Saturday, February 28, 2009

More Hilarious Zeitgeistiness

Yes, I did say I had two wacky 1930s book ads to show you. You're not going crazy. It's just that I ended up spending a lot more verbiage than I had planned for (as usual) on the first one, so I thought I would break it up into two posts.

Here's other one, from the same magazine:

This time, the book being hawked is titled "STRANGE LOVES: A Study in Sexual Abnormalities." For sophisticated adult readers only, which is a slightly stricter criterion than "Sex Harmony and Eugenics" came with --- that one, they only would not ship to children. No sophistication required, as long as you were of legal age.

I am sorry I wasted the word "purple" on the copy describing "Sex Harmony and Eugenics," when it's now clear to me that that writing couldn't hold a candle to what's in this ad.

(I'd adjust my appraisal, and say that the copy in the earlier ad was merely "lavender," if that word with its more recent historical connotations were not so perfect for this ad).


For hundreds of years men and women have talked with hushed voices about "STRANGE PEOPLE" --- men who are not men --- women who are not women. No one has ever dared to talk out in the open about THE THIRD SEX. Is it any wonder that the shocking lurid facts of this great social evil are unknown to the great mass of men and women?

The terms used here, besides being more reminiscent of a carnival barker's spiel than an academic or medical treatise (that's another thing about these old ads --- get a load of the absolute authority given to doctors!), are very confusing. Sometimes the copy seems to refer to gay men and lesbians, sometimes to intersexed people, sometimes to transpeople, and sometimes merely to men or women who do not act sufficiently masculine or feminine.

I imagine that in the author's fevered imagination, these categories overlap one another considerably.

Now a Doctor has dared to tear away the veil of mystery that hides the facts behind homosexuality. In blunt understandable words he describes the unbelievable facts. "STRANGE LOVES: A Study in Sexual Abnormalities," by Dr. La Forest Potter, noted authority, is a document so weird, so startling, as to amaze the civilized world. Dr. Potter says, "NO MAN ON EARTH HAS A CHANCE AGAINST A WOMAN ONCE SHE HAS SUCCUMBED TO ANOTHER WOMAN." A startling, provocative indictment against the false modesty that has been responsible for the growth of these fantastic strange amatory curiosities among savage and civilized races.

Look, there's false modesty again! This is an interesting aspect of early 20th-century American culture, with its pop Freudianism and its emphases on hygiene and on scientific homemaking and childrearing. The same deep fear and loathing of sex (and of women in general) still lurks underneath the modernized surface; it's just that, now, sex outside of procreative sex within marriage isn't sinful so much as unhealthy.

It's a bit dizzying to consider how the blame for "deviant" sexual practices has shifted over the centuries. You've got the medieval conception of woman as sensual, easily tempted Eve whose insatiable sexual appetite had to be carefully safeguarded by her father and husband; you've got the Victorian "angel in the house" who is ethereal, unworldly and entirely asexual, but whose duty it is to provide her husband (who is now the insatiable animal but, curiously, is not subject to strict control by the women in his life) with a suitable sexual outlet, lest he fall in with Bad Women who will lead him into utter dissolution; and now, with this hygienic, pop-Freudian conception of sex, it is repression of normal sexual development which leads to morbid fascination and unusual appetites.

(On a sillier note, I absolutely love the all-caps "NO MAN on EARTH has a CHANCE against a woman" --- why against? shouldn't it be with? --- "once she has succumbed to ANOTHER WOMAN!" I love the idea that lesbians are lurking out there in some dingy opium den or back alley, waiting to tempt some innocent straight girl from the path.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Wacky Magazine Ads from 1934

While perusing some old pulp magazines from the 1930s, mostly of the true-crime variety, I ran across a couple of ads that stopped me right in my tracks with their hilarious zeitgeistiness.

They were both for books; books which I imagine have vanished in the mists of time.

First, this one, for what seems to be a sex book of the "marriage manual" subtype:

Notice the title of the book: "Sex Harmony and Eugenics."

(You can find a clearer image of an ad for the same book, with some of the same text, on the last page of this reprint of a 1937 "Modern Mechanix" article. One thing that differs between the two is the identity of the book you get for free with your order of "Sex Harmony and Eugenics" --- in the ad pictured above, you get "Why Birth Control?", while in the ad from "Modern Mechanix" you are offered the expansively titled "Philosophy of LIFE," which is described as a frank discussion of "the difference in construction and function of man and woman.")

The above ad, besides astonishing me with "Eugenics" as apparently part and parcel of the sex ed of its day, also amused me with its purple prose about "The Forbidden Secrets of Sex" and the alternately swoony and disapproving faces in the accompanying photo.

Some samples:

Away with false modesty! At last a famous doctor has told all the secrets of sex in frank, daring language. No prudish beating around the bush, no veiled hints, but TRUTH, blazing through 576 pages of straightforward facts.

Some will be offended by the amazing frankness of this book and its vivid illustrations, but the world has no longer any use for prudery and false modesty.

Lost love ... scandal ... divorce ... can often be prevented by knowledge. Only the ignorant pay the awful penalties of wrong sex practices. Read the facts, clearly, startlingly told ... study these illustrations and grope in darkness no longer.

