On drugs and drug laws.

On drugs and drug laws.

Humans have been ingesting dimethyltryptamine, a potent psychedelic, for over a thousand years.  We’ve been using cocaine even longer.  Marijuana was used medicinally in China thousands of years ago; soon after, celebrants in India began to ingest it as a psychedelic to potentiate religious experience.  Mind-altering experiences were so prized in ancient Greece that prophets huffed narcotic vapors.

The Oracle of Delphi.

Our ancestors began intentionally brewing alcohol nearly 10,000 years ago.  We’ve been using opium as a sacrament – not just a painkiller – for perhaps 3,000 years.

Drugs are very important to our species. 

Not all drug use is good, obviously.  Narcotics like opium, heroin, oxycontin, et al., can latch onto a person’s mind and compel continued use at any cost.  Somebody told me recently, “I knew I was gonna get caught.  I’m on probation, they drug test me all the time.  I mean, I was thinking about it while I was cutting it up: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me.  I was thinking about it while I was loading the syringe: if I do this, they’re gonna catch me. I thought I’d only have to do a week, though, and that seemed okay. Which is insane! I know it’s insane, but that’s what I was thinking.  I guess I was wrong. I’ve been here three weeks and I still haven’t had my court date.”

Even fish, if they get hooked, will risk their lives for another dose.  When human parents are snared by addiction, they endanger their children. The man whom I quoted above? He’d managed to stay sober for almost seven months, but relapsed the night of his son’s second birthday. His wife had to break down the bathroom door. After the ER, they brought him straight to jail.

In class together, we read Josh Rathkamp’s “Single Father,” in which the narrator fears that his diabetes will cause him to fall out and be unable to help his daughter.  Several parents recognized their own dread. Then we read “Daddy Wake Up” by local poet Travis Combs. Combs loves his son, but, like a diabetic, a person suffering from opiate addiction might find himself paralyzed, “a mass of mess.”


Travis Combs

I hear the sound of his little feet running

down the hall, I look to make sure the door

is locked, I pull the plunger back, I hear

his joy as he yells, I’m superman.

       I do the shot

                      thinking What if?

       What if I fall out, what if he finds

me here, what if his little fingers have to

press 911, something we all teach them to do.

The fear in his voice when he says Daddy

won’t get up.  The pain in his heart when

he shakes me, yelling daddy wake up, daddy

wake up.

              Then I do wake, the needle

still in my arm, I feel his tears on my chest

as he lays there hugging me, crying, daddy

wake up.

Psychedelic drugs are safer.  They tend to be non-addictive. Most are relatively non-toxic. And a single dose can initiate self-discovery that buoys a person’s spirits for six months or more.

But psychedelic drugs are tightly controlled.  Despite thousands of research findings to the contrary, they’re classified by the U.S. government as having no accepted medical treatment use.  Possession is a felony.

Perhaps this shouldn’t seem surprising.  Spiritual drug use has been prized by our ancestors for thousands of years, but most cultures closely regulated which people would be privileged with access to those sacraments.  Depending on the time and place, only wealthy people would be allowed to use drugs, or only people born to a certain caste, or only men.

In the United States, cocaine was rightfully recognized as a wonder drug for decades, but then a cadre of white supremacist politicians claimed that cocaine would turn black men into monsters.  Prohibition was mediated through racism.

It’s true that cocaine is dangerous – both psychologically and physiologically – if you’re ingesting the purified compound.  But coca tea is no more dangerous than earl grey.  Indeed, if you decided to purify caffeine from tea leaves and snort it, you might die.

Marijuana was also legal in the United States until the racist propaganda machine started spinning stories about what would happen when people from Mexico smoked it.

And even now, wealthy people throughout the Bay Area blithely use psychedelic drugs.  Authors like Ayelet Waldman and Michael Pollan openly publicize their experiences flaunting the law.

Yet when people in Denver supported a ballot initiative that reduces the legal risk of possessing psilocybin-containing mushrooms, Pollan wrote an editorial denouncing the initiative.  Yes, there is some nuance; Pollan states that

No one should ever be arrested or go to jail for the possession or cultivation of any kind of mushroom – it would be disingenuous for me to say otherwise, since I have possessed, used and grown psilocybin myself.

