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 the dangers of reading.

On the dangers of reading.

During most of human evolution, children died regularly.  In some cultures, the risk was so high that children weren’t named until they’d survived their second birthday.

But the advent of modern medicine – vaccines, antibiotics, sterile technique – has dramatically reduced childhood mortality.  Wealthy parents in the U.S. expect their children to survive.  And yet, this expectation can increase anxiety.  Families are smaller; children are less replaceable.  Parents pour so much of themselves into children’s early years that we’d be devastated if something went wrong.

And so modern parents hover.  Rather than letting children roam free, comforted by the thought that out of six kids, surely one will be fine, wealthy parents in the U.S. strive to control the development of their one or two offspring.

In the book On Immunity, Eula Biss describes how difficult it can be to relinquish that control.

CaptureI already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born.  As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory.  Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time.  “Unclean!  Unclean!” my mind screamed.

Because I didn’t breastfeed my child, I glossed over this passage when I first read it.  Even early on, I sometimes used water to dilute the milk that my partner pumped at work – when my kid was thirsty, I needed to offer something.

But I found myself thinking about this passage recently, when our eldest learned to read.  Our family loves books – we’ve probably read to our children for an hour or more each day, and they spend more time flipping through the pages on their own.

When I read to my kids, I reflexively alter texts.  In our version of James Marshall’s Fox on the Job, Fox had a bicycle accident while showing off for “his friends,” not “the girls.”  In Fox is Famous, a character bemoans the challenges of baton twirling by saying “I’m just not good at this yet,” that (unprinted) final word used to convey a growth mindset.

Go_dog_go_hat.jpgAnd our kids would probably be puzzled by Raquel D’Apice’s essay about Go Dog Go because the voices I’ve used while reading led them to assume that the pink poodle was a fashionable male asking a female friend for advice (“Well, maybe he doesn’t have a mirror at home,” I explained when N was curious, “Why does he keep asking that?”).

I could control the stereotypes that my children were fed.

But books are dangerous!  At the beginning of summer, our eldest learned how to read.  A week later, I hid all the Calvin and Hobbes.  She loves these!  So do I.  But four is too young to really understand concepts like “irony” or “anti-hero” – her behavior promptly tanked in mimicry of Calvin.

About a week after that, I hid the Peanuts.  And Garfield (“He shouldn’t kick Odie off the table, right?  Just like you shouldn’t have hit your sibling”).

She loves comics, but the only books we kept out were good, wholesome Mutts by vegan artist Patrick McDonnell.

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And I hid others, like James Howe’s Howliday Inn (too scary – she could hardly sleep that night).  We look over the front-page headlines of our local newspaper before deciding whether it can be left on the table.

Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’ve felt a little sad to see my child venture off into the intellectual world of books without me.  I still worry what she’s ready for.

For much of human history, the paternal impulse to restrict access to books was blatantly evil.  The medieval Christian church was reticent to use local languages because then poor people could interpret religious precepts for themselves.  And the written word was considered exceptionally dangerous in the U.S.  It was illegal to teach literacy to the people who were being tortured on sweltering plantations.

I’d like to think that my motivation for wanting to sculpt my child’s library is more benign.  More akin, perhaps, to the scientists dismayed when the untrained general public dabble with misleadingly curated excerpts from research journals.

On Immunity documents the efforts that Eula Biss made to learn about vaccination.  She writes that:

vaccinationUnvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more – like my child.

The mothers I knew began debating whether or not to vaccinate our children against the novel influenza virus long before any vaccine became available to us.

Another mother said that her child had screamed frighteningly all night following her first vaccination and she would not risk another vaccination of any kind.

Although many of these women have received extensive schooling in the humanities, and clearly care deeply for their offspring, they are putting lives at risk, including those of their own children.

It’s possible to remain ignorant even after extensive schooling.

Cattle_herdWhen my son was six months old, at the peak of the H1N1 flu pandemic, another mother told me that she did not believe in herd immunity.  It was only a theory, she said, and one that applied mainly to cows.  That herd immunity was subject to belief had not yet occurred to me, though there is clearly something of the occult in the idea of an invisible cloak of protection cast over the entire population.

In Biss’s social circle, people doubted demonstrable principles.  Herd immunity, like the theory of evolution, is not only correct, it is the mathematical implication of uncontroversial assumptions.  In the case of herd immunity, that viral diseases are communicable and that severe symptoms tend to make a virus more contagious.  In the case of evolution, that the DNA replication process producing gametes has a non-zero error rate, that heritable DNA gives rise to traits, and that individuals with different traits might have different numbers of offspring (perhaps because one critter was eaten as a child, whereas the other survived).

But the people making ignorant decisions in Biss’s social circle certainly don’t think of themselves as ignorant.  After all, they’re trying their best to stay informed.  They aren’t scientists, but they read.  They look up information, ingest it as best they can, and try to make good decisions.

When people read (and spin) articles in scientific journals without putting forth the effort to understand what the data really mean, they create an incentive for scientists to hide their findings.  Sometimes there are caveats to the truth.  For instance, each year’s flu vaccine is often much less effective than other vaccinations.  Some years, the flu vaccine is dramatically ineffective.

I read that report – then went and got my vaccination.

If people are using papers like this as propaganda, though – trying, for whatever reason, to convince people not to get vaccinated (you want an evil conspiracy theory?  Vaccines are cheap, and they prevent deadly, expensive illnesses.  Are wealthy imbeciles recommending you forgo vaccination simply so that you’ll need to pay for more medical care?) – it stifles scientific discourse.

Every scientist knows that vaccines are helpful.  They write papers about the rare failures in order to make vaccines even more helpful.  But nobody wants to provide fodder for the ignoramuses to distort.

Roald Dahl wrote an open letter urging parents to have their children vaccinated.  He describes his own family’s tragedy – before a vaccine was developed, his seven-year-old daughter died of measles.  He thought she was getting better; he was wrong.

Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious.  In twelve hours, she was dead.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach.  That was when she was still alive.  The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles.  You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books.  And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

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