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- Healthy Masculinity and Toxic Feminism
Rescuing positive manhood from feminist criticism What is toxic masculinity? It is thought that toxic masculinity originates in traditional gender roles that suppress women and make men dominant over them. This is right. However, the role of religion in creating these traditional gender roles it is usually ignored. Instead, men are blamed, insinuating that they gained a lot of privileges from this situation. Wikipedia says this about the definition of toxic masculinity: “Popular and media discussions in the 2010s have used the term to refer to traditional and stereotypical norms of masculinity and manhood. According to the sociologist Michael Flood, these include ‘expectations that boys and men must be active, aggressive, tough, daring, and dominant’.” Toxic masculinity, Wikipedia. A paper in the journal Men and Masculinities (Harrington, 2020) criticizes the idea of toxic masculinity. Quoting from its abstract: “Since 2013, feminists began attributing misogyny, homophobia, and men's violence to toxic masculinity. […] While some feminist scholars use the concept, it is often left under-defined. I argue that talk of toxic masculinity provides an intriguing window into gender politics in any given context. However, feminists should not adopt toxic masculinity as an analytical concept. I consider the term's origins, history, and usage, arguing that it appears in individualizing discourses that have historically targeted marginalized men.” The men’s mythopoetic movement The idea of toxic masculinity originated in the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s, in particular in the writings of Shepherd Bliss. I fell in love with the mythopoetic movement in the 90s, when I read Iron John, by Robert Bly, one of its founders. That book made me realize for the first time that masculinity was something to be cherished, explored and cultivated. I was intrigued by ideas like the wound from the father and the archetypical struggle between men and women. However, I explored these ideas individually, never assisting to any of the retreats of the movement. I continue this trend today by practicing the Way of the Warrior, which is not gender specific but endorses many of the positive aspects of masculinity. Too bad feminism criticized the mythopoetic men’s movement as sexist. Even as women came up with their own version of the mythopoetic movement with books like Women Who Run With the Wolves. Does masculinity exist? In biology, sexual dimorphism refers to differences in body shape and behavior between males and females. In some animals, like peacocks and Siamese fighter fish (Betta Splendens), the sexual dimorphism is so strong that males and females look like they belong to different species. In other animals, like the Rasbora Espai fish in my aquarium, it is impossible to tell males from females until they lay eggs. Yet other animals are hermaphrodites or change sex during their lifetimes. Our closest relatives, the great apes, are highly sexually dimorphic. Males gorillas are much larger than the females and have crests on their heads. Something similar happens to orangutans: male are larger, solitary and have face plates. In chimps, males are larger and more aggressive. Even the bonobos, despite their reputation for being peaceful and matriarchal, have larger males and different behavior between the sexes. I have to remark this because today it is fashionable to deny that there are differences between men and women. On average, men have larger bodies and larger brains than women. Although there are no differences in intelligence between men and women, there are subtle psychological and cognitive differences, which I explored in this article. To summarize them (Archer, 2019): Women are better at language, including reading and writing. Women are better at emotional intelligence and face recognition. Men have better spatial abilities, particularly in mental rotations. Men have a better understanding of mechanics and how machines work. Men are slightly better at understanding science. Women are more prone to anxiety, sadness and depression. Women have better emotional memories (Canli et al., 2002). Men are less fearful and more risk-prone. Men have higher pain thresholds and pain tolerance. Men are more prone to physical aggression, especially using weapons. Men are worse at self-control. Men are more prone to revenge, while women are better at forgiveness (Zak et al., 2009; Zheng et al., 2017). In general, men are more interested in things and women are more interested in people and social activities. These differences show at an early age, for example, in toy preferences (Lauer et al., 2015). The default sex is female and maleness is driven by testosterone, especially before birth (Hines, 2006). Sex is set epigenetically in each cell of the body (McCarthy et al., 2009). However, hormone therapy during adulthood can largely reverse sex differences, making possible sex change in trans people. This, and more evidence too large to include here, shows that masculinity exists and has a biological basis. It has good aspects, bad aspects and neutral ones. The importance of a culture of masculinity Importantly, the tendency of men to be more aggressive, more risk-prone and less social requires that young men are taught how to deal with these things so that they are not a danger to themselves and others. In most cultures, this takes the form of special social norms for men. This creates a cultural masculinity that is essential for the mental health of men. Therefore, cultural differences in gender are linked to biological sex differences and cannot be carelessly eliminated without dire consequences. I think that many of the problems of men in modern society arise from the absence of this culture of masculinity. If this is true, toxic masculinity should be blamed not only of traditional masculinity, but on the denial of the fact that men need to learn how to deal with their especial way of being. Is there a healthy masculinity? Instead of viewing masculinity in the negative, as toxic, it’s be better to focus on how to take advantage of its positive qualities. When men cultivate healthy masculinity, this helps both men and women, because it makes men less aggressive and more cooperative. Healthy masculinity should be a way of living that takes advantage of the positive qualities of biological maleness while avoiding the problems of its negative qualities, like excessive aggression, risk-taking and social isolation. It is not so much that certain virtues are unique to men, but that men need to cultivate these virtues to avoid becoming abusive assholes or whimpering wrecks. I listed the virtues that characterize healthy masculinity is a previous article: Here are some: Integrity: being honest and abiding by an ethical code. Courage: acting according to our moral code in the face of danger and fear. Stoicism: the ability to withstand emotional and physical pain. Resilience: the ability to recover quickly from setbacks and trauma. Self-sacrifice: being able to set aside our interest and well-being for the benefit of others. Generosity: sharing resources with others, including emotional, educational and financial assets. Self-reliance: being able to solve problems without help; not being dependent on others. Confidence: cultivating inner strength; having clear goals. Purpose: having goals to improve the world; to be on a mission. Responsibility: accepting the consequences of our actions without blaming the circumstances or other people. Self-restraint: being able to control aggression, anger and other negative emotions. Playfulness: actively engaging with the world with energy, joy, curiosity, humor and self-abandon. Of course, women have these qualities, too, but they are central to men’s identity. Without them, men lose of control of the dark impulses of maleness. Hence, they need to be consciously cultivated. Men feel a strong attraction for these ideals whenever they hear about them. This explains the popularity of personalities like Jordan Peterson, who extol the positive qualities of masculinity. Unfortunately, he does so in the frame of traditional gender roles, with their load of sexual repression, homophobia and misogyny. Progressives need to create a new ideal of healthy masculinity without these burdens. In fact, gay culture has become a reservoir of positive masculine outlooks. Hence the Tom of Finland drawing at the head of this article. Why the feminist conception of healthy masculinity is wrong You may have noticed that several of the virtues I list above are considered aspect of toxic masculinity. For example, stoicism, resilience, self-reliance and self-restraint. This is one of the main problems with the idea of toxic masculinity: it includes things that are intuitively valuable to most men. When we men hear that it is wrong to be brave, or stoic, or self-reliant, something inside us rises in rebellion. Feminists respond by saying that we have been indoctrinated by the patriarchy, and that we would be much happier if we abandoned these qualities. For feminism, the definition of healthy masculinity is for men to become more like women: vulnerable, accepting of help, sensitive to pain, uninhibited and nurturing. Modern feminism promotes the idea that men are victims of the patriarchy. While it is true that some of the ideas of traditional masculinity are wrong, seeing yourself as a victim is not emotionally healthy. And, least of all, for men. Feminists invoke the image of men that have been hurt by forcing them to fit into a masculine stereotype that does not suit them. They don’t realize that they are hurting many more men by forcing them to adjust to a model of feminized men that clashes against their innermost feelings. What is worse is that when you don’t teach men how to deal with rage, lust, aggression, risk-taking and imperviousness to punishment, you create a generation of dangerous men. Precisely the men that are more likely to hurt women. Hence, these feminists are working against the goals of feminism. Only good men can teach other men to be good men because only men know the dark impulses we have to deal with. Conversely, good men can make them discover the beauty and awesomeness of masculinity. How feminism became toxic for men Feminism became toxic for men when it wanted to control men by turning them into something that they are not. This ideological feminism dovetails with the Identity Politics ideology that sees men as oppressors and women as victims. It also sees masculinity and femininity as social constructs that need to be destroyed to create a more equitable society. Therefore, any effort by men to live according to a healthy masculinity should be fought as another trick of the patriarchy. Feminism has always carried a certain amount of hostility against men. Thus, the anti-porn feminists of the 70s and 80s tried to use sex as a weapon to control men, by limiting their access to sex by outlawing pornography and prostitution. The War on Sex that ensued was won by sex-positive feminism, creating third wave feminism. However, the #MeToo movement started fourth wave feminism by exposing how powerful men have been sexually abusing and raping women. That was wonderful. However, the previously defeated anti-porn/radical feminists took advantage of that to bring back to life their crusade against men and sex. In their twisted logic, they stated that #YesAllWomen have been sexually abused, and therefore #AllMen are rapists. The contempt for men that had been lingering in feminism came to the surface in celebrated books like Moi les hommes, je les deteste, Men Explain Things to Me and The Right to Sex. Today, it has become perfectly okay for feminists to say that they hate men. One of the favorite misandrist tricks of fourth wave feminists is to tarnish men who dare push back against them by accusing them of male fragility or insecurity. These words are offensive to men because we highly value courage, stoicism and self-reliance, three of the masculine virtues I list above. Being fragile and insecure is their exact opposite. Besides, dangerous men are not fragile and insecure, but overly tough and self-confident. Believe me, you don’t want to push men to become too much like that. Internalized misandry Recently, I became aware of my own internalized misandry. In a reversal of the feminist stereotype of men disliking the company of women, most of my friends are women, most of the postdocs working in my lab have been women, and most of my scientific collaborators have been women. This has nothing to do with sexual attraction. It’s just that, somehow, I find it easier to communicate with women. I am not alone in that. It seems that men dislike other men and don’t have many male friends. The reasons for this are not clear to me. It could be that men see other men primarily as competitors for women and professional success. Excessive competitiveness is one of the characteristics of toxic masculinity and has been exacerbated by our capitalistic culture. But I suspect that men have internalized the negative stereotypes of feminism, making us suspicious of other men. This is not normal. Men are naturally cooperative and form strong male friendships. The presence of internalized misandry should alert us that the contempt of men in toxic feminism can have dire consequences. Perhaps the most important health problem of men today is social isolation and loneliness. This is what drives a lot of men to suicide, An uneasy future for men and feminism If modern feminism has become toxic for men, it would be better for us to stay away from it. Don’t go to feminist demonstrations. Don’t read their books and articles. Don’t listen to their advice. Most of us love women, embrace equality and want to help. However, contact with feminism is sapping our self-esteem and feeding our internalized misandry. Even worse: experiencing the constant anger of feminists is turning some men into misogynists. Let’s hope that, eventually, feminism will get rid of the misandry in its ranks. But, looking at the dangerous rise of the extreme Right, we cannot wait. We urgently need a new progressive Men’s Movement to counter the migration of men towards the ideas of traditional masculinity of the Right. Then we will be able to support the worthy goals of feminism. References Archer J (2019) The reality and evolutionary significance of human psychological sex differences. Biological reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 94:1381-1415. PDF. Canli T, Desmond JE, Zhao Z, Gabrieli JD (2002) Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 99:10789-10794. Harrington C (2020) What is “Toxic Masculinity” and Why Does it Matter? Men and Masculinities 24:345-352. Hines M (2006) Prenatal testosterone and gender-related behaviour. Eur J Endocrinol 155 Suppl 1:S115-121. Lauer JE, Udelson HB, Jeon SO, Lourenco SF (2015) An early sex difference in the relation between mental rotation and object preference. Frontiers in psychology 6:558. McCarthy MM, Auger AP, Bale TL, De Vries GJ, Dunn GA, Forger NG, Murray EK, Nugent BM, Schwarz JM, Wilson ME (2009) The Epigenetics of Sex Differences in the Brain. Journal of Neuroscience 29:12815-12823. Zak PJ, Kurzban R, Ahmadi S, Swerdloff RS, Park J, Efremidze L, Redwine K, Morgan K, Matzner W (2009) Testosterone administration decreases generosity in the ultimatum game. PLoS One 4:e8330. Zheng L, Ning R, Li L, Wei C, Cheng X, Zhou C, Guo X (2017) Gender Differences in Behavioral and Neural Responses to Unfairness Under Social Pressure. Scientific reports 7:13498.
- Altered States of Consciousness in BDSM
Understanding the different sub-spaces and their neurological basis BDSM BDSM stands for Bondage, Dominance-Submission and Sado-Masochism, which are alternative sexual practices also called “kink”. Bondage consists of tying people up in exposed or provocative positions. Dominance-submission occurs when one partner becomes subservient to the other in a sexual or romantic way. Sadomasochism consists of using pain and humiliation as a source of pleasure and joy. There is considerable overlap between these three practices. Many people use them all to a certain degree, but there are also people who practice just one of them. One of the most fascinating aspects of BDSM is its ability to induce altered states of consciousness. In the kinky community, there is a lot of talk about “sub-space” as a desirable mental space to be achieved by the submissive or bottom in a BDSM “scene” - a session of play. Unfortunately, this has generated a series of myths and dubious techniques to induce endorphin release and attain that coveted sub-space. In this article, I want to use my experience as both a BDSM practitioner and a scientist doing research on the neurophysiology of pain to shed some light on this confusion. I must start with a warning: there is practically no scientific research on the neurochemical phenomena that occur in sadomasochistic scenes. However, although at the moment we are not ready to talk with certainty about what happens in the brain during a BDSM scene, we still can use scientific evidence to debunk some existing myths and set the foundation for some future research. What are altered states of consciousness? Consciousness is the fact of being aware of everything that happens, both in the outside world and inside our mind. Our consciousness flows like a river of experiences that forms the story of our lives. From our subjective point of view, our consciousness is everything. Of course, there is an external reality unaffected by what we make of it. However, our state of consciousness shapes and colors the events of our everyday lives. The reality that we perceive is altered by the filter of our consciousness: it disappears when we sleep and takes an exceptional intensity in situations of danger in which our brain becomes more alert to our surroundings. The quality of our consciousness determines to a great extent our capacity to be happy. This is because our consciousness is shaped by our emotional state, and this is able to make our world heaven or hell. Since the dawn of our species, humans have tried to alter our consciousness by consuming drugs or by undergoing certain rituals and practices. BDSM is an example of the second case. Not every BDSM activity is going to produce an altered state of consciousness, but those which do will leave us an unforgettable memory. Here I propose a classification of the altered states of consciousness that can be reached in a BDSM scene. This classification is based on my own experience, on discussions with other people that practice BDSM and on my knowledge of neuroscience. Endorphin release Morphine and other opioids like codeine, heroin and fentanyl are the most powerful pain-inhibiting (analgesic) drugs known. They also produce states of well-being (euphoria) that lead to their abuse. As everybody knows, opioids are highly addictive. Opioids produce analgesia and euphoria by acting on four opioid receptors, which are proteins embedded in the membrane of certain neurons in the brain, the spinal cord and the gut. There are also opioid receptors in immune cells and other non-neuronal cells. Three opioid receptors were named with the Greek letters mu, delta and kappa. All three decrease pain. Apart from their analgesic effect, the mu and delta opioid receptors induce euphoria. Kappa opioid receptors also produce analgesia but induce dysphoria (a state of emotional distress) instead of euphoria. A fourth opioid receptor was discovered in two different labs, which named it the nociceptin or the orphanin receptor, respectively. Unlike the other three receptors, it increases pain. The four opioid receptors didn’t evolve so we can take morphine to alleviate pain. They are activated by small proteins, called peptides, that are produced by the body and bind to the same site as morphine. These peptides were called “endorphins”—“endogenous morphine”. There are about 40 of these peptides, belonging to three different families: the endorphins, the enkephalins and the dynorphins. However, the term endorphin is commonly used to refer to all of them. These peptides are produced by three different genes. Since these genes are induced separately, different types of neurons release different endorphins. A fourth gene encodes for nociceptin/orphanin, the peptide that activates the fourth opioid receptor. Endorphins are released into the bloodstream from the pituitary gland, but this does not produce analgesia or euphoria because endorphins in the blood cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to have an effect on the brain. The only endorphins that can induce an altered state of consciousness are those that are released inside the brain. In the blood, endorphins regulate the immune system and gut motility, among other things. Therefore, we need to keep in mind that the presence of endorphins in the blood doesn’t mean anything in terms of our mental state. The other myth about the endorphin release is what I call the “endorphin soup”: the belief that endorphins are released all over the brain leading to a generalized state of euphoria. The reality is far more complicated. Endorphins are independently released in different brain areas, leading to multiple states depending on where in the brain they are released. For example, endorphin release in the spinal cord produces analgesia but not euphoria, whereas their release in the amygdala decreases fear and stress. Endorphin release in the nucleus accumbens (the “pleasure pathway”) induces euphoria, a decrease in motivation and addiction. In view of all that, does endorphin release happen during a BDSM scene? I believe so. Pain induces endorphin release, so it is likely that it occurs in sadomasochistic play involving pain. Opioids are downers, so endorphin release would also induce feelings of calm, relaxation and dreaminess. The submissive turns his or her attention inward, disconnecting with the surrounding environment and entering a fantasy world. The optimal way to induce endorphin release would be to gradually increase pain intensity in an environment of emotional support in which the submissive can absorb the sensations without having to give a response. Endorphin release can be detected by a decrease in heartbeat. Noradrenaline release Noradrenaline or norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter similar to the hormone adrenaline, which is released in the blood by activation of the sympathetic system in the fight-or-flight response. The difference is that noradrenaline is released by neurons in specific brain areas. As in the case of the endorphins, we shouldn’t confuse the release of adrenaline in the blood with the release of noradrenaline in the brain, although both things often happen at the same time. Noradrenaline activates several receptors named alpha and beta-adrenergic receptors. In particular, alpha-2 adrenergic receptors in the spinal cord produce analgesia. Like the endorphins, noradrenaline is released by pain-controlling neural pathways to induce analgesia. Noradrenaline can induce euphoria, but it also induces fear and stress. Often, this is a good kind of stress, called “eustress” (bad stress is called distress)—think of the feel-good fear that we seek in horror movies and roller-coasters. There are inhibitory connections between endorphin and noradrenaline pain-controlling pathways that ensure that endorphin and noradrenaline release do not happen simultaneously. Although both states entail analgesia, they are different in other things. If endorphins are downers, noradrenaline is an upper. Noradrenaline release produces a state of increased awareness to external stimuli, which appear more intense. The noradrenergic response evolved to inhibit pain in fight-or-flight situations, whereas the endorphin response may be related to freezing behavior. I suspect that many states of decreased pain sensitivity in sadomasochistic scenes that are attributed to endorphins are in fact generated by nor-adrenaline. Submissives in a noradrenergic state cry, move and react. Their heartbeat increases. This state can be as euphoric and pleasant as that produced by endorphin release. If we want to release noradrenaline, we should couple pain with fear in a situation that demands a response from the submissive. Sub-space in dominance-submission The term “sub-space” is used indistinctively to refer to any of the altered states of consciousness described above. However, its name suggests that it should be used only to refer to dominance-submission scenes and not to sadomasochistic scenes, that is, to states generated by pain. In dominance-submission, sub-space is a mental state in which the attention of the submissive is completely focused on the Dominant and feelings of surrender and obedience. From the point of view of neuroscience, it seems likely that this sub-space is related to the release of oxytocin, a social hormone that induces trust and bonding. It may also involve dopamine release in the so-called “reward pathway” linking the ventral tegmental area of the striatum with the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is the site of action of most drugs that produce addiction, like the opiates, cocaine, amphetamines and nicotine. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter of complex actions due to its many receptors (up to 16), could be related to a state of calm surrender in dominance-submission. In contrast to endorphin and noradrenaline release in sadomasochism, the sub-space in dominance-submission is more complex than a simple reflex. Instead, it seems to be an emotional state entered largely at will and subject to many variants and levels. Achieving a deep sub-space in dominance-submission often requires a period of training to create trust and bonds between the submissive and the dominant. Top-space Top-space is not mentioned as often as sub-space, but there is little doubt that it exists and is as important for the top as sub-space is for the bottom. One of the characteristics of a good top is to be able to read the physical reactions of the bottoms to know their mental state. Both the top in a sadomasochist scene and the dominant in a dominant-submissions relationship have to focus all their attention on the bottoms, feeling empathy and establishing a tight bond with them. Top-space may share some physiological features with sub-space. In it, oxytocin release may be accompanied by the release of vasopressin, a social hormone important in males that induces feelings of possession and territoriality. In sadomasochistic scenes in which the top inflicts a lot of pain to the bottom, a substantial release of nor-adrenaline may occur in the top because of empathy with the bottom. This would strengthen his focus on the scene. Sub-drop Many submissives complain of entering a period of low energy, apathy and dysphoria after an intense BDSM scene, called sub-drop. This may be due to a withdrawal effect from the release of euphoric neurotransmitters. However, sub-drop may have more complex causes because, on a closer examination, it seems to be a collection of different states that vary from person to person. Some people never experience sub-drop, while is quite strong in others. There seem to be at least two types of sub-drop, one that happens immediately after the scene and that can be addressed with aftercare and another that happens two or three days afterward and can last one or more days. We should not accept sub-drop as unavoidable. Perhaps the scene has stirred some deeply buried emotions from the past that the submissive should examine. Using the information that I gave above, the submissive should consider whether the scene has involved endorphin release, noradrenaline release or sub-space, and how sub-drop relates to each of these mental states. This way, we can start building up information on how sub-drop relates to these different altered states of consciousness. Final remarks We should not treat altered states of consciousness in BDSM in a frivolous fashion, as if BDSM was just another more drug. After all, if all we want is to get high we could just take drugs, instead of going through the painstaking process of doing a scene. I think that altered states of consciousness in BDSM are valuable because of their context, that of a profound personal relationship between the participants in the scene. Hence, it is not so much a question of whether we release this or that neurotransmitter, but of the meaning that the scene brings to our lives. This could be a catharsis, or maybe the surfacing of psychological issues buried in our minds for a long time that are released by the scene. Or maybe we discover a part of ourselves that we didn’t know before. More and more people understand BDSM as a process of self-discovery and personal transformation that enriches our lives and contributes to make us happier and self-fulfilled.
- How Identity Politics Sabotaged the Left
How we went from universalist humanism to the denial of progress Call me an old-fashioned leftist. I believe in wealth redistribution, redistributive taxation, state control over corporations, state-funded health care, free universities, contraception, abortion, defense of the environment and free speech. Among other progressive causes. However, for a long time I had felt that the Left was leaving behind these worthy causes in favor of some questionable ones. The ideology without name A new ideology has been growing like a cancer inside the Left, sapping its strength and turning a lot of people against it. The unthinkable has happened: the Left has lost the working class. Farmers and workers are increasingly voting for the populist Right, which is not your usual tame form of conservatism, but the fascist, radical Right incarnated in Donald Trump. Outside the USA, conservatives have been in power in the UK since Brexit. The Extreme Right has taken over Italy, the Netherlands and Hungary, and is ascendant in France and Spain. It’s all too easy to blame this on the stupidity of voters. The truth is that the Left is also to blame. It has been espousing radical, cryptic ideas rejected by common people, while abandoning the poor and the middle class to the ravages of capitalism. It is difficult to denounce this new ideology because it has no name. It pretends that it is just the Left. That its ideas are mainstream and common-sense, so nobody should criticize them. The growing polarization of politics creates an us-versus-them scenario in which you are denounced as a conservative if you oppose these ideas. Some people call this ideology wokenism. But this term was immediately hijacked by the Right to attack the Left. Besides, being woke has a nice pedigree as a term to oppose racism, so many progressives are reluctant to use it. Today, nobody knows what “being woke” really means. The dismissal of Progressivism This nameless ideology may be leftist, but it is certainly not progressivism. “As a political movement, progressivism seeks to advance the human condition through social reform based on purported advancements in science, technology, and social organization.” Progressivism, Wikipedia. The core of this nameless ideology is precisely to question progress, particularly denying the ability of science to find objective truth and questioning the improvements in human condition brought by technology. It is also critical of social progress. For example, it questions that the Civil Rights movement has brought any real improvements over racism. The Identity Trap Finally, an article in The Atlantic by Yascha Mounk led me to his book The Identity Trap. It explains quite well the inner workings of this nameless ideology, which Mounk labels the Identity Synthesis. In The Identity Trap, Mounk takes you through the origins of the Identity Synthesis in its successive stages. He then explains how it invaded the universities first, and then general society. The book ends with a thorough rebuttal of this ideology and a roadmap of what progressivism can do to regain control of the Left. Much of what I write in this article is based on that book, but I will add my own twists as a scientist and university professor. However, I will use the term Identity Politics instead of Identity Synthesis because it has more traction and has its own entry in Wikipedia. An internet search revealed that the Identity Politics is more widely used than Identity Synthesis, although its meaning is not as narrow. The seven themes of Identity Politics Mounk identifies seven main characteristics of the Identity Synthesis: “Rejection of objective truth.” Based on postmodernism, it asserts that science is just another ‘grand narrative’ created by the structures of power. “Using discourse analysis for political ends.” Instead of defending free speech, it declares that the truth needs to be subjugated to attaining political goals. “Strategic essentialism.” While denying that identities like race and gender have any real existence, it embraces them with the goal of fighting the oppression structures that created them. “Pessimism about overcoming racism, misogyny and other forms of bigotry.” It questions past successes of feminism and the Civil Rights movement, claiming that they have been hijacked and perverted for the benefits of the oppressors. “Policies that distinguish people based on their identity.” Instead of continuing to fight segregation, Identity Politics wants to reinstate it because people of the same gender and race understand each other and fight better when they are together. Thus, it proposes the creation of ‘safe spaces’ for women and Blacks. “Intersectionality as a strategy for political organizing.” Since different forms of oppression compound each other—the original idea of intersectionality—, fighting against one form of oppression requires fighting against all forms of oppression. This leads to a mindless division of the world between victims and oppressors in all spheres of life. “Standpoint theory,” which asserts that people with different identities cannot communicate their experiences to each other. It also prioritizes subjective ‘lived experiences’ over scientific fact-based objectivity. Postmodernism Yascha Mounk places the origin of Identity Politics in the postmodernists ideas of the 1980s, particularly those of Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard. At its core, postmodernism represents a rejection of objective truth and universalist leftism—what I have been calling progressivism. “The historical mission of the left consisted in expanding the circle of human sympathy across the boundaries of family, tribe, religion, and ethnicity.” The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk. Michel Foucault started his career as an orthodox Marxist, but eventually became disenchanted with it. This led him to a nihilistic philosophy consisting of rejecting any ‘grand narrative’ because they are hijacked by oppressors to perpetuate themselves in power. In his book Madness and Civilization, Foucault explains that grand narratives are ideologies that offer a comprehensive explanation of how the world works and what to do to improve it. Therefore, science figures prominently amongst these grand narratives. But so are any ideas of social or moral progress. Jean-François Lyotard, in his book The Postmodern Condition, similarly dismisses the necessity of ‘metanarratives’—which are theories that bring together several disciplines under a common understanding. Any such universalist theory, he said, is just a matter of opinion and inherently unjust. The main examples of grand narratives or metanarratives are: The progress towards rationality promised by the Enlightenment. The socialist revolution promised by Marxism. The scientific method as a way to determine the truth or falsity of a statement. Interestingly, the rejection of grand narratives led to the rejection of essentialism, which is the idea that there are stable identities like proletarian, woman or race. According to postmodernism, the identity labels that we use to make sense of the world are a source of power because they enshrine the norms that create the moral structure of society. This is the origin of the current idea that there is no biological sex, because ‘gender is a social construct.’ That is, gender is just a narrative imposed by the power structure of the patriarchy. This way, fourth wave feminism has become an ideology anchored in postmodernism. However, if identities are not real, and gender and race are just illusions created by the oppressors, how on Earth did we get to Identity politics? This is the reason why Identity Politics refuses to label itself. It’s not just that, at its core, it does not believe in identities. It’s that adopting any label would be a grand narrative and therefore intrinsically problematic. So Identity Politics camouflages itself as a collection of apparently unconnected ideas that cannot be construed as a grand narrative. Regardless, identities were brought back into the equation, and eventually became dominant. It was a twisted process. Postcolonialism Edward Said (1935-2003) was a Palestinian-American educated in Princeton and Harvard. His book Orientalism, published in 1978, criticized the notion of ‘the orient’ because it put in the same category the diverse cultures of Arab countries, India, China and Japan. He correctly pointed out that viewing the world through the lens of Western civilization creates a distorted view in which poorly understood cultures are considered inferior. This hides a great injustice: how the idea that the West had a superior culture that needed to be taught to other countries created a justification for the colonial exploitation of those countries. This criticism of Western cultural supremacism, however, was used to reinforce the postmodernist idea of grand narratives. And, in particular, that science was part of Western culture and needed to be rejected. In reality, science arose from the merger of Greek philosophy with Arabic expertise in astronomy, chemistry and medicine, which in turn they transmitted from Chinese and Indian civilizations. As soon as it developed in the West, science was promptly adopted by countries like Japan, China and India. Therefore, science is universal in its origin and application, forming a common tool for all humanity to discover and share objective truths. Another unfortunate development of Said’s idea was starting the current division of humanity between victims and oppressors. His goal was to change the dominant discourse to help the colonized countries. However, as decolonization became prevalent in the second half of the 20th century, formerly colonized countries began to engage in war against each other. For example, India and Pakistan fought each other, as did numerous African countries. Other countries, like the D.R. of Congo and Rwanda had bloody civil wars. The framework of victim/oppressor is not very useful to understand these conflicts, as one year’s oppressor becomes the next year’s victim. How strategic essentialism brought back identity Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an Indian literary scholar considered one of the most influential intellectuals of Postcolonialism. Following on the footsteps of Said, she argued that the oppressed masses in Asia did not have the luxury to disregard identity markers, as did Foucault. Even though she rejected essentialism as universal discourse, following postmodernism, she realized that the citizens of India, China and other Asian countries had to embrace their cultural identity to rescue it from Western influence. Identity had to be supported in a temporary, strategic way. Thus, strategic essentialism was born. This is how the victim versus oppressor discourse of Said and Spivak led to the adoption of the identities that postmodernism had rejected as essentialist. Soon enough, strategic essentialism was adopted by feminism and in the fight against racism. Just when scientists were ready to accept that race had no biological basis, anti-racists brought it back to organize their political fight around it. Apparently, intellectual consistency can be sacrificed in the political fight to dethrone the oppressors. After all, rationality is something scientists do. And science had been discarded long ago by the postmodernists and other philosophers. Critical Race Theory Derrick Bell (1930-2011) was a lawyer, university professor and civil rights activist. In 1970, he published Race, Racism, and American Law, the book that started Critical Race Theory. He argued that the progress of the Civil Rights movement was only apparent because it did not translate to improving the conditions of Blacks. In fact, it ended up working in favor of racism. Among other things, he said that it was a mistake to make desegregation of schools the main goal. He saw American racism as a permanent condition that just changes shapes to perpetuate itself. Thus, in contrast to what you may hear, Critical Race Theory appeared in opposition to the Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, not as a continuation of it. Critical Race Theory applied to law practice the ideas of postmodernism and Critical Theory. “In the 1970s, Bell and these other legal scholars began using the phrase "critical race theory" (CRT) a phrase based on critical legal studies, a branch of legal scholarship, that challenged the validity of concepts such as rationality, objective truth, and judicial neutrality.” Development of Critical Race Theory, Wikipedia. Eventually, CRT gave rise to ideas often brandished by Identity Politics, like microaggressions, implicit bias and intersectionality. Intersectionality Kimberlé Crenshaw (1959) is a law professor who used CRT in her research. She came up with the idea of intersectional theory, which states that different forms of oppression add to each other to create an even more pronounced oppression. Although intersectionality is true in many cases, it does not account for the fact that sometimes different forms of oppression do not add up. For example, Black men are often more oppressed than Black women: they are killed by police and incarcerated more often. The main problem, though, is that intersectionality produced two ideas that are not supported by Crenshaw. That activism against a particular form of oppression needs to translate into fighting all other forms of oppression. That people with different identities cannot understand each other’s lived experiences. Standpoint Theory This second idea became Standpoint theory. Standpoint Theory states that “there were key insights about the social world—and even that would be needed to fix injustices—that members of marginalized groups would never be able to communicate to members of dominant groups.” The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk. Patricia Hill Collins (1948), among others, reasoned that since each group experiences different combinations of oppression, that means that subjective experience cannot be shared between different identity groups. Therefore, Identity Politics ideologues enshrine subjective experience as the ultimate arbiter of truth. In contrast, neuroscience has documented numerous cases in which subjective experience is unreliable because the brain has many ways to deceive itself. Standpoint theory also looms large in fourth wave feminism. It criticizes science, arguing that it has been dominated by men that are biased by their gender, so that they give us a distorted view of the world. In particular, they say, science has created many false beliefs about women and their bodies. Of course, science makes mistakes all the time. It’s in its nature, as it is to constantly test its ideas and eventually come up with the truth. But this doesn’t matter to feminists. One mistake damns you forever. This idea grows on the fertile ground of the rejection of science promoted by postmodernism. Since there is no objective truth, and science is wrong, we need to take the testimony of women at face value. It’s “believe women” taken to the extreme. Of course, Standpoint theory is valid only when we consider the subjective experience of an oppressed individual. The subjective experience of a person belonging to an oppressor group—men, Whites—is irredeemably subjected to implicit bias. Attacks on free speech Attacks against free speech are a common staple of the Right, mostly in the form of the banning of books about sexuality and LGTB rights. However, there is also a long tradition of attacks on free speech in the radical Left. Herbert Marcuse was a political philosopher that emigrated to the USA from Germany. In his book Repressive Tolerance, he argued that free speech was not possible in Western democracies because of domination of the mass media by the wealthy classes. He proposed a revolution that would bring to power a leftist government that would outlaw speech and assembly of any group that opposed its political goals. Stanley Fish took over the ideas of Marcuse, arguing that the boundary between allowed speech and banned speech (like “shouting fire in a crowded theater” or “fighting words”) is arbitrary and a matter of politics. Ibram X. Kendi is one of the main proponents of anti-racism and the idea that all Whites are racist. He defends the banning of racist ideas, which he defines broadly as anything that contradicts his thought. These ideas have infiltrated Identity Politics as a wide disregard for free speech. It is considered as something secondary, or even opposed, to the fight for racial liberation or to destroy the patriarchy. The result was cancel culture: the permission to viciously attack anybody who deviates from politically correct dogma. Many people have lost their careers for voicing their opinions. For example, evolutionary biologist Carole Hooven had to take leave from Harvard for teaching that sex is binary, an opinion shared by many scientists. “While some activists insist that asserting the biological reality of the sex ‘binary’ is entirely wrong-headed and pernicious, the true threat to science, and to human dignity is the idea that in order to support anyone’s rights we must deny or ignore reality.” Carole Hooven. Negativity and inefficacy By its essence, Identity Politics is full of negativity. It’s good at criticizing society, canceling people and demanding privileges, but poor at proposing solutions. Faced with real-life problems, like the separation of immigrant families or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it remains baffled and silent. At most, it would propose largely symbolic solution, like calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, without spelling out how to resolve the underlying issues of the existence of Israel as a refuge for displaced Jews and taking the Palestinians out of their perennial refugee status. CRT and intersectionality has led to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies in universities and corporations that have proven divisive, leading to compelled speech. DEI is leading faculty to sue their universities for curtailing their academic rights and threatening their jobs. Identity Politics is a threat to the core values of democracy The denial of objective truth and science by Identity Politics in the Left mirrors the same reactions in the far Right. The Left cannot criticize the conservatives when they deny the climate crisis and the effectiveness of vaccines while opposing science in subjects that it finds objectionable. More to the point, if there is no objective truth, dialogue becomes impossible, and we are doomed to an endless struggle between opposing ideas. Western civilization emerged from a thousand years of religious wars when it was able to accept that there are better ways to establish truth than blind faith and belief enforced by military power. Science created a comprehensive, internally consistent repository of knowledge about the world and ourselves based on evidence. Now the whole of humanity can move forward with a shared reality anchored in scientific knowledge. The technological fruits of science are made public for all to share. Identity Politics takes a huge step back by denying this scientific knowledge and going back to ideologies established by raw power. At stake is nothing less than the basis of our modern civilization. Democracy is based on recognizing the right to free speech, which in turn is based on the right to hold different opinions. Human rights are based on the recognition that we all share a common humanity and basic interests. Identity Politics emphasize the things that make us different from each other, in the name of diversity. It even tells us that these differences are so profound that we cannot understand each other. Identity Politics presents society as a zero-sum game in which “equity” is based on privileging certain races and genders over others. We need to purge this noxious ideology from the Left, not by canceling their proponents, as they do, but by debating it publicly. Like a vampire, it will wither away once we shine light on it.
