Tourette’s Adventure of the Mind

Yves here. This post on Tourette’s syndrome, written by a reader who has been diagnosed with this condition, departs from normal NC fare, but it still struck me as germane. It offers a window into the question of “What is normal?” and perhaps more important, “Why do we tolerate some types of divergence from normalcy and not others?” It’s become a staple of pop science to link various aspects of what most people consider to be attractive in the opposite sex to fertility or general health, in other words, to round up evidence to support the hypothesis that people are primed to make choices that will help their reproductive success.

But what about the psychological realm? The fact is that we don’t even understand our minds very well. Most people in the West identify that voice that talks in the head as them, but many Eastern traditions regard that mind chatter as a sort of culturally-programmed radio we listen to all day, and many of us like the stations that are heavy on anxiety, or delusion, or self-loathing. Meditation is a way to help establish distance from, and quiet, all that internal noise. And while we tend to think we are great at processing information and assessing reality, our cognitive capacities are quite limited. For instance, Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon, who was also a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, discussed that people were not utility maximizers, but “satisficed” due to the limits on how much they could retain in short-term memory and the time it took to retrieve information.

To put it more simply: those of us who consider ourselves to be “normal” from a psychological perspective don’t think about it much, and regard our bouts of rage or paranoia or misery as moods, even though we inhabit them fully when they sweep over us. Yet even the nominally healthy have little control over, and often even less understanding, of their own processes, their cognitive limitations, and their perceptual biases.

Trying to intervene in conditions that can result in harm to self and others is a reasonable standard. But what about people who are merely odd, or difficult? This issue is complicated by the not-trival problem that low doses of mental predispositions that therapists increasingly pathologize can confer benefits to the individual, and thus to society, as well as impose costs. Examples are legion, but to name a few: Churchill was unquestionably bipolar. Nash was schizophrenic. Michangelo likely had obsessive compulsive disorder.

You’ll notice in the piece below that the writer discusses how he’s been aware of some of the ways in which his mental processes are unusual, and how he’s developed some strategies to cope, others to pass as normal. Now that he’s tipped into more acute symptoms, he nevertheless sees plusses to having Tourette’s and regrets the loss of these qualities as his condition improves. My sense is that this is not an uncommon reaction. A friend’s sibling is one of the rare functioning schizophrenics: he designs and produces laser light shows, which is an enormously complicated undertaking (as in merely handling the rental and shipment of lots of highly specialized equipment to other countries, is daunting). Even though he’s too willing to do things like walk off the roof of his apartment building when he’s not medicated, he dislikes the drugs because they dull him, and he feels they dampen his creativity.

Similarly, I’ve only read a smidgen of Oliver Sacks, but I recall him describing two men who had visual impairment: one who was blind, another who had no color vision. Both had operations that gave them normal vision. Both had them reversed. The formerly blind man, for instance, was unable to overcome his sense of disorientation (he knew who his cats were by how they felt and the sounds they made; he found having to relate that to what they looked like difficult and unrewarding). Similarly, the man who saw only in black and white (which was really extremely fine gradients of grey) had tremendously acute distance vision. He lost that when he gained the ability to see in color, and felt he’d come out worse in that exchange.

So I hope readers will see this post as an effort to show them a set of experiences that they can’t encounter directly.

By a regular reader of Naked Capitalism who has asked to remain anonymous

A few days after surgery I got Tourette’s syndrome. Adult onset Tourette’s is rare, and usually happens in late middle age, like it did for me. Like Jeff Zucker’s (CNN president) recent Bell’s palsy, it is neurological and should fade away in months or maybe much longer. There are mostly sudden movements (tics) of the head and shoulders, odd facial expressions, grunts and squeaks, and a need to squirm. Mornings are better and Sleep is hard. Some days are much better. The symptoms are hardly a disability. I now tell people to expect it, and there is no pain. 10% of those with Tourette’s swear suddenly. I do not. But I think I understand why they do.

However odd it looks from the outside, it is fascinating inside. I have always liked to do experiments on my mind, by measuring how smart I felt in a meeting quantitatively, and how long I could concentrate, and how much I could remember. One time I trained myself to be able to look straight at something and have one (only a small one) object in my vision disappear. I never considered these experiments compelling. I just thought they were interesting.

Neurological science is in its infancy and simple ideas remain contentious. To get me through some of the bad weeks I was taken on and off different medications to control different parts of my brain. You learn the words dopamine, serotonin, anxiety and pain like letters of the alphabet. Each turned up or turned down some part of my brain that I can name, and vaguely can isolate emotionally.

Henry Markram is a leading neurology researcher who has developed a theory of autism here. His son is autistic. He has demonstrated the neurological phenomenon that leads to autism. The autistic mind is overstimulated by the senses. They grow twice the number of neurons for the senses, and the effect is many times that because the incremental sensory input causes a learning multiplier. He has also been vocal about his own hypothesis that the most debilitated autistics were the ones with the highest IQ.

Tourette’s is not considered to be on the autistic spectrum. Homosexuality used to be on some spectrum. Spectrum Splectrum. I certainly would never have been considered for a diagnosis of autism. I would not have been given a diagnosis of Tourette’s before now. It is widely understood that Tourette’s is neurological and demonstrably changes how the mind is wired. Just like autism. It is also noticed by many that there are overlapping traits: movements, explosiveness, quirky affect, and weaker social skills. I have all of those issues. This is not a compelling correlation, but certainly interesting.

It is impossible to talk about this without bringing up some famous people who had these same overlapping traits.

Most famous people have had myth makers, so research is needed to detect explosiveness and strange movements, but each symptoms can be found. It is awkward to seem to compare yourself with these famous people when they are all genius’s, and you are not. But it was their genius that made them famous, and not their affect. These were also my hero’s that I read about my whole life: Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and Thomas Jefferson. It is impossible to diagnose anyone from a distance. Even if you could, no compelling argument could follow.

Each was a risk taker in their profession, but also in their lives. Each had great intimates, both professionally and romantic, often many. Tourette’s is closely linked with OCD or ADHD (sometimes both). With the exception of Jefferson (who was essentially tutored), all struggled with formal education.

It is obvious that each of my heroes had big ideas and each had a firm grasp on the details of their ideas. They certainly had strong opinions. You see this in the research, Tourette’s folks have this big picture, and they have these small details, and grasp it in context. I sure do. My big ideas would seem delusions of grandeur if hadn’t actually succeeded sometimes. I know that I will never create a worldwide network of supersonic trains running at 4000 mph in vacuum tubes in my lifetime. But I can show you a surprising amount of detail about how it would work and how it would be built. I did start a venture capital backed company at 24 and sold it a few years later based on technology that was pretty big at the time. Big ideas clog up the brain, and make you forget to eat, and make you lose track of time.

The world is also full of restless dreamers that go nowhere. Many look just like me and my heroes.

I will put a gentle theory out. It is not compelling. Some people are born bright and born curious. The path to dysfunction comes from not being able to regulate the stimulus. The two stimuli that need regulation are stress and the senses. Think of the brightest and most capable person you can, who also had superb interpersonal skills. I will make a large bet that when you were with that person, two things are always true. They were calm, and they listened to whomever was the focus of the room. I can’t do either. If you are bright, and curious, and can regulate your stress young, and can regulate your senses young, then you might become one of those people.

An autistic child can be calmed, apparently, by externally managing sensory stimuli. I cannot. I can get excited by two ants in the pavement, and can get upset by a slow elevator. I am excellent at seeming calm, I slow. My. Words. Down. And. I. smile. And. Then. I. say. The. Persons. Name. and. I. repeat. The. Last. Thing. They. Asked. Of me. I look into eyes, and ask sympathy for quirky movements.

Don’t believe my acting, I am not calm. If asked about my food preference, I might attack the question of whether to eat chicken or beef for dinner with the same precision and sense of urgency as I would be on how to acquire lion for dinner from a hunt. Or I might not even hear the question. As a result, I sense I am unlikable, or maybe unapproachable. Unless, of course, you like chronic intellectual stimulation or unless you need an answer to a hard question. That’s okay. I like my thoughts too, and also prefer calm people.

It seems that stress and anxiety and fear are all kind of wrapped together into some hard wired neurological package. Fight-or-flight flips the brain. The immune system shuts down, and so does digestion. You have no sensual (working) memory, but have lots of abstraction memory. Learning happens 10x faster. And here is my really new discovery: The mental filters shut down. I had two very unique experiences that each caused me to explicitly feel how mental filters worked. I have clear before and after memories.

The first is more benign. I was in a lot of pain, and did what most ADHD adults do, and went to my addiction. My addiction is best described as day dreaming. But high anxiety day dreaming still needs to feel good. For it to be calming, I need to think about a big and detailed idea as if my life depended on a solution. I chose to write a novel, because I knew I could throw it away later, with no loss. It worked great as a long lasting pain killer. But when I went back and reread the pages that I wrote while in my Tourette’s mind I discovered a repeated mistake that I had never made before. All words were written phonetically. ‘Our’ was written ‘are’.

There were also other ‘obvious’ mistakes that would easily have been caught if I read what I was writing, which is exactly the point. I was not. I could see and type, but I could not read and write. Apparently reading and writing are filters. But without filters it was fast. A man sat on my shoulder and in a clear voice recited his lines to me. He figured out his own role in the plot, and was perfectly aware of the rules I had given him and the story. The novel is unlikely to be finished even after hundreds of pages of writing. But the novel is not the story.

The second is quite physical. There is also a filter between language and the mouth. Sometimes I cannot stop myself from saying the wrong thing. I am not talking about cussing here. Sometimes I will have 3 or 4 sentences built up in my head that I am praying I can keep in my head. Once they escape, I own them, and no excuses or explanations will make them belong to neurology instead of to me. It is far easier to explain a cuss word than it is to explain an expertly detailed social slight said to an important acquaintance. Social skills are no problem. Controlling social skills is the problem.

With Tourette’s you feel the filter between the mind and muscle disappear. My whole life, and into adulthood my muscles were always tense. I would conceal this by posing in a manner that made me seem casual and relaxed.

Look closely, and you’ll see twitching and you will see athletic response times to every stimuli. Fast responses, fast learning and no pain. It is anxiety while feeling great.

The tics on my first day were more painful than the second day. Adjusting to them happened very quickly. Maybe only late-onset Tourette’s patients get this experience. I got to observe how my body and mind reacted for the first times. Zap bang. My head moved 45 degrees to the left so quickly it was startling. The electrical feeling bounced around my nerves for a few seconds, and for longer than that there was a thud feeling. It is a much smaller version of what you feel when you fall off a roof and bump your head. I suspect I quickly learned to do two things. First I learned to anticipate the tics. The muscle tension will rapidly rise in a single muscle just before the muscle fires. Your brain learns to detect this, and instantly raises your already high anxiety. Your brain rushes in to find the muscle and then HELPS the tic. Adding muscles makes the tic rounder and bigger and MUCH less painful. I am sure this is how a guttural ggggkkkk sound that is emotionally shocking turns into a similar sounding cuss word with similar emotions. Tic modification is subconscious.

There are several ways to repress tics. One is concentrating on the tic. This causes anxiety to rise quickly. Another is to concentrate on something inside your mind. This always works. Social situations can only cause anxiety to rise, because you have this tendency to be unfiltered which has social consequences, but you try super hard to appear normal.

