Friday, November 24, 2017

The ethics of brain disorder.

An argument can be made that who you are and what you experience are constructs of your brain. What you see and hear and taste and smell and feel, while coming from your sensory organs, are processed, and "interpreted" in the brain. They are merely information that is processed by your brain and result in what could perhaps be called an arbitrary reality. And your brain can be fooled: optical illusions and tactile illusions are just two ways for you to demonstrate that your brain creates your reality.

So if you take the case, even if just for a moment, that your brain creates your reality - you can start to delve into the possibility that everything could (should?) be questioned. Your view of yourself, for sure - are you REALLY that way? Definitely your view of others and life should be questioned. What about your past? You already have several examples of how things didn't really go down as you remember. And it is becoming increasingly obvious that eye witness testimony is flawed, sometimes fatally. And what about your future? That you even think that your future exists (good or bad) demonstrates the wondrous ability of our brain to fabricate a reality.

One pitfall we all have (yes, even you) is thinking that you can distinguish what is real from what isn't. Have you ever awoken from a dream where you and your significant fought? And you were still upset late into the day with said person until you realized that the reason for your ire couldn't possibly be real - I mean, when have you ever had a pet dragon that they hated, much less secretly barbecued for your friends?

So where do ethics come in? One notion that deserves scrutiny is that we are fundamentally good and that when we do something bad, we did it on purpose. You might consider that our entire justice (punishment?) system is based on this notion. That we have an insanity defense is proof that the accepted perception is that 'normally' we can distinguish right from wrong, unless something is off with our brain.

If you are up for wading into the contradictions that may be starting to tingle your spidey-sense, I recommend reading David Eagleman's book - Incognito. In this book, Eagleman relates a story in which a man's penchant for child pornography is solely the result of his brain tumor. That a complex behavior could be the result of brain disfunction is astounding, and begs further inquiry into the behavioral effects of brain abnormality. Especially when you consider that the brain can be trained to do anything. ANYTHING. For further reading on the amazing ability of the brain to learn and relearn (even seemingly impossible) things, check out The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.

If the brain creates a reality that includes how we interact with the world - is our prison system really the best way to habilitate a human being? This is a question that is so mired in "yeah, buts..." that it is vastly difficult to hold a reasonable discourse on it. But we can (should?) start to question how we think about people who have committed heinous crimes. Like Aaron Hernandez.

Aaron committed suicide at 27 years of age while he was in jail for murder, and he had C.T.E., Chronic traumatic encephalopathy - a persistent or long-standing neurological (brain) disorder induced by trauma. Hernandez was an embarrassment to his former team and they refunded thousands of fans who had purchased his jersey. The hidden communication behind all this could be interpreted as "We didn't realize how bad a human being this individual was and we are sorry".

How does one get C.T.E. and did this disease play a role in his criminal behavior? C.T.E. is caused by repeated trauma to the head, as is common amongst veterans or athletes such as boxers, WWE fighters and NFL players.

Figure from: Cortical maps and modern phrenology
Brain. 2008;131(8):2227-2233. doi:10.1093/brain/awn158
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms
of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License
which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, 
and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is 
properly cited.

Much of what we know about the brain is through studies that reported functional or behavioral deficits after localized trauma. We know that trauma to the fore-brain can impact higher order functions such as decision-making and social cognition. People with damage to the amygdala are more likely to make decisions that do not take emotional processing into account.

Since we know that damage to the brain can result in personality changes that can have dire consequences, shouldn't we be putting attention on how best to eliminate those factors that can induce the worst kind of behavior in people?

Wait, what? Did I just say out loud that certain activities (like perhaps tackle football) may actually result in human beings committing heinous acts? There is a lot about the brain that we don't know, yet when there is compelling evidence that some activity has horrible consequences (don't get me started on global warming) shouldn't we take action to eliminate the risk?

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The untwining of death.

Last Thursday was the Feast of All Souls (as a practicing Catholic those words don't sound at all as gruesome as seeing them on the screen), and as a member of the St. James Cathedral Choir, I had the profound privilege of singing Durufle's Requiem Mass that night. This mass is an opportunity to mourn those we have lost, to meditate on our mortality and to look death in the face.

Death is apparently a part of life, a natural progression, inevitable... and yet I would venture to say that there is nothing in life that instills more fear (but then, I like public speaking).

Fear of our own death for sure. And the scary part of our own demise is the unknown, the uncertainty that comes with death. As a catholic, I recite the Nicene Creed each week. And as a conscious catholic, I always stumble over the line:

... and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Do I? As far as I can tell, death is the ultimate adventure, the great unknown. What really happens after we die? You don't know! (kudos if you get the reference) I know I'm supposed to believe something, but REALLY? There is no way to know. Until it happens, and then I suspect I won't care anymore anyway. And while being afraid of something that will eventually happen, regardless of how much I try to avoid it, is a possible way to spend my time - it seems like a rather sad existence.

I think the harder part of death is when someone else dies. Because we have to continue living life without them. My daughter is a freshman at the University of Utah studying Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering. The same majors as the young man who was randomly murdered there this past week. When I got the campus alert, I had a visceral reaction until I got her on the phone. Death of someone young or violent death is the most crushing. And as a mother, I'm terrified of the thought of losing one of my off-spring. My parents too. The closer it gets to the end of their lives, the more fear I have of losing them.

My father-in-law died two years ago. Les was the first of our parents to succumb, to go, to pass, to die. It's hard to even call it like it is. It was heart-breaking to be with my spouse's sorrow in losing his Dad, and in my own sorrow, but the hardest part to be with how heart-wrenching it was for my mother-in-law to lose her love/partner/soul-mate. My mind balks at merely having to imagine, much less be, in that position.

Let's talk about that. Hebbian Theory very simply states that "neurons that fire together, wire together". Practically speaking, that means that when two things are associated together, they become intertwined. My daughter's first word was "kitty". A word that was spoken whenever the four legged furry being was present. She associated that sound with that phenomenon. It's what we call learning, associative learning to be precise.

When we associate with another human being, our neural pathways become intertwined. That emotion with that experience of eating at that place with that person... they all become intertwined. Even the routine that happens as you start to leave a place, especially when you have been leaving places for many many years together. A moment that sticks with me from Les's funeral was my mother-in-law turning around after the service to make sure Les was with her.

That funeral was such a surprise to me! It was so impactful, both as a Catholic and as a Scientist. Rituals are the bomb!!! And Fr. Tom was brilliant. He reminded us that our experience of Les continues to happen, regardless of whether or not his body is there. Everything that is associated with Les is still associated with Les which is both the bitter and the sweet part of losing a loved one.

If you subscribe to the notion, as I do, that the brain generates EVERYTHING, then your experience of another person resides solely within your skull. Add to that another thought experiment, think of someone you love, or someone you hate... if you really inspect it, you love not them, but who you are and how you feel when you are with them.

While listening to Fr. Tom speak, I intentionally started to remember the things I loved about Les, like when he first met me and told me that he was a contact. Yes, by aliens. Our mutual love of science and space was one of the things that has him continue to be present for me.