Creative Thinking and Gender Identity

Topic Summary:

I wrote a short essay on creative thinking and how it relates to gender identity. I tried to summarize ideas from Elliot and Szasz and how I think they relate to gender identity.


Looking for feedback. Do you agree with what I wrote? Should I add more detail to certain points or sections? Should I have added more/different citations? Are there any errors that stick out?

CF relevance:

Correcting errors in ideas about gender identity. Organizing ideas effectively. Creative thinking.

Do you want unbounded criticism? (A criticism is a reason that an idea decisively fails at a goal. Criticism can be about anything relevant to goal success, including methods, meta, context or tangents. If you think a line of discussion isn’t worth focusing attention on, that is a disagreement with the person who posted it, which can be discussed.)


Humans are capable of creative thought. This means we can come up with ideas or thoughts which aren’t included in our genetics. Creative thinking has allowed humans to make progress in many fields such as physics, math, poetry, music, and more. The knowledge to build rockets or write symphonies is not “inborn”, it had to be created by our thoughts. Everything humans do, think or say can be explained with creative thought.

Thinking creatively is a binary property; either you can think creatively, or you cannot. When you’re born your genetics (hopefully) set you up with a mind which can think creatively. From that point onwards you and your mind’s ideas are “on your own”. There are no known theories which explain how genetics, hormones or neurochemicals give you specific ideas or tell you what to think. All our thoughts, feelings and behaviours come from our creative thinking.

Creative thinking is related to our ability to feel happiness or to suffer. In any given situation we can use creative thought to consider possible alternatives to our situation. We can come up with value judgements or preferences about which alternatives we would want or not want. Suffering is about having preferences or wants which we then don’t get [1]. When we’re suffering, we can come up with ideas to deal with or cope with that suffering. Just like our ideas about rockets and symphonies, ideas on how to deal with suffering are not inborn; they must be learned and put into practice.

Human brains have the property of being “neuroplastic”. This means that the structure of neurons in your brain can change when you learn new ideas or behaviours. People can learn all kinds of bad ideas or harmful ways of thinking; this can physically alter the configuration of neurons in your brain. My understanding is that until recently neuroscientists thought that this neuroplasticity only lasted until the age of 25 or so. Now they think that even when you’re older your brain doesn’t lose the property of neuroplasticity. People do generally form most of their important ideas (for better or for worse) while they are growing up and are typically less likely to change their ideas once they are older. This isn’t because your brain loses the ability to learn new ideas, but rather because people are stubborn and learning new ideas (or improving your current ideas) takes a lot of work and introspection. Having bad or harmful ideas is a problem, but it’s a problem that can be solved through creative thought (learning, error correction, etc.)

In medicine, illnesses or conditions are defined based on a deviation from a clearly defined norm. For example, the norm for human eyes is to have photoreceptors which detect all variations of visible light wavelengths. When those photoreceptors are constructed improperly or are damaged in an accident, they lose the ability to properly detect certain wavelengths of light. This results in the medical condition of colour blindness. Note that for us to say that photoreceptors are constructed “improperly” it implies there is a proper way for them to be constructed. This proper way can be stated in anatomical and physiological terms and corresponds to the optimal structural and functional integrity of the human body [2].

Having bad or harmful ideas is a separate issue from a medical condition. Unlike with physical illnesses, there is no clearly defined norm which states the ideas that a person is supposed to have. Stating that someone’s ideas are a deviation from the norm involves rendering a judgement on how those ideas relate to the observer and the society in which they live [2]. We cannot diagnose someone with a mental disorder by imaging their brain (or doing an autopsy) because mental disorders cannot be described in objective anatomical and physiological terms. Mental disorders must be diagnosed through a social process involving interviews with a person (and possibly their friends and family) in order to determine their beliefs and ideas. Those beliefs and ideas are compared against a subjective norm (the ideas people in society are supposed to have) to determine if they should be diagnosed with a mental disorder.

The process of diagnosing a mental disorder is subjective and based on social and ethical values held by the observer and the society in which they live. However, the treatment for these disorders is often described in terms of medical measures. Psychotropic drugs are often prescribed as “medicine” to help treat mental disorders. There are no known drugs which have been shown to improve human cognition or a person’s cognitive abilities. Psychotropic drugs work by inhibiting brain functions, and many of them (if not all) are neurotoxic. While inhibiting brain function can be useful for certain people who are suffering it cannot be a cure for bad or harmful ideas. Those ideas come from our creative thought and the only way to “cure” them is to correct errors in the ideas or to learn new ones. Simply describing psychotropic drugs as medicine (like the medicine you would take for a physical illness) without explaining how they inhibit brain function is misleading and unethical.

Note that there are physical illnesses of the brain which can inhibit brain function, such as hormone imbalances or Alzheimer’s disease. These are a separate class of issues from mental disorders.

