Sunday 22 March 2020

What can we learn about coronavirus from other cultures?

Currently the world is stricken by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been wreaking havoc, causing schools to shut down, precipitating mass layoffs at various workplaces, and stymieing the efforts of Western politicians to deal with it and its consequences. It has affected millions on a personal level, even if not by direct contact with it: the other week, I was scheduled to ship up to Boston to see my boyfriend again, but the day before I was to head off, his school changed its policy on visitations and barred all external visitors for fear of the virus. At the same time, multiple states have only just now started to implement executive orders and other laws meant to curb the virus by enforcing limited social engagement, which has been shown to be a major risk factor in its spread.

Italy has been dealing with hundreds of deaths a day, adding up to a total of thousands, which is ever-increasing. The strain put on the medical system in some of the central regions is such that it has only exacerbated the spread of the virus, and doctors and nurses are working overtime trying to process the influx of new patients. Due to the crowded conditions of the hospitals and limited resources, doctors have often been forced to choose between who gets treatment, weighing multiple lives against each other—the beloved grandfather of advanced age or the young man who shows promise in his career? These are choices that no one ever wants to make even once in their lives, and yet Italian professionals have been forced to make them every day.

The American response to the virus and its economic consequences has been incoherent and disorganised. First it was denied as a major problem, then recognised and practically ignored, then recognised as a serious threat, and only now are lawmakers and administrators scrambling both to implement policy and to find someone to blame—usually China, for lying about it, evidently equivocating between the fact that Wuhan initially lied to the Chinese central government about the virus and the falsehood that the Chinese central government falsified information about it. In the United States so far, most of the response has been on a local and state level, as is to be expected in a federal system, with some states (such as New York) often being singled out as models for others, including the federal government, to follow.

The federal response has been underwhelming. Test kits were delayed and delayed until now, nearing the end of March, when the White House says 27 million of them will be sent out. Treatment appears to be underfunded and, as usual, fiscal conservatives have been urging the populace to respond to the virus by simply pulling up their bootstraps and taking responsibility for their own health, ignoring, as they do, that a public crisis cannot generally be solved by uncoordinated individual action. The government has strongly recommended that individuals wash their hands often and practise social distancing and, in the case of symptoms, self-quarantine, which is likely the best advice for this pandemic (or any similar pandemic).

Meanwhile, the social and economic repercussions of the virus are beginning to manifest. Various celebrities have complained of boredom from the isolation, while self-described NEETs and hikikomori have had no trouble adjusting to the changes (given that they already spend most of their time indoors and avoiding others), and many people are taking up hobbies or enjoying video games such as the new Animal Crossing or taking advantage of the proliferation of streaming services to watch movies and television for days. On the economic side, an already-looming crisis and recession is being exacerbated by the effects of the virus, including reduction of hours, in some places 20% of the workforce being laid off in a short time, and increases of unemployment filings from a few hundred per day to several thousands, as well as the terrifying phenomenon of some workers (even those in nonessential jobs!) being forced to continue working as normal despite the risk and often in spite of manifest illness. (From a proper economic standpoint this will absolutely cause an immense downturn, as the reduction in labour necessitates a reduction in value, and thus in profits.)

As for solutions to these economic problems, a number of proposals have been raised, from the aforementioned bootstrapping to the creation of jobs that do not necessitate travel or group contact to emergency basic income. At first, the last of these was dismissed as somewhat of a fringe idea, a hobbyhorse of particular people who see the crisis as a way to enact it. But it's gained traction, and at first Mitt Romney (of all people) was proposing a thousand dollars a month, and now the Trump administration is proposing a basic income that effectively excludes most of those who need it most and is at best a glorified tax rebate. This was answered in a brilliant proposal by Representative Rashida Tlaib, who has introduced a bill into the House that replaces the administration plan with one that makes its basic income truly universal by ensuring every adult receives a special debit card preloaded with $2,000.00 and refilled with an additional $1,000.00 each month, to be financed by the ingenious mechanism of directing the U.S. Mint to press two platinum coins, each worth one trillion dollars, and having the Federal Reserve buy these coins at face value, to be owned by it permanently, thus getting around complicated issues of debt and inflation. Still, whether this proposal will be adopted or not is still to be seen, and the usual suspects are likely to attempt to stall it at every opportunity.

