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. 


Second Addendum: In Which the Author's Attitude Toward Insight Porn is Clarified

This post has gotten around! I have noticed that my tendency to use dysphemisms for things I like has resulted in a widespread misunderstanding - that there is something inherently wrong with "insight porn." On the contrary, I think what I am calling "insight porn" includes the best of human culture.

First, the concern I have with the poorer sorts of insight porn is not that they promise wisdom and fail to deliver, but simply that they are not appropriate for people on the high end of the intelligence/curiosity distribution. Second, my problem, if I have one, is not with insight porn itself; what I have is a suspicion for the feeling of insight in general.

The feeling of mirth (a reaction to humor) is, the authors of Inside Jokes argue, a reward-system response to the detection of a contradiction in one's mental space: one of the premises one had mentally committed to is found to be incorrect. It is the detection of a misfit. Insight, on the other hand, involves the detection of a fit - the detection of a pattern that allows the compression of information previously requiring more representational space. (This hypothesis is considered with regard to music in Nicholas Hudson's paper "Musical beauty and information compression: Complex to the ear but simple to the mind?")

Epistemically speaking, humor is a much safer route than insight to correct thinking. The feeling of humor detects a problem that is unlikely to not be a problem; unfortunately, insight is likely to provide only the illusion of a better, more elegant model of the world. While what I have dysphemistically called insight porn has inherent value in providing the feeling of insight, we should be more suspicious of the feeling of insight as representing greater wisdom or a more elegant, more accurate model of the moving parts of the world. Insight leaps often do provide more accurate, more elegant models of the world, as Hudson points out in the paper previously linked with regard to Darwin, Einstein, and others. But a person who has spend a great deal of his life having the feeling of insight may or may not have a more accurate, more elegant model of the world than someone who has more rarely experienced the feeling of insight. Caution is needed.


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)

85 comments:

  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?

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    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.

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    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?

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    3. And in recognizing this, Grognor, that's a hit of insight itself.

      And then there's a hit of insight in recognizing that, and then in recognizing myself doing it. And then in recognizing that I recognize myself doing it. And then...

      You did say that humor is a safer route to correct thinking, right?

      Or is pointing out the humor inherent in the situation insight?

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  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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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?

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    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?

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

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    6. "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 have had this experience with people. Access to insight porn websites and rational nerd communities have made people who used to seem interesting now seem much less so.

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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    6. Bishop of the Chalcedony ThuribleSeptember 18, 2012 at 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.

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  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.

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    1. Don't give up! You have a responsibility to all Laura-kind to keep going.

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  6. Sorry, but LessWrong just sucks.

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  7. I'm glad you listed the Aquatic Ape because that was the first thing I thought of after reading your initial post.

    Is this the fun part where we get to provide our own examples, no matter how precious or unseemly?

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    1. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE DO!!!

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    2. On further consideration, I'd nominate Robert Anton Wilson as some kind of priest or hero-figure of insight porn: he combined a consistent Pyrrhonism with Leary's 'reality tunnel' concept, advocating and presenting an epistemology of multiple, mutually inconsistent interpretations of reality.

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    3. I want to send up a resounding unqualified endorsement of St Rev's point about RAW. He was the gateway drug for me.

      Others that may or may not have been mentioned:

      *xkcd
      *Errol Morris (esp his books and "Opinionator" essays)
      *Nicholson Baker
      *AIDS origins
      *Peter Sotos
      *Steve Sailer (not kidding)
      *Judith Rich Harris (esp No Two Alike)
      *Cocaine
      *Louis C.K.
      *Holocaust revisionism (also not kidding, and esp by way of Errol Morris' pop epistemology)
      *Janet Malcolm
      *Mikita Brottman
      *Human universals (why this, not that?)
      *Oliver Sachs
      *Controversies about DSM classification
      *Szasz
      *The social context of mass delusions/mass hysteria
      *Qualia
      *Memetics
      *Mirror neurons
      *Any semi-public controversy concerning linquistics
      *Alan Watts
      *Leslie Fiedler
      *The Sensory Order (Hayek)
      *Dennett
      *Foucault
      *Laing
      *Cordwainer Smith
      *Situationism
      *Game theory
      *Daniel Kahneman

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    4. Raymond Smullyan, who transmitted the dharma of Zhuangzi.

