"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Going Loopy

[content warning: mild ideohazards about rumination that might make people who have anxiety disorders have anxiety disorders more effectively, in the bad sense of “effectively”]

[epistemic status: more crackpottish than usual for this blog. Wild speculation.]

I.

If the brain had been designed by an amateur, it would enter a runaway feedback loop the first time it felt an emotion.

Think about it. You see a butterfly. This makes you happy. Being happy is an unexpected pleasant surprise. Now you’re happy that you’re happy. This makes you extra happy. Being extra happy is awesome! This makes you extra extra happy. And so on to as much bliss as your neurons are capable of representing.

Or you stub your toe. This makes you sad. Being sad sucks and makes you less productive and less fun to be around. This means being sad is an unexpected negative event, which sounds like a good reason to be sadder. Being even sadder is going to ruin your night even more, so you get sadder still, and so on until you become suicidally depressed over a single lousy toe.

In the real world, either those feedback loops usually don’t happen, or they converge and stop at some finite point. I would not be surprised to learn that a lot of evolutionary innovation and biochemical complexity goes into creating a strong barrier against conditioning on your own internal experience.

Sometimes it fails. A guy named Wegner conducted a famous psych experiment where he asked a bunch of participants to sit in a room alone and try not to think about a bear with sunglasses. Of course, that was pretty much all they could think of. They seem to have gotten into a feedback loop where “desire not to think of a bear with sunglasses” -> “thought of a bear with sunglasses” -> “frustration” -> “stronger desire not to think of…” -> “more thoughts of…” and so on.

One of my professor’s work – and my college thesis – expanded the field of bear-with-sunglasses-ology to note that people with obsessive compulsive disorder are found to be much worse at this task than the general population. This is not surprising. OCD seems to be pretty much exactly this scenario, except instead of trying not to think of a bear with sunglasses, you’re trying not to think about how you’re dirty-contaminated, or how maybe you left the stove on, or how what if your car just hit somebody then where would you be? OCDers get stuck in feedback loops where their worry about their obsessive thought is itself a form of the obsessive thought and so both justifies and intensifies their worry.

I also remember a study where a guy with a sleep lab offered participants a cash reward if they could go to sleep more quickly than usual; the end result was that all of them took much longer to go to sleep than usual. Strong desire to go to sleep -> actually a strong anti-sedating emotion -> worry that you won’t get the prize -> stronger desire to go to sleep -> even less sedated -> so on.

There seems to be an element of this in most anxiety disorders. Someone goes outside, something bad happens. Next time they go outside, they feel anxious. The usual strong barrier against conditioning upon internal experience is AWOL for some reason. The patient finds the experience of becoming anxiety very negative; therefore their belief that “going outside leads to bad things” is justified. Eventually they are so anxious about possibly becoming anxious that they just stay in their house all the time.

(hey, this is kind of Lob’s theorem! If you know that, if you’re anxious about being anxious you would be anxious, then you’re anxious. Maybe.)

But the most clear-cut example is panic disorder. Someone gets anxious for some reason. They get the standard somatic correlates of anxiety – racing heartbeat, sweating, etc. This is a scary situation to be in, not least because it mimics all sorts of terrible medical conditions like heart attacks. This makes the person more anxious, which increases the somatic correlates, and so on.

II.

A lot of CBT seems to be about manually breaking these feedback loops. But I’m just as interested in what we accidentally do to manually increase them. I worry that making mental self-reference slightly easier and more mentally accessible can lead to a big increase in feedback loop size.

I am misophonic – it means I can’t tolerate certain noises. Ten years ago, I would not have used the word “misophonic”, and I would not even have said I have low noise tolerance. I would have said “Hey, that TV is bothering me, can you turn it off?”

I didn’t start thinking about it on a meta-level until one of my roommates told me “Wow, Scott, you seem to be really super sensitive to noise.” And then gave me a little bit of grief over it, which made it stick in my brain. Ever after that I modeled myself as a person who was super sensitive to noise.

And that made my noise sensitivity much, much worse. I hypothesize that maybe, instead of just noise -> distraction, this created a longer feedback loop. Something like noise -> anxiety that I, as a person sensitive to noise, am going to be distracted -> this anxiety is itself distracting -> noticing that I am distracted and being anxious that this distraction will continue as long as the noise continues -> further distraction -> and so on.

(it’s worth noting here that I have obsessive compulsive disorder and that noise sensitivity is a classic feature of the condition)

I had precisely the same experience on this post when I said I was triggered by certain kinds of feminist and social justice rhetoric. I didn’t really think of it that way until I wrote that sentence. I mean, it was true that I heard the rhetoric and then I felt upset and scared, it was just that I had never thought of it as a part of my identity before, or connected it to the word “trigger”. Well, as soon as I did that, the problem got about three times worse, and continues to get worse. I think this nice little crystallized concept of “trigger” might allow my brain to feed back its anxiety more effectively, like “Yup, this thing triggers you, better start feeling anxious about feeling anxious about feeling anxious about…” and that made it go from “a thing that bothers me but which I can cope with” to “giant psychological disaster”.

(now I wonder about typical mind stuff. Do people without OCD have this same experience of anxiety about anxiety about anxiety…? For example, when I was young I was afraid of the dark, not because I believed in ghosts, but because I expected to hear a sound or see something blown around by the wind which I would mistake for a ghost and then have to deal with waves of terror rushing through my body until I figured out what it was, and this was sufficiently bad that I slept with the lights on as a child. Is this the sort of thing other people could imagine feeling, or is it really unusual?)

But this sort of thing is comparatively small fish. I’m more worried about the effect of our entire rich emotional vocabulary. Like, we just sort of invented the concept of being “stressed out” sometime in the last century. Did that make people more stressed out about being stressed out? Did the movement for people to become more introspective and talk about their feelings more (that was a thing, right? That’s why old people are so stoic and young people are so touchy-feely?) make people more likely to fall into feedback loops?

What happens when you give people a psychological diagnosis like “depression”? I’ve always heard that it makes people feel better, because now they know there’s an explanation for what they’re experiencing and it’s not their own fault. But I don’t know if I’ve seen any studies proving this, and even if there were I’d expect them to suffer from the general bias to confirm things that everyone knows are true. What if it just makes people be depressed about how depressed they are, and then go “There’s that depression again, guess this means I’m not getting any better” and become depressed about that?

III.

This whole essay is a little crackpottish, but now I’m moving from things that merely can’t yet be supported by evidence to things that actively contradict it. But I think about this a lot, and it’s my blog, so shut up and listen anyway.

I notice that the class of mental disorders that seem to involve feedback loops – depression, OCD, anxiety – are also the class of mental disorders effectively treated with serotonergic drugs.

One of the most powerful serotonergic drugs in existence is LSD. And as I have learned from – let’s say long boring journal articles – the main effect of LSD is to make you literally loopy. Your thoughts loop in and become about themselves, your sense of time becomes cyclic, everything you see becomes a fractal or a spiral or both. And you end up in an extreme emotional feedback loop to infinity – either a “good trip” or a “bad trip”.

This just-so story is not quite as convincing as I would like because SSRIs and LSDs both increase serotonin but have opposite effects on loopiness. But “serotonin” is a wide and complicated category, and like I said above, I bet the brain has a lot of different mechanisms to finely adjust how self-referential your thoughts are allowed to get.

I will get crackpottier still: maybe the parameter being adjusted is some kind of “allowed size of loop”, so that usually you can finish an entire train of thought and then maybe reflect back on items in the train. Small amounts of LSD decrease the loop size, so that individual thoughts can refer to themselves. And large amounts of LSD (the journal articles I read were very comprehensive) decrease the loop size to zero, and the perfect pure consciousness people claim to experience is just a loop looping in on itself forever, empty of content.

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80 Responses to Going Loopy

  1. matt says:

    Have you ever read Peter DeVries? He was a satirist, novelist, and New Yorker contributor who grew up in West Michigan in a strict Dutch Calvinist community. Early in his book Slouching Towards Kalamazoo he wrote the following, which captures part of what you wrote above nicely:

    In the beginning was the word. Once terms like identity doubts and midlife crisis become current, the reported cases of them increase by leaps and bounds, affecting people unaware there is anything wrong with them until they have got a load of the coinages. You too may have an acquaintance or even relative with a block about paperhanging or dog grooming, a highflown form of stagnation trickled down from writers and artists. Once my poor dear mother confided to me in a hollow whisper, “I have an identity crisis.” I says, “How do you mean?” and she says, “I no longer understand your father.” Now we have burnout, and having heard tell of it on television or read about it in a magazine, your plumber doubts he can any longer hack it as a pipefitter, while a glossary adopted by his wife has turned him overnight into a sexist, to say nothing of a male chauvinist pig, something she would never have suspected before she encountered the terminology. The word was made flesh.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I had never encountered him before, but he seems wise. I live near enough to (and interact enough with) Kalamazoo that I should probably read about what happens when you slouch towards it.

      • matt says:

        His best book is The Blood of the Lamb, a fictionalized retelling of his own experience losing his faith after the death of his 12 year-old daughter from leukemia. It is one of the most emotionally draining books I have ever read, but somehow I return to it every few years.

  2. Meredith L. Patterson says:

    The executive function paralysis (getting “stuck” in a certain train of action/thought, or caught between incentives/choices) that a lot of autistic people (myself included) experience also acts very much like a feedback loop.

    I’ll be curious to see how your anxiety levels with respect to that post have changed in another three months; did you have a similar experience with, say, the Meditation on Superweapons and Bingo? I’ve written a couple of pieces on my own problems with feminist/SJ rhetoric, and was deeply anxious beforehand, but was also fortunate enough to get what passes for positive reinforcement in this sort of thing (i.e., responders mostly engaging thoughtfully with the ideas, no pitchfork-wielding mobs). The second time through was also easier than the first, so I guess maybe I’m treating it as exposure therapy of opportunity.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I should clarify – I wasn’t anxious because I wrote that post or about the reaction to it. I think I was anxious because instead of just vaguely noticing social justice scared me, I identified it as a “trigger”, and this made the idea of being scared by social justice more quickly mentally available and helped build the feedback loop.

      • Meredith L. Patterson says:

        That makes sense. I’ve had a similar experience with a particular person, coincidentally of an SJWy persuasion; the point a year or so ago when I realised that my response to (e.g.) having this person come up in conversation fit the definition of a “trigger” was pretty anxiety-laden. (There’s, uh, some backstory.) The anxiety has still diminished over time, or at least that’s what my current introspection tells me, but that said, it is a lot easier to filter an individual out of one’s filter bubble than a popular abstract concept. Plus, abstract concepts don’t have obvious human foibles that they put on display when they become public figures, so they’re much more intimidating antagonists.

        • Now I’m thinking about whether SJ tends to frame things in ways that amplify suffering.

          I’m not going to say they’re entirely wrong– they’re up against an environment which pushes them to completely ignore their own suffering– but there’s got to be a proportionate approach.

        • anon says:

          The proportionate approach happens naturally if you concern yourself with all global suffering rather than a particular kind of it, I think.

        • Anonymous says:

          >Now I’m thinking about whether SJ tends to frame things in ways that amplify suffering.

          Any framing of someone as a victim amplifies their victimhood. It is a matter of balancing that with the benefit of classifying them as a victim.

        • Multiheaded says:

          From personal experience, and as many other depressed people agree, it’s a huge relief when others acknowledge your depression and don’t endlessly gaslight you with cheerful bullshit about your mental states. To me it does not feel disempowering at all to speak frankly about mental health (dis)privilege. And certainly I would’ve never got the meds that are helping me if everyone around me just kept brushing it off.

          So yes, I think that the danger of gaslighting-by-privilege is way more bad than that of going into a loop.

      • Keith Berman says:

        Social justice isn’t a scary idea, but in its most primitive form, espoused by clearly intelligent people in high-quality venues, I find it annoying. I used to wonder how talented and intelligent people could possibly believe, in this simplistic and direct way, something so inane and be celebrated for it; maybe I have a better understanding now.

        As this type of memetic phenomenon goes, I don’t find social justice especially objectionable or threatening. Any trigger reaction to social justice ideas, or related (and quite inaccurate) insults, is a different matter from orchestrated mob violence, which can happen (e.g. towards Jewish psychiatrists, in some worlds, because they are so evil; the are even part of a conspiracy that makes violent threats towards their opponents) on a more or less arbitrary basis. I would discount any attempt to frame this as the verdict of “society”.

      • Viliam Búr says:

        This reminds me of a common wisdom that the best way to deal with your problems is to help other people solve their problems. It probably helps to break the obsessive spiral of (meta-)*self-pity.

        The social justice may contain some dangerous ideas; for example they would probably consider such coping techniques ethically wrong. (It is like trying to ban all painkillers, under the hypothesis that without them people would be more motivated to work towards full health, instead of just numbing down their feelings.) To be more precise, many people doing social justice do care about other people; the problem is that they want those other people to focus fully on their own problems instead of e.g. thinking about how they could help someone else, or even just moving on. They want a victim that does not try to escape from the victim role.

    • Andy says:

      The executive function paralysis (getting “stuck” in a certain train of action/thought, or caught between incentives/choices) that a lot of autistic people (myself included) experience also acts very much like a feedback loop.

      This is my experience as well, and I have mild Asperger’s. The fantasy novelist Steven Erikson wrote a description of peoples’ general thought process as (forgive me, I can’t find the exact wording, and I don’t like him enough to look) thoughts digging ruts in the mind like a wagon’s wheels on a road, so thoughts that have been traveled before are easier to think. It was one of a few grace notes in an otherwise fairly crappy series, but it stuck with me because it seemed an approximation of how my own thought process works. I tend to get caught on certain phrases or loops, and when I’m upset, it can be very difficult to break out of them. Having a different feedback loop to switch to helps – mentally drawing eight-pointed stars with the lyrics of pop songs, for example, is something that helps me calm down.

  3. Matthew says:

    Anecdotally, I have mild OCD and serious social anxiety, but I do not experience “anxiety about anxiety.”

    • erratio says:

      Similarly, I have no OCD and significant social and general anxiety, and I don’t get caught in those kinds of feedback loops

  4. adbge says:

    Some weak evidence:

    I think this nice little crystallized concept of “trigger” might allow my brain to feed back its anxiety more effectively…

    I suspect this is true, but don’t know too much about this area, and I’m hesitant given that the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has fallen out of favor. There’s an episode of Radiolab that discusses the possible inability of the Himba tribe to distinguish between blue and green, as their language doesn’t have a separate word for blue (or something). Following a few links, this is both controversial and an area of active research.

    More subjectively, though, it seems like knowing the name of an abstraction makes it much more mentally accessible. As Sussman and Abelson put it, “When you know the name of a spirit, you have control over it.” (Maybe related to chunking?)

    Did the movement for people to become more introspective and talk about their feelings more (that was a thing, right? That’s why old people are so stoic and young people are so touchy-feely?) make people more likely to fall into feedback loops?

    From Ross & Mirowsky (1989):

    Social support led to less depression, but that intimate conversations about problems made things.

    • Darcey Riley says:

      The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (language determines thought) may have gone out of favor, but there’s been a bunch of research recently showing evidence of the weak version (language influences thought). I imagine the weak version is sufficient for the kinds of effects being discussed here. I wish I knew of actual papers investigating this, hmm. It seems like common sense to me that having a particular concept or belief makes that concept/belief more available as an explanation for one’s observations.

    • James James says:

      “the possible inability of the Himba tribe to distinguish between blue and green, as their language doesn’t have a separate word for blue (or something).”

      What does this mean? I can distinguish between RGB 63/72/204 and RGB 56/28/221 even though I just call them “different shades of blue”.

  5. seez says:

    This reminded me of my reaction to the idea of stereotype threat. Basic -isms that apply to my identity never bothered me personally, and I never worried that they would bother me, until I heard about the idea of stereotype threat. Then I started feeling extreme discomfort and stress when people expressed identity-based prejudice, partly because it seemed socially wrong but mostly because I was worried I would be infected by stereotype threat anxiety and perform poorly. Relatedly, I have moderate OCD (and mild misphonia!).

    I wonder whether some more especially sensitive social justice-types subconsciously develop OCD-like discomfort reactions to identity-based prejudice which makes them feel a need to scour it from society the way I need to scour irregularities from the edges of my fingernails, made worse by the fact that they have crystallized those patterns especially well and deeply, and have enough terms to refer to any possible type, so those concepts are especially mentally available.

  6. seez says:

    Also I sometimes respond to anxiety-producing events and some drugs (esp. marijuana) with a mixture of extreme self-consciousness and deep contempt for myself and everything around me, all of which I view as pathetic and physically ugly. It is extremely unpleasant, feels foreign and invasive to my mind and my normal personality, and the only thing I can do to control it is use benzodiazepines or fall asleep. I fall asleep extremely easily when I want to (often in less than 15 seconds). When I wake up from these dark spells, my anxiety is usually lower than my normal baseline, and I feel happy and especially serene. Has anyone had a similar experience?

    • Pthagnar says:

      I have felt something like this — the mixture of self-consciousness and deep contempt for the world, especially bad when I was trying to get to sleep. When I was in this mood in the past, Communist rhetoric provided great material for rumination since it was upsetting and scary [I found out about microaggressions before they were cool!], and still considering myself a Communist at the time, I still thought it was basically Correct Thought; that it being upsetting and scary was a design feature, but that it would all work out for the best come the revolution.

      Now I am in recovery from Communism, and it seems to me that I don’t work myself into that much of a state as often. I don’t know which way the arrow of causation goes, but I do know that during the last few times the feeling peaked and got in the way of sleep, I worked out a way to make the rumination stop and let me drift off to sleep through meditation.

      Interestingly, when I was in this bad-loopy state of Marxist sin, I found it particularly easy to get into the good-loopy Buddhist jhanas. I found that getting to J2 as described in this very interesting paper on Vipassana meditation and reward-system self-stimulation http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2013/653572/ usually did the trick.

    • MugaSofer says:

      Sounds like my … entire life, actually, but I’m pretty sure I’m just projecting onto your description.

  7. Levi Aul says:

    I’d be curious about whether the valproic acid/language-learning link has something to do with recursion during neurogenesis. E.g. a reward signal keeps getting cleaned up, but the rewarding stimulus is still there, so the signal gets emitted repeatedly, effectively reinforcing the record of the stimulus much more than it would have been otherwise?

  8. Vivificient says:

    I believe I have experienced something like what you describe with regard to fear of the dark. I’ve thought, “Hm, it’s dark, sometimes I experience fear when it’s dark like this, I hope I don’t right now, I really hate that feeling,” and then that leads me to starting to think about scary things, and next moment I’m running for the nearest source of light. (As far as I know I do not have OCD.)

  9. Daniel Speyer says:

    I’ve also found that I have more trouble from my limitations after I’ve explicitly acknowledged them. The two biggest examples that come to mind are colorblindness and sensitivity to flickering lights. My best guess is that I’m actually having the same amount of trouble but noticing it more now that it’s part of a pattern, but it could be that acknowledging it makes it worse, or even that it gets worse over time and I acknowledged it when it reached a threshold. I favor the noticing theory because it explains the colorblindness better.

    • Darcey Riley says:

      I have an intolerance for yellow lighting that seems to have gotten substantially worse since realizing it existed. I found out about it five-ish years ago, when a friend of mine noticed that every time I entered a yellow-lit room, I became very withdrawn. These days, I pay a lot of attention to the lighting, and every time I enter a yellow-lit room, I find myself tensing up, based on the knowledge that yellow light makes me stressed. There’s undoubtedly a feedback loop in there somewhere.

      Anyway, I empathize with your intolerance for certain lighting situations.

  10. VVV says:

    When all you have is a theory about feedback loops, everything looks like, well, a feedback loop.

  11. Andrei says:

    Some of your last few posts (including this one) induce in me a strong vibe of post-rationalism. I wonder if you are putting together a loose sequence revealing the sense out of Will Newsome-like ideas…

    • Keith Berman says:

      I like that comment by Will Newsome. Post-rationality seems to draw out a natural potential of Bayesian rationality, which didn’t necessarily manifest in the first pass. Whereas Bayesian rationality criticises traditional rationality using a wealth of new or curated concepts, post-rationalism criticises and makes-ironic Bayesian rationality using its own concepts. So,

      “My ambition is infinite but not limitless. I don’t think I can re-arrange the small natural numbers.”

      qualifies Bayesian rationality’s heroic aspect using its mathematical Platonism. But this choice also exposes Bayesianism’s insular, hubristic nature, in which a suitable example or reference is always to be found amongst the community’s distinctive memes. An additional irony is that Bayesian rationality’s fundamental modesty has become a false modesty.

      “I never thought I would think there were actual facts of the matter in Christology.”

      This might be considered equivalent to “I never thought there were actual facts of the matter in Christology”, yet even Bayesians would infer a difference. Perhaps Bayesianism has made informal speech, with all its context, innuendo and connotations, needlessly confusing. Also, that despite a presumed association with strident atheism, the suspicion that Bayesians are in fact tempted by theology.

      • Keith Berman says:

        “I never thought I would think there were actual facts of the matter in Christology.”

        So the most important thing is the use of pedantic Bayesian language, thinking about thinking, not actually to be pedantic but as a circumlocutionary way to introduce one’s doubts about atheism.

      • St. Rev says:

        This might be considered equivalent to “I never thought there were actual facts of the matter in Christology”

        There’s always a nonzero chance that you’ll suffer a stroke or other brain injury and acquire delusions. So you can assign probability zero to P but not to the proposition that you will come to believe P.

        • Keith Berman says:

          Yes, and one could be even more pedantic about the consistency of identity over time or the difference between entertaining a thought and assigning a probability. Also, “zero isn’t a probability”.

          It’s a matter of interpretation, but I strongly doubt that anyone who said, “I never thought I would think there were actual facts of the matter in Christology” would have in mind the possibility of suffering brain damage. They would have in mind, “I used to think that Christology was thoroughly nonsensical and detached from reality, but now I think it’s meaningful and I’m curious about it”.

          The “thinking about thinking” terminology would, in this context, be in the genre of Bayesian rationality yet unclear, in fact a way to disguise the embarrassing truth, hence the post-rationalist irony.

        • Army1987 says:

          Is [“zero isn’t a probability”] a LW thing?

          The Wikipedia article on Cromwell’s rule predates LW.

        • St. Rev says:

          Have made and deleted several comments here as unworthy, but I will say this:

          When dealing with certain complexes of ideas which are known to be infectious, and which appear to be outright harmful, I would argue that it’s fully rational, or metarational, to set those probabilities to zero precisely as a firewall against updating toward them.

        • Zathille says:

          Still, knowing people can be biased about ideas that seem alien to them, could a person really be so sure that labelling such ideas as ‘infectious’ or ‘harmful’ would not be a moral hazard in on itself?

          I mean, the term ‘infectious’ itself seems loaded to me, could it not be that the idea is convincing, but considered ‘harmful’ a priori, based on a person’s earlier and possibly biased beliefs? That is not to say that the new idea is harmless or less subject to bias, but could not such an absolute rejection be hazardous as it could ‘protect’ prior biases unduly?

          Maybe I’m overthinking this. But I’d also like to know examples of ideas which are this infectious and harmful to warrant such behaviour.

        • Zathille says:

          Thank you. May I also ask why you consider it infectious and harmful, in contrast with other ‘normal’ sets of ideas?

        • St. Rev says:

          Aside from bleeding fortunes from unfortunate idiots, aside from using for-real slave labor, it tears apart families, including my late great-aunt’s.

          It’s not qualitatively different from other religions, either. It’s just consciously weaponized. L. Ron Hubbard was a genius.

        • Zathille says:

          I know I’ve probably derailed this thread for enough time already, but the claim that they use slave labour seems incredible for me, even though I am aware of the church’s other schemish activities.

          Where could I find a credible source that brought such a practice to light? I’m quite curious.

        • St. Rev says:

          Websearch “sea org”.

    • Keith Berman says:

      We can also draw out the potential of other discussions.

      I had a discussion with some people about subconscious motives in political counter-conduct. My belief is that these exist, more so than I was previously aware, but it doesn’t validate accusations my opponents have made. Inclinations of this type are also, for reasons of human nature and politics, related to the constraints on rational behaviour.

      Someone who inclines towards contrarianism, and whose sense of status is unusually favourable to it, would have a psychological desire for social support for these beliefs: a defensive psychology. Aspects of this psychology may or may not have a strong influence on someone’s effectual behaviour.

      On the rational level, political conduct and counter-conduct simply have, eventually, to embody (ideally implicit) social forces of some kind; e.g. I now recognise the important distinction between religious social justice warriors, etc., and administrative elites. My preference in that sense is opposed to romantic nationalist entities and herds; I view the Tea Party favourably. I find this subject interesting as political science, but not enticing.

      The “post-rationality” is pointing out that my opponents also have euphemisms and psychological inhibitions surrounding their political reasoning, this being an unavoidable reality. I think the measure of virtue, amongst people with some competence in this context, is subtler than one is able to acknowledge without dispelling the euphemisms and fictions.

  12. handle says:

    In the retina, near-neighbor neuron inhibition is a technique used to increase the perception of contrast. The technique is also used in circuit design to improve signal to noise ratios by reducing interference and preventing false positives. I think I recall reading that LSD interferes with this proximity suppression mechanism, especially in the retina and visual cortex, which is partly responsible for all the visual hallucinations, because the influence of other brain centers on imagination is also less inhibited.

    This inhibitory mechanism may also be useful for emotional regulation in that it prevents potential feedback loops from getting out of control. But if you’re really smart, (or… Something is different about your brain) then maybe your frontal cortex is so active and powerful when it worries that is acts like LSD and overwhelms your feedback inhibition regulation system, making you more prone to obsession and anxiety.

  13. ciil says:

    But the most clear-cut example is panic disorder. Someone gets anxious for some reason. They get the standard somatic correlates of anxiety – racing heartbeat, sweating, etc. This is a scary situation to be in, not least because it mimics all sorts of terrible medical conditions like heart attacks. This makes the person more anxious, which increases the somatic correlates, and so on.

    Oh man, I had this last Tuesday. I was holding my arm kinda strange and after a time it went numb. My thoughts were circling around “OH MY GOD every time someone’s arm’s going numb it means they will immediately have a heart attack … calm down, you’re stupid, you almost sat on that arm for half an hour, of course it’s gonna be numb … I can already feel it, it’s a heart attack should I tell someone … you’re still stupider, working yourself up over this … OH GOD HEART ATTACK IMMINENT … *other half of brain facepalms*”

    I got up, drank a little water, wiggled my arm around and, surprise surprise, the numbness left and I’m still standing, but … damn, panic attacks are intense in their loopiness of reasoning.

    (Meh, and now thinking about that makes my heart race :D.)

    • Anonymous says:

      I’ve had heart attack symptoms for years. I finally got fed up and saw a cardiologist and got an EKG. He chuckled and told me I was fine. It was very reassuring, and now I can enjoy a lot of drugs and physical activity again (note: mentioned drugs and physical activity are safe. i do not endorse engaging in dangerous drugs or physical activity).

  14. St. Rev says:

    I’m not convinced of this as a general principle, but it definitely applies to my Tourette’s. TS is autocatalyzing–talking or writing about it, or thinking about it too much, can bring on a fit, at least for me. Fortunately I also have short-term memory problems and bluescreen every 20-30 seconds, which helps mitigate against it.

    • anon1 says:

      Used to happen to me too – thinking about twitching would make me want to twitch. It’s weakened over the years, though; writing this comment is only giving me the smallest tickle at the back of my mind.

  15. yli says:

    On the flip side there’s positive loops. If you want to make up for exposing people to ideohazards you could post some thoughts about those. For one there are lots of positive thinking concepts around in contemporary culture as well which could be a counterbalancing force. I wonder whether there’s a systematic difference between how powerful positive and negative thought loops are. You see a lot of depressed and anxious people but not many people spiraling into loops of success and happiness from positive thinking… or do you? I just have vague biased impression to work from.

  16. Army1987 says:

    See also: ugh fields.

  17. Elissa says:

    Do people without OCD have this same experience of anxiety about anxiety about anxiety…? For example, when I was young I was afraid of the dark, not because I believed in ghosts, but because I expected to hear a sound or see something blown around by the wind which I would mistake for a ghost and then have to deal with waves of terror rushing through my body until I figured out what it was, and this was sufficiently bad that I slept with the lights on as a child. Is this the sort of thing other people could imagine feeling, or is it really unusual?

    Yeah, that does sound really strange and foreign to me. When I was a kid, I might hear a noise or see a shadow and think it was a ghost, and this would scare me momentarily. Then I’d remember that I had convincing (to me at the time) evidence that There’s No Such Thing As Ghosts, feel a strong sense of relief, and congratulate myself for being smart and brave. The relief, and the being smart and brave, were definitely more rewarding than the initial fear was aversive. This could be because I feel fear less strongly, or because I have a working loop-disruptor; I dunno.

    Also, when I have depression, identifying it as such is always rather helpful than otherwise. “This is depression” tends to lead to “I probably feel much more doomed and as if everyone hates me than the situation warrants,” which is at least a little bit comforting.

    I’ve noticed before that I don’t seem to be wired for panic attacks, and that this is very lucky for me.

    • ozymandias says:

      Seconded: noticing “hey, I’m triggered” or “hey, I’m anxious” or “hey, I’m feeling guilty for no reason” or “hey, I feel like shit” typically helps me more than it doesn’t help me, for the exact same reason– it reminds me that the *thoughts* coming along with my emotion aren’t true. (Also, that this is a temporary state and not the Eternal Way I Have Always Been And Will Be Forever.)

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Interesting; Scott seems to find that identifying things makes them seem permanent, which is the opposite of your experience. It sounds like things can go both ways depending on the person, where some will be helped by diagnosis and some will be hurt. Understanding which way someone is could be a big win.

        On the other hand, I know someone who I suspect is susceptible to both effects. Maybe framing and presentation can encourage a positive reaction?

        Future research topic: The mental health implications of ‘ser’ vs. ‘estar’

  18. Nestor says:

    My old man always claims “sensitivity was invented in the 60s”

    • von Kalifornen says:

      I don’t think that is the case but I do think that people are now socialized to expect different concessions, and this has become self-sustaining.

    • Multiheaded says:

      To phrase it in a way Von Kalifornen would like, I’d say that a bunch of hippies rediscovered many old-timey aristocracy-only values in the 60s, gave them a moderately egalitarian spin, passed them off as brand new and super progressive, ignored that most people are at least materially too constrained to truly live them, and called it a day.

      This had the bad side effects of 1) contributing to the Fall of the Left (long, oft-overlooked story), and 2) inviting the reactionary backlash that overhypes the cases where the masses can’t make good use of such values, ignores the upsides (such as the genuine growth of tolerance), and disregards traditional Old Left values as a viable alternative, resulting in a fetishistic, frequently irrelevant and occasionally devastating (War on Drugs, welfare resentment) authoritarian paternalism.

  19. gattsuru says:

    Caution : strong ideohazard, trigger warnings for depression, anxiety, et all.

    If you really want to have a fun example, look at locus of control research.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Ooooh, good point. I have an external locus of control, but that’s okay because it’s probably genetic and there’s nothing I can do to change it anyway.

  20. Laura says:

    Interesting ideas here. I agree that the word ‘trigger’ is dangerous and should probably be avoided. I know some people who use the word to prevent whole generas of conversation from occurring, lest they be ‘triggered,’ and this is extremely aggravating. While I mainly see that kind of thing as social-justice social-manipulation, I think the idea that you can be ‘triggered’ can be a sort of a form of auto-hypnosis and self-fulfilling prophecy, similar to what you describe. I had this happen to me not that long ago. My husband did something that made me vividly remember a traumatic event with my ex-husband, and afterwards I told him never to do anything like that again, because he had, ‘triggered’ some very strong fear reactions. Sometime later he did a similar thing, and this time I had a full asthma attack (and I don’t have asthma). It was like I had conditioned more on the prior event and my fear of the fear that it caused than I had on the actual unpleasant past memories. But what to do about it? I don’t want to live in fear of panic attacks caused by essentially harmless unpleasantness. Maybe next time I’ll focus on how much I resent the very idea of doing that instead…

  21. Lila says:

    If we’re working with the (imo plausible) hypothesis that psychological diagnoses influence thoughts, how about we stop saying that personality disorders are immutable? Personality disorders seem like the most ad hoc diagnoses, at the opposite end of the spectrum from stuff like schizophrenia that’s clearly biological. Personality disorders are just a way of classifying personality traits that seem to group together, which is useful. But with personality disorders, the keyword they always emphasize is “immutable”. Why? That seems to do more harm than good.

    Several years ago, I googled “I don’t care about other people” and got a description of schizoid personality disorder. Maybe there was some confirmation bias, but I was blown away by how well the symptoms described me. So I went to a psychologist and was like, “I think I have this” and she was like “sure” and that was the official diagnosis I got recorded on my insurance forms. So that became a part of my identity (I secretly thought it was a bit glamorous), and I believed I would have it for the rest of my life because that’s what I’d always been told. So I didn’t make any effort to change it. But… then it did change. I had just been unhappy and weird and had alienated a lot of people, and a lot of that was my fault. When I got happy and decided to change my life, I found a lot of intimacy and connection. Whether or not I had the thing we call “schizoid personality disorder” is just semantics. But I think it could have ended sooner if I hadn’t been diagnosed.

  22. As someone who had clinical depression, I can provide one data point that knowing I was depressed did in fact make the depression worse. However, it wasn’t a feedback loop in the sense mentioned here (“thinking about being depressed > more depressed”), but rather because it heightened my attention to various depressive symptoms and also hooked me into a bunch of really terrible cultural memes.

    See, for a long time I thought there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was. And then one day I came across one of those “you might be depressed if” things, and I realized that I had every single one of the symptoms. Bam: I was depressed. (Self-diagnosed, but there was and is little doubt in the mind of myself or anyone who knew me at the time.) However, once I recognized my condition as “depression”, there were a host of emotional and cognitive states which I previously had not paid a great deal of attention to, which suddenly acquired meaning as signifiers of depression, which meant that my mental experience of depression was suddenly much more acute. Worse, I then started identifying myself with various tortured-artist and sensitive-artist-soul archetypes, and this provided a social cue for me to become more depressed and to resist treatment, at least at first, because I wanted to be one of those cool artsy types and not one of the boring normal people. This is also why I started cutting. I would probably not have discovered this form of depressive acting out on my own, but my then-girlfriend mentioned it to me, and shortly thereafter I picked up the habit.

    (This was all over a decade ago. I’m fine now.)

  23. Desertopa says:

    “One of my professor’s work – and my college thesis – expanded the field of bear-with-sunglasses-ology to note that people with obsessive compulsive disorder are found to be much worse at this task than the general population.”

    Really? I’m diagnosed with OCD (mild, but there’ve been plenty of days when I’d spend hours picking cat hair off a blanket, so mild is relative,) and it only took me a bit of practice to teach myself to not-think-about-bears-with-sunglasses on command.

    It’s not fully generalizable though. I can easily choose to not-think about pink rhinos, but I can’t choose to not think about an argument I’ve been having with a friend, for instance.

    • Anonymous says:

      I can ignore thoughts about things, but only by distraction. This is unfortunate, because it causes paralysis by anxiety. For example, in school I would often stay up all night being bothered by how much work I had to do but never doing any.

  24. Paul Torek says:

    So you hypothesize that our labels for psychological states can influence thoughts and behavior? Bring me the fainting couch, I feel dizzy!

    I feel like Conan O’Brien reacting to a study that showed girls to be more articulate than boys. “Duh!” If you’re even the tiniest bit tentative about this, I recommend a crash course in the history of mental illness treatment.

  25. hf says:

    You know, earlier I was thinking that your expressed admiration for Will Newsome probably didn’t mean he’d corrupted your once-promising mind.

    and the perfect pure consciousness people claim to experience is just a loop looping in on itself forever, empty of content.

    Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be? Aristotle called the Gods – or the archetypical examples of existence – pure thoughts thinking themselves, or unchanging self-contemplation free of any unrealized potential. By the way, Aristotle almost certainly experienced the Eleusinian Mysteries, and some argue that the Mysteries involved a psychedelic drug.

  26. AlexP says:

    LSD can be a ton of fun if you do it in the right circumstances, there’s less risk of adulteration than other illicit substances, and there’s virtually no risk of it showing up in a drug test.

    You seem like the type of person who’d right a very interesting account of your experience with acid.

    Also, slightly more pertinant:

    I don’t have ocd, or if I do it’s very mild, but when I joined a fraternity in college (long story), my social awkwardness was pointed out to me at great length and I developed a great deal of anxiety over it and then anxiety about my anxiety about social awkwardness, which was almost crippling unless I “self-medicated” to an extent. It got better my senior year and after I graduated.

  27. Oligopsony says:

    I am weighing whether to read this. All, how insightful/interesting is it, and relevant population who decided to read it, how bad is the basilisk?

  28. EdSorow says:

    I used to have some pretty mysterious health issues related to muscle, joint, and nerve problems. When I first got them checked out, my doctor told me it was stress. I told him that I didn’t feel stressed out, but my dad agreed with the doctor, and said that I did have an “overactive imagination.” Eventually I began to believe that I really did stress out too much. Then I began stressing out about being stressed out. Then I found out I had Celiac’s disease.

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  30. Geekethics says:

    I had precisely the same experience on this post when I said I was triggered by certain kinds of feminist and social justice rhetoric.

    Epistemic status: I’m hardly confident of this, but the timing works out, and if my head is anything like yours the same reasoning applies.

    I’ve been depressed for a while. Original circumstances had a lot to do with PTSD and feminist issues. Hence talking about such things tended to set off a spiral. When I read the original post this got massively worse. Then I read this post, realized what was happening, and since then I’ve almost made the concious decision not to be upset by that kind of thing any more.

    Damn you for making my depression 3 times worse. Thankyou for curing it utterly.

  31. Syn says:

    I’ve read extensive literature on LSD and other psychedelics, as well as have had multiple experiences on small and large doses. I’m also a third year spec. in behavioral neuroscience.

    Your article was interesting, but I can tell you for a fact that being on LSD isn’t anything like “a loop looping in on itself forever, empty of content.” And that’s a PROMISE–both neurobiologically and psychologically speaking.

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