Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Double-Standards: The Irony of Empathy and Autism

From I, Robopsychologist in Discover Magazine
I sat on the bed across from my partner, tears in my eyes as I prepared to share with him an insight I'd had at therapy that day. I felt incredibly vulnerable, ready to open up this secret part of me I'd kept defensively hidden, even from myself, for many years.

That afternoon, I had become aware that my aloof exterior obfuscated a deep well of emotion and caring. I had blocked myself off from what would otherwise consume me. I'd learned as a child that if I thought about anyone's pain, I'd fall into the vortex. I'd lose myself in a trippy, altered state of consciousness, and not in a good way. 

For example, I once accidentally saw a short video about the maltreatment of animals in the Chinese fur trade, and I couldn't get the horrible feeling or the images out of my head for months. The experience came unbidden, and I couldn't stop imagining what it was like to be those animals. When this inadvertent exposure happens, my only defense is to keep trying to forget, to try to switch off all feeling, to stop caring about anyone. Even as I write these words, I'm fighting off the flood. The result is a hardened exterior, an unfeeling facade, a sort of clinical detachment that I apply to any expression of pain. 

So when I had this insight, I was eager to share it with my partner, who always thought I'd been too distant, too cold. Who had encouraged me to try to open up more, to feel more empathy for others. 

I opened my mouth to speak…

But first, he wanted to share his own insight he'd had that same day. With all the sincerity and loving care he could muster, with the best intentions, he said the most hurtful possible thing he could have:

"I've come to accept that you're just an uncaring person. Feelings for others just don't come naturally to you. I acknowledge that about you. I love you anyway."

I tried to explain. I tried to argue. But he interrupted, insisting. He simply would not hear me out. I'm sure he was trying to soothe my feelings, to argue against what he thought was my own defensiveness and lack of self-acceptance.

But in so doing, he couldn't really hear me. He loved and accepted someone else in that moment. Not me. Who I really was, was being ignored, erased, written over with yet another misunderstood Luna.

All my life I've been misunderstood, even by those closest to me. It's something I've gotten used to, and something I didn't understand until my Asperger's diagnosis last year. 

I can't get over the irony or the pain of that moment. Nor can I get over the irony and pain I feel when I see this scene enacted over and over in my own life and in the lives of other autists.

And so a post on empathy. And on being misunderstood. Because it's really all about the same thing.

The Mechanics of Empathy


Autists supposedly don't feel empathy, or perhaps much of anything, and this assumption comes with moral implications. We see it in popular portrays of autism in entertainment. In the news, anytime there's a school shooting, the mental health speculations begin. "Oh, maybe he had Asperger's. They don't feel any empathy, so maybe that's why he did it!" To this day, "lack of empathy" is phrased in different ways on diagnostic lists, an echo from ancient diagnostic criteria for Asperger's, which have long since been clarified and rewritten as "deficits in social or emotional reciprocity," which is more accurate, but still lacking in some ways. 

This (and several other faulty criteria) is one reason why I went undiagnosed for so many years.

It's a dangerous belief that persists in spite of the truth. It dehumanizes autstists, and ironically, gives allists (non-autistics) a get-out-of-empathy-free card. It contributes to greater misunderstandings, bullying, and maltreatment from a supposedly moral and caring society.

In order to understand autistic empathy, we have to understand empathy in general. It's something scientists spend plenty of time studying, so this is something we can know.

First of all, empathy requires the ability to perceive what someone else is feeling. This isn't a psychic phenomenon. It's a type of emotional communication that requires a sender and a receiver who are both conversant in the same languages. It involves the ability to physically perceive body language, to interpret tone of voice, context and subtext, as well as literal meaning of words. 

If the receiver gets the emotional message, then she may feel empathy for the pain the sender feels. Then the empathy must be communicated. She must know how to react in a way that the sender can understand.

So three parts: 
  • Understand something is wrong
  • Feel empathy
  • Communicate that feeling back
For a person with autism, there are many things that can go wrong in this chain of events. Being able to "feel empathy" is only one of the many things that can break down.

Autism Factors in Expression of Empathy

“Dora Maar” 1936 by: Pablo Picasso
We already know that autists often have difficulty understanding facial expressions, tone, and body language. So right there, that's an issue. Very often, an autist may not even understand that the other person is in pain.

Alexithymia is an issue for many (but not all) autists — that's an impairment in the ability to know what you are feeling. You still feel it, but can't translate it into meaning.

There are other emotional factors as well, such as chronic depression and anxiety.

We also know that autists, even verbal "high functioning" autists have a hard time expressing themselves. This is compounded under stress, which can increase in the kinds of situations where empathy is required. The stress goes up even higher if, based on past experience, the autist is afraid of screwing up.

Sensory issues compound all these already-complicated factors. Arguably, all autsits have issues processing sensory information. Sound, touch, light, emotion, spatial awareness, and more, are all subject to confusion.

As Olga Bogdashina describes in her book, "Communication Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome," autists can be hyper- or hyposensors. We can over-sense, and we can under-sense, depending on the person, the sensation, the situation, and dozens of other elements. It leads to problems like I have with hearing. I can hear tiny sound across the house that keep me awake at night, but have to cup my hands around my ears to listen to a friend in a restaurant.

So imagine if I'm stressed out trying hard to process a conversation over the noise of cafe chatter, which is taking most of my concentration and causing me some anxiety. On top of that, I've got to interpret your tone and body language. This alone can pretty much max me out. If I have any processing power left to feel empathy, will I have the wherewithal to react empathetically? 

Sometimes yes. Sometimes no.

Sensory processing can cause problems with understanding facial expressions, too. Autists often avoid making eye contact because the sensory cost of doing so is far too intense. These autists are missing information for determining the moods of others. One aspie I know describes the feeling of eye contact as if someone were touching him all over. He can't concentrate and he feels violated. 

Bogdashina describes a sensory processing phenomenon where parts of a face detach and can't be seen as a whole face. The nose becomes a separate object from the mouth, and the eyes seem unconnected to one another. This would make interpreting body language impossible. 

Emotions themselves are sensations. Some have speculated that alexithymia and other hyposensory issues might be the result of sensory overwhelm, as Kamil and Henry Markham point out in their Intense World Theory.  As a defense against an onslaught of loud music and emotions ramped up to 11, autists might simply shut out the world. The fuse blows, the circuits are tripped, the system powers off. This seems to happen particularly in a temporary condition some autists get called a "shutdown." Like a meltdown, it happens in response to overstimulation, but instead of creating an uncontrollable emotional reaction, it results in the senses completely turning off — no more feelings, and sometimes no more sound, sights, or ability to speak or move.

