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May 6, 1999: yeah i'm human too


Some people I know and whose company I enjoy like to make assertions like, "I am an alien".

I guess this is a goth-like sentiment of apartness: "All of these other people I see, they are not like me. I am not like them. What they are, of course, is human beings. Therefore I must not be." (In my day, we called them DIBs.)

I don't know how universal these feelings of being "different" are. I do know that I feel the same symptoms sometimes, though I never draw that hyperbolic conclusion. I like people too much to want to fail to be one myself, even if I find myself in so many ways unlike most people.

One of the ways this shows up is in my choice of words to describe myself. The famous example of this is the idea of, say, green. If you and I look at the same green object, light bounces off the object to each of our eyes. That light is a particular wavelength, which stimulates the receptors in our eyes in a particular way. We both have learned to call the experience we get from that sensation "green".

But the experience of color, for most of us, is scarcely hinted at in the above description. I'm writing this in a window on a dark green desktop. Now, dark green is a particularly meaningful color for me--I have particular associations of it with a certain person--but the phenomenon I'm concerned with is simpler than that. The reality is that that color isn't just an "indistinct" thing that I assign a particular label "green" to. Let me put it in musical terms. An analogy between the colors of the rainbow and the notes of the chromatic scale fails for me, because all notes sound "qualitatively" the same, but colors are qualitatively different. (Musical intervals and chords are more like colors, in having a unique quality; but the quality of a major chord is shared by all major chords.)

Now, return to two people. How can we know if that qualitative experience I have on seeing green is anything like the one you have on seeing green? We can both call it green by learning to associate that experience with that name, but that in no way guarantees that it's the same experience. We could try to relate these experiences by analogy to other experiences; perhaps I could say that blue is like a minor chord, green a major chord, and red a diminished chord. But, to be honest, I honestly can't imagine how to make any such analogy. The experience of perceiving green is so primal that description in any terms other than color seems impossible.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'm unwilling to use the word "green". I can wonder whether the act of seeing green is the same for the two of us, but surely if we both agree that one object is green, it's meaningful for me to tell you that some other object is green. But it's difficult for me to be certain that we're having the same experience.

So the linguistic hesitation occurs with things for which we have no outside verification. The most obvious one of these is in things like pain. My leg hurts. How bad is the pain? I don't know. I can compare it to other pains that I've had--say, a headache or an insect bite--but I don't really know that the experiences I've had from those are particularly universal.

Where I'm very hesitant to apply traditional people-words to myself is about mental states. Indeed, if I had to nail down the most telling difference between me and other people, it would be that I am essentially emotionless.

Where others liken their emotional landscape to a rollercoaster--a life full of ups and downs--mine seems to be a barren plain. I'm basically never up and I'm never down. I can't even really imagine what this "being in love" thing could possibly mean.

In truth, most of my friends and coworkers have seen one emotional state from me: a cross between frustration and anger. Most often this occurs when I am arguing or debating with someone and I become frustrated with my inability to communicate or angry at the other person's reluctance to "listen to reason".

But then am I really emotionless?

Indeed, some of my friends would probably suggest that I was pretty depressed for a lot of the last year over a relationship situation. But technically that's an inference on their part. I was unhappy with the situation, and spent a certain amount of time griping and puzzling over it, and they choose to characterize that as depression.

Of course, this might be a good argument for it being depression--that someone on the outside identifies the symptoms and maps it to their understanding of what constitutes depression. But, on the otherhand, that doesn't make it so. Indeed, the above characterization of their opinions is entirely voluntary on my part. That is, I see without anyone's help that the "symptoms" I exhibit might well appear to constitute depression.

But I didn't exactly feel depressed. Not in control of my own life? Yes. Unhappy with the way things had happened? Yes. Wishing I could find a way to make things work out, even thought that was unreasonable? Yes. Depressed? Well, I don't know.

I guess part of it is that depression is this magical thing that happens to other people that is, among other things, debilitating. I feel like it's supposed to be a big deal. I didn't feel like the thing I went through was a big deal. Yeah, the situation mattered to me, and it mattered to me a lot.

I guess part of it is that if that's all depression is, then I wouldn't feel that much sympathy for people for whom depression is a continuous burden. It's more comfortable for me to decide that while the whole mess bothered me, and I spent far too much time worrying about it, and in general being irrational--it's just not like that could possibly be what people really mean by "depression". I assume I'd never been really depressed just like I assume I've never had a migraine. I'll know it when I see it. (That's what they say about love, too.) If I ever do.

There's one little bit of sneakiness in there, though. I talk about being unhappy. I'm even willing to admit to a bit of happiness, now and again. And I suppose I have to admit these are emotions. So I guess I have to claim my emotional landscape has little ups and downs, just no giant peaks and valleys.

But, of course, once I've granted that I have some emotions, this whole "I'm different from everybody else" things becomes more suspicious. If I were just wired differently from everybody else, being emotionless wouldn't be that surprising. It would sort of make sense. But being "weakly" emotional or "partially" emotional sounds less like I'm an alien and more like it's something I should be in therapy for.

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attribution dammit: Trouble Lisa Germano