[Epistemic status: So, so speculative. Don’t take any of this seriously until it’s replicated and endorsed by other people.]
If you’ve ever wanted to see a glitch in the Matrix, watch this spinning mask:
Did you see it? As the face started to turn away from you, your brain did…something, and then you were seeing a normal frontwards-facing mask again. It turns out your visual system has really strong views about whether faces should be inside-out or not, and it’s willing to execute a hard override on perception if it doesn’t like what it sees.
But not always. Some people get glitchier glitches than others; a few seem almost immune. Studies find schizophrenics and autistic people to be consistently less glitchy than the rest of us. The correlation’s not perfect. But it’s definitely there. Something about these people’s different cognitive processing styles lets them see through the illusion.
I wanted to replicate this result myself. So a few months ago, when I surveyed readers of my blog, I included some questions about perceptual illusions (including a static version of the hollow mask). I got five thousand responses, including a few from schizophrenic and autistic readers. Sure enough, the effect was there.
Schizophrenic readers were about twice as likely to report a weak reaction to the mask illusion as non-schizophrenics (28% vs. 14%, p = 0.04). They were also more likely to have a weak reaction to a similar illusion, the Spinning Dancer (58% vs. 81%, p = 0.01). Readers with a family history of schizophrenia landed in between schizophrenics and healthy controls (16% for mask, 63% for dancer, ns).
Autistic readers were only slightly more likely to report a weak reaction to the mask illusion than neurotypicals (17% vs. 14%), but thanks to our big sample size we could be pretty confident that this was a meaningful difference (p = 0.004). There was no different between autists and neurotypicals on the Spinning Dancer, not even a weak trend (58% vs. 60%, p = 0.4).
Looking deeper, I found a few other anomalies on illusion perception. Most were small and inconsistent. But one stood out: transgender people had an altered response pattern on both illusions, stronger than the alteration for autism and almost as strong as the one for schizophrenia (mask: cis 14% vs. trans 21%, p = 0.003; dancer: cis 58% vs. trans 71%, p = 0.001). These results are very tentative, and need replication. My mass survey isn’t a very sensitive instrument, and I place low confidence in any of this until other people can confirm.
But for now, it sure looks like a signal. Something seems off about transgender people’s perception, something deep enough to alter the lowest-level components of visual processing. If it’s real, what could it be?
A few days ago, trans blogger Zinnia Jones asked me if there might be any neurochemical reason trans people dissociate so much.
Dissociation is a vague psychiatric symptom where you feel like you’re not real, or the world isn’t real, or you’re detached from the world, or something like that. It sounds weird, but if you explain it to someone who’s had it, they’ll say “Oh yeah, that thing!” It’s usually unpleasant, and tends to occur in PTSD, borderline personality, and extreme stress.
And in transgender people. The only formal study I can find on this describes it as “greatly prevalent”, and suggests that up to 30% of trans people may have dissociative conditions (compared to less than 1% of the general population). This matches trans people’s self-reports (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Anecdotally (according to Zinnia’s impression of the trans community) and formally (see Costa & Colizzi 2016) hormone replacement therapy is an effective treatment for dissociative problems.
Intuitively this makes sense. Trans people feel like they’re “trapped in the wrong body”, so of course they feel detached from their bodies / like their bodies aren’t real / like their bodies aren’t theirs. Hormone therapy helps solve the “wrong body” problem, so it also solves the dissociative symptoms.
We aim to bridge psychosocial and biological levels of explanation. We can say that someone is stressed out because their boss overworks them, but also because they’re secreting high levels of cortisol. We can say that someone is depressed because they broke up with their boyfriend, but also because they have decreased synaptogenesis in their hippocampus. Causation gets tricky, and this is a philosophical minefield for sure, but overall these two levels should be complementary rather than competitive. So what’s the biological correlate to trans people having dissociation problems?
Practically all searches for the biological basis of dissociation end up at the NMDA glutamate receptor, one of the many neurotransmitter systems in the brain. Even though its cousins dopamine and serotonin usually get top billing, glutamate is probably the brain’s most important neurotransmitter, and NMDA glutamate receptors in particular are involved in all sorts of interesting things.
Drugs that block NMDA receptors cause dissociation. The most famous dissociative anaesthetic, ketamine, is an NMDA antagonist. So is DXM, a recreational drug that causes dissociation in abusers. Wikipedia’s list of dissociative drugs is basically just fifty-five NMDA antagonists in a row. The only other category they list are kappa opioid agonists, and kappa opioid agonism probably – you guessed it – antagonize NMDA. If we take this result seriously, every substance we know of that causes dissociation is an NMDA antagonist in some way.
