Friday, September 21, 2007

Romantic Science and the Machinery of Mind

The readings this week form a diverse assemblage of case studies (Sacks) neuroscience minutia and brain composition and chemistry (Hirstein, LeDoux) and a wrenching first-person account of brain damage accompanied with interwoven scholarly commentary (Luria). They present an interesting counterpoint of the technical and the personal, balancing science vs. the human experience, and the overarching theme that emerges from them is one of terrible loss and the struggle to regain, or adapt, the missing skills and memories. I am thinking of Jonathan I. in Anthropologist on Mars and Zasetsky as related through his journal entries in The Man With a Shattered World in particular.

Let's begin with the "scientific," rather than the romantic. Chapter 3 of LeDoux offers a highly mechanistic account of brain workings, the dendrites and the axons, and seems to reduce all function of the mind -- every thought, memory, hope, dream, desire, fear, and regret -- to the workings of component neurons, a vast and synchronized machine that somehow manages to elicit this end result, the complicated system of a human being. Is it possible that we as humans are nothing more than an immensely complex organic computer? Luria calls his field of study a "romantic science," but in LeDoux, we see only the bare logistics of it, as simple and straightforward as high-school biology class. Is this the way to define a person? We tend to romanticize our aspects of self; we imagine that something more mysterious and inexplicable is at work, even going so far as to call it a soul, an ethereal, iridescent substance apart from the factory housing of the brain, and in this sense, it is indeed a romantic idea. Can our secret crush, our deepest ambition, our childhood memories, really be only the result of a synapse spanning a neuron, firing up our internal processors? Are we walking IBM terminals? Are people so reducible to component parts? If we all have the same internal circuitry, why are we still such a mystery to ourselves?

The second half of the readings explore what happen when all this delicate wiring goes awry. In The Man With a Shattered World, we are introduced to L. Zasetsky, who was wounded in the head in the battle of Smolensk during WWII, and the consequences were catastrophic. He lost his memory, his perception of self, and his ability to read, speak, and organize his thoughts coherently -- he lost the grounding framework of language that we learn as children and never give much thought to. In this era of text-message, IM, email, we employ words more than ever; we have learned our language as a child without conscious effort, hearing it used around us. Now imagine being an adult, seeing letters as nonsense symbols, unable to speak -- locked in the damaged housing of your own head, unsure where the right side of your body is, where you are, who you are, and if you are anything else than a fatally defected version of the vast human computer; that bum laptop you had to return to Circuit City the other day since it wouldn't boot up or kept running out of battery. The idea, for most of us, is unfathomable. We take our perceptions and orientations for granted; we never really give active thought to the space we are occupying, the reflections we are having even subconsciously, where our body is, the letters we're scanning -- maybe not even reading, but we register the meaning anyway. To be so drastically dispossessed is something we can't even imagine. You are skewed, broken, an abstract painting, a fractured window. Death may even seem preferable to living so halfway.

Zasetsky, through persistent and agonizing effort, learned to recall the language which he knew before -- Russian -- and to write again, his only way of thinking, since any other thoughts would flee from his shattered mind. To be able to chronicle such disjunction, and to be unable to remember it or even to read what you have written is a sobering and profoundly moving thought. He suffered from a profound amnesia and language aphasia, and his journal is the record of these thoughts, which he cannot express to others with spoken words or even to himself. And yet, how far removed from the world is he, really? The end of Shattered World is almost unbearably sad. This man, who has had a full life and a brilliant mind utterly removed from him by the fragment of a bullet, writes, "Were it not for war, the world would have become a great place to live long ago [....] soon there will be flights to outer space -- first to the moon and then other planets. This will give us an even greater chance to enrich life with rare elements and substances that may be more plentiful on planets other than the earth. We could do this, were it not for war...."

Perhaps his amnesia is too dense for him to recall the precise form he gave these words, but it is doubtful that the sentiment ever leaves him. And he is only one of many, illustrating the brutal cost of humans destroying each other, leaving minds and lives in disarray. Zasetsky will never recover from his injuries; the trauma is permanent, leaving him encased in a cracked and splintered glass shell of a mind, struggling to express in transient words what has been taken from him forever in speech.

