three-pound universe

Acknowledgments
This book would not have been possible without the nearly two hundredscientists who shared their knowledge and insights with us over the pastfive years. We owe special thanks to Candace B. Pert, who taught us thatneuroscience is really about human nature and whose insights were theinitial inspiration for the book. We are also deeply grateful to Alan Gar-finkel, Robert G. Heath, John C. Lilly, Paul D. MacLean, Arnold J.Mandell, Karl Pribram, and Ronald K. Siegel, who spent hours guidingus through their particular realms, pointing out the essential truths buriedin the data.
We would also like to thank the following researchers, many of whomtook us into their laboratories and their homes, all of whom took timeaway from their own research and their own publications to make the brainaccessible to nonscientists:
Ralph Abraham, Robert Ader, W. Ross Adey, Huda Akil, John All-man, Theodore X. Barber, Jack D. Barchas, Philip Berger, Erica Bour-guignon, Jonathan Brody, Gerald L. Brown, Monte S. Buchsbaum, JohnB. Calhoun, Patricia Carrington, Thomas N. Chase, Richard Coppola,Jack D. Cowan, Timothy J. Crow, Glen C. Davis, Arthur J. Deikman,Victor Denenberg, Emanuel Donchin, David Drachman, Ranjin Duara,Connie Duncan-Johnson.
Sir John Eccles, Cindy Ehlers, Burr S. Eichelman, Doyne Farmer,Lester Fehmi, Walter J. Freeman, Glenn O. Gabbard, R. Allen and Bea-trix Gardner, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Alan Gevins, Stanley Glick, GordonGlobus, Philip Gold, Roger A. Gorski, Elmer Green, William T. Green-ough, Donald R. Griffin, Stephen Grossberg, Jean Hamilton, Fritz Henn,Miles Herkenham, Steven A. Hillyard, Henry Holcomb, Charles Honor-ton, John Hopfield.
Turan Itil, David S. Janowsky, Joe Kamiya, A. G. Karczmar, RobertKastenbaum, Abba J. Kastin, Seymour S. Kety, Roy King, Joel Kleinman,Mark Konishi, Stephen LaBerge, John C. Liebeskind, Elizabeth Loftus,Paul J. Marangos, Daniel Margoliash, James Marsh, Steven Matthysse,John Mazziotta, Robert McCarley, Bruce S. McEwen, James L. McGaugh,Michael McGuire, Sarnoff A. Mednick, Wallace Mendelson, Michael M.Merzenich, Joe E. Miller, Allan F. Mirsky, Mortimer Mishkin.
xi
xii • Acknowledgments
John A. Money, John Morihisa, Bud Mueller, Dennis L. Murphy,Donald A. Norman, Fernando Nottebohm, Karlis Osis, Jaak Panksepp,Steven Paul, Donald W. Pfaff, Michael E. Phelps, David Pickar, RobertM. Post, James W. Prescott, Frank Putnam, Marcus Raichle, Judith Rap-paport, D. Eugene Redmond, Kenneth Ring, Daniel N. Robinson, Nor-man Rosenthal, David E. Rumelhart, Judith Rumsey, Michael Sabom,Joseph J. Schildkraut, Marjorie Schuman.
John Searle, Robert Shaw, Phil Skolnick, Carolyn Smith, SolomonSnyder, Louis Sokoloff, Larry R. Squire, Michael Stanley, Larry Stein,Janice R. Stevens, Stephen Suomi, Charles T. Tart, Lionel Tiger, E. FullerTorrey, Stuart W. Twemlow, Thomas M. Uhde, Henry N. Wagner, DonaldO. Walter, Stanley J. Watson, Thomas Wehr, Daniel R. Weinberger,Herbert Weingartner, Jay A. Weiss, Alfred P. Wolf, Richard Jed Wyatt,Dahlia Zaidel, Eran Zaidel, Marvin Zuckerman.
We would also like to thank Jules Asher, for help and guidance beyondthe call of duty; Beverly Kedzierski, for her perspectives on lucid dreaming;and «M. M. George,» for sharing her amazing life story.
Foreword
BY ISAAC ASIMOV
Nowadays we take it entirely for granted that the human brain is theorgan that controls thought. We say, «He has brains,» when we mean thathe is intelligent. We tap our temples significantly when we wish to indicatethat someone doesn’t think clearly. Or else we say, «He has bats in hisbelfry,» meaning that disorderly and unpredictable events take place inthe highest portion of the body (the brain), which corresponds metaphor-ically to the highest portion of the church (the belfry), in which bats mightliterally exist. This might be shortened to a simple «He’s bats.»
Yet what we take for granted was not necessarily obvious to the an-cients. The brain, after all, does nothing visible. It simply sits there. Howdifferent from the heart that beats constantly all the moments you are aliveand no longer beats when you are dead. What’s more, the heartbeat racesafter muscular effort, or when you are stirred by deep emotion of any kind,and it slows during sleep, when you seem to be simulating a kind of death.
There is a certain sense, then, in supposing the heart to be the seat oflife and emotion. The long ages in which this supposition held sway remainsenshrined in our language. A person who is brave is «lion-hearted,» whilea coward is «chicken-hearted.» If we embolden ourselves to dare a difficulttask, we «take heart,» and if we suffer a sad disappointment in love orambition, we are «broken-hearted.» (Needless to say, the heart has nothingto do with any of this.)
If the heart is central to our life, surely that must be so because it pumpsblood. A wound that involves the loss of blood weakens us and, if badenough, can kill us. Blood surges into our face and reddens it duringphysical exertion or when we are driven into anger or shame. On the otherhand, blood drains from our face leaving it pale when we suffer fear oranxiety.
The importance of blood also leaves its mark on our language. Whenwe act under the stress of emotion, we do something «in hot blood.» Whenit is not emotion but calculation that is the spring of our action, we do it»in cold blood.» Someone who is commonly emotional is «hot-blooded,»
xiii
someone commonly intellectual is «cold-blooded.» (Needless to say, theblood remains at the same temperature under all nonpathological condi-tions.)
Organs particularly rich in blood are also suspected of having much todo with one’s state of mind. The liver and spleen are two such organs.Blood is pictured as leaving the liver at moments of fear just as it leavesthe face. Under such conditions, it is imagined that the dark color of theliver pales, and a coward is spoken of as «lily-livered.» The word spleen,on the other hand, refers not only to a blood-filled organ of our body butalso to such emotions as anger and spite. (Needless to say, the liver andspleen have nothing to do with the emotions.)
But what about the brain? Does it do anything? Aristotle, the mostrenowned of the ancient thinkers, believed that the brain was designed tocool the heated blood that passed through it. It was merely an air-condi-tioning device, so to speak.
And yet there is one point that might have stirred the suspicions of acareful observer. The abdominal wall contains no bone but is protectedmerely by a tough layer of muscle. The liver and spleen (and other ab-dominal organs) are thus not very efficiently guarded.
The heart and lungs, which are located in the chest, are more efficientlyprotected, thanks to the bony slats of the rib cage. This seems to indicatethat the heart and lungs are more immediately vital to the body than theabdominal organs are. However, the protection isn’t perfect, for a knifecan easily slip between the ribs and into the heart.
The brain, on the other hand, is almost totally enclosed by a closelyfitting curve of bone. The brain lies hidden inside the strong skull, well-protected from all but the most powerful blow. It is the only organ sothoroughly protected, and surely this must have meaning. Would a mereair-conditioning device be so tucked away behind armor, when even theheart is protected only by a slap-dash of ribs?
This may have been one of the reasons why the ancient Greek anatomistHerophilus, in the generation after Aristotle, decided that it was the brainthat was the seat of intelligence. But his opinion did not weigh sufficientlyagainst the overwhelming prestige of Aristotle, whose word was taken asfinal for nearly two thousand years.
It was dimly understood that the nerves were important, however, andin 1664, an English physician, Thomas Willis, wrote the first accuratetreatise on the brain and showed that nerves emanated from that organ.That book (only a little over three centuries ago) marked the turning pointand the beginning of the final realization of the brain’s importance.
The more scientists studied the brain, the more complex it seemed to
Foreword • xv
be. In its three pounds are packed ten billion nerve cells and nearly onehundred billion smaller supporting cells. No computer we have yet builtcontains one hundred billion switching units; and if we did build one withthat many there is no way in which we could as yet compact them into astructure weighing as little as three pounds.
What’s more, the «wiring» of the brain is far more complicated thanthat in any computer. Each nerve cell is connected to many other nervecells in a complex pattern that allows the tiny electrical currents that marknerve action to flow in any of a vast number of possible pathways. Incomparison, the structure of a computer’s units is primitively simple andthe patterns of flow easily calculable.
Finally, whereas in a computer the units are switches that are either»on» or «off,» the nerve-cell units of the brain are themselves magnificentlycomplex objects, each one containing enormous numbers of complicatedmolecules whose system of functioning is unknown to us, but which un-doubtedly makes each individual cell more complicated than an entirecomputer is.
The human brain, then, is the most complicated organization of matterthat we know. (The dolphin brain might conceivably match it, and theremay be superior brains among extraterrestrial intelligences, but we haveas yet very little knowledge concerning the organization of dolphin brainsand none at all concerning those of extraterrestrial intelligences—who mightnot even exist.) The human brain is certainly more complicated in orga-nization than is a mighty star, which is why we know so much more aboutstars than about the brain.
Indeed, the brain is so complex, and human attempts to understandhow it works have, until now, met with such apparently insurmountablehurdles, that it seems a fair question to ask whether we can ever understandthe brain, whether it is possible to do so.
After all, we are trying to understand the brain by using the brain. Cansomething understand itself? Can the brain’s complexity comprehend abrain’s complexity?
If one human brain were alone involved, these questions would be fairand might be answered in the negative. However, not one human brainbut many are tackling the subject; not one human being but a scientificteam that is scattered over the world is doing so. Each researcher may,after years of work, add only a trifling bit to the sum of our neurologicalknowledge, but all the researchers together are making significant and insome cases astonishing progress.
Considering that the human brain, thanks to its intelligence and inge-nuity, is the greatest hope of humanity; and that the human brain, thanks
xvi • Foreword
to its ability to hate, envy, and desire, is also the greatest danger to hu-manity—what can conceivably be more important than to understand thevarious aspects of the brain and to learn how, possibly, to encourage thosethat are constructive and to correct those that are destructive.
In this book, then, Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi tell of the progressin this research and forecast future potentialities. They tell the story of theultimate peak of human seeking, the attempt of humanity to understanditself.
c. 40,000 B.C. Human brain evolves to its present form.
c. 430 B.C. Hippocrates, the patron of physicians, calls the brain theorgan of thought.
c. 390 B.C. Plato declares that the soul is incorporeal and superior tothe body.
c. 335 B.C. Aristotle, watching headless chickens running around, de-cides the heart is the seat of consciousness.
1637 Rene Descartes divides res cogitans from res extensa; glo-rifies the pineal gland.
1748 Julien Offray de la Mettrie says the soul is superfluous.
1810 Franz Joseph Gall, seeking the source of thoughts andemotions, dissects brains, invents phrenology.
1848 Phineas Gage’s brain is pierced by an iron rod, makinghim history’s most celebrated neurological case.
1860 Pierre Paul Broca unveils the speech center before theParis Anthropological Society.
1871 Camillo Golgi, an Italian physician, invents a silver stainthat makes nerve cells visible under the microscope.
1874 German neurologist Carl Wernicke identifies an area spe-cialized for speech comprehension in the left hemisphere.
1890s Sigmund Freud grows bored with lamprey nerves, inventspsychoanalysis.
c. 1900 Ivan Pavlov’s dog discovers the conditioned reflex.
1901 Santiago Ramon y Cajal notices that neurons are separatedby tiny gaps, or synaptic clefts.
xviii • Looking for Consciousness: A Time Line
1906 Sir Charles Sherrington describes how reflexes are «wired»in the brain.
1911 Eugen Bleuler coins the term schizophrenia.
1913 John B. Watson sets forth the principles of behaviorism;the brain becomes a «black box.»
1921 Otto Loewi identifies acetylcholine, the first known neu-rotransmitter.
1926 Karl Lashley begins looking for the seat of memory.
1929 Hans Berger records brain waves from a person’s scalp.
1930 B. F. Skinner invents operant conditioning, teaches pi-geons to play the piano.
1935 Egas Moniz performs the first prefrontal lobotomy on aninmate in a Lisbon insane asylum.
1940s Some of Wilder Penfield’s patients have interesting «flash-backs» during brain surgery.
1943 Albert Hofmann takes the world’s first LSD trip.
1949 Donald O. Hebb describes the «neural net.»
1950 Lashley gives up on the engram, concludes memories arenot localized.
1950s America falls in love with psychoanalysis.
1952 Robert Heath implants deep brain electrodes in a humanbeing.
1952 Alan L. Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley describe how neu-rons fire.
1952 Chlorpromazine alleviates schizophrenia; internal strait-jackets replace the external kind.
1952 Paul MacLean names the limbic system.
1953 REM sleep is discovered.
1953 James Olds and Peter Milner activate a rat’s «pleasurecenter.»
1954 John Lilly invents the isolation tank, experiences «psy-chological f reef all.»
Looking for Consciousness: A Time Line • xix
1957 Vernon Mountcastle shows that neurons are arranged incolumns.
Late 1950s Harry Harlow rears baby monkeys in isolation; the mon-keys develop serious psychological problems.
1959 David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel publish their first studieson the visual system.
1961 The first «split brain» operation is performed by RogerSperry and Joseph Bogen.
1963 Edward Lorenz finds a «strange attractor» in the weather.
1963 Jose Delgado becomes the first neurophysiologist/mata-dor, stopping an electrode-equipped bull dead in its tracksvia radio remote control.
1964 Rat brains show the effects of cultural «enrichment.»
c. 1966 Aplysia, a giant sea slug, «remembers» in Eric Kandel’slaboratory.
1973 First PET scan shows the metabolic activity inside a dog’sbrain.
1973 The opiate receptor is discovered by Candace Pert andSolomon Snyder.
1975 John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz identify enkephalin, thefirst natural brain opiate.
1982 First human «brain transplant» (actually, a graft of do-pamine-rich tissue from the patient’s adrenal gland) isperformed in Stockholm; fails to alleviate the patient’sParkinson’s disease.
The
three-pound
universe
The Three-Pound Universe
Everyone now knows how to find the meaning oflife within himself. But . . . less than a centuryago men and women did not have access to thepuzzle boxes within them. They could not nameeven one of the fifty-three portals to the soul.
—KURT VONNEGUT,
The Sirens of Titan
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but thenface to face: now I know in part: but then shallI know even as also I am known.—I Corinthians 13:12
WATCHING the mauve shadows of dusk move across the sand-stone cliffs, the traveler felt suddenly weak. The cries of circlingbirds filled him with unease, and he sensed a mysterious pres-ence behind him. But when he turned, he saw only the silver shiver of anolive tree in the breeze. In an instant that was an eternity, a white lightexploded in his head. The outer world disappeared; he could no longerremember his name or why he had set off for Damascus. As he fell to theground a voice cried out, addressing him by name: «Saul, Saul, why per-secuted thou me?»
Three days of blindness and several visions later, the Christian-baitingSaul of Tarsus had become the zealous epistle-writing Paul, apostle of «thepeace of God that passeth all understanding.» His conversion occurrednearly two millennia ago, in a land of goatherds and prophets.
Suppose it happened now. Suppose a modern-day Paul arrived at theemergency room, blind and babbling about unearthly voices. «Hmmm… a grand mal seizure with interictal spiking,» says the neurology resident,examining the trail of wavelets on the electroencephalograph (EEG) rec-ord. (There are, in fact, hints that the biblical Paul suffered from epilepsy.)Or maybe, «Disorientation, paranoid ideation, auditory hallucinations,grandiosity, religious delusions,» with a provisional diagnosis of schizo-phrenia. In any case, few neurologists would be persuaded that God reallyspoke to a latter-day Paul, at least not from the cerulean heavens. The»peace of God that passeth all understanding» they’d say—like patriotism,
The three-pound universe: You can hold it in the palm of your hand, but a computerwith the same number of «bits» would be a hundred stories tall and cover the stateof Texas. (Manfred Kage/Peter Arnold, Inc.)
phobias, longings, dreams, and dark nights of the soul—is a product solelyof the human brain. Are they right? And if so, does that invalidate Paul’svision?
For most of human history, the affairs of the soul fell under the juris-diction of the local church, temple, or department of philosophy. Todaytheologians and philosophers still brood on the old conundrums, but theexistential secrets seem to lie in the hands of a different sort of people,practical-minded types who wear lab coats and speak of «excitatory post-synaptic potentials» and «central olfactory pathways.» When we ask «Whoam I?» «What sort of thing is man?» «How do we know what we know?»we are asking about the three pounds of Jello-like tissue in our skull.
This is the Brain Age. The 1930s and 1940s were the golden age ofphysics. The next two decades saw the flowering of molecular biology,from the unraveling of the double helix to the in vitro bravado of geneticengineering. But the great frontier of the 1980s is neuroscience. Its prac-titioners come from a dozen or so formerly separate fields, includingneurophysiology, neurochemistry, neuroanatomy, pharmacology, psychia-
The Three-Pound Universe • 3
try, psychology, ethology, computer science, electrical engineering, andphysics. Some of them run rats through T-mazes; some try to simulatememory processes with a computer; others chart the vertiginous geometriesof hallucination. There are brain scientists who impale dreams with su-perfine electrodes, and those who spelunker in Freudian grottoes. To somethe mind is an organ homogenized to a milky froth in a blender; to someit is a little black box of drives and appetites. To others it’s an intricate,fluorescent-stained road map of nerve cells or a van Gogh landscape twistedby hallucinations and delusions. All of the above (and more) is neurosci-ence, for the brain, though the size of a grapefruit, is as vast as the universe.In fact, it is the known universe. Everything we know—from subatomicparticles to distant galaxies—everything we feel—from love for our childrento fear of enemy nations—is experienced and modeled in our brains. With-out the brain, nothing—not quarks, not black holes, nor love, nor hatred—would exist for us. The universe exists for us only insofar as it exists inour brains. The brain is our three-pound universe.
There is one point we should clear up before we begin. This book isabout the brain, the mind, and the relationship between the two. Mostpeople associate «mind» or «brain» with psychology/psychotherapy or neu-rology. However, this is not a book about the Joyce Brotherses and BenCaseys of the world, the psychologists and neurologists who get paid bythe hour to head off your fourth divorce or to probe your skin with sharp
The Conversion of St. Paul by Raphael: Was the vision on the road to Damascusa temporal lobe seizure? (The Bettmann Archive)
instruments in search of damaged nerves. Valuable as these practitionersmay be, our focus here is not therapy or doctoring. This is a book aboutneuroscience.
A neuroscientist may be a psychologist, a neurologist, or a neurosur-geon by training, but he or she is less interested in the early potty-trainingtraumas that set the stage for your present divorce than in the chemi-cal/electrical/physical events that occur in your brain tissue when you filefor divorce, move to Kalamazoo, or listen to your favorite Grateful Deadtape.
This book is the result of a four-year journey that was often circuitousand strange, even boring at times. Rather than 36-point-headline news(Scientists Unlock Secret Of Life), we sometimes met with unbe-lievable tedium, which in an odd way increased our respect for the scientistswho do this work. For every brilliant breakthrough there are thousands of»failures to find.» For every Nobel prize there are untold hours of pain-staking bench-work, figuring out the pH of the solution in which a brainslice is to be rinsed; calculating dose-response curves and standard devia-tions; staying up all night to watch the graph-paper squiggles that recordthe firing of a single rat nerve cell. No carpeted offices or panoramic viewseither. Most brain science is done in places that are about as glamorousas a surgical-supplies store or the audiovisual room in an elementary school.Sometimes there are rank animal smells, too.
Our search for the mind took us to laboratories where «the brain’s ownValium» is being sought in mashed cow brains; to gene-splicing factories,dream labs, mental hospitals, and the ersatz sea of an «isolation tank» inCalifornia. We talked to specialists in senility, epilepsy, and dyslexia; toneurosurgeons; to electrical engineers who do brain-wave analysis; topsychoanalysts, animal behaviorists, microbiologists, radiation scientists,mathematicians. We met a lot of animals: chimpanzees missing their «mem-ory centers,» songbirds tutored by computers, «depressed» rats, monkeyswhose circadian rhythms had been derailed by weeks of sensory isolation,mice on cocaine. (Because human brains are off-limits for most experi-ments, animals are the unsung heroes of this field.) We attended talks on»Enzymes Involved in the Processing and Degradation of Enkephalins inBrain Synaptosomes» and other opaque topics. Our files swelled with jour-nal papers on early childhood development and artificial intelligence, fluiddynamics, depression, the neuropsychology of vision, and linguistics.
Everywhere we went we asked this question: Is the mind the same asthe brain? Is this bundle of memories, beliefs, desires, hopes, and fearscontained in a bodily organ, a lump of matter? Is consciousness only anotherword for the concerted activity of ten-billion-plus nerve cells? Many of the
An Ancient Riddle • 5
scientists we met said, Of course, where else could the mind be? Otherssaid the question was unanswerable. Some changed the subject to neu-roactive peptides.
The business of science is to explain the universe in terms of physicallaws. It tells us that lightning bolts are not the weapons of wrathful godsbut electrical discharges; that planets revolve around the sun according toorderly gravitational laws; that genetic traits are passed from parents totheir offspring along coiled strands of DNA. But what is a human being?Can you be «explained» in terms of mechanics, electromagnetism, physics,or chemistry?
o a A) ^HE QUESTION wasn’t born yesterday. It
An Ancient Riddle probably has been around as long as Homo
sapiens. Plato saw man as a compound of spirit and matter, with the spiritguiding his actions. The soul was immaterial and eternal, dwelling in thedebased house of the body as a disembodied pilot or noble prisoner. Onlythe soul could know absolute truth and absolute beauty; the corporeal halfof man was but a crude contraption of bones, muscles, and sinews. Mean-while other ancient Greeks, notably the atomist Democritus, said thateverything, consciousness included, was material.
Medieval Christianity borrowed the Platonic notion of a godlike soultrapped within a fleshly body. Then in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,the natural sciences began to disturb the sacred order, and man becameincreasingly preoccupied with the behavior of matter. Copernicus provedthat our little blue-green planet was not necessarily the apple of God’s eye.Galileo, looking through his telescope, saw more planets than the heavenlyseven that the Church allowed, and the angels began to retreat from theskies. It remained for Isaac Newton to contribute the stolid new gods ofgravity and momentum, and the divine cosmos became a rational, clock-work universe.
Enamored of the new science of mechanics, the mathemati-cian/philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) thought it likely that thehuman body was a grand machine, a fancy piece of hydraulic clockwork,whose parts worked according to mechanical laws. But was man just amachine? Were all his faculties the work of biological pistons and pumps?Asking himself, «What am I?» Descartes eventually had the epiphany thatschoolchildren three centuries later would still be inscribing in their copy-books: Cogito, ergo sum: «I think, therefore I am.»
The essence of a human being was the faculty of thought, according toDescartes, and thought could not be material. He could see how certain
mechanistic functions (walking, eating, digesting food, and so on) couldbe performed by the clockwork body alone, but understanding, willing,and remembering required a soul. After all, unlike bits of matter, the mindcannot be localized in space; it can’t be seen, tasted, or sliced up like abaguette. Besides, Descartes had to reconcile a mechanistic universe withthe doctrines of the Church.
By cleaving man into equal parts of matter and spirit, Descartes becamethe patron saint of dualism. He had a problem, though. How do mind andbody interact (as they obviously must)? How can something nonphysicalhave a physical effect? How does an act of will move the muscles of thefingers to write Cogito, ergo sum? How, conversely, does a bodily eventleave an imprint on the nonmaterial mind; how do mechanical changes inthe optic nerve allow one to see the chestnut trees in the Bois de Boulogne?Descartes’s search for a liaison between mind and matter settled on thepineal gland, located in the brain behind the space between the eyebrows,at the site of the so-called third eye. Here, he proposed, was the soul’sport of entry in the body—the mind/body interface, as moderns might say.Unfortunately the pineal gland didn’t really solve the problem.
There are two ways to avoid worrying about the traffic rules betweensoul and body. You can suppose either that the two do not interact or thatthey are one and the same. Gottfried von Leibniz (1646-1716) took thefirst route. He declared that the nonphysical mind and the physical bodyfollow separate, parallel courses during a person’s life, never meeting andnever causally connected. It only looks as if the act of pricking a fingercauses the mental experience of pain, said Leibniz. Actually, physical eventsand mental events coincide in time and space only because God keeps thetwo in perfect synch. This theory, known as psychophysical parallelism,isn’t much in vogue with the Society for Neuroscience today.
The idealist philosophers, on the other hand, saw only one substancein the universe: mindstuff. To George Berkeley (1685-1753), chairs, rocks,tea cakes, carriages, and our own flesh were only bundles of percepts—heat, wetness, sweetness, redness, hardness, shininess, and so on—withoutany independent existence. We delude ourselves if we think that chairs aremore real than the objects of our imagination, according to Bishop Berke-ley, for «they both equally exist in the mind, and in that sense they arealike ideas.» Esse is percipi: to be is to be perceived. (Samuel Johnson,Berkeley’s contemporary, «refuted» this antirealist doctrine by vigorouslykicking a stone.) How does a tree manage to remain in the Quad overnightafter everybody’s asleep? Well, God is still watching, said Berkeley. Inthis book you’ll read that the idealists were largely right in placing thecolors, textures, and odors of «reality» inside the brain, and you’ll learn
A Preview of Coming Attractions • 7
that your neurons convey the features of the outside world more in themanner of highly stylized folktales than a surveyor’s report.
A third way out of the Cartesian quandary is to banish the soul fromthe bodily machine, as the materialist philosophers of the seventeenth andeighteenth centuries did. Their ideas foreshadowed the central gospel ofmodern neuroscience: that mental states come down to bodily events, andthat there is but one substance in the universe—matter. Reflecting on theresemblances between man-made automata and living organisms, ThomasHobbes (1588-1679) sounds like an early avatar of artificial intelligence.Hobbes reasoned: If machines can simulate bodily motions (or today, ifcomputers can simulate the mind’s operations), why regard human beingsas anything more than machines?
Seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principalpart within; why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselvesby springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? What is the heartbut a spring; and the nerves but so many wheels, giving motion to the body, suchas was intended by the artificer?
In 1748 what remained of the soul part of Descartes’s equation wasirreparably damaged by an influential book, L’homme machine («Man aMachine»), by Julien Offray de La Mettrie, who wrote: «Since the facultiesof the soul depend to such a degree on the proper organization of the brainand the whole body … the soul is clearly an enlightened machine.»
The «enlightened machine» became the glory of the biological sciences,and the soul faded into wan exile. A century later the venerable cell bi-ologist Jacques Monod looked up from his test tubes and proclaimed: «Thecell is a machine. The animal is a machine. Man is a machine.» In 1949the late Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle caricatured Descartes’s philos-ophy as the «ghost in the machine,» a catchphrase that has become a sortof motto of neuroscience. «The idea of an immaterial mind controlling thebody is vitalism, no more, no less,» psychologist Donald O. Hebb, one ofthe founding fathers of the field, wrote in 1974. «It has no place in sci-ence.»
. _ — At first glance the brain revolution seems
A Preview of Coming t0 have done it. proved that the mind is the
Attractions brain. No longer is insanity purely «mental»;
nor is memory or temperament. What ourVictorian grandparents used to call «character» is contained in an intricatematrix of speech centers, motor pathways, and minute electrical circuits.
In the following pages, you’ll read about neuroscience’s many triumphsalong these lines. For example:
• For years psychologists said your character was formed by Dr. Spock,your mother’s toilet-training philosophy, and X hours of «Sesame Street.»Now it seems that you are shy or dominant, antisocial, alcoholic, sui-cidal, or predisposed to murder largely because of the chemicals in yourbrain. Do you suffer from schizophrenia, depression, phobias, obses-sions, anxiety? Don’t waste years in some analyst’s office resolving yourElectra complex amid the philodendrons and Mondrian prints. Betterto find a good psychopharmacologist to fine-tune your neurochemis-try.
• With a new generation of «designer drugs,» pharmacologists are prov-ing that a worldview can be quickly changed by a molecule. Out oftheir test tubes come drugs for a photographic memory, a better sexlife, super alertness, an end to anxiety, perhaps even transcendentalpeace. If selfhood can be altered chemically, is the self a chemicalcommodity?
• Memory, which the ancient Greeks attributed to a muse and Descartesascribed to «animal spirits,» depends on particular bits of gray matter.Ditto for language, the recognition of familiar faces, the ability to countand read, and many other higher functions. Wipe out one part of thebrain and a person speaks fluent gibberish; remove another and he nolonger knows his own brother by sight. Brain surgery (or strokes, tu-mors, and head injuries) can turn a person into a nonperson, or so itseems. Where, then, is the self?
• Twenty years of research on «split-brain» patients (whose two cerebralhemispheres have been surgically disconnected) leave us with the dis-concerting possibility that a person can possess two minds in one body.Meanwhile, sophisticated EEG recordings and brain scans show that»split personality» (or multiple personality disorder, as it’s known inthe textbooks) has a biological basis. The three brains of Eve are neu-rophysiologically distinct. If every mind requires a soul, do split-brainpatients have two? Do multiples have three, ten, fifteen? What aboutthe rest of us?
• Your brain contains pain and pleasure centers as well as control switchesfor hunger, thirst, and sexual desire. When you stimulate a cat’s «fearcenter» with an electrode, it runs away in terror from a harmless littlemouse; when the same is done to a monkey «boss,» he loses his rankin the colony. Human beings are not immune. When a mild electricalcurrent is delivered to their «pleasure centers,» paranoid, catatonic, or
An Inferiority Complex • 9
violent mental patients are sometimes converted (temporarily, anyway)into the likes of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. Does this mean that freewill can be overridden and the soul manipulated by electricity?
• Over the last two decades, scientists have methodically demystifiedperception. We now know that the brightness of a color is exactlyproportional to the firing frequency of cells in the brain’s visual area.We can identify cells that fire in response to vertical or horizontal lines;others that «recognize» dots or edges. We know the neural coding forsensory messages at each way station on the path from the skin surfaceto the cerebral cortex. Why assign perception to a hovering soul if wecan find it in the biological machinery?
• The mind is the last resort of privacy, of course—unless the new high-tech mind readers invade it. Can Big Brother map your thoughts withultrasophisticated brain-wave analysis? And what about those new PET(positron emission tomography) scans: Is it true they can see depressionin technicolor?
• Three hundred angels dancing on the head of the pin? A Chinese dragonbreathing jade-green smoke? The face of God? All visions known tohumankind, not excepting Joan of Arc’s and the prophet Mohammed’s,are products of the brain’s wiring. Furthermore, religion is literally theopiate of the people; the Godhead itself may lurk in a neurochemical.Or so say some of the scientific connoisseurs of altered states. As fordreams, well. . . Maybe you have a recurrent one about chasing a trainthat retreats forever in the distance, and maybe you think it means youhave feelings of personal inadequacy. Forget it. It’s just the cells inyour brain stem firing.
With such machinery, do we need a soul?
. . Despite its Promethean feats, neuroscience
* ? has a problem. Its practitioners are modest
Complex compared with those in the more established
sciences of physics, astronomy, and chemistry.»There is something fascinating about science,» Mark Twain once said.»One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such trifling invest-ments of fact.» This may be true of physicists, who every time they happenon a minor subatomic particle call a press conference to unveil yet anothergrand theory—usually in some glamorous place like Geneva.
Neuroscience, in contrast, is data rich and theory poor. It is awash inbrilliant discoveries, but you might not guess it from an annual meeting of
the Society for Neuroscience, a fest of arid understatement characteristi-cally held in a hotel in Minneapolis. «Speculation» is a breach of etiquette,rather like wearing large gold medallions inscribed with one’s initials, whereasone of the favorite buzz words is parsimonious, as in: «The most parsi-monious explanation for the data is . . .» Those who do venture «beyondthe data» to theorize about consciousness risk being considered mavericksor worse.
Why is neuroscience theory-impoverished? One reason may be that thegrand scientific theories are generally nourished by higher mathematics,the physicist’s second language, and most life scientists aren’t at home inadvanced math. Brain science is by nature empirical, experimental, andantitheoretical. Another, subtler reason may be this: Like all the life sci-ences, neuroscience has traditionally occupied a rather low position in thescientific hierarchy. Up at the Olympian levels are the physicists and math-ematicians, of course. As the saying goes, physicists answer only to math-ematicians and the mathematicians answer only to God. Physicists givegrudging approval to astronomers and chemists, and for decades havelooked down their noses at biologists and their brethren. Medicine is lowon the ladder, psychiatry lower still. And psychology? Don’t even ask.
In an effort to make psychology more rigorous, Ivan Pavlov and hisbehaviorist heirs converted the old «science of the soul» into a would-beexact science of reflexes and salivation rates. Neuroscience, in part becauseof its association with medical science and psychology, has also sufferedfrom a bit of an inferiority complex. To compensate, it cultivates hardstatistics.
Today brain science is on the cusp of becoming a hard science. Itssituation might be compared to biology thirty years ago, which was con-sidered a pretty soft discipline before James Watson and Francis Crickcame along to unravel the structure of DNA, the master molecule ofheredity. Thus molecular biology was born, with its rigorous, quasi-math-ematical codes.
There has always been a «hard» side to neuroscience, but in the pastit was confined to such matters as ganglion number 21 in the lobster, thestretch reflex in a cat’s tendons, and increases in calcium ion conductancerelative to cell-membrane depolarization. Real behavior, not to mentionconsciousness, was so far out in the hinterlands that even psychologistswouldn’t touch it. Today, however, brain science is beginning to explainthe mechanics of memory, perception, motivation, fear, loathing, and sex-ual desire. It is tinkering with the regions of nervous tissue where we reallylive. What it has not attempted is any sort of «unified field theory» ofconsciousness. Physicists openly dream of a theory that would tie together
Brain as Machine • 11
all the forces of nature into a single, elegantly simple formula that, as oneresearcher put it, «you can wear on your T-shirt.»
Neuroscientists in general have shied away from any grand synthesis.Maybe brain events are by nature messier, more inelegant, than physicalevents, and that is why E = mc2 fits nicely on a T-shirt, while the famous1952 Hodgkin-Huxley model of nerve-cell excitation would fill a busy ankle-length chemise.
In any case this book will focus on the few synthesizers, theorizers,model builders, and grand dreamers in neuroscience. Interestingly, mostof them are interdisciplinary types: physicists-turned-neurophysiologists,computer scientist/psychologists, mathematician/psychiatrists. Some willdoubtless be proved either dead wrong or half wrong. One may emergeas the Newton, Einstein, or Watson-and-Crick of the brain. As JamesWatson put it, «I don’t think consciousness will turn out to be somethinggrand. People said there was something grand down in the cellar that gaveus heredity. It turned out to be pretty simple—DNA.»
. am u- That’s not to say that neuroscience lacks
Brain as Machine metaphors. In science metaphors are called
models, and they are more than figures of speech, for they shape, direct—and sometimes confine—our knowledge. It’s an interesting commentaryon the fellowship of man and machine that brain metaphors have histor-ically been drawn from the most advanced technology of the age. Des-cartes’s models were inspired by the ornate water clocks of his day. In theheyday of steam engines, Sigmund Freud envisioned the central nervoussystem as a hydraulic system in which pressures (drives) built up and re-quired «discharging.» In the early 1920s the brain was likened to a tele-phone switchboard, and not coincidentally Ivan Pavlov, the high priest ofthe conditioned reflex, began preaching that behaviors were built of layersof reflexes, of hard-wired connections between different brain parts.
With the advent of cybernetic devices (of which your thermostat is ahumble example), neuroscientists started hunting for feedback loops in thebrain. They found some, too. The neuroendocrine system, for example,is composed of many interlocking feedback loops: Chemical messengersroutinely signal back to the brain, «Okay, enough of that hormone; youcan shut down now.»
The latest model is, of course, the computer, which began to hauntneuroscience in a big way in the early 1960s. Now terms such as inputsand outputs, encoding, information storage and retrieval, parallel process-ing, and software are part of the everyday idiom of the brain lab, as is the
concept of the brain as an ultrasophisticated «biocomputer.» Artificialbrains have even provided a seductive (if imperfect) analogy for the mind/brainrelationship. Perhaps mind, a cloud of abstractions, stands in relation tothe brain, a lump of matter, as the software of a computer does to itshardware.
A new science of mind, cognitive science (a cross between psychologyand computer science), was born of the man/machine interface. Cognitivescientists examine the human brain not by inquiring, «What are neuronsmade of? How do they fire?» but by concentrating on its «formal opera-tions,» its «programs,» its «software,» its «symbols.» Just as you don’thave to know anything about the physical materials inside an electroniccalculator to find the cube root of 473, cognitive science says you needn’tget bogged down in the minutiae of cellular chemistry to understand think-ing. A thinking machine can theoretically be made of steel, silicon, flesh,or empty beer cans; it could be an abacus, a computer, or a brain. Whatmatters is what it does.
The philosopher of science Jacob Bronowski observed in his book TheIdentity of Man, «If all knowledge can be formalized, then the human selfcan be matched, in principle, by a machine.» That is the grand dream ofartificial intelligence (AI), and it spawned a peculiar tautology: If a com-puter can act like a brain, then the brain must be a computer. If the AIwhiz kids succeed in building a speaking automaton, they will have provedthat speech can be performed by a soulless apparatus—unless we rewriteour metaphysics to allow for machines with souls. (Don’t laugh; somepundits have.) So far, the most advanced computer on earth can’t duplicatea four-year-old’s language ability. It can’t even build a bird’s nest, as MIT’sMarvin Minsky, one of the czars of artificial intelligence, has observed.Yet all this talk of machine intelligence adds a weird dimension to themind/body problem. «Descartes couldn’t see how thinking could be me-chanical,» says Patricia Churchland, a philosopher of science at the Uni-versity of Manitoba. «Now we have machines that calculate.»
Recently models based on parallel-processing computers and computernetworks—which are more brainlike than digital machines—have come ofage. The essential question, as Bronowski saw it, is: «Can a brain be botha machine and a self?» Bronowski’s answer was yes: Nature creates themachinery, and individual experience fashions a self. There is a lot of truthto that statement, provided we understand that the brain is a Darwinian»machine,» not the newest brainchild out of Bell Labs. In this book we’llargue that all knowledge can’t be formalized, that human brains are notsymbol crunchers. The brain is not really like anything except a brain.
Inside Irving Smith’s Brain • 13
_ . , , . n . ,, Now imagine a day in the life of Irving E.
Inside Irving Smith s Smith> Homo sapiem americanSy hom the
«win moment he wakes to the blare of his radio-
alarm, cursing the news of a traffic jam onthe Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, to the second he falls asleep during theopening monologue on the «Tonight Show.» During this particular day,Mr. Smith performs, say, 549,332 different actions: He reads an editorialin the newspaper and gets angry, writes two memos, lunches with a client,orders boeuf bourguignon, and tells three jokes; he remembers an oldflame, eats and digests several meals, decides to roll over a six-month CD;he buys a new permanent-press shirt, scratches his foot thirty-seven times,glances at the digital time-temperature reading atop the building oppositetwenty-one different times, kisses his wife, pats his dog, and so on. Thecentral faith of the Brain Age is that Irving’s behavior is the result of neuralprocesses, just as the sun’s brightness and heat result from the behaviorof hydrogen, helium, and so on.
This doctrine is known as identity theory. The idea is that mental (psy-chological, spiritual) events and brain (physicochemical) events are oneand the same. Irving’s fit of pique on the expressway is in some senseidentical to electrical discharges in his hypothalamus (a part of the braincontaining a «rage center»). Instead of two separate sorts of «stuff,» mindand matter, there is only one substance. This is called monism, as opposedto dualism, and it is the «central dogma of neuroscience,» in the words ofJohns Hopkins’s Vernon Mountcastle, one of the eminences grises of thisfield.
Naturally the physical, electromagnetic, and chemical processes thatmake up Mr. Smith are extremely complicated. To «explain» two seconds’worth of his behavior—between waking to the sound of the traffic reporton the radio and cursing—we’d have to understand how sound wavesbounced off the walls of his outer and middle ears and traveled to his innerear, where twenty-five thousand specialized transducer cells in the organof Corti converted them into frequency-coded electrical pulses. We’d needto figure out how millions of cells in many parts of his higher brain decodedand understood the English words bottleneck and half-hour delay and con-jured up, in a split second, a whole symphony of related memories andassociations.
For the source of his malaise, we’d have to measure the secretion ofminute amounts of two hundred different neurochemicals, tracing the flowof salty solutions through tiny porous gates in the cell walls. Then we’dhave to diagram the multiple electrochemical events in his neural motor
and speech centers that allowed him to articulate «Damn!» This is a pipedream at best.
Present-day neuroscience can’t even explain all the chemical steps thatoccur in Mr. Smith’s inner ear, still less how words, worries about trafficjams, and images of old flames are encoded in his gray matter. Still, ifIrving is his brain processes, the laws governing his soul are knowable inprinciple, if not in practice.
n . , The mechanistic, post-Cartesian world is
Reductwnism and mlcd by the prindple of reductionism Every
nlacK Boxes researcher at his or her bench works within
a vast, orderly hierarchy in which subatomicparticles congregate into atoms, which congregate into molecules; theninto chemical compounds, into biological structures, into organisms, intosocieties. The scientist’s basic modus operandi is to explain the higher interms of the lower: As, for example, the compound called water is reallyhydrogen atoms coupled to atoms of oxygen in a two-to-one ratio, andthose atoms are really an arrangement of electrons, and so on. Thus psy-chology can be reduced to biology, biology to cellular chemistry, chemistryto physics. At each step down the hierarchy things get successively «harder,»while things get «softer» on the way up.
The reductionist dream is to reduce your mental states to the brain’smicrocomponents, the smaller the better. Aunt Mary’s phobia of cats isultimately reducible to a flow of electrons in her head. (One curious formof scientific reductionism, sociobiology, aims to reduce politics, religion,wars, and marriage customs to genes.) In this book we’ll tell you that thisenterprise is doomed. Even if we could poke an electrode into every singlenerve cell in Irving’s or Aunty Mary’s brain and get a «readout» of itsactivity—which we can’t—we still couldn’t predict the thoughts in theirminds three minutes from now.
Another «man is machine» philosophy, radical materialism, goes so faras to deny that consciousness exists. It became the credo of behaviorism,the anti-introspective psychology founded in 1913 by John B. Watson andelaborated by B. F. Skinner, his most famous disciple. To strict behavior-ists, an organism—be it a pigeon pecking keys for food pellets or a second-grader striving for gold stars in «citizenship»—is a behaving machine, abox of conditioned responses. The Skinnerian lab, with its piano-playingpigeons and smart bar-pressing rats, became a showcase for the sort of»intelligent» behaviors that could be built out of simple reflex actions.(Skinner’s own daughter, Deborah, spent her first two and a half years in
an insulated, glassed-in crib, a sort of Skinner box for humans, reportedlywithout ill effects.) If there were any mental states inside the inscrutable»black box» of the brain, they were irrelevant to the proper science ofbehavior. The neuroscience revolution has not been kind to black-boxpsychology. Mental states are real, even to mainstream neuroscientists,and they do matter.
Which is not to say that every member of the Society for Neurosciencehas given these philosophical questions deep thought. Once, in a room inwhich eight prominent neuroscientists were engaged in a discussion of whatmakes the human brain special, we asked who considered him/herself areductionist/materialist. Two of the eight immediately stated they did notbelieve the mind was totally contained in the brain. The other six didn’tunderstand the question.
Yet I have perhaps been inaccurate in speakingExistential Doubt at of the rock of Pure Matter. In this Pure Matter
the Synapse lX xs possible that a small quantum of Mind still
survived. —marcel proust,
The Past Recaptured
As we listen to the amplified crackle of a rat’s nerve cell—through alittle hole in its skull a microelectrode has been sunk deep into the anes-thetized animal’s brain—a neuropsychologist who has been a «reductionistfor a long time» confides to us that he sometimes has «existential doubts.»After recounting a vivid telepathic experience he had on mescaline, hewonders aloud: «If you make the assumption that the ‘software’ [of thought]could separate from the ‘hardware’ [the brain], could it take up residencein other hardware? How about schizophrenics who hear voices? Some maybe tuning in to other people’s thoughts.» Another scientist, a neuroanat-omist known for his methodological rigor, looks up from his nerve-cellmaps and says, «I doubt we’ll ever get to consciousness from here. . . .Who knows if the mind is even in the brain?»
«The brain may not be necessary to consciousness,» a prominent phar-macologist tells us as she measures chemicals into a watery porridge ofhuman brain tissue. «A lot of people believe in life after death. Andconsciousness may be projected to different places. It’s like trying to de-scribe what happens when three people have an incredible conversationtogether. It’s almost as if there were a fourth or fifth person there; thewhole is greater than the sum of its parts.» An authority on the neuro-biology of schizophrenia muses, «I agree with Spinoza that the brain is avehicle, a prison, for the soul—though I think the prisoner tends to takeon the coloring of his prison.»
Do unquantifiable mental phenomena still hover, ghostlike, over theSociety for Neuroscience on moonless nights? It seems so. At any rate thehard certitudes of the behaviorist age are melting a bit, like Dali’s limpwatches. One hears words like consciousness and introspection now. It isn’tout-and-out heresy to speak of things that can’t be measured in an elec-trified metal-grid «learning paradigm.» And many brain mechanics doubtthat the soul is just a collection of electrochemical events.
«I know there’s a ghost in the machine,» says Daniel N. Robinson, aphysiological psychologist at Georgetown University. «What I don’t knowis, Is there a machine in the ghost?» Translation: The things that remainmost «ghostly»—that is, unexplained by neural mechanisms—are the verythings that make us human: conscious self-awareness, personal identity,free will, creativity, Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. «Taking a nounout of the speaker and putting it in a neuron doesn’t solve anything at all,»Robinson adds. «You’ve still got the problem of how a neuron knows whata noun is.
«The reductionists say, ‘Well, after all, we’re showing how the braincontrols this, that, and the other thing. So what if consciousness falls outsideour equations?’ / say, then forget consciousness and explain perception tome. Explain the experience of blue! Well, we all smile because we knowdarn well there’s no little green man in there reading the back of the retina.And if there was, we’d have to see who was reading the back of his retina,and so on. . . . So if the question is, ‘Do we understand the mechanismsby which environmental stimuli become transduced into some code thatthe biological organism can use?’ the answer is yes. I think we can puttogether an account that is good to the fourth place after the decimal. Butonce you’ve said everything there is to say about perception, you mightnot have said anything about experience.
«A totally nonideological science would have to stand up and say,’We’ve brought the most exquisite techniques to bear on the organizationand functioning of the human nervous system. And we’re obliged to reportto you that the richest psychological dimensions of human life are notexplicable in terms of the biochemistry and physiology as we know themto date.’ »
Others have thrown their formidable scientific weight behind the ideathat the mind is more than the brain organ. Nobel laureate Roger Sperry,of CalTech, the father of «split-brain» research, states, «To say the mindis the same as the brain is like saying the upcoming ninth wave at Lagunais nothing but another uplift and fall of H20 and other molecules.» Notthat the mind is a hovering apparition. Its source is the brain, accordingto Sperry. But the reason van Gogh cut off his ear can never be found in
Existential Doubt at the Synapse • 17
the firing rates of his neurons, because the whole (e.g., the mind) is greaterthan the sum of its parts (e.g., cells and parts of cells).
Emergentism, as this viewpoint is called, is the antidote to reductionism.It says that as evolutionary building blocks combined into ever more com-plex compounds, interesting collective properties came into being thatsupersede the component parts. Consciousness is such a high-level «emer-gent property» of the brain, and once emerged, it is in command. Themind’s products, including politics, religion, and psychology, exert a down-ward influence on the brain’s physicochemical machinery, pushing the verymolecules and atoms around, according to Sperry.’They [ideas] call theplays, exerting downward control over the march of nerve-impulse traffic.»
Then there’s Sir John Eccles, who won a Nobel Prize in 1963 for hisvirtuoso research on the synapse (the junction between neurons) and who,after years of listening to the higher nervous system’s Morse-code-likesong, is convinced that consciousness is not there. A devout Roman Cath-olic, Eccles believes in a «ghost,» a nonmaterial (and immortal) soul an-imating the computerlike brain. In this view he echoes his former mentorat Oxford, the legendary physiologist Sir Charles Sherrington, who wrote:»That our being should consist of two fundamental elements offers, I sup-pose, no greater inherent improbability than that it should rest on onealone.» At age eighty-one, Eccles continues to write ambitious tomes ofneurophilosophy, illustrating his arguments for a nonphysical soul withtechnical drawings of neuron terminals, charts of «spike amplitudes» fromsingle-cell recordings, and the like.
Eccles’s gospel is basically a reincarnation of Descartes’s, to wit, that»we are a combination of two things or entities: our brains on the onehand; and our conscious selves on the other.» The brain is a precious»instrument,» a «lifelong servant and companion,» providing «lines ofcommunication from and to the material world,» but we are not it. An actof will, as Eccles sees it, is an everyday case of psychokinesis, of mindmoving bits of matter. The precise «liaison brain,» he thinks, is the sup-plementary motor area (SMA) at the top of the brain. Here, he says, iswhere the mind whispers to nerve cells, where free will activates the ma-chine.
Avowed dualism like Eccles’s is rare in modern brain science, and hiscritics, who include just about everybody, tend to regard the SMA as awarmed-over pineal gland, not much more scientific than flying-saucer cultsor ancient astronauts. But even in the land of dose-response curves and»tight experimental controls,» we found many who had taken the road ofreductionism and met a dead end. We met scientists who quoted the Bha-gavad-Gita, Carlos Castaneda, Plato, Aristotle, St. John of the Cross, and
The Tibetan Book of the Dead. We interviewed a biological psychiatristwho has embraced charismatic, speaking-in-tongues Christianity; a sleepresearcher-turned-phenomenologist who thinks the outside world may bean unverified dream; a no-nonsense M.D. who has empirical evidence oflife after death. At the heart of the physicochemical machinery of thoughtsome scientists find the Tao.
, . _ . , So what if neurons fire in all-or-none code,
Metaphysics Inside if obscure chemicals called Substance P and
a Porsche yll somatostatin live in our heads, if cells in the
visual system respond to dots or edges? Whyshould you care about neuroscience?
First, because by the year 2000, some of the following breakthroughswill have improved the quality of life, maybe even yours:
• A cure for mental illness, perhaps even a schizophrenia vaccine.
• An antidote to senile dementia (Alzheimer’s disease), Parkinson’s dis-ease, Huntington’s chorea, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and many neu-rological illnesses. Not long ago patients with Parkinson’s diseaseinevitably became frozen, lifeless statues—until a drug called L-Dopa,modeled on a natural brain chemical, came along. Better drugs forepilepsy are being brewed in vitro: Pharmacologists now know how toturn these electrical storms on and off at will in slices of brain tissue.Twenty years from now Alzheimer’s and other now-hopeless diseaseswill probably be treatable, too.
• Nerve-regeneration techniques and/or miniaturized computers linkedto nerve fibers to free paraplegics from their wheelchairs. The deaf willhear (indeed, some already are hearing) and the «eyes» of the blindwill be opened with computer implants that mimic neurons in the brain’sauditory and visual areas.
• «Brain transplants» (actually grafts of specific regions of brain tissue)to treat Parkinson’s disease, diabetes insipidus, and Alzheimer’s dis-ease, as well as to rejuvenate the aging brain. (By the year 2000, manyof us may be interested.)
• Superspecialized drugs for everything from writer’s block, memory loss,and existential ennui to antisocial tendencies and food binging. All thesewonder drugs will be clones of natural chemicals in your brain.
• An advanced EEG biofeedback technology that will make present «al-pha-wave» machines look like Model Ts. With such an apparatus youwill become smarter by consciously «reprogramming» your internalsoftware. Stroke victims will regain their former faculties. Our speciesmight even evolve into angels, or at least supermen and superwomen.
Metaphysics Inside a Porsche 911 • 19
• Cures for dyslexia, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, autism, alco-holism, panic attacks, and phobias—all of which used to be considered»psychological» but are now known to be biological disorders. Yourpharmacy will probably stock an effective antisuicide pill and maybe apill that transforms street thugs into student-council presidents.
• And much, much more.
But there is another, less pragmatic reason to care about neuroscience.As Bishop Berkeley pointed out, the whole world is inside your brain.Vernon Mountcastle, who won the prestigious Lasker Award in 1983 forhis work on the somatosensory (tactile) system, observed in a 1975 article:»Each of us lives within the universe—the prison—of his own brain. Pro-jecting from it are millions of fragile sensory nerve fibers, in groups, uniquelyadapted to sample the energetic states of the world about us: heat, light,force, and chemical compositions. That is all we ever know directly: allelse is logical inference.»
How do we even know there’s a world beyond the mind? We don’t,said Berkeley’s protege David Hume. The whole universe is an unverifiablemirage. Most of us, of course, assume we live in a material world, completewith cathedrals, Moog synthesizers, Porsche 911s, and people who buythem. And neuroscientists would be the last to disagree. But try this thoughtexperiment:
You and your friend George decide to take a ride in his new Porsche911. You both perceive its color as racing green (though whether George’sracing green is the same as your racing green is a question only angels cananswer), and you’d probably agree on its exterior dimensions and numberof forward gears. But once under way, there might well be two distinctexperiences of Porscheness. At about 120 miles per hour on the interstate,for instance, George experiences euphoria, an exhilaration verging on theerotic. You, on the other hand, are in a state of stark, white-knuckledfear. Your visual experience would differ, too. George, who has done someamateur racing, sees the road and oncoming traffic almost in slow motion,down to every flaw in the pavement and every erratic movement on thepart of other drivers. But to your eyes (or rather, to your visual cortex),the landscape streams by like a video game gone amok, the telephone polescompacted into the stereotypical picket fence. While in his mind’s eyeGeorge sees the road just around the bend and mentally rehearses upcom-ing shift points and braking techniques, your imagination conjures up thelocal burn ward and your out-of-date will.
So which is the real world, yours or George’s? If you’re smart, you’llobject that we changed the rules in midstream. We started with objective
20 • The Three-Pound Universe
reality—colors, physical dimensions—and switched to the subjective—ter-ror, euphoria, imagination. According to the principles of the Brain Age,however, both areas are now part of the knowable universe. Terror equals(theoretically, anyway) a certain concentration of neurochemicals, a certainelectrocognitive pattern, and so on.
So let’s take another imaginary drive, this time in a futuristic Porscheoutfitted by the major brain-research laboratories. As you zip down theinterstate, you and George will be having your brains scanned by positronemission tomography (PET). Electrodes will be mapping your brains’ elec-trical activity, while portable spinal taps (ugh) will be collecting neuro-chemical metabolites. These things, of course, can’t be done at present ina moving vehicle or in real time on a continuous basis, and obviously therewould be legal and ethical problems. But they are theoretically «do-able.»
What the tests would reveal, no doubt, is that you and George areexperiencing not just two different states of mind but two different statesof brain. George would exhibit the brain chemistry of euphoria, perhapsmanifested by an abundance of endorphins, while your brain might beswimming with norepinephrine (noradrenaline), the «fight or flight» chem-ical. Brain scans might show that you were processing the visual experienceof the interstate with the right, «emotional» brain hemisphere, while George’sleft, «analytical» hemisphere would be aglow.
Now, let’s deliver the readouts, graphs, metabolite counts, and com-puter-enhanced scans to a panel of eminent neuroscientists. Even aftermonths of careful scrutiny, it is doubtful that any of them would suddenlyannounce, «Gee, it looks like two dudes doing about a hundred and twentyon the interstate between Binghamton and Scranton—in a Porsche 911,from the looks of these serotonin curves.»
The point is that the neuroscientists would not deduce a common ex-perience from the data. They would have to conclude that, at the momentin question, you and George were living in two different worlds. Not twostates of mind but two quantifiably different objective realities.
This makes for a big metaphysical headache, if you are a reductionist,monistic neuroscientist. You reject dualism, the notion that there is any-thing in the universe but matter. There is one world, you aver, and oneworld only. You certainly can’t stomach the Berkeley/Hume doctrine thatthere is no objective reality, only mindstuff. Yet your hard data wouldindicate that either there are at least two worlds (i.e., the outer world ofPorsches and the inner world of riding in one) or no universe at all, exceptthat created in each individual brain. No doubt there’s an objective universeout there, but how would a brain scientist prove it?
And what happens to good old cause and effect, the cornerstone of
The Journey Ahead • 21
science? Any high-school physics student can tell you why pressing on theaccelerator of any car will allow more fuel into the engine, which will causethe pistons to pump faster, which will turn the crankshaft faster, whichwill propel the vehicle down the road at a higher velocity. But stick twobrains in the automobile, and no neuroscientist can predict what will hap-pen to either of them at any given speed. Or why.
This issue doesn’t just affect philosophers. It affects anyone who hasever tried to share his or her personal reality with another human being.For many people on the planet, a church or temple accoutred with theusual icons, stained glass, and appropriate music creates a holy, or altered,state of consciousness that, not surprisingly, the faithful wish to share withtheir children and other loved ones. Sometimes this state can be trans-mitted. Often it can’t, no matter how closely the would-be proselyte followsthe liturgy. Similarly, who can predict what will cause certain politicalleanings, moral standards, or sexual bliss in a person? The brain seems tohave a life of its own.
If the brain was so simple we could understandThe Journey Ahead it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.
—LYALL WATSON
Our trajectory through the world of the brain seemingly goes from the»hard» to the increasingly «soft.» We’ll start with the nuts and bolts ofanatomy and neurochemistry, progress to the neurobiology of behavior,madness, violence, memory, and end up in the mind-altered hinterlandsof hallucinations, dreams, and mysticism. But appearances sometimes de-ceive. Some of the rigorous researchers we’ll first meet hunched over im-munofluorescent assays in the first chapters will turn up again speculatingabout «God in the Brain» in Chapter 13. Just because the Modern Lan-guage Association and the American Association for the Advancement ofScience don’t hold joint annual meetings doesn’t necessarily mean thatneuroreceptors and William Blake belong to separate universes. We’ll findthat the «doors of perception» have many curious keys.
We might as well admit right now that we did not manage to solve themind/brain problem. After our journey from the gritty realm of cells andchemicals to the never-never lands of hallucinations and out-of-body ex-periences, we still don’t know whether 1011 wet cells make a soul. We findourselves, like Dorothy after her adventures in Oz, back in Kansas wherewe started. It is, however, a changed Kansas.
THE
HARDWARE
OF
CONSCIOUSNESS
Crown of Creation
What a piece of work is a man! how noble inreason! how infinite in faculty! in form and mov-ing how express and admirable! in action how likean angel! in apprehension how like a god! thebeauty of the world, the paragon of animals! Andyet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
—WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Hamlet
You are the crown of creation.
—The Jefferson Airplane
THE SMALL mushroomlike organ mounted on the Cryo/Cut machineis a rat brain: soft, milky white, with a little stem at its base. Therotary blade slices it into wafer-thin sections onto a plate. MilesHerkenham picks up a slice and, with a jeweler’s precision, wipes it ontoa glass slide. It leaves a little gray smudge, which when stained and placedunder a microscope will become a delicate pointillist painting.
«Want to see a human brain?» he asks. The first human brain we seeturns out to be a bag of frozen, whey-colored cubes stored in an ice-creamfreezer. «Human brains are huge,» says Herkenham. «You cut them intocubes with a giant rotating blade that butchers use. We call it Punk Science.We were all walking around in gloves and lab coats and safety glassessaying, ‘We’d better not get any slow viruses.’ »
The label on the freezer wrap reads «U.P.» «What’s U.P.?» we ask.
«Oh, that stands for Ultimate Person,» says the thirty-five-year-oldneuroanatomist. «We name all our brains. We have U.S.M.—UltimateSquirrel Monkey—and U.S.M. Two . . .»A human brain is a preciouscommodity in the lab, and Herkenham and his colleagues at the NationalInstitute of Mental Health (NIMH) are making autoradiographic picturesof these frozen brains, mapping the patterns of their receptors. Receptorsare the sites in the brain where such drugs as Valium, morphine, and LSD—as well as the brain’s natural chemicals—stick, and their distribution cantell Herkenham a lot about whether this particular brain was diseased orwell.
«This guy had Parkinson’s disease,» says Herkenham, holding up aslide. «All his dopamine receptors were down.»
25
Between one hundred thousand and forty thousand years ago, a brainexactly like yours and mine appeared on Earth. It would lead a prettyscrappy, hand-to-mouth existence for the next several thousand years, butsomehow its cells were wired so that it could ponder the fate of its soul,the future of its grandchildren, and the movements of the planets. Unlikeany other clump of protoplasm on Earth, it knew it would die. Somehowa million years of random mutations had built a biocomputer complexenough to write Hamlet, split the atom, build Notre Dame, invent Booleanalgebra, and meditate on the curvature of space-time. For the human brainis, among other things, an information machine, but one so fancy that bycomparison the most sophisticated man-made computer to date is a gib-bering idiot—or more precisely, an idiot-savant.
For all this, the brain is the size of a grapefruit, split down the middleand wrinkled on the outside like an overgrown walnut. This soft, Jello-like organ can be weighed, dissected, viewed under a microscope, analyzed,and probed with electrodes. It obeys all the known laws of the physicaluniverse, including those of electromagnetism, hydrodynamics, and par-ticle physics.
The brain Herkenham was talking about happened to have Parkinson’sdisease, but he could just as easily have been describing a schizophrenicbrain. Diagnosing hallucinations, melancholia, memory loss, or even dys-
A cutaway view of a real human brain. (Manfred Kage/Peter Arnold, Inc.)
Crown of Creation • 27
lexia in a clump of wet cells doesn’t surprise anymore. This is routinebusiness in the Brain Age. And though scientists may not stain brainsections to reveal signs of hope, charity, creativity, or the self, it is a centralfaith of the Brain Age that all of these attributes are also products of thegrayish-pink organ in our skulls.
The idea isn’t new. If the brain were a machine, one would naturallylong to find the valves or switches that controlled walking, dreaming, andwriting sonnets. Descartes would have tried, had he the tools; during theFrench Revolution some of his compatriots did examine freshly guillotinedheads for signs of the soul. Sigmund Freud, trained in neurology, neverdoubted that the id, ego, and superego were fundamentally electrome-chanical phenomena. Readers of the posthumously published «Project fora Scientific Psychology» (1895) can find the father of psychoanalysis soberlydiscussing psychic processes as the net result of «material particles»—inother words, neurons (which had just been discovered). Much of his psy-choanalytic vocabulary is borrowed from turn-of-the-century neurophy-siological and neuroanatomical models. In the original German the obscure
Phrenology chart: In the eighteenth century Franz Joseph Gall tried to read per-sonality traits from the contours of a person’s skull. Today scientists search for thesecrets of human nature inside the brain. (The Bettmann Archive)
concept of cathexis is something akin to «local potential.» And «nervousexcitation» to Freud meant a «quantity of current flowing through a systemof neurons.»
But the wiring was simply too forbidding in 1895 or even 1920, so Freuddropped «The Project» and talked to the brain with words instead.
One scientist bent on deciphering the brain machine was the eighteenth-century anatomist Franz Joseph Gall. He was convinced that the brainhoused the mind, and that particular brain regions contained particularmental faculties, thirty-five in all. But because a live, working brain wasas inaccessible in those days as Antarctica, Gall’s anatomy resulted in thepseudoscience of phrenology. With a psychologist friend, he drew mapsof the human head, divided into districts like the arrondissements of Paris,and to each zone he assigned a faculty, such as «language,» «hope,» «ac-quisitiveness,» «sublimity,» «conjugality,» «friendship,» and «mirthful-ness.» He traveled to prisons, asylums, hospitals, and schools to study howbumps on the skull reflected personality—a shiftless character, a prodigiousmemory, a propensity for murder, or a strong maternal instinct. Today noone but the occasional crank believes in reading skull bumps, yet Gall’squest for a precise correspondence between mind and brain was thoroughlymodern. Like Gall, today’s leading brain scientists are working to localizethe soul’s attributes in 1400 grams of matter.
Harvard’s David H. Hubel, who helped decipher the brain’s visual code,expressed the modern neuroscientific dream thus in a 1979 article in Sci-entific American:
If Copernicus pointed out that the earth is not the center of the universe andGalileo saw stars and planets but not angels in the sky, if Darwin showed that manis related to all other living organisms, if Einstein introduced new notions of timeand space and of mass and energy, if Watson and Crick showed that biologicalinheritance can be explained in physical and chemical terms, then in this sequenceof eliminations of the supernatural the main thing science seems to be left with isthe brain, and whether or not it is something more than a machine of vast andmagnificent complexity.
The italics are ours. Like most of the brain connoisseurs, Hubel equatesthe nonmachinelike with the «supernatural» and ghostly and hopes toeliminate it from the rational universe. In 1975 Hubel and his colleagueTorsten Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for demystifying one part of themachine. By planting tiny electrodes in the brains of cats and monkeys,they were able to explain how specialized cells in the visual system deciphermessages from the optic nerve. This was no mean feat, and it laid one oldghost to rest: the homunculus, or «little man,» that early brain watchersimagined sat inside the brain looking out through the window of the eyes.
The Electrical Brain • 29
But is this great exorcism complete? Has brain science explained how nervecells can hope, pity, or formulate a syllogism?
Like children taking apart an old radio to see where the music comesfrom, in this chapter we’ll examine the parts of the brain machine to findthe source of thoughts, words, movements, emotions—if not «hope» and»mirthfulness.» In short: How does this particular piece of matter generatea mind?
. The brain is a little saline pool that acts as
The Electrical Brain a conductor) and it mns on electricity. When
a neurologist pastes electrodes to the surface of your scalp and takes anelectroencephalogram (EEG), he or she is picking up some of your brain’sbackground electrical chatter. Every thought, every twitch of your finger,is an electrical event, or a series of electrical events. All the informationthat reaches you from the world—from the pattern of light and shadowthat composes a face to the voice of the anchorman on the news—getstranslated into a sequence of electrical pulses, the nervous system’s linguafranca.
Once it was thought that the brain was a continuous mush, but at theturn of the century, the great Spanish anatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajalcolored brain tissue with a Golgi stain (invented by Camillo Golgi, whoshared the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine with Ramon y Cajalin 1906) and saw individual neurons, or brain cells, darkly silhouetted
Dendrites
Actionpotential
Neuron A
AxonSynapse
Figure 1 The neuron, or nerve cell, is the basic communication unit of the humanbrain. This simplified drawing shows one nerve cell sending an electrical signaldown its axon to a dendrite of a second nerve cell. The signal is received at thesynapse, a tiny gap between the membranes of the two neurons.
against a rose-colored background. Each neuron was indeed a separateunit, and there was a little gap, called the synaptic cleft, about one millionthof an inch wide, between one neuron and another. Ramon y Cajal mademeticulous pen-and-ink drawings of the different varieties he saw—ornate»chandelier cells,» star-shaped «stellate» neurons, «basket cells,» and»pyramidal cells» with their wispy, tendrillike branches. In Figure 1, youcan see a drawing of a typical neuron, with its cell body, its axon, and itsdelicately branching dendrites.
The axon is the cell’s output side. An electrical pulse called an actionpotential travels down this long autobahn at somewhere between one andtwo hundred miles per hour. (Note that the brain is much slower thansome of its creations, such as jet planes and computers.) Mental life maybe full of ambiguities but the action potential is an all-or-none affair; a celleither fires or doesn’t fire. (The frequency—the number of pulses—is thevariable element in the code.) At the cell’s receiving end are the dendriteswith their multiple branches and tiny twiglets known as dendritic spines,all along the surface of which are the synapses where it receives inputsfrom other cells.
The electrical brain inspired a famous turn-of-the-century neuroscien-tist, Sir Charles Sherrington, to envision an «enchanted loom» that «weavesa dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern, though never an abidingone; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.» The patterns shift and dissolvebecause the electrical events that link neurons are short-lived. Perhaps thisis why so many of our thoughts are fleeting.
All information processing in the brain consists of neurons talking toone another. (The brain also has numerous glial cells—ten for every neu-ron—which form a scaffolding for the neurons. They don’t fire actionpotentials and are not thought to play a role in information processing.However, there have been recent reports of electrical activity in glial cells,which if confirmed could multiply the brain’s information units tenfold.)There are at least 10 billion, perhaps as many as 100 billion, neurons inyour head (nobody knows exactly how many), and each of them makesbetween 5,000 and 50,000 contacts with its neighbors. Even using the mostconservative estimate of 1010 (10 billion) cells, with 104 (10 thousand)connections each, we end up with 1014 (100 trillion) synaptic connectionsin all, which means:
• You have more «bits» in your head than any computer so far dreamedof. The number strains the mind like one of those ancient Buddhisthyperboles about counting grains of sand along the banks of a thousandGanges. As one neurologist we spoke with put it, «Ten billion neurons,
Stained and viewed under a microscope, nerve cells resemble brambles. Emanatingfrom the cell body are long dendrites, each of which in turn branches off into smallerprojections called dendritic spines. Multiple synapses, the sites where the neuronreceives impulses, are located along the dendrites as well as the cell body. (Courtesyof Dr. Miles Herkenham, NIMH)
ten-to-the-fourteenth different connections—hell, you can do anythingwith that. That’s more than enough to contain a ‘soul.’ ‘• From the photograph at the bottom of page 33, you can see that thebrain is an electrical engineer’s nightmare. If you were a neurophy-siologist patiently recording the firings of single neurons, as many neu-rophysiologists do, would you ever explain consciousness? Could athousand neurophysiologists working a thousand years complete a «wir-ing diagram» of the entire human brain?
The neuron is not just a simple switch or diode either. It is a wholemicroworld with tiny channels in its walls for sodium and potassium ionsthat alternately polarize and depolarize the cell and make it fire. But if wewant a coherent picture of how a brain works, we’ll need to move up fromthe level of neurons to the level of large collections of neurons. So let’stake a look at the brain’s parts.
r When the first anatomists cut up brains
Neuroanatomy for and ,ooked insidC) they toofc thejr ,ines of
Novices demarcation from the ridges (gyri) and val-
leys (sulci) on the wrinkled surface. Belowthe surface they found shapes and structures that reminded them of bridges,sea horses, almonds, and other everyday objects. They named the brain’sparts accordingly, as if free-assocating from Rorschach blots, and that’swhy neuroanatomy is full of Greek and Latin words for bridge (pons), seahorse (hippocampus), almond (amygdala), and bark (cortex). Don’t beintimidated by the terms. They’re no more difficult than the fanciful namesthat Vasco da Gama or Ponce de Leon bestowed on the mountains, rivers,and bays of the New World.
The brain consists of three basic parts: hindbrain, midbrain, and fore-brain. The hindbrain includes the cerebellum and the lower brain stem.The midbrain contains some sensory relay areas in the upper brain stem.The forebrain contains all the rest, including the cerebral hemispheres andtheir outer covering called the cortex; the limbic system; and the structuresof the diencephalon—thalamus, hypothalamus, and so on.
A many-layered spherical organ, the brain is often likened to an onion,and our tour will begin at its core and progress outward. In a sense we’llbe retracing evolution, for the brain, as it evolved in innumerable gener-ations of reptiles, mammals, primates, and early human beings, sproutednew additions over and around the old ones. (Figure 2 will help you findyour way around, although there’s no perfect way to depict a three-di-mensional sphere in two dimensions. Textbook artists commonly carve thebrain at one of three angles and show different slices, or «sections,» orelse make some of its parts diaphanous, like Caspar the Friendly Ghost inthe comic books.)
The spinal cord meets the brain at the stalklike brain stem, a grandthoroughfare for sensory and motor signals. The brain stem’s businessincludes such basics as breathing, heartbeat, sleeping, and waking. Whenwe discuss matters like consciousness, bear in mind that, on a primitivelevel, the brain stem contains the on/off switch. One of its parts, the reticularactivating system, a long tract of fibers running to the thalamus, is an all-important sentinel that keeps the brain «awake» even while you’re asleep.Within another region, the pons, are the controls for dreaming and waking;one of its subregions, the locus coeruleus, sends long axons all the way tothe cortex. If something interesting or threatening happens to an animal,the cells in its locus coeruleus fire excitedly (except during dreams, whenthey don’t fire at all). In some way the locus coeruleus may tell the brainwhen to pay attention. Later in this chapter you’ll meet the brain stemand its subdivisions as the «reptilian brain.»
A small neuron of the cortex, magnified 5,000 times by a scanning electron mi-croscope. Two dendrites have been broken off during processing. Note the synapticterminals on the surface of the cell body. A small blood vessel is in the background.(Courtesy of Dr. Arnold Scheibel, UCLA)
The human cerebral cortex is an enchanted forest of interconnected neurons. Here,the cells have been treated with a Golgi stain, a method that stains only about oneneuron in a hundred. (The gray smudges are unstained nerve cells.) You can seethe dendrites and some of the axons that compose the complex «wiring» of thecortex. Magnified about 300 times. (Courtesy of Dr. Arnold Scheibel, UCLA)
THE HUMAN BRAIN
Cortex
Cingutate Gyrus
CerebellumMedulla Oblongata
«ThalamusHypothalamus’AmygdalaOlfactory BulbMidbrain \ PituitaryPons Hippocampus
Pineal GlandBrain Stem
Reticular Activating System
Figure 2 This schematic, cutaway view shows some of the important structuresof the human brain. Note that the largest area is the cerebrum, the wrinkled outercovering of which is called the cortex. This spectacular enlargement of the cerebrumdistinguishes human beings from other animals. Deep in the cerebrum is the limbicsystem, a connected ring of structures that regulates emotions and drives. Thelimbic system includes the hippocampus, amygdala, and cingulate gyrus, as well asseveral other structures, such as the septum and mammillary bodies, not depictedhere. The hypothalamus, thalamus, and caudate nucleus, though not consideredpart of the limbic system proper, are also part of the visceral core brain. Withinthe brain stem is the reticular activating system, a diffuse net of cells regulatingattention and wakefulness. We should note that neuroanatomy is not a cut-and-dried affair, as there is still much debate over the boundaries of many areas; forexample, scientists are not in total agreement about which structures constitute thelimbic system.
Attached to the brain stem at the very back of the skull is the cerebellum(or «little brain»). Wrinkled, folded, and lobed like a miniature cerebrum,it suggests a cauliflower or a leafy tree of life, depending on what angle itis viewed from. Its job is to process input from the muscles, joints, andtendons, control posture and equilibrium, and coordinate movement. Ac-
cording to recent research by New York University’s Rudolfo Llinas, thecerebellum acts more like a brake than a motor, containing movementwithin certain boundaries. Imagine trying to thread a needle with yourarms flailing wildly. That would be life without a cerebellum.
Above the brain stem we come to the oldest, innermost layer of theforebrain, the diencephalon. Dominating this region is the thalamus («innerchamber»). In the brain the thalamus acts as O’Hare Airport. No signalfrom the eyes, ears, or other sensory organ can reach the cortex withoutpassing through it. One of its districts, the lateral geniculate nucleus, is arelay station for signals passing from the retina to the visual area of thecortex; another, the medial geniculate nucleus, relays signals from the ears;and so on.
Right under the thalamus, the hypothalamus («under the thalamus»)perches atop the brain stem. It may be the size of a thimble and weigh nomore than an ounce, but the hypothalamus acts as an all-powerful liaisonbetween brain and body. From it hangs the pea-size pituitary, once con-sidered the «master gland.» Then scientists discovered that the pituitary’sorders actually came from above, from the hypothalamus. Over a twenty-year period, Roger Guillemin, of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California,bought six million sheep brains, at forty cents apiece, to hunt for the elusivehypothalamic hormones that signal the pituitary to release its hormones,while Andrew Serially, at Tulane University in New Orleans, was deep inmashed pig brain for the same reason. The search was successful, and in1977, the two men with Dr. Rosalyn Yalow shared the Nobel Prize fordemonstrating that the brain—ergo, the emotions—speaks to the glandsvia the hypothalamus—a discovery with enormous implications for psy-chosomatic medicine.
The hypothalamus has other jobs, too. It regulates the «internal mi-lieu,» blood pressure, body temperature and contains appetite controlcenters. Damage to one part of the hypothalamus will cause animals tostop eating, while lesions in a neighboring area will induce them to gorgethemselves to death like characters in the film La Grande Bouffe. And thehypothalamus, like the nearby limbic system, forms part of the brain’semotional apparatus. Electrical stimulation there can send animals (orhumans) into paroxysms of rage or fear.
The mystery organ of the diencephalon is the pineal gland, which Des-cartes imagined as the meeting place of body and soul. The latest news isthat the pineal gland acts as an internal clock. Its light-sensitive cells helpsynchronize sleep-and-waking and other biological cycles with the light-and-dark cycles of the outside world.
Now on our journey from the core of the brain outward, we come to
36 • Crown of Creation
a connected ring of structures, holding the olfactory bulb (the smell organ)in the center like a mounted jewel. This is the limbic («bordering») system,as it was named in 1952 by a farsighted Yale neuroscientist named PaulMacLean. This certainly is a more respectable term than rhinencephalon,or «smell brain,» as this region used to be known. Then superthin elec-trodes and careful surgical expeditions made it feasible to map this terraincognita in the brains of experimental animals (and, in a few cases, in sickhuman beings), and suddenly scientists knew where emotions were housed.When stimulated with a mild electrical current, specific limbic sites trig-gered sudden rage, joy, or fear. At first it almost looked as if demons,trolls, and angels inhabited the S-shaped hippocampus (or «seahorse»),the amygdala («almond»), the breast-shaped mammillary bodies, the ridgedgirdle of the cingulate gyrus, and the other parts of the limbic system. Thepicture of emotions occupying localized compartments would have gratifiedGall, but it didn’t turn out to be quite so neat. Stimulating one part of theamygdala would stir up rage one day, fear another; another piece of theorgan seemed to be a pleasure spot. Often it was hard to predict what agiven bit of tissue would unleash. In addition to its emotional jobs, thehippocampus also apparently consolidates or stores memories. The amyg-dala has perceptual and memory functions, too. There are probably nocells in the limbic system that are hard-wired to do one thing (like generateanger) and nothing else. Sorry, Gall.
The limbic system is located in the depths of the cerebrum, the newestpart of the brain. Here evolution added all the gadgetry that distinguishesman from the lizard, so it is not surprising that in humans the cerebrumis an overfed giant. Two-thirds of our brain mass consists of the twincerebral hemispheres draped imperiously around all the other parts. Thefirst thing you notice about the cerebrum is that it is split into hemispheresthat are like two separate brains. Everything in the right side has a mirrorimage on the left (or nearly so; the symmetry isn’t perfect), so you havetwo frontal lobes, two temporal lobes, two parietal lobes, two occipitallobes, two amygdalae, two hippocampi, et cetera. And the brain is a look-ing-glass world in another sense. The left hemisphere moves the right sideof the body; the right hemisphere controls the body’s left. The visual worldis also split down the middle and crisscrossed, with our left visual fieldtraveling to the brain’s right half and the right visual field to the left. Whytwo of everything? Did nature design a backup in case of damage? Andwhy the left-right reversal? No one knows. This is one of the brain’s mys-teries, which will occupy us a good deal in Chapter 8.
Covering the cerebrum is the wrinkled crust of the cortex, sometimescalled the neocortex, to emphasize its evolutionary newness. A redundantly
folded sheet of tissue about three millimeters thick, the human cortex wouldcover about one and a half square feet if unfurled. The cortex made itsfirst significant appearance in mammals. In humans it has mushroomedinto a vast «thinking cap» that wraps over and around the rest of the brain.At least 70 percent of the neurons in the human central nervous system isin the cortex.
No snake, as far as we know, has ever planned for the future, worried,or solved a differential equation, because snakes don’t possess a cortex.Dogs, cats, and mice all have one, and they are capable of learning fromexperience, mastering mazes, and anticipating reward or punishment. Butthe cortex of lower mammals is paltry compared to ours. You and I domuch of our living in this overgrown, convoluted thinking cap. As DavidHubel and Torsten Wiesel put it, «A mouse without a cortex appears fairlynormal, at least to casual inspection; a man without a cortex is almost avegetable, speechless, sightless, senseless.» If we are the crown of creation,we owe it to our cortex.
Unlike the lower structures we’ve talked about, the cortex looks thesame all over, a lumpen porridge. Even under a microscope it’s hard tofind a pattern in the tangled thicket of cells and dendrites. Which fibersgo where? Do certain cell types do certain things? Is this furrowed surfacereally all of one piece, or are some areas designed to «do» one thing, likemove the big toe, but not another?
Parts of the cortex are superbly specialized, as we’ll see later in thischapter. First we’ll describe its grossest lines of demarcation, the four lobes.Like rivers and mountain chains forming the borders of nations, ridges andindentations, called gyri and sulci, mark the boundaries of each region ofthe cortex.
Geography of the Cortex The occipital lobe, at the back of the head,
contains the primary visual area. A strokeor a wound in this area will cause blindness, or at least wipe out a portionof the visual field, depending on the extent of the injury. In fact, bulletand missile wounds during the First and Second World Wars taught neu-rologists a lot about the visual «map» contained in this part of the brain.The temporal lobes, right above the ear on either side of the head,make intimate connections with the limbic brain below. People with dam-aged temporal lobes can’t file experiences into long-term memory. Stim-ulating this lobe with electricity triggers strange emotions out of context,weird reveries, and sensations of deja vu (an inexplicable sense of famil-iarity) and jamais-vu (when the familiar seems alien). Temporal-lobe epi-lepsy is full of similar psychic oddities. There is a primary auditory
38 • Crown of CreationGEOGRAPHY OF THE CORTEX
Motor Cortex
Sensory Cortex
Broca’sArea
AuditoryCortex
Wernicke’sArea
VisualW Cortex
Cerebellum
Brain Stem
Figure 3 The human cortex is divided into four lobes: the frontal, parietal,temporal, and occipital, each of which is duplicated on either side of the brain.This drawing represents the left hemisphere, which in right-handed people containsregions specialized for language, including Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Inaddition, there are other parts of the cortex that govern specific functions, includingthe primary visual, auditory, sensory (tactile), and motor areas.
processing area in the temporal lobes, and visual messages, already pro-cessed in the occipital lobe, are sent here for more abstract kinds of pro-cessing.
The parietal lobes arch over the roof of the brain from ear to ear. In1870 a pair of German scientists removed the skull of a dog and stimulatedits exposed cortex with a weak electrical current. In one part of the cortex,the electrode activated different parts of the dog: a leg, then a paw, thenthe head. This was the first hint that the brain contained a schematic mapof the body. We now know there are two different topographic maps
inscribed on the surface of the parietal lobes, one motor and one somato-sensory (tactile). As with the brain’s visual map, the details have beensketched in by observing human tragedies, including those caused by wars,strokes, and tumors. A lesion in one small region of the cortex mightparalyze one leg; a bullet hole in another area may deaden a hand or oneside of the face. Charting correlations between the site of brain injury andthe resulting defect, neurologists discovered that every inch of the bodywas represented in an organized manner in the cortex.
As you can see from Figure 4, the brain’s image of the body is distorted:a «homunculus» with outsize lips, tongue, hands, thumbs, and genitals.The map is distorted in scale like a Mercator projection because super-sensitive bodily parts or those requiring extreme motor finesse occupy morecortical space. For example, an inch of finger projects to a wider area ofthe brain than an inch of chest, presumably because deft, discriminatingdigits became important to primates or tool-using early hominids.
The frontal lobes occupy the front of the brain behind the forehead.What they do may be illustrated best by the sad saga of one Phineas Gage,who lost his. In 1848, when he was a twenty-five-year-old foreman, anexplosion at a Vermont construction site drove an enormous iron rodthrough Gage’s skull. To the amazement of his fellow workers, the impaledman sat up and spoke coherently within minutes. After a local doctoroperated to remove the rod, the patient recovered, and physicians marveledat his apparent normality. But appearances were deceiving. The hole inhis frontal cortex shattered Gage’s personality. From a shrewd, competent,and level-headed businessman, he degenerated into a fickle, foul-mouthed,irresponsible drifter who couldn’t hold a job. Phineas Gage, his friendslamented, was «no longer Gage.»
Maybe later neurosurgeons should have paid more attention to thePhineas Gage case. Instead, in 1935 a Portuguese psychiatrist named EgasMoniz performed a bold new operation to relieve many forms of mentalillness, including aggression and hyperemotional states. Called the pre-frontal lobotomy, it became extremely popular in the United States, whereover forty thousand people were turned into zombies during the 1940s andearly 1950s. With a surgical pick and mallet, a surgeon—or even, appall-ingly, a nonsurgeon—would simply bore into the patient’s frontal cortex,then twist the pick, cutting the nerve fibers running from the prefrontalcortex (at the extreme front of the frontal lobes) to the rest of the brain.As part of a project dubbed Operation Icepick, surgeon Walter Freeman,the Hernando Cortez of the frontal lobe, once lobotomized twenty-fivewomen inmates at a West Virginia mental hospital in a single day. It was
lon^e
SOMATOSENSORY CORTEX
MOTOR CORTEX
Figure 4 How does your brain picture your body? Which parts of your bodytake up the most space in your cortex? The answer can be found in the two distortedhomunculi (homunculus means «little man») shown above. On the surface of thecortex are two different body maps: the somatosensory cortex and the motor cortex.The somatosensory cortex receives touch messages from all parts of the body, whilethe motor cortex controls movement. Note the attention paid to the head and facein both cortices compared with the trunk, for instance. Note also how the hands,especially the thumb, assume special importance in the motor cortex. In reality,no two brains would have exactly the same cortical «maps.» A surgeon or jeweler,for example, might have an even greater portion of the cortex devoted to thefingers. (After Penfield)
Freeman who performed the first lobotomy in the U.S., on September 14,1936, at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. Thepatient was a sixty-three-year-old woman known as «Mrs. A. H.,» whomFreeman characterized as «a typically insecure, rigid, emotional, claustro-phenic individual» and «a past master at bitching [who] really led herhusband a dog’s life.» After the surgery Mrs. A. H.’s anxiety abated some-what, though Freeman observed on a visit to her home that she was still»shrewish and demanding with her husband.»
When Egas Moniz was awarded a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1949, TheNew York Times pronounced the honor «fitting» and added: «Surgeonsnow think no more of operating on the brain than they do of removing anappendix. [Moniz and his co-laureates] taught us to look with less awe onthe brain. It is just a big organ with very difficult and complicated functionsto perform and no more sacred than the liver.»
Neuroanatomy for Novices • 41
If there is anything sacred about a human being, it is surely his brain—especially, perhaps, the frontal lobes. Without an intact frontal cortex, ahuman being may appear normal at first glance, but hang out with him fora while and you notice he’s emotionally shallow, distractable, listless, ap-athetic, and so insensitive to social contexts that he may belch with abandonat dinner parties. He may have memory gaps; he lacks foresight; his innerworld is not what it used to be. A patient with a frontal lobe lesion becomesso distracted by irrelevant stimuli that he cannot carry out complex actions,according to the late distinguished Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria.An «assigned programme» of behavior is replaced by «uncontrollable floodsof inert stereotypes,» he noted. «One such patient, for instance, whenasked to light a candle, struck a match correctly but instead of putting itto the candle … he put the candle in his mouth and started to ‘smoke’
At least forty thousand lobotomies were performed in the United States duringthe 1940s and 1950s. One of the victims was the movie actress Frances Farmer(above), who was lobotomized by Dr. Walter Freeman himself in 1948, during oneof his icepick crusades, at Western State Hospital in Washington State. Afterward,the ill-fated star, whose rebelliousness had resisted insulin shock, electroshock,and hydrotherapy, «drifted off into the oblivion of surgically induced mediocrity,»in the words of David Shutts, author of Lobotomy: Resort to the Knife. Her lo-botomy goes unmentioned in Dr. Freeman’s memoirs. (The Bettmann Archive)
it like a cigarette.» Others, chronicled in Luria’s book The Working Brain(1973), can’t make sense of simple drawings.
A patient with a frontal lobe lesion is shown the picture of a man who has fallenthrough the ice. People are running towards him in an attempt to save his life. Onthe ice, near the hole, is a notice «danger.» In the background of the picture arethe walls of a town and a church. . . . Instead of analysing the picture [the patient]sees the notice «danger» and immediately concludes: «the zoo» or «high-voltagecables» or «infected area.» Having seen the policeman running to save the drowningman, he immediately exclaims: «war,» while the walls of the town with the churchprompt the explanation «the Kremlin.» Analysis of the picture in this case isreplaced by elementary guesswork, and organized intellectual activity is impossible.
«The stream of happenings is not segmented and so runs together in apresent which is forever, without past or future,» notes Stanford neuro-psychologist Karl Pribram, an early opponent of lobotomy, in his bookLanguages of the Brain. «The organism becomes completely … at themercy of his momentary states, instead of an actor on them.»
During the heyday of lobotomies, Pribram, then at Yale, argued thatthe frontal cortex was not some vestigial appendix to be cut as a psychiatricpanacea and that its intimate nerve connections with the limbic systemmust be important. «I was almost kicked out of Yale for saying things likethat,» he recalls.
It was a case of neuroscientific hubris. Physiologists had noted that mildelectrical stimulation of the frontal lobes didn’t seem to do anything—nomuscles jerked, no lights flashed in the brain, no strange sensations wereevoked, as was the case with the other lobes. So they thought the frontalcortex didn’t do anything much. Because lobotomy patients’ IQ scores, asmeasured by the Stanford-Binet test, didn’t usually drop after the opera-tion, doctors pronounced these people unimpaired. When it comes tomeasuring the brain’s most subtle and fragile products, our yardsticks (elec-trodes, IQ tests) are crude.
What the frontal lobes «control» is something like awareness, or self-awareness, which is hard to quantify. Consider: The frontal cortex of ratsis minute. In cats it occupies a paltry 3.5 percent of the cortex. In chim-panzees the figure has risen to 17 percent. But in Homo sapiens it’s awhopping 29 percent. The ratio of frontal cortex to the rest of the cortexmay be one index of evolutionary advancement. Do these lobes governsome essential feature of humanness, or even godliness, as some scientistshave suggested? «If God speaks to man, if man speaks to God,» neuro-scientist Candace Pert tells us, «it would be through the frontal lobes,which is the part of the brain that has undergone the most recent evolu-tionary expansion.»
The Triune Brain • 43
Paul MacLean, for one, considers the frontal lobes the «heart» of thecortex. He observes, «In the progress from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnonman, one sees the forehead develop from a low brow to a high brow.Underneath that heightened brow is the prefrontal cortex. . . . The pre-frontal cortex is the only part of the neocortex that looks inward to theinside world. Clinically, there is evidence that the prefrontal cortex bylooking inward, so to speak, obtains the gut feeling required for identifyingwith another individual.» In other words, empathy.
. When freud looked beneath the smooth
The Triune Brain veneer of modern man (he discovered a much
more ancient, more primitive self within. The father of psychoanalysis sawhimself as a psychic archeologist unearthing «mental antiquities» that datedback to infancy, on the one hand, and to a remote ancestral past, on theother. Humans may have evolved to frock coats and monocles, Freudreasoned, but in some way all of prehistory was preserved in the uncon-scious.
Freud gave us a tripartite self, composed of id, ego, and superego, butPaul MacLean gave us something more concrete: the «triune brain.» (SeeFigure 5.) To MacLean, who today directs the Laboratory of Brain Evo-lution and Behavior in Poolesville, Maryland, the Homo sapiens brain isa folded-up record of our evolutionary past. Like an archeological site,like Heinrich Schliemann’s multi-leveled Troy, its older «civilizations» areburied under the new, so that in deeper layers of the brain one uncoversrelics of the dinosaur age. According to MacLean, human beings possessan atavistic reptile brain and a paleomammalian (old mammalian) brainunder the folds of the civilized neocortex. These three brains in one operatelike «three interconnected biological computers, [each] with its own specialintelligence, its own subjectivity, its own sense of time and space and itsown memory.»
The distinctly human portion, of course, is the neocortex, «the motherof invention and father of abstract thought,» as MacLean sees it. Foresight,hindsight, and insight are some of its products. It reasons, plans, worries,writes memos and sonnets, invents steam engines and drip-dry fabrics, andprograms artificial brains called computers. Through its centers for vision,hearing, and bodily sensations, we traffic with the external world.
The «old mammalian brain» resides in the limbic system, the head-quarters of the emotions. A throwback to mice, rabbits, and cats, thelimbic system is hooked on survival, the preservation of self and the species,and its behavior revolves around the «Four F’s»: feeding, fighting, fleeing,and sexual behavior (as one neurobiological joke goes). «One of the pe-
SNAKE
Cerebellum
CAT
HUMAN
MedullaOblongata
ForebrainCerebellum
Cerebellum
Forebrain
Neomammalian
Paleomammalian(Limbic System)
Reptilian
Figure 5 The dramatic evolution of the forebrain (cerebrum), from reptiles tolower mammals to human beings, is shown in the first three drawings. The fourthdrawing at bottom depicts the «triune brain,» as described by Paul MacLean, whichschematically illustrates how all three brains coexist today in the human brain. Ourbrain, says MacLean, is not a pristine and original creation. Rather, it containswithin it vestiges of its entire evolutionary past. As the brain evolved, it addednew structures around the older, primitive ones, so that «reptilian» and «paleo-mammalian» behavior routines still lurk in our heads.
culiar characteristics of the emotions,» MacLean observes, «is that theyare not neutral: Emotions are either agreeable or disagreeable.» We mam-mals are built so as to feel pleasure when we behave in ways that enhanceour self-preservation or that of the species, and pain when our survivalneeds are thwarted. Pain and pleasure are the limbic system’s yin and yang,and it judges all experiences accordingly.
Finally, the old reptile brain in the brain stem and its surroundingstructures, MacLean says, lives like a troll under a bridge in a Scandinavianfairy tale. The R-complex, as it is called, contains many of the same «ar-chaic behavioral programs» that motivate snakes and lizards. Rigid, ob-sessive, compulsive, ritualistic, and paranoid, it is «filled with ancestrallore and ancestral memories.» Being so «hard-wired,» it is doomed torepeat the past over and over again. The old reptile brain doesn’t profitmuch from experience.
On a hot, humid July day, we rent a car inI tie Dragons of Washington and drive out to Poolesville. The
NIMH green, rolling Maryland countryside ripples
under the heat while cattle graze in sus-pended animation beyond white picket fences. At the Laboratory of BrainEvolution and Biology, the NIMH’s rural outpost and animal farm, achanging guard of creatures acts out the scenarios dictated by the lowerbrains. A few years ago alligators, sunk in reptilian dreamtime, filled theponds. («We had to wait for the cold weather [when the animals are safelysluggish] to move them,» our guide tells us.) Lizards, performing theirancient, obsessive ceremonies in the small, glassed-in jungle of a terrarium,have been MacLean’s chief source of reptilian lore. Turkeys strut and ruffleceremonious feathers in the yard, while, inside the building, squirrel mon-keys fly about their cages like hyperkinetic wind-up toys. There are alsoSiberian hamsters, including a writhing pile of pink, fetal-looking new-borns. The rats next door inhabit a spacious cage under the all-seeing eyeof a computer that monitors their grooming, eating, sleeping, fighting, andsocial status. This rat colony once inspired a novel, The Rats of NIMH,and an animated film. And it’s been the subject of a fifteen-year experi-ment, which continues like a long-running soap opera that transcends thememory (or life span) of its individual characters.
The father of the triune brain, a seventyish man whose eyes gleam withcuriosity behind his glasses, is in the library preparing a slide show for us.First he shows us a plastic model of a human brain, holding it like anenchanted globe as he speaks of the virtues of handling brains. A realbrain, he points out, «feels much like a ripe avocado.» It is, in a word,
soft, and MacLean likes to remind people that «the cold, hard facts ofscience, like the firm pavement underfoot, are the products of a soft brain.»
«The people I feel sorry for are physicists, because they don’t have theadvantage of taking out a brain and handling it,» he tells us. «They’reworking with infinite temperatures, infinite mass, the Big Bang . . . Andthe speeds they’ve assigned these things, using the speed of light as ayardstick! . . . But maybe it’s an illusion, because it’s all being interpretedby the brain, which is just soft mush imprisoned in this bony shell. Thebrain does everything. It’s not your eyes that are looking at me—it’s noteyeball to eyeball—it’s brain to brain. As far as we can see, it’s all justmush.»
MacLean offers us half his sandwich, and stories pour out of him likea Homeric hero at a feast. When Carl Sagan came to interview him forhis book The Dragons of Eden, MacLean gave him his first brain to hold,a rabbit brain. «Nothing can compare with holding a brain in your hands,»MacLean tells us. «Every angle you slice it, you see something different.My pharmacologist friends don’t understand this. They just grind it up andthrow chemicals at it.»
He switches on the projector and we watch small lizards dart amongthe leaves of a terrarium, changing from brown to green and back againto match the background. One freezes like a statue, bobbing its headrepetitively. Two rivals face off. They inflate their chests, puff out theirneck ruffs, and do push-ups—all of which, in lizard society, means, «Backoff. I’m boss.»
«All tetrapods—mammals, birds, reptiles—use four basic kinds ofdisplay,» MacLean explains. «Signature, challenge, courtship, and sub-mission. Without the submissive display none of us could survive.» Watch-ing the challenge pageantry of multicolored rainbow lizards, for instance,MacLean’s practiced eye sees the knights of King Arthur’s court. «Twicewe saw dominant lizards defeated and humiliated,» he remembers. «Theylost their majestic colors, turned a muddy brown, became depressed, anddied two weeks later.»
If you watch enough lizards, it’snot hard to see the reptilian undersideof man. Archie Bunker’s chair is like a lizard’s territorial defecation post,a «signature» display. Military pageantry is reptilian. So are FBI paranoia,Rainbow Girls’ rites, the corporate underling nodding his head in thepresence of the boss, the corner office with its trappings of rank. The goosestep and the stylized solemnity of the graduation processional remindMacLean of the weird stiltlike walk that lizards use for challenge purposes.And so on.
Later, through a one-way mirror, we watch a squirrel monkey com-
The Dragons of NIMH • 47
pulsively «display» at his mirror image (which he sees as a rival monkey),spreading his thighs and thrusting his erect penis forward. This isn’t a sexualgesture, but a monkey’s way of greeting a newcomer. Reptilian displaysmust live on in mammal brains, in the R-complex, MacLean figured. Totest his hypothesis, he performed systematic brain surgery on some of hismonkeys several years ago: When he destroyed the globus pallidus in thebrain stem, a monkey no longer gesticulated at his reflection in the mirror.MacLean concluded that the archaic reptile brain was responsible for thisdisplay.
«Ruffling feathers, hair standing on end,» he muses aloud. «How didthese primitive brains learn to use this way of looking fierce to fend off arival? How did that stupid brain ever dream up something like that? Youcan’t answer these questions. Nature is full of tricks, a magician.
«Physiologists spend their lives trying to figure out how we see perfectimages,» he adds. «But no one inquires into how we see partial represen-tations, archetypes. A turkey walks across the yard, some little thing setshim off, and he starts copulating in vacuo. In aggressive encounters, squirrelmonkeys use penile displays as a threat, but it’s only a symbol.»
So are the all-seeing eye, the cross, the star of David, red stoplights,the hammer and sickle, McDonald’s golden arches, fetishes, fads, fashions,designer jeans, the fins on a Cadillac, neon dancing girls at Las Vegas.Like our bestial ancestors, humans are wired up to respond to archetypes,to «partial representations.» Our brains take the part for the whole, seeingsnakes, mothers, and honeymoon hotels in Rorschach inkblots. «Look atour artifacts, the cave paintings,» says MacLean. «The eye is everywhere,the genitals are everywhere. The part stands for the whole. Maybe psy-choanalysis is built on that principle.»
Writing about the triune brain in The Ghost in the Machine, ArthurKoestler joked that when an analysand lies down on a psychiatrist’s couch,an alligator and a horse lie down with the man. According to MacLean,what we need is a «paleopsychology,» a reptilian-paleomammalian psy-chology to go with our two lower brains. The three mentalities inside usare dissociated and often in conflict. Below the cortical mantle the ancientrites of submission and dominance, sexual courtship, greeting, nesting,hoarding, marking territory, kowtowing to the leader, and ganging up onnewcomers persist. «People wonder why so many human beings are par-anoid. Well, we have this basically reptilian brain. Everybody has to beparanoid. If you weren’t a little paranoid, you wouldn’t survive a minute.Whenever I cross the street I’m a little paranoid, looking over my shoul-der, this way and that.» He swivels his head rapidly, right to left, left toright, like a paranoid lizard. «And, you know, scientists are paranoid,» he
adds. «It helps to have a paranoid delusional system to organize yourresearch.
«I think of a patient named L. R., an epileptic,» he continues, on thesubject of paranoia. «She had these big bolts of lightning coming off thebase of the brain—the only place we were seeing a spike—and during thistime she had the feeling that God was punishing her for overeating. If youhave a good neocortex working for you, you try to explain your paranoidfeelings and persuade other people. You go out and start a religion andrecruit followers. Some paranoids are very persuasive.»
A few years ago, MacLean and his co-workers wondered what a hamsterwithout a cortex would be like. So they surgically destroyed the cortex ofbaby hamsters on the day after birth—and got entirely normal hamsters.Because animals without a cortex could still play and nurse and care fortheir young, MacLean traced these distinctively mammalian traits to thelimbic system, the paleomammalian brain. «But,» he tells us, «if you alsodestroy the cingulate gyrus, the newest part of the limbic system, theanimals don’t play.
«It has become clear to me recently that the cingulate gyrus containsthe three behaviors we identify with mammals and not with reptiles: nursingand maternal care, play, and audiovocal communication. I’ve looked atthe lizard brain myself, and it has no counterpart of the cingulate gyrus.I think this is sort of revolutionary. But most people don’t share my ex-citement. They say, ‘What the hell, all animals play. All animals take careof their young.’ This is not correct. From the standpoint of human evo-lution, one can’t imagine anything much more important than this originalfamily situation developing and the things that go along with family—vocalization and play. Maybe play is a way of promoting harmony in thenest so the little ones don’t bite each other and get themselves all scratchedup.»
While the neocortex, with its sensory equipment, surveys the outerworld, the limbic system takes its cues from within, MacLean thinks. Ithas a loose grip on reality. In the 1940s MacLean became fascinated withthe «limbic storms» suffered by patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy. «Dur-ing seizures,» he recalls, «they’d have this Eureka feeling all out of con-text—feelings of revelation, that this is the truth, the absolute truth, andnothing but the truth.» All on its own, without the reality check of theneocortex, the limbic system seemed to produce sensations of deja-vu orjamais-vu, sudden memories, waking dreams, messages from God, evenreligious conversions.
«You know what bugs me most about the brain?» MacLean says sud-denly. «It’s that the limbic system, this primitive brain that can neither
The Hard-Wired Brain • 49
read nor write, provides us with the feeling of what is real, true, andimportant. And this disturbs me, because this inarticulate brain sits like ajury and tells this glorified computer up there, the neocortex, ‘Yes, youcan believe this.’ This is fine if it happens to be a bit of food or if it happensto be someone I’m courting—’Yes, it’s a female, or yes, it’s a male.’ Butif it’s saying, ‘Yes, it’s a good idea. Go out and peddle this one,’ how canwe believe anything? Logically I’ve never been able to see around thisimpasse. As long as I’m alive and breathing and have a brain to think with,I will never forgive the Creator for keeping me in this state of ignorance.»And now here’s the new version of the Faust story,» he says, grinninglike a kid who knows a good joke. «Our lineage goes back two hundredfifty million years—that is, to the age of the therapsids, the ‘mammal-likereptiles’ that are our remote kin. That’s ten million human generations,or as I sometimes say, forty million presidential libraries. It’s a long time.Anyway, the devil says to Faust, ‘If I tell you the secret of the universe atthe end of another two hundred fifty million years, would you go alongwith the bargain?’ Faust says, ‘Yes.’ So two hundred fifty million yearspass, and then the devil comes back and explains everything. Faust says,’I don’t understand.’ The devil says, ‘How would you expect to understand?Your brain hasn’t developed a bit in two hundred fifty million years.’ ‘Oh,no,’ says Faust. ‘I forgot to ask about that when we made the bargain.’ »
™ tt j tv j r> • «Give me the baby and my world to bringThe Hard-Wired Brain k up in „ dedared John B Watson .<and
I’ll make it climb and use its hands. . . . I’ll make it a thief, a gunman, ora dope fiend. The possibility of shaping in any direction is almost endless.»To the behaviorists a newborn human brain was a tabula rasa (the termcomes from John Locke) on which experience could write any kind of text.
«One textbook in psychology,» MacLean notes, «begins by saying, ‘Allhuman behavior is learned.’ Well, if all human behavior is learned, whyis it that in spite of all our intelligence and culturally determined behavior,we continue to do all the ordinary things that animals do?» The triunebrain, with its hard-wired programs from the bestial past, is MacLean’sanswer.
Simple organisms are rather like automata, with most of their behavior»wired in» from birth. The dances of bees are stereotyped, as is a frog’sresponse to the silhouette of a bug, or any buglike shape, moving acrossits visual field. Lizards automatically display their neck ruffs and do push-ups at a shadowgram of a lizard, MacLean discovered. Even chicks, duck-lings, and goslings are genetically programmed to follow the first movingobject they see after hatching, as the eminent Austrian ethologist Konrad
Lorenz discovered in the 1930s, when newly hatched goslings followed himeverywhere like bewitched lovers. This was called «imprinting.» Since thenhundreds of experiments have proved that baby birds will imprint on duckdecoys, boxes, colored lights, milk bottles, and toilet floats, as well asfamous scientists.
In the 1930s Roger Sperry, then at the University of Chicago, rotateda salamander’s eyes, disconnecting the nerve fibers from the eye to theoptic tectum in the brain and reconnecting them in such a way as to turnthe creature’s visual field upside down. After the operation the salamanderacted as if it saw an inverted world. When an object moved upward itfollowed it by moving its eyes downward. Its brain never adjusted. Sperry’sexperiments showed that a salamander or a frog will stick out its tonguein the wrong direction forever until it starves to death for lack of edibleinsects.
Mammalian brains are more flexible. Because mammalian nervoustissue doesn’t regenerate like an amphibian’s, you couldn’t do the rotated-eye experiment on humans even if you wanted to. But an enterprising turn-of-the-century psychologist, G. M. Stratton, made himself a pair ofdistorting goggles that reversed up and down and left and right. At firsthe could scarcely get around in his topsy-turvy world, but after severaldays his brain adapted and his surroundings looked upright and normalagain.
If humans are less robotlike than salamanders or ducks, it’s not becausewe have no wired-in behaviors. In fact, we have quite a few. What makesthe difference is the ratio of «unwired» to wired-in gray matter, becauseneurons that are not committed at birth to a set function, like discerninginsect shapes or moving the tongue, are available for learning, for modi-fication. Virtually all the cells in an amphibian or reptile brain directlyprocess sensory information (input) or control movement (output), but inhumans a great gray area—about three-fourths of the cortex—lies betweensensory input and motor output, called the association areas. These includethe frontal lobes and parts of the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes.»The human cortex spends most of its time talking to itself,» says MilesHerkenham. «It’s astounding. When you look at where the fibers go, you’dbe hard put to figure out how it even communicates with the rest of thebody. It might as well be plucked out to live by itself.»
If we’re seeking the neural basis of consciousness, we might look tothe ghostly zone between input and output. After all, the association areasof primitive mammals are negligible, while those of the evolutionarilyrecent species, like primates, are vastly expanded. This exponential in-crease in the number of cells and their interconnections created animalswith near-infinite bits, near-infinite «choices,» in their brains. But at what
Are Animals Conscious? • 51
precise point in evolution did consciousness, or the inward-looking facultywe call self-consciousness, arise?
Does lassie really know what’s going on,Are Animals or is it the dog biscuits 0ff-screen? Descartes
Conscious. saw animals as machines, but machines that
could do many things on their own, such asbreathing and digesting food, without the help of an immortal soul. Thesoul was a thinking thing, and only man needed one. This view is echoed,albeit in less theological terms, by Sir John Eccles: «Even when we cometo the apparently intelligent actions of higher animals with their remarkableabilities to learn and remember,» Eccles writes in a 1974 essay, «I havenot found any reason to go beyond the purely mechanistic neurophysiologyin explaining their brain performances, which of course was the positionof Descartes.» To this C. Wade Savage, of the University of Minnesota,retorts: «Then why go beyond the purely mechanistic neurophysiology inexplaining the performance of humansV Why, in short, should humanbehavior—but not animal behavior—require a soul? In his essay «An OldGhost in a New Body,» Savage writes:
We tend to regard a subject’s description of what his situation is … as the onlytest of whether he is conscious. And since animals cannot provide such descriptionswe conclude that they are not conscious, not self-conscious. (Eccles, at least, seemsto reach the conclusion in this manner.) But consider. If a dog is brought homefrom a long stay in the hospital, and immediately proceeds to search for familiarobjects and places, then he knows what his situation is, and is conscious. If thedog is surprised in the act of eating a steak waiting to be broiled, and slinks awaywith his head down and his tail between his legs, then he knows what he is doingand is concious. So if consciousness requires a soul, dogs (some of them, at least)have souls.
Indeed, we’d be hard put to draw a line through the evolutionary scaleand declare that right here, at point X, consciousness emerged. A pigeonis taught to peck at a button of a certain color for a food reward. Is thebird an unthinking stimulus-response machine, or is it formulating a prim-itive theory of cause and effect («If I peck here, grain will appear.»)?Rockefeller University biologist Donald Griffin, the author of a recentbook, Animal Thinking, argues that such simple mental processes are «hall-marks of conscious awareness.» Some animals plan, make choices, adaptto new situations, cooperate, count, ratiocinate. Lions in Kenya hunt co-operatively, using strategies like human warriors; ravens count to seven,as evidenced by their ability to select from a group of covered pots onewith seven marks on the lid. And then there are all the smart chimps who
figure in the neuropsychology texts. When Karl Pribram taught a colonyof chimpanzees at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies to trade pokerchips in exchange for food, the animals went beyond the experiment,developing a primitive economic system, hoarding chips as if they weresecurities certificates and trading them among themselves.
«To what extent,» we ask Pribram, above whose desk, a pensive, bale-ful-eyed monkey gazes down from a framed oil portrait, «are nonhumanprimates and other higher mammals capable of self-consciousness—anawareness of self as distinct from the outside world?»
«Well, we’ve tried to test this,» he tells us. «The usual test is the mirrortest. You paint the animal’s forehead and place him in front of a mirror,and if he tries to rub the paint off his forehead, you know he’s aware thathe’s seeing his own image. The major apes—gorillas, chimpanzees, andorangutans—do this, but the minor apes, such as gibbons, don’t. It’s aninteresting cutoff point.»
His soft voice trails off and then resumes. «I’m worried about the test,though, because gibbons, who fail it, are very, very socially aware. I alsosometimes get the feeling that my dog feels guilt, that he may be self-conscious.»
«Yet,» we ask, «you seem to see a quantum leap between chimpanzeeand human intelligence; is our intelligence so unique?»
«Of course it is!» says Pribram. «How many chimpanzees are sittingacross from each other, interviewing each other, recording the interviewon tape, and transcribing it into a manuscript? I’m tempted to say thathumans are as different from nonhuman primates as mammals are fromother vertebrates. We’re not unique in possessing intelligence, but our kindof intelligence is very, very special.»
«Beasts abstract not.»
Talking Apes —john locke
«Baby in my drink.»
—washoe (observing a doll floatingin her water)
There are those who consider consciousness an exclusively human at-tribute, perhaps a by-product of a soul. In Eccles’s view, not only areanimals devoid of it but so is the nonverbal half of the human brain. «Wecan regard the minor hemisphere,» he writes in his 1974 essay, «as havingthe status of a very superior animal’s brain. It displays intelligent reactions
Talking Apes • 53
and primitive learning responses . . . but it gives no conscious experienceto the subject.» Eccles is not alone in equating conscious experience withthe ability to state, «I am conscious.»
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget saw children under the age of sevenor eight as preconscious, and Julian Jaynes, a maverick Princeton professor,has theorized that the Greeks of Homer’s time did not have consciousnessas we know it. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of theBicameral Mind, Jaynes asserts that until about 2000 B.C., Homo sapienslived inside a two-chambered brain, with little connection between the twocerebral hemispheres. Ancient man was incapable of introspection, saysJaynes, and mistook his own internal messages (emanating from the muteright hemisphere) for the voices of gods—gray-eyed Athena consolingAchilles, Aphrodite and her fateful love spells, and so on. As you can see,»consciousness» is a fuzzier term than, say, «excitatory postsynaptic po-tentials.»
Discussions of human specialness usually center on the gift of speech:our faculty for using signs and symbols to stand for things and then toconstruct abstract or imaginary worlds beyond the here and now. But isman the only talking animal? The question became less abstract in 1966,when an infant chimpanzee named Washoe moved into a secondhand housetrailer in a backyard near Reno and began lessons in American Sign Lan-guage (ASL), the sign language of the deaf. Besides learning to eat witha fork and spoon, drink from a cup, use the toilet, wash dishes, andappreciate the local Dairy Queen, the world’s first «talking chimpanzee»acquired a working vocabulary of 132 signs under the tutelage of her humanfoster parents, University of Nevada psychologists Beatrix and R. AllenGardner. She also strung signs together into telegraphic two- and three-word sentences, uttered bon mots like «Baby in my drink,» coined neo-logisms (watching a swan splash into a pond, she combined the signs waterand bird to exclaim, «Waterbird!»), and imparted the gift of speech to anadopted infant chimp named Loulis.
Washoe and the other «talking» apes who followed have done muchto refute Locke’s pronouncement. They evidently understand the conceptof class (that is, that bananas and apples fall into the class of fruit; thatthe sign cow refers to any cow, not a specific cow). They employ wordslike potty and dirty as a form of name-calling, thus demonstrating a feelingfor metaphor. At the University of Pennsylvania a chimp named Sarah,using colored tokens for words, reportedly grasps the concepts of «same»and «different,» as well as the conditional relationship expressed in Englishas «if . . . then»—in other words, simple logic. At Stanford a female gorilla
named Koko has learned to lie, swear, joke, pun, and produce metaphors,similes, and three-word sentences in sign language, according to her trainer,Penny Patterson. A sample of gorilla wit:
koko Do food.
human trainer: Do where? In your mouth?
koko: Nose?
human: Nose?
koko: Fake mouth.
human: Where’s your fake mouth?
koko: Nose.
Having opened a window onto nonhuman consciousness, we discovera mental landscape resembling our own. We find that other primates, atleast, are capable of elementary logic, jokes, banter, deliberate misinfor-mation, cajoling, deep sorrow, rich communication. But is it language?
Many people view signing apes as nothing more than animals beggingfor food, sophisticated versions of conditioned rats in Skinner boxes. Butin 1984 a simian cinema verite experiment by Roger Fouts, who took overProject Washoe in its fourth year, showed that (1) chimps do converseamong themselves when no humans are present, and (2) they don’t talkabout food all that much. In Fouts’s videotapes of the private signed dis-cussions of Washoe, now a dowager of nineteen, and four younger chimps,play and social interaction were the dominant topics, with signs for «chase,»»tickle,» «groom,» and so on far outnumbering the idiom of eating.
The verbal apes’ most formidable critic is MIT linguist Noam Chomsky,to whom the essence of language is syntax (grammar) not semantics (mean-ing). Chomsky and his brethren assert that the telegraphic, grammaticallyimpoverished apetalk is not real language, for it lacks the rich syntacticstructures that permit humans to construct an infinite number of meaningfulsentences from a finite number of units.
«Baloney!» Allen Gardner retorts. «Imagine trying to ask directionson the street with just grammar and no semantics. Obviously the survivalvalue of language must be in communicating information. That’s semantics.
«A medieval philosopher like Chomsky,» he tells us, «says there is thisGreat Divide between man and beast. You know, the reason they tried toburn Galileo at the stake was that he said the Earth was not the center ofthe universe. It’s the same idea.»
Talking animals—outside of Aesop, anyway—seem to stir up a deepmetaphysical unease. But even if we concede that lower primates can talkand reason, Homo sapiens would be no less special. What other specieshas Cray computers, hand-held calculators, lunar launch vehicles, Teflon
The Wood Where Things Have No Names • 55
pans, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the AFL-CIO, the Supreme Court, theTokyo subway system, the Louvre, and Paradise Lost?
She was rambling on in this way when she reachedThe Wood Where the wood: It looked very cool and shady. «Well,
Things Have at any rate *ts a 8reat comfort,» she said as she
.. -, stepped under the trees, «after being so hot, to
I\0 Names get mX0 me—into the— whatT she went on, rather
surprised at not being able to think of the word.»I mean to get under the—under the—under this,you know!» putting her hand on the trunk of thetree. «What does this call itself, I wonder? I dobelieve it’s got no name—why, to be sure it hasn’t!»
—LEWIS CARROLL,
Through the Looking Glass
In the «wood in which things have no names,» Alice might have beenwandering in the silent forests of prehistory or in the phantasmagoric dawnof Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, when»the world was so recent that many things still lacked names, and in orderto indicate them it was necessary to point.» Genesis tells us that Goddelegated to Adam the job of naming all the creatures of Eden. Trees,birds, fawns, and the other objects of the universe don’t possess God-givennames. Names are pragmatic products of a human brain, which needs labelsto get around. Consider Alice’s earlier conversation with the Gnat:
«Of course they [the insects] answer to their names?» the Gnat remarkedcarelessly.
«I never knew them to do it.»
«What’s the use of their having names,» the Gnat said, «if they won’t answerto them?»
«No use to them,» said Alice; «but it’s useful to the people that name them, Isuppose. If not, why do things have names at all?»
The wood where things have no names might also be a metaphor forthe aphasias, or language disorders. The misfortunes of a nineteenth-cen-tury French aphasic first revealed the existence of a speech center in thebrain. Because the idea smacked of Gall’s phrenology, many scientistswere skeptical when the Parisian doctor Pierre-Paul Broca announced hisfindings at a meeting of the Paris Anthropological Society in 1861. Buthistory has proved him right. The aphasic Frenchman, known in the lit-erature as «Tan» because tan was the only word he could say, had suffereda stroke to his left cerebral hemisphere. After Tan’s death, Broca did anautopsy and uncovered a lesion near the facial area of the motor cortex,the region that now bears his name. (See Broca’s area in Figure 3.)
«If you ask a Broca’s aphasic how he spent the Easter holidays,» ob-serves UCLA’s Eran Zaidel, a prominent «split-brain» researcher, «hemay answer something like this: ‘Uh, uh, Easter . . . ho, ho, holiday, like… eat turkey . . . many lights . . . people . . . very good.’ » His speechis labored, halting, telegraphic, but not without sense. Strangely he maysing fluently and beautifully, though his writing suffers from the samedefects as his spoken discourse.
«Oh yes, we have done it, could be different but nevertheless done.Go, go, gone, and however successful, it still fails. I wish indeed, goodmorning.» That, says Zaidel, is the way a Wernicke’s aphasic would respondto a query about his holidays. The site of injury here is Wernicke’s areain the left temporal lobe (named after the German neurologist Carl Wer-nicke), and the result is fluent but nonsensical, semantically flawed speech.The problem is one of meaning, not articulation, and a Wernicke’s aphasiccan’t understand what other people say to him either. Yet he often remainsblissfully unaware that anything is wrong. Analyzing the defects of strokevictims, Carl Wernicke constructed a model of how the brain produceslanguage, which still holds up. The underlying sense of a statement arisesin Wernicke’s area, whence it travels to Broca’s area. There a detailedvocalization «program» is formed and then transferred to the nearby motorcortex, which activates the muscles of the mouth, lips, tongue, larynx, andso on.
A third variety of aphasia, anomia, or anomic aphasia, follows injuryto the temporal-parietal area. The anomic patient literally can’t find thewords, written or spoken. «For example,» says Zaidel, «if you point to afork and ask the patient to name it, he may respond with, ‘It’s a, ah, ahh. . . (eating motions). It’s a spoon. No, no, I mean it’s a . . . You eat withit, a, ha, I can say it.’ You ask him then, ‘Is it a knife?’ And he will sayimmediately, ‘No, no.’ And if you cue him by starting, ‘Use your knifeand . . . ,’ he will often be able to complete it, ‘Fork.’ Here the disorderis one of reference—of the relation between words and the things in theworld that they stand for.» Like Alice stranded in the wood where thingshave no names.
Thus some parts of the human cortex do house particular faculties, inan almost phrenological fashion. Wipe out a particular group of cells, andlanguage goes. (Actually, it’s not quite so simple, for the speechless hemi-sphere is not entirely nonverbal, as we’ll see. But in principle we can tracelanguage to localized centers.) And there are other cortical areas thatgovern a narrow range of behavior. Monkeys missing a small region of thefrontal lobes can no longer choose an object from a pair after a certaindelay. People shorn of parts of the temporal lobe can’t retain memories.
Universal Grammar • 57
Then there’s an intriguing neurological problem called prosopagnosia, theinability to recognize faces.
«In the normal individual,» noted the late Dr. Norman Geschwind ofHarvard in «Specialization of the Human Brain» (1977) in Scientific Amer-ican, «the ability to identify people from their faces is itself quite remark-able. At a glance one can make out a person from facial features alone,even though the features may have changed substantially over the yearsor may be presented in a highly distorted form, as in a caricature. In apatient with prosopagnosia this talent for association is abolished.» Theprosopagnosia victim can read, name objects, and recognize familiar voices,but faced with a photograph of his sister or his sister in the flesh, he can’tname her. This defect apparently results from damage to the underside ofboth occipital lobes, extending forward to the inner surface of the temporallobe. «The implication,» added Geschwind, «is that some neural networkwithin this region is specialized for the rapid and reliable recognition ofhuman faces.» A useful ability for a social animal like man, who must storethe images of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of friends, relatives, businessassociates, enemies, political figures, and celebrities in his memory bank.
Alas for Franz Joseph Gall, there are no «mirthfulness,» «friendship,»and «acquisitiveness» centers in the cortex. Most higher functions involvemany parts of the brain working in concert. We can see, however, thatthe behaviorists are wrong: the human cerebrum is not a blank slate.Millions of years of evolution have outfitted it with some specialized equip-ment, inborn «programs» for surviving on this particular planet. Everyhuman infant is the end product of a long line of ancestors who experiencedthe world in a certain way and whose brains were molded by those ex-periences. «In one sense,» Jacob Bronowski reflects, in The Identity ofMan, «the brain is more like a man-made machine than is the rest of thebody.»
_ . If its brain were a tabula rasa, a child should
Universal Grammar be capaWe of learning any language even
Martian or Alpha-Centaurian if it happened to be raised by extraterres-trials. No one really questioned that dictum until an iconoclastic linguistnamed Noam Chomsky started preaching a radical new doctrine in themid-1950s. We owe our gift of speech, Chomsky declared, to a geneticallyprogrammed «language organ» in the brain. And evolution has shapedthis organ so that it is capable of learning only those tongues that fall withina narrow band of possibilities. Comanche, Urdu, English, Serbo-Croation,and every other language spoken on the Earth conform to a «universal
grammar» in our heads, says Chomsky. If they did not, we couldn’t un-derstand them.
«If a Martian landed from outer space and spoke a language that vi-olated universal grammar,» Chomsky told an Omni magazine interviewer,»we simply would not be able to learn that language the way that we learna human language like English or Swahili. We would have to approach thealien’s language slowly and laboriously—the way that scientists study phys-ics. . . . We’re designed by nature for English, Chinese, and every otherpossible human language, but we’re not designed to learn perfectly usablelanguages that violate universal grammar.»
The clues came from the mouths of babes. If language learning werea matter of mimicry and conditioning, as the behaviorists claimed, howcould children learn to talk in the first place? Every natural languagecontains an infinite number of sentences, yet the number of sentencesactually pronounced in a child’s hearing during the learning phase may bequite small. Nonetheless, by the age of four, the average child utters anynumber of completely original, grammatically correct sentences. The onlypossible explanation, in Chomsky’s view, is that the «deep structure» oflanguage is inborn. Only the «surface structure,» which varies from lan-guage to language, is learned.
What sort of linguistic know-how is built in? «Take the sentence ‘Johnbelieves he is intelligent,’ » Chomsky told Omni. «Okay, we all know thathe can refer either to John or someone else; so the sentence is ambiguous…. In contrast, consider the sentence, ‘John believes him to be intelligent.’Here the pronoun him can’t refer to John, it can refer only to someoneelse. Now, did anyone teach us this peculiarity about English pronounswhen we were children? . . . Nevertheless, everybody knows it—knows itwithout experience, without training, and at quite an early age.»
B. F. Skinner, the grand old man of behaviorism, has insisted thathumans are hard-wired by nature to see and hear but that experiencesupplies just about everything else. «This view can’t possibly be correct,»Chomsky retorts. Language learning is a little like puberty or aging, agenetically programmed event in the life of an organism. Of course, aperson needn’t be exposed to puberty in order to experience it, whereasa child does pick up the tongue of his parents or caretakers. Chomskydoesn’t claim that language is entirely inborn or that you have brain cellsthat encode knowledge of the Greek pluperfect subjunctive or the properdeclension of Gesellschaft.
«The language organ,» he explains, «interacts with early experienceand matures into the grammar of the language that the child speaks. If ahuman being grows up in Philadelphia, as I did, his brain will encode
Why Evolution Did Not End in 100,000 B.C. • 59
knowledge of the Philadelphia dialect of English. If that brain had grownup in Tokyo, it would have encoded the Tokyo dialect of Japanese. Thebrain’s different linguistic experience—English versus Japanese—wouldmodify the language organ’s structure.»
. If chomsky is right, and humans could not
The Finite Brain understand Martians—or angels or gods—if
they spoke to us, other experiences must be off-limits to our species, too.»We like and understand Beethoven because we are humans, with a par-ticular, genetically determined mental constitution,» Chomsky suggests,»but that same human nature also means there are other conceivable formsof esthetic expression that will be totally meaningless for us.» Perhapswhole realms of knowledge lie beyond the wavelengths our brains candecode. Perhaps genetic barriers keep us from solving certain intellectualproblems, appreciating certain kinds of beauty, or conceiving a nonhumankind of science.
«We often lose sight of the fact that the brains we carry in our headsare not the last word in nervous systems,» muses Georgetown Universityneurophysiologist Daniel Robinson, in The Enlightened Machine. As the»bug detectors» in a frog’s brain program it to interpret the universe interms of bugs and nonbugs, our brains may likewise be limited by a finiteset of preconceptions. «The frog fixes himself in the weeded pond, a crea-ture with perhaps one idea,» Robinson writes. «The arrangement of neuralelements in his retina is such that, no matter what the real world is ordoes, the only ‘truth’ is that black convexity moving across his eye. . . .What are our universals? Are there ‘truths’ all around us that our neuronscannot process? Are the truths we’ve found more an expression of thepeculiarities of our neurophysiology than a reflection of the way the worldbehaves?»
When human physicists, peering into the heart of matter, «see» charmedquarks, left-handed quarks, positrons, neutrinos, antiprotons, are theyseeing the basic building blocks of the universe or the projections of theirown brains? Despite the modern unlock your infinite creative potentialphilosophy, brains have their limitations. On the other hand . . .
TT7I _ , . According to anthropologists, the human
Why Evolution u , ,4 .,j f
y m cerebrum evolved to its present form some
uia Not hna in forty thousand years ago in the cranium of
100,000 B.C. Cro-Magnon. Even Neanderthal man, who
hunted and foraged a hundred thousand years
ago, had a brain as large as ours, packaged in a long skull with a sloping
brow. Thus the spectacular enlargement of the cortex from early mammalsto apes to early hominids ends around 100,000 B.C. It wasn’t until 15,000B.C., however, that ancient humans painted vivid, lifelike horses and bullson cave walls. No cities appeared on earth until 5,000 B.C. Not until thefourth century B.C. did man devise a form of writing (the first texts wereSumerian bills of lading and other mundane documents), thereby findinga way to store knowledge outside the brain. This time lag suggests thatbrain size and cell count don’t necessarily tell the whole story.
Why did nature rest on its laurels in the early Paleolithic era insteadof fabricating ever newer and better thought organs? There are theoriesthat the girth of the female pelvis limits cranial size such that were ourbrains any bigger, human females could not deliver their babies. However,the hard-wired equipment that biological evolution bequeathed us is onlypart of the story. Yours is not a Stone Age brain, because brains, unlikeother bodily organs, undergo a secondary evolution that occurs after birth.
From the brain came words and symbols, social systems, myths, sym-phonies, histories, churches, atlases, encyclopedias, the seven o’clock news,and op art—in a word, culture—and, once created, these brain productstransformed the brain. It’s hard to imagine a human being untouched byhuman culture. Unfortunately we don’t have to imagine. In 1970 a thirteen-year-old girl named Genie was discovered chained to an infant’s potty-chair in a fetid, darkened room in Los Angeles. Since she was twentymonths old, her psychotic father had kept her there, chained to the potty-chair or to a crib, seldom spoken to, punished when she uttered any sound,and fed only baby food. At the time she was brought to the Children’sHospital in Los Angeles, Genie couldn’t stand erect, speak, or chew food.Eventually she did learn to walk, dress herself, eat solid foods with a knife,fork, and spoon, draw pictures, and do many other things. UCLA linguistseven taught her to talk, though imperfectly, thereby proving that peoplecan acquire language even after the «critical period» for speech is longpast. (The famous «wild boy» of France, isolated from human contact untilthe age of twelve, reportedly remained mute.) In any case, the moral isthat a human brain deprived of human society doesn’t develop beyond asubhuman state.
British neuroscientist-author Steven Rose writes in The Conscious Brain,»Our cranial capacity or cell number may not be so different from the earlyHomo sapiens, but our environments—our forms of society—are very dif-ferent and hence so too is our consciousness—which also means that sotoo are our brain states; the connectivity, if nothing else, of the brains oftwentieth-century humans cannot be identified with that which character-
Making Our Own Brain Maps • 61
ized our ancestors.» Rose is absolutely right: Our brains are changed by
the way we use them.
Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.Making Our Own Such is the first principle of existentialism. . . .
Brain Mavs Man is at l^e start a plan whicn is aware of itself,
rather than a patch of moss, a piece of garbage,or a cauliflower; nothing exists prior to this plan;there is nothing in heaven; man will be what hewill have planned to be.
—jean-paul sartre, Existentialism andHuman Existence, 1957
«The brain is not a machine in which every element has a geneticallyassigned role; it is not a digital computer in which all the decisions havebeen made,» Michael Merzenich, of the University of California at SanFrancisco (UCSF), tells us. «Anatomy lays down a crude topographic mapof the body on the surface of the cortex, which is fixed and immutable inearly life. But the fine-grained map is not fixed. Experience sketches in allthe details, altering the map continually throughout life.»
And that, in short, is why I am I and you are you.
Merzenich isn’t just philosophizing. With UCSF colleague Michael Stry-ker, he has been methodically sticking microelectrodes into the brains ofsquirrel and owl monkeys to find out how the brain arranges its internalmaps. Merzenich and Stryker concentrated on a patch of the somatosensorycortex that receives touch information from the hand. By recording thefiring of single cells in response to stimulation of a fingertip, a point onthe palm, and so on, they traced a continuous topographic map of the handon the brain surface. Each animal they studied had an individual brainmap, differing in size and other details.
When one or more fingers were amputated, the maps shifted. Over aperiod of weeks sensory inputs from the remaining fingers moved into themissing digit’s zone, enhancing the sensitivity of the surviving fingers. Whenthe median nerve of the hand was severed and allowed to regenerate, thecortical map resembled a Picasso hand, with its thumb represented in atleast six disconnected places. Yet sensitivity tests indicated that, to themonkey, the thumb «felt» relatively normal. «Apparently,» says Merzen-ich, «an ordered map in the brain is not absolutely necessary to recognizefamiliar objects.»
In another experiment the UCSF cartographers trained a monkey topush a lever with its finger several thousand times a day and then surveyedthe small, four-and-a-half-square-millimeter area of cortex correspondingto that finger. Sure enough, the map in the brain had been reorganized by
use, proving that experience dramatically alters cortical geography. If thisis true of monkeys, says Merzenich, it would be all the more true of humanbeings. A jeweler polishes the tiny, luminous facets of a gem under amagnifying glass. An eye surgeon makes microscopic stitches on a patient’scornea. Their brains come to reflect their skills. Every individual on earthhas a different brain map.
«Here’s how I look at it,» says Merzenich. «Phase one of brain orga-nization is when the anatomy is set down, and that isn’t alterable beyonda critical period, early in development. Then there is phase two, beginningin childhood and extending into adult life, when the functional connectionsbetween neurons are made. This process has hardly been studied untilnow.
«We think the cells of the cortex are wired up anatomically to receiveinputs from a very wide zone,» he explains. «There are thousands ofalternate ways in which any part of the skin surface—arm, hand, leg, etcetera—could be represented in the brain. Only one of the ways is selected,however, for cells respond to only a fraction of their input. So a neuronmight receive input from half the hand, say, but only respond to a smallzone on the tip of the finger. Yet under certain circumstances—like astroke—the map can still be modified. The cell could learn to respond tostimulation on another finger or somewhere on the palm. But not on thebig toe—anatomy strictly limits how far things can change.»
Merzenich thinks the same rules apply to motor maps, auditory maps,all neural maps. Only more so: «The zones we study are the most tightlyconnected, with the least potential for alteration,» he says. «We thinkwhen you get into the cortical zones where we really live—where we per-form recognition and categorization of things—the input is spread over awider field and experience can probably modify it more.»
Neurons, in short, compete in a Darwinian manner for space in thebrain, much as species compete for an ecological niche. At least that’s thetheory of Rockefeller University’s Gerald Edelman, a Nobel Prize-winningmicrobiologist-turned-neuroscientist. «The brain, in its workings, is a se-lective system, more like evolution, itself than like computation,» he toldThe New Yorker. «We are part of that complex web of natural selectionwhich has itself evolved a selective machinery called our brain. In each ofus there lies … a second evolutionary path during a lifetime: it unitesculture with a marvelous tissue in which the hope of our survival lies.»
«Our results fit Edelman’s predictions,» says Merzenich. «It makessense to look at it as a selection process.» Compared with the tidy, com-partmentalized, either/or efficiency of computers, Mother Nature is messy,a slattern. But, according to Edelman and Merzenich, this unruly Dar-
winian game of chance and adaptation among nerve cells is the basis ofyour freedom. Your genes don’t predestine you to be a surfer, a dreamer,a world-class chess player, a Mercedes mechanic, a Folies Bergeres girl, adrill-bit salesman, or Jean-Paul Sartre. Your accumulated thoughts andactions weave your neurons into the unique tapestry of your mind.
Is it possible to tamper with the course of the second evolution?
«Now I want you to consider some possibilities that might sound a bitweird,» Merzenich tells us. «First, imagine what would happen if the mapwere unstable and could be altered rapidly. If it changed too fast, youmight get errors of association. The primary sensory maps might be outof phase with the brain’s other maps, and the consequence might be schiz-ophrenia. Now take the opposite situation, in which the map is superstableand scarcely affected by experience. You can probably imagine what theresulting mental disease might be.»
«Senility?» we guess.
«Right. Or maybe depression. So there’s an enormous potential fortreating mental illnesses by making the maps either more or less plastic.You might fool the brain into giving the area affected by a stroke morespace in the brain. Drugs that made the brain more plastic might speedup the learning of new skills or rejuvenate elderly brains.
«We know that amphetamine withdrawal, for example, destabilizes themap. We can tell from recordings that the cell’s receptive field—what inputit responds to—changes quickly. But the question is, how much can youspeed up the changes before you create disorder in the internal map? Orsay you wanted to stabilize the map. Since I’m interested in humans, I’mthinking of purely psychological methods that could do it. Perhaps youcould stabilize the brain of a schizophrenic by creating a superstable en-vironment.»
j_, , , Once upon a time there were some rats
who lived in a laboratory in Montreal, Can-ada. One day a famous behavioral psychologist, Donald O. Hebb, tooksome of the rats home with him and raised them as pets. These rats becamevery smart. They could find their way through mazes, even complicatedones, much better than the other rats, who stayed behind in the humdrum,solitary cages of the lab.
Much later, in the 1960s, a group of University of California at Berkeleyscientists, headed by Mark Rosenzweig, elaborated the allegory of thesmart and dull rats. They raised littermates either in an «enriched envi-ronment» (communal cages full of running wheels and toys, where the rats
This micrograph shows the visual cortex of a rat raised in an «enriched» environ-ment. According to William Greenough, its dendrites (arrows) are 20 percent moreextended—and thus richer in synapses—than those of rats raised in individuallaboratory cages. (Courtesy of William T. Greenough, University of Illinois)
were also handled and petted by their caretakers) or an «impoverished»one (individual cages with low sensory stimulation). Then they took outthe rats’ brains, weighed and measured them, and reported that the en-riched group had a thicker cerebral cortex. Few scientists believed thesereports at first. How on earth could the social environment physicallychange the brain?
One early believer was psychologist William Greenough, of the Uni-versity of Illinois. In the early 1970s he replicated the Berkeley results andmore. He raised one group of rats in isolation in standard laboratory cages,a second group in a «social situation» with two animals per cage, and athird in a luxurious cage stocked with Mattel toys and homemade metal-and-wooden playthings. Later, staining the brain tissue with a Golgi stain
Educated Rats • 65
and carefully tracing the branching dendrites of single neurons under amicroscope, Greenough found that the stimulated rats had more dendriticbranches. (The differences between social rats and isolates weren’t strik-ing.) If dendritic branching sounds like dull stuff, recall that the multiplesynapses along the dendrite are the neuron’s receiving stations. More den-drites presumably mean more synapses and more connections.
«And more information, in a very important sense!» Greenough pointsout. «The rat is not just a little passive critter that stares out at the room.He flies all over the cage and has a great time, and the experience modifieshis brain. Experienced organisms have brains with more connections be-tween nerve cells. Our assumption is that these connections are storinginformation. More synapses mean more behavioral repertoires, a widerarray of responses, more choices. The question is, how specific is theinformation stored in the dendritic connections? Could particular memoriesbe stored in this way?
«I’ll tell you what I think,» he continues. «People think memory is aunique thing, but I see memory as an extension of development. At firstthe developing brain uses experience to get its basic wiring laid down.Later on it uses similar mechanisms—dendritic growth, the formation ofnew synapses—to store information in the pattern of nerve-cell connec-tions. That’s the idea we’re working on right now.»
When you learn the word boulangerie or plug into a computer networkwith Pascal, a new text is actually etched into your cerebral «wiring»—and it all happens with astonishing speed. There is evidence that newsynapses form in ten to fifteen seconds or less, according to Greenough.»It’s mind-blowing,» he comments. Nobody knows if old synapses areerased at a corresponding rate since, in Greenough’s words, «we don’tknow how to measure that; we don’t know what to look for.» But obviouslyyour brain is being continually remodeled by what you put into it.
Scientists have known for years that young brains are more malleablethan old ones and that there are «critical periods» early in an organism’slife when experience is particularly influential. If newborn kittens are se-questered in a room whose walls are covered with either horizontal orvertical stripes, their brains are shaped accordingly. Afterward the «hor-izontal cats» walk right into chair legs, as if unable to see vertically, whilethe «vertical cats» cannot leap from one horizontal surface to another.
Laborious experiments by Hubel and Weisel have demonstrated thatthe visual cortex has nerve cells that are selectively tuned to lines and edgesof a particular orientation. Such electrode studies soon revealed that thevertical felines had fewer horizontal detectors in their brains and that thecats raised among horizontal bars had scant vertical-detector cells. Kittens
66 • Crown of Creation
who grow up in a «planetarium» environment of bright spots against adark background develop lots of spot detectors and few line detectors. Sothe brain’s reality is fixed by its early experiences—which might accountfor the psychoanalytic verity that infantile traumas lead to neuroses orpsychoses later in life. Not surprisingly the subjects of the first enrichmentstudies were very young rats, because an old brain, naturally, could notbe taught new tricks. Or so everybody thought.
Recently, however, Greenough and his colleagues tried their stuff onmature rats. They selected a group of sixty-day-old young adults (the equiv-alent of human college students) and another of 450-day-old, middle-agedrodents and subjected them to either enrichment or isolation. The results?»With the young adults,» Greenough tells us, «we did get results, thoughthey were less striking than in baby rats. Their brains didn’t grow manynew dendritic branches, but enrichment did extend the terminal spines.When we looked at the middle-aged animals, on the other hand, we wereamazed. Enrichment had very dramatic effects on their brains, just asdramatic as in very young rats. We don’t know why. Maybe in stimulatingthe middle-aged brain you’re heading off a decline.
«If there’s a message, it’s that the brain is dynamic throughout life.The old view was that the neural architecture was fixed at birth or certainlyat maturity. We saw the brain as static because we were looking at micro-graphs of dead tissue where nothing ever moves. Only in the last five yearshave neuroscientists become aware of the incredible structural plasticityof the brain.»
Even elderly brains, Greenough says, need stimulation. Especially el-derly brains, perhaps. «People have compared old people in nursing homesto the population still waiting to get in,» he tells us. «And there’s a whop-ping difference in IQ. By the time you’ve been in a home six months, yourIQ has already plummeted. Nursing homes are badly designed; they starvethe brain of experience.»
The brain does not live on glucose alone. Cultivation feeds it. Isolationkills it. And maybe, just maybe, the experiments we’ve heard about canhelp us with an old conundrum.
Can Hope Firea Neuron?
question: How can a thought, which has no mass, no electrical charge,no velocity, no material properties at all, act upon a physical organ,the brain?
Can Hope Fire a Neuron? • 67
materialist answer: It can’t. Have you ever tried to slice bread withyour will? Well, it’s just as silly to imagine that thoughts can slip througha brain-cell membrane and invade the nucleus or can jump up and downon the axon to make it fire. Mental phenomena, being immaterial bydefinition, don’t affect physical objects.reductionist answer: Thoughts, schmoughts. All your thoughts arereally just electrochemical blips in nervous tissue. Because «mentalstates» are ghostly by-products of brain events, mere figments, there’sno need to worry about how the two might interact.dualist-interactionist answer: As surely as there are tables and rocks,there are desires, beliefs, perceptions, worries, dreams, regrets, mem-ories, and pains in the universe. Mental states are real, even if youcan’t see, touch, or taste them, and they do influence our brains.But how? Since Descartes, the interactionist dilemma has been some-thing like this: If a thought affects us, it must do something to neural tissue,but something incorporeal can’t possibly make a dent in something phys-ical. Or can it?
If experience can change the brain’s architecture, if play or a rich sociallife can grow dendrites, maybe something like hope can redirect the trafficof nerve signals in your head. This notion is disturbing only if we imaginethe mental and material as two separate substances. You live in a mentaluniverse as well as a physical universe of chairs, tables, electrons, trees,and planets. The sentence you’re reading exists as a pattern of black markson a white page and as a thought in the author’s head, a thought in yourhead, a thought in your friend’s head if you tell him or her about it, andso on. Then, again, we might imagine the thought in your brain as a flowof sodium and potassium ions through a cell wall or something. So thethought may take material form or not, but do you commute back andforth between two separate worlds, a mental world and a physical world?
In this chapter we’ve viewed the brain as a remarkable biomachine designedby evolution for eating, mating, distinguishing friends from foes and malesfrom females, recognizing faces, marking territory, manipulating symbols,anticipating the future, and a thousand great and small tasks. The humanbrain, we’ve seen, undergoes a second sort of evolution during its lifetime.Rather than a fully programmed computer, it is an «open» system, anongoing dialogue with the environment—which includes newspapers, radiotelescopes, billboards, music, Paul MacLean’s triune-brain theory, NoamChomsky’s linguistics, and other man-made things. In the next chapterwe’ll see how brain chemistry fits into this scheme.
The Chemical Brain
I think chemicals will soon rule the mind of man…. I am a witch with a mania for making extractsfrom the fruits of strange bushes [and will soonbe] sending a specially nourished pigeon to takea crap in the tea of the President of the UnitedStates when he’s in the Rose Garden of the WhiteHouse and we’ll control the world.
—ARNOLD MANDELL, M.D., Coming of
Middle Age: A Journey
He seemed surprised. «You found the AmericanDream?» he said. «In this town?
I nodded. «We’re sitting on the main nerveright now,» I said.
—hunter Thompson, Fear andLoathing in Las Vegas
SCENE from the National Institute of Mental Health, April 1982: Twobrown rhesus monkeys sit in plastic restraining chairs, with IV tubesdripping saline into the thigh of one and a mysterious fluid into hispartner. A quarter of an hour later, while the first monkey still sits aroundnonchalantly, eating and drinking, the second monkey starts to squirm andwring his hands. Within minutes he looks like a scene out of The Exorcist,screeching, howling, writhing, clawing at his fur, pounding his chair, uri-nating, and defecating. The monitors show that his heart is racing, hisblood pressure has soared to dangerous levels, and his adrenaline level isten times higher than normal.
The monkey’s demon is anxiety. But this anxiety has nothing to do withunresolved Oedipal complexes, existential anguish, or any of the neuroticimpedimenta of Woody Allen films. This is angst in a test tube. It camefrom an obscure-sounding compound called B-CCE, which NIMH scien-tists Steven Paul and Phil Skolnick hoped might lead them to the «brain’sown Valium.» A natural Valium, or benzodiazepine, has been a Holy Grailfor pharmacologists since 1977, when receptors for the antianxiety agentwere first discovered in brain tissue. Why would our brains have specialbinding sites for a Hoffman-La Roche drug unless something like Valium
68
The Chemical Brain • 69
already existed there? That question, at any rate, beckoned Paul and Skol-nick a few years ago.
