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 loneliness.

On loneliness.

Most laboratory animals live in bleak environs.  With mice, each cage typically contains a single animal.  There is bedding, food, and water.  There is very little space.

A lab mouse will be illuminated for many hours each day – sometimes twenty-four, sometimes slightly fewer – by fluorescent lights.  It will hear the constant thrum of ventilation fans and refrigerator compressors.  At least once a week, an apex predator – wafting stress-inducing smells, especially if it’s male – will reach into its home and grab it.

Chances are, it will see other mice.  A rotating cadre will fill adjacent cages during its tenure in the lab.  They will never touch.

Our cruelty makes for bad science, too.

When social animals are stored in isolation, their bodies and brains decay.  Neuron growth slows, which impedes learning.  Lifespan is curtailed.  Obesity rates increase.

Lab_animal_careIf we stop mistreating laboratory animals, though, new research might be inconsistent with past results.  When describing mice, scientists don’t say that deprivation stunts brain development.  Instead we write things like, “If a lab is studying the impact of stress on the growth of new neurons, for example, and then it lets mice exercise on a running wheel – which has been shown to spark neuron growth – the study could be jeopardized” (from David Grimm’s recent news article for Science magazine).

4117496025_8024f879d6_zWe give ourselves a very skewed view of neurology if we let ourselves think that a creature’s normal habits are stimulating neuron growth, rather than admitting that deprivation stops it.  For decades, most researchers thought that neuron growth ceased in adults.  Even in the 2005 paper demonstrating structural plasticity, the authors wrote that “such changes are only seen in response to external perturbation,” because brain development is sluggish in lab mice housed in normal conditions, i.e. those little cages.

Of course, some scientists do care about the well-being of their furry test tubes.  For instance, biologist Daniel Weary, who told Grimm “Our dream is that our animals live a better life with us than if they had never been born.”  Animals in Weary’s lab get to touch actual dirt.

Maybe not the highest bar, but the lives of most animals on our planet are worse than if they’d never been born.

Vivek_Murthy_nomination_hearing_February_4,_2014Most social animals – like mice, rabbits, and humans – aren’t going to be very happy when they’re housed in isolation.  Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy considers loneliness to be a public health crisis, leading to health risks as bad as smoking or obesity.

Unfortunately, most biomedical research is done with research animals amongst whom pervasive loneliness is standard.  And our political system gives outsize influence to wealthy corporations that earn more money when people feel lonely.

We shunt humans into jail when we feel that their behaviors are unacceptable for the world at large.  Incarceration sends a message: don’t beat your family; don’t steal; don’t sell drugs; don’t take drugs; don’t be late for an appointment with your parole officer; don’t be too poor to pay your court fees.  To my mind, some of these offenses are worse than others.

The hope is that either the threat of incarceration deters people from these things, or that the experience of being incarceration cures them of the inclination.  (Or a third rationale – that seeing offenders punished will pacify others’ sense of fairness – which seems to encourage the evolution of cooperation, but, like many other evolved behaviors, seems unnecessarily vicious for the modern world.)

We’ve known for years that punishment doesn’t work well as a criminal deterrent.  And the experience of incarceration seems to make most people worse, not better.

Instead, we’re imposing loneliness on people who most need the help of friends and neighbors to turn their lives around.  Somebody screws up?  We store that person like a lab mouse.

10490113913_e3a697bdca_zI was recently chatting with somebody who’s done nine months so far for a parole violation – and is still waiting for his court date, which keeps being rescheduled.  (He’s already told the judge that he’ll plead guilty, and the prosecutor wanted to send him to rehab, but his PO nixed the deal.)

“It’s a lot better now, in J block.  Everybody said, you don’t wanna move from A block, you’ll get no bingo, you’ll get no … I don’t care about any of that.  We can look out the window, see people walking on the street.

“I spent almost an hour, the other day, watching this leaf blowing back and forth in the wind.  I was staring, thinking I’d say to the judge, ‘you can pile on whatever other charges you want, I’ll still plead guilty, I’ll plead guilty to all of it if you just let me out there to look at that leaf blowing around up close.  Just five minutes, just lemme see something!

“In D block, that was the worst.  All we could see was the parking garage.  On weekends, we’d see nothing, not even cars.  So I was starting fights every day.  I’d be like, hey, turn the TV to, I don’t know, some channel I don’t even like, just so I can start something with somebody.  Cause a fight would at least be something to do.”

John-Michael Bloomquist’s poem “The Prodigal’s Return,” about teaching poetry in jail, ends:

                                      Each day that I visit

the jail full of men, who hug me the way

their families cannot, write poems about childhoods

I couldn’t imagine, I feel the love of my father.

After nine months inside – un-touched, un-hugged, un-loved, under-slept – perhaps our man will finally be released.  Surely his time there will have cured him of his addiction!

On Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep.’

On Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep.’

poemsjaildormWilliam Booker’s poem “Communion of the Saints” opens with,

It’s 6 a.m. in the Monroe County Jail,

I’ve been awake since breakfast,

which was served at 4:21 a.m. …

It took 3 minutes 25 seconds

to eat a tray of eggs, sausage, hash brown,

biscuit and jelly.  Then I lay back down

on my steel bunk and closed my eyes.

His eyes are closed, the thin jail blanket covers his head, but with bright fluorescent lights shining just a few feet from his face, he can’t fall back asleep.  He begins to ruminate: “what have I done?”  His mind is tormented by “visions of the outside that I don’t see anymore.”  This will be another hard day.

2088296214_th.jpgIn Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker describes numerous research studies showing the ways that we’re impaired when our sleep is disrupted.  The vast majority of people need at least 7.5 hours of sleep each night.  When sleep deprived – either by missing an entire night’s sleep in one go, or sleeping six or fewer hours a night for several days in a row – people have difficulty regulating their emotions, miss social cues, and struggle to learn new information.

Prolonged sleep deprivation is widely recognized as torture.  All animals will die if sleep deprived for too long, typically done in by sepsis: otherwise innocuous bacteria proliferate uncontrollably and poison the blood.  Less acute forms of sleep loss – consistently getting fewer than 7.5 hours per night – will ravage a person’s immune system and increase the risk of cancer.

When interrogators deprive people of sleep (yup, the United States is a member of the illustrious group of nations that still tortures people this way, alongside regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudia Arabia, and the like) it becomes very easy to elicit false confessions.

In the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s memoir, White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia (which is quoted in Why We Sleep), he writes that when the KGB denied him and his fellow prisoners the opportunity to sleep,

DF-SC-85-11459I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what their interrogator promised them.  He did not promise them their liberty.  He promised them – if they signed – uninterrupted sleep.

Inside the jail, the overhead fluorescent lights are not turned off until midnight.  At that time, it becomes easier – not easy, but easier – to fall asleep.  But the inmates will be jarred awake four hours later for breakfast.

Despite their chronic sleep deprivation, people in jail are expected to learn new habits; people who have self-medicated for the entirety of their adult lives with opiates or amphetamines are expected to find all new ways of living.  Sometimes their behaviors really were undesirable – robbery, domestic violence, neglecting children while blinkered on drugs.

But people struggle to learn new skills – sober living among them, although this was not directly assessed in the studies Walker cites – if their brains don’t undergo a large number of electroencephalogram-visible waves called “sleep spindles” during the final hours of sleep.  If a person sleeps for six or fewer hours each night, the brain never reaches this stage of sleep.

Wake someone up too early day after day, you stifle learning.

Veave_in_jailWrest them into fluorescent wakefulness each morning for a four a.m. breakfast, keep them basically sedentary because a dozen people are packed into a small cement room and the facility is too understaffed to give them “rec time,” constantly elevate their stress hormones by surrounding them with angry, potentially dangerous compatriots, and you ensure that they won’t sleep well.  In addition, chemical withdrawal wrecks havoc on people’s sleep cycles.  They stagger bleary-eyed through months or years inside.  They chug “cocoffala” – commissary instant coffee stirred into Coca-cola – hoping to feel some semblance of normalcy.  Instead, they get the jitters.

And then, finally, they’re set free – usually to probation, expected to follow more rules than the average citizen.

“I’m gonna be out next week,” a dude told me.

“Congratulations!  You’ll get family Christmas after all.”

“Eh, it’s not so great.  I’ll be back before New Years.”

“Yeah?”

“They say I gotta do probation two yearsI slip, they’re sending me to prison.”

“Can you do it?”

“Two years?  I’m not gonna make it two weeks.  Way I see it, I get out, I gotta call up Judge Diekhoff, tell her it’s been real and all, but we gotta start seeing other people.”

He would’ve struggled to change his life in the best of circumstances.  But he certainly couldn’t do it sleep deprived.

On race and our criminal justice system.

On race and our criminal justice system.

I’ve been teaching poetry in the local jail for over a year. The guys are great students, and I love working with them… but there are differences between these classes and my previous teaching experiences. Not just the orange attire or the chance that somebody down the hall will be rhythmically kicking a cell door all hour.

When I was teaching wealthy pre-meds physics & organic chemistry at Northwestern & Stanford, none of my students died. Nobody’s boyfriend or girlfriend was murdered midway through the semester. Nobody was sitting in class with someone who had ruined his or her life by becoming a police informant. Sometimes people got teary eyed, but only over grades.

plowWhereas… well, when we were discussing Norman Dubie’s “Safe Passage” last December – a beautiful poem about riding in the snowplow with his grandfather the night before the old man died – we wound up talking about our families. A forty-year-old man wept: he had thought that this year, for the first time in years, he would get to spend Christmas with his kids … but, even after they let you out, they take away your license … and make you show for blow-and-go some fifteen miles away, every single day … and charge you for the classes, but those classes mean you have no way to schedule regular work hours … so they put you on warrant when you can’t paid … and then, if you make one tiny mistake …

Christmas was in two days. He’d spend another month inside.

Ai_bwThe accumulated trauma that these guys shoulder from their past lives is heartbreaking. One of the best lesson plans my co-teacher and I have come up with uses several poems from Ai to prepare for writing our own persona poems. A former student – now released, & still sober after two months – says he still feels changed by the experience of writing in someone else’s voice. In that space he was made to feel so small, but taking a few minutes to ponder the world from another perspective let him escape. And it gave him a new view of the consequences of his own choices.

But a lot of Ai’s poetry is very difficult. She writes from the perspectives of murderers and rapists. We’ve discussed her poem “Child Beater” with several groups of men, and at least a third of the guys, every time, shared harrowing stories of their own.

On a good day, these men have long histories of suffering weighing them down.

And on a bad day? My co-teacher and I might show up with a stack of poems, start teaching class, and, mid-way through, learn that another of our students’ family members has just died. Over the course of a year, at least two had wives die of overdose, another’s partner was murdered … and, in that case, one of the killers was placed overnight in a cell adjacent to his own …

And, half an hour after my second class there ended, one of my students died.

The men do great work, both interpreting poems and writing their own, but, just think for a moment: what could they accomplish if they weren’t oppressed by so much misery? Compared to my experience teaching at wealthy universities, the emotional toll is excruciating. And I am just a tourist! After every class, I get to leave. A guard smiles and opens the door for me. I walk away.

This is their life.

And it’s my fault. All citizens of this country – all people who benefit from the long history of violence that has made this nation so wealthy – bear the blame. As beneficiaries, the suffering caused by mass incarceration is our responsibility.

So, the guy who died? He was just a kid. Nineteen years old. And he’d gone over a year without medication for his highly-treatable genetic condition. I’ve written previously about the unfair circumstances he had been born into: suffice it to say that his family was very poor. He’d been in jail awaiting trial since sixteen – he was being tried as an adult for “armed robbery” after an attempted burglary with a BB gun – and then, when he turned eighteen – please ignore the irony of this age constituting legal adulthood – the state said he had to pay for his own medication. With beta blockers, people with his genetic condition have a normal life expectancy. Beta blockers cost about $15 per month.

No, a dude whose family is so poor that he attempted robbery with a BB gun can not afford $15 per month. Sitting in jail, it’s not like he could help pay.

A few weeks after his death, I remarked to one of the other guys that he probably wouldn’t have been charged as an adult if he’d been a white kid. I told two anecdotes from the local high school: a student with psychiatric trouble amassed weapons in his locker and planned a date to do something violent. Another student participated in a food fight during the last week of school. The former was welcomed back; the latter was told that he’d be arrested if he returned to school grounds. And he hadn’t taken all his finals yet! If all his teachers had known about this disciplinary ruling in time, he wouldn’t have received a degree.

The first student was white; the latter black.

snowflakeThere’s no universal standard. Maybe there can’t be – we are all “beautiful unique snowflakes,” and so every case will be slightly different. But unfairness blooms when so much is left up to individual discretion. Black students are punished excessively throughout our country. Black children as young as 4 or 5 are considered disproportionately threatening and are treated unfairly.

Prosecutors in the criminal justice system have even more power. There’s no oversight and often no documentation for their decisions. Charges can be upgraded or downgraded on a whim. A white kid might’ve been sent to reform school for his “youthful indiscretions”; this dude sat in jail from age 16 until his death.

“Yeah, but _____ always said, ‘I’m not black. I’m mid-skinned.”

(You can also listen to a podcast about his unfair treatmeant and premature death here.)

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This spring, I said to one of the guys whose trial date was coming up, “I feel like, if I’d done the exact same thing as you…” I shook my head. There was no reason to go on. “But black guys get the hammer.”

He disagreed. Not with the idea that black people are punished disproportionately in this country, just that it would be his burden, too.

NCA-Earth“Well, but I’m not black,” he said. “My family is from all over the place … I’m Native American, and Caribbean, and …” He listed a long pedigree. Indeed, his ancestors had come from around the globe: Europe, India, Africa, the Americas …

“My apologies,” I said. “And, I guess … so, my wife teaches at the high school in town, and one of her kids, his family is Polynesian … but at school everybody assumes he’s black. So he mostly identifies with Black culture here.”

“I get that,” the guy said to me, nodding. He’s a really kind and thoughtful dude. “Cause, yeah, some of it is just who other people think you are.”

His words stuck with me: who other people think you are.

We were sure he could walk. Probation, rehab, that kind of thing. We’d seen other people with equivalent bookings go free.

We were wrong. Dramatically so: he was sentenced to seven years. His family was devastated. You don’t even want to know the extent.

Soon after, I was looking up his prison address to send him a letter and a few books of poetry. On the page of “Offender Data” provided by the Indiana Department of Correction, it read,

Race: Black.

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