Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Coming unglued. Losing the vessel of identity. We know it when we see it. We can even feel ourselves when we’re slipping towards the edges of sanity through rage or confusion or depression. What is it?

Microbes: Up to one fifth of all people with schizophrenia were in their mother’s wombs when the mother had flu. We know viral infections of the brain (rabies, HIV) or the meninges can render thought impossible.

Parasites: Research on rats and toxoplasmosis suggest that toxo worms can not only persist in brains, but influence behavior.

Trauma: Direct penetration wounds obviously damage the capacity of a brain. It has become obvious that bruising from explosions outside an intact skull can damage the capacity of a brain. Scarring or clotting or blockage of the blood supply by spasms or bits of plaque or fat (we say “stroke”) can eliminate the functioning of the parts they affect.

Molecular: Ingestion of drugs; practices that trigger internal generation of molecules like serotonin or adrenaline; malfunction of secreting organs like the thyroid or the adrenals can radically change brain function.

Genome or proteome malfunction: The orchestrating and triggering functions of these molecules can suffer mutation of their codes, causing mental malfunction, as though a page of instructions were missing or printed upside down.

If all these causes interrupt sanity, to what degree can people be held responsible for the resulting actions? How much of being crazy is really psychological, meaning based on bad assumptions about the way the world works, or stuck in obsessive repetitions or outright hallucination. How much can be the result of conflicts between two irreconcilable purely mental forces like survivor guilt or Oedipus complex, Peter Pan syndrome, grandiose narcissism, post-traumatic syndrome, and others. So far there is no physical evidence of these -- not even an fMRI or brain wave reading. We diagnose on the basis of behavior or sometimes by free-association, story-telling, or art work that follows a pattern. It is the pattern that has the name, not the person. And we argue about both the name and the pattern, so they move around as we speak of them.

The legal tests for insanity are primarily whether the person can tell right from wrong plus sometimes “impaired impulse control” -- inability to resist. These definitions are cultural, negotiable. How much of insanity is dictated by society, particularly in the case of stigmatized persons -- like defiant Communist citizens consigned to “mental hospitals”. How much of insanity is really a nuisance quotient, so that quiet, withdrawn, invisible people are NOT considered insane or at least no one checks to see whether or not they are.

What holds an identity together? Memory, but that can be challenged and sometimes what we truly and sincerely remember can be proven false. Little things, like the way we dress and where we live. Family. (It can fall apart or turn on you.) Purpose. (What if you don’t know what you want to do?) Friends. (These days it’s hard to find friends who will stay.) Patriotism. Membership. Allegiance. Admiration from others. Or even hatred from others. A body of work.

If when we go to sleep at night, we lose our boundaries and fly, walk through walls, become animals, and walk naked through our old classrooms where we fail to prepare for tests -- none of these things would we or could we do when we are awake -- does that mean that in the night we have no identity? Some cultures would say we are inhabited by spirits.

When we are awake and in unusual situations, sometimes we find that we have far more strength, wit or resourcefulness than we ever suspected. Suddenly we make the fast move that catches the fly ball, or we lift the fallen beam off the leg of the survivor, or we are inspired to write a poem better than any written before. What is that? What “gets into us” then? How we would know the moment was exceptional if all the other moments had not been consistent and as expected?

Jason Russell, hailed as a hero full of bravery and perception in his video about Kony 2012, is now video-taped running naked through the streets, raving. Pressure? Drugs? Always a little out of touch with reality? Guilty of being a handsome privileged white boy with delusions of heroism? Now it is Kony, the warlord, shrewd, wary and full of cover stories, who seems to have a strong sense of his identity, though it includes unutterable cruelty. Is he sane?

Staff Sergeant Bales slips out of camp at night to murder civilian families. Brain malfunction or character malfunction? Is this the natural path of development for a swindler? Or does he have a brain tumor? Or is he part of a rogue culture that justifies such actions as revenge? Is he mad with grief?

I just reread “The Brothel Boy” and ordered some other books by Norval Morris. His field of expertise was the insanity defense in criminal trials. He was the sanest of men. I knew him and have been thinking about him while I watched some war crime movies made in Australia. (Morris was from New Zealand but fought in the Australian army.) Aussies have a sharp consciousness of law because the country was started as a penal colony. They also have a tough outlook on life, something like the American West. Endurance, stoicism, the valor of standing by your identity, be it country or religion, count big with them. “Breaker Morant” is about the heroism of the victim or the victimization of heroes -- however you want to look at it.

At bottom, isn’t insanity a kind of ambiguity? A not-knowing for sure? Maybe that’s why we’re suddenly so insistent on knowing the “truth” in the face of the obvious impossibility of knowing anything for sure. Parallel universes mean parallel histories mean parallel cause-and-effect chains.

Somewhere recently I read an analysis of the difference between the American legal and governance system, which is based on proper procedure, and -- what country was it? France? Where the system is based on justice, regardless of technicalities. Does compassion come to play anywhere? Isn’t compassion far too fickle to depend upon, a mere fund-raising tactic? Or is compassion just a function of mirror-cell empathy that interferes with identity?

No comments: