The Benefits of Low Level Lighting

Few people choose to fill their homes with bright fluorescent lighting. Perhaps in the kitchen or utility room where bright lighting is helpful for the kinds of things they do in those rooms, but not in the living room, study or bedroom, where they wish to feel comfortable, relaxed and secure.

On the pages Neuroscience and Implications for Software Engineers I describe how feeling comfortable, relaxed and secure - rather than stressed and anxious - enables us to use the faculties we need to be good at programming.

So logically, we should light programming shops in the same way that we light our studies at home. I believe that commercial organizations drift into doing exactly the wrong thing because raising stress and anxiety has an insidious and previously unsuspected allure. The neurochemical response to stress - raised dopamine and norepinephrine - is similar to the response to addictive drugs!

I’ve recently been working in a shop that’s good in several ways, and one of their good practices is low level lighting in several areas where programmers have their desks. Some of the old-timers have told me that the lighting is an accident of history, but I don’t care how it got that way. It’s still worth sharing!

It’s a bit tricky sharing a lighting level - darned modern cameras :-) So in the two photos below, notice how strong the illumination seems where the lighting shines directly on the walls. And remember I took them to make a point, not as works of art. So they’re “warts and all”, and therefore I’ve taken care to avoid catching anything identifiable in them. The areas used for greeting customers are much smarter:

Compare with these two shots of the kitchen area, where natural daylight can be seen coming through the windows:

The low level lighting brings several interacting benefits. The sense of cosiness, similar to my living room at home, is certainly there. Beyond that, there’s an improved sense of privacy. This is more of a perceptual illusion than a real effect, because we are all as visible to each other as in any open plan environment. But it feels more private, and that’s what matters for reducing stress and anxiety and so enabling juxtapositional thinking.

There’s also an effect similar to being in a library. People respect the sense of quiet and cosiness. They keep their voices down, and tend to go elsewhere to use their phones. There’s a nice kitchen they can go in for a chat. Not all noises are the same, and we know that noise containing intelligible data (even if it’s not intelligent) is the worst kind for breaking our concentration and preventing us seeing complex pictures. So if we must suffer open plan, anything which encourages people to keep their voices down is good. The office depicted in the photos above has a babble annoyance level which is nearly as good as a two person office. It’s remarkable. I would never have guessed this effect would be so pronounced if I hadn’t had the chance to observe it happening.

Then there’s eye strain. We all spend our days looking at screens, which emit their own light. They don’t need external illumination like pieces of paper do. In fact, the more environmental light there is, the harder we find it to see the screens. The blatant extreme case of that is glare when the angles are wrong, but flicker has a more serious effect on its victims, wearing them down over time. The flicker from the kind of cheapskate tubes found in many commercial shops is bad enough, but when it beats with displays which are refreshing at nearly the same frequency it can be (almost) visible to most people. There are plenty of people who think that computer displays emit noxious rays which give them headaches when actually it’s that beat frequency flickering away at the edge of their awareness that’s doing them in. Simply explain what’s happening to them and they stop being so annoyed by it - try it! Obviously, the less fluorescent light there is in an office, the less these effects will occur.

The whole flicker thing has another side to it. Many of the best programmers are the sort of people who are classified as being on the “autistic spectrum”. Now I’m very suspicious about such classifications. As I explain on the page Other Applications, I believe we can understand the name-calling as unconscious resentment by those trapped in the psychosocial stress/dopamine economy towards that don’t participate and exchange fixes. The greater sensitivity of the non-participants can be understood as normal sensitivity, not blunted by excess dopamine constantly sloshing around their brains. But whatever the cause, many of the best programmers can see the 50 or 60 Hz flicker of fluorescent lighting without any monitors beating away nearly in sync, and it’s extremely annoying to them. Reducing it improves their ability to concentrate. Simple.

The final benefit I’ll identify is economic. Many organizations operate acres of floor space, all lit with tubes. Take half of the tubes away and the lighting bill is cut in half.

I’ve given several good reasons for reducing the light levels of programming shops. Some readers may notice there’s an argument I’ve not made. There’s plenty of anecdotal accounts of full spectrum lighting improving the performance of schoolchildren. The trouble with this stuff is that it is very anecdotal - the more I look for substantial original research on this, the vaguer and more associated with interested parties it becomes. The remaining research doesn’t do a good job of excluding multiple sources of variance, or “confounds” as they’re called in the jargon. The report Full-spectrum fluorescent lighting: a review of its effects on physiology and health by McColl and Veitch, funded by the National Research Council of Canada does a good job of exploring the lack of solid evidence in this area. So although you might choose to experiment with full spectrum lighting, bear in mind that it is more expensive, and the evidence for its benefits is not yet strong.

