On memory (part three): getting rid of memories.

Exposed brain and magpie.  By Curious Expeditions on Flickr.
Exposed brain and magpie. By Curious Expeditions on Flickr.

This is third in a series.  See parts one and two.

Not all memories are good, obviously.  I’ve done plenty of stupid things, blurted out plenty of awkward remarks in conversations, that I’d prefer to forget.  And those are harmless.  They might make me flush and feel retroactively embarrassed if I think of them at night, but, big deal.

Other people have seen far worse things than me.  Their memories, instead of minor self-consciousness, lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): sleeplessness, headaches, stress biomarkers suggestive of shortened lifespan, proclivity toward substance abuse, etc.

PTSD is bad news.  Very bad news.  There’s no data yet on what causes it — why does one person subject to a horrible event pull through fine, but another contracts the nightmares?  There’s simply too much we don’t understand about the brain.

Mostly this essay is going to be about memory erasure — if we could consistently & specifically delete memories, that’d go a long way toward curing PTSD.  And I have a minor ulterior motive for slapping up a few scientific references for memory erasure: because misplaced memories are essential for the plot of The Ramayana, I tucked the concept into my book.  When I first wrote those passages, they were moderately speculative, but in the intervening years our scientific understanding has actually caught up appreciably.

MV5BMTM3OTA2MjcwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU2ODYyMQ@@._V1__SX1156_SY499_But first I wanted to give a small shout-out for the film Renegade.  Despite being a terrible cowboy film, Renegade is also the best depiction I’ve seen of using psychedelics to treat PTSD.  Which maybe sounds a little odd, but there are reasons to expect why it might work (as opposed to, say, attempting to use psychedelics to cure autism, which is every bit as ill-reasoned and abusive as it sounds).

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) seems to be the leading non-pharmaceutical strategy to treat depression, sleep disorders, and other crummy brain states including PTSD.  The basic idea is that thoughts are reinforcing.  Thoughts you’ve had once are easier to have again, which is why studying works, why practice makes perfect.  But people can get stuck in ruts, looping through the same negative thoughts over and over.  CBT aims to replace those ruts with new virtuous cycles of helpful thoughts.

And that’s why psychedelics might make CBT more effective: the therapy will reinforce itself once it gets going, but actually jolting someone out of their initial rut seems difficult.  Mind-altering substances might provide a window of time during which a new cycle of thoughts can be more readily inoculated into someone’s brain.

This is speculative, of course.  FDA restrictions have made it difficult to conduct research using psychedelics.  Not many studies have been done so far, and a lot of our nation’s more illustrious research groups haven’t been involved; if your research is already going well, investigating psychedelics probably seems like a lot of hassle for little payoff.

Still from Renegade.

But, let’s say you were a film director who’d been given a reasonably high budget to create an adaptation of a French comic book but instead used much of that money to take ayuhuasca hundreds of times in Peru … would you care that the ideas are speculative?  I think not.  Jan Kounen, who directed Renegade, certainly didn’t.  The scaffolding film is a cheesy western, but the central premise deals with overcoming the curse of a traumatic memory.  And, sure, the trippy CGI fractal swirls are often vaguely reminiscent of screensavers, but I appreciate the director’s ambitious attempt to depict visually what was happening in his protagonist’s mind as he reconciled himself with his past.  I think Renegade does a better job of depicting these unarticulated inner states than, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception, or Dark City.

Even if psychedelics could help people with PTSD, though, it seems inconceivable that the drugs alone would be effective — the only reasonable mechanism I can come up with is that the drugs might make someone more receptive to CBT.  And the therapy takes time, takes a lot of concentrated effort from both patient and therapist, and probably seems like it’s not accomplishing anything for most of the initial sessions.  About a third of people with PTSD who have participated in CBT research studies drop out of treatment, and in general practice this number might be even higher.

It’d be nice if we could address the underlying traumatic memories directly.  Delete them specifically from someone’s brain.

And we can’t, obviously.  As per my previous post in this series, we can’t identify memories based on brain structure alone.  That rules out opening up someone’s head and attempting to physically ablate the offending thoughts… although it’s quite clear that physical disruption could remove memories.  Here’s the first paragraph of Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm:

418tSpTGIdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I often have to cut into the brain and it is something that I hate doing.  With a pair of diathermy forceps I coagulate the beautiful and intricate red blood vessels that lie on the brain’s shining surface.  I cut into it with a small scalpel and make a hole through which I push with a fine sucker — as the brain has the consistency of jelly a sucker is the brain surgeon’s principal tool.  I look down my operating microscope, feeling my way downwards through the soft white substance of the brain, searching for the tumour.  The idea that my sucker is moving through thought itself, through emotion and reason, that memories, dreams and reflections should consist of jelly, is simply too strange to understand.  All I can see in front of me is matter.  Yet I know that if I stray into the wrong area, into what neurosurgeons call eloquent brain, I will be faced by a damaged and disabled patient when I go round to the Recovery Ward after the operation to see what I have achieved.

We could delete memories, but given our current understanding of the brain we would be wrecking them at random.

What else do we know about erasing memories?

My favorite model is that memories, when used, seem to be replaced — details that weren’t included in an initial act of remembrance are often lost forever, which could indicate that a new memory of that remembrance does something like overwriting it.  And this would explain why our most vivid recollections are of things we seldom think about — as in Proust, a rare smell or sound or physical sensation can spur our sharpest memories.

Conversely, repeated remembrance seems able to dim a memory.  But there’s a trick — that whole problem with mental ruts.  Typically remembrance dims the initial memory, but encodes new information.  Whatever we think about while remembering becomes the memory (in part this seems to be why eyewitness testimony is so often wrong — poor police practice can easily allow a new, wrong memory to be encoded and reinforced before a trial).

To erase a memory, it would have to be recalled but not replaced.

One method for this is termed “thought substitution” — actively trying to make your mnemonic records incorrect.  If you try your darnedest to think about something else while remembering a traumatic event, you might be able to replace the traumatic memory with an innocuous thought.

…although (and this isn’t addressed in the paper I cited above), it seems possible that you would instead link horrible emotions to the previously innocuous replacement thought you tried to overwrite your trauma with.  I’m not sure whether there’s any reason to expect the transfer to be unidirectional.

Ravivarmapress_Rama_familyAnd, right, I first began researching memory because it is integral to the Ramayana.  There’s an incident of brutal sexual violence (perpetrated by the heroes!!), which, right, often results in PTSD.  And there are less horrific instances of memory loss throughout the myth — the central protagonist has to forget his divine origin in order to be sufficiently human (i.e., weak) to slay the erudite vegetarian ruler of Lanka, and the heroic monkey has to forget his powers so that he doesn’t destroy sacred temples in his exuberant rampages.

So I had to put memory erasure into my book, despite this being beyond the ken of contemporary science.  My assumption was, if memories are accessed at a time when there is pharmaceutical destabilization of firing synapses or even just inhibition of synaptic connection reinforcement, those memories might well be diminished.  The biggest problem, from a pharmaceutical perspective, is one of targeting: epigenetic phosphorylation seems to be essential to maintain long-term memories, and inhibition of the phosphorylase that maintains them (PKMζ) seems to erase memories, but we can’t deliver an inhibitor specifically to potentiated synapses.  Memory erasure is still science fiction — but doesn’t seem to be unreachably far away.

On violence against women.

On violence against women.

This is the first in a series.  Read the second one here.

Quick caveat: this essay will be unpleasant. Given the title, you can probably guess the nature of the impending unpleasantness. So, if you think that’s a topic you shouldn’t be reading about right now, then you should skip this. IMG_0430

But it’s something I figured that I should eventually write an essay about. Because a major theme of my work is violence against women.  And this is a topic that I can’t easily claim I’m writing about just because it’s important in the Ramayana – my plan from the beginning was to write about violence against women, and a major incentive for me to work with the Ramayana was that it provides a good scaffolding to do so.

And I should also apologize right from the beginning that some of this will sound sacrilegious. Because, yes, the relationship between Rama and Sita is often put forward as the ideal. And it can seem crumby to have aspects of your religion analyzed in a critical light.

But for this project, I am trying to engage with The Ramayana as mythology first, rather than as a religious text. In the same way I’m engaging with The Bible as a collection of stories, and I’ll try to include some of that in this essay too: obviously the text underlying Christianity has many troubling instances of violence against women as well. As a minor justification for this view, I’d like to quote A.K. Ramanujan from his essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation,” in which he compares and contrasts many of the Ramayana variants that exist throughout South-east Asia.

“Thus, not only do we have one story told by Valmiki in Sanskrit, we have a variety of Rama tales told by others, with radical differences among them. Let me outline a few of the differences we have not yet encountered. For instance, in Sanskrit and in other Indian languages, there are two endings to the story. One ends with the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya, their capital, to be crowned king and queen of the ideal kingdom. In another ending, often considered a later addition in Valmiki and in Kampan, Rama hears Sita slandered as a woman who lived in Ravana’s grove, and in the name of his reputation as a king (we would call it credibility, I suppose) he banishes her to the forest, where she gives birth to twins.”

So, even when considering only the Valmiki Ramayana (the other variant mentioned in the quote above is typically referred to as the Kamba Ramayana, which was written in Tamil much later than the Valmiki Ramayana. I hope to write an essay about south Indian variants soon — other than its engagement with violence against women, the other biggest draw toward working with the Ramayana, for me, is the generally-discredited theory that it reflects historical conquest and was promulgated as a means of subjugating the conquered peoples of south India), there are multiple “texts.” And in some of them, Sita is not treated well. Honestly, my personal belief is that she isn’t treated well in any of them, but there are issues with viewing ancient stories through the lens of modern feminism.

