Saturday, September 15, 2007

Seeking the Self

It seems that we have all the ingredients to create a human or “self”, mind, soul, personality and brains, but we cannot figure out the recipe. Theories and research done by philosophers, theologians, scientists and psychologists are virtually useless separately, but we inch closer to the “self” when we view them as a whole. I think The Synaptic Self may prove to be the most productive of our reading materials thus far because of its diverse insights. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is very entertaining but after reading in the order: LeDoux, Sacks, Hirstein, I felt like LeDoux set up the necessary background information and posed important ideas that the Sacks reading supported by example. Brain Fiction sort of felt like I was conducting an experiment as I was reading because it was written in such an organized list-like manner, but I think the discussion of confabulation was significantly thought provoking.

I agree with LeDoux when he said that philosophy was the most improbable source for discovering the “self”. Descartes said that the “mental” and “physical” were two separate things, but how could this be so? The physical is a direct result of the mental; they have to be interrelated. The Sacks cases show us that any deterioration of the mind plays out in the body, with the ability to make or break a person. Some of the people have illnesses and some of the illnesses have people. For example, Witty Ticcy Ray was “fixed” after his medication. But he wasn’t himself anymore; not as quick or competitive or as “ticcy” because Tourette’s syndrome was a part of his identity. The haloperidol became a switch on his personality. This brings me back to a question LeDoux asked. Can a human lose personhood as a result of brain damage, insanity or moral transgression? What about, can a human gain personhood from said things?

In the first chapter of Brain Fiction, Hirstein explores every inch of what confabulation is. Although some diseases that cause confabulation can be some of the most awful degenerations that could happen to a person (e.g. Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia…), aren’t they intriguing? It sure is devastating when someone you know is completely altered by one of these illnesses, but do they gain a strange new personhood because of this new character they have taken on? It is clear that they have no intent to deceive you when you are told a lie, but to be so creative on the spot with a story… Frankly, I am a bit jealous of such imagination.

I think it’s strange how some diseases make you who you are, and some have nothing to do with who you are. But who are we to say that a human becomes less of a person when they transgress from a disease? Some of the most interesting people I know are the ones with tics or the ones that confabulate!


Matt N said...

I have to agree with your observation that The Synaptic Self is the most useful backbone or broth if you will (to continue to cooking metaphor) to our readings thus far. It’s brought out the flavor in all the other texts. It was given us ample ideas to appreciate the dysfunctions of the characters in our narrative texts. We can really savor the experience of their lives and mentalities because The Synaptic Self on a more personal level to help us understand the patient’s unique narrative, different from our (or a doctor’s) outside perspective.

I’ve come to see that not only do illnesses shape a person but they how they shape an existence. “The synapses involved are changed by experience,” explains LeDoux, and this is readily apparent in all our stories. People wire themselves to exist with the genetics and situation they’ve been given, simple. And when there’s a “flaw” in the genetics, a unique existence is created. We see how Witty Ticcy Ray has formed his entire life around his disorder, it has shaped his personality: impulsive, quick and spontaneous, exactly like Tourretes. Yet without that, without of the “symptoms” of his disease, as we saw when he took medication, there went his personality, decimating made Ray witty. After all of those years of forming his life and his self-image, the medication erased all that, he lost his “self” to this blank slate of a person. He couldn’t even express himself or find solace in music as he once did. So he found a medium with the medication where he would continue to be spontaneous and express himself on the weekends and be responsible and calm during the workweek. I think this really addresses your concern about the loss of “personhood” in the mentally ill—I think it took Ray realizing how much the disease had made him who and what he was to find himself. It wasn’t until it was taken away and he was “tabula rasa” of Tourette’s that we realized what kind of person that was. In the so-called death of his personhood, because of the medication, he found his life, or at least it’s value.

This concept of developing positive symptoms (“hypers” as LeDoux puts it) or new understandings on personality aids not only a patient in finding “personhood” but the doctors and nurses treating them and the readers of these narratives. It’s this idea that the synapses have reformed to help a person to survive with a disease, to keep continue their narrative, like we saw how Dr. P learned to carry himself through life on a song. In doctors and readers examining these patients’ illnesses and coping mechanisms, lessons can be gleaned without suffering first hand. These readings have really shown me how resilient the body can be and how far the mind can bend to accommodate the ill. The same goes for Korsakov’s Disease, having to constantly reformulate and reimagine the world; it shows how important flexibility and creativity are to logical, coherent thought. I’d always associated those more artistic qualities as a different recipe for my personality—there was the intellectual self and the artist. It’s enlightening to know how they need to work together to form a personal narrative.

maggie said...

I also greatly appreciated the reading so far from the Synaptic Self. Le Doux gives us a sound platform in which to think about brain function, or disfunction, and issues of self-identity presented in the other text. Even more worth wild, I believe that by reading Le Doux we understand the characters of the case studies to be more relatable than we might other wise imagine. Le Doux speaks on how all our brains function and how humans basically have the same synaptic way of finding themselves. It makes you realize that the characters of Sack's narratives may not be as off as one would originally think. We all have the same biological frame work and have the possibility of being "insane" or "normal". Everyone's basic connections and relation's of mind, body, and self are the same. We are fundamentally not that different. It seems if anything we are all somewhere on the spectrum mental illness or disability. Sacks even notes in "Witty Ticcy Ray" that once he defined Tourette's he noticed that many people around him fit the bill. It seems what deciphers people's mental stability is more how the "learned threat" or environmental factors are processed and carved into synaptic pathways.

This idea coupled with the various narratives really shows that mental illness or mental disabilities are truly deeply rooted in a person. So deep that the illness or disability shapes a person's self identity and existence. Ray for example is a musician because of his syndrome and could not live with out having the mental wiring he does. Jimmie also is an interesting and extreme case. He has a very clear idea of who he is, at least not when faced with facts that counter his perception of time. It is his mental deficiencies that that enable him to have such a sharp sense of self even if that self is not considered to be a present reality. Their "diseases" were an intrinsic part of themselves.

Really if these reading have enlightened me to something it is that mental illness/disability is not so much the result of a faltering brain, but more so a different configuration of synaptic pathways. It is just an alteration of the same basic neurological features I have, a different perspective on the world.