Saturday, May 20, 2023

Human Minds Are Unique. Carbon Atoms Aren't. Why That Matters When We Talk About Mental Health

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One one of my peer community discussion forums, the question of "is Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) an altogether helpful category or not?" came up. First, to be very clear, individual subjective perspective on that will differ. One individual might find it useful. Another may not. 

In this article, we're not going to touch on thoughts on that question. Instead, we're going to talk about why we argue it's important to first develop a baseline understanding of the underlying tool being used. In this case - human behavior classification labels. The "under the hood" at what this tool even is seems grossly under-discussed. Hence the creation of this article.

Reading this first, we hope, can lead to better discussion of benefits and problems that arise when these tools are employed, including answering such questions as "is ADHD an altogether helpful category or not?".

This is still a work in progress and is the first layman article I've ever seen tackling this specific issue this specific way. I'm sure it could be improved and look forward to conversation and help in developing this concept further. Ideally some entity will also finally come along and fund this work, as I think it's of great benefit for all manner of human services and research about human health and human lives.

Part 1: Some Things Are Unique, Some Things Are Identical

When it comes to the world of human behavior and psyche, every single individual is at least somewhat unique. This is in stark contrast to many other items and phenomena we find in nature. For example...

•  Atoms of the same element (after accounting for isotopes) are all functionally identical. Literally the exact same properties (melting point, weight, etc.). Predictable.

•  Physical constants are just that - constant. The speed of light. Gravitational acceleration. The sound barrier. All extremely predictable.

Contrast this with objects of study that are unique...

•  Songs. No two songs are exactly alike. There's dozens of properties (melody, instruments used, length, etc.) and even the same song will sound a bit different every time it's played. 

•  Games. No two games have the exact same rules. The classic debate of sport or game has no consensus answer. There's seemingly an exception to any rule category you try to make.

What's happening here?

Categories (classification systems, labels, etc.) can be fantastic tools for navigating the world. We can identify kinds of things. We can discuss what seems similar and what seems different. We can ask questions about why. It helps us talk about and understand (or, notably, misunderstand) the world around us. It helps us predict (or assume, including incorrect assumptions) things about the world around us.

All types of things are not alike though. Some sets of things are, essentially, identical. Some things aren't.

What may, surficially, see like the exact same task - "create a set of categories" - is actually two very endeavors. One endeavor classifies sets of unique things (games, songs, etc.). One endeavor classifies sets of identical things (atoms, laws of physics, etc.). 

And the critical thing to understand is that these two kinds of classification - Unique Items Classification and Identical Items Classification - are very different tools that offer very different kinds of observations and potential utility. 

Part 2: Unique Items Classification and Identical Item Classification

Category systems for sets of unique things and category systems for sets of identical subsets of things are very different tools. Not wholly different of course. Both are attempts to say something about the world around us. Both have great use in their own way and potential for danger if used carelessly. Most tools are like that.

I've observed that most people have never thought about the fact that we have at least two fundamentally different kinds of classification tools. Most people seem to either assume classification is all one sort of thing, or just haven't put much thought into it at all.  Here's why we should all care...

Identical Item Classification (Guarantees)

Think about water. What do you know about it? Leaving aside important technicalities about impurities and differences in external environment (such as altitude), we know that...

•  It boils at a certain temperature

•  It's commonly found in liquid form, and all liquids behave certain ways (they flow, etc.)

•  It's necessary for human life

All these things are guarantees. The concept of water is a guarantee. When we say things about the substance, it's a certainty. When we find a thing in the world where there's many of that thing, there's something about them that's predictably identical with certainty, and we name it, that's an example of an Identical Item Classification (IIC). Some things have layers to this. The periodic table for example is multi-layered list of IIC systems. There's individual elements. There's groups of elements (hence the term periodic) representing various electron shell levels and how full or not full those shells are. There is, in practical terms, absolute certainty. If you remember your basic chemistry, you may also be asking about metals and non-metals. Interestingly, those are not certain. They are something else. Which leads us to...

Unique Item Classification (Likelihoods and Rough Similarities) - UIC

Think about music genres. What do you know about them? Say someone mentions that they like blues songs and blues albums. You want to give them a gift. You go find a blues album. Do we know for sure they'll like that particular album or any/all the songs on the album? No, we can never say that for certain (not unless it's an album they have already confirmed they like).

If a person like blues music, there is exactly zero guarantee that they'll like a specific blues song. And part of the reason why is - what exactly is a blues song? There is no exact definition. There is no singular attribute they all share in common. Songs are unique, not identical. Because of this uniqueness, it is impossible to define a classification that will guarantee they are ever a certain thing or not.

