## IQ and mental health

It’s possible that I’ve written about this before, but I’m too lazy to check. I just saw this tweet by Baal about what he calls the “Aaron Swartz syndrome” (of brilliant people lost to mental illness because they put too much pressure on themselves).

(and yay, tweets are publicly visible again)

Baal’s tweet here is about a mutual classmate who we lost over a decade ago.  And this tweet triggered off a thought that I’ve had regarding pattern recognition, and which I might have written about earlier.

Fundamentally, what makes us intelligent is our ability to see patterns. Before the advent of modern “advanced linear algebra”, the difference between giving instructions to a human and to a computer was that the latter had to be incredibly specific. The human, on the other hand, could get approximate instructions, and then quickly see patterns in what they were observing, and get the job done.

Even a lot of “advanced linear algebra” works the same way. You give it a bunch of data, and it uses some mathematical transformations to “learn patterns” about the data, and then looks for these patterns in hitherto unseen data to make predictions. So what makes “artificial intelligence” intelligent is that it can use maths to divine patterns.

I remember taking this Mensa test when in college. It was all about pattern recognition. Four images given, and you need to figure the best fifth image to complete the sequence. That sorts. And Mensa claims to be a “club for the insanely intelligent”, and they use pattern recognition as a means to identify the more intelligent humans.

I can go on but I think I’ve provided sufficient evidence arguments on how intelligence is basically about pattern recognition. The more intelligent you are the better you are at identifying patterns.

Now what does it have to do with mental health?

The answer lies in false positives.

The problem with being good at pattern recognition is that sometimes you can tend to overdo it. You start seeing patterns that don’t really exist. I must mention here that I got over my extremely long-term and fairly deep depression back in 2012 when I was asked to deliver a few lectures on logical reasoning – explaining to my lecturees that correlation does not imply causation convinced me of the same, and I started feelingbetter.

So – because you are good at pattern recognition, you end up seeing too many patterns. I remember this from business school – I saw a bunch of people eating lunch together and thought I’ll go eat with them. And then I noticed a pattern among the set of people (something silly to the effect of “they are all from Section A, and taking this marketing elective”) that didn’t apply to me. And suddenly I decided I didn’t belong there and didn’t go to sit with them.

On that day I remember this happening multiple times, and I finally ate my lunch alone. Now thinking back, this was silly of me – and I had voluntarily brought upon myself unpleasant thoughts (“I don’t belong in this group”) and loneliness.

This is just one example – such things regularly happened through the decade of the 2000s. I would see demons (patterns, basically) where none existed. I would overthink decisions like crazy. I would bring loneliness upon myself. I would make random correlations, that would only serve to depress (“oh, my lucky shirt hasn’t dried, so I won’t be able to do well in today’s exam” types).

Generalising – what you see is that the better you are at seeing patterns, the more the spurious patterns you see (in advanced linear algebra, we call this “overfitting”). And these spurious patterns end up affecting you, and clouding your judgment. And making you less capable of leading life.

I keep thinking, and saying, that my engineering class has been especially badly affected by mental illness. In the class of 30 odd, we’ve lost two people to suicide already (including the person Baal mentioned in his tweet), and know of several others who had mental illness severe enough to either drop out, or take semesters off.

And given that the class was largely made up people from the extreme right tail of the distribution in a highly competitive entrance exam, I’m coming to believe that correlation exists – all of us being superior pattern recognisers, have been prone to recognising spurious patterns, and many have fallen prey to mental illness, to different extents.

PS: I found one blogpost I’ve written about this topic

## Jordan Peterson’s Chapter Eleven

So I read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life last month. It took a bit of an effort, and there were a couple of occasions when I did wonder if I should abandon the book. However, my stated aim of reading at least 50 books this year made me soldier on, and in the end I’m glad I finished it. Especially for Chapter Eleven of the book (Do not bother children when they are skateboarding).

Now, this is a long chapter, and Peterson spends considerable time rambling about various controversies he has got involved in over the last few years – such as his stand on political correctness, or his stand on environmentalism (in fact, he has an interesting take on the latter – that environmentalism and climate change worries have an adverse impact on mental health of people, so I didn’t mind reading him on that!).

The chapter is about risk – one thought (which has also been expressed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in one of his books – which one I can’t remember), is that people have a “natural level of risk”. And if you, for whatever reason, prevent them from taking that risk, they will find other ways to take risk, perhaps indulging in riskier activities.

And in order to explain why we are fundamentally wired to take risk, Peterson talks about gender, and relationships. He talks about friend-zoning, for example:

Girls aren’t attracted to boys who are their friends, even though they might like them, whatever that means. They are attracted to boys who win status contests with other boys.

And winning these status contests involves taking risk! Peterson goes on about relationships, about the crisis in the United States nowadays where women are more educated than men (on average), and then choose to remain single rather than “marrying down”.

This is the bit which really caught my attention – the apparent contradiction between the desire for women to do well, and this desire resulting in their not being able to find partners for themselves. And there are no easy solutions here. The desire for a woman to “marry up” is biological, and nobody can be faulted for being ambitious and wanting to do well for themselves in life.

