Monday, January 13, 2020

The Woman without Pain

Fascinating piece by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker about Jo Cameron, a Scottish woman who feels no pain or anxiety. She has at least two mutations that affect her brain circuitry, one of which has been documented before but one of which is unique.
“I said to her, ‘Are you worried about what’s going to happen today?’ Because she was meeting our clinicians to have a skin biopsy and do quantitative sensory testing—pain-threshold tests. She said, ‘No. I’m never worried about anything.’ ”
She is also friendly, charming, sweet, and never has any troubles, leaving the scientists studying her genes to wonder how much is her mutations and how much is just her:
One complicating question is how much of Cameron’s Cameronness is really a consequence of her FAAH mutation and FAAH OUT deletion. She has plenty of other genes, after all, and her upbringing and her early environment also played a role in making her who she is. Since the paper was published, Matthew Hill has heard from half a dozen people with pain insensitivity, and he told me that many of them seemed nuts. “If you had this phenotype and weren’t a generally pleasant person like Jo—maybe you’re, like, a douche-y frat boy—the way that you would process this might be entirely different. Our whole perception of this phenotype is explicitly based on the fact that it was Jo who presented it.”

Srivastava is intent on solving the scientific riddles that Cameron poses. But, in a wistful moment, he suggested that the work also raised profound social questions. “Spending time with her, you realize that if we only had more people like Jo—who are genuinely nice, pleasant, do not give in to anger . . . well,” he said, “you know.”

Misery may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Paul Bloom, who is writing a book about suffering, told me, “There’s a big movement in psychology to say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ People talk about ‘post-traumatic growth.’ I think a lot of it is bullshit. Look at the data: bad things are bad.” You aren’t healthier after you have cancer or fall down a flight of steps. And it’s only in the movies that getting hit by a bolt of lightning turns you into a superhero; in life, it turns you into a fritter.

4 comments:

G. Verloren said...

Misery may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Paul Bloom, who is writing a book about suffering, told me, “There’s a big movement in psychology to say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ People talk about ‘post-traumatic growth.’ I think a lot of it is bullshit. Look at the data: bad things are bad.” You aren’t healthier after you have cancer or fall down a flight of steps. And it’s only in the movies that getting hit by a bolt of lightning turns you into a superhero; in life, it turns you into a fritter.

I've long felt that our overwhelming societal philosophy that suffering and hardship is somehow good and necessary to be a fully realized person is just a collective coping mechanism that we've spent all the long miserable millenia of our past relying on in order to make it through a world we have traditionally been largely powerless to shape or control.

As a society we vastly overvalue work and adversity as a means of rationalizing our situation. It's a necessary evil, but we lift it up instead as a virtue - something to be embraced, and championed, and even defended.

People get extremely anxious about the idea of a future in which automation replaces most or even all labor, in what seems to me much the same way that a victim of domestic abuse becomes anxious over the idea of their abuser exiting their life. "Sure, toiling away all my life until I die is unpleasant, but it's for my own good! It's necessary, and even beneficial! It's all according to plan, this is how things are supposed to be, and if I didn't have this I'd be miserable and weak and worthless! I need to be more grateful!"

It's the same mentality that historically lead women to defend their patriarchal oppressors; slaves to defend their brutal masters; subjects to defend their tyrannical kings and monarchs; ley people to defend the exploitative clergy; etc.

When stuck in a terrible situation with no real hope of escape, it is a standard human coping mechanism to start to embrace the source of your trauma and misery, even to the point of sacrificing oneself to protect the status quo, for fear that removing the source of your oppression might lead to something even worse. It's a sort of sunk cost fallacy, and it has plagued us for our entire history.

pootrsox said...

"People get extremely anxious about the idea of a future in which automation replaces most or even all labor,"

For what it's worth, I have reveled in having no need to "labor." Since I retired from teaching (and the tedium of grading multiple sets of essays for multiple classes of 25 kids) I have done very little "labor." I pay to have my house cleaned, my lawn mowed. I take on no tasks that will not give me pleasure, if only the pleasure of helping others individually or in groups. And I spend a lot of time reading, making quilt tops, surfing the 'net, and playing MMORPGs and single-player RPGs.

I have spent 2 terms as president of my quilt guild, 3 terms as secretary to that one and another to which I used to belong. I write around 10 articles per year for a local monthly magazine. I am entering my 9th year on the Board of our local community theatre, where I also run the box office. I am beginning to direct my 4th production of the past 3 or 4 years. None of this is "labor" though all of it requires "work." But it's work that gives me pleasure :)

And I am fortunate to have sufficient income that I can live in this pleasant way.

I hope, as automation continues to remove "labor" from human hands and minds, we will be educating children and re-educating adults in how to find things to do which are pleasurable and also contribute to their own and society's well-being.

G. Verloren said...

@pootrsox

That's the ultimate hope and goal for everyone I've met who is pro-automation.

There's never enough time to do the things you want to do, so imagine if you didn't have to work, what would you do? Finally get in shape? Finally take that trip around the world you've been meaning to make forever? Finally finish / get back to work on / start that hobby project you've wanted to do? Finally read those books you meant to read? Finally learn to dance / learn to paint / learn to speak a foreign language / learn automotive repair / learn underwater basket weaving / learn whatever?

Anyone who thinks their life would become boring and empty without a day job to fill their time suffers a lack of imagination. There are so many different leisure activities to choose from and embrace out of your own interest.

And even if you love your job, what would stop you from spending all your free time doing it as a volunteer? There are entire hobby fields where people do nothing but "work" various jobs, because they're just so in love with the idea of being a bus driver or a train conductor or a gold panner or whatever other task.

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