Apologizing for the bloodstains on his corduroy pants—»It’s probablymouse brain»—Skolnick tells us the B-CCE story over the clatter of metaltrays in the cafeteria. We’re in Building 10 of the NIMH, one of the templesof the new faith. «Back in 1977,» he tells us, «Steve and I were just sittingin the lab one day, cutting up rat hypothalami under magnifying scopes—they’re just tiny. And Steve said, ‘Did you see that paper in Nature aboutthe Valium receptor?’ I said, ‘Yeah, technically, it looks good, but it mustbe bullshit. There’s no Valium in the brain. Why would there be receptorsfor Valium?’
«He said, ‘Right.’ So then we were cutting, and suddenly Steve lookedup and threw his glasses down. We dropped the experiment we were doingright then—that was the last experiment we ever did on hypothalami. Wecalled up Paul Marangos, who’s a biochemist, and went down to the slaugh-terhouse, got some cow brains, and started looking around for an endog-enous Valium.»
Endogenous is shorthand for «originating within the organism» (theopposite of exogenous), and an endogenous Valium is still to be found. In1981 a Danish scientist seeking this modern-day elixir boiled a thousandliters of human urine and extracted a mysterious compound called B-CCE.Alas, B-CCE turned out to be a red herring, a by-product of the extractionprocedure, not a natural Valium. In tests on rats it appeared to have littleaffinity for the Valium receptor. But when Paul, Skolnick, and others testedthe compound on monkeys, they discovered that B-CCE did bind to theValium receptor—with dramatic results. Instead of a miracle tranquilitydrug, however, it was just the opposite: an anti-Valium.
«From the looks of it, a large dose is like being pushed out of an airplanewithout a parachute,» Skolnick tells us. «I mean, the monkey is just sittingthere and a minute later he’s scared shitless. It’s bottled fear! We gotincreases in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones like Cortisol,so it seems to be a good model of stress. When we first saw it we couldn’tbelieve it. After lunch we switched the monkeys and gave B-CCE to theanimal that got saline before, and it happened all over again. Then weknew we were on to something.
«Of course, we can’t ask the animal, ‘How are you feeling?’ But aphysician in Germany recently gave a derivative of B-CCE to humans, andtheir descriptions were of classic free-floating anxiety: ‘The walls are closingin! I just want to get out of here!’ One guy got so anxious he tried to runout of the room.»
Like a sorcerer’s abracadabra, formulas like B-CCE are portals to a
powerful new knowledge. The recent discoveries in neurochemistry havebeen likened to the splitting of the atom, perhaps because, until veryrecently, the puzzle box of the brain was locked up tight. Analysts probedit with talk, while the behaviorists focused on input (stimuli) and output(observed behavior) and wrote off the shadowy, in-between realm of moods,emotions, subjectivity, awareness, and the other unmeasurables.
Then, in the late 1960s and 1970s, came a series of startling neuro-chemical breakthroughs. «We have these complex human emotions, whichwe have always believed were of the soul,» muses biological psychiatristPhilip Berger, of Stanford. «Analytic psychiatrists of the 1950s said youcould never have an antianxiety drug because anxiety was too fundamental,too complicated; it was existential angst. But one of the best definitions ofanxiety is that emotion that five milligrams of Valium makes better.»
Would Hoffman-La Roche have given The Metamorphosis an upbeatending? Turned Soren Kierkegaard into a regular guy? Some say the newalchemists have found the doorways to the self. At any rate, they’ve turnedup some fifty-odd brain chemicals that seem to make us happy or sad,sexy, schizophrenic, suicidal, or obsessed. They know the molecular struc-ture of some of these chemicals and the genes that contain their blueprint.They know the enzymes that make and destroy them. They have discoveredmicroscopic keyholes in the brain called receptors that could open thewhole Pandora’s box.
«Behavior isn’t such a mysterious thing,» says NIMH’s Candace Pert,one of the trailblazers of the pharmacologic revolution. «I think it emanatesfrom microcircuits of electrons flowing from neuron to neuron.
«What we’re working on now,» she explains, «is connecting up neu-rochemistry, the brain’s ‘juices,’ with circuit diagrams of the brain. Circuitdiagrams are what neuroanatomists have been concerned with for years:the interconnections of cells, the wiring. Now we’re learning which neuralpathways secrete endorphins [our natural opiates] and which secrete otherneuro juices.
«There’s no doubt in my mind that one day—and I don’t think it’s allthat far away—we’ll be able to make a color-coded wiring diagram of thebrain. A color-coded map, with blue for one neurochemical, red for an-other, and so on. We’ll be able to describe the brain in mathematical,physical, neurochemical, and electrical terms, with all the rigor of a dif-ferential equation.»
If Pert’s prophecy comes true, it will mean more than a new generationof mind drugs modeled on the brain’s natural ones, though the advent ofsuch tailor-made chemicals will certainly alter the inner landscape. It couldalso redefine man, creating a world where romantic love is traced to a few
God at the Snyapse • 71
SYNAPTICCLEFT
POSTSYNAPTICRECEPTORS
DENDRITE OF
RECEIVING
NEURON
Nerve cells communicate by means of chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters.When a neurotransmitter molecule seeps across the microscopic gap of the synapticcleft, it locks on to a specially shaped receptor on the postsynaptic cell. This is howour brains transmit the signals that process information, regulate emotions, andkeep us alive. {Courtesy of Henry N. Wagner, Jr., Johns Hopkins University)
nanomoles of «Aphroditine,» perhaps, and where ten milligrams of «Fra-ternitonin» could transform a brooding misanthrope into a back-slappingRotarian; where all your personality traits—your love of Strauss waltzes,your preference for tall, willowy redheads or dark, black-eyed men, yourtendency to vote a straight Republican ticket—are explained as a subtlemix of a few brain juices. What then? Who would you be?
All the tools of the pharmacologic rev-Uod at the Synapse olution work at the miniature anatomy of
the synapse, where neurons communicate. In the last chapter we said thatneurons send signals in the form of electrical pulses, or action potentials,of varying frequencies, but that’s not the whole story. When an actionpotential arrives at the synapse, it triggers the secretion of a chemicalmessenger, called a neurotransmitter. In the 1950s the British neuroscientistSir Bernard Katz discovered that transmitters are released in little packets,or quanta, that seep across the gap to bind to the next cell. By adding up
all the electrochemical messages that reach it during a certain interval, thecell on the receiving end «decides» whether to fire an impulse down itsaxon. (There is subtraction involved, too, for synapses can say no as wellas yes. Some neurochemicals are inhibitory instead of excitatory.)
But all manner of things can happen to a neurotransmitter moleculeduring its hazardous 0.3 to 1.0 millisecond passage across the synaptic cleft.It can be broken down in the gap before it reaches the other side, in whichcase no signal is transmitted. One of the enzymes that is supposed to breakit down afterward might not work, in which case the transmitter floods thesynapse and neighboring cells. So here, at the meeting place between cells,is where all our mind drugs act—alcohol, LSD, sleeping pills, morphine,caffeine, tranquilizers, marijuana, antidepressants—though we’ve only re-cently figured out how. For hundreds of years human beings have un-knowingly been using plant products that are neurotransmitter lookalikes,drugs that resemble our natural chemicals and interact with their receptors.
For a drug or a natural transmitter to have an effect, it must fit into aspecially tailored receptor on the postsynaptic cell. This is usually describedas a «lock-and-key arrangement,» but in reality the receptor is a three-dimensional protein molecule on the cell membrane that changes its shapewhen a neurotransmitter locks onto it. When a chemical couples with areceptor, a neuron may fire or be dampened, a muscle cell may contract,a gland cell may secrete a hormone. Pain, sex, memory, mood states, andmental illness are all products of the interaction of chemicals and receptors.
If the brain were just electrical, if its only language were the binarycode of the action potential, we might really be deterministic, computerlikemachines. But the chemical brain is more slippery. «Introduce a gap be-tween synapses, a junction with room for uncertainty,» writes Steven Rose,»and the . . . brain becomes less certain, more probabilistic.» At eachsynapse the impulse can either be duplicated exactly, reduced, increased,or delayed. Different signals may be added, subtracted, mutiplied, divided,transformed. Maybe all this uncertainty makes for a subtle, fluid, andunpredictable mental life.
The synapse itself is an object of reverence to some. Eccles has theorizedthat these gaps of uncertainty leave room for free will and the «self-con-scious mind» to intervene. Ultimately, his scenario can be pictured as a»God of the synapse» reaching down from time to time and tamperingwith the mechanism ever so slightly—just enough to make a neuron fire,perhaps. For Candace Pert the junction between nerve cells is a liaisonbetween the new pharmacology and Freudian theory. «We think repressionoccurs at the synapse,» she says. «Freud was right about the unconscious.In studying the way the brain processes information, we’ve learned that
Windows on the Brain • 73
much never reaches consciousness. As input from the senses percolates upto higher levels of the nervous system, it gets processed at each stage.Some is discarded; some is passed on to higher brain regions. There’s afiltering, a selection, based on emotional meaning, past experience, andso on.»
. . _ . In order to see mind chemicals at work you
Windows on the Brain need wjndows imo the brain>s imerior Qne
new high-tech vista on the working brain is glucose mapping, the jointbrainchild of Martin Reivich of the University of Pennsylvania and anNIMH team led by Louis Sokoloff. Since sugar (glucose) fuels the brainmachine, the rate of glucose metabolism region by region should be anaccurate index of neural activity. First, the brain mappers inject a radio-active isotope of glucose (deoxyglucose-2) into an animal’s bloodstream,along with a drug, if they’re doing a pharmacological study. Then, aftersacrificing the animal, they do autoradiography. They freeze its brain, cutit into paper-thin sections, and lay each slice onto radiation-sensitive film(just like the badges worn by workers who handle radioactive materials,which is where Sokoloff got the idea in the first place). A detailed metabolicrecord of the brain results, a pattern of light and shade revealing active orinactive neurons. From the radiation densities, a computer constructs amulticolored map, which can be stored and displayed on a video screenfor a scientist to rescan and «zoom in» on details with the flick of a joystick.(Glucose mapping is the basis of PET, or positron emission tomography,about which more is in the next chapter.)
The miracles of glucose metabolism can be illustrated by one story. Ittook Hubel and Wiesel twenty years of laborious trial-and-error recordingsfrom electrodes in individual nerve cells to map the brain’s visual cortex.When an animal saw a vertical line, for example, the scientists found activeand inactive neurons lined up in distinct «orientation columns» on thecortex. And by covering first one eye and then the other, they traced thenow-famous ocular dominance columns, the alternating bands of input fromright and left visual fields. «The deoxyglucose method can do that in oneshot,» says Carolyn Smith, who is part of the Sokoloff team. «These arepictures taken from the striate [visual] cortex of a rhesus monkey. One ofhis eyes was patched. See how the bands of active neurons and inactiveneurons alternate across the cortex? Each is four hundred microns [a mi-cron is one-millionth of a meter] wide, about like the ocular dominancecolumns. We published this picture around the same time Hubel and Wieselpublished their work. Not being visual physiologists, we didn’t know what
they were. We went around asking everyone at NIMH, ‘What could thesebe?’ »
«Electrophysiological recording techniques rely on many electrodes,implanted sequentially in an animal’s brain, to build a picture of the work-ing mechanism inside,» Louis Sokoloff explains. «These methods are time-consuming and usually require recordings from many animals. … Bycontrast, glucose mapping provides a fairly quick snapshot of the wholebrain in a single animal. … It is like obtaining immediately a photographof a person’s face, rather than assembling, as detectives sometimes must,a painstakingly obtained composite image based on many individual ob-servations.»
The primary visual area, or striate cortex, of a macaque monkey was mapped withradioactive glucose. (The left hemisphere is on the left; the right hemisphere, onthe right.) The top autoradiograph (A) was taken when the animal had both eyesopen; the dark shade stands for high metabolic activity. In the middle picture (B),both eyes were covered and the visual system was inactive, hence the lighter color.The bottom autoradiograph (C) shows the activity in the visual area when onlyone of the monkey’s eyes was covered. The pattern of dark and light stripes rep-resents the input to the brain from the open and closed eyes respectively. Eachstripe is about 0.3 to 0.4 millimeters wide, exactly the width of the ocular dominancecolumns Nobelists David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel had mapped out in the striatecortex. (Courtesy of C Kennedy, M. H. Des Rosiers, O. Sakurada, M. Shinohara,M. Reivich, J. W. Jehle, and L. Sokoloff, Proc Natl Academy Sci, USA 73-(ll):4230-4234, 1976)
The Impossible Dream • 75
«With the deoxyglucose method,» says Smith, «you can do studies ina conscious, behaving animal with an intact nervous system. You can givea drug—morphine, amphetamine, LSD, PCP [the street drug angel dust],or ketamine [a potent cousin of PCP]—to an animal, and see the relation-ship between behavior and the metabolic map in the brain.»
_- _ ., , _ As scientists began to unscramble the
The Impossible Dream brain,s chemica, codes a wonderful dream
took shape: Everything would soon be explained. Fear, despair, hope,and madness would turn out to have simple neurochemical equations.Norepinephrine, or noradrenaline, the «fight or flight» chemical, was re-sponsible for motivation, learning, motor activity, and excitement. Theinhibitory transmitter serotonin caused sleep and sometimes depression.Or, alternately, depression involved too little norepinephrine, mania toomuch. And it looked as if the brain transmitter dopamine was the key totwo terrible illnesses, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.
A historic accident in 1952 launched a whole new psychiatry. In a Frenchasylum some raving, back-ward schizophrenics became miraculously calmwhen they were given an antihistamine drug called chlorpromazine. Sincechlorpromazine reduced the level of dopamine in the brain, it looked,mirabile dictu, as if schizophrenia was simply the result of excess braindopamine. Chemists avidly synthesized a new class of dopamine-loweringdrugs (Thorazine, Haldol, and so on), thereby ending the era of straitjack-ets and padded cells. But while these drugs alleviated some symptoms,they did not cure schizophrenia. Nor is there a «magic bullet» for depres-sion, mania, paranoia, or garden-variety neurosis.
In 1960 a deficiency of dopamine in certain brain pathways was foundto be responsible for the shaking limbs, shuffling steps, rigid musculature,and blank, masklike stare of Parkinson’s disease. A dopamine precursorcalled levodopa (L-dopa) was developed in 1967, and patients who hadbeen mute, immobile zombies for years suddenly began walking and talk-ing, like statues sprung to life. Some of these «awakenings» are chronicledby neurologist Oliver Sacks in his extraordinary book Awakenings. Mostof his patients were survivors of a 1917-1928 pandemic of sleeping sickness{encephalitis lethargica) who later developed a severe, Parkinsonian «post-encephalitic syndrome.» Sunk in a «decades-long sleep,» a Black Hole-like «implosion» of being, many of these patients had been, in Sacks’swords, «ontologically dead.»
Like mythological returnees from the realm of death, the awakenedones brought back amazing tales. Some had remained transfixed in theexact moment in 1926 or 1928 when they were first stricken. Others told
of being entombed in an inert body, a «prison with windows but no doors,»in one patient’s words.
L-dopa was not an undiluted magic potion, however. After a briefhalcyon period, it typically unleashed a new chamber of horrors—grotesquehallucinations, delirium, murderous furies, compulsive growling, gnashingof teeth, involuntary movements, delusions, tics, compulsive cursing, toname just a few of the «side effects.» Sacks tells of patients seesawingerratically between two pathological poles—the rigid, withdrawn «im-ploded» state of Parkinsonism and an «exploded» psychotic state. Moral?To Sacks it is the «utter inadequacy of mechanical medicine, the utterinadequacy of a mechanical world view.» As we shall see, the brain is nota simple machine that can be repaired by adding X grams of a singlechemical.
Eventually the naive 1950s and 1960s picture of one transmitter causingone behavior, or even three or four distinct behaviors, yielded to therealization that sadness, dreams, or the compulsion to snack endlessly onFritos involves a complex ballet of scores of neurotransmitters, precursorenzymes, metabolizing enzymes, and the newly discovered «brain hor-mones» called neuropeptides. It was a rude shock at first. When today’sgrand old men were in school, the textbooks named a sole neurotrans-mitter, acetylcholine. In the 1950s there were two. Even a decade ago,there seemed to be no more than six: acetylcholine, norepinephrine, do-pamine, serotonin, and the amino acids glycine and GAB A (gamma-amino-butyric acid).
Now we know the brain is a Tower of Babel of some fifty knownlanguages and hundreds of unknown idioms. «There are easily a hundred,probably two hundred, neurotransmitters, every one of them as interestingas the old ones,» says master pharmacologist Solomon Snyder, of JohnsHopkins University. «Yet all the psychiatric drugs we use today act throughthe three or four transmitter systems we’ve known about for twenty years.»That too is about to change.
The paper that launched it, «Opiate Re-Ine Age of the ceptor: Demonstration in Nervous Tissue,»
Receptor by Candace B. Pert and Solomon H. Snyder,
was published in Science on March 9, 1973.Pert and Snyder wrote, «We report here a direct demonstration of opiatereceptor binding, its localization in nervous tissue, and a close parallelbetween the pharmacological potency of opiates and their affinity for re-ceptor binding.» In the gray, Latinate prose of scientific journals, theywere announcing that they’d found the brain’s opiate receptor, the site on
the cell surface where morphine works its peculiar magic. Several big-namescientists at several universities had been racing toward the then-mythicalopiate receptor (which most people believed in, but no one had seen), butthe person who got there first was an unknown, twenty-five-year-old grad-uate student named Candace Pert, then working under Snyder at JohnsHopkins.
Pert’s recipe: Take radioactively tagged naloxone (a morphine blockerthat binds to the same receptors) and put it in a culture of homogenizedmouse brain, filter it, and then count the radioactivity with a scintillationcounter, a sort of computerized Geiger counter. That will show how muchnaloxone has stuck to the brain. Now take opiates—methadone, morphine,et cetera—and toss them into the mouse-brain mixture. Then add hotnaloxone and see how much binds. Pert found, to her delight, that if sheadded an opiate first, little naloxone bound to the brain sites. The clearmessage was that the opiates had plugged up the receptors. But if sheadded a nonopiate—phenobarbital, atropine, serotonin, norepinephrine,or histamine—naloxone bound just as before. That meant that these re-ceptors were custom-made for opiates.
Why would God design a special receptor for the product of a poppyplant? The answer lurking in the neuroscientific collective unconscious after1973 was, of course, there must be a natural morphine in the brain! Andindeed there was. The first natural opiate was discovered by a pair ofScottish scientists, John Hughes and Hans Kosterlitz, in 1975. It was ashort, five-amino-acid protein chain they dubbed an enkephalin («in thehead»). All of a sudden the field got hot, and naturally occurring opiatesof all shapes and sizes cropped up, like fragments of a lost legend.
In 1975 Stanford’s Avram Goldstein extracted an opiate substance fromfresh cow pituitary that was not enkephalin. A year later, C. H. Li andDavid Chung at the University of California at San Francisco announcedthe discovery of beta-endorphin, 31 amino acids long (the first five matchedthe five amino acids in enkephalin), and it turned out to be none otherthan Goldstein’s mystery chemical.
Other researchers, meanwhile, were isolating and sequencing alpha-endorphin and gamma-endorphin, and then, in 1979, Goldstein turned upa dynorphin, basically a long enkephalin, with some extra amino acids onits tail. By 1984 there were long dynorphins and short dynorphins, variousenkephalins and endorphins, a whole menagerie of brain opiates. Andthere were more varieties of opiate receptors—called mu-1, mu-2, delta,kappa, sigma, and so on—than you want to hear about. The name thatstuck was endorphin, shorthand for «endogenous morphine,» to describeall our natural opiates.
It was blue-ribbon science and few doubted that there was a NobelPrize in it somewhere down the line. But for whom? In 1978 the LaskerAward for Basic Medical Research, commonly a stepping-stone to theNobel, was awarded to Solomon Snyder, John Hughes, and Hans Koster-litz. The conspicuous absence was that of Candace Pert. Why was sheexcluded when hers was the first name on the opiate receptor paper, as isstandard practice for the primary researcher? Scientists we spoke to pointedout that it is traditional for tenured scientists to get credit for the work ofunderlings and bottle washers. But John Hughes was a graduate student,too. Who picks the Lasker winners anyway? The department chiefs andsenior scientists in the field do, and they are undeniably part of a men’sclub. «The basic female position in science,» as Pert once put it, «is post-doc for life, a perennial research associate.» Pert’s exclusion, many peoplethought, had a lot to do with gender.
In the custom of women and other scientific untermenschen, Pert wasexpected to hold her tongue. «Be a good girl,» one of her superiors atNIMH advised at the time. If anyone was not cut out for a shrinking violetrole, though, it was Candace Pert. She turned down her invitation to theLasker Award luncheon (which she considered a crumb tossed in her di-rection) with an eloquent letter of protest. «I was not about to sit througha luncheon and be patted on the head,» she explained. One thing led toanother, and the Lasker dirty linen was aired in the editorial pages ofScience, even (horror of horrors) in the popular press. Pert became a causecelebre, which is not necessarily a good thing if you work at the NIMH.
«I’m sick of being asked about the Lasker Award controversy,» Perttold us at our first meeting in April 1981. «I mean, I don’t just want to beknown as this grumbling lady scientist. The opiate receptor turns out tobe just one of dozens of different receptors in the brain, which can bedetected by the same technique I developed. Now I’m looking for the angeldust receptor, where PCP binds. There’s also the ‘Hoffman-La Roche’receptor, the binding site for Valium.»
If Pert was anxious to change the subject, if she seemed a bit paranoidabout being quoted, it was because the Lasker affair had already taken itstoll. She had been introduced at scientific meetings as «Candace Pert, theScarlet Lady of Neuroscience.» She worried about being a persona nongrata, about losing her job. «Sol is a brilliant and wonderful teacher,» shesaid of her former mentor. «I have nothing but the fondest feelings forhim.»
If the archetype of the scientist is a logical, sexless android with theunwholesome lunar pallor that comes of long hours of communing withdose-response curves and rat-brain homogenates, Candace Pert embodies
The Age of the Receptor • 79
a new archetype. The stereotypical scientist speaks a language as void ofpassion or ego as Cobol, a tongue in which the personal pronoun /, oreven the more impersonal we, disappears into a droning, anonymous pas-sive voice: Inescapable foot shock (60-Hz sine waves, 3-mA constant cur-rent) was delivered through a scrambler to the grid floor of a Plexiglas grid.Or: Cerebral spinal fluid obtained by lumbar puncture from schizophrenicshas been found to differ from that of control subjects when opiate-receptor-binding substances were measured.
Pert, on the other hand, has been known to give talks entitled «FromMolecules to Mysticism.» She notices unorthodox connections betweenradiation counters and scientists’ libidos («As one bachelor scientist joked,’Nothing beats sex on the counter, especially when the data’s good.’ «),and one of her experimental goals is «my copulating-hamster experiment,»a receptor-density map of sexual pleasure. She is as warm, passionate,voluble, high-spirited, and audacious as the generic technician-nerd is cold-blooded, introverted, tight-lipped, and methodical. But that image is, ofcourse, a myth.
«People find the stereotype comforting, but it is a lie,» Pert wrote inan essay in 1984. «Scientists are as emotional, perhaps more emotional
Candace B. Pert, in her lab at the NIMH. Her discovery of the opiate receptor in1973 launched the «Age of the Receptor» and set the stage for the endorphins,the brain’s natural opiates. (Courtesy of ADAMHA News Photo)
than most people.» If they did not fall madly in love with wild, unprovenideas, she observed, scientists would be defeated by the tedious precisionof experimentation—»100 cells or 1,000 cells? 10 minutes or 30 minutes?If just one step out of 63 is performed incorrectly, the numbers flowingout the radiation counter can be totally meaningless. … As human beingson the planet, scientists display the usual neuropeptidergic biorhythms thatsomehow create our moods.» In other words, substances like endorphinsrule the emotions of scientists no less than those of flamenco dancers.
n n \j j *F THE fountain of youth or the alchem-
Uur Own Natural ical philosopher>s stone had materialized in
Opiates somebody’s lab, it might not have stirred up
as much excitement as endorphins. Endor-phins are simply natural brain chemicals with a molecular structure similarto morphine and other opiates. In other words, while we have been infusingour bodies for centuries—sometimes illegally—with opium, heroin, mor-phine, and other narcotics, our brains have been routinely making thesedrugs all along. We tend to think that heroin addicts live in an artificialland of vapors, while the rest of us experience a «real world» uncloudedby chemicals. The truth is that there is no such thing as a chemical-freereality. The greatest manufacturer and user of drugs is the human brain.And each of us is subtly altering our brain chemistry—and our reality—all the time.
Just as you’d expect, endorphins are potent natural painkillers.Biochemists have been busily testing various endorphin fragments andreceptors in vitro in search of an ideal morphine without side effects.There’s now evidence that internal opiates are the secret behind threemysterious forms of analgesia: acupuncture, electrical brain stimulation,and the placebo effect. This is a «fact to give dualistic philosophers pause,»as endorphin pioneer John Liebeskind of UCLA put it. If the placeboeffect—by definition «all in the mind»—can be turned off by naloxone, anendorphin-blocking drug, the boundary between mind and body becomesa bit blurry, doesn’t it?
Beyond that, these «promiscuous chemicals,» as University of Michiganresearcher Stanley Watson dubs endorphins, seem to play a role in every-thing from anorexia nervosa to Zen. Long-distance runners, «compulsive»ones especially, have been found to have elevated beta-endorphin levels,as do some anorexics, meditators, and schizophrenics. (Are all these folkshooked on natural opiates?) The opiate blocker naloxone curbs some schiz-ophrenic hallucinations, wakes up hibernating hamsters, promotes rodentsexual activity, revives people from traumatic shock, and sobers up drunk
animals and human beings. So endorphins appear to have a hand in suchdiverse phenomena as psychosis, hibernation, celibacy, shock, and the buzzthat follows two glasses of champagne.
They may also be involved in the peculiar altered state caused by floatingin the sensory void of an «isolation tank.» Heavy drinkers have high levelsof beta-endorphin in their blood and lower-than-normal levels in theirspinal fluid, an anomaly that leads pharmacologist Kenneth Blum, of theUniversity of Texas-San Antonio, to theorize that some alcoholics take tothe bottle to compensate for an innate endorphin deficiency.
At Bowling Green State University in Ohio, baby guinea pigs, puppies,and chicks that had been separated from their mothers stopped their crying(«distress vocalizations») when they received low doses of endorphins. «Itwas almost as if opiates were neurochemically equivalent to the presenceof mother,» reports researcher Jaak Panksepp. He adds that low doses ofmorphine make juvenile rats antisocial, much like human heroin addicts.»Perhaps,» he reflects, «brain opiate systems can create feelings of be-longing, so people who are lonely and isolated can use narcotics as asubstitute for interpersonal bonds.» The orphaned-animal experiment alsogave him ideas about autism, some of the earliest symptoms of which»include a lack of crying, a failure to cling to parents, and a generally lowneed for social companionship.» Could this mystifying mental illness bethe work of excess endorphins? If so, says Panksepp, «we would ex-pect the child to respond less to those social acts that normally providecomfort: the soothing voice, the gentle touch, the comfort of being rocked.»
. July 1983. NIMH’s Building 10 is full of
Screening Reality ideograms of the new age. «Hazardous Ma-
terials» signs warn. «Do Not Use Radioactive Materials In ThisCentrifuge.» Rat cages rattle past on trolleys. Metal lockers, centrifuges,and freezers full of frozen brains line the olive-drab corridors. In CandacePert’s laboratory a rat autopsy is in progress. Tiny organs float like Japanesepaper flowers in a glass of fluid. «We’re going to prove that the mindcontrols immunity,» a young man in a lab coat tells us. «These rats wereinjected with an endotoxin, and we want to see the effects on the peptides.You’re not an antivivesectionist, are you? Okay, that white thing is thebrain. The pink things floating on top are the lungs. The big red thing isthe spleen.»
Pert pokes her head out and motions us into her cubicle. Her desk isa morass of papers with small clearings for file baskets marked «Cancer,»»Feeding,» «Sex.» The walls are covered with fantasy posters, a child’sdrawing signed «Vanessa,» and vividly colored autoradiographic pictures
Miles Herkenham, who collaborated with Candace Pert to map the opiate receptorsin the brain. (Courtesy of Milo Olin, NIMH)
of opiate receptors. Just as Babylonian astronomers climbed their zigguratsand scanned the night sky for signs of God’s order, Pert looked for a codedmessage from the universe in these constellations of receptors glowinggreen, blue, and yellow against a dark background. But to see the receptorsthis clearly she had to team up with Miles Herkenham. «When Miles wasa post doc at MIT in the seventies, working under Walle Nauta [consideredby many to be the greatest living neuroanatomist], he was mapping corticalprojections, and he noticed these islands—empty spaces. One day in thelibrary he happened to read my paper on autoradiographic mapping ofopiate receptors, and he said, ‘My God, it looks like her patches fit myholes. Isn’t that weird.’ »
After he finished his fellowship, Herkenham came to work at the NIMH,but it was two years before he knew Candace Pert was in the building nextdoor. When he did, he phoned her and invited her to a seminar he wasgiving. «My first impression was, ‘What kind of a guy wears so muchturquoise jewelry?’ » Pert recalls. «Then I noticed the exquisite beauty ofhis material. I said to him, ‘All our autoradiography is ugly compared tothis!’ » Pert had been shopping for a neuroanatomist, as it happened, andshe asked Herkenham if he’d join her in working on a new technique for
Screening Reality • 83
visualizing receptors. «Miles said, ‘I’d love to, because I want to know ifyour patches fit my holes.’ »
A year later Pert and Herkenham had their method down. They couldremove a rat brain, freeze it, and then slice it finely with a cryostat. Afterthawing each slice onto a glass slide, they incubated it in a radioactiveopiate (morphine with a tritium tag). Then they rinsed the slice and countedhow much hot morphine stuck. «Then you can put the sections in a cassetteand do autoradiography on them with tritium-sensitive film,» Pert explains.»Or you can dip them in radiosensitive emulsions and see the receptorsthat way. It’s much better than just mashing up the brain. You can dodifferent things on adjacent sections and compare patterns in the samebrain.»
The receptors, illumined like miniature galaxies in the autoradiographicphotographs, seemed to tell a story. «As an anatomist,» says Herkenham,»I could tell immediately that opiates given to the cortex would do certainthings.» Behind his desk is a row of little boxes, «from my previous lifeas a tract tracer,» each containing a rat brain. «I was electrically stimulatingrat brains—manipulating the arousal mechanisms—to make them learnfaster. Then I traced the anatomical pathways where the stimulation worked.»The mystery of the «islands» he spotted then was solved by the receptormaps. «It was karmic,» says Pert. «The two pictures fit perfectly, like amosaic. His [neuronal] projections were sparing the patches of opiate re-ceptors.» Herkenham explains, «If you compare the two maps, you couldsurmise that the pathway uses an opiatelike substance as a transmitter.»
Pert pondered the receptor patterns as if they were the soul’s hiero-glyphics. She noticed that certain parts of the brain, like the limbic systemand various sensory-processing stations, were crowded with them. «If youfollow the ‘wire’ from the senses up into higher processing areas, at everyway station you find a dense collection of opiate receptors.» She also notedthe following facts: There were two basic classes of morphine-related opiatereceptors, the so-called mu-1 and mu-2. The primitive Type 2 receptor isfound in fruit flies and even in single-celled organisms, but the more evolvedType 1, which changes its three-dimensional shape to fit the occasion,appears only in vertebrates and is distributed unevenly. «We sliced upmonkey brains,» she says, «and we found that the Type Two receptor, thefruit fly kind, was distributed evenly all over the brain. But the Type Onereceptors formed a gradient. Areas of the brain that have undergone recentevolutionary expansion are chock-full of these malleable, Type One opiatereceptors.
«I have a fantasy about what this means. As raw information from theuniverse, from the outside world, percolates up to higher levels of con-sciousness, it gets filtered at several stages. The natural opiates act as a
The Face of Pleasure: Herkenham and Pert’s autoradiographic map of opiatereceptors (above) may be the only neuroscientific event ever immortalized on a T-shirt. (Designed by Pert’s sister, an artist, it bears the slogan, «The Face of Pleasure.»)The receptors, labeled with a radioactive opiate drug, show up in this section ofrat brain as shades of gray and white against a black background. The complexpattern of receptor density and distribution provides hints about the way the brain»filters» reality. (Courtesy of Dr. Miles Herkenham and Dr. Candace B. Pert,NIMH)
Music, Endorphins, and the Idealist Philosophers • 85
filtering mechanism. The more advanced the animal, the more the sensoryinput is processed, and the more Type One receptors it has. Some recentevolutionary event made the opiate receptor more flexible so that it iscapable of change, modification, inhibitory control. We’re not fruit flies.»
«Opiates,» Miles Herkenham tells us, «can affect the incoming signalat many levels. In a single-celled organism they communicate to the cellwhat the outside environment is like. With us, it’s not just what we sense,but how we interpret what we sense.»
«You screen reality,» Pert proposes. «Through the endorphin systemyour brain decides what stimuli to pay attention to. Every creature has itsown window on the universe. Nobody knows what the world really lookslike, as philosophers like Bishop Berkeley and David Hume observed.Everybody’s version is different.»
\/i zr a u- ^OR M0ST 0F us tne DOunclary between «in-
Music, Endorphins, side„ and «outside« seems ciearcut. Outside
ana tne Idealist is a world of objects, nature, other creatures;
Philosophers inside is a private kingdom of thoughts,
dreams, desires, and memories, enclosed inthe hard casement of the skull. When someone confuses the two, mistakinghis own thoughts for the orders of KGB agents, we label him schizophrenic.If we look deep into the perverse complexity of the nervous system, how-ever, we learn that internal and external realities aren’t so easy to distin-guish.
In 1977 Avram Goldstein posed an odd question to a motley group ofStanford medical and music students and employees at his Hormone Re-search Laboratory. Did they ever, when moved by their favorite music,experience thrills or tingles, a prickly feeling at the back of the neck oralong the spine? Some said, yes, music did affect them that way. Where-upon Goldstein picked ten volunteers and put them in darkened, sound-proof booths with headphones. Each time the wistful strains of Mahler orthe shrieking wah-wah guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix (or whatever the sub-ject’s favorite musical passage was) sent shivers down their spines, thesubjects indicated so with hand signals. Between sessions Goldstein gavethem shots of either saline (a placebo) or the endorphin-blocker naloxone.It was a double-blind study; neither the subjects nor the experimentersknew who got what. After nineteen separate tests, the pharmacologistreported that a third of the listeners experienced fewer and less intensethrills after naloxone. The implication: The sublime tingles of musicalappreciation had something to do with endorphins.
Brain Age Mind/BodyQuiz
1. The thrills of musical pleasure come from
a. the music.
b. a thirty-one-amino-acid protein molecule in the listener’s head.
c. the placebo effect.
d. the Jupiter effect.
e. all of the above.
2. I got the blues because
a. my baby left me for another guy/gal.
b. I’m a Cancer with Pisces rising.
c. my mojo’s workin’ but it just won’t work on you.
d. I see no viable solution to the problems that beset our modernage.
e. I suffer from a dysfunction in my opiatergic system, and my neu-ropharmacologist is on vacation.
f. Since my baby left me, my endorphins just don’t seem to work thesame.
3. A tree falls in the forest as the sun sets over a beautiful emerald bay.Someone is there to witness all this, but this observer has just beengiven an injection of naloxone along with the experimental compound»anhedonizine,» which inhibits the release of twenty endogenous plea-sure chemicals.
a. Did the tree fall? yes/no
b. Did the sun set? yes/no
c. Was the sunset breathtaking? yes/no
d. Would Berkeley and Hume have found modern neuropharmacol-ogy interesting? yes/no
4. Write an essay describing the relationship between Monet’s water liliesand the endogenous opiate system.
tu r • ‘ v »Endorphins are part of the brain’s inter-
lrie Brains Yin nal reward system/’ explains Larry Stein,
ana Yang chairman of the pharmacology department
at the University of California at Irvine, whoknows as much as anyone about the chemistry of reward and punishment.Laboratory rats, given the chance, will self-administer endorphins to thepoint of exhaustion, just like human junkies. But you don’t need a glasspipette dripping endorphins directly into your cerebral ventricles. The basic
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Figure 6 This drawing shows the structure of some of the neuropeptides. Thesenewly discovered «brain hormones,» of which the endorphins are the brightestcelebrities, regulate everything from emotions and hunger to sex, sleep, and pain.They are basically short chains of amino acids (alanine, arginine, asparagine, etc.),the building blocks of life. Note that beta-endorphin contains within it the fiveamino acids composing met-enkephalin and the first four amino acids of leu-en-kephalin. Many of the natural opiates are fragments of other, larger molecules.
idea is that such things as eating, isolation-tanking, listening to the St.Cecilia Mass, repeating a mantra, and—who knows?—maybe praying, seeinga beautiful sunset, or listening to a politician’s spiel about America’s great-ness somehow release your «reward» neurochemicals, «reinforcing» thatexperience with a general sense of well-being.
