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 growing up poor, and hamsters.

smiffsI recently read a cute article by Emily Underwood, “How to tell if your hamster is happy.” There is an easy answer, too.  The hamsters in question are research animals, so the answer is, “No, they probably are not.”  Of all the research animals I’ve interacted with, the only one that seemed happy was the narcoleptic dog, and it was no longer being used for any experiments.

Most experiments seem not fun for the animals.  Simply being around researchers induces significant stress, even if those “researchers” are just cardboard simulacra of celebrities, and especially if those researchers-are-flesh and blood masculine-scent-wafting males.  A lot of published research on stress and pain and such is probably incorrect because the controls used for the experiments, non-tormented animals that still lived in an animal facility and interacted with researchers, were also experiencing duress.

But the experiment discussed in Underwood’s article still has useful things to teach us, in part because I don’t think the essential message is really about happiness at all.  I think their experiment is best interpreted as an investigation into the neurological consequences of poverty.

In humans, there’s been a recent effort to document the ways that childhood poverty changes a brain.  These aren’t experiments; aside from those twins in Colombia, nobody is being scooped out of their middle-class family and instead raised in poverty.  But the evidence from retrospective analysis suggests that poverty has long-term effects on brain structure and, therefore, on behavior.

And the results of the new hamster study match what you’d expect based on the human results.

hamster-eating-broccoliHere’s a quick summary: hamsters were either raised in standard cages or in “enriched” environments — at the beginning of the study they all had their crappy cages with access to water and dry rodent pellets, a running wheel, a cardboard tube, and twice-weekly handling (two to a cage, at least, so they did have some companionship).  Then they were briefly given access to a wide variety of fun hamster toys (Gnaw sticks!  Hamster huts!  A suspended hamster tent!  An upgraded running wheel!).

After the hamsters learned what the toys were (& that they were a blast), enrichment was taken away from half of them.  These were the impoverished hamsters.  Previous exposure to luxury ensured that these hamsters would mirror Robert Frank’s ideas about wealth, that our perceived wealth depends primarily upon the lifestyle of those around us: the hamsters needed to learn about the great toys to know that they were poor for not having them.

Then the experiment began.  The hamsters knew that researchers generally put sweet-tasting water in a bottle at the left of a test cage and foul-tasting water to the right.  They would then scoop up either privileged or impoverished hamsters and drop them into the test cage with a bottle set up at an ambiguous middle position.

Bone-HamsterWealthy hamsters were willing to sample the water.  Maybe it will be delicious!  Poor hamsters were less likely to sample the water: if it’s near the middle, it’s probably foul.  Everything else in my life is rotten, so why wouldn’t this water situation be rotten too?

And it’s important to keep this kind of result in mind when considering our world.  Inequality in upbringing is so severe that we’re engendering massive neurological differences between people… while they are still children.  It clearly isn’t a child’s fault that he or she was born into a poor household as opposed to a wealthy one, but that child, and that child’s future children, and so on, will suffer the consequences.

Which is very clear in my own life.  Because I am writing full time, we live very austerely — we are supporting our family, and trying to help K’s father, on a single public schoolteacher’s salary.  Most of our calories come from rice and dried beans.  Our furniture was liberated from collegiate dumpsters.  Our entertainment budget is nil.

sleeping-hamsterBut that’s of little consequence because my family is rich, I was raised wealthy, and my brain has already established privileged patterns of thought.  The austerity clearly isn’t poverty for us because we bring in more money than we want to spend, even though our income level is below some other families’ who feel poor.

What’s more impressive to me is that K is so happy living this way.  She did not grow up wealthy, but she has as much emotional resilience as I do.  Or, no.  Let’s face it: she is more emotionally robust.  Even our friend whose radiologist was able to read her ribs like rings of a tree (“See this, here?  This shows when your family didn’t have enough to eat”) has the can-do I’ll-try-my-best-even-if-I-might-fail attitude people normally associate with growing up rich.

Of course, that’s true with the hamsters, too.  Yes, there is a difference between how adventurous impoverished hamsters and rich hamsters become, but the error bars are still big — there’s still a lot of variation between individuals.  Some hamsters overcome.  Our friend would’ve been one of those unvanquished hamsters.

Still, it’s rotten seeing the difference.  Even if some people overcome their upbringing, it’s rotten reading about the neurological consequences of poverty and knowing what they’re up against… and knowing how many people will be defeated by those circumstances.  It’s rotten knowing all this and then reading the newspaper and seeing that, nope, we’re still unlikely to have universal preschool in the near future, we’re still unlikely to provide free breakfast to all students in public education, we’re still unlikely to make a real effort toward progressive taxation so that more children can grow up with a fair shot at success.