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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-02-07 05:40
Subject: [personal|writing] Choice or biochemical destiny?
Security: Public
Tags:culture, personal, writing
Last night, [info]mlerules and I went to OMSI Science Pub, specifically a lecture entitled "Lust, Chocolate and Prairie Voles", about the biochemical basis of attraction, lust, love and commitment. It was a lot of fun, and I learned some interesting things. I'm always amazed at how much of what we think of as conscious behavior is influenced if not outright programmed by physiological and biochemical factors.

I sometimes wonder how many of the behaviors of successful authors are rooted in similar factors. I've often commented only partly in jest that I'm diagnosably hypergraphic as well as hypomaniac, not to mention scoring very high on ADHD self-assessments. I'm no clinician, and I've never asked my therapist or my doctor to comment formally on any of these conditions, but I certainly exhibit many of the traits of all three of them. Not to wretched excess — I don't write on the bedsheets with bodily fluids, for example — but I definitely have those tendencies.

And really, someone who hyperfocuses, writes obsessively, and is persistently overenergetic and self-confident would seem a natural fit for being a writer. My day jobbe also has a work pattern optimized to that cluster of behaviors. Throw in strong verbal facility and a powerful sense of social ease and you pretty much have me. And I've optimized my life's work around these behaviors.

So am I creature of my pathologies? Surely I am. Surely all of us are. But I do find myself wondering how deep the tendencies run. Could I have chosen to go into some quiet, meticulously detail-oriented field like accountancy? Could I succeed at an avocation where repetitive action is valued at a premium?

And does it matter, since I'm quite happy where I am in life? A few less pounds and a bit more money and my life would be ideal for me.

What about you? How does your personality and psychological profile fit what you do?

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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2012-02-07 14:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm conflicted about this. On the one hand, there do seem to be personality types that are more common amongst writers. On the other... Here in the UK, I'm diagnosed as a depressive, but in the US I'd probably be diagnosed as bipolar 2. (UK doctors are less keen to diagnose hypomania, for which I am grateful.) There is a long history of associating creativity with mental health issues, in both romantic and dismissive ways. It makes me very uncomfortable. Yes, I have depressive tendencies. Yes, I'm creative. But I don't necessarily agree that one predicates the other or is essential to the other. Indeed, I'm resistant to the idea. These are different aspects of me, not items to be checked off on a list. Or something.
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User: e_bourne
Date: 2012-02-07 15:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I require a high level of change, stress, and control. Otherwise I get bored and wander off. So for the most part I'm content with how I've organized my life. Is it biology? At least part, I'm sure. My son was diagnosed ADD/ADHD in high school. Now he's a full time grad student and a restaurant office manager 30 hours a week and is an intern with a long term prison inmate assistance program. It makes him happy because almost every hour of every day is scheduled. I suspect most people could not keep up with his day. I sure couldn't. Oh, and he has a girl friend. Biology is at least part of it. Part of it is no doubt family culture. And how those two intertwine is something for the sociologists/psychologists.
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User: jackwilliambell
Date: 2012-02-07 17:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not going to talk about myself, as you ask, mostly because I did that at length in my LJ years ago. (Just look at the tags for ADHD, Human Condition, and programming.)

Instead I am going to talk about the myth of mind/body dualism. We are not 'Ghosts in the Machine'. We are the machine. Our minds are complex, high-level emergent states created from the interaction of the parts of our brain and the rest of our body. There is no separate 'soul' or 'spirit'.

I think you would agree with the foregoing, no? Well, then if that is the case you will have to accept the fact that it is your body that defines you, not some metaphysical thing. You are an expression of your genes and your environment. However (and this is the part most people do not want to acknowledge), your environment only comes into the picture to the extent that it changes your body: physical abuse or malnutrition, drugs, certain poisons (like heavy metals), and so on. Education and other non-biological factors will affect brain structures, but only within the limits your body allows or capabilities your body provides. We call these limits and capabilities things like 'tendency towards addiction', 'angers easily', 'plays well with others', and 'talented with music'. But these are things which grow out of the body we have.

With me so far? Willing to step far enough out of the liberal/progressive mindset to accept that some people are just born bad and others are born to win? That no amount of education or cuddling as a child will help certain people avoid lives of misery, although they do help on average? If yes, let's take the next step: if it is all physical, then can we measure those physical factors? The answer is yes.

There is already a blood test that accurately distinguishes depressed people from non-depressed people. From what I have read, we are very close to knowing which sets of genes correspond to things like OCD, addictive personalities, and criminal tendencies. It is very possible that within a decade or so we will have a test which will give a statistical likelihood of a person being or becoming a serial murderer. Of course these things apply the other way as well, to positive traits like happiness and intelligence. (Which are counter-indicative of each other, I might add.)

Where does this leave us? With one hell of a moral conundrum, that's where. The thing is, as people we are expressions of our bodies. If we can measure and/or change the complex body factors making us who we are, should we? Take that idea for a 'serial murderer test' above: what if it could be applied prenatally? Should we allow people to test for non-positive or positive traits and make their decisions, as parents or hiring managers or judges, based on the results? Should we force someone with a brain malfunction causing criminal behavior to undergo chemical therapy to be 'normal'?

Yeah, I just wrote a blog post...

Edited at 2012-02-07 05:51 pm (UTC)
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User: icedrake
Date: 2012-02-07 17:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hyperfocus, sure, but do you not experience the other end of the ADHD-I spectrum, namely inattention and inability to keep on task? Oh, if only hyperfocus was the sole symptom...

Or have you found a way to overcome those?
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User: melissajm
Date: 2012-02-07 23:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Somebody once asked my manager what he considered the most important personality trait to be good at my job.
He said "You have to be a little bit obsessive-compulsive."
I haven't been formally diagnosed with OCD, but that sure makes sense.
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oaksylph: wollemi
User: oaksylph
Date: 2012-02-08 04:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The Post Office has produced a book of Aloha Shirt stamps.

Whatever else is going on in your life, now you know that your *stationery* situation is ideal.

Seriously: overenergy combined with slightly compulsive exactness and a constant need for new challenges doesn't hurt me as a small business owner in a constantly changing market, and my major linguistic aptitude, analogy, actually help me to sell books, because people buy books to which I can make them believe they'll relate. Had things gone differently, those exact traits might have made me a great science writer - achieving a discovery with an imaginative hypothesis, precise data, and a cleverly explained book could all follow. There could have been many other uses for those traits, too.

I personally think diagnosing the "psychiatric conditions" of a writer is just the latest fad in biographical criticism - a lens for looking at a writer, and unfortunately, one that now reduces the writer to the sum of s/his "inadequacies" instead of the sum of s/his experiences. If, through any critical lens, the critic fails to capture the dynamic relationship between the writer and the reader (and this lens does), it's not very good criticism, is it?

A specifically Jay-related footnote: anybody who looks at your biography and fails to see how much of who you are has been created by your volition in the face of your biology is looking through the lens with the cap on anyway. Thhbbppt.
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User: angiereedgarner
Date: 2012-02-08 06:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've def. built my work life around my neurological quirks, after trying other options with mediocre results. What I didn't imagine is to what extent the quirks would come to serve the work and become in effect creative superpowers... when I was doing the right work.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-02-08 13:45 (UTC)
Subject: [writing] The style of another time
Yes, this... Thank you.
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