Wednesday, March 20, 2019

queer brains aren’t strange brains

Among the people Helen Thomson interviews for her book on “the world’s strangest brains” are two gay men. She does not interview them because they are gay (or “queer,” as the title of my post has it). She does not seem to find that aspect of their brains to be something that makes them stand out, that makes them objects of her curiosity as a science reporter. Thomson herself is in a het marriage; she doesn’t say whether she experiences any non-het attraction. In fact, Thomson does not address sexual orientation in the book at all. 

It wasn’t that long ago that same sex sexual attraction was considered perverse, bizarre, at the very least strange. And researchers would struggle to explain it, to understand it, to seek out its causes — with the presumption that something had gone wrong — and the goal of the research was to effect a change in that aspect of the person, to fix what was obviously broken. (And, of course, before scientists got into the business, law and religion were all up in it, mostly sticking to denunciation and punishment.)

Presumably the respectable consensus in the scientific community these days is that there’s nothing wrong with gay people. We don’t need to be fixed. We’re not even strange any more. It’s nice to see that. 

Research into how people come to have same sex sexual attraction is still being done. But the focus isn’t usually on how to undo it. There is even research into how sexual attraction of any kind comes to be. Why study heterosexuality, an aspect of humanity that must perforce be the dominant way of being else the human species would go extinct? Why study how the human species came to have feet when if we didn’t we couldn’t get from place to place and the human race would go extinct? Why study anything?

Science explored the weird and unusual before it got around to the obvious and taken for granted. 

Anyway, back to the strange brains Helen Thomson interviews. In my last pile of reading post I quoted a Spaniard with synaesthesia who described the color he saw when the thought about his ex-boyfriend: 

’[T]he first time we met, I remember thinking he was this bright red. But he had this amazing voice and these blue, almost green, eyes — and those two things, the color of his voice and the color of his eyes were so distinctive that they mixed and that became his color. It was this pale gray. No one else had that color.’

The other gay man Thomson interviews is also a synaesthete. But Joel Salinas has another ability as well. Salinas feels what you feel. If he sees you poke yourself with a needle he flinches, smarting from the prick. Salinas also “feels the same emotion as the people around him,” Thomson writes. “If he doesn’t remove himself from a situation or focus his thoughts on something neutral, he can go for hours experiencing an emotion that has no relation to his own state of mind.” He feels happy around happy people, you see, and sad around sad people. That doesn’t sound unusual, though I will grant that the extent to which he feels these vicarious emotions must be. Salinas is very good at reading body language, he says, because he feels the emotion that is making your body do what it’s doing, even if you’re not conscious of the emotion yourself. 

Spend enough time with Joel and it’s hard to ignore the strange sensation that he knows you like a best friend. He finishes your sentences and immediately senses when you’re confused or troubled. But sometimes this can make relationships difficult. Over the past year, he’s been going through a divorce — a difficult situation at the best of times … [W]hen you’re trying to iron out your difficulties, too much empathy for another person’s feelings makes it difficult to keep your own feelings straight.

His ex-husband [the first (in fact the only) place Thomson refers to Salinas’ sexual orientation] lives in Seattle and at the worst point of the divorce they talked by FaceTime. It helped, says Joel, to have an image of his own face in the corner of the screen in an argument. … ‘The minute that I did something, it was affecting him, which was then affecting me and it turns into this really turbulent spiral.’ [Being able to look at his own face during the conversation helped Salinas separate his own emotion from his soon-to-be-ex’s.]

Some of the people Thomson describes only discover they are strange by happenstance. They’re listening to a lecture in which synaesthesia (or whatever) is defined, and the definition fits, and the listener suddenly realizes that most people aren’t like that, and that to be a synaesthete is unusual. Here they’d thought themselves perfectly normal. 

source: Unthinkable: an extraordinary journey through the world’s strangest brains by Helen Thomson


David Lee Ingersoll said...

I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to be around someone who reflected my feelings all the time. Would it be comforting? Or would it be annoying? A little of both?

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I remember when I was surrounded by depressed people in therapy. It was depressing! How hard it is to be around depressed people! Damn!

Being around happy, excited people? Yeah, it's way easy to be happy and excited.

But you gotta know what you're feeling ...

Glenn Ingersoll said...

... It took me several tries to get that last comment posted. Proving you are not a robot is getting really hard. ... I wonder how long it will take to post this one.