Experimenting with reduced light levels is a different matter. It has a negative cost. So try it. Persuade your boss to take away some of the tubes (don’t make things too dark - make sure illumination is enough to be safe for example), and see if your working environment becomes cosier, more private, quieter and more relaxing. See if your ability to concentrate improves, and over a release cycle see if that has any effect on the accuracy of your estimates, the necessary sufficiency of your code, and your bug reports.

Neuroscience, All Postings, ADHD, Stress Addiction, Programming

Obstructing and Assisting Effective Thought

This week I saw a quote from Marvin Minsky, said to be from his book The Emotion Machine (which I haven’t read yet):

… the cascades that we call Suffering must have evolved from earlier schemes that helped us to limit our injuries — by providing the goal of escaping from pain. Evolution never had any sense of how a species might evolve next — so it did not anticipate how pain might disrupt our future high-level abilities. We came to evolve a design that protects our bodies but ruins our minds.

I know exactly where he’s coming from. Last week a bit of a dental filling chipped off, resulting in more pain than was reasonable for such a small thing. Something was clearly Very Wrong, so it was straight round to the tandarts (Flemish dentist) for me. Three root canals later I was nursing a wicked post-surgical insult to my jawbone, and feeling very glad that I avoid taking Paracetamol unless I really, really need it. All told I spent a week quite unfit for anything involving a brain.

This was a timely reminder that although the issue of background stress making the prefrontal cortex unavailable for programming work is central to this blog, there are other things - such as pain - that can also obstruct or assist intellectual function.

The Boston Globe recently featured an article, Don’t just stand there, think, describing studies that show clear improvements in performing a variety of intellectual tasks when the subjects were encouraged to move while performing them:

The brain is often envisioned as something like a computer, and the body as its all-purpose tool. But a growing body of new research suggests that something more collaborative is going on - that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies. A series of studies, the latest published in November, has shown that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking. Another recent study suggested that stage actors remember their lines better when they are moving. And in one study published last year, subjects asked to move their eyes in a specific pattern while puzzling through a brainteaser were twice as likely to solve it.

Of course, we programmers already know about this. Here’s the excellent Mr. Randall Munroe referencing it:

It’s even got a name, and a Wikipedia entry - stimming. My favourite stim involves glancing pats to the back of my head - a motion not far removed from shining a shoe. It’s remarkable that I’ve still got plenty of hair on the back of my head, really. So it’s nice to see that there is now quantitive confirmation that stimming helps thought, because it’s one of those things that reveal the strange disconnect running through a society where most of the people aren’t in a position to access their full faculties, most of the time. For example, here’s Dr. Russell Barkley, an ADHD expert who doesn’t seem to recognize anything but focussed attention, getting very worried about stimming on his ADHD Fact Sheet:

2. Excessive task-irrelevant activity or activity that is poorly regulated to the demands of a situation. Individuals with ADHD in many cases are noted to be excessively fidgety, restless, and “on the go.” They display excessive movement not required to complete a task, such as wriggling their feet and legs, tapping things, rocking while seated, or shifting their posture or position while performing relatively boring tasks. Younger children with the disorder may show excessive running, climbing, and other gross motor activity. While this tends to decline with age, even teenagers with ADHD are more restless and fidgety than their peers.

Crikey! We can’t have people tapping things or shifting their posture, can we? Where might it end? This kind of thing seems so silly, the so-called expert’s ignorance seems downright willful. This is the kind of thing which makes me think a lot of the ADHD debate is actually based in neurotic responses to healthy children on the part of adults trapped in focussed attention, and demonizing those with mismatching social stress levels as I describe on the pages The Dreaded Jungian Backlash and Other Applications. To add weight to this, it’s worth realizing that many people who technological Westerners regard as primitive encourage children to rock as an aid to study, rather than calling it a “symptom” and reaching for the Ritalin regardless of the effect. Check out this sobering bit of video which lasts for less than a minute, half of which is caption:

The really interesting thing about this is that once we know about it, this disconnect can be found in other places, allowing the possibility of understanding things which are unintelligible without allowing for it. For example, although Dr. Barkeley recognizes focussed attention but seems unaware of the existence of juxtapositional awareness as leveraged by effective programmers and artists or the motile component of effective thought, there are traditional schools of psychology which do describe these things. For example, 20th century esoteric teachers George Gurdjieff and Rudolph Steiner both continue to attract interest from many hackers I’ve interviewed over the years. They both claimed that human consciousness is the result of the interaction of three distinct subsystems, and encouraged students to distinguish the operation of each in order to improve their awareness. Gurdjieff describes three main centres:

  • Intellectual or thinking center. This center is the faculty which makes a being capable of logic and reasoning. This one is located in the head.
  • Moving or physical center. This brain is located in the spinal column.
  • Emotional or feeling center. This faculty makes beings capable of feeling emotions. This brain is dispersed throughout the human body as nerves which have been labeled as the “nerve nodes” . The biggest concentration of these nerves is in the solar plexus.

Note that the “emotions” of the feeling centre are not the base, reactive emotions such as hunger, fear, lust and so on. Those are handled by the moving centre. Instead the feeling centre is about impressions - stuff that we get in an “all or nothing, insight kind of way”. It seems to map very well to what I’ve called the juxtapositional faculty. Does the prefrontal cortex integrate processing from the solar plexus? Recently we’ve realized that a lot of processing does go on in the enteric nervous system - nerves surrounding the gut. As the Wikipedia article says:

There are several reasons why the enteric nervous system may be regarded as a second brain. The enteric nervous system can operate autonomously. It normally communicates with the CNS through the parasympathetic (eg, via the vagus nerve) and sympathetic (eg, via the prevertebral ganglia) nervous systems. However, vertebrate studies show that when the vagus nerve is severed, the enteric nervous system continues to function.

The complexity of the enteric nervous system is another reason for its status as a second brain. In vertebrates the enteric nervous system includes efferent neurons, afferent neurons, and interneurons, all of which make the enteric nervous system capable of carrying reflexes in the absence of CNS input. The sensory neurons report on mechanical and chemical conditions. Through intestinal muscles, the motor neurons control peristalsis and churning of intestinal contents. Other neurons control the secretion of enzymes. The enteric nervous system also makes use of the same neurotransmitters as the CNS, such as acetylcholine, dopamine, and serotonin. The enteric nervous system has the capacity to alter its response depending on such factors as bulk and nutrient composition.

It seems to me that the empirical knowledge of this stuff which Gurdjieff (apparently) gained from traditional Orthodox Christian, Buddhist and Dervish sources describes what we experience (unless we are trapped in focussed attention) and is now at least partially confirmed by modern science. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that thousands of years of study actually produced something useful!

In the Google book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds: How Is It Achieved? Steiner describes:

… the thinking-brain, the feeling-brain and the willing-brain.

The bizarre thing about Steiner is that he discusses the three brains in the context of clairvoyant perception! Are we talking… like… spooks or something here? I strongly suspect that the answer is no, and here we have an opportunity to resolve one of the great mysteries of the ages. Remember Barkley, recognizing only focussed attention. To him, the fruits of juxtapositional awareness which we can all enjoy if we are sufficiently destressed, and which arrive in an “all or nothing, insight kind of way” without any stepwise “working out”, are mere hallucinations. The human-normal sensibilities of people who are in a position to do juxtapositional awareness are just “procrastination”. Creative people “make things up” - probably as a result of a “failure of inhibition” (Mozart’s reams of note-perfect new music were a kind of complicated epileptic fit). This kind of model is actually quite common - is the way that ISO 9001 is usually applied anything other than an infinite regress of people standing behind other people and telling them exactly what to do?

To such a person, an experienced professional who can look at a spec and know that there is something really difficult in there without yet being able to say exactly what it is, might as well be “clairvoyant”. But there is nothing spooky going on - just the amazing effectiveness of the neural net between our ears when it has a chance to work correctly. This also explains why some people are so keen to advance theories of how creative people “make things up”, when every creative person denies making things up, instead insisting that they just see and attempt to capture what is there. From the limited point of view of focussed attention such statements make no sense, and can be dismissed out of hand!

With these ideas in mind, it’s actually possible to make sense of some of Steiner’s writing in informational and structural terms. I’m not going to offer an example here - or even encourage you to find one - because of the other big problem with Steiner. He was writing in High German, to a very straightlaced turn of the century upper middle class audience that makes Barkley look positively funky in comparision - and the writing gains nothing in translation. Turgid, pompous, long-winded and obfuscated are just some words we might apply to it here and now. But my central proposal here, that Steiner is describing improved cognition of this reality, rather than focussed cognition of a different reality, might be of interest to some people. Of course the audience, knowing only focussed attention, took the description of improved cognition and “interpreted” it as a description of an alternate, spook reality. The relevant graph is not this one from Randall Munroe, correct though it is:

But instead this one from Dehnadi and Bornat’s fascinating paper The Camel Has Two Humps, where they show the two distinct clusters of excellent and average programmers:

Human psychology seems to be a better fit with this bit of pop culture from The Shamen featuring Jhelisa Anderson than the theories of the ADHD experts - so stim away and if Dr. Barkley doesn’t like it… it’s another reason to get rid of open plan!

