May 30, 2008
Neuroscience, Cognition and Extinction 3
The last two entries dealt with how an uplanned ad-hoc study of a drug using population relates to a fundamental, and still unresolved controversy dating back to the origins of empirical science. Stated succinctly, that controversy is whether the universe (cosmos) was created by a “supreme being” or its origins are still uncertain. The former idea, still an item of faith for the three major monotheistic religions, is that an anthropomorphic god not only created the universe, but maintains an interest in the behavior of individual humans.
The scientific alternative, as it has evolved from about the time of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, now holds that such a belief has been rendered optional by the technology-enabled observations of Science. A critical political corollary, that systems of government should not force religious beliefs on their populations, was formally articulated in the then-revolutionary US Constitution 150 years later, but continues to be vigorously disputed by all three montheistic religions despite their own continued, and frequently murderous, sectarian conflicts.
Intrinsic to the extended controversy between Science and Religion, and relating directly to notions of our accountability to a creator, is whether or not human behavior is “naturally” (fundamentally) moral. That such concerns are of increasing importance to the welfare of our species should be obvious from a quick survey of curent domestic and international events, yet it’s also quite clear from the way certain intractable problems are not being dealt with that as our human population has been increasing, the various disputes dividing us have become ever more intractable, even as our scientific knowledge has been expanding at a staggering rate.
My purpose here is nothing less than proposing that America’s drug policy, a.k.a. the “war on drugs” could serve as an ideal model for identifying the important cognitive anomalies that now threaten the welfare of our species. Implicit in that concept is the notion that although Science has recently been able to identify several previously unsuspected threats to life on Earth, the most pressing may be one we have both the greatest responsibility for and the best opportunity to control: the fear-driven competitive behavior that so clearly threatens our survival.
May 28, 2008
Neuroscience, Cognition and Extinction 2
The last entry touched on relationships between the brain and how we think and behave. It also ventured a quick overview of cognition and ended with the hint that man’s unquestioning embrace of empirical science and his exploitation of the technology it has generated may have may been, at best, a mixed blessing because scientific advances have served to exacerbate two of the modern world’s most pressing problems: overpopulation and pollution. Although those admittedly controversial opinions may not be shared by many, they can be logically (and readily) inferred from the unique study of pot smokers I’ve been engaged in screening since late 2001 and blogging about since the Spring of 2005.
Ironically, much of my confidence in the study’s reliability is based on the fact that when it began, I was in complete agreement with many of the misconceptions now being parroted by media and public officials throughout California; namely that “valid” medical use undoubtedly exists, but there is still too much “recreational” use and we must rely on police to control it, especially in the case of “kids” (adolescents).
Using the 1988 ruling of Judge Francis Young (promptly overruled by his DEA administrative superiors) as a starting point, those arguments date from the rescheduling petition filed by NORML in June, 1986 and argued before Young for two years before his enlightened decision was rendered. My study suggests that not only was Young correct, but also prescient. That he could have been so promptly overruled by his DEA superiors and his findings so quickly forgotten by the public points up a critical weakness in our system of government.
What (gradually) became even more of a surprise than the study’s findings, was their apparent failure to attract attention from the two groups with most at stake. The first is the federal government, which has been spending billions of tax dollars each year in a failing effort to discourage adolescents from trying pot, as well as to paper over multiple other drug war failures. In the other camp are several drug policy “reform” organizations (a majority of whose memers smoke pot) united in their outrage at the drug war, plus the fact that, thus far, they have been unable to mobilize public opinion against it.
The opportunity to do a systematic study of a controversial behavior had been a no-brainer when I discovered that every Californian seeking my approval to use “Marijuana” in 2001 was already a chronic user; especially after further questioning revealed they shared several other characteristics. I eventually had the study published, but while writing it up, I encountered such an intense negative response from some former colleagues that I was eventually moved to find out why. This blog reflects how that effort has led me even further afield, into the exotic territory of consciousness, cognition, and cosmology. In any event, the availability of behavioral information that had been taboo for over forty years at a time when search engines are becoming more powerful by the week and the databases they search are expanding at an equivalent rate, may have made this the best time ever for such an exploration.
