Monday, July 28, 2014

Corrupted Hardware: Stuff I Learned From My Broken Brain

[Content note: This post discusses mental illness, depression, social anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.]

In a Facebook discussion, Brent Dill said, "In my personal experience, those of us Really Smart People with Severe Mental Issues often acquire a sort of 'rationality superpower' to compensate." I've been thinking about this, and I'm pretty sure something like it happened to me.

A foundational insight upon which any art of rationality must stand is an understanding that we run on "corrupted hardware". Our brains are kludgey meat sacks running spaghetti code just good enough to make more kludgey meat sacks. They aren't designed to optimize for our preferences. And it's not really enough to just understand that abstractly. One way or another, that knowledge has to fuse with your soul, or I don't think you can make much headway in rationality.

I've had seasonal affective disorder and social anxiety most of my life. Both got worse as I aged. My social anxiety is gone now, though I still fight with depression in the winter. But I've been much better for the past couple years, thanks to finally going to a doctor and getting a prescription for bupropion. Before that, for two winters particularly, things were very bad.

I notice that I benefited, though, from certain features of the struggle.

While depressed and socially anxious, looking out at the world from the inside, I was routinely ridiculously wrong about many things. I was wrong about how much I'd enjoy anticipated events or how horrible they'd be ("what, why would I want to go for a walk to get chocolate? what even is happiness I recall no such thing"). I was wrong about how other people perceived me ("everyone would be better off if I were dead, and they probably know that but are too nice to say so"). I was wrong about how much terror and pain I could endure before completely collapsing and/or killing myself (I could endure far more than expected). I was wrong about how long the darkness would last (not, in fact, forever, and probably not even through Spring). I was wrong about my capacity to grow ("I am weak and stupid and will be like this forever").

Functioning despite these constant errors required I invent a limited version of reference class forecasting. I would look at the anticipated event (studying for finals, meeting with a professor, teaching a class, etc.), feel the sheer impossibility of it, remember that I'd done similar things before and survived, extrapolate that I'd probably survive this time as well, and then I'd resolve to do the impossible thing. Sometimes I couldn't pull off that reasoning by myself, and I'd ask a friend to explain to me why the opposite of what I believed was true. I'd talk to people who'd known me for a long time, and I'd try to trust their expertise.

(When I say "impossible", I mean the feeling you'd have if you stood before a sheer cliff face and considered whether you could make it to the top in a single leap. That's what scheduling a meeting is like when you're depressed and socially anxious. I am not exaggerating. It's the same experience, except that there may be terrible consequences to not scheduling the meeting. So it's more like you're at the bottom of the cliff considering whether you can jump to the top while a pack of rabid wolves closes in around you.) 

I really got that my internal prediction mechanisms were damaged, and that I needed special tools to compensate. I got it, the knowledge fused with my soul, because my errors were huge enough to stand out compared to the errors of the people around me, huge enough to prevent me from participating normally in human affairs. I felt that I was worthless and hated, while simultaneously recognizing that the people around me not only liked me but admired me and wished to model themselves after me. The evidence so totally contradicted my intuitions that I couldn't pretend my brain was working fine.

As I recovered, my habits stuck around. Many of those habits were very harmful and had to go. Relying on coffee and abandoning all hope of a regular sleep schedule, for instance. Or working until I literally couldn't stand upright because it was one of my only available distractions from the pain.

But some of the habits were useful, and stayed. One such habit was noticing that I might be wrong, especially when I thought I couldn't do something. Another was not giving up just because something seems impossible at first glance. Creating systems to automate as much of my life as possible to conserve my memory, attention, and motivation. Choosing my friends very carefully, communicating openly how I feel, and testing my models of them frequently.

My brain is better now, but only about as good as a normal human brain. And I still automatically expect many of the same errors. For instance, despite my abstract understanding, I notice that I usually don't empathize with people who live in the far distant future, leading strange lives in strange galaxies. And it feels a lot like it did to be depressed and not able to empathize with my best friend who's right in front of me. 

It's obvious to me, because I've seen it so many times before. I went through cycles of sanity and brokenness over and over again. If my brain isn't working correctly, to me, that just means I have to find a work-around. I think a lot of people just accept the limitation when they notice a major error like that, thinking, "Well, there's nothing I can do about that," and go about their lives. 

For a long time, I was trapped, encompassed by things I "couldn't do anything about", that I had to either deal with anyway, or die. Literally. It's amazing what I could find a way to do when "if it doesn't work out, I'll just kill myself" was sitting in the back of my mind reminding me that I have nothing to lose, so I might as well pull out all the stops.

Now, I have some idea of what I can do when there's nothing left in my way, when I decide to actually try. And in addition to the "corrupted hardware" insight, I have a deep intuition that I really can defeat death--because I've done it before. 

Often, it feels impossible to save all 2x10^58th(ish) people who will exist if I give them every star in my future light cone. 

Damned if I'll let that stop me.