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.”

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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.

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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.

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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 prayer.

On prayer.

In jail, we read Czeslaw Milosz’s “On Prayer” (translated by Robert Hass), which opens with the lines:

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge

And walking it we are aloft

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Photographs by Robert Croma on Flickr.

After somebody read the poem aloud, I asked him: “What would your ideal god look like?”

“Um … tall … blonde, blue eyes …”

I was worried he was describing Thor.  It’s a bad bias, reminiscent of the old surgeon riddle.

The guy went on: “ … thirty-two D …”

Greek_-_Aphrodite_-_Walters_2399“Oh,” I said.  “You wanna worship Aphrodite.”

“Man, she’s great,” he said.  “I’ve been reading all the Greek myths and stuff.  But she is wicked when she’s mad.  Like Arachne committed suicide, and there’s Echo, and Na … Nar …”

“Narcissus.”

“… who she just wrecked.”

It’s true – the god of desire can hurt you.  We were discussing mythology in a room full of dudes incarcerated for possession.

Many of them know that desire is wrecking their lives.  I often say that I’m not against drugs, but certain drugs, mixed with certain people, are definitely bad news.

“That’s me,” said a guy who told me that he’s been shuffling in and out for the last twenty-four years, with the durations out often lasting no more than weeks.  “Last year … after my wife died … my son had to bring me back.  I was over at my nephew’s, and we’d had something like a full gram, each time we sold some I had to be like, here, let me try it with you, and I was falling out … but my son just happened to come by in my truck, and I had all the stuff.  He hit me with Narcan.”

Narcan – naloxone – revives people after overdose.

“So I know I gotta quit.  If I don’t stop, I’m gonna die.”

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In AA, people work with a higher power to stay sober.  A buddy told me, “It was hard coming out as an atheist in AA.”  But Milosz, the poet, would say that there’s no contradiction.  Milosz approached religion from a “scientific, atheistic position mostly,” and then he lived under the Nazis in Warsaw – an experience that could shake anybody’s faith.

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.

And yet, prayer does change the mind.  Earnest prayer can heal. 

All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge

 if there is no other shore

We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

The men know the grim statistics – rehab fails most people.  A counselor can’t reach into their minds and save them.  Neither can any god.  I’d argue that scientists can’t, either, but some scientists are trying – they’re testing transcranial magnetic stimulation aimed at a region of the human brain associated with impulse control.

Zap.

Do you want drugs now?

Transcranial_magnetic_stimulationA few people in the clinical trials have said “No,” but most people probably still do.  Which isn’t to disparage magnets – we’re asking an awful lot of them.  Addiction is a loop.  So many memories cause desire to swell.  For the guys in jail – many of whom started using when they were eleven or twelve – this is the only life they’ve known.  Their minds have never dealt with the world sober.  They are being asked to start all over again.

But some people manage to quit.  When rehab works, change comes from within.  And so it doesn’t matter whether any god is listening – prayer is for the person who prays.

We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

On horror, healing, and Joanna Connors’s ‘I Will Find You.’

amsal_pbDuring a recent writing class, we discussed Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “The Trespasser” (reprinted in American Salvage, in case you’d like more). We’ve been discussing a lot of literature themed around addiction and recovery, and in this short story a family walks into their summer home to find the wreckage left by a quartet of trespassers who broke in and used the place as a meth lab.

The family — especially their thirteen-year-old daughter — feels violated.  Their belongings rearranged, their kitchen charred, a mattress ruined, their sense of security shattered.  But the piece doesn’t dwell on the family’s reaction.  Instead the story presents, through a series of contrasts to the thirteen-year-old’s life, the horrors that may have led one of the trespassers — a sixteen-year-old girl, violated in turn by the men she was with, who stayed alone in the house to hide in a closet and shoot up until the family arrived — to make the choices she did.

There is a sense of forgiveness to the piece.  Because, yes, the sixteen-year-old’s actions were wrong.  She should not have broken in to the house with those men.  She should not have stolen methamphetamine they were cooking from them.  She should not have stayed living in another family’s home, rearranging their possessions, dragging comforting items to a closet, dragging a mattress — emblematic of her own violation — outside.

