressed how much he had
enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near
The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls. Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.
But it isn’t.
The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.
Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.
Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:
In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr
of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation,
which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence
activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull.
Fehr had sixty-three
research subjects available. They played
a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on
how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner. In the first round, there were no sanctions
from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in
question could protest and punish the subject.
There were two opposing
forces at play. A cultural norm for
sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much
as possible for oneself. Fehr and his people
found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal
cortex. When the stimulation increased
the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree,
while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was
Perhaps the most
thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel
any difference. When they were asked
about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the
selfishness of their behavior had changed.
Apparently, you can fiddle
with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated
being any the wiser.
The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman. Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died. Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).
Elliott concludes that:
Heath was a physician in
love with his ideas.
Psychiatry has seen many
men like this. Heath’s contemporaries
include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic
driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into
comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and
Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent
These men may well have
started with the best of intentions. But
in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table. All it takes is a powerful researcher with a
surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of
Heath had them all.
It’s true that using an
electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably
make you feel happier. By way of
contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.
Sometimes it’s good to
feel bad, though.
As Elliott reminds us, a
lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research. A lot of vulnerable people are still
treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues
are snared by our country’s criminal justice system. And the torments that we dole upon non-human
animals are even worse.
[University of Chicago
researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it
encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar. Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked
up, wriggling in distress.
Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so. Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously.
Then Bartal challenged her
motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate
chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a
trapped companion. The free rat often
rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more
than delicious food.
Is it possible that these
rats liberated their companions for companionship? While one rat is locked up, the other has no
chance to play, mate, or groom. Do they
just want to make contact? While the
original study failed to address this question, a different study created a
situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further
interaction. That they still did so
confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social.
Bartal believes it is
emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress,
which spurs them into action.
Conversely, when Bartal gave
her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still
knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their
tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat. They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of
emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers.
The rats became
insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping.
You could feel
happier. We know enough to be able to
reach into your mind and change it.
A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.
But should we do it? Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the
I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience. These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.
Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable. He produces a popular series of video reviews. And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection. I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.
I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.
Consider a story of moral complicity. When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described. Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.
But there’s no excuse within a
game. The actions taken by a game’s
protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in
When we learn that the soldiers in
Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured
prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level.
In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:
Were under a tremendous amount of
I mean pressure. Pretty disgusting. Not
What you’d expect from Americans.
Just kidding. I’m only talking about people
Having a good time, blowing off steam.
Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level. We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.
And yet. In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner. And players did it. Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …
You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from. Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military. Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.
“Rockstar North has crossed a line by
effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a
series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said
Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.
There are some pieces of art that I
personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation
of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as
I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture. It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts. We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.
The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth. But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.
We are monsters. That’s why social norms that constrain our
worst impulses are so valuable.
And I don’t believe this message could
be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.
Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes. The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative. Even my favoritefilms about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.
When I played Secret Hitler, I
learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into
fascism. I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter,
and Maranges had made their game earlier.
It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at
the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.