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 shifting sands of family, specifically: whose counts?

On the shifting sands of family, specifically: whose counts?

In her fourth year of graduate school, an acquaintance of mine realized that 1.) her project was going nowhere, 2.) she was uninterested in the particular field of developmental biology she’d been assigned, and 3.) she wanted to devote her life to anything but research.  She began dragging herself to work later and later each morning, checking out earlier and earlier in the afternoon.  In a department where most people worked from ten a.m. till eight p.m., she arrived near noon and left by four.

Her advisor — who at one of our departmental retreats gave a fifteen minute presentation describing the need for a slightly better animal model of the developmental process they were studying, then clicked forward to a slide showing a rare primate cuter than anything I even realized existed and announced his hope that his students would soon be dissecting them — was flush with grant money.  He was managing a huge team of students and post-docs.  It took months before he noticed her slothful behavior.

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Mouse lemur.  See, I told you: incredibly cute.

Eventually, though, he did.  At which point he called her into his office, closed the door, and told her sternly, “_____, I don’t even leave that early, and I have a family.”

I’d like to imagine that he meant to say he had school-aged kids.

A few months later, our department hosted a special event for women in science.  Invitations were sent to a dozen female post-docs around the country, rising stars who were interviewing for faculty positions.  They were wined & dined.  There were, as ever, several seminars.  The women met privately with various professors to discuss grant writing, laboratory management, that sort of thing.

At a luncheon for these professors-to-be hosted by the two female professors from my department, one of the guests asked, “How many female professors at Stanford have families?”

It’s a pertinent question.

The tenured professor sitting at the head of the table leaned forward and said, chidingly, “________, we all have families.”

The woman who had asked felt too embarrassed to clarify that she’d meant children and so never (officially) received an answer.  Personally, I don’t remember the percentage for the university as a whole.  Not high.

Woman_teaching_geometryI do know that neither of the female professors in my department had children.  As it happens, this absence was something that the woman who’d leaned forward to answer the question had complained about frequently to her students.  And yet she also declined to hire a promising post-doctoral candidate when she learned that the woman had a child (and sternly lectured her students, who had chatted with the woman, that they should’ve reported this bit of espionage back to her sooner so that she wouldn’t have wasted so much time considering a mother), and demoted a hard-working post-doc to effectively “research assistant” status after the woman gave birth.  That post-doc, deeply aggrieved, soon switched laboratories and went on to considerable success.  Despite her “strange” priorities.

The concept of family can shift and squirm, becoming whatever those in power want it to be.

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Of course, it’s hard to see the blight from here.

I found myself thinking about this while reading a recent New York Times article titled (on paper) “Violence in St. Louis traced to cheap Mexican heroin.”  The article is bleak, as you might expect.  The current culture of the United States values instant gratification and devalues suffering, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s been a boom in painkiller prescriptions.  But painkillers are addictive.  And painkillers are expensive.  After people acquire a taste for opiates, many switch to heroin — compared to vitamin V, it’s a bargain!

Heroin is cheaper for consumers than most pharmaceuticals, but it still yields hefty profits for the dudes at the top of the supply chain.  Hawkers on the street eke out sub-minimum wage, but they can see the big money at the top and dream the dream.  And those hefty profits have lured bad men with guns to the trade.  Feel free to read my recent post on Ioan Grillo’s Gangster Warlords here.

So, there’s a lot of money involved.  And the product is illegal, which means there are no state-sanctioned protections for that money.  Inevitably, this leads to violence.  That’s what the Times article was about.  Nothing you wouldn’t expect.

What struck me was this line:

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Mr. Slay in conversation with U.S. Sen. Clarie McCaskill (Flickr).

“These heroin addicts are daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or, in my case, a brother,” Mr. Slay [the mayor of St. Louis, whose brother was arrested for possession] told reporters last month.

It’s nice that Mr. Slay is able to distinguish these addicts from the addicts of the past, who were all robots, test-tube babies, science experiments gone wrong, and other socially-isolated monstrosities.  Or, wait.  No.  Those heroin addicts were minorities, as opposed to daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or brothers.  Which was why they deserved incarceration, as opposed to the treatment options that have been vociferously proposed recently.

And even that was never true.  The popular misconception was that most heroin users were black people.  But, even when our brutal imprisonment of drug addicts was at its peak, it’s unlikely that more than about 15% of heroin users were black.  All the statistics are vaguely suspect — it’s not easy to study criminal behavior — but most data suggest roughly equal rates of heroin abuse across ethnicities.

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Graph on the left by Timeshifter (Wikipedia).

Black users were over-represented in prisons, but that’s because our criminal justice system (from police officers to district attorneys to judges) views black people’s drug use as scarier than drug use by “these heroin addicts.”  The mothers and sons and brothers.

(It’s perhaps worth noting that, although heroin use does not seem to enrich for any particular ethnicity, it is inversely correlated with wealth.  People with money can afford prescription painkillers.)

I’m not upset that politicians are finally willing to acknowledge that drug users have families.  Or that drug users deserve our compassion and mercy.  It’s true.  They do.

They always have.