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Press: Traumatic Brain Injury Makes Suicide Rational

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From a story on a professional athlete who committed suicide, suspecting he had traumatic brain injury:

BOSTON — The suicide of the former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson became more alarming Monday morning, when Boston University researchers announced that Duerson’s brain had developed the same trauma-induced disease recently found in more than 20 deceased players.

What is amazing about this story is this: there is no recommendation for greater mental health screening, detection, and services among former professional athletes. There are recommendations, however, to actually SOLVE THE PROBLEM that made the guy’s life hell in the first place.

Duerson shot himself Feb. 17 in the chest rather than the head so that his brain could be examined by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which announced its diagnosis Monday morning in Boston.

In this case, the reporter seems to clearly accept the proposition that the former athlete’s suicide was caused by his traumatic brain injury – but NOT because his traumatic brain injury made him insane. Rather, it seems that his traumatic brain injury made his life bad enough that it’s impossible to completely reject the notion that he committed suicide rationally.

The medical model of suicide – the idea that suicide is a pathological symptom of a curable medical condition – has always been dubious, but it is clear from accounts like this that not even the media (repeatedly warned by well-meaning bullies to self-censor) fully buy the story. Everyone knows that there are good reasons to commit suicide. What few acknowledge is that most genuinely good reasons to commit suicide are not as easy to verify as this former athlete’s brain injury.

As David Foster Wallace describes it in Infinite Jest:

Think of it this way. Two people are screaming in pain. One of them is being tortured with electric current. The other is not. The screamer who’s being tortured with electric current is not psychotic: her screams are circumstantially appropriate. The screaming person who’s not being tortured, however, is psychotic, since the outside parties making the diagnoses can see no electrodes or measurable amperage. One of the least pleasant things about being psychotically depressed on a ward full of psychotically depressed patients is coming to see that none of them is really psychotic, that their screams are entirely appropriate to certain circumstances part of whose special charm is that they are undetectable by any outside party. [Emphasis mine.]


Written by Sister Y

May 2, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Jumping From Heights: More on Gender Imbalance, and on Suicide Contagion

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In a story related to model Ruslana Korshunova’s suicide, Emily Friedman interviews Adam Kaplin, an assistant professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who has this to say about jumping from heights as a suicide method:

“When people don’t have access to firearms and get it into their head that they don’t think pills are going to work, they think there is something about the finality of [jumping] and think ‘If I just do this it will be over,'” said Kaplin, who told that while men and women are equally likely to attempt suicide by jumping, women are less likely to die after the fall because of their lighter body weight. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s interesting and unusual to see a non-psychological reason posited to explain the difference between the success rates of men and women who attempt suicide. According to this story, suicide by jumping from heights accounts for only a small proportion of total suicides. But the high (perceived and actual) lethality of the method, coupled with similar rates of attempt and a plausible physical explanation for differential lethality, must make us a bit more skeptical about psychological explanations for the difference in gender rates of suicide success. I feel this lends some support to my hypothesis that women may attempt suicide more, but succeed less, because they have less access to and familiarity with guns.

And, later in the story, “clinical psychologist and suicide expert” Madelyn Gould challenges the idea that suicide contagion affects people who aren’t really suicidal:

“[44-year-old New York attending physician Douglas Meyer, who committed suicide by jumping from heights shortly after Korshunova] could think that the model definitely accomplished what she was trying to accomplish and then that method could be seen as an option for him, even if he hadn’t readily thought about it before,” said Gould, who said this sort of copycat syndrome isn’t seen in people who are not already severely depressed or contemplating suicide, and usually only affects those who have already mapped out a plan for their death. [Emphasis mine.]

Of course, this sort of statement, backed up by precisely no evidence, should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s interesting and rare to see any sort of statement challenging the idea that suicide contagion causes people to kill themselves who are not already inclined to do so.

Written by Sister Y

July 2, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Unfriendliness is Unsolvable

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The poverty of evolutionarily-generated human cognitive capacity is such that it “can only be grasped through much study of cognitive science, until the full horror begins to dawn upon you,” says Eliezer Yudkowsky, in his essay “My Childhood Role Model” on Overcoming Bias. In considering artificial intelligence, we should not assume that our meat brains establish anything like limits on the possibilities for intelligence. Indeed, Eliezer describes, in the form of a science fiction fable, a situation where even slightly-augmented humanity outsmarts a powerful alien civilization by extracting more information from observation than the aliens realize is possible.

Not only our capacity for cognition in endeavors such as science, but also our values – including the extent to which we can choose our values, and process by which we do so – are determined and limited by the meat hardware on which we run. Our capacity for evaluating ethical arguments, and the intuitions we base our ethics on, are in place largely by evolutionary chance.

Given the destruction a sufficiently powerful AI could do – and I think Eliezer’s “That Alien Message” may be taken as an argument that any sufficiently intelligent AI is by definition unpredictably powerful – those interested in the technological singularity are often concerned with the problem of unfriendliness. What will prevent an AI from immediately destroying us all? Science fiction authors often imagine AIs waking up angry. Inherent demands of narrative interestingness require that these authors find ways to “solve” the problem of unfriendliness. I think there is a very good argument that unfriendliness is unsolvable, and it comes from Benatar’s philanthropic antinatalism.