The advantage of the Tourette’s mind is exactly the same as the advantage of the autistic mind. There have been autopsy MRI’s which have shown this, although I can only imagine how contentious this science must be. There are brain patterns that show a brain overflowing with circuits that do not exist for healthy people who only use 5% of their neurons. There was no garbage collection in these minds. Thoughts and memories were stored until the skull was full. Of course this is all a matter of degree between patients, and it is hard to interpret MRIs of dead people, even by experts. But there does not seem to be much disagreement that brains can run in overdrive for extended periods of time.

Most Tourette’s patients do not want to lose their gift. Mine will fade, but I already grieve its loss. I suspect that I have always been Tourette’s in some way, just less than now. The clarity of thought and precision of detail and hunger for the stars is hard to describe. I liked Einstein’s words. “I just rode on the back of particles.” Autistics describe their thoughts as simulations, while most people think in language and socially formulated logical constructions. I am hated and loved for my inability to see consensus and tradition. I am loved and hated for my ability to construct in the abstract.

I do want to come out of the closet and give people a name for my condition. It helps others feel safer. I am only a little concerned that it will harm my career. It does not harm me for people to know that I cut classes from 6th grade through college, and self-taught the course material. It is already clear that I know my field, and can function at some acceptable level. But even a little concern requires caution. We should all appreciate when others come forward, as Zucker and Boyle have done with their neurological illnesses, and not accuse them of ill intent. Both helped me in my hardest month.

What worries me is how suggestible I am. You could not convince me to do a crime, mostly because I am not listening to people who are suggesting things like that. But when I read about a disease I get the symptoms. My life is the definition of the placebo effect. Learning about neurons will cause me to build a model of a brain in my mind, and try to get my actual mind to behave like the model. I told people in a meeting that my muscles might jerk and not to worry. Guess what? My muscles jerked the entire meeting. I do not want to give myself permission to be dysfunctional. It is better to try to stay as integrated in my social situation as is possible. It is better not to let my mind wander freely.

A theory on how autistics and Tourette’s and ADHD and OCD minds are created is decades away. I will present my own theory. Without double blind studies and a no childhood diagnosis (plus my placebo effect) this theory cannot be compelling. But I think it is interesting.

If you cannot regulate anxiety or if you cannot regulate your sensory inputs you are at risk, especially during the first year or two of life. If you are smart and curious, then the changes in your brain will be greater.

If you cannot regulate your senses, then you will be anxious a lot, and your mind will chase lions in spectacular detail for a lifetime. You will have few coping skills for any world without lions. The lions are not all scary, but they are always intense. This is autism.

If you can control your senses, but cannot control your anxiety, then you are in the constellation of Tourette’s and ADHD and OCD, depending on which tool you used to manage the anxiety.

OCD finds calm from reducing complexity through repetition and beliefs. I see this in people, but do not know it myself.

ADHD finds calm from an addiction to a feel-good activity like eating or running or risk taking or conflict.

These OCD and ADHD activities actually turn off your senses. If you want to stop seeing and hearing and feeling, try maximizing your stress and maximizing your dopamine with an amphetamine overdose. The lions’ hunt needs no sensory overload. The hunt also turns up your memory making abilities by 10X.

Tourette’s may be a symptom and not a category, but I am guessing it comes from learning to stop feeling pain (which is a sense too), since it involves the muscles. I find my addiction inside a world within my head, most addictions involve the body, which makes you ‘feel’. Sometimes I have to pick and gnaw on my skin and gums, but mostly I do fine with daydreaming.

Habits are formed young, and language is formed young, and the learning mind is formed young. That is why there are different symptoms between different people. When an ADHD kid is required to take Ritalin because he was disruptive in his class room, the kid still has a different learning style. He learns 10x faster, and he cannot handle stimulation during the other 90%. Net of being distractible, he isn’t really learning school work any faster and probably slower. His lion mind is doing most of the learning. In the classroom he is under stimulated by the slow pace, and he is overwhelmed by the matrix of potential social interactions. He is unresponsive to intervention.

I go to few meetings anymore, but have deep and loyal relationships. I am not reliable, but I reliably create value for my work and my family. I am not socially skilled, but can communicate and relate deeply to people, teams, businesses and shared goals. I am not aware. But I know what is important.

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  1. Clive

    A fascinating (and brave) piece which pretty much stands on its own without the need of any uniformed comments from me, as what is discussed in terms of mental functioning is outside my experience.

    I would though echo what was touched upon with regards to other senses. I had a cornea transplant to treat a degenerative disease affecting my vision. Although the procedure was considered medically a success, the way it altered my vision does leave me feeling that I’ve merely exchanged one set of compromises for another. In some ways, I preferred the previous “as nature intended” compromises to those, in theory, less onerous ones I now have.

    Trying to measure “bad”, “good”, “better” and “best” is far more complex and subjective than the cosy, e-z-cleen, pseudo certainties we’re so often presented with.

  2. John Zelnicker

    Yves — Thank you very much for posting this. I have had ADHD all my life, although not much H. The writer has done a masterful job of analyzing his/her mind and the way it works, as well as communicating it in a very understandable fashion. From his/her descriptions I would agree that Tourette’s is closely related to ADHD as I have had many of the same thoughts and experiences. I have always been very aware of and fascinated by the machinations of my mind.

    I think it is unfortunate that the psychological profession so often refers to people like us as suffering from our “conditions” or “disabilities”. It is neither, and most of us aren’t suffering. It is a variation on what is considered “normal”, a concept that is culturally determined. And medicating kids who exhibit symptoms of ADHD is, in most cases, not only unnecessary, it is irresponsible bordering on immoral. I see it as just one more way for the establishment to suppress creativity and radical thinking in order to fit everyone into the acceptable paradigm by preparing our kids to be compliant worker bees for the capitalists. Can’t have too many people challenging authority, ya know. I also think this feeds right in to the question of why there hasn’t been more outrage over the criminal activities of the banksters and the subsequent lack of accountability. We have been medicated into complacency.
    I’m going to stop here or I’ll end up spending the entire morning writing about these issues and how they relate to our current social, political and economic predicament. I have to be careful about allocating my time. :-)

    1. HotFlash

      “And medicating kids who exhibit symptoms of ADHD is, in most cases, not only unnecessary, it is irresponsible bordering on immoral.”

      Fixed it for you.

        1. tourette

          John might have folded quicker than he wanted, to be socially aligned.
          Most ADHD love drugs because they feel good. Drugs are awesome, but dangerous. In adulthood I started to get them from doctors. Childhood was difficult, and I might have benefited greatly from Ritalin. The morality here is difficult both ways.

          My beef was with formal education, which does the best it can, but is not a place for many people like me.

          1. John Zelnicker

            Actually, I care little about being socially aligned. I have always marched to my own drummer and that has sometimes conflicted with the larger social milieu. There were no drugs and no ADHD diagnosis when I was growing up in the ’50’s and 60’s. I believe it was my study and practice of Eastern philosophies along with some high quality LSD that enabled me to understand and cope with myself. Interestingly, psychedelics are once again being investigated as potential treatments for a variety of mental difficulties. Perhaps I was a bit too strong in my condemnation of medication. There are certainly those for whom it is necessary and effective. Unfortunately, drugs seem to be the default answer to such difficulties when there are many other treatment modalities that are ignored.

      1. LucyLulu

        Not so fast. Whether or not to medicate is another one of those questions with no simple one-size-fits-all answer. Different children experience the same disorder differently, with different difficulties. Some people have more intense symptoms than others. Some children are experiencing constant failures (and parents can not control all their children’s environmental surroundings, e.g. how they are treated by their peers, nor are there super-schools with therapeutic staff and classrooms who show unbounding levels of love and acceptance, with affordable tuitions too, to send their children to). An argument could just as easily be made that it’s immoral NOT to medicate some of these children.

        Sometimes I used to get pulled to work on the child psychiatric unit, children 5 to 10. Yes, children that young end up hospitalized. The vast majority were diagnosed with ADHD. Sometimes they did, but most did not have affluent, well-informed, intelligent parents with ample free time to devote to the “problem child”. They might be single parents (likely also with ADHD, a double-edged sword), with three other children, or foster parents with who knows how many children in the home, tackling each of their many problems as it arises. What all the children had in common was that they all had behavior that had become out of control. It isn’t healthy for development to feel out of control, children need to feel secure. Just because a little freedom and flexibility and tolerance is good, it doesn’t mean that a lot can’t be a recipe for tragedy.

        The ideal treatment for hypertension, and often effective, is a good diet, proper weight maintenance, regular exercise, and avoidance of use of tobacco and excessive alcohol. That doesn’t imply that treatment with medication isn’t the most appropriate choice in many situations. Unless you have walked a mile in the family and child’s shoes, it’s best to use caution when judging their decisions.

        1. CaitlinO

          I agree that there are times when medicine can be appropriate. I first became aware of my godson’s ADHD when he was six. He saw a toy he wanted on the opposite side of the room and literally could not get across the room to retrieve it. Every couple of steps he was stopped and distracted by something he heard, saw or thought of to say. Before he got to the toy he ended up sitting down in front of the TV, perhaps the greatest distractor of all.

          In high school he could not pass math despite being very bright. I tutored him for several years and saw that, although he understood the logic and steps required to solve various types of problems, he couldn’t stay focused on what he was doing long enough to work through to a solution. He would lose focus every few seconds, forget where he was in the problem and would need to go back to the beginning, re-read the problem, decide again on a solution strategy and begin solving the problem again. He clearly knew what to do but couldn’t get through even a 3 or 4 step problem. And forget about negative signs. They disappeared faster than snow in August.

          The same problem affects his ability to read. He started reading very young and has a great vocabulary but his comprehension is poor. By the time he gets to the end of a paragraph, or even a sentence, his thinking has been disrupted so many times that he’s forgotten how the thing started and can’t make a lot of sense out of it. He seems utterly unable to screen out extraneous stimuli, including his own, non-task related thinking.

          He needed 5 years to pass all his classes and never was able to pass the state exit exam in math. Bright as he is, he was only able to earn a sort of reduced diploma available to kids with diagnosed learning disabilities.

          His parents tried medicating him one year and he did much better in school but it flattened his affect and personality so much he was almost unrecognizable. At the time I supported their decision to discontinue medicine but now I think the better choice might have been to try to find a drug that helped with his attention difficulties but left his personality more intact.

          I don’t know, it’s a tough decision. Our youngest is severely dyslexic and, if there was a pill to treat that, he’d be on it in a heartbeat.

          1. Nathanael

            At this point, I think a lot of the most difficult disorders would be best treated by very early induction into proper yoga, which is all about mental control of one’s own body and mind. I’ve met several people for whom it worked *wonders*.

            There aren’t that many real yoga teachers around (as opposed to people who just do athletics), and too many of the ones who are around have pushed the religious stuff associated with it. So it’s not so easy to find the right training.

  3. ambrit

    Thanks for this. I’ve always known that “what’s going on inside my head is more vivid that whats going on outside of it” feeling. My wife has some emotional control issues too. Our eldest girl has strong symptoms of OCD, and has been searching for coping mechanisms all her life. She’s extremely creative, and manages quite a panoply of ‘addictions’ in her spare time. All this leads up to the question that popped into my mind right away; since this spectrum of symptoms correlates with observed neurological differences, is it heritable? I suspect my late father of being in this class if individuals. He exhibited most of the symptoms you describe. Now I’m going to keep a closer eye on our grandchildren and try my best not to end up shunned as “that creepy Granddad.”
    On the “famous people” with this neurological suite, I remember reading an essay by Robert E. Howard to in which the Bard of Cross Plains tells about the experience of writing the Conan stories. “..the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind…I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred.”
    How well we as a society deal with “eccentricity” says it all.

