Thursday, October 09, 2008


My family, like my mother’s family -- in fact, BECAUSE of my mother’s family -- was preoccupied with issues about who inherited what physiology from which line of descent. It was a big worldwide issue (soon to be perverted by Hitler) at the time my mother was forming her identity and she carefully chose my father (she said) for his genetics, esp. intelligence, good teeth and eyes. We got the intelligence. Of course, no one really knew much of anything about genetics at the time -- as if we do now. We’ve only just begun figuring out the basics and now realize we have proteomics to sort, a MUCH bigger issue and more focused on present function rather than inherited “plan.”

My cousin really got into this family thing and said, as he’d heard his elders say, “The Cochrans [our maternal grandmother’s birth family] are better than the Pinkertons [our maternal grandfather’s birth family] because the Cochrans came across the Oregon Trail which requires toughness. But the Pinkertons came on the train which only requires a ticket.” The underlying idea is a common frontier figure of the privileged and educated woman and her family being shaped by hardship, versus the vigorous man who takes shortcuts to success. But my cousin hadn’t even considered the timing: there WAS no train when the Cochrans came to Oregon. I’m sure they’d have been happy to take the train if they could have. Their alternative choice was taking a ship around the horn of South America, which might have been a lot riskier than walking across the continent.

This cousin has OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He stores papers in his bedroom, where his bed is now five feet off the ground because he puts it on ever higher blocks so he can store paper under it. There is only a tiny passage for him to squeeze through to get to that bed. (An old man who lived across from Bob and I in Browning had this disorder. When he died, they found his corpse standing up, because there was no room for it to fall over.) Which brings me to the next bit of the limbic system, the cingulate gyrus. OCD can be an inherited condition that relates to the functioning of the cingulate gyrus.

The cingulate gyrus seems to be about the management of attention. When it goes wrong, it produces the “attention deficit disorder” that haunts the schools, as well as what is sometimes called “oppositional disorder” unless you’re two-years-old when it is simply “the terrible twos.” In one extreme the person can’t settle down in a blizzard of thoughts -- in the other, the person can’t stop churning around and around whatever is preoccupying them. Ideally, a person would be able to concentrate when that’s the demand of the situation, or be exploratory and sensitive to small cues when in a different context. Adapting to environmental needs (including other people) is part of the skill of being human, so losing that function can make everyone think the damaged person is just miserable, unreasonable, stubborn and ornery. But the person himself has no consciousness of his thinking -- or at least thought processing -- being faulty.

I watched “The Three Faces of Eve” twice, the second time with the comments turned on. It is, of course, about this woman’s split identity. What struck me the second time was how rigid, obstinate and punishing the husband was, and the commenter’s voice-over (as opposed to Alistaire Cooke’s comments which were part of the movie) noted that the two psychiatrists had felt the husband was part of Eve’s problem. The only attitude he would accept from her was total compliance and self-denial. So maybe HE had some brain damage! Though his behavior is culturally endorsed, or was in the South at the time. The real Eve’s case was treated in 1953, the year I graduated from grade school, and the movie came out in 1957, the year I graduated from high school. My mother’s threat when I acted like I had something wrong with my cingulate gyrus was “no one will ever want to marry you.” Then the culture changed around and I didn’t want to marry anyone anyway. Suddenly being stubborn and persistent was an advantage on the female gender side.

We think of our identity as the accumulation of experience, memories especially of sensory material including kinesthesia and the visceral generation of emotion, with emphasis on rational reflection. This is natural enough, given that this is what we can access by reflection. But much of identity is also “personality,” which is mediated and shaped by the limbic system without us knowing it at all. Even hypnotism would not bring to our consciousness the way our cingulate gyrus sorts and modulates our personal styles. But other people notice and you can see it on the screen with an fMRI. Maybe realize it when confronted with video, but not from inside.

Recently one of the political campaigns was monitored and filtered by using computer technology developed for sports events. Alongside the “talking heads” appeared bullet lists of how many times they had used a particular phrase, or putting into print statistics that had quickly passed in the discourse. The words themselves were slowed, emphasis removed, loudness made consistent, and so on. Many of us are familiar with sound-mixing boards. The cingulate gyrus appears to operate along these lines. Things that don’t get through this system simply “don’t compute.” It’s as though they don’t exist to that person. But beyond that, what gets through can be broken up by attention that switches around or is shunted to the side by attention that won’t leave something previous.

How many times do we demand “why aren’t you listening to me?” or “will you please pay attention?” But it hasn’t entered the public consciousness that the person’s cingulate gyrus is lagging or erratic. What worries me is that if there is a true physical cause for social dysfunction, some will immediately take pharmaceutical advantage by selling pills to “cure” people who don’t want to be cured. On the other hand, maybe the reason so many people have a problem with this sort of dysfunction is rogue molecules in our environment, by-products of manufacturing. Prions.

It may be that techniques like meditation are addressing the limbic system, that music might have a similar function, or maybe all the arts. Then it would be a great pity that the schools have discarded this sort of education thinking it is a “frill.” In any case, it appears that management and especially SELF-management of what is just below our consciousness is crucial. If people can learn to control their own blood pressure via bio-feedback, then why not learn to focus one’s cingulate gyrus, or at least tell when it’s out of sync with what’s going on.

Why am I so interested in this sort of thing? In his later years my father became marginally demented in a sort of Parkinsonian way. He would seemingly function all right, but sit down and sleep instantly with reading material in his hands. If you asked him questions, he would stare at you and say, “Duuuuuh!” He forgot things easily but went through his routine without problems. His idealism and fiery reactions went flat. My mother despaired but didn’t divorce him. It was against her moral principles. Were they inherited? Embedded in her limbic system? Conscious choice? What did I inherit?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People who have either condition typically overestimate the risk in a situation and underestimate their own resources for coping. Sufferers avoid what they fear instead of developing the skills to handle the kinds of situations that make them uncomfortable. Often enough, a lack of social skills is at the root. Some types of anxiety—obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and social phobia—are particularly associated with depression.