Executive Functions Model Part 2 – Development

In the Part 1, we looked at the origins of the executive functions as a concept. We saw how the idea was born from the desire to investigate and understand the differences between a person’s behavior before they had suffered a brain-damaging accident and after the brain-damaging accident.

Now we want to know how this model has developed and what is included in it. That’s the subject of this post.

Over the years, many researchers in the field of psychology (neuropsychology) have been investigating and developing this concept of ‘Executive Functions’ and have proposed many different models. Today, many measures of executive functioning still exist, but there is no single standard Executive Functions Model. When any model is referenced, it is usually a particular variation of a particular individual or group’s work in context with the specific discipline of the researcher(s).

Thomas Brown is one such researcher and is said to have developed a model from over 25 years of clinical interviews and research with children, adolescents and adults who have ADD/ADHD.

Brown identifies six clusters of cognitive functions that constitute a way of conceptualizing executive functions.

Cluster 1) Activation: Organizing, Prioritizing and Getting Started on Tasks
A student with deficits in this area of executive functioning has difficulty getting school materials organized, distinguishing between relevant and non-relevant information, anticipating and planning for future events, estimating the time needed to complete tasks, and struggles to simply get started on a task.

Cluster 2) Focus: Focusing, Maintaining and Shifting Attention
A student who is easily distracted misses important information provided in class. He is distracted not only by things around him in the classroom but also by his own thoughts. He has difficulty shifting attention when necessary and can get stuck on a thought, persevering only on that topic.

Cluster 3) Effort: Regulating Alertness, Sustaining Effort, Processing Speed
A student who has a hard time regulating alertness may become drowsy when he has to sit still and be quiet in order to listen to a lecture or read material that isn’t very interesting and stimulating. It is not that he is overtired, rather he simply can’t sustain his alertness unless he is actively engaged. In addition, the speed at which a student takes in and understands information can affect school performance. Some students with ADHD process information very slowly, while others may have trouble slowing down enough to process information accurately.

Cluster 4) Emotion: Managing Frustrations and Regulating Emotions
A student with impairments in this area of executive functioning may have a very low tolerance for frustration and be extremely sensitive to criticism. Difficult emotions can quickly become overwhelming and emotional reactions may be very intense.

Cluster 5) Memory: Using Working Memory and Accessing Recall
Working memory is a “temporary storage system” in the brain that holds several facts or thoughts in mind while solving a problem or performing a task. Working memory helps an individual hold information long enough to use it in the short term, focus on a task and remember what to do next. If a student has impairments in working memory, he may have trouble remembering and following teacher directions, memorizing and recalling math facts or spelling words, computing problems in his head or retrieving information from memory when he needs it.

Cluster 6) Action: Monitoring and Self-Regulating Action
Individuals with this impairment often seem to have deficits in the ability to regulate their behavior, which can significantly impede social relationships. If a student has difficulty inhibiting behavior he may react impulsively without thought to the context of the situation, or he may over-focus on the reactions of others by becoming too inhibited and withdrawn in interactions.

Sources here and here.

As things stand, it appears that few have noticed that the Executive Functions model tends to focus on post base-line variation in human response to environmental stimulation while ignoring important differences in how such stimulation may initially be experienced by the individual.

We’ll look at this model more closely and reveal a possible distortion or two in the next post. 🙂

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Executive Functions Model Part 1 – Beginnings

Executive Functions of the Frontal Lobes: A New Perspective on an Old Story

On September 13, 1848, an apparently responsible, capable, and virile 25-year-old foreman of a railroad construction crew, named Phineas Gage, accidentally dropped a 131/4-pound iron tamping rod on a dynamite charge. The resulting explosion drove the rod through the left side of his face and out the top of the frontal portion of his cranium.

Seventy-four days after the accident, Phineas was able to return to his home 30 miles away. But there were discernible differences in Phineas’s behavior, not related to his health, general intelligence, or memory.

Physician J. M. Harlow (1868) was Phineas’s attending physician. Harlow wrote about the changes in behavior that happened after the patient’s accident. Clearly, Harlow was associating Phineas’s most important change to the loss of his once shrewd business acumen and his former ability in “executing all of his plans of operation.”

Harlow’s description may have been the first in the written psychological literature for the frontal lobe metaphor: that the frontal lobes serve as a kind of executive that makes decisions, forms goals, devises strategies for attaining these goals, plans, organizes, and changes and devises new strategies when initial plans fail.

Subsequently, this executive functions model has been developed by a scientific discipline known as neuropsychology. This field provides explanations for brain and behavior relationships based on studies of brain-damaged patients, clinical populations with suspected brain dysfunction, and healthy people.

Tests and measurements on the latter group (healthy people) help to define what normal or average functioning is so that behavior that deviates from standard functioning can be better defined. Neuropsychology is also broadly concerned with how the brain and its parts function and in identifying the symptoms of dysfunction.

One of the most prominent neuropsychologists of modern times was Russian Alexander Luria (1966), who wrote extensively about these executive functions of the frontal lobes.

Luria noted that patients with frontal lobe damage frequently had their speech, motor abilities, and sensations intact, yet their complex psychological activities were tremendously impaired. He observed that they were often unable to carry out complex, purposive, and goal-directed actions. Furthermore, he found that they could not accurately evaluate the success or failure of their behaviors, especially in terms of using the information to change their future behavior. Luria found that these patients were unconcerned with their failures, and were hesitant, indecisive, and indifferent to the loss of their critical awareness of their own behaviors.

Lezak (1982), a contemporary American neuropsychologist, wrote that the executive functions of the frontal lobes were:

…the heart of all socially useful, personally enhancing, constructive, and creative abilities. Impairment or loss of these functions compromises a person’s capacity to maintain an independent, constructively self-serving, and socially productive life no matter how well he can see and hear, walk and talk, and perform tests. (p. 281)

Welsh and Pennington (1988) defined executive functions in a neuropsychological perspective as the ability to maintain an appropriate problem-solving set for the attainment of a future goal. Pennington and Ozonoff (1996) view the domain of executive functions as distinct from cognitive domains such as sensation, perception, language, working memory, and long-term memory. Also, they see it as overlapping with such domains as attention, reasoning, and problem-solving “but not perfectly.” (p. 54). They also add interference control, inhibition, and integration across space and time as other aspects of executive function.

