Archive for the 'Psychology' Category

Reading, Antihistamines, and Aphantasia

by Jason Stotts

This post isn’t like most of my posts. In fact, it came together quite by accident. You see, just a little over a week ago, I watched a friend defend his dissertation and earn his Ph.D. (congrats, Dr. Moore!). What’s interesting about this is the subject of his dissertation, which was a phenomenological investigation into how we experience reading. This got me thinking about how I read and I eventually wrote him this letter titled “On Reading”:

I’ve been thinking about my own experience of reading recently and have some interesting insights I wanted to share with you. First, some back-story.

A couple of years ago I developed a pretty bad allergy to something that blooms in the Spring here. As a result, this year, I’ve been on antihistamines all Spring. At first I just felt tired and “out of it” and that was all the more I could describe it as. I’ve been changing antihistamines and finally settled on Allegra. Now, that’s not very interesting in itself, but it’s important to understand for what follows.

Usually when I read fiction, I do not experience the words on the page and, instead, experience pretty vivid mental imagery. In fact, I know that my mind has wondered when I start seeing the words again and then I go back and pick up the thread again. I experience reading fiction as a meditative experience or trance where I am not aware of my surroundings at all and I am immersed in the story and its images.

On the other hand, when I read nonfiction, I don’t experience the words imagistically. Indeed, I don’t usually find my mind populating the concretes subsumed under concepts when I think of the concepts (e.g. when I hear “table,” I don’t immediately start picturing all of the tables I have ever seen or even any of the things I know to be tables). When I do philosophy and read nonfiction, my mind stays in a purely conceptual frame, without images. When I think of arguments, I think of them as “flowing” or perhaps as links in a chain (although not with images), but rather they have a “feel” of one thing flowing or leading to another. (Partly, I’m sure, this is also my subconscious telling me whether things cohere with my own antecedent belief structure or what people call “intuition”.)

Anyway, my question at your defense grew out of thinking about my own experience of reading. I realized that the act of reading must first involve perception of the words on the page. However, concepts cannot be understood perceptually and words are simply symbols to stand in for concepts, so we must process the words conceptually. For me, then, when I deal with nonfiction, my mind stays in this conceptual area that doesn’t involve imagery. However, when I read fiction, my mind converts the concepts back into perceptual data based on story (e.g. reading “the moonlight shone softly across the water, highlighting the snow along its banks, and transforming the scene into a softness that enveloped them in its embrace” would give me the visual experience of this.) Now, you might be right that this isn’t a per se perceptual experience. Certainly, it’s what we would call the imag-ination in Aristotelian philosophy of mind, or the faculty of the mind that is capable of having visual experiences that are not immediately tied to our senses.

All of this, though, is partly a pre-amble to something I just realized: my ability to read is not the same right now as it usually is. Because of the allergy I’ve been on antihistamines. I’ve read several fiction books during this time, but even though they were well written and I enjoyed them, I couldn’t quite “see” them in the way I usually do. I realized that it started when I started taking the antihistamines. It seem that something about them prevents me from visualizing fiction in the way I usually do. To double check, I reread a passage from a book I’ve read several times and with which I usually visualize. It was the same: I was stuck seeing the words and not seeing the action.

Moreover, I also realized it’s deeply affected my ability to be creative while I’m writing. Even when writing nonfiction, I’m struggling to access my creativity in a way I don’t usually and I’m having a much harder time writing.

Because of his defense, I had been thinking about my own cognitions since then. So, imagine my surprise when I saw this essay “Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind” by Blake Ross on Facebook. Let me give you a small sample:

I just learned something about you and it is blowing my goddamned mind.

This is not a joke. It is not “blowing my mind” a la BuzzFeed’s “8 Things You Won’t Believe About Tarantulas.” It is, I think, as close to an honest-to-goodness revelation as I will ever live in the flesh.

Here it is: You can visualize things in your mind.

If I tell you to imagine a beach, you can picture the golden sand and turquoise waves. If I ask for a red triangle, your mind gets to drawing. And mom’s face? Of course.

You experience this differently, sure. Some of you see a photorealistic beach, others a shadowy cartoon. Some of you can make it up, others only “see” a beach they’ve visited. Some of you have to work harder to paint the canvas. Some of you can’t hang onto the canvas for long. But nearly all of you have a canvas.

I don’t. I have never visualized anything in my entire life. I can’t “see” my father’s face or a bouncing blue ball, my childhood bedroom or the run I went on ten minutes ago. I thought “counting sheep” was a metaphor. I’m 30 years old and I never knew a human could do any of this. And it is blowing my goddamned mind.


What did you do today?

I don’t know. I don’t know what I did today.

Answering questions like this requires me to “do mental work,” the way you might if you’re struggling to recall what happened in the Battle of Trafalgar. If I haven’t prepared, I can’t begin to answer. But chitchat is the lubricant of everyday life. I learned early that you can’t excuse yourself from the party to focus on recalling what you did 2 hours ago.


And if you ask about my day, there’s a good chance that—having had no time to prepare—I’ll lie to you.
It is hard not to feel like a sociopath when you’re lying about how you spent your Monday and you don’t even know why. And there is a sadness, an unflagging detachment that comes from forgetting your own existence.

