Sometimes the brain has no clue how confused it is

(From a note to a friend suffering from a mysterious and incurable vertigo and damn if the doctors could figure out why.)

A clean bill of health does not mean the problem could not be neurological. It might just mean that somewhere in your neuro network a few neurons, or maybe a mess of neurons, are out of whack. I found that studying neurology helped me to make it through the randomness of epilepsy, with all kinds of neurons out of whack, and see it as not so much a medical problem as an engineering one. Whenever the brain began perceiving things wrongly–as in your brain still being convinced you have a balance problem–I learned how to work with it and either correct my brain’s incorrect assumptions or work around them. Just coming up with fixes and work arounds. Thus I was able to function successfully (more or less) in a world full of normal brained people. The neurologist V.S. Ramachandran‘s wonderful (and wonderfully readable) book The Tell-Tale Brain, in particular, was a real help. Brain patients are always fascinating anyway, mistaking wives for hats and all, and Ramachandran has come up with some extraordinary fixes (a jerry rigged box full of mirrors, for instance) for his patients that oft times just got the brain’s sense of self  (i.e., the parts of the brain that connects the mind with the body that holds it) to realize that it was actually the problem. More often than not looking at the carefully placed mirrors so that the  brain could see the missing arm from the brain’s point of view (and not a mirrored reflection) cause the phantom pain to disappear instantly.  Your phantom vertigo–caused either by a virus or statin drugs, both done with ages ago–might be like those who suffer phantom pain in a long lost arm or leg.

Incidentally, some of the exceptional skills and capacities your specific brain has–the way you can hear and transcribe vast orchestrations in your head perfectly, as if a symphony is playing in front of you–could actually be the root if the problem. You never know. But extraordinary cognitive abilities usually lead to unplanned difficulties at some point. Which is probably the reason that not everyone has those abilities–they have been selected against through natural selection. Genius does have its downside.

Escher

I think if our late middle aged selves ever came face to face with our early twenty something selves at a party, we’d be astonished at how open minded and open to influences we had once been. In fact, we’d probably both quickly get irritated at each other and leave, denying that could ever have been or ever could be us.

If you imagine each synapse as a door to another room….

(from an email)

Brain tissue is a problem, but new brain pathways do spring up. Also, the current research seems to indicate that music thinking is a precursor to language, so it’s deeply embedded.

Well, those new synaptic pathways are also a problem for epileptics, as synapses connect in ways they shouldn’t and rerouting around synapses that should be connecting, thereby sundering the neuronal pathways to parts of the brain. It’s as if a neuron that had one hundred possible connections now has only five possible connections. If you imagine each synapse as a door to another room, suddenly ninety-five rooms have been locked shut, and everything within them is now unavailable forever. That is the impact partial seizures have on our brains, a few neurons at a time. When you realize that entire behaviors can be the result of a handful of connected neurons, it is amazing just what can be lost with even a virtually invisible seizure. A seizure is like a power surge in an electrical system, arcing currents and burning out circuits and wires and damaging machinery. As the temporal lobe seems to be much more vulnerable to this than the frontal lobe, every time an epileptic has a partial TLE seizure, some of the pathways are sundered and information is lost forever. Most we are not aware of. It can take decades to realize things are missing, though I’m sure the vast majority we have no idea we lost at all, simply because you can’t remember what you no longer remember.

Happify

(2015)

You seen this ad on Facebook? Stop Negative Thoughts, it says, in big scary letters. Sort of New Age-ishly Orwellian. “In the last decade, the world’s leading scientists created groundbreaking research on the science of happiness.” Now you know what the world’s leading scientists have been up to. “Happify has transformed this science into activities and games that train you to overcome negative thoughts, worrying, and stress.” Though you gotta wonder about those activities. Or was that a dirty thought. Maybe those are allowed.

I like my negative thoughts. Why would anyone want to have nothing but happy thoughts? You might as well be on heroin. Have these world’s leading scientists ever been stuck in a room full of people with nothing but happy thoughts? The boredom alone will kill you. Of course, all you have to do is utter some of your negative thoughts aloud and watch all the happy thoughts darken into consternated thoughts. The Groucho effect. How that elephant got into my pajamas I’ll never know.

And dirty thoughts, too.

Dirty thoughts, too.

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The brain is able to function the way a drummer lays down a complex web of polyrhythms.

(2014)

The plasticity of the brain defies belief…a woman born without a Cerebellum and not diagnosed till age 24. Which means that even though the genes that would normally be involved in cerebellum development were missing (actually they were there, they were just unable to perform this set of tasks), other genes were able to use other parts of the brain to perform the cerebellum’s tasks. The brain is able to function the way a drummer lays down a complex web of polyrhythms. That is, a drummer has two feet and two hands, but is able to create varying patterns by combining elements of the same hands and foot pedals striking in different but simultaneous patterns. And the brain can use the same neurons in varying patterns by making varying combinations of neurons…a neuron firing can fire off other neurons simultaneously so one neuron can be part of various chains of neurons performing various functions. It’s insanely complex.