Neuroscience, All Postings, ADHD, Stress Addiction

The Kafka Shuffle

In the Introduction pages I describe how low level stress is enough to reduce working memory and access to the semantic and associative network. In this focussed attention hardware state, people can’t program or perform other tasks central to software engineering. If a person spends most or all of their waking hours in focussed attention, they’ll stop expecting or relying on self-consistency, distrust the evidence of their own senses, and develop an increasing reliance on heuristics (procedures) and their policing. They will also be conditioned to resent others who do not match their stress level, either stressing them too much, or not performing the anxiety raising social stereotypies enough to give an addictive hit of stress chemistry. Just as with drunk humour, a group of people suffering the same distortion of their thinking will produce a distorted culture. Once a distorted is established, it can sustain itself by driving newcomers into stress, and conceal itself by rationalizing or even celebrating the goings on.

Such a culture is the kiss of death to any commercial activity. It is operationally inefficient because workers aren’t alive to the possibilities for intelligent optimizations of their tasks and instead develop buck-passing skills. It produces constant, invisible opportunity costs because of the emphasis on reactive behaviours. It produces conflict with customers and business partners as dealings develop the character we call “bureaucratic” - because government bureaucracies are places where stress addicted culture can get really bad. I emphasize that a stress addicted culture will eventually doom any enterprise - those that get by doing predictable business with such a culture are always vulnerable to sudden death by innovative competition, or even trivial changes to the business environment if they cannot adapt.

In this posting I’m going to look at an example of such a stress addicted culture, showing how deep and pervasive the reality warp can get, and how it creates conflict with non-members. In a commercial context we should ask how the attitudes revealed will affect motivation, quality, efficiency, flexibility, creativity and other good things. Conversely, think about how such a culture will inevitably display the extreme rejection of improvement and hence organizational inertia I call The Dreaded Jungian Backlash, while endorsing the correctness of each member’s distorted perceptions. Consider the idea that there’s a kind of organizational hygiene that anyone responsible for leading others should be aware of, and stress addicted culture is a disease of morale that can render the wage bill worse than wasted.

The example is an often repeated Internet article written by a physician turned homeschooler called Matt James. James went on to write Homeschooling Odyssey, a well received book with the tag line, “Hour-a-day homeschooling has sent our six children to Stanford and beyond. While academic achievements are gratifying, they represent a drop in the bucket of benefits in store for families who choose to homeschool.” The most direct citation for James’ article that I’ve found is Little Manchurian Candidates, but because the model of stress addicted culture fits so well with everything he observes and expresses, I’m going to quote the whole thing here:

Little Manchurian Candidates

by Matt James
“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Our six-year-old daughter was so excited to start school. At our first parent-teacher conference, Barb and I expected to hear the usual compliments and heartwarming anecdotes about our bright little angel. From our experiences with activities like T-ball and soccer, or dance and music recitals, we had learned that parents always say nice things about the children of others. If the compliments are sometimes unrealistic or excessive, well, parenting is tough work. We can all use the encouragement. I guess we had been spoiled. Jenny’s teacher got right to the point. She had some negatives to address. For one thing, Jenny was struggling with her reading. The teacher confessed that one of the most difficult parts of her job was deflating parents with the news that their children were simply not exceptional. Jenny was, at best, an average reader. She was not an Eagle; she was a Pony. Our job was to learn to enjoy her as a 40-watt bulb rather than a bright light. Was it my imagination, or did this middle-aged matron’s sweet smile contain a trace of malice as she related these tidings? I was confused by this assessment of Jenny’s reading abilities because it simply didn’t fit in with her prior history. She had a love affair with books for her entire childhood. We have a photograph of her at 11 months of age staring earnestly at the contents of an open book. I remember reading to her when she was three. I stopped for some reason, but she continued the narration. She knew her stories by heart. Like many other children, Jenny had learned to read at home. She was a bookworm, and she was an experienced and passionate reader before she ever started first grade. The teacher went on to explain that Jenny cried too much at school and that we needed to correct this problem with the appropriate discipline. Barb and I exchanged glances but didn’t argue. We were in shock.