(Hee hee. "Grope in darkness" --- there's a double entendre for you!)

There are also two (separate, of course) lists of what the author thinks "EVERY MAN SHOULD KNOW" and "EVERY WOMAN SHOULD KNOW." The men's list features such items as The Sexual Embrace, Secrets of the Honeymoon, How to Regain Virility, Glands and the Sex Instinct, and Sexual Starvation, while the women's list includes How to Attract and Hold Men, Intimate Feminine Hygiene, a Birth Control Chart, What to Allow a Lover to Do, and the requisite horror stories on Prostitution and Sexual Slavery of Women. In other words, men learn how to perform sexually (and, with the chapters on "sexual starvation" and regaining "virility," they learn that they are expected to perform sexually, whenever presented with the opportunity) while women learn that they are to be sexual gatekeepers, "allowing" lovers to do only what Good Girls Do, and shouldering all the responsibility for birth control and proper mate selection while making sure to stay attractive and receptive enough to hold the man's interest.

I was able to find pages from this book on the Eugenics Archive website, and I think this image taken from there illustrates perfectly the book's attitude toward women's sexuality:

The woman who is truly educated about sex, y'see, doesn't endeavor to find out anything for herself, by reading novels or erotica or seeking out sexual experiences. No, she is content to let her mother tell her everything she needs to know, and to remain a virgin until marriage and then dutifully have procreative sex with her eugenically-approved husband.

Good to know that, then as now, talk of liberated, informed sexuality is really only meant to apply to one gender.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Is There an Extreme Female Brain?

That question came up in the comments on this post I wrote in September on Simon Baron-Cohen's Extreme Male Brain theory of autism.

While Baron-Cohen did describe the Type E, or "female," brain in the lengthy paper I discussed in the earlier post, nowhere in that paper did he mention an extreme version of this type analogous to the "extreme male brain" he posits as an explanation of autism.

However, in his book-length treatment of the larger subject of brain sex in general, The Essential Difference (2003 --- brief summary and critique available here), he devotes a whole chapter to the extreme female brain.

Baron-Cohen claims that extreme empathizers have been harder for him to characterize because he hasn't seen any of them in his clinic. He hypothesizes that because it's easier for people who are highly skilled at dealing with people but who are helpless at solving problems and thinking logically to function in society, such people do not generally present their cases for psychologists' perusal.
All scientists know about the extreme female brain is that it is predicted to arise ... Scientists have never got up close to these individuals. It is a bit like positing the existence of a new animal on theoretical grounds, and then setting out to discover if it is really found in nature.
[W]hat would such people look like?

... Their empathizing ability would be average or significantly better than that of other people in the general population, but their systemizing would be impaired. So these would be people who have difficulty understanding math or physics or machines or chemistry, as systems. But they could be extremely accurate at tuning in to others' feelings and thoughts.

Would such a profile carry any necessary disability? Hyperempathizing could be a great asset, and poor systemizing may not be too crippling. It is possible that the extreme female brain is not seen in clinics because it is not maladaptive.

We saw that those with the extreme male brain do experience a disability, but only when the person is expected to be socially able. Remove this expectation, and the person can flourish. Unfortunately, in our society this social expectation is pervasive: at school, in the workplace and in the home. So it is hard to avoid.

But for those with the extreme female brain, the disability might only show up in circumstances where the person is expected to be systematic or technical. The person with the extreme female brain would be system-blind. Fortunately, in our society there is considerable tolerance for such individuals. For example, if you were a child who was systemblind, your teachers might simply allow you to drop mathematics and science at the earliest possible stage, and encourage you to pursue your stronger subjects. If you were a systemblind adult and your car didn't work, you could just call the mechanic (who is likely to be at least a Type S). If your computer needs putting together, and you can't work out which lead goes into which socket, there are phone numbers that you can ring for technical support. And in evolutionary terms, there were likely equivalent people that a systemblind person could turn to for help when that person's home was destroyed in strong winds, or when their spear broke.
Despite the silliness of the idea of Prehistoric Tech Support ("Step One: Does Your Spear Have a Pointy End?"), Baron-Cohen has a good point here: with the increasing complexity of society, technology and daily life, division of labor has proceeded to such an extent that many different categories of people exist whose job it is to make sure other people's gadgets are functioning as they should. The need to repair one's own stuff has gotten less and less --- and rich people have never had to fix their own broken appliances --- and, indeed, is no longer possible for many electronic gadgets. Since these extreme Type E's would be good at navigating complex social networks, they should have no trouble knowing whom to consult about what annoying technological hiccup.

That's about as far as I'm willing to grant that his prediction holds any water, though. I think he dramatically underestimates the degree to which systematic modes of thought are needed in modern life. In one example, he has his hypothetical extreme empathizer dealing with a car that won't start; were I in the room when he was writing that part, I would ask him what business he has supposing that this systemblind person could even drive a car? Driving requires memorization and application of a very specific and complicated set of rules, deriving other vehicles' likely trajectories from those rules, and performing fairly complex feats of spatial reasoning quickly and often. All of these things, you have probably realized, are examples of the "systemizing" cognitive style that these extreme Type E's are supposed to lack.