Being transgender (or having gender dysphoria) can be labelled a mental disorder and is frequently referred to as a mental illness or condition. However, being transgender cannot be described fully in physiological or anatomical terms. It is based on ideas and preferences, not physical defects or deviations. Many people in our society have the preference for being seen and referred to as a woman, wearing women’s clothes and having a feminine name. The belief that certain clothes are “women’s” or that certain names are “feminine” is itself a subjective idea that comes from society. Different societies would consider different clothes “women’s” and different names “feminine”. The clothes and names themselves are not related (except in society’s eyes) to your physical sex. There is nothing stopping people of either physical sex from wearing dresses or being named Mary. When someone whose physical sex is female wears a dress and is named Mary it is considered normal. However, when someone whose physical sex is male has the same idea to wear a dress and be named Mary it can be considered a disorder [3]. Labelling this person as “disordered” represents a stigmatizing judgement based on subjective social and ethical values. The ideas representing “gender” are socially constructed and are unrelated to physical and anatomical traits.

[1] Curiosity – Animal Rights Issues Regarding Software and AGI

[2] - The Myth of Mental Illness, Thomas Szasz, 1960

[3] “For a person to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, there must be a marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her, and it must continue for at least six months.” -Gender Dysphoria is listed as a disorder in the DSM-5 (DSM-5 Fact Sheets)

Further reference:

I think you are severely overestimating how much neuroscientists actually know.

Other than that part, I mostly agree with your essay.

Thank you for sharing your essay. I agree with your point that being transgender “is based on ideas and preferences, not physical defects or deviations.” I view masculinity and femininity as traditions that have evolved and changed over time. The traditions vary between cultures. Some of the standards seem arbitrary, and/or detrimental, while others seem useful for certain purposes.

Human brains have the property of being “neuroplastic”. This means that the structure of neurons in your brain can change when you learn new ideas or behaviours. People can learn all kinds of bad ideas or harmful ways of thinking; this can physically alter the configuration of neurons in your brain. My understanding is that until recently neuroscientists thought that this neuroplasticity only lasted until the age of 25 or so. Now they think that even when you’re older your brain doesn’t lose the property of neuroplasticity.

I am not confident in the following opinion about brains, computers, and universal explainers.

My understanding is that people are defined as universal explainers. This idea is arrived via logical argument (“bubble of explicability” in BoI). Assume the universe has inexplicable phenomena. If those inexplicable phenomena interact with known explanations then we don’t have actual explanations. If the phenomena don’t interact with anything that could affect us then they’re not part of our universe and don’t come up in trying to understand things. Therefore, appeals to inexplicability are appeals to things inherently beyond the universe affecting how things work here. This is the essence of supernaturalism. To avoid that conclusion and retain the idea that we really do have some explanations we are led to assume all aspects of the universe are potentially explainable by us.

In addition to the above, our brains contain universal computers, capable of simulating any physical processes. For that reason, I don’t think the physical structure of the brain matters directly to learning, unless memory/information is lost.

Why? Is it for something, e.g. a blog or school assignment? Is there a goal or target audience?

It doesn’t follow from universality that the physical structure of the brain doesn’t matter directly to learning unless memory/information is lost. Learning anything is possible for any physical structure which is a universal explainer, but the specific properties of the physical structure could matter for some aspects of learning (e.g. one could be faster than the other). Something analogous holds in the case of universal Turing machines: any universal TM can run the same programs as any other in theory, but the physical structure definitely matters in some ways, e.g. it would take a very long time for a Nokia flip phone to simulate a modern supercomputer.

This is helpful and I think I see what you’re saying. Universality implies less than I stated because there are the additional requirements of speed and memory capacity. Speed and memory capacity are related to physical structure. Either of those requirements could impose a constraint on learning for practical purposes because of the length of time involved (or an absolute barrier if the explanation is larger than the available memory) . I will make a note to review universality in BoI and FoR and try to see what other misconceptions I have regarding this.

This post is about a complex topic that is also a hot button political and cultural issue, and it is an example of overreaching.

Your post leaves out a lot of stuff from Szasz that is relevant. For example, a diagnosis of mental illness is often used to excuse deviant conduct rather than stigmatise it. I also think there is stuff about the political economy of healthcare in Szasz that is relevant to this issue. If you want to learn about Szasz I would suggest you read and make notes on one of Szasz’s books, perhaps one of the books in this list

The post also doesn’t show mastery of the topic of gender identity. For example, there are no discussions of well known controversies. Nor do you provide any historical or current examples of people whose lives illustrate those issues.

I think that neuroscientists know about different hardware components of the brain (but not necessarily how they function). I think neuroscientists are capable of scanning/imaging someone’s brain over some period of time and noticing that the structure of the brain changed. I don’t think I gave them much more credit than that in my essay.