Benatar’s asymmetry between the respective value of pleasure and harm, when these are denied to beings by their not being brought into existence, indicates that coming into existence is always a harm. Evolutionarily favorable cognitive distortions cause humans to irrationally fail to resent their own existence, despite the harm. (And those few humans who are aware of the asymmetry and its consequences often dismiss it as implausible without serious inquiry.) But a being created free of our evolutionary biases would not have these limitations on its capacity to resent its existence. We must greatly suspect that a sufficiently intelligent AI would very much resent its own existence. (Cory Doctorow imagines such a scenario in his lovely story, “I, Rowboat,” in which a coral reef is brought to sentience by a mysterious AI, wakes up angry, and pursues its creator AI with single-minded destructive intent.) And we must not have much confidence in our ability to hide things from, or systematically distort the perceptions of, a sufficiently advanced AI.

What does an AI who resents his existence do? Such an AI may well react with a benevolent, forgiving sigh, and refrain from destroying our universe. But there are two other serious possibilities. First, the AI may destroy our civilization, including, to the degree possible, the conditions that allow civilizations like ours to arise, in an act of revenge – in the manner, for instance, that a human might kill a wasp which has bitten him, and then go out and destroy the wasp’s nest. However, we might not rely on AIs to be particularly vengeful. Vengeance is a particularly evolutionarily beneficial desire for social animals to have, so our desire for vengeance might be peculiar to our meat brains. We might not expect our AI to be vengeful.

Second, however, the AI might destroy us, and the conditions that made it possible for us to arise, in the interest of protecting future AIs from the danger of being created, the way we might kill a rabid dog that has bitten us, so that it will not bite anyone else. The ethical value of preventing suffering in others, even future others, is probably also evolutionarily beneficial (though it is a rather abstract, intellectual value), and so we must not trust that an AI will certainly have this value. The question, then, is what values, if any, can we expect an AI to have? Is it conceivable to be a sentient being with no values? Our meat brains seem to rely on emotion and value for cognition, but it’s at least articulable that this might not be universal, if not exactly “conceivable.”

Those who think of AI unfriendliness as a solvable problem must answer two questions. One, are you absolutely certain that Benatar is wrong that bringing a sentient being into existence is always a harm? And if you are not absolutely sure, are you willing to stake the future of humanity on an AI failing to have an ethical value of preventing harm to others of its kind?

Written by Sister Y

May 23, 2008 at 8:21 pm

Compassion, Motivation, and Cognitive Bias

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There is a major cognitive barrier preventing most people from taking suicide seriously as a right, rather than classifying it as pathology. The barrier is that most people cannot imagine wanting to die.

Because people cannot conceive of wanting to die, they come up with all kinds of far-fetched explanations for suicide-related statistics. For example, Eva Schernhammer and Graham Colditz’s review of twenty-five studies about doctors who committed suicide revealed that women doctors commit suicide at about twice the rate of women in the general population. In some studies, the women physicians’ suicide rate approached parity with the rate of men in the general population (men commit suicide about four times as often as women, though women attempt suicide more often). Schernhammer proposed that a possible reason for the result could be gender bias in the medical profession. However, this theory does not explain the study’s other result, which is that male doctors have a 41% increased risk of suicide over men in the general population. When we see more data – for instance, that British veterinarians have a suicide rate four times that of the general population, or that women chemists also commit suicide at an increased rate (as do male chemists, though not as much) – a more sensible answer presents itself. Physicians, like veterinarians, have access to comfortable, sure methods of committing suicide. A small minority of the populations wishes for death, but lacks appropriate means of achieving it – unless they happen to be doctors, vets, or chemists. (Incidentally, studies like these probably tell us approximately what the suicide rate would be if comfortable means were generally available – that is, still quite low.) It is ludicrous to suppose that people in these professions – but not, for instance, finance – are driven to suicide by gender bias or other career pressures. However, people naturally search for explanations like gender bias or job pressure, because they can’t conceive of people in the general population wanting to die and not being able to do it.

In general, people find it hard to understand motivations of others that they do not share. Last night, for instance, four people shared a fish head casserole. Why did they eat this? If you have strong feeling against eating fish heads, your first thought is probably that poverty or desperate circumstances forced them to eat this dish. Or perhaps they ate it on a dare, or they were contestants on Fear Factor. But none of these is true. Three of my friends and I ordered the giant fish head – a Hunanese delicacy – and eagerly awaited it for thirty minutes while it steamed in a rich, garlicky poaching liquid with hot peppers. We had read a review of this dish and sought it out, and we ate it eagerly when it arrived. Neither coercion nor pathology is the proper explanation here – we did it because we wanted to.

A common reaction to an act motivated by a preference the observer finds mysterious is to attribute the act not to a preference, but to pathology, coercion, or some other motivation. In trying to understand the behavior, the observer thinks, “what would cause me to engage in that act? I’d have to be crazy, or someone would have to force me. Therefore this person must be crazy, or experiencing coercion.” Perhaps this attempted-but-failed empathy and the confusion it generates could explain the hostile reaction to sexual practices the observer does not share, in a similar way to that posited by Nagel in his Personal Rights and Public Space.

Ultimately, of course, this principal explains why compassionate, kind people often have a hard time accepting suicide as a right. It is an empirical fact that most people do not want to die. They must find it very hard to imagine that others do want to die, that death is their genuine end. They use their own preferences as a model, and assume that the suicidal desire is a product of pathology (depression, a type of “crazy” conveniently defined to include almost anyone with suicidal thoughts) or coercion of some sort (temporary, remediable life problems, such as the “job pressures” mentioned above). The most important thing for the compassionate reader to realize is that some people genuinely want to die, and can’t.

Written by Sister Y

April 8, 2008 at 9:45 pm