Friday, October 28, 2011


As it happens, in my research on brains, I ran across an article about “aggression neurons” and also Netflix suddenly decided to send me “Gladiator: Blood and Sand,” which is a New Zealand Starz film that goes wild with sex and lurid CGI violence, throwing whole gouts and sheets of blood in every direction. I assume this is what the violent simulator computer games are like. This coincides with discussion about a cluster of books, Stephen Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of our Nature,”being the most prominent, that assert that the level of raw violence has greatly decreased over the last century. Everyone exclaims, “Noooooo.” But there are a lot of graphs showing his point. Most of them concentrate on war, genocide, and famine -- not the individuals who show up in the newspaper daily.

As far as I’m concerned, ONE instance is enough violence to think about. This week Terrierman was talking about the pit bull that went crazy and slashed its owner to death but luckily didn’t kill her baby. At animal control we used to talk about “spaniel rage,” and when an example turned up, it was a golden retriever trying to rip everyone. In my last brief stint of teaching, there was a lot of talk about “‘roid rage,” meaning unreasonable violent outbreaks by boys who took steroids. (The same town has a problem with “extreme fighting” in the alleys.) No one has been able to figure the trigger for any of this.

So I ran across this Scientific American article about aggressive mice. The hypothalamus is an ancient region, almond-shaped, that regulates temperature, circadian rhythm (going through the day), sleep, hunger, thirst, sex, anger, aggression and response to stress. The mouse experimenters were trying to compare sex and violence in an “experienced male mouse.” (One can’t resist a mental image -- maybe a mustache to twirl?) They had two ways to measure what happened in the hypothalamus, one picking up electricity and the other measuring certain protein molecules.

First encounter: a welcoming female mouse. Second encounter: a male mouse willing to fight. Results: mostly the specific individual neurons that fired were either the ones for violence or the ones for sex but one fifth of the neurons fired for both. Except that the sex neurons quickly damped down the violence neurons.

When they had identified the aggression neurons, called V M Hvi, they “stimulated” them with a teeny blue light insinuated into the brain with a hair-sized fiberoptic. If the mouse were alone, he didn’t do anything. But he would attack a female, a castrated male, an inert anesthetized mouse, and even a “blown-up latex glove.” Then the experimenters “silenced” the V M Hvi somehow and turned on their Blue Light Special. Things cooled down, though the violence was not entirely extinguished. The writer, Christof Koch, remarked that no one knows what the mouse was thinking.

Other experimenters, working with much milder stimuli and responses, have established firmly that people do things they don’t understand, but that they quickly find reasons for doing. As Nick Lane puts it in his chapter on consciousness in “Life Ascending,” there are two consciousnesses, just as Freud figured out. They just aren’t like he thought. One is the primary or core consciousness where our animal life goes on: we know nothing about it except perhaps to see the backs of the sea creatures just under the water of dreams as Freud did. The other is our “conscious consciousness,” where we try to figure out what all this means, drawing on our experiences and our culture. One of these realms can reach into the other to some degree, but not always on purpose.

Back to the mouse. What if we don’t call the two factors -- “violence” and “sex,” which seem to reciprocate somehow -- but instead call them “territoriality” and “possession.” This experienced mouse had his encounters in “his” house. So here’s the way the scenario might play out in rural Montana. Women take the low-pay donkey-labor jobs like bar-tending and make enough money to rent an old trailer. A guy who can’t keep a job and is having a hard time keeping his ego inflated is hanging around the bar and romances the barmaid so she’ll maybe throw in a drink on the house now and then. So one night he goes home with her, he sticks around, she gets used to it -- in fact, it feels pretty good not to be lonesome. He sort of forgets it’s her trailer.

Then this friendly guy shows up one night and he gets along good with the barmaid’s guy, because guys gotta stick together. So they invite this new alcoholic to come party with them in the trailer. They drink until maybe 2am when they pass out. By then the woman has gone to bed and maybe the wrong guy has gone along with her. The other one wakes up about dawn, befuddled, looks around for the others, finds a gun or baseball bat, takes it into the bedroom and -- enraged -- kills one or both of them.

He never realizes that his V M Hvi cells were irritated by alcohol as surely as if someone shone a blue light into his hypothalamus. Now he spends a very long time sitting in a cage trying to figure out his motives: it was jealousy. It was protecting his woman. It was that he’s an Alpha Male and that other guy should have known better. If the woman survives, she’s likely to fall in line with these theories and write long letters the whole time he’s in prison, and he keeps the idea alive because even an old trailer is better than a jail cell. Now we have the plot line for "Spartacus", except that the men in the movie all have shaven, oiled and pumped bodies and the women all have a LOT of hair and breast implants. This guy will LOVE the movie and never realize it’s over the top.

We aren’t very enthusiastic about the idea of the subconscious, much less being controlled by some kind of cells that mice have, because we know our history and we know we’re supposed to be heroes. Actually, “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is MUCH better than the Rome series. No old guys standing around talking politics. If you’re going to go over the top with sex and violence, best to go all the way. The guys that liked this movie the most were the ones who loved the CGI violence -- not the tachistoscopic sex that was obviously suggested by “Lust Caution.” I admired the CGI landscapes. This is “Conan the Barbarian” territory.

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