«The brain is just a little box with emotions packed into it,» saysCandace Pert. «And we’re starting to understand that emotions have bio-chemical correlates. When human beings engage in various activities, itseems that neurojuices are released that are associated with either pain orpleasure. And the endorphins are very pleasurable.»
Endorphin is only one member of an extended family of brain chemicalscalled the neuropeptides. Like proteins, peptides are linked chains of aminoacids. Mostly known by acronyms, they sound about as scintillating as thelabels on a circuit board—ACTH, alpha-MSH, TRH, VIP, CRF, CCK,Substance P, vasopressin, Factor S, oxytocin, bombesin, angiotensin, andso on—but they have revolutionized neurochemistry. If you know yourendocrinology, you’ll recognize many of them as hormones. ACTH, oradrenocorticotropic hormone, is a pituitary hormone that travels to theadrenal glands lying atop the kidneys, and in the brain it is broken downinto two active fragments, MSH and beta-endorphin. Vasopressin is anantidiuretic hormone. TRH (thyropin releasing hormone) and CRF (cor-ticotropin releasing factor) are hypothalamic hormones that trigger therelease of pituitary hormones. VIP (vasoactive intestinal peptide) and Sub-stance P were discovered in the gastrointestinal tract long before eitherCandace Pert or Miles Herkenham, to name just two, were born.
When, in the mid-1970s, neuropeptides started showing up in the brain,manufactured by neurons instead of glands, everyone wondered what ex-actly they did there. Were they neurotransmitters? What kinds of in-formation processing did they perform? No one is quite sure yet. Scientistsconjecture that instead of carrying a discrete signal across a synapse asclassical transmitters do, the peptides perform fine-tuning, perhaps by act-ing as co-transmitters and influencing the release of other transmitters. Ifneurotransmitters are on/off switches, the peptides act more like dimmers.
Their global effects seem to be a throwback to the ancient Greek «hu-mors,» the bodily fluids that were said to make one melancholy, phleg-matic, or merry. Mood, memory, pain, pleasure, sex, hunger, satiety,sleep, stress, aging, mental illness, and well-being are all influenced bythese «brain hormones.» A few examples: Vasopressin, an antidiuretichormone in the body, appears to act as a memory drug in the brain, asdoes a fragment of MSH/ACTH. Vasopressin levels in the blood fluctuateerratically in victims of anorexia nervosa, according to NIMH researcherPhilip Gold. Maybe, he theorizes, the «indelibly coded ideas» and «ob-
session with thinness» that mark this wasting disease have something todo with this memory-solidifying peptide. A fraction of ACTH has beenfound to make withdrawn rats, as well as mentally retarded and elderlyhumans, more sociable.
As a hormone, CCK, or cholecystokinin, regulates gallbladder con-traction and gut motility; in the central nervous system it seems to pushthe satiety button (which makes it one candidate for a natural diet drug).The newly discovered Factor S brings deep, slow-wave sleep. Don’t confuseit with Substance P, which brings pain (the P in the name actually standsfor powder), the blocking of which could be the basis for a brand-newpainkiller. As for somatostatin, its metabolism is disturbed in many dis-eases, including schizophrenia, depression, Parkinson’s disease, Hunting-ton’s chorea («Woody Guthrie disease»), and Alzheimer’s disease.
CRF, which as a hypothalamic hormone tells the pituitary to releaseACTH, acts as a stress chemical (and maybe as an appetite suppressant)in the brain. At the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, researcher GeorgeKoob placed rats in a brightly lit square box with a metal-grid floor. Afternervously circling the box’s shadowed periphery for a while—»It’s likearriving early at a party in Southern California, when all the guests arehugging the walls,» Koob commented—the animals began to make cautiousforays into the illumined center. When they were given injections of CRF,however, the rats grew so uptight they never ventured into the open atall. «In the brain,» Koob concludes, «CRF increases stressfulness. It couldbe an anti-Valium-like effect.» One wonders: Will pathologically shy orintroverted humans someday take anti-CRF pills—or something similar—to attend a New Year’s Eve party or deliver a speech to the Shriners’convention?
«The body has been very smart,» says peptide researcher Stanley Wat-son. «It uses the same active protein materials over and over again, ashormones in the body and as something more like neurotransmitters in thebrain. The specific function comes from where something is or how it’sconnected to something else. It’s like a telephone system. We all use thesame instruments and we work out specific connections. The wiring confersmuch of the brain’s specificity.»
Chemical Emotion Even insects exPress anger> terror’ Jealousy or
love by their stridulation.
—CHARLES DARWIN
It is the cocktail hour, and a sticky, dolce far niente dusk falls over theoutdoor barbecues, swing sets, and automatic sprinkler systems of suburbanBethesda. «I just gave this talk at NIMH called the ‘Biochemistry ofEmotion,’ » says Candace Pert, settling into a splayed chaise longue in
her backyard. The household’s homey disarray reminds us of illustrationsof the woman-who-lived-in-a-shoe-and-had-so-many-children-she-didn’t-know-what-to-do in the Mother Goose rhymes. «It’s really wild. All thepeptides are about emotion . . . What’s the matter, Brandon? Can’t youfind your pocket?» Sixteen-month-old Brandon Pert, who was born athome with a midwife in attendance, is tugging at the sides of his OshKoshplaysuit, his face crumpling into a tragedy mask. His mother guides hishand, along with the stick it’s clutching, into a pocket. «Pock-et,» Brandonrepeats, enraptured.
«For something as important as emotion,» says Pert, «you might thinkGod or evolution stumbled on certain chemical combinations that workedwell and that these would be kept. They are. We’ve measured opiatereceptors in everything from fruit fly heads to human brains. Even uni-cellular organisms have peptides. Opiates induce eating in protozoa, justas in human beings.»
«Do you think even cockroaches feel some sort of emotion,» we ask,»or is that just anthropomorphism?»
«They have to, because they have chemicals that put them in the moodto mate and chemicals that make them run away when they’re about tobe killed. That’s what emotions are usually about—sex and violence, painand pleasure. Even bacteria have a little hierarchy of primitive likes anddislikes. They’re programmed to migrate toward or away from a chemo-tactic substance; they’re little robots that go for sugar at all costs and awayfrom salt.
«If you were designing a robot vehicle to walk into the future andsurvive, as God was when he designed human beings, you’d wire it up sothat behavior that ensured the survival of the self or the species—like sexand eating—would be naturally reinforcing. Behavior is controlled by theanticipation of pain or pleasure, punishment or reward. And that has tobe coded in the brain.»
If there are traces of operant conditioning, reinforcement, and such inPert’s worldview, it may be the legacy of the psychology books that ledher to the brain in the first place. This was in the mid-1960s, when herpsychologist husband Agu Pert (from whom she is now separated) was agraduate student in learning theory at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania,and Candace Pert was a «nineteen-year-old college dropout with a baby.»With a temperamental style somewhere between hyperactive and hypo-manic, Pert was ill-suited to domesticity in a cheerless basement apartmentin a building where the elderly tenants complained about the toys leftoutside. Starved for stimuli, she read voraciously: first, all the back issuesof Playboy in her husband’s collection; then The Feminine Mystique andsome Ayn Rand; finally, all her husband’s psychology textbooks. This
The Brain’s Yin and Yang • 91
heady mixture of psychology, proto-feminism, and enlightened selfishnesshad the effect of propelling Pert back to college to study the biologicalbasis of behavior. The rest, as they say, is history.
«I remember leaving for school the first day and looking back at myson, still in diapers, with the babysitter. And I thought ‘My God, what amI doing, leaving my son for someone else to take care of?’ My mother wasalways there while we were growing up, baking cakes and cookies, likethe mother on ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ But then I thought, never in humanhistory have women done nothing but lie around all day and take care ofchildren. In agrarian societies women are out in the fields with their ba-bies.»
Evan Pert, now seventeen, had a model behaviorist babyhood, but thenext child, Vanessa, seemed to anticipate the antibehaviorist wave in psy-chology. «When we were first married we believed in John Watson,» Pertrecalls. «We believed a child was a tabula rasa. I can remember our soncrying and my husband saying, ‘Is he diapered? Is he fed? Well, theneverything is all right; don’t go in.’ We waited outside the door, and hesoon fell asleep. ‘Aha,’ we thought, ‘We did it. Brilliant, rational twentieth-century parents, using behavioral principles.’ Then nine years later we hadour little girl and she wouldn’t stop crying. She slept with us until she wasfive years old. … I think we were ignorant not to give credit to the innatetalents and uniqueness of the creature we’re permitted to raise.»
Vanessa emerges from the back door, «Did my mom tell you aboutthe fire in our house?» she asks. «It was in the kitchen. My brother wasmaking tea and he turned the wrong burner on, and there was this potthat we made tortillas in last night that had grease in it, and it caught onfire.» Dragging a large stick as a talisman, Brandon runs over to his sisterlike an advertisement for behavioral conditioning. She picks him up andlugs him around the yard as if he were an oversize doll. All the while,Candace Pert seems to operate on four or five channels at once, carryingon a running conversation with us about Substance P, while simultaneouslyfielding questions about lost tennis shoes and planning what to make fordinner (two guests are expected that night).
«There is a reciprocal relationship between the natural opiates andSubstance P, the pain peptide,» she tells us. «Both tend to be found inthe same places in the brain and the spinal cord, and they do oppositethings. When there’s painful stimulation of the nerve fibers in the spinalcord, Substance P is released, and there’s hard evidence that opiates sup-press Substance P. They’re yin and yang.
«What I want to know is how this works at higher levels of the nervoussystem. Like, there are tons of Substance P receptors in the septum, inthe limbic system. When you stimulate the septum with electrodes, you
get what is known as septal rage—cats hiss and scratch and go crazy.Substance P probably has something to do with that. But what does Sub-stance P do in the cortex? Everything we know about it says it’s releasedin response to painful stimuli, but what is pain—or pleasure—when it iscoming in from the visual system or the auditory system?»
This dichotomy of good and bad, heaven and hell, within us has amedieval ring, as if the central nervous system were one big morality play.Perhaps our religious cosmologies, our good angels and bad angels, areonly rococo projections of our internal reward/punishment system. Perhapsthe polarities we find in the universe—mind/body, electron/positron, mat-ter/antimatter—are not so much facts of nature as of the human brain.Listening to Pert, we have disquieting visions of the Book of Life writtenin cryptic chemical formulas and of ourselves as programmed creatures ina vast existential T-maze, migrating blindly toward food pellets and awayfrom foot shocks. Are we so robotlike?
«We humans are stuck with some hard-wired circuitry,» says Pert. «Butwe have the ability to intellectually transcend our petty programming bychoosing good, loving thoughts over nasty, violent ones.»
Or perhaps we can transmute base consciousness into gold with a psy-chopharmacologic philosopher’s stone.
A pity I don’t have an interpreter. PsychedeliRedesigning the Brain must be from psychedelicatessen. And the theo-
apotheteria on Sixth Avenue has to be a theo-logical apothecary bookstore, judging from theitems on display. Aisles and aisles of absolven-tina, theopathine, genuflix, orisol. An enormousplace; organ music in the background while youshop. All the faiths are represented too—there’schristendine and antichristendine, ormuzal, ary-manol, anabaptiban, methadone, brahmax, su-pralapsarian suppositories, and zoroaspics, quakeroats, yogart, mishnameal, and apocryphal dip.Pills, tablets, syrups, elixirs, powders, gums—theyeven have lollipops for the children. Many of theboxes come with haloes. At first I was skeptical,but accepted this innovation when after takingfour algebrine capsules I suddenly found myselfperfectly at home in higher mathematics, andwithout the least exertion on my part.
—STANISLAW LEM,
The Futurological Congress
Lem’s mythical, mind-altered promised land offers edible books, psy-chotropic groceries, and drugs for all occasions. Euphoril, Optamitizine,
Redesigning the Brain • 93
Ecstasine, Felicitine, for instance, and their antidotes Dementium andFuriol. Amnesol to forget, Vigilax to stay alert, Equaniminine for thetroubled soul, Credendium to make oneself credible, Authentium to create»synthetic recollections of things that never happened.» Not to mentionFreudos, Quanderil, Morbidine, and a hundred other psychoactive pills,lozenges, teas, suppositories, and philtres. As man learns that all of reality,all of the universe, is within his brain, the pharmacopoeia becomes hischurch, his university, his Utopia.
«For all perception is but a change in the concentration of hydrogenions on the surface of brain cells,» a mind engineer tells the book’s pro-tagonist. «Seeing me, you actually experience a disturbance in the sodiumpotassium equilibrium across your neuron membranes. So all we have todo is send a few well-chosen molecules down into these cortical mito-chondria, activate the right neurohumoral-transmission effector sites, andyour fondest dreams come true.»
If there are Authentiums, Credendiums, and Freudos in our future, itis the in vitro people who will make them. They’re the biochemists andpharmacologists who throw radioactively tagged drugs into liquefied animalbrains and observe how they stick to the receptor molecules. Who canredesign your brain by changing its codes. Who will create the perfectantidote for pain, depression, ennui, phobias, writer’s block, addictions,nameless dreads, compulsive eating, or unrequited love.
«With our in vitro tehnology,» says NIMH biochemist Paul Marangos,»we can develop ‘magic bullets,’ drugs that go right to the desired receptorsand bypass the others. That means they won’t have a lot of side effects.All the barbiturates, antidepressants, and tranquilizers we use today weredevised twenty years ago to treat worms in dogs or something. When wethrow them into various assays, they affect everything, all the transmittersystems.
«Any psychiatrist will tell you,» he adds, «that ECT—electroconvulsive[shock] therapy—is as reliable as any of our present antidepressants. Andlook what you’re doing with ECT! You’re just scrambling all the circuitsand letting them find their way back together again. That about sums upour pharmacological sophistication up to now.»
Enter designer drugs. «All our old drugs were discovered through oneaccident after another,» says Solomon Snyder, «and after we already hadthe drugs we went back and figured out how they worked. Now wehave the molecular tools to design a whole new line of drugs. We canidentify the enzymes that make transmitters and the enzymes that degradethem and make a drug to inhibit one of those enzymes. And we can sculptagents around specific receptors.»
About two dozen types of receptors have been identified so far, in-cluding one for the street drug PCP (angel dust), and another three hundredmay still be incognito. Among other things, the receptors provide a preciseand speedy measure of the potency of test drugs. «You don’t have toscreen a drug in twenty-five big rats anymore,» says Snyder. «It used totake all day to test one drug.» Now up to a thousand different tests canbe run on a single rat brain. A hundred trial drugs can be screened in aday.
. «The Secret of NIMH: Right Before Your
An End to Anxiety Eyes and Beyond Your wildest Dreams»
reads the movie poster above Steven Paul’s desk, like an emblem of thenew Zeitgeist. «God or whoever created the Valium receptor,» he tells us,»created it so that it has different binding sites, some that bind agonists,some that bind antagonists. [An agonist is a drug that mimics the actionof a neurotransmitter; an antagonist blocks the action of a neurotransmit-ter.] That means we can produce a partial agonist, a drug that sits in themiddle of the spectrum. A Valium that produces tranquility without se-dation and maybe has a metabolite to wake you up the next day.»
The «anti-Valium,» B-CCE, is part of the quest. But is the mental stateit induces the same as real-life anxiety? To find out, Paul and his co-workersdeliberately made lab monkeys anxious by staring at them from close range,touching their feet, and doing other things that lower primates find stressful.Some of the animals reacted by nervously smacking their lips, scratchingthemselves, and swiveling their heads; others freaked out and screamed.And however a given monkey responded to real stress, it reacted the sameway to a dose of B-CCE.
Paul and Skolnick think there’s a message for psychosomatic medicinein the B-CCE experiments, a likely model for how a bad day at the officetranslates into ulcers, hypertension, heart disease, maybe even cancer.Given that emotional stress (B-CCE-induced or otherwise) can wreak suchphysiological havoc—speeding up the heart, raising blood pressure to dan-gerous levels, and flooding the body with «stress hormones» like Cortisol,ACTH, and adrenaline—it’s easy to see how a mental state can make aperson sick or well. «I’m going around proselytizing to the drug compa-nies,» says Skolnick. «You could give B-CCE to animals chronically andsee if they develop ulcers, cardiovascular disease, or cancer.» And whoknows? Maybe an anti-B-CCE could prevent stress diseases.
«Is there a natural Valium in the brain, or an anti-Valium, or both?»he wonders. «Is the receptor an on switch, an off switch, or an on/offswitch? We don’t know. Some people say that you don’t need a naturalValium, but what are these sites doing there then?»
Perfect Sleep and Perfect Wakefulness • 95
America’s best-loved prescription drug was discovered serendipitously,long before anyone knew about receptors. The Czech chemist who syn-thesized Valium in the 1930s had no idea what he’d conjured up. Sometwenty-five years later, after the chemist had fled to the United States andfound a job with Hoffman-La Roche, he decided to throw out the dustybottle on his shelf. First, though, he decided to test the compound . . .and today Valium accounts for 40 percent of Hoffman-La Roche’s $1.4billion budget. But now that the benzodiazepine (Valium) receptor hasbeen found, a Valium without the side effects of addiction and drowsinessis the goal.
American Cyanamid scientists are tinkering with a compound calledTZP that sticks only to one subclass of benzodiazepine receptor, producingmellowness without fatigue. At Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington,D.C., biochemists have unearthed a mysterious new neuropeptide they’vebaptized DBI, or diazepam (Valium) binding inhibitor. It is not the long-awaited natural tranquilizer but just the opposite, a natural anxiety agentthat, paradoxically, displaces both Valium and B-CCE at the receptor.Perhaps a mirror-image chemical to DBI will turn out to be the hoped-for»clean Valium.» In the year 1991 there may be not one but three or four»Equaniminines,» all modeled on our brain’s own molecules.
If you want a safe, no-side-effects sleepingPerfect Sleep and ^ this is for you Qr perhaps you>d hke a
rerfect WaKejulness drug with the wake-up power of a hundred
cups of espresso but without the jitters. Ineither case, you might be interested in one of the brain’s own chemicals,adenosine, a sort of natural anticaffeine. Or, more precisely, caffeine is anantiadenosine. «What adenosine does, basically, is shut off firing in a largenumber of different neurons. It puts you to sleep,» says Paul Marangos,one of the explorers of the adenosine receptor. «Caffeine, which is a purinewith a chemical structure similar to adenosine, ‘shuts off’ the adenosinereceptor and wakes you up.»
Only a couple of years ago did Marangos and his peers learn to measureadenosine receptors. To do so, they had to make good analogues, aden-osinelike compounds that stick to the receptor but aren’t rapidly brokendown in the brain like adenosine. Now they can say definitively that caffeinewakes you up by plugging up this receptor. «And the thing that excitesme,» says Marangos, «is that the adenosine receptor is turned off by caf-feine levels well within the range of what’s in your head when you drinka cup of coffee. That’s a very specific effect.»
Marangos wanted to know what chronic caffeine consumption did tothe brain. So he fed mice the equivalent of four to eight cups of coffee
daily for forty days and measured the adenosine receptors. Their brainsadapted to the chronic adenosine blockade, it turned out, by sproutingmany new receptors. «Chronic caffeine consumption makes the adenosinesystem hyperactive,» says Marangos. «That’s probably why you get ab-normal drowsiness, headaches, and caffeine craving.» Maybe those Sanka-brand commercials have a point, after all.
«We have mechanisms in our own central nervous system for sedationor arousal—the fight-or-flight response,» he tells us. «Those are the twoends of the spectrum. And we have various compounds in our brains thatfall somewhere on this spectrum. Maybe we’ll find that hyperactive childrenhave an endogenous antiadenosine or something. Maybe depressives andmanic-depressives have some sort of disturbance of the adenosine system.»
As future drugs go, adenosine analogues look marvelously utilitarian.Solomon Snyder and his co-workers have created something in a test tubethat is ten thousand times more potent than caffeine in blocking the recep-tor. Tomorrow’s cram drug, the night watchman’s dream? And on thesoporific side: «The beauty of the adenosine analogues we’re workingwith,» says Marangos, «is that exquisitely low doses, around a tenth of amilligram per kilo, put the animals to sleep. They’re orders of magnitudemore potent than the barbiturates or Valium.
«Barbiturates are dirty. The only way barbiturate sleep resembles realsleep is that the person doesn’t respond when you talk to him. I’ve beentrying to get the pharmaceutical houses to look at adenosine—it shouldn’tbe difficult, it’s a naturally occurring compound—but that’s like trying tomove the Rock of Gibraltar. They start making money on one drug andthey don’t want to see another one for five years, when the patent runsout. But I think you could design a safe, clean sleeping pill around theadenosine system.»
It’s an ancient dream: a pill to make youMemory Drugs smarter, to fix the dates of the Tudor kings
in your memory (at least until the final exam), or to rejuvenate a muddled,aging brain. Perhaps vasopressin will turn out to be it. This neuropeptidehas been found to triple the memory span of mice, and one of its analogues,DDAVP, has helped normal volunteers and victims of Alzheimer’s disease(senile dementia) memorize lists of objects. «We think that DDAVP helpsthe brain code and ‘chunk’ information more efficiently,» says NIMH mem-ory researcher Herbert Weingartner.
Or maybe we should pin our hopes on MSH/ACTH 4-10, a fragmentof the larger ACTH molecule. In tests at Boston University Medical Cen-
In Quest of a Perfect Painkiller • 97
ter, it enhanced the attention span and concentration of young and agedalike. Norepinephrine has long been associated with memory and learning(which explains why amphetamines and cocaine, which increase norepi-nephrine levels, are classic cram drugs), and enkephalins have improvedmaze running in rats. Could there be so many memory chemicals in thebrain?
«We remember best the things that excite us,» says psychobiologistJames McGaugh, of the University of California at Irvine. «Arousal causesall these chemical cocktails—norepinephrine, adrenaline, enkephalin, va-sopressin, ACTH—to spritz out. We think these chemicals are memory’fixatives.’ They may work directly at the brain, but I think they exert mostof their effects indirectly, through the peripheral nervous system. Whenyou are excited or shocked or stressed, they signal the brain, ‘This isimportant—keep this.’ »
For alcoholic memory blackouts, there’s zimelidine, an antidepressantthat selectively increases brain serotonin. Herbert Weingartner and hisNIMH co-workers gave it to a dozen young men, who then proceeded todrink the equivalent of six cocktails. After the subjects had sobered up,they could recall their inebriated exploits in lucid, embarrassing detail(unlike the controls, whose recollections were hazy).
A cure for senility? One bright hope is the neurotransmitter acetyl-choline, which «greases» the memory circuits of the hippocampus. Alz-heimer’s disease, a progressive, irreversible dementia that afflicts at leasttwo million Americans, involves a drastic loss of acetylcholine neurons. Adrug called scopolamine, which blocks the acetylcholine receptors, actuallymade normal twenty-year-olds temporarily demented. «Their immediatememory was markedly impaired,» reports neurologist David Drachman,of the University of Massachusetts. «Scopolamine radically interferes withthe ability to store new information.» If that’s the case, then acetylcholineor a close facsimile should sharpen the mind, right? With this idea in mind,several groups of researchers have been giving physostigmine, an acetyl-choline look-alike, to senile patients. Others have been trying choline, anatural building block of actylcholine found in many foods. Small improve-ments have been noted, but there’s still no surefire antisenility drug.
T _. _ Morphine dulls pain, but it also lowers blood
In Quest of a t4. A
^ Jm pressure, alters consciousness, and causes
rerject rainKiller respiratory depression, addiction, and con-
stipation. With the discovery of natural opi-ates and their receptors came a great treasure hunt for a no-side-effects
painkiller. Part of the quest revolves around the six known (and twentyor so possible) opiate-receptor subtypes. If the mu-1 receptor, say, me-diated analgesia but not constipation and respiratory depression, then adrug tailored to this receptor—and not the others, the mu-2, kappa, sigma,and delta opiate receptors—would be a miracle morphine minus two trou-blesome side effects. «We’ve developed compounds that block receptor-mediated analgesia in animals with no change in respiratory depression,»says endorphin researcher Gavril Pasternak of Sloan-Kettering Institutefor Cancer Research in New York. «So there’s good evidence that differentreceptors mediate at least two separate opiate effects. In England theyhave a new drug that quite selectively binds to the mu-1 sites and causeslittle respiratory depression. Maybe it’s the first of a new class of drugs.»
There’s more than one way to make a superpainkiller. «Every neu-roactive peptide,» says Solomon Snyder, «is made by cleaving a big pre-cursor molecule. Multiple copies of enkephalins, which are chains of fiveamino acids, are trapped in large precursor proteins with hundreds of aminoacids. To get the active segments out of the precursor requires two enzy-matic steps. A first enzyme cleaves to the right side of the active amino-acid sequence, and then a second enzyme gets rid of the last amino acidon the other end. Well, Lloyd Fricker in our lab has identified an enzymethat looks like God made it just for enkephalin. It removes the last aminoacid to make the active fragment. And now we have a very potent drugfor inhibiting this enzyme.
«What would this drug do? If you block enkephalin, would you getpain? Would you bring someone out of traumatic shock—as naloxone does?Would it be an appetite suppressant like the opiate antagonists? We don’tknow yet.
«But if you know the principle, and if there are enzymes that are specificfor each neurotransmitter or hormonal peptide, you’re in Fat City. Youcan design specific drugs to inhibit these enzymes. They would be extremelypotent, with few side effects.»
Meditation Pills, DietPills, Aphrodisiacs
• Some of the new customized drugs have semimystical properties. Acouple of adenosine compounds, EHNA and LPIA, have put NIMHrats into a paradoxical state of «quiet wakefulness,» perhaps the animalequivalent of a yogi’s trance. Though the rats became very still and
Meditation Pills, Diet Pills, Aphrodisiacs • 99
looked «zonked,» their EEG’s showed uncommon alertness. «We mayhave hit on an altered state of animal consciouness,» says NIMH’sWallace Mendelson. A meditation pill? «If it does happen,» says Men-delson, «it will be in the next five years.»
For years scientists had noticed that lab animals eat less when givennaltrexone, an opiate blocker like naloxone. Could this be the diet pillof the future? «It certainly seems to work on people,» says Allen Le-vine, who with John Morely has been testing it on patients at theVeterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis. Their firstsuccess occurred with an obese, brain-damaged patient who ate un-controllably until an opiate antagonist quashed the urge. «Naltrexoneis not addictive,» adds Levine, «and it may not have any serious sideeffects, except that people may feel a little manic.» You might alsowant to eschew it if you’re in pain, if you’re a heroin addict (it causesinstant withdrawal), or if you’re a member of a celibate order. That’sright: Naltrexone is also an aphrodisiac, if its effects on the sex driveof lab animals are any indication.
Speaking of aphrodisiacs, consider the hypothalamic peptide LHRH,sometimes called LRH (the full name is luteinizing-hormone-releasing-hormone). After it was sequenced in the early 1970s, researchersinjected it into rats and watched them assume the characteristic back-arching mating posture called lordosis. Was LHRH the brain’s ownSpanish fly? Some people said so. In his book Mood Control, authorGene Bylinski even prophesied acts of collective sexual sabotage basedon this putative aphrodisiac:
One can easily visualize one country waging a secret sex subversion war onanother by slipping LRH antagonists into drinking water or food to reduce thedesire to procreate so that eventually the population of the enemy countrywould be reduced in a deliberate zero growth population control. Conversely,LRH or its analogues could be employed to create havoc, with citizens’ mindsfixed on procreation and nothing else.
Don’t worry about your municipal reservoirs yet. Despite scatteredreports a few years back that LHRH could renew sagging middle-agedlibidos, it hasn’t proved to be God’s gift to the bedroom. It has alsobeen tested on infertile women, for good reason, since it signals thepituitary to release two critical reproductive hormones, LH and FSH.But, again, no magic bullet. In a recent Psychology Today interview,Floyd Bloom tells why:
When LRH was first discovered, they said, «Ah ha! This is the key to infertilityproblems.» They said, «Let’s make a super LRH. We can get females to ovulatewhenever we want them to.» But what did they find? It didn’t work that way.
ioo • The Chemical Brain
… It lasted too long. When the brain talks to the pituitary, it speaks in shortlittle messages. The new super LRH screams forever. The cells quit responding.. . . It’s like the little boy who kept crying wolf, until nobody paid attentionto him anymore.
• But why stick to banal diet pills, sedatives, and aphrodisiacs? By theyear 2000 you may be reengineering your brain in ways you’ve neverdreamed of. Phil Skolnick thinks the yin/yang principle of the nervoussystem could give us a whole cornucopia of futuristic mind drugs. «B-CCE is a mirror image of Valium,» he says. «One causes anxiety; theother blocks it. Valium is an anticonvulsant; B-CCE causes seizures.Valium causes sedation; B-CCE activation. Valium causes muscle re-laxation; B-CCE causes muscle tension. And if you can do that withone system, you should be able to do it with others. Why not? Wecould make drugs we’ve never dreamed of. An antimorphine—whatwould that do? An anti-Substance P. An anti-CCK. Every drug weknow of might have a mirror image.»
By the year 2000 there may be drugs that slow the perception oftime or accelerate it so that root canal surgery passes more quickly;drugs that eliminate the need for sleep, exorcise guilt, or erase traumaticmemories; drugs that selectively amplify certain senses, increase em-pathy, or make familiar things (such as a spouse of thirty-five years)seem novel. Music appreciation drugs; color perception drugs; intro-spection drugs; party drugs; mystical drugs; stream-of-consciousnessdrugs. Apollonian drugs, Dionysian drugs, neoclassical drugs, and sur-realist drugs; drugs to dispel obsessions or re-create the state of earlychildhood. Perhaps if we rewrote the chemical codes in our brain, we’dexperience a world resembling a painting by Rene Magritte, or thebeneficent nature of Wordsworth’s poems, or the witches of PuritanSalem. Perhaps the new alchemists will create a pill that brings aboutthe immediate experience of eternal life, like the fabled soma of theRig-Veda.
If you believe Richard Wurtman, an MITtood for 1 nought. neuroendocrinologist, the next breed of an-
tidepressants, mood regulators, sleeping potions, and memory drugs couldcome from the refrigerator. No sprouts-and-Brewer’s-yeast philosopher,Wurtman has accumulated solid biochemical evidence that your neuro-transmitter levels (some of them, anyway) are set by what you eat. Ace-tylcholine is made from choline, found in eggs, liver, and soybeans. Ty-rosine and tryptophan, amino acids found in proteins, are the buildingblocks of norepinephrine and serotonin, respectively.
«From Molecules to Mysticism» • 101
«It remains peculiar to me,» Wurtman told Science News, «that thebrain should have evolved in such a way that it is subject to having itsfunction and chemistry depend on whether you had lunch and what youate. I would not have designed the brain that way myself.»
Depression and mania, sleep and vigilance, as well as the minor peaksand valleys of our everyday moods, are orchestrated by these chemicalmessengers. How nice if we could take tryptophan in warm milk for serenityor sleep, say, or tyrosine to take the edge off the blues. Alas, you’ll probablyhave to wait a few years for The Complete Psychobiological Gourmet,because the transformation of food into mind chemicals is a tricky affair,involving, among other things, a competition among some twenty-two aminoacids for passage to the brain. But a few recent forays into food therapyare worth mentioning.
In Wurtman’s laboratory the same dose of tyrosine lowered blood pres-sure in hypertensive rats and raised it in hypotensive ones, suggesting thatthis humble amino acid could be tomorrow’s blood pressure drug. AtMassachusetts General Hospital, psychiatrist Alan Gelenberg has beenusing tyrosine as an antidepressant. Meanwhile back at MIT, Wurtmanand nutritionist Judith Wurtman, working on the theory that a serotoninimbalance causes unnatural carbohydrate craving, gave a serotonin-boost-ing drug (flenfluramine) to a group of overeaters. Many reportedly felt lesscompulsion to snack. Several research teams continue to test lecithin (asource of choline) as a remedy for memory loss and senile dementia, sofar with only modest success.
„_ , . , , One of the things that in vitro people do
From Molecules ■ u . r i c u ♦
is hunt for natural versions of psychoactive
to Mysticism» drugs Since PCP ^j angel dust? binds to
special brain receptors, a lot of people thinkit must have a counterpart in our brains. And if the putative natural angeldust ever materializes, it may explain something about paranoid schizo-phrenia, an illness that bears a striking resemblance to a PCP freak-out.
In a talk called «From Molecules to Mysticism,» Candace Pert spokeof rats specially trained to recognize the peculiar altered state of PCP.»When the rat feels angel dust in its brain, it pushes the left lever. Whenit thinks it has received a saline injection, it pushes the lever on the right,»she says. Day after day scientists tested promising angel dust analogues inrats and in test tubes. And guess what? «The correlation between the rat’s’subjective’ report and the ability of a compound to displace hot PCP frombrain slices in a test tube was very high. So we have a handle on themolecules mediating this altered state!»
Ditto for opiates. «We can take a bunch of morphine analogues—
Soup
102 • The Chemical Brain
morphine, codeine, Darvon—each of which has a different analgesic po-tency in animals,» she adds, «and look at how well they bind to the receptorin vitro. And we get a perfect parallel between the two. We can leap froma rigorous study of molecules—their three-dimensional structure—to be-havior. Opiates are about pleasure, or else why would opium wars havebeen fought over them? And now we have the total sequences for threedifferent natural opiates. We know the molecular structure of pleasure.»
Picture the brain as a bubbling chemical pool ofThe Electric Kool-Aid continually changing colors. Think of the colorsMulticolored as feeungs—feelings released from floating gland
bags. White is for euphoria and hope. Black isfor depression, despair. Red is alertness, attack-ing, escaping, protecting, and mating. Yellow isafraid of red. Blue stills the racket from outside.Alcohol brings great bursts of red at first, thenretreats to yellow. Librium and Valium shut offthe yellow at first, but they make the valve leak.A drug can bring any of these colors on command.The taste of the soup is the average of all theingredients influencing other ingredients.
—Arnold mandell, from an inter-view in Omni, November 1980
As subatomic physicists break matter down into finer and finer (andmore ethereal) particles, neuroscientists seek the building blocks of be-havior in increasingly smaller units of the brain, in the structure of receptormolecules, in the microscopic ion channels in the membrane of a neuron,in enzyme reaction rates, and so on. But it is not at all clear that hope orparanoia will be found in a neuron or a subcomponent of a neuron. Indeed,there is a growing school of thought within neuroscience that large sys-tems—for example, big ensembles of neurons or a whole brain—generate»emergent properties» that are not present in the individual pieces. Nomatter how many neurons you impale, you won’t see the collective «dance.»One articulate spokesman for this point of view is Arnold Mandell, abrilliant and unorthodox biological psychiatrist at the University of Cali-fornia at San Diego. If his picture of the brain in the preceding quote hasmore the flavor of Arthur Rimbaud’s «The Vowels» than of Proceedingsof the National Academy of Sciences, it is not just because he is in com-munion with spirits less turgid than the usual techno-muses (though he is)or that he doesn’t know anything about enzyme rates (which he does). His»soup» metaphor emphasizes an important feature of the brain: indeter-minacy. The pharmacologic revolution described in this chapter, the march
The Electric KooUAid Multicolored Soup • 103
toward Pert’s rigorous «color-coded wiring diagram» of behavior, is tacitlybased on a mechanistic model of the brain, on what Mandell calls the»plumber’s approach.» The plumber’s approach says that if you take xbillion cells, each of which is chemically coded and «hard-wired» to aboutfifty thousand other cells, and decipher all the chemical codes and traceall the connections—if you plumb all the gritty details of the «plumbing»—you’ll eventually get a sort of electrician’s diagram of thought, memory,love, paranoia, or desire. Mandell says flatly, «You can’t get there thatway.
«The deep error in the machine, switchboard, and computer metaphorsis that nothing happens until you do something,» he tells us when we visithim at the University of California at San Diego, a campus sprawled overwild, bleached hills on the edge of the ocean, lacking in the austere rightangles and perfect diagonals of most modern campuses. «It’s the Newtonianview that you have to push the ball to make it move. But much of nature,including this complex compression of bonded electrochemical jelly, thebrain, moves all by itself.»
Mandell’s brain is fluid, uncertain, probabilistic; it’s a place where amillion things happen at once. Love, obsession, or depression alters sodiumand potassium levels all over the organ, he notes; it changes «how foodtastes, whether music seems pretty, how a person walks … his dreams,his body temperature, his appetite, whether he asks for a raise or a va-cation—stuff like this.» Therefore no drug can work like a simple replace-ment cog in a machine or a precise colored circuit in a wiring diagram. Itis more like a seasoning in a soup. «Drugs change the taste of the soup,»he told Omni. «But it is complicated. It’s like what happens when yourmother-in-law moves in with you. You make adjustments, which lead toother adjustments. There is no one simple ‘mother-in-law effect.’ ‘
As he talks to us, Mandell is drawing rough geometric designs on hisblackboard: a vicious circle called a «limit cycle,» a squiggle of little waves,a wild abstract-expressionist scrawl to signify something called a «chaoticattractor.» His conversation is laden with references to «topological space-time images of many dimensions,» «phase spaces,» and «low-dimensionalattractors,» as well as to Freud and Jung, borderline personality disorders,hallucinations, and dreams. What are these arcane mathematical objectsdoing in a psychiatrist’s office? What strange tongue is Mandell speaking?The answer is «chaos,» a new field of mathematical physics that Mandell(along with a handful of other brain scientists) believes not only appliesto the brain but is the best model for its operations. According to thisdoctrine, brains can never be predicted or explained «with all the rigor ofa differential equation,» as Candace Pert had put it, because like many
104 * The Chemical Brain
other parts of nature they are inherently chaotic. Yet this very «chaos» isthe basis of the brain’s higher-level order, of personality, character, crea-tivity, even human societies. More about this later; for now it’s worthnoting simply that the brain is not a machine or at least not any machinewe know of.
The human mind makes maps and models in order to tame complexity.Sophisticated theologians may conceive of the supreme deity as a trans-personal force and still pray to a Sunday-school God with a beard andhalo. In the same way scientists may work with stick-and-ball models ofmolecules instead of swirling clouds of electrons, which is what moleculesreally are. Neuroscientists need simplified navigation charts to help guidethem through the dense jungle of the human nervous system, the mostcomplex collection of matter in the universe. It is often useful to visualizethe brain as a telephone exchange, or to imagine a hard mechanical braincomposed of locks, keys, opiate «gates,» circuits, switches, and wires. Areal brain, however, has no locks or keys but wet protein molecules thatmove and change shape continually like the god Proteus. And conscious-ness does not really conform to a wiring diagram.
«Up until recently,» says Candace Pert, «I’ve visualized the brain inNewtonian terms. I’ve pictured the neurochemicals and their receptors ashard, little locks, keys, and balls, like the drawings in textbooks. But nowI see the brain in terms of quantum mechanics—as a vibrating energy field,with all these balls, locks, and keys just being ways to perturb the field.
«I remember studying physics in college and getting a glimmer of what’reality’ is. I was just vibrating on the brink of experiencing everything asmatter and energy. But you quickly return to your everyday consciousness.You can write equations about Reality, with a capital R, but you think inNewtonian mechanical terms.
«I’ve stopped seeing the brain as the end of the line. The brain is justa receiver, an amplifier, a little wet minireceiver for collective reality. Wemake maps, but we should never confuse the map with the territory.»
Madness . . . and Other Windowson the Brain
Enormous herds of naked souls I saw,lamenting till their eyes were burned of tears;they seemed condemned by an unequal law,for some were stretched supine upon the ground,some squatted with their arms about themselves,and others without pause roamed round and round.—dante, The Inferno
WE’RE at the Lourdes of modern medicine, a zone of state-of-the-art miracles. The automatic glass doors open soundlessly,and paraplegics with wire antennae pasted to their heads glidethrough in wheelchairs. In the cafeteria bald children with prematurelywise eyes and the gray mien of chemotherapy sip chocolate milk. In theelevators, day after day, one meets the zombie stare of Alzheimer’s disease,the shuffling walk and masklike gaze of Parkinson’s disease, the Hierony-mus Bosch look of schizophrenia. Building 10 of the National Institutes ofHealth has half-jokingly been called a «research laboratory with beds,»and certainly this enormous brick edifice houses an unusual marriage ofbasic science and clinical treatment. Most of the patients here are alsosubjects of some sort.
The schizophrenics on the south corridor of the fourth floor, for in-stance, are part of a double-blind study that obliges them to spend a monthon a neuroleptic (antipsychotic) drug followed by a month off all medi-cation. For the shaky times there are cold packs, gurneys with restrainingstraps, and an «isolation room,» a cubicle with a bare linoleum floor anda mattress.
On a quiet weekday afternoon we follow psychiatrist David Pickar, whooversees the schizophrenia ward, on his rounds. Despite the kindergarten-bright, primary colors, the floral curtains, the cozy furniture, and the up-right piano, the dayroom has the inanimate quality of a model family roomin a budget furniture store. It is like looking into the alien, glassed-in worldof an aquarium, where everything seems magnified, distorted. An over-weight woman with the eyes of a numbed, captive animal slowly circles
105
the room. A dark, painfully thin young man (who turns out to be the sonof a foreign ambassador) is curled in a semifetal position on the sofa. Ayoung man with hanging shirt tails and a bad facial tic walks over to Pickar.
«Hello, Dr. Pickar. Can I shake your hand?» Like an actor out of synchwith his role, his gestures and inflections are awkward, jerky, off-key.
«How are you doing?» Pickar asks warmly. «Do you feel fidgety?»
«I don’t know what that means.»
Pickar explains, and Tony says he feels okay. «Are you going to be apatient here?» he asks us.
The blood and spinal fluid of these patients will end up in glass beakersdownstairs—little vials of delirium, madness, darkness, in which some ofthe nation’s finest scientists will hunt for abnormal levels of transmittermetabolites, brain enzymes, neuropeptides, hormones. «On one patient,»Pickar tells us, «I may get seventy to eighty measures from cerebrospinalfluid or plasma. That technology wasn’t around five to ten years ago. Butwe still can’t get to the organ. If you’re a basic scientist, you kill the animal,you look at the brain, you see a defect. Unfortunately there are no animalmodels of schizophrenia, for things like the holding of false beliefs and theperception of unreality. Maybe it’s a human disease. So we’re like the menin Plato’s cave. We study shadows—CAT scans, PET scans, plasma me-tabolites.
«My real interest is doctoring, caring for patients. Dealing with thecortex of a schizophrenic is an unbelievable thing. It’s alien, yet there arethese existential moments when you know a patient well and you can peekinto that world. It’s an abyss, empty and exhilarating.»
o a u 7W A How can you see into a human brain? There
Beyond the id and are three principal avenues, the first and old-
tne hgo est 0f which is the scientific study of mad-
ness. For Freud, breakdowns in the usualego mechanisms—slips of the tongue, obsessions, phobias, dreams—wereclues to the darker corners of the psyche. Neurologists historically havemapped the operations of different regions of the cortex with the help oftumors, strokes, and epileptic seizures. If you want to know how a normalbrain works, a broken one can teach you a lot.
In this chapter we’ll take a close look at schizophrenia, the most dis-abling and incurable of the mental illnesses, and examine the clues thisdisease offers toward understanding the brain’s processes. We’ll also lookat the brain through two relatively new high-tech windows: PET (positronemission tomography) scans and the computerized study of brain waves.
Beyond the Id and the Ego • 107
There’s no doubt that brain doctoring in the 1980s has more the auraof Los Alamos or Silicon Valley than of Freud. Rather than with thenetherworld of the libido, modern brain science is concerned with solidmatter, things that can be seen, heard, felt, and measured. Brain scientistsperform blood tests for anorexia, phobias, obsessions, compulsions, anddouble identity. They search for a gene for dyslexia and a gene for mel-ancholy. Perhaps even a virus or an antibody that may distort the «doorsof perception» of a schizophrenic.
These doctors wield elaborate machines: sophisticated computer sys-tems that extract the subtle EEG signals corresponding to thoughts (or atleast thought shadows) from the sea of electrical noise in the brain. Com-puterized electroencephalography that can single out a child at risk fordeveloping schizophrenia or detect an «Aha!» response in the shape of acertain V-shaped wave that appears three hundred milliseconds after astimulus. The names of some of the new brain-imaging equipment couldhave come out of a «Star Trek» episode: brain electrical activity mapping(BEAM); computerized axial tomography (CAT) scanners; nuclear mag-netic resonance (NMR); and positron emission tomography (PET). PETscans, in fact, are based on the Star-Trekkian principle of tiny collisionsbetween matter and antimatter, a feat that requires a cyclotron on thepremises. The result is an «X ray» of the brain’s metabolic activity inluminous technicolor hues. Such devices not only provide remarkably clearpictures of epilepsy, dementia, strokes, tumors, Parkinson’s disease, andother organic ailments, but they’re also showing that much «psychological»illness has a biological basis.
Candace Pert’s vision of a psychiatric consultation in the year 1990involves a PET scanner and an inventory of neuroreceptors:
You’ll go in for a total receptor workup with a PET scan. The doctor will drop ina highly selective drug with a radioactive isotope to «light up» your receptors andget a nice three-dimensional map of your brain. You’ll see the distribution of thedifferent receptors—all the ones we know of and some we haven’t discovered yet.You’ll see which areas are okay and which need fine-tuning. The computer willstore receptor densities for each neurotransmitter on a separate floppy disk. Thenmaybe you’ll be given a customized dose of, say, ten different drugs that willstraighten things out.
There’s this incredible shame about mental illness. But the brain is just anotherorgan. It’s just a machine, and a machine can go wrong. One neurochemicallycoded system might have a kink in it.
A decade ago photographing receptors inside a living human brain wouldhave sounded about as feasible as building a shopping mall on Uranus,and when Pert first articulated her fantasy (in 1982) it hadn’t actually been
done yet. A year later scientists at Johns Hopkins began using a PETscanner to trace the radioactively lit trails of dopamine receptors in humanheads. «The explosion of knowledge in brain science is equal to our abilityto probe outer space,» says Michael Phelps, the inventor of the PET scan.»We have the techniques now to probe the inner space of the body.»
But how far have we come in our understanding of the exact relationbetween brain and psyche? Is there a crimson whorl on a PET scan sig-nifying delusions of persecution? An electrical pattern for paranoia? Canour fancy machines give us a readout of a person’s state of consciousness,level of anxiety, religious beliefs? Can they mend a shattered mind? Let’sstart with a look at schizophrenia.
Approximately one percent of the popu-lation suffers from schizophrenia, the mostthe Underworld baffling and tragic of the psychiatric ill-
nesses. The nineteenth century knew it asdementia praecox, or «dementia of youth,» since it struck in adolescenceor early youth (rarely after age thirty), and seemed to inevitably progresstoward mental deterioration. The term schizophrenia was coined early inthis century by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who thought thatpsychic fragmentation was the trademark of the illness. «I call dementiapraecox ‘schizophrenia’ because … the splitting of the different psychicfunctions is one of its most important characteristics.»
The litany of schizophrenic symptoms reads like a guidebook to theunderworld. Most patients suffer from hallucinations, delusions, and «thoughtdisorders,» a category that includes impaired logic, jumbled thinking, bi-zarre ideas, and «loose» associations. They may sound like beat poets outof control, employing skewed semantics, neologisms, stream-of-conscious-ness ramblings, punning, echolalia (parroting), and «word salads.» E. FullerTorrey, a psychiatrist at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., oncequizzed a hundred schizophrenic patients on the meaning of the proverb»People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.» Only a thirdwere able to supply the standard explanation; all the others gave extrav-agant, overly literal, or highly personalized translations:
Because if they did they’d break the environment.
People should always keep their decency about their living arrange-ments. I remember living in a glass house but all I did was wave.
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t forget people who live instone houses and shouldn’t throw glass.
A Visit to the Underworld • 109
The inner life of a schizophrenic is pervaded by suffocating fears, morbidguilt, nameless dreads, and grotesque fantasies. At the same time, he orshe may exhibit «flat affect» (emotional blunting), a symptom that manyobservers believe is the core of the illness. «I have two patients in whomI am unable to elicit any emotion whatsoever,» reports Torrey in his bookSurviving Schizophrenia: A Family Manual. «They are polite, at timesstubborn, but never happy or sad. It is uncannily like interacting with arobot. One of these patients set fire to his house and then sat down placidlyto watch TV. When it was called to his attention that the house was onfire, he got up calmly and went outside. Clearly the brain damage in thesecases has seriously affected the centers mediating emotional response.»
Like the hypersensitive princess in «The Princess and the Pea,» a schiz-ophrenic’s senses are overly acute or distorted. He cannot concentrate.Reality is a blinding glare, a cacophony of sounds, an overwhelming swarmof messages that his brain can’t process in the normal way. NormaMacDonald, an articulate Canadian psychiatric nurse who returned froman acute schizophrenic episode and wrote about it in the Canadian MedicalAssociation Journal in 1960, described the terrain thus:
The walk of a stranger on the street could be a «sign» to me which I must interpret.Every face in the windows of a passing streetcar would be engraved on my mind,all of them concentrating on me and trying to pass me some sort of message. . . .I had very little ability to sort the relevant from the irrelevant. The filter had brokendown.
«Schizophrenics don’t do well at cocktail parties,» says Torrey (whohimself has a schizophrenic sister). «They simply can’t process all theincoming stimuli. So they withdraw. The limbic sensory-processing equip-ment isn’t doing a good job. In order to communicate at all, the schizo-phrenic has to use the simplest mechanisms in the brain—the ‘reptilianbrain,’ in the Paul MacLean sense. It’s like having your leg crippled frompolio and trying to walk as best you can.»
«From early on,» says Allan F. Mirsky, chief of NIMH’s Laboratoryof Psychology and Psychopathology, «schizophrenics find it difficult todistinguish between signal and noise and to assign levels of importance tovarious classes of stimuli. Everything becomes important; nothing is triv-ial.»
Add to this a distorted sense of self, a feeling of personal unreality,often coupled with a distorted body image. Much as Gregor Samsa wokeup to find himself in the body of a huge cockroach, in Kafka’s Metamor-phosis, a schizophrenic may see his body transforming into a beast or astatue, becoming invisible, or leading an alarming life of its own.
I saw myself in different bodies. . . . The night nurse came in and sat under the
shaded lamp in the quiet ward. I recognized her as me, and I watched for sometime quite fascinated; I had never had an outside view of myself before. In themorning several of the patients having breakfast were me. I recognized them bythe way they held their knives and forks. —A schizophrenic patient quoted inSurviving Schizophrenia (Torrey)
«The crisis of identity is shattering,» Solomon Snyder writes in Bio-logical Aspects of Mental Disorder, «and it confronts them with basic ex-istential questions such as, Who am I? What is the meaning of life? Whatis reality? [R. D.] Laing has not been the only writer to speculate thatschizophrenics, in their grandiose ideation, are reporting back from a worldof deeper emotional reality than we enter in ordinary life.»
I hadn’t read anything to do with, er—with—ideas of transmog—migration of soulsor whatever you call it, transmog—transmig—reincarnation. But I had a feeling attimes of an enormous journey … a fantastic journey. . . .
I wasn’t just living on the—the moving moment, the present, but I was movingand living in a—in another time dimension added to the time situation in which Iam now. . . .—A schizophrenic quoted in The Politics of Experience (1967) byR. D. Laing.
Sometimes the ego’s breakdown can be a breakthrough, Laing pro-posed. After all, Eastern religions view the ego as an illusion, a dream, afilm of may a, and the egoless state as supreme enlightenment. «The ‘ego’is the instrument for living in this world,» Laing wrote. «If the ‘ego’ isbroken up or destroyed . . . then the person may be exposed to otherworlds, ‘real’ in different ways from the more familiar territory of dreams,imagination, perception and fantasy.» Others have seen in the schizo-phrenic descent a psychic parallel to the mythological hero’s or shaman’sjourney. But if it is a voyage to other planes of existence, schizophreniais seldom a pleasant Caribbean cruise.
„„ _ Freud’s high theater of oral fixations and
What (^QliSCS
dream symbols was built on the ruminations
schizophrenia. 0f anxiety-neurotics, hysterics, and obses-
sive-compulsives, not schizophrenics. Whenhe did analyze a paranoid schizophrenic, a man known to him only throughanother analyst’s memoirs, he diagnosed a «conflict over unconscioushomosexuality» and an inverted Oedipal complex. For the most part, though,he seems to have considered schizophrenics unsuitable for talking therapy.Some of his proteges were bolder and proffered theories about the etiologyof schizophrenia ranging from «the unceasing terror and tension of the
Dopamine Disease • 111
fetal night» to various unpleasant events during the oral, genital, andOedipal periods of development.
But European psychiatry never really abandoned the idea that thebrain, not the misty psyche, was the problematic organ. In America it wasa different story. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, schizophrenia was laidat the doorstep of mothers who were domineering and rejecting, or fussyand overprotective, and inadequate, passive, harsh, or distant fathers.
By the late 1950s the «schizophrenogenic,» or schizophrenia-causing,family replaced the evil Schizophrenogenic Mother, and the psychotic wasseen as the victim of familial «double binds» (heads-I-win, tails-you-losesituations), «marital skews,» and «pseudomutuality» (a sort of false familycloseness). Meanwhile, the «antipsychiatrists,» notably R. D. Laing andThomas Szasz, were proclaiming that schizophrenics were merely society’sscapegoats, twentieth-century witches and heretics, and that their «illness»might be a sane response to an insane family, a rational response to anirrational world.
Modern, post-Bedlam psychiatry took pains to separate schizophreniafrom organic brain disorders. Bleuler set the tone by asserting that «incontrast to the organic psychoses, we find in schizophrenia . . . that sen-sation, memory, consciousness, and motility are not directly disturbed.»While the organic dementias were marked by intellectual deficits and struc-tural changes in the brain, according to this school of thought, schizo-phrenia involved a physically normal brain and a basically unimpairedintellect.
Today, as researchers take a closer look at schizophrenic brains (thanks,in part, to the new machines), the boundary between the organic andpsychological is fast vanishing. «The brains of people who have schizo-phrenia,» Torrey states flatly, «are different from the brains of people whodo not have the disease.»
The modern age of biological psychiatryDopamine Disease began with the serendipitous discovery in the
1950s that a drug, chlorpromazine, made schizophrenics a lot better. Inthe early 1960s it was determined that chlorpromazine worked on the brainby reducing the amount of a certain transmitter, dopamine. Scientists hadalso noticed that amphetamine, a notorious psychotomimetic (psychosismimicker), which exacerbates the symptoms of schizophrenia, raises do-pamine levels.
Out of this evidence came the dopamine hypothesis, which was todominate schizophrenia research for the next two decades. In its first and
simplest form it stated: «Too much dopamine in the brain causes schizo-phrenia. Ergo, reducing dopamine levels cures schizophrenia.» Unfortu-nately, it didn’t turn out that simple.
The dopamine-lowering drugs used to treat schizophrenia, drugs likeThorazine, Haldol, and Mellaril, don’t cure it at all. «Antipsychotic drugsmerely help suppress troubling ideas,» reports schizophrenia researcherSteven Matthysse, of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. «Pa-tients will say, The aliens are smaller; they’re talking softer,’ or The FBIis still bugging my telephone, but you can’t worry about that.’ But thedrugs do nothing for the emotional and interpersonal defects.» Thus arosethe dopamine hypothesis, revised version: «Schizophrenia is the result ofa dopamine imbalance complicated by multiple disturbances in other neu-rochemical systems.»
In search of the precise biochemical equation, scientists methodicallysift through schizophrenic serum samples for DBH, a dopamine breakdownproduct; PEA (phenylethylalamine), an amphetaminelike compound longsuspected of being an internal toxin; the norepinephrine metabolite MHPG;the serotonin metabolite 5-HIAA; enzymes such as monoamine oxidase(MAO); endorphins and enkephalins; hormones such as Cortisol and va-sopressin; and more compounds than you want to hear about.
No chemical so far has proved to be the answer, and the prevailingview is that schizophrenia is a neurochemical jigsaw puzzle composed ofmany interlocking pieces, some of which haven’t yet been identified.
Although schizophrenics do seem to suffer from alterations in dopaminetransmission, Torrey tells us: «My friends still can’t tell me how the do-pamine system got this way.» If you’re looking for the cause, or in med-speak, the etiology, dopamine hasn’t led there yet. Says Fritz Henn, chair-man of the psychiatry department of the State University of New York atStony Brook, «My own feeling is that it’s not the cause. I think the do-pamine system just acts as a big amplifier for all sensory input. The drugswork by just knocking the sensitivity out of the system. But what is dis-ordered is the input itself.»
___. , . _ _ When a patient suffers from an organic
Where s the Damage? brain disorder> sooner or later doctors un.
cover a plaque, a lesion, a tumor, a «neurofibrillary tangle,» a region ofscar tissue. Why, then, does the brain damage of schizophrenia (if it is acase of brain damage) elude X rays, CAT scans, and high-powered mi-croscopes? Why are there no plaques or lesions to account for the delusionof being a Joan of Arc?
While the «schizophrenic lesion» remains to be found, a few subtle
The neurons of the hippocampus in a normal human brain (above) and in theschizophrenic (below), magnified 150 times. The schizophrenic cells are more dis-organized and tend to point in all directions. Is this why schizophrenics interpretthe world so differently from the rest of us? (Courtesy of Joyce Kovelman and Dr.Arnold Scheibel)
signs of physical damage have lately come to light. In postmortem braintissue, Joyce Kovelman and Arnold Scheibel of UCLA’s Brain ResearchInstitute spotted a weird cellular «disarray» in the schizophrenic brains(and not in the matched controls). The pyramid-shaped cells of the hip-pocampus, normally arranged in an orderly manner, were grossly mis-aligned. Some of them were rotated ninety degrees out of their properposition. Some of the dendrites were upside down. Might this result in amix-up of electrical signals—and symptoms such as hallucinations and de-lusions of persecution? Scheibel, a well-respected anatomist and psychia-trist, thinks so, and speculates that the damage stems from a genetic defector a viral infection in the womb.
When neurologist Janice Stevens aimed her microscope at schizophrenicbrains, refrigerated at -70 degrees centigrade for as long as forty yearsat St. Elizabeth’s Hospital’s «brain bank,» she saw signs of cell loss, cal-
cification, and gliosis (old scarring), especially in the limbic system. «Gliosisis actually an old finding,» she tells us. «People pooh-poohed it for years.There was such an emphasis on bad mothers that the idea of a progressive,organic disease was ignored.» She, too, is thinking in terms of an old viralinfection.
The first CAT scans gave the schizophrenic brain a clean bill of health,but the new, high-resolution scans tell another tale. They reveal that asignificant minority of schizophrenics (about a third) have visible enlarge-ment of the cerebral sulci or of the ventricles, the lakes of spinal fluidsurrounding the gray matter. The ventricles’ gain, it appears, is the brain’sloss. «We think ventricular enlargement reflects some loss of brain mass,some cerebral atrophy,» says psychiatrist Daniel Weinberger of NIMH andSt. Elizabeth’s Hospital, whose expertise in these matters was summonedto the witness stand at the 1982 trial of would-be Presidential assassin JohnHinckley. (Hinckley’s CAT scan showed enlarged sulci.) «It’s not a specificfinding. You also find enlarged ventricles in Alzheimer’s victims, in cancerpatients undergoing chemotherapy, and other diseases. Now that we haveevidence there’s something going on in the brain of a schizophrenic, we’vegot to go back and look at the brain.»
Weinberger thinks the place to look is the third ventricle, forming theperimeter of the limbic region. He tells us, «Every study that looked atthe third ventricle, except one, has found abnormalities. If any part of thebrain should be abnormal in schizophrenia, it’s this limbic forebrain. Elec-trodes in this area produce schizophrenialike phenomena, such as ‘forcedthinking,’ bodily illusions, fear, ineffable cosmological experiences, para-noia. If the connections between the limbic forebrain and the frontal lobeare disordered, you’ve lost one of the highest integrative systems in thebrain.»
What do enlarged ventricles, loss of gray matter, gliosis, signify? SaysWeinberger, «Something has happened or is happening to the brain. Itmight be a virus, an autoimmune disease, an inherited defect, prenataldamage, a neurotoxin, or a multitude of things. I don’t think there’s justone cause of schizophrenia. I think it’s a manifestation of old—probablyin utero—damage to the limbic-cortical circuitry. I say it’s old damage,because there’s no evidence that it’s progressive.
«Schizophrenics with enlarged ventricles are different from schizo-phrenics with normal CAT scans. They have a history of being introverted,asocial, and peculiar as kids—even before they got sick. They have moreof the deficit symptoms: flat affect, amotivation, poverty of thought, with-drawal, emptiness, poor insight. They have what we call soft neurological
Where’s the Damage? • 115
A CAT scan of a brain with normal cerebral ventricles. (Courtesy of Daniel R.Weinberger, M.D., Chief, Section on Clinical Neuropsychiatry, NIMH)
A CAT scan of a schizophrenic brain with enlarged cerebral ventricles. More thana third of all schizophrenics appear to have lost brain tissue, perhaps as a resultof a prenatal virus or some other disease process. (Courtesy of Daniel R. Wein-berger, M.D., Chief, Section on Clinical Neuropsychiatry, NIMH)
signs, symptoms of subtle neurological damage. Their prognosis is worse,and they’re less likely to get better on drugs.»
The finding to which Weinberger referredIheSearch for the was first reported by psychiatrists Timothy
Schizovirus j crow and Eve Johnstone, of Northwick
Park Hospital in Harrow, England, who hadsystematically CAT-scanned some fifteen hundred patients. Crow has alsoisolated from the spinal fluid of some schizophrenics (about a third of thosetested) a «viruslike agent» that had marked cytopathic, or «cell-killing,»effects in a culture. Since the putative virus also turned up in the spinalfluid of some patients with depressive psychoses, Huntington’s chorea, andother illnesses, Crow doesn’t claim it’s a schizophrenia virus per se. «It ispossible that a number of different agents are being detected,» he reportsin a 1981 article. «Our studies are based on the hypothesis that schizo-phrenia might be either an unusual response to some commonly occurringvirus or the result of infection with some as yet unidentified agent.»
«Ten years ago,» confides Torrey, another acolyte of the viral hypoth-esis, «my friends all made fun of the ‘schizovirus.’ That started to changewhen Carleton Gajdusek got the Nobel Prize and people realized that kuruwas a viable model for a chronic central nervous system illness. When Italked to Gajdusek in 1973, he said, ‘Where have you guys been for thepast twenty years?’ » In 1963 Gajdusek tracked kuru, a deadly diseaseconfined to New Guinea tribes with a penchant for cannibalism, to a «slowvirus» transmitted, in this case, from the brains of the dead to the livingwho ate them. The fact that the virus lies dormant in the body like anunexploded bomb for twenty years before flaring up and destroying thebrain and nervous system interests Torrey and his colleagues. Is schizo-phrenia the result of a similar hard-to-detect slow virus?
Torrey has spent ten years diligently collecting spinal fluid from threehundred schizophrenics and seventy normal controls, including himself.»It’s just like looking for any other virus,» he says. «You take the antigen[the viral agent], put it in the spinal.fluid, and look for an antibody.» Athird of the schizophrenic spinal-fluid samples he tested had elevated levelsof antibodies to cytomegalovirus (CMV), a member of the herpes family,which can attack brain tissue. «It suggests,» he tells us, «that somethingin the brains of these people reacts strangely to CMV. We’re not preparedto say CMV causes schizophrenia. It’s a notoriously opportunistic infection,and it may be secondary to another virus or an immunological disorder.
«We know this virus has a predilection for the limbic system. Just asthe rabies virus likes certain kinds of cells, and herpes zoster [the shingles
The Search for the Schizovirus • 117
virus] likes the spinal cord, CMV goes for the limbic system. It also likesthe inner parts of the auditory tract, which might explain why schizophrenichallucinations—unlike drug hallucinations—are primarily auditory.»
The viral-theorists also cite statistics showing that schizophrenics havea greater-than-average likelihood of being born between January and Marchand of becoming psychotic between June and August. Unless you believein malefic astrological influences, the seasonal pattern suggests somethingflulike. And while schizophrenia is obviously genetic in part, genes don’texplain everything. A monozygotic (identical) twin of a schizophrenic runsa 50 percent risk of developing the illness, yet, since monozygotic twinsare genetically identical, you’d expect a 100 percent rate if genes were all-powerful. And if twins live together at the time one of them developsschizophrenia, Crow reported recently in the journal Lancet, the othertwin’s risk is higher, especially in the first six months. «These findingssuggest either that both twins are exposed to an [infectious] agent at thesame time,» he states, «or that such an agent is passed from twin to twin.»
Is schizophrenia contagious? On a recent sabbatical in western Ireland,Torrey found strange pockets of schizophrenia in certain towns. Crow tellsof an epidemiological study of a large Moscow housing complex: Whenthe families moved into the brand-new dwellings, one building had one ortwo schizophrenic residents and the other two buildings had none. Virtuallyno families moved away, and none moved in, and a decade or so later,the first building had a rash of new cases of schizophrenia, five times asmany as in the neighboring buildings. «If that’s true,» says Fritz Henn whohas high praise for Crow’s research, «it has enormous implications. Thenpeople who are doctors, nurses, and orderlies in state hospitals over aperiod of time ought to have a higher incidence of schizophrenia. And thatstudy could be done. We may go out to Long Island, where there are manymental hospitals, and get records from the 1950s on people who workedthere for over ten years.»
«But where’s the pathology!» asks Pickar, who is putting his moneyon refinements of the dopamine hypothesis. «In multiple sclerosis you seeplaques in the brain. There’s nothing like that in schizophrenia. In fact,the majority of schizophrenic brains look entirely normal on a CAT scan.If schizophrenia is a virus it sure isn’t like any virus we understand.»
«Why you don’t see plaque formation in schizophrenia I can’t tell you,»Torrey replies. «I can tell you that we know that viruses can get into braincells and change their chemistry, and there is no way to see any differenceunder a microscope.»
In a court of law, the «schizovirus» would rest on circumstantial evi-dence, nothing to hang the defendant on, certainly. Yet in a field lacking
eyewitnesses and smoking guns, it’s worth listening to the forensic lab’sanalysis of fibers at the crime scene.
, . Back in the mid-1950s Robert Heath,
Lhe Autoimmune chairman of the psychiatry department at
1 neory of Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, found
Schizophrenia a mysterious protein in the blood serum of
schizophrenics, which he baptized taraxein(from the Greek for «madness»). After experimenting with monkeys tomake sure the procedure was safe, Heath injected the taraxein fractioninto nonpsychotic prisoner-volunteers (using a comparable serum fractionfrom normal people for controls). Like characters in a mad-scientist horrormovie—and, as matter of fact, these experiments were filmed, like a kindof neuropsychiatry/j’/ra noir—the men who received the taraxein injectionswere plunged into instant psychosis. «Some hallucinated and had delusionsand thought disorders,» Heath recalls. «Some became severely anxiousand paranoid. Some were withdrawn and catatonic. An hour or so later,they went back to being entirely normal.» What was this protein with thepower to turn men mad?
In the mid-1960s, Heath announced that taraxein was actually an im-munoglobulin, an antibody to brain tissue. He reached this conclusion thus:He injected sheep with tissue from different parts of the brain, waited fortheir bodies to produce antibodies to the brain, harvested the antibodies,and injected them systematically into monkeys. These monkeys became»psychotic» when they were injected with antibodies to septal tissue, a factthat had a special meaning for Heath. Having spent a decade and a halftuning into abnormal, seizurelike electrical activity in the brains of dozensof chronic schizophrenics (see Chapter 5), he had become convinced thatdamage to the septal area, deep in the limbic system, was the trademarkof the illness. Now he suggested that schizophrenics’ immune systems mis-take their own brain tissue (specifically the septal region) for a foreigninvader and attack it. Heath maintains, «It makes a lot of sense to thinkthat schizophrenia is an autoimmune process, like lupus erythematosus,myasthenia gravis [«Aristotle Onassis disease»], or Hashimoto’s thyroid-itis. In Hashimoto’s disease the body makes antibodies that attack thyroidtissue; in schizophrenia the antibody would be to brain tissue.»
The psychiatric mainstream in 1967, however, was still basking in thewarm glow of the dopamine hypothesis, and Heath’s methodology wasjudged less than impeccable. When other scientists failed to replicate hisresults, no lesser luminary than Harvard’s Seymour Kety («Mr. Schizo-
The Autoimmune Theory of Schizophrenia • 119
phrenia,» as one scientist referred to him) wrote a scathing review of hiswork. Heath retorts that one team did replicate his findings («No one evermentioned this»), but taraxein seemed doomed to the status of a semibi-zarre footnote in the book of biological psychiatry.
But times change, and the autoimmune theory is making a smallcomeback—in Candace Pert’s laboratory, among others. Pert’s originalidea was to take antibodies from mental patients and drop them into specialbinding assays to see whether they attacked, say, the dopamine receptors.»It didn’t work,» she says. «I happened to have four receptor assays, andthere are more than fifty brain receptors, and I didn’t hit the right one.So basically, we decided, don’t worry about which receptor it is. First lookfor antibodies that bind to brain, then we’ll figure out the receptor.»
We look over her shoulder at the milky liquid that was once the brainof a twenty-one-year-old accident victim. («He was six-foot-two,» saysPert. «He must have been handsome.») This is the culture in which Pertand colleague Lynn DeLisi, a psychiatrist, will test putative antibodiesfrom psychiatric patients. While we are visiting, DeLisi rushes in like some-one who has just received a telegram from the president. «I saw her!» shetells Pert. «I saw the patient! In the dental clinic. She’s a thirty-six-year-old bipolar [manic-depressive] woman.» DeLisi has been screening sampleafter sample of serum from mental patients. First, their blood is run througha machine that filters out the antibodies and puts the blood, sans antibodies,back in the patient (this is known as plasmapheresis). Then the antibodyfraction goes into the brain mixture.
«Yesterday,» Pert explains, «we were running a bunch of patients, andeverything was like six or seven thousand [a binding count]. This one patientwas thirteen thousand, which is off the charts.
«So every day we can look at her symptoms, collect blood, and figureout where the antibody binds. Who knows? Maybe after plasmapherisisshe’ll get better. Maybe she has antibodies to five different receptors, andon the days she’s more paranoid her angel dust receptors are being titillated,and on the days she’s depressed and suffering, her Substance P receptorsare being attacked.»
By the time Pert and DeLisi published their data (in January 1985),they were able to report that psychotic serum was more apt to «attack»brain tissue than normal serum was—or at least that 18 percent of theirmental patients had a higher binding count than any of the normal controls.»A few years ago,» Pert tells us, «an insulin-resistant form of diabetes wasdiscovered, in which the body makes antibodies to the insulin receptors.Why shouldn’t there be antibodies to brain receptors? What’s so specialabout the brain?»
TT7. , . _> . But the brain is special, so special that
Windows on the Brain nature has sequestered it from the outside
world with a stone-hard skull and from the rest of the body with the blood-brain barrier, membranes that filter and restrict the chemical traffic betweenthe bloodstream and the central nervous system. A living brain is a clois-tered princess in a tower, all but unreachable except through messengersand go-betweens.
«Let the biologists go as far as they can,» Freud wrote, «and let us goas far as we can. One day the two will meet.» As a young physician, hecarried out some very respectable research on the nerves of crayfish, crabs,and lampreys. If he chose to dissect dreams, fantasies, and phallic symbolsinstead, it was not because he thought the mind was made of diaphanousstuff. It was because the neurobiology of his day had no windows on theorgan of thought. That is no longer quite the case.
In 1978 at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Suffolk County, NewYork, Alfred Wolf, chairman of the department of chemistry, and his co-workers PET-scanned two schizophrenic men who communed with unearthlyvoices. «One heard voices telling him he was God,» Wolf recalls, «andthe other guy thought he was the devil. We had them here on the sameday, and they kept arguing with each other.» God and the Prince of Dark-ness, it turned out, shared the same brain pathology, as did every chronicschizophrenic ever scanned at Brookhaven (they number more than fiftyby now). On the color-coded display, the frontal lobes—the putative locusof such faculties as insight, foresight, and empathy—glowed bluish green,which meant abnormally low metabolic activity.
«It was very exciting,» says Wolf, «because it was the first demonstra-tion of a clear abnormality in a schizophrenic brain. And all the schizo-phrenics we scanned had it. Of course, they were all chronic schizophrenicswith dementia-praecox-type symptoms.»