Two of study's clearest inferences are that our emotions, which clearly exert a powerful influence on behavior throughout our lives, appear to be decisively shaped by childhood experiences in many instances. That alone would explain federal indifference: why would the guardians of a failing policy publicize a study they can't rebut by attacking it? At the same time, the hostile indifference of reform is best understood by the fact that NORML has never claimed its members use pot to cope with anxiety; only because it's innocent fun.
May 26, 2008
Neuroscience, Cognition and Extinction
Over the second half of the Twentieth Century, “Neuroscience” has gradually evolved into the term most often used for the still-expanding, somewhat motley cluster of disciplines studying the brain with particular reference to behavior. That some of those disciplines are strange bedfellows is both obvious and understandable: as more became known about the physical brain in the mid Twentieth Century, it attracted increasing interest from “hard” sciences like Neurophysiology, Molecular Biology, Pharmacology, and Genetics. To the extent behavior later became an issue, “softer” disciplines like Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology were called on to contribute. Several other fields, Economics and Criminology, for example, although not traditionally thought of as sciences, became involved as their behavioral implications became more appreciated.
Also, declaration of a federal “war” on illegal drugs almost forty years ago has had a number of sweeping, and generally under-appreciated, influences on both Amercan and global behavior.
There is now general awareness that our unique cognitive function is what allows humans to choose a particular course of action from among several alternatives. Although many other animals also make choices; none do so to a comparable degree; our modern ability to store information in digital form and then retrieve it using computers was foreshadowed at least three million years ago when an early hominid ancestor began walking upright. More recently, in the past 100,000 to 200,000 years, still younger ancestors began migrating from Africa and eventually spread worldwide. At what precise point they became Genus homo and developed speech is unknown, but impressive Cro-magnon cave art began appearing in Europe thirty thousand years ago; and though we don’t have solid evidence of writing for another several thousand years, we know it was at least four thousand years after the last Ice Age is thought to have ended.
All the above information was unknown to the “modern” humans who started the separate Agricultural Revolutions that took place in a variety of hospitable temperate climates around the world over an extended interval. Unfortunately, most who write aout the “agricultural revolution” as a phenomenon seldom stress the (obvious) fact that similar insights had to have occurred in several different parts of the world and then developed in conformity with local conditions.
The complex relationships between agriculture, modern belief systems, writing, and human organizations become obvious when we realize that without the security, stability and leisure provided by a guaranteed food supply, modern societies would simply not have developed. On the other hand, the development of densely populated cities in several different parts of the "ancient" world over a span of thousands of years has provided anthroplologists, historians, archeologists, and linguists with an abundance of information about the belief systems under which they both prospered and declined. The accumulated evidence discloses that while human interactions have always featured the same elements they do today, namely competition, warfare, natural disasters, and epidemics, there was also "progress" of a sort in terms of irregular trade and cultural exchanges between regions. However "globalization" didn't really begin until the Fifteenth Century when the aggressive European voyages of exploration and conquest that would extend to the entire globe and usher in modern times became enabled by the first stirrings of modern Science.
Within a relatively short time, the combination of religion, advances in transportation, and European colonization had produced the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth Century that would profoundly shape our modern world by expanding its population while mindlessly pursuing policies of short term exploitation on the basis of racial and religious beliefs.
In the next installment I'll go over why evidence from an opportunistic study of pot users suggests human behavior is not only flawed by its emotional component, but it's that component we need to compensate for if we hope to give ourselves (our species) its best chance for long term survival.
May 23, 2008
I’m No Economist, But.. (Personal)
Like most others who have been reading newspapers and magazines for more than a few decades, I’ve followed economic news on an as-needed basis. Because the BA I earned as a pre-med hadn’t required Economics 101 and I had little interest to begin with, I gratefully avoided it; all of which makes it very improbable that I may be among the first to notice major changes that seem to be overtaking the American economy.
Actually; I think critical contributing changes have been discernible for decades, but because they were obscured by our usual focus on competition and the accumulation of material wealth, their connections to each other haven't always been noticed; much like other phenomena I’ve been blogging about. Similarly, they only came to my attention through a series of unexpected (some would even say off-the-wall) insights.
Human cognition is inevitably biased and contentious; a fact that becomes very obvious when one examines the role ideology has always played, and still plays, in the shaping of History. It also helps to realize that religious belief is the most prevalent form of ideology and that “godless” sectarian doctrines (Nazism or Communism, for example) are completely interchangeable with those of any “organized” religion.
Also, whatever we humans may think privately, there is overwhelming historical evidence that those responsible for repressions as inhumane as the Spanish Inquisition, American chattel slavery, or the Nazi Holocaust have all claimed that their actions, like the current suspension of the Constitution on behalf of our War on Terror, are necessary for some greater good.
That such arguments can be effective over a protracted interval in a nation claiming to be the bastion of Democracy is evidenced by the four-fold increase in our prisoner population in the slightly less than four decades since a drug war became American national policy.
A Different Perspective on Medical Economics
Among several things I gradually (and irregularly) became aware of as a surgeon entering private practice in 1971 after thirteen years in the Army were how changes attributable to three discrete developments had drastically altered the practice of Medicine. One was how the miniaturization and electronic research required by the Space Program had accelerated development of pacemakers, hemodialysis, and other expensive technical advances that also prolonged the lives of the elderly and indigent patients just being covered by Medicare. Thus had legislation bitterly opposed by the AMA in 1965 created a bonanza that would allow a burgeoning Healthcare Industry to displace physicians from their traditional leadership roles and empower Medical Insurance Companies, Big Pharma and the multiple other components of an emerging Medical Industrial Complex to negotiate directly with the Federal Government over how the new “benefits” would be provided. The first to be gradually reduced or eliminated were the erstwhile “charity” cases covered by Medicare, but since then, other recipients have been gradually shut out by the series of cuts now forcing over forty million Americans, including many gainfully employed workers or their family members, to go without any medical coverage.
A third major influence on Medical Care was fighting the Viet Nam War under a “guns and butter” policy by Presidents Johnson and Nixon between 1965 and 1973. The (slow-to-emerge) cost of that inattention was the stagflation of the Seventies, compounded by two OPEC oil shocks, the second of which was exacerbated further when the Shah abdicated and the Middle Eastern policy that had cast him in the role of Persian Gulf policeman suddenly unraveled.
A Different Perspective on Oil
Although debate over global climate change has made us very aware of the importance of petroleum to the global economy, we may have not been paying enough attention to certain critical nuances; particularly since 9/11. One is that among the first two industries hit by it were the very Airline Industry used to deliver the attack, along with the Global Petroleum Industry progressively roiled by a War on Terror allegedly waged to avenge it.
Even more recently, there has been mounting evidence from a variety of sources that America’s Airline Industry may have already been forced into the same economic strait jacket as its Medical Care Industry: that of having its services placed beyond the reach of a majority of citizens. How else does one interpret skyrocketing airfares, an onerous variety of new surcharges for luggage, seating space, food and other basics, coupled with an aging inventory parked in the desert because it’s too expensive to replace; even as our smaller cities contemplate total loss all airline service?
May 21, 2008
Some Pertinent Questions about Cognition and Belief (Personal)
Although there’s now general agreement among scientists that the most recent of several Ice Ages ended about eleven thousand years ago, most of the thinking leading to that conclusion is less than five hundred years old and much of the now-abundant supporting data weren’t gathered until the second half of the Twentieth Century
What that short paragraph highlights is how quickly and profoundly empirical Science has altered our notions of time and how relatively briefly the scientific method has been employed in the study of our environment. An inescapable collateral conclusion is that until very recently, our human ancestors were relatively uninformed.
Nevertheless, we still to cling tenaciously to the contrary, but pervasisve, notion that humans who lived anywhere from centuries to millennia ago were, somehow wiser than ourselves; a notion long honored by the phrase "wisdom of the ancients." Just as pervasive, and equally unlikely, is belief that the scientifically derived information now being accumulated and utilized more rapidly with each passing week, represents “progress” of humanity toward a better life.
As pointed out in the last entry, daily television news reports are enough to challenge those assumptions and should also be raising questions our world leaders seem stubbornly unwilling to address. Will we (finally) come to grips with abundant evidence that as the only species capable of abstract thought, it’s precisely that capability, along with the competitive disagreement it generates, that has been responsible for our now-unsustainable global environment?
Until then, will we be able to even conceive of workable solutions; let alone move in the required direction? That the same national leaders we rely on for solutions to those existential problems continue to endorse a failing American drug policy as the preferred global model inspires neither confidence nor optimism.
May 18, 2008
Emotions, Cognition, Belief and Denial (Personal)
Although, strictly speaking, we late-arriving humans may not be the only cognitive species, our thinking and language capabilities evolved so rapidly that even before we could write, we were probably exerting a significant impact on the survival of other species.
Learning to write (about six thousand years ago) was the first preqequisite for today’s instantaneous global communication capability. Meanwhile, the subsequent pace of cultural evolution and distribution of the wealth it creates have become important determinants of both the planet’s human population and its role as habitat for other life forms. Because time isn’t reversible and our cultural evolution can only be understood in retrospect, it seems more important than ever for us to study our knowledge and belief systems as quickly, accurately, and impartially as possible.
Unfortunately, it appears that denial is still our preferred mode for thinking about the world; while the extent to which that may have already exposed us to danger can’t be known, there are several indicators it could be worse than we think.
One is how quickly perceptions of looming oil, water, and food shortages are dampening enthusiasm for the future in the still-young Twenty-First Century. Paradoxically, there’s also little evidence of an effective global response to the threat posed by rapid climate change.
In addition, two recent disasters in a vlunerable and densely populated part of the world have exposed, once again, how repressive governments can exploit captive populations while “civilized’ nations wring their hands on the sidelines. A short video clip is all it takes to see the callous disregard of the Burmese military government; although the exploitative mechanisms in China have been more subtle, predictable outrage over building standards is already being voiced and a moment’s thought is all Americans should require to realize that Burma and Sichuan both have much in common with New Orleans.
May 11, 2008
More on Nargis
The callousness of the Burmese government continues to shock, but today’s description of bloated bodies being ignored by both the government and dazed survivors creates a grim picture. It also confirms that how many were killed by the storm surge will probably never be accurately known, thus it will be impossible to separate them from those still alive, but soon to die of preventable disease or starvation.
The “civilized” world has additional problems: how long should the fig-leaf of national sovereignty continue to protect a government that has kept its nation’s last properly elected chief executive under house arrest for over fifteen years and is devoting more of its resources to a referndum than to desperately needed disaster relief? What is the proper role of world government (the UN) in such dire situations?
Come to think of it, what will it take for our world leaders to finally understand that the dangers now facing our species are unprecedented; if for no other reason than the planet has never been so crowded with at-risk humans.
Do they have a plan?
Cyclone Nargis; some unasked questions...
It’s been a week since Cyclone Nargis surged ashore in Burma’s Irawaddy Delta and, by some accounts, rushed as far inland as twenty-five miles through densely populated, but desperately poor, areas with few reinforced buildings and generally primitive transportation facilities. News coverage has (slowly and hesitatingly) revealed that the shadowy military junta running that nation is responding with the same remarkable combination of incompetence, suspicion, and resentment that has typified every Burmese government since1962 when a military coup ended the fledgling nation’s first attempt at democracy. Military dictatorships have retained power ever since, albeit under several changes of name and organization. The SPDC is merely the most recent, having replaced SLORC, its similarly named predecessor (with many of the same principals) in 1997.
By whatever name they have been known, the military juntas holding power in Burma for well over fifty years have protected the opium growers of the Golden Triangle while successfully shrouding their nation’s internal affairs in nearly impenetrable silence. As usual, press coverage of Cyclone Nargis has assisted them by ignoring logical, but potentially embarrassing connections with American drug policy, Andean Nations, Plan Colombia or Hurricane Katrina. One wonders if the credibility of Burma’s military government, can withstand their current exposure. Five decades of recent history suggest, like the drug war itself, it probably can.
But one can always hope...
May 09, 2008
Seeking Perspective in a Confused World (Personal)
I began blogging in the Summer of 2005 when I finally tumbled to the hostility my three year old ad-hoc study of pot applicants was generating among presumed allies in the Drug Policy Reform movement. Although no longer as overt, that hostility has continued. Ironically, so has the media and electorate indifference towards drug policy issues that the movement has been trying to overcome for years. Just as ironic has been the remarkable global acceptance of drug enforcement failures experienced by UN agencies and nearly all “sovereign” governments attempting to enforce what originally started as a domestic US policy.
