Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trying to See Through: A Unified Theory of Nerddom

There is a single characteristic, I argue, that defines and unites the cognitive community that you and I share if you are reading this (the community of nerds). These days we often identify as rationalists, skeptics, or atheists, interested in cognition and cognitive biases; we are likely to eat LSD at Burning Man. We read analytic philosophy, science fiction, and LessWrong. We are intelligent, socially awkward, and heavily male. Is there a good name for that?

Lucid Dream

Intelligence and social awkwardness partially explain many of the patterns of our community, but neither is the characteristic I have in mind. This characteristic may be explained by analogy to lucid dreaming (incidentally, a common interest of our members). Dreams ordinarily fool us; despite their incoherence, we accept them as fully real while we are in them. 

With effort, over time, you can get in the habit of performing "reality checks" during waking life: trying to push your fingers through solid surfaces, perhaps, or to breathe with airways closed. When asking, "am I dreaming?" and testing coherence becomes enough of an aspect of everyday reality, you may start performing reality checks in dreams, too. If you are successful, your reward will be an insight denied to most people: knowledge of the fact that you are dreaming.

Dreams demonstrate that our brains (and even rat brains) are capable of creating complex, immersive, fully convincing simulations. Waking life is also a kind of dream. Our consciousness exists, and is shown particular aspects of reality. We see what we see for adaptive reasons, not because it is the truth. Nerds are the ones who notice that something is off - and want to see what's really going on.

Our People

Communal belief - social reality - and the sacrednesses that it produces are precisely the powerful layers of distortion that we are likely to notice (and hence have a chance at seeing through). We are less able than normal humans to perceive social/sacredness reality in the first place, and to make matters worse, we are addicted to the insight rewards that come from trying to see through it even further. Autism is overrepresented in our community; depression, too. Autism is associated with a reduced ability to model other brains in the normal, social way; this failure carries even into modeling the mind of God, as autism is inversely linked to belief in God. The autistic person is more likely than the neurotypical to notice that social reality exists; we might say the autistic person gets a lucid dreaming reality check for the great social dream with every inscrutable (to him) human action he witnesses. 

Mild depression removes pleasurable feelings from everyday life; it interferes with a mechanism for sacredness-maintenance distinct from the theory of mind path autism blocks. Meaning is deconstructed in depression; social connection is weakened. Ideas and things that for normal individuals glow with significance appear to the depressed person as empty husks. The deceptive power of social and sacredness illusions is weakened for the depressed person (as are certain other healthy illusions, such as the illusion of control). This is not necessarily a victory for him, as self-deception is strongly related to happiness; the consolation of insight may not make up for the loss of sacredness in terms of individual happiness. The characteristic that distinguishes us is not necessarily a good thing. Our overdeveloped, grotesque insight reward seeking is likely maladaptive, and is probably not even doing our individual selves any good. Extremists - those most capable of perceiving social/sacred reality - are happiest.

There is no difference in IQ between the sexes - on average. It is only at the high and low ends of the distribution that sex differences show up, with males more likely than females to exhibit very high or very low IQ. The trait of being oriented toward social and sacred reality, however, does likely vary between the sexes on average. Females are more religious than males, and more oriented toward communal belief and social reality. At the extremes, this sex difference is likely even more apparent (as with autism). Members of our community, I argue, select in by being high on the trait of seeing through social/sacred illusions; or, to put it another way, low on the trait of perceiving social/sacred reality. This explains the drastic male skew of our sex ratio better than intelligence.

Recursion and self-reference are uniting themes in our community. We are constantly trying to jump out of ourselves to look at ourselves. Our predilections for abstraction on the one hand, and psychedelic drugs on the other, feed our addiction to insight - to understanding new things about the understander. We do not smoke marijuana just to laugh and eat brownie batter, but for the front-row seats it gives us on our own cognition. We desire insight, but also meta-insight. Because of this multi-layered awareness, we have a complicated relationship with ambiguity: awareness of it, and conflicting desires to embrace it and to stamp it out (as if such a thing were possible). We are aware that information is present on more than one level of abstraction (or sincerity); some of us play the game and communicate on multiple levels at once, and others hold out for legible progress through sincerity.