      Zhuangzi, who may have been the first. Here's an idea. Do you believe that? I sure don't. Here, have another!

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    5. *Unamuno!
      *Laboratory universes
      *Bataille
      *René Girard (Violence and the Sacred, oh my!)

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    6. *Sensory deprivation (J.C. Lilly)
      *Arthur Machen
      *E-prime (Korzibski)
      *Esoteric political writing (via Strauss, who was crazy)

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    7. Sailer absolutely (he's an amazing oracle if you ever have a weird question), and I can't believe I left out Moldbug.

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    8. Damnit! Came here to post Moldbug, see you got it earlier today. How about the Last Psychiatrist? His writing is total shit; to the extent he actually expresses a coherent thought, which is rarely, it's almost always ill-formed (narcissism explains all, and explains nothing) or just flat wrong, but amazingly, people seem to come away from him thinking they've got some new insight.

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    9. A second vote for Korzybski and General Semantics (particularly since you mentioned Jaynes and bicameralism, given how important they both have been to science fiction).

      I can't believe no one's mentioned Ayn Rand yet.

      "Hacker culture" stuff--RMS & ESR (and endless arguments over which is better); hacker tropes borrowed from Taoism & Zen (The Unix Koans, the AI Koans, The Tao of Programming, The Codeless Code.)

      House of Leaves and other meta-fiction in the same neighborhood (Borges, Nabakov, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, etc.

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    10. Oh, and since several people mentioned RAW—Discordianism.

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  8. Read in the right spirit, one of the great ancestors of modern insight porn would surely be David Hume, especially the Hume of the Treatise of Human Nature, who demonstrates pretty clearly that a lot of commonsense metaphysics (about causality, personal identity, and God. for examples) doesn't and can't really rest on evidence but are only believed in because of how we're wired up, so to speak.

    Nietzsche, especially the Nietzsche of the Genealogy of Morals is another great subverter of received reality. Far deeper than Freud (who borrowed shamelessly from him) in my humble opinion.

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  9. Is it a requirement here to be slightly crackpotish?

    Thomas McEvilley's _The Shape of Ancient Thought_ traces key Greek philosophical/religious ideas backward to Sumer and forward in India through Buddhism. Some parts of his argument seem extremely dubious, others extremely insightful.

    I was reminded of this by St. Rev.'s mention of Pyrrhonism: McEvilley argues that Pyrrhonism and Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka are way too similar, both in content and in the methods of formal argument, for that to be a coincidence. He shows also that there was extensive trade between Greece and India at the right time for there to have been an intellectual transfer.

    That part of the book convinced me (and apparently some academics; it's on its way to becoming mainstream).

    I think one might say that Buddhism is late Greek philosophy continued in a different cultural context, without the tiresome interruption of the Dark Ages as in Europe. (To say this would be slightly absurd, but perhaps it qualifies as insight porn...)

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  10. Interesting post. What I'd like to see more of is why these traits do not produce (as far as I can see) aggressive skepticism and curiosity. What I mean is that many of the things on this list are part and parcel of a general worldview that has not appeared to shift in the 20 or so years in which I've been exposed to it. Why Jaynes but not Dechend? Why Churchland but not Sellars? Why Robert Anton Wilson but not Moshe Idel? Why David Foster Wallace but not Robert Musil?

    The answer, I suspect, is utterly orthogonal to rationality and has much more to do with in-group dynamics and groupthink, leading me to believe that "insight" as described here is as much a cultural phenomenon as a biological one. Not an original point, I know (since it's been addressed right up this thread, though I would add it's such features that keep the female membership low), but it does make me wonder why the seemingly easy step against it--read VAST and WIDE--is so rarely taken among the community. I'm biased, but my view is that a week of reading obscure scholarly books on wholly unfamiliar topics is more conducive to expanding the mind than a week of LSD at Burning Man.