Their central view of executive function is a: context-specific action selection, especially in the face of strongly competing, but context-inappropriate, responses. Another central idea is maximal constraint satisfaction in action selection, which requires the integration of constraints from a variety of other domains, such as perception, memory, affect, and motivation. Hence, much complex behavior requires executive function, especially much human social behavior. (p. 54)

The rise of Homo sapiens: the evolution of modern thinking, By Frederick Lawrence Coolidge, Thomas Wynn, pg. 4 “Introduction“, 2009, Wiley-Blackwell. Here’s a 6 page pdf of the complete Introduction.

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So, this seems to be how the idea of the executive functions of the frontal lobes originated. In the next post, we’ll detail exactly what these functions are supposed to be as they were laid out earlier this century.

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Intuition vs Ritalin


In a previous post on the missing faculties, I pointed out that the inductive faculty is the one that goes missing under the influence of drugs and dopamine self-addiction. The question is not ‘is there an inductive faculty?’ because those who have it, use it, and know that they use it – even if they don’t know what it is!

In the pic above, the youtube commenter promoting the use of Adderall XR asks:

“You know how [you] don’t think in words? Adderall makes you think in full sentences, with concepts depending on your mood. It calms you down more, so it’s A LOT easier to do things like this.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with “thinking in words”, but if this is supposed to be a substitute for NOT thinking in words there IS a BIG problem.

Like dopamine self-addiction, the drugs work by turning off the portion of the mind that CAN think holistically, without words, leaving you with only the awareness that does the linear, deductive type stuff. But we need both. We need the inductive faculty to make sense of the layered patterns that fill the universe. It is essential if we are going to advance science, produce art, program computers or manage businesses. Original stuff always comes from inductive thinking. The work of the minority who actually do this is what provides the new stuff that everyone else works through with their strictly deductive kind of consciousness.

Even Gödel’s famous theorem proves that there are some truths that can be expressed deductively, but cannot be arrived at deductively – they’re arrived at with the inductive faculty – intuitively!

To demonstrate this missing kind of thinking, let’s use an example from Alan Carter’s Third Age of the World; where the kind of hidden rules that can’t be found by deductive reasoning can make all the difference. Imagine we have a city built on five islands connected by bridges like this:

The question is, can the people of the city take a stroll which crosses all the bridges (for maximum variety), but doesn’t cross any of them more than once (since that would be boring)?

One way to find out would be to use a pencil and several pieces of paper, and try lots of routes. After a while we’d probably come to the conclusion that it probably can’t be done, but we wouldn’t know for sure. We might make an exhaustive list of all possible walks, by starting on each island in turn and crossing each bridge in turn, then crossing each bridge we then have available in turn, and so on. By testing every possible route we could become more confident about our answer, but we still wouldn’t know for sure. What if we’d somehow missed a route, or made a mistake when checking one? What’s worse, if the city went and got itself another bridge, we’d have to go through the whole business all over again!

To get this puzzle under control, we need to step into the secret world of walks and bridges. 🙂 The key to it is the Zen like simplicity of the fact that every walk has a beginning and an end. Take another look at the map of the five islands. The island in the middle has four bridges connected to it. The walk could take the people over the middle island twice (which would account for two bridges both times), or over the middle island once (which would account for two bridges) so long as it also started on the middle island (which would account for one bridge) and ended on the middle island (which would also account for one bridge). It doesn’t matter which bridges are which, we just need to count bridges.

Now look at the other islands. They’ve all got three bridges connected to them. When we look at each island, we can account for two of the bridges by crossing over it, but the third bridge can only be accounted for by either starting or ending the walk on the island. If fact, because we can always account for an even number of bridges by crossing over the island, we can see that any island that has an odd number of bridges connected to it must be the start or the end of the walk. Since the walk can only have one start and one end, we can only do the walk if there are no more than two islands with an odd number of bridges connected to them. And the city has four islands with an odd number of bridges. That’s four ends, so it must take at least two walks. We can be absolutely certain that we can’t do the walk as the people want to do it! What’s more, a moment’s thought will tell us if the walk is possible when the city development program adds more bridges. Look at this proposal for a new bridge:

As soon as we look at this new plan, we can see that we have only two islands that have an odd number of bridges connected to them, so the morning walk is possible and what’s more we can see that it must start and end on the two islands shown at the bottom of the map. It’s ridiculously easy! Now look at this proposal:

Equally quickly we see that now there are four islands with an odd number of bridges connected to them, so the walk is not possible.

This little story is a true one. The city was Koenigsberg and the people of the Koenigsberg got so worked up about the puzzle of the walk that lots of them took to spending their Sundays walking round and round, trying to find the route that would let them cross all the bridges, once and only once. Eventually the problem was solved by Leonard Euler, one of the greatest mathematicians in history. The physical layout of Koenigsberg at the time looked like this:

All we need to do the apply Euler’s insight is to squeeze the two stretches of land at the top and bottom of the picture together, and draw the bridges as we’ve been drawing them up until now. How many islands are there with an odd number of bridges connected to them?

It’s the proceduralized kind of thinking – applying Euler’s insight – which our culture can cope with, and it’s the creative kind of thinking – which Euler did to solve the problem – which most cultures don’t recognize, understand or use.

Can this really be true? Can it really be that in most cultures, most people don’t use the most powerful part of their minds at all?

It seems like a bizarre idea, because we live in a culture which only acknowledges the part of consciousness that everyone uses. Because of this, there is very little in people’s day to day lives that points out to them that they are missing something.

Even so, once we have the idea that something odd is going on, it’s easy to find plenty of evidence that the whole culture really is oblivious to the most important stuff. We can only learn to see around the limited prejudices and assumptions that we have picked up from the culture around us since childhood if we understand the limitations.

Language offers a huge clue. Native American languages have evolved to enable their speakers to discuss the complex of relationships that are visible to inductive thinkers. The languages are process and action based and put their emphasis on verbs, while most languages have evolved for use by people who operate by sorting kickable objects into categories, are static and object based and put their emphasis on nouns.

Even within English, we find that mathematicians are aware of the two kinds of thinking, and use the words “deductive” and “inductive”. This awareness is in a rather specialized corner of the language though, and doesn’t usually penetrate to people’s day to day language. When mathematicians use the word “deductive”, they are usually talking about problems that computers can do really easily, of the kind:

A man goes to the shop with $10. He spends $7.50 on shopping, and puts $1.00 in a charity box. How much does he leave the shop with?

On the other hand, when they use the word “inductive”, they are talking about problems that computers can’t do easily, and can’t do with certainty at all, of the kind:

What is the missing number in this sequence?
2, 4, 6, ?, 10

The word “deductive” is not normally applied to people who work in call centers, having completely scripted conversations on the phone all day, but as they follow the little arrows on the scripts they are engaging in the kind of operation that a computer can do really easily. The word “inductive” is not normally applied to people who see that they can use modern computers and switchboards to sell motor insurance directly to the public, reducing costs to their customers and also make a profit, but as they do this kind of noticing they are doing something that a computer cannot do.

In their specialized field, mathematicians know that there are two distinct kinds of thinking, but this awareness is not common in society at large.

In most situations, deductive thinking is just called “thinking”, and inductive thinking is called “intuition” (when it is called anything at all). Intuition is supposed to be a vague thing, that many people don’t even believe exists at all, and certainly isn’t recognized as central to getting anything useful done at all.

In English, there isn’t any word for deliberately setting out to find an insight, even though no competent manager, poet or programmer can do their work without performing this crucial stage!

It’s because of this that many people think that mathematicians and scientists spend their lives grinding out deductive thinking, with lots of “therefores” in it, and live sterile and boring lives. At the same time, many people think that artists operate in a completely disorganized way, with no discipline or skill at all to what they do, and reject regimentation because they are “rebels”.

We often see value judgements that describe people who live in a robotic, reactive way, repeating the same behaviors over and over again as having “good” habits, while people who simply do not do this are “rebels” or “non-conformists”, irrespective of whatever it is they do in a non-robotic way.

It’s not what people actually do that makes them “good” or “rebels” in most cultures – it’s simply whether they do it in a robotic, deductively based kind of a way or not.

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Fifty Great Things About ADD

Hi all! In a previous post, I spelled out all the important stuff in the DSM that concerns AD/HD. At the end of the post I suggested that there were a few misconceptions in that listing. I’d like to cover those now.

A Review:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
These criteria appear in a diagnostic reference book called the DSM (short for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

According to the diagnostic manual, there are three patterns of behavior that indicate ADHD. People with ADHD may show several signs of being consistently inattentive. They may have a pattern of being hyperactive and impulsive. Or they may show all three types of behavior.

According to the DSM, signs of inattention include:

* becoming easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds
* failing to pay attention to details and making careless mistakes
* rarely following instructions carefully and completely
* losing or forgetting things like toys, or pencils, books, and tools needed for a task

Some signs of hyperactivity and impulsivity are:

* feeling restless, often fidgeting with hands or feet, or squirming
* running, climbing, or leaving a seat, in situations where sitting or quiet behavior is expected
* blurting out answers before hearing the whole question
* having difficulty waiting in line or for a turn

Because everyone shows some of these behaviors at times, the DSM contains very specific guidelines for determining when they indicate ADHD. The behaviors must appear early in life, before age 7, and continue for at least 6 months. In children, they must be more frequent or severe than in others the same age. Above all, the behaviors must create a real handicap in at least two areas of a person’s life, such as school, home, work, or social settings. So someone whose work or friendships are not impaired by these behaviors would not be diagnosed with ADHD. Nor would a child who seems overly active at school but functions well elsewhere.
End of Review
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Apart from a few lucky ones who meet inspiring teachers in their younger years, most people who retain their ability to think inductively because they’re not stuck in the dopamine-addiction deductivist trap tell horror stories about their school years.

For these people, school is usually just a few years of misery that they endure before being able to get on with life and achieve success in their own terms. In recent years has it become fashionable in some schools to characterize these people as mentally handicapped, with an affliction called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is sometimes just called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

To show that we really are talking about people who have access to their full faculties and are able to cope with the universe as it really is, we can look at a short piece written by a person who has often been told that he suffers from this terrible affliction, but who has retained his self esteem, and enjoys being himself. This piece by Bob Seay is taken from Additude Magazine, visible on the Internet at http://www.additudemag.com, and describes the ways he knows he is unusual:

Fifty (or so) Great Things About ADD
50 (or so) Great Things About ADD

Now about those misconceptions… 🙂

Seay does not have any problem keeping his mind on any one thing, as he himself states. The difference is that he keeps his mind very focused on things that interest him, and he gets bored by boring things. (Deductivists explain this ability of healthy people to focus much more than they can by nouning it as “hyperfocus”, and then saying that hyperfocus is a symptom of inattentiveness!)

Healthy humans focus on things that interest them with great drive and enthusiasm. People trapped in robotic behavior will plod on at anything they are told to with exactly the same disinterested lack of enthusiasm in every case. Describing the intense concentration that is required to do creative work as “effortless and automatic” also seems very odd until we realize that people trapped in robotic behavior never have experience of doing creative work.

Since this part of their own minds is asleep, they assume that this kind of work is not done by the mind! In the same way, people who can’t see structure can only learn by slowly and painfully rote memorizing unconnected facts. They don’t perceive a big picture that all the little facts just fit into. So they sit in lectures frantically taking notes, they revise, they cram. People who see the big picture don’t need to do any of this stuff, but the robotic people are so convinced that the painful and shallow way is the only way to learn that they carry on claiming healthy people are incapable of learning even after they turn in straight A exam results! *ahem*

There are also a lot of problems concerned with social behavior. Robotic people think of social relationships as being about going through the motions of scripted exchanges and so “fitting in”.

What they’re actually doing is boring each other, and doing this seems obviously right because everyone involved is maintaining their boredom addiction.

Healthy people think that conversations are about exchanging data about reality so that everyone can enjoy seeing new things. So they often draw attention to issues that the robotic people want to pretend don’t exist! This is what is meant by “inappropriate” comments.

In the same way, robotic people value the singsong exchanges between teacher and pupil more than the information content. Healthy people think that the purpose of asking questions is to obtain the answer. Note that there is no suggestion in the DSM criteria that the “inappropriate” comments are untrue, or that the “blurted” answers are incorrect. It’s a matter of different objectives. One group is interested in what is happening in reality, and the other group is interested in boring, scripted social exchanges.