Our culture's fascination with "meta-" - seeing the next level of abstraction, applying principles to themselves - is identical with this seeing-through trait. Many nominal members of our community have a hard time with this, because they are not true cognitive members of our community. They think of "meta" as when you watch Doctor Horrible at Monster House while dressed as Doctor Horrible characters. That's fine for them, but I think it's important to distinguish between the actual cognitive bases of our community, and the cultural confusion that comes from our culture's over-inclusiveness. 

Science fiction has united our culture for human generations, because it has been a reliable source of insight porn. Philip K. Dick's stories deliver heavy, refined doses of insight, for instance. But there is another layer of something that calls itself science fiction, designed to appeal to a broader audience than the insight-addicted core members, that merely recycles the tropes of science fiction literature and offers no real insight reward. Why are so many of us in love with Julian Jaynes even though it's batshit insane and obviously wrong? Because it's satisfying, amazing science fiction: insight porn that delivers. The fact of its wrongness does not reduce the pleasure it provides, any more than the fictional nature of a lateral thinking puzzle makes it less fun. 

We are aware that we are embodied beings with egos, but we are constantly trying to get around this - all the while realizing, at another level, that we can never truly lose our embodied perspective or think with something other than our evolved brains. Layers of self-glorifying self-deprecation illustrate our complicated relationship with ourselves. 

We are likely to have started out socially awkward - failing to automatically perceive all the social subtleties that our normal cohort noticed instinctively. Some of us have figured out social belonging using parts of our brain not adapted for this purpose; but most of us experience the normal human ache for social belonging, friendship, bonding, and sex, even more so if we have been unlucky in securing it. 

But our attraction to each other is not just an animal desire for company.

We realize the limitations of our individual monkey brains. We wonder if, by linking our monkey brains up with other monkey brains, we might form a Super Brain capable of insight unavailable to us as individuals. We long for not just any old community, but an epistemic community. 

A lot of us get stuck in traps. We become aware of a powerful insight (atheism, feminism, conspiracy theories) and begin to think it explains all of reality. We commit to our hard-won but limited set of insights until they calcify, protecting us from the trauma (and the pleasure) of further insights.

Many of us become heavily invested in already being right, and in others being wrong. This limits our ability to understand the world, since the world contains myriad beings who are all wrong in fascinating ways, and no beings who see only the pure truth. The folklorist Linda Degh inspired me with her writing on the "Apollo Moon Landing Hoax" conspiracy theory; to see her study the belief as folklore, rather than merely condemn it as factually incorrect, seemed like a fertile approach. To move toward reality, it is more effective to study and understand a strange belief than to reject it without study. Examining strange beliefs may be the lucid-dream reality check we need to examine our own normal-seeming beliefs. The most satisfying and useful insight is meta-insight: insight about our own cognitive processes.

The Sad State of Insight Porn

Huge segments of the background human culture cater to stimulating the humor reward circuit; not so for the closely related but distinct insight reward circuit. "Insight porn," to the extent that it exists, is of marginal cultural importance compared to humor, and is generally of much lower quality. Puzzles, mystery stories, perhaps even political commentary, trigger the insight reward circuit in a degraded way; even the lowest pattern-recognition games are capable of it. But its market share is a tiny fraction of that of comedy. We are deprived of art that could satisfy our desires. We must look to each other, and to the world, to satisfy our curiosity, boredom, and confusion with sweet insight. 