Meanwhile the East Asian states, including China, as well as states such as Cuba, have managed to largely contain the virus already, implementing vital policies early, treating it with the appropriate level of seriousness, and avoiding further time- and cost-intensive emergency measures by engaging in preventative measures. Indeed, in order to demonstrate how seriously they have taken it, China ordered two new hospitals to be built in Wuhan in order to treat those infected, which were constructed and finished in just over a week. Which raises a serious question: why is this necessary attitude seemingly so lacking or late in the West?

On these occasions it may be helpful to consider the example of groups like the Dabaraeans, or in their dialect 𐡣𐡰𐡡𐡴𐡩𐡠, Daʿbaraya, a small religious group in West Asia whose central belief is that everything has already happened, and as such we are living in the past, ever-waiting to live in the glorious present. The present is held to be a time without time, in which an individual lives for the sake of living, unconcerned by trivial things and free of all worry. The past, meanwhile, is understood as a time for preparing, into which one is born with 𐡠𐡣𐡴𐡠, idara, unfinished business, which must be attended to if one is to live in the present. A form of metempsychosis, or eternal recurrence, is upheld by this school, in which one who dies with idara must relive their life in a similar but not identical form, with only the business that one left unfinished at one's death, and if it is finished by one's death, one's life recurs again, but in the present.

The Dabaraeans' ritual customs are distinctive. Their most holy day is 𐡩𐡥𐡬𐡠 𐡢𐡬𐡴𐡶𐡠, Yuma Gamerta, which is similar to the Jewish Yom Kippur; the primary difference lies in that in addition to repentance and forgiveness, the whole community unites in order to do work for one another, that everyone has less idara at the end of the day. Lesser feasts are also celebrated; fasting is usually not practised strictly, as it is considered paramount to be of strong mind and body in order to complete one's business. Special homes are constructed for the elderly and the sick, as well as those who are otherwise burdened, and it is considered a 𐡧𐡥𐡴𐡳𐡮, a ḥorqan (that is, in Jewish parlance, a mitzvah), to work at these homes, in order to help the burdened to rid themselves of idara sooner.

One is initiated into the Dabaraean religion by means of a special ceremony. The neophyte, usually at the age of 11, is brought before the local elders, at least one of whom must have rid themself of idara. The neophyte is given unleavened bread, made from only flour, salt, and water, and told to eat: "This is your idara. Every crumb must be finished, or your past will hold you for as long as you live." The neophyte is then baptised in a river and told, "This water has flowed, and now [idyom, "the relative present"] you have tasted Now [ideya, "the absolute present"]." Thus the neophyte becomes an initiate, and is told to hereafter meditate on the name of 𐡴𐡡𐡥𐡮𐡠 𐡣𐡠𐡣𐡩𐡠, Rabbuna d-Ideya, the Master of the Present, the highest title of God.

The Dabaraean origin myth is striking in its beauty. It is held that Rabbuna d-Ideya once lived in the past, and that He, too, was bound by idara. However, with a single stroke, He dissipated it all, by "throwing" creation into being, reflecting the content of His own self. But because it reflected this content, the possibility of idara also manifested in creation. The first three recurrences of the world were wholly present, with the First Human content with existence. Yet in the fourth, the First Human started to long for something new, something they could not yet define, and was split in twain, becoming the First Man and the First Woman. They populated the world, and the two subsequent recurrences repeated the struggles of their descendants, none of them ever attaining the present, none of them completing their idara. But in the seventh recurrence, the angel Uriel appeared before the people and told them that six recurrences had gone before them, and soon would come the great 𐡪𐡥𐡶𐡴𐡠 (Kawitra), or Noon, a twelfth recurrence after which all could find a way to finish their idara. It is held that we are living in the 𐡡𐡶𐡴𐡪𐡥𐡶𐡴𐡠 (Barkawitra), or Afternoon, in which each of us has the capacity to awaken to the present. One day, it is written, the last person left in the past will finish their idara, and the past will finally dissolve, leaving the present the only reality.