And yet.  Campbell presents the ways in which that sixteen-year-old trespasser has already been punished, brutally so, before she committed her transgressions.  She did wrong.  Perhaps some punishment would be appropriate.  But she was punished, arbitrarily so, by the universe at large.  Born into a life where she was violated by her mother’s boyfriends, burned by cigarettes, treated as worthless so long that she may have begun to believe it.  Those preemptive punishments were quite likely the reason why she committed her later crimes.

It is human to want vengeance against people who hurt us.  It is especially human to want vengeance against people who hurt those we love.  But something that’s often missing from our criminal justice system in the United States is an acknowledgement of the punishments already doled out to innocent children, punishments that harmed their developing minds and may have increased the likelihood that they’d be tangled up in future crimes.

71O975JXqtLJoanna Connors’s I Will Find You is a hard book to read — a beautifully-written exploration of a bleak topic — but she presents this contrast perfectly.  If you can handle reading a detailed, nuanced investigation of a sexual assault, I highly recommend it.

Connors was hurt.  Connors, as best I can tell, is hurt.  The psychological effects of torture can linger for decades, and sexual assault, despite the inappropriate term (personally, I far prefer using the phrase “violative assault” to better distinguish it from sex, but then people sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about), is an act of torture.

She was, from the perspective of a prosecutor, the perfect witness.  She was educated, sober, unacquainted with her assailant… and a white woman assaulted by a black man.

All those characteristics make it easier for the state to win a conviction.

(A quick note: though she was harmed, Connors was a witness, not a defendant.  That’s how our judicial system treats the victims of sexual assault.  At least that’s better than the old system, in which Connors’ husband would be considered the defendant because his property — his wife — had been tarnished through unauthorized use.)

Indeed, Connors’s assailant was convicted, was sentenced to many years, and eventually died in jail.  A rarity, as most of us now know.

But Connors’s pain did not go away.  A corrections officer at one of the prisons where her attacker was held told her — in an attempt to cheer her — that her attacker was probably brutally abused while incarcerated.  That particular prison, the correction officer acknowledged, had a well-deserved dismal reputation.

Hearing that the man had suffered more did not help Connors heal.

And so Connors decided to learn about her attacker: What was his life like?  Why had he ruined hers?

Indeed, the innocent child who would grow into the man who raped her was wretchedly abused.  Connors could not interview her attacker — he had died in prison before she began this project — but she met with the man’s siblings.  One wondered what he had done to be born into a life of such misery.

Everyone in the attackers’ family had been raped.  Repeatedly.  Connors cried alongside the attackers’ sisters.  I was stupid, I deserved it, each said in turn.  The exact words with which Connors had castigated herself after she was assaulted.

Those words were not true in Connors’ case.  And they were not true for the attackers’ sisters.  No one deserves to be tortured.

And, in contrast to the outraged response from her family and from the criminal justice system after Connors was assaulted, no one cared about the crimes perpetrated against the attacker’s family.  Connors does not belabor this point.  She was white, well-educated, graced with the sobriety that comes easily to those with no childhood demons to escape — she received justice.

Others, who through no fault of their own were born to uncaring, abusive, impoverished parents, did not.

On redemption and Christianity in The Book of Strange New Things.

9780553418842So, I read a couple reviews that didn’t like Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.  The problem was, in the reviewers’ eyes, that the novel as science fiction was bland (e.g. this piece from NPR).  And I’ll admit, I wasn’t having fun for most of the time I spent reading it.  But at the end of the book, Faber pulled a trick that really altered the way I viewed his work, and I haven’t seen any other reviews that engage with this idea.  I do wish that more of the book was spent on this concept, and that there was less of the tepid sci-fi odyssey and orthological tomfoolery and emailed monologues, but so it goes.  There really is a beautiful idea nestled in his story.

To me, the most interesting facet of The Book of Strange New Things was the way it explored the question, is the possibility of redemption necessary for Christianity to work?  And Faber explores the idea of redemption on many levels: physiological, personal, societal, ecological.  It’s that breadth of engagement with the concept of redemption that made the work for me.  Like, yes, the protagonist is an ex-junkie preacher.  He was bad, turned his life around, found Jesus, is Christian.  Which is fine, but I have Dostoyevsky for that; if Faber offered only that same narrative dressed up in tinfoil on a far-off planet where the water makes you piss green, well, I’d pass.  Why not re-read Crime and Punishment instead?