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    1. I think it's a mistake to think that 'insight porn' has much to do with rationality or skepticism per se, except inasmuch as the credulous may be satisfied with a fixed worldview and stop seeking novelty for its own sake.

      It definitely has a lot to do with group dynamics, but I think groupthink is an unfair characterization. The thing is, insight might be best characterized as a movement in the boundaries of the space of conceptualization, and of *course* that's a function of what ideas one has already been exposed to, which in turn are some kind of integral of a random path through recent history of sociocultural ideas.

      I had thought of mentioning Aleister Crowley as an example of a writer who at one time, in certain cultural context, was a huge source of insight porn, but who has lost a lot of power in that regard. How many people today are going to get a pun that requires fluency in ancient Greek and Hebrew?

      Likewise, I find TED talks trite, but they clearly function as insight porn for a lot of people.

      I will note that, not to harp on the guy to excess, but: Robert Anton Wilson specifically and repeatedly advocated seeking out and studying sources one disagreed with. Which is a big part of why I read this blog.

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    2. Could you expand on what you mean by "it's such features that keep the female membership low"?

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    3. David, you are one of the experts of alien domains whom we rely on for the good shit. Our educations have not led us to it, and our ignorance only grows - most of the names you mention I'd have to google and hope to match the last name to the person you have in mind. And which work should I read?

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    4. "Why Jaynes but not Dechend?"

      Jaynes made his thesis easy to understand and didn't bury it in a thousand pages of philology. (I presume you're referring to Hamlet's Mill.)

      "Why Churchland but not Sellars?"

      Synergy with the connectionist movement.

      "Why Robert Anton Wilson but not Moshe Idel?"

      Odd comparison. Idel is a specialist scholar (who I'd never heard of), RAW was an eclectic novelist and essayist.

      "Why David Foster Wallace but not Robert Musil?"

      I could ask, why David Foster Wallace at all... Sorry, Wallace fans, he just doesn't impress me. Anyway, I chalk this up to the transience of literary fashion. Musil was known in his day, Wallace is known now.

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    5. Mitchell, I appreciate the responses! I disagree, but I like thinking about these questions of canon-formation.

      1. Dechend/Santillana doesn't seem so much trickier than Jaynes to me, and they're both roughly equally nuts. There's not too much philology in Hamlet's Mill, certainly not much more than in Origin. If you want a thousand pages of philology, read Curtius.

      2. I think it's more simple in that Churchland talks about brains and neuroscience. But I think his departure from his mentor Sellars--ignoring the problem of language--is a major deficiency. And indeed I think the lack of attention to language's ambiguity is a major deficiency in this community in general, something I discussed at some length in my n+1 article.

      3. I don't see Idel and Wilson as dealing in such different material. As a *novelist* Wilson is quite poor--his success was based on his eclectic blender of ideas, which he presented in fictive and non-fictive forms.

      4. Musil is known today, just not around these parts.

      For me the answer to these questions is purely that the former names are canon and the latter aren't, and the process of shifting canon is difficult even in comparatively open-minded communities. To take an example from another community: the vast majority of people who talk about Jonathan Franzen don't seem to actually want to talk about him, and yet it will be some years before he falls off the charts.

      I think it's great to see Leslie Fiedler appear on Chip's list, yet I don't see him popping up on LessWrong.

      And St. Rev, this was what I had in mind: if a canon is set up that appeals, for whatever reasons, to a primarily male readership, then the inertial forces of that canon and its readership will tend to attract like minds. In this case, primarily male minds. To put it another way, I think the reasons for the gender imbalance are more or less the same as for the gender imbalance among computer programmers, and I don't think it has much to do with intelligence or insight.

      Otherwise, St. Rev, I agree with a lot of what you say.

      I happily recommend Musil's The Man Without Qualities and Wilfrid Sellars' Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. The latter was a foundational text for much philosophy of neuroscience today, but encompasses a great many more issues. Musil trained in physics, and a lot of my favorite thinkers managed to cover a wide swath of sciences social and otherwise: William Empson was a mathematical prodigy before becoming a literary prodigy, for example. 7 Types of Ambiguity is better insight porn than anything I've read by Wilson.

