On exploring human nature

Nature is like this: everything changes it shape according to your nature. It is what lurks beneath our actions and our intentions.

It is also a perfect self-preserving system. If I have a choice, I wouldn’t choose to be anything other than myself.

It is one of those things that assigns values and meanings. It is the lens that you use to look at the world. A lens that fits you so perfectly that it may as well be a biological part of you.

You can’t reason with nature trying to change it, because nature doesn’t wish to change, and logic is meaningful insofar that it’s congruent with your nature. If a chain of reasoning arrives at a conclusion that my nature doesn’t accept, it can be understood but impossible to be incorporated.

I believe that human behaviors are subjected to change. Even our ways of thinking are subjected to change as new information and knowledge reveal themselves. Even the things we value change over the years, although much more slowly and not as easily.

But nature is not those things. Nature is not a collection of behaviors or ways of thinking. It’s the underlying function from which these things are generated. Nature is also not what we value, although that is its manifestation. It’s the underlying function that constrains and directs our values.

I do not think that nature can be changed. It can only be discovered. If we flip it around, we can say that “nature” is what we call the parts of us that remain invariant throughout life. Indeed, nature comes from natura – a Latin word that means course of things, constitution, natural character, quality, the universe.

Over the years, I’ve come to discover my nature. That itself is a result of many things. Family crisis. Existential crisis. Countless self-induced existential crises. Experimenting with people’s lives. Nights that essentially spent cornering myself intellectually and emotionally.

If nature is the underlying function for many things, how do we understand it? I think the answer lies in experience. To explore and understand nature, we have to expose ourselves to experience with the upmost quality.

This is the same way that we understand a black box system: exposing the object under study to as many qualitatively different inputs as possible and observe how it behaves. With nature, we have the fortune of it being an integral part of our existence and therefore, strictly speaking, is not a black box. We can understand our nature by a combination of inquisition and reflection.

The defining characteristic of experience is the level at which we’re willing to explore them. For me, experience is more characterized by depth, and less characterized by breadth. Not that one matters and the others don’t, but they have different weights.

Not all experience have depths, some will only be shallow. But I think there are three levels of depth that reflect how far we’re willing to explore a particular experience.

We can stay in the shallow sea where we look at experience with little or no investigation. This is where I tend to avoid staying in the most. I don’t like to follow things that cannot be investigated or doing so would be systematically discouraged. One practical example would be Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. But perhaps more subtly, this would be people who chase the highs, adopt the trends or follow customs and traditions without any question. It’s a shallow sea because there are points that can be ostensibly deep but they turn out to be shallow all the same.

Once we dive a little deeper, we find ourselves in the black mud. Here, things seem very dark and morbid. That’s because they are. But that’s also because these impressions are a defense mechanism that prevents us from digging further. Taboo topics, things that we have implicitly or explicitly sealed away, any trauma or unresolved tensions belong here. The things in the black mud are still peripheral to our nature. Trauma does not define us, but the roles that we play in trauma do.

Once we dive past the black mud, we arrive at place that’s essentially our own custom-made bloody hell. Everything hurts. The process of separating the particular details of our specific catastrophe from the intolerable general condition of being is very hurtful. But only by separating ourselves from those trauma that we discover ourselves. We either re-emerge from this place as someone who understand our nature a little bit better, or we drown.

This is why I don’t shy away from dark, morbid, taboo or personal topics. Although I’ve come to understand my nature, these topics are still the best tools out there to understand other people’s nature. For me, meaningful relationships can only be built and maintained if each party is willing to expose their own nature.

Departures (2008) – How Death makes you Reconsider Life, and How Mentally Simulating the Deaths of your Frameworks can improve Cognitive Agility

The movie’s theme is obviously about death, but it’s not told from the perspective of someone who lost a beloved one, although that is part of the storyline. Rather, it is told from the perspective of morticians who have to provide funeral services to the deceased, such as purifying, changing the clothing, applying make-up, and delivering the body to its final destination.

Disclaimer: This blog post, unfortunately, contains spoilers about the movie Departures (2008).

Table of contents

  1. Takeaways
  2. Introduction
  3. An encounter with death sharpens and ubiquitizes its presence
  4. Even death can be made beautiful with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness
  5. We already have a relationship with death that is yet to be instantiated
  6. Death makes you reconsider life
  7. Engaging in mental simulation of the death of frameworks

Takeaways

First, you need to check out Departures, it’s such a great movie. As I watched it, I found myself contemplating the scenes and the dialogues in a rather vigorous fashion. After watching it, I also thought a lot about what I should change in my perceptions of the world in light of such contemplations. These are some mental models that were either obtained or reconstructed from this exercise:

  1. You can make death beautiful with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness.
  2. Death makes you reconsider life.
  3. Mentally simulating the deaths of your mental models to improve Cognitive Agility.

Introduction

Yesterday, I watched Departures. It’s a 2008 Japanese drama film directed by Yōjirō Takita and starring Masahiro Motoki and Ryōko Hirosue. According to Wiki:

The idea for Departures arose after Motoki, affected by having seen a funeral ceremony along the Ganges when traveling in India, read widely on the subject of death and came across Coffinman. He felt that the story would adapt well to film, and Departures was finished a decade later. Because of Japanese prejudices against those who handle the dead, distributors were reluctant to release it—until a surprise grand prize win at the Montreal World Film Festival in August 2008. The following month the film opened in Japan, where it went on to win the Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and become the year’s highest-grossing domestic film. This success was topped in 2009, when it became the first Japanese production to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.[a]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Departures_(2008_film)

The movie’s theme is obviously about death, but it’s not told from the perspective of someone who lost a beloved one, although that is part of the storyline. Rather, it is told from the perspective of morticians who have to provide funeral services to the deceased, such as purifying, changing the clothing, applying make-up, and delivering the body to its final destination.