Why should it be that art catering to humor is more plentiful and of higher quality than art catering to the insight reward circuit? There is a clear humor sex difference, with men producing more humor (and expected to produce more humor) and women consuming more humor (and expecting to consume more humor). Humor may have implications as a mating quality indicator. Insight is more dangerous, and as I have argued, there may be sex differences in the orientation toward this kind of insight. Unlike humor, women aren't, as a group, especially interested in puzzles and insights; men are both the main producers and the main consumers of insight art like chess problems and strategic games. Humor has been a good characteristic for selection to act on; it is relatively safe and a good indicator of the quality of one's mind. Insight is not so safe, and may even be an indicator against cooperativeness (contrary to the adaptive value of religion, for instance). This may explain why there are dozens of comedy clubs in Los Angeles, but not a single club where one can go to solve lateral thinking puzzles with masters of the genre (if you know of any, please hook me up). Humor can even inoculate us against threatening ideas, such as evolution and religion.  

It is a great thrill to be epistemically pushed off of your reality - to have the universe drop out beneath you, like a carnival ride. We may not exactly believe extraordinary claims, such as the claim that the Dark Ages did not take place, but it is exciting and moving to think how weak and indirect our knowledge of such things truly is. 

In some ways, the domain of visual art has done a better job than the domain of science in promoting the nerd value of seeing through social/sacred illusions. For centuries, art and science were on similar paths, accumulating insights, undergoing paradigm shifts: infant proportions and perspective in art, say, and heliocentrism and germ theory of disease in science. Over the past hundred years, art has endured many iterations of waking up, seeing itself, and eating itself, from cubism to urinals-as-art; science, however, is barely entering the first cycle of meta-science, of examining the implementation of its methods with its own methods. 

Severe mental illness is so common among serious visual artists that it's practically a job qualification; it's rare in the sciences (though less rare in abstract math and philosophy). Of course there are good reasons for this, but the selection effect is cognitively important. Science has done a better job than art (and marginally better than math and philosophy) at protecting itself from radically different ways of thinking, hence insights about itself. 

False Insight as Hypnosis

The popularity of the viral political documentary Zeitgeist: The Movie illustrates that insight porn, properly pitched to the sophistication of the viewer, can have almost hypnotic power. The techniques used to create the illusion of insight in this film may seem rudimentary and clumsy to us, but they are sophisticated enough to trigger the sensation of a major breakthrough in those with less jaded (well, sophisticated) insight-detection mechanisms. Having access to insight just one level up from one's listeners - not too many levels of abstraction up for them to grasp - is a powerful tool. You can see why the ability would exist; our insight obsession has just gone off the rails, perhaps, into superstimulus land. 

The most ubiquitous trick in Zeitgeist is the use of simple pictures to make statements sound more truthful. Though the pictures presented are not probative of anything, their mere presence makes statements feel more like reached-for insights. This technique is used throughout, but nowhere more shamelessly than when Jesus' crown of thorns is revealed to be...solar flares. (At this point technically you have to drink.)

Other than the picture-truthiness trick, the documentary skillfully uses abstraction and far-mode inductions to produce the feeling of insight in naive users. The narrator (aided by illustrations) identifies similarities between past religions (often too quickly to read), attempting to reduce them to patterns. These taxonomied myths are described and owned by the narrator (and, presumably, the viewer), who is now above them in status. Satellite photos give the same impression of abstract understanding. Clips of old movies depicting religious events provide comic relief, emphasizing the superiority of the abstract view presented in the documentary over the silly, obviously incorrect specifics imagined years ago. Simple statements ("This is the Sun.") hypnotize the viewer so that more controversial statements can sneak in. Levels of abstraction are abruptly switched, invoking confusion hungry for resolution. The known and the unknown are combined to produce the feeling of insight in the viewer; if the mood is set right and the right illustration is being projected, an alleged mistranslation can feel like the deepest mystery resolved. When the scary, nasty forces of evil are introduced, near-mode fear is induced with threatening loud noises. A word or phrase is repeated ("there was an explosion") until it is divorced from context and seems more likely to have the meaning the filmmakers desire us to take from it than the meaning we would normally take from it. 

Jesus taught in parables, a bit like lateral thinking puzzles. He didn't simply say "here is the rule guys" - he told a whole story from which you were supposed to make not-always-obvious connections, and he outright admitted that the stories were capable of interpretation on multiple levels. The study of Talmud presents opportunities for complex insights within its intricate logical structure (this is true, though somewhat less true, of the study of law). Insight porn does not have to be true to be effective; it merely has to be geared to the sophistication of its audience, producing insights of the right size. Any given insight may be illusion; reality is best served when we are skeptical of each new insight. 

We have learned to glorify insight itself. If that is our policy, we must avoid clinging to any particular insight or truth. All must be fair game for our hungry insight addictions to feed on. It is painful to have one's calcified insights challenged (as alluded to earlier regarding conspiracy theories), but by belonging to the cognitive community of people like us, don't we consent to this threat of upheaval? We may properly pity the rest of humanity so much that we don't interfere with their healthy, comfortable fixed beliefs, but shouldn't our charity evaporate when we remember that they govern and control us based on their silly sacrednesses? 

The child in the Emperor's New Clothes is one of us. He is most likely autistic - most children, even at a very young age, can feel the social sacredness and act accordingly (perhaps even dogs) - but not this child. It is amazing that the story is preserved. But its form is so neat and tidy, this old tale - it lets us deal with fear and uncertainty surrounding our vague awareness of the social falsity. Does the child find any epistemic peers who agree? The comforting myth is that if one person points it out, the error will become obvious to all and be corrected. More likely, the child is shouted down or executed. We are children calling to each other - in a dog whistle, often, so the bigger group isn't motivated to discipline us. 

Addendum: Some Items of Insight Porn

A collection of insight porn operating at a fairly high level. This list does not distinguish between items which I believe give true insight into reality and those which merely provide the sensation of insight without an improved understanding of reality. Such a distinction may be relevant for other values, but not for the value of triggering the reward circuit I describe.

We rely on others familiar with alien domains to pass us the best stuff from their domains.

  • Julian Jaynes
  • Jean Baudrillard
  • the study of cognitive bias
  • evolutionary psychology, e.g. Daly & Wilson
  • simulationism (back to Descartes)
  • Bladerunner and the questioning of memories
  • Philip K. Dick, especially short stories
  • atheism, Higher Criticism, and religious studies
  • Talmud (Torah & commentaries, living formal domain)
  • Ribbonfarm
  • study of conspiracy theories, e.g. Moon Landing Hoax, Phantom Time Hypothesis
  • folklore (Linda Degh, V. Propp, Dan VanArsdale)
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Michael Swanwick (esp. Bones of the Earth)
  • Thomas Pynchon
  • phenomenology
  • lateral thinking puzzles
  • "Synchronicity" (Jung)
  • The Aquatic Ape
  • Roy Baumeister (Meanings of Life, social function of consciousness)
  • contrarianism (insight in part from noticing patterns in belief of others)
  • William Gibson
  • Neil Stephenson
  • Walter Gieseking
  • Monk, Coltrane, Miles Davis
  • lucid dreaming
  • Philippe Rochat's Others In Mind
  • Wisconsin Death Trip (Lesy)
  • Radiolab
  • marijuana
  • ketamine
  • Joseph Cornell
  • Freud's Interpretation of Dreams
  • Infinite Jest
  • John Thorne (e.g. Outlaw Cook)


  1. It's a fascinating essay, but it's also just a step towards something much bigger, namely a general sociology of intellectual communities and high-IQ social classes.

    It's unclear how broad the scope of "nerd" is supposed to be. Were the members of Plato's Academy, nerds? What about the Royal Society in its first century? Mormon spysat coders during the Cold War? The disciples of the Buddha? The disciples of Jesus? Or does "nerd culture" now refer specifically to a postindustrial phenomenon, of bookish wimps, male and female, using the Internet to affiliate around useless intellectual hobbies?