I was curious about the crying. Jenny was such a happy child. I asked her that night what made her sad at school. Expecting to hear about something on the playground, I was surprised by her answer. The listening-hour stories made her sad:

Once upon a time there was a daddy duck with seven ducklings. They ranged in age down to the youngest (who reminded Jenny of a first grader). The daddy was mean. One day he demanded that all his children learn three tasks, such as running, swimming, and diving. If a duckling was unable to master all of the tasks, he would be banished from the family to live with the chickens. The youngsters struggled under the cruel eye of their father. When it came to diving, the first grader floundered and was sent away to live with the chickens.

This was the story Jenny related, in her own words, as an example. I heard it told a second time several years later, by my cousin Nancy, as a sample of objectionable curriculum. We were impressed with the coincidence, since our families resided in different states.

Jenny told me she also cried over stories in her readers. They made her sad and frustrated in some way. What a mess! In one evening we had found out that Jenny was unhappy at school, that her teacher thought she was a poor reader and a dim bulb, and that she heard mean tales during listening-hour that I wouldn’t repeat to hardened convicts. What in the name of heaven was going on at this school?

I was determined to get to the bottom of things. Since they didn’t send books home with students in the younger grades, I went to the school the following day and spent a couple of hours reviewing the elementary readers. As I read, my eyes opened wider and wider. I had assumed the purpose of the reading curriculum was to stimulate the juvenile imagination and teach reading skills. Instead, I saw material saturated with, to borrow another parent’s language, “an unadvertised agenda promoting parental alienation, loss of identity and self-confidence, group-dependence, passivity, and anti-intellectualism.”

I once daydreamed through a basic psychology class in medical school which described the work of Pavlov and B.F Skinner in the twentieth century. Their conclusions were that animal (and human) behaviors can be encouraged or discouraged by associating them with pleasure or pain. This is such an obvious fact of nature. It is amazing that anyone would bother to prove it with experimentation, as if the carrot and the stick haven’t been used since time began.

In behaviorist experiments various stimuli, such as food or electrical shocks, were used as rewards or deterrents. Over time, due to animal memory, a pattern of behavior could be established without food or shocks coming into play. This educational or training process is called “conditioning.” With enough conditioning, the dog will stop chasing cars.

As I read the stories and poems in Jenny’s readers, I was astonished to discover that they were alive, in their own way, with the theories and practices of these dead scientists. But the animals to be trained weren’t dogs or rats. They were our young students. Pleasure and pain signals were embedded into the reading material in a consistent way. Given the vicarious nature of the reading experience, and by identifying with the protagonists in the stories, it was our first graders who were “learning” certain attitudes and behaviors.

When a child-figure in the stories split away from his group, for example, he would get rained on, his toes would get cold in the snow, or he would experience some other form of discomfort or torment. Similar material was repeated ad infinitum. Through their reading, our students would feel the stinging rain and the pain of freezing toes. They would learn the lesson like one of Pavlov’s dogs: avoid the pain, stay with the group.

The stories in the readers consistently associated individual initiative with emotional or physical pain. Consider the example of the little squirrel whose wheel falls off his wagon. When he tries to replace it, the wagon rides with an awkward and embarrassing bump, noticeable to his friends, who then tease him about it. Another attempt to repair the wheel results in an accident, with bruising and bleeding and more humiliation. The cumulative effect of this and similar story lines, given the vicarious nature of the reading experience, would be to discourage initiative and reduce self-confidence in the first grader.

Animal dads, moms, and grandparents were portrayed over and over in various combinations as mean, stupid, unreliable, bungling, impotent or incompetent. Relationships with their children were almost always dysfunctional; communication and reciprocal trust were non-existent. A toxic mom or dad, for instance, might have stepped in to help our youthful squirrel repair his wagon, only to make matters worse and wreak emotional havoc in the process. Jenny’s heart would be lacerated by stories which constantly portrayed parent/child relationships as strained, cruel, or distant. I could see her crying with hurt or frustration.

It occurred to me that over the long run, at some level of consciousness, our daughter would have to hold us accountable for permitting her to be tortured in school. Logically, Barb and I had to be stupid, unreliable, uncaring, or impotent, just like the parents in the books. By sending her to school, we were validating the message in her readers, contributing significantly to the parental alienation curriculum. Continuing in her school-based reading series, Jenny’s relationship with us would have become tarnished or eroded, and an element of bitterness or cynicism might have crept into her personality.