In Oliver Sacks' second book of case studies, An Anthropologist on Mars, we meet another extremely gifted individual who has suffered a cataclysmic loss, in The Case of the Colorblind Painter. Jonathan I. is a talented artist whose car accident has left him bereft of color and in a world that is completely black-and-white, like an old television set. Even his dreams and memories are empty of it. Like Zasetsky, he deeply mourns this loss -- he is unable to paint as he is used to, can only compose canvases in varying shades of gray -- but unlike him, Jonathan I. eventually reconciles himself to his new situation, even gaining a new appreciation for the complexities and textures of a world that lacks all color. Even when there is a chance to cure him of his achromatopia, Mr. I. refuses, having settled into a new perception that no longer requires color -- he finds the idea as alien and jarring as he first found the lack of it. What began as a disability has become a gift.

And what if it should work in the reverse -- if an inherent neurological handicap should be conceived and accepted as part of the self, to the point where its "cure" becomes the burden? The other reading in Sacks, To See or Not to See, investigates Virgil, who has been almost totally blind since the age of three and finally, at the age of forty, is given the chance to see again by utilizing cataract removal surgery. The blind man given sight is an archetypal parable, but for Virgil, it is not -- since he has been without sight for so long, he has no idea of how to formulate his world with it. He can get by with touch, shaping the contours of his world with his hands, but cannot connect it to the faulty images provided by his suddenly re-functioning optic nerves. What would be a gift to most people has become an inconvenience to him -- his brain does not process by means of sight, as he has developed so many mechanisms for functioning in its absence. We all find the idea of blindness to be naturally horrifying -- unable to watch sports, TV shows, movies, read books, see the faces of friends and family, to navigate alone, to be truly independent, to drive to the store at night to pick up milk, a movie -- to be caught in a world of blackness and shaping the world with only hands and ears. And yet, Virgil, who has been blind so long, receives a second blindness brought on by illness as a sort of benevolent gift. He is safe now, back in his comfortable sphere -- perversely, where we would be if we were temporarily blind and then regained our sight. Free of the burdensome need to connect his finger-pictures with his eye-pictures, he can at last find his way with assurance. Is this the blind man who can see better than those of us with eyes in perfect working order?

Sacks' second case studies are quite different in this book than The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. They are longer, far more in depth, cite the positions of other scientific researchers on the topic, and explain the symptoms and the lobes of the brain that are affected. Where Hat was a string of amusing, touching, and thought-provoking vignettes strung together, Mars feels more like a clinical chronicle of the affected patients and their symptoms. One thing Sacks does not lose sight of, however, is his subjects' deep and essential humanity. Reading the cognitive neuroscientific diagrams of LeDoux and Hirstein, it is easy to forget that beneath that "organic computer," there is in fact a human being with desires, hopes, fears, and dreams just like any of us, powered by the same enigmatic ether, whatever defects may have occurred in the processing. A disorder does not make us the same as that faulty laptop; we feel, we know, we are conscious and we understand pain, whether ours or theirs. And that may be, in fact, the most romantic science of all.


Madeline said...

Great post, Hilary!

"... the overarching theme that emerges from them is one of terrible loss and the struggle to regain, or adapt, the missing skills and memories."

I think you've hit the nail on the head. This theme does come up again and again in everything we've read this week (except maybe LeDoux, whose writing serves as a background to help us understand how the brain functions in the first place).

"Is it possible that we as humans are nothing more than an immensely complex organic computer?"

That is the question! I liked how LeDoux pointed out the ways in which all humans' brains are similar, shaped by common DNA such that they pretty much all look alike, and share the same physical characteristics and basic makeup. But with billions upon billions of neurons in the brain, all being constantly shaped by experience, it's easy to see how there is room for a wide variety of differences - and a wide variety of personalities.

"The second half of the readings explore what happen when all this delicate wiring goes awry."