Does anything improve NMDA function – an effect we might expect to alleviate dissociation? Yes, and among a list of intimidating research chemicals called things like “aminocyclopropanecarboxylic acid” is one familiar name: estrogen. See eg El-Bakri et al, which finds that “estrogen modulates NMDA receptors function in the brain…enhancing NMDA function”. McEwen et al: “One of the long-term effects of estradiol [estrogen] is to induce NMDA receptor binding sites in the CA1 region of the hippocampus.” Bi et al: “17-B-estradiol [estrogen] enhances NMDA receptor phosphorylation and function.” I don’t fully understand this research, but it seems to point to estrogen promoting NMDA activity in some way.
So transgender people dissociate a lot, a state usually associated with hypofunctioning NMDA receptors. And transwomen get better when they take estrogen, a hormone that improves NMDA function. That’s interesting. But what does this have to do with those optical illusions?
The Hollow Mask illusion and its cousins probably depend on NMDA function.
To oversimplify: the brain interprets the world through Bayesian calculations. It communicates top-down priors (ie assumptions based on previous knowledge about the world) through NMDA receptors and bottom-up new evidence through AMPA receptors. Corlett et al write:
In a hierarchical cortical system in which representations become more abstract with increasing distance from the primary input, higher levels of the hierarchy specify top-down predictions through NMDA receptor signaling and any mismatches between expectancy and experience are conveyed upward through the hierarchy via rapid AMPA and GABA signaling
When you see a hollow mask, the brute facts of how the mask looks are your bottom-up sensory evidence. Your top-down prior is that every other face you’ve seen for your entire life has been normal, not inside-out. Given the strength of the prior, the prior wins, and your brain interprets the mask as a normal face.
Unless your brain is bad at applying priors, ie its NMDA receptors aren’t working that well. Then it just sticks with the bottom-up sensory evidence showing that the mask is hollow.
Schizophrenia and autism both probably involve decreased NMDA function in different ways. For schizophrenia, see eg Olney, NMDA receptor hypofunction model of schizophrenia, and Coyle, NMDA receptor and schizophrenia: a brief history. Ketamine seems to replicate the symptoms of schizophrenia pretty well and is commonly used as a model for the disorder. For autism, see eg Lee, NMDA receptor dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders and this study where screwing with NMDA receptors in mice seems to turn them autistic.
From this we would predict that estrogen would help treat schizophrenia and autism. It does. Schizophrenia is more common and more severe in men than women, with researchers noting that “gonadal steroids may play a role in buffering females against the development of schizophrenia”. Women are known to sometimes get schizophrenia triggered by menopause when their estrogen levels decrease. Estrogen supplementation is an effective schizophrenia treatment, and there’s some interest in developing estrogen receptor modulators that can help schizophrenic men without making them grow breasts. Meanwhile, autism continues to be about four times more common in men than women, autistic women tend to have more “male-typical brains”, and although it’s considered unethical to treat autistic boys with estrogen, it works in mice and fish. Once again, doctors are looking into estrogen analogues that don’t turn people female as possible autism treatments.
We might also predict that estrogen would increase glitching on the hollow mask. I can’t study this directly, but on the survey, 15% of biological males had weak reactions to the illusion, compared with only 11% of biological females, p = 0.01. Since women have more estrogen, that looks good for the theory.
Transgender people have higher rates of autism and schizophrenia. The Atlantic actually had a good article about this recently : The Link Between Autism And Trans Identity. They cite one study showing 8% autism rate in trans people (compared to 1-2% in the general population), and another showing that autistic people were 7.5x more likely to express “gender variance”. Apparently a lot of trans people have problems getting hormone therapy because their doctors think the gender issues are “just” because of their autism. Some might say that denying people estrogen because they have a condition which studies suggest estrogen can successfully treat is a bit, I don’t know, crazy and evil, but I guess people get really weird around this stuff.
My survey broadly confirms these numbers. Autism rates were sky-high in every category – it’s almost as if the sorts of people who like reading blogs about how gender is all just NMDA receptors skew more autistic than average – but there was a remarkable difference across gender identities. 15% of cisgender people were autistic, but a full 52% of trans people were.
The survey also finds that about 4% of non-schizophrenic people were transgender, compared to 21% of schizophrenics and self-suspected schizophrenics. Other people have noticed the same connection, and I’ve met more schizophrenic transgender people than I would expect by chance given the very low rates of both conditions.
If this is right, we end up with this rich set of connections between schizophrenics, autistics, ketamine, dissociative experiences, estrogen, gender identity, and the hollow mask. Anything that decreases NMDA function – schizophrenia, autism, ketamine – will potentially cause dissociative experiences and decreased glitching on the mask illusion. Estrogen will improve NMDA function, treat dissociative experiences, and bring back hollow-mask glitching.
So I wonder: is NMDA hypofunction related to transgender? That would explain the autism and schizophrenia connections. It would explain the hollow mask numbers. It would explain the dissociation. It would explain why estrogen helps the dissociation. And it would explain a lot of internal connections between all of these different conditions and factors.
I’m going to stop here, even though there’s a lot more worth saying on this, because I’ve already gotten so far into Speculation Land that trying to chain any more conclusions on would probably be premature. So let’s switch to some reasons for skepticism.
First, the research into NMDA receptors is too interesting. People argue that NMDA is key to depression, key to anxiety, OCD, chronic pain, and borderline personality (my guess is the depression claims are mostly overblown, the borderline claims are 100% absolutely right and revelatory, and I’m agnostic on the others). On the one hand, explaining everything sounds sort of good. On the other hand, it also sounds like what would happen if a field was getting kind of overhyped and slipping into methodology loose enough to prove anything it wanted. Maybe a vague link between a receptor which is literally everywhere in the brain and some psychiatric disease isn’t that interesting. A theory that can explain absolutely everything should always cause suspicion.
Second, I’m still not sure what to make of the Hollow Mask results on my survey. Although the transgender results were unusually strong, I did get mildly statistically significant results on about half of the thirty-or-so things I looked at, including seemingly-unrelated items like political affiliation. Some might argue that this means something is wrong with my survey. Others might argue that hey, we know political attitudes are about 50% genetic, and the last time people tried trace the genes involved all the strongest results were genes for NMDA receptors. Have I mentioned that NMDA receptors are really interesting?
Third, I included a second illusion I asked about on the survey, the Spinning Dancer. It also had an odd response pattern among transgender people. But it didn’t correlate at all with the Hollow Mask Illusion, and it doesn’t seem to be elevated among autists. I don’t know what’s going on here, and the whole thing makes me more suspicious that all of this is some weird artifact.
Fourth, all this predicts that ketamine will cause reduced glitching on the Hollow Mask. It doesn’t. Corlett argues that this is because chronic, but not acute, NMDA dysfunction is required to stop the hollow mask glitches “because [keatmine] has a predominant impact on bottom-up AMPA signaling”. I don’t really understand this and it seems like a prediction failure to me. On the other hand, chronic marijuana use does prevent mask glitching, which might be because of marijuana causing NMDA hypofunction over time, which I guess is a point in favor of the chronicity theory.
Fifth, although transwomen dissociate less when they take estrogen, transmen dissociate less when they take testosterone. I can’t find whether testosterone has similar NMDA-promoting properties in the brain, although it sometimes gets aromatized to estrogen so that might be relevant. Also, I’ve never heard of any transwoman taking testosterone or transman taking estrogen. If that makes dissociation worse – and from the psychosocial perspective it probably should – then that would be a strike against this theory.
Sixth, although I played up the transgender/autism and transgender/schizophrenia links, the truth is that transgender people have higher rates of every mental illness, to the point where it may just be some general factor. I think I’m justified in focusing on these two results because transgender people’s higher rates of depression and anxiety are probably just related to being transgender being depressing and anxiety-provoking in this society. But schizophrenia and autism are 80+% genetic, and so harder to explain away like that. Still, somebody could question the relevance of worrying about these two conditions in particular.
I hope some of this can be sorted out in the near future. A first step would be for someone official to replicate the transgender Hollow Mask pattern and prove that it’s not just confounded by autism and schizophrenia rates in that population. A very tentative second step would be to investigate whether chronic use of the supplements that improve NMDA function in schizophrenia – like glycine, d-serine, and especially sarcosine – can augment estrogen in improving gender dysphoria. Remember to consult your doctor before trying any weird supplements since they may cause unintended side effects, like becoming a Republican.
It could also be worth trying to understand more explicitly why gender identity and NMDA should be linked. This post is long enough already, but I might write more on this in the future. If you want a preview, check out The Role Of Neonatal NMDA Receptor Activation In Defeminization And Masculinization Of Sex Behavior In The Rat and draw the obvious conclusions.