I borrow the term “anti-intellectualism” to describe another dominant theme in the readers. Many of the compositions were, essentially, word salad. They lacked intrinsic interest, coherence, or continuity, and they often demonstrated a sort of anti-rationality. The stories and the corresponding questions seemed to require the student to suspend the natural operations of his intellect, such as the desire to make sense out of things or the impulse to be curious. Under this yoke, a student could learn to hate reading or even thought itself.

The following “story” and “comprehension” questions are representative of the anti-intellectualism that I found in the readers:

Once upon a time there was a little green mouse who hopped after a tiger onto a yellow airplane. The plane turned into a big red bird in flight, and the mouse turned into a blue pumpkin. The pumpkin fell to the ground and its seeds grew into pots and pans. Blah, blah, blah

1) “What color was the mouse?”

2) “Why do mice turn into pumpkins?”

3) “How do seeds grow?”

I can see children getting frustrated over material like this. It is debatable as to which facet of the exercise is more onerous, the reading or the “comprehension.” I almost incline to the latter. Among other concerns, I wonder if it is a good thing to pressure children to respond to stupid or unanswerable questions. Such a process would lead to passivity and a loss of confidence, to a little engine that couldn’t.

According to Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, repetition of unpleasant reading experiences would turn a student off to the reading activity. Predictable consequences would be a child who hates reading and loses out on vast intellectual benefits and development. In addition, his reading failure would tax his self-confidence, and he could be branded with one of society’s popular labels such as dyslexia.

I considered Jenny’s reading struggles in the context of performance expectations as well as grading and comparisons with other children. It seemed as if she faced a nasty dilemma: force herself to read alienating material, or disengage and then disappoint parents, teachers and self. What an impossible predicament for a young child. Once sunny and blue, the skies had turned dark and stormy for our happy little girl whose only offense had been to attend her friendly neighborhood school at the innocent age of six.

It has occurred to me that the cause of America’s illiteracy crisis has been discovered. It is the reading curriculum in our schools. Unfortunately, the damage to children appears to extend way beyond reading failure. One wonders if the hidden agenda in the readers has created our victim culture, a generation of withdrawn and resentful children, alienated from themselves, their parents, society, books and ideas.

I was reminded of the plight of our neighbors. The father and mother were loving, dedicated parents. He was an accountant and she was a homemaker and community leader. They were nice people, and so were their children. The two teenagers were bright but got poor grades and hated school. They hung out with the crowd and participated in the kind of self-destructive behaviors that are commonplace today. I asked these young people why they would behave in ways which would cause pain for themselves or their loved ones. They smiled quizzically and professed not to know. Maybe the ideas that moved them truly were subconscious.

We are all familiar with kids like this (Our own kids are kids like this, or they come too close for comfort). They spend a lot of time “doing nothing” with like-minded friends. Passive-aggressive with suppressed individuality, they all seem cut from the same mold. Self mutilation with tattoos and body armor is almost universal. Some of their groups are virtually masochistic cults. Sadism is the other side of the masochism coin.

That so many of these dysfunctional teenagers come from loving homes and neat families is inexplicable and shocking, until you realize that they have all been tortured together in school since the first grade. They are a batch of little Manchurian Candidates with attitude, victims of the obscure behaviorism that I found, and that others have found before and since, in school readers.

Barb and I had seen some perplexing changes in Jenny’s reading since she started in first grade. For one thing, she had stopped reading her favorite books and stories at home. Before starting school, she had feasted on Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Although she still begged us to read these to her, she now explained that she was not supposed to read them herself, according to her understanding from her teacher, because they contained big words and content in advance of her abilities. Barb and I, holding our tongues, exchanged tortured grimaces and cross-eyed glances.

When reviewing the school readers, I had noticed an impoverished vocabulary, composed mostly of three and four letter words. I brought this up with the teacher. She explained that the readers were integrated into a district policy that no more than five hundred new words be introduced to students during any grade level. The idea was to protect children from the dizzying and confusing effects of an overabundance of words and ideas. I nodded as if I understood, but I didn’t really get it.

Barb and I had clearly used the wrong approach with Jenny. We had allowed her to read anything she wanted and had provided her with a flourishing home library. Furthermore, we had encouraged her to run around in the grassy meadows and on the sandy beaches. She must have collided with great numbers of unfamiliar words and ideas, as well as a perilous diversity of flowers and sea shells. It’s a wonder she survived at all.