    1. LucyLulu

      “Are they inheritable?”
      Very much so. Some learned behaviors (nurture) also likely play a part, but there is a distinct and demonstrable hereditary component.

    2. LucyLulu

      I’m not pickin’ on ya, I promise, and I’m sure you were being tongue-in-cheek (or is it cheeky?), but “a panoply of addictions”? C’mon now. Taking oxys is an addiction. The dance team and drawing horses are hobbies. There is a difference.

      I do understand why the original poster would describe the behaviors as addictions, the compelling quality they can take on. But they really aren’t. Behaviors which are “addictive”, in the ‘proper’ use of the word, continue despite negative consequences. Don’t they teach ‘proper English’ over in Camelot? Surely you were tutored in the Queeeeen’s English!

      So….. dating the kid who doesn’t wash his jeans? It isn’t a negative consequence. Sorry.
      When she gets arrested, we can talk again.

      1. ambrit

        Dear LucyLulu;
        It’s the next morning and sleep has tamped down the anxieties of parenthood.
        The proper use of words is indeed a skill fraught with dangers. Politics is the prime example.
        “A panoply of addictions” does sort of express the life system we view our daughter as having developed. She’s in her thirties now, with three daughters of her own. If I were feeling catty, which I very often am, I’d describe her husband as being child number four. For whatever reasons, (and I have reflected long and hard about this, feeling guilty as sin for it,) she has taken on the role of enabler, and does most of the hard work in maintaining her family. (I am not falling into the trap of mistaking Mommydom with Womanhood here, take my word for that.) That being said, I grok the difference between taking cooking lessons because you love souffle and cooking Meth because you can’t go another day without getting off. I used the word panoply due to its associations with armour, a protective function, and addictions to denote things viewed as necessary for continued living, everyday “life.” (I would even go so far as to consider making life bearable as sufficient for inclusion in the class of addictions.)
        Thanks for the feedback. How else are we going to learn and progress if we don’t share our thoughts and experiences?

  4. Ulysses

    Thanks for sharing this fascinating piece. Extraordinary psychological states are always a bit unsettling. As Ophelia observed: “Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
    Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh;
    That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
    Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
    To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”

    Our world is far richer because people blasted with ecstasy have lifted the rest of us above the mundane. Thanks for posting this!

  5. Harband

    “It’s become a staple of pop science to link various aspects of what most people consider to be attractive in the opposite success to fertility or general health,”

    “Success or Sex?”

  6. Larry

    Reading this has given me a perspective about human behavior that transgresses the easy labels of “nuts” and “wackos” we give to people who don’t meet our conformists views. Having this information should enable me to refrain from passing judgment too quickly on those I see as disagreeable people.

    It is a little unsettling yet hopeful at the same time that realizing how our neurological wiring is still far from perfect can explain why behavior is not the result of unseen demons. Demons that were contrived by earlier cultures to explain those things that go bump in the night.

  7. Tim Mason

    Yves, you misremember the cases Sacks relates. Neither asked for their operations to be reversed – and I can’t imagine a doctor agreeing to doing so in either instance. Virgil, the name Sacks gives to the blind man who recovered his sight after the removal of cataracts, lost his sight a second time when suffering a grave illness. Although he seems to have been relieved by this, if you read the article (it’s available on the New Yorker site) you will find that his reasons for preferring blindness to being sighted are partly to do with the pressures put upon him by his birth family, who did not agree to the operation in the first place, and who refused to accept that he could see once he had been operated upon.

    The color blind man became so late in life as the result of an accident. Sacks finds the case intriguing because the man, a painter, adapted to his new condition quite successfully.

    1. diptherio

      The O. Sacks book Island of the Colorblind details a community on the Micronesian island of Pingelap who experience an extremely high incidence of achromotopsia, i.e. seeing only in shades of gray. The women in the village creat incredibly intricate embroidery designs on their clothing which, to a color-seeing person, appear as almost monochromatic. The subtle variations in color are apparent to the achromotopsic but invisible to us “normal” people.

      No word yet on the Marvel adaptation….

      1. Ex-PFC Chuck

        IIRC, during World War II colorblind people were initially rejected for military service. Ten someone realized they could ‘see through’ camouflage much better than people with colored sight.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      No, I am thinking of a different severely color blind man, He had been so all his life, and he was either THE “horse whisperer” or one almost as well known in the profession. He was outdoors a lot (on horseback, in ranges) so his having his distance vision compromised was terribly disturbing to him.

  8. patrick

    the new Illinois medical cannabis law to take effect 1/1/2014 includes Tourettes as a qualifying condition. welcome to the future Illinois.

    1. Susan the other

      The connection between “St Vitus Dance” (now Chorea) and strep has been known for a long time. Diagnosis of tics and Tourettes after surgery might indicate a hidden strep infection because strep can go underground in your system and really screw you up. Requiring a blood test because a throat swab won’t catch it. Anonymous also informs us of remarkable awareness of his own thoughts and symptoms which I guess go beyond a sub chronic strep infection, but maybe not. Amazing self analysis. Probably this person is brilliant by any standard. Infection or not.

      1. tourette

        In the link: “They were found to be caused by H.pylori bacteria and syphilis, respectively, after years of resistance.”

        My case is thought to be from a chronic brain infection of B Burgdorferi bacteria with a possible H pylori co-infection.
        To see what it looks like,
        is a girl with the same bacterial infection with Tics. Hers are worse, but the attitude is the same.

  9. coboarts

    What have we all missed by finding ourselves, in our brief moment of life, trapped in mechanized conformity. And it’s getting much worse.