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    6. One of the other salient distinctions here may be between high culture and subculture. Certainly the canon of high culture and the canon of subculture are different. In the complex modern world of intellectual specialization, we could say that subculture is the place where global outlooks are synthesized, at the price of ignorance and arrogance towards specialist knowledge. Whereas high-culture domain specialists know their subject, but don't get to be holistic thinkers improvising their own philosophy.

      Though I'm still not convinced that "culture" is the right term for what the original post is talking about. Perhaps what the "nerds" of the title have (and they are not just any nerds, they are a highly specific genus of nerd) is a "pre-culture", and Sister Y's cognitive sociobiology of nerd pre-culture is an exercise in culture *creation*, stimulating collective self-awareness by trotting out a list of facts and saying, hey, do you recognize yourselves in this?

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  11. Uh... do you people have a life? Oh, wait, no, you're nerds, so I guess the answer's no.

    That's right, the bawwtistic savant anime fan doesn't have to contribute to society (or do us all a favor by setting his phaser to hara-kiri), because his mommy says he's special and a little Einstein.

    You fap to nature documentaries on the taxpayer dime. You pervade our culture with socially sanctioned temper tantrums in the middle of a video game store. And then you justify your actions and your unacceptable behavior with a statement that you are a card-carrying member of the "special class" or "indigo people." What are you, retarded? Oh, wait, I forgot...

    Please do us "neurotypicals" a favor -- well, two actually. First, stop making up words like "neurotypical" that don't otherwise exist in any language but Star Trek, and second, you really want to save the planet? Smith & Wesson developed a cure for autism years ago. I suggest you seek out a valid prescription and unload it upon yourselves.

    By the way, your freak spinster goddess Temple Grandin wants to f_ck a dog in the _ss. She wants to f_ck a dog in the _ss, but could only find your mom -- AND HER _SS!

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    1. Was literally fapping to nature documentaries when I got this. It got sent to the spam folder but I pulled it out because it is so awesome!!!

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    2. Anonymous, please go on. This is very insightful!

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    3. CHIP SMITH for MAYOR
      He will F_CK Temple Grandin in the _SS.
      (His MOTHER is DEAD.)

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  12. Somewhat related to David Auerbach's comment, and somewhat sua sponte:

    Specialization can change the nature and availability of insight. As with humor, a high degree of shared knowledge is required to convey an insight to another mind. As we progress in our insight addictions, low-level insight requiring only commonly-shared knowledge and models becomes less effective. We can no longer get a thrill out of reading Gladwell or watching Zeitgeist; we need new insights that build on our increasing knowledge and complex models.

    So mathematics scholars are an extreme case of this: they are in a pipeline to getting some of the best insights available, but advanced scholars in any sub-domain have maybe fewer than a dozen fellow scholars with the necessary models and knowledge to understand their new insights.

    So there's this - unfortunate? - narrowing.

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    1. All of this. To amplify a bit on my reply to Auerbach: the social or community aspect of all this is entirely dependent on there *being* a community, i.e. enough people exploring a body of insights at more or less the same time. So of course it's going to show something resembling trendiness; the differentiating factor (if there is one) is the why: is the consumption of insight motivated by social signalling, or appetite for novelty? These are not mutually exclusive factors, of course--but the people who *only* show up for the social signalling are the mindkilled ones that I think we (or We, or 'we', or anyway you guys) would just as soon not have around. In the CotSG we call them "Bobbies", and straight up murder them whenever practical.

      And spot on about mathematicians, who are sort of the reductio ad absurdium here (as they so often are). The number of people in the world who could follow my dissertation research would fit in a classroom, and it's been so long since I've been able to share the work that I hardly remember it myself.

      I might even feel a bit insulted by Auerbach's charge of a lack of "aggressive skepticism and curiosity". I study tons of things that I *can't really bloody talk about to most people I know*. A social context determines the topics that can be productively pursued in it.