Now, it is easy to go all ad hominem about this argument, calling Peterson a chauvinist and a traditionalist (as his opponents, mostly on the political left, have done), but the problem he mentions is real, and as the father of a (rather young) daughter, it hit hard for me – obviously I want her to do really well in life and make a mark professionally; but I also want her to propagate my genes, and do a good job of that.

I’m hopeful that as the daughter of Marriage Broker Auntie, she’ll be able to sort things out. But them, she may not want to listen to her mother – at least in these matters!

There were other places where the book was really inspirational. Chapter Twelve had a simple message – that there are times when you go through shit, and a way to get through them is to appreciate the smaller joys of life. In fact, Peterson is at his best when he talks about clinical psychology – which is the topic of his everyday research.

He does a fantastic job in Chapter One as well, and I may not be exaggerating by saying that the chapter was thought-provoking enough to make me analyse how I might have ended up with depression, and then make a conscious effort to avoid those actions that either betrayed depression, or made me feel more depressed. And that makes me get why people contribute so much to him on Patreon. Some of his advice can indeed be life changing.

However, I have no plans to pay him anything more than the £9.99 I paid Amazon for the book. And that is partly because the psychology parts of the book are indeed brilliant, he frequently goes on long rambling thoughts on religion (Christianity in particular, since that is the religion most familiar to him) and philosophy. And in those parts (there’s an especially long sequence between chapters 7 to 10 of the book), the book gets incredibly laboured and boring.

I recommend you read the book. The clinical psychology parts of it are nothing short of brilliant. There’s a lot of religion and psychology you will need to go through as well, and I hope you find more insight there than I managed to!

Here are the notes and highlights I made from the book.

## Mental Health: Update

It’s been over six months since I got off my medication for depression (venlafaxine) and ADHD (methylphenidate), so I thought I should just provide an update. The immediate trigger for this post is that I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, in which among other things he rants against excess medication, and explicitly picks on medication for depression and ADHD.

Overall, I must mention that I’ve managed pretty well these last six months. Yes, there are depressive bouts. Yes, there are times when I can’t concentrate and I get increasingly restless. Sometimes it is perhaps as bad as it used to be before I started seeing a psychiatrist. But it’s ok. The most important outcome of going to a psychiatrist for a year has been that I’ve gotten diagnosed.

You might have heard this in several places – that ninety percent (or maybe more, or less) of treatment of a disease is diagnosis. And in case of my mental health I find that to be absolutely true. Yes, I took medication for a year. Yes, it helped back then. Yes, as I’ve written before, having those medicines provided me the necessary stimulus to get myself out of the depths I’d gotten into over the last few years. However, I’m certain that I don’t need them any more. But the diagnosis helps.

Two years back my biggest concern was that I wasn’t able to explain my life. There was no story. I had done a lot of things that were seemingly disparate and there were a lot of things that I’d done which I would later regret. So I had a lot of regrets, and I would expend a lot of my idle processor time (in my head) dwelling on these regrets, and wondering why I did certain things the way I did, or why I took the decisions I took. Every time I tried to come up with an explanation for something, I would get the “but everyone deals with that, why can’t you” response.

The biggest advantage of having diagnosed is that it now all fits in. I now know why after getting into IIT with such a good rank I drifted away and completely lost interest. I now know why so many of my initial crushes didn’t work out (ADHD among other things makes you impulsive and blurt out things you aren’t supposed to). I now know why I chose to literally run away from my first job (that’s a long story in itself. Will save it for another day). And I precisely know why I went in and out of three more jobs in the five years after that.

Yes, I might be overfitting in some things (you can see that I’m doing that in the previous paragraph to explain why no relationships worked out). Nevertheless, after a long and ardous search for that one variable or set of variables that would explain a large part of who I am or what I did, when I all I found was noise, I think I’ve found the signal. Till I was close to thirty, I led my life without having fully understood myself. And trying to blame myself for being inferior to other people in certain ways, and constantly regretting my decisions. The diagnosis changed all that. Yes, after a discussion on a mailing list on ADHD some three years back I’d posited that I might have it. Yet, a formal diagnosis from a qualified psychiatrist helped.

So you may ask why I discontinued medication if I know that I have some problems. Two different reasons for the two medicines I was taking. As for Venlafaxine (which I used to take for anxiety and depression), I had a harrowing time in November of last year when I ran out of supplies of the drug and couldn’t find it in any store near my house for a couple of weeks. During this time I would feel weak, have a fever and feel extremely numb in the limbs, but had no clue why that was happening. Later, the psychiatrist told me that these were withdrawal symptoms for failing to take my drugs regularly. I panicked. i didn’t want to get addicted to mind-altering substances. More importantly, around this time I got the feeling that the drug wasn’t doing much help. I would still have the same old bouts of depression. The psychiatrist agreed that I had plateaued in response to the drug. So she recommended a rather slow taper off from the drug (to prevent withdrawal symptoms), which I followed and got off it.

Methylphenidate was useful, and wasn’t addictive (some literature has likened it to wearing spectacles. It affects you only when you’re taking it). Yet, I found that it changed me. Yes, I know that I’m attention deficit and possibly hyperactive, but I  refuse to believe now that it’s a ‘disorder’. The problem with the drug was that it was changing my mind. Yes, it made me concentrate so much better. Long strings of meetings when I would visit the client’s office were a breeze thanks to the drug. My concentration levels shot up. Yet,  I found that it had impaired my creative thinking. I’m extremely proud of my ability to connect disparate things, but I felt that this drug was impairing my ability to do so. I just wasn’t being myself. And I had found that on days when I would forget to take the drug  I would be more capable of creative non-linear thinking. And I figured that with the drug I wasn’t being myself.

So yes, I’ve been off the drugs for a while now and have adjusted to life with it. Yes there are days when I’m constantly fidgety and can’t concentrate to get work done. Yes, nowadays  work that takes long bouts of intense concentration gets delayed. But I’m back to being myself. And I’m back to being good at what I thought I was always good at – big picture thinking and making disparate connections.

Yes, one important factor that has helped me to deal with my condition (no, it’s NOT a disorder) is my work. As a freelance management consultant who mostly works from home (and visits client once every couple of weeks)  I can set my own pace. If i’m feeling particularly fidgety some day, I can take a break till I’m doing better. I don’t have daily or sub-daily deadlines to bother me (this was my biggest issue with most of my jobs). More importantly there’s no one looking over my shoulder to see what I’m doing, so I can freely switch between my work screen and twitter. And trust me, this helps. Immensely.

Since I visit my clients once in 2-3 weeks I end up having lots of meetings during these visits. But I simply draw up on my energy reserves during those times and buckle down and concentrate. Yes, last two or three times after I’ve visited the client I haven’t got much work done for the following three or four days – since I’d be recuperating from that intense expense of mental energy – but again I’m okay with that.

I plan to write on this again in the near future after I finish reading antifragile. I find this to be a rather important concept for me given that I’m prone to making errors (I’ve now accepted that). I think I’ve already started designing my life along antifragile principles. But more on that in another post.

Meanwhile, some other posts I’d written earlier about my mental condition.
1. How ADHD is like being perennially doped
2. On the importance of admitting mental illness and going to a specialist
3. On anti-depressants being like an economic stimulus
4. On mental illness in elite colleges in India
5. On anxiety being like a computer virus
6. On how ADHD can sometimes be advantageous

## Elite institutions and mental illness

At the Aditya Birla scholarship function last night, I met an old professor, who happened to remember me. We were exchanging emails today and he happened to ask me about one of my classmates, who passed away last year. In reply to him I went off on a long rant about the incidence of mental illness in institutions such as IIT. Some of what I wrote, I thought, deserved a wider audience, so I’m posting an edited version here. I’ve edited out people’s names to protect their privacy.

****
<name blanked out 1> passed away a year and a half back. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was also suffering from depression, and he committed suicide. He had been living in Bangalore in his last days, working with an IT company here. I had invited him for my wedding a couple of months before that, but had got no response from him.
He was the third person that our 30-odd strong Computer Science class from IIT Madras lost. Prior to that another of our classmates had killed himself, and he too was known to be suffering from some form of mental illness. The third was a victim of a motorcycle accident.
I’m quite concerned about the incidence of mental illness among elite students. From my IIT Madras Computer Science class alone, I know at least six people who at some point of time or the other have been diagnosed with mental illness. I myself have been under treatment for depression and ADHD since January this year. And I don’t think our class is a particularly skewed sample.
I think this is a manner of great concern, and doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. I don’t know if there are some systemic issues that are causing this, but losing graduates of elite institutions to mental illness is I think a gross wastage of resources! I don’t know what really needs to be done, but I think one thing that is certainly going to help is to set up on-campus psychiatric and counselling services (manned by trained professionals; I know IIT Madras has a notional “guidance and counselling unit” but I’m not sure what kind of counseling they’re really capable of) , and to encourage students to seek help when they sense a problem.
Of course, there are other constraints at play here – firstly there is a shortage of trained psychiatrists in India. I remember reading a report somewhere that compared to international standards, India has only one third of the number of psychiatrists it requires. More importantly, there is the social stigma related to mental illness which prevents people from seeking professional help (I must admit that I faced considerable opposition from my own family when I wanted to consult a psychiatrist), and sometimes by the time people do get help, irreparable damage might have been done in terms of career. Having read up significantly on mental illnesses for a few months now, and looking back at my own life, I think I had been depressed ever since 2000, when I joined IIT. And it took over 11 years before I sought help and got it diagnosed. Nowadays, I try to talk about my mental illness in public forums, to try and persuade people that there is nothing shameful in being mentally ill, and to encourage them to seek help as soon as possible when they think they have a problem.
I’m really sorry I’ve gone off on a tangent here but this is a topic that I feel very strongly about, and got reminded about when I started thinking about <name blanked out 1>….
****
I know that several universities abroad offer free psychiatric support to students, and I know a number of friends who have taken advantage of such programs and gotten themselves diagnosed, and are leading significantly better lives now. I don’t really know how to put it concisely but if you think you suffer from some mental illness, I do encourage you to put aside the stigmas of yourself and your family, and go ahead and seek help.