Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
March 2017

JFH: A Scientific Obituary

Are you proposing that we eat my mother?
I am a bit peckish.
--“The Undertaker Sketch,” Monty Python's Flying Circus

Seven years ago this spring, my older brother, Jessie Floyd Hayes, took his own life.

During his teen years, when he still lived with us full-time on the farm, he was the “adult” who paid more attention to me than any other. He introduced me to his own obsessions: superhero comic books, serial killers, Monty Python, Kolchak the Night Stalker, Art Bell and the paranoid world of conspiracy theories. He took me to my first theater movie, Short Circuit, a very 80s comedy about a conscious robot. Without his ongoing reinforcement, my weird imagination might have withered, leaving me with not much more than a good vocabulary and a memory for random facts. Of course, he was also a socially frustrated teenage boy. Like all the other riders and clowns in the testosterone rodeo, he was capable of petty cruelties. Minor things, but they were what I chose to pay attention to, and what informed my opinions of him at the time.

Later, during my twenties, while I was studying up north, he would send me occasional handwritten letters, saying he was both proud and jealous of me for getting out, while he spent most of his life within fifty miles of where he was born. Although he fantasized about joining a survivalist community, and even drove to one of their conventions in Elko, Nevada, he never really believed that he could break through to the life he wanted. Eventually he gave up, and wrote out a will on a pocket wirebound pad, and mixed several paper cups of death, which I found, empty, in a neat line on a table across the room from the recliner where he slept. I’m just now realizing that I have never once looked at the state’s official autopsy/toxicology report, so I don’t actually know what was in those cups. And I’m not about to call my mom out of the blue and ask her. Any discussion of the chemical aspect of his death will have to wait for another time.

At the time of his death, he was forty-six, the same age I am now. He was a bachelor—overweight, balding, with thick glasses and teeth that were crooked but otherwise perfect (never a cavity, his whole life). He was born with no sense of smell, probably due to a birthing injury that sheared off the delicate olfactory nerves where they penetrate the skull; this made shoveling cow manure on the farm more tolerable, but may have predisposed him to depression. He had recently been laid off, after fourteen years as a security guard. He was still living independently, but he was near the end of his savings.

That spring, I was developing a college elective on evolutionary biology for non-majors. In David Buss's textbook, Evolutionary Psychology, I found Catanzaro's theory of suicide. It essentially says that childless, middle-aged males kill themselves in unconscious recognition of their loserdom. Its inherent Social Darwinism (losers deserve to lose) pissed me off so much that I've never been able to let go of it. I don't deny the statistical patterns that Catanzaro noticed, but I think a much more nuanced picture is needed.

For instance, there's good evidence that only some suicides are depressed. Others are motivated by aggression, as when this person fired a nail gun into his head TWELVE times, and survived (a world record at the time). In other words, people in an aggressive state who don't have anyone else to lash out at will hurt themselves. I personally saw this same kind of frustrated behavior in caged lab monkeys while I was a graduate student. If they got mad about something a handler, or another monkey, was doing, and they couldn't reach the “villain,” they would bite themselves, over and over. Not forever, not all day, but until they had satisfied their urges to punish.

So I have a tendency to complicate things. There was a passage in the book Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering that grabbed my attention:

“On the one hand, the effort of the profession [psychiatry] has been to make finer and finer diagnostic distinctions. We have the DSM-V, which we use to diagnose and classify hundreds of different mental disorders. And yet the biology is suggesting that these disorders are related. It's no longer that schizophrenia is completely different from depression—it looks very much as if there's a spectrum that's interrelated rather than separate neurotransmitter system diseases. And the drugs, wonderful as they may be, are not so precisely targeted as is often claimed. We see one drug working for a variety of problems—or not working. It seems to be often largely a matter of individual response. There is also the growing evidence of the huge placebo effect in psychoactive drugs, which is, or ought to be, humbling.” (p17)

That book opens with an ambition of finding underlying unifying mechanisms, but then spends the next several hundred pages describing, through dozens of case studies—which is exactly what psychiatry has been doing for a hundred years. They're vivid, evocative descriptions—exactly the kind of writing I'm always encouraging scientists to do to engage the public with their work—so I do think the book is valuable in that way. However, beyond mentioning the amygdala and possibly misusing the engineering term “feed-forward system” (when what I think he means is a positive feedback system), there is no attempt to develop a predictive model that could be falsified. In the philosophical and logical traditions that serve as the historical context for his “human mystery,” this is known as cherry-picking. If you sort through enough case studies, you can find some that will support almost anything.