It’s important to remember that from the point of view of healthy people, the most interesting parts of the world are simply missing from the robotic people’s agenda. This leads them to feel a great sense of sterility, boredom and loneliness. They also feel that they are always being whined at over trivialities. For example, Thomas Edison didn’t need to write “Invent the lightbulb” on a piece of paper to remember that he wanted to do this. His drive and determination to solve the problem led to him trying thousands of experiments before he found a suitable material for the filament.

Healthy people only become involved with things that they feel passionate about in this way, because there’s no time for anything else. Because robotic people don’t ever have this experience of passion, their lives only contain matters that healthy people consider trivial. On one famous occasion Albert Einstein and a colleague were crossing a street in Princeton when his colleague made a chance comment. Einstein was so struck by the profound implications of the comment that he stopped walking in the middle of the street. Unfortunately modern teachers and health professionals would discount Einstein’s visionary contributions to human knowledge, and explain that he was a mentally handicapped person who was incapable of remembering that he had to walk to the other side of the street.

Deductivist fixation traps its victims in a seemingly self-consistent picture where nothing is missing. The less aware a person becomes, the more they become convinced that their understanding is total and perfect. No matter how silly the things they say, they’ll always find something sillier to confirm it.

It’s an attitude that can’t be reasoned with from the outside, and in which people can do very dangerous and damaging things. If he was subjected to this kind of nonsense for enough years, Einstein might become very upset indeed. In the same way, many healthy young people are subjected to constant trivial nagging and insults, by people who (although they don’t realize it themselves) are driven to dislike the healthy people because they don’t participate in the mutual maintenance of boredom addiction.

No matter how hard they try to reason with their detractors, the healthy people can never succeed. At the same time, the way that robotic people always feel the need to be rushing from one scripted series of physical actions to another prevents healthy people from getting the quiet quality time that is needed to assimilate and contemplate their experiences. So it’s no wonder that many healthy young people are in a state of emotional distress at the present time.

The fashion amongst some people trapped in deductive thinking for describing healthy, creative children as mentally handicapped has caused a great deal of suffering. Yet as so often happens in this universe that is crammed full of patterns, a very valuable benefit has come along with the suffering. The error has led to lots of research being done to determine how so-called ADHD people differ from the majority, and this research has succeeded in finding a specific difference. So long as we remember that the difference doesn’t cause a mental handicap at all, but instead provides immunity to sinking into the listless, robotic state that everyone else is vulnerable to, we have in this research a treasure that the magicians have been seeking for millenia.

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Doko ni datte, hito wa tsunagatte iru.
No matter where we are, we are all connected.
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The Dyadic Flip Logical Inversion – Intro

For all practical purposes, there is a profound logic error at the base of our thinking. It’s called by several different names, but what’s more important is the description of how it can corrupt our thinking.

An acquaintance of mine explains it most succinctly:

It’s the illusion that something can exist without context.
For example, I can say “picture a house”, and most people are of the illusion that they can picture a house and nothing else.  In reality, however, a house never exists without a field, a lot, or a garden, or a street, or all sorts of other physical context – not to mention all the emotional, socio-economic, psychological, and other contexts that can exist for a specific house.

It’s that act of eliminating context that creates the logical inversion – in the terms we put it, it’s erasing everything else and leaving only the thing to be considered when in reality the thing has to be considered in terms of everything else.  It’s the old “joke” about software development, where the first question you ask in response to “Can you make a system that does ‘x’?” is “What is it, explicitly, that you want to do?”  Function ‘x’ without context – without knowing how it fits into a larger process – is mostly meaningless.

One can probably get more esoteric with the idea, delving off into more abstract meanings, but that’s the base of it.

It’s not so much that this null-context thinking space is ‘bad’ or non-useful, but for people who are stuck in reciprocal feedback loops of dopamine addiction – due to their own boring, ritualistic, robotic behaviors or from the effects of drugs taken in from the outside, this is about the only awareness they have. And their thinking mostly involves pushing symbols around on their whiteboards to “work something out” because that’s what it’s for – it’s the “deductive” mind.

Here is my explanation of this base:

The Conventional Perception

Teachers and infant/toddler television programs can be observed teaching very young children how to mentally “pack boxes” instead of doing true mentation. In my opinion, when this process is completed, children and young adults have been disconnected from reality as a whole and are only capable of linear, story-telling thinking.

Rather than having developed their natural ability and tendency to perceive relationships, spot patterns, think holistically and contextually – to experience whole ‘chunks’ of reality in one go – and achieve understanding, they develop a mentality to match the physical behavior of packing items in a box, closing its lid and sending it on down the assembly line.

Children Start Life Plugged Into Reality

Most young children can be observed starting life with the cognitive capabilities possible for “systems thinkers”. They are experiencing their surrounding environmental context as a whole and if there are patterns in the motions, spatial distributions, superficialities or other goings on, they are easily spotted. Their minds are ‘hooked on reality’.

But children are unwittingly taught to disconnect from that state and to do thinking a different way – a way more analogous to box packing.

Pulling The Plug

To fully understand how this works, it might be important to mention that, although this explanation presents a linear argument, the ‘doing’ that is being discussed is not a linear action. What we are really describing is one simple habit that is instilled into children which has a number of equivalent expressions of consequences. The habit can be called “narratization” and there are two simultaneous components to this action, which can be called “categorization” and “abstraction”.

Teacher holds up a picture, and says, “What’s this?”. The children must categorize the depicted item. It stops being an object in its own right, and becomes an instance of a class of objects. Any particular feature of the particular object is instantly lost, and any property of the class that the child has not rote memorized is similarly lost. The children are taught that as soon as categorization has been accomplished, any associated action should immediately fire – like yelling out “it’s a house!”.

Abstraction then involves taking the object out of its context. Looking at the picture and noticing the building structure, bushes, plants and trees and anything else in the surrounding field, the child ‘gets’ that all detail and uniqueness must ‘go’ because it’s not relevant to the ‘correct’ answer that is wanted.

If the child says “It is a field”, or “It is a field with a house in it”, that will be called “wrong”. Only if the child takes the object (house) that is in a context (field), and denies (mentally edits out) the existence of the context – “It is a house”, will the child be “correct”, the teacher won’t make disapproving noises and the child’s peers will not be manipulated by teacher using social pressure and social approval techniques to perform contempt/threat displays.

