On storytelling and social justice.

On storytelling and social justice.

Recently, Dave Eggers joined four local panelists (Lindsey Badger, Michelle Brekke, Max Smith, and me) to discuss writing and incarceration, especially the role of storytelling as a force for social justice.

When I discuss poetry with people in jail, we often get sidetracked into conversations about outer space, pharmacology, neuroscience … as it happens, the latter is particularly relevant to any discussion of storytelling.  Because your consciousness has evolved to create stories.

When you choose to do something, like picking up a pen, the first thing that happens is that, unconsciously, your brain will send signals toward your muscles.  You will begin to act.  Then, once you are already in motion, your consciousness will be informed of your decision.  Thats when your brain generates a story to explain why you chose to pick up the pen.

First, we act, then we concoct a narrative.

A human consciousness will typically create a story explaining why we chose to do something even if it wasn’t really our choice.  If a researcher sways someone’s action through the use of transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation, most people will still offer up a coherent explanation explaining why they chose to act that way.

Personally, I think this sort of research into free will and mind control is fascinating.  I could continue rattling off more facts.  By reading this essay, you might learn something.  But it probably wouldn’t change how you act.  Knowledge doesn’t spur behavior, emotions do.

In Mama’s Last Hug, Frans de Waal writes that:

The Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reported on a patient, Elliot, with ventromedial frontal lobe damage.  While Elliott was articulate and intellectually sound, witty even, he had become emotionally flat, showing no hint of affect in many hours of conversation. 

Elliott was never sad, impatient, angry, or frustrated.  This lack of emotion seemed to paralyze his decision making.  It might take him all afternoon to make up his mind about where and what to eat, or half an hour to decide on an appointment or the color of his pen. 

Damasio and his team tested Elliott in all sorts of ways.  Even though his reasoning capacities seemed perfectly fine, he had trouble sticking with a task and especially reaching a conclusion.  As Damasio summarized: “The defect appeared to set in at the late stages of reasoning, close to or at the point at which choice making or response selection must occur.” 

Elliott himself, after a session in which he had carefully reviewed all options, said “And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”

After all, there is no way to prove, mathematically, how to be good.  Your intellect will invariably fall short.  Only by trusting your emotions can you decide that one course of action is better than another.

And that is the value of stories.

Eggers, who devotes much of his time to teaching young people, says that you could provide them with huge quantities of information – about mass incarceration in the U.S., or how we mistreat undocumented workers, or Muslim Americans after 9 / 11 – and it wouldn’t change anything.  “But,” Eggers said, “if you give them even a 15-page first-person narrative, they become activists.

By way of example, my co-panelists discussed several local stories that could be presented in a variety of ways.  For instance, the kid who recently died in our local jail because the jailors stopped providing his medication after his eighteenth birthday.  I’ve written about his ordeal previously; Max Smith had become close friends with him while they were confined in a small cell together; Lindsey Badger met with his mother after he died to preserve stories about his life that depict him more accurately than the terse denunciation he received from our local newspaper.

Michelle Brekke added that, although she hadn’t read the article about this young man, she knows that when she was sentenced, “If you were to look me up online, on a database or whatever, you would see that I’m a drug addict, you would see that I’m an intravenous drug user, you would see that I’m a drug dealer, but today, and even then,  that’s not who I am.  I’m actually a very kind, loving, caring person, who has had a really crappy way of life shoved onto me, so that’s the way of life I chose to take.  I’m an overcomer, and I’ve been able to overcome that.

Luckily I was on the inside when I got arrested because I’m sure that the things that were said on social media, there couldn’t have been anything good.

During her time in prison, Brekke began to write, which allowed her to tell the whole truth.  She refused to let other people dictate the narrative of her life.  “To be able to tell your story, or to hear somebody else’s story, you get the beginning, the middle, and the now.

The last prompt from the audience was, “I’m curious about each of the panelists’ perspectives on how writers can hurt readers in a way that’s inspiring for people to act.”

