Thursday, July 31, 2014


The white rat released the hooded rat in the tube.

Late Fifties “white rat” experiments were sneered at in the romantic Sixties where people insisted on free will.   But even hippies had to admit that a stimulus to a living creature led to a response of some kind.  Skinner and his notorious boxes in which a cat could learn how to trip the latch have by now led to far more elaborate experiments in which rats had to cooperate with each other like Air Force guys down a missile silo, both tripping switches together.  Or, even more intriguingly, rats would actually throw the lever to free their fellow rat from a transparent tube.

Stimulus/response plus conditioning have, since those early days, been joined by a host of ingenious experiments that teach chimps to talk, cause you to buy things you don’t need, and twist your mind politically.

At first the conditioning was pretty obvious:  ring a bell when you feed the dog and pretty soon the dog slobbers when you ring the bell, even if there’s no food.  But then the SR conditioning went into the subconscious.  So much of the mind is subconscious.  FAR more than is conscious.  SR conditioning works even at the level of the knob at the top of the spine that is the earliest precursor of brain.  But it’s not conscious.  “Why do I do what I would not do?” asked Saint Paul.  (I shudder at the possibilities of just what that might have been.)  Why do I go on a diet and then find myself standing in front of the refrigerator holding half a ham sandwich without any memory of how I got there.  SR conditioning.

Reference Ranges for Blood Tests

We can see operant conditioning on an fMRI.  Neurons love to travel on the paths they know, a repertoire of connectome patterns.   And they’re not necessarily conscious.  Anyway, neurons aside, much of consciousness and thought is at least influenced and possibly the product of hormone messaging.  We know enough about testosterone to make jokes and enough about street drugs to realize how much they change behavior, but not everyone thinks about the hormones their own bodies necessarily and constantly make until they get out of whack.  Luckily, we can monitor them with frequent blood draws and chemical assays and compensate with med antagonists.  Of course, it’s a drag to test blood all the time, even if it’s just a blood glucose test at home.  If you’re rural, you’ll have to drive.  Often.  Calibration of meds is now a given of many treatments.

Certainly organs can be taught schedules and expectations:  how do you think your stomach knows to growl when you miss a meal?  But we think of the molecules themselves as being inert, just passive substances.  Now we begin to realize that our situations change our responses which change our secretions which affect our minds but not CONSCIOUSLY.  Fertile and pregnant women have such drastic changes in their body chemicals that their resulting behavior becomes obvious to themselves and others.  In the best of cases, after the baby is born or after the woman has aged past menstruation, everything returns to normal -- whatever that is -- but not always.
ANY dimension necessary for function can go rogue and threaten survival.
Maintain homeostasis!

The “solutions” of the body’s dispersal of molecules in fluid in turn affect organs.  So in finding out whether or not metformin has given me a susceptibility to lactic acidosis -- which is a change in the acid/alkali balance of the fluids of the body -- the Ph.D. nurse practitioner gave me a lot of information about kidneys reacting to the base number.  I listened closely because when I did my clinical pastoral education, a young girl was brought in who died from drinking too much lemonade on a hot day -- the acid level of her blood was beyond the level that would allow function.  They keep telling us this is the same thing happening in the world’s oceans, which are becoming too acid to allow the formation of lime-based shells on the little marine creatures.

One’s acid/alkali balance is managed unconsciously but voluntary behavior can overcome it, causing us to do harmful things.  Is making the world’s oceans more acid a voluntary behavior or an involuntary behavior?   The medical/social research people tell us that only thirty per cent or so of patients are compliant when they are told what they need to do to say healthy:  pills, diet, exercise, both public and intimate behavior, may be involved.  Why is that?  The unconscious reaches up from our internal sea and grabs us.  We are conditioned to eat our neighbor’s pie at a church social.  Want to talk about smoking?  How about a steamy Saturday night?

It goes even deeper than that.  We creatures are really colonies of one-celled animals who cooperate to keep the complex process that is “us” surviving in the world.  And now that we can detect what goes on in a cell, each little blob turns out to have preferences and prejudices about what it will take in and what it will kick out.  Fold the proteins wrong, introduce strange molecules, alter the temperature -- you might or might not survive as a whole process.  Human planetary society is the same thing only larger.  This is called “fractal,” when one little part’s pattern is repeated by the whole.

A fractal pattern

So that implies that the behavior of the people of the planet is about thirty per cent of what it ought to be.  Is there a difference between the white powder of cocaine and the white powder of sucrose or the white powder of processed wheat flour?  The Ph.D. nurse practitioner said that the warning label on metformin, which is very definite about the danger of lactic acidosis, is so scary that it makes people obsess.  Therefore the medical community tries to resist testing people’s blood.  In fact, they’d just as soon keep the problem secret because it is “very rare.”  It’s such a nuisance to have to give the test.   At least this person filled me in on what conditions are likely to trigger the condition, mostly failure to hydrate or a suddenly high demand on muscles.  You know -- cramps.

It turns out that research devised to understand rat behavior is often more useful and interesting than research on their internal organs after they are cut open.  And since death is not involved in behavior research, much of what is learned will transfer to people when experimenting on them.  It is not reassuring.  You know the one about the person who thinks he is shocking a disobedient volunteer and takes the level of supposed shock to a life-threatening intensity?  You know the one about the person sitting in a room with others when the room begins to fill with smoke?  The others know it is an experiment and pretend nothing is happening -- so the person being tested just sits there as well.

But now the experiments have gone online.  Here are two to ponder.

They don’t call it experimenting.  They call it “tweaking the algorithm.”  Such funny business can make a person paranoid.  Pretty soon we think there’s an “evil cabal” planning all this stuff.  But the real danger is the conditioning that forms all by itself, the habitual behaviors we trigger over and over until they are part of our lives, though we never really intended either them or their consequences.  The laws of convergence, emergence, synergy and the like are not human-planned events -- they are the realities of interacting forces in the physical world.

No one planned ebola, but now we’re faced with the need for some kind of monitoring and counter-meds, just as we were with the World Flu epidemic and the present World HIV  -- and global warming.  The trouble is that so much is unconscious -- but our consciousnesses can only deal with so much at one time. 

So where is your free will now, Mr. Romance?  But, hey, I'm not ready for the return of John Calvin yet.  If religion is a way of guiding one's behavior so as to maintain homeostasis for one's self, one's society and one's planet, which religion is it?  Science?  Tao?  Some hybrid?  Start from scratch?  

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