The main character is a cellist who had to go back to his hometown along with his wife because the orchestra he played at was disbanded and he couldn’t handle a place in the city with the loan he took out to purchase the cello. In his hometown, he found a job that was advertised as providing departures, which he initially thought was from a travel company. It later turned out that it was a company providing funeral services, or in other words that better reflect the title of the movie, provides departures for the deceased. Nonetheless, he accepted the job because the salary was much higher than he thought.

An encounter with death sharpens and ubiquitizes its presence

The main character encounters his first deceased body for the very first time. It is of an old woman who died 2 weeks before but is only now discovered. The body is in bad shape, half of the flesh is rotten and surrounded by a swarm of flies. When the main character gets closer to help his superior move the body, he ends up vomiting.

Physiologically, seeing a corpse makes us aware of the possibility of becoming one, and thus triggers the fight-or-flight response that empties your stomach to deter your predators (like you’re not already a bad meal without the vomit). The odor secreted by the corpse also makes your lizard brain think you’ve ingested something poisonous or contaminated which also contributes to the gag reflex.

We then see that he goes home to his wife with a disturbed countenance. As he sits down to eat the dinner that his wife prepared, he looks at the chicken whose eyes are open and staring at him. Except I think it’s not precisely the chicken that’s doing the staring, but it’s death itself. Having been in close contact with the reality of death, specifically, someone who was touched by it, was enough to leave a mark on his psyche, making him perceive death more vividly than ever before.

This perception is further ingrained on a whiteboard that is his mind as he explained in a previous scene that his grandmother died when he was very young and his mother passed away when he was studying abroad, so he had never seen a body before.

His brain, upon being reminded of the dead body, triggers the same physiological response from earlier, which is just another way of saying that he pukes again. His wife, being the supportive wife that she is, pats his back to ease up the nausea. He puts her palm to his face, desperately wanting to be drowned in the warmth of another human to make his perception of death fade away, even momentarily. He then makes love to his wife, performing the act that only the living can enjoy, to remind himself that he is, in fact, alive.

Even death can be made beautiful with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness

The protagonist then becomes involved with another deceased. This time, it was someone’s wife. He and his superior arrived 5 minutes late and was greeted with rudeness from the husband. His superior goes through the encoffining process, purifying the body by wiping it. After changing the clothing, he proceeds to apply make-up to the deceased’s face, based on the dead’s portrait. As the main character observes how his boss goes through the embalming process, he also monologues: “To bring the dead back one more time and to grant them permanent beauty requires calm and dexterity. But above all, it requires tenderness in one’s hands.”. This is the theme of this scene.

After everything is done, they leave the deceased’s house, but the husband catches up to apologize for his rudeness earlier, and also to give them a gift for their service. His remark about his wife: “That was the most beautiful she ever looked” re-iterates the theme above, but an acknowledgment from the deceased’s family reminds us that the act of beautifying the remain is not merely to satisfy the encoffiner’s selfish venture to encounter, embrace and accept death, but it also provides the very last beautiful and soothing memory to the family, which arguably is the more important function.

Observing someone creating such beautiful memory out of death, and noting the characteristics of the process being employed, inspires us to adopt the same attitudes towards death, or any particular unfortunate event: with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness.

We already have a relationship with death that is yet to be instantiated

The main character goes home to his wife sitting on her bended knees looking at the television. Her facial expression tells him, and the audience, that she’s mad. The wife then shows him a video featuring him as the model for the encoffining process, which was the very first job that he had to do. They naturally go on to have a dispute, with the wife expressing her disapproval for her husband’s new job. She thinks it is embarrassing, but embarrassment is felt only from that video, which doesn’t reflect the nature of his job. What she disapproves of, is the implication of the day-to-day aspect of being a mortician.

There’s a piece of dialogue between them that I am particularly interested in:

“I just want you to have a normal job!”

“What is normal? Everyone dies, I will die, you will die. Death itself is normal!”

“I don’t care about your philosophy, just leave that job.”

She has always been supportive of him, even when he lost his job as a cellist in a big city and they had to move back to his hometown. So why wouldn’t she support him this time? The answer, I think yet again, lies in death.

Death is something people actively avoid thinking about, let alone having a relationship with. The fact that her husband is a mortician means that he very often has to deal with death. Set aside how that may take a toll on his psychology, such frequent confrontation also means that she who stands beside him also will have a relationship with death, either through conversations or behaviors of her husband. After all, you can’t sustain a marriage without getting involved with each other’s day-to-day jobs.

There’s a difference between contemplating death and coming into close contact with death, as the last line in the above dialogue implies. Every now and then, each and everyone one of us has thought about death, but to engage in a continual exploration that takes place in both reality and mind over an extended period of time would be an entirely different story. She can’t stand being in close proximity with such a morbid concept on a daily basis, so she gives him an ultimatum. Either he quits his job, or she will leave.

Our main character refuses to give up his job because his engagement with death has opened him to a new perspective in which life is seen in sharp contrast with death, and that only makes him appreciate and savor life even more. To him, his beloved’s response was expected, but not justified. Implicit in the dialogue is the idea that labeling death as abnormal is not justified, because it happens at every minute of the day, every day. We ourselves will die someday. So it means we already have a relationship with death that is yet to be instantiated. Death is always in our schema (for database and software engineers out there).

Once we’ve accepted and normalized it, we can start looking at life with a more holistic lense, incorporating even the morbid part that’s eventually going to catch us all, like an annoying 10-year-old kid determined to impose permanent imprisonment to all creatures just to satisfy his vanity (perhaps that’s why the main character in Pokemon was named Ash Ketchum).

Death makes you reconsider life

Here’s a personal story: as you may know, I and my dad had tested positive for Covid and recovered recently. Due to his existing health conditions that require medical attention, he was admitted to an actual hospital, while I went to a quarantine facility. After being released home, he described to me what happened at the hospital. Those who were exhibiting symptoms would spend their days lying on the floor of the hallway breathing through an oxygen tank because the hospital is overloaded. They would lie besides other dead bodies that are only discovered by their neighbors after a period of time without movement. Coffins were opened and in a ready state so that the staff can easily carry the bodies into.

He spent his first day on the very same floor and was only transferred to a private room for patients who do not exhibit any symptoms. He mostly spent his time alone in that room, often in starvation. My family shipped meals into the hospital, but he often did not receive them until after half a day had passed. There were days, he said, that the hunger made him tremble and his eyesight affected.

He went home a different man. His appetite went up greatly. Before he ate very conservatively, but after the experience, he started eating more and seemed to enjoy the food more. He would sit me down for lunch or breakfast to talk about our experiences during the time when we were separated. I think because he saw death in its full presence and ubiquity, life is highlighted in ways that changed him, for the better. He exercises more, he eats more, he reads more, he engages more. He lives more.

I suspect this is simply a consequence of asking the question “Am I living?” subconsciously in every action one takes after having encountered death. When you have seen death with your own eyes, or more precisely, when you have seen that indiscriminating destruction which consumes absolutely everyone it touches, how do you make sure that you’re not already consumed? Surely, you can easily verify your own conditions by assessing your breathing, your physiology, and the fact that you’re standing on your own feet. But what precedes all of that is a simple question: “Am I living?”.

Engaging in mental simulation of the death of frameworks

I don’t know if I’m weird (most likely yes), but I tend to engage in this habit of daydreaming. Over the years, I’ve found myself daydreaming about my own death over and over again, often in different forms, but always with lucidity. This is the part where your tilt! reflex would likely kick in and make you wonder if this person is gonna hurt himself, or worse, hurt others to realize his fantasies. If you google “Fantasy vs Imagination“, you would see a lot of attempts to clarify, but the overarching theme is that fantasies are far removed from our understanding of how the world works, and I can assure you that no details about my own death and funerals are, by that definition, fantastical.

They are not philosophical conversations about the conceptualization of death either, but purely vivid mental images of how my death would occur, and how others would respond. I had died more than a dozen times in my mind, each episode consists of an entirely different storyline and reactions, but never once I imagined rejecting or fearing death (maybe that’s why I had been able to daydream about it in the first place).

However, I think that’s just a particular instance of the category of experience that I tend to daydream about. Mentally simulating what would happen when I die is a way to destroy the frame of reference “I am young and healthy and therefore I have a long life ahead.”. Once you’ve played out the physical and emotional consequences of your own death, you can no longer deny the possibility that death may occur unexpectedly, even to the fittest of us.

This destroys the old framework and replaces it with something along the line of “I may be young but my death may be at any moment.”. And it doesn’t exist merely as an abstract sentence that you manipulate, but the new framework actually incorporates all of the emotional and physical consequences that you’ve played out by simulating your own death, which actually alters your behaviors like it did my dad’s.

Our brain and body are poor at distinguishing between imaginations and reality, as demonstrated by a 35% increase in muscles’ strength from imaginary exercise. In a similar way, daydreaming about death is also a mental exercise to expand your capability of handling death. It’s not that I’m drawn to the darker aspects of life, as explained in part eight of my quarantine diary: what I am drawn to is transformations, and it’s often in the metaphorical death and destruction of oneself that transformations are born.

To me, death is not just about the physical death, but it should be more productively conceived as a form of destruction of existing mental models and frameworks that are insufficient so that more coherent mental models and frameworks can be formed. That’s why mentally engaging in simulating the “death” of not only your physical body but also what you hold to be true, serves as an important function to our cognitive development.

As I write this section, I realize that I am arriving at essentially the same connection that Cedric Chin wrote about in his recent blog post on The Importance of Cognitive Agility. Before Lia DiBello helped a team to understand lean manufacturing by running a simulation, she watched them burn, meaning failing to meet the goal of reducing inventory and maximizing profits using the manufacturing method they’ve always been using:

The idea here isn’t just that ‘learning by doing’ is superior to ‘learning by powerpoint’ (and in fact, the primary focus of the paper was on the pedagogical implications of using ‘constructive’ instruction vs ‘procedural’ instruction); the idea that is relevant to us is that — in order for learning to happen — participants had to have their old mental models destroyed through visceral failure, in order to make way for new models

Therefore, you can think of mentally simulating the deaths of your frameworks is a way to improve Cognitive Agility. This is a rather personal way to look at Cognitive Agility, but I think that’s the most notable change in my perceptions. After conceptualizing the relationship between my habit of daydreaming and Cognitive Agility, I will perhaps engage in the said habit in a more mindful way, with a more elaborate model of seeing how it can help my cognitive development.

Imposter Phenomenon

We should use the term Imposter Phenomenon, because it takes into account the multi-dimensional complexity associated with the phenomenon. Rethinking it as such allows us to escape from the individualistic mindset and examine the concept from multiple levels.

The Imposter Phenomenon refers to the notion that some individuals feel that they end up at esteemed positions not because of their competence but due to some oversight or pure luck. As a result, such individuals feel like “imposters”.

Imposter “Syndrome”

Photo by Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

Because the phenomenon reflects a negative and critical self-conception, it is deemed by clinical psychologists to be occurring at the level of the individual.

The focus on the individual is expressed on multiple levels. While the original authors coined the term “Imposter Phenomenon”, public discourse often refers to it as a syndrome that seems to strengthen its individual and dysfunctional aspects. Empirical research has also regarded individuals’ attachment styles, perfectionism, and personality as antecedents of imposter feelings.

As a result, proposed solutions also focus on the individual, such as clinical therapy, coaching, and confidence training. These individualistic approaches, at best, are unable to address how social context gives rise to the imposter feelings, and at worst reinforce the notion that the individual is ultimately responsible for fixing their situations.