  10. Moneta

    My son has Down Syndrome. When he was 4, I put him on a regular soccer team. After circling the field once, the kids were wound up but my son was knackered. That’s when it dawned on me that instead of focusing on people’s weaknesses, we should focus on their strengths. This generally goes against our Western ways of doing things.

    Around the same time, I was reevaluating our society’s definition of normal… and mine. I had come to understand that it is not because someone appears normal that he/she should be able to master everything if they just put their mind to it. Our Western society has put the onus on each one of us the master and control everything in our lives when in fact we all have our specific strengths that we could use to help each other out instead of continuously competing. This has made us believe that we are responsible for everything wrong in our lives and has stopped us from understanding that most of life is a crapshoot. We develop skills to try and reduce randomness and somewhere along the way we have deluded ourselves that we should be able to control everything.

    When we sold our house a few years ago, the buyer’s parents came to visit it from South America, to give their seal of approval. When the father saw a picture of my son he asked how he was doing. I said: “Great. He knows what he wants which is not necessarily what is good for him.” He smirked and said: “That’s what YOU think.” That was another eye opener, making me wonder if I really understood what my son needed.

    We spend too much time focusing on what others should be instead of just accepting them for who they are.

    1. LucyLulu

      Excellent post, Moneta!

      Your son was lucky to have been gifted with a father capable of unusual wisdom and compassion and you were lucky to have been gifted with him.

    2. David

      Agreed, excellent post. I’m in full agreement about focusing on our strengths and the comment about competition is spot on.
      Just talking to my wife yesterday about evolution, and one of things she said recently read is how one of the most important insights about evolution is typically not discussed. The human ability to cooperate is why we’ve survived and thrived for so long. With everyone doing what they do best we could complement each other in untold ways.
      Our cultural obsession with competition is I believe one of the worst characteristics of America, if not the most destructive. I believe it has created an us vs. them mentality, that has influenced everything from our day-to-day interactions to our foreign policy.

  11. Jim

    Yves states:
    “The fact is that we don’t understand out minds very well. Most people in the West identify that voice that talks in the head as them, but many many Eastern traditions regard that mind chatter as a sort of culturally-programmed radio we listen to all day, and many of us like the stations that are heavy on anxiety, or delusion or self-loathing. Meditation is a way to help establish distance from and quiet all that internal noise.”

    Anonymous regular reader stated:
    “It seems that stress and anxiety and fear are all kind of wrapped together into some hardwired neurological package. Fight of flight flips the brain.”
    A little later he stated:
    “And here is my really new discovery. The mental filters shut down.”
    “My addiction is best described as daydreaming….I chose to write a novel, because I knew I could throw it away later, with no loss. It worked great as a long-lasting pain killer…i could see and type but I could not read and write. Apparently reading and writing are filters. But without them it was fast. A man sat on my shoulders and in a clear voice recited his lines to me….with Tourette’s you feel the filter between mind and muscle disappear…Brains can run into overdrive for extended periods of time”

    Is there a distinction between mind and brain?

    Are stress, fear and anxiety all wrapped together in some kind of of hard-wired neurological package?

    Or is mind chatter not hard-wired but instead a sort of culturally programmed radio we listen to all day?

    Are human beings without a culture in a situation were potentially everything we thought and felt could be done in an instance?

    Is every culture also a filter– or a mixture of controls and releases?

    If we are to begin to understand ourselves and our culture/politics/economics do we need to develop the type of observer consciousness Yves mentioned above?

    Would the development of such an observer consciousness be as important culturally as understanding what the nature of money and debt is for grasping finance and economics?

    What are impulses, instincts, desires and habits?

  12. Pearl

    Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful post and for all of the comments, as well.

    Personally, I tend to prefer the “atypically-wired” folks and children; I find them to be far more interesting. I used to work as a special needs preschool teacher and I’ve also had the opportunity to privately tutor quite a few kids who were, shall we say, not factory-assembled, and therefore had some optional features, luxury appointments, and, often–souped-up engines.

    Those were the fun kids to spend time with. And they totally destroyed for me the possibility of ever finding any fun or challenge in working with the boring, plain vanilla types of kids

    Particularly as a young boy, my son was a bit “glitchy.” Our first real attempt at public school was first grade. I didn’t think it would be a good fit, but it didn’t seem right to not even give it a try. Nevertheless, and sure enough, after about 6 weeks he was just crumbling before my very eyes.

    He kept telling me about one particular part of each day when he did not understand the subject-matter. I knew he was very bright, and I was surprised that there was any “subject-matter” in the first grade with which he could possibly be struggling. At the 6-week teacher-parent conference I found out the source of my son’s struggle–it was the mandatory 45-minutes of class-instruction in “phonics.”

    (Apparently, direct phonetic instruction can be quite perplexing to a six year old who is already a voracious reader of chapter books.)

    I watched my little boy become clinically depressed in a very short span of time, so I yanked him out of school and we did home-schooling for a few years. That little boy of mine is now in his 4th year at UCLA where he is majoring in neuroscience, doing research for an autism researcher, and he intends to go to medical school and become a pediatric neurologist.

    This is probably way too personal to post (names will be changed to protect the innocent), but I wrote him this email a few months ago:


    I just saw Cyndi Lauper on the Tony Awards.

    I’ve always really appreciated Cyndi Lauper’s music–always thought that she had been under-rated for her musical talent. (I was also part of the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” generation–so, of course I liked her.)

    I’d heard last year that she was currently involved with the production of a Broadway Musical–but had NO IDEA that it was Kinky Boots. I hope I can see it someday.

    Anyway. Although Cyndi Lauper didn’t write the song–she was the one who first sang and released the song that I used to sing to you when you were sad during those times during 1st grade when school wasn’t working out for you.

    Do you remember the night you couldn’t sleep and you asked me if you could go look for the Wishing Star to wish for a better life?

    We went out on that old wrought iron porch swing and swung together and looked for and found the Wishing Star. And I guess we both wished you a better life.