I've written before about how mathematical modeling can put sharp teeth into a theory, gnawing away those evocative but functionally unimportant details until only the clean, predictive bones are left. There's a long history of this kind of thing for simple physical systems, but less so for complex systems like psychiatric illness, where there are a lot more moving parts, and you really need a computer to keep track of them. One of the great modern success stories for modeling in the social sciences is John Gottman's group. Their dynamical models, consisting of what mathematicians call Ordinary Differential Equations, have predicted whether couples in counseling would divorce over 90% of the time, by focusing on important details like the presence of contempt and the ratio of failed connection attempts made by each spouse.

The essence of Kessler's idea in Capture is that mental illness is the result of a positive feedback loop, in which small momentary discomforts can sometimes grow through reinforcement into long-term chronic conditions. Rather than a negative feedback loop that reduces a disturbance over time back to its target value

Target - Disturbance (a bunch of times) → 0

a positive feedback loop amplifies differences each time through the loop

Target + Disturbance (a bunch of times) → ∞

As Kessler points out, this is not a new idea. William James said the same thing, using words like “explosive.” So did the Buddha, twenty-five centuries ago. The problem is that words require interpretation. Ambiguity is part of their value. Numbers, on the other hand, are valuable because they are inflexible. When your theory is wrong, the discrepancy between your predictions and the data will be a large number, and to make the number smaller (hopefully zero), the predictions, and thus the theory, have to change. Correctly predicting the likelihood of a particular person's suicide in a specific time frame, for example, will require mathematical modeling.

What does any of this have to do with writing science fiction? It might even seem counter-productive, since evocative details and mystery probably sell more books than clean predictive bones do. For one thing, I want to see stories where psychiatrists have successfully embraced these methods to better help patients. More generally, I think there's narrative value in such a recursive model of character development. We tend to focus on decisive, dramatic events that flip a switch in a character's behavior (except in horror and romance, where slow incremental changes build dramatic tension). But that's not how the majority of humans actually develop our personalities. According to George Bonanno, only about a third of people exposed to trauma go off the rails; two-thirds return to whatever their baseline was. I hope to return to this issue sometime.

But for now, keep your bug-out bag packed and your teeth clean. The end of the world is ever nigh, and there will be no fluoride in the water after the Collapse.

This column was prompted by the anniversary of my brother Jessie’s death, but also by the excellent obituary that my wife wrote for her own brother, Ron Reall, who died suddenly of natural causes in December 2016.






TOTALLY going to see this in May. Updates later.


Losing smell may be more disruptive than never knowing it to begin with.



That perforated piece of bone is called the cribiform plate, and you can see it even in models of the skull.



There are multiple evolutionary theories of suicide, none of them particularly satisfying.


Check out the flow chart in Figure 1.


Of course, he was also high on meth, so that could have had something to do with it.







The math version. Fascinating but not easy reading.


A video compromise version, with the math partnership coming in at 11:00.


The non-math version.




GoogleBooks links are way too long. Scroll down; there are several good examples.

Cyclical Processes in Personality and Psychopathology

The paper itself is only three pages; well worth your time.


Sampling bias is absolutely rampant in psychology.” Also, a nice follow-up on averages, after the January column.


When a depressed person sees that loop emerge in her mind the urge to pull can be enormous. Agree with it and do something. Disagree with it and prove it wrong. But either way, take it seriously. Pull, push; Click, click; automatic pilot mode.”



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