Positron emission tomography was born in 1973 at Washington Uni-versity in St. Louis, where a scientific team led by Michael E. Phelps saweda hole in the center of an old wooden table, fastened radiation detectorsaround it, and strapped a dog to the platform. The first images were, inthe recollections of one team member, «funny, squiggly blurs.» The res-olution would improve, and some would consider the pictures as much aconquest as the out-of-focus televised shots of Neil Armstrong alightingon the pockmarked surface of the Sea of Tranquillity: They were the firstinterior views of a conscious, working brain.
Says NIMH’s Louis Sokoloff, one of the scientific godfathers of PET,»In the past the only time you got inside a living brain was when the animal
Windows on the Brain • 121
or human being was anesthetized. But when you anesthetize the brainyou’re changing the very things you want to study. We have had methods—such as cerebral blood-flow studies—available for years to look at theoperation of the brain as a whole. But unlike most other tissues of thebody, the brain has different parts reserved for specific functions. Now wecan see inside each part of the organ.»
PET owes something to Sokoloffs metabolic mapping method. Thebrain’s activity is calculated from the rate at which it burns glucose—oroxygen, or theoretically anything else that brain cells absorb. But insteadof removing a brain and cutting it up, as in autoradiography, a PET scanner»slices» the brain mathematically. This takes it out of the lab-animal realmand into the human sphere (the radiation involved is equivalent to tenchest X rays, far less than a GI series). The patient lies on a padded traywith his head in a ring of radiation detectors that will record his brainactivity. He receives an injection of glucose tagged with a radioactiveisotope, which «lights up» the brain cells that absorb it.
First a cyclotron makes the isotope, usually fluorine-18. Becausefluorine-18 has a half-life of only 110 minutes, it must quickly journeyfrom the cyclotron (sometimes in a neighboring state) to the patient’s veins.Oxygen-15, with a half-life of fifteen minutes, is even more fleeting. Achemist who handles these substances must have some of the qualities ofa short-order cook and some of a magician. Once the radioactive mixturegets into the patient, it rapidly decays, emitting positrons, positively chargedelectrons. They collide with the negatively charged electrons in the sur-rounding tissue. Matter meets antimatter, and the particles annihilate eachother, leaving a brief burst of gamma rays. From these the scanner recon-structs the amount of radiation in a cross section of brain, or any otherpart of the body, for that matter. A computer translates the gradients intoa vivid video display, where the inner world appears in luminous shadesfrom cool indigo (low activity) to crimson (high activity) like a strange newplanet full of wonders.
Phelps (now at UCLA) holds up a slide that shows two different imagesof one man’s brain. The one made by a CAT scan portrays the folds andfurrows of an apparently normal brain; the other, the product of a PETscan, is black as a moonless night in Hades. What was wrong with thepatient? «He’d been dead for eight months,» replies Phelps. Anatomicallysound as it may have been, this brain was «at an all-time biochemical low,»as Phelps puts it, and this little parable sums up the difference betweenthe two techniques. A CAT scan is essentially a fancy X-ray machine thatphotographs a sequence of computerized slices of the body’s solid struc-
tures. It is like an aerial photograph of a freeway system without the traffic,which is superb for many medical purposes but not for monitoring ongoingchemical processes.
«The brain is a chemical organ,» says PET practitioner John Mazziottaof UCLA, a neurologist. «It does no physical work at all. All its work iselectrical or chemical, and the electrical work can be traced back to thechemical. So what ways do we have to look at brain chemistry?
«One way is to draw blood or spinal fluid and hunt for chemicals, butthat’s pretty remote from the brain. We can biopsy the brain and look atthe chemistry, or we can look at the brain after death, but those thingsaren’t very good either. We understand the brain’s gross anatomy quitewell, but the anatomy looks the same whether you’re doing something ornot doing anything. And chemical changes are the earliest signs of diseases.Anatomical changes come after the fact, if at all.»
_. . . , .. . The first brainscapes were seductive. They
Biochemical Mapping made such njce illustrations that they were
Expeditions immediately picked up by airline in-flight
magazines, and Phelps’s pictures of the hu-man brain «watching,» «listening,» «thinking,» and «remembering» evenhang in the Oval Office. The layman got the impression that the priests ofPET had captured the soul in technicolor, that they were on the verge ofphotographing a «memory center,» an actual hallucination, or the internalequivalent of the «flashbulb» of inspiration. What can a PET scan really»see»?
PET measures activity, not static structures. That means that a re-searcher might watch his neural «pleasure centers» glow as he eats hisfavorite food, as one PET pioneer did. Or ponder the metabolic portraitof a memory decaying in time, as Thomas Chase, chief of experimentaltherapeutics at the National Institute of Neurological and CommunicativeDisorders and Strokes (NINCDS) is doing. Some of the cortical mappingstudies, as they’re called, have an almost phrenological ring. Says Chase,»We’re asking, where do you think; where do you remember? We’vemapped out language. We know where reading, writing, and naming arein the brain.»
One might also try to map information processing in the specializedtissue of the cortex. At UCLA’s glittering, state-of-the-art PET empire,Michael Phelps and colleague John Mazziotta scanned volunteers’ brainsas they listened to music or Sherlock Holmes stories. When right-handedpeople heard the stories, their left hemispheres lit up more than the right—though contrary to popular right brain/left brain lore, the right hemisphere
doesn’t exactly turn off when faced with words. When the task was tocompare musical chords, the right half of the brain was more metabolicallyactive. In most people, that is: Three subjects appeared to process musicprimarily in the (analytical, verbal) left hemisphere. «One was a profes-sional musician,» says Mazziotta. «The other two were computer-sciencegraduate students who said they made frequency histograms in their mindsor imagined dots on paper whose height reflected the frequency of thenotes.»
At the National Institute on Aging, in Bethesda, Maryland, a womanwith glaucous, faraway eyes lies with her head in the «doughnut hole» ofthe scanner. For several months she has had trouble finding the words forobjects and connecting her grandchildren with their names. In the past her
These PET scans reveal the changing brain states of an epileptic patient at UCLA.Those in the top row (A) were made during a seizure, as the patient hallucinatedand then lost consciousness. The brain showed dramatically increased activity (darkcolor) in the right occipital (visual) and temporal lobes and decreased activity (lightcolor) in the rest of the brain. The scans in row B were made after a month ofseizures: The low activity in the right visual cortex (arrows) corresponds to thepatient’s blindness in the left visual field at that time. After drug therapy had keptthe patient seizure-free for a year, the PET scan (row C) showed normal activity.CAT scans, in contrast, were the same for every state. (M. E. Phelps, J. C.Mazziotta, J. Engel, Jr., UCLA School of Medicine)
problems would have been shrugged off as garden-variety «senility» or»old age,» but the PET scan shows a dark crescent of depressed activityon the roof of her brain, a pattern that Dr. Ranjin Duara, formerly of theNational Institute on Aging and now at the University of Miami, has cometo recognize as the signature of Alzheimer’s disease. In the disease’s earlystages, when a CAT scan detects no abnormality, PET reveals that thepatient’s parietal and temporal lobes are burning fuel at a sluggish rate.In severe Alzheimer’s, when the patient has forgotten everything but afew isolated pieces of the distant past, the «shadow» can be seen spreadingover the entire brain. «The whole brain is down, by about ninety percent,»says Duara. «It looks like it’s hardly turning over.»
PET scans can also mirror the seesawing moods of a «rapidly cycling» manic-depressive. On May 17 and May 27, when this patient was depressed, PET scans(top and bottom rows) showed a global decrease in glucose utilization. On May18, at the peak of a «hypomanic» cycle, the same patient’s brain (middle row)showed a 40 percent increase in glucose utilization. (L. Baxter, M. E. Phelps,J. C. Mazziotta, UCLA School of Medicine)
Says Chase of NINCDS, «Alzheimer’s disease has been considered adiffuse degenerative disease of the cerebral cortex. PET says that’s nottrue. In the early stages we see a localized disorder, of the parietal asso-
Biochemical Mapping Expeditions • 125
ciation cortex primarily, which integrates information from the eyes, ears,and the peripheral sense of organs. There are names for the defects: aphasia—when you can’t find the words; agnosia—you don’t recognize familiar faces;apraxia—you can’t carry out skilled movements. A housewife with Alz-heimer’s can no longer set the table. She can carry out all the movements,but give her a knife, a fork, and a spoon, and ask her to set the table, andshe gets confused. In my opinion, the memory loss is really secondary tothis jumbled-up picture of the world.
«This was never known before, because we could never see the earlystages of the disease. There’s a lot of pathology by the time you get to anautopsy—the brain is shrinking up, there are neurofibrillary tangles andplaques. But you’re studying end-stage disease, all the garbage. We don’tknow yet what causes Alzheimer’s, but the PET scan has taken it out ofthe mystery zone and shown that it’s a single disease, a comprehensibledisease.»
Among other things, PET is a medical dream machine. It can pick outhidden tumors, subtle stroke damage, epilepsy, and draw a revealing bio-chemical portrait of such neurological diseases as Huntington’s chorea(«Woody Guthrie disease»), Korsakoff’s syndrome (alcoholic dementia),Parkinson’s disease. But what about brain disorders in which there’s novisible damage at all—no plaques, no tangles, no scar tissue, no lesions?
Neurological annals tell of a certain nineteenth-century Marquise ofDampierre, normally a model of aristocratic decorum, who at times wasprone to barking like a dog and screaming obscene epithets. A half-centurylater, the Marquise’s embarrassing malady would become known as Tou-rette’s syndrome, after the French doctor, Georges Gilles de la Tourette,who diagnosed it. Yet anatomical studies of the brain have never uncoveredanything to account for the bizarre vocal tics, grunts, and outbursts ofcoprolalia, or foul language.
«You could hold the brain in your hand or look at it under a microscopeand still not see anything,» says Chase. Just recently, however, PET scansdid detect something wrong. «The abnormalities are in the speech areasof the cortex,» Chase reports. «Coprolalia is associated with the premotorspeech areas representing the mouth. This is still very preliminary, but ittells us where to look to find out what is wrong.»
Some otherwise normal people are subject to attacks of panic out ofthe blue, a condition now known as panic disorder. They might be bendingover the frozen-food section in the supermarket, or working their waythrough the reception line at a wedding, or driving the Bonneville downElm Street, when they’re gripped by an overwhelming fear, a sense of
imminent catastrophe. The sympathetic nervous system goes into over-drive, causing hyperventilation, cold sweats, rapid heartbeat, nausea, andother extreme stress reactions.
Fearful of having an attack in public, the victim may avoid going out,and the panic disorder may evolve into agoraphobia, or «fear of the mar-ketplace.» For some reason—and the reason, as current thinking goes, ismore biological than psychological—the body’s inborn fight-or-flight mech-anism, designed by nature for things like fleeing man-eating tigers, is trig-gered by such innocuous stimuli as the check-out line at Safeway.
Several years ago psychiatrists at Washington University discoveredthat many panic-disorder patients are supersensitive to blood lactate (oneof the body’s metabolic by-products) and that an IV drip of sodium lactatecould trigger instant panic in these susceptible people. Washington Uni-versity neurologist Marcus Raichle, one of the country’s most respectedPET experts, was intrigued by the fact that panic disorder was such a well-defined condition it could even be induced in the lab. In 1984 he collecteda group of patients who had panic attacks, PET-scanned them in a restingstate, and then injected them with sodium lactate. All the subjects whowent into a suffocating, white-knuckled fear upon being given sodiumlactate showed the same pattern on the PET scan. ‘The abnormality wasin the middle part of the temporal lobe,» says Raichle. «There was amarked asymmetry between the right and left hemispheres. What does thishave to do with the autonomic-visceral response to a frightening stimulus?Well, this area is a kind of intersection for sensory information going toand from the hippocampus in the limbic system. You could speculate thatin panic disorder this part of the brain misinterprets incoming informationand executes an inappropriate emotional response.»
Of the twenty normal «controls,» a lone subject had a metabolic patternlike that of the panic-disorder patients. The scientists called her up onlyto learn that she, too, had a history of panic disorder. «She came in, wedid a lactate infusion, and it was positive as heck,» says Raichle. It wasprobably the neatest correlation to date between a «mental» disorder anda pattern on a PET scan.
The mystery that doctors most hope PET will illuminate, of course, isthe biology of the major mental illnesses: schizophrenia, depression, manic-depressive illnesses. Can PET spot the ever-elusive «schizophrenic lesion»?
Alas, most of the cognoscenti we interviewed were skeptical about thedim schizophrenic frontal lobes reported at Brookhaven and a few othercenters. «It’s all rubbish,» said Duara. Sokoloff adds, «I have a feelingwe’re going to have to look inside the limbic system to get the answers to
schizophrenia, and for that we need better machines, with a higher reso-lution.»
NYU psychiatrist Jonathan Brody, who oversees the clinical side ofBrookhaven’s PET operation, staunchly defends the center’s results. «We’venow done this in some fifty subjects, and we’re not worried about whetherit’s going to hold up. It’s a question of how you define your patient pop-ulation. In acute schizophrenics, in first-break patients, in patients withpredominantly ‘positive’ symptoms [hallucinations and so on, as opposedto the dementialike ‘deficit’ symptoms], we don’t see it. We’re talking aboutchronic schizophrenics, who have been ill for five years or more.»
At this Cro-Magnon stage in PET’s evolution—when, we discovered,even the figures for a given scanner’s resolution in millimeters vary widelydepending on whom you talk to—the schizophrenia picture is still unclear.Depression so far eludes the scanner. There is some preliminary evidencefrom UCLA that «bipolar» depression (manic-depressive illness) has adistinct biochemical fingerprint: markedly reduced metabolism over thewhole brain. (See photograph on page 124.) But many researchers thinkthe Rosetta stone for the mental illnesses will be the brain’s repertoire ofchemical receptors.
«The key to mental illness is probably theP waxing and waning of receptors,» says Can-
Living Color ^ace pert «Wg now know receptors fluc-
tuate constantly. Sometimes the actual num-ber of receptors increases or decreases; sometimes the way the receptor iscoupled to the membrane changes.» Pert proposes that manic-depressivesmay oscillate between numb despair and wild elation to the rhythm of theirwaxing and waning dopamine receptors. The best remedy today for thisillness is the drug lithium, which stabilizes the dopamine receptors. Butthe autoradiographic maps of receptors you read about in the last chapterwere made from animal brains that had been killed, frozen, sliced, andthaw-mounted. No one had actually spied a neuroreceptor in a living humanbeing until, on May 25, 1983, Henry N. Wagner, director of nuclear med-icine at Johns Hopkins, PET-scanned his own dopamine receptors.
A powerful antischizophrenic drug, methyl-spiperone (which binds tothe dopamine receptors), was coupled to a radioactive isotope. Dr. Wagnerwas injected with the compound, and less than an hour later the scanner»photographed» his dopamine receptors. They were especially dense intwo areas of the basal ganglia, the caudate nucleus and putamen (as turned
Dr. Henry Wagner’s head enters the «doughnut hole» of the PET scanner at JohnsHopkins Hospital, as pharmacologist Solomon Snyder (left) and radiologist J.James Frost observe. Wagner has been injected with a radioactive form of an opiatedrug, carfentanil. By measuring where the labeled opiate binds, the scanner will»photograph» Wagner’s opiate receptors—the first opiate receptors ever seen in aworking human brain. {Courtesy of Henry N. Wagner, Jr., Johns Hopkins Uni-versity)
out to be the case in all the fifty-odd human brains scanned over the nextyear).
Wagner tells us, «The neurotransmitters basically bring us the infor-mation from the outside world, and the receptors determine how we re-spond.» If that’s so, then the elderly respond differently than the young,and men differently than women, to the messages of dopamine. Havingscanned fifty normal men and women, Wagner et al. determined thatdopamine receptors decline dramatically with age, especially in men. Be-tween the ages of twenty and seventy, the male brain loses roughly 40percent of its dopamine receptors—the sharpest drop occurs between theages of twenty and about thirty-five—whereas the female organ loses about25 percent. Nobody’s sure what this means yet, but according to Wagner,it does «show that important changes occur in receptors, and that they’rebig enough to measure by PET scanning. Dopamine has to do with psy-chomotor coordination. You can draw your own conclusion about whetherolder women have better coordination than older men.»
Receptors in Living Color • 129
The first pictures of living human opiate receptors, from the Johns Hopkins study.The six scans represent a series of computerized cross sections of the same brain.In the top row, radioactive carfentanil (a powerful opiate) has bound to the re-ceptors, so they appear as glowing patches. In the bottom row, an opiate blocker,naloxone, was given to plug up the receptors and prevent the radioactive drug frombinding; hence the scan is dark. (Courtesy of Henry N. Wagner, Jr., Johns HopkinsUniversity)
Without a vista on living brain receptors, psychiatric drug therapy upto now has been like «treating hypertensive patients without measuringtheir blood pressure,» says Wagner. «You just go by their symptoms.»Receptor imaging makes it possible to ask such questions as: What happensto the dopamine receptors in schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease, twoillnesses in which dopamine transmission is impaired? How do medica-tions—neuroleptics for schizophrenia, L-dopa for Parkinson’s disease—affect the receptors? Do a schizophrenic’s symptoms, his improvement orlack thereof, reflect the degree of blockage of his dopamine receptors?Can the receptor/drug interaction predict whether he will develop tardivedyskinesia, a condition of Parkinsonian-like tremors and movement prob-lems that is a serious side effect of neuroleptics?
Exactly a year after the dopamine receptor’s debut, the Hopkins PETteam mapped human opiate receptors with radioactively tagged carfentanil,a narcotic eight thousand times more powerful than morphine. Their dis-tribution was satisfyingly similar to the pattern that pharmacologist Michael
Kuhar, a member of the PET team, had observed in the monkey brainback in 1975. «It’s much more dramatic,» says Wagner, «when you actuallysee it in human beings.»
In theory, any neuroreceptor can be visualized on a PET scan, providedthe chemists and pharmacologists (in this case, such pros as Kuhar andSolomon Snyder) can customize a radioactively labeled chemical to fit it.A good «ligand,» in the lingo. «In the pipeline» at Hopkins, according toWagner, are hot ligands for the benzodiazepine receptor, the serotoninreceptor, the histamine receptor, one type of receptor for acetylcholine,and the alpha- and beta-adrenergic receptors (where norepinephrine binds).The words may have a cryptic, inhuman ring, but these are the chemicalkeyholes where some of our best-loved drugs work. The ulcer drug Tag-amet, the best-selling prescription drug in the United States, binds to thehistamine receptors. Number two on the charts, propanolol, a medicationfor heart disease and high blood pressure, sits on the beta-adrenergic re-ceptors.
Do these first receptor scans presage an era of «total receptor workups»a la Candace Pert? Will our hang-ups, our phobias, and our Oedipal com-plexes be stored one day in a code of optical-density gradients on a diskette?Will our mental states be diagnosed and treated according to the shiftingdistribution patterns of fifty-odd neuroreceptors? Probably not in the nearfuture.
PET-scanning receptors may not be the answer to everything frommelancholy to Parkinson’s disease, for the simple reason that receptorsthemselves may not turn out to be the answer. There is still no hardevidence that the dopamine receptor is the main act in schizophrenia,despite the fact that the drugs work there. (So far, in the handful of patientsscanned, the team at Hopkins hasn’t found striking differences betweenschizophrenics and normal controls—though the dopamine receptors ofHuntington’s disease victims were abnormal.) Perhaps we are waiting forGodot.
Furthermore, when working with a sliced-up animal brain, scientistshave ways of washing out the extraneous «junk» before making autora-diographic pictures of the labeled receptors. Obviously one can’t do thatwith a PET section. The «junk» must be screened out mathematically, andthat requires a good model of the biochemical process being measured.»The deoxyglucose method,» Sokoloff explains, «was based on a biochem-ical mode of the behavior of glucose and deoxy glucose. You knew whatyou had to measure, the conditions under which you had to measure it,and how to take the numbers you got and calculate radio-glucose metab-olism. The model for ligand binding is just not very convincing yet.»
Learning the Brains Alphabet • 131
Besides, PET scans aren’t cheap. UCLA’s brand-new EC AT III, thestate-of-the-art model, will cost more than two million dollars, not includingthe price of a cyclotron, plus a squad of nuclear scientists, neurologists,psychiatrsts, pharmacologists, chemists, biophysicists, biostatisticians, en-gineers, radiation scientists, computer scientists, and the like to run theoperation.
. , There is a temptation to look at PET scans
Learning the Brain s as if they were dioramas at the state fair? as
Alphabet if the brain really contained gold nebulae
and indigo seas. The video displays stand fornumbers expressing radiation counts, which in turn are figured into a com-plex mathematical formula for glucose uptake. PET’s inventors have chosenlight blue, for instance, to represent low glucose uptake and red for highactivity. It could have been the other way around. The brain, of course,does not actually glow in such pretty colors.
We may have unlocked the little black box, but in a rather indirectfashion. «At first,» says Raichle, «there was a leap to exotic things likelistening to stories in Hungarian, listening to Beethoven sonatas. And whatyou got was a whole lot of changes everywhere in the brain. Now we aren’ttrying to find the seat of the soul on the first pass.» Instead Raichle isworking on such austere stuff as the response of the visual cortex to a lightflashed at different frequencies. (It is most metabolically active when thefrequency is around eight cycles per second, if you want to know.) Thenonscientific eye might perceive «little old compulsive neurologists lookingat the small details and missing the big picture,» but the task of fathominga new language necessarily begins with the alphabet.
As archeologists patiently catalog potsherds in order to reconstruct along-lost empire, Raichle et al. hope to work up to the big stuff, likethinking, decision making, volition. «When a hand moves,» he says, «someneurons fire in the motor cortex. That’s no big deal. We can see that. WhatI’d like to know is what happened before your hand moved. I happen tobe a musician—I play the oboe and the piano—and I’d love to know whatis going on in the brain as one sits down to play the piano. How is thisunbelievably complex motor act programmed? When you learn a new pieceof music, you laboriously work through it, but eventually you’re not sittingthere thinking notes anymore; you’re thinking whole bars and measures,whole concepts, and the fingers are just whirring along. It would be won-derful to understand how this encoding occurs.»
The UCLA center has actually made a small foray into the differencesbetween conscious and unconscious processing. They scanned people per-
forming a novel motor task (tapping the ringers of the right hand in acertain sequence) and then had them carry out an old familiar «over-learned» task (writing their names). During the finger-tapping exerciseregions of the motor cortex lit up, while signing one’s name activatedanother part of the brain, the basal ganglia, deep in the forebrain.
«Writing your name,» Mazziotta theorizes, «is an automatic process.You can probably program those areas to do the task at a subconsciouslevel.» As it happens, Huntington’s disease destroys the basal ganglia—asa «hole» on a PET-scan map shows—yet Huntington’s patients can stillsign their checks. PET suggested how: Mazziotta reports, «The pattern inthose patients is all in the cortex, as in a novel task. And when you watchthem do it, they write very slowly, very deliberately, as if it were notautomatic. This may support the idea of programmability—that when youlose a function, you revert to more primitive strategies for getting the jobdone.» Now Mazziotta and his colleagues are training right-handed peopleto sign their names left-handed, scanning them before and after the learningprocess.
Will PET scans provide the long-sought flowchart of information pro-cessing in the brain? «When I was growing up,» says Chase, «I had anencyclopedia that showed the brain as a big telephone system. This roomwas for this, and that room was for that, and these women operators weresitting at the switchboard connecting everything. But the brain is muchmore complicated and plastic than that. If I ask you, ‘Why does a boardfloat in water?’—a question that involves some understanding of physicsand a lot of cognitive skill—half your brain will light up. The idea of acenter for memory may be quite naive, too.»
We ask him if PET scans will prove once and for all that the mind isin the brain? «No,» he says. «There’s always going to be another boxwithin every box you open. It’s sort of like the atom. Every time you findanother particle, you find it’s not the ultimate particle but rather is madeup of other, smaller particles.»
Messages from the universe arrive addressed noCharting the more specifically than «To Whom It May Con-
ElectHcal Brain cern.» Scientists open those that concern them.
—NORBERT WIENER
Limited as it is to recording processes of several minutes to several hours,PET is a lot slower than the speed of thought. The electrical activity ofthe brain, in contrast, can be measured in «real time,» in milliseconds. Soif you’re interested in high-tech mind reading—even, perhaps, in the Ma-dame Zodiac sense—it’s logical to look to the frontiers of electroencepha-
Charting the Electrical Brain • 133
^^4^^^ Alert
Relaxed
-Alpha wave
^yM\j^I^^^ Drowsy
•Sleep spindles-
Epilepsy
Figure 7 EEG recordings from the scalp of human beings can indicate differentstates of consciousness. Fast, low-amplitude «beta» waves correspond to alertness,while the «alpha» waves accompanying relaxation are slower and larger. Duringlight sleep there are bursts of waves called sleep spindles; deep sleep is characterizedby large slow waves. In coma the EEG is markedly slow and irregular. Epilepticbrain waves have a telltale «spike and dome» pattern.
lography (EEG), the science of brain waves. Indeed, rumors are rampantin this field. We heard that a San Francisco EEG lab was building a «thoughtmachine» with science-fiction-like capabilities; that the CIA was using orwas about to use a brain wave called the P300 for intracerebral espionage;that computers existed that were capable of recognizing the neuroelectricpatterns corresponding to the word dog. The reality turned out to be lesssensational and more complicated.
The voltage fluctuations on your scalp, as you probably know, can bepicked up by electrodes, amplified, and traced as seismographlike rippleson a polygraph. The amplitude (voltage) and frequency of these «brain
waves» can convey valuable information about your state of consciousness:whether you’re in deep sleep or dreaming; whether you’re drowsy, relaxed,or alert. To a neurologist they can signify an epileptic seizure or seriousbrain damage. But a simple EEG recording can’t decode anything as mer-curial as a thought. To separate the subtle brain waves signifying acts ofcognition from the random noise on the scalp requires some mathematicalsleight of hand.
With the advent of high-speed computers in the mid-1960s, a wholeacademic industry sprang up around something called the evoked potentialor event-related potential (ERP), which only a computer can see. The ERPrepresents the brain’s response to a specific stimulus or event. To hear itover the ongoing electrical din, you must present a stimulus—a click, aflash of light, a tone, a word, an electrical shock—to a person over andover again and record his EEGs. After many repetitions, a computer per-forms «signal averaging»: It averages all the recordings and cancels outthe background noise to extract the waveform that is an ERP, «a faintwhisper in the polyneural roar of the EEG,» in the words of ERP expertEmanuel Donchin.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s scientists studied these little peaks andvalleys in the EEG record as palmists ponder heart lines and mounts ofVenus, and mapped their amplitude (height), «latency» (time of appear-ance), and their distribution over the scalp. They named them and linkedthem to «expectancy» or «selective attention,» «readiness» or «the detec-tion of novelty.» The «expectancy wave» was a large, ramp-shaped neg-ative potential that seemed to appear over the cortex when a person ex-pected something to happen. It also occurred a fraction of a second beforesomeone initiated a voluntary movement, inspiring some talk (notably bySir John Eccles) about the electrophysiology of free will. A negative waveappearing about 120 milliseconds after a stimulus was baptized the N120and became an index of «selective attention.» (When one is told to payattention to a tone and ignore a light flash, the N120 gets larger.) Therewas an N200, an N400 (the newest ERP), and the perennially fascinatingP300.
The P300 is a jagged ravine in the EEGn omy OJ ine record (positive waves are downward slopes;
«AHA Wnvp» „• n
t\ilx\ vvuvc negative waves sweep upward) approxi-
mately 300 milliseconds after the brain isconfronted with surprise, novelty, or the unexpected. In the muted universeof the EEG laboratory, a P300 emerges when a high tone (a «beep»)follows a series of low tones («boops») or a female name crops up after a
Anatomy of the «AHA Wave» • 135
slew of male names. The rarer the event, the larger the wave, or, in thelingo, the P300’s amplitude is «inversely related to subjective probability.»A robust P300 also occurs when an expected event does not happen—when, say, you present a person with a series of light flashes and omit one.
The eminence grise of the P300 wave is Emanuel Donchin. At his well-equipped EEG kingdom, the Cognitive Psychophysiology Laboratory ofthe University of Illinois, a young woman tries to «buy a used car» froma computer. Woman and machine haggle like vendors at an Oriental ba-zaar, making offers, counteroffers, and concessions, until the transactionis completed. The computer is programmed to shift between two differentstrategies, a «mean» one, in which it grants few of the player’s concessions,and a «generous» one, in which it grants 80 percent. All the while, a pairof electrodes monitor the player’s EEGs and a video camera records herfacial expressions every 500 milliseconds. Was there a correlation betweena smile and a waveform on the scalp? Donchin wondered. After all, hepoints out, what psychophysiologists are supposedly after are «psycho-physical correlates» of behavior, and a smile is a kind of behavior.
The answer was no. There was no smile/P300 correlation, no frown/P300correlation, no facial expression/P300 correlation. Does that invalidate theP300? On the contrary, according to Donchin. Though the woman’s faceremained impassive, the electrodes picked up a P300 wave whenever thecomputer changed from mean to generous, or vice-versa. «Something in-side the cranium is activated, reliably, whenever the computer switchesstrategy, and is manifested on the scalp by the P300,» he observes. Perhapsan ERP is a better index of cognition than a smile.
Charting P300s and other computer-averaged waveforms, electrophy-siologists try to deduce how signals travel from the eyes, ears, and skinsurface to the cortex during split-second time windows. «When the P300occurs is important,» says Connie Duncan-Johnson, of the NIMH. «If ittakes you longer to evaluate a stimulus, encode it, access memory, andfigure out what it is, the P300 occurs later. That is called latency, and itcan vary between 300 and 800 milliseconds.» And, of course, the wave’samplitude, or height, is important. People with «perfect pitch,» unlike themusically ungifted, produce a small P300 or none at all when their brainsprocess tones—at least in a University of Illinois experiment that calledfor subjects to name the octave number and pitch of a series of tones.Why? «My theory,» says Donchin, «is that the P300 represents an updatingof a model of the environment in working memory.» Since people withperfect pitch «have access to a set of internal standards» for tones, hetheorizes, they don’t need to update their auditory working memory when-ever a rare tone pops up.
Other researchers are using the P300 (and other ERPs) to probe in-formation-processing problems in autism, schizophrenia, amnesia, learningdisabilities, and other syndromes. At the NIMH, Duncan-Johnson foundthat schizophrenics produce weak P300s in response to auditory signals,though their brains appear to react normally to visual stimuli. PsychologistDavid Friedman of the New York State Psychiatric Institute analyzed theEEGs of children of schizophrenic parents and found that these «high-risk» kids had deficient P300s. Researchers at the State University of NewYork’s Downstate Medical Center reported in Science that they’d turnedup flattened brain waves in both chronic alcoholics and sons of alcoholics(average age twelve). Since the aberrant P300 wave evidently shows uplong before the onset of alcoholism, psychiatrist Henri Begleiter and hiscolleagues suspect it’s an inherited trait. Could the P300 be a geneticmarker, an early-warning sign of inborn information-processing deficits?If so, perhaps brain-wave analysis could weed out the genetically vulnerablefrom the rank and file. Perhaps doctors could even intervene and modifythese «prepsychotic» or «prealchoholic» EEGs while the organ of thoughtis still malleable.
, , At the university of Illinois, college
? students wired with scalp electrodes track
Department flying targets on a video screen while simul-
of Defense Watching? taneously counting the «beeps» (and ignor-ing the more frequent «boops») they hearover earphones. During a simple beep/boop drill, big P300 waves are re-corded, but when simulated air-traffic-controller duty is assigned, the P300sshrink. «The more difficult the primary task,» says Donchin, «the smallerthe wave associated with the beep/boop task.» Experiments like these toldDonchin that in addition to measuring cerebral surprise, the P300 wavecould gauge mental workload. «It can tell how difficult the task is, howmuch attention the person is paying, how many mental resources he hasavailable, whether his attention is divided.»
Should this seem remote from the real world, you might like to knowthat the military has a keen interest in the slopes of computer-averagedbrain waves. Donchin’s lab (among others) has been funded for over adecade by the air force and various Department of Defense (DOD) agen-cies. «The original fantasy of the DOD agency that started funding us,»he explains, «was the Firefox fantasy, where you put a pilot in the cockpitof a fighter plane and monitor his brain waves, and if he stops payingattention, the system wakes him up or takes over.» The Firefox fantasyhas not panned out. «While it’s possible, it’s not really useful at this time,»
Biocybernetic Dreams • 137
says Donchin, «because no one designs planes that can use this kind ofinformation.»
If the P300, the «surprise wave,» could be packaged, no doubt a lot ofpeople would wish to buy it, including professional negotiators, pokerplayers, advertising and market-research firms, and the intelligence com-munity. It has been said that the P300 could measure «leadership potential»and «decision-making ability» in military officers. That it could make amore accurate lie detector (for ERPs are a lot closer to the source ofbehavior, the brain, than are the galvanic skin responses that present po-lygraph machines measure). Some even speculated that the ebb and flowof these waves could expose the thoughts of uncooperative prisoners ofwar or hostile foreign agents. Alongside its abiding interest in clairvoyants,»remote viewing,» and other parapsychological phenomena, the CIA re-portedly keeps tabs on EEG research.
Under the headline Technology Could Let Bosses Read Minds,the Washington Post proclaimed (on June 3, 1984) that «researchers inboth academia and industry say it is now possible to envision a marketableproduct that could instantaneously assess whether employees are concen-trating on their jobs by analyzing their brains as they work.» The maintool of industrial Big Brother was to be the P300 wave. To this assertion,Donchin replies: «We can indeed monitor mentation using the ERP. Fur-thermore . . . the ERPs provide a unique opportunity to monitor non-conscious mentation. Yet I believe it is not possible, and I believe it willnever be possible, to use the ERP to ‘read minds’ in the popular, Fridaynight horror movie sense of the phrase.»
Why not? According to Donchin, «the language with which the ERPsspeak is arcane.» It is not a fixed code, but one in which the variables—rising and falling amplitudes, short and long latencies—mean differentthings in different contexts. Hence, he maintains, «it is unlikely that itwould be possible to attach a machine that would yield a simple, universal. . . number that can be used by an office manager . . .»to nab daydreamingemployees or anybody else. Whew! Inviolate for now, the ultimate sanc-tuary of the mind.
„. , . ~ There are fantasies, too, of direct brain-
Biocybernetic Dreams machine Hnks ^ bypass ^ body and ^
senses; of missiles and robots controlled by brain waves; of computersendowed with the ability to decipher and store the complex waveformsthat constitute a person’s thoughts. There is even a fantasy of a form ofpersonal immortality (or perhaps reincarnation) based on the idea that the
«software» of a brain could be copied and then survive the death of thebodily «hardware.»
«I have my mind taped every six months, just to be safe. After all, thetape is you—your individual software, or a program, including memorystore. Everything that makes vow,» says a character in Justin Leiber’sscience fiction tale Beyond Rejection. Once duplicated, the millions ofchannels of inputs and outputs that constitute you could live on forever inthe transistorized bowels of a computer, be implanted into a new body,or both. This would create some serious identity crises, of course, someof which are explored by the Tufts University philosopher Daniel C. Den-nett in a yarn called «Where Am I?» (from The Mind’s I by Daniel C.Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter): «The prospect of two Dennetts wasabhorrent to me, largely for social reasons. I didn’t want to be my ownrival for the affections of my wife, nor did I like the prospect of twoDennetts sharing my modest professor’s salary.»
Naturally, no computer in the world is capable of storing the softwareof the human brain. Even if the artificial intelligence czars of MIT, Stan-ford, and Carnegie Mellon could one day create such a machine, the silicon»spare brain» fantasy still has flaws. To maintain the twin-selves dilemmaof Dennett’s story, the spare brain’s activity has to be totally synchronouswith the original. But a real brain, which is continually being reshaped by»inputs» from the environment, would soon cease to resemble the copy.And the notion of mind as «software» and brain as «hardware» (a popularanalogy in cognitive science) is an imperfect description of our thoughtorgan, in which the «hardware»—for example, synapses—is modifiableand inseparable from the «software.» Indeed, Dennett and the other au-thors of spare-brain stories are aware of these problems.
. , . , . Most of the mind-reading scenarios assume
Adverbs m the Brain that the EEG is a «language;, like English
or Swahili, which could one day be translated by an appliance that actsrather like a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations. That brainwaves are coded messages capable of being stored by computers or trans-mitted to distant rockets. Or, at the very least, that there is a close andreal correlation between verbal language and neural language.
As it happens, a late