Archive for the ‘you asked!’ Category

If I’m to be honest with myself, and sometimes I feel like I might, I’d have to admit I’m fairly impressive. Really. When I consider the things I can do, I am forced to concede I can do a lot – and if I really think about it, it turns out that the abilities with which the human body has been endowed are awesome… In the original meaning of the term, like, awe-inspiring; though it’s all pretty rad, too.

Before I get into why exactly I am thinking like this, I might as well address the inevitable here: Yes, I’ve been a blogging recluse lately, and no, I am not proud of it. I’d like to reconcile that fact, starting now. My Grand Re-Opening feat will be a series, so I shall be forced to continue whether I like it or not. The topic with which I will attempt to leap back in, reclaim my writing, and try to engage those who have given up on me, is one I believe addresses the core of many of my most-encountered questions… What are we? What are we supposed to do? What am I supposed to be doing? What’s the reason I do all these other things, even when I don’t really want to?

A little background should always come first. One must develop the characters of a story before they become believable; one must create their history and illustrate their environment and the pressures therein. We must begin to understand the world from their perspectives, and in light of both their strengths and limitations. This can be especially hard when one is part of the story, when the teller and the tellee are the same and yet so different, when the body and mind would weave such extraordinarily different tales…

When I get to thinking about what it is all animals have in common, well, I get bored. I’ve noticed my students do too, by the subtle nodding and bobbing of heads and the fog which glazes their eyes as I discuss blastulas and homeobox genes and lack of rigid cell walls. Not that these things aren’t fascinating in their own right, just that I want to know MORE. Because I am human, and I feel special, and I’d like some scientific evidence to the fact. I know I can do things other creatures cannot. Both what makes me unique and what makes me care is that I can actively seek understanding of these things.

So I will start where things become relatable* (incidentally, how is this not a word?? as in, ‘something that can be related to’) and universally – I’m taking a liberty here – thought-provoking. Mammals. We know we are mammals because, in addition to having coined that term to describe ourselves, we have genes for hair, a brain part to regulate homeostasis, bones in our ears, and glands to sweat and produce milk (mammary glands!! ..there’s a discussion in here about nipples on men, but I’ll leave that to you). Other than that, mammals are to all appearances an interestingly varied set of multicellular critters. But we know we belong with them, rather than in some other group of organisms, not just because we can classify and categorize and hypothesize – we know because we just feel it. I guarantee you could squash a toy chihuahua in a way not dissimilar to a ginormous cockroach, but under most circumstances I can also guarantee only one of the aforementioned situations makes you feel morally corrupt. Further, I might also surmise that if you had said cockroach in a tank with a plant, you’d feel poorly about killing one of these two creatures for lack of food and water, but mostly indifferent to the other. So again, we can presume which one is more like us in this subjective way.

And herein lies the trouble in answering questions about ourselves: Articulation, vocabulary, and separation of bottom lines from the tugs of our emotions. How do we, and should we, disengage from ourselves enough to objectively analyze ourselves? During the beginning of class each semester, I can reliably and predictably draw gasps of horror from even the most stoic of self-proclaimed uninterested, texting co-eds present only in body and because of state requirements simply by implying I might place a kitten in a blender. However, even those who might beforehand have declared titles of debating champion, logic king, or witty cynic find themselves in the ultimate conundrum when challenged to convince me why I shouldn’t hit “frappe” even for the tiniest fraction of a second. Tongues become twisted, hands are wrung, faces fraught. It is urgent, and crucial, and yet they cannot convey the point their body feels so strongly. It’s still a cat, I argue calmly, the parts are still all there. Do you know how hard it is to break a cell? With due diligence I could even arrange them back into the pattern from which the pieces came. And so on.

And it becomes apparent; the study of life is no more clear than the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description… and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it” When it comes to purpose, and intent, and the junction between choice and insight and instinct, we have many feelings and few concrete concepts. Many facts, many opinions, and yet the inability to justify one with the other. The best, and only really, place to start is by laying a foundation of historical context and functional understanding and building upon that to create an idea of what might be right. For us, here and now, and in light of the fact we are a fleeting intermediate in some larger picture, the details of which are gloriously unavailable for our scrutiny.

Primates are alike because we are all adapted to climb trees. No joke. But yes, I said “climb.” No mention is made here of descent. Many humans, quite obviously, have somewhat lost the capacity to actually get down from those trees intact. What we lack in physical prowess, however, is the tradeoff we made for increased mental aptitude and the upright stance which made our hands available for things like advanced communication and making clever gadgets. But climbing is important. It is one of the first clues to some of our most innate reflexes and attributes, as we shall see…

A friend and I met for an afternoon chat; we saw one another in the parking lot and together headed toward our destination. We talked as we walked, slowly tracing our way to the awaiting patio. At some point along our journey, we simultaneously noticed that we had begun to drift apart. We exchanged a look and each of us gazed down, both wondering what had caused us to subconsciously choose different paths. Interestingly, she had unwittingly followed a curvy sidewalk carved into the landscaped lawn. I, on the other hand, had continued to march straight toward the destination, inadvertently pursuing the shortest distance between two points.

We giggled, as girls do, sparking a lively discussion regarding our innate differences – which, of course, resulted in an appreciation of our overall similarities. I realized the acquaintances who become my close friends mimic the phenomenon we experienced while walking: They are the people who confidently and independently follow their own path, yet arrive at the same destination. (I’m certain there’s an Ayn Rand quote in here somewhere.)

We do what we do. And we do what we want. (Caveat: What some people want is to do what they think others want them to do, or expect them to do.) But why is this? Are mere chemicals responsible for free will? What pathways give us individuality, from whence stems innate motivation (or lack thereof); can a change in chemicals change innate responses? Are our subconscious decisions predetermined? Are they dynamic in space, time, and circumstance? Can we purposely choose against them? Are we able to permanently alter our seemingly inherent characteristics?

I could go on and on with these questions; unfortunately, not I nor anyone else really has an answer. We have many clues, glimpses, hopes; but alas, nothing concrete, nothing that holds true uniformly or ubiquitously for the entire human population. Interestingly, while there are many drugs that affect personality, decision-making, and preference, these compounds are often among the least understood; in fact, the mechanisms of action for entire classes of mood-altering substances remain wholly elusive. Doctors prescribe anti-depressants based solely upon the appearance of effectiveness, with no understanding whatsoever of how or why they work. There do seem to be some consistent biochemical messengers that pop up again and again in studies of personality, attitude, choice, inclination, and other cognitive-based traits; these compounds are inevitably influenced by the drugs we find effective at eliciting responses in these areas (though, oddly, often we only notice this ex post facto).

I’m enthralled by these compounds. Not only are their direct effects (those we’ve discovered so far, anyway) amazing, but there seems no bodily pathway immune from some indirect effect of their action. They serve as a dynamic reminder that our bodies run not on a series of one-way linear biochemical reactions, but that we function as a network of interconnected, amenable reactions – and because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, even the most innocuous compounds are vital to our optimal functioning.

Monoamine neurotransmitters appear to play an important role in linking our conscious behaviors with our subconscious existence. These include the lately in vogue compounds serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and their relatives. Just knowing which compounds are involved seems only the tip of the iceberg, however: Not only does the manufacture, quantity, location, and concentration of the chemical in question matter, but so does the characteristics of the corresponding receptor proteins as well as their ratios and interactions with seemingly unrelated pathways along the route. It seems that dopamine, in particular, has a functional role in our decision-making processes, all of which probably have a subconscious component.

Do yourself a google for the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and read all about how our major body systems are intertwined and interdependent. I especially enjoy learning about how my gut has a mind of its own – complete with literal mood swings and impressionable responses to my bodily conditions and those substances I choose to expose my innards to.

Fascinatingly, these compounds that make us individuals also seem to play a role in social interactions and cohesion. I am currently reading The Wisdom of Crowds, given to me by a former student (and ongoing friend); I cannot help but suspect maybe culture is actually the average of our individuality, beautiful and wondrous exactly by its projection of the best of our collective biochemical tendencies, exactly capturing the perfection of our imperfections.