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    2. And for Wotan's sake, I don't think I know anyone anywhere who is more aggressively skeptical and curious than Sister Y. Seriously! (tm Grognor)

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    3. "I might even feel a bit insulted by Auerbach's charge of a lack of "aggressive skepticism and curiosity". I study tons of things that I *can't really bloody talk about to most people I know*. A social context determines the topics that can be productively pursued in it."

      I think you're spot on, actually. Individual curiosity is too easily sublimated to group dynamics and inertia.

      I admit I led with my chin--no serious insult was intended. I think it's a great thing that this can even be *discussed* here, in fact, since many communities which shall go unnamed would close ranks at the very thought of being intellectually blinkered.

      It seems like a good time to bring up Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, which I'm surprised hasn't been mentioned yet.

      "But is not the position of an ordinary applied mathematician in some ways a little pathetic? If he wants to be useful, he must work in a humdrum way, and he cannot give full play to his fancy even when he wishes to rise to the heights. ‘Imaginary’ universes are so much more beautiful than this stupidly constructed ‘real’ one; and most of the finest products of an applied mathematician’s fancy must be rejected, as soon as they have been created, for the brutal but sufficient reason that they do not fit the facts."

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    4. As I said above, I'm not convinced that a community of this sort is a good thing or something to work towards; I'm inclined to think it's something to avoid. Friends, yes, networks (plural), yes, but community seems to undermine the very appetite one would be building it around. There's a huge difference between being a member of Monty Python and being someone who memorizes Monty Python routines. Ugh.

      I liked the article on Hardy. I think Hardy is almost completely wrong about nearly everything, but he was an astronomically better mathematician than me, so my opinion is of negligible value in this.

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  13. Off-topic, but here's a partial deflation of the claim that there's been a big run-up in suicide over the past decade:
    http://www.volokh.com/2012/09/24/suicide-rates-2/

    Also, looks like I'm not a nerd. Good news!

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  14. My list! Mostly excluding fiction except for some key exceptions.

    Robert Musil, Man Without Qualities
    Laura Riding, Jocasta
    James Joyce, Ulysses & Finnegans Wake
    Erich Auerbach, Mimesis
    Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation
    Georg Simmel, Philosophy of Money
    Denis Diderot, Rameau's Nephew
    Virginia Woolf, The Waves
    Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
    Moses Finley, The World of Odysseus
    William Empson, 7 Kinds of Ambiguity
    Albert Hirschmann, Exit Voice and Loyalty
    Wittgenstein, Tractatus & Phil. Investigations
    Wilfrid Sellars, Empiricism & Phil of Mind
    PF Strawson, Freedom and Resentment
    IA Richards, Philosophy of Rhetoric
    Bruno Snell, Discovery of the Mind
    GER Lloyd, Ambitions of Curiosity
    Hans Blumenberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age
    Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time
    Northrop Frye, The Great Code
    George Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric
    Milman Parry, Collected Papers
    Norman Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium
    Jacob Burckhardt, Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy
    EJ Dijksterhuis, Mechanization of the World Picture
    Ian Hacking, Emergence of Probability
    Charles Peirce, assorted essays
    Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian & others
    Walter Burkert, Homo Necans & others
    Vygotsky, Mind in Society
    Edward Reed, From Soul to Mind
    Louis Sass, Paradoxes of Delusion
    Raymond Boudon, The Art of Self-persuasion

    Well, that's a start...for me at least, insight is cumulative and works that would have left me cold some years ago now give me insight because I can contextualize them in more of an "aha!" way into a larger world picture. More self-contained "insight porn" works tend by nature to be more disconnected from the world because they generally utilize a closed system in which insight can occur. Yeah, I'm a holist.

    Oh, and not a Gieseking fan! For me Richter, Sofronitsky, Fischer, Michelangeli, and Schnabel are tops.

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  15. Chip started it but we are now tagging things on Amazon as "insight porn"

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  16. Sister Y,
    Your blog is very informative and interesting. I have suffered from depression for a long time, and today I read this article on the BBC that says one study suggests that those with high IQ tend to be happier than those with lower IQ. Anyway,I would like you hear you thoughts on the article and here is the link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19659985

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  17. It's worth pointing out that the actual paper (or even the abstract, which you find here: http://journals.cambridge.org/action//displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8698047&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S0033291712002139) makes it sound much less surprising. Note also that 120-129 is high, but not outrageously high.