Smith and Brekke answered for the panel (perhaps you could argue that Eggers has already provided an answer in his books – by intermixing levity with pain you can create stories that are sufficiently fun that they’ll reach an audience, but still convey a spark of indignation that compels people to work to change the world.  After two hundred pages of comic antics in The Parade, Eggers concludes with an incandescent flash of horror).

Smith said, “Unfortunately for many of the people who are incarcerated, just being true to their experience hurts readers.  It’s a horrible, horrible experience that is hard to imagine if you haven’t been exposed to it.” 

And Brekke added, “I would want a reader to feel my own hurt, through the writing.  To not feel sorry for me, but to be able to feel the truth and the pain that I once felt.

The written word does not accomplish much if a tale is too unpalatable to reach its audience, but when the sorrows come from a place a deep integrity, or when the hurt is leavened with a touch of humor, readers might trust an author enough to continue. 

And I am grateful that so many deeply committed people are willing to share hard stories in a way we can appreciate.  Because we’ll need the emotional wallop of powerful stories to compel us to change the world.

Featured image: Max ribbing me. From a recording of the panel created by Jeremy Hogan.

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 Ann Leckie’s ‘The Raven Tower.’

On Ann Leckie’s ‘The Raven Tower.’

At the beginning of Genesis, God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

“Creation” by Suus Wansink on Flickr.

In her magisterial new novel The Raven Tower, Ann Leckie continues with this simple premise: a god is an entity whose words are true.

A god might say, “The sky is green.”  Well, personally I remember it being blue, but I am not a god.  Within the world of The Raven Tower, after the god announces that the sky is green, the sky will become green.  If the god is sufficiently powerful, that is.  If the god is too weak, then the sky will stay blue, which means the statement is not true, which means that the thing who said “The sky is green” is not a god.  It was a god, sure, but now it’s dead.

Poof!

And so the deities learn to be very cautious with their language, enumerating cases and provisions with the precision of a contemporary lawyer drafting contractual agreements (like the many “individual arbitration” agreements that you’ve no doubt assented to, which allow corporations to strip away your legal rights as a citizen of this country.  But, hey, I’m not trying to judge – I have signed those lousy documents, too.  It’s difficult to navigate the modern world without stumbling across them).

A careless sentence could doom a god.

But if a god were sufficiently powerful, it could say anything, trusting that its words would reshape the fabric of the universe.  And so the gods yearn to become stronger — for their own safety in addition to all the other reasons that people seek power.

In The Raven Tower, the only way for gods to gain strength is through human faith.  When a human prays or conducts a ritual sacrifice, a deity grows stronger.  But human attention is finite (which is true in our own world, too, as demonstrated so painfully by our attention-sapping telephones and our attention-monopolizing president).

Image from svgsilh.com.

And so, like pre-monopoly corporations vying for market share, the gods battle.  By conquering vast kingdoms, a dominant god could receive the prayers of more people, allowing it to grow even stronger … and so be able to speak more freely, inured from the risk that it will not have enough power to make its statements true.

If you haven’t yet read The Raven Tower, you should.  The theological underpinnings are brilliant, the characters compelling, and the plot so craftily constructed that both my spouse and I stayed awake much, much too late while reading it.

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In The Raven Tower, only human faith feeds gods.  The rest of the natural world is both treated with reverence – after all, that bird, or rock, or snake might be a god – and yet also objectified.  There is little difference between a bird and a rock, either of which might provide a fitting receptacle for a god but neither of which can consciously pray to empower a god.

Image by Stephencdickson on Wikimedia Commons.

Although our own world hosts several species that communicate in ways that resemble human language, in The Raven Tower the boundary between human and non-human is absolute.  Within The Raven Tower, this distinction feels totally sensible – after all, that entire world was conjured through Ann Leckie’s assiduous use of human language.

But many people mistakenly believe that they are living in that fantasy world.

In the recent philosophical treatise Thinking and Being, for example, Irad Kimhi attempts to describe what is special about thought, particularly thoughts expressed in a metaphorical language like English, German, or Greek.  (Kimhi neglects mathematical languages, which is at times unfortunate.  I’ve written previously about how hard it is to translate certain concepts from mathematics into metaphorical languages like we speak with, and Kimhi fills many pages attempting to precisely the concept of “compliments” from set theory, which you could probably understand within moments by glancing at a Wikipedia page.)