Creating Reality vs Understanding Reality

To respond to the pressure to perceive in a way that gives the correct answer, the child must turn some attention inward to create a space where this, or any other object, can be ‘seen’ with his ‘mind’s eye’. Since Nature provides no such space, the child has to create it himself. This is the “covert mind space” that Russell Barkley describes as one of the executive functions of the frontal lobes. The child must create some kind of null-context space by ‘clearing’ an area inside his mind where he can ‘put things’ and to pull whatever he wants to think about into this space with him. Let’s call it a “whiteboard”.

Some object is then moved into this “internal whiteboard” before any other mentation (however limited) proceeds. The object has itself been stripped of its richness, and with the movement onto the internal whiteboard, all of the relationships that the object has with other objects are also lost. Only those relationships belonging to the ‘class’ or which are explicitly rote memorized and themselves represented on the internal whiteboard exist. All other possible relationships do not exist.

In other words, to give the correct answer “house”, the entire picture must be stripped of all context (including the rust on the gutters due to rain overflow dripping from a poorly designed bend in the metal, and the rabbit hiding in the big bush next to the structure), leaving only that which is common to all examples of this ‘class’ of items.

When the child categorizes and abstracts the object (as a generic ‘house’), he fires off “it’s a house!” (silently or out loud) and then files it away somewhere. He has packed the related perceptual phenomena into a box and sent it on down the line.

Should he want to recall the memory of this particular experience, it is extremely unlikely that he will remember any details of the context, because for purposes of giving the right answer and avoiding trouble, there wasn’t supposed to be any.

As an aside, one consequence of this is the development of poorly designed multiple choice exams, which sane children must always score badly on because all the choices are most likely valid but only one is “correct”.

The Internal Dialog or… Unnatural Symmetry?

What is important about this internal ‘whiteboard’ is that we are conditioned to fixate some of our attention here. To narrate our reality. This becomes where we continually narrate our conventional understanding of the way things are, as taught to us by others. It is also important to know that even if our transcription of all our perceptions into this space is faithful to the actual reality, we still experience the worse effect of it. That is, since we have fixed the focal point of our awareness here, we perceive ourselves and everything else from the point of view of this mind’s eye – our analog version of self within this null-context space. Functioning from this  place,  we become capable of little more than narrow-focused understandings of knowledge packets based on a fundamental illusion: there is me and there is the universe and that makes two things.

Consequences?

One subconscious consequence of this is to be isolated from an actual experience of ourselves, others and everything else as an integral part of the world and universe around us. To perceive ourselves as separate from, and in opposition to, everything and everyone.

I believe “Freudian alienation” was an attempt to describe this phenomenon, but I reckon Freudian alienation comes from the real isolation – the disconnect from reality, others and our feeling center, or  inductive awareness.

As previously mentioned, this ‘dyadic flip’ is a deep logical error at the base of thinking. As a base, the narcissistic traits we are all so familiar with, especially in the corporate world, seem to find it quite sufficient as a foundation to build on. That might be a subject for a separate post. 🙂

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Doko ni datte, hito wa tsunagatte iru.
No matter where we are, we are all connected.
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Dopamine Addiction & The Chemistry of Boredom

Preface

Armed with the knowledge of dopamine self-addiction and the deep logical error elsewhere referred to as the ‘dyadic flip’, we can look again at the related neuroscience. The knowledge of dopamine gene differences in the population at large having been uncovered, the picture that emerges strongly correlates with what the ancient mystics have been trying to tell us about the “lowered awareness” or “heaviness” state all along.

The great discovery in brain chemistry that explains the human vulnerability to falling into an unhealthy spiral of diminishing awareness, robotic behavior and deductive-only thinking (also called linear-only thinking) was made by Professor Russell Barkley of the University of Massachusetts.

Because he is evidently trapped in linear-only thinking he sees his own work exactly the other way round, and believes he has found the difference that handicaps people so that they are unable to be robotic. If we want to understand Barkley’s contribution from the mystics’ point of view (or even from the ‘difference’ point of view), we have to separate his chemical discovery from the reasoning he has built on it, because his reasoning is focused on using the difference to explain a mental handicap that doesn’t really exist.

Barkley has discovered that people who are liable to be diagnosed as having ADHD (that is, people who are non-robotic and picked on by teachers) all have much lower levels of a brain chemical called dopamine than robotic people have.

He has also discovered that non-robotic people have one of two genetic differences, compared to the majority of people. Non-robotic people with the first difference are able to remove excess dopamine from their brains much more quickly than most people.

Non-robotic people with the second difference have a particular dopamine receptor that is the wrong shape, and doesn’t bind to dopamine at all.

Like adrenaline, dopamine is an important chemical in our bodies. It’s used to stop motor nerves firing after the brain stops telling them to move the muscle they are responsible for. Without dopamine, the brain fires a nerve to make a muscle move, and when the brain stops the nerve keeps firing for a while, so the muscle keeps moving even when the person doesn’t want it to.

In Parkinson’s Disease, people lose the ability to make dopamine at all, with the result that their muscles don’t stop moving when they should. It’s when the person uses the opposing muscle to try to correct the extra movement, and that movement doesn’t stop when it should either, that the person finds themselves with two muscles pulling against each other, and the shaking characteristic of Parkinson’s starts to happen.

So in most situations, dopamine is understood to be a neuro-inhibitor. It’s presence stops nerve cells from firing, like pouring water on a fire.

There are lots of situations in our bodies where one part of our body (and that includes our brains and every other part of our nervous system) wants to signal to another part. In modern computers, signals like that are usually carried by electrical signals moving along wires. In our living bodies, signals are usually carried by chemicals that are released by the sender and detected by the receiver.

There are many kinds of cells that have receptors on them, that are good for detecting different kinds of chemicals and so receiving chemical signals. Receptors work by having a shape that is just right for the chemical they detect to fit them, and chemically bind. When the receptor binds to the chemical it detects, the cell has detected the chemical. So that the signal can be sent again when it is needed, chemical signalling systems also need the ability to remove signal chemicals after they have been used, and make the system ready to detect the chemical again.