And he claims, oddly, that the ballot initiative would be merely symbolic, citing as evidence the fact that only 11 psilocybin cases have been prosecuted in the last three years, out of approximately 150 arrests.  I personally have never been prosecuted for a crime, nor even arrested, but I’ve been told that it’s a very traumatic experience.  I’ve heard this from very reliable sources, men who have been through all sorts of horrific trauma in addition to their arrests. 

For all the people subject to this trauma – not to mention everyone more deterred than Pollan himself by the current legal status of this medicine – the initiative would have very meaningful consequences.

Michael Pollan. Photograph by Sage Ross on Wikipedia.

Instead, Pollan centers his cautionary argument on the idea that psilocybin “is not for everyone.

That idea is true enough, as far as things go.  Some people probably shouldn’t use psilocybin.  Some people feel traumatized by the bad experiences they go through while under its influence.  But I would argue that arrest is more traumatizing, and that the very illegality of the substance increases the likelihood that someone will go through a bad trip.

And the regulations seem absurd compared to how we treat other drugs.  For instance, someone with a predisposition to develop schizophrenia could be pushed closer to this condition by ingesting psilocybin.  The drug can hurt someone who uses it.  But alcohol, which is totally legal for most U.S. citizens over 21 years of age to purchase and consume, causes a huge amount of harm even to people who abstain.  Alcohol is the psychoactive drug that causes the most harm to others. 

Graph made by Tesseract2 on Wikimedia.

It’s unlikely that our sitting Supreme Court justices would have sexually assaulted anyone while using psilocybin for a meditative journey of self-discovery.  Indeed, that sort of experience might have led someone to develop much more empathetic political views. 

Because alcohol consumption is so likely to lead to poor decision-making and violence, it’s illegal for people on probation to drink.  Many have to check in at “blow & go” breathalyzer stations once or twice a day, which is really tough for people whose drivers’ licenses are suspended.  But, still, we passed this law to keep other people safe.

Or consider antibiotics.  Every time you use antibiotics, you make the world a little worse.  With every dose, there’s a risk that the bacteria you’re hoping to kill off will instead evolve to resist them.

And yet, even though using antibiotics hurts everybody else, they’re regulated much less than other drugs.  If you take psilocybin, it’s not going to hurt me at all.  But if you take an antibiotic – or, worse, if you decide to manufacture huge quantities of antibiotics and them inject 80% of them into cows, pigs, and chickens, all of whom are being raised in fetid conditions – you’re making it much more likely that I will die.

In the past, somebody might get scratched by a cat … and die.  Any infection could turn septic and kill you.

In the future, a currently-treatable infection might kill me.  Or kill my children.

Because we’ve allowed people to be so cavalier with antibiotics, medical professionals expect that within a generation, more people will die from bacterial infections than from cancer.

Obviously, this terrifies me.

But we’re not stopping the meat industry from using them.  We’re not using our legal system to protect all of humanity from their misuse.  Instead we’ve outlawed psilocybin, a compound that could usher you through a spiritual experience that helps you become a kinder, happier person.

Is that reasonable?

On happiness and mind control.

On happiness and mind control.

Many of us would like to feel happier.

In the United States, people are having sex less often.  And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs. 

Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside.  The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.

The suicide rate has been rising.

From Dan Diamond’s Forbes blog post
Stopping The Growing Risk Of Suicide: How You Can Help.”

It might seem as though we don’t know how to make people happier.  But, actually, we do.

Now, I know that I’ve written previously with bad medical advice, such as the suggestion that intentionally infecting yourself with the brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii could make you happier.  This parasite boosts dopamine levels in your brain (dopamine is a neurotransmitter that conveys feelings of pleasure and mirth) and makes you feel bolder (in controlled laboratory experiments, infected mice show less stress when making risky decisions, and observational data suggests the same to be true for infected humans).  You also might become more attractive (infected rodents have more sex, and portrait photographs of infected human men are perceived as more dominant and masculine).

There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course.  Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats.  Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectuallyToxoplasma forms cysts in your brain.  It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia.  It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised.  And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.

My advice today is different.  No feces required! 

And I’m not suggesting anything illegal.  I mentioned, above, that people in the United States take a lot of drugs.  Several of these boost dopamine levels in your brain.  Cocaine, for instance, is a “dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.

But cocaine has a nasty side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too high.  And jail is not a happy place.

Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain.  Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain.  But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.

The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure.  For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain.  So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up.  If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over.  Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex.  They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse.  From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:

If animals with electrodes in the hypothalamus were run for 24 hours or 48 hours consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance permitted.

Setup for Olds’s experiment.

Perhaps I should have warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks.  Even if you have the tools needed to drill into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to boost your mood just to die of dehydration.

After all, happiness might have some purpose.  There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy.  After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.

When an activity makes us feel happy, we’re likely to do it again.  That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service.  Or get addicted to drugs.

And it’s how brain stimulation could be used for mind control.

If you show me a syringe, I’ll feel nervous.  I don’t particularly like needles.  But if you display that same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of actually shooting up.  The men in my poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word “needle” written in a poem.

For months or years, needles presaged a sudden flush of pleasure.  That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the needles themselves.

If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing.  Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.

Still, if you used deep brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that person would soon enjoy it.

Bittermelon. Image by [cipher] in Tokyo, Japan on Wikimedia.

Or you could make someone fall in love. 

Far more effective than any witch’s potion, that.  Each time your quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage.  The beloved’s presence will soon be associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure.  And that sensation – stretched out for long enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love is.

Of course, it probably sounds like I’m joking.  You wouldn’t really send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall in love with somebody new … right?

Fifty years passed between the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a love potion.

In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.”  Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality.  Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.

Moan and Heath’s paper is surprisingly salacious:

After about 20 min of such interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration.  Active intercourse followed during which she had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense.  He became very excited at this and suggested that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative.  In this position he often paused to delay orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience.  Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab, romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated.  Subsequently, he expressed how much he had enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near future.

The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls.  Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.

But it isn’t.

The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.

Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.

Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:

In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation, which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull. 

Fehr had sixty-three research subjects available.  They played a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner.  In the first round, there were no sanctions from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in question could protest and punish the subject. 

There were two opposing forces at play.  A cultural norm for sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much as possible for oneself.  Fehr and his people found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal cortex.  When the stimulation increased the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree, while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was diminished.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel any difference.  When they were asked about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the selfishness of their behavior had changed. 

Apparently, you can fiddle with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated being any the wiser.

The human brain evolved to create elaborate narratives that rationalize our own actions.  As far as our consciousness is concerned, there’s no difference between telling a just so story about a decision we made un-aided, versus explaining a “choice” that we were guided toward by external current.

Frank believes that Heath was a brilliant doctor who sincerely wanted to help patients. 

When bioethicist Carl Elliott reviewed The Pleasure Shock for the New York Review of Books, however, he pointed out that even – perhaps especially – brilliant doctors who sincerely want to help patients can stumble into rampantly unethical behavior.

The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman.  Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died.  Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).

Elliott concludes that:

Heath was a physician in love with his ideas. 

Psychiatry has seen many men like this.  Heath’s contemporaries include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent evangelist.

These men may well have started with the best of intentions.  But in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table.  All it takes is a powerful researcher with a surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of vulnerable subjects.

Heath had them all.

It’s true that using an electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably make you feel happier.  By way of contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.

Sometimes it’s good to feel bad, though.

As Elliott reminds us, a lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research.  A lot of vulnerable people are still treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues are snared by our country’s criminal justice system.  And the torments that we dole upon non-human animals are even worse.

Consider this passage from Frans De Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug, discussing empathy:

[University of Chicago researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar.  Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked up, wriggling in distress. 

Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so.  Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously. 

Then Bartal challenged her motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a trapped companion.  The free rat often rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more than delicious food.

Is it possible that these rats liberated their companions for companionship?  While one rat is locked up, the other has no chance to play, mate, or groom.  Do they just want to make contact?  While the original study failed to address this question, a different study created a situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further interaction.  That they still did so confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social. 

Bartal believes it is emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress, which spurs them into action. 

Conversely, when Bartal gave her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat.  They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers. 

The rats became insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping. 

You could feel happier.  We know enough to be able to reach into your mind and change it.  A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.

But should we do it?  Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the world instead?

On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only


When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On attentiveness and names.

On attentiveness and names.

When a scientist first discovers a function for a gene, that scientist gets to name it.  Sometimes these names seem reasonable enough: I worked with a hematologist who did a study to identify proteins involved in apoptosis, which means roughly “programmed cell death” or “cellular suicide,” and so each gene wound up named “Requiem 3”, “Requiem 4,” etc.

Fruit fly geneticists tend to give their discoveries more creative names than other scientists.  There’s the gene “cheap date” – if a fruit fly is missing that gene, it will – ha ha – be unable to process ethanol and  so quickly passes out.  Another genetic mutation produced male flies that would court either males or females, and so this was known for over a decade as “fruity,” until another scientist decided that universal courtship could be less offensively described by the term “fruitless,” because clearly any mating-like activity that does not lead to progeny is a waste of time.

Yup, some gene names were bad.  One person’s idea of a joke might seem to somebody else like a mean-spirited reference to the wider world’s power dynamics.

Other gene names were bad not out of malice, but because humor at the expense of a fruit fly doesn’t make as many people laugh when a human child is dying. 

A gene that produces a somewhat spiky-shaped protein was named after Sonic Hedgehog.  It seemed funny at the time!  See?  The protein is spiky, the video game character has spiky hair, and … get it?  You get it, right?

 Okay, so this Sonic Hedgehog protein doesn’t look all that much like Sonic the Hedgehog.  But spend enough time staring at something like protein crystal structures and you’ll experience pareidolia, like seeing animal shapes in irregularly dappled plaster ceilings, or anthropomorphic gods amongst the twinklings of the stars.

Well, the Sonic Hedgehog protein establishes a concentration gradient that allows cells to recognize their spatial position in a developing body.  If a human fetus comes to term despite having a mutation in the Sonic Hedgehog gene (genetic abnormalities will often result in a miscarriage, but not always), the resulting child will have severe brain defects.

And then a doctor has to explain, “Your baby is suffering because of a Sonic Hedgehog mutation.”

And so, in 2006, geneticists capitulated to medical doctors. No more fanciful names for genes that might lie at the root of human health problems … which, because humans and fruit flies are actually pretty similar, means most genes.  Patients would now be told about a mutation in the SHH gene instead of Sonic Hedgehog, or a mutation in the LFNG gene instead of Lunatic Fringe.

Words have power, after all.

Some people are more attentive to their environments than others.  During evolutionary time, this trait was obviously good for humanity.  If your tribe is traveling through a hostile environment, it helps to have somebody around who is paying attention to the world.  A friend who’s primed to notice encroaching threats like a hungry lion about to leap out and attack.  Maybe we should take a different path.  Which, yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

Other people are particularly inattentive to their surroundings, so it’s easy for them to ignore the world and focus instead on one single problem.  During evolutionary time, this trait was surely good for humanity, too.  It’s helpful to have somebody on the lookout for threats that might eat you, obviously.  But it’s also helpful to have somebody who might discover a way of using dried grass to weave baskets.  A way of cooking mud into pottery that could carry or store water.

Image by Herb Roe on Wikimedia Commons.

Neurodiversity is a virtue in and of itself.  Over the millennia, the world has offered our species many challenges.  Populations that were sufficiently diverse that some members were good at each of a variety of tasks were most likely to flourish.  A cooperative species like termites or Homo sapiens benefits from specialization among its members.

Left to our their own devices, people would naturally fall asleep and wake up at different times.  Some brains are primed to work best in the early morning; others work best late at night.  And that’s good.  It reduces the amount of time that a tribe would be susceptible to attack, everyone asleep.

But in the modern world, we occasionally forget to feel grateful for the diversity that allowed our species to thrive.  The high school students whose brains are primed for late-night thinking drag themselves through morning classes like zombies.  They’ll be midway through first period before the sun rises.  Their teachers glance derisively at their slumped and scruffy forms and call them lazy.

Eventually, humans invented language.  Much later, we invented writing.  Much, much later, we invented the printing press, and then written words became so widely accessible that most humans could benefit from learning how to read.

Of course, reading is easier for people who are inattentive to their environment.

If I had been born earlier in human evolution, I totally would have been lion bait.  When I’m reading a book, or am deep in thought, the rest of the world melts away.  When I’m typing at home, K or the kids sometimes shout my name several times before I even realize that I’m being spoken to. 

People like me, or this kid at a library, totally would’ve been lion bait.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t born way back then.  Instead I was born into a world where inattentive people – the people best able to block out the world and instead focus on their own thoughts – are the most likely to find academic success.  People like me become medical doctors.  Then we get to name the world’s various conditions and maladies.

And so, when it came time to categorize the sort of person who is especially attentive to the world, people like me (who obviously thought that our way of being is the best way to be) referred to those others as having an attention deficit disorder.

Identifying those people’s awareness of their environs might sound like a virtue; instead, we castigated those people’s difficulty at ignoring the world.

I’ve never read the Percy Jackson books, but I’m glad that they exist, if only for passages like this (from The Lightning Thief):

“And the ADHD – you’re impulsive, can’t sit still in the classroom.  That’s your battlefield reflexes.  In a real fight, they’d keep you alive.  As for the attention problems, that’s because you see too much, Percy, not too little.”

Childhood trauma can cause symptoms that medical doctors term “attention deficit disorder.”  Which makes sense – if you’ve gone through an experience where your environs were threatening, you should learn to be more aware of your environment.  It should become more difficult to ignore a world that has proven itself to be dangerous.

Even for somebody with my type of brain, it’s going to be easier to sit outside and read a book when there’s a squirrel nearby than if there’s a prowling grizzly fifteen meters away.

Some children have to learn early on that daddy’s sometimes a grizzly.  And if it can happen to him, why not other grown-ups, too?  Best to stay on high alert around the teacher.  She’s trying to get you absorbed in these number tables … but what if that’s a trap?

Certain drugs can narrow a person’s perception of the world.  They act like blinders, chemicals like nicotine, ritalin, and amphetamines, both un-methylated (sold under the trade name Adderall) and methylated (a CH3 group attached to the amine moiety of Adderall will slow its degradation by CYP2D6 enzymes in the liver, increasing the duration of its effects).

Note to non-chemists: the methylated analogue of Adderall goes by several names, including “ice,” “shard,” and “crystal meth.”  Perhaps you’ve heard of it — this compound played a key role in the television show Breaking Bad.  And it’s very similar to the stuff prescribed to eight year olds.  Feel free to glance at the chemical structures, below.

In poetry class last week, a man who has cycled in and out of jail several times during the few years I’ve taught there – who I’d said “hello” to on the outside just a few weeks earlier when he rode his bicycle past the high school runners and me – plonked himself down in the squeaky plastic hair next to mine.

I groaned.

“I know, I know,” he said.  “But I might be out on Monday.”

“What happened?”

“Failed a urine screen.  But I was doing good.  Out for six months, and they were screening me like all the time, I only failed three of them.”

“With … ?”

“Meth,” he said, nodding.  “But I wasn’t hitting it bad, this time.  I know I look like I lost some weight, dropped from 230 down to 205, but that’s just cause it was hard getting enough to eat.  Wasn’t like last time.  I don’t know if you remember, like, just how gaunt my whole face looked when they brought me in.  But, man, it’s just … as soon as I step outside this place, my anxiety shoots through the roof … “

This is apparently a common phenomenon.  When we incarcerate people, we carve away so much of their experience of the world.  Inside the jail, there is a set routine.  Somebody is often barking orders, telling people exactly what to do.  There aren’t even many colors to be distracted by, just the white-painted concrete walls, the faded orange of inmate scrubs, the dull tan CO shirts and dark brown pants.

The world in there is bleak, which means there are very few choices to make.  Will you sit and try to listen to the TV?  (The screen is visible from three or four of the twelve cells, but not from the others.)  Try, against all odds, to read a book?  Or add your shouting voice to the din, trying to have a conversation (there’s no weather, so instead the fall-back topic is speculating what’s going to be served for dinner)?

After spending time locked up, a person’s ability to navigate the wider world atrophies, the same as your leg would if you spent months with it bundled up in a cast.

And these are people whom we should be helping to learn how to navigate the world better.

“ … so I vape a lot, outside.  I step out of this place, that’s the first thing I do, suck down a cigarette.  And, every now and then … “

He feels physically pained, being so attentive to his surroundings.  And so he doses himself with chemicals that let him ignore the world as well as I can.

And, yes.  He grew up with an abusive stepfather.  This led to his acting squirrelly in school.  And so, at ten years old, medical doctors began dosing him with powerful stimulants.

Meanwhile, our man dutifully internalized the thought that he had a personal failing.  The doctors referred to his hyper-vigilance as an attention deficit disorder.

Words have power.

We can’t know now, after all the hurt we’ve piled on him, but think: where might our man be if he’d learned to think of his attentiveness as a virtue?

On the water-fueled car.

On the water-fueled car.

“I heard there was, like, a car that runs on water … “

“Dude, no, there’ve been, like, six of them.  But oil companies bought all the patents.”

A lot of the people who attend my poetry class in jail believe in freaky conspiracy theories.  Somebody started telling me that the plots of various Berenstain Bears books are different from when he was a child, which is evidence that the universe bifurcated and that he’s now trapped in an alternate timeline from the path he was on before …

old hat(New printings of some Berenstain Bears books really are different.  Take Old Hat New Hat, a charming story about shopping and satisfaction: after the protagonist realizes that he prefers the old, beat-up hat he already owns to any of the newer, fancier models, a harried salesperson reacts with a mix of disgust and disbelieve.  This scene has been excised from the board book version that you could buy today.  Can’t have anything that tarnishes the joy of consumerism!)

I’ve written about conspiracy theories previously, but I think it’s worth re-iterating, in the interest of fairness, that the men in jail are correct when they assume that vast numbers of people are “breathing together” against them.  Politicians, judges, police, corporate CEOs and more have cooperated to build a world in which men like my students are locked away.  Not too long ago, it would have been fairly easy for them to carve out a meaningful existence, but advances in automation, the ease of international shipping, and changes to tax policy have dismantled the opportunities of the past.

Which means that I often find myself seriously debating misinterpretations of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” theory (described midway through my essay, “Ashes”), or Biblical prophecies, or Jung-like burblings of the collective unconsciousness.

Or, last week, the existence of water cars.

In 2012, government officials from Pakistan announced that a local scientist had invented a process for using water as fuel.  At the time, I was still running a webcomic – one week’s Evil Dave vs. Regular Dave focused on news of the invention.


When scientists argue that a water-powered car can’t exist, they typically reference the Second Law of Thermodynamics (also discussed in “Ashes”).  The Second Law asserts that extremely unlikely events occur so rarely that you can safely assume their probability to be zero.

If something is disallowed by the Second Law, there’s nothing actually preventing it from happening.  For an oversimplified example, imagine there are 10 molecules of a gas randomly whizzing about inside a box.  The Second Law says that all 10 will never be traveling in the exact same direction at the same time.  If they were, you’d get energy from nothing.  They might all strike the north-facing wall at the same time, causing the box to move, instead of an equal number hitting the northern and southern facing walls.

But, just like flipping eight coins and seeing them all land heads, sometimes the above scenario will occur.  It violates the Second Law, and it can happen.  Perpetual motion machines can exist.  They are just very, very rare.  (Imagine a fraction where the denominator is a one followed by as many zeros as you could write before you die.  That number will be bigger than the chance of a water-fueled car working for even several seconds.)

When chemists talk about fuel, they think about diagrams that look roughly like this:


The y axis on this graph is energy, and the x axis is mostly meaningless – here it’s labeled “reaction coordinate,” but you wouldn’t be so far off if you just think of it as time.

For a gasoline powered car, the term “reactants” refers to octane and oxygen.  Combined, these have a higher amount of energy stored in their chemical bonds than an equivalent mass of the “products,” carbon dioxide and water, so you can release energy through combustion.  The released energy moves your car forward.

And there’s a hill in the middle.  This is generally called the “activation barrier” of the reaction.  Basically, the universe thinks it’s a good idea to turn octane and oxygen into CO2 and H2O … but the universe is lazy.  Left to its own devices, it can’t be bothered.  Which is good – because this reaction has a high activation barrier, we rarely explode while refueling at the gas station.

Your car uses a battery to provide the energy needed to start this process, after which the energy of the first reaction can be used to activate the next.  The net result is that you’re soon cruising the highway with nary a care, dribbling water from your tailpipe, pumping carbon into the air.

(Your car also uses a “catalyst” – this component doesn’t change how much energy you’ll extract per molecule of octane, but it lowers the height of the activation barrier, which makes it easier for the car to start.  Maybe you’ve heard the term “cold fusion.”  If we could harness a reaction combining hydrogen molecules to form helium, that would be a great source of power.  Hydrogen fusion is what our sun uses.  This reaction chucks out a lot of energy and has non-toxic byproducts.

But the “cold” part of “cold fusion” refers to the fact that, without a catalyst, this reaction has an extremely steep activation barrier.  It works on the sun because hydrogen molecules are crammed together at high temperature and pressure.  Something like millions of degrees.  I personally get all sweaty and miserable at 80 degrees, and am liable to burn myself when futzing about near an oven at 500 degrees … I’d prefer not to drive a 1,000,000 degree hydrogen-fusion-powered automobile.)

Seriously, I would not want this to be happening beneath the hood of the family ride.

With any fuel source, you can guess at its workings by comparing the energy of its inputs and outputs.  Octane and oxygen have high chemical energies, carbon dioxide and water have lower energies, so that’s why your car goes forward.  Our planet, too, can be viewed as a simple machine.  High frequency (blue-ish) light streams toward us from the sun, then something happens here that increases the order of molecules on Earth, after which we release a bunch of low-frequency (red-ish) light.

(We release low-frequency “infrared” light as body heat – night vision goggles work by detecting this.)

Our planet is an order-creating machine fueled by changing the color of photons from the sun.

A water-fueled car is impractical because other molecules that contain hydrogen and oxygen have higher chemical energy than an equivalent mass of water.  There’s no energy available for you to siphon away into movement.

If you were worried that major oil companies are conspiring against you by hiding the existence of water-fueled cars, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  But don’t let yourself get too complacent, because these companies really are conspiring against you.  They’re trying to starve your children.

On neural plasticity.

On neural plasticity.

After discussing several forms of parasitic mind control during our poetry class in the local jail, somebody asked – somebody always asks – whether there’s some sort of parasite that makes people want to use drugs.

A few guys looked down at the table and nodded.  People are in there for a variety of reasons – domestic violence, burglary, DWIs, dealing or possession – but no matter the charge, many of the guys in jail were dealing with substance use that got out of hand.

I gave the same answer as always.

“Drugs do it on their own.  Chemicals can remodel your brain to make you want them again.  Like cocaine, it’s a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, so if something makes you happy after coke, it’ll make you more happy than it would’ve … but your body responds by down-regulating the receptors, and then you’re stuck feeling less happy all the time unless you take it again.”


But it’s not all bleak.  Drug addiction takes hold because the brain is plastic – our minds change and we want that rush again, potentially to the exclusion of all else – but neural plasticity allows people to recover, too.  Dopamine receptor levels fall during periods of excessive drug use, but they’ll rebound during sobriety … and this rebound should attenuate the desire to use again.

Repeated exposure to drugs depletes the brain’s dopamine receptors, which are critical for one’s ability to experience pleasure and reward. From Wikimedia Commons.

(Unfortunately, the lecturers in our area’s court-mandated rehab courses have been telling people that, “After you take methamphetamines, it takes eight years of sobriety before your dopamine receptor levels come back.”  This sounds wrong to me – I don’t know the half-life of dopamine receptors, but the timing of sensitization and de-sensitization in conditions like bipolar disorder and antidepressant-induced mania suggests that it’s on the order of a month or so, not years – and it’s definitely unhelpful to say.  If you’re trying to help someone quit taking drugs, you want their goals to be feasible.