Therefore, we should use the term Imposter Phenomenon, because it takes into account the multi-dimensional complexity associated with the phenomenon. Rethinking it as such allows us to escape from the individualistic mindset and examine the concept from multiple levels.

Imposter Phenomenon on multiple levels

Societal level

Research has suggested that the individual’s position in the social hierarchy can play an important role in shaping his or her imposter feelings.

Certain marginalized groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, are subjected to negative stereotyping. Because leadership positions are naturally associated with masculinity (in nature, leaders of animal packs are usually males), the woman in these positions may feel like imposters because society constantly signals directly and indirectly that they are not supposed to be there. Certain minorities are also labeled as lazy, unintelligent, therefore members of these groups are more likely to attribute their admission to prestigious colleges to luck.

Overall, the group that someone belongs to and how that group is perceived in society, play an important role in shaping the individuals’ imposter feelings.

Institutional-Level

The result of negative stereotyping of marginalized groups affects the individuals within their immediate institutional structures (corporate, university, government, etc). For example, women and minorities are under-represented in particular professions, particular roles, and particular levels of organizational hierarchies. They are also paid less for the work they do. Such institutional lack of representation and lower compensation signals that they do not belong to certain places within certain institutions, therefore eliciting the imposter feelings.

Interpersonal-Level Explanation

How people are treated by their immediate peers is also suggestive of how they conceptualize themselves. In traditionally male-dominated occupations, female employees are often not sought out for advice, or included in work-related discussions. Such subtle signs communicate that their knowledge, experience, and insights are not as valued as others. These signals are also self-reinforcing, in that they perpetuate these behaviors through social conformity.

Therefore, the quality of treatment people receives from others is important in understanding and treating imposter feelings. Individuals may feel like imposters when they are treated in ways that suggest they are. It also suggests that imposter feelings can be mitigated by treating individuals as a person of value and worth.

How Imposter Feelings are created

The original author observes that the imposters typically fall into one of two groups with respect to early family history. Keep in mind that their study focus on women, and especially women in academia.

Group one consists of women who have a sibling a close relative who has been designated as the “intelligent” member of the family, while she is a “sensitive” member of the family. The implication is that she can never be as bright as her siblings regardless of her actual intellectual accomplishment.

One part of her believes the family myth, the other part wants to disprove it. She succeeds in obtaining good grades, acclaim from teachers, but still, her family attributes intelligence to the “bright” sibling despite poorer performance. She continues to seek validation, secretly doubts her ability, and wonders if her success is because of her social skills and feminine charm.

Group two are women who have been conveyed by their family that they are superior in every way. There is nothing she cannot do if she wants to, and she can do it with ease. She was told of her numerous examples of precocity as an infant or toddler. In the family members’ eyes, she is perfect.

However, she begins to experience difficulty and realizes that she cannot do everything she wants to. Yet she feels obliged to fulfill her family’s expectations. She begins to distrust her parents’ perceptions because they praise her indiscriminately. Worse, she begins to doubt herself. Having internalized her parents’ expectations that intelligence means perfection with ease, she realizes she is not intelligent due to the difficulty she has faced.

How Imposter Feelings are maintained

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

There are at least four types of behaviors that tend to maintain the imposter phenomenon. In the study that originates the term, several women who experience imposter feelings were found to participate in one or more of these behaviors, but seldom all of them.

The first type of behavior involves diligence and hard work. Her fear of being found out motivates her to study or work hard to prevent the discovery. Her hard work and diligence pay off, but only serves to reinforce her unstated but vaguely aware belief that if she were to think she could succeed she would fail. The success remains empty, and good feelings are short-lived because the underlying feeling of imposters remains untouched.

The second type of behavior centers on a sense of intellectual inauthenticity. For example, women in the study have chosen at times to not reveal their true ideals or opinions. Instead, she remains silent in the face of an opposing view or downplays her own opinions. This inauthenticity leaves the impression that, if she was to state her true thought and belief, she would not have done well. This type of behavior prevents her from finding out if authenticity would be sensibly evaluated, thus maintains the imposter feelings.

The third type of behavior has to do with using charm and perceptiveness to win the approval of supervisors. A woman tends to use her charm to be liked as well as intellectually recognized. She finds a candidate that she respects and then seeks out ways to impress this person. She uses her charm, friendliness, humor, sexuality to win the person over. This process of seeking approval from authority cannot change the imposter feelings because she will attribute her preferential treatments to other causes and she believes if she were truly bright she wouldn’t need to seek approval like that. Thus, the efforts to gain approval work to maintain her imposter feelings.

The final type of behavior has to do with the negative consequences that women likely face when they display confidence in their ability. Research indicates that a woman’s femininity is called into her question by her success. Many women are motivated to avoid success because they fear they may be considered less feminine. Maccoby (1963) asserted that “the girl who maintains qualities of independence and active striving necessary for intellectual mastery defies the convention of sex-appropriate behavior and must pay a price of anxiety”. Maintaining a sense of imposters allows a woman to live out her achievement to a large degree while mitigating some of her fears about the consequences of being a successful woman in our society. As long as she maintains the notion that she isn’t bright, she imagines that she can avoid societal rejection.

A personal anecdote

On an interpersonal level, individuals may feel like imposters when they are treated in ways that suggest they are. On a societal level, there is a constant negative stereotyping of marginalized groups, such as women and ethnic minorities. These facts suggest that those with imposter feelings are prone to interpret ambiguous social interactions in a manner consistent with the negative stereotyped portrayal of their groups.

For example, I once made a joke which my friend seemed to have taken as a suggestion that she was hired only because of her femininity. That is not what I meant, but in hindsight the reception was reasonable.

In the context of everyday conversations, jokes are one of such interactions that can be classified as ambiguous, or open to interpretations. I am a huge fan of the idea that you can joke about anything. It’s all about how you construct the joke.