We can classify things as, for example, having human vocals. The concept of "a non-computer-generated, live, human voice on the album" is a guarantee. That is an Identical Item Classification category we can define. But a music genre is not. So, what then is it?

Welcome to the weird, strange world of Unique Item Classification (UIC).

I have thus far, after years of searching, never found a common layman description of this phenomena.  We all use it every day. It exists and is real. And yet, near as I can tell, we have never popularized this distinction as a concept to know about. Nor talked about the difference between UIC and IIC classifications and why that difference matters (more on the history of UIC as a concept below).

The History of UIC 

The closest historical reference I've found that aptly describe UIC as a feature historically can be found in the annals of philosophy. Which, as a field, can be a deeply practical at times. It's not all "are we living in the Matrix", thought some of it is and a lot of it isn't communicated very clearly. It's hard to communicate ideas that haven't been invented or described. Think of them like prototypes. The first attempt at a rocket wasn't awkward and flawed. Same thing with concepts. 

So, going through this history, we can find that in the 1800's a philosopher named Arthur Schopenhauer coined the term "family resemblance". Several others would reference the term over the years, but it wasn't until 1953 that it was most prominently explored and popularized (at least with in philosophy) as a concept in the 1953 publication Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein. The concept, as the name suggests, uses example of human families to describe UIC. You can read more on that history here...

Wikipedia Entry on Family Resemblance

These philosophers observed that we can often guess if two people are related by blood because they often resemble on another. It's a perfect, relatable example of UIC in action. Families share a likelihood of similarity, though never a guarantee. They are somewhat likely to physical characteristics. They sometimes share a likelihood of personality (and the great unanswered question of what part of that is nature versus nurture). They share in family culture and thus a likely, though not guarantee, have similar cultural behavior. 

Similarity also doesn't mean exact. A tall father may have a tall son, but not the exact same height. A mother may share a similar sense of humor with her child, but not the exact same sense of humor. UIC in action. 

Concluding Remarks

I have much more to say and explore with this topic, so this article is meant to be an initial prototype starting point.

This includes exploring additional nuance. Are these the only two category types? I think there are others we could identify. For example, a third type of classification is one where we can offer a guarantee of a range instead of a specific singular measurement. Light is a classic example of possessing a known (guaranteed) range of possible values. Each photon of light travels at a given wavelength (wavelength is an ICC concept). If you remark that "hey, over there is some light", that doesn't tell you anything about what specific kind (i.e. wavelength) is over there. But it does let know to expect, as a guarantee, that some set of one of more wavelengths of light are present. Still working through whether that makes sense as its own category.

We can also talk about modern desire for efficiency and what it means to try and plan for diversity. And why those two things don't have to be as diametrically opposed as you might initially think.

I also plan to touch on wrapping this concept back to one of the most common UIC systems - classification of human identity, behavior, and psyche. Human behaviors and human psyches are unique, not guaranteed predictable. And a point to make is that how we perform science, down to every last aspect of it, will have very different ramifications and abilities/weaknesses as a tool when performing analysis of IIC phenomena versus UIC phenomena. This is such an important Science 101 concept that underlies so much of what needs to be understood about performing science on human identity, behavior, and psyche.

 This UIC/IIC difference is such a core, foundational difference within various science endeavors and it boggles my mind, and frankly terrifies me, that this doesn't seem taught as a foundational concept in modern society. Yes, some courses have some material. As mentioned in the History of UIC section above, I'm not the first to discover this, and I've found material touching on this concept in their own way before. But I've never seen it laid out as clearly as I hope I have done here. 

It is not just helpful, but downright essential, to have this baseline understanding of what unique phenomena category systems are before having any kind of conversation about personality and mental health classification. It is, I would argue, downright negligent to not have better conceptualization of IIC and UIC categorization when discussing these topics. Including a given system or label's usefulness, benefits, and drawbacks. Which goes back to the starting point of this post. 

To answer the question - "is ADHD an altogether helpful category or not?" - we must first understand what it means for UIC categories to be useful or not useful tools. I have some initial thoughts, but mostly I don't have much guidance yet for you. Still a work in progress. My one first bit of advice is ... we darn well better handle this concepts with caution, especially while we still don't have clear and widely accepted answers to these "useful or not" questions. Especially as self-determined by the populations being labeled when it comes to human beings. I don't currently see that caution being used and it's causing problems - which is a topic itself that we'll continue to advocate for as needing to be explored with haste and urgency. 


This article brought to you by the currently unfunded Peer Voices Network. 

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