A former co-teacher tattooed “Day By Day” on his arm because quitting forever seemed impossible, but getting through one more day without drugs sounded like something he could do.  He’s now weathered five years of single days.  But if I felt like garbage and an instructor told me, “You’ll only feel like this for eight more years!”, I’d give up immediately.)

I don’t really understand Scientology – all my current knowledge comes from a single episode of South Park and a few minutes spent skimming through the Wikipedia article – but I was intrigued by the practice of using “E-meters” to measure a person’s cognitive development in the faith.  It made me wonder whether the sort of person who was interested in biofeedback and numerical metrics – somebody who tracks steps with a Fitbit or the gasoline saved on a Prius console – could use self-administered polygraphs for cognitive behavioral therapy.

An E-meter.

It’s well-known that polygraphs are fallible – you can fail them when you’re telling the truth, and you can learn to pass them while lying – but I imagine that the easiest ways to pass a polygraph is to convince yourself that whatever you’re saying is true.  There many physiological correlates to dishonesty – skin voltage, electroencephalogram patterns, eye movement, vocal tones – and by convincing yourself to earnestly believe whatever you happen to be saying, you could pass any of them.

Because you can cheat, U.S. courts generally don’t trust the results of lie detector tests.  In the pursuit of justice, cheating would be bad.  But as self-administered therapy, cheating is the whole point.  You cheat at lying until the lie becomes the truth.

“I like myself and I am worthy of love and self-respect.”

Rig up your polygraph and say something like that until the machine stops dinging you.  Do it daily.  Your brain is plastic, designed to learn and change.  Your words will become true.

On mind control versus body control

On mind control versus body control

In jail last week, we found ourselves discussing mind control.  Ants that haul infected comrades away from the colony – otherwise, the zombie will climb above the colony before a Cordyceps fruiting body bursts from its spine, raining spores down onto everyone below, causing them all to die.

Photo by Bernard Dupont on Flickr.

Several parasites, including Toxoplasma gondii, are known to change behaviors by infecting the brain.  I’ve written about Toxo and the possibility of using cat shit as a nutritional supplement previously – this parasite seems to make its victims happier (it secretes a rate-limiting enzyme for dopamine synthesis), braver, and more attractive.

I told the guys that I used to think mind control was super-terrifying – suddenly your choices are not quite your own! – but I’ve since realized that body control is even more terrifying.

We’d thought that each fungus that makes ants act funny was taking over their brains.  But we were wrong.  The Ophiocordyceps fungus is not controlling the brains of its victims – instead, the fungus spreads through the body and connects directly to muscle fibers.  The fungus leaves an ant’s brain intact but takes away its choices, contracting muscles to make the ant do its bidding while the poor creature can only gaze in horror at what it’s being forced to do.

If a zombie master corrupts your brain and forces you to obey, at least you won’t be there to watch.  Far worse to be trapped behind the window of your eyes, unable to control the actions that your shell is taking in the world.

A sense of free will is so important to our well-being that human brains seem to include modules that graft a perception of volition onto our reflex actions.  Because it takes so long for messages to be relayed to the central processing unit of our brains and back outward to our limbs, our bodies often act before we’ve had a chance to consciously think about what we’re doing.  Our actions typically begin a few hundred milliseconds before we subjectively experience a decision.

Then, the brain’s storytelling function kicks into gear – we explain to ourselves why we chose to do the thing that we’ve already begun doing.

If something goes wrong at that stage, we feel awful.  People report that their bodies have “gone rogue.”  If you use a targeted magnetic pulse to sway a right-handed person to do a simple task left-handed, that person probably won’t notice anything amiss.  The storytelling part of our brain hardly cares what we do – it can come up with a compelling rationalization for almost any action.

“Well, I chose to use my left hand because … “

But if you use a targeted magnetic pulse to incapacitate the brain’s internal storyteller?  The sensation apparently feels like demonic possession.  Our own choices are nightmarish when severed from a story.