( detailed review )
Currently reading: All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Partly because it's Hugo nominated and partly cos several of my friends were enthusiastic about it. I'm a bit more than halfway through and finding it very readable and enjoyable. Patricia and Laurence are really well drawn as outcast characters and their interaction is great. It feels very Zeitgeisty, very carefully calculated to appeal to the current generation of geeks. The style is sort of magic realist, in that a bunch of completely weird fantasy-ish things happen and nobody much remarks on them. I find that sort of approach to magic a bit difficult to get on with, because it appears completely arbitrary what is possible and what isn't, so the plot seems a bit shapeless.
Up next: I'm a bit minded to pick up Dzur by Steven Brust, because I was enjoying the series but very slowly, and it's been really quite a few years since I made progress with it.
Probably not standing: Stephen Lloyd, Christine Jardine
Definitely standing: Vince Cable
... Oh arse.
Look, coronations are bad. The "candidate" does not get examined, does not get their feet held to whatever fire the membership is stoking, does not have to state any positions before the crown is lowered. Recent political leaders who have had a coronation rather than an election include TMay, Arlene Foster, and Gordon Brown. We do not want to be in that company.
But even if coronations were ok, the coronation of someone who's published views are 1, so often at odds with the membership and 2, so changeable depending on who he is talking to... Lads, this is really, really, REALLY not good. And given the article I linked to in the very first piece I wrote on potential leadership elections after the GE, this whole situation smells really fucking funny and I do not like it one bit.
I'm in conversation with a bunch of other
But if we can't do something about it... I don't know. The scissors are feeling very close to my membership card right now.
ETA: OfC given the legendary efficiency of the LDHQ membership department, if I were to cut up my membership card and send it back we'd probably have had another 2 general elections before they got round to processing my resignation...
I've not done much about it: cakes in the office yesterday & I may get a takeaway tonight rather than cook. I am vaguely thinking of doing Something on the weekend that includes 1st October (my arbitrarily-declared Happy Being Alive Day) but I haven't worked out what Something will be yet. In the meantime, a good friend is holding a party on Saturday so I'm going to enjoy being part of their celebration instead of organising my own right now.
Okay so this is going to be a little complex, but I hope that you could maybe provide some insight on the situation.
I met a guy online (a long-distance situation) and we’ve been in contact almost daily for a year and a half now. We’ve gotten to know each other and it turns out that we’re on the same wavelength and get along so well. In the past I had asked him if he had a girlfriend because I didn’t want to get in the middle of anything (we have “intimate” moments), and he said no and that he used to but that he wasn’t happy. But just recently, he messaged me that he had finally broken up with his girlfriend! So my questions are actually:
1. Initially I felt hurt that he lied, but approaching the situation calmly, it’s difficult not to comfort him, I mean we ARE friends and we do feel a little more than what friendship feels like. When he told me I politely thanked him for telling me and asked if he wanted to talk about it.
When he opened up a little about it, he said that he thought that it would make him feel better, but after doing it, he felt sad. But he also kept telling me that it had been a long time coming, and that he had been wanting to do it for so long. I’ve never had happy breakups even when I was the one to break it, so I told him that sadness for a while is normal, and that if he had wanted to do it for so long then, there’s a fundamental basis for it that’s obviously important. So now, how do I actually comfort him?
2. I’m confused about the situation. At times he tells me that I make him smile, that he wants to be with me, and I believe because if I didn’t, then we would’ve stopped talking ages ago. The connection and attraction that we have are both pretty strong, and I actually want him and want it to work, and I have plans to see him in a few months. I don’t know what to make of it – him telling me that he’s now free, how he initially feels about it, and so on. So Cap’n, can you please help me make sense of it? Thank you Cap’n!
You asked for my take on “a complex situation” (from your email subject line).
Whatever this guy is to you and however you feel about each other, he lied to you about having a girlfriend all this time. And it’s not like he never mentioned it and you never asked. You asked him directly because you were not comfortable doing “intimate stuff” if he was involved with someone else, and he said no. And then you talked almost every day for a year and a half. He didn’t “forget” that he had a girlfriend or “forget” to mention her.
It’s also highly possible/probable that he lied to his girlfriend about having an “intimate” friend who he had attraction and “almost daily” contact with. Like, maybe they had some kind of agreement or open relationship and everything was cool, but since he’s describing himself as now being “free,” I think it was…not cool?
You’re asking how to comfort him and he seems to want you to comfort him. Okay? Who’s comforting you about the confusingness of being lied to all this time? What is he doing to make you feel better about being hurt?