We considered the various elements of Jenny’s brief experience in first grade. She had a clueless teacher. She was regressing in her reading skills, vocabulary, and enthusiasm. She was being indoctrinated with character destroying qualities like passivity and group dependence. Her intellectual development was being stunted and she was being bombarded with a curriculum of parental alienation.

Judging by her crying in the classroom, she was part of a captive audience being repeatedly exposed to painful stimuli. To put it plainly, she was the victim of ongoing torture and cruelty. Along with her classmates, she was becoming, as one of her school poems pointed out, “Small, small, small, just a tiny, tiny, tiny piece of it all.”

In our state at that time, compulsory education began at the age of eight. Jenny was not obliged by law to attend school. With our various concerns, we pulled her out of school while we tried to figure out what to do.

First let’s consider the idea that the reading primer is an artifact of some sinister conspiracy that is consciously using behaviourist conditioning to stunt children’s growth. So many people have formed the impression (that is, they’ve spontaneously noticed a pattern with their juxtapositionally active prefrontal cortexes) of something like this going on that it’s a familiar idea in the homeschooling world. The trouble is, like many conspiracy theories it’s an implausibly complicated idea. The conspiracy must be huge. Even the junior grade teacher seems to be in on it.

How does it work? Do the buses go round collecting all the teachers on a Friday night, and take them off for New World Order indoctrination sessions where the sinister plans for manipulating everyone else are revealed to them?

Who does the catering? “Twelve thousand cheese rolls, six thousand classic, six thousand lite, a hundred boxes of eye in the pyramid paper napkins? Sign here please…”

It isn’t very plausible, yet the impression remains. I think popular culture has a better sense of the kind of thing that happens at times of high background stress. The junior grade teacher, along with various other people, has gone weird - and the people who have gone weird are in spooky agreement with each other!

Of course I’m not suggesting that the education industry has been infiltrated by pod people, but I am saying that it forms a closely connected social group which can run up very high levels of purely socially generated stress, so stress addiction can reach binge levels, and everyone involved will experience the same cognitive impairments. There is hostility towards those with mismatching stress levels, and a certain self-satisfied complacency that is also seen in people who have produced the same changes in brain chemistry using addictive drugs. So the junior grade teacher will exhibit a patronizing and smug malice towards those not sharing her crazy ideas.

What are her crazy ideas and where do they come from? In the posting Response to a Reddit Comment I expand on some of the logical effects of not being used to seeing self consistency. People stop expecting it, looking for it, or reasoning from it. Without being able to construct and validate their own chains of reasoning, it’s hardly surprising that they fall back on heuristics, and concentrate on demonstrating compliance as their principle tactic of blame avoidance. They become reactive, and live in constant fear of random misery coming their way. This is how background stress becomes a vicious circle, and giving people good reason to be self-confident becomes a virtuous one.

Consider the supply chain for the reading primer. The authors are probably ex teachers, or in some way connected with the education industry. That’s how they differentiated themselves to the publishers, who will be proud of their “close contacts” with the bureaucracy which will include the purchasing committee. In common with many other industries, the people involved will sometimes change employers, but stay within the same group. Teachers will become authors, committee members will go to work for the publishers, perhaps the publisher’s chief executive will chair the bureaucracy. They will all complain of how stressed they are and express pride in their “knowledge of the industry”, but not notice that they raise the stress amongst themselves with their industry practices or put two and two together. (Those that do become disillusioned and leave.)

So everyone from author to teacher has the same stress addiction warped crazy ideas, and it’s not surprising that the reading primer they deliver to children with great pride reflects those crazy ideas. Demands are random, cruel and impossible. Nothing has narrative continuity, causality disappears. Safety is in the herd, trying anything will lead to danger and worse - group mockery. From their point of view, the reading primer is a collection of worthy tales, perhaps with a vague memory of The Gashlycrumb Tinies mixed in without humour or taste.

The most powerful line in the article for me was:

I wonder if it is a good thing to pressure children to respond to stupid or unanswerable questions. Such a process would lead to passivity and a loss of confidence, to a little engine that couldn’t.

How often have I seen the “Oh just put something and get on” mentality, seen it make a shallow pretence - even mockery - of whatever simple task supposedly intelligent people have been trying to do! Humans need causality - reason - to stay sane. We are not healthy if we spend all our time in focussed attention, unable to establish context or weigh significance. Saint Bob saw this when in response to Brenda Ann Spencer’s trend setting school massacre he wrote,

And he can see no reasons
Cos there are no reasons
What reasons do you need to be shown?