The religion of the Dabaraeans seems to have originated in the 2nd century B.C., amidst the turbulence of the Hellenistic world, but how precisely it formed is a matter of debate. What is certain is that it has a long and troubled history: it was regarded as a foreign cult by the Greeks and Romans, but thought too Greek and Roman by the Jews and Zoroastrians; when Christianity arose, it was deemed a variant of the Gnostic heresy and denounced by all quarters; by the Manichaeans, it was seen as a strange and confused variant of their own religion; with the ascendancy of Islam, it was alternately protected as a Sabian subgroup and suppressed as a heresy. It is alleged, though they did not and do not proselytise, that certain orders of Crusaders became acquainted with the religion in their conquests and converted in secret, influencing European history and philosophy, with John Philoponus and Henry of Ghent often rumoured to be "crypto-Dabaraeans". Some esoteric scholars even suggest that an Aoristic Order, derived from the Dabaraean doctrine, quietly emerged in the 12th century, concealed for nearly a millennium, and has influenced the course of world history since then, particularly via influence on certain modern theories of physics and counting members such as the writers of fantastical fiction Jorge Luis Borges and H. G. Wells. This theory has, of course, filtered into the lunatic fringe, as they are often mixed up with alleged conspiratorial organisations such as the Illuminati or the Committee of Three Hundred, accused of wishing to "immanentise the eschaton", which would hardly be appropriate, since the eschaton for the Dabaraeans is already immanent; it is simply that we are not immanent. In any case, save for various coincidental ideas and marks such as the "Alpha and Omega" device or the alleged slogans iucunda memoria est praeteritorum malorum, lifted from Cicero, and vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit, from the Oracle at Delphi (whom, coincidentally, the Dabaraeans view as a prophet, in the same way Christians viewed the Sibyls as truly inspired).

Perhaps the thing we can best learn from these devout and industrious people is that we must ensure that what needs to be taken care of is done, and only then can we enjoy the bounty that has been set out for us. To paraphrase one of their parables: if one sets a banquet, but the food is undercooked and the table cluttered and dirty, then one cannot enjoy it much at all. One must cook thoroughly, with not a bit left cold, and one must clean deeply, with not a spot left untouched, before the pleasures of the banquet can be enjoyed. I might say that the leaders both great and small of this country could stand to learn from this, but to do so would be to dilute a truth that speaks to something higher. For I have seen the glory of the unmanifest Present, and I have much work to do. And it may be true that part of that work has to do with this pandemic, but simply opining about it lets my tasks pile up, waiting to be dealt with. And perhaps you, too, dearest reader, could stand to finish the business you've been putting off, perhaps by playing idle games or by working jobs and projects that do not express your innermost urge or by denying your heart to the satisfaction of others. Perhaps it is time to deal with your idara before you curse your fate. Α∴Ω∴

Monday 16 March 2020

The spontaneously recovered memory and the madeleine

A couple weeks ago I was made aware of something I've been meaning to write about for some time, but have forgotten to until today. That thing is the "forgot-it-all-along" effect. This is an absolutely fascinating topic, and one with personal bearing to me, for obvious reasons.

It's been about 10 months since I published the article "please (don't) hit record" at my main site. In that article, I mentioned the topics of repressed and suppressed memories of sexual abuse, since I initially reported my being a victim of CSAM production as a case of repressed (or suppressed), then spontaneously recovered, memory. In the paragraphs dealing with repressed and suppressed memories, I linked to this study, which demonstrates that spontaneously recovered memories are often as accurate as continuous memories, while induced recovered memories (e.g., memories "recovered" through therapy) tend to be inaccurate. It's already known and accepted that many induced recovered memories actually originate as suggestions accidentally implanted by therapists, with a famous study showing that it's not terribly difficult to suggest a memory which a patient then believes is genuine. This is the generally understood explanation for the daycare sexual abuse panic of the '80s (a panic that, regrettably, may have actually led to a lot of legitimate sexual abuse cases going unnoticed due to being categorised alongside wild and false claims).

However, as I mentioned, a few weeks ago I came across a study with an utterly fascinating claim: that some people who report spontaneously recovering memories of childhood sexual abuse never actually forgot, but simply failed to remember previous instances of remembering it. The paper's introduction has this utterly incredible part:
Partly with the aim of fostering this middle-ground perspective, Schooler and his coworkers (e.g., Schooler, Ambadar, & Bendiksen, 1997; Shobe & Schooler, 2001) described several case studies of individuals who experienced the ‘‘discovery’’ of apparently long-forgotten memories of abuse. Of particular interest in the current context are two cases in which the partners of the women who reported full-blown recovered-memory experiences said that the women had talked about the abuse before they had the memory-recovery experience. In both cases, the women seemed to be surprised to hear that they had talked about the abuse prior to their recovered-memory experiences. Schooler et al. proposed that these cases illustrated a ‘‘forgot it all along’’ (FIA) phenomenon, which at its core entails the underestimation of prior recollections of past events.
The study goes on, using two experiments to measure the ability of certain groups to recall having recalled things. Each experiment had a group of people with spontaneously recovered memories of sexual abuse, a group of people with continuous memories of sexual abuse, and a control group of people who were not abused. The first experiment had the subjects do a word pair recall task (e.g., pairs like hand-PALM are flashed, and then they are shown cues such as hand-P--M only and asked to input the missing two letters), and then asked them later if they believed they had correctly recalled the pairs. The second experiment was a bit more complex: it presented the subjects with cue phrases about common childhood experiences, such as going to the dentist or being home alone, and asked them to, with either a positive or negative framing, give an open-ended autobiographical report about that experience; after the first test, two subsequent tests, each two months apart, asked them to recall the same events, but with the emotional framing changed on half of them, and the third test further asked them to judge how well they had recalled the events on the previous test.