Because Barkley has discovered that robotic people have high dopamine and a particular group of dopamine receptors (called the DRD4 dopamine receptors) that correctly fit dopamine, he has concluded that in order to be robotic (which he thinks is healthy), people need to be constantly receiving a dopamine chemical message from themselves, like this:

Some people are not able to receive the dopamine message from themselves, because their DRD4 receptors can’t bind dopamine. Because of this, Barkley thinks they are not able to be robotic, and this makes them mentally handicapped. He has also noticed that they have low levels of dopamine in their brains, although they don’t seem to have any problems producing dopamine.

Barkley doesn’t say why he thinks the inability to receive dopamine means the non-robotic people stop producing it. So Barkley sees non-robotic people doing this:

From the mystics’ point of view, we can understand the DRD4 dopamine signal path as the physical mechanism of the off switch for the human mind. It’s Gurdjieff’s organ kundabuffer.

Following the example of adrenaline addiction, where behavior causes more message, and message causes more behavior, we can draw the diagram for people trapped in robotic behavior like this:

This full picture shows the reason why people with a non-working DRD4 receptor also produce low amounts of dopamine – it’s because they aren’t doing the boring behaviors that raise dopamine to try to turn their minds off. The same idea explains why people who clear up dopamine very quickly can stay free of boring behavior. Even if they engage in boring behaviors, not much of the dopamine they produce gets through to turn their minds off:

 

Such a person can only turn their minds off when they get so bored that they produce huge amounts of dopamine, and enough gets through to turn their minds off:

This way of understanding Barkley’s discoveries explains a great deal, from the mystics’ point of view. The hard core of people who can never turn off their minds because their DRD4 receptors don’t work, comprise about 3% of the population. They are the ones who get into the most trouble with the robotic people around them, and have the greatest opportunity to start to see things in the way the mystics do, because their minds are always turned on.

They are also the most vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and sterility in the world around them, and so more vulnerable to depression and emotional damage. Other studies, done by different people to Barkley, have identified exactly the same variation in the DRD4 dopamine receptor as an “alcoholism gene”, because many people who end up in trouble with alcohol or other sense numbing drugs share it.

In fact, the gene doesn’t code for alcoholism any more than it codes for mental handicap. It codes for staying awake when everyone else goes to sleep with their eyes open, and when people don’t realize what is happening, they can get very upset and turn to alcohol.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the DRD4 variation is often found in Celtic peoples, bearing in mind their excellent traditions of poetry, music, and curious non-deductive (non-linear) modes of thought. Still other studies claim that exactly the same DRD4 variation is a “novelty seeking” gene, which causes people to be very energetic and seek new experiences. Of course they are indeed novelty seeking in comparison with their boredom addicted neighbors, but that’s a relative judgement. They don’t have a gene that makes them seek novelty, instead they have a gene that stops them avoiding it, so they retain the human normal level of interest in novelty!

The way that three groups of linear-only minded scientists, working in exactly the same area, can describe a single gene as coding for mental handicap, dynamic successfulness and alcoholism, without realizing the contradictions in what they are saying, is itself a striking example of how far from sense reactive deductivism (linear-only thinking) acting alone can stray. When the inductive ability to spontaneously notice something, pause and say “Hold on a minute…” is lost, nonsense and contradictions can build without end.

The second group of people with genetic immunity to falling asleep don’t enjoy the kind of protection that people with the DRD4 variation have. This group comprise about 17% of the population.

If things get boring enough they will become robotic, but it takes much more boredom to do this than most people need. These are the people that seem to go through life changing their values and approach over and over again. During periods of full awareness they develop interests and relationships that fulfill them. Then after a period of under-stimulation they sink into robot-ism, and the activities that they previously found fulfilling seem to them to be ridiculous and lacking because they don’t provide them with enough boredom to maintain their addiction. From the outside, their awake friends see them as becoming shallow and like a herd animal.

After a while they go through a period of change, perhaps occasioned by a change in their job situation, and they snap out of it. Then they find their activities boring, and their current crop of relationships tedious and scripted. Because they always spend some of their time in a herd-like state of mind, these people learn the behaviors that only members of a herd can notice, so they don’t suffer as much unpleasantness from the majority who are permanently trapped in robot-ism, but they also go through life not understanding that it is they who are changing rather than authentically interesting lifestyles always proving wanting, and their own personal development is interrupted by periods of robot-ism so often that they rarely make much progress in the poetic direction, even though they often yearn for this.

When we add the 3% of full immunes to the 17% of partial immunes, we have 20% of the population – one person in five – who have some experience of doing inductive thinking, and the richer universe which it reveals, at some time in their lives.

This exactly matches the observation of the founding psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who was very interested in the deeper nature of human perception, and said that one person in five would have what he called some sort of “spiritual” perception during their lives. Here we see that we don’t need to imagine some spooky other dimensions or hidden connections for spiritual perception to happen. Everything that is real happens in front of our noses, here in this universe, and seeing what is there is as natural as breathing. It’s just that most people have their natural faculties for seeing what is there asleep, leading to lurid tales of bizarre visions of other dimensions and so forth.

How might the chemical off switch for the human mind operate?

According to the explanation of the ‘exploitation of feedback in cognition’ mechanism that creates the inductive loop, all the data needed for a feedback process where incoming data is mixed in with prior input is indeed available.

This kind of feedback is sometimes used in engineering, and very often by electric guitarists. As anyone who uses feedback knows (and this includes guitarists), the amount of amplification of the signal must be exactly right. Too little amplification and the signal quickly dies away to nothing. Too much and the signal quickly becomes an unmanageable howl.

For the human nervous system to exploit feedback when it detects the patterns in the data entering it, its level of excitability must be exactly right.

We know that dopamine is a neuro-inhibitor which is used by all animals to stop motor nerves firing when the animal wants to stop moving its muscles. So dopamine was available to evolution when our species faced the problem of out-waiting less intelligent animals in siege situations. Learning to raise the level of dopamine and make some cells in the brain that are sensitive to it would be a very easy way to squelch the feedback, and stop the brain being a useful medium for incoming patterns to self-detect.

This fits with the experience of people who manage to break themselves free of the robotic trap. At first they have to make a lot of effort to break themselves out of their habitual rut, without any perceived change in their own consciousness. Then all of a sudden, their humor, awareness of their situation, awareness of their own bodies, their sensuality, energy and awareness of their own options all explode, and they experience a sudden change in their state of mind.