If feelings can become overwhelming, then empathy, as a feeling, can too. This suggests that many autists have the opposite problem from the one we're infamous for. We may be feeling too much empathy, so, like a hand shading our eyes from a bright sunset, we block it out. "Seventh Voice" describes this phenomenon in more detail.

Assuming we manage to get all that processed and don't clamp down from the overwhelm, we've got to communicate the empathy we feel to people who might not interpret it the way we intend. Here's a heartwarming piece about a mother who was able to read her daughter's nonverbal form of helping, because she was paying attention and learning her daughter's autistic language. 

Fight or Flight or Freeze or Appease


Gazelle got no time for empathy.
via discoverwildlife.com
We also know that autists are more prone to suffer PTSD. This is likely due to the sensory processing issues, and the fact that for some of us, physical and emotional pain hurts us more than it hurts a neurotypical. We are more likely to generalize PTSD triggers as well, and we are definitely more likely to be bullied. This is all in need of further study, but it's clear that most autists will be dealing with these factors.

Any human being, when triggered by PTSD, is put into an extreme fear state. The higher functions of the brain shut down, and the body and mind go into complete focus on self-preservation. There is no logic in this state, there is no reasoning, and for some autists, there aren't even words because even verbal autists may become non-verbal when triggered.

If an autist is triggered by trauma, or in a constant state of sensory overwhelm to the point of pain, there will be no mental resources left to think about the pain of another person. Survival instincts come first. It's just the way the human mind works.

The "Experience" Angle of Empathy


Experience plays a huge role in how all human beings experience empathy. Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Warren H. Meck, says, "To be empathic towards others you have to have something in common with them."

You can only feel empathy when you know what it's like to be in the other person's shoes. Empathy is tied to the ability to realize how much you are like another person and to have some level of experiential understanding of what they are going through. We literally can only be empathetic to people we relate to. 

fMRI studies show what's called the perception-action model of empathy, that when we truly know what something feels like, it activates a different region of the brain than when we are struggling to imagine. One is felt, the other is thought.

This creates massive cultural divides. As writer Tim Wise puts it, "Empathy — real empathy, not the situational and utterly phony kind that most any of us can muster when social convention calls for it — requires that one be able to place oneself in the shoes of another, and to consider the world as they must consider it. It requires that we be able to suspend our own culturally-ingrained disbelief long enough to explore the possibility that perhaps the world doesn't work as we would have it, but rather as others have long insisted it did."

Researchers study what they call ethnocultural empathy. According to Wikipedia, "…increasing research found that people usually hold different levels of empathy toward different individuals based on perceived psychological similarity." 

It makes sense that it is easier for us to empathize with people from our own culture, because we have walked similar paths. It is much more difficult to understand people with whom we have no common experiential dialect. At least, until we are exposed to the narratives from that culture — stories, movies, personal interactions, that put us, temporarily, in their shoes through a process called "experience taking." Simply reading fictional stories about people from other walks of life is enough to boost empathy

Dehumanization is the wicked, jagged edge of this double-edged sword. It is the act of "othering," of tearing down the ability to feel empathy for an individual or a group of people by focusing on how different they are, so they can be mistreated without a single shred of guilt.

This is all related to "dominant culture arrogance," coined by Nicole Nicholson in her blog, Woman With Aspergers, to describe the idea that the right way to do things is morally right because the dominant culture says so. 

Is Autism a Different Culture?


I think so. We are raised in the same culture as allists, but our fundamental wiring is significantly different. We process senses and memories differently, we learn language differently, and we experience the world differently. So while we're all using the same words and growing up with the same social norms, we're viewing them through a different lens.

Many autists describe themselves as feeling like aliens, forced to live on this inhospitable planet with "normal" humans who will never understand them. It's where the name for the popular autism site, WrongPlanet.net, comes from. The communication difficulties between allist and autist cultures are very similar to those experienced by people from differing countries.

It seems pretty obvious to me the effect this would have on mutual empathy, yet for some reason, it's not obvious to those in the "dominant culture" who are in a position to judge our supposed "lack of empathy." They view it a symptom inherent to the "disease" of autism. 

Autists simply don't know what it's like to be an allist. We think differently, speak different languages (using the same words), and we care about different things. I pretended to be an allist all my life, and I've passed most of the time, and yet I still don't know what it's like to walk in an allist's shoes. This may be why I struggle to empathize with people who stress about sports teams, fall fashions, or dinner etiquette. I can sympathize, I can try to imagine, I can try to remember what it's like to be stressed about something I care about, but I will never know what it's like to care about a losing sports team.

Just like allists don't easily understand why I need to stim, why it's important that certain of my routines never be interrupted, why I meltdown, or why I care so goddamn much about spiders. And most allists will never understand what it's like to be regularly misunderstood by virtually everyone.

These cultural differences don't prevent me, however, from deeply empathizing with someone in physical pain, someone who has lost a loved one, someone who is suffering from poor health. I've experienced these problems, or something close enough, to understand why it's important. Yet the lack of one type of empathy (say, sadness over ruined wedding plans) does not equate to a lack of all empathy.

Allists have just as much of a struggle to empathize with autists for exactly the same reasons. Our needs and feelings are incomprehensible to those outside our "culture." But for some reason, the responsibility to learn empathy lies on us, even thought it arguably is more challenging for us because of all the sensory processing, PTSD, anxiety, and verbal issues. 

If allists are so socially capable, then why don't they put in the extra effort to learn our language, to feel our pain?

Dehumanization of Autists


The way autism is handled by just about everyone (researchers, medical and mental health professionals, teachers, families, the media) is very divisive and problematic, and, ironically, leads to a destruction of empathy.

Dehumanization destroys empathy by creating divisions and making groups of people seem more different than they actually are. The shoes we might otherwise be walking in are torn off our feet.

The military dehumanizes the enemy when they train soldiers to shoot on command. It's what religions do when they demonize anyone outside their faith, and why members of some religions can literally blow themselves up in efforts to destroy innocent civilians — because they're not really people.

When news media speculates on how the latest shooter had Asperger's, it removes society's ability to understand people with autism. And when this comes alongside moral judgement, it also removes society's responsibility to be empathetic. The obligation of reciprocity is removed. Allists don't have to feel personally responsible for the plight of fellow humans who are suffering in their midst.

I am frustrated when I see this happening in research methodology and the conclusions they reach. For instance, one line of thinking has concluded that there are two classes of empathy, cognitive and emotional empathy. "Normal" people of course have the emotional empathy, and autists have cognitive empathy, which is sort of like a lesser version of empathy, not "real" empathy. As M Kelter points out, this turns autistic empathy into some kind of fake empathy, as if we're not really human, or some other class of human.

Allist researchers don't stop to think that maybe we're people, and that maybe we act the way we do for good reasons, and that maybe they could just ask us about our "mysterious" behavior before developing studies to delve deeper. Yes, quantitative studies are needed to weed out biases and poor data, but when these studies are based on faulty assumptions in the first place, the output will be faulty.

It's clear from a majority of studies that researchers never did the initial legwork of treating us like human beings who have mouths and can communicate. Much of the Theory of Mind research is a good example of this, as are most of the autism diagnostic and trait lists, especially prior to the last decade or so. This approach seems to treat autism in terms of how it is a problem for caregivers, and does not, instead, consider how autism affects us, the actual autistics.

Imagine if we treated heart disease this way; if the list of symptoms for a heart attack were framed in terms of how the patient were a burden on those around him:
  • Patient clutches chest even though nothing is there
  • Patient gasps even though there is plenty of air in the room
  • Patient makes loud nonsensical non-communicative noises, disturbing those around him
  • Patient falls down without a care for the needs of others present
  • Patient leaves his dead body on the floor as a tripping hazard, with no consideration for public safety
Would it be any surprise then, if after decades of research, no one could figure out the root cause of heart attacks? Would it be a surprise if standard treatments of, "Yell at the patient until he understands how to be kind to others," and "Force patient to remain standing and to breathe normally," don't really work?

Such treatments would be considered highly inhumane and unempathetic

Quite frankly, I find much of the common wisdom and current understanding and treatments for autism to be highly unempathetic, precisely because this is the still approach taken.

The Pain of Being Misunderstood


I spent most of my life not knowing about autism or that I was on the spectrum. Once I started learning, the floodgates opened. My own empathy for other autists flows easily and very deeply. 

I am an exceptionally verbal person who can socially pass as neurotypical, and I am mostly functional. Yet I relate strongly even with non-verbal autists, who don't seem to share much in common with me. What do we have in common?

Autists seem so very, very different from one another. They say that once you've met one person with Asperger's, you've only met one person with Asperger's. Externally, autists seem incredibly diverse, struggling with very different kinds of problems.

Yet when I watch movies and read about non-verbal autists, I feel like I know them. These are my people. I instinctively understand all their unusual behaviors, even behaviors I don't do myself. 

The first time I watched this video about Carly Flieshman, before I suspected I was autistic, I cried. Her story broke through my hardened, defensive exterior like a wrecking ball. I felt somehow as if I had walked in her shoes, as if I had lived her experience, even though her life is nothing like mine. Her traits are nothing like mine. But somehow I had some inkling of what it was like to be her.

I also strongly empathized with all the autists represented in the documentary Jabbers and Wretches. While watching this film, I realized the one single thing that all autistic people have in common: 

We are all misunderstood.

And we are misunderstood for all the same reasons. No matter how verbal we are, we have struggled our whole lives to communicate. Not just because we have various levels of ability to speak the allist language, but also because our very state of existence is misunderstood. Few allists will relate to a persistent struggle with itchy clothing, lights too bright, sounds too loud, input too confusing, emotions amped up too high, when everyone else around us is just fine with the brightness, the sounds, the social inputs, and the emotions.

Our behaviors are misattributed. Our good intentions are misread. We always seem to be missing the mark, not measuring up, and not fitting in.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you know how frustrating it is to get the world to simply understand. I can speak just fine, but I can easily imagine the horror of not being able to. And the nightmare of people assuming stupidity because of it. How heart-wrenching! Their misfortune could have easily been mine. And sometimes it is, in spite of my skill with words.

Autists Struggle with Empathy? Or Humans Struggle with Empathy?


What puzzles me is why we autists are the ones with empathy problems. But allists have the privilege of being the "normal" ones who get to make the judgment call. In our case, lack of empathy is a pathology. In their case it's a perfectly understandable reaction because it's ok to treat freaks without compassion. 

Yet we were the ones kept in cruel and unsanitary institutions for centuries, and who are currently undergoing questionable treatments that ignore our pain and deny our humanity. 

So who really lacks empathy? Why must the burden of learning empathy for the "other culture" fall on autists? Shouldn't the heavy lifting fall to those who are supposedly better at it?

Allists demand empathy. We just want some empathy in return. Yes, allist caregivers are frustrated with the one autistc in their life who cannot reciprocate… well imagine if no one around you could empathize with you? How lonely would that be? 

That's the experience of a person with autism. That's what it's like to be in these shoes.

The Golden Rule Sucks and Here's Why


I'd suggest that many of these problems boil down to a saying we all learned in kindergarten. It is a phrase designed to teach children empathy, but, in fact, it impairs empathy: 

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." 

This one statement has some pretty serious flaws. It presumes everyone is the same. It presumes everyone wants the same things. And if you don't want the same thing, then you're abnormal. You're malfunctioning in some way that must be set right.

The Golden Rule causes us to make assumptions about what other people want based on our own needs. So when we give someone these things, and they reject it, we personally feel rejected. The defensive reaction is to blame them. After all, you were doing the morally right thing that you learned in kindergarten. You're a good person, so they must be the bad one.

Shark's just following the Golden Rule!
There is no room in this phrase for constructive feedback or the collecting information to correct the method of giving. We don't learn to ask people questions about their different experiences and what they need. There is no room for active "experience taking" that leads to greater understanding and empathy.

The Golden Rule instills in all human beings the assumption that we ought to just know what others are feeling. But sometimes, no matter how socially capable we are, we have to ask. This goes for neurotypicals as well. Assuming that others need what we need, though well-intentioned, is literally self-centered. Not other-centered. We are interpreting others as if they are us.

Remember the full cycle of reciprocating empathy? Know what someone is feeling, feel it, and react appropriately. The golden-rule assumption causes these steps to break down.

The Golden Rule may be partly at the root of reinforcing the ignorance that surrounds all types of privilege. The subconscious logic goes like this:

"I'm normal, and I want X. Now you're telling me you want Y. That makes no sense, because everyone already has Y. They all have Y because I have Y! And I'm a nice person — I learned to be a nice person in kindergarden — and you're telling me I'm not a nice person because I won't give you Y, but you have Y! Everyone has Y! You must really want X, the way I want X. So I'll give you X. 

"But now you say you don't want X. The only reason you would be acting that way is if you're irrational. You're crazy. You're stupid. You have a chip on your shoulder. You're angry for no reason. You have a disorder and need to be cured." 

If you're a person who wants something different from "normal," you must be inferior. And we come back around to othering and dehumanization.

In the case of autism, maybe X is the neurotypical need to be touched. Y is not wanting to be touched because of sensory overwhelm. 

Or Y can be extra time to take tests, or the ability to avoid eye contact without overt pressure, or the ability to stim freely without being mocked or punished, or the need to take extra breaks, or sometimes just the chance to be taken seriously, a very important privilege many neurotypicals take for granted. 

The Platinum Rule Leads to Greater Empathy for Everyone

A small change to The Golden Rule would fix everything. I invented this on my own, and called it the Platinum Rule, only to discover that someone else had beat me to it:

"Do unto others as they would have you do," or "Treat others as they want to be treated."

There are no faulty assumptions in this rule. It destroys the presumption that we're all the same. In order to follow it, you must really listen to others. The act of listening itself can be very healing and trust-building. It is a skill that can be difficult for any type of mind to learn, allist or autist. The art of active listening and validation are key ingredients to skillful empathy that rarely comes naturally to anyone.

If we're taught to treat everyone the way they want to be treated, our first question would be, "How do you want to be treated?" And in that, we constantly practice experience taking, and therefore, gain greater capacity for empathy.

In an alternate world, where this is taught in kindergarten, you would have to try to understand others to be a good person. 

And isn't that what we all want? To be understood?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

DEFCON 22: The Con That Keeps on Giving

Load up this soundtrack while reading this blog post: http://somafm.com/defcon/ I'll wait.


Alice in Hackerland by Tess Schrodiner
Winning artwork for DEFCON 22

Redefining The Experience

I began my seventh DEFCON looking for a way to give back.

There's only one other con I hold in as high esteem, and that's my hometown science fiction convention, RadCon (this year was my 18th RadCon). Over the years, I've been to dozens of other cons, some regularly (like PAX Prime and Norwescon), but if I miss them, no big deal. DEFCON is a pillar of my year, drilled 100ft into the earth and rising up to the clouds, and it would take one hell of a real-life tragedy to keep me from it.

And like RadCon, I can no longer just attend. I've been a panelist at RadCon for the last two years, and I'm driven to figure out how to participate in DEFCON. Not only because of how much I've gotten from it, and how much I continue to get from it, but for the selfish fact that there are diminishing returns in terms of what I can learn as a non-participant audience.

The few talks I attended were unremarkable. Since I no longer work in IT, I avoid highly technical talks, which are no longer useful to my career. I know enough security theory to write fiction; readers don't want to hear the tech details anyway. If a story is set in a far-future, 2014 tech won't matter, and if I need something current, like safe-cracking for Through a Shattered Tumbler, I can look it up online. 

As a curious person, I often enjoy hearing about new exploits, but even those have started to blend together. The message is always the same: All things are pwned or pwnable. This is a very worthy message, but for me, it's ancient news. It's not as likely to give me a dopamine "ah-ha!" or "holy shit!" feeling anymore. After "holy shit did you know you can stop someone's pacemaker?" and "holy shit all of Boston's transit is owned!" and "holy shit the Russian cybermob, the nets are all gonna DIE!" ... You can only get excited about the sky falling for so long before even that becomes normal. The sky is falling, and it's already fallen, and Situation Normal All Fucked Up (SNAFU).

This screenshot circulated on Twitter
of a hacking tool itself being the vector for mass pwnage.
Amusing, but totally unsurprising.
I don't mean to make DEFCON sound unexciting. I had an amazing time this year, as always. But as a neophile, I crave new experiences. Moreover, I'm writing for neophiles who also crave new experiences, and you don't want to read a recap that's a recap of last year's recap. So this isn't a regular post describing the talks or hallway shenanigans.

Mostly, this year was about seeking my place, teaching others, and enjoying the synthesis that comes from mingling knowledge. i.e. making friends and having conversations. This is the true value of any con, because we can learn the rest online. We can watch all the talks on YouTube. What we can't do is talk and wave our hands about and toast to a point that everyone agrees on.

This year, mingling came easy thanks to my autism diagnosis and anxiety medication. This was my second DEFCON since my DX. Last year, my SSRI prescription was brand new and I was still adjusting. I noticed the improvement then, and all the more this year. The power of technology has made social anxiety a distant memory, and I have better coping mechanisms and a higher sense self-acceptance since I know that there is a medical basis for my quirks.

However, the meds don't fix everything. The distracting and painful sensation of anxiety is quelled, but it doesn't fix my awkwardness, the times I'm not sure what to do or what is appropriate. I'm still combatting 38 years of overcompensating, learned behaviors I used to avoid anxiety. The extra serotonin doesn't cure my autism or sensory processing disorders. Sometimes the background noise is too loud and I can't tell what people are saying. Sometimes I'm not sure how to engage in conversation with people I want to talk to, or leave conversations with people I'm no longer interested in.

Sometimes I lock up and don't know what to say, so I stay silent when I should be talking. Or the opposite, a more recent coping mechanism where open my mouth anyway, and let words pour out without any filters. Which works until it doesn't, and I say the wrong thing.

The meds really help in all these cases, because when I do make mistakes or face uncertainty, I'm not assaulted with waves of anxiety that pull me under onto the hamster wheel of self-assault. I'm much more resilient and can keep rolling.

Why Spot the Fed
when you can bring the Feds to you?
This has all improved my experience at DEFCON a hundredfold. It's a much more social event than it has been in years past.

I'm-Poser Syndrome*

* - Attempted pun

When I arrived at the Rio on Wednesday, I felt pretty wobbly and low, and I wondered what right I had to be at DEFCON at all. I'd submitted a talk to CFP, which summarized my several years of research on unethical persuasion and group mind control (which all culminated in my book Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control). The talk got rejected, partly because it was non-computery and partly because the religious criticism it contained was potentially too controversial. I would be attending as a non-participant once again. And in absence of a tech career, with less hands-on computing in my hobby life, with my interests shifting more to psychology, neuroscience, and writing, I really wondered why I belonged at DEFCON at all. Impostor Syndrome had set in pretty hard.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Reflected in Ice: An Aspergers Review of Frozen

The following movie review contains mild spoilers. I try to tread lightly, but can't avoid addressing a few in-movie moments or thematic elements.


There are two measures of good art.

The first is anything that can make me feel strongly. The other is that which holds up a mirror to the viewers, in which, each sees herself.

Frozen accomplished both of these goals with resounding success.

Secret Wish - Tami Vaughn
I had this printed on a mousepad I used for years.
Good mirrors are composed of metaphors and character traits and plot in the right combination of vague and specific to reflect a broad range of life situations and personalities. Many types of people see themselves in Frozen: girls who are raised to be perfect, sisters who struggle in their relationships, women who are deceived by those they trust, those who have secrets, neurodiverse people, anyone who is misunderstood, and anyone who is rejected for all the wrong reasons. And like the second trial in The NeverEnding Story, a mirror which reveals the viewers "true self", Frozen's mirror can reflect the ugly parts of some people, like the blogger, "Well-Behaved Mormon Woman", who calls Frozen part of the "gay agenda to normalize homosexuality" and who says it's terrible we're letting kids get the message that rebellion is better than obedience.

Can you hold it down, please?
I'm trying to make history over here.
Whatever, lady. I have an entirely different view when I look at myself in art.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

RadCon 6B Report

What an amazing RadCon was at its best this year. It's not just me saying that, but all the blog posts and Facebook reviews say the same. I was left yesterday being completely exhausted, that type of bone-weary you feel in every cell, like when you're sick, only without any symptoms. Today, after resting up, I'm bursting with post-con energy.

I was a panelist again this year, but this time it wasn't a last-minute thing, so I had participated in the programming process from the beginning. Liz was trying to keep everyone with a maximum of five panels to avoid wearing us out, but I'm greedy. I like sitting around a table talking about things I know and am passionate about. So I asked her for more. I ended up with eight, including my reading. On top of that, NIWA scheduled me for five hours running the table in the small press room. Even though this meant I had zero time to see the rest of the con, I don't regret it for a second.

Luna Lindsey reading Touch of Tides
from Crossed Genres magazine.
Photo by Andrew Williams
This is the first Radcon where I never stepped one foot inside the dealers room or the gaming room. There simply wasn't time.

Friday began at 2pm with a last-minute panel because someone else had canceled. It was Professionalism in Indie Publishing, in which I met or re-met some great fellow indie authors and publishers, Kaye Thornbrugh, Mike Chinakos (former president of NIWA), and David Boop. We talked about the importance of presenting a professionally written and formatted book, acting professionally, and the differences between individual self-publishing and independent publishers.

At 4:30, I moderated my first panel ever, Picture This! This is an unusual panel, and my second time doing it. It's a really fun exercise. Three authors (myself, Peter "Frog" Jones, and S. Evan Townsend), read some fiction, while pro authors and audience members (if they want), draw a sketch inspired by the reading. The Pro artists included Howard Tayler, Herb Leonhard, and John Gray. It's a really great way for artists and writers to mingle. Our two creative crafts can play off one another so well. I've been inspired by art, and as they proved in the panel, it works in the other direction.

I read a draft of my as-yet unpublished story, "Meltdown in Freezer Three", which included vivid images of ice cream trucks and praying mantises. Here are the three different interpretations of my story:

Howard Tayler - Meltdown in Freezer Three

Thursday, February 13, 2014

RadCon 6b Schedule

If you're in the Tri-Cities, WA (my hometown), come see me at RadCon this weekend! Their tagline is "The big con with the little con feel", and that's true.

I'm on many panels this weekend and am also manning the NIWA book-selling booth in the Small Press room.

Here is my schedule:

Friday: 

2pm – Indie Professionalism in Self-Publishing
2205
Do you have what it takes to be a successful indie? Selling your book to hundreds of readers requires more skill than selling it to a single editor (not less). Discussing professional behavior in networking, PR, and dealing with rejection.
With: Willich, Dameon      Thornbrugh, Kaye      Chinakos, Mike      Boop, David

4pm – Picture This!
Fan Suite
Everyone has a mental movie that plays as we read. Our writers bring bits of story to share for artists to sketch to.  Beginners and experts welcome!
With:  Jones, Peter     Sturgeon, Jeff     Townsend, S. Evan
          Tayler, Howard,    Gray III, John    Hall, Vandy      Leonhard, Herb

6:30pm – Reading "Touch of Tides" 2209

8pm – Polyamory Revival
2205
Polyamory is returning to mainstream consciousness with hit shows like “Polyamory: Married and Dating” on Showtime and feature stories in major news outlets. There are several misconceptions about polyamory, the first being that it is a “new” type of relationship model.  Learn how polyamory is from times of old, how agriculture and property ownership changed family dynamics, and how certain polyamory models are especially empowering for women. Enjoy the discussion, and walk away with suggested readings to further your knowledge on this fascinating subject.
With: Jones, Peter     Goldstein, Ari     Baldwin, Amanda  Thomas, Johnathan   Lindsey, Roland

9:15 – 50 Shades of Consent
2205
With the success of books like 50 Shades of Grey, more people than ever are reading about BDSM. But when writing about it, what are some misunderstandings or common errors to avoid? How can writers present it in ways that are safe, sane, and consensual?
With: Jones, Peter     Thomas, Johnathan     Baldwin, Amanda  Lindsey, Roland

Saturday:

11am-4pm – NIWA Booksales Booth - Small Press Room (2209?)
Emerald City Dreamer will be available for sale in print the whole weekend. Come during this time and get it signed!

8pm – Gender and Sexuality
Fan Suite
How do the gender roles society places on us affect our behavior and steer morality, self-esteem, even legal code? How about sexual preferences, gender identity and asexuality? Be prepared for a lively and open discussion!
With: Foster, Voss     Excell, Tamra     Lindsey, Roland   Louve, Rhiannon

Sunday:

11:15am – Getting into the mind of the Religious Fanatic
2203
Uber villain or bit player, what are they like? Are there any useful generalizations? Are they likely to be suicidal and does that depend on the religion or the person?
With:  Louve, Rhiannon     Guizzetti, Elizabeth  Letourneau, Guy

12:30pm – Writing Neurodiversity
2203
Creating neurodiverse characters with autism, Aspergers, ADHD, bipolar, OCD, and synesthesia, can give your writing new dimensions. Come learn the right way to represent these unique strengths and weaknesses.
With: Berry, DiAnne     Freeman-Daily, Janet     Townsend, S. Evan     Wacks, Peter

As you can see, it's a very busy con. Come see me!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Label Me, Illuminate Me

The label-debate rages on, and now that I know I have autism, I have firmly come down on one side: I am in favor of labels.

Labels can be used to dehumanize, to misconstrue, to overgeneralize, and to blind us to a person's humanity and individuality. As Wayne said, "If you label me, you negate me".

Preach it, Wayne.
Then party on.
Actually, it was the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who originally said this. "Butterflygirl" on Yahoo Answers summarized Kierkegaard thusly:
Once you label someone you cancel out their own individuality and replace it within the boundaries of that label, so their individually has been restricted within that label and therefore, for all those who accept that label for that person they have no longer accepted that person for who they really are but understand them only to the limit of that label.
And I know all too well from my research into mind control that loaded language combined with us vs. them techniques can indeed leverage labels to negate an individual and render her selfless. It can be used to dismiss external points of view. Labels can make a group insider feel benevolent and normal while demonizing outsiders as inhuman and evil.