    I remember singing this song to you that night. (It’s always been a favorite of mine–and you were familiar with it because they played it at one of the attractions at EPCOT.)

    I took you out of school that week. I told (jane doe), the (blank) County Director of Special Education (who later became my boss), that I wasn’t going to medicate my kid so that he could attend her crappy school. (And I said that to her literally–a fact of which she took great delight in reminding me on that day several years later when she hired me to teach Special Needs Preschool.) :-)

    Anyway, as a little boy, you never got sad again–not like that, anyway.

    The nuances and images ingrained in my memory of you becoming a happy little boy again–I relate to and are interwoven with this song, and of that November night, rocking with you on the porch swing.

    I’m sure there have been lots of sad times since your little boyhood when you weren’t as open with me about your emotions. So, for whenever you’ve been sad and I haven’t known, and for whenever you’ll be sad, and I won’t know–I’m sorry.

    But I want you to know this song. And I want you to know, that in my heart, it’s your song. It’s a song that lifts me up and brings me peace.


    mom (lyrics below)

    True Colors

    You with the sad eyes
    Don’t be discouraged
    Oh I realize
    Its hard to take courage
    In a world full of people
    You can lose sight of it all
    And the darkness inside you
    Can make you feel so small

    But I see your true colors
    Shining through
    I see your true colors
    And that’s why I love you
    So don’t be afraid to let them show
    Your true colors
    True colors are beautiful,
    Like a rainbow

    Show me a smile then,
    Don’t be unhappy, can’t remember
    When I last saw you laughing
    If this world makes you crazy
    And you’ve taken all you can bear
    You call me up
    Because you know I’ll be there

    And I’ll see your true colors
    Shining through
    I see your true colors
    And that’s why I love you
    So don’t be afraid to let them show
    Your true colors
    True colors are beautiful,
    Like a rainbow

    (When I last saw you laughing)
    If this world makes you crazy
    And you’ve taken all you can bear
    You call me up
    Because you know I’ll be there

    And I’ll see your true colors
    Shining through
    I see your true colors
    And that’s why I love you
    So don’t be afraid to let them show

    Your true colors
    True colors
    True colors
    Shining through

    I see your true colors
    And that’s why I love you
    So don’t be afraid to let them show
    Your true colors
    True colors are beautiful,
    Like a rainbow

    Oh. And the cool thing is–the “atypically-wired” kids often meet up when they get to University. They find their niche–and they soar:

  13. Christer Kamb

    Thank You Yves for a very interesting piece and all my best to the anonymous reader of yours who shared his experiences with us. Remarkable and thoughtworthy indeed! People who dares to share gives so much help for others who still faces problems regarding the ability to understand themselves. Science learns by studying and listening to stories like this one. And particularly in neuroscience which is a fairly young area.

  14. Orestes

    I’ve suffered bouts of major depression for 40 years. Initially physicians and clinicians tried me on whatever treatment was then in vogue – lithium in the early days, imipramine after that and now the SSRIs – and I have invariable given them up quickly if I tried them at all as their effects on both mind and body were ‘worse’ in my view than the illness.

    Yet my periods of ‘normalcy’ between depressed episodes, too, are now somehow shallow and unsatisfying. Yes I can function, deal with the mountains of trivia ‘normal’ life demands, smile and nod as occasion demands, even take a genuine interest in sporting inconsequence and (metaphorically) join in with animation the conversations around the drinks cooler about the latest episode of some TV soap, yet at a deeper level I know from my depressions when suicide sings its siren song how meaningless and superficial it all is.

    So now while I do not welcome my depression I do value it, as it strips the meaning of life to the core and essential. As a result of my depressions I live a simple life far from the madding crowd and have honed it to a rich frugality that I find even in my periods of normality to be satisfyng and rewarding and which, it seems, in fact does much to keep depression at bay.

    And having the time every day to visit Naked Capitalism for as long as I need to explore the articles in depth and peruse the comments and responses thereto I regard as part of that rich frugality.

  15. skippy

    Ha… could be titled how to make conformists insane… in my case anywho. Stuff like getting Ds in algebra one semester/term and A+ the next or get in hot water for not handing in homework in science class (and many others) yet be chapters ahead of the class, answer questions several levels above currant curriculum, [be asked to] give one weeks instruction on year 8 Geology w/an eye to mining and processing.

    Long story short… my many mentors always lamented… if you would only harness your potential in a “consistent manner” – you – could be somebody great i.e. successful (make – get lots of money or other stuff). Someone should write “the memo” that – some out there – just like to know how – stuff works – and the rest is just monkey goo antics (massive wealth – power being apical).

    skippy… having the vice genitive mentis of an international corporation, offer to be your personal mentor – patronage, and turn it down…. well… flummoxed is putting it lightly.

    PS…. it seems to this defective – that the world is having the “Mother of Galileo” moments… the destruction going on out there is unprecedented…. question is… do all the Popes of different stripes… out there… have a clue to what their doing anymore… or just blindly obeying their programing – indoctrination.

        1. Optimader

          As a spieces i think the court is not even in session from geologic time sxale. Imo though, not real optimistic about human survival. The top of the food chain bakes in fragility during extinction events (with the notable recent exception of sharks) The progeny of the most successful top of the food chain are avian dinosaurs, and that was a far more long lived and evolved spieces than humans so far, actually no comparison,

      1. skippy

        @Opti – Conversely… what is – their – motivation…
        @PH – survival of our species and what enables it – or should be a consideration… eh.

        skippy…. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “From The Sun”

        1 week ago (edited)

        it looks like this was heavily inspired by Marina Abramović performance called Rhythm 0. if you have time go read about it
        pretty much the performance is arguably to show how people can be dehumanized once they give up their will to act or to defend themselves. additionally it brings to light the obscure morality system that each human has placed on themselves and how easily it can be broken if given permission to do so.