Things like rape don’t seem right, but you can joke about it. I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke. What the exaggeration is, what the exaggeration is. Because every joke needs one exaggeration, every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion. George Carlin

Jokes bring about perspectives and laughter. The ability to hop in and out of different perspectives is valuable to intellectual development. The ability to assume different perspectives and let them battle out characterizes effective thinking. That being said, I also do not want to hurt people I care about.

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

When a joke is offensive, it is often because of a misunderstanding of the author’s intention. For example:

“Like when people tweet, it’s very easy to piss off one side. The art is you have to try to get everybody. So you tweet stuff like “Trump is such a dope, he’s going to make me vote for a woman”. And then you just sit back and watch them react. That’s what I wanted!” 

Bill Burr

The joke emphasizes the fact that certain groups are hypersensitive and quick to cancel people to a ridiculous degree. It is very easy to offend one group that is for or against an issue, but the exaggeration here is to target both and offend all of them. The humor disappears as soon as it’s explained, but the point of the joke is not to degrade women. However, it’s only reasonable that some may interpret it as such. After all, it is difficult to discern people’s true intentions, especially with jokes because they are too open-ended.

I may not agree with never making jokes about sensitive topics, but I think that you shouldn’t make such jokes early in your relationship (friendship or otherwise). In the early days, it’s very much about confirming that the other party does not have malicious intentions. Without the trust that characterizes later phases of most relationships, our natural response is to look at the dangerous side of ambiguous social interactions, because we lack sufficient information about the other party to tell malevolence and benevolence apart.

People tend to overestimate risks and underestimate opportunities. Evolutionarily speaking, the cost of missing a threat (say, a lion) is far worse than the cost of missing an opportunity. Our brain is like plastic, capable of assuming various shapes and forms to deal with new situations, hence the term neuroplasticity. The brain, to be that plastic, reuses brain circuits like crazy. Specifically, the circuits in charge of recognizing physical threats are also the same ones responsible for recognizing social threats. In other words, our bias for detecting predatory risks that kept our ancestors alive is also rewired for social interactions.

Therefore, without trust, it’s only natural that people underestimate the opportunity for a laugh, and overestimate the risk that the other party is trying to launch a personal attack.

I think early into relationships, you should be nice, reasonable and upfront about your beliefs, so that the other party can come to trust that you are not the type of person who would degrade women or launch personal attacks at them. Only with this type of trust can they correctly discern your jokes from malicious intents.

Conclusions

In conclusion, we should start replacing the term Imposter Syndrome with its original term – Imposter Phenomenon. The original term takes into account the multi-dimensional complexity associated with the phenomenon. This enables us to examine the phenomenon from multiple levels: societal, institutional, and interpersonal.

Many behaviors perpetuate imposter feelings, being aware of them helps us to consciously decide whether or not our behaviors reflect our faulty beliefs. Only with such awareness can we begin to change ourselves by examining our core beliefs.

People are naturally prone to interpret ambiguous social interactions as personal attacks. Marginalized groups are particularly likely to have imposter feelings due to societal negative stereotypes. Therefore, they are more even more likely to register ambiguous social interactions (such as jokes) as personal attacks.

When building personal relationships, it is best to build trust first and delay jokes about sensitive topics until an appropriate point where the other party has enough trust to discern your true intentions.

References

Feenstra S, Begeny CT, Ryan MK, Rink FA, Stoker JI and Jordan J (2020) Contextualizing the Impostor “Syndrome”. Front. Psychol. 11:575024. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.575024

Cohen, E. D., and McConnell, W. R. (2019). Fear of fraudulence: graduate school program environments and the impostor phenomenon. Sociol. Q. 60, 457–478. doi: 10.1080/00380253.2019.1580552

Kets de Vries, M. F. R. (2005). The dangers of feeling like a fake. Harv. Bus. Rev. 83:108.

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006

How to conquer trauma?

This blog post draws ideas from 3 books from neuroscience to psychology to explain trauma and how to conquer it.

Disclaimer: This blog is quite long because it’s an attempt to synthesize from multiple sources, as well as from my views. I am not an expert on this topic, so please treat it as a reference rather than something authoritative.

Introduction

My curiosity in trauma perhaps stems from my own experience, the fact that I seem to recover from them reasonably well, and the observation that it doesn’t seem to be the case for many others. There are a lot of things that worsen our lives, but I think the failure to recover from trauma is often, if not always, the cause. Such a failure can manifest through unhealthy coping mechanisms, excessive rationalizations, unconscious pathological behaviors, and much more.

In this blog post, I examine the phenomenon of trauma from both biological and psychological levels to wrestle with the question: how can we conquer trauma? The answer is pretty short and simple, but the gist is to provide the arguments to back it up.

I draw ideas from many books: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma which talks extensively on trauma and its biological basis, and 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos which talks about how to establish order in the face of chaos, and Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement which talks about the neuroscience of intuitions (among other things). Interestingly, this investigation wasn’t planned, but spontaneously emerged when I was linking my notes together from these books.

Traumatic experience, chaos, and order

When a housewife discovers that her husband cheated, not only her conception of her husband but also her conception of who she is, falls apart. He wasn’t who she thought he was, she wasn’t who she thought she was, the world wasn’t what she thought it was. There’s a disintegration on the conceptual level, but there’s also disintegration on the biological level.

The amygdala – the brain region which controls fight or flight response, evolves to respond to snakes and things that pose a physical threat to us. However, the brain is very efficient at reusing existing circuits for new purposes, so not only the amygdala is triggered when you see a snake, but it’s also triggered by the category of experience of which the snake is a manifestation – things that lurk outside of what you can see which can kill you. A traumatic experience, which is a disturbing event that exceeds one’s ability to cope, roughly belongs to the same category. That category is also chaos because chaos is exactly what lies outside of the order you established which can disintegrate you. In other words, a traumatic experience is a manifestation of chaos.

