1 min read5th May 201246 comments


I am still quite new to LW, so I apologize if this is something that has been discussed before (I did try and search).

I would't normally post such a thing, as I try not to make a habit of complaining my problems to others, but a solution to this would likely benefit other rationalists (at least that's the excuse I made to myself).

Essentially, I am currently in a psychological state in which I simply have no strong values. There is no state of the world that I can imagine the world being in that generates a strong emotional reaction. Ever. In fact, I rarely experience strong emotions at all. When I do, I savor them whether they're positive or negative. I do have some preferences; I would somewhat prefer the world to be some ways than others, but never strongly. I prefer to feel pleasure rather than pain; I prefer the world to be a good place than a bad one, but not by much. Even my desire to have values seems to be a mere preference in much the same way. I have nothing to protect.

Is there any good solution to this?

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Keywords in describing and learning more about your situation: blunted affect and anhedonia. Careful not to privilege any hypotheses for the cause of your condition. Also, the kind of depression you see in the media and folk psychology isn't what you should necessarily expect of yourself.

Thank you! The blunted affect was spot-on an anhedonia is pretty close. I don't exactly feel no pleasure from things, but a lot less than one would expect.

Glad it helped :)



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You may be suffering from depression. Seek evaluation and, if circumstances warrant, treatment.

I had considered that, and consider depression to be extremely likely. Unfortunately, I am a minor without the means of attaining evaluation or treatment. My parents lack the finances and the will.

So your parents are aware of the problem? Is there any way to discuss your problem locally? Message boards aren't really helpful for this kind of thing, IME. For very mild depressions, talking to your school's guidance counselor may be sufficient. If it isn't, he may at least be able to help persuade your parents that you need treatment (should that be the case).

My parents are't aware of the problem. No-one really is. I have a problem opening up to people (faceless people on the internet are a lot easier). My parents are a mess. Even if they ever got off their lazy butts and took me, they certainly don't have the money.

I've also found it easier to open up to even real life friends over the internet, and this might help you somewhat, if you try talking to some of your favorite friends online about how you feel.

School counselor might be a way to get some help; I'd think it's worth trying.

St. John's Wort is relatively cheap, and according to the science I recall reading, is about as effective as prescription antidepressants. If you consider yourself mentally healthy otherwise, psychedelics may help too; they did for me, anyway, and there's at least a few studies that indicate psychedelics can improve mood and outlook in the long-term. (Edit 2: Don't just take psychedelics on my word alone. Read trip reports on Erowid, don't trip if you're not in a good mood, don't trip if you're going to be responsible for anyone or anything for the rest of the day, don't trip without a trip sitter until you have some experience, don't trip if you don't like the shirt you're wearing, etc. etc.)

If you don't have any close friends or significant others, fixing that should be your long-term priority. Since you're here, I'll make the bold guess that you're smarter than most of your peers and relatively introverted, which can be a challenging combination for forming meaningful relationships if your high school is anything like mine was. Still, you're a social creature. Figure out when and where the smart people at your school congregate, and try to get in on that.

Edit 1: People don't seem to like my advice. I'd greatly appreciate it if someone explained what they find objectionable in this post.

It could be people are voting you down because you didn't include what they might consider to be a "mandatory disclaimer" about psychedelics, set & setting, underlying mental illness, etc. While psychedelics have shown positive effects like you mentioned, you have to take into consideration the environment and context in which they were used.


Also, avoid psychedelics if you're at-risk for schizophrenia. Wikipedia says that blunted affect is symptomatic of schizophrenia.

I am actually quite extroverted. At school I have many good friends who I talk and joke with constantly. The problem is I never communicate on a deep level. We only ever chat about humorous things or intellectually interesting things, never emotions. I don't think I have ever connected to someone on that level. I often feel as though none really knows me.

I do enjoy hanging out with my friends, but it is just at a superficial level. I think I'm always trying to elicit attention and approval from others, but am intelligent enough to do it subtly (not "Hey look at my awesome test scores. Admire me!") I feel somewhat shyer around the "popular" people but also more greatly crave their approval. I don't know if that's a problem or just human nature.

Thanks for mentioning the drug, I'll look into it.

Hey Raiden.

If you need someone to talk to on a less superficial level, about anything you feel like, or just want to make an extra friend, feel free to leave me a message, or skype me at "Tuxedage"..

I was exactly like this for a while when I was younger (feeling like no-one really knows me). The thing that helped me most was learning empathy (I was pretty terrible at this to start with). This involved mainly actively working on putting myself in other people's shoes: listen to their problems and try to imagine what it feels like, and what they might do to make it better, but making suggestions in as tactful a way as possible. It got me a lot closer to my friends and made me care more about people in general, and moved me towards being able to open up about my own problems. (It has the added benefit of making you really good at understanding and solving other people's problems, which in turn makes you popular. I don't think wanting approval and popularity is a problem!)