Later in the chapter, Baron-Cohen considers some of the possible matches for his extreme female brain among existing psychological disorders. He rejects what I had thought to be the obvious choice --- paranoia --- on the grounds that the over-attribution of hostile intentions to others (or, sometimes, to inanimate objects) cannot be hyperempathy, because the paranoid person does not perceive the hostility so much as he or she creates it.
[A]re individuals with these psychiatric conditions (for that is what paranoia and personality disorders are) revealing the extreme female brain?

This cannot be the case. If someone is over-attributing intentions, or has become preoccupied by their own emotions, then by definition they are not exhibiting hyperempathy. Hyperempathy is the ability to ascertain the mental states of others to an unusually accurate and sensitive degree, and it can only occur if one is appropriately tuned in to the other person's feelings. A paranoid person, or someone who is easily inflamed into aggression by suspecting that others are hostile, has a problem. But their problem is not hyperempathy.
So, if the "female" brain is characterized by special attention to, and a high degree of accuracy in parsing, subtle emotional cues in other people's faces, voices or behavior, a person whose wild imaginings led them to infer motivations that weren't there would be as far off from this mark as someone who simply failed to realize that there was any meaning to be read at all.

Ultimately, Baron-Cohen characterizes the extreme female cognitive type as regular people with a particular gift for connecting with people, but who are also technologically clueless:
A second, and to my mind more likely [than his earlier suggestion of a person who believes in telepathy without being delusional or generally harboring wacky ideas], contender for who might have an extreme female brain would be a wonderfully caring person who can rapidly make you feel perfectly understood. For example, an endlessly patient psychotherapist who is excellent at tuning in to your feelings and situation, who not only says she feels a great sadness at your sadness or great pleasure at your pleasure but also actually experiences these emotions as vividly as if your feelings were hers.
He adds that such a prodigy would have to be "technologically disabled" to a corresponding extent to fit his theory, but supposes that such a disability would not stop her from establishing a meaningful career in the caring professions. He says, to my mind unrealistically, that society values empathizers and provides them rewarding niches while compensating for (or ignoring) their weaknesses in systemizing.

I do not believe that society particularly values its caregivers, though. Most of them (in the US) are unpaid, and depend entirely for their survival on the income and health insurance of their working spouses. When caregiving is also a paid job, it is grossly underpaid and often physically and emotionally exhausting. Even within fields that are fairly prestigious, like medicine, those specialties which are dominated by women tend to be the lowest-paid and least-highly regarded. The specialties women choose are often the more nurturing, caring, do-gooder areas like pediatrics or family practice. Conversely, engineers are compensated quite well, and are unique among the professions for earning power immediately following completion of a bachelor's degree.

(I have one final, random thing to add: I know several hyperempathizers. Of the three I can think of, two are male and one is female. One of them sounds a lot like the idea Baron-Cohen rejected in favor of the wholly-assimilated caring professional: when he perceives other people's mental states, he claims to be seeing "auras." I take this to mean that his brain interprets the subtle signals he's perceiving in a visual way --- much like my own thoughts, experienced by a more superstitious person, might be termed "visions." Ironically enough, this man has an autistic son).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Gratuitous Woman-Blaming: Even Progressives Do It

As I am likely to be moving to Tennessee in the not-too-distant future, I read this guest post at Shakesville with particular alarm. (Cross-posted from here).

Apparently there is a bill working its way through the Tennessee state legislature that would require all pregnant women who aren't seeing an OB/GYN for prenatal care all throughout their pregnancy, or whose pregnancies are "abnormal" in some way, to undergo drug testing.

Here's Aunt B's take on the bill's implications:
This bill would make mandatory drug testing for women who don't act right during pregnancy. If you don't get pre-natal care, the State [of Tennessee --- not the entire US, international readers!] wants the right to drug test you. If you don't come in for prenatal care promptly once the fetus is viable, they want the right to drug test you. If you don't get the right kind of prenatal care, they want the right to drug test you. In other words, if you act in any way "abnormal," the going assumption is going to be that you must be on drugs.

But here's the best part. If your pregnancy just isn't going right --- the placenta comes open or the fetus dies or you go into labor early for no discernible reason, or the fetus isn't growing fast enough, or the fetus has congenital anomalies --- and let me remind you that these are all things that just happen during pregnancies; things go wrong, for no reason, all the time --- the State wants to drug test you.
In other words, the precedent they're setting is that, once you are pregnant, your body is not your own. You no longer know what's best for you. Your doctor no longer knows what's best for you. You are not allowed to not realize you're pregnant. You're not allowed to be afraid. You're not allowed to be too poor to go to the doctor. You have to do what the State tells you to do while you're
pregnant, because, while you're pregnant, your body is not your own.

Here, from the text of the bill itself, is the list of "indications of the necessity for drug and alcohol testing":
(1) No prenatal care;
(2) Late prenatal care after twenty-four (24) weeks gestation;
(3) Incomplete prenatal care;
(4) Abruptio placentae;
(5) Intrauterine fetal death;
(6) Preterm labor of no obvious cause;
(7) Intrauterine growth retardation of no obvious cause;
(8) Previously known alcohol or drug abuse; or
(9) Unexplained congenital anomalies.
(I took #3, "Incomplete prenatal care," to encompass not only failing to see an OB/GYN all the way up to the birth, but also getting prenatal care from anyone who is not an OB/GYN --- like if you had decided to give birth at home with the help of a midwife or doula).