Kimhi does use English assiduously, but I’m dubious that a metaphorical language was the optimal tool for the task he set himself.  And his approach was further undermined by flawed assumptions.  Kimhi begins with a “Law of Contradiction,” in which he asserts, following Aristotle, that it is impossible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be, and that no one can simultaneously believe a thing to be and not to be.

Maybe these assumptions seemed reasonable during the time of Aristotle, but we now know that they are false.

Many research findings in quantum mechanics have shown that it is possible for a thing simultaneously to be and not to be.  An electron can have both up spin and down spin at the same moment, even though these two spin states are mutually exclusive (the states are “absolute compliments” in the terminology of set theory).  This seemingly contradictory state of both being and not being is what allows quantum computing to solve certain types of problems much faster than standard computers.

And, as a rebuttal for the psychological formulation, we have the case of free will.  Our brains, which generate consciousness, are composed of ordinary matter.  Ordinary matter evolves through time according to a set of known, predictable rules.  If the matter composing your brain was non-destructively scanned at sufficient resolution, your future behavior could be predicted.  Accurate prediction would demonstrate that you do not have free will.

And yet it feels impossible not to believe in the existence of free will.  After all, we make decisions.  I perceive myself to be choosing the words that I type.

I sincerely, simultaneously believe that humans both do and do not have free will.  And I assume that most other scientists who have pondered this question hold the same pair of seemingly contradictory beliefs.

The “Law of Contradiction” is not a great assumption to begin with.  Kimhi also objectifies nearly all conscious life upon our planet:

The consciousness of one’s thinking must involve the identification of its syncategorematic difference, and hence is essentially tied up with the use of language.

A human thinker is also a determinable being.  This book presents us with the task of trying to understand our being, the being of human beings, as that of determinable thinkers.

The Raven Tower is a fantasy novel.  Within that world, it was reasonable that there would be a sharp border separating humans from all other animals.  There are also warring gods, magical spells, and sacred objects like a spear that never misses or an amulet that makes people invisible.

But Kimhi purports to be writing about our world.

In Mama’s Last Hug, biologist Frans de Waal discusses many more instances of human thinkers brazenly touting their uniqueness.  If I jabbed a sharp piece of metal through your cheek, it would hurt.  But many humans claimed that this wouldn’t hurt a fish. 

The fish will bleed.  And writhe.  Its body will produce stress hormones.  But humans claimed that the fish was not actually in pain.

They were wrong.

Image by Catherine Matassa.

de Waal writes that:

The consensus view is now that fish do feel pain.

Readers may well ask why it has taken so long to reach this conclusion, but a parallel case is even more baffling.  For the longest time, science felt the same about human babies.  Infants were considered sub-human organisms that produced “random sounds,” smiles simply as a result of “gas,” and couldn’t feel pain. 

Serious scientists conducted torturous experiments on human infants with needle pricks, hot and cold water, and head restraints, to make the point that they feel nothing.  The babies’ reactions were considered emotion-free reflexes.  As a result, doctors routinely hurt infants (such as during circumcision or invasive surgery) without the benefit of pain-killing anesthesia.  They only gave them curare, a muscle relaxant, which conveniently kept the infants from resisting what was being done to them. 

Only in the 1980s did medical procedures change, when it was revealed that babies have a full-blown pain response with grimacing and crying.  Today we read about these experiments with disbelief.  One wonders if their pain response couldn’t have been noticed earlier!

Scientific skepticism about pain applies not just to animals, therefore, but to any organism that fails to talk.  It is as if science pays attention to feelings only if they come with an explicit verbal statement, such as “I felt a sharp pain when you did that!”  The importance we attach to language is just ridiculous.  It has given us more than a century of agnosticism with regard to wordless pain and consciousness.

As a parent, I found it extremely difficult to read the lecture de Waal cites, David Chamberlain’s “Babies Don’t Feel Pain: A Century of Denial in Medicine.”