In essence, the world and America seem to agree on two “drug-related” issues: some drugs are so “bad” they should be kept illegal; yet the policy's inevitable failures should never even be admitted; let alone frankly discussed.
Back in California, also in 2005, there was an unexpected surge in the number of “pot docs,” some of whom hadn't even started medical school when Proposition 215 passed in 1996. Nevertheless my study has continued, aided to a considerable extent, by a “renewal” provision added when dispensaries were known as “buyers clubs” and their owners wanted to convince skeptical police they were playing by the rules. Of course, the cops soon began using the "requirement" to arrest medical users who were even a week out of compliance; especially after SB 420 passed in 2004.
In fact, the most prominent feature of Proposition 215 since California voters surprised the world by passing it in 1996 has been confusion; mostly as a result of foot-dragging by state and local governments. First the state police bureaucracies required for its implementation wouldn't cooperate with the legislature in creating the usual "enabling" legislation and the California and US Supreme Courts have declined to deal with the glaring jurisdictional conflict produced when the initiative was approved.
All of which has led me to a gradual realization: the chaotic and deteriorating state of the world on the eve of the Bush Administration’s scheduled departure from power is entirely consistent with several of the unexpected revelations about human behavior Proposition 215 had also afforded me. While I’m no longer naive enough to think those revelations are ready for prime time, having had them published and being able to continue the study should help me to further understand them, and perhaps do the same for others.
That's because the one thing that most people can agree on is precisely what they are still afraid to say out loud: the war on drugs has been a total failure. Just imagine what will happen when self-appointed policy "experts" finally accept the superiority of pot in treating the same conditions for which anxiolytics and antidepressants are now being prescribed...
May 07, 2008
Sorry State of the World (Personal)
It’s been a while since I’ve had time to post a new entry; not because there’s been nothing worthy of comment, but because, like everyone else, I’ve been too busy keeping up with the absurd pace of modern life. We humans seem so committed to seeing life as a struggle that we are literally unable to live in harmony with either ourselves or other species. That’s been our history since we began keeping records, but now that we’ve crowded the planet with more of our progeny than ever and are still busy plundering its riches as if there were no tomorrow, it’s starting to catch up with us in a remarkable cascade of bad news that we pretend not to notice.
One hardly knows where to begin, but a good illustration of our inconsistency is that while furor over Jeremiah Wright was whipped into a frenzy by repeatedly airing some of his more inflammatory out-of-context remarks, the less rational maundering of a Texas bible thumper were gratefully welcomed by John McCain in March and seem hardly to have been noticed.
It doesn’t stop there; I was shocked the other day when an acquaintance whose judgement in other matters I’d always respected expressed outrage with Obama over the incident and then became testy with me for pointing out that everything I’d read and heard attributed to Wright had been factually correct. On the narrow issue of 9/11, I agree with Wright: Osama bin Laden had received what amounted to carte blanche from the Taliban to operate training facilities in Afghanistan, a country we’d assisted during the Eighties by encouraging the production of opium that was being turned into heroin for the European market, a transition that had quickly propelled Afghanistan from also ran in illegal opium production into world leadership.
Since 1970, Nixon’s drug war, backed by every subsequent administration, has functioned as price support for the world’s criminal drug markets and led to the installation of corrupt governments in both drug producing and drug transporting nations. Has our drug policy been successful in either Colombia or Mexico? Given our role in creation of the world’s illegal drug markets, just raising the subject of Burma should be painful to us, but since we don’t know the relevant history, it goes right over our head
My original interest in the drug war arose from simple curiosity: why was such a grotesque policy failure being endorsed by all the political leaders of the one nation I was (then) confident was the world’s best hope for leading the way to a sane and sustainable way of life based on fairness? What I have learned in the intervening twelve years has replaced that naive belief with the relative certainty that our species has been tragically hobbled by an evolutionary process that has left greed and fear dominant over our emotional centers and thus in control our cognition.