I found that LeDoux's readings made it easier for me to understand how the "wiring" does go "awry." "Delicate" is a perfect way to describe the brain. LeDoux describes how small changes in chemical balances can result in much greater changes in a single brain circuit, which in turn is reflected in obvious changes in human behavior, emotion, etc. He makes it clear that in order for the brain to work "normally," it must be constantly kept in perfect balance. This balance involves the synchronization of a vast amount of different neurons, whose actions are kept in check by inhibitors - it's easy to see how such a system could be upset. The fact that, more often than not, the brain does work the way it is "supposed" to is a miracle in itself.

But we take this "miracle" for granted, never considering all the work that our brain does that we aren't even aware of - simply because our conscious selves are not involved in the process. And suddenly someone like Zasetsky who can't tell right from left seems strange and anomalous to us.

What Zasetsky attempts to do, in recovering his lost language and other skills, is to gain access to the implicit processes of his brain that once functioned so effortlessly, and to try to teach them how to work again. Ultimately, however, I don't think he makes any significant steps forward as far as the functioning of his brain goes. When he devotes himself to his writing, he is adapting his explicit mind to work around the deficits of the implicit. However, this would have never worked if the implicit ability to write had been impaired in him along with the ability to read and recognize objects.

The extent to which we can affect our implicit mind is very limited. We can only do so if something we are able to do with our explicit mind enables us to affect the implicit. We cannot, however, directly impact the implicit. Take for instance the case of someone with a phobia of spiders. Based on what we know from LeDoux, this particular person's brain is wired to illicit a fear response whenever a certain stimulus (in this case, the spider) is presented. This isn't a conscious reaction. For whatever reason, the person's implicit mind has decided it will issue that particular fear response whenever a spider is seen.

If this person wants to overcome his phobia, he can't simply sit down and directly alter his implicit mind. He has to reshape his implicit brain functions using whatever is available to him explicitly. Exposure therapy is commonly used for phobias. As part of this therapy, the person intentionally exposes himself again and again to the object of his fear, then uses techniques (such as relaxed breathing) to calm his anxiety. In time, the implicit brain learns that spiders are not something to fear. But this is only possible because the person used explicit brain functions to change his implicit mind.

That was somewhat of a digression, but I hope I've made some sort of point. Zasetsky could not recover certain abilities because he had no way of using his conscious mind to teach his implicit mind how to function. Additionally, even if he had been able to use his conscious mind in such a way, is it possible to regain a certain function once that area of the brain is lost? The difference between Zasetsky and the person with a phobia is that the person with a phobia is teaching his brain to illicit one response instead of another, and Zasetsky is trying to teach his brain to perform a certain function when at present it doesn't function at all.

In the case of Zasetsky and the colorblind painter, then, it's not productive to attempt to regain the lost ability, at least to a certain point. What can be done is try to turn to the parts of the brain that are still intact, and to use them to the best of their ability.

Matt N said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt N said...

Hey Hilary,
I have to admit it was interesting striking this balance between the romantic and the rote parts of our functionality. I must say as a creative person, it was hard for me to look at the body as purely a large circuit of synapse, a literal synaptic self. If nothing else, LeDoux shows us how we’ve romanticized the body. All these poetic notions of feeling with the heart, searching the soul for meaning, questing for answers and emotions when in actuality it all happens synoptically. Organically mechanic.

