Religious mystics like William Blake claim that everything in the world, no matter how mundane seeming, is in fact beautiful. This seems profound and attractive.

If the brain is a reducing valve – taking universal consciousness and narrowing it to a trickle so that it is possible to concentrate on one thing at a time and worry about personal survival – then judging by the following, testosterone would seem to play an important role in this.

The following I have transcribed, imperfectly, from “This American Life” episode, #220.

This is from a man whose body stopped producing testosterone.

When you have no testosterone, you have no desire and when you have no desire you don’t have any content in your mind. You don’t think about anything.

Reporter: “What was your behavior like?”

I was not behaving at all. When I was awake I was literally sitting in bed and staring at the wall with neither interest nor disinterest for three or four hours at a time. If you had a camera you would think I was comatose. I would go out. I would buy some groceries early in the morning and that would be it. My day had no content. I had no interest in even watching TV, much less in reading the newspaper or a book.

I didn’t want my food to taste good or interesting. “When you are blessed with that lack of desire, you can eat a loaf of Wonder Bread with mayonnaise and that would be your day.” [I thought he was going to say you can eat healthily.] I only saw my girlfriend in the weekend and I could get away with it for five days at a time.

People without testosterone don’t become Spock-like and incredibly rational. They become nonsensical because they are become unable to distinguish what is and is not interesting, and what is worth noting and what isn’t. I would see a brick in a wall and I would think “a brick in wall.” I would see a pigeon and think “a pigeon.” It is the most literal possible understanding of the world. Ticking observations off like a grocery list.

Everything I saw I thought “That is beautiful,” which is odd I know because it sounds like the judgment of someone with passion. But it was thought and sometimes even said with complete dispassion and objectivity. But I was looking at absolutely everything, the most mundane sight in the world and thinking “that is beautiful.” The surgery scars on people’s knees; a weed in the crack in the sidewalk; the bolts in hubcaps on cars. All of it, it just seemed to have purpose. Oh. That is beautiful. [It’s interesting that they seemed to have purpose to him, because he himself had none. And it is precisely their purposefulness that made them beautiful to him.]

Why beautiful? When I think about that question, the issue of God comes into the equation for me. Being without testosterone in a way brought me closer to God. Not more humane, but actually thinking like God. Not thinking as God, but like God in an aping, superficial way. He sees things as they really are. He sees you as you really are. I had this omniscient sense that I was seeing through the skin of things. I was seeing things as they really were. The objective conclusion, not the judgmental conclusion, was “They are beautiful.” Everything is beautiful from the bugs, to the cracks in the sidewalk, to the faces of other people. And it was automatic. Perhaps to see things objectively is to see them, all of them, as beautiful.

But the thought was expressed in the most flat line, boring way possible. “Oh, yeah, that’s beautiful.”

It would seem to be a terrible state to be in. And for most people it is. But it was weirdly pleasant. There is an appeal, an impossible appeal to that Rip Van Winkel existence of being without testosterone. It doesn’t matter if you have nothing if you want nothing. It is difficult to remember it now, but it had its allure.

This story brings to mind the role of memory. Memory functions as an editor, removing boring, irrelevant details. This is frustrating when we want to remember facts and figures, but the advantages outweigh the downsides. Some people are cursed by remembering the color of the shoes of the 64th person they saw last Monday, what they had for breakfast on a Tuesday, 4th of March, 37 years ago and on and on and on without end. If something is really important in someone’s life, the chances are that he will remember it.

13 thoughts on “Testosterone

  1. The difference is that to the mystic corrected by a proper dose of testosterone, the ubiquitous Beauty is a clarion calling him thrilled and enthused to a higher duty – to a grand transcendent adventure. To the man addled by a hormonal defect, Beauty is a mere dead fact, as sordid and pointless as any other – precisely because he is nowise motivated.

    Both men see the truth. Only one understands its meaning.

    Does this mean that glory is nothing but an hallucination engendered by a chemical? No. It means that even mere chemicals are vehicles of glory, chariots of Him, who Is.

    • I think my own guess is that the truth can be seen in ecstatic moments – all is one – beauty and divinity reside in the merest speck of dust – and that ideally these moments inform the rest of your life. However, union with universal divine consciousness if made permanent would be lethal. Any division between self and world would cease and the ability to act would be terminated as would you. This man sees the truth but remains stuck in this transcendental vision, killing his own sense of purpose. Perhaps it could be compared with Plato’s vision of the Form of the Good. Pure contemplation of it would seem to offer personal happiness, but his philosopher returns to the cave in an act of compassion, but informed by his vision of the Truth.

      I like your notion that chemicals are vehicles of glory.

  2. Pingback: Testosterone | Reaction Times

  3. Among the things that some of my students have been told — in an art history or art appreciation course — is that Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (in its several iterations) is a manifestation of his psychosis: That it is an agonized distortion of what is really there. My response was: We should all aspire to see the night sky as Van Gogh saw it, a living thing, the true Kosmos, and the Logos.

    • Yes. If that’s psychosis, more power to it! Dostoevsky’s ecstatic visions just prior to an epileptic fit also come to mind. This “pathology” also seems to have been a vehicle of glory. He said that he would not trade those experiences for anything in the world; certainly not to be cured of epilepsy. The profound sense of meaning, insight and transcendent truth to be found in his novels is another example of ecstatic moments of insight leading to fruitful and productive effects. If the visions were permanent, as was the case with the testosterone man, no novels would have been written, the normal activities needed to sustain life would not occur and we would all be poorer for it.

  4. If anyone here practices mindfulness meditation I would think a lot of this will sound familiar. Through meditation the ego with its attachments is observed in action. It is as if testosterone as described in this article is the ego in biochemical form.

    • I do Zen and this whole line of thinking is definitely of interest to me. The testosterone deficient guy said he felt like his unique soul was all a product of the hormone – but I think he was confusing soul with ego.

      • I think that’s right. The true self is often described as pure consciousness or simply awareness independent of thought or judgement. It sounds like what he described his non testosterone self to be. I heard part of the broadcast btw. I think I will re listen to the whole thing.

    • Your original comment said something about depression. He wasn’t depressed so I edited that out.

      Yes. It would be interesting to think about that. What are your thoughts? I’ve had a few, but I’m sure yours could be as good as mine.

  5. Memory, facts and figures happen to be things that intersect each other in my mind in very odd ways. I can remember those facts and figures, but when it comes to depth I struggle, finding myself being unable to go as deeply into a subject as I would like to. Sometimes it’s a bright shiny object that diverts my attention from a subject more than a sense of boredom with it.

  6. Maybe the temporal intensity we place upon what needs to be or how something is learned makes end up be unhelpful. As someone mentioned in an earlier discussion, the cramming of facts into one’s mind just to get pass a test or write a term paper that barely passes for writing. I understand this dilemma very well. The school district I attended failed to remedy my writing difficulties after I failed a state assessment by a few points. After five weeks of remediation I was thrown into a study hall. After attending the local BOCES criminal justice program and community college my writing improved enough allowing me to to graduate. Yet my writing still had problems I struggle with to this day. In addition to ADHD, these problems would have grown even worse if I had embraced the “get a passing grade by cramming as much just to get by. Basically all of these things are not helped by testosterone or one’s natural inclinations.


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