For a while in my life I was the queen of the long-distance sextual relationship. I’m really good at longing and storytelling and someday, and because the Internet is magic I kept finding people who were also good at those things and together we’d spin some tales and build up all this anticipation and then we’d finally meet in person and…
…one by one…
- …”I’m single. Well, actually I’m divorced. ‘Separated’ is more like it. Well, we will be separated soon, just, not yet. It’s just not the right time.” (These people are definitely still married to each other).
- …Told me he was 45, was really 55.
- …Was at least 15 years older than any photo he’d posted on line or showed me.
- …He was not all that into me once we met in person.
- …I was not all that into him once we met in person.
- …Good on the phone, selfish and annoying in bed.
- …Bad with consent and careless about safe sex.
- …Or, sexually AWESOME, bad with everything else.
- …I was but one of the sympathetic and imaginative ladies in his harem of long-distance ladies.
- …Or, I was now “his only friend” and/or “only reason to live.”
- …In one case the “harem of ladies” AND “you’re my only real friend” situation were both true? (Ugh.)
- “She’s just my roommate, I swear.” (She was his girlfriend.)(Who was working her ass off to support him through a crisis.)
- …Showed up to my city for a visit with no money and expected to move in with me…the first time we met. (NOPE!)
- “Hey come to my son’s birthday party I want you to finally meet my friends and my mom and my son…bring your video camera and take some home movies for me…oh, also, I will treat you like the hired videographer and my mom will treat you like the caterer/party planner because my real actual girlfriend who I’ve never mentioned is also here and nobody knows about you.” (TRUE STORY, Y’ALL)(I ACTUALLY PUT ON A CLEAN SHIRT AND WENT TO THIS DUMPSTER FIRE OF A “PARTY” AND TOOK VIDEO AND PUT SNACKS ON PLATTERS AND SMILED)
Me, Aged 24-33 = A MESS. A mess with a big phone bill who sent novels worth of sexy and attentive instant messages and emails to verbal, imaginative, interesting men in far-off cities.
These Gentlemen of Mystery I got tangled up with often had a lot to recommend them at the beginning. We had great chemistry, they made me feel important and sexy in a way I hadn’t before, they allowed me to spin out a fantasy life over time and distance and distract me from the mundane day-to-day, there was an inherent drama in traveling to meet them or them traveling to meet me, I got a lot of excitement out of each ping saying I had a new email or text message or IM and those methods of communication were fertile ground for a charismatic and wordy person like myself. Long distance romance spins out in words and you can collect those words and re-read them and go live inside the story you’re making and have actual evidence of the other person’s thoughts and feelings and fill in the spaces in those lovely, lovely blanks. Plus, I got to say “I have a boyfriend” without having to deal with the reality of an actual boyfriend up in my space and business all the time. I liked the version of myself I could create with these men.I liked being In Love. I liked practicing being In Love…from a safe distance.
Long distance relationships are real relationships, relationships that start online and grow over time are real relationships, and they can work – My Facebook wall is covered with too many cute pictures of the offspring that resulted from cross-country flights and leaps of faith and love to ever say that they can’t.
That said, if you’re planning a long-term future with someone, proximity eventually matters. Seeing a person’s living space, seeing how your intended love interacts with the people around them, seeing them in their milieu and day-to-day life, having the evidence of your own eyes and ears and other senses to guide you about whether this person is good for you, whether they are compatible with you, whether the picture they presented to you is congruent to the picture you observe, learning how you are together when it’s not just the adrenaline rush of a quick few days or some texts between classes or those late night phone calls…it’s important. It’s part of this and you can’t skip past it to happily ever after. You have to reckon with boring real everyday life.
Besides meeting online from a distance, the men I met during that period of my life all had two very important things in common:
1) They all *lied to me* about something really important early on in the relationship.
2) Being long-distance made the lie harder to spot. This meant that it took longer for the truth to come out, during which time I became very invested in the relationship and it was much harder to leave than if I had known what was up right away.
In all cases, I found out about the lie and I chose to believe the explanations and justifications they threw at me, usually some version of “I didn’t want to hurt you,” “I knew you would hate me when you found out and things were going so well between us that I was afraid to ruin it,” or “I lied initially when we first met because I didn’t realize how much I would fall in love with you, and then it was never a good time to undo the damage.”
In 100% of these cases, I would choose to “be the bigger person,” look past the red flags, demonstrate how empathetic and chill and forgiving I could be, and, 100% of the time, a situation that was about *a lie they told me* would turn into *me reassuring and “comforting” them.* For how they hadn’t meant to hurt me.