- Consent Is Not As Simple As It Seems
Exploring the nuances of consensual sex Consent: the devil is in the details Consent doesn’t seem to be very complicated, at first sight. If two people are having sex, either both of them want it or one of them does not. If one person did not consent, then it’s non-consensual sex, which the same as rape. Simple, isn’t it? Well, it’s actually not that simple. When you get down to it, there are many cases in which saying yes to sex does not imply consent. For example: One the individuals involved has a sexually transmitted disease (STI) and has not told the other. A man removes his condom before penetration. A woman has agreed to have intercourse. While they are having it, the man chokes her. The boss has sex with his secretary. Consent is not just saying yes. It requires having adequate information (case 1), respecting all the details of what have been agreed (case 2), not doing things that have not been agreed (case 3), and lack of coercion (case 4). There are also cases in which it’s hard to tell if the sex was consensual or not: Two strangers are having impromptu sex without first agreeing about what they are doing. A woman has sex with a man after telling him that she is single, but she is actually married. A professor has sex with a junior faculty at her university. A landlord has sex with a tenant in exchange for rent. Whether you consider these cases consensual or not depends on your beliefs about what is ethical and what is not in sex. For example, you may believe that consent needs to be explicit (case 1), that being tricked into adultery is not consent (case 2), that any power imbalance makes sex non-consensual (case 3), or that sex should not be exchanged for money or perks (case 4). However, not everybody would agree with you on this. And, if we used the force of the law to persecute people doing these things, wouldn’t we be violating their consent by infringing on their personal autonomy? Some people may want to use consent to try to enforce their moral or ideological agendas. And, isn’t sexual repression a form of non-consent? Yes means yes, no means no and rape paralysis The situations that I am going to discuss pertain to the yes means yes approach to consent, or affirmative consent. It means that some kind of active consent is given, even if it is non-verbal. The other approach, which needs to be strongly discouraged, is no means no. It means that consent is assumed unless the person says that the sex is unwanted. The problem with this is that rape paralysis—an automatic brain response called tonic immobility—may prevent a person from saying no to sex while having strong feelings against it (Möller et al., 2017; de la Torre Laso, 2023). The stronger the fear and revulsion produced by the sex, the more likely is rape paralysis to occur. FRIES A nice step towards defining full consent was done by Planned Parenthood with their FRIES criteria. Quoting from their website, consensual sex should be: “Freely given. Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” “Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if you’re both naked in bed.” “Informed. You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, there isn’t full consent.” “Enthusiastic. When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.” “Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others (like having sex).” FRIES covers a lot of the details about sexual consent. And Planned Parenthood does a good job of explaining what each of the criteria means. What is lacking are ways of putting these things into practice. I have some ideas. Does consent needs to be enthusiastic? But, first, I want to take issue with the “enthusiastic” criterion. Here are some dictionary definitions of the word “enthusiasm”: Cambridge Dictionary: “A feeling of energetic interest in a particular subject or activity and an eagerness to be involved in it.” Merriam-Webster: “1a) strong excitement of feeling: ARDOR; 1b) something inspiring zeal or fervor; 2a) belief in special revelations of the Holy Spirit; 2b) religious fanaticism. Leaving aside the religious definitions, I think it’s clear that we don’t always have an “energetic interest” is sex, are eager to do it, or get a “strong excitement” about it. A lot of sex is just meh. And it’s not because it didn’t work out the way we expected. A lot people engage in sex knowing beforehand that it’s going to be mediocre or boring. And they still do it, and they want to do it. My point is: going into sex with lack of enthusiasm does not make it non-consensual. And I’m not the only one with this objection. There are lots reasons why we may want to have sex without feeling particularly great about the perspective: Getting pregnant to have a child—and it’s the right time of the cycle. Keeping the spark in your relationship alive. Keeping your spouse from cheating. Satisfying the desire of someone you love. Trying new things that scare you (bondage, spanking, anal sex, pegging). Lots of the thing we do in life we do them without enthusiasm. How enthusiastic do you feel about going to work? I guess what Planned Parenthood meant by enthusiastic is that sex has to be wanted. And there are many reasons to want sex, other than sexual desire or the pleasure we are going to get from it. However, FRIWS is a lousy acronym. That’s too bad, really. Because the problem is that this created the wrong idea that consensual sex had to be based on a strong sexual desire and the expectation of great pleasure. With the unfortunate effect of devaluing the experience of people who have lost their sexual drive (some post-menopausal women, people taking certain medications, survivors of sexual assault) or have difficulties experiencing sexual pleasure (anorgasmic women, men with erectile problems or premature ejaculation). Added together, these people are a multitude, and they may get the wrong idea that they shouldn’t be having sex. That is somehow unethical if they do it. Or that their partners are monsters for simply desiring them. It may also cause women who had a bad sexual experience to wonder if they had been raped. However, nobody can guarantee you good sex, no matter how hard they try. Some people are simply sexually incompatible, and they won’t find out until they have sex. Bad sex is not rape. Good, Giving and Game Dan Savage is a sex advisor and writer who does the Savage Lovecast podcast. He has promoted the creation of many sexual neologisms, like pegging. Another one is GGG sex. According to it, sex should be: Good - We should have a good knowledge of our body, our desires and what makes us enjoy ourselves during sex. We should also have good technical skills about how to please our partners. Good sex doesn’t just happen. It takes work. Giving - We should approach sex with a spirit of generosity and not selfishness, getting pleasure from the other person’s pleasure. We should do things that our partner likes, not only the things that we like. We should engage in foreplay and provide aftercare. Game - We should be adventurous is sex, willing to try, at least once, new things that excite our partner. This doesn’t mean that we should continue to do things we actively dislike. I think that these are good alternatives to the “enthusiasm” criteria. Instead of focusing on the negative, it calls our attention to the adventurous, exploratory and generous nature of sex. GGG sex implies risks, mostly of having a bad sexual experience. We should accept this as part of life. Those risks should be shared with our partner, instead of putting on him (it’s usually him) all the responsibility for the sexual decisions. We have every right for sex to be consensual. However, we need to recognize that sex also involves taking risks and accepting responsibility for our decisions. Explicit and implicit consent There are different types of consent according to how it is established. While they are not all equally ethical, there are many gray areas. Whether some type of consent is ethical or not depends on the context. Consent can be explicit or implicit. Explicit consent is when it is given before sex, verbally. If it fulfills the FRIES criteria, it is the most desirable and ethical form of consent. Still, explicit consent can be unethical. For example, if it is not given with full information about STIs, risk of pregnancy, previous experience, power dynamics, etc. There could be trouble, also, if explicit consent cannot be revoked or if it is given under duress. Implicit consent is when it is not given verbally but assumed because of a variety of circumstances. Although this may seem problematic, it depends on context. For example, it may happen in a couple that values spontaneous sex. Or there can be lots of non-verbal signals leading to it. Implicit consent happens a lot in established relationships in which the partners know each other well enough to know if they want sex or not. There could also be a previous agreement of “unless I say no, it is yes.” Even more edgy, there could be a consensual non-consent (CNC) agreement, which normally is along the lines of “you can do it do me even if I don’t want it at that moment.” Implicit consent is more problematic in casual sex, but it can also be ethical if it fulfills the FRIES criteria. However, it is difficult for the sex to be fully informed if it has not been discussed verbally beforehand. Verbal and no-verbal consent While discussing the ethics of sexual choking (Herbenick et al., 2022), a paper classified consent into four categories: verbal, non-verbal, assumed and non-consent. “Verbal consent, defined as when partners spoke about desires relating to choking, occurred before sex, during sex, and after sex” (Herbenick et al., 2022). This is explicit consent, but it can be given during sex by checking in with the partner, or after sex by confirming if what happened was okay. Of course, verbal consent before sex is the ideal situation. Non-verbal consent is a form of implicit consent that usually happens during sex and consists of gestures, body movements and facial expression that signal that the sex is okay. Assumed consent is another form of implicit consent that happens when partners assume that sex is wanted because they do it regularly or have prior knowledge that it is desired. Some sexual acts may be assumed to be okay because they are normal in their social environment. This is problematic when dangerous sexual practices, like choking, become normalized. In these cases, consent is not informed or specific. Non-consent is the extreme case of assumed consent in which the assumption turns out to be wrong. “The major distinguishing factor between ‘assumed because normal’ and non-consensual was the response of the person being choked” (Herbenick et al., 2022). The only difference between this situation and outright rape is that the person suffering the non-consent could have said no and didn’t do it. As we can see, there is a whole sliding scale that goes between fully negotiated, verbal and explicit consent, to assumed consent, all the way to non-consent. Still, these are not simple, one dimensional situations. To the dimension of how the consent is given we need to add an orthogonal one represented by the FRIES criteria. We could have paradoxical situations in which explicit, verbal consent is non-ethical—because it was not informed, for example—while assumed consent turns out to be okay. External and internal consent Some scientific papers about consent make a difference between internal and external consent. Internal consent is the willingness and intention to engage in sex, whereas external consent is the communication of that willingness to the potential partner (Willis and Smith, 2022). However, nobody has the obligation to be a mind-reader. Hence, nobody should be accused of violating internal consent. It is the obligation of everybody who is about to engage in sex to communicate their limits and desires. There is also a reciprocal obligation to listen to those limits and desires, and to provide an environment in which in this communication can take place free of pressure and coercion. I think that the discussion on internal versus external consent should take place with the goal of enabling this communication by teaching people how to identify and express their inner feelings. Consent in BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism) In the 1980s, the BDSM community that started to get organized faced the double problem of eliminating abuse from its members and legitimizing its existence in front of society and the law. Whereas sex is something commonly done, hitting people, tying them up or making them obey our orders are things that infringe upon the most basic norms of behavior. BDSMers faced an uphill battle to convince society that these things are okay provided that they are consensual, safe and arising from a sane frame of mind. This is how the criteria of safe, sane and consensual (SSC) were born. Later, the debate continued about whether they needed to be replaced by other criteria like Risk-Aware Consensual Kink (RACK). In this article I limit myself to discussing consent, which is common to both approaches. People in the BDSM community use explicit consent more frequently than vanilla people (Harris et al., 2023). BDSMers also show more opposition to a variety of attitudes that condone sexual abuse and rape (Klement et al., 2017). Indeed, BDSMers have a lot to teach us about consent. Negotiation, limits and safewords Over the years, BDSMers developed three practical tools to ensure consent: negotiation, limits and safewords. They could be used for regular sex to establish explicit consent according to the FRIES criteria. Particularly for sexual practices a bit out of the norm, like anal sex. Negotiation is simply to discuss what is going to happen and not going to happen during sex. Here, all the required information can be exchanged. It also provides a space to discuss likes and dislikes. Negotiation doesn’t have to be formal. It can serve as an exciting preparation for sex, full of intimacy and anticipation. Limits are things that are a turnoff or considered too dangerous to happen during sex. The safeword is an especial word that signals withdrawal of consent during sex. When used, sexual activity should cease. A discussion of what went wrong and emotional care should ensue. In BDSM, a traffic light system is often used, with yellow signaling a small problem to be addressed and red the complete interruption of the activity. Importantly, safewords protect both the top (dominant, sadist, rope rigger) and the bottom (submissive, masochist, rope bottom) by putting on the bottom the responsibility to signal when something goes wrong. Still, the top has to take into account that some BDSM scenes put the bottom in a non-verbal state in which using the safeword is not possible. Consent continues to be a problem Unfortunately, there is a big gap between the ideal consensual sex and what happens in reality. Ideally, there should be explicit, verbal consent according to FRIES. In practice, a lot of sex happens with non-verbal or assumed consent, with no means no as the last-resort barrier to stop rape. Problems are also common regarding receiving full information, particularly regarding STDs and risky practices like choking. There is also a lack of specificity regarding what is being consented to. The use of a safeword could improve reversibility of consent during sex. The BDSM community has shown how education and techniques like active negotiation, limits and safewords can be used to improve consent without detracting from the fun of sex. Definition of consent by the American Law Institute Recently, the American Law Institute (ALI), working with the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF), proposed the following legal definition of consent: (a) “Consent” for purposes of Article 213 means a person’s willingness to engage in a specific act of sexual penetration or sexual contact. (b) Consent may be express or it may be inferred from behavior—both action and inaction—in the context of all the circumstances. (c) Neither verbal nor physical resistance is required to establish that consent is lacking, but their absence may be considered, in the context of all the circumstances, in determining whether there was consent. (d) Notwithstanding subsection (3)(b) of this Section, consent is ineffective when it occurs in circumstances described in Sections [reserved]. (e) Consent may be revoked or withdrawn any time before or during the act of sexual penetration or sexual contact. A clear verbal refusal—such as “No,” “Stop,” or “Don’t”—establishes the lack of consent or the revocation or withdrawal of previous consent. Lack of consent or revocation or withdrawal of consent may be overridden by subsequent consent. ALI also proposed a revised Model Penal Code on Sexual Assault. The NCSF hopes that it would help decriminalize consensual BDSM practices. Consent and sexual repression In the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been a push towards the intervention of the law, the state, universities and the HR departments of companies and in the consent decisions of adults. The fact that this introduces a serious element of coercion and brings the interest of third parties into intimate decisions has been overlooked. The power differential between a citizen and the state, or between a corporation and its employees, far surpasses any possible unbalance of power between individuals. And yet, we have been granting paternalistic powers of oversight to universities and corporations over private matters. Corporative HR departments can now destroy love relationships between employees if they are deemed a legal risk for the company, independently of the feelings of the people involved. Universities have a track record of extralegal persecutions of students and faculty based on spurious accusations or rules tailored to the interests of the university. Conservatives and radical feminists have been interested in sexual repression for their own ideological motives, and use consent as a Trojan Horse to introduce doubt and fear into sexual relationships. Conservatives want to eliminate casual sex and confine it to marriage. Radical feminists have been persecuting BDSM, pornography and sex work for half a century, and now want to cast them as non-consensual activities. For example, PSOE, the socialist party currently in power in Spain, tried to use a new law to “guarantee sexual freedom” to make sex work illegal. At the same time, this new law does not include a clear definition of consent, or takes into account any of the problems discussed in this article. In this article, I have tried to show that consent is a complex issue with many gray areas. Discussing this issue with attitudes of outrage, blaming, and absolutism is not helpful. Labeling as rape instances of non-consent that were caused by lack of information and miscommunication can backfire by minimizing cases in which rape is accompanied by extreme violence. People who infringe on the sexual consent of others should be held accountable, but in a way that is proportionate to their offense. Better yet, we need to prevent sexual abuse and rape through education, disseminating tools that facilitate consent and communication about sex. References de la Torre Laso J (2023) The Reality of Tonic Immobility in Victims of Sexual Violence: "I was Paralyzed, I Couldn't Move". Trauma Violence Abuse:15248380231191232. Harris EA, Morgenroth T, Crone DL, Morgenroth L, Gee I, Pan H (2023) Sexual Consent Norms in a Sexually Diverse Sample. Arch Sex Behav. Herbenick D, Guerra-Reyes L, Patterson C, Rosenstock Gonzalez YR, Wagner C, Zounlome N (2022) "It Was Scary, But Then It Was Kind of Exciting": Young Women's Experiences with Choking During Sex. Arch Sex Behav 51:1103-1123. Klement KR, Sagarin BJ, Lee EM (2017) Participating in a Culture of Consent May Be Associated With Lower Rape-Supportive Beliefs. J Sex Res 54:130-134. Möller A, Söndergaard HP, Helström L (2017) Tonic immobility during sexual assault – a common reaction predicting post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Acta obstetricia et gynecologica Scandinavica 96:932-938. Willis M, Smith R (2022) Sexual Consent Across Diverse Behaviors and Contexts: Gender Differences and Nonconsensual Sexual Experiences. Journal of interpersonal violence 37:Np18908-np18934. Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol.