Would you mind pointing out some of the parts that you disagree with? Also would it be fair to say that you already agreed with most/all of these ideas before having read my essay?

One of my goals for this essay would be to share it with someone who isn’t very familiar with this topic to help them understand my beliefs. I realize I should have included more detail on the goal and target audience of the essay in my original submission.

I appreciate your feedback.

I have recently been thinking about my own personal preferences regarding gender identity and wanted to write this essay to help organize my thoughts. I wanted to share it here to get feedback on my ideas. I assume there are errors in my essay and posting here would be a good way to hopefully have those errors pointed out and corrected.

The target audience for the essay would be someone who isn’t familiar with the topics discussed (creative thinking, mental illness and gender identity). So far I’ve only shared it with one person (one of my close friends who is a medical doctor).

I also wanted to get feedback on my approach. For example, I left out some important topics like how human brains are computers and “jumps to universality”. I purposefully left these out because I thought they would distract too much from my goals for this essay (which I should have included in the original post).

At a high level my goals would be to:

  1. Familiarize the reader with the idea that humans can think creatively.
  2. Explain that our creative thinking can be used to learn “bad” or “harmful” ideas.
  3. Help the reader realize there is a distinction between physical illnesses and “bad” ideas.
  4. Explain that being “transgender” is not an illness or disorder. It’s a preference or an idea.

I’m worried that by leaving out potentially important topics I would be encouraging the reader to build their “knowledge skyscraper” with major errors in their ideas.

At the same time I wanted the essay to be accessible enough that someone could read it and understand my point without having to go learn other ideas about computation and universality.

I’m not sure how to evaluate if I’m using a valid “skyscraper design” or if I’m doing a disservice to the reader by obfuscating some of the complexity.

I’m also questioning the relevancy of the part about “neuroplasticity” and how it relates to my goals for the essay. I included it as kind of an “olive branch” to my friend to show there is some “neuroscience” which (at least partially) agrees with what I’m trying to explain.

Thanks for your feedback Alan, I appreciate you taking the time to read my essay.

“Overreach is about considering and managing your rate of making errors compared with your rate of correcting errors. If your error rate exceeds your error correction rate, then you’re doing stuff that’s too hard for you.”

Do you think that my essay contains errors? Would you mind pointing out the sections that contain errors?

I agree that leaving out important or relevant information could be considered an error. In one of my replies above I outlined my goals for this essay. With those goals in mind do you still think that I’m leaving out relevant information?

I agree that’s a very good point. However, since I’m not a qualified psychiatrist wouldn’t it be better to avoid talking about why we diagnose people with mental illnesses? The reasons could change depending on which specific psychiatrist you speak with, which country or time period you live in, etc.

Again, wouldn’t this depend on which country you live in and how healthcare works in your country? It’s very interesting but I’m not sure that talking about it would help me accomplish the goals I set out for this essay. It might be that the goals I set out for this essay are bad and I should reevaluate them. I would appreciate any feedback you could share on the goals for my essay that I outlined above.

I would guess you’re talking about controversies like trans athletes in sports or giving hormones to children who identify as trans? I agree those topics are important but I’m not sure how they would strengthen the arguments I presented in my essay. Also I don’t plan to compete in professional sports or to take hormones so I didn’t feel the need to organize my thoughts on those issues at this point.

Appreciate your feedback =)

It’s worth noting that both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychological Association (APA) no longer consider simply being transgender to be a mental disorder or mental illness.

Gender Dysphoria is still listed as a mental disorder in the DSM-V. But if that were removed, it would be harder to get insurance coverage for things like hormone therapy, gender surgeries, psychotherapy, etc for transgender issues. If there were no mental disorders associated with being transgender, then it would no longer be considered a medical issue, so health insurance companies would no longer need to cover it. (It would be similar to plastic surgery.)

How did you pick this topic over others?

This contradicts CF’s rejection of evaluating arguments by degree of goodness.

A quote from the original post:

A quote from your reply to me:

A quote from your post about trans stuff:

The first quote sez you don’t want to talk about motives. In the second quote, written earlier, you’re already talking about motives: social and ethical values. You’re also talking about stigmatizing conduct rather than excusing it. This is a problem with your discussion.

Political and economic institutions that are pretty similar between different Western countries - such as compulsory education, involuntary psychiatric treatment and price controls and regulations on medical treatments imposed by government - change what people say and think about gender identity. There is a lot of group think and hostility in discussions of this issue partly because people can use the power of the state to force other people to go along with their preferences on this issue. I am sceptical that you are immune from this problem if you haven’t thought about it.

I think you gave them much more credit than that.

For example,

This implies that neuroscientists know something about the relationship between “bad ideas or harmful ways of thinking” and physical configurations of neurons in the brain.

I don’t want to do this, because it takes time and because the other places I disagree with are not as significant or not as clear-cut.

Yes. I think I would be a bad model for your target audience.