The Mediocre Dude With 1,000 Faces: “I understand if you hate me now” or “You probably hate me now.”
Past Me: “I could never hate you!”
Current Me: “Pssssttt hey you don’t have to hate him to know that you deserve better than this. You could say ‘I don’t hate you but I don’t think this is going to work out, sorry, bye‘ and hang up the phone now.”
Mediocre Max (Mike/Milton/Marvin/Martin/Merle/Matt/
Past Me: “It’s okay! I forgive you! I know you love me and we can make it work.” (i.e. My emotional labor can solve anything!)
Current Me: “He said a lot of words but none of them were actually an apology. Huh. That’s interesting. What if you told him, ‘I don’t want to make you feel worse right now, but I also don’t want to keep talking about this. I wish you all good things, but I just can’t be with someone who doesn’t tell me the truth. Let’s end this now before we both get more entangled and hurt?‘”
My dear Letter Writer, forgive me, probably 50% of this blog is me trying to yell through time to my past self – “Run away! He’s not worth it! You deserve better!” Let’s bring it back to you.
Your dude isn’t necessarily like the dudes I met and your experiences won’t necessarily be just like mine. People fuck up and make mistakes, not every relationship ends or begins cleanly, and maybe this friend you have is genuinely sorry for lying to you about his romantic situation for so long while you were doing whatever intimate & sexy stuff you had going on. You want this to happen and I want to be optimistic for you and give everyone the benefit of the doubt here. So what I have are questions:
- Has he told you he’s sorry?
- Has he used words like “I’m sorry I lied to you about that, I shouldn’t have done that, that wasn’t okay, I understand why you’d be upset” without trying to self-justify or make you feel sorry for him or comfort him?
- Have you said (or do you feel like you’re able to say): “Hey, sorry you’re hurting, but can we talk for a second about how I had no idea you had this girlfriend until just now? That’s messed up and it doesn’t make me feel good.“
- Does he try to “rules-lawyer” his way out of a difficult conversation, like, “We weren’t technically together when that happened, so it doesn’t really count as a lie”?
- Is there a vibe where you’re like “Ok technically he has a point, so why do I still feel so crappy?“
- Which is more important – you feeling good, safe, able to trust – or him winning the point?
- What does he do for you?
- What has he done for you lately?
- Do you trust him to tell you the truth from now on?
- What would happen if you took a couple of weeks off from talking with him so much?
- Another version of the above question: What’s That Thing in your current, day-to-day life that you’re ignoring or avoiding or putting off while you dream about Someday, When You’re Together?
- Could you work a little more on That Thing and a little less on This Sexy And Complicated Dude at least for the time being?
You don’t have to dump him as a sacrifice to my younger self, but you also don’t have to comfort him through any of this. You don’t have to overlook the hurt you’re feeling in the name of being a good friend right now. If he’s good for you, and a good friend to you, maybe let him do the work of showing you that goodness before you invest more of yourself in his comfort?
I doubt he even remembers enraging me. But I almost screamed at him.
I’m still not sure whether it was his fault.
But let’s rewind. I have a friend who has pretty severe walking issues – he gets only so many steps in a day before he collapses. Most days he can get to nightfall without needing a walker – and he works hard, very hard, not to be seen as a burden.
More so, he struggles to be seen as a person. If you’ve never friended someone with a disability, you don’t quite understand how a visible handicap can eclipse someone’s personality. People tend to assume that everyone in a wheelchair acts the same – they talk a little louder, a little slower, they’re quicker to dismiss their opinions because really, do they know what they want?
Disabled people struggle to be seen. And my friend, well, he worked really hard to be more than his disability –
– which meant he pushed himself hard at conventions. Lots of covert sweating, casually leaning on bars, sitting down when they could. Because if he displayed weakness, the conversation would shift from all the happy things that made his life worthwhile and would focus on “Are you all right?” – which is a question he asks himself entirely too damn much as it is.
He wanted the con to be a vacation and not an explanation. Which was why his disability was, largely, not quite a secret among friends but something where the extent wasn’t entirely revealed unless you were in the know.
And my friend had held up well during the day but was starting to fade in the evening. He was looking for, well, let’s call him The Guy Ultimately I Wanted To Yell At, or Tguiwtya.
He was looking for Tguiwtya. Because he was good friends with Tguiwtya, and and wanted a few moments to hang with Tguiwtya to hang out before he collapsed. And my friend texted Tguiwtya to say “Hey, I’m on my way,” and Tguiwtya had said “I’m in the back of the ballroom.”