- What Has Philosophy Ever Done For Us?
While science has been enormously successful, philosophy has failed at its stated goals What has science ever done for us? The title is based on a sketch of the movie Life of Brian, by Monty Python. In it, the leader of the People’s Front of Judea asks “what have the Romans ever done for us?” He ends up saying: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” What the Romans had done for the people of Judea is quite similar to what science has done for us. It’s a long list! Our wonderful Western civilization would not exist without science. However, material progress is not the only gift of science. The biggest contribution of science is giving us a comprehensive, internally consistent, detailed and actionable view of ourselves, the world and our place in it. Far from being nihilistic, as claimed by many, the scientific worldview is full of meaning, as I explain in this article. And yet, philosophers often criticize science. For postmodernists like Michel Foucault, science is just another ‘grand narrative’ built to support power structures. Other philosophers fail to recognize the specialness of science as a reliable purveyor of knowledge, equating it to religion, mythology, shamanism and other ‘narratives.’ Of course, this is a bit self-serving, because they don’t want to recognize that science surpasses philosophy as a source of knowledge. One thing becomes clear from this antagonism between science and philosophy: they are different things. This prevents philosophy from claiming science as one of its accomplishments. So, maybe it’s time to turn the tables on these philosophers and ask: what has philosophy ever done for us? What is philosophy good for? Doing a Google search with this question, these websites came on top: Why Study Philosophy? at James Madison University. Why Study Philosophy? at Central Michigan University. Why Study Philosophy? at the University of Washington. 10 Reasons Why You Should Study a Philosophy Degree in 2023, University of Glasgow. Some of those reasons are self-referential, like “learn to read and write like a philosopher.” Other are vague, like “philosophy is a constantly modern subject.” This seems dubious, given that, unlike science, philosophy doesn’t seem to make progress. It constantly refers back to ancient philosophers. Otherwise, philosophers create their ideas anew, instead of building on the work of others like science does. This has created a labyrinth of ideas, instead of a self-consistent body of knowledge. Perhaps the best approach would be to analyze what the main branches of philosophy have done for us. These include epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics. Epistemology: the worker and the critic There is an old joke I heard while growing up in the Franco dictatorship in Spain, a time when my country was backward and unmotivated. If you found three men working at the side of the road, one of them will be doing the hard work while the other two just hang around and criticized what he was doing. I think that this describes quite well the relationship between science and philosophy. Scientists do the hard work of unraveling the mysteries of nature, while philosophers write long papers explaining how everything they do is wrong. Philosophers in charge of criticizing science call themselves epistemologists. They should not be confused with epidemiologists, the scientists who study the propagation of diseases. More formally, epistemology studies how we know things. It includes philosophy of science, logic, critical thinking and philosophy of language. Epistemology: Has Popper been falsified? Karl Popper is one of the most respected epistemologists. He came up with the idea that scientific hypotheses cannot be verified, they only can be falsified. This idea was popular among scientists for a while. Later, it was deemed too negative. Scientific ideas can and should be verified, not just falsified. Hypotheses are used to make predictions, which can then be tested experimentally. If the predictions confirm the hypotheses, the hypothesis is verified. This is a gradual process in which the hypotheses are subject to increasingly rigorous tests. Or, as I like to put it: A scientist should formulate the most beautiful hypothesis he can. And then torture it with experiments until it confesses the truth. Epistemology: Kuhn’s scientific revolutions never came Another famous epistemologist was Thomas Kuhn, who came up with the idea of the paradigm shift in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I read it and was quite taken by the romantic idea of the young revolutionary scientist fighting against the scientific establishment. However, as I pursued my scientific career, scientific revolutions never happened. Instead, what I witnessed was a slow, grinding process of science. Sometimes there were breakthroughs, of course, but these were more technological—like PCR, CRISPR or optogenetics—than conceptual. There isn’t really a scientific establishment. This idea applied to early 20th century Europe, but not to modern science in the USA. Young and old scientists compete for the same research grants. For the last dozen years, I have participated in one of the core institutions of modern science: the Study Sections of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were million dollar research grants get scored. The NIH goes out of its way in keeping a gender and race balance in the Study Sections. They also rotate scientists, so relatively young scientists can participate. Cliques tend to form, of course, but the system actively discourages them. I have seen grant proposals by famous scientists do down in flames, while grants by relatively unknown scientists get the highest scores. Some scientists write in their grants that their ideas are a paradigm shift. That’s usually a bad sign. My colleagues in the Study Section considered Popper’s falsifiability as a criterion, but dropped it in favor of hypothesis-testing. The first half of the 20th century was rich with paradigm shifts: the two theories of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, the discovery of DNA and the genetic code. However, for the last 50 years, there have not been any scientific revolutions as defined by Kuhn. Yes, there was the computing revolution, but this was a technological change that emerged from existing scientific concepts. It didn’t change the core ideas of any science. Science has made a lot of progress, probably more than ever, but at a gradual pace, not the shattering revolutions predicted by Kuhn. Epistemology: the failure to understand science Science and philosophy became divorced when science opted for induction and philosophy for logic. Inductive reasoning consists of extracting a common truth from many observations. It forms the core of the experimental approach of science. Logic, or deductive reasoning, consists of driving an idea from previous ideas, called premises. Modern philosophy is also big on intuitions. Scientists use intuition to formulate their hypotheses, but then proceed to test them rigorously. They are well aware of how intuitions feed on our biases and blind spots. David Hume criticized induction by showing that it is not logical. It is based on the assumption that things behave in a regular matter, an assumption that is itself based on induction. Therefore, induction is circular. He was wrong because it just happens that nature is organized following certain rules that can be studied and understood. We call these rules the laws of nature. In another article, I propose that some of the laws of nature arise from natural computing processes. However, the most basic laws of physics seem to have been there since the beginning of the Universe. Nobody knows where they come from. While philosophy got stuck in logic, which led to an increasing number of opposing schools of thought, science perfected induction into highly sophisticated technologies: statistics and mathematical models. Philosophy will never understand the scientific method because there is no scientific method. Each science has its own. In fact, the scientific method is part of the discovery process. We make it up as we go along. Epistemologists will never be able to catch up with science. Only scientists can understand how science is made. Metaphysics: philosophers lost in space “Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality. This includes the first principles of: being or existence, identity, change, space and time, cause and effect, necessity, actuality, and possibility.” Metaphysics, Wikipedia. The problem is that this is largely the job of science. And it left philosophy in the dust a century ago. Studying space and time is the job of physics. It’s not finished, of course. We will not understand the basic nature of the world until we unify Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. But don’t expect any philosopher to do that. The nature of existence is also being tackled by physics by unraveling the fine structure of matter and the large structure of the Universe. Consciousness: philosophers gone batty On another front, neuroscience is trying to understand the processes that give rise to subjective experience and consciousness. This will reveal how we exist as human beings. Meanwhile, modern philosophers like David Chalmers loiter by the side of the road and try to convince neuroscientists that their job cannot be done. That consciousness is forever mysterious. Neuroscientists study some of the neural underpinnings of consciousness, like the switch from the default mode neuronal network to the executive attention network during flow. Meanwhile, philosophers talk about qualia, what is like to be a bat, and philosophical zombies. It sounds like philosophers are going batty trying to raise from the dead old ideas about the soul. Ethics: none of the schools get it “Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that ‘involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior’.” Ethics, Wikipedia. There are three schools of ethics: deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics. Deontology is either old time religion—following God’s commands—or the stuff invented by Emmanuel Kant. I was done with religion by age 15. Even if there is no God, Kant believed that there are universal moral truths. The problem is, where do they come from? It seems obvious to me that moral rules were invented by humans. They cannot preexist humanity since they are part of culture. If we invented them, they have to be based on some previous knowledge. And there has to be some logic that takes us from fundamental ideas to ethical rules and laws. Hence, there cannot be universal moral truths. There has to be a way to invent ethical rules. Consequentialism poses that things are good or bad depending on their consequences. The problem is, how do we know if consequences are good or bad? We need an ethical system to decide that. Therefore, consequentialism is not self-sufficient. It is either circular reasoning or it needs to refer to a system of ideas in which to base morality. I think that any system of ethics has to be based on previous beliefs about the world and humanity. And science is the only reliable system on which to base those beliefs. Otherwise, we are back to religion. One form of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which poses that we should maximize happiness and minimize suffering for the largest number of individuals. The problem is that we need good definitions of happiness and suffering to do this. In the articles I link to, I show how these concepts can be based on neuroscience. We also need to understand what is an individual. Since the beginning of utilitarianism with Jeremy Bentham and culminating with Peter Singer and his Animal Liberation, utilitarians wanted to include animals as individuals. This resulted in the most vicious attacks against scientists who use animals in their experiments, who had their laboratories ransacked, their homes sieged, their children harassed and their cars burned. If this is ethics, who needs evil? Virtue ethics blossomed into several philosophical schools of Greek and Roman antiquity, like the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Cynics. Stoicism has gotten quite popular lately. However, virtue ethics suffers from the same problem as consequentialism: it fails to establish a firm foundation for morality because it does not provide a convincing definition of the concept of virtue. It depends on the beliefs of each particular culture. For example, being rich is virtuous in modern capitalistic America, but immoral in socialist societies. Casual sex is unethical in many societies, but not in modern sex-positive culture. Ethics cannot be formulated independently of beliefs about human nature and how to establish a free, egalitarian, prosperous and peaceful society. And any such beliefs need to be based on knowledge acquired through science to be rational and based on reality. Ethics: a long list of missed opportunities With all their accumulated wisdom, you would think that philosophers would have stepped in to give us guidance on the biggest moral decisions in our civilizations. For example, slavery, genocide, racism, misogyny, gay rights and sexual liberation. In every single one of these moral crises, philosophers were missing in action. Regarding slavery, the great philosophers of antiquity apparently thought that Virtue Ethics were perfectly compatible with it. Neither was a big uproar by philosophers while Blacks were slaved in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. The concept of different races at the root of racism was not challenged by philosophers. Neither was a social order based on racial apartheid. Admittedly, it took a little time for science to catch up with those, too. However, it was the job of philosophers to dictate morality, not of scientists. The fight against slavery and racism was carried out by regular people. So was feminism. Then, philosophers stepped in and appropriated these ideas, corrupting them in the process to give birth to the monster of modern identity politics. Gay rights were fought by gays, particularly during the dark times of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. Scientists helped to dispel some of the stereotypes and misconceptions about AIDS transmission, and eventually come up with a cure. Philosophers did nothing. Sexual liberation started in the 60s. Philosophers have always been big in puritanism and sexual repression. In the 70s, academics like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon started a war against pornography, BDSM and sex work, that eventually spilled over to harm gays and lesbians. People into BDSM organized and fought back. Nowadays, new relationship standards like ethical non-monogamy and polyamory are flourishing. Philosophers either oppose them or remain oblivious. Every time they had an opportunity to lead the way towards new moral standards, philosophers missed it. The reason why the world is such a mess these days is that we have several competing cultures—mainly Western secularism, Christianity, Islam and communism—with mutually exclusive ethical values. They go to war with each other to see which one will rule the world. Science is at the essence of Western secularism. Philosophers remain undecided between secularism, communism or something of their own making like postmodernism or identity politics. How ideologies corrupted philosophy Maybe I am being too uncharitable. I agree that, if we go sufficiently back in time, philosophy has done good things for Humanity. It led the way in antique Greece and Rome. It brought us out of the dark Middle Age, being at the center of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Without it, we would not have developed modern democracy, discarded theocracy and fought back against the injustices of the nascent Industrial Revolution and capitalism in the 19th century. At that time, philosophers developed the ideas of the Enlightenment into Socialism. Then, in the 20th century, things went awfully wrong. Communism split from socialism and became dogmatic and dictatorial. The dialectic of power of Nietzsche fueled the Fascist and Nazi ideologies that took over Europe. Philosophy, it seems, lost its ability to think and became mired in one ideology after another. With the advent of postmodernism, it became openly hostile to science. This opened the door to a long list of irrational ideologies: standpoint theory, anti-racism, radical feminism, intersectionality, the denial of sexual differences. In a society divided between irrational conservatism and the dogmatic Left, scientists almost have to go underground to do their work. What shall we do about philosophy? I’m sorry to tell you that the philosophy emperor has no clothes. He’s been butt-naked for a century. And we are in a global situation too dire to enjoy the porn show. We cannot waste our time reading long books in deliberately obscure prose. We need to move on. Many scientists have a critical view of philosophy: “There’s a certain sub-group of famous, publicly visible scientists — biologists Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins, and physicists Neil de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and the late Stephen Hawking among them — who’ve made no bones about the fact that they deride philosophy and philosophers.” @Austin Hackney in Philosophy vs. Science: There’s a Clear Winner (and It’s Not Philosophy). “Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.” Stephen Hawking. “Of course, philosophy is the field that hasn’t progressed in two thousand years.” Lawrence Krauss. Some philosophers are starting to take those criticisms seriously: The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Philosophy. A common counter to criticisms of philosophy is that such criticisms are themselves philosophy. Of course! I’m not arguing that philosophy—the pursuit of wisdom—is bad. What I am saying is that modern philosophers have done a terrible job of doing philosophy. It’s time we take philosophy away from them. Regular people should engage in philosophy by doing what they have been doing all along: decide what is right and wrong. No need to study complicated philosophy textbooks to do that. Scientists should do philosophy by exploring the implications of the scientific worldview. I think that the amount of knowledge that science has gathered about the world is vast and deep enough to answer many of the fundamental questions of life. In fact, some philosophers—Daniel Dennett, Paul and Patricia Churchland—are already doing this by studying and embracing science instead of fighting against it. Other philosophers have made substantial contributions to immunology and cognitive science. And yet, I am worried that philosophy could become a Trojan Horse to infect science with ideology and political correctness. Philosophers have to earn the trust of scientists by showing the same commitment to intellectual honesty and independence from ideology. A good start would be stopping their misguided war against science.
- How to Avoid Hurting the One We Love
Counting the forms of emotional abuse Is suffering for love inevitable? It is ironic that the person who loves you the most is also the one able to hurt you most deeply. Apparently, romantic relationships entail a great deal of suffering. Everybody seems to think that this is unavoidable, that suffering is just the price of admission for being loved. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we hurt the person we love, it’s because we must be doing something wrong. It seems that, when we reach a certain degree of intimacy, we start allowing ourselves some behaviors that create conflict and emotional damage. Then, perhaps what we should do is to learn to recognize those behaviors and ways to avoid them. We should learn to love in a better, healthier way. The slippery slope to emotional abuse “Abuse” is a strong word. We tend to neatly divide people between abusers, who deserve our scorn and even jail time, and victims, who must be protected and healed. And then there are the rest of us: nice people who are neither abusers nor victims. This classification may work when it comes to physical abuse, because physical damage is easy to identify. Likewise, social taboos about unwanted sexual contact are normally clearly established within any given society. However, there are no such clear boundaries when it comes to emotional abuse. Whether a particular act is abusive or not depends not so much on the act itself but on context, intention, frequency, and the vulnerability of the other person. Perhaps this explains why we often hurt the person we love, sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently. When it comes to emotional damage, we all can be small-scale abusers and victims. Of course, there are the real psychological abusers, those who cause emotional damage in an intentional or habitual way with the objective of bringing the other person under their control. Emotional abuse is defined as any behavior that causes psychological damage, produces dependence and decreases the self-esteem of the target person. It is based on using three key emotions, fear, guilt and shame, which are used to break the psychological balance of a person. Next, I offer a list of behaviors involved in emotional abuse. 1 - Coercion Coercion is defined as a demand that can’t be refused without bringing about serious negative consequences. One clear example is coerced sex. Imposed, for example, under the threat of a fight. But coercion can be used to obtain other things: going to a party, socializing with some particular people, choosing a vacation spot, how to decorate the house, or when to have children. 2 - Threats Threats are a direct form of coercion. They evoke fear to get what we want. One of the most frequent threats in a couple is breaking up. This usually results from an imbalance of power because one person values the relationship more than the other. It could be that she is more in love or that the relationship brings on advantages that he doesn’t want to lose. In these cases, the impending threat of the breakup can become an unspoken, ongoing and powerful coercion. Or it could be that this threat is just a bluff. Playing chicken because the other person will fold first. 3 - Scaring Threats are just one way of using fear to control a person. Emotional manipulation can prosper in an environment of high anxiety created by actions like screaming, throwing things, breaking things, risking safety or breaking the law. The simple presence of fear creates an environment of oppression. 4 - Blackmail Blackmail is a form of coercion that consists of threatening to do something that the other person doesn’t want us to do if he does not comply with our demands. A common form of blackmail is the threat of telling about something. One example is outing: revealing that somebody is gay, bisexual, into BDSM, polyamorous, or any other form of sexuality not approved by society. 5 - Emotional blackmail Emotional blackmail consists of using fear, obligation or guilt (abbreviated with the acronym FOG) with the goal of pressuring another person to do what we want. There are four types of emotional blackmail. 1. Threat of punishment. A classic example in couples is the withdrawal of sex or affection. 2. Self-punishment: the threat of harming oneself. An extreme but all-too-familiar case is the threat of suicide. A milder case is that sulking attitude when we don’t get what we want. 3. Acts of self-sacrifice with the goal of evoking guilt. These include acts of service that are done, not out of goodwill or love, but to get something in exchange. 4. Offering a price in exchange for getting what we want. This is the type most difficult to recognize. A classic example is offering candy to a child in exchange for a kiss. In a couple, offering sex as a price may seem like a good idea but, in fact, it is similar to withdrawing sex when we don’t get what we want. The third and fourth types of emotional black mail create a manipulative environment in which we don’t know if favors are given out of love or with a secret agenda. 6 - Breaking boundaries Boundaries are things that we never want to do or don’t want to be done to us. In a healthy relationship, each person defines what their boundaries are and respects the boundaries of the other. Problems arise either when boundaries are not clearly defined, or when they are known but are broken, nevertheless. 7 - Sabotage Sabotage includes instances of not respecting the work, family and social obligations of our lover. A typical case is when a couple’s brawl leaves us so upset that we cannot focus on work. In this case, the sabotage is involuntary and indirect. A step up from that is when somebody has so little respect for their partner that he gives no consideration to her work schedule or the time he needs to devote to family and friends. Time and attention can be misappropriated, for example, by forcing dates or phone conversations at inopportune times. In the more extreme cases, the abuser directly interferes with the work or social environment of the victim with the clear goal of undermining them. For example, I know a case of a husband who called her wife’s boss to tell him that she was quitting the job, which was not her intention at all. 8 - Lack of communication Good communication is vital in any healthy relationship. This is hard even in the best cases, so it becomes nearly impossible when somebody sabotages it as part of a manipulative strategy. One example of this is the “silent treatment”—refusing to talk—or its modern version: ghosting in social media. Another example is doing the opposite: talking continuously to create a Wall of Words that prevents the other person from talking. 9 - Lying Of course, the worst form of lack of communication is not telling the truth. Lying should be considered as a way of taking power away from people, because misinformation prevents them from making the best decisions. Lying is considered the main offense in infidelity cases, but any form of lying or dishonesty is harmful in a relationship because it undermines trust. 10 - Gaslighting Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse consisting of the systematic manipulation of the information that is provided to a person. The name comes from the play Gas Light and its movie adaptations. The goal is to weave of a web of lies, half-truths, secrets and deceptions that create a distorted view of reality. This is often done with the goal of hiding a situation of generalized abuse. Gaslighting greatly harms the self-esteem and may cause the victim to question her own sanity. 11 - Keeping secrets Whether it’s okay to keep secrets from our partner is a delicate issue. On the one hand, everybody has a right to his own privacy. Some things are so intimate that we want to keep them from anybody. On the other hand, hiding things that our partner has the right to know could be considered lying by omission. The most clear examples are sexually transmitted diseases and adultery. 12 - Invading privacy The other side of that coin is privacy. Even if it is not right to keep some things secret, that doesn’t mean that we may use coercion to force somebody to reveal a secret. Everybody has a right to reveal things about themselves if they want, when they want, and how they want. There is also a right that whatever we tell somebody in confidence is not revealed to third persons without our consent. The most clear example of a violation of privacy, unfortunately common these days, is to search a phone or a computer for information without the permission of the owner. 13 - Complaints and criticisms Complaining is normal. If something is not going well in the relationship, it is essential for good communication to talk about it. But there are many ways to say something. When complaints and criticisms are made with the intention of evoking shame and guilt, we have entered the territory of emotional mistreatment. Problems should be presented at the right occasion, preferably with enough time to discuss them without feeling rushed. There should be no intention of hurting and offending. Like with many other things, quantity matters: a long list of reproaches is offensive. We should also pay attention to two bad habits related to this. 1. Being easily offended, so that whoever talks to us is kept on edge, having to constantly self-censor. Obviously, this gets in the way of good communication. 2. To present oneself as a victim, a common strategy of psychological abusers. 14 - Shaming Shame is the emotion that damages self-esteem the most. Consider, for example, all the cases of homosexual teenagers that are driven to suicide by shaming from their parents, their teachers, their classmates or religious authorities. One of the most common instances of emotional abuse is degrading comments and continuous criticism. An extreme case of shaming is cyber-bullying: the harassment and public shaming of individuals in social networks. Another form of shaming is to berate people not for what they do but for who they are, like their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or culture. Here we enter on the territory of bigotry and intolerance. 15 - Not apologizing We all make mistakes, so we all should be ready to apologize when we hurt another person. A timely apology could mean the difference between a fight that is satisfactorily resolved and another that leaves scars for a lifetime. It could also mean the difference between a mistake done without malice or an act of deliberate abuse. When a person in a couple apologizes all the time and the other never does, that is a sign of an imbalance of power produced by other forms of emotional abuse. 16 - Not forgiving Not accepting an apology can undermine the dignity of the person offering it and thus can be confrontational and hurtful. Of course, not everything could or should be forgiven. In fact, in many cases of abuse, there is a pathological form or forgiveness based on co-dependency—the victim constantly forgives the abuser, and even makes far-fetched excuses for the abuse. A necessary condition for forgiveness should be that the action to be forgiven has ended. We can’t forgive somebody who persists in the misbehavior. On the other hand, not granting forgiveness that has been earned can become emotional abuse when this is used to perpetuate the guilt of the person asking to be forgiven as a form of control. Maybe the right thing to do when something cannot be forgiven is to terminate the relationship, rather than to continue it in the climate of power imbalance brought by the feeling of guilt. Another problem is when an apology is accepted but used later on, over and over again, to remind the person of his past guilt. That is not true forgiveness. 17 - Passive aggressive behavior Passive aggression is an expression of hostility based on not doing things that we are supposed to do. It includes some of the problems that I mention above, like lack of communication, withdrawing affection, not apologizing and not forgiving. But there are many other ways of being passive aggressive, sometimes hard to identify. Even over-politeness or extreme compliance can be forms of passive-aggression. By the same token, it is easy to accuse a well-meaning person of being passive aggressive. It’s difficult to defend ourselves against such an accusation. 18 - Social isolation In cults, a common technique to create emotional dependence is to separate the new follower from his family and friends. This way, the victim loses the frame of reference that would allow her to escape indoctrination. A similar situation can take place in a couple when a person is separated from her friends and social environment, usually because of jealousy. 19 - Social pressure Similarly, one of the individuals in a couple may become completely surrounded by the friends and family of the other. Then, when problems arise in the couple, these people would have a biased attitude about them. Social pressure can also come from cultural norms that favor one person over the other. One clear example is sexism, when society condones a man’s control over a woman’s behavior. Another case is when one person wants some kind of sexual freedom, like being kinky or polyamorous, and the other prevents it with the help of cultural norms and societal repression. This happens in instances of slut-shaming: harassing women because their sexual behavior infringes cultural norms. Rationalizing emotional abuse I don’t know about you, but I must confess that I have done some of the things on this list. But I also had some of them done to me. Perhaps you think that you don’t do them just because you are a woman, or a feminist, or gay. Well, think again, you may be in denial. After all, even hard-core psychological abusers don’t see themselves as such. Is very easy to rationalize emotional abuse as self-defense, standing up for ourselves, or as being funny. We should stop doing these things because they really hurt that person that we claim to love. They also damage our relationship and gradually wither away the love we seek. On top of that, when we engage in these behaviors we contribute to normalize them, making them harder to identify in cases of serious psychological abuse. We all have been in a couple’s quarrel in which we have tried to scare or hurt the person that we love. We need to stop doing that and raise our ethical standards. If we need to fight, we should at least fight fairly, without being manipulative or cruel. Emotional abuse should not be considered normal, even in its mildest forms. It leaves scars that undermine the relationship, setting the foundation for future fights and even making the relationship toxic. True love doesn’t hurt One of the worse things about psychological abuse is that it’s so hard to identify. There is a gradation between what is socially accepted behavior in a couple (but still wrong) and psychological abuse. Where our behavior falls in that gradient depends not only on what our intentions are, but on how vulnerable is the other person. It’s way too easy to hurt somebody by mistake. Since it’s so easy to engage in emotional mistreatment, it often becomes mutual in a couple. This may lead to a toxic relationship where victim and abuser are not easy to identify. So we should be mindful that, even if we are being mistreated, this does not justify retaliating with emotional abuse of our own. When emotional abuse has made a relationship toxic, the best solution is to break up. We all should examine our behavior towards our loved one and carefully expunge any element of emotional abuse. When somebody opens their heart to us, this makes them extremely vulnerable. We should not betray their trust by using this vulnerability to hurt them or to exploit them. Even if we do it unconsciously, there is no excuse. If we want to be loved, we have to learn to love right. It consists of making the other person happy. True love doesn’t hurt.
- The Difference Between Sadism and Cruelty
The sadist wants to cause physical and emotional pain, but not suffering What do sadists want? In the context of BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism), being a sadist means giving pain to people who enjoy receiving it—masochists—in ways that they enjoy receiving it. And, of course, within the limits of mutual consent. This is the original meaning of sadism, since it derives from the Marquis de Sade, a French nobleman who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries and wrote several novels with extreme BDSM content. The fact that sadism is currently used as a synonym of cruelty derives largely from a misunderstanding of the motivation of sexual sadists like the Marquis de Sade. In addition, sadism and masochism were considered psychological diseases for a long time, along with homosexuality and masturbation. This stopped with the publication of the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). To investigate the motivations of sadists, I did an informal survey in Fetlife.com in which self-identified sadists could choose among 18 possible motivations, as many as they want. That is, the answers were not mutually exclusive. For that reason, the percentages I give below add up to more than 100%. I got 56 people answering the survey. Most self-identified sadists (79%) inflict pain to please the masochists with whom they play. Other common reasons are to establish connection and intimacy (64%), looks like the reactions of masochists and marks on their skin (63%), achieving “top space” (61%), expressing power (59%), getting the masochist into “sub space” (55%), and establishing domination (54%). The rest of the 18 options in the survey fell below the 50% mark. They included “other”, so that people could list reasons I may have neglected. Only 16% of responders checked this. “Cruelty” was near the bottom of the list. Only 18% of the responders—10 people—checked it. I gave the following description of this option: “You like to make people suffer. It’s great that BDSM allows you to express your dark side. You do not try to feel what they are feeling, but rather to dissociate from them.” Some of the sadists who chose cruelty as their motivation expressed surprise that they were so few. They said that, for them, sadism was about making people suffer. They can do this consensually because there are masochists who say that they seek suffering. I thought that the difference between sadism and cruelty was clear to self-identified sadists but, apparently, there are different opinions about the meaning of those words. In this article, I explore it in depth. What is sadism? “Sadism” doesn’t have its own entry on Wikipedia. Instead, you find these three entries: “Sadomasochism, the giving or receiving of pleasure from acts involving the receipt or infliction of pain or humiliation.” “Sadistic personality disorder, an obsolete term proposed for individuals who derive pleasure from the suffering of others.” “Sexual sadism disorder, a medical/psychological condition for sexual arousal from inflicting pain/humiliation on unwilling, non-consenting victims.” The first definition implies that ethical sadism is always associated with masochism. Sadomasochism is consensual and mutually fulfilling: the sadist enjoys delivering pain to a masochist who enjoys receiving it. When the infliction of pain is not consensual, we fall into the third definition, in which sadism is a disorder. Emotional sadism And yet, a scene can be consensual and feel like it involves suffering. That is why some sadomasochists think that sadism involves cruelty. What they are talking about is emotional sadomasochism: scenes that use emotional pain instead of, or in addition to, physical pain. What is emotional pain? Is the distress produced by some negative emotions like fear, sadness, frustration, helplessness, despair, envy, jealousy, disgust and unwanted physical pain. Here are some examples of emotional pain in kink: The sexual frustration of not being allowed to orgasm. The envy and jealousy experienced in cuckolding by seeing your partner pleasuring another person while you are being denied sexual pleasure. Enduring a physical pain that is devoid of erotic value. Being punished when it is obviously unfair. Being unjustly criticized when succeeding in performing a difficult task. Despair by not being able to accomplish an impossible order of the top. The sadness of being denied affection. Fear and despair at the sadist’s cruelty when realizing that they mean to hurt you. Being used as a sexual object with total indifference towards your feelings. Some of this may fall under the category of mind-fucking. However, while in mind-fucking there is often an element of pretending or deceiving, in emotional sadism both the sadist and the masochist want to evoke very real emotions. The sadist wants to hurt the bottom. Here is how an emotional masochist describes how she deals with these feelings. Emotional masochism is usually confined to the time of the scene. Just like the physical pain of flogging or clamps only happens during a BDSM scene, the emotional abuse is limited in time. After that, the relationship goes back to regular affection, fairness and friendship. There should be emotional aftercare to reset the feelings of the masochist. Emotional masochists develop a detachment from their emotions. They see themselves from the outside, with a certain dissociation. They speak of a beautiful melancholy, an enjoyment of these feelings. Emotional pain is enjoyed very much is the same way as physical pain. The sadist does not hate the masochist. Sadists experience a dissociation similar to the one experienced by the masochists, because they want to hurt them and, at the same time, know that the bottoms are enjoying themselves. The scene is based on a consensual agreement. What is suffering? We are confronted with a paradox here. While emotional masochists feel negative emotions that most people would avoid, they welcome them. They desire them. They, in fact, enjoy them. The paradox also works for the sadists. Even though they want to hurt the masochists, they are fully aware that the bottoms are enjoying themselves. And they would not do what they are doing if the masochist were not able to enjoy it. Perhaps there are sadists who desire to hurt people in a way that they would not enjoy it at all—and therefore would not consent to it. Perhaps these sadists act consensually, not because they would feel bad otherwise, but because of a rational decision to act ethically. In any case, you see that there are two levels here. One is the distress produced by negative emotions, which can be enjoyed by an emotional masochist. The other is real suffering. Things that cannot be enjoyed because they damage the very core of a human being or the things that make life worth living. For example: The death of a loved one, like your spouse, your parent or your child. Having your heart broken when you are abandoned by somebody you love. Losing a job that you love or that you need to survive. Losing a limb, your hearing or your sight. A debilitating, incurable disease. Losing your intelligence, your memory or your sanity. Personally, I think that we should reserve the word suffering for these types of experiences. Alternatively, we could call it deep suffering. Pain should mean physical pain, although many people use it to refer to emotional pain. The latter could be called distress, to be more accurate. I explore this issue from the point of view of neuroscience in my article Pain Is Not Suffering. Some sadists enjoy real life suffering Desiring deep suffering on somebody would be unethical, in my opinion. That would cross the line between emotional sadism and cruelty. Yes, many people desire their enemies to suffer this way, but here we are in the territory of hate. And yet, I have heard from some sadists who feel pleasure when they see the suffering in their BDSM partners caused by real life tragedies. In turn, these masochists feel relief from their suffering when they see the sadist enjoying it. There seems to be healing in this interaction, which, of course, is fully consensual. A key issue here is that the sadist eroticizes suffering caused by the random events of life. Unlike what happens with pain in a BDSM scene, the sadist does not inflict this type of suffering on the masochist. That would cross the line into real cruelty. The enjoyment that these sadists take on suffering may seem weird, even revolting. However, it just takes to the extreme something that a lot of people do. Many of us enjoy the suffering of the characters in a novel or a movie. Tragedies have been popular since antiquity. It is undeniable that what attracts us to these stories is precisely witnessing the suffering of their characters. In that way, we are not all that different from the emotional sadists. Why do we desire to witness someone else suffering? Maybe this is the flip side of empathy and compassion. Empathy means that we feel that suffering but, at the same time, we can detach from it because it is not our suffering. That makes us happy that we don’t have to suffer that way. At the same time, the strong emotions involved produce a catharsis in us, a cleansing of our fears and traumas. When the masochists witness the sadist enjoying their suffering, they can partake in the detachment of the sadist. They gain a perspective on it that they would not have otherwise. Maybe this is why emotional sadomasochism is healing for the masochist. What is cruelty? “Cruelty is the pleasure in inflicting suffering or the inaction towards another's suffering when a clear remedy is readily available.” Wikipedia. I think that cruelty can originate from two different motivations: Using people as a mean to achieve our goals, disregarding their suffering. This is the cruelty of the slave owner, the heartless landlord or the exploitative employer. The cruel person blocks any feelings of empathy he may have for his victim. There are mere objects for him. Making people suffer on purpose. Here, suffering is the point. The motivation for doing this may vary. It could be revenge, feeling powerful, enforcing religious beliefs or an enjoyment in the suffering itself. It is possible that people with antisocial personality disorder are naturally prone towards cruelty. The second meaning of cruelty is the one that can be confused with sadism. However, here there is no distinction between emotional distress and deep suffering. While sadist would not inflict deep suffering, cruel people are oblivious to the difference. Empathy One way in which cruelty can be differentiated from sadism is the presence of empathy. Empathy is what makes us feel what others feel. Recently, many neuroscience papers have come out about the social transfer of pain (Smith et al., 2021). The basic observation is that when two mice have been housed together and one experiences an injury, the other mouse becomes more sensitive to pain. Humans have that type of empathy, but we also have another type that is absent in animals: one based on theory-of-mind (Bruneau et al., 2012). This is the ability to model the minds of other people inside our own minds. We know what they are thinking and we know what they are feeling. It is much more detailed than the first type of empathy. It is not abstract thought, but consists of real emotions. Thanks to theory-of-mind, we can experience what characters in a movie or a novel feel. The first type of empathy is automatic, but the second one can be turned on and off. Empathy makes us suffer when other people suffer (Stevens and Taber, 2021). Thanks to it, we cannot be completely happy in a society where other people are unhappy. Cruelty is devoid of empathy. Exploitative people have to make an effort to turn off their empathy to avoid experiencing the suffering of those they exploit. This requires some effort. One way to achieve this is to objectify them, to negate that they are human beings that have feelings. In contrast, the sadist is full of empathy. Feeling the pain of the masochist is the point. If sadists are not aware of the pain that they inflict, they could not be satisfied. Conclusions The distinction between pain and suffering implies a distinction between sadism and cruelty. Sadists like to inflict pain, including emotional pain, but not to make people suffer. Cruel people dehumanize other people to exploit them, to satisfy their hatred, or because of some religious or political motivation. They do not care about the distinction between emotional distress and deep suffering. In sadism, empathy is the point. In cruelty, empathy has to be turned off to keep the cruel person from experiencing the suffering of his victims. These are not mere semantic arguments. They are ideas that need to be kept in mind to define the limits between ethical sadomasochism and abuse. References Bruneau EG, Pluta A, Saxe R (2012) Distinct roles of the 'shared pain' and 'theory of mind' networks in processing others' emotional suffering. Neuropsychologia 50:219-231. Smith ML, Asada N, Malenka RC (2021) Anterior cingulate inputs to nucleus accumbens control the social transfer of pain and analgesia. Science 371:153-159. Stevens F, Taber K (2021) The neuroscience of empathy and compassion in pro-social behavior. Neuropsychologia 159:107925.
- Is Everything Made of Information?
Information is better than matter or mind as the fundament basic nature of reality What is the ultimate nature of reality? Can everything that exists be reduced to a single entity? Since antiquity, philosophers thought so. There are three main ideas that keep resurfacing in different forms: Materialism: Everything is made of matter. Since Einstein showed that E=m*c^2, we know that matter and energy can be converted into each other, so materialism needs to be restated as everything is made of matter-energy. A more developed version of materialism is naturalism: the idea that the world is solely made of matter, energy and the laws that govern them. Idealism: Matter is just a screen, an illusion. Behind it, the world is made of ideas, or mind, or spirit. One version of idealism is pantheism, which sustains that God is in everything, or that the world is a part of God. Another variation of idealism that has recently come into vogue is panpsychism, that idea that everything is made of consciousness. Dualism: The world is made of both matter and mind. This includes religions like Christianity, that believe that God made the material world but is separate from it. This entails a rejection of pantheism. Here, I propose an alternative: that everything that exists can be reduced to information. Everything is information. Let’s call this idea the Information Paradigm. Advantages of the Information Paradigm With the advent of computers, the internet and the information age, everybody has become familiar with the concept of information. We buy information in the form of downloadable music, movies and books. We also pay for education, another form of information. In fact, money is just information, a bunch of numbers stored in the computers of banks. Cryptocurrency has made this even more real. The Information Paradigm could be considered a form of Idealism. However, unlike mind, spirit or consciousness, information is quantifiable. While believing that mind is separate from matter leads to the problem of explaining how they interact, information is as physical as matter and energy. Physical entities like entropy and genes can be interpreted as information. One of the problems with Materialism is that, if everything is matter/energy, it cannot explain the existence of the laws that govern it. Since these laws are information, Materialism is tacitly admitting that at least some information is part of the basic nature of reality. Dualism has always been in trouble because it cannot explain how two completely different things—mind and matter—can interact with each other. Thus, if my mind is non-material and decides to move my hand, that non-material decision has to be transformed at some point into the energy of the action potentials in my nerves. But energy cannot arise from something non-material, because that would violate the principle of conservation of energy. However, if we understand both mind and matter as information, there is no problem explaining how they interact. In fact, our minds are not the only non-material things. Books, songs, computer programs are also non-material objects. This was pointed out in the book The Self and Its Brain, co-written by the neuroscientist Sir John Eccles and the philosopher Karl Popper, in a last, brave attempt to defend Dualism. However, today we are all familiar with the idea that all these non-material objects are made of information. Indeed, we know how much information is in a song, a book, a movie or a computer program. When applied to different sciences, the Information Paradigm is useful to conceptualize things and explain some notorious problems. The challenge: defining information But first we need to face the challenge of giving a definition of information that can be used as a unifying concept for everything that exists. There are, indeed, many well-defined ideas of information, for example, in computer science and thermodynamics. Would it be possible to show that these different concepts all point to the same thing? In the past, information was understood as something that was exchanged between people. However, modern ideas of information in science conceive it as something independent of humans, just like matter and energy do not need us to exist. Thus, we speak of the amount of information contained in human DNA or the fate of information inside a black hole. In our daily lives, we deal with information the same way we used to deal with energy and matter: as something that can be produced, stored and used. There is an problem with defining information as a basic property of the world. The moment we propose that X is the stuff of which everything is made off, it becomes very difficult to define X because such definition would be in terms of something else. But since we propose that this “something else” is made of X, all such definitions tend to become circular. All other ontologies have the same problem. It is hard to define ideas or spirit in Idealism, God in Pantheism and consciousness in Panpsychism. Materialism seems to elude this problem because we have good definitions of matter and energy in physics. However, Materialism faces the problem of defining the nature of the laws of physics, which exist apart from matter and energy and control them. That’s why some thinkers talk of Naturalism instead of Materialism. According to Naturalism, ultimate reality is matter/energy plus the laws of nature. Ironically, this seems to lead us back to a form of Dualism, since the laws of nature are distinct from matter/energy. But if matter/energy can be reduced to information, and the laws of nature are information, we are back to a single, unifying concept. Properties of information I think that soon physics will give us a rigorous definition of information that can be applied to computer science, thermodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, and all other sciences. For now, instead of trying to define information, I will list some of its properties: It is quantifiable. It defines relationships or interactions between objects. Unlike energy, the amount of information of a closed system can increase. This is not because information can come from nothing, but because information can produce more information. The process by which information produces more information is an algorithm–something similar to a computer program. Nature is full of algorithms, which generate information following well-defined rules. Those rules are also information, and have been previously generated by other algorithms. I give examples below. It takes energy to destroy information. In thermodynamics, information is the same thing as entropy. The laws of nature are information. Many of the laws of nature are emergent: they arose at some point in the history of the Universe. These emergent laws were created by algorithms that used previously existing laws. Physics: measurements as transfer of information The fact that Since information is quantifiable suggests, that there cannot be an infinite amount of information. To state it more formally, a closed system must have a finite amount of information. Since the Universe is a closed system, it probably contains a finite amount of information. This could explain some of the puzzles that we find in Quantum Mechanics. If the amount of information contained by an object is finite, aAs we move down to the sub-atomic level, we will find systems that contain very little amount of information. Heisenberg’s Indetermination Principle could be explained by the fact that a moving particle contains a finite, and small, amount of information. So, iIf we ask it its speed, it cannot tell us its location, and vice versa. The collapse of the wave function when we measure a quantum system could be explained by the fact that the measuring process transfers information from the macroscopic measuring system—which has lots of information—to the microscopic quantum system—which has so little information that it exist in an undefined state. This makes unnecessary explanations involving multiple universes or the involvement of consciousness at the quantum level. The idea that Quantum Mechanics could be understood in terms of information was first proposed by physicist John Archibald Wheeler, with his famous phrase “it from bit”: “It from bit. Otherwise put, every it — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.” The location of a single point in space-time cannot be measured with absolute precision, because this would require that space contains infinite information. This means that space-time must be granular, quantified. Indeed, there is a smallest unit of space, the Plank length, and of a smallest unit of time, the Plank time. We cannot define where a point is located with more precision than a Plank length. We cannot establish when something happened with more precision that a Plank time. Plank time is the ultimate present. This granularity of space-time means that information cannot move at infinite speed. Somehow, this would create infinite amounts of information. Information can travel, at most, one Plank length in one Plank time. This is the speed of light, c. Indeed, in the Theory of Relativity, it is not just light or matter which cannot travel at speeds faster than c. It is information itself. Thermodynamics: information is entropy Imagine a box full of black and white balls. If all the black balls are on the right and all the white balls on the left, the system contains little information. We can describe it as I did in the previous sentence. However, if we mixed all the balls, to describe the system we will need to specify the location of every black ball and every white ball. That would require lots of information. In the first state, the system has little information and low entropy. In the second state, it has lots of information and high entropy. In thermodynamics, information and entropy are the same thing. If we want to store information in a system, we need it to have low entropy. In the first state of the black and white balls box that I described above, we could write words by putting some white balls between the black balls on the right, and some black balls among the white balls on the left. However, if all the balls are mixed up, we cannot write anything with them… Unless we expend a lot of energy to move enough balls to create a suitable background for the words. If we tried to write too many words using the balls, we would end up making a mess and all the information we want to convey would get lost. There is a limit to how much information we can put on a system, which is defined by its entropy. It works like this: a system with high entropy contains a lot of its own information, so it would not let us use it to store our own information. The ability of a system to store information depends on its size (total amount of information it can contain) and its entropy (how much of that information is already in use). We are all familiar with that. The amount of information we can put in the hard drive of our computer depends on how big is the drive and how much information is already in it. If we want to make room for more information, we need to erase something. And to do that, we need to spend energy, because erasing something means decreasing the entropy of the system. This is called the Landauer’s principle. When a system is complex enough, it becomes an algorithm that is able to increase its own information. In other words, it starts mixing itself up and increasing its entropy. It is possible that this is what creates the arrow of time: the fact that time is asymmetrical and flows from the past to the future. There is no arrow of time at the quantum level, it only appears in macroscopic systems. This is a crucial issue because, without the arrow of time, it doesn’t make sense to speak of cause and effect. Molecular Biology: life as information-processing As I explain in my article The Secret of Life, the key concept to understand life is homeostasis. Homeostasis means the delicately maintained chemical balance in living beings, in which the concentrations of all the chemicals stay between narrow limits. The chemical composition of non-living systems stays the same, either because there are no chemical reactions at all (as in a rock), or because all reactions are at chemical equilibrium. In contrast, in living organisms all compounds are constantly reacting with each other and these reactions are far from chemical equilibrium. What maintains homeostasis in living beings is a network of signaling systems, mostly involving negative feedback. Any departure from homeostasis is corrected by triggering the opposite chemical reactions. Apart from negative feedback, the information contained in the DNA is extracted to direct the responses of the cell to changes in its environment. In other words, life is an algorithm. An immensely complex one. In 1943, the famous physicist Eric Schrödinger—one of the creators of Quantum Mechanics—had a radical insight about the nature of life, which he explained in a conference at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, that was transcribed into his famous book What Is Life? Schrödinger proposed two revolutionary ideas. The first is that living beings store information in the form of an “aperiodic crystal”—meaning a molecule in which some of the atoms are organized in different sequences encoding that information. The second was that life could be understood in terms of entropy: a living organism keeps its low entropy state by absorbing energy from its environment and using it to pump entropy to the outside. Schrödinger’s two insights in What Is Life? were confirmed experimentally. His aperiodic crystal turned out to be DNA, whose structure was discovered 10 years later, in 1953, by Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins. The idea that living beings are “dissipative structures” that use energy to pump out entropy and maintain a chemical balance far from chemical equilibrium was developed by Ilya Prigogine and published in 1955. He was influenced by Alan Turing, the inventor of information theory and computers. Prigogine was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977 for this work. Later work unraveled the subtleties of the genetic algorithm. DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA, which is then translated into the chain of amino acids of the proteins following the genetic code. But this is only a small part of the story. Proteins are veritable nanomachines that perform most of the function of metabolism. The complexity of intracellular signaling pathways is still being unraveled in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology. Evolutionary Biology: evolution as an algorithm Another way in which the concept of information processing can be used to explain life is understanding evolution as an algorithm. This algorithm works like this: Generate mutations in the DNA. Translate these mutations into proteins, physiology and behavior. Test these changes against the environment. If they result in non-survival or decreased reproduction, discard the mutation. If they result in survival and increased reproduction, keep the mutation. Go to step 1. Stuart Kauffman developed computer models of the evolution algorithms. In his view, living beings evolved by searching a state space of all the possible forms that they can adopt that are compatible with survival in a particular environment. Such search algorithm eventually fills all available niches in the environment. The evolution algorithm is an emergent law. When life originated on Earth, primitive life forms only had tentative homeostasis. Living beings with tighter control over their metabolism survived those with more loose control. Reproduction arose as a more effective way to colonize the environment, displacing life forms that were unable to create offspring because they were not able to convey the information of their homeostasis beyond their own death. Another big step was to transition from accidental mutation to directed mutation. Radiation and chemistry randomly alter the information in the DNA. Living beings that protected their DNA too much were eventually out-competed by living beings with more mutations, because they could evolve better adaptations to the environment. An uneasy equilibrium was established between the stasis derived from over-protecting DNA and the chaos produced by too many mutations in the DNA. Eventually, some organisms found a clever solution: have too equal sets of DNA, so a mutation in one set could always be compensated by having the original gene in the other set. That way, they could have their cake and eat it, too. Lots of mutations combined with backup genes. Even better: interchange these two sets of DNA with similar organisms to create offspring that was even better adapted. And, in the process, mix and match genes to increase the rate of mutation (meiosis). Roll the dice more to win more often. Generate more information, but keep previous information safeguarded. Sexual reproduction had been invented. Neuroscience: mind as an algorithm The algorithm of mutation plus natural selection kept life going for millions of years. We could conceptualize this algorithm as a way to extract information from the environment. A mutation is matched with the environment to extract the result: adaptive or non-adaptive. However, this is a very inefficient way to extract information from the environment. Some animals evolved a better way: senses that allow them to rapidly change their metabolism according to changes in their environment. No gene translation was necessary. Changes in enzyme activity and in the membrane potential would suffice. Eventually, sets of organs evolved to produce fast responses to challenges from the environment. The endocrine system, the immune system and the fastest of them all: the nervous system. Before, information from the environment was stored only in the DNA. Now there was an additional information-storage system: neuronal memory. Evolution kept rolling the dice. The information space of all possible shapes and functions was explored. A new niche was found: increase the memory storage and accelerate the processing speed of the nervous system. Animals with larger and larger brains arose. Culture as an algorithm There was one caveat, however. Unlike the information in the DNA, information in the brain could not be passed to the offspring. It died with the individual. But one animal species with a tremendously large brain found a solution: increase cooperation between members of its species by developing a language that conveys information between brains. That way, the learning of information can be sped up. We are no longer limited to the sensory experience of a single individual. And information can now be conveyed to the offspring, accumulating through generations. Eventually, more efficient ways of storing and processing information were invented. Writing. Books. Mathematics. Science. Computers. And that’s where we are. A nested hierarchy of information systems From the point of view of the Information Paradigm, everything that exists can be understood as a nested hierarchy of information systems. Let me explain this cryptic statement. One information system is the physical world of elementary particle, forces, planets, stars and galaxies. On top of it, there is the chemical world of atoms and molecules. On top of it, there is the biological world of cells, viruses, plants and animals. On top of it, there is the psychological world of minds. On top of it, there is the societal world of cultures, economics, arts and science. It’s a hierarchical system because every step adds a new level of complexity to the previous one. It’s nested because every step is built upon the previous one and cannot exist without the previous one. Each level encloses and supports the others, like the layers of an onion. That’s what I mean by nested. I could add that these information systems are contingent, because the properties of the upper levels cannot be predicted from the properties of the lower levels. You cannot predict the properties of living systems from physics and chemistry. You cannot predict the properties of human cultures from biology. I think that the Information Paradigm provides a perspective from which we can understand everything that exists. It avoids the problems of naturalism of stepping from the material world to the world of mind and cultures. It avoids the problem of dualism in explaining the interaction between matter and mind. It could be considered a form of idealism analogous to panpsychism. However, where panpsychism proposed the existence of an ill-defined consciousness, the Information Paradigm is based on the idea of information, which can be defined and studied scientifically. The Information paradigm has one unresolved problem, however. Does information exist in addition to matter and energy? Or could matter/energy be defined as forms of information? Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol
- The Way of the Warrior
In seven difficult steps 1. Hunt for personal power Personal power is self-knowledge, self-control, self-sufficiency, self-transformation, good health, emotional strength, resilience, inner motivation, wisdom. 2. Act impeccably Generate sustained attention and effort. Choose the right challenge. Face my fears. Develop meta-attention. Plug power drains. Build good habits. Focus on the process and not the destination. Don’t get attached to goals and rewards. Use attention to perform flawlessly. 3. Take responsibility for my actions Follow my own moral code. Learn from experience. Do not complain. Do not blame others. Do not look for excuses. Do not cling to hope. Nip anger in the bud. 4. Abandon self-importance Don’t act based on pride or shame. Don’t be competitive. Don’t be defensive. Encourage my curiosity. Let go of the ego. 5. Erase personal history Do not dwell on the traumas of the past. No regrets. No self-doubt. Forget who I am and lose myself in my task. 6. Use death as an advisor Focus on things that bring meaning to my life. Accept the fact that I am going to die. Do not waste energy on unimportant things. Use my time wisely. Enjoy the present. Cultivate my love of life. Be grateful. 7. Follow a path with a heart My core motivation should be based on joy, curiosity and love. It should not be based on fear, shame or pride. Help others. Live a life worth living. Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol.
- The Neuroscience of Flow
Flow is a mental state of focused attention in which we become productive and creative without apparent effort What is flow? You may have heard of flow, a seemingly magical state that some people enter when they write that lets them be tremendously productive and creative with little effort. Flow happens in many arts, like painting, performing music and dancing. We also hear of flow in sports. The archetypical one is rock climbing, but it can also occur in skiing, hiking, running, sailing and any other sport. It may be a bit more difficult to enter flow in competition sports, because ego gets in the way. How can flow be the same mental state in writing and rock climbing? These are very different activities. Writing is almost purely mental, while rock climbing is physical and scary. In what activities can we enter flow? Can it be just any activity? Is flow the same thing as mindfulness? Is flow real or an illusion? Does brain activity really change when we enter flow? In this article, I will answer these questions by examining the neuronal circuits in the brain that mediate flow. The six characteristics of flow Flow is a mental state of focused attention on a task—which can be an art, a mental activity or a sport—without apparent effort (“effortless effort”). It was defined in the 1970 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as: “An optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best” (Kotler et al., 2022). Csikszentmihalyi gave flow these six characteristics: Focused attention on a task. Merging of action and awareness. Decreased self-awareness. Altered perception of time, which either speeds up or slows down. Feeling of complete control. Positive emotions like joy, pleasure, euphoria, meaning and purpose. Triggers of flow According to a recent review paper (Kotler et al., 2022), the state of flow is driven by: Having clear goals. Knowing what you want to do and how you want to do it. Quick feedback. Getting clear signals about the effectiveness of your effort. Balance between challenges and skills. Flow cannot be achieved if your skills are not sufficiently developed to accomplish the task. But you don’t enter flow, either, if the task is so easy that it can be accomplished by routine or memory. Novelty and unpredictability. You enter flow when the activity that you are doing engages your curiosity and challenges your attention. Complexity. During flow, you must be learning something from your activity. Insight. Flow involves creativity, so you discover new things about your task as you do it. Risk. Some activities that induce to flow, like rock-climbing, skiing or martial arts, involve physical risk. There is an element of fear that maintains the focus of the attention. Others, like writing, performing music or painting, do not entail physical danger, but the emotional risk of failure. Awareness across multiple senses. Many of our senses are involved during flow, including interoception and muscle feedback. Curiosity. Experimentation and learning new skills are important during flow. There is basic curiosity about the outcome of the new things we try. Autonomy. Flow requires being self-sufficient and self-confident. Passion. You care deeply about what you are doing. Purpose. Flow requires an unbending will to stay engaged in your task. Mastery. Flow can only be accomplished after mastering a particular art, sport or activity. You don’t enter flow when you start learning a new sport or art because there is too much self-consciousness involved. Are there different flow states? It seems that, as long as these requisites are fulfilled, any activity can put you in a state of flow. However, it doesn’t seem logical that we have the same mental state when doing tasks as vastly different as writing and rock climbing. Surely, they engage different parts of our brain, no? Could it be that there are different states of flow with some common characteristics? In fact, in the scientific literature, there is a discrepancy about whether flow activates or deactivates the amygdala, an important part of the brain that mediates fear, aggression and other emotions. The paper by Kotler et al. proposes a thought experiment in which somebody is driving a motorcycle when a car suddenly moves into his lane, forcing him to swerve. This may not be a good example of flow because it normally does not involve a surprising, scary event, but a decision to start an activity that requires effort and concentration. Regardless, the authors describe the sequence of activation of brain areas leading to flow instead of panic. Activation of the amygdala is key in this sequence of events. The opposite case is illustrated by the studies of Ulrich et al. (Ulrich et al., 2014; Ulrich et al., 2016a, b), consisting of fMRI brain imaging in volunteers who achieved flow by doing arithmetic tasks. Of course, these did not involve surprise or fear. In this case, the amygdala became deactivated. This discrepancy suggests the existence of two types of flow. The first occurs in activities like driving a motorcycle, rock-climbing or martial arts, which involve risk and fear. In these cases, the amygdala gets activated. The second occurs in activities like performing arithmetical tasks, writing or playing music, which do not involve fear, but a calm state of mind. In these states of flow, the amygdala gets deactivated. In his book about flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008), Csikszentmihalyi implies that it is uniquely human. However, I think that predatory animals enter flow when they hunt. You can see it, for example, in the focused attitude of a cat stalking its prey. This suggests that there is a third modality of flow: predatory aggression (Haller, 2018). In humans, we find it in the focused attention of hunters and fishermen. While it usually does not involve fear, predatory aggression also activates the amygdala. Deactivation of the default mode network Since it was first described Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1970, the brain activity that accompanies flow has been described in details by neuroscience studies like the ones cited above. When it is not in flow, the brain state consists of the default mode network. This network is are a series of interconnected brain regions that are active when we are not doing anything in particular. It is engaged we are daydreaming, thinking about ourselves, remembering the past, or planning for the future. The default mode network it is composed of the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, the precuneus and the angular gyrus. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in thoughts about ourselves. The posterior cingulate cortex is located deep inside the fissure that separates the brain hemispheres, behind the anterior cingulate cortex. It is involved in awareness and memory retrieval, particularly spatial and autobiographical memory. The precuneus is part of the superior parietal lobule, located halfway to the back of the brain. It is involved in the processing of visual and spatial information, episodic memory, self-awareness and consciousness. The angular gyrus is also part of the parietal lobe, located at the bottom back of it. It is involved in reading, language, processing numbers, memory and attention. It also participates in theory-of-mind: our ability to create mental models of what goes on in other people’s minds. During flow, the default mode network becomes deactivated. Activation of the saliency network Kotler et al. propose that flow is initiated by a shift from the default mode network to the saliency network. Although they propose that this shift is triggered by a surprising event, it could also be produced by the struggle to perform a difficult task, or by the decision to focus the attention on a task. The saliency network is in charge of increasing the importance of certain stimuli by presenting them to consciousness (salience), while other stimuli are relegated to the background and remain unconscious. Salient feelings are those that are important for survival—like pain, pleasure, disgust and fear. Other salient stimuli are important for reproduction—like sexual desire, seeing a loved one or caring for children. However, if we have decided that a task—like writing or playing music—is important for us, anything related to that task becomes salient. The saliency network is primarily formed by the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula. It also includes the inferior parietal cortex, the right temporoparietal junction, the pre-supplementary motor area and the lateral prefrontal cortex. The primary function of the anterior cingulate cortex is to select plans for action. It does that by identifying conflicts and errors in executing actions, and discovering new action plans. In the flow state, this leads to creativity. The anterior insula also mediates the monitoring of performance and error processing, using its capacity to anticipate the state of the body as a result of a certain action. Involvement of the dopamine pathways The activity of the saliency network is dependent on the striatal dopaminergic pathway (Wise and Robble, 2020). Dopamine neurons are located in a region of the midbrain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and also in the substantia nigra. Axons going from the VTA to the nucleus accumbens form the reward pathway, where addictive drugs induce craving. Dopamine neurons from the VTA also project to the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex, playing a key role in maintaining focus in whatever we are doing. The VTA is activated when the salience network receives sensations that are novel, rewarding, or that conflict with ongoing expectations. There are two types of dopamine neurons in the VTA: Value-coding neurons are activated by unexpected rewards and inhibited by unexpected distressing events. They project to the shell of the nucleus accumbens and to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Saliency-coding neurons are activated by the incentive value of new information, motivating us to act. They project to the core of the nucleus accumbens and to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. During flow, the struggle to start a hard task initially decreases dopamine release from the value-coding neurons. Once we have overcome this struggle period, the saliency network drives dopamine release from the saliency-coding neurons that connect the VTA with the anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In these brain regions, dopamine helps sustain effort-based decision-making, leading to tenacity, grit and resilience. This creates the feeling of effortless effort during flow. However, another part of the prefrontal cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, gets inhibited during flow. The medial prefrontal cortex is part of the default mode network and mediates thoughts about our self, our past and our future. Its inhibition is what produces the selfless feeling characteristic of flow. Engagement of the executive attention network As the state of flow gets established, the salience network induces the activation of the executive attention network. While the salience network is activated by stimuli that are important for survival, the executive attention network is engaged when the brain takes charge and directs the attention. The executive attention network is involved in cognitive control, working memory, sustained attention and the solving of complex problems. It is also called the frontoparietal network, and is formed by the rostral lateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior parietal cortex. One key function of the executive attention network is sensory-gating: filtering out sensations that are not relevant to the task at hand. This happens when the prefrontal cortex inhibits the reticular nucleus of the thalamus. The thalamus is located in the center of the brain, and is a hub where different sensory stimuli are processed, filtered and directed to different areas of the cortex. Therefore, the prefrontal cortex directs the thalamus to select sensations that are related to the task that we are doing, and to inhibit the rest. The amygdala and the locus coeruleus As I said above, there are two different types of flow, depending on whether the amygdala gets activated or inhibited. While the type of flow involved in writing inhibits the amygdala, the type of flow involved in rock climbing activates it. The amygdala is the area of the brain that mediates fear, anxiety, aggression and other emotions. It is connected to the dopamine reward pathway of the striatum. It has two main parts: Basolateral amygdala, involved in the three responses to stress: fight, flight and freezing. Central amygdala, involved in the formation and storage of fear memories. The central amygdala sends axons to two areas in the brain that initiate pain inhibition: the periaqueductal gray (PAG), which is the origin of the endorphin analgesic pathway, and the locus coeruleus, which is the origin of the norepinephrine analgesic pathway. The locus coeruleus is critical for flow. It not only sends norepinephrine-releasing axons to the spinal cord to inhibit pain, but also to different areas of the cortex, where they maintain attention. These include: Dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, where norepinephrine increases focus and performance. Ventrolateral orbitofrontal cortex, where it reduces impulsivity (the urge to take careless action), which is essential for purposeful control. Temporal parietal junction, where it increases empathy. Dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in action planning. Its feedback to the amygdala serves to sustain flow. Noradrenergic projections from the amygdala to the hypothalamus activate the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, leading to increases in cortisol and adrenaline in the blood. This hormonal stress response increases the heartbeat to sustain muscular activity. However, it seems that activation of the amygdala, locus coeruleus and HPA axis is important in the rock climbing type of flow, but not is the writing type of flow. The former, but not the latter, is triggered by the perception of danger. The fear caused by a risk activity can lead to three different stress responses: fight, flight or freeze. Only the first takes us into flow. Here, fight doesn’t mean aggression, but engaging with the source of fear. In contrast, flight means avoiding the challenge, maybe by procrastinating or daydreaming instead of performing the activity. Freeze means becoming passive. There is a switch in the brain that puts it into fight mode instead of flight or freezing. It is located in the thalamus, the area in the center of the brain that serves to sort out sensory information on its way to the cortex. The freeze response is mediated by the xiphoid nucleus (Salay et al., 2018), located in the ventral midline of the thalamus. Fight responses are mediated by projections from the nucleus reuniens, which surrounds the xiphoid nucleus, to the medial prefrontal cortex. Flow and mindfulness Flow is not the same as mindfulness, although both states support each other when we practice them. In mindfulness, our conscience is passive, taking in incoming feelings without judging them. It activates the salience network. In flow, our consciousness is in an active state. In it, the executive attention network takes over the salience network. Unlike mindfulness, in flow our consciousness selects the sensations necessary to perform a task instead of giving equal weight to all stimuli. Although both mindfulness and flow turn off judging, they do it in different ways. In flow, the inhibition of the medial prefrontal cortex makes us forget about our self. The activity that we are doing completely fills our consciousness. One type of judging remains: the feedback from our activity. But it doesn’t involve self-criticism. In mindfulness, judging is turned off purposely by looking at all stimuli with equanimity. Final remarks I have shown here that the brain circuits that mediate flow are quite well understood. One consequence of this is that neuroscience is beginning to understand consciousness quite well. Unlike being something ethereal and separated from the mind, as proposed by some mystics and philosophers, consciousness exists in different states, each controlled by its own neuronal network in the brain. These states include the default state, mindfulness and flow. Learning to enter flow can help us work at our jobs with a feeling of fulfillment and effortlessness. If we engage in artistic activities, it will increase our creativity and take us to the edge of our capabilities. Other states of flow can be entered while doing sports. When danger is present, as in rock climbing or skiing, flow let us use our fear to increase our focus, thereby decreasing the risk by maximizing our performance. However, we don’t need to practice a difficult art or a dangerous sport to enter flow. Any activity can lead us to this mental state if we find a way to challenge ourselves while doing it. The key is to avoid mechanical action and daydreaming, which keep our brain in the default network. During Zen retreats (sesshins), I was taught how to stay mindful while doing menial tasks like cutting vegetables, washing dishes or sweeping the floor. The determination of staying completely focused on the task created a challenge that put me in a state of flow. Flow feels great! When we learn how to enter it, there are no more boring tasks, no more unpleasant work. Every task can be joyful because what matters is not what we do, but the mental state in which we do it. Like any other mental activity, flow is habit-making. This means that, once your brain learns to go into flow, it becomes easier and easier to enter that state. As we do more and more activities in a state of flow, it becomes a way of life. One that leads us to a life worth living. References Csikszentmihalyi M (2008) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience: HarperCollins eBook. Haller J (2018) The role of central and medial amygdala in normal and abnormal aggression: A review of classical approaches. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 85:34-43. Kotler S, Mannino M, Kelso S, Huskey R (2022) First few seconds for flow: A comprehensive proposal of the neurobiology and neurodynamics of state onset. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 143:104956. Salay LD, Ishiko N, Huberman AD (2018) A midline thalamic circuit determines reactions to visual threat. Nature 557:183-189. Ulrich M, Keller J, Grön G (2016a) Neural signatures of experimentally induced flow experiences identified in a typical fMRI block design with BOLD imaging. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 11:496-507. Ulrich M, Keller J, Grön G (2016b) Dorsal Raphe Nucleus Down-Regulates Medial Prefrontal Cortex during Experience of Flow. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 10:169. Ulrich M, Keller J, Hoenig K, Waller C, Grön G (2014) Neural correlates of experimentally induced flow experiences. NeuroImage 86:194-202. Wise RA, Robble MA (2020) Dopamine and Addiction. Annu Rev Psychol 71:79-106. Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol.
- What To Do If Choking Goes Wrong
A person being choked may have a cardiac arrest or become unconscious. This is what you should do. I strongly recommend not to practice choking. This article is part of a series intended to show that choking is unsafe, may cause brain damage, and is potentially lethal. The advice I give here is intended to mitigate the damage caused by choking. It does not make choking safe. There are no warrantees that any of this will work. You may find that a partner that you just choke is unconscious and unresponsive. Don’t panic. Never, ever, leave your partner and run away! He or she will probably die, and you will probably end up spending many years in jail. Is there a cardiac arrest? Cardiac arrest - when the heart stops beating - is a rare occurrence during breath play, but a definite possibility. It is very hard to predict. Even a healthy person who has been choked many times can go into cardiac arrest. The first thing you should do is to check for a heartbeat. If there is none, you have a life-threatening problem. As I explained in previous articles in this series, a blood choke can induce cardiac arrest by messing with the sensing of blood pressure in the carotid sinuses. If the heart stops beating, every second counts to save your partner’s life. If there are people around who can reach you, call out for help. No matter who they are. No matter if you and your partner are naked. You need as many people as you can, so that somebody can make an emergency call, while somebody does cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and somebody else goes searching for an automated external defibrillator (AED). If you are alone, call immediately 911 (in the USA) or a similar emergency number in your country. If you put your cell phone in speaker mode, you should be able to make that call while you start CPR. CPR may bring back a person with cardiac arrest, but chances are that it may not. Regardless, you should continue CPR until a rescue team arrives. CPR can maintain enough blood circulation and oxygenation to keep the brain alive. You can learn CPR online here. Using an automated external defibrillator (AED) If you have access to an AED, you should use it. But don’t leave your partner alone to go looking for one. AEDs are those electric pads that we see in the movies being used in hospitals. You place them diagonally across the chest, shout “clear!” and press a button to deliver a shock to the heart to start it beating again. Most CPR classes will teach you how to use an AED. These days, many public places like shopping malls, public transportation and movie theaters have AEDs. If you are in a public dungeon of a BDSM club, they will probably have one. The Staying Alive app, by Le Bon Samaritain, can be installed for free on your cell phone and can show you where the nearest AED is located. It also shows you how to use one. You can buy or rent an AED, to have it handy if you practice choking. Unconsciousness but no cardiac arrest Much more common than cardiac arrest would be a situation in which the person who has been choked has a pulse but remains unconscious. You should be able to restore consciousness with assisted breathing, either mouth-to-mouth or with chest compressions. While you do that, keep checking the pulse and watch out for vomiting. A person who needs rescue breathing to regain consciousness should be taken to an emergency room or urgent care facility for examination. This is particularly important if the person experiences problems with balance, vision abnormalities, slurred speech or persistent dizziness. Keep in mind that a person in this condition may not be fully capable of making decisions and may misjudge their state. Even if they don’t seek medical attention right away, they need to be closely watched. Don’t leave them alone. Ideally, a person who has been unconscious for lack of oxygen for more than a few seconds should be examined by a doctor for signs of brain damage a few days after the incident. Brain imaging and other test can detect if some areas of the brain have been injured. There are medication and treatments to help the brain recover. If a person has been unconscious and has dizzy spells, headaches, nausea, blurred vision or difficulty speaking, they need to see a doctor right away. Knowing CPR doesn’t make choking safer What I wrote above is meant to increase the chances of survival in case of an accident during sexual choking. It should not be taken as an endorsement of this practice or as a reassurance that knowing CPR makes choking any less dangerous. In the words of Jay Wiseman, the author of SM 101: A Realistic Introduction: “It's good for people to learn CPR. […] That said, should breath play result in a cardiac arrest, it cannot be reasonably said that doing CPR is reliably likely to revive the victim. Cardiac arrest is a completely out of control disaster. Resuscitation is certainly not guaranteed even for a very experienced and highly trained medical team with all advanced life support equipment immediately available. An inexperienced and minimally trained civilian, likely working alone, faces a much more uphill battle. In the unlikely event that an automatic external defibrillator (AED) was available it should certainly be used, but the battle nonetheless remains very much an uphill one. While CPR training can reasonably be said to mitigate some of the "lesser" risks of breath play, such as respiratory arrest or airway obstruction by the victim's own tongue, it cannot reasonably be said that CPR training significantly mitigates the "greater" risk of a fatal outcome due to cardiac arrest.” Jay Wiseman's "Closing Argument" On Breath Play. If don’t want to be in a situation in which you have to fight to bring your partner back to life or, even worse, watch them die, don’t do sexual choking. Copyright 2023 Hermes Solenzol.
- The Runner’s High—Endorphin Rush or Endocannabinoids?
Is the euphoria produced by exercise mediated by opioid receptors or cannabinoid receptors? The endorphin rush The endorphin rush is an expression widely used in popular culture that refers to feelings of euphoria, elation, endurance, and decreased anxiety and pain supposedly caused by the release of endorphins in the brain. The endorphin rush has sunk deep roots in the popular culture. There are drinks and rock bands named after it. It is considered responsible for increasing the performance of athletes, the pleasure of sex and even “sub space”—an altered state of consciousness produced by pain in masochists. The runner’s high But the most well-known example of an endorphin rush is the runner’s high. A marathon runner is about to hit the wall. His energy is depleted, he is exhausted, and his legs are about to give up. But, all of a sudden, something magical happens. He feels full of energy and can complete the race, running even faster. All the anxiety is gone and, in fact, he feels totally happy. What happened? Well, his brain resorted to a last-resort trick. It released a bunch of endorphins that relieved his fatigue and made him high. That was the story that we have been told for a long time. But now it turns out that it may not be the endorphins after all, but some marihuana-like compounds called endocannabinoids. This article looks at the evidence for both explanations. In the process, it will explain some interesting facts about the brain and the methods that scientists use to explore it. Endorphins and opioid receptors “Endorphins” is the name popularly given to endogenous opioids, a large family of peptides found in the brain and the blood that are able to activate the opioid receptors used by drugs like morphine, heroin, fentanyl and codeine. There are three classic opioid receptors, designated by the Greek letters mu, delta and kappa. A fourth receptor and its corresponding peptide were discovered simultaneously by two groups, so it was given the two names that they used: the nociceptin/orphanin receptor. However, this receptor does not produce euphoria or analgesia, so I will leave it out of this discussion. Endorphins are peptides encoded by three genes: proopiomelanocortin (POMC), proenkephalin and prodynorphin. If Nature was well-organized and rational, each of these genes would encode a peptide that would activate each of the three classic opioid receptors, and that would be that. Alas! Nature is neither simple nor rational. In fact, it displays a perverse penchant to make things convoluted. And so each gene encode for a complex mixture of peptides: enkephalins, dynorphins and beta-endorphin. To make things even more fun, the POMC gene also encodes for two peptides that have nothing to do with opioids and their receptors. One is alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH), which regulates appetite and sexual behavior. The other is adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which is part of the stress response of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. See? I told you Nature was devious. So, let’s try to keep things simple for this discussion. Enkephalins and beta-endorphin bind to mu and delta opioid receptors, that produce analgesia and euphoria. Dynorphin binds to kappa receptors that produce analgesia and dysphoria—the opposite of euphoria. Measuring endorphins in the blood or the saliva is meaningless Initial studies on the runner’s high measured endorphin in the blood or the saliva of runners, and found that running and other types of exercise increased them. However, this is meaningless. Endorphins do not cross the blood-brain barrier, a wall in the capillaries of the brain that makes its chemical environment totally different from that of the blood. So endorphins in the blood cannot induce euphoria or analgesia, because these effects are produced by neurons in the brain. On top of that, endorphins (mainly the beta-endorphin encoded by the POMC gene) are released into the blood from the pituitary gland at the same time as ACTH, which is also encoded by the POMC gene. Since ACTH release is part of the stress response, endorphin in the blood does not produce euphoria. In fact, when endorphins are released in some parts of the brain (the locus coeruleus), they turn off the stress response. Hence, to determine if the runner’s high is mediated by endorphins, we need to measure them in the brain of the runners. A study of endorphin release in the brain of runners Measuring endorphins in the brain of humans while they are awake—in fact, shortly after they performed a strenuous exercise—may seem like an impossible task. However, it can be done by using a fancy technique called positron emission tomography (PET). PET uses drugs that incorporate unstable isotopes like fluor-18 (18F) or carbon-11 (11C). These drugs are called radiotracers. When the isotopes decay, they release a positron. It interacts with an electron, producing a gamma ray, which is detected by the PET machine. When the radiotracer drug is bound to a receptor, like the mu-opioid receptor, it stays longer in that brain region, which gives a brighter PET signal. However, if endorphins are released in that brain region, they displace the radiotracer from the receptor, so the PET signal decreases. This allows scientists to create images of the brain where endorphin release is color-coded and quantified. The first study that investigated the runner’s high with PET (Boecker et al., 2008) used as radiotracer [18F]FDPN, an opioid drug that binds to all the classical opioid receptors. The subjects were 10 male runners who had experienced the runner’s high before and trained for a minimum of 4 hours weekly for the last 2 years. These inclusion criteria were important because they ensured that the effects studied were really a runner’s high and not mere responses to exercise or fatigue. Thirty minutes after a two-hour run, the subjects received an injection of the radiotracer and had their brains scanned with PET. As control, they had a PET scan after 24 hours without exercise. These two PET scans were separated by 4 weeks and their order was randomized. The results were shown as endorphin release after running compared with rest for each subject. An increase in endorphins was found in the following brain regions: orbitofrontal cortex—a region of the prefrontal cortex that assigns value to actions, evaluates contingencies and appraises emotions; dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—involved in decision making, cognitive flexibility, working memory and planning; insula—an area of the cortex buried inside the brain hemispheres that is involved in pain, pleasure, euphoria and other emotions; anterior cingulate cortex—a region of the cortex between the hemispheres that controls motivation, detects errors and conflicts, and plans actions; posterior cingulate cortex—involved in spatial memory, emotional saliency and learning; sensory and motor cortex—involved in detecting sensations and directing muscle contraction, respectively. The runners were also given a psychological test to evaluate their emotions after running. Two emotions increased after running: happiness and euphoria. This indicated the presence of the runner’s high. Other emotions didn’t change after the run, including confusion, anger, sadness, fatigue, fear, energy and tension. Finally, the scientists analyzed both sets of data together to determine if there was a correlation between the feelings of euphoria and endorphin release in each brain area. A positive correlation between endorphin release and euphoria was found in the orbitofrontal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior and posterior cingulate cortex, insula, sensory cortex and motor cortex. These results strongly support the idea that the runner’s high is a feeling of euphoria caused by endorphin release in brain areas that process emotions and direct actions. Endorphin release in the brain during moderate and intense exercise Ten years later, another study (Saanijoki et al., 2018) used PET scanning to find out if moderate and intense exercise are equally able to induce endorphin release. Another difference with the previous PET study is that they used a radiotracer, [11C]carfentanil, that is a selective agonist of mu-opioid receptors. The previous study used [18F]FDPN, which could also bind to the kappa opioid receptors and therefore detect the release of dynorphins in addition to enkephalins and endorphins. Remember that dynorphins binding to kappa opioid receptors produce dysphoria, the opposite of what the endorphin high is supposed to be. But perhaps the most relevant differences were the subjects and the type of exercise. The 22 subjects were also men, but there was no requirement of them to have previously experienced the runner’s high or to exercise regularly. The exercise used in the experiments was not running, but indoor cycling. Moderate intensity exercise was defined as cycling for 1 hour “at workload in the middle between aerobic and anaerobic thresholds,” which were determined previously. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) consisted of five cycling sprints of 30 seconds at maximal load, separated by 4 minutes rests. They found that HIIT, but not moderate intensity exercise, induced endorphin release in many brain areas. Some were the same areas identified in the previous study: dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, anterior and posterior cingulate cortex, thalamus and insula. In addition, they found endorphin release in the ventral striatum, hippocampus, cerebellum, amygdala and periaqueductal gray (PAG). The ventral striatum contains the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the nucleus accumbens, which form the dopamine reward pathway that mediates motivation and drug addiction. The amygdala mediates fear and controls the stress response. The PAG is the beginning of a neuronal pathway that goes from the brainstem to the spinal cord and inhibits pain. Again, psychological tests were used to determine if the subjects had a runner’s high. They were taken by 12 subjects that did both types of exercise. Surprisingly, euphoria, motivation and satisfaction were higher during moderate-intensity exercise than during HIIT. Conversely, negative feelings like exhaustion, tension and irritation were higher during HIIT than during moderate exercise. Pain increased with exercise and it was not different between HIIT and moderate exercise. Even more unexpected was the finding that the negative feelings during HIIT correlated with endorphin release, particularly in the dorsal prefrontal cortex. Moreover, the euphoria produced by moderate exercise also correlated with endorphin release in the dorsal prefrontal cortex. So, there is no endorphin rush? This second study brought into question the idea of the endorphin rush. On the one hand, yes, exercise releases endorphins in the brain. And intense exercise releases more endorphins than moderate exercise. But, instead of being associated with euphoria and feelings of energy, which is the classic description of the runner’s high, endorphin release during intense exercise correlated with negative emotions like exhaustion and irritation. On top of that, moderate exercise produced euphoria and other positive feelings. All of these contrasts with the common description of the runner’s high, which is only achieved after hitting a wall of exhaustion during extreme exercise. So, endorphin release during intense exercise does not produce euphoria? There is no endorphin rush? The answer may be a bit more complicated. Maybe what happens is that endorphins are released during exercise as a compensatory response to negative feelings like pain, anxiety, irritation and exhaustion. With moderate exercise, they are able to eliminate these feelings and even produce euphoria. But with intense exercise, the negative feelings are so strong that endorphins cannot drown them. These negative feelings may be mediated by neuropeptides like dynorphins, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and cholecystokinin (CCK). CRF drives the stress response of the HPA axis and the locus coeruleus. CCK induces anxiety and opposes the effects of endorphins. Mice do not have an endorphin rush Meanwhile, some scientists raised the possibility that the runner’s high was mediated by endocannabinoids instead of endorphins. Endocannabinoids are to cannabinoid receptors what endorphins are to opioid receptors. They are substances produced in the body that activate the same receptors as the psychoactive compounds in cannabis. The two main endocannabinoids are anandamide and 2-arachydonoyl-glycerol (2-AG). The high produced by marihuana is mediated by CB1 receptors, which are abundant in the brain. There are at least two other cannabinoid receptors, CB2 and GPR55, which do not mediate the psychotropic effects of cannabis but some of its other effects on the body. A study in mice (Fuss et al., 2015) showed that, when mice exercise on a running wheel, they have less anxiety and pain. They also had elevated levels of endocannabinoids in their blood. The analgesia produced by exercise was eliminated by blocking CB1 and CB2 receptors with their antagonists, but not by blocking opioid receptors with naloxone. This indicated that the pain reduction was mediated by endocannabinoids and not by endorphins. Similarly, the decrease in anxiety produced by exercise was blocked by antagonists of CB1 receptors, but not by antagonists of CB2 receptors or by naloxone. In a sophisticated experiment, the scientists selectively eliminated CB1 receptors in GABA-releasing neurons in the forebrain of mice using transgenic techniques. These mice ran less on the wheel than normal mice and lose the anxiolytic effect of running. This showed that the decrease in anxiety produced by wheel running in mice is mediated by CB1 receptors in forebrain neurons. However, this study does not tell us much about the runner’s high because its main characteristic is euphoria, and euphoria cannot be studied in mice. What it shows is that exercise decreases pain and anxiety in mice, and that these effects are mediated by the action of endocannabinoids in the forebrain. However, the analgesic and anxiolytic effects of cannabinoids have been known for a while. So, it’s not endorphins but the endocannabinoids? To see if endocannabinoids are responsible for the euphoria of the runner’s high, the same group performed their next experiments in humans (Siebers et al., 2021). The obvious experiment would be to repeat the first two studies with PET scanning, but with a radiotracer that binds to cannabinoid receptors instead of opioid receptors. Indeed, there are several radiotracers for CB1 receptors (Horti et al., 2006; Varlow et al., 2020; Hou et al., 2021). However, this study did not use them. Instead, they did three experiments. The first consisted of measuring endocannabinoids in the blood before and after exercise, which consisted of walking or running on a treadmill for 50 minutes. The second experiment consisted of a battery of psychological test to measure euphoria before and after the exercise. The subjects were injected with naltrexone, a mu-opioid receptor antagonist. If naltrexone decreased the euphoria, then it was mediated by endorphins. A more complete design would have used also CB1 receptors antagonists, like in the experiments with mice. Unfortunately, CB1 antagonists have not been authorized to be used in humans. Rimonabant, an antagonist of CB1 and CB2 receptors, was used in humans for a while, but withdrawn (Sam et al., 2011). The third experiment was a sophisticated way to measure anxiety, called the human elevated plus-maze. The subjects were made to walk on wooden planks forming a plus sign while wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset. In one direction (closed arm), the headset showed the planks surrounded by protective rock walls. In the other direction (open arm), the VR headset showed a 55 meter (180 feet) fall to either a river of icy water or a parking lot with cars. The time the subjects spent in the open arm was a measure of their anxiety levels. Both walking and running increased endocannabinoids in the blood, but running produced a larger increase than waking. Running, but not walking, produced euphoria. Naltrexone produced a small decrease in euphoria that was not statistically significant. As for the fancy experiment with the VR headset to measure anxiety, the results were rather meager. After running, the subjects experienced marginally less anxiety than after walking (p = 0.024). Naltrexone did not change the anxiety levels in either condition. This study was touted by the press as showing that the runner’s high is mediated by endocannabinoid and not by endorphins. Sensational news! People had been fooled into believing in the endorphin rush all along. My conclusion: it’s the endorphins, after all However, I have my doubts. The paper by Siebers et al. did not invalidate the two original studies using PET imaging to measure endorphin release in the brain. In fact, those two studies were of much higher quality than the one by Siebers et al. The two PET studies demonstrated the endorphins are released by exercise in brains areas relevant for controlling pain, mediating emotions and inducing euphoria. They were done by different groups and, in these measures, they were consistent which each other. The main thing in question is whether the endorphins released by exercise produce euphoria. In this, the two PET studies reached conflicting conclusions. The one by Boecker et al. showed that strenuous running produced euphoria. The one by Saanijoki et al. showed that only moderate exercise produced euphoria, which correlated with endorphin release. Intense exercise produced negative emotions, which also correlated with endorphin release. As I pointed out before, these results can be reconciled if we assume that endorphin release is a compensatory response that can reverse the negative emotions produced by moderate exercise, but not by intense exercise. But, what about the third study arguing that the euphoria is mediated by endocannabinoids? Its results are far from compelling. It showed only that the reduction is euphoria produced by naltrexone was not statistically significant—which is not the same as proving that naltrexone had no effect on euphoria. That would require a different statistical test, one that shows that euphoria with and without naltrexone is statistically the same. Hence, it is possible that naltrexone decreased euphoria, but this effect was not statistically significant due to the experimental design of this study. And it did not show that euphoria was caused by endocannabinoids, or that there was cannabinoid receptor activation in areas of the brain that mediate euphoria. The results of the anxiety tests by Siebers et al. were even less conclusive. The effect of running on anxiety was too small when compared to walking. A key control is missing: anxiety measures at rest. This should be compared with anxiety after walking. If we don’t have a clear decrease in anxiety produced by exercise, testing the effect of naltrexone on this small effect is meaningless. Endocannabinoids are released in the blood by exercise, for sure. But, although they cross the blood-brain barrier, this is not the same as endocannabinoids being released in brain areas that mediate euphoria, which is what the two PET imaging studies showed for endorphins. If we don’t know in which brain areas the endocannabinoids are released, we cannot propose a mechanism by which they induce euphoria. Besides, cannabinoids decrease anxiety, but they do not produce the high levels or euphoria induced by the opioid drugs and the endorphins. I think that the main source of confusion is the assumption that any strenuous exercise is going to automatically induce a runner’s high. This is not the experience of runners. The runner’s high is an altered state of consciousness that is encountered only by a selected group of runners after extremely long runs. It is probably a learned response. Only the first study (Boecker et al., 2008) selected runners who had already experienced the runner’s high and that said that they achieved that state during the experiment. The second study (Saanijoki et al., 2018) did not even select athletes who trained regularly. The third (Siebers et al., 2021) selected subjects who performed “endurance exercise more than twice a week,” but did not check if they experienced a runner’s high. My conclusion is that exercise releases endorphins and endocannabinoids. It induces a variety of positive and negative emotional states, mediated by euphoric (endorphins, endocannabinoids) and dysphoric (dynorphins, CRF, CCK) neurotransmitters. However, only in some special situations endorphin release raises to the level to produce the high euphoria seen in the runner’s high. The endorphin rush is not automatic. It seems to require entering some sort of trance state, or breaking through a neurophysiological barrier. References Boecker H, Sprenger T, Spilker ME, Henriksen G, Koppenhoefer M, Wagner KJ, Valet M, Berthele A, Tolle TR (2008) The Runner's High: Opioidergic Mechanisms in the Human Brain. Cerebral cortex (New York, NY : 1991). Fuss J, Steinle J, Bindila L, Auer MK, Kirchherr H, Lutz B, Gass P (2015) A runner's high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112:13105-13108. 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Siebers M, Biedermann SV, Bindila L, Lutz B, Fuss J (2021) Exercise-induced euphoria and anxiolysis do not depend on endogenous opioids in humans. Psychoneuroendocrinology 126:105173. Varlow C, Boileau I, Wey HY, Liang SH, Vasdev N (2020) Classics in Neuroimaging: Imaging the Endocannabinoid Pathway with PET. ACS Chem Neurosci 11:1855-1862.