Myopia and Comfort Zones

by radimentary

As my first CFAR approaches, I meditate on the Kabbalistic interpretations of the name.

The first part is about the relationship between nearsightedness and comfort zones: the curious adjustments that I made to combat myopia, the corresponding shrinking of comfort zones, and the reason it’s unfair that Methods of Rationality demeans the wonderful game of Quidditch.

The second part is about a high-level idea for the expansion of comfort zones: the development of a secure home base. I emphasize the paramount importance of close personal relationships as a base from which one can explore the world.

The Seeker’s Power

The brightly decorated stands rise like four great siege towers around the Quidditch field, but even they seem to shudder and tremble under the weight and energy of the cheering crowds. The two teams whiz through the air in their shiny Nimbuses, hurling Quaffles, deflecting Bludgers, crowding like gnats around the point-scoring hoops. The boy who will decide this whole commotion feels so tiny on his broomstick.

What is the Seeker’s power? He is neither as quick and nimble as the Chasers and Keepers, nor as dangerous and single-minded as the Beaters. The Seeker’s power is not physical strength or finesse, but rather his preternatural calm and eagle eye. Even as he shoots and twists through the game, through the cheering Gryffindors and booing Slytherins, through the whizzing of Quaffles and Bludgers, all this falls away like so much white noise. The Seeker draws within himself into a deep meditative state, watching hawklike for that tiny glint of gold across a hundred meter field. The whole game seems to hold its breath around him. Everything rides on his capacity to see that tiny glint of gold.

I fear Quidditch gets a bad rap in HPMOR. As an actual game to be played, it is broken to the point of absurdity for one player to win or lose the game independently of the rest of the team.

I learned this, however, from Jordan Peterson: as a psychological metaphor Quidditch is absolutely sound. The game of Quidditch hinges on a single player’s powers of vision and attention. The world needs heroes who can quiet their minds and see far into the distance, past all the noise of crypto-currencies and overblown catastrophes, for that ephemeral glint of gold. Surely the writer of Methods of Rationality, of all people, should agree?

Smartphones and Comfort Zones

My relatively sane childhood was broken by a single catastrophe: my vision deteriorated steadily between the ages of 10 and 16. From that period I am dimly aware of lines slowly fuzzifying and of the grating exhortations of my parents: Get away from the computer screen! Eat the fish eyes! Read under natural light! Look at the greenery outside!

Before I finally got glasses, there was a several month long period of denial and rising anxiety. The comfort of the back of the classroom became a curse as I peered and squinted to make out the illegible scrawls on the whiteboard. As my friend’s faces grew ever fuzzier, I began to memorize their outfits in order to identify them.

Even after getting glasses, my vision continued to deteriorate for a time. Simultaneously, and partially as a result of this, the world continued to shrink around me. I played games with myself in preparation for my future blindness: showering with the lights off, trying to walk a straight line with my eyes closed. I became more and more dependent on books and screens to help me see into the distance.

At some point after acquiring a smartphone, the thought occurred to me that if an object looked fuzzy in the distance, it might not look fuzzy through my phone camera. I spent all too much time drawing diagrams of light rays diverging to confirm my hypothesis before I finally went out and tested it. That the method actually worked delighted me to no end and boosted in me a confidence in the scientific method that had somehow escaped me in years of Bunsen burners and pendulum-swinging.

Having the eye’s of a smartphone resulted in a minor but immediate expansion of my comfort zone. I could finally patronize fast-food restaurants with poorly-lit menus scrawled on blackboards way too far behind the counter – I’d just snap a photo and read it at my leisure. Hiking a mountain without my glasses, I might nevertheless partake in a spectacular vista with my phone camera. How much of my anxiety is a product of myopia rather than psychological infirmity?

How different might I be today if I had been able to see facial expressions (in addition to body language) during several of my formative years?

Home Base

In the game of Go, the mid-game often unravels into a heated chase against a set of weak stones. The weak stones flee to the center of the board, writhing to find space to make two eyes. They are cautious and single-minded in their will to simply survive. Meanwhile, the attacker surrounds from all sides, at intervals tightening the noose and poking out eyes, constricting the comfort zone of the running group.

There is a moment in the game where the whole board seems to shift: the weak group finds its two eyes and becomes certain of life. Immediately, the defending player’s options expand immensely, and he is free to play lightly and even altogether away from the living group. Nothing about the surroundings themselves have changed, and yet with the development of a secure home base no severe attacks are available to the opponent. The slack to explore suddenly materializes.

Many years ago I read the horrifying book The Monkey Wars, which detailed the infamous experiments of Harry Harlow (among others) on primates. From Wikipedia:

The studies were motivated by John Bowlby’s World Health Organization-sponsored study and report, “Maternal Care and Mental Health” in 1950, in which Bowlby reviewed previous studies on the effects of institutionalization on child development, and the distress experienced by children when separated from their mothers, such as René Spitz’s and his own surveys on children raised in a variety of settings. In 1953, his colleague, James Robertson, produced a short and controversial documentary film, titled A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital, demonstrating the almost-immediate effects of maternal separation. Bowlby’s report, coupled with Robertson’s film, demonstrated the importance of the primary caregiver in human and non-human primate development. Bowlby de-emphasized the mother’s role in feeding as a basis for the development of a strong mother–child relationship, but his conclusions generated much debate. It was the debate concerning the reasons behind the demonstrated need for maternal care that Harlow addressed in his studies with surrogates. Physical contact with infants was considered harmful to their development, and this view led to sterile, contact-less nurseries across the country. Bowlby disagreed, claiming that the mother provides much more than food to the infant, including a unique bond that positively influences the child’s development and mental health.

To investigate the debate, Harlow created inanimate surrogate mothers for the rhesus infants from wire and wood.Each infant became attached to its particular mother, recognizing its unique face and preferring it above all others. Harlow next chose to investigate if the infants had a preference for bare-wire mothers or cloth-covered mothers. For this experiment, he presented the infants with a clothed mother and a wire mother under two conditions. In one situation, the wire mother held a bottle with food, and the cloth mother held no food. In the other situation, the cloth mother held the bottle, and the wire mother had nothing.

Overwhelmingly, the infant macaques preferred spending their time clinging to the cloth mother. Even when only the wire mother could provide nourishment, the monkeys visited her only to feed. Harlow concluded that there was much more to the mother–infant relationship than milk, and that this “contact comfort” was essential to the psychological development and health of infant monkeys and children. It was this research that gave strong, empirical support to Bowlby’s assertions on the importance of love and mother–child interaction.

Successive experiments concluded that infants used the surrogate as a base for exploration, and a source of comfort and protection in novel and even frightening situations. In an experiment called the “open-field test”, an infant was placed in a novel environment with novel objects. When the infant’s surrogate mother was present, it clung to her, but then began venturing off to explore. If frightened, the infant ran back to the surrogate mother and clung to her for a time before venturing out again. Without the surrogate mother’s presence, the monkeys were paralyzed with fear, huddling in a ball and sucking their thumbs.

The central message is that the boundary of the comfort zone can be extended by strengthening the center.

Exposure therapy is an exercise to extend the boundary as such, tiptoeing towards it voluntarily and courageously, but I think just as much can be done by fortifying the center – that sacred place of absolute security represented by the Mother. Harlow showed that the need for the contact comfort of the Mother is more important than food. Did you even know that such a category exists for newborn infants?

It seems to me that even if the psychological need for the home base weakens over time, it most certainly doesn’t disappear. From my own experience, the design of a permanent physical space you can call home – and more importantly the development of close and unconditional personal relationships – can inspire in people courage of a category inaccessible by the incremental chipping-away of individual aversions.