This is not a linear effect. It’s more like a switch turning on.

If we understand this as their dopamine levels dropping to the point where the feedback loop is exactly adjusted, then we can understand why this deeper awareness turns on and off like a switch instead of being a gradual effect. On the other hand, when people get trapped in robotic behavior, after they have lost their full awareness, they can be seen gradually sinking deeper and deeper into self-absorption, complacency and inability to notice even full scale emergencies in their immediate vicinity.

If we understand this as the dopamine/behavior cycle getting worse, we can see why once full consciousness has turned off like a switch, people can reach different levels of introspective boredom addiction, with people like junior bureaucratic clerical workers being chronically unaware, and shop workers who enjoy more stimulation being more aware of their immediate physical surroundings.

To finish up this look at the underlying chemistry of true awareness, we can compare the situation of people trapped in robotic behavior with that of people trapped in cocaine addiction. We know that cocaine has its effect on the mind by stimulating dopamine production, and produces a state which looks very different from the outside (where the person seems to be quite unaware of the pressing issues in their lives) and from the inside (where the person feels completely confident and that they have complete mastery of the situation).

Experiment usually confirms that such people have lost the plot, when the repossession crew takes away their belongings. From the mystics’ point of view, the delusional state caused by massive dopamine production stimulated by cocaine is identical to the delusional state caused by massive dopamine production stimulated by very boring behaviors.

Both are equally delusional and unhealthy. On the other hand, those who see robot-ism as inherently healthy have to jump through hoops to square this one. They have to acknowledge that the cocaine addict, talking complete rubbish between chopping up lines and having his possessions taken away has lost the plot, but they also have to claim that the chronically robotized clerical worker who has the same brain chemistry and talks equal rubbish as she fails to produce adequate customer service and her employer goes bust, is inherently healthy simply because she is robotized.

The desirability of high dopamine levels and the effects they cause becomes a matter of social mores rather than the effects of chemistry. Such hoop jumping can often be seen in people who are led by boredom addiction to think they can always noun their way out of contradictions.

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The Missing Faculties


Point blank: dopamine addiction causes the suppression of a whole layer of cognitive faculties.

Allow me to elaborate:

Our universe has a property called algorithmic redundancy. What this means is that every little thing does not go off doing its own sweet thing. Instead the whole universe is arranged in patterns. Study one hydrogen atom, and you’ve studied them all. Or a brick, or a ’58 Buick. Or a tornado, which is a pattern of movement, like the DAM  bug (dopamine addiction mechanism) but restricted to a single phenomenological layer. The work of both scientists and poets lies in discovering and describing the patterns that are found in nature.

There is plenty of work for scientists and poets to do. An atom at the end of one of a young girl’s hairs moves in a great many patterns, discovered and described by particle physicists, fluid dynamists, meteorologists, Vidal Sassoon and poets, all at the same time. The universe does not contain just the patterns that people have discovered and described to date, it is absolutely stuffed full of them, and we have barely begun to understand. In any situation, there will be patterns. Peter Senge has recently documented a bunch of them that appear over and over again in different guises in the business world in “The Fifth Discipline”. There are so many of them that being able to see the patterns allows us to chunk up the universe. To handle it with ease, the lazy person’s way. It is this trick that nature has pulled off as her centerpiece of making us smart, and it is what the DAM bug stops.

What natural immunes (people who cannot get hooked on their own dopamine secretions) can do are the following kinds of activities, which all require some sort of feedback – a way of taking the output of something and feeding it back into the input.

Self Remembering

At this moment you are perhaps sitting on a train, or at a workstation, reading this paper. You are “aware” of the paper. But are you also aware of being aware of the paper? Is there a part of you that watches the rest sitting on the train or in the armchair and reading the paper (through the eyes of course, we are not talking excursions to the ceiling here), that when it wants to can control the rest? As you read this, you probably became aware of yourself in just this way. People with healthy dopamine levels always have this “monitor” going in their heads. It’s exceedingly handy because for one thing, it doesn’t get drunk anything like as easily as the rest of our minds. This is why the “hyperactive” and “dreamworld inhabiting” hacker or artist is often in fact the most in control on drinking missions. Not the necessarily the quietest – just the most in control!

The monitor is very important. When you are aware of yourself you can notice when you are making a complete mess of something. You can recognize problems more easily, because you tend to step back and insult your own work while you are doing it! And it is the monitor that is the free and independent you that really does the wanting when you want something. When it wants something it wants it in a big way, and it is something that you find truly fulfilling when you get it. It never stops looking for opportunities. That is why natural immunes will sometimes let projects apparently lapse for years until they find whatever they need to proceed.

The monitor is your real awareness, your ability to spot something that you weren’t expecting to see, but which is happening nonetheless. It is by keeping all our monitors going for longer and longer periods that we will be able to “Consider all that we do, examine every rule, take it back to the rudiments” (as Kate Bush put it) and eradicate the DAM bug. If we know what we are fighting, we can do it.

In order to make the monitor happen, there must be some sort of feedback happening in the brain. Information about the world is gathered by the senses and fed to the brain, which interprets the information and can respond (even while doing “intellectual” work) on full automatic (this is what happens in standby mode). But what is then supposed to happen is that the whole scenario, the picture of the world you started with, but with you now in it as a part of the situation, is fed back into the brain to make sure that what is happening is what was supposed to happen.

Pattern Discovery

We are getting pretty good now at designing computer systems that given the clues, can solve the riddle. The clues may be a bunch of symptoms that a hospital patient has, or the dimensions of a set of boxes to be loaded onto a lorry. What we haven’t really made any progress with at all is designing a computer that can first spot the clues amidst all the irrelevant facts they are hidden in before it has solved the riddle, and then use the clues to solve the riddle. Sometimes even spotting the clues before it even knows there is a riddle.

It’s a uniquely human talent at the moment, that lies behind all new theories of science, as well as the moment of sudden, complete understanding that inspires a poet to capture a thousand summer afternoons in six lines of text.

This ability is based in being able to imagine the relationships of cause and effect between the parts of what one is seeing being arranged in many different possible ways, and then test each arrangement to see if holds up. As we do this we can start to get a feel for how the pieces can fit together very quickly – sometimes only a few hours skillful playing can make the subtle world hidden in whatever one is studying become apparent.