From this lecture, I also learned that I was probably circumcised without anesthesia as a newborn.  Luckily, I don’t remember this procedure, but some people do.  Chamberlain describes several such patients, and, with my own kids, I too have been surprised by how commonly they’ve remembered and asked about things that happened before they had learned to talk.

Vaccination is painful, too, but there’s a difference – vaccination has a clear medical benefit, both for the individual and a community.  Our children have been fully vaccinated for their ages.  They cried for a moment, but we comforted them right away.

But we didn’t subject them to any elective surgical procedures, anesthesia or no.

In our world, even creatures that don’t speak with metaphorical language have feelings.

But Leckie does include a bridge between the world of The Raven Tower and our own.  Although language does not re-shape reality, words can create empathy.  We validate other lives as meaningful when we listen to their stories. 

The narrator of The Raven Tower chooses to speak in the second person to a character in the book, a man who was born with a body that did not match his mind.  Although human thinkers have not always recognized this truth, he too has a story worth sharing.

On fish (and their similarities to us).

On fish (and their similarities to us).

I had a pet leopard gecko when I was growing up – he lived with me from fourth grade until I graduated from high school.  After that, my father took care of him, but I’d visit several times a year.  He would sit on my chest, occasionally skittering up to hide between my chin & neck, or buried in my underarm, while I lay on my back reading a book.

MRLizard.JPG
In all his glory (circa 2002).

He was a good friend to me, Mr. Lizard was (it took me almost an entire year to name him, and this was the name all that cogitation produced).  We had similar interests, mostly involving lying down in warm places to think.  I assume he was thinking.  But I have no idea what he was thinking about.  He rarely spoke – only twice that I remember – and, when he did, he made an irate chirping sound.  We didn’t have a great way to communicate.

But we, as humans, are moving closer to being able to understand some of the thoughts of other animals.  With some species, this is manageable for laypeople.  Dogs, for instance, co-evolved with humans (during which time both their & our brains shrunk as we sloughed certain tasks off onto the others).  Most humans are pretty good at guessing what a dog is thinking, especially when the dog’s thoughts involve wanting the human to scoop kibble or go on a walk.

fishFish, though?  I find fish inscrutable.  Mr. Lizard ate crickets, and the cricket bin at the local pet store was kept in the middle of the fish room, so I spent a lot of time peering into the various aquaria while their inhabitants blurbled lackadaisically about.  I always liked seeing the velvety black goldfish with eyes telescoped outward like hammerhead sharks.  I even bought a few to put into the pond in our backyard, but they swim slowly.  Within a week the raccoons had caught them all.

fishknowsJonathan Balcombe thinks I’ve been unfair, ignoring the thoughts of fish.  In What a Fish Knows, he combs through many decades of research into fish cognition in order to give blithely naive readers like myself some insight into their world.

It would be remiss of me to proceed with this essay without mentioning that, for many years, numerous scientists have argued that fish lack consciousness.  The crux of this argument is that fish brains are very different from human brains.  Indeed, fish lack the brain region that most humans use to process the experience of pain.  But that’s okay – recent animal cognition research has found that very different brain regions can be used for the same tasks in different species, as with parrots learning to sing and human children learning to speak.  And we’ve recently learned that blind humans, who use the brain regions most of us devote to sight for other purposes, are able to rewire their minds if suddenly granted vision.  Thank you Project Prakash.

So I’m not convinced by most of the arguments against fish feeling pain.  Throughout history, we’ve argued over and over again that perceived others don’t feel the way we do.  Descartes claimed that animals were nothing but automata.  White people in the United States often think that black people feel less pain.  That last sentence – I’m not just writing about the horrific way African Americans were treated long ago.  This is about how black people in the U.S. are treated today by highly-educated medical doctors.  Belief in bizarre racial stereotypes is widespread, and one consequence is that doctors offer less treatment for black people in pain than they would for equivalent white patients.

So I’m suspicious of any claims that the way we think, or feel, or suffer, is special.  As is Jonathan Balcombe.  In his words:

Thanks to breakthroughs in ethology, sociobiology, neurobiology, and ecology, we can now better understand what the world looks like to a fish, how they perceive, feel, and experience the world.

What this book explores is a simple possibility with a profound implication.  The simple possibility is that fishes are individual beings whose lives have intrinsic value — that is, value to themselves quite apart from any utilitarian value they might have to us, for example as a source of profit, or of entertainment.  The profound implication is that this would qualify them for inclusion in our circle of moral concern.

Not only is scientific consensus squarely behind consciousness and pain in fishes, consciousness probably evolved first in fishes.  Why?  Because fishes were the first vertebrates, because they had been evolving for well over 100 million years before the ancestors of today’s mammals and birds set foot on land, and because those ancestors would have greatly benefited from having some modicum of wherewithal by the time they started colonizing such dramatically new terrain.

Despite claiming that fish are extremely different from us, scientists have used fish to study human mental conditions for many years.  Since the 1950s, researchers have tried dosing fish with LSD, finding that, like humans, most fish seem to enjoy low doses of psychedelic drugs but are terrified by high doses.  Even today, antisocial cave fish are being investigated as a model to test drugs for autism and schizophrenia.  It is illogical to simultaneously claim that fish may be useful models to understand our own brains and that their brains are so different from ours that they cannot feel pain.

Of course, there probably are very significant differences between our minds and those of fish.  I’ve discussed some of these ideas in two prior speculative essays on octopus literature.  I stumbled across another lovely insight into fish brains in Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture.  He suggests, quite reasonably, that fish brains probably operate faster than our own, with less tendency toward meditative rumination.  His argument is based on the behavior of light in water versus air; in his words:

bigpictureAs far as stimulating new avenues of thought is concerned, the most important feature of their new environment was simply the ability to see a lot farther.  If you’ve spent much time swimming or diving, you know that you can’t see as far underwater as you can in air.  The attenuation length – the distance past which light is mostly absorbed by the medium you are looking through – is tens of meters through clear water, while in air it’s practically infinite. (We have no trouble seeing the moon, or distant objects on our horizon.)

What you see has a dramatic effect on how you think.  If you’re a fish, you move through the water at a meter or two per second, and you see some tens of meters in front of you.  Every few seconds you are entering a new perceptual environment.  As something new looms into your view, you have only a very brief amount of time in which to evaluate how to react to it.  Is it friendly, fearsome, or foodlike?

Under these conditions, there is enormous evolutionary pressure to think fast.  See something, respond almost immediately.  A fish brain is going to be optimized to do just that.  Quick reaction, not leisurely contemplation, is the name of the game.

Now imagine you’ve climbed up onto land.  Suddenly your sensory horizon expands enormously.  Surrounded by clear air, you can see for kilometers – much farther than you can travel in a couple of seconds.  At first, there wasn’t much to see, since there weren’t any other animals up there with you.  But there is food of different varieties, obstacles like rocks and trees, not to mention the occasional geological eruption.  And before you know it, you are joined by other kinds of locomotive creatures.  Some friendly, some tasty, some simply to be avoided.

Now the selection pressures have shifted dramatically.  Being simple-minded and reactive might be okay in some circumstances, but it’s not the best strategy on land.  When you can see what’s coming long before you are forced to react, you have the time to contemplate different possible actions, and weigh the pros and cons of each.  You can even be ingenious, putting some of your cognitive resources into inventing plans of action other than those that are immediately obvious.

Out in the clear air, it pays to use your imagination.

(An aside, added later, not about fish: dolphin sonar & whale songs often travel farther in water than visible light does near the Earth’s surface, perhaps inclining whales & dolphins to be more imaginative and introspective than land animals.  I neglected this thought when I first posted the essay because it’s hard to avoid favoring our own forms of perception.)

Human brains are amazing.  I think that goes without saying, especially because my ability to type the words “I think that goes without saying” is already a dramatic demonstration of our mental capacity.  As is your ability to read those words and understand roughly what I meant.