I really like your point: are we human computers? Think about it: we process vast amounts of data and make quick calculations about the smallest action like walking. “Don’t step on that” or “throw in more power to get up the hill,” we seem to be telling ourselves—on an even base level we have to accept what we see with our eyes. We process each “pixel” of information and create the image ourselves. That seems a lot like my Mac if you ask me. Perhaps that’s why we’re all so addicted to technology now, for we can relate. It’s a scary thought though, not being in control of our emotions. That our synapses and chemicals are what give me that flutter with my special someone or the smile that flutters about my lips when I smell fresh bread are reflexes of this system I’m part of. It’s terrifying because we really cannot control it. Sit down and try and understand ourselves. You cannot exactly hold the microscope your own head—maybe because we might find out more than we’d want to know: why we like certain things, act the way we do, understand the things we do subconsciously though. It’s exactly like The Man with a Shattered World: he was the functioning vessel that was practically hollowed out. The body goes on without us (like people in coma). This synthesis of mind and body is quite fascinating, and shows you how fragile the mind can be. And if you don’t believe that, ask Zasetsky. After being shot his body still worked, he could still walk and eat and survive but his mind was shattered. All of these processes that we internalize that reading and speaking fluidly and all the knowledge we attain over time could be reabsorbed into his mind, no matter how much work. It was almost as if it spilled out of the hole.

The true tragedy was that he was conscious of his losses. As brutal as mental illness is, the illness tends to be kind enough usher the suffering into another world where they don’t understand what’s happening to them. Yet Zasetsky was there. Fully aware that even though he was alive he’d been hollowed out. All of those years of mastering physics and language and he could barely grasp something as small as a sentence with more than three words. A lifetime of hard work and academic diligence for what? At the very least the losses seem to be compensated with some gain, like our colour-blind painter. One would think that the loss of colour to a man who can taste colour would be crippling blow; however, he was granted a new perspective. He was given a new world of twilight. Even back to the man who mistook his wife for a hat, he submerged his actions in song—his personal utopia. Even Ticcy Ray found himself quicker and more musically talented with his Tourettes.

That ties back to us being organic computers I feel. Is this a gain or a loss knowing this? To know that we function and feel synoptically and not with our minds or with our hearts. Is it possible to walk on with this knowledge and live better or should it kill our spirit and creativity in knowing that we really are lying to ourselves when we wax poetic about love and soul mates. Yet there is some great comfort in knowing we feel certain things for a reason, some sort of concrete belief in our “emotions,” if we can still call them that. It takes a lot of the question out of life: “is this right?” or “is he right for me?” And you make a good point; the most important factor is that we do feel. No matter how it happens. Just as in innate and learned stimulus responses: it’s all expressed in the same way, just catalyzed by a different process. And if nothing else we should walk away from these readings with a greater appreciation of the fortitude of our physical housing and the fragility of our mind, how the function together like a glass bowl on a pedestal: one holding up the other to shine.

Ashley Leone said...

Your initial reaction to the LeDoux reading was blunt, but quite similar to mine. Although LeDoux is probably the reading that should preface all the personal triumphant, but somber stories, I read it last. Let me say that it was a downer. After all is said and done, it does seem that we are, as you said, walking IBM terminals. When every reaction, movement, feeling or intelligible thought can be explained through synaptic processes and other scientific jargon, humans seem not so human after all.

But I can't help but defend the heart, soul and mind and whatever other intangible characteristics people can be defined with as well. In "The Man With A Shattered World" by Luria, Zazetsky had an infinitely consistent drive to get past his brain injury. I felt genuinely awful for him when he perpetually came to this realization that the right half of his body was gone. I kept envisioning descending into this horrified stupor of "MY LIFE IS OVER" because I imagine that's how I'd react. For me, I don't know if there is a way past that. I wouldn't think myself strong enough to overcome such a disability of readjustment. But Zazetsky spent twenty-five painstaking years regrouping himself and it makes me think that it cannot JUST be hormones, neurons, synapses and impulses that direct a body. All that determination shows heart and gives me the slightest idea that the self can be so much more than mere science.

I had the same feeling when I read Virgil's story ("Anthropologist on Mars", Sacks). Just think of how much you would have to learn and absorb visually, how long it would take, before you could possibly function like everyone else does. But Virgil still attempted daily to grasp his new world. I don't think it is possible that we are just immensely complex organic computers. The stories we read prove that humans have endless capabilities when motivation takes hold, and that can't be explained by simple science. Not that any of this science is simple... In fact, our brains seem so ridiculously delicate that I question how it is possible that all of us are not disabled in some sense of the word or other. A "normal" self must not exist in a world, in a body where so much can go wrong.