Apart from the aggregation/entrainment/concatenation Bor calls “chunking” and I call “clustering,” there is another aspect to consciousness disorders which is even more mysterious and yet a serious affliction for many people. They are “mood disorders,” that have an ever-changing array of names and seem to relate to actual molecules in and between cells and how they affect the organic machinery of thinking, which includes not just the brain but also the whole body, particularly the gut, which evolved from the same original cells as the brain. (I hope you could follow that chunk of a sentence.) Bor is crucially interested in this because his wife is what we call “bipolar,” meaning that her “mood” goes back and forth between deep depression and manic elation. There are meds for this that seem mostly to relate to neurotransmitter molecules: dopamine, serotonin and the like. Lithium is a notorious but sometimes useful med. Finding a med that works seems to be a matter of trial-and-error and also to be related to the individual’s chemistry. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. Some people never find a cure.
Bor’s wife is a high achiever with advanced degrees, much praise and confirmation of her success, but when she is in a depressive state there is no reassuring her. All information is interpreted in a framework of failure, unworthiness, and a kind of self-infliction that is reminiscent of autoimmune disorders of the body. People in this state can self-medicate with street drugs or alcohol, get relief through cutting (it seems to release serotonin), and so on. Violence doesn’t seem to be part of the pattern so much as it can evoke violence from others, which can be a kind of relief.
For quite a while now modern culture has proceeded on the assumption that a person is a discrete unit that can be seen as separate from the world, can make his or her own decisions according to his or her own motivations, and actually act against the prevailing culture, thereby proving their independence which is a kind of heroism. Now we begin to question that. For one thing, compulsive opposition is as controlling as compliance.
Moving back in the other direction, it is possible that the larger culture is actually triggering manic/depression and other mood disorders in subtle ways, possibly because of pressure to perform or limit oneself and possibly because of something much more direct, like the stuff we put into food or the contamination of our air and water produced by advanced manufacturing and excessive population density. We worry all the time about what computer use does to our brains. We know that what we see and think about triggers neurotransmitter release, a way of doing auto-medicine. What can an evening of horror do to our neurotransmitters?
The definition of insanity is doing things that take one outside of the homoeostatic bounds that maintain survival. Some behaviors and practices take the individual into a spiral: for instance, addiction that creates craving for more of the toxic substance through the relief it offers. But there are also behaviors (habitual opposition) that can create a backlash that pushes the person back into the same thing, forcing them to renew opposition or whatever.
A different aspect of mood disorders is their ability to “dim out” the brain, especially when the tasks of daily living take a lot of energy. The person makes short-term decisions just to get through the day. This is evidently related to the amygdala’s ability to route energy and thinking away from the prefrontal cortex if there is danger and/or confusion. I think it was Damasio who used the very eloquent metaphor of the sea anemone, which has many beautiful tentacles it extends in every direction like a living chrysanthemum unless there is danger, when it retracts into a round green blob stuck to stones. When the brain is reacting like this, there is no way for it to accept new information. Schools ought to think about this: learning requires first of all safety.
Mood disorders seem to involve the whole body and can even be lifted a bit by exercise, but there are many others kinds of problems with brain function. One is genetic, when one little part simply didn’t get instructions to form. Or the gene instructions might have been there but the gestation environment distorted the code, as in fetal alcohol syndrome. Because gestation happens along a time-line, the time of the insult to the fetus matters. Interference at one stage of development might cause quite a different problem than if it had happened at another point on the continuum.
Processing is also vulnerable to different kinds of maladjustment. Bor suggests that Asperger people (high functioning thinkers but socially impaired) are taking in way too MUCH detail from the world, awareness so demanding that they can hardly keep up with patterning it, but feel distress if the incoming flow of sensations stops because they are accustomed to the steady process. (I thought of this while watching “Sherlock,” the contemporary “Sherlock Holmes” series on the BBC.) On the other hand, he suggests that schizophrenics may have more patterning drive than they have information, that they are sort of “running on fumes” and therefore invent or reuse information.
SO -- we end up with a kind of taxonomy of distresses:
- Genomic mutation, either inherited or happening to the original conception.
- Interruptions or insults during the unfolding gestation that cancelled or confused timing codes.
- Damage to the brain system during birth.
- Lesions due to physical damage, infection, parasites.
- Disturbances or losses to the organs that change physical signals (sound waves, airborne molecules, retinal light patterns) to nerve code.
- Problems with the coding nexus of neurons that distort what’s sent to the brain.
- Failure of some other part of the “bucket brigade” of neuron matrixes that interpret, possibly alter or filter or delete, and forward the code.
- Something problematic about the “chunked” information and instructions in the main operating part of the brain.
- Defective transmission of the directions sent through the body from the brain, so that the internal systems of the body or action in the outside world cause something to happen that’s against homeostasis.
- A defect in the ability of the body cells to respond: maybe muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis which corrupts nerve impulse transmission or maybe damage to the retina. Maybe diabetes or damage to the lining of the lungs. Remember that what a brain does is BOTH incoming and outgoing.
Addressing these problems means very close attention by a person capable of and willing to use the next power of humans that I want to talk about, which is between people: vicariousness and mirroring -- the ability to acquire information from someone else that isn’t spoken. This appears to be one of the most powerful and most recent abilities humans -- at least SOME humans -- have evolved.