Tag Archives: thought

Cats can use mirrors.

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Conventional wisdom goes that since, when given the classic and highly species-biased “mirror test”, cats “flunk” it, then they don’t know that their reflection is themselves, and don’t in fact know that mirrors reflect things and that they can see behind themselves using mirrors and so forth.

AnneC and I are trying to debunk a lot of similar myths about cats. The tests cats are given are often not cat-friendly and don’t reflect cats in their usual environment doing their usual things. And I’ve long known that Fey uses mirrors. In fact sometimes she uses two mirrors at once — the one over the sink and the one on the bathroom door — to make direct eye contact with people. More than one staff person who thought cats couldn’t use mirrors, have been startled, some even terrified, to see a cat looking them straight in the face using a mirror or two. One even screamed and dropped what she was carrying and just kept repeating, “Your cat looked at me in the mirror. Cats can’t use mirrors.”

Here’s a photo of her using one mirror to look at me as she hears me come up behind her with a camera:

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As to why that scares people? I think it’s the same phenomenon that has terrified many people about me. They see me going about my business and stereotype me as not being what they consider a real person. Then I do anything from looking at them to typing something and they visibly startle and begin to act scared. They respond to me as if a potted plant got up and walked around. And I see people doing the same to Fey all the time.

And why that is… I’m not entirely sure. I almost expect them to cross themselves like we are demon possessed. They think of us as something unnatural, something deeply wrong that just shouldn’t happen that way. And there’s something deeply wrong with that in a whole different way than what they think of us.

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Human instincts, survival-related and otherwise

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Some people seem terrified of the idea that human beings have instincts. I don’t hold that view. I find human instincts fascinating — the way we just know things, or do things, based on things that are built into us very deeply. I don’t mean to say that all humans have identical instincts, just that we all have them.

I have terrible body awareness. I often can’t locate pain at all, and if I do it’s often because someone has sat down and played twenty questions with me for an hour or longer. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m in pain, I just notice the responses to it and fail to connect the dots.

Which makes it astounding to me when instincts related to health or body awareness give me information out of the blue that I can’t tie to any conscious sensation.

Twice in my life I have been aware of an organ malfunction that could be life threatening if not caught and treated. The information appeared quietly and with great clarity. It was not accompanied by fear or any other emotion. The information consisted of the ideas, “Something is wrong with one of my organs. If nothing is done, I will eventually die.” This was accompanied by frequent thoughts of death — not anxious or depressed thoughts, but “hello you need to be aware of this” thoughts. In fact the lack of emotion and the quiet clarity of the information was astounding.

The problem was that neither situation showed me which organ was having problems. Luckily, in both instances someone figured out what was wrong. In one case my gallbladder had completely failed after producing two large stones (nobody had told me that early onset gallbladder disease ran in my family for generations among the women). In the other case, a pulmonologist who eventually suspected my main problem wasn’t asthma anymore, did an exhaustive set of tests until a CT scan showed a form of lung damage that is progressive and fatal if not treated (and is still more dangerous than asthma if treated, but can be managed well with regular breathing treatments).

In both cases the instinctual warning bleep stopped bleeping at me after treatment (surgery in the first case and twice-daily breathing treatments in the second).

In other cases (one in particular stands out in my memory) I have gotten a slightly different warning bleep. Again, there was no emotion attached, just quiet certainty. Despite the fact that the warning was more urgent: “You are in immediate danger of death if you don’t do something right away.” I know it’s happened more than once but the only time I can remember right now happened a couple years ago. I had just gotten back from the emergency room where I’d been treated for an impacted bowel movement and released. This was not the first or the last time this had happened. I had managed to pass an enormous stool that had blocked both my bowels and my bladder. I had been catheterized. And these sorts of things, when they had happened before, had been the beginning of the end of the problem.

But this time was different. The warning bleeps started off by telling me that under no circumstances should I be left alone. So I told someone that I didn’t know why but I needed someone to be there constantly after I got home. An hour later, the warning bleep told me I would die without assistance. I was about to tell this to the person with me when I collapsed (I could still walk part time back then) and started vomiting. The person with me called 911 and by the time I got to the hospital I was delirious and hallucinating while seeming to only half of the time be conscious. The blockage had started poisoning me and I ended up admitted to the hospital until the danger was over.

Those sorts of instincts make sense to me. It makes sense for a body to have a built in warning system. I have spoken to others with chronic health conditions or who had been in life threatening situations who know all about these warning bleeps. People who were at risk of hypothermia whose hallucinations told them not to go to sleep no matter what. People who had been hit by cars and despite confusion from concussions or blood loss, had instincts that told them not to move for any reason. This stuff makes sense even though it is still in the realm of cool and amazing, especially amazing in those who otherwise lack body awareness.

But the one that is happening to me right now seems outright strange. I can’t figure out why it would be an important instinct. My menstrual periods stopped over a year ago. The only way for me to have a period is to induce it with hormones, and even then it’s not the super-heavy kind normally expected after a seven-month break.

The weird part? I’ve skipped a period or two before. That’s not weird. What’s weird is that even after I’d only skipped a month, I knew for certain that it wasn’t coming back without intervention. My crotch area doesn’t feel any different from normal, I have no idea how I know this. But I still know that. It’s an absolute certainty in my head that I will not be having any non-induced periods anytime soon.

To be honest, I’m really happy about this. I almost never get migraines anymore, when before they happened all the time. My moods are totally stable. I don’t have to deal with the hygiene stuff. I wasn’t planning on having kids. There are risks to not having a period but if I have one induced only every six months I’m safe.

I just don’t understand the purpose of this instinct. Knowing my periods have stopped coming naturally, doesn’t seem to save my life. It does make me happy, but that doesn’t seem like a reason for this kind of detail in an instinct. So to me this is the strangest of all the body-related instincts I’ve ever had.

The Fireworks Are Interesting

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The closer you get to the heart of things, the more words fall apart. First they get shaky. Then they start contradicting each other or getting paradoxical. Then they just fall apart, dissolve, vanish.

The way my thoughts work creates some similar problems for language. And it’s not just that I haven’t found the absolute best combination of words to translate my thoughts with. It’s that on a fundamental level the thoughts don’t translate.

My thoughts, such as I am aware of, are mostly observations of the world, that I have allowed to slowly and quietly settle themselves into patterns. They are not symbols of those observations. Symbols would have a better chance translating. They are also silent — no words pop in to describe them, there is no “loudness” about them, they don’t announce themselves with any kind of fanfare. I suspect to many people they would seem like an absence of thought.

I have also observed words. I have seen which clusters of words attach most frequently to which situations. And that is how I use words — as imperfect translations of situations that present themselves in my mind. I use words because they are the most readily recognized way to communicate with most people.

[With some people, words are not necessary. There are better ways to communicate. That is wonderful in every sense of the word.]

The way I use words can present problems though. I start with a situation and then I throw words at it. The problem is for any given situation there are many ways you could approach it with words. Some of those words might even seem contradictory if set side by side. But it’s not that the situation itself is contradictory, it’s just that language can be complex that way.

For instance, in my last post I described what could be called, and what are often called, subtypes of autism.

Someone replied saying they don’t believe in one type or many types of autism but that it seemed from my post as if I believe there are many.

The reality is more complicated than that.

Autism is not a thing. There are only the people who get called autistic.

I recently tried to describe the process that led to modern notions of autism. I have read many of the original sources for that and for other areas of psychiatric classification. My language skills were less fluent than stuff I normally publish online, but even though I am eating again (I was sick when I wrote it) I still can’t come up with more fluent language for the description I gave of the way ideas of autism have come about.

Were original people designated as autistic.

Original people had their be.

Original people had their “seem to professionals”.

Those not the same.

Then people later might identify with the be. Or with the seem to professionals. Or with the seem to professionals of the original seem to professionals.

So later version of who is autistic ==

People be like original people be.
People be like original people seem to professionals.
People be like original seem to professionals seem to later professionals.
(…)
People seem (to self or professional or family) like original people be.
People seem (to …) like original people seem to professionals.
People seem (to …) like original seem to professionals seem to later professionals.
(…)

Which total complicate what people see now as one thing and try to find one common deficit.

So when I say autism it is a shorthand for a modern language-based classification of a bunch of human beings that involved a lot of biases, historical accidents, and clutter-minded evolution of the sort I described above.

So when I say subtype of autism I mean there are people with some cognitive things in common, who also happen to be classified by those stilts-upon-stilts-upon-stilts standards as autistic. I mean to refer to real live people that I have observed patterns in. Not the baggage that comes with the words.

So I could just as easily have described us in a way that involved a questioning of the entire category system that gave birth to notions like “autism has many types” or “autism has one type”.

This may not be the same reason that the guy who replied to me doesn’t believe in those things. But it is still a lack of belief in those things. And my lack of belief in those things is not changed by my use of the words that most people are familiar with — autism, subtypes, and so on. My lack of belief in those things also is not a good reason for a troll to reply saying something like “If you don’t believe in those things then stop calling yourselves autistic damn you.” To say such a thing is to take my words on entirely the wrong level, and such comments will be cheerfully deleted.

There are third, and fourth, and fifth, and so on, ways to describe the situation in the last post or for that matter in any of my posts. It can be hard to know which one to use, whether to combine a few, or what. And no matter which way I choose, I will be leaving out a world of important things.

Because of this, please don’t persist in telling me what I believe after I have confirmed I don’t believe it. It doesn’t matter if you come up with ten separate examples of words you are totally certain prove I believe something or come at it from a certain viewpoint. If I say I don’t, then I don’t.

To get back to the way I think, I am not even certain I have “beliefs” (even if I use the shorthand as if I do). Once you peel back the layers of language that I use for communication… I have observations and experiences, I have patterns of observations and experiences, and so on. “Belief” seems to require jumping up into language again. So do many other concepts that seem more language-based than anything. Language forces me to use many concepts that have nothing to do with the way my mind works when I am not writing. Those concepts form weird mesh-like frameworks in people’s heads and they then associate me with the mesh-like frameworks instead of with the person beneath them. (And it’s not just me this happens to, but everything.)

But if you look between the words (not the same as between the lines), rather than at them, you can start to see things far more interesting than the words themselves. (This is not abstract. This is as concrete as it gets. The words are the abstractions.)

The use of language has the annoying property of insisting on the reality of lots of abstract concepts. Even seemingly concrete words like “green” are arbitrary, and different languages will divide the colors different ways. (The Irish language, I am told, has more than one word that translates as green and one of them involves colors that in English would be specific shades of green, grey, and brown.) Whereas just looking at an object of certain colors doesn’t require figuring out how any given language classifies them. So literally anything I perceive has to go through a horrid process of translation and distortion and oversimplification. Even the most “literal” language is hopelessly abstract compared to what language is trying to describe.

Every single time I write, I pick up a set of tools. Those tools are the phrases I cobble together into sentences.

“Subtype of autism” is one example of such a tool. It is a shorthand for certain people that I have made certain observations about.

Just because I happen to use the nearest available set of translation tools does not mean I have, in picking up those tools, agreed to the entire worldview of the people who built the tools. I don’t have to agree that autism is a real thing, or that it is not socially constructed, in order to use phrases that include the term. I use these tools because the alternative is silence, not because I have picked up an entire set of beliefs about the world with every phrase I use.

Even more, my failure to describe something does not mean I haven’t observed it. A friend once told me that she envisioned my brain as having these enormous clumps of detailed information, but without a way to access most of it. Most of what I know, I can’t say. What I do say is just an approximation of a sliver of what is in here. Notice how much trouble I had describing part of the history of autism. Even when not sick almost all my attempts have looked similar. Does this mean I lack awareness of what has happened? Does this mean I view autism as a concrete reality, as a type of neurology, as all these other ideas words bring in? No. Not even if I use the word “neurotype”. I know this can be hard to understand but it’s true. No matter what I say will leave out 99% of the information and distort the rest. Don’t be fooled by words.

All of this is just a reminder for everyone, of how and how not to read the words I write. I am not trying to force anyone, or to say everyone is able to do this. I am just trying to give a reminder of how I do and don’t work. If it doesn’t make sense, don’t sweat it. It’s hard to get words to make sense on a topic as completely opposed to words as this one. It’s a little bit like seeing antimatter and trying to use matter in it’s vicinity. The fireworks are interesting.