A creative software engineer can take a software problem, chunk it into four or five subsystems, then chunk it again into 4 or 5 different subsystems (which must obviously be connected differently). Then he or she can compare the different approaches and spot the underlying similarities between the approaches, however these are disguised by details of each approach. These are then the real problem – the hard issues that the designer must address to do a good job. And with the problem understood, getting a sensible answer usually isn’t too difficult.

A musical composer or someone doing logistics for a major trade fair can do exactly the same thing. In mathematics, the technique is called inductive reasoning. In the textbooks it is usually shown as a complement or equal to deductive reasoning – step by step stuff. But all mathematicians know better. In fact they do exactly the same thing as a DJ finding the perfect mix for the moment.

The only way to do anything like this with conventional computers is called exhaustive search. We just program the computer to try every possibility, including the vastly overwhelming number of ridiculous ones, and test them. All the experience of chess program designers is that human players do not do this. They find themselves pitting exhaustive searches against something else. The recent ability of computers to function at Grandmaster level in chess doesn’t mean that exhaustive search is now as good as Grandmasters – merely that it is as good as chess.

This trick of holding all the elements of a problem in mind at once and considering each possibility while bearing in mind that as the elements change, the relationships between them also change is very suggestive of a mathematical idea called modal logics.

In modal logics, the value of an expression (or even parts of the expression) can change the relationships indicated by the operators within the expression. Instead of saying,

A + B = C

we can say

A ? B = C

and make the rule that if C is odd the ? becomes a +, but if C is even it must become a -. The odd thing is, we can actually build computers that can cope with this sort of thing. They are analogue machines rather than digital ones. Analogue machines were commonly used for graphics rendering until about 20 years ago, and are not theoretical notions at all.

Analogue machines don’t even have to be electronic. Minimum area problems that would make a Connection Machine cough can be solved by soap films in an instant. The analogue machines that can do modal logics must have a feedback connection in them. The electronics that hold the value of ? must be connected to the electronics that hold the representation of C forwards to fix the value of C and backwards to be fixed by C. The purpose of the circuit is to find a balance or true possibility, not a halt or answer.

The machines have to be analogue because the effect of ? and C on each other must be felt instantly. If the computer was conscious, there would be no period of time in which a process of applying the change could take place. So there would be no sequence of actions that an analogue machine could specify to a digital one to tell it how to do the trick. Of course, the digital computer could be programmed to simulate the physics of what the analogue machine was made of, and do it that way, but it would take a long time. All those atoms to model…

We are here faced with a trick that humans can do, that seems miraculous without feedback being involved in how we do it, but makes much more sense if we assume it is used.

Self Extension

When we discover a pattern, it has a profound way on how we see situations where it is found. When we first encounter a complex situation such as the deck of a yacht or a theater stage, all seems chaos. Later, when we have come to understand the situation, the purpose of each piece of equipment and its relationship to other equipment, all seems simple. The situation has not changed, so we must have. This is one of the reasons why understanding based learning is so much more effective than the usual sort. Instead of memorizing facts in a disinterested state of mind, one gets the subject literally under one’s skin. One in part becomes the area of study, and lessons learned in one situation will always be available in any other.

This is by definition a form of feedback. The mind observes and considers, and what it sees causes it to change. The mind acts upon itself.

Pattern Recognition

When we have learned a pattern by coming to understand it, it becomes very easy to spot it hiding in any other situation. For example, a small and innovative company might be bought by a larger one on the death of the founder. After a period of neglect in unimaginative hands, it emerges triumphant and ends up top of its class. In such a situation, it should be easy for the “Cinderella” pattern to be visible. Indeed, languages used in non DAM bug societies involve exactly this kind of telling of legends as the definitions of words!

Again, there is a physical example of this kind of behavior available, called a tuned oscillator. A tuning fork is an example. Stick a bunch of them in a piece of wood, play a G, and the G fork will ring. When we add a pattern to our repertoire, we seem to do something like set up a tuned oscillator holding it in our minds. Another example simply pumps the oscillator into prominence. This is another example of feedback, since the activity in the oscillator is dependent on the activity in previous cycles plus inputs.

Meaning Based Thinking

Our culture places great value on symbol based thinking. This is presumably because the idea of letting symbols stand for things and then manipulating the symbols seems like a great advance over trying to manipulate brute matter.

It would have taken Hannibal a long time to pile up supplies in front of each of his legionaries and elephants to find out if he had enough to feed everyone before setting off. This is all well and good, but it removes the awareness of the hay bales and pizzas concerned. This difference becomes extremely important when one is trying to for example, understand a physical law, rather than the notation used to describe what is so far known of it.

But how can it be possible to understand the meaning of something not yet understood? The answer is that we let the parts of our new understanding of the meaning behind the behavior described by the symbols be defined by their relationships to the other parts. We construct self-defining whole pictures that allow us to fill in the details. This requires the use of the same modal logic faculties described above, and hence a hardware level feedback in the brain.

Feedback and Gain Control

All of the faculties listed above, that are prominent in people naturally immune to the DAM bug and not used in people with normal vulnerability are based in feedback at a hardware level in the brain. All engineers know that in any circumstance where they employ feedback, they must take care to control the gain of the circuit. This is the measure of how much the signal is amplified before it is reintroduced to the circuit’s input. Too little and it might as well not be there, but too much and it will quickly become a howl. The control must be just right.

This point is very important indeed. Existing understanding says that high dopamine gives rise to a state known as “alertness”, which can be identified by various behavioral traits that are deemed desirable in the DAM bug society. The best “alertness” is found in high dopamine people, and there is then a range of people of inferior “alertness” as the level of dopamine in their brains reduces.

Now the low dopamine people certainly have the faculties described above, and the evidence for feedback being involved is strong although circumstantial. So the low dopamine people must have their amplification precisely controlled! They are not at one of an infinite number of possible points on a line, they are at the one point where the feedback works! Therefore there is no range of anything healthy visible at all! There is a single point that gives rise to the faculties concerned, and a range of points where they are not present, and happen to be more or less far away.

Therefore despite being in a massive minority in modern societies, low dopamine people have healthy brains and are normal, and everyone else has been made unwell by the DAM bug parasitization of their society. Oh my!

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