Monday, February 02, 2015


Maybe when someone “went crazy” in the cave dweller days, they either got speared or left out where the saber-toothed tigers could eat them.  Then there is later evidence that people were sometimes trepaned, which meant a hole was drilled in their skull to let bad spirits out.  It was practiced as far back as Neolithic times.  Remarkably, it seems to worked or at least some persons went on living long enough for bone regrowth.

Then there were the dark times when everything was seen in terms of witchcraft and crazy people were destroyed, even burned at the stake.  Later lunatics were criminalized and chained in dungeons.  Even into modern times, troublesome people like children, the demented and very old people are hidden away in attics or closets.  Then there were the insane asylums that sometimes only pretended to be hospitals and were in fact warehouses.  

When pills were discovered that would restrain people from within, that meant to some people that nutcases could be safely put on the streets.  (Well, it was safe for the other people.) The theory was that they would be housed in home-like residences, but those places never materialized and then even the pills got to be too much trouble and expense.  There are no saber-toothed tigers now so the abandoned just prey on each other.

That’s one cynical way of looking at the problem of people who will not conform and behave, people who are in the throes of fantasy, people who just can’t get happy no matter how much they punish themselves.

But this is a very dark point of view.  In fact, the compassionate and the curious keep struggling to find out more about how the human mind works and what we can do to make things better.  Freud and his colleagues felt that talking would help and it does.  A whole body of theory grew up around that idea.  Freud had started out studying neurology, but he was a little early: there were no fMRI scanners, electron microscopes, and the array of other ways we now have of seeing what goes on in the brain and neurological and chemical responses throughout the body.

“Clever Hans” was a horse who could count.  Someone in the audience he attracted would suggest “three” or “five” and the handler would ask Hans to rap his hoof on the ground that number of times.  He was never wrong.  People thought that the handler was signaling him somehow.  When the handler was not there, Hans couldn’t count, but no one could figure out what the signals were.  The horse could see something that they couldn’t.

I'm not crazy -- I'm high energy.

Recently someone had the idea of setting a video camera so that it could detect very subtle color changes and, exaggerate them, speed them up.  Trained on a face, it vividly detected the red coming and going as the person’s thought varied between blushing and blanching, or maybe just in response to temperatures in the room, but often because of circulation changes due to thoughts.   This is probably the sort of thing that Clever Hans could see -- and his handler wouldn’t even have to know he was signaling.

A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. (Remember we ARE animals.)  This is one source of “empathy,” meaning the ability to feel what the other person -- animal -- is feeling.  These cells can be found in some primates, but they appear to be a recent and valuable evolution that supports cooperation and sensitivity to each other in order to help each other.  This is a source of “memes” that support cultural evolution -- we learn from others by imitating them, feeling what they feel.  Wordless communication.

We seem to have a natural impulse to do what the others are doing, but only if we think they are like us.  The more we see different people as being like us, the more we are opened up to growth and achievement by knowing what they know.  Also, seeing others as having the same emotions and goals that we do is the foundation of the arts.  Acting, dance, music, and even painting (if you watch the painter), depend upon you mirroring within yourself what they are doing.

As scientists are better able to detect the wiring harness patterns in the brain and the molecular content of the blood flow, they are better able to connect those physical electrochemical facts to emotional domains.  Psychologists are now reconsidering the old medical model of diagnosis according to labels -- the idea that each illness has a cause like a microbe carried by a vector.  Now it seems promising to analyze the “software” of “apps” in the brain.  There appear to be five master systems -- so far.  Each has a characteristic connectome that meshes with “felt meanings” in the conscious mind.

Negative Valence Systems
Positive Valence Systems
Cognitive Systems
Systems for Social Processes
Arousal/Modulatory Systems

This point of view accepts the interaction of the body with its “thoughts” and therefore can be treated with both meds from outside and “meds” that are endo-molecules the body generates in response to thoughts and experiences.  Psychotherapy, groups, and something like outdoor adventures or religious experiences can all generate internal chemicals.

The genome, complex as it is, has been deciphered into molecular code.  Yet many little ifs, ands and buts have now been detected.  Some of them are due to “methylation” which are in a wraparound “epigenome” that can turn individual genes on and off so lastingly that the influence can last for generations.  A little epi-signal and the code means something entirely different than it did.  (Not.)  See?

Environment is capable of changing the epigenome, particularly through eating (the first studies detected a second generation response to famine), but also through climate, occupation and -- theoretically at least -- the composition of the actual land: what isotopes of mineral elements, what altitude and therefore ultraviolet dosage, what alkali/acid balance, what animals, what air-gas proportions, what rhythms of day and night.

On the one hand, human beings are confined inside their skins with no access to what is outside except through the sensory mechanisms of organs and detective cells within the skin, muscle, and bone.  But on the other hand, we have access to each other, eye-to-eye, skin-to-skin.  We are amazingly able to create new “apps” to address new situations or just a change of point of view.  Persons are processes, constantly adapting, presenting new sides of themselves to each other.

Science itself, psychology itself, demonstrates this in the slow but inevitable shift in response to evidence.  We look at each other, even the ones who are painful to see, and we take note.  If we have empathy for them, we give them what they need, even if it’s only the time to listen.
"Then everything changed. . ."

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