When I wrote about my experiences doing psychotherapy with people, one commenter wondered if I might be schizoid:
There are a lot of schizoid people in the rationalist community from what I can tell. The basis of schizoid is not all the big bad symptoms you might read about. There are high functioning people with personality disorders all the time who are complex, polite and philosophical.
You will never see this description because mental health industries center entirely around people Failing At Life, aka “low-functioning”. As many radicals have noted, mental health tends to constitute itself mostly around “can’t hold a job” or “can’t hold a marriage”.
The only thing you need to be schizoid is to dislike contact with other egos, and to shave off the experience of those other egos ruthlessly before they can reach the fantasy world you retreat to.
It doesn’t mean you’re evil. It doesn’t mean you stalk people and plan to harm them. It doesn’t mean you’re over-reactive or even bizarrely delusional. You could call it a form of delusion, but really the basic descriptions of perception like top-down processing and culture could all be called delusional thinking if you want to be properly pointed about it. It’s schizoid. It’s often quite gentle. And I’ve noticed from interacting with various people in high IQ communities that if you have sufficiently high enough intelligence, despite the inherent defined tendency to retreat from reality, you can in fact become aware you have a personality disorder.
Anyway, my guess based on projection (I’ve never met you) is that people aren’t being emotional around you because you can’t be reached by them emotionally, and they know that on some level.
I feel like I experience emotions and genuine human connection. You would think that ‘not experiencing emotions or having genuine human connection’ is hard to miss. But then I think of the stories in What Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It?
In the first, Francis Galton discovered that some people didn’t have visual imagination. They couldn’t see anything in their “mind’s eye”, they couldn’t generate internal images. None of these people knew there was anything “wrong” with them. They just assumed that everyone who talked about having an imagination was being metaphorical, just using a really florid poetic way of describing that they remembered what something looked like.
In the second, a user on Quora described their experience with anosmia – not having a sense of smell. They didn’t realize there was anything wrong until college. Until then, “I teased my sister about her stinky feet. I held my nose when I ate Brussels sprouts. In gardens, I bent down and took a whiff of the roses.” Though they didn’t say so explicitly, it sounds like they thought smell was just a metaphorical way of saying something was disgusting or delightful.
And in the third – well, this is awkward – I went years without realizing I didn’t have any emotions. I was getting treated for obsessive-compulsive disorder with high dose SSRIs. When these work well they dull your depression and anxiety; when they work less well, they dull all your emotions. For me they worked less well, but I never realized it until I came off them after five years and was suddenly overwhelmed by emotions I’d almost forgotten it was possible to have. In the interim, I’d understood that getting a birthday present was a positive and desirable event, and said it made me “happy”, without realizing something was missing. This was particularly inexcusable since I’d felt the full range of emotions before I started the drugs, but I guess the hypothesis “I have stopped feeling emotions” is a hard one to consider and collect evidence for.
So if someone says I’m incapable of genuine human relationships – well, I should stress that I think my relationships are genuine. But if they weren’t, maybe I wouldn’t notice. There would be something I was capable of, I would call that “genuine human relationships” since it was my only example of the concept, and I would never have anything else to compare it to.
This post isn’t about relationships. This post is about ideas.
In high school I took a sociology class, and the teacher talked about how modern society was atomized and there were no real community bonds and so on. And I thought this was dumb. I didn’t live in an atomized society! My family knew our next-door neighbors, and we’d even been over at their house once for dinner. There was a Community Center a few blocks away, and when I was a kid I would go there a couple of times a year for some kind of Neighborhood Art Night. Sometimes my mother volunteered at my school, and my dad was too busy to volunteer but probably would have if he could. We weren’t devoid of community at all.
And then three things happened. Number one, I read some good anthropology about primitive and medieval societies, which actually described pre-atomized life and the way that there was barely even an individual identity and the community determined everything you ever did. Number two, I spent a little time in an honest-to-goodness Third World village and saw a little of what life was like there. And number three, I got involved in some good subcultures – including Bay Area rationality – which were slightly but noticeably less atomized than the neighborhood where I grew up. I realized that I’d mistaken the existent-but-weak forms of community in my suburban neighborhood for the really-strong forms of community that people complaining about atomization say we’re missing, because I had so little experience with the latter I couldn’t even imagine them.
This is a similar error as the SSRI/emotions problem. People talk about emotions/community. I have something sort of similar occupying that space. So I reasonably assume it’s the same thing everyone is talking about.
I think I’ve figured out the whole “atomization” thing. But I’m not sure. What if there’s some real non-atomized community that even second-hand anthropology plus some good subcultures can’t point to? Am I just making the same mistake as I did as a high schooler, only one level higher?
Some of these same sociologists worry about advertising and consumerism. They think capitalism turns people into perfect consumers who overwork themselves at jobs they don’t like to buy products they don’t need. They think people’s entire identities revolve around brands and consumption.
And once again, I think: “Good thing this isn’t happening to me.” I don’t really watch TV and I tune out online ads. I buy things occasionally, usually things that I need or things that I occasionally enjoy. But I don’t own much “clutter”. And I don’t care about brands, except ones that really signal high quality.
Is this the same kind of mistake as “I met the neighbors once, so I’m not atomized”? I don’t know!
Either understanding “consumerism” was so easy for me that I got it immediately and effortlessly, and I live a charmed life that has prevented me from ever encountering that problem.
Or I have only a superficial fascimile of understanding it, and when I actually understand it, it’ll seem profound and important, the same way “atomization” did.
When I see other people making a big deal out of seemingly-minor problems, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’ve avoided them so easily I missed their existence, or fallen into them so thoroughly I’m like the fish who can’t see water.
And when I see other people struggling to understand seemingly-obvious concepts, I’m in this weird superposition between thinking I’m so far beyond them that I did it effortlessly, or so far beneath them that I haven’t even realized there’s a problem.
Last week, some people proposed it was useless to steelman/understand post-modernism. It was just people being stupid or having garbled thinking. Maybe. There are some post-modernists who even the other post-modernists say are probably just pulling it out of their asses.
But how would we know? There are concepts nobody gets on the first reading, concepts you have to have explained to you again and again until finally one of the explanations clicks and you can reconstruct it out of loose pieces in your own head.
And there are concept-shaped holes you don’t notice that you have. You can talk to an anosmic person about smell for years on end, and they’re still not going to realize they’ve got a big hole where that concept should be. You can give high-school me an entire class about atomization, and he can ace the relevant test, and he’s still not going to know what atomization is.
Put these together, and you have cause for concern. If you learn about something, and it seems trivial and boring, but lots of other people think it’s interesting and important – well, it could be so far beneath you that you’d internalized all its lessons already. Or it could be so far beyond you that you’re not even thinking on the same level as the people who talk about it.
I’m looking back on my book review of After Virtue, a seminal philosophy book which won a bunch of awards and recognition from important philosophers. My review was that it seemed very confused. It kept claiming to have an important insight, but every time it said it was going to reveal the important insight, it actually said a bunch of platitudes and unrelated tangents. This is a huge red flag. Which makes more sense – that I was the lone genius able to see that the emperor had no clothes and Alasdair MacIntyre is really dumb? Or that he’s saying something really hard to understand, and I haven’t understood it yet?
Maybe there are fields doing the intellectual equivalent of gaslighting, insisting they have really profound points when they’re just vapor. But err on the side of caution here. Most of us have some hard-won battles, like mine understanding atomization. Where after a lot of intellectual work, a concept that seemed stupid suddenly opens up and becomes important. Sometimes it’s about anarchism, or reactionary philosophy, or privilege, or religion as benevolent community-building institution. Erring too hard on the side of “that’s dumb, they’re probably just gaslighting” closes off those areas to you forever.
I don’t think it’s always worth delving deep into a seemingly-meaningless field to discover the hidden meaning. That rarely works – if you had the concepts you’d need to understand it right now, you would have done so already. But I think it’s worth leaving the possibility open, so that later if something clicks you’re not too embarrassed to return to it.