Like, okay, here’s a passage from Sheldon Pollock’s translation of the Ayodhya Kanda (book 2 of the Ramayana), and I don’t think anyone from any culture would still agree that this inequality is something to celebrate:

“[Anasuya], too, felt delight when she saw how illustrious Sita was following the way of righteousness, and she cheered her, exclaiming, “How fortunate you have such high regard for righteousness! How fortunate you should abandon your kinfolk, your pride and wealth, proud Sita, to follow Rama when he was banished to the forest. A woman who holds her husband dear–whether he is in the city or the forest, whether he is good or evil–gains worlds that bring great blessings. To a woman of noble nature her husband is the supreme deity, however bad his character, however licentious or indigent he might be.”

Okay. Well. That was a pretty long preamble. But I think I might finally be ready to start writing this essay.

The basic gist of the Ramayana is that Sita was stolen away and Rama ventured forth to take her back, employing the aid of an army of monkeys. But unlike The Iliad, in which Menelaus was roughly innocent when Helen was stolen away (unless you count being a crumby husband as a valid transgression; in the text, that is not. But it’s probably fair to quote Churchill’s “History is written by the victors,” and point out that Menelaus was on the winning side. So Homer could stuff lines like “Brother-in-law of mine — of the bitch that I am, / a cause of evil, a curse and abomination — / it would have been better that when my mother first bore me / some evil storm wind had suddenly whirled me off / to the mountains or into the swell of the load-roaring sea / where the waves would have swept me away before all this happened.” into Helen’s mouth (this was taken from Stephen Mitchell’s translation — I wasn’t super keen on his rendition of The Odyssey, but his Iliad is fantastic. I think a lot of why I liked his Iliad much better than his Odyssey is that he writes action so well; the Iliad obviously gives him a lot more of that to work with), which does not seem like something she would have said. Equivalently, Rama is the victor in the Ramayana, which I think allows us to view Ravana’s dialogue, and even Sita’s attitude toward Ravana in the myth, with a skeptical eye), Rama and his brother clearly provoked the abduction of Sita.

Rama, his wife, and his favorite brother were living in a forest. Ravana’s sister, a sexually-empowered woman, happened by and thought the brothers were cute. Most variants of The Ramayana feature this woman, Surpanakha, propositioning the brothers in turn. Which obviously had to be punished: it’s unacceptable for women to be so wanton! (I should emphasize that I’ve referred to Supranakha as a woman, and generally refer to Ravana as a person also, even though they are often termed “ogres.” My word usage reflects that same oft-discredited theory that Ravana’s people are stand-ins for the Dravidians of south India, who were conquered by Caucasians from the north at about the same time as The Ramayana was written) Here’s a quote from Bhatti’s poem “The Death of Ravana,” translated by Oliver Fallon:

“He is without a wife; I am married. He will be a more fulfilling husband for you,” said Rama. “Go to him and do not leave him.” She lusted after Lakshmana and came at him again like a cow to a large bull, her mind unbalanced by the flight of Love’s arrows. As she sat splaying herself, Rama drew his sheathed sword ready to slash and rendered her face noseless.

To me, that passage brings to mind Susan Brownmiller’s thesis from her work “Against Our Will.” The idea that violence against women, particularly rape, is used as a tool to keep them from exceeding certain sphere’s of life that’s it’s deemed acceptable for them to participate in. Brownmiller has a lot of astute analysis in her book, along with a number of citations from literature to provide examples for her case; for instance, here’s a quote from “Miss Lonelyhearts,” Nathaniel West’s bleak novel about a newspaper advice columnist in New York, that Brownmiller brought my attention to:

One of them was complaining about the number of female writers.

“And they’ve all got three names,” he said. “Mary Roberts Wilcox, Ella Wheeler Catheter, Ford Mary Rinehart…”

Then someone started a train of stories by suggesting that what they all needed was a good rape.

“I knew a gal who was regular until she fell in with a group and went literary. She began writing for the little magazines about how much Beauty hurt her and ditched the boy friend who set up pins in a bowling alley. The guys on the block got sore and took her into the lots one night. About eight of them. They ganged her proper…”

“That’s like the one they tell about another female writer. When this hard-boiled stuff first came in, she dropped the trick English accent and went in for scram and lam. She got to hanging around with a lot of mugs in a speak, gathering material for a novel. Well, the mugs didn’t know they were picturesque and thought she was regular until the barkeep put them wise. They got her into the back room to teach her a new word and put the boots to her. They didn’t let her out for three days. On the last day they sold tickets to n—–s…”

Miss Lonelyhearts stopped listening. His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves.

Obviously this is an extreme example. But Brownmiller’s general point is that whenever men feel like the perquisites of their gender are threatened, sexual assault has generally increased. And the strategy often succeeds: a response to the well-publicized cases of sexual assault in India was to curtail the freedoms of women, ostensibly for their own protection. And even more often, women curtail their own freedoms out of fear. In that article, women discuss feeling compelled to dress more conservatively than they’d like. They stay in at night. They curtail other behaviors: Koss & Dinero studied predictors of sexual aggression in college males and found , unsurprisingly, that most sexual assaults were preceded by consensual kissing. As I think most people expect, the biggest dangers for sexual assault against women aren’t from strangers, but from people they know. Which is awful: for instance, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network has tips on reducing your risk of being assaulted, but a major piece of advice is “avoid isolated areas.” That can be tricky on dates. It can be tricky if you’re not safe at home: here’s a passage from the end of dream hampton‘s beautiful, harrowing essay in the volume “Black Cool“.

“Marvel and two other tall boys were yelling through our heavy wooden locked door, through the thunder and rain, for my brother to open up. I told my brother he better not even think of it. My brother looked at me, on the stairs, and then again through the window, where Marvel was threatening his life should he not open the door, and he did something that still makes my heart sink: He opened the door and let the outside in. The three boys, who were all older than sixteen (I’d learn this later, from Friend of the Court documents) pushed my brother aside the moment he cracked the door and chased me upstairs, where I was hoping to lock myself in my room and use the fire escape ladder my dad had bought me to run to my neighbor Ms. Erma’s, across the street. I remember having that plan in my head. But they ran faster than I did. And were stronger. And they threw me on the bed in the playroom, where Bo sat frozen, and pulled off my panties. There was an attempt, many attempts, to pin me down, to keep my legs from kicking, but I would not stop kicking. I kicked and I punched and I screamed and I spat and I squirmed. …. …. I’ve told this story three times. To my two best friends and to a lover I trust. In my sister circle where I sit, or the many friendships where my girlfriends have asked me to witness the telling of their own rape stories, I’ve stayed silent. I always feared my not being raped because I refused to stop fighting would seem an indictment of their stories. But I don’t feel that way. I don’t believe they weren’t strong enough or should have fought if they didn’t or that their rapes were in any way their fault. But I never tell my own story, because of a kind of survivor’s guilt. That, and the deep contempt I hold for Bo and my brother.”

Then, of course, there is the fallout; will a victim of sexual assault have even the minor consolation of seeing her assailant brought to justice? Which obviously has important implications for the safety of others: those who commit sexual assault tend to be very likely to do it again. But reporting sexual assault has been very difficult throughout history, has often resulted in further harm done to the original victim, and rarely results in justice. Here’s a single example to start off with: submitting a rape kit is an arduous process, but some victims go through with it hoping to keep others safe. DNA testing is relatively inexpensive and could identify patterns of repeat assault and in some cases directly identify criminals. Unfortunately, ending sexual assault has not been a high priority for police departments in the United States, judging by their behavior. After women went through the ordeal of submitting a kit, many many kits have gone untested in this country. That is, police put the bagged samples onto a shelf in the back of their evidence room and simply forgot about it.

Or there are the trials themselves, if a sexual assault case even makes it to trial. Which, right, because women have often been considered property and not people in U.S. law, has its own set of peculiarities. Like, if you’re a victim, you don’t get a lawyer. You are simply a witness on behalf of the state: the government charges the perpetrator on your behalf. And there are no rules regarding the sort of personal information that can be raised about witnesses in the courtroom. Witnesses have few protections, any and all personal details about them may be introduced in the courtroom, and in many sexual assault trials they can be sharply berated — while crying — on the witness stand. I discussed some of this for trials with child witnesses in an earlier essay about a similarly horrible topic; you should feel free to read that too if you’re not yet miserable enough. But, right, defendants, i.e. those who commit crimes and then go to trial, have many more protections. For instance, even if a defendant’s past shows behavior that might persuade the jury that this person might be inclined to commit sexual assault — such as past instances in which the person did commit sexual assault — that information is not allowed to be introduced into the courtroom. Despite all the data showing the prevalence of repeat offenders, a jury is not allowed to know whether the accused in fact is a repeat offender.

But the trials are less horrible for victims than they used to be: here is a passage from Martin Van Creveld’s “Wargames“:

The most famous case of this kind unfolded in France in 1385-6 and is known to us from Froissart as well as numerous other sources. The story started when Marguerite, the young and beautiful wife of a Norman nobleman, Jean de Carrouges, told her husband that during his absence from their chateau she had been raped. The perpetrator was one Jacques Le Gris, another nobleman well known to the couple. Though inferior in rank, he was wealthier and well-connected. Carrouges’ first step was to ask for justice at the hands of the local count. Having failed to get it, he went to Paris, consulted a lawyer, and begged the youthful King Charles VI to allow him to confront his enemy in battle. The matter was ferred to Parliament which launched a formal inquest, and after several months’ deliberations granted the request: clearly it was felt that, in the absence of witnesses, combat was the only way to find out the truth. Preparations were made to hold the event at Saint-Martin-des-Champs, a well-known Paris monastery. Its extensive grounds included a large field long used for the purpose and capable of holding as many as 10,000 spectators.

On December 29, 1386 a huge crowd gathered. In attendance were the king, his uncles, members of the high nobility, senior prelates and magistrates, and thousands of others. The most important spectator was Marguerite herself. Dressed in black and seated in a black carriage, she would face immediate execution (by burning) for bringing false accusations if her husband lost his fight.

Right. Let that sink in a moment.

And, here. As a tiny treat — because, look, I realize this essay is unpleasant, but I’m actually showing a good deal of restraint in terms of not citing numerous other unpleasantries — here are a few details about how the above contest would transpire, also from Van Creveld’s work:

“In all this, great care was taken to ensure equity and what today might be called transparency. Each protagonist had to swear a solemn oath that his case was just [which, right… minor note… you noticed, I assume, that it was the victim’s husband who was involved in the “trial” in the preceding passage, right? That’s because his property was damaged. It’d be senseless for the woman to testify on her own behalf because she was an object, owned by her father if unmarried and owned by her husband if married. Widows have often faired ill through history, and had a strong incentive to remarry]. In case he lost, that meant he would automatically be held guilty of perjury as well. Things were so arranged that neither combatant would have the sun in his eyes. The use of concealed weapons was prohibited. So was wearing magic prayers and charms on one’s body; if it is true that the combats were understood as the judgement of God, it is also true that supernatural interference was forbidden and, to the extent possible, prevented.”

Okay. The ancient judicial system strip-searching people for charms to make sure that no angels or demons would interfere with a fight… that’s something I can contentedly ponder. Much happier than thinking about Marguerite having to watch her husband fight her rapist to the death, knowing that if her husband lost people would declare her accusation to be slander and burn her alive.

Which, just in case you were wondering, her husband won. She lived.

But others didn’t.

Of course, in my own work I’ve permitted myself a little fantasy in making my world less bleak than our actual world has been and, in many ways, still is. Because it’s crushing, honestly: so far I’ve managed to type out only about a third of my planned essay on violence against women, and that feels like more than enough for today. So, yes, there’s this horrible stuff in my book, but it’s unrealistic in that it’s not awful enough. I hope that’s okay.

On immortality.


In my last essay, I mentioned Ravana’s boon.  Immunity to harm from gods.  But that wasn’t what he wanted.  Here’s another quotation from the Uttara-kanda, this time from the Robert Biggs translation (it’s less literal than the Dutt translation, which means fewer bizarre sentences.  Less poetic, though.  But I definitely appreciate that he did all that work and then posted it online, free of charge):

“[Ravana]* fasted for ten thousand years, and at the end of each thousand years he offered one of his heads into a sacrificial fire.  In this way he passed nine thousand years and offered nine of his heads into the sacrificial fire.  At the end of ten thousand years when he was about to cut off his tenth head, Lord Brahma appeared before him.  Very satisfied by [Ravana]’s austerities, Lord Brahma stood there accompanied by other demigods.  Then he said: ‘O [Ravana], I am so pleased with you.  Quickly choose the boon you desire, O knower of what is right.  What desire should I now fulfill.  Your effort should not go in vain.’  Then, with an overjoyed heart [Ravana] bowed his head and replied in a faltering voice: ‘O lord, the greatest fear for living beings is death.  I choose immortality.’  When requested in that way, Lord Brahma replied: ‘You cannot have complete immortality, therefore ask me for some other boon.’

*The name used for Ravana throughout that passage is Dashagriva, which means “Ten-necked one.”  I substituted it throughout.  And, right, maybe it’s worth quoting just the final lines of the Dutt translation of that passage, cause it’s rather more abrupt in its denial: “Thus accosted, Brahma spoke to the Ten-necked one, ‘You can not be immortal.  Do you therefore ask of me some other boon.’ ”

So, the dude did all that meditating; once he was getting offered gifts, he wanted eternal life.  And Brahma, like most gods, was not thrilled at the request.  Jehovah was equally ticked at the prospect of his newly-enlightened playthings gaining immortality: here’s a passage from the King James Bible:

“And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

So, people want to live forever, and gods aren’t going to help them do it.  That sounds like a job for science!  Indeed, many laboratories are researching ways to extend lifespan.  I don’t think any bioscientists imagine their efforts will ever result in immortality — that’s more a computer science aim than a bioscience one at the moment; here’s a reasonable introductory review into the study of human connectomes — but it seems pretty clear that they’re hoping their work can aid human longevity.  Which I get, obviously, despite my penchant for Malthusian pessimism (“Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.  Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.  Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.  A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.”Thomas Malthus, a legendary curmudgeon).

CaptureLike there’s my graduate school baymate (the way our labs were set up was pairs of desks tucked into long alcoves of bench space, so there always wound up being one person who you talked to and collaborated with most), who planned to study lobsters after getting his doctorate: lobsters have limited senescence.  That is, they show fewer signs of aging than humans do; if we were more like lobsters, perhaps nursing homes would be rowdier places.  Of course, they’d needed to widen the hallways, reinforce the floors, etc., but I’m sure that’d seem like a fair trade for a little bit more vivacity.  Currently my buddy isn’t actually working on lobsters – he’s pursuing research more likely to help people in the near term – but someday maybe he’ll get back to it.

But the research into lobsters is focused on figuring out why they live a long time.  And there are similar studies focused on the secrets of other long-lived creatures; the most recent one I caught was a paper on whales.  The authors analyzed the bowhead whale genome and found that there might be extra copies of some DNA repair enzymes, and less of certain metabolic proteins (like a premature stop codon in a protein named UCP1 that generates heat).  About what you might expect: if you want to live a long time, DNA repair is good, metabolism is bad.  And it’s interesting, sure, but, again, unlikely to extend lifespan in the near future.  Good-lookin’ droids, but not the droids Ravana was looking for… anything that comes from that work will help other people a long time from now.  And that’s no good.  Honestly, interrogate any Malthusian and eventually they’ll tell you: the problem with longevity is that everyone else might attain it too.  If there were an a magic plant to provide immortality to just me, right here and now, then that’d be fine.  Unless a serpent happened by and stole it.  Then I’d probably be sad and start to weep.

But in the meantime, we’ve got some strategies for life extension to discuss!  Things that you could try today.  Like perfusion with hydrogen sulfide.  That’s right – inhale a horrible toxin in order to live!

(Don’t actually try this, by the way.  Hydrogen sulfide isn’t good for you.)

The first study using hydrogen sulfide to lower metabolic rate was done in Mark Roth’s lab: they were gorking mice with it, the idea being that a low metabolic rate, low oxygen consumption, etc., might make you more likely to survive massive blood loss or nasty surgery without physiological damage ... if you’re not in a suspended animation-like state and you experience hypoxia, bad things happen to your brain.

Figure 2A, Miller and Roth (2007).

Or course, that’s all for acute episodes dosed with hydrogen sulfide.  The Roth lab also did a study where they raised worms with or without 50 parts per million hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere, and the worms with hydrogen sulfide lived longer (see Figure 2A for a nifty graph).

The next strategy is to supplement your diet with glucosamine.  This is an inhibitor of glycolysis: roughly speaking, the process by which your cells turn food into energy.  Work done in Michael Ristow’s lab showed that when mice were fed glucosamine every day for the bulk of their lives, they lived a little longer (see Figure 3C for the nifty graph).   And they presented significance testing for whether or not lifespan was increased… but didn’t mention a percentage for how much longer the mice lived.  Glancing at it, I’d say not much.  But some!  A little bit more time!

Figure 3C, Weimer et al. (2014).

Or there’s caloric restriction.  Caloric restriction is something that’d be more reasonable for you to try at home than the whole huffing hydrogen sulfide thing, although I still wouldn’t recommend it.  Even though there’ve been very promising results in a variety of species… even in humans, so if you happened to decide today that this is something you’d want to do, the evidence is on your side.  Massively reduce the amount you eat and you might live longer.  Or not.  Caloric restriction also sounds a lot like anorexia, which causes horrible health problems.  Good job, photoshop!  And it’s apparently tricky to balance caloric restriction to be exactly right to promote lifespan without succumbing to all those anorexia-related health problems.

But in summary, it seems to be metabolism that kills you.  Oxygen eventually destroys cells.  And mitosis, which has to occur to replace your cells, involves doubling your DNA, which can never be 100% error-free.  So once you live enough, you’ll die.

The current strategies used to extend life – hydrogen sulfide, glucosamine, caloric restriction – seem primarily to slow metabolism.  So I don’t really think you’d be getting much more life.  You would persist in the world for more time, but would you be having more fun?  Would the integral of your fun vs. time graph over your entire lifespan even match that of someone living faster and less healthily?

I mean, I know my answer.  Not that I’m particularly unhealthy, but I volunteer as an assistant coach for the high school long distance runners, which means I go out and run with them a couple times a week, which means my metabolism works pretty hard.  I’m using up my heartbeats young; I won’t live forever.  But I still like doing it; I like running and I like running with them, talking with kids on the team, trying to make their time in high school a little less horrible than mine was.

img466psAnd as a last salvo for this essay, it might be worth quoting at one more curmudgeonly writer who’s pointed out some of the flaws in the whole “help everyone live longer” scheme: good old Jack Vance, whose debut novel “To Live Forever” is the best allegory for pursuing a tenure-track academic career I’ve ever read.  Seriously, if that’s your gig, you should check it out.  Yes, Jack Vance wrote pulp, but he was still a great stylist (it’s taking a great deal of restraint on my part not to quote a passage from his “Eyes of the Overworld” here… maybe I’ll try to find a way to work it in to a later, shorter essay) and the world he describes in “To Live Forever” feels eerily familiar to me, despite Vance having never taken part in it.  Here, I’ll quote a few passages from the beginning of that book: as you read, perhaps you’ll want to imagine modern terms like “impact factor” or “citation tracker” where he wrote “slope.”

At this time the word “slope” was charged with special meaning.  Slope was a measure of a man’s rise through the phyle; it traced the shape of his past, foretold the time of his passing.  By the strictest definition, slope was the angle of a man’s life line, the derivative of his achievements with respect to his age.

The Fair-Play Act carefully defined the conditions of advance.  A child was born without phyle identification.  At any time after the age of sixteen he might register in the Brood, thus submitting to the provisions of the Fair-Play Act.

If he chose not to register, he suffered no penalty and lived a natural life without benefit of the Grand-Union treatments, to an average age of 82.  These persons were the “glarks,” and commanded only small social status.

The Fair-Play Act established the life span of the Brood equal to the average life span of a non-participator–roughly 82 years.  Attaining Wedge, a man underwent the Grand-Union process halting bodily degeneration, and was allowed an added ten years of life.  Reaching Third, he won sixteen more years; Verge, another twenty years.  Breaking through into Amaranth brought the ultimate reward.

To apply this formula to the record of each individual, an enormous calculating machine called the Actuarian was constructed.  Besides calculating and recording, the Actuarian printed individual life charts on demand, revealing to the applicant the slope of his lifeline, its proximity either to the horizontal boundary of the next phyle, or the vertical terminator.

If the lifeline crossed the terminator, the Emigration Officer and his assassins carried out the grim duties required of them by the Act.  It was ruthless, but it was orderly–and starkly necessary.

The system was not without its shortcomings.  Creative thinkers tended to work in proved fields, to shun areas which might prove barren of career-points.  The arts became dominated by academic standards; nonconformity, fantasy and nonsense were produced only by the glarks–also much that was macabre and morose.

So, as soon as humans learned how to live forever — Jack Vance postulates an uploading methodology similar to the connectome-based schemes I linked to earlier — there had to be a way of determining which humans would live.  And it’s at that point that many of the most promising candidates would resort to conservative behavior; better to inch toward success than swing with all your might and maybe miss.  Better to propose a project that you know will yield something than to throw all your effort into a grand scheme and maybe come up with nothing. No publication, no grants, no tenure.

On memory (part 1).

On memory (part 1).

Memory plays an important role in my book.  Because, yeah, it’s fascinating, but also, you guessed it, because it’s important in the Ramayana.

3611588371_6f672501feOne way to tell the story of the Ramayana would be to say that it’s about the gods’ effort to stop Ravana: dude practiced mighty austerities and so the gods were forced to give him a prize.  Apparently there’s a system where your goodness here on Earth causes the divine thrones to heat up, and eventually those thrones get absolutely unbearable to sit in, so a god swoops down and offers you a prize and you’re basically exchanging your goodness for that reward – the gods’ thrones cool off again.  And the prize Ravana won was immunity to harm from the gods.

But then they wanted to kill him.  The gods did.  Dude got too uppity, and they were having none of that.  So how does a god kill someone who’s immune from harm from gods?  You have to incarnate yourself as a human and totally forget that you’re divine.  And that forgetting is the important part – every now and then you might enact divine feats, and so have an inkling of remembrance that maybe you’re not quite human, but if so you’ll have to wait longer to let that memory fade before battling that immune-from-gods enemy of yours.  Only while you feel absolutely human can you fight.

Some people think all the delays in Rama’s journey to rescue Sita were enacted to give him enough time to forget, to become sufficiently un-godlike that he’d be able to fight Ravana and win.  Or, here’s a passage relating one of my favorite memory-lapse stories from the Ramayana, related in the Uttara Kanda: Hanuman became very powerful, at which point he started destroying things, at which point his brain had to be zapped so that he’d only remember his powers when necessary, and not tromp all over the monasteries like a raging kaiju.Hanuman_Vatika_Rourkela

Having obtained boons Hanuman became highly and powerful and accelerated in himself.  He became full like ocean, O’ Rama.

Having become powerful, the best of Mongoloids, started committing offences against Maharsis in their hermitages.

He broke the sacrificial ladles and vessels and also the heaps of banks belonging to the ascetics.

That powerful hanuman did all this type of jobs.  He was made invulnerable to all kinds of weapons by Siva.

Having known this all the Rsis tolerated him, the son of Kesari and Anjana.

Even though prohibited by his father, Hanuman crossed the limits which enraged the Rsis of the lines of Bhrgu and Angira and bestowed curse upon him.  O best of the Raghus.

That you will be unconscious of the prowess endowed with which you torment us.  You will be conscious of your power only after being reminded of it.

Thereupon, having devoid of prowess and glory, he used to wander in the hermitages silently and decently.

So, I had to learn about memory.  And I won’t go into much detail about it in this essay… I assume memory is a sufficiently complicated phenomenon that I can write about it twice, right?  For this essay, I just wanted to present a quote from Oliver Sack’s book “Hallucinations” because it both introduces the theory that memory is malleable – that is, every act of remembrance will change a memory, in some ways layering the very fact of remembering over the thing being remembered – and it gives me an opportunity to write about Proust.

    Penfield’s notion of actual memories or experiences being reactivated has been disputed.  We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.

    For Gowers and his contemporaries in the early twentieth century, memories were imprints in the brain (as for Socrates they were analogous to impressions made in soft wax)–imprints that could be activated by the act of recollection.  It was not until the crucial studies of Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s that this classical view could be disputed.  Whereas Ebbinghaus and other early investigators had studied rote memory–how many digits could be remembered, for instance–Bartlett presented his subjects with pictures or stories and then questioned and requestioned them over a period of months.  Their accounts of what they had seen or heard were somewhat different (and sometimes quite transformed) on each re-remembering.  these experiments convinced Bartlett to think in terms not of a static thing called “memory,” but rather a dynamic process of “remembering.”  He wrote:

    “Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces.  It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience… It is thus hardly ever really exact.”

So, most of that quotation is totally uncontroversial by now.  The idea that neural connections can become stronger or weaker with every remembrance, which changes the memories themselves.  But the thing I take issue with, in that, is the idea that for Proust memory was static.

CaptureMarcel Proust did write about memories springing forth unbidden when he re-experienced an uncommon phenomenon, things like a particular smell, or particular sound, or particular physical imbalance while walking.  But his work as it currently exists (well… more specifically, his work as it exists in English translation, since that’s the only language I know how to read) does reflect mnemonic instability.  By the end of the book, for instance, Dr. Cottard keeps dying and returning to life; here, let me quote a line + endnote from the Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright translation of “The Captive & The Fugitive” (which, no, I’m not sure who wrote the endnotes):

“However, one of Cottard’s pupils…”

“Oh, by the way, I never offered you my condolences: he was carried off very quickly, poor fellow!”

“Ah, yes, there we are, he died, as everyone has to.  He’d killed enough people for it to be his turn to have a bit of his own medicine.”*

* Cottard will nevertheless reappear — indeed at this same soiree — to die during the Great War, in Time Regained.

Or there’s this endnote from the Mayor / Kilmartin / Enright translation of “Time Regained”:

* This passage is also rather surprising, since Rachel has been identified several pages before.  All such inconsistencies are attributable to Proust’s endless additions to his original text.  He died before he had time to resolve the resulting confusions.

… but to me, having Cottard cycle between death and life actually increases the veracity of the book.  Because it’s so easy to mix up stories in our memories… telling a story to someone and including as one of the principal actors a friend of yours whom you hadn’t met, for instance.  That type of chronological mix-up seems pretty common, and yet we can vividly picture the involvement of a friend who couldn’t possibly have been there.  And I like to think that those “errors,” the life/death cycling of Dr. Cottard, for instance, are things Proust should have kept in his book even if he’d had more time to work on it.  Because memory isn’t perfect, and he describes so many phenomena of memory well that I like to imagine his imperfections are intentional as well.

… Perhaps that last paragraph would be improved by appending that quote from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” that a lot of people like: “A man of genius makes no mistakes.  His errors are volitional and are the portals to discovery.”  But if I were going to quote Joyce, those aren’t the lines I’d pick – they are from the section of his book I like, Stephen Dedalus’s riff on Shakespeare, but I don’t agree with that particular sentiment.  Everybody makes mistakes, and the stuff I liked about the end of “In Search of Lost Time” probably wasn’t intentional and might’ve been “fixed” if Proust had lived longer, so I’d rather just celebrate that sometimes we make inadvertent beauty.  If I was quoting Joyce I’d rather find a way to work in this excellent chunk of ribaldry (which has the added virtue of being quoted for the OED’s entry for “scortatory” – definitely a fun word):

Revolutionary_Joyce_Better_Contrast“Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland.  His life was rich.  His art, more than the art of feudalism, as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit.  Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberries pigeons, ringcandies, Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays.  The gombeen woman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba.  Twenty years he dallied there between conjugal love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures.  You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III.”