Is this how it’s supposed to be?

“I barely know what living feels like…”

Sometimes, under severe stress or trauma, our brains ‘step us out of ourselves’, to give us the time and – almost literally – the headspace needed to realign our thoughts. People say – or used to, I’ve not heard the expression recently – ‘beside myself with grief’ and similar. This is the phenomenon that the metaphor so beautifully describes. We’re not there: mentally, we’re somewhere else.

With most of us the trauma passes, the balance restores and, back in our own heads, feeling once again as if we’re completely ‘there’, we go on with our life.

But sometimes the upset’s so severe, so fundamental, that this doesn’t happen. Sometimes there are relapses, or prolonged periods of ‘dissociation’. Sometimes, real life becomes the exception rather than the rule.

Victims of this condition – Depersonalisation Disorder (DPD) – are able to carry on doing everything they must – holding down a job, looking after a family, all the usual social interactions, but don’t feel they’re actually there, doing those things. The quote at the top of this piece describes a sufferer’s almost Existentialist longing for her ‘normal’ state of ‘connected-ness’.

But there’s more:

Is it possible that, instead of being the result of a memorable trauma, the ‘damage’ – whatever it may be – that gave rise to the state of depersonalisation, had always been there, or had been set-off before memory dawns, when the person was still very young?

If you had this, you’d never know the ‘normal’ state of ‘being connected’ – of stitching together conscious experience as a continuum like everybody else – feels like. You’d develop coping mechanisms to ‘get into other people’s heads’ at times when this is needed and learn, by imitation, how to socialise.

Able to do everything expected of you, and unsuspected of fault by anyone else, you’d go through life never knowing that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be…

The Interrogation of the Good

A poem for those days when Twitter’s ‘Who to Follow’ gives you Edward Snowden, Glen Greenwald and Matt Tiabbi…
Step forward: we hear
That you are a good man.
You cannot be bought, but the lightning
Which strikes the house, also
Cannot be bought.
You hold to what you said.
But what did you say?
You are honest, you say your opinion.
Which opinion?
You are brave.
Against whom?
You are wise.
For whom?
You do not consider your personal advantages.
Whose advantages do you consider then?
You are a good friend.
Are you also a good friend of the good people?
Hear us then: we know
You are our enemy.
This is why we shall
Now put you in front of a wall.
But in consideration of your merits and good qualities
We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you
With a good shovel in the good earth.
Bertolt Brecht, translated by Slavoj Žižek

Instructions on how to be evil

I’d always wondered about the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Not about the events that unfolded in those mock-up basement cells, or the ethics of carrying out the work – which reportedly had to be abandoned before completion on account of the dangers to the mental health of the ‘prisoners’ at the hands of their ‘guards’.

No: my doubts were more prosaic. All the participants were young American lads, none of whom were black. They’d all grown up in the same culture – the generous, outgoing, competitive and armed-to-the-teeth culture of mid-century America which brought us everything from Reid technique interrogation to the moon landings. What would some other country’s – or religion’s – lads do? Or lasses, or a mixture? Or more-mature people, or children?

Was ‘Lord of the Flies’ inevitable once some people had power over others in a bounded space?

Now we hear news that all was not as it seemed.

This article points to a recording in which one of the Stanford experiments’ organisers – a student of Professor Zimbardo’s – is in conversation with one of the prison ‘guards’. The experimenter is admonishing the ‘guard’ for not rising to his role – not ‘being tough’ enough.  According to the article, this and other exhortations to more aggressive behaviour than had arisen naturally were not mentioned in the research write-up.

A more in-depth article tells that all the ‘guards’ were briefed before the simulation began, even though the final write-up and the publicity surrounding the experiments imply that their behaviours arose spontaneously – purely because of the situation in which they were placed.

Where does that leave the conclusion the experiments appeared to demonstrate at the time: that there’s an evil inherent in the ‘prison’ situation itself?

And given that plenty of the information cited in these articles appears to have been around for some time, I wonder why are we hearing it now – right when the issue of imprisonment is hitting the headlines.