Imagine how I felt reading this! My mind was blown (but don’t actually form images of my mind being blown, or else we’ll be in different places). His account goes a long way in explaining the way I experience the world, although it’s not quite to the same degree as Blake. As a matter of course, I do not remember things imagistically. I can form mental images and hear music and such, but it’s very hard and comes with effort, I don’t simply do it (except for music, which comes easily). This has led me to have a very bad memory for what I’ve done in a day as well (or what Blake calls “experiential memory”), but a very good memory for philosophy and arguments: I can recall philosophic texts I read more than 10 years ago pretty clearly.

Just like with Blake, this leads me to forget things that I’ve done, even with people I care about, unless there was also some cognitive content with the experience to tie it all together. This is one of the reasons I like taking pictures so much: I really won’t remember how things looked without them.

It’s weird to think about how different my experience is from other people’s. I already knew, for example, that I am nearly indifferent to other people’s emotions: unless I already care about you, your emotions will not affect me in the slightest. Even then, I don’t always know how to handle other people’s emotions. This, however, may be tied to the same issue of visualization: I can’t actually imagine myself in your shoes (which I now assume might be literal).

Now, to bring everything together, I’ve noticed that since I’ve been on the antihistamines, my visual experience has been even more paltry, closer to Blake’s, than it usually is. I would have never noticed this, except that I noticed it in how I read and my friend’s dissertation defense got me thinking about the experience of reading. So, I’m wondering if there isn’t some connection between some part of the brain that antihistamines affect and our ability to form mental images. Undoubtedly, I would be a bad test subject, because I’m already bad at it. But, maybe by standing just on the cusp of being able to do it, I was able to notice the effect of the antihistamines in a way that others don’t, because they only have a small change.

Anyway, I will definitely be thinking more about this and its impact on my life, now that I have a clearer idea that its going on and how it is divergent from others’ experiences.

Aporia: The Emotional Process

by Jason Stotts

Aporia (ἀπορɛία): an impasse, puzzlement, doubt, or confusion; a difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for and against it.

Aporia’s are a chance for me to try to work through a philosophical problem.  I do it in writing because writing helps me think more clearly.  I do it publicly, because you might find it interesting.  Also, sometimes the solutions to complicated problems are easier to see from the outside.  Today’s aporia is the emotional process.

Note: this aporia presumes background knowledge of: the Objectivist theory of emotions, Robert Solomon’s form of philosophical cognitivism, the cognitive model of emotions from CBT (esp. Beck), and the Aristotelian understanding of emotions.

My general theory of emotions is that emotions are a unique kind of psychic phenomenon that are a response to antecedent beliefs.  My former thoughts about emotions followed Robert Solomon closely, except that I think that emotions are responses to beliefs and not judgments.

I recently wrote a paper for one of my MA’s classes about my personal take on counseling, where I said:

I am, principally, a philosopher.  I have long been interested in questions in philosophy of mind, especially with regards to emotions and motivations for action.  Philosophically, I am indebted to Aristotle, the Stoics (to some degree), Robert Solomon, and Ayn Rand.  These philosophers, in different ways, have all postulated a cognitivist view of emotions whereby emotions are a natural part of what it means to be human, that they should be integrated into one’s life in healthy ways, and that our emotions are a response to prior “somethings” in our minds (I say “somethings,” because there is a significant disagreement about what sorts of antecedent things can cause emotions). For example, Aristotle thought that one could not end up having a good character if he was not raised well as he recognized the pivotal role our parents have in shaping our early beliefs and the great effect these have on us throughout our lives.  Aristotle also thought that our emotions were open to our reason, in contrast to Plato.*  The Stoics thought that emotions that caused a disturbance in our calm were bad, but those that accorded to reason were good (Stoic ideal of “eupatheia” over “apatheia”).  Robert Solomon’s The Passions (1976) came out at the beginning of the psychological cognitivist movement and his book renewed an interest in philosophical accounts of emotions.  However, Solomon situated emotions as response to antecedent judgments and not antecedent beliefs, rejecting the latter proposition because he thought that only judgements of how a thing would impact the self could be important enough to cause the emotional response.  Ayn Rand developed a theory of sense of life (which are like core beliefs directed at the world and one’s efficacy in it) and also introduced the idea that our emotions are rational and follows necessarily from our beliefs into the philosophical world.

My own position on the matter is that our emotions are response to antecedent beliefs in a direct way.  To quote from the conclusion to my chapter on emotions from my forthcoming book Eros and Ethos: The Ethics of Modern Sex:

Emotions are undoubtedly a complicated subject, since it has usually been assumed that they were impervious to reason and beyond our ability to understand. […] But the idea that emotions cannot be understood is wrong: not only can we understand the emotions themselves, we can also understand where they come from and how they are formed.

We started with drawing distinctions between emotions and other psychic phenomenon.  We then moved on to see that emotions are a response to our beliefs. After a brief analysis […] we came to a provisional definition of emotions that was: “emotions are a form of automatic evaluation with a very specific underlying process.”

Problematically, we didn’t yet know what that specific underlying process was, so our next step was to seek to understand that process and how it works, since it underlies emotions.  We saw that the emotional response has three distinct phases (although it is always experienced as a totality), which are: identification, evaluation, and response.  In the first phase, identification, the object is identified and its relation to the your life.  In the second phase, evaluation, our subconscious compares the object to our past network of beliefs and evaluations looking for relevance and, if it finds enough of a match, the emotional process moves forward to the third phase.  The third phase is the emotional response itself, which is what we experience as the emotion.[…]

We then moved on to the issue of sense of life, which is an emotional response to a person’s past judgments about his efficacy in the world and his judgments regarding the nature of the world in which he acts.  This manifests in one of two primary forms: as a benevolent sense of life where you think it is possible to act in the world and your actions are efficacious or a malevolent sense of life where you think real action is impossible in the world and your actions are inefficacious.  Sense of life is important as it forms one of the core components of our personality and is evident even in our unconscious actions and the way we carry ourselves.  Not only that, but insofar as it is a thing, sense of life is what underlies the idea of “love at first sight.”

We then moved to philosophy and sense of life.  Although most people don’t think of their philosophy as having any bearing on their emotions, since our emotions come from our beliefs and our beliefs come from our philosophy, our emotions literally come from our philosophy.  This can be good or bad, depending on whether our philosophy is well integrated and aimed at helping to live a human life or is aimed at its opposite.

Finally, we looked at the idea of a passionate life, a life where emotions and philosophy are integrated together such that we can experience the reality of our philosophy through our emotions and our emotions can help us to motivate our philosophy so that we can create meaning in our lives in a robust way.  If we want meaning in our lives, we must create it and that can only be done by both having the right kind of philosophy and being able to experience its power through our emotions.  When we know what is right and feel that it is right too, that is when we are truly living well.

* For example, Plato, in the Phaedrus (253d), uses the metaphor of a charioteer pulled by two strong steeds: a white purebred (reason) and a wild black stallion (the passions).  He claims that in order to maintain one’s path, one must tame the black stallion as much as possible so that the two horses work together.  If the black horse of the passions cannot be tamed, then he shall pull the chariot astray.  The problem with Plato’s psychology is that it treats the passions as innate and irreducible, in addition to being opposed to reason.  This position obvious greatly influenced christianity and filtered up into our own culture through both that channel and Freud, i.e. (id/black steed/passions) vs. (superego/white steed/reason) vs. (ego/charioteer/”self”).  This Platonic and Freudian view must be rejected for the cognitivist, if emotions are going to have an important role in our lives.

What’s causing this aporia, then, is that I’m not sure how to situate the CBT idea of “Automatic Thoughts” or AT’s into this framework.  Usually someone in a clinical framework has had their AT’s structured negatively, so they are suffering from Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANT’s.  Automatic negative thoughts are one of the core ideas of CBT and the theory that they exist and operate has been demonstrated to be both true and clinically very efficacious.  The idea is this: our emotions are a response to a (not quite conscious) thought about our situation that sets the emotional process into motion.  We can, through the help of a therapist and self-reflection, come to identify these automatic thoughts and their impact on us.

Now, if you look at my theory above, the emotional process does not need this quasi-conscious thought to operate.  On the other hand, my theory is compatible with the idea, as an AT could be the catalyst to initiate the emotional process.

My question, or aporia, is this: is an automatic thought a retrospective construct that integrates what is happening in the subconscious into something understandable to the conscious mind or is it actually a causal part of the emotional process?  Is an automatic thought simply picking up the antecedent belief that the emotional process is responding to, or is the automatic thought part of the causal chain?  To put it differently: are automatic thoughts always present in the emotional process?  Are they the initiators of the process?  Are they simply a retrospective construct to understand what has happened?

It seems to me that AT’s can be both the antecedent causes of the emotional process in their subconscious form and also a retrospective understanding of what has happened.

By this I think that we can have these kinds of robust composite beliefs (like intermediate beliefs and core beliefs, or sense of life) form in the subconscious and these can definitely be the cause of emotions.  But, it’s also the case that we can give them a real form by bringing them into conscious awareness.  These beliefs that define us, define our personality, our orientation to the world, our deepest beliefs, they are not consciously known.  They reside in the subconscious and are not easily accessible.  We can only bring them into conscious awareness through introspection and effort and we may or may not be completely capturing them.

Another problem presents itself here: thoughts are different than beliefs.  Or is this an issue or language and not a real issue?  One can think about beliefs.  Beliefs are the result of thought. On the other hand, AT’s are probably more actually beliefs: “I felt overwhelmed.  I thought I wasn’t capable enough to handle it.”  You’re not actually thinking about the situation and judging whether you’re capable enough to handle it, you’re bringing up your belief that you’re not.  In this since Automatic Thought’s is probably a misnomer.  It should probably be something more like “Automatized Beliefs.”  Doesn’t have the same ring to it though, that’s for sure.

It seems like we need to reconceptualize the process and transition to “automatized beliefs” and these beliefs are part of the milieu of antecedent beliefs from which our emotional response arises.