We can both see and feel the power of fellowship and generosity, but at the last minute, it seems, our worst instincts dominate. It’s amazing to me that simple pursuit of curiosity about the drug war should have led to what can only be understood as vindication of suspicions raised eloquently, albeit with a Victorian flair, by R. L. Stevenson in 1868.
Perhaps mid-Fifties cartoonist Walt Kelly said it best when he had one of his characters in Pogo say, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
May 01, 2008
Little by little, more informed views about both PTSD and the inadequacy of its treatment at the hands of the VA are making their way into public consciousness. A measure of the pathetic state of smaller newspapers is that I couldn't find any reference to the trial reported by the NYT in today's San Francisco Chronicle.
Guess where it's being held?
On the other hand, a clinical study reporting the positive effects of cannabinoids in volunteers, apparently mediated by the amygdala and in which a VA Hospital paricipated was also reported.
Will wonders never cease?
Neuroscience 2 (Personal)
Among the many scientific issues attracting attention after World War Two, those concerned with the brain’s role in human behavior stand out. That curiosity now seems more appropriate than ever, given that our numbers quadrupled in last century and are estimated to have since increased another 10%. We are also in a weather-related crisis because of petroleum consumption, the world’s poorest nations are experiencing food riots, and terrorism is increasing in the Middle East in what is essentially a reprise of the Crusades.
What is in doubt is the ability of our scientific institutions to take an unbiased look human behavior, a subject long obscured by religious thinking. Beyond that lurks a second question: can global political leaders respond effectively to lessons that will probably have to be learned under duress in the midst of multiple crises ?
Among the most respected students of the brain and behavior is Portuguese neurologist Antonio Damasio. Following medical and specialty training in his native Portugal, Damasio distinguished himself in academic appointments in Iowa and San Diego, and was recently chosen Director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute. He came to national prominence after publication of two books on consciousness, Decartes' Error (1994 )and The Feeling of What Happens. I read the latter shortly after its publication in 1999 when I wasn’t nearly as focused on the subject as my subsequent encounters with cannabis users would lead me to become. Thus, while greatly impressed by his lucid prose and thinking I’d grasped his message, I now realize I'd missed a lot because I still didn’t know what pot smokers would be telling me between then and now.
I recently began reading Feeling again and was pleased to discover a greater degree of concordance than I would have guessed. At the same time, I was also forced to admit I hadn’t appreciated the complexity of the process Damasio was describing in his unique dissection of consciousness, or the significance of his statement that before we can come to grips with emotions, we must first understand how we experience them. To quote Damasio, consciousness can be thought of as a “movie (with)in the brain.” A wide variety of things— physical objects, people, animals, states of mind, or scenes from our past— in short, anything we are able to remember— can be stored for later recall as what he sometimes calls “images” and other times “objects.” The important concept is that three separate entities are intrinsic to the process: the organism (observer), the memory itself (image/object) and the phenomenon by which it's recalled. Time doesn't permit a complete exposition of these concepts; nor could I do Damasio justice at this point. But I can recognize clearly how his formulation and my clinical input compliment each other. His is a a neutral, incisive description which is completely biological, based on solid clinical experience, and seemingly free of the usual religious preconceptions. As fellow neuroscientist William Calvin says in his review, "Damasio’s 'autobiographical self' is always under reconstruction."
Even so, it resonates with what I have learned about “human nature” by treating thousands of admitted cannabis users as patients who had been self-medicating for a mix of somatic and emotional symptoms, rather than considering them to be criminals because of the demands of a silly policy or in the preferred NORML/ASA/MPP mold of "valid" medical users (former recreational users with a "legitimate" ilness).
When Damasio’s and my narratives are combined, they portray a species that is quite different from the long accepted default image of divinely created beings aspiring to a heavenly afterlife. Rather, we are more easily seen as highly evolved mammals whose unique cognitive abilities encourage us to engage, often unfairly, in certain competitive behaviors which are, in turn, greatly influenced by conflicting functions located separately in our brains, probably by virtue of their asynchronous evolution.
Ironically, most of the conflicts driving the events of our modern world can be more readily understood by invoking a more realistic view of “human nature.” We should also become both safer as a species and more content as individuals if we can use our knowledge to change certain established behavior patterns that are clearly detrimental to our well being.