Sunday, December 28, 2014


One research revelation is coming after another -- or maybe they are realizations since the knowledge was always there and, once thought of, is perfectly clear and real.  It’s strange that we always think we’re coming to an ending of history, the line has been drawn, the sum has been added, and it’s all over.  Except it never is. You don’t even have to make an effort because it all shifts, except that it’s not the world shifts so much as we’re seeing it differently.

Being able to see into neuron cells and their hookup relationships has revealed:

1.  “Thinking” is something the whole body does all the time: it is taking in a representation of the world and reacting to it in every second.  More than that, the body and brain is changing and rearranging itself between representation and reaction in every second.  The brain connectome is like a piano concerto that chords out changing patterns as it plays.  It’s not a bump for this and a wire for that, it’s 100 synapses at once, all over the brain and back into the brain stem.

2.  The body’s 3-R process is a dance, a shifting process.  We are not aware of this most of the time.  We think we are “me,” a unified identity, with trustworthy memories of an actual past.  (Except where did I put the car keys?)

3.  Self-awareness, consciousness, is a small percentage of the body’s commotion.

4.  Words are only an even smaller percentage of consciousness/concepts and they are at the mercy of the culture that supplies the categories and some of the grammar.

5.  Writing is only a small percentage of what spoken words can express, passed through another set of filters that are about keyboards or gripping an instrument while staying in control of font size, sequences, clarity.

6.  Somehow our Western culture has come to believe that writing is a mark of superiority and that writing really well is not only the most distinctive of human characteristics but also true communication and an indication of genius.

This last assertion is hooey.  I’ll just leave it there.  For now.

Something similar is true of addiction.  The knowledge we have now is challenging our assumptions.  (I’m reading Gabor Maté’s book, In the Land of the Hungry Ghosts, about a program to help the most seriously suffering addicts in Vancouver, BC.)

1.  Not everyone gets addicted easily.  In ninety percent, or two-thirds, or some comparable majority fraction of people, depending on the drug and the circumstances, their molecular responses are not permanently changed.  For an addict, the cell membrane is changed in a way that prevents it operating as it should.  Instead of allowing the proper molecules access and producing the proper molecules in the first place, it closes the  cell entry points for the reciprocal endo-transactions that must take place.  Instead the cell membrane and cell synapses shape themselves around the exogenous, outsider, molecules.  Then they quite literally MUST have them to work.  This is not conscious.  It cannot be felt by introspection of the cells, just general malaise.  It can only be observed in behavior.  But the early results are highly rewarding: blissful.  Later this high can only be felt by increasing intake of the drug.
Maté on the left

2.  Addiction is sometimes seen as an emotional reaction to a miserable life or a need for emotional comforting, a compensation for deprivation.  That can be the original motivation for taking drugs, but soon -- in those susceptible -- the cells have changed enough that it is now a mechanical problem, just as much as if bones were broken.  The things that are supposed to make a teeny mobile ecology of membranes and molecules shift back and forth to produce thought and life are disrupted.  No amount of will power can restore them.  Proper protection of the person (shelter, food, sleep), compensating meds, support from people who understand, and the stamina to withstand withdrawal can sometimes allow people to find a new balance.  Incarceration will not work.  Methadone works if the person can stay on it.

Addiction is a physiological condition dependent on the cell's own actions that (like HIV) makes a person vulnerable to desire, meant to keep a person alive but driven to a kind of desire that will kill them, if not directly then by the neglect of other self-protections.  Maté believes that the fraction who have susceptibility were made that way just before or after birth.  Environment is crucial.

Somewhere I read a quote (I wish I’d written it down with the attribution) that suggested  the brain machinery for nurturing and the brain machinery for rage are like parenthesis, two “hands” that hold between them what we call love or attachment.  I read today that the hormone called “oxytocin” -- which we all learned from reading Herriott's “All Creatures Great and Small,” would make a resentful cow turn and care for her calf or a sow begin to make milk for her piglets -- is not ever present in reptiles.  Instead there is a precursor chemical that prompts crocodiles, for instance, to go to the birthing place, dig the hole, produce the eggs.  Then they leave.  It's humans who go "aaaww" over the babies and want to cuddle them.

"Oxytocin is a sort of moral governor, and that sense of morality comes from this ancient mechanism that modulated approach and withdrawal behavior. The precursor molecule for oxytocin, which was found in fish at least 400 million years ago, modulated approach and withdrawal behavior between males and females to facilitate sexual reproduction. So the value of sex is that you get greater genetic diversity faster. But the curse of sex, if you’re a fish, is that if this other fish gets close enough to you to fertilize you, you might instead become its lunch. What the precursor oxytocin did in the female was allow the approach of a male fish, but only when the female was ovulating.

"Oxytocin does the same thing in humans. It modulates approach and withdrawal behavior, and it does so by modulating fear responses."

One of the most moving stories in “Hungry Ghosts” is that of a pair of addicts who were educated, gifted people but hooked and therefore thrown on badd times.  He was more alcoholic.  She was into cocaine.  She became pregnant.  Somehow the baby was okay, but the mother rose and left as soon as the infant was born.  The father, who had been in and out of the relationship, then stepped in and for the first few weeks of the little girl’s life, as she was weaned carefully from her intrauterine addiction, he was the nurturer.  Something in the woman’s addiction evidently blocked the production of oxytocin, but alcoholism did not, even in this male.  At least for those several weeks -- then he went off on an alcohol binge and the baby was fostered.

So the function of oxytocin is to trigger nurturing or what I might even call cradling and in its most basic function -- before mammals -- was to allow two creatures who might otherwise compete, fight or eat each other to declare enough of a truce to unite semen with ovum.  Even in mammals there are no guarantees of protection.  In some animals, sex is agonistic enough to seem almost like fighting.  (Insert cat joke here.)  Tom cats will eat kittens.  Threatened mother mink will kill all the babies.

Sing it!

If everything in a body works as a reciprocity, then human love might be seen as occupying a place on a continuum between nurturing/cradling and raging/attacking.  So would the molecular trigger for violence be testosterone or adrenaline?  Or both?  Fear?  If in Ray Rappaport’s terms, all the reciprocities amount to the banks of the stream that is homeostasis (too much hot or cold and you die; too much food or not enough food and you die) so that likewise too much nurturing is suffocation and too much violence is traumatic wounds.  But the momentum goes forward towards survival, moving a little from one side or the other, so long as the bounds of endurance are not exceeded.  This metaphor is an account of the survival of individuals.  We tell many versions in what we call “novels,” and illuminate points on the continuum with “poems” or “songs.”

The survival of groups requires a different sort of homeostasis -- between war and peace.  Or more temperately, between economic competition and protection.  These are related to population density, slipping over to murder when there are too many people or suicide when life is too limited.

Rats in a box get addicted to pushing a lever for drugs.  Rats in a rat-friendly environment, a Rat Park, big as a human house with lots of things to do and play with, simply don’t get addicted. All mammals are pretty much like that.  Like, boys need Skate Parks; dogs need Dog Parks.  

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