There’s an experiment in which people play ‘The Ultimatum Game’. The game’s absurdly simple, yet what it tells us about human nature has spawned volumes.

It goes like this:

  1. There are two people: they’ve never met before, and they’re politely told they’ll never meet (at least, not in the experiment) again.
  2. One of them is handed a sum of money: say £10.
  3. Both are informed that the game’s ‘default’ outcome is that they get to keep their share of the money at the end.
  4. This person with the money offers the second person – who may or may not be within their sight – some share of their loot: any share they choose…
  5. But there’s a catch.
  6. Both are told that if the second person is unhappy with the miserliness of the offered share, that second person can turn it down AND that in that event – i.e. a rejection – neither party gets to keep any money.

Now then.

What, as a ‘second person’, would people choose to do?

Classical economics tells us that, however miserly the offer, it should always be accepted. £1 is evidently better than nothing, after all, and classical economics takes it as a given that we all act rationally to maximise the loot in our hands.

But that’s not what happens here.

People, in real life, tend to reject the lower offers even though they know that it ‘costs’ them and that the possibility that doing so might ‘encourage a better offer next time’ is simply not on the table: recall, they understand they’ll never see the other person again.

We – human beings – reject those low offers because there’s a much older mechanism at work here: our sense of what is fair.  That sense (and someone has now demonstrated it’s so deep-seated that it’s older than actual humanity: chimps might have it too) causes us to want to ‘take down’ someone perceived to be treating us – or someone we care about – unfairly, even if the taking-down comes at a cost to ourselves.

In entirely separate news, in the run-up to the European Union Referendum two years ago most spokespeople for the government (which was pro-‘Remain-in’ at the time) spent a lot of time and energy stressing that leaving the European Union would damage the Banking industry, only to appear genuinely puzzled by what happened next…

Stuff of Nightmares


I seem to have been writing a lot of Horror lately. This may – or may not – have been the result of having just finished wading through a text about the neurology, psychology and purpose of Nightmares.

For most people the peak era of nightmares is toddlerhood. In that sense at least, I am like most people. Some of my nightmares – getting lost in a derelict house inhabited by Something Menacing that I Never Saw, or being pursued through a speeding train, again by SMtINS, I can still remember, along with the typical wading through treacle, or not being able to move at all. My childhood nightmares seem, at least according to the agreed ‘definition’, pretty much the classic formula. Not to be confused with ‘bad dreams’ which are still unpleasant but more mundane and without that nameless, abject terror.

The text delved into related matters: REM sleep, slow-wave sleep, the roughly 90-minute cycles of these and other sleep states in a normal night, and what happens when any of these states are disrupted. It got quite technical – I’m sure the parts of the brain were named by a committee whose remit was ‘make these words as forgettable as possible by people all over Western Europe.’

The part which really puzzled me, though, came next.

The character, constitution and body chemistry that make some people more prone to  nightmares than others are to an extent hereditary. If – after a million or so years of human-racing – nightmares haven’t died out then they must, in some bizarre way, have been useful.

Perhaps they still are.

The theory proposed here was that in prehistoric times those of us who suffered nightmares were held in awe and believed to be privy to esoteric knowledge no-one else could get at. We were considered useful. We were also in a way powerful because in our ‘other life’, in darkness, we had confronted Evil Things and come away unscathed. But to reach all these benefits we had, of course, first to tell other folk what had happened to us in the night…

I can’t quite make sense of this. People are surely more likely to believe the nightmare victim the source – or at least the conduit – of Evil Things rather than their vanquisher. And people who were regarded as having a connection with Evil wouldn’t have lasted long – in a tribe they’d be excommunicated and later, in modern but pre-industrial times, they’d be executed as a witch.

And as if that’s not enough, why toddlers? Why did nightmares come to afflict the very people least able to put their terrifying experiences into words, and thus to benefit from them?

Perhaps we were just supposed to remember them for later, and write Horror stories…


Image By wartburg.eduimage, Public Domain,