Many people fairly point out that labels, particularly psychological labels, can divide people. Labels can become truth. We are all individuals, but dumping thousands or millions of people into the same bucket removes some sense of self. Being labeled in school can make kids a target of bullying, not just from other kids but from teachers as well. It can impose expectations in education and in the workplace and among peers. Labeling can trigger tribalism and hostility. When people are unfairly labeled, they end up filling the role others expect of them.

I've met people in person and read blog posts from people who hate all labels. Here's a dude summing up this line of thought:


These are certainly valid drawbacks, but like The Spork of Truth, it has four tines. Hm, no I need something else... Like the Spoon of Truth, it has two edges. The same aspects that make labels problematic also give labels power. And when your label has power, you have power.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Persuade the Bystanders

This post has to do with social justice – you know, topics like privilege, racism, sexism, classism, ablism, and all the other ignorant and/or hatey "isms" worth railing against. I'll get to those in a second.

In the late 90s, while arguing politics on BBS message boards, I realized an important truth that I've carried with me always:

When people argue in public, they will almost never convince one another. But they do influence the lurkers. 

WWIV message boards
My view of the world when I
learned this important life lesson 
Sometimes the persuasion is instant. Now and then a lurker will timidly post and reveal that their minds have been changed. But most keep this fact to themselves. More often, the change is slow. These lurkers continue to follow similar arguments, until eventually, they are swayed by whichever side has collectively made the best case. I myself have drastically changed my mind on deeply held beliefs in this way, both by debating and merely watching debates. I've also seen it happen to other people. But it's rarely instant.

It's hard to know that these neutral and persuadable lurkers exist. They are, by their nature, quiet. Very often, though not always, the more vocal a person is, the less likely they are to be convinced. So we tend to think everyone who doesn't use a megaphone is just like everyone who does. This is not true.

I think about the topic of persuasion alot. I'm a writer. It's my job to persuade. I also love debate, a casual pastime since childhood. Roland makes a wonderful and challenging debate partner to help me better understand what works and what doesn't. On top of all that, I've studied mind control, otherwise known as "coercive persuasion" – the ability of manipulators to convince people against their will.

Monday, January 13, 2014

2013 Accomplishments - 2014 Goals

What a year. In reviewing my goals from last year, looks like I got way off track, but I'm very pleased with what I accomplished.

This year, I:
One reason I didn't accomplish all of my 2013 goals is because of that little sidetrack. It's a book I had thought about writing based on my mind control website in 2005, forgotten about, and then on a whim decided to crank it out "real quick". The effort took 7 months (with distractions in between). It is currently out to alpha readers.

Emerald City Iron made it through the writer's group, and is ready for the next round of edits, when I can get to it.

I have a bunch of stories to submit, and one in particular is totally publishable. It's been rejected twice, both with a personal note from the editor, so I know it will sell. I just have to get it, and the others, out there. I set the bar pretty high for myself. I currently only submit stories to pro-paying markets until those venues are exhausted, and then I might send it to semi-pro markets. My time and splines are fairly limited, so I'd rather spend time aiming at high targets, being a perfectionist, and working on totally unplanned projects. ;)

So my goals for this year:
  • Publish Recovering Agency in print and ebook.
  • Market Recovering Agency, including launching a new website and giving interviews.
  • Be a panelist at Radcon again.
  • Be invited as a visiting pro at another con for 2015. Norwescon would be nice.
  • Speak at Defcon.
  • Speak elsewhere, either a seminar, or Exmormon Foundation, or some convention related to cults or religion, on the topic of mind control.
  • Write a whole bunch of blog posts on autism and mind control.
  • Release Emerald City Iron.
  • Complete a major step in a novel: Either write the first draft of the next Dreams by Streetlight book or the second draft of The Sun Never Rises.
  • Sell two stories to pro-paying markets. I'd really love to sell to an anthology.
If that seems like alot, it's because it is. So we'll see. :) There's a significant chance I will be caught up in marketing Recovering Agency for many months. It's already generated plenty of interest. I need to be okay with dropping many of the above goals in trade for promoting a book that could really help people. And maybe pay some bills in the process.

So here's to 2014. May it be a very good year for all of us.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Autism and Shame

At the end of the week when I literally wrote the chapter on shame (in my book Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control), I found myself curled up on my bed, sobbing, in the throes of a meltdown, feeling like the worst person on earth -- feeling vitally broken in all the ways that count -- feeling like the unresolvable source of pain for everyone around me. 

And I was helpless to watch from somewhere within, knowing I was suffering from shame, but unable to think my way out of its cage.

What is shame?

The concepts of guilt and shame are frequently confused with one another. They both seem triggered by the same stimuli. Yet they are two distinct feelings with quite different implications and outcomes. 

I've seen two definitions of the differences that ring true to me.

The first is that shame is related to your social position, while guilt is a personal feeling. That is, shame requires your sense of relation to others -- you have done something and others are exerting pressure on you to stop. OR, if they don't know what you've done, you are afraid they will find out because if they did, they would exert pressure on you. Whereas guilt is the knowledge that you've done something wrong, and you feel remorse and a desire to correct the behavior regardless of whether anyone else knows about it.

The second difference is perhaps the most enlightening. Guilt is about what you have done; shame is about who you are. Guilt is, "I have done something bad". Shame is "I am bad".

Brené Brown gave two powerful TED talks on the concept of vulnerability that both focus heavily on the concept of shame. I cannot overstate this concept enough, so I will repeat it in her words: "Shame is a focus on self; guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is I am bad, guilt is I did something bad."


Monday, October 14, 2013

Splines Theory: A Spoons Metaphor for Autism

An incident occurred last week where my child unexpectedly needed a ride to school in the middle of my writing session. And it ruined my whole day. Why?

I knew it had to do with Aspergers, but I wanted to know more. Puzzling over this question, I went in search for the perfect metaphor to describe the experience.

I love the spoons metaphor for invisible disabilities. It describes a portion of my world, and it goes something like this: Every morning, most typical people wake up with infinite spoons. They don't even think of spoons as a resource because they almost never run out. They can easily choose to do this or that without risking much other than time consumption. Sure, they get tired by the end of a full day, but generally they have enough spoons to do all the normal things. It's a gift they take for granted.

Those with chronic pain or serious illness or certain types of mental illness, like depression, only get twelve or twenty spoons a day. Each activity, even small things like getting dressed or making breakfast, takes a spoon. Careful choices must be made about how the spoons are spent; otherwise, they will be gone before the day is through. Or worse. A bad spoon-management choice might leave them without spoons for several days.

There is no spoon. It's just a theory.
Which states aren't enough spoons.
The word "spoon" is actually quite weird, when you think about it.
Why is it called a spoon?
Oh, that's why.
It's still weird.
I'm already out of spoons. I wonder why?
Oh look, a butterfly!
For the origin of Spoon Theory, and why spoons and not some other eating utinsil, see Christine Miserandino's account on her blog, But You Don't Look Sick.

I relate to this analogy somewhat, but it fails to describe the intricate resource-management I must do as an aspie. I wake up with a random number of spoons. Why? Why do I mysteriously get a bunch of new spoons at unpredictable times? The process of getting ready for a new task seems to cost me "spoons", but that model doesn't reflect the intricacies of the gathering process itself. What about the frustration I feel when I fail to gather or get interrupted? How do I describe the sense that a dozen little things need doing before I can start a big thing, each costing a fractional "spoon"?

Spoon Theory didn't fit the all data for my experience, so I went in search of a Grand Unified Theory of Resources or Law of Conservation of Aspergers Energy that I could use to think about and describe my universe.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Year I Survived Suicide

[Trigger Warning: Uncensored exploration of self-harm, suicide, and extreme exposure to the vulnerable side of Luna's brain. May contain trace amounts of navel-gazing.]

This year, I survived suicide. At least three times. The incidents have started to blur together,  so let's go with three. It's a nice round number.

I've only recently stabilized enough to process what that means. Last week a friend attempted, and the strong emotions that bubbled up showed just how much I needed to process my own recent encounters with death. I'm not here to tell her story. It's not mine to tell. But I've decided to finally tell my own. 


There are far more reasons to not talk about it. Those of us who suffer from suicidal thoughts also suffer shame for thinking them. The illnesses that lead to anguish and despair are themselves shameful, without the added "sin" and "crime" of killing oneself. I didn't want to talk about it then, not on Twitter, not to friends or family, not to therapists, and not even to crisis lines. I didn't want to be drama. I didn't want anyone to think I was manipulating them. When I felt better, I lied and told myself I was fine. When I felt terrible, I wanted everyone to think I was fine. I'm strong, independent, smart, rational. All the time. I wanted to pretend my weak times weren't really me.

Even well after the fact, I've hesitated and procrastinated writing this post. I've debated the merits and drawbacks. And then, along came Suicide Prevention Week. The Bloggess wrote a timely post on it, so I figured...

It's time. I am throwing aside my shame. I will use my aspy powers of unorthodox bluntness, and unwise social decisions, and a general blindness for knowing what's appropriate, and a pinch of impulsivity to tell everyone exactly how close I came to killing myself this year.

Because the stigma needs to end. Because those in pain need to feel okay reaching out. And those who suffer need to realize they're not the only ones who suffer. Anyone who finds themselves grasping the sheets in despair on those long, dark nights need to know that successful, talented, beautiful people also have dark nights, or weeks, or years when we hate ourselves. If someone like me can hate myself*, then maybe, just maybe, those other beautiful, talented, worthwhile souls will realize they, too, have something to be admired for. Something to contribute. Just one more little excuse to hang on a little longer. Because on those dark nights, every little excuse is a lifeline.

* Yes, I just called myself successful, talented, and beautiful. I'm also impulsive, blunt, socially unwise, and yeah we already covered that.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mind Control 101: Cogs of Dissonance

Your brain is full of machines. Each machine is made of thousands of cogs spinning in tandem with one another, and all the machines are more or less connected and dependent upon each other. When a cog starts to break down, other parts of the machine pitch in to repair it, replace it, or bypass it. This is because your survival is dependent upon the smooth functioning of each and every cog.

Or so the machines want you to think. Because they control you.

This is your brain on cogs.
Any questions?
This is, of course, an analogy which I'm using to illustrate a complicated idea -- the theory of cognitive dissonance. A cognition (or cog) is any single thought, feeling, idea, concept, perception, behavior, social feedback, memory, attitude, goal, value, or commitment. When you put them together with other cognitions, they build all the belief systems that make up you. Earth is round, tacos are delicious, love feels nice, kittens are fuzzy, corporations are evil, God is great, and Republicans all suck and should go hide in a cave until they come up with some way to not look like a bunch of clowns.

Or whatever it is you believe. I happen to have a moderate opinion on the flavor of tacos, and I've never met God so I'm not sure how neat He is.

Each of these cogs, and the belief systems they build, have varying levels of importance. There are people who would die to save their favorite taco, and other people who don't really care that much about food. How strongly you feel when your precious (or not-so-precious) cog is threatened will inform your reaction to various kinds of incoming cogs that other people throw at you. By the way... you might want to duck.

You see, living in the world means we constantly encounter new cognitions every day. The Flat Earth Society distributes pamphlets, paleovangelists push their anti-taco propaganda, love breaks your heart, kittens are proven to cause cancer, corporations run ads about saving lives, atheists say God is not great, and you've got friends who are Republican. Everyone has a different message to push, and if we really believed everything we heard, we'd change our minds everyday about everything. More frighteningly, we'd never know what brand of breakfast cereal to buy. (I'm a paleovangelist, so I don't buy cereal brands. None of them are true.) Our brains need some sort of mechanism to hold all our cogs together or they'd roll bouncing our of our heads and people would trip on them and fall down.

That mechanism is an emotional reward and punishment system known as Cognitive Consonance and Dissonance. Consonance is a good feeling. When we see a beautiful taco on TV, spinning in a glorious light, with beautiful green lettuce hand-picked for its photogenic properties, sticking out from the crunchy shell at aesthetically pleasing angles, and the announcer shouts, "Recommended by four out of five dentists who chew gum for people who like mouthwatering, savory tacos!", we think "Yes! I knew it! I knew I loved tacos. And now they're healthy, too! Sweet Jesus I was right all along! Baptize me in Fire sauce!"

Thursday, August 8, 2013

DEFCON 21: L33tism Yields to Unrestricted Access

Projector Art in the
Chillout Cafe at DEFCON 21
The hacker community is many things. We are curious, smart, knowledgable, subversive, rebellious, libertarian-leaning, technical, opinionated, unorthodox, and l33t.

But most of all l33t. Historically, we felt special, like our merits had won us the right to gloat in glory. We dabbled in technoarts and arcane secrets of circuits and mystical crypto that put us above everyone else. We were the best of the best, we pwned every test, earned the right to beat our chest.

Well, I didn't. Only "real" hackers did, and I wasn't a real hacker. In the DEFCON recap I wrote in 2009, I called myself a "Hacker Groupie". That was bullshit. Because I am every inch a hacker, and always have been, since second grade when I solved the weekly brainteaser without fail. When I begged my parents for a chemistry set. When I used university lasers to run the Michelson-Morely experiment. I'm less technical these days than I ever have been, with my shift away from a thirteen-year IT career in 2010, yet I am still a hacker.

Hax0rz Wild!
From the DEFCON 21 Playing Card Deck
L33tist hacker culture is changing, and it's about damn time. L33tism comes with problems. L33t = elite = elitism, and the price for that is exclusion of alot of really smart people who belong, but are too humble or shy to think of themselves as hackers. For too many wasted years, I was one of those people on the outside looking in, wishing to be part of an exclusive club that I actually had every right to belong to. It took meeting someone who never asks for permission and didn't think I should either. Roland taught me that to belong, I had to shove my way into the circle and simply be who I am. I had to have the rights granted to me by a boyfriend before I could enter.

No, this is not going to be a rant against sexism, though I will address that topic at some point. My exclusion wasn't due to my gender, though that was a factor. I self-excluded because I bought into the chest-thumping and was unwilling to call bullshit and be who I wanted to be. Too many men and women have done the same. I met several of them at DEFCON this year, and I tried to talk them into realizing their potential.

In 2009, at my second DEFCON, I somehow considered myself an outsider, a groupie, a tagalong. This year was my sixth DEFCON. Why did it take so many years to finally stop feeling like a poser? Like any topic worth talking about, it is complex and there are many reasons, but I want to focus on culture here, since I've been around to observe it since 1992.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Touch of Tides - Crossed Genres

I am exceptionally excited to announce that my story, Touch of Tides, was just published in Crossed Genres magazine. Please check it out, and while you're there, read the other two stories by DeAnna Knippling and Michael Ben Silva III.

In Touch of Tides, a xenobiologist explores the oceans of Europa. Mara has synesthesia, meaning her senses are crossed -- what she feels on her skin she also sees with her eyes. Her passion is studying Europan life, hands-on. Until she finds something dangerous.

Here are the opening paragraphs:
I swim with no light, artificial or natural. A solid ice shell, seven kilometers thick, floats above me in this single ocean that covers the entire moon of Europa. All I can hear is liquid gurgling in my ears and I taste residual salt that leaks in around my gill breather.
My name is Mara. I am naked except for my equipment belt and a molecule-thin coating of nanoscale to protect me from the chill. The other biologists at my barnacle wear full wetsuits when they dive, relying on augmented reality. My gill could report water conditions, geolocation data, and radar sight, if I let it distract me.
I prefer to let the touch-colors lead...
- See more at Crossed Genres.
Crossed Genres also gave me the spotlight interview, in which I answer questions about Touch of Tides, synesthesia, autism, and more.

I am particularly proud of this one, because it is my first hard science fiction story. I spent a lot of time researching, asking experts, sketching, and even doing math, to make sure the details of the story were realistic. Science is very central to the plot, and all of this could actually happen. (Meaning all my other stories are completely impossible, I guess.) It also marks my first pro-rate sale.

I wrote it for you. Please enjoy reading it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mind Control 101: The Basics

Remember this? Youre still doing it wrong.
Keep trying, buddy.
We have explored what thought reform is not in Mind Control 101: Myths of Brainwashing. But what is it? What force can shut down people's minds and get them to do things they otherwise would never consent to?

Cult Conversion Walkthrough (Storytime!)

No one is immune from mind control. And contrariwise, mind control doesn't always work. It takes the right combination of factors; specifically trust, common ideals, and receptivity.

Cults are a good place to study mind control because the changes they effect on people's lives are extremely obvious.

Pretend for a moment you are having a difficult time in your life: a recent tragedy or major transition. Maybe you've just gone through divorce, lost a loved one, you've moved to a new town, or have recently been fired. You're feeling alone, scared, depressed, ashamed, or desperate.

One day you encounter someone who is nice to you. Either it's a friend or associate, or even a complete stranger. Maybe it is someone handing out pamphlets, or speaking to a crowd. Who ever it is, he has kind eyes, and you feel a little better when you're around him. He also seems to share your values. Maybe he wants to help the poor, or he talks about the power of love, or God, or protecting animals. Imagine your greatest value, and he also shares that value with a level of passion you admire.

He invites you to a meeting or a party. Once there, you find a room full of people who say nice things to you, lifting your spirits. They are involved in a cause you wholeheartedly endorse. They take care of the sick or collect food for the poor, or educate kids about capitalism, or share the message of God to the world.

Being around these people makes you feel good. You feel as if you belong. You quickly forget your personal problems and begin spending more time with this group, working towards making the world a better place.

They have won your trust.

Now you are fairly receptive to what the leader may tell you. He will use this time to win more of your trust and make you more receptive. If you've had niggling doubts about your new friends or their beliefs, they are easily explained away.

Slowly, you are introduced to new ideas you may not have accepted at first. Over time, more is required of you. More money, more time, more sacrifices. Your behavior is slowly restricted. Maybe you are required to dress a special way, eat or not eat certain foods, show up at a certain number of meetings, be so busy you don't get proper sleep or nutrition.

Now the grip tightens. The leader teaches you doctrines to instill phobias about the outside world. You learn that your group has many enemies to fear. Those enemies are not to be listened to because you will be unable to resist when they try to lead you away from the love of the group. You are given thought-terminating cliches, phrases or words that help you easily dismiss criticism. You are elite, one of the chosen to help save the world from political error, or one of the blessed of God. Your very language is altered, as your words become "loaded". This prevents you from properly thinking about certain concepts, and from properly communicating with people outside the group. You have become dependent upon the group for your emotional well-being, and you are possibly even physically or financially dependent. You are isolated, if not physically, then mentally, because there are many sources of information you are taught to distrust.

When you think about the group and its teachings, you are filled with a sense of euphoria. Thinking about outsiders or criticisms makes you feel anger or confusion. The thought of leaving the group or "switching sides" makes you feel guilty, ashamed, or afraid. If something is not going as promised, you blame yourself, not the group. There are no gray areas left in your world view -- things are either good or evil, left or right, pure or tainted, full of life or death.

You now automatically reject any criticism, no matter how valid it is. You reject any fact that goes contrary to your beliefs, because your beliefs have become more important than reality. Certain words are now triggers that cause you to reject specific ideas before you even have a chance to hear them out.

You feel yourself to be perfectly rational, far more enlightened or intelligent than those with opposing views. Yet instead, your brain has been crippled from the mind viruses you voluntarily made part of you.

What Just Happened?

Here is the process: