Monday, February 11, 2013
THE CRUMPLED BRAIN
If a mouse is given an addictive drug, like maybe cocaine, when it wears off the mouse will go back to the part of the cage where it received the dose and wait. A long time. The experience is linked to the place. And space is just a metaphor for time. When=where.
The human cerebral cortex, which is crumpled up because it’s trapped in the skull -- only making room for the frontal lobe by pushing the rest of the brain back and down as well as bulging out the forehead -- can be virtually (using real data translated in the computer) flattened into a conventional paper map schema. When this is done, the boundaries of which part is connected to which of the senses can be drawn as though they were nations. The thicker the sensory intakes, the more space is allotted -- so hands and eyes are very outsized because we use them so much in our interactions with the world.
If there is a change in the sensory input, for instance blindness, the map will show that the space allotted to eyes will shrink and the space allotted to skin and ears will grow. This is a relatively new understanding but it has long been noticed that blind people hear more and can read braille with fingertips. What has not really been understood in the past is that under the “data” of sensory information is another structure that detects significance and sorts the data accordingly. The mind-map is an interactive screen.
One sorting principle is that of space. I used to teach high school students writing description to decide on left-to-right, top-to-bottom, near-to-far as an ordering principle and stick to it through the paragraph so the reader could follow in imagination as though they were looking through a panning camera lens. In reality people probably jump from what is most important to them through the levels of significance until they are down to fine detail. That’s harder to write. We do it unconsciously all the time.
An fMRI scan can reveal which structures of the brain are operating and in what order. These centers are deeper than the cortex and all over the brain, not grouped as one might suppose, since their action is probably cumulative -- that is, some structures activate earlier in the sequence and then pass on the modified signal.
We think that the little hunkered-down mouse, shivering in hopes of a new hit, is “feeling” in this order: fusiform gyrus> amygdala > the limbic system which includes the autonomous nerves that exist independently of the original “sensory” and movement nerve system but connect throughout the viscera -- heart, lungs, guts. So the information comes in, the amygdala seems to be what adds the significance (fight or flight or freeze), and the limbic system supplies the emotional unconscious reaction to it. At what point does the craving get added? Curious addicts want to know. Esp. the ones waiting shivering on the street corners where they got their last hit.
Craving is both a cell and organ state, detectable by instruments and tests. But it moves quickly from the unconscious to the conscious level and from there to behavior that anyone could observe from the outside. The behavior has social impact and, since it is conscious, can respond to memes, which is to say units of interpretation and behavior that are supplied by the culture, but have evolved by the social past just as much as the person’s individual internal fight-or-flight-or-flee responses. One meme is to stigmatize, meaning exclude and attack. One meme is to cage or banish dangers. These two are so deep as to be nearly instincts. Another kind of meme, more developed, is to provide compensation and support for the individual to get past addiction. And there is a meme that says, “Tell me about it. Give me evidence.” This one has sub-sets like therapy and art or even just sharing. We hope it helps, because it is sensory but may cause reframing.
Here’s where I’m going with this. I think the jolt of an addictive chemical doesn’t have to come from some scientist’s hand reaching into the cage with a syringe or eye dropper. It can also come from the internal sensory system of the individual -- maybe because of a meme trigger. Even a “virtual” meme, which would be the case in a book or a movie or even at an art gallery. A jolt of adrenaline or serotonin et al can be powerful. Confrontive or transgressive behavior, erotic or numinous experience, even if only witnessed rather than acted out in real life -- they are all subject to the same sequence of processing in the brain and tissue.
So in those few weeks teaching in a small town high school, there was a boy who went around kicking other boys in the genitals. It’s a meme we see in the movies all the time -- sometimes presented as funny and other times as effective force. The kids, mostly country kids, reacted with avoidance and stoicism. They were used to big animals. The administration pretended they didn’t know. I turned the boy in, having just witnessed a lunch time assault. (The principal forced me to back down.) Why did the boy do it? Partly the drug of aggression. (He was an isolate, part of oil-field bar culture and a not-quite family.) But partly because he had taken in that meme and made it his own. It was on his map. It was his walled city.
Today’s “Dear Abby” had a question from a professional nanny who is increasingly discovering that some families -- probably the same ones who previously tabooed any kind of violence -- would tolerate and almost admire face-slapping, kids against adults and between sibs. No one admitted adults slapped children. (Poor families do not have nannies.) Again, a virtual culture meme in films had crossed into real life because the mild spurt of chemicals from watching such an event was much expanded and reinforced when it became a reality. The families claimed slapping. The addictive power was never addressed, but only “rules” about what was allowed -- a surface.
Rules, whether legal or imposed by nannies, only succeed when they take into account something so powerful as addictions. Addiction to violence or drugs or “falling in love” or sex (oh, what a powerful symphony of internal chemical addictions those two can be!) can be extinguished over time by re-mapping the mind, especially if the person is consciously participating in a social context that makes it easier. It’s not the rules but the perceived boundaries that can be effective. It helps to make things conscious -- staking, fencing, registering the deed. Sometimes punishment simply supplies a new addiction. (Consider the caning of upper class Brit male students that became their paraphilia for the rest of their lives.)
I do NOT like censorship of any kind. But I sure would like to take the wind out of the sails of some practices that are undeniably damaging. If treating them as unfortunate addictions rather than privileges of the powerful will spare lives and misery, why don’t we learn how to use the reinforcements of positive chemico-behavioral loops? I hope we're not waiting for some giant scientist's hand to reach into our cages with a syringe or eyedropper. We don't have to be shivering caged mice.