Friday, November 20, 2009

The Triumph of Dullness

Updated October 18, 2021

Read the following poem, written in the early eighteenth century by English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744):

In vain, in vain,—the all-composing Hour
Resistless falls: the Muse obeys the Pow'r.
She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy's gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea's strain,
The sick'ning stars fade off th' ethereal plain;
As Argus' eyes by Hermes' wand oppressed,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is night.
See sulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
Mountains of Casuistry heap'd o'er her head!
Philosophy, that leaned on Heav'n before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defense,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor'd;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries all.

This poem, entitled "The Triumph of Dulness [sic]," and the larger work to which it belongs, The Dunciad, have been referred to as a "mock apocalypse." They describe the end of the world in a humorous way. The Dunciad is a complex work, containing many layers of biblical, Greco-Roman, and eighteenth century British political and cultural allusions.

To help the contemporary reader understand the "Triumph of Dulness" poem, I'll explain some of the allusions. The "sable throne" symbolizes night and chaos. Medea was a sorceress in Seneca's Latin tragedy, who summoned monsters outlined in heavenly constellations as she prepared to murder her children. Why did she murder her children? She did it in revenge of their father's infidelity. Medea finally escaped into the heavens in a chariot drawn by dragons, after which her husband concluded that there were no gods.

Argus had eyes over all his body, which slept in rotation to keep a constant watch. He was set by jealous Hera to keep watch on Io (Zeus's mistress) to prevent her husband Zeus's infidelity. Hermes was able to put out all Argus's eyes at once, allowing Zeus to fool around unwatched. Hermes' putting out all Argus's eyes is symbolic of the lack of perception and vision in society.

Casuistry (deceptive argument) is heaped over the head of Truth, forcing Truth to flee to an old cavern. Philosophy has abandoned heaven (God—the first cause) and shrinks to its second cause (mechanical necessity, or causation). By doing this, philosophy disappears. "Physic" (natural sciences) and "Metaphysic" (philosophy) are dependent on each other, leading each to circular reasoning. "See Mystery to Mathematics fly" refers to the vain attempts to "prove" the mysteries of religion by mathematical reasoning. They (truth, religion, philosophy, natural science, and math) die. Religion blushes, veils her sacred fires, and morality goes down the drain (implying that morality is grounded upon religion). The final lines refer to an apocalyptic ending of the world, brought down by chaos and anarchy.

Let's interpret "The Triumph of Dulness" in the context of our present age. Has dullness triumphed in our time? In Pope's words, "Art after Art goes out, and all is night", and "Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires." Also, "Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!" There is neither art nor wit in contemporary culture. If you go to a movie, turn on the TV, go to an art gallery, concert hall, or playhouse to watch and/or hear anything new, stupidity, incompetence, and mediocrity reign. Creative achievement, the "human spark," the "glimpse divine," exemplified in history by Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Beethoven, is nowhere to be found. This makes for a dull society.

For the last fifty years, there has been very little major individual creative achievement. It's true that every year there are new products and inventions, new scientific discoveries, and new technologies (e.g. cloning, medical advances, new computer technologies, new software, new books, new music, etc.). The problem is that these advances have been made by relatively minor, unknown people or groups of people. None of these people compare to the giants of the Western art and science tradition. If they did compare, then they would be as famous or more famous than these giants.

Is it a public relations problem? It's true that the media mainly reports bad things. Maybe someone is a genius, but the media only wants to report on the latest murder-suicide. The media is a problem, but it's unlikely that a genius would go unnoticed in today's age of individual glorification and celebrity. Actors, sports stars, popular musicians, and politicians certainly go noticed. Einstein today would likely be more famous and in the media spotlight than he was in his time.

Why this dearth of creative genius? Consider this quote: "Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings." C. Archie Danielson's pithy metaphor compares intelligence to a bird's ability to fly. Intelligence, like wings on a bird, can cause the individual to soar. Intelligence can also help uplift society by means of the products of intelligence.

Bird without wings cannot fly. The potential for flight is present in the bird's genetics, but without wings it cannot actualize this potential. Intelligence without ambition has the genetic potential to do constructive things, but the person cannot do it. The bright person sits on his or her ass and watches TV or plays video games.

A better quote would be: "Creativity without ambition is like a bird without wings." Creativity is not the same as intelligence. Creativity is coming up with new, original ideas, works of art, or inventions. From the point of view of society, creativity is much more important than what intelligence alone can do. Creative geniuses are intelligent, but have something more than intelligence (i.e. high IQ scores alone cannot predict creative achievement—or else everyone in Mensa would be a creative genius). Intelligence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for genius.