I suspect this woman needs more fuel to keep at her peak alertness since a smaller brain means that neurons are firing more often and burning through the cells stores of potassium and manganese (which are what neurons use to spark) than a healthy brain. My wife has recovered remarkably from being without a heartbeat for four minutes, but her thinking fades if she fails to eat properly throughout the day. That’s because she lost a few million neurons when oxygen stopped being delivered to the brain, and since then her brain has recovered most of its former capabilities through plasticity–other neurons taking over. But those neurons are now being used more, which means they are firing more, which means they run low on the fuel–potassium and manganese, mostly–faster than they did prior to her heart stoppage.

A ten year old told me about this story. Brains are so cool, she said.

The brain without a cerebellum.

The brain without a cerebellum.

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Your Brain is not the Boss

(2005)

Searching for the Why of Buy: Researchers scan for insight into how marketing may brand the brain’s preference for products and politicians” is one of those unbelievably significant stories that got buried in the Martha Stewart news last week, even though it was on LA Times‘ Page 1, Sunday edition. Science stories, especially neurology, go nowhere in contemporary America. I think they fly in the face of the fundamental philosophy that man is the master of his own destiny, or the liberal arts anti-science attitudes, and obviously play against scripture. [This is no longer so true.]  And, although various experts downplay this in the story [also no longer true], this will no doubt begin to be used as a tool by advertisers, political consultants and parties, and by the entertainment industry. Probably some religious groups as well. And that is just in this country.

20th century totalitarianism was only made possible with the rise of mass electronic media, especially radio and to a lesser extent film.  Without radio supplying the message nationwide without the possibility of answering back, and without films providing the visual to match those messages, the propaganda upon which the mass and unquestioning obedience to the totalitarian message relied would not have been possible. Certainly not to the degree necessary to create a Nazi Germany and a Soviet Union*.

Well, those days are over.  The collective human mind of a nation is no longer waiting pliantly to be shaped by messages from a speaker or the silver screen. No one is able to gain the critical mass necessary any longer to create a totalitarian regime through the mass media with all of the other outlets for dissent and contradictory information, overwhelmingly driven by the Internet.  So a new means is necessary to get inside brain, all that subliminal stuff we used to fear from blipped messages in commercials.  And, with the rise in cognitive and neurological knowledge—which is actual hard knowledge and not as much guesswork as in traditional psychology—it will soon be possible to tailor messages so that they fit neatly into our minds, into our very consciousness.  We will react as we kick when tapped on the knee with a rubber hammer.  We will connect with a product, a candidate, a leader the same way a man can’t help staring at a glimpse of a shapely thigh, or a woman reacts to the sound of a crying baby.  It will be that simple.  And it will be in but a few years.  This will remain in the realm of science fiction for maybe a few months.  And then everything changes.  Think about it: just as Al Gore (or whoever) could never have predicted that his Internet would bring down tyrannies, Marconi would never have imagined Hitler being elected after broadcasting his speeches on the radio. Edison could not have envisioned the Nazi Party employing their own newsreel crews. (Hell, the Wright Bros would never have figured on Hitler flying from campaign stop to campaign stop via airplane…also a first.  But we are off message, as they say.)

Get ready to be read, folks.  I believe it was the Firesign Theatre who said your brain is not the boss. Your brain will belong to your boss. Well, parts of it.  At least for a generation or two, until the mind evolves beyond these cheap tricks (the mind…not the brain itself; the mind seems to be able to shape itself much faster than the actual organ containing it). Do I think we’ll have a return to totalitarianism?  Or perhaps a new sort will blossom?  No…there are still too many outlets for dissent in the electronic media, mainly via the Internet. And the totalitarian movements of the first half of the twentieth century were possible only because of the sudden existence of one-sided mass media out of a world of telegraphed news stories and village gossips. But things will certainly change.  We will buy things we didn’t know our brain knows we need.  And we will vote for people we didn’t know our brain would need to vote for.  We will do all these things because we are still a subspecies of bipedal apes–homo sapien sapien–just a couple hundred thousand years in existence, and our minds, well, don’t know any better. Literally.

* see my essay Stalin on the Phone.

I flunked out of pre-Algebra

I flunked out of pre-Algebra in high school, so they had me take it in summer school where I passed with–I kid you not–a D minus. I think it was a mercy D-minus. I have an excuse, though, because whatever thought processes are used in any math beyond basic arithmetic sets off petit mal seizures and I end up out of it and nauseous. It took me years to figure this out, though. I thought I just hated math.

My IQ test results must have been interesting. I have no idea what score (or scores) I received, but I probably did well on the language stuff, and the basic arithmetic stuff, then bottomed out when it went beyond that. I remember taking an IQ test in high school. They’d herded us all into the auditorium and handed out the test sheets. I was whizzing through the language section thinking I was smart, then made it through the adding and subtracting easily enough, but then it began to get abstract and I began to get fuzzy. I never thought much about it though. Decades later the reason dawned on me one boring day at work when I started one of those online IQ tests. Those were all the rage at the time, one of the first annoying internet trends. This was years ago. As soon as it got to the more advanced questions with shapes, etc, my brain fizzed out and I felt sick. Limbs go numb, tongue heavy, and this fuzzy thickness descends and a sort of creeping nausea comes on. Ah ha, I thought to myself, and have avoided anything like that since. Can’t believe it took me thirty years to figure that out. The exact same thing used to happen to me in math class. I was a tough kid, though, not prone to complaining and figured everyone was like that too. Never imagined it meant something was wrong. My neurologist wasn’t the least bit surprised when we discussed it. It happens, he said. With epilepsy anything can happen. Some epileptics talk to God. Some have spontaneous orgasms. Me, algebra makes me sick. Not as fun, though probably less embarrassing.

I’m very leery of physics and philosophy for the same reason. I could never make head or tail out of either and I suspect it’s because trying to think like that sets off little electro-chemical firestorms in my frontal lobe which then spread to the temporal lobe and fuck shit up nicely. Maybe not, I may just not be bright enough to figure them out, but why take chances. Life sciences I’m fine with, though. Earth sciences, linguistics. My great regret in life is not pursuing a science career, but there was no way. You need math, and all I can do is simple arithmetic.

Certain kinds of modular maps will set me off too. Not long after I made the mistake of taking that IQ test I made the mistake of trying to read the stupid arty map in the Getty’s Top of the Hill garage. Hiply modular, way modular, expensively modular. A regular map just wouldn’t do, not at the Getty. I studied it for maybe fifteen seconds and suddenly I was in a haze, a little lost, and I couldn’t remember anybody’s name. My wife got us to our seats.

Anyway, I eventually learned that if trying to read anything made me feel out of it or sick, to stop reading it immediately. Took me thirty years of epilepsy to figure that out. Some writing will set me off too. It used to be a problem. Apparently over the years I’ve learned to write in ways that doesn’t set off my epilepsy. Couldn’t tell you how, but I rarely get sick writing anymore.

But I can take all the strobe lights ya got.

Executive functions

Epileptics are used to memory loss…that’s just part of the package and to be honest you don’t really notice it that much because you don’t remember what you forgot. But as I age and the brain has burned itself out from several decades of too much electro-chemical energy and seizure meds, I’ve started losing executive functions…that is, my organizational and planning abilities. And that is driving me nuts. I used to be incredibly organized. I got things done, stuck to schedules. Was always aware of what I was supposed to do. I laid out tasks to be done each day, each week, and did them. Now suddenly things I plan on doing don’t get done, and I have no idea how they didn’t get done. It is so frustrating. If we ever get on our feet again I will get a business manager or an office manager, somebody to manage my affairs. And anyone that has known me a long, long time–and certainly anyone that used to work with me–can see the irony in that statement.

The good thing is that there is no loss in smarts or creativity. Hell, I’m a better writer than I ever was. If I could I’d write all day long. That I can do. I just can’t plan things very well.

I get asked about writing a book all the time. Well….you have to plan a book. Those long narratives just don’t happen. I could put together a helluva collection, though. In fact, I’ve been planning to for ages. But that is something else that hasn’t gotten done.

This is just ridiculous.

My wife, of course, lost much of her executive functions in 2008 when her heart stopped for five minutes. She’s back, smart as hell, funny as ever, but she can’t plan worth a damn either. In sickness as in health, man, in amnesia as in confusion. That’s us. The perfect couple. Which we are, actually.

Oh well. Life’s trajectory can be odd. If I’ve flaked on any of you lately, this is why.

p.s.: I completely forgot I’d written about this already. Now that is funny.

Tuesday something

(written a couple years ago….)

It’s Friday morning, and here’s the old people medical news, plus a ten pen cent discount. Good article in AARP magazine about the meds you take and why you can’t remember anything. Luckily for me both my anti-seizure drugs (that sounds much nicer than anti-convulsants) are listed so now I have twice the excuse for not remembering your name or what I promised or where I am. Plus the good thing is that I have twice the excuse for not remembering your name or what I promised or where I am. And here’s an article about the meds you take and why you can’t remember anything. Thank god it’s Thursday. Or Tuesday. Though it doesn’t look like Belgium. Or Weld, for that matter. And I read somewhere that some meds affect your memory.

I was going to say something.

Memory! That’s it. And you thought I couldn’t remember anything.

Tuesday Weld, looking like she forgot something.

Tuesday Weld, looking like she forgot something.