  2. Don't stop! Why did you stop?

    1. I love the meta-metapoint this makes, whether it's intentional or not.

      By apparently cutting off her essay halfway through, Sister Y blueballs those reading this for that next hit of Insight, and here you are, begging for it. Almost makes me think there's something to this.

    2. Yeah...so assuming there was totally a second half to this...where do you think it would go? What questions would it raise or answer?

  3. I'm surprised you managed to write this much about "insight porn" without mentioning Gladwell or the Big Idea industry. (I'd also include a big chunk of NPR and other middlebrow media that has as its main goal to make you think for a few seconds, be entertained, but rarely learn any more than an anecdote.) It seems to me these are trying to hit repeatedly the "ahh, I *get it*!" reward button while causing as little strain as possible.

    1. "Having access to insight just one level up from one's listeners - not too many levels of abstraction up for them to grasp - is a powerful tool."

      Pretty much nails Gladwell, TED, etc. Weaksauce.

    2. That may have been a laundry list item I left out - Matt Elder proposed "punditry" as a form of low-level insight porn widely available in our society in a personal communication about a week ago, and I think this is exactly right - along with, yes, Gladwell, TED, NPR, exactly. I know I spent a lot of time listening to NPR when I was isolated from my people during the time I spent in rural Iowa - now that I'm back in civilization, it's hard to bear NPR, but at the time, it was extremely palliative.

      I do want to write an appendix to this of examples of insight porn at varoius levels, including items that really deliver at a high level - suggestions welcome.

    3. The problem with that list is that you'll drive yourself crazy as it splits off into various fields and each of them starts to tower. Is reading Hofstadter just mental masturbation? Probably, even though he's way more grounded than someone like Gladwell. How about obscurantist, intellectual dead-ends like Being and Time? Do I really enjoy reading Pynchon, or does the way he fucks with his readers just substitute for real insight?

    4. Also, it might be worth exploring cultural differences re: the "public intellectual". That character seems to have been replaced by corporate TED idea-men in the US, but France still clings to its "philosophers" and even solicits their opinions about events of the day. Do religious writers fill this gap in other countries?

    5. Another candidate - Feynman's "Fun to Imagine" series.

  4. Wonder how you nerd-folks can defend yourselves as a community against, or repurpose in an epistemically constructive way, identity-protective motivated reasoning.

    1. Yeah like you're not one of us :-P

      We're totally vulnerable to it. LessWrong is one of the few places I see people even trying to address it (albeit in a flawed way).

      A very productive method for escaping large swaths of identity-protective motivated reasoning is to start a romantic epistemic peer relationship with someone with drastically different beliefs. Cuts right through - constant insight rewards.

    2. Simple solution: don't have a community. Seriously, why would you even want one? I don't get it at all.

      I make a point of associating with people whose politics and epistemology I reject.

    3. I agree with St. Rev. Apart from being male, I don't fit your description very well. (In fact, I find most of those traits you mention quite annoying.) Then again, I'm pathologically opposed to group identity. That's its own source of neurosis, for sure.

    4. To amplify on the theme: people you agree with culturally and intellectually are far less likely to provide new insights; inasmuch as the desire for new insights is a value of the 'community', it ought to be self-negating.

    5. One thing interesting about the internet is we often don't hear many ideas from people who don't share our point of view, unless we actively seek them out. We can pretty much just read stuff written by people we agree with if we want to.

    6. Bishop of the Chalcedony ThuribleSeptember 18, 2012 4:32 PM

      " far less likely to provide new insights; inasmuch as the desire for new insights"

      Really? The only insight i got was kill myself, don't be so weak, life is a gift and go get help. I don't want to go to that fifth circle of hell again, ever.

      As for online, the youtube thing gets really tiresome. That Arkadwhateverhisname is a strawman champion and the others keep repeating themselves not even listening to the arguments.

  5. I don't find this addiction to insight any fun anymore. In fact I find it extremely time consuming and draining. I wish I could stop.