  16. psychohistorian

    As an outlier of our society myself, with my own story of struggle I emphathised strongly with the poster and commenters and thank them for their thoughts.
    With apologies to Voltaire, Sanity, like history is a lie commonly agreed to.

    Having acquired TBI, PTSD and an anxiety disorder related to a SUV/bicycle crash I have been down a fairly tortured path of recovery. But recover I have and will continue to engage in that process. Along the way I innovated a breath exercise that has helped me eliminate the effects of trauma, PTSD and anxiety. I am now working with others to try replicate my healing and package my breath exercise for a broader audience.

    Your body remembers everything that ever happened to it……..

    Can you imagine a world living without fear? I can, and one exhale/letting go at a time, I intend on making it so.

  17. Jack Parsons

    Fascinating, yes, thank you for going semi-public and posting this.

    About artists and mental illness: whatever else they have, they are definitely mild-to-medium OCD. I love painting but can’t handle more than maybe half an hour of it. The people who achieve do it for hours on end, and are lost to normal cognition. If you interrupt a painter, don’t be surprised to spend 15-30 seconds waiting for a coherent verbal response.

  18. LucyLulu

    Thank you to the anonymous poster for sharing such an insightful, up close and personal look inside the workings of your mind. A TBI caused a dramatic personality change and a previously undiagnosed, unsuspected, and easily managed case of ADHD to transform into something that appears to be “the poster child for ADHD” (per somebody who specializes in disorder). So much of what you wrote was familiar. This post is a keeper.

    And thanks Yves for recognizing the important message in anonymous’ post for those who are able and willing to hear it.

  19. Wade Riddick

    The connection to surgery does, indeed, suggest strep. The possible link is autoimmune in nature. The body tries to attack the strep and, in the process, immune cells wind up targeting parts of the dopamine system as collateral damage, resulting in tics and other symptoms. There are a few things you can do to both close the blood-brain barrier to keep immune cells out and calm immune cells generally. Folate, vitamin D3, dietary fiber, a low glycemic-index paleodiet (esp. give up wheat and cow’s milk) and low-dose naltrexone may help by limiting the self-reactive T-cells. Vitamin D3 is particularly helpful for both boosting innate immunity and stopping autoimmunity.

    If it’s autoimmune, you’re also a prime candidate for helminths (worms) and other probiotics. Autoimmunity only exists in epidemic proportions in modern societies because we’ve killed all the helminths that are supposed to be living in our guts. This leaves mast cells hyperactive and Tregs underactive. You might have some luck restoring a proper balance by reintroducing worms. Antibiotics can also set off autoimmune problems by killing friendly bacteria. Probiotics may be helpful in this regard.

    FYI, autism is driven by hyperactive mast cells. These cells create new sensory nerves (e.g., keloids). Patients with mastocytosis are have 10x the risk for autism.

    I became severely autoimmune when one of my fillings cracked and leaked mercury. Mercury drives your mast cells crazy – hence the connection between mercury and autism. I’m waiting to see if the FDA’s going to ban my B vitamin shots as part of their crackdown on compounded medicine – which, unlike vioxx, antibiotics and mercury fillings, never did poison me (of course it will be a cold day in Hell before the FDA does anything about the things that did).

  20. reason

    I share with my mother a tendency that is becoming more marked to switch off from conversations around me (sometimes making up a context when prompted). But I can’t say that is because of anxiety – it is just that mind run aheads on tangents and I lose the thread.

    But I’m interested because my elder daughter has issues that I find very hard to place. She really, really has a problem with being co-operative in the family. She once let slip something, that suggests that deep down in side she feels co-operating is equivalent somehow to losing (i.e. she sees everything within the family as a power struggle). And she has had this since she was a baby. She now has started conflicts with her younger sister accusing her of being a “swat” – because she takes advice and prepares for lessons. She has always been good at school – just very lazy – somehow in her mind actually working is “losing” in some contest in her head. And unlike her syster she refuses to help with housework, unless under dire threat. I have great difficulty understanding what goes on in her head. She doesn’t seem to have great problems with her friends, but she still can at times treat them a bit cavalierly.

    I have no name for this sort of disorder. The human brain seems very complicated to me (both in hardware and software), and I sometimes dispair about how little understanding we display towards one another. I think we really do tick differently sometimes, and it leads to massive misunderstandings.

    1. reason

      P.S. I did consider that she has some sort of sociopathology, but I’m not convinced. Such a clever girl who was a functioning sociopath would be much more manipulative than she is.

    2. Nathanael

      Competitiveness is overrevved in her brain for some reason. She needs a better outlet for it.

      She may also simply be tense, which makes everyone competitive. Does she get enough snuggles? (Hate to say it, but most people in the US does not.)

        1. Moneta

          Good idea!
          I would propose both:
          1. an outlet for her competitive side
          2. an outlet for giving and getting nothing in return except for the happiness one feels for helping a person in need.

  21. David

    I would say that our culture’s default response towards drugging children with these diagnoses is definitely harmful. This is not to say that drugs can’t help, but I suspect those are the small number of cases where it truly is the only option. Bruce Levine has commented on some of this at length and is definitely worth checking out:

    I wonder how many folks fully appreciate how much diet can impact a child’s mental state (or an adult’s for that matter)? Why parents won’t first attempt a dietary modification to address behavioral issues is beyond me. Just dropping wheat from a person’s diet can have major health benefits, and I’m sure I don’t need to mention the positive impact of dropping refined sugars.

    Add in some form of physical movement/exercise to help burn off excess energy and you’d probably see 90% of these cases resolved. For those that need a bit more help you could do a lot worse than some Tai Chi or Chi Gong as these help train the mind to focus. The mind can be trained just like a muscle, but it takes long-term perseverance to see results.

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