But I really like that Faber took the idea of redemption further.  There’s a scene in the book where his protagonist is bitten by a wild animal, at which point the natives of that planet give him up for dead.  He assumes the animal is poisonous, that there’ll be no healing from the wound.  But then he gets better.  And it turns out that the alien species lacks wound healing of any kind.  If they become injured, they die.  And that may underlie their fascination with Christianity: in the Bible, physiological redemption isn’t just a metaphor for personal redemption.  Physical healing is made possible through the love of God.  The most important miracles are instances of Jesus as medical doctor.

This point is really underscored by the protagonist’s earlier efforts to translate the Bible into something the aliens would better understand.  He spent a long time thinking about the idea of sheep and shepherds, which aren’t present on their world, and of oceans and fish and fishers of men, likewise absent, but never realized that any reference to Jesus’s doctoring would seem magical to them.  When their bodies are hurt, there is no redemption.

And Faber explored ecological and societal situations that would seem to have no possibility for redemption.  The earth of Faber’s novel has passed an ecological tipping point and is spiraling from one natural disaster to another; messages from the earthbound wife make clear that the planet won’t be habitable for long, and (in another shopworn sci-fi touch, the sort of thing that would make me dislike the book if I were engaging with it as science fiction and not as religious meditation) the reason a human colony was established on the alien world is to serve as refuge for a small population of humans that will be saved.

Society also seems to have descended into irreparable chaos.  The world has become violent and cruel, so much so that the protagonist’s wife finally writes to let him know that she is doomed; he should never return to Earth.  She’ll try to join a band of survivalists and scrape out a meager existence during what little time remains.

He decides to return.  To attempt to find her.  He’ll try for redemption where no redemption seems possible.  And the book ends.

Honestly, it’s not a simple message.  Because there’s a contrast; Christianity is hinted to be a poor fit for people who can’t heal, and yet the protagonist returns to a doomed world.  Which you could perhaps interpret as Faber trying to convey that small-scale personal and physical redemption are more important than anything that happens in society, but I don’t think that’s it.  The message I took away was that Christianity would not work in situations where healing was not a possibility, whether that healing means turning your life around, getting better after an injury, the climate restabilizing under habitable conditions, but that, akin to Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, a Christian should be unable to accept the idea that healing isn’t possible.

That’s why, after I’d finished the book, I revised my opinion of it.  I think the ending makes a very interesting theological point, and makes it in a way that really did require an alien species to address.  Although…

Many types of injuries that aren’t problematic now used to be fatal.  Bacterial infection would set in, spread through a body, and kill a person.  That’s why amputation was so common; for much of human history, there was no other way to stop infections.

Then antibiotics were discovered.  Antibiotics are like magic.  They are Jesus’s miracles in pill form.  You get sick, you should die, you swallow one pill a day for a few weeks, you are healed.  You live.  Praise the saviors.

But antibiotics are getting worse.  Or, more specifically, we are putting selective pressure on bacteria to evade or degrade those magical molecules.  The idea of feeding subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics to huge numbers of densely-housed animals, year in and year out, seems insane to me.  Honestly, that’s a set-up not so dissimilar from what you might employ in a purposeful gain-of-function directed evolution experiment.  That is, if you wanted to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that’s something you might do.

And if antibiotic resistance arises in one line of bacteria, it’s unlikely to remain isolated to that population for long.  Horizontal gene transfer, including from one species to another, is very common amongst bacteria.

The point being that we are bringing ourselvesintentionally, it would seem like — closer and closer to a post-antibiotic era.  The magic in those pills might soon be gone.  And we’ll be much worse-off than we were pre-antibiotics; the world is different now, including much higher population densities in urban areas.  Quite likely, bacterial infections will spread more voraciously than they did in the pre-antibiotic era.

To me, that increases the resonance of Faber’s work.  Those aliens, groping ineffectually through Christianity because, once harmed, they can not heal?  They could be our future selves.