Tguiwtya was not in the back of the ballroom.
I ran into my friend, looking exhausted, who asked me if I’d seen Tguiwtya. I knew he’d walked all the way down from their room to meet Tguiwtya, exhausting the very last of his daily steps, and getting back up to the room would be an effort. I said I hadn’t.
He plopped into a chair, sweaty, miserable, waiting for Tguiwtya to show. I kept him company, brought him water. But Tguiwtya wasn’t responding to texts. And eventually, my friend said, “Well, let’s see if I can find him,” and staggered off, leaning heavily on his cane.
I wondered if he was going to make it.
I left. And lo, a couple of hallways down, there was Tguiwtya! Merrily laughing with a bunch of his friends. I collared him.
“Hey. Our friend’s walking the halls looking for you.”
He looked puzzled, as if unsure why I’d bring such a trivial thing to his attention. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s fine.”
I almost screamed.
What I wanted to yell was, “Do you fucking realize how much effort it takes for my friend to find you? You said your dumb ass would be at the back of the ballroom, and they exerted themselves to get to you because they like you, and now they’re straining themselves to find you again, and your answer should not be some pudding-faced ‘that’s fine’ but ‘Yes, sir, I will get right on that.'”
Then I saw Tguiwtya’s friends, crooking their necks at me.
Did I want to make a scene?
Was it worth looking like a fucking maniac in front of all these people, just to make a point about someone’s condition? Because they didn’t know. They couldn’t understand unless I literally barged into their conversation, twisted it, made it about this, and….
Shit, that’s gotta be what it’s like all the time, isn’t it?
Let’s be honest: Tguiwtya should have fucking known how much effort it took my friend to walk all the way down to meet him. I know for a fact that my buddy had talked to Tguiwtya about his illness. He was one of the inner circle, one of the folks who’d pushed a walker for my friend.
But how many times do you want to call some able-bodied person out for not comprehending something that they cannot experience? For Tguiwtya, “walking to the ballroom and back” was such a trivial effort that I doubt he even contemplated it as an effort.
Would I be damaging Tguiwtya’s friendship with my friend by explaining what an accidental asshole they were being?
That was, I realized, a brief window into being disabled. People don’t see your illness, even when you make it clear to them. They can’t comprehend that this background static of their lives could be a deafening uproar to anyone else.
And you always get to choose: make an embarrassing fuss and maybe get accommodated, maybe get rejected – or keep the peace and keep a friendship that means less but at least you get to keep it?
To this day, I’m still not sure if I should have yelled at him. Maybe I should. But he wasn’t my friend, and even if he was, I’m not sure I wanted to dress him down in front of a crowd of people.
What I do know is that I doubt Tguiwtya even ponders that moment. If he does, he thinks of me as the asshole who gave him a vicious side-eye when he didn’t break off his amusing anecdote to rush to meet our friend in the ballroom.
But I remember.
I learned something that day.
I hope I learned to listen.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.
A song that makes you sad. It's hard to find anything sadder than one of my friends who posted a video of a scratch orchestra playing the European anthem Ode to Joy the day after the UK voted to leave the EU. But the song most likely to make me cry, personally, is the aria Voi che sapete from Mozart's The marriage of Figaro.
( break-up sadness, plus video )
Having cashflow problems, some of which are my fault, and some of which are other people's fault, and all of which are beyond my control and therefore incredibly frustrating.
Cashflow problems meaning I am having to cancel on commitments, which I hate doing.
Politics in general is full of arseholes who keep arsing.
Work is frustrating, because I can't do the things I need to do for various stupid reasons (also beyond my control).
Have had no sleep and lots of pointless arguments with members of household, which means I am dangerously low on spoons, grumpy and frazzled.
And to top it all, my right tit is a big scabby painful mess.
Here's hoping you lot are all a bit happier...
To my friends on the [autism] spectrum, let me explain to you an unspoken social rule that possibly nobody has ever explained to you before
If a neurotypical asks you, “What game are you playing?” they’re not asking you to describe the game.
They’re asking you if they can play too.
If a neurotypical asks you, “What are you watching?” they’re not asking you to explain the plot of the movie/tv show to them.
They’re asking if they can watch it with you.
When neurotypicals ask you “What are you doing?”
What you think they’re asking: “Please explain to me what you are doing.”
What they’re actually asking: “Can I join you?”
Now here’s the really fucked up part. If you start explaining to them what you’re doing? They will interpret that as a rejection.
What you think you’re saying: [the answer to their question]
What they think you’re saying: This is an elite and exclusive activity for a level 5 friend and you are a level 1 acquaintance. You are not qualified to join me because you don’t know all this stuff. Go away.
This is why neurotypicals think you’re being cold and antisocial.
IT’S ALL A HORRIBLE MISCOMMUNICATION.
I don’t think this is always true – and when it is I would describe it as more of an open-ended attempt to start a fun conversation than a demand for participation – but I agree that it’s not just a straightforward request for information.
And there was some interesting discussion about this on Autistic Tumblr, which centered around: why would someone do this? Why can’t people just say what they mean?
And the best answer I saw – sorry, I can’t find it right now – explained that people were trying to spare their friends the burden of rejecting them. Say Alice is reading a book, and Bob asks “Hey, do you want to talk about that book?” Maybe Alice doesn’t want to talk about it. But the following conversation…
Bob: Hey, you want to talk to me about that book?
…sounds really rude. So by Bob saying his line, he’s putting a lot of subtle pressure on Alice to agree. Bob is a good person and he doesn’t want to do that. So instead he asks “Hey, what are you reading?”
Bob: Hey, what are you reading?
Alice: Not much. Just some random novel.
Bob: Oh, well, enjoy!
Bob: Hey, what are you reading?
Alice: Oh! It’s really interesting! It’s this book where Apollo 8 crashes into the celestial sphere surrounding the world, and suddenly everything reverts to kabbalistic Judaism…
Bob: Sounds neat! What happens next?
Here Alice either has an opportunity to signal that she wants to continue the conversation, or to reject Bob while maintaining plausible deniability that she’s doing that.
(The beauty of this theory is ruined only by the fact that half the time this happens in real life and I say “Just some random novel,” Bob actually answers “Oh! What kind of random novel?” and then I say “Oh, nothing really”, and Bob says “Come on! Something has to happen!” and then I start despairing that anything about social interaction can ever work at all. I don’t know. Maybe Bob is autistic.)
What I find interesting about “plausible deniability” explanations is that Bob has to operate as close to the border of “inscrutable confusingness” as possible without crossing it. He wants Alice to know he wants to talk to her, but he doesn’t want Alice to know that he knows she knows he wants to talk to her (I’m being very deliberate in putting the word “know” exactly three times there rather than just using a vague phrase like “common knowledge”). As long as Alice doesn’t know he knows she knows he wants to talk to her, Alice can give a non-answer, pretending that she believes Bob will believe that she just didn’t realize he wanted to talk to her.
And this sort of weird common-knowledge-denial-process only works if you’re skirting the border of incomprehensibility, hitting a sweet spot where you think the other person will understand, but it’s also just barely plausible that the other person wouldn’t understand. If you say something the other person would definitely understand, then the game is up. Given some sort of natural variation in how good people are at understanding cues, your best bet is to send a cue that will fail a small but non-zero percent of the time.
But if there are people who are unusually bad at understanding social cues, like autistic people, then any cue calibrated to be on the exact border of neurotypical understanding is likely to fail for them more often than not.
I don’t know how common this pattern is. Making requests seems like a pretty good example. Flirting seems to be centered upon this kind of thing. I’m not sure what else is involved, but I bet it’s a lot.
This provides a simple explanation for the pronounced social-communication difficulties in autism; given that other agents are arguably the most difficult things to predict. In the complex world of social interactions, the many-to-one mappings between causes and sensory input are dramatically increased and difficult to learn; especially if one cannot contextualize the prediction errors that drive that learning.
And I was really struck by the phrase “arguably the most difficult thing to predict”. Really? People are harder to predict than, I don’t know, the weather? Weird little flying bugs? Political trends? M. Night Shyamalan movies? And of all the things about people that should be hard to predict, ordinary conversations?
And I think part of the answer might be: ordinary conversations are hard to predict because they’re designed to be so. Conversation norms are anti-inductive. Like Douglas Adams’ conception of the universe, any time people start to understand them too well, they have to get replaced with something a little bit less comprehensible.
a song that makes you happy. And I have quite a lot of those, making me happy is a big reason I have a music collection at all. I think I'm going to go for Complex person by The Pretenders. The lyrics are not all that cheerful in some ways, but I love the bouncy tune and I always hear this as a song about determination and not letting things get you down.
( video embed, actually audio only )
Also I've had a good week for playing games: ( mostly list with short comments )