There is certainly a lack of ambition among potential creative geniuses. These birds are not growing the wings that they need to fly. Why don't they have ambition? There are environmental factors in modern society that have robbed virtually every potential genius of any ambition. One of these factors may be the lack of structure, standards, and morality in contemporary society, a descent to Hobbes “state of nature.” This condition, known as “hyperindividualism,” i.e. every man out for himself, undercuts the prestige and altruism motivations that induced creative people to achieve in the past. Both prestige and altruism are important motivators because creative work in the arts and sciences is usually not financially rewarding. Another related factor is that our information-age economy gives bright people so many more opportunities for high-paying careers than it did in the past. Most of these careers (e.g. business, law, medicine, and technology) don’t provide the opportunity for creative achievement in the arts and sciences.

Another environmental factor is widespread availability of psychotropic drugs (both legal and illegal) that rob people of their creative ambition (and other things). Marijuana reduces motivation in some people. The stimulant drugs like amphetamine and cocaine target the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is important to motivation. Antidepressant, mood stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs have helped keep people with depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia out of the hospital, but their anti-motivational and emotional blunting side effects have prevented these people from achieving anything. With a few exceptions, prior to the 20th century potentially creative people had only alcohol as a means to escape from reality.

Another reason is that it's hard to start from scratch. Other geniuses were part of artistic and scientific movements that were prominent in their time. Michelangelo was a product of the High Renaissance; Newton was a product of the scientific revolution. Today, there are no movements; there's nil. Modernism and Postmodernism are dead. They've contributed nothing. There isn't anything more to rebel against—all literary, artistic, and moral standards are gone. There are no role models, no heroes, and no mentors that can inspire creative people to achieve. This shows the supreme importance of culture and environment to creative achievement. There wasn't much creative achievement in the Dark Ages, even though there were certainly some people who had the potential. It's hard to believe that with today's wealth, living standards, and technology that we're not doing much better than the Dark Ages.

To get a better understanding of why there is no creative genius, it's important to recognize when the problem began. Although it's been glaringly evident since at least the 1960's, the problem began a century before that, according to Charles Murray. In his book entitled Human Accomplishment, Murray dates the problem from sometime in the 19th century. His reasoning is that although there was a great deal of accomplishment in the late 19th and early 20th century, there should have been more, based on the fact that more people were educated and had more opportunities to create than ever before. If we accept his premise, then the explanations mentioned above don't apply, because they refer to environmental factors that came into existence after 1900.

Another perspective is from Eugen Weber, in one of the programs from his PBS series The Western Tradition. This program, entitled “Fin de Si├Ęcle,” used the best of times/worst of times theme to portray life and culture at the turn of the 20th century. On the one hand, it was the best of times for almost everyone. Inventions such as the bicycle, the automobile, the airplane, electric power, the railroad, and the steamboat had transformed or would soon transform the lives of everyone, including the common people. Public education had for the first time provided literacy for the majority of people in the developed world. Economic progress had allowed more leisure time for working people than ever before, and the consumer economy and transportation revolution gave these people more things to do with their leisure time than ever before.

On the other hand, for the sensitive, creative types, it was the worst of times. As a symbol of this, Weber showed Munch’s painting “The Scream.”

Something in the environment was driving creative people to near-madness, leading them to abandon all traditional notions of beauty, logic, coherence, and harmony, which we know today as the avant-garde/modernist movement. The fact that the basic themes of modernism still dominate the arts today, a century later, indicates that the root causes haven’t changed. Artists and other sensitive people are still screaming.

My human magnetoreception hypothesis explains why creative people had such a difficult time with modern life. Let’s assume that potentially creative people are also potentially mentally ill people. The link between creativity and madness is generally accepted by researchers who study creativity. Read Eysenck’s Genius or Simonton’s Origins of Genius for corroboration. This link is strongest for nonconformist artists and scientists. There are three aspects of modernity that have hammered people with the genetic predisposition for either creativity or mental illness.
  1. Some mentally ill people are highly sensitive to artificial magnetic fields when sleeping and/or waking. The industrial, electromagnetic/electronic, and computer revolutions have exposed us to all kinds of artificial magnetic fields. The innerspring mattress, which first became widely used in the 1930’s, exposes sleepers to artificial magnetic fields (from the steel springs). Other harmful magnetic fields are from steel headboards and bed frames, steel building structure, and various electrical and electronic appliances. In recent decades, with the introduction of wireless networks and devices, we’ve become more and more exposed to these fields. Some mentally ill people have become psychologically damaged by the sleep disruption caused by artificial magnetic fields. Others have been harmed from electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
  2. Some mentally ill people are highly sensitive to the geomagnetic field differences between different places on the Earth. The transportation revolution that began in the nineteenth century with the invention and widespread use of the steamboat and the railroad, and accelerated in the twentieth century with the invention of the automobile and airplane, has exposed people to vastly different geomagnetic field properties than that in which they grew up. Our bodies didn’t evolve with the ability to adapt to these differences. Some mentally ill people have become psychologically damaged by moving from one city or country to another.
  3. Some mentally ill people are highly sensitive to differences in circadian rhythm, the internal daily rhythm that is influenced by sleep/wake time. The industrial revolution began the move toward artificial time and away from the natural/sun clock that people had always used in centuries past. The rise of shift work and the introduction of daylight savings time in the twentieth century further moved us away from natural time. Some mentally ill people have become psychologically damaged by their circadian rhythms being out-of-sync with the solar day.
All three factors began to influence mentally ill people in the nineteenth century, then accelerated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Put another way, our technology is destroying our civilization by psychologically damaging a group of people who in previous eras might have become creative geniuses, but now are not achieving anything.

A civilization cannot thrive without creative achievement. There are always problems that require creative solutions. For example, contemporary America is drowning in debt, the war on drugs has been lost, we’re threatened by terrorism, our schools are failing us, prisons are the only high-growth industry, we need a vaccine for AIDS, and we need to come up with green alternatives to oil and the internal combustion engine. Our two political parties are so far apart on most issues that the federal government is gridlocked, unable to pass needed reforms. While there are some good ideas floating around, very few of them get implemented. We need creative geniuses to not only come up with solutions, but figure out how to get these solutions put into practice. Dullness pervades all our political/artistic/scientific life and intellectual discourse. At least during the Great Depression, people could go to Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies as a healthy temporary escape. Today, all we have to offer are reality TV shows and rap music. Until we address the connection between our own technology and creativity/mental illness, i.e. until we begin researching human magnetoreception, dullness will be triumphant.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Memoir of How I Developed the Concept of Psychiatric Symptoms as Navigational Tools

Arguably the single most important finding of my human magnetoreception research project is the concept of psychiatric symptoms as navigational tools. Negative symptoms (i.e. depressed mood) tell me that (magnetic) home is south of my current location, and positive symptoms (i.e. tics) tell me that (magnetic) home is north. In my site and research paper, I don’t give many anecdotes related to my development of this idea. I intend to fill in this gap in this post.

One of the strangest things about psychiatric disorders is that although they are considered to be diseases, they don’t share many of the characteristics of diseases. For one thing, there’s no obvious pathophysiology, i.e. physiological changes associated with the disease. This is not the case for some other well-known brain diseases. Multiple Sclerosis is characterized by plaques in the white matter of the brain. Parkinson’s Disease is characterized by loss of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra. Both of these diseases are degenerative—i.e. the patient gets worse over time. Psychiatric disorders, on the other hand, are not degenerative. Take as an example John Nash, the subject of the book and movie “A Beautiful Mind.” His schizophrenia gradually improved over time, so that by his mid-fifties he could function reasonably well.

While psychiatric disorders are not typical diseases, I don’t agree with Szasz’s infamous 1961 book that mental illness is a myth. As someone who suffered from mental illness for over 20 years, and having seen how mental illness has wrecked lives and destroyed relationships in my own family, I know how dysfunctional it is. It’s just not in the same category as other diseases.

My concept of psychiatric symptoms as navigational tools helps explain this puzzle of mental illness. Psychiatric symptoms are the human equivalent of the animal instinctual response to being north or south of home. Long ago during human evolution, our ancestors probably utilized these symptoms for navigation. Since our primitive ancestors never ventured far from their birthplace, didn’t live very long, and had no exposure to artificial magnetic fields, their symptoms were never too intense. They were strong enough to guide them north or south toward home, but not strong enough to incapacitate them.

At some point, the knowledge of psychiatric symptoms as navigational tools was lost. This probably occurred well before the advent of civilization and written language. Some cultures and tribes considered these symptoms to be the result of evil spirits or demons. Others, like the ancient Greeks, took a more naturalistic approach. Today, the dominant theory is that psychiatric disorders are a result of a chemical imbalance. This imbalance is brought on by a combination of genes and environment. Both the genes causing mental illness and the environment trigger or triggers are unknown (as of 2009).

I accept the premise that genes are part of the cause of mental illness. My human magnetoreception hypothesis explains the environmental trigger. People with psychiatric disorders are unwitting navigators, whose symptoms are guiding them to their (magnetic) home. Since knowledge of the navigational function of psychiatric symptoms has been lost, the navigators (and everyone else) attribute their symptoms to some type of biochemical disease process.

How did I arrive at the startling conclusion that the symptoms of my psychiatric disorder were navigational tools? Before embarking on my geomagnetism research project in late 2007, I had studied psychology, and had gotten a second bachelor’s degree in this subject (my first was in physics). From my study of psychology, I knew about positive and negative symptoms, primarily as they applied to schizophrenia. I thought that I had negative symptoms, in the sense of a chronic mild depression (i.e. dysthymia) and lack of motivation. I also had positive symptoms, in the sense of tics, hypomania, and anxiety. But I had no idea that these symptoms were navigational tools until late 2007, when I began to drive around Utah and surrounding states, paying attention to how I felt differently in different places.

Since many of my readers may not be familiar with the geography of the Western U.S., I’m including a map with some key places I visited coded with letters. Here’s what happened at each of these places.

A) Salt Lake City, Utah (SLC). This was my home during this initial stage of my research project. I used how I felt here as a reference point, to compare to how I felt in the other places.

B) Rock Springs, Wyoming. This was the first place I drove to in search of a geomagnetic explanation of why I felt differently in different places. I drove here on September 20, 2007, because I knew that it was higher in total intensity and inclination than SLC, and I expected that being higher in these two magnetic factors would make me feel better. I stayed in a motel here, and felt in prepeak. I felt more focused and motivated than I did in SLC. At the time, I didn’t know that there was a peak, and that it was only one meter north-south distance. On hindsight, if I had known about the effects of circadian rhythm on peak location, I would have gone to bed an hour later, which would have pushed the peak far south of Rock Springs. I was phase advanced at the time, but didn’t know it.

C) My next trip was to Idaho Falls, Idaho, on September 26, 2007. I wanted to go north to see if even higher total intensity and inclination would make me feel better than I did in Rock Springs. What I found, however, was that in Idaho Falls I felt depressed, unmotivated, and unfocused. These are what I would later call “negative symptoms,” or symptoms of being in the Negative Zone, the area north of magnetic home.

D) Based on the negative symptoms I felt in Idaho Falls, I decided that I needed to drive south, to attempt to feel the way I did in Rock Springs. By using the magnetic model calculator, I found that Twin Falls, Idaho had similar total intensity and inclination to Rock Springs. I drove down to Twin Falls on September 27, but didn’t feel as well as I did as in Rock Springs. I stayed overnight a few nights in Twin Falls, driving to some of the small towns north and northeast of this city. I felt in prepeak in Rupert (about 75 km east/northeast of Twin Falls), but negative symptoms in Minidoka (about 23 km northeast of Rupert). On September 28, I distinguished between a “Northern Effect” and “Southern Effect,” which I would later change to “Negative Zone” and “Positive Zone.” I speculated on the implications of this for bipolar disorder. I also observed that the feelings go away temporarily while I’m driving (something I would later realize was applicable to sleeping near a cardinal bed angle {N-S or E-W}. The feelings don’t go away when driving if I sleep near a 45 degree bed angle).

The next day (September 29) I found the peak near Twin Falls. By making frequent stops while driving, I realized that the prepeak feelings occurred in a narrow north-south distance range, 2 to 3 kilometers.

E) Wanting to find the peak closer to Salt Lake City (A), I drew a line between Rock Springs (B) and Twin Falls (D), and predicted that the peak should be near Bear Lake. This high elevation, relatively undeveloped resort lake near the Utah/Idaho border had inspired me in September 2006 to write a mystery short story set there. See the pictures below.

In early October, 2007, Bear Lake inspired me to further develop my concept of the psychological magnetic map. It was near the Bear Lake Marina that I first walked the peak. I walked too fast, however, missing the most intense part of the peak (see video). At the time I estimated that the peak was between 30 and 60 meters north-south distance (later revised down to one meter). By walking east and west of the peak, and holding a compass, I realized that the peak extended approximately along a line of magnetic east-west.

By stopping in Laketown and Round Valley, two towns just south of the lake, and then stopping in Logan, which is a further distance southwest of the lake, I began to conceptualize the distinction between the Happy Zone and the Positive Zone. Just south of the peak is the Happy Zone, in which I’m largely free of symptoms, but if I go further south I run into the Positive Zone, in which I feel positive symptoms (i.e. tics and involuntary body movements).

I returned to Bear Lake on October 11, eight days after my previous visit. I found that the peak had moved south 0.9 km in the eight days. This was before I controlled for bed angle, and was likely due to a combination of Bed Angle Drift (BAD) and secular change. Much of my later research involved doing quantitative analysis of the various factors that were associated with peak movement north or south.

The above description covers the initial stages of my research project, in which I identified that my symptoms were navigational tools, leading me to magnetic home. I also found that there was a peak, a short distance of intense feeling that was a north-south transition between different symptom clusters. In future posts I’ll discuss some other anecdotes associated with this project.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Cognitive-behavioral strategies to manage my OCD

This post is directed toward those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I developed OCD during my last year of high school, and it became a serious disorder during college (combined with tics). At the time, I didn't try to get treatment, and I had no idea that I even had OCD. In my mid-twenties, I began seeing a psychiatrist, and started on a drug called Anafranil, which helped a lot. I was on Anafranil for 10 years, with 2 of those years combined with Zoloft. I combined the medication with my own cognitive-behavioral strategy. I found that existing psychological treatments (e.g. exposure therapy) didn't work very well for me. After 10 years of Anafranil along with my own strategies, I no longer needed medication. My OCD remained sub-clinical, i.e. although I still had an obsessive-compulsive personality, it no longer impacted my functioning. This was 3 years before I started investigating the link between my OCD/tics and the Earth's magnetic field (which I present in my website).

My symptoms were mainly obsessions about philosophical issues. I also had checking and cleaning compulsions. The compulsions weren't as bad as the obsessions. During my early and mid-twenties, virtually any reading or writing could trigger obsessions and tics, which would last for days. I believe that the obsessions derived from my extreme interpretation of the Ayn Rand/Objectivist philosophy. I'll expand upon this connection at another time.

My strategies to deal with the OCD involved refraining from mental suppression and mental forcing. Mental suppression is the willful cutting off of thoughts, images, and feelings as they arise from the stream of consciousness. Mental forcing is the willful forcing of thoughts, images, and feelings that would otherwise have not come from the stream of consciousness. Both of these behaviors are self-stimulatory, addictive, and destabilizing. Daniel Wegner's book White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts is a good source on the futility of trying to suppress thoughts.

To avoid these behaviors, you need to distinguish between mental forcing/suppression, which are internal behaviors, and triggers, which are external behaviors and stimuli. I believe that people with OCD should avoid triggers. Triggers are basically anything that can set off an obsessive/compulsive state. They involve an interaction with the person and his environment (as opposed to a strictly internal thing like mental suppression). As I stated earlier, before I started with medication almost any reading or writing served as triggers for me. Triggers include being in an unclean or disordered environment, and any kind of change or stress. Medication helped reduce the number of triggers, and also the severity and duration of the dysfunctional state that ensued. That's why I support the use of medication to control OCD.

Exposure therapy says that OCD is an anxiety disorder (based on the DSM categorization), and just as exposing anxious people to things they fear helps them (e.g. exposing people with claustrophobia to a confined space), exposing people with OCD will help them overcome their obsessions and compulsions.

There are several problems with the theory behind exposure therapy for OCD. One problem is that OCD isn't really an anxiety disorder. It's usually treated by antidepressants. If it was a true anxiety disorder, it would be treated by anti-anxiety meds like Xanax or Valium. The other problem is that obsessions and compulsions are addictive, self-stimulatory behaviors. One doesn't treat addictive behaviors by exposing the addict to things that can trigger the addiction. For example, one doesn't treat alcoholism by exposing the alcoholic to wine or liquor.

I don't know why some people and therapists claim that exposure therapy is effective for OCD. Perhaps some people with true anxiety are misdiagnosed with OCD. Perhaps others are helped in the short term by exposure therapy, only to have different obsessions and compulsions replace the ones that they were exposed to. Others likely relapse.

I hope the above strategies help some people with OCD. Feedback is welcome.