And yet.  Our brains are sufficiently remarkable that I think there’s no need to denigrate the cognitive abilities of other animals.  They can feel.  They can think.  They almost certainly have their own wants and desires.

Recognizing their value shouldn’t make us feel bad about our own minds, though.

We’ve come a long way.  We still have more, as a species, to do.  That’s glaringly obvious to anyone who so much as glances at the news.  Still, I’d like to think that the average person is doing a better job of recognizing the concerns of others than was common in our past.  There is dramatically less (but non-zero) slavery in the modern world than in the past.  And we treat non-human animals far more kindly than we used to.

From Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?:

smartenoughDesmond Morris once told me an amusing story to drive this point home.  At the time Desmond was working at the London Zoo, which still held tea parties in the ape house with the public looking on.  Gathered on chairs around a table, the apes had been trained to use bowls, spoons, cups, and a teapot.  Naturally, this equipment posed no problem for these tool-using animals.  Unfortunately, over time the apes became too polished and their performance too perfect for the English public, for whom high tea constitutes the peak of civilization.  When the public tea parties began to threaten the human ego, something had to be done.  The apes were retrained to spill the tea, throw food around, drink from the teapot’s spout, and pop the cups into the bowl as soon as the keeper turned his back.  The public loved it!  The apes were wild and naughty, as they were supposed to be.

On Gerry Alanguilan’s “ELMER,” his author bio, and animal cognition.

On Gerry Alanguilan’s “ELMER,” his author bio, and animal cognition.

I was talking to a runner about graphic novels, once again recommending Andy Hartzell’s Fox Bunny Funny (which I imagine would be exceptionally treasured by a young person questioning their gender identity or sexuality, but is still great for anybody who feels they don’t quite fit in), when he recommended Gerry Alanguilan’s ELMER.  An excellent recommendation — I thoroughly enjoyed it.

elmer
The comic’s premise is that chickens suddenly gain intelligence roughly equivalent to humans.  Then they fight against murder, oppression, and prejudice in ways reminiscent of the U.S. civil rights movement.  The beginning of the book is horrifying, first with scenes depicting chickens coming into awareness while hanging by their feet in a slaughter house, then the violent reprisal they affect against humans.

gerryAlanguilan is a great artist and clearly a very empathetic man.

But that’s why I thought it was so strange that two out of four sentences of his short bio on the back cover read, “Gerry really likes chicken adobo, Psych, Mr. Belvedere, Titanic, Doctor Who, dogs, video blogging and specially Century Gothic. Transformed.”  For a moment I thought the first clause might be ironic because his author photograph for ELMER was taken in front of a busy bulletin board & one sheet of paper was a diet guide that appeared to have the vegan “v” logo at the bottom — maybe Gerry is making a point about what he gave up! — but with some squinting I realized it was a “Diet Guide for High Cholesterol Patients,” the symbol at the bottom merely a checkmark.

Why, then, would Alanguilan want to punctuate his work with the statement that he eats chickens, as though that is a defining feature of his life?

It’s commonly assumed among people who study animal cognition that other species are less aware of the world than humans are.  That humans perceive more acutely, our immense brainpower ensuring that our feelings cut deep.

The differences are matters of degree, though. It’s also widely acknowledged that humans exists on the same continuum as other animals, with no clear boundaries — genetic, physiological, or cognitive — demarcating us from them.  I thought this was phrased well by Frans de Waal in his editorial on Homo naledi and teleological misconceptions about evolution:

capThe problem is that we keep assuming that there is a point at which we became human.  This is about as unlikely as there being a precise wavelength at which the color spectrum turns from orange into red.  The typical proposition of how this happened is that of a mental breakthrough — a miraculous spark — that made us radically different.  But if we have learned anything from more than 50 years of research on chimpanzees and other intelligent animals, it is that the wall between human and animal cognition is like a Swiss cheese.

This is why, after reading Alanguilan’s brief biography, I began to wonder what percentage of human-like awareness chickens would need to have for their treatment in slaughterhouses, or the conveyer belt & macerator (grinder) used to expunge male chicks, or their confinement in dismal laying operations, to seem acceptable?

In Elmer, Alanguilan makes clear that their treatment would be unacceptable if the average chicken had one hundred percent of the cognitive capacity of the average human.  But then, below what percentage cognition does their treatment become okay?  Eighty percent?  Ten?  One?  Point one?

I think that’s an important question to ask, especially of an artist capable of creating such powerful work.

(And I should make clear that my own moral decisions exist in the same grey zone that I find curious in Alanguilan’s author bio.  I support abortion rights, an implicit declaration that the fractional cognition of a fetus is insufficient to outweigh the interests of the mother.  It’s more complicated than that, but it’s worth making clear that I’m not purporting to be morally pure.)

It’s true that humans are heterotrophs.  It’s impossible for us to live without harming — it irks me when vegetarians claim, for instance, that plants have no feelings.  They clearly do, they have wants and desires, they have rudimentary means of communication.  You could argue that eating fruit is ethically simple because fruit represents a pact between flowering plants and animal life, which co-evolved.  A plant expends energy to create fruit as a gift to animals, and animals in accepting that gift spread the plant’s seeds.

ketchupsmoothieBut anyone who eats vegetables (where “vegetable” means something like kale or broccoli or carrots — Supreme Court justices are not scientists) harms other perceiving entities by eating.

Which is fine. I eat, too!  Our first concern, given that we are perceiving entities, is to take care of ourselves.  If you didn’t care for your own well-being, what would motivate you to care for someone else’s?  Beyond that, I don’t think there’s a simple way to identify what or whom else is sufficiently self-like to merit our concern.  Personally, I care much more about my family than I do other humans — I devote the majority of my time and energy to helping them.  And I care much more about the well-being of the average human than I do the average cow, say, or lion.

Moral philosophers like Peter Singer would describe this as “speciest.”  I think that’s a silly-sounding word for a silly concept.  I don’t care about other humans because we have similar sequences in our DNA, or even because they resemble what I see when I look into a mirror.  I care about their well-being because of their internal mental life — I can imagine what it might feel like to be another human and so their plights sadden me.

Sure, I can imagine what it might feel like to be a chicken… but less well.  Other animals don’t perceive the world the same way we do.  And they seem to think less well.  I’d rather they not suffer.  But if somebody has to suffer, I’d rather that somebody be a Gallus gallus than a Homo sapiens.  I’d rather many chickens suffer than one human — I weigh chickens’ interests at only a small fraction of my concern for other humans.

Humans can talk to me.  They can share their travails with words, or gestures, or interpretative dance, or facial expressions.  And that matters a lot to me.

But integrity matters, too.  For instance, it seemed strange to me that David Duchovny could both write the book Holy Cow, in which he depicts farmed animals attempting to escape their doom, and still announce that he is “a very lazy vegetarian, which means I will look for the vegetarian meal, but I will also give up.”

My main objection isn’t to people eating meat.  It isn’t even to people who understand that animals can think (with differences in degree from human cognition, not differences in kind) eating meat.  Not everyone lives where I do, within a short walk of several grocery stores that all offer excellent nutrition from plants alone.  It’d be extremely difficult (and expensive) for humans living near the arctic to stay healthy without eating fish.  Those people’s well-being matters to me far more than the well-being of fish they catch.

And, for people living in close proximity to large, dangerous carnivores? Yes, obviously it’s reasonable for them to kill the animals terrorizing their villages.  I wish humans bred a little more slowly so that there’d still be space in our world for those large carnivores, but given that the at-risk humans already exist, I’d rather they be safe.  I can imagine how they feel.  I wouldn’t want my own daughter to be in danger.  I ruthlessly smash any mosquitos that go near her, and they are far less deadly than lions.

I simply find it upsetting when people who seem to believe that animal thought matters won’t take minor steps toward hurting them less.  It’s when confronted with stories about people who understand the moral implications of animal cognition, and who live in a place where it’s easy to be healthy eating vegetables alone, but don’t, that I feel sad.

If you had the chance to make your life consistent with your values, why wouldn’t you?

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