And in both experiments, those who reported recovered CSA memories were more likely than anyone else to say that they had not recalled correctly, even when they did.

Another study revises this theory, using different experiments, more based on contextual information and changes in context, in order to investigate the idea that there is something different about the way information is recalled in a recovered-memory experience that makes one forget prior experiences of recalling the same information. Experiment 1 here uses a cued-recall test similar to the one in Geraerts et al., with each target word being a homograph—for instance, "palm" in the sense of both "hand" and "tree", with the study seeing them used in one context (e.g., "hand-PALM") and the tests having them shown either in the same context or in a different context; participants were dramatically more likely to forget having recalled the target words correctly in the first test if the second text used cues relating to the other context, but an alternative explanation offered is that using the other-context cue on the first test simply makes recall less likely all around. Meanwhile, Experiment 2 manipulates context on both the first and second test, in order to discern between the "forgot-it-all-along" explanation and the alternative explanation, and once again, the participants were more likely to forget having recalled targets correctly if the contexts had been manipulated. Experiment 3, instead of changing between two different meanings of the same word ("palm" as in "tree" and "hand"), changes between contexts but not meanings ("palm" as in "hand" only, but in two different contexts), with cues being whole sentences (e.g., "he swatted the fly using the p*** of his hand" in one context, "the fortune teller traced the lifeline on the p*** of his hand" in another); again, participants were more likely to forget having recalled targets correctly if they had studied with one context and been cued with another. Experiment 4 completely eliminates one potential objection—that subjects, instead of basing their judgements of prior recollection on whether they had remembered the target word in the first test, based their judgements on whether they recalled seeing the first test's cue in the second test—by turning the first test into a free recall test instead of a cued recall test, and yet again, the participants were more likely to forget having recalled targets if the contexts had changed.

So this study identifies a potential mechanism for how the forgot-it-all-along effect could work: for someone remembering a particular experience in a new context, it may simply feel as though this is the first time they had remembered it at all. The authors note that
instances of prior recollection may be difficult to recall as distinct episodes because cues for those prior recollections will also be cues (and perhaps better cues) for memories of the initial event itself; this may limit revival of the memory information for the prior recollection through cue overload, or produce blended ecphoric products in which the information from prior recollections is experienced as part of the recollection of the event itself (indeed, this may be an important part of the way rehearsal works). If cuing conditions selectively favor revival of one or more prior instances of recollection over revival of the event itself, that memory information may be mistaken as a memory of a perceptual experience (i.e., the individual thinks she or he is remembering an actual experience but is really reviving memories of prior recollections of that experience rather than memories of the event itself); in other cases in which cuing conditions selectively favor revival of memories of prior instances of recollection, the individual may mistakenly judge that she or he never experienced the event in question but rather had only thought about or imagined experiencing it.
So what does this all mean? For me, it's a relief. Considering my own recovered-memory experience further, I've realised that I have had prior episodes of recall for years prior to that experience—in 2010 when I was questioning my sexual orientation, in 2012 after watching Alfred's Playhouse for the first time. 2014 was not the first time that I recalled being sexually abused, but rather was a new context for me to consider it in. It's a relief, knowing that I'm not insane, that I'm not making it up, that my brain didn't simply fabricate the whole story. That what I'm telling is the truth, and that my pain has a reason.

And, further, it's simply a fascinating and overlooked development in the area of memory research. That the brain can forget having recalled a piece of information before if it's recalled again in a new context is something that is deeply interesting, and it raises new questions as to how the processes of remembering and forgetting work. It brings to mind Proust's madeleine—one has to wonder whether the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea is truly what brought Aunt Leonie and Combray to the narrator's mind, or if its taste simply provided a new context, one which perhaps prevented his recall of other memories of remembering.