Jordan Peterson said that to re-emerge from chaos, you need to separate the intolerable general conditions of being from the particular details of your specific catastrophe. It isn’t everything I thought I knew is wrong, but specific beliefs were wrong. It isn’t everything that fell apart, specific things did. What are they? How can they be fixed?

He was making a point that careful attention and articulation can help you establish order out of chaos, but only if you are willing to step out from the veil of ignorance, your inattention, and the fear of what lurks underneath that catastrophe. It’s a remodeling of your conceptual structures. However, when we talk about concepts, we are implicitly assuming rationality. Specifically, the idea presupposes that we retain our ability to reason when it comes to the traumatic experience, which is not always the case as will be explored briefly.

One common application of this idea is in psychotherapy where patients are encouraged to talk about trauma to gain mastery over them, which has been criticized due to its questionable effectiveness. However, it will make sense as we consider what’s going on in the brain of traumatized patients. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we should not strive to articulate trauma carefully and thoughtfully. It’s just that we must also be aware of the biological factors that drive such experience so that appropriate interventions can be prepared.

How does an unhealthy brain work?

The two-sided brain theory by Roger Sperry

The theory was put forth by Roger Sperry. It began during World War 2. The first research subject was an American soldier named W.J – a high-school graduate with above-average intelligence.

W.J survived a fall but received a blow to his head and then another blow during his capture. When he was released after the war ended, he started to suffer from episodes of epilepsy. After receiving a callosotomy (a procedure that severs two hemispheres), the seizures stopped. W.J, who had been having more than 10 seizures a day, was declared cured after 6 months.

Roger Sperry then gave W.J a series of tests that stimulate one side of the brain and see if the other side responds. Since W.J’s brain is split, different stimuli that work on one side but not the other tells us what each side is uniquely capable of.

W.J was blind-folded and given certain objects. He had to use and then name the objects. When using his right hand, he was able to both use and name them. When using his left hand, he was able to use but not name them. Since hemispheres connect to the opposite side of the body, it means that the right side handles complex tasks but not language, while the left side handles both.

A breakthrough came when an experiment was designed where three-dimensional forms held in the right and left hand respectively had to be matched with their unfolded shapes, which are visually presented to the subjects. It was found that the right hemisphere was much more superior than the left hemisphere in that particular task.

It was concluded that the right hemisphere is specialized for Gestalt perception, being primarily a synthesist in dealing with information input. The left hemisphere operates in a more logical, analytic fashion. Therefore it is not adequate for the rapid complex syntheses achieved by the right hemisphere. This gave birth to the whole right-brain left-brain trend that became popular.

Another domain where the right hemisphere is more specialized is emotions, which makes sense if you think of emotions as rapid complex syntheses. With sufficient rationality, you can unpack an emotion into many intertwined components, each tracing back to events years prior encoded into particular sensations.

However, it is worth noting that, this theory does not generalize well to healthy individuals, because it originated from experiments conducted on split-brain patients. Later inventions on MRI techniques demonstrated that, in a healthy brain, the left and right hemisphere simultaneously handles both logic and emotions.

If only one hemisphere is activated, then it marks the beginning of something pathological, which is precisely what happens in traumatized patients.

Problems with traumatized patients

Traumatized patients have only the right hemisphere activated

Looking at brain scans of traumatized patients, there is a significant decrease in the activity of the left hemisphere. The Broca’s area, which is in charge of speech production, goes offline when a flashback is triggered.

We know that the right brain is roughly intuitive, emotional and the left brain is roughly linguistic, sequential, and analytical. Normally, the two sides of the brain work together smoothly, but traumatized patients may have the left hemisphere dampened, and the right hemisphere activated whenever they are reliving the experience.

This impacts the ability to organize experience into logical sequences and translate our feelings into words. Without sequencing, we can’t identify cause and effects, grasp the long-term effects of our actions, or create plans for the future. This failure to make sense also contributes to the reenactment of traumatic events, because those who can’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Traumatized patients seek reenactment because they are addicted to the trauma

Traumatized people tend to be excited and come to life when talking about traumatic events. Soldiers like to talk about their helicopter crashes and dying comrades. Raped victims may fall into prostitution over and over again despite having received help.

Freud calls such traumatic reenactments the compulsion to repeat. Research has shown that activities that cause fear or pain can later become thrilling experiences because they release morphine-like substances. We may get hooked up on activities like marathon running, sauna bathing which initially causes discomfort and terror but becomes enjoyable.

This gradual adjustment signals that a new chemical balance has been established within the body. We start to crave the activity or experience when it’s not available. This theory could explain why some people hire someone to beat them, or they are only attracted to people who hurt them.

The bottom line is, we are unable to articulate our thoughts and feelings when we relive traumatic experiences because the left hemisphere is shut down while the right hemisphere lightens up. When the right hemisphere lightens up, we experience intense vivid emotions and pain, which can cause morphine-like substances to be released in the brain. As a result, we seek more dangerous behaviors in order to reproduce these highs and become more addicted to the trauma.

Traumatized patients tend to tell a narrative of victimization rather than the reality of their experience

The left hemisphere is responsible for linguistic, which is deactivated during traumatic episodes. Therefore it is difficult for traumatized people to articulate their feelings.

When your left hemisphere is compromised, you lose that ability to dissect the particularities of your own experience. In more abstract terms, it takes away your ability to establish order. At that moment, what you experience is pure chaos, because there is no order and nothing makes sense.

In a world that seems to be falling apart, along with the perception that we are incapable of putting it together, it is easy to apply the generally intolerable conditions of being to construct a narrative that positions ourselves as the victim, and the world as the oppressor. This is how many people rationalize their ineffective operations in life: a helpless victim can do nothing but wither away at the hands of a malevolent oppressor.