There is no-one stroking a white cat. No conspiracy to damage children. The reading primer just reflects the frightened and frightening, sorry state of the people who produced it, and that state of mind has the property that it will drag other minds down to its own level if they are exposed to it for too long. But its effects are far deeper and far worse than any fiendish plan could conceive. Until we recognize and address it, this stupid socially generated disease will be in control.

It’s a state of mind that destroys firms and causes nations to stagnate as well as producing spontaneous explosions of nihilistic behaviour in schoolchildren.

Full Disclosure

I am prejudiced against claims of the world-girdling power of white cats. Twirip of the Mists has received immense investment as I try to build up “special static electricity”, but despite developing a very encouraging Gremlin impersonation she has not yet attracted a mononomative1 girlfriend, yet alone phalanxes of boiler-suited minions.

1: Having only one name.

All Postings, Logical Effects, ADHD, Stress Addiction

Some Challenging Animal Models

There are some animal models which are interesting, but I left them out of the static Introduction pages. I’m sure you’ll see why. This is just between us humans OK? Don’t let the monkeys see it, and certainly not the cats.

The paper The development and significance of abnormal stereotyped behaviours in tethered sows by G. M. Cronin is a massively cited classic that opened up lots of new research. Cronin describes how sows tethered in battery farming units start to perform abnormal, repetitive pacing and twitching behaviours.

It’s the stress. By performing these behaviours over and over again the sows raise a stress response - their endorphins in this case. The self-generated drug numbs them to the misery of their welfare status. I leave you to make your own comparisons with the whole social stereotypies, background stress, addiction, cognitive distortion thing.

The second animal model is a bit of a sanity check. Focussed attention is the common denominator in this culture, in language and custom. Strictly in its own terms, it’s hard to argue against it. Here’s Dr. Russell Barkley, an ADHD expert and a big fan of focussed attention, taken from his Fact Sheet:

Poor sustained attention or persistence of effort to tasks. This problem often arises when the individual is assigned boring, tedious, protracted, or repetitive activities that lack intrinsic appeal to the person. They often fail to show the same level of persistence, “stick-to-it-tiveness,” motivation, and will-power of others their age when uninteresting yet important tasks must be performed. They often report becoming easily bored with such tasks and consequently shift from one uncompleted activity to another without completing these activities. Loss of concentration during tedious, boring, or protracted tasks is commonplace, as is an inability to return to their task on which they were working should they be unexpectedly interrupted. Thus, they are easily distracted during periods when concentration is important to the task at hand. They may also have problems with completing routine assignments without direct supervision, being unable to stay on task during independent work.

This sounds kind of reasonable, especially if you’re only talking about the kind of Cog. Psych. tests that look at focussed attention, but what’s missing here? For a sanity check, there was a behavioural psychologist called Verhave, who trained pidgeons to do quality control work in a pharmacuticals factory. Pills can adopt many positions and orientations on a conveyor belt, so automating the detection of imperfect ones would be tricky today and certainly wasn’t possible in the 1960s. Humans are up to the job cognitively, but it’s so utterly boring their performance drops off pretty soon.

Pidgeons have no such impairment of their faculty of focussed attention, and can outperform a human any time on the single dimension of performance used by Dr. Barkley. The astonishing details of Verhave’s work are contained in Behavior Analysis and Learning by W. David Pierce and Carl D. Cheney. It’s a Google book so you can just click the link. There’s a drawing of the apparatus and everything. The humans only kept their jobs because the pidgeons’ droppings were a bit of a problem in a pill factory. It cannot be an advance to optimize ourselves such that it’s our toilet training that gives us the edge over the birds. We can do space stations.

The third animal model is the famous chimps beating the university students at spotting numbers:

This strikes me as very similar to the Embedded Figures Test, a kind of low level probe of highly parallelized operation, allowing the chimp to do it in one go, without sequentially searching for each form in sequence. (I’m hoping the chimps are just looking for forms they’ve been trained are sequential. Don’t tell me they can really count too?)

Also notice the way the chimp is moving - much more slowly and deliberately than the stabby movements of the human. This fits with the idea that the unstressed chimp has enough working memory to see the kata while the human must operate sequentially and then tries to work quickly.

It would be interesting to see if people who profess volitional control of their cognitive states can do any better than the chimp. Perhaps I should write an applet that uses a mouse. We can calibrate on university students (who are known to be rubbish at this) and then see if various subjects can do better or worse.

A tenner on His Holiness! H. Sapiens Represent!

Neuroscience, All Postings, ADHD, Stress Addiction