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May 01, 2008

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.

More later...

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at May 1, 2008 07:17 PM