How does a healthy brain work?

The reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the neocortex

The brain is built bottom-up. At the bottom is the reptilian brain. It is already online when we are born. It enables things babies are capable of: sleeping, eating, defecating, urinating, crying. It coordinates the heart, the lungs, and the immune systems, ensuring homeostasis in which these life-sustaining systems are maintained.

Right above the reptilian brain is the limbic system, also called the mammalian brain, because all animals that live in groups and nurture their young ones possess one. It regulates emotions, determining what’s pleasurable and what’s scary, essentially mapping how we interact emotionally with our surroundings. The limbic system is shaped partly by experience, partly by genetic markups. Children constantly experiment with the world, and these experiments help develop the limbic structures for emotions and memories.

The reptilian and the mammalian brain altogether is called the emotional brain. The emotional brain is responsible to detect danger or opportunity and responds by releasing hormones that interfere with whatever your mind is focused on. The emotional brain affects what we choose to eat, where we choose to sleep and with whom, what music we prefer, whom we befriend, and whom we detest. The emotional brain initiates preprogrammed automatic escape plans, like fight or flight responses.

Above the mammalian brain is the neocortex, which is responsible for manipulating abstract ideas. Notably, frontal lobes in the neocortex enable planning, reflection, integration, and interpretation of information. Generations of frontal lobes working together have provided us with inventions that literally changed the world. The neocortex is also referred to as the rational brain.

The emotional brain identifies danger like a smoke detector

Sensory information is passed to the thalamus, an area inside the limbic system that combines inputs from our perceptions into a fully blended autobiographical experience of “this is what is happening to me”. The sensations are passed on to the amygdala and the frontal lobes.

The amygdala is “the low road” which determines if a situation is dangerous or not. It does this with the help from the hippocampus which relates new input to past experience. The amygdala responds to a threat by sending an instant message to conjure up a fight or flight response. The frontal lobes, which is “the high road”, react milliseconds later, only after threats have been registered in the body.

The amygdala is like a smoke detector, determining if the input is relevant to survival or not. You can get along with people only if you can accurately gauge whether their intentions are benign or dangerous, therefore trauma which dampens the frontal lobes and elevates the amygdala results in overreaction and misinterpretations of situations that damage relationships and quality of life.

The rational brain controls the stress response like the watchtower

If the amygdala is the smoke detector of the brain, then the frontal lobes are like the watchtower – offering a comprehensive view of the situation instead of just the fight or flight responses. Is the smoke you smell the sign of the house is on fire or just the steak you put over too high a flame? The amygdala doesn’t make such judgments and just tells your body to get ready.

The executive functions of the prefrontal cortex enable people to observe what’s going on, predict what’ll happen if they take a certain action, and make a conscious choice. The presence of mind is the capacity to calmly observe thoughts, feelings, and emotions in order to inhibit, organize and modulate the hardwired reactions. As long as our frontal lobes are working, we’re unlikely to lose our temper every time a slightly unpleasant thing happens.

How to conquer trauma?

Dealing with stress depends on achieving a balance between the smoke detector and the watchtower

In PTSD patients, the critical balance between the amygdala and the frontal lobes shifts radically, which makes it harder to control emotions and impulses. Human beings in highly emotional states have elevated activity in the emotional brain and reduced activity in the frontal lobe.

Effectively dealing with stress depends upon achieving a balance between the smoke detector and the watchtower. You can learn to regulate emotions from the top down or from the bottom up.

Top-down emotional regulation involves strengthening the capacity to monitor your body’s sensations through mindfulness and yoga. Bottom-up emotional regulation involves recalibrating the automatic nervous system through breathing, movement, or touch. When you learn to calm down, either through the habit of mindfulness or through a touch of a friend, you essentially increase activity in your left hemisphere and decrease activity in your brain hemisphere. Only then can you begin to process the information contained in the traumatic experience in any meaningful way.

Establish order out of chaos when you have successfully calmed down

It’s very important to note that, just because you meditate or practice mindfulness, it doesn’t mean that you have gained mastery over your traumatic experience. Meditation and mindfulness only help prepare and empowers your rational brain and quiets the emotional brain.

Likewise, traumatic experiences are not overcome merely by hugs and intimate touches. They only help calm your emotional brain. Traumatic experiences are as much a psychological issue as they are biological, so we need to take the final step and re-establish order through attention and articulation.

To quote my own blog post which draws on Jordan Peterson’s idea:  when things fall apart, we can give structure to it, and re-establish order, through our speech. If we speak carefully and precisely, we can sort things out, and put them in their proper place, and set a new goal, and navigate to it. If we speak carelessly and imprecisely, things remain vague. The destination remains un-proclaimed. The fog of uncertainty does not lift, and there is no negotiating through the world.

Personal Reflections, part 1

These are the compilations of personal reflections. I post this partially hoping that it informs readers of my nature to attract people who are like-minded, and partially hoping that it may be useful to others.

Table of contents

This is a compilation of personal insights I’ve obtained over the past few months. Hopefully, they will be useful to others (somehow).

I am in a much better place than I used to be

I’ve come to realize again, after a hazy train of thoughts accidentally dampening down the effulgence of everyday life, that the degree of freedom I have right now is much more than that of the previous year. I feel it is necessary to capture this realization because I sense a vague feeling of having lost and obtained something again, just for it to slip away.

An idea in psychotherapy is that the unconscious constantly attempts to bubble up thought patterns that reflect our nature and the nature of the current situation. But by the time they reach our rational mind, they get squashed and declared as nonsense very quickly, so quickly that almost none gets to be perceived consciously. I believe this was the phenomenon I experienced. I worry that without pinning it down and putting it into words, this realization will once again be fleeting, and its impact on my behaviors will quickly dissipate. My frustration is akin to the feeling of a protagonist whose memory of his most valuable person is erased from his mind. That is to say, it is very frustrating.

I have much more control of my life than I used to do. Years ago, I was subjected to a series of external circumstances and open loops that inhibited my potential. For example, my bachelor’s degree, taking care of my cousin all day, having to endure conflicts of family members. At work, I was primarily doing software development, which was close but wasn’t quite the path that I wanted to pursue. Even worse, I hadn’t realized which path I want to pursue. I still had product assignments, but I couldn’t give my 100% due to the other responsibility.

The situation now is objectively different: I obtained the degree, I no longer have to take care of my cousin nearly as much as before, my family members have much fewer conflicts. At work, I am doing product assignments all the time. I think it is worth saying again: I am in a much better place than it used to be. It’s not as good as it can be. As noble and useful it is as an ideal, it’s not healthy to long for its attainment. The pleasure is in the pursuit. Nevertheless, the fact that it got better indicates that my approach to life is working.

Expectations are necessary to get to know someone

I think expectations are necessary to the process of trying to get to know someone. The key to this personal insight is by reframing expectations as predictions.

When two people want to get to know each other, they can only work with the information each party produces. This information may be facial expressions, verbal cues, stories, or use of language, all of which provide indirect clues about the person’s nature. This information is then used to construct a model about the person’s nature.

To improve your model, you must put it to test. Initially, your approximation of the other person is very poor, and consequently, the model creates poor predictions. Reframing expectations as predictions means that we need to adjust our model when our expectations are violated. You can only see your progress in understanding someone when your model predicts successfully more and more of their behaviors.

As expectations are violated, negative feelings are produced. These negative feelings may indicate either that the two of you are not a potential match, or that your model is not sufficiently sophisticated. In the former case, you need to further compare your model of the other person to your standards of friends/partners/spouses. If your model is sophisticated enough, yet it still deviates in terms of non-negotiable fundamental beliefs, then it’s logical to terminate the relationship.

If you don’t have expectations about the other person, then you can’t test your model, which means that you’re not making any incremental progress. You can of course adopt general lines of thinking such as “people are fundamentally good/evil” to explain people’s behaviors away, but these reasonings do not constitute a real understanding of the person at all. What you work with is an entity abstracted away of all its particular personality traits and backstories. An alternative is based on your gut feeling and intuitions, which may be useful, but are unreliable.

With that said, the practice of letting go of expectations may work on a different level of abstractions. For example, presence of mind, which involves letting go of everything else except bare attention, enables strategic intuitions that allow Napoleon to win his battles. However, I think this an argument against the popular saying of decreasing your expectations to increase your happiness.

By default, thinking usually bias towards the present and the future

I only think about the past after a long period of thinking about the present and the future with no result. Th thought of being in a much better place than I used to seems so elusive, and only came after practically exhausting my thinking on the now and what’s next. There may be a mythological explanation for this.

In the story of Adam and Eve, men and women are punished by God after eating the Fruit of The Knowledge of Good and Evil against his will. This should provide a good phenomenological account of why thinking usually tends towards the future and present. God said to men: you have obtained a god-like vision, granted to you by the snake, fruit, and lover, that allows you to see far into the future.

But those who see into the future can also eternally see the future coming, and thus must prepare all contingencies and for possibilities. To do that, you have to sacrifice the present for the future, sacrifice pleasure for security. We see this tendency in men even today, where they have to constantly shoulder the responsibility of working to provide security for their family (I’m not saying that’s how it should be, that’s just how things have been).

From a mythological perspective, god condemned men for eating the fruit of Good and Evil by forever seeing troubles coming, and forever sacrificing the present for the future. The ability to evaluate our immediate surroundings and plan for the future implies that thinking is naturally future-oriented and present-oriented. This seems to indicate that thinking about the past is naturally de-prioritized.

Lifeview reflection

This is an exercise from the book “Designing your life”. It helps you identify your values and principles so that you can navigate through life more effectively. Here’s my version at the time of this writing.

The meaning of life is to manifest one’s potential to the utmost of his/her capacity. Life involves people, and surrounding ourselves with good people helps us have a good life.

But what is good, and what is not good?

I think God is not a being that oversees everything and demands us to buy bibles like college students trying to make ends meet. Instead, a more useful way to look at God is that it’s the ideal that we all strive to be. We are, for the most part, capable of distinguishing good from evil. That capacity allows us to detect intuitively whether we are in harmony with the ideal or not. When you’re in disharmony, your entire being will tell you through psychological and physiological symptoms. Good, then, is being in harmony with the ideal, and evil/bad is being in disharmony with the ideal. The principle stays the same, while what constitutes an ideal may vary from person to person.

Emotions make life worth living. Emotions such as joy and sorrow also act as signals that tell us when we’re in harmony or disharmony. They are indicators of the degree to which our behaviors are appropriate to our paths. Emotions are core components of our capacity to distinguish good from evil. Even though emotions can be fleeting and impermanent, they are necessary signals to point our minds towards the path that is good for us. However, emotions are not to be taken at literal values. Because they come and go, they make a bad basis for our actions. Wisdom is in integrating what emotions mean into our knowledge.

Friendship is a sacred type of connection that provides life with meaning. Make friends with people who want the best for you. You should want the best for your friend so that you attract the people who want the best for you. Love is a sacred, divine type of connection that provides life with meaning. If you love someone who also loves you, it brings about the most profound experience that can justify the absurdity of existence. However, not being loved back is usually the norm, because finding someone compatible with you on multiple levels is such a blessing.

In certain cases, you have to make necessary compromises, but do not compromise the principles that you choose to live by. However, always be open to criticisms, and assume the possibility that you may be wrong, including the principles that you choose to live by. The possibility for good relationships is destroyed by the inability to withstand, welcome criticisms and exchange ideas.