    And here's a paragraph from the paper:

    Initially ordinal regression analysis was carried out with categorical IQ and happiness as the dependent variable (Table 3). The highest IQ group (120–129) was used as the reference group. The highest IQ group was more likely to be very happy compared with the three lowest IQ groups. Gender, age and ethnicity did not confound the relationship between IQ and happiness (odds ratios changed little and did not cross one). The association was attenuated after income was entered into the model and therefore income was a full me- diator of this relationship. For the 70–79 and 80–89 IQ groups, ADL dependency, self-reported health and neurotic symptoms also reduced the association and were full mediators in the relationship between these IQ groups and happiness. In addition, social partici- pation and size of support network reduced the re- lationship in the 80–89 group. Following adjustment of all the main mediators, the relationship between IQ and happiness was attenuated except for the lowest IQ group, which was now found to be more happy than the highest IQ group.
    When mediation analysis was performed using the continuous IQ variable, ADL dependency, income, neurotic symptoms and health reduced the regression coefficient for the relationship between IQ and happi- ness to 50% of its original value (Table 4) and may therefore be considered as strong mediators of the relationship. In particular, ADL dependency was found to have the largest effect. Marital status, social participation and social network size appear to be weak mediators of the relationship. Employment and life events have no mediating effect.

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  18. Lucid dreaming is a great boon for those who suffer from nightmares (might it help if waking life's a nightmare?). I'm lucky in that my cat often sleeps faithfully near me, and when I'm having a bad nightmare--and am lucky enough to realize that it IS a nightmare--I can use the sound of her breathing to pull myself awake.

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  19. PS Boy, you guys work fast... there's now an insight porn WONDERLAND up on Amazon.

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  20. Anyway... what's the insight-porn equivalent of hearing a breathing non-dream cat?

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    Replies
    1. For someone who's poor: being poor. For someone who's not: angry mobs in the street, anywhere.

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  21. "Insight porn". I think I now know how to encapsulate everything Zizek writes.

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  22. Chesterton said that if you can see through everything, you might as well be blind-- this could relate to the social difficulties and depression.

    In re why people want humor in their partners: I think it's partly an indicator of the ability to have fun, and humor under stress can indicate emotional resilience.

    As for why there's so much more humor available than insight-- aside from that fewer people are hooked on insight, humor is easier. It's possible to enjoy a joke or slight variations on a joke many times. Insight gets used up.

    Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser by Clarisse Thorn

    Hanne Blank's _Virgin: The Untouched History_ and _Straight_

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  23. I came away from this post thinking really deeply about insight-seeking as an addiction. By the end of the article, the bullet list (and those in the comments) started to look like a list of to-don'ts. Pychon, Vonnegut and Wallace, for instance, are all authors that I've read and want to read some more. I'm given pause, though: I know I find them fun and satisfying, but now wonder if it's possible that good storytellers and thought-provokers are actually impediments to sharpening one's reasoning. True, they're instrumental in planting the seeds of curiosity, but perhaps becoming too attached to seed-planting leaves insufficient time for cultivation and harvest?

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  24. I am not a part of this community, but a friend pointed me to it, and I thought it was interesting. I think you might consider the possibility that there is already a unified theory to describe your community. If you check out Jungian psychology/Meyers Briggs my guess is almost all of you will test as INTP personality types with maybe a few INTJs thrown in. Probably mostly INTP though. You might look into this further.
    I = introvert
    N = iNtuitive (abstract thinking)
    T = thinker
    P = perciever (sort of like being open to new possibilities)

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    1. Or - INFJ. All of the people I know like this are INFJ or INTJ.

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    2. Interesting! I know Meyers-Briggs is Not Very Scientific, but in my household it is discussed constantly, like I imagine some circles discuss astrology. Our consensus has been that Feelers (F, as opposed to T, Thinking) are very much not us, and that interacting with Feelers is very frustrating and draining for us.