What's particularly mind-bending about this bill is that its sponsors --- Sen. Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis) and Rep. Jim Hackworth (D-Clinton) --- actually seem to be fairly progressive.

From a statement Marrero made on human rights:
As a Democrat, I support women being allowed to make choices about their own lives and bodies. These are painful and difficult choices. I support these women. I stand beside them in their struggle for self-determination.

As a Democrat, I am concerned about all children being nurtured and supported by a loving and compassionate community.
Aunt B mentioned in her post the likely reasoning behind someone like Marrero proposing this act: Memphis --- Marrero's home district of Shelby County in particular --- has appalling rates of infant mortality and premature birth.

Lack of access to prenatal care has a lot to do with it:
Prematurity is the No. 1 baby killer in Memphis and nationwide, accounting for at least 60 percent of the deaths.

In half those cases doctors don't know why the babies came early.

Poor women are more likely to deliver too early - between 20 and 37 weeks - and lose their babies. The odds are against them.

Their lives too often reflect the long list of risk factors.

Poor mothers are less likely to get prenatal care, less likely to eat right and get vitamins they need.

They're more likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, and suffer mental and physical abuse.

They're more likely to have unplanned or back-to-back pregnancies.

Poor mothers are more often high school dropouts and teenagers, more likely to live near toxic streams and dumping grounds.
"We've medicalized a social problem," [Nancy Lawhead, health policy assistant to Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton] said.

Memphis must find a way to infuse in its culture that teen pregnancy is a shackle to poverty, she said. That the surest way to freedom is family planning; that low education levels and no prenatal care can literally kill your baby.

In light of that, I can understand Marrero and Hackworth's desperation. But the way to combat the profound systemic inequalities at work here is not to penalize poor women for failing to get themselves into doctors' offices in spite of all the factors that work to keep them out. As Aunt B mentions in her post, this bill is not likely to get more drug-using moms-to-be to see doctors; if anything, it will keep them away for fear of testing positive and facing drug charges. (Also, as one of the commenters at Shakesville noted, opiate withdrawal is hell on even a nonpregnant body, so going into treatment to break the addiction --- which is what the law would mandate for women testing positive --- could actually jeopardize more pregnancies).

No, I think legislators like Marrero and Hackworth would be better served by putting their funding behind existing volunteer organizations that educate and advocate for pregnant women, or by beefing up state-funded healthcare. Using the law to make more choices available to poor women makes a lot more sense than using it to restrict their choices even further.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Act of Shameless Emotional Exhibitionism

For all I hear about how widely variable people's experiences of autism are, I certainly run into a lot of people whose autism sounds a lot like my own.

The latest to join this group is this guy --- a British* engineer about my own age. He was recently diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and much of his blog is devoted to making sense of his life in terms of this new information.

While his autism is not exactly like mine --- for one thing, he has serious trouble with social anxiety and paranoia stemming from his inability to "read" other people, whereas my own reaction to that inability has been not to care --- we do have a lot of really random, deeply personal things in common. I never even thought of some of them until I read his ramblings on the subject!

For instance, this:
I don't think I have ever told members of my family that I love them; I have never hugged anyone and felt comfortable about it, and I have never been in love with a woman.
Except for the last thing (I have been in love with a woman --- also with two men. I think the gender ratio is skewed because so many of my friends are men), I might have written that not too long ago. I was nineteen the first time I told my mother I loved her. It was when I had first started having depressive episodes, and been seized day and night with powerful suicidal compulsions, which for me took the form of visions. (Not hallucinations --- my normal thought processes are visual, so when I have recurring involuntary thoughts of a certain intensity, it makes sense to call them "visions," even though I do not actually see them in front of me). It was very scary for all of us, and I wanted to make sure she knew that I was still me, and could still have thoughts and feelings beyond those visions --- that there was a core of me that could not be destroyed. So I told her I loved her.

Matt says later in that post that saying the words "I love you" is hard for him --- as hard as looking someone in the eye. This is true for me as well. Anything relating to emotional or mental states, or to describe a physical sensation --- anything intimate and first-person --- I have always had massive trouble expressing. For most of my life I just did not know any words for the sorts of things I experienced --- indeed, until college I couldn't talk about my sensory or processing issues, mostly because I didn't know they differed from other people's. (I also had them get a lot worse in college --- just that change made them a lot more obvious to me!)

Some other characteristics we share that not all autistics or Aspies do are: sensory hypersensitivies (particularly to touch and to certain sounds --- neither of us can stand the sounds of chewing, road noise** or human voices, which latter sensitivity causes both of us to speak with exaggeratedly quiet voices, so as not to offend our own ears), inability to multitask, inability to read facial expressions, body language or detect emotion in others, lack of awareness of our own emotions, not being very emotional in general or being any good at talking about emotions, preference for (and greater skill at) written over spoken communication, inability to detect sarcasm, and (very probably related) tendency to take everything we hear absolutely literally.