Don't overdo it though, because being overemotional about everything isn't that fun either (I went through a phase of that for a couple of years as well).

Unless it's a symptom of a deeper psychological problem, which is a small possibility, I do believe that this is the kind of thing that just more emotional and general maturity will solve - specifically, learning to sympathise and empathise and trust a friend deeply. Making an active effort will speed it up though!

Yes, the key word was "close" friends. Having someone you care about who you can share just about anything with has no substitute. Introversion isn't the same as shyness; it has to do with what what type and amount of social interaction you enjoy, not what you're able to do. The fact that you have lots of people you'd call friends, but don't feel completely fulfilled by their friendship and want something deeper and more personal, leads me to believe you're more introverted than you think.

I believe I do indeed have a difficulty connecting with people in such a manner. Can that also be a psychological problem?

I agree with the post above advising "Wait, don't panic". I experienced (still do, sort of) exactly what you describe, and the people I developed the closest friendships with did as well. In fact, it was one of the primary contexts in which we were able to bond. As an intelligent person in a frequently alienating world, it can be very easy to feel disconnected and emotionally isolated. Don't immediately conclude that you have a disorder that requires medical treatment.

So, if it helps: a lot of people experience what you are going through. A lot of people feel empty. It might be learned helplessness, a self-defense mechanism, or something else entirely. But if you are interested in becoming a better, more fulfilled person, and willing to put in the work required, don't conclude you are broken. Make change, be open to happiness and emotion.

Also, I'm not going to claim that psychadelics don't have potential value in the arena of personal growth, but at your current position they are probably not an optimal strategy.


Well, it sure sounds like a problem to me! I again refer you to psychedelics, they're great for breaking mental barriers like that. And, again, only try them if you know what you're getting into, i.e. have done many hours of research on using them specifically for introspection and therapy. (I say that for the benefit of others who might read this, not yourself; you're clearly smart enough to not just jump right into psychedelic drugs...)

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Why do you consider it unlikely?


If you are in public school in the United States and your emotion problems are affecting your schoolwork, the school district is obligation to make some (but not much) effort to help under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Wikipedia has a reasonably good summary. Although the stereotypical child with special needs is developmentally disabled, serious emotional disturbance is an eligibility category under the IDEA.

In short, presenting this problem to the school district might solve the resource or unreasonable authority figure issues that you mentioned. Beware, seeking this kind of help will set bureaucratic machinery in motion (such as an annual meeting to plan how to deal with your issues). Additionally, if your participation in this type of program is obvious, it will lead your peers to label you as "special needs," which is a low-status label. I present the possibility only to suggest possible in-person resources available to you.

Sorry, but I need to say this: This post does not create an attorney-client relationship with you or any other reader of this post.

I tend to fall on the side of those who say, "Wait, don't panic". Well, 'panic' would be a strong emotion of the kind you say you're not having, but you're obviously uneasy, and rightly so. Right to feel that way.

When 'the system' looks at you, they're going to see a person who is functioning pretty well in the world. That's the major thing they care about. And it's no small thing!

Things are likely to change at your age, simply with the passing of time. Are you going to go to college? Get out of the house somehow? That could get you more perspective on your parents and more opportunity to see what life is like without them. Frequent advice to despairing young people is that "it gets better". It usually does, and when it doesn't, you at least get a better idea of the problem you're trying to solve.

I might posit a LW tendency (bias?) to act as opposed to waiting. I think psychedelics would be a terrible idea, frankly. Way too much of a radical act.

I think you're right. My current domestic conditions are likely the problem, and I hope to change them soon. However, even if I change my situation will learned helplessness make me still have a problem?

Maybe. I've certainly still got psychological problems. On the other hand, you're going to have better resources, simply because more is known these days than in the 70s and the web exists.

Living with psychologically wearing people can be exhausting. It may be that your problems are related to barriers you put up because not feeling much was a plausible choice around your parents.

even if I change my situation will learned helplessness make me still have a problem?

I recommend reading "Learned Optimism" by Martin E.P. Seligman.

A short introduction: People don't just react to their external environment, but also to their internal environment (memory, habits). Even if you get rid of the bad things outside, some bad habits may stay in your mind, and if they are related to thinking, they reinforce themselves even when their original cause is gone, and you just needlessly hurt yourself, because that's what you consider normal way of thinking. But for other people other ways of thinking are "natural", and they don't hurt themselves. Two people, after receiving the same input, will react differently. They both have congnitive biases, but one has unhappiness-inducing biases, other has happiness-inducing biases.