      The modern, slightly more scientifically valid axis might be empathizing versus systematizing. Someone can be very low or very high on empathizing and still be cognitively similar to us, but in any case we'd expect them to be high on the systematizing trait. Someone who is ruled by their monkey-brain feelings and doesn't try to look through that to what's going on underneath is likely to be an xSFx - the opposite of an insight whore.

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    3. I'm not sure if it comes from my total inability to emotionally understand other people's emotional lives but I have an extreme ability to empathetically connect with characters in books, animals, and people I've never met. Knowing what others are actually feeling moment to moment? No clue. No clue at all. I have a best friend who's the same way (INFJ + Asperger syndrome). We are both professors and have IQs that border on the ridiculous. But then again Autism is very different in women than men, which is why it is so underdiagnosed in the female population.
      http://aspergersgirls.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/aspergers-traits-women-females-girls/
      (disclaimer - this is the one persons point of view)
      http://www.help4aspergers.com/pb/wp_a58d4f6a/wp_a58d4f6a.html
      (list of traits in women)

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    4. I'm a definite IN with almost evenly split F/T and J/P. People generally think I'm extremely intellectual and analytical, but I also have a strong awareness of the "social/sacred" which makes my brain practically irreconcilable to itself. I think I cycle between the two at varying speeds, which also makes it impossible to hold on to the same perspective for very long. I'm interested in finding others who identify with this cognitive pattern.

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  25. Replies
    1. Agreed. And analytic philosophy is dead boring.

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  26. Speaking from experience, there are more of us ladies out here than you might suspect... we just are not as vocal online.

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    Replies
    1. I suspect you are about to see this demographic shift with the rise of highly networked genY women. As a developer, I'm already seeing the girl game devs who are younger form panels/conferences and meetups and connect with each other in a way we never did. Xers are perhaps just more prone to be more isolated?

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  27. nerd description: bad taste, poor people skill, low insight and superficiality, love of repetition, love of videogames and comic book

    here that's it

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  28. Well I do love Comicbook. Perhaps I am nerd.

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  29. "But a person who has spend a great deal of his life having the feeling of insight may or may not have a more accurate, more elegant model of the world than someone who has more rarely experienced the feeling of insight."

    But...but, but...Dr. Bronner guaranteed me that all is one! He sounded very certain about all those insights on his bottle labels.

    I also wanted to point out the recent article on Jonah Lerner in New York Magazine: it seems an insight porn starlet has been faking his epiphanies. I think I may have been taken in by some of them, too.

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  30. What about meditation? It seems to me to be the most obvious and direct way to "see through" (and here i am not talking about feelgood mindfulness but more stark practices like zen or advaita). Is the mechanism described for insight porn reserved to thinking only, or does apply equally to other cognitive endeavours?

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  31. Does anybody with inclinations towards (hypo)mania experience any correlation between imbibing insight porn and elevated episodes?

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  32. While reading the part about insight porn, I couldn't stop thinking of Peter Thiel's Stanford lectures.

    http://blakemasters.com/peter-thiels-cs183-startup

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! We have been enjoying (gradually) his start-up notes.

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  33. I disagree.

    Being a nerd has more to do with personality than anything else. No at all nerds are smart, some non-nerds are very smart. What differs usually from smart person to smart person is... interests.

    Interest in sciences for instance has more to do with the personality trait "openess to experience"; "curiosity" basically, which is the same kind of trait that might lead you to believe in God, ghosts and homeotherapy if you don't have the "analytical" personality trait.

    In the same fashion someone who's smart but "stub-born" personality-wise like Tommaso D'Aquino might defend non-sense very elegantly.

    That's all I have to say.

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  34. "False insight as hypnosis" made me think of Hypnosis by Lucas Hyde (whether it is good insight porn, I don't know, but I think it qualifies for the genre).

    On the unreliability of allowing oneself to be guided by feelings of insight, how about "Why the Universe Exists - the Short Answer" by Zeb G. as a case in point?

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  35. I've been waiting for this blog. Fucking good work.

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