Reading the autism blogosphere, one of the first things I noticed was that relatively few of us actually fit the stereotype of the "mindblind" autie or Aspie. I do, even if I do often mock researchers and writers who use it, if only because their definitions of mindreading are so limited.

Another thing Matt and I seem to share is a lack of emotional modulation --- we seem to be either almost completely affectless or overwhelmed with emotion so intense we can hardly speak. For me, this might be because I just lack the ability to detect all but the most dramatic shifts in my own emotional state.

We have also both wondered if we might be something other than human --- I started reading a lot of philosophy in high school, and thus kept running across a lot of grand pronouncements on universal human nature. Often, these conceptions of human nature excluded me: I wasn't a social animal, or a political animal, and I seemed to do a perfectly credible impersonation of an island. I thrived under conditions most people would consider emotional or intellectual starvation. I did not talk to myself. I did not become restless. I did not need the things humans were said to need, and sometimes I didn't even want them. But because I knew all along that I was different in a particular way, it did not scare me to discover these things. I would ask, "So, am I not human?" in a mocking way, implying Ha, ha, your theories are so puny they cannot contain me! rather than in a fearful, existential-angst-laden way.

That's probably the biggest, most crucial difference between my own life with autism and Matt's: mine has been spent knowing I was different, knowing how I was different, and being more or less fine with it. He, like a lot of people I've met, read about, or encountered online who were not diagnosed with autism until adulthood, seems to have gone through a lot of angst, self-doubt, soul-searching and trying to make himself more like everyone else.

*I didn't see where he was from at first --- just dove right in and started reading, and I saw that he spelled words like "realize" with S's instead of Z's, and then went all "Ahh, crap, you live in England, don't you?"
**I am actually somewhat afraid of cars. This gets especially bad in parking lots, when I am halfway out of my mind with worry that one will peel out from out of nowhere and try to run me down.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Acknowledging Asexuals Doesn't Mean Denying Anyone's Sexuality

So apparently Dave Hingsburger at Chewing the Fat had called for a Valentine's Day blog carnival on sexuality and disability. I missed my chance to take part in it, but I did really like the posts other people contributed, and wanted to respond to a couple of them.

From Ettina's post on asexuality (and the disability movement's tendency to erase asexual experience when talking about sexuality):
[T]here seems to be a tendency to assume either that disabled people in general (or in certain categories) have nothing in common with normal people, or to assume we're not really different from normal people - or only in superficial ways. In terms of disability and sexuality, this comes off as either assuming all disabled people are asexual, or assuming all disabled people are just as sexual as anyone else.

The latter assumption is what I see many disability rights activists expressing, when they talk about sexuality. They discuss sexuality as something universal to all human beings, including disabled people. Some acknowledge sexual differences such as being gay, but they still say that everyone has sexual feelings.
And I think a big part of this is the idea that saying disabled people - any disabled people - are asexual has been portrayed as a nasty stereotype.
I don't think it's a bad thing at all to be asexual. In fact, I'm glad I am - it seems to save me from a lot of angst, since I'm not constantly looking for Mr. Right. I just wish there wasn't this idea that sexuality is fundamental to every person. Our society is obsessed with sexuality, but we're disability rights activists, we're supposed to challenge society's assumptions.
As I pointed out in the comments section of that post, I think a very similar pattern --- the identities and experiences of one group within a movement getting erased by that movement's efforts to combat stereotypes --- within feminism. The backlash against second-wave feminism --- especially the more radical strains within second-wave feminism --- has drawn up a caricature of feminism that most women would be too afraid or embarrassed to espouse: Feminism as bra-burning, hairy-legged, militantly unattractive, man-hating lesbians' crusade to rid Western culture of everything sexy.

As you might imagine, much feminist blogging (especially on websites geared more toward beginner feminists) tries to demolish this stereotype. And that's fine --- feminism ought to include all sorts of women --- but sometimes this stereotype-busting goes so far as to claim that no feminist is a hairy-legged, conventionally unattractive lesbian*, or that such feminists exist only in the minds of anti-feminists.

Neither trait --- asexuality or indifference to the male gaze --- is a bad thing outside of their use in dismissing activists. Feminists are explained away as dried-up old spinsters who hate sex, or as militant lesbians who hate men, and disabled people are often told we don't have sexualities --- or, if we do, that we shouldn't, and our desires are therefore abnormal and pathological.

The thing to remember is this: What's pernicious about these stereotypes is not their content --- there are asexual people with disabilities, sometimes more within some disabilities than within the general population, and there are lesbian separatists and women who reject conventional beauty practices within feminism --- but their function. They serve to discredit whole categories of people who are only asking for the same rights and choices other people have. That the content of these stererotypes does that speaks less to the suspicious character of the groups being stereotypes and more to the dominant culture's obsession with one particular flavor of sexuality (and with its paranoid insistence that all people wedge themselves into one narrow mold).

*You can freely substitute "asexual" or "celibate" for "lesbian" here --- the stereotype seems to include all categories of women who have no interest in attracting men, and does not bother to distinguish among them.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On Attributing Consciousness

Alderson Warm-Fork of Directionless Bones has a post up about how people attribute consciousness, which is a subject I've been thinking about a lot recently, so I'll just go ahead and flesh out the responses I started to leave in the comments section there.

Alderson begins by pointing out that much of Western philosophy has proceeded on the assumption that everything not "obviously conscious" is inanimate. The reigning worldview being a purely mechanistic one*, philosophers didn't spend a whole lot of time pondering how other minds (indeed, minds in general) worked until later.

Now I want to suggest a different model, where attributing consciousness is central. The model is something like this:

1) When we perceive movement, we by default attribute consciousness (or ‘life’, or some such vague idea of being something more than just a rock).

2) When we perceive that a certain movement can be entirely comprehended by us, we retract that attribution of consciousness.
In other words, rather than starting from an assumption of insentience, we ascribe sentience provisionally to an entity based on a very inclusive set of criteria (e.g., it appears to move under its own power), with the understanding that we might revise this opinion later should that entity fail a more rigorous test.

I think this is true enough, although I have some reservations about the phrasing (both my own and Alderson's). Laying it out logically gives the reader the impression that these are conscious, intellectual processes, which they usually aren't. Usually, the whole tree gets resolved too quickly even to make it into a form we would recognize as "thought"; it's a series of choices between patterns of reactions, and the way we typically react to things we believe to be conscious (i.e., living things capable of volitional movement) is to focus our attention on them and try to divine their intentions (or, if "intentions" is too strong a word, their likely course of action, e.g. Is that squirrel going to run out in front of my car?).

Commenter Awais did not think this theory quite covered it, however.
[T]he mechanism [by which] I believe people attribute consciousness to others is that of logical analogy with their own behavior: we attribute consciousness to objects to the degree to which they approximate human behavior.
I think there's something to this one, as well, but I think it's another set of branches on the tree Alderson describes, rather than a replacement for it. There's a lot of ambiguity in the words we use to describe mental processes, and that confusion definitely appears in both the original post and the comments. Alderson used "consciousness" interchangeably with "life" (as in, living/conscious things move, while nonliving/unconscious things do not move unless acted on by an outside force) while Awais's usage of "consciousness" had more in common with "intelligence" or "sentience". I am using Alderson's terminology, more or less, although I have a few synonyms thrown in to confuse things even more. (I use "sentience" and "consciousness" more or less interchangeably). Anyway, I think Awais's criterion, the approximation of human behavior, comes into play more when people decide whether to attribute intelligence, which goes beyond basic capacities like perception and volition to enable such complex behavior as language, social organization, adaptation and invention.

I think the idea that we look for "humanlike" behavior as evidence of intelligence needs some poking at, though. As I point out in my contribution to the thread, ideas of what is "human" vs. what is "animal" have a long history of being used to justify various systems of oppression on the grounds that only the oppressors were in possession of full humanity, and thus the oppressed groups needed their enlightened patronage to keep them from sinking into their natural, animalistic state of indolent squalor. Accordingly, the usual things that come into our heads when we try to come up with uniquely human qualities tend to reflect the values of wealthy, educated, propertied Western white men.

Aside from being bounded by culture, our conceptions of what is "human" are also limited by our own lived experiences. The philosopher Ian Hacking gives an illuminating example of this in his talk "How We Have Been Learning to Talk about Autism," when he mentions the limitations of that capacity for immediate, unintellectualized insight into another person's state of mind that we now call Theory of Mind:
[Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang] Kohler pointed to a wide range of phenomena in which we "see," but do not infer, what a person is doing. Among these are ... seeing [a] child wants to touch [a] dog but doesn't dare, seeing that [a] friend is startled by something, and seeing where that something must be, [and] seeing that a man is upset by an unwanted task. Let us call these "Kohler's phenomena." You can think of innumerable examples. These phenomena, so familiar to most people, are precisely what is not familiar, automatic, immediate or instinctive for most autistic people. Expert observers reports that autistic children don't see someone is in a bad humor; they don't follow the direction of someone's gaze; they do not readily understand what another person is doing; that is, they do not readily recognize intentions. Conversely, most people cannot see via the behavior of severely autistic people what they feel, want or are thinking. Even more disturbing is an inability to see what they're doing, what their intentions are. Their intentions make no sense. With the severely autistic, it may seem as though they don't even have many intentions. (boldface emphases mine, italics are meant to approximate his emphases)
In other words, there are limits on the degree to which people's thoughts, feelings and intentions are apparent from their behavior, and these limits are different for different people.

As I say on Alderson's site, this inability of NTs to "see" the reasons for autistic people's behavior usually leads them to conclude that there are no reasons for it:
We move, we act ... but our movements and acts have no recognizable goal, and thus people assume we lack intelligence, and lack all but the most rudimentary stages of consciousness. Our emotional responses are similarly discarded as meaningless, because we do not react in the same way most people do to the same things. Things in the environment that most people might not even notice scare us or irritate us, but because the stressors don't even make it onto most people's radar, we are assumed to be throwing a fit for no reason. So our movements, our behaviors, and even our emotional responses and attempts to communicate are discarded as meaningless and we are believed not to be conscious or intelligent to the same degree that most people are.

Consider the phrases most often used to describe autistic people: we're "in our own worlds," "cut off from other people/the world around us," "unresponsive," "noncommunicative," and so on. Even the things we do entirely for our own enjoyment fall under this semantic umbrella of meaninglessness and sterility: our interests are "perseverations" or "obsessions," and our forms of solitary play are "stereotyped," "repetitive" rituals. Like some of the earlier instances I mentioned of privileged groups of people defining other groups of people as less human than the privileged group, as lacking in some core component of full personhood, autistics in this framework are seen to lack something essential to human nature. But unlike those other examples, we are not likened to animals**. We are not considered subhuman so much as inhuman.

*Of course, most of Western philosophy, at least before the "Death of God" in the nineteenth century, has also been very strongly Christian-influenced, and accepted the existence of a spiritual dimension. I've only just now pondered how weird this is in light of the way Western thought has traditionally viewed the natural world --- i.e., as an inert substrate to be acted upon by conscious beings, i.e. humans.

**There is one way in which I think autistics and animals have been similarly treated with respect to attributions of consciousness: we have both been reduced to our behavior, and then been subjected to all manner of awful, demeaning, and/or surreal things in the name of shaping said behavior.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Feed Your Head

In the past week or so, there's been an unusual density of jaw-droppingly awesome posts on other people's blogs.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Ettina has written a long, potentially triggering post on the patterns of behavior that emerge in people who've been institutionalized, and the way these survival strategies have been historically misinterpreted as innate personality characteristics within "feeble-minded" people. She quotes liberally from this engrossing dialogue between Amanda Baggs and Laura Tisoncik on the subject of institutionalization.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has a thoughtful post up about evangelical Christianity and wife-beating, and the extent to which this religious sect (and those aspects of it that color mainstream American discourse and social norms --- particularly the valorization of marriage and the patriarchal nuclear family, and the idea that "salvaging" a broken relationship --- however awful or dangerous --- is somehow nobler than giving up and leaving) plays into the cyclical nature of abuse.

Joel's most recent post is also a must-read. He talks about the two complementary ways in which (NT) people dismiss autistic people's pain (and, I would argue, the pain of all sorts of other "invisibly disabled" people): either we can't be in pain because we aren't expressing it, or, when we do send unmistakable distress signals, we're "whining," "faking it" or "having a tantrum."

There's also this post from Michelle Dawson at The Autism Crisis, discussing an early paper on classical conditioning. She summarizes the "training" regime that was used --- apparently the author saw nothing wrong with starving the developmentally disabled man he was trying to teach, so that his chosen reinforcing stimulus (sugar water) might seem appropriately irresistible to his subject. Dawson compares the attitude evinced toward this poor man (who is described as a "vegetative idiot," "lower in the scale [of trainability] than the majority of infra-human organisms used in conditioning experiments," and occupying "the bottom of the human scale") with later comments by Lovaas and other behavior analysts describing the autistic children they studied.

With these two posts, Arthur Silber begins his series on "The Ravages of Tribalism."

Finally, at A Room of Our Own, Kitty Glendower and Margaret Jamison have wrapped up their series of posts on Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. In her "Last Thoughts" on the book, Glendower criticizes Morrison for writing a story in which "once again women/girls come last" --- she read the novel as being overly sympathetic to the men who mistreat the women and children in their lives out of frustrated anger at white racism.

Go forth and read 'em!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Two Surprising Articles About Insect Behavior and Cognition

ResearchBlogging.orgI discovered these two articles by reading about them in the Kansas City Star (here and here --- the latter article was a reprint from the Boston Globe, so I'm linking directly to the Globe story). Though they deal with very different subject matter --- the neurochemistry of social behavior in locusts vs. the ability of honeybees to recognize different quantities of objects --- and with very different insect species --- the honeybee is an intensely social insect that lives in a huge, highly ordered society in which each individual plays a specialized role, while the locust can switch between solitary and swarming states --- I have decided to blog about these articles together because each one highlights an instance of a very simple organism doing something that requires a lot of cognitive and behavioral flexibility.

Desert locusts are either solitary or gregarious* depending on how many locusts are in a given area. When they perceive (either by sight and smell or by touch**) a certain critical density of other locusts around them, they undergo metabolic and behavioral changes, such that they move in unison, eat large amounts of food, and breed prolifically.

To determine what role --- if any --- the neurotransmitter serotonin played in bringing about this switch between forms, Michael Anstey and colleagues took two populations of desert locusts, one kept in a solitary state and the other kept in a gregarious state, and, having made note of sufficient behavioral markers to devise quantitative indicators of which state the bugs were in (e.g., by measuring their walking speed, the proportion of time they spent without moving, the proportion of time they spend near other locusts, and the proportion of time they spent grooming one another), they used one of several methods (crowding, exposure to the sights and smells of other locusts without touching them, pressure on the back legs, and direct electrical stimulation of the nerves in the back legs) to trigger the change from the solitary to the gregarious state. After waiting a set amount of time (0, 1, 2 and 4 hours for each condition), they froze the locust, dissected out its thoracic ganglia and subjected the extracts of those tissues to reverse-phase high-performance liquid chromatography. From the time it took the extract to travel through the column, they were able to determine the approximate concentration of serotonin.*** In the next phase of testing, they altered the serotonin levels of solitary locusts (by injecting them with a mixture of several different serotonin blockers, with an inhibitor of serotonin synthesis, with a mixture of serotonin-receptor activators, and with a crucial serotonin precursor, as well as by exposing the thoracic ganglia and applying serotonin directly to them) and then observed their behavior, looking for a relationship between increased social behaviors and higher serotonin levels.

They did find such a relationship: when the gregarious state was induced by any of the sensory means described above, the most gregarious-acting individuals had the highest serotonin levels:
We crowded solitarious locusts for 0, 1, or 2 hours to generate the entire gamut of behavior, from solitarious to gregarious (Fig. 2A). The amount of serotonin was significantly positively correlated with the extent of gregarious behavior across this entire range (analysis of covariance, 5-HT loge transformed; F1,35 = 21.817, r2 = 0.429, P <> Locusts that behaved the most gregariously (Pgreg > 0.8) had approximately three times more serotonin (12.78 ± 1.85 pmol; mean ± SD, n = 10 locusts) than more solitariously behaving (Pgreg < n =" 7">Furthermore, the amount of serotonin only corresponded with the degree of gregarization but not the duration of crowding, per se (F3,35 = 1.218, P = 0.318). (italics and emphases mine)
The locusts treated with the various serotonin agonists and antagonists (or, in each case, a saline solution) were also presented with the sensory stimuli that had just been shown to be effective in changing solitary locusts into sociable ones. These results also demonstrate a crucial role for serotonin: when put into crowded spaces or allowed to see and smell other locusts, solitary locusts injected with the serotonin antagonists tended to stay solitary. Conversely, solitary locusts treated with serotonin (or its precursor, 5-hydroxytryptophan, or the various serotonin-receptor-activating compounds) switched to the gregarious form without any exposure to those sensory stimuli.

This graph (taken from Anstey et al.) shows the effect of various serotonin-suppressing chemicals on the proportion of locusts entering the gregarious stage when confronted with sensory stimuli normally associated with high levels of crowding --- pressure on the legs or the sight and smell of other locusts. This second graph (also taken from Anstey et al.) shows the effect of the various serotonin-boosting chemicals on locust social behavior, both in the presence and absence of crowded conditions.

Here are some of the researchers' conclusions about how this works in the wild:
Serotonin and other monoamines have been implicated in changing behavior after social interactions in a number of contexts, including intraspecific aggression, status, and courtship in many species, including crickets (25), crustaceans (26, 27), and rats (28). All of these interactions, including behavioral gregarization in locusts, require the interpretation of complex signals from conspecifics leading to long-lasting changes in the way individuals interact during future encounters. Behavioral gregarization therefore resembles memory formation, with specific sensory experiences altering future behavior; in the case of locusts, this entails a suite of changes that creates an integrated behavioral phenotype adapted to a changed biotic environment. Locusts that have been reared gregariously for many generations have lower titers of serotonin than long-term solitarious animals, (12) which strongly suggests that gregarious behavior is not maintained by a long-term serotonergic modulation of neuronal circuits. Furthermore, solitarious behavior is acquired more slowly on the isolation of long-term gregarious phase locusts (8) than gregarious behavior is acquired by solitarious locusts, implying that gregarious behavior becomes more ingrained during prolonged crowding.
So it looks like Anstey et al. have discovered only the tip of the locust-socialization iceberg: while the initial shift to the gregarious form appears to follow the model they've laid out, with the perception of a lot of other locusts triggering a rush of serotonin, which triggers the transformation (which they explain in terms of altering the locusts' basic reaction to other locusts: are they attracted or repelled?), persistence of the gregarious tendency across generations seems to depend less and less on the activity of serotonin.

One thing these findings leave me wondering is whether serotonin has a similar effect on human sociality independent of its well-publicized effect on mood. Depressed humans tend to withdraw from other humans; is that only because they feel bad, or is it because the primary neurochemical culprit in depression --- a shortage of available serotonin --- also independently affects sociability? For that matter, you could probably ask the same questions about sleep. Do we sleep poorly when depressed because our gloomy thoughts keep us awake (or, alternately, sleep excessively because our feelings of hopelessness sap our energy), or do our sleeping habits get disrupted because the scarcity of serotonin is throwing our circadian rhythms out of whack? Is it possible to uncouple emotional state from the physical symptoms of depression?

This has gotten really long, so I will split it into two posts, and write about honeybees tomorrow.

*The desert locust's scientific name is Schistocerca gregaria, which suggests that, when the species was named, scientists only knew about the gregarious --- swarming --- behavior pattern in these insects. I can imagine they'd be a lot more conspicuous in a huge group than they are individually!

**In the locust, the central nervous system is split into several clusters of ganglia: The brain receives signals from the eyes and antennae, while the three thoracic ganglia receive tactile information from the nerves in the legs. Any of these processing centers may be the starting point of a signaling cascade.

***Serotonin being a relatively polar molecule, I would imagine that a greater proportion of serotonin in the nerve-cell extract would translate into a shorter elution time.

Anstey, M., Rogers, S., Ott, S., Burrows, M., & Simpson, S. (2009). Serotonin Mediates Behavioral Gregarization Underlying Swarm Formation in Desert Locusts Science, 323 (5914), 627-630 DOI: 10.1126/science.1165939