Everyone fails sometimes, the difference is how you process the feedback. Unhappiness-inducing reactions to failure are: "this is a proof that I will always fail", "this is a proof that I will fail at everything", "this is all my fault". Happiness-inducing reactions to failure are: "this is a unique situation that will not repeat anymore", "this is a very specific situation that has no connection to other parts of my life", "this is a random event or someone else's fault". (Reverse goes for success.) Note for rationalists: depending on specific circumstances, any of these sentences may be right or wrong. However, people have tendency to pick predominantly from one set of beliefs. Both are biases, but one of them are pesimistic and others are optimistic. For both, their preferred bias feels like a rational reaction. If you are a pesimist and you are strongly repulsed by what I wrote here (because you percieve pesimistic explanations as rational truth, and optimistic explanations as a happy death spiral), this may be just your pesimism speaking.

For a pesimist, helplessness and lack of emotions are natural reactions. If there is nothing you can do to improve your utility function, then what is the point of trying or caring? You must first believe that action X can lead to positive outcome Y, and only then it makes sense to do X or dream about Y.

Read the book and try it. (A typical failure mode for many intelligent people is saying "yeah, I understand why he thinks it works" and then doing nothing.)

I wouldn't worry too much about it if I were you. Around your age I experienced the same kind of lack-of-feeling, a year or so later so did a friend of mine. However it passed for both of us. Retrospectively I suspect a great deal of the problem was that neither me nor my friend had invested time or effort into anything. Try working on something or executing a plot, also read http://lesswrong.com/lw/bq0/be_happier/ .

Also, reading good books works.

research the repercussions of getting diagnosed as depressed before doing so.

Are you unfit? Any background physical (or emotional) discomfort or pain? That can make you blunt everything. You mention that your parents are lazy, for instance. If you really don't like your parents sometimes the best thing is to just suffer through until you can leave. Maybe try writing down (or just thinking of) a list of reasons to care about stuff you want to care about. But, honest reasons, the kind you would use to honestly convince someone else something was important rather than the kind of thing where you're writing an essay.

Do people take advantage of your lack of strong preferences? Does that irritate/ piss you off/make you angry? If it does feel free to slide up that scale from irritated to angry (but stop somewhere before psychotically enraged)

Maybe you just don't have anything you care about. Have you thought about trying martial arts, or something hard like that that can directly show you how some emotional states make certain things easier.

Also, what's so mere about preferences? What do you think other people have? Imo people are conditioned to care about stuff as much as they can so utilitarians will lend more weight to what they want. I mean, I don't necessarrilly see a problem. I remember I used to be like this but I later found out the reason I didn't like things was that I had a back problem, and was in constant physical discomfort/pain. I remember being bored a lot but that was also because its harder to be patient when you're not comfortable. Without that I don't see why that way of being is so bad. Maybe there's some simple technical problem (like someone mentioned earlier, hypothyroidism can cause this for example) which is actually the reason you want out of this state rather than the state of not caring being bad in itself?

Also, does imagining, yourself being tortured elicit a strong reaction. Does imagining someone else being tortured elicit a strong reaction.

Finally, as someone who doesn't care about much you have the excellent oppurtunity to relatively unbiasedly choose your values, choose what you prefer to prefer. What would you like to prefer? Well, isn't that your preference, then? Maybe you wont feel it but you can get in the habit of working towards your selected preferences which should reinforce them.

Also, it might reinforce your preferences to call them your your own subjective "good"s, objectively, in the sense that getting utility is by definition (or maybe even THE definition) of good.

Also one more word to look up is dissociation. edit: and schizoidism. You probably aren't schizoid but it's kind of similiar so there's probably something worth learning there.

Also, does imagining, yourself being tortured elicit a strong reaction. Does imagining someone else being tortured elicit a strong reaction.

Imagining myself being tortured elicits a dull squeamishness. Imagining others being tortured usually does nothing, but sometimes when I'm frustrated it makes me feel good. That scares me. I never (or at least rarely) feel the urge to harm someone in real life. Even slightly injuring a fly makes me sad.

Finally, as someone who doesn't care about much you have the excellent oppurtunity to relatively unbiasedly choose your values, choose what you prefer to prefer.

There is some part of me that is terrified of choosing the "wrong" values. Some part of me still seems to believe in some ultimate objective terminal value. I fear following something I think I value or think I should value but really don't.


There's no need to posit some ultimate objective terminal value to explain why you're terrified of choosing the wrong values.

First of all, if by "choosing the wrong values", you mean "choosing the wrong terminal values", then you're just not making sense, or rather it's just not clear what you're trying to communicate. Placing "wrong" next to "terminal values" in a sentence about you choosing what you want your values to be, sounds no different to me than saying, "That ball is square." I'm not in a position interpret either of those sequences of words.

A course of action can be wrong only by reference to a value. Or to taboo the word "wrong", a course of action can be incompetent only if you posit a goal the agent is trying to achieve. Driving into a tree at 70 mph is a bad idea for me only because I don't want to die or get crippled, and I don't want either of those only because X, and X only because Y, etc., until we reach my terminal value(s). Someone else may be different in this respect.

It's not possible to choose your terminal values, or rather it just doesn't even make any sense to say that phrase: "choose your terminal values". Choosing involves valuing. Once you choose something, you're choosing it because you think it's a good way to get something else, but then that something else is by necessity more "terminal" than what you chose. You can't choose your terminal values; you can only discover them.

With that said, I want to echo the others who mentioned that your situation may be the result of some basic physiological problem or whatever. All too often do people chalk their situation up to their personality, or How Things Are, or something like that, when the situation is extremely malleable, and is no more than the routine, methodical outcome of some basic lifestyle consideration or toxin exposure or whatever.

I've been in and out of many states and conditions over my lifetime that felt so urgent, or so profound, or something, but have in the end proven to be nothing more than what I mentioned in the last paragraph: the result of some lame environmental circumstance. For example, depression can be ridiculously severe, and color one's perception of the world in such an insanely pronounced way, that it seems so out of place to tell them, "Maybe it's just because you're not exercising." But sometimes the solution really is that mundane.

Big effects don't necessitate big causes. Or more to the point, intense mental states do not require intense events proceeding. As I started off the previous paragraph with, I've been in and out of so many of these intense mental states that proved to be lame circuitry misfirings (or whatever), that I have come to take my emotions with a serious grain of salt. I know your mental state isn't "intense", so I guess this is starting to sound a little bit centric to my own experiences, but I think the basic message is the same.

Having no values seems like a very boring existence, and Very Boring Existences are undesirable in comparison to exciting ones. This means that you don't actually have no values, and that saying you have no strong values is nothing more than an idiom. You do have values. So what you must do is figure out how to elicit those values, and maybe there's some simple physiological problem to blame. Perhaps try improving your lifestyle (e.g., diet, exercise, sleep, toxin avoidance), and/or try getting some sort of basic medical workup where you mention your lack of zest for life and so on?

Hopefully this was somewhat helpful. Good luck, and I hope you stick around Less Wrong!

Thank you, that really helped a lot!


I wrote a short play where I covered similar topics.

There is some part of me that is terrified of choosing the "wrong" values.

Hm. Terror sounds like an emotion to me.

Do you imagine, feel, or fear shame?


Do you have memories of feeling strong emotions?

I have nothing to protect.

The state of relative lucidity that you describe is itself something to protect. Just because you are emotionally disengaged from everything around you is not in itself reason to see a psychiatrist. At a higher level, and given the proclivities of this site, you should also listen skeptically to anyone who may try terrorize you into emotion by talking about singularities and existential risk. Just concentrate on remaining aware of yourself and your situation. Eventually, either you will notice that you have been feeling something after all, or life itself will simply force situations on you to which you will be compelled to react.

It is also possible that suchly blunted effect is a symptom of an easily treatable physical disorder such as anemia or thyroid dysfunction. A physical workup may be necessary.

This seems like genuinely terrible advice. Why is blunted affect not a problem when life is less enjoyable for it?

because life is less painful for it, presumably. Blunted affect means everything is blunted. Anhedonia is the one that blunts one way.

edit: to illustrate: imagine going through high school. Would you prefer to do it blunted or unblunted?

imagine going through high school. Would you prefer to do it blunted or unblunted?

You may have high school confused with middle school. Either way, I would have preferred to know that I had some chance of avoiding death, or at least putting it off for millenia, and could afford to think about reality in a deliberate and organized way.

I seem to prefer negative emotions to feeling nothing at all. Feeling nothing seems to be almost like not living. Is this why some people cut themselves and are suicidal?

It's certainly one of the reasons, although they also do it to escape or distract from what feels like overwhelming negative emotions.

But yeah, I'm with you on the negative emotions > no emotions. First time I got really depressed, I noticed and celebrated (as much as I was able) when I started being able to feel things again, even though most of those feelings were variations on 'sad'.

Raiden doesn't control his life. The "blunted affect" is protectively shutting out the empty horror of his condition while his mind, even without conscious direction, tries to process just what his situation is. He's not even at the stage of formulating a strategic response because he hasn't formed a model of his situation; he doesn't really understand it. All he notices is this ugly absence of feeling.

So what has to happen is that his mind must continue its work. To do this he needs to dwell in that emptiness for as long as he can stand to do so, and as often as circumstances allow, until the job is done.

At least, that is how I surmise things were for him, a few days ago. Obviously I'm making some big guesses.

Just because you are emotionally disengaged from everything around you is not in itself reason to see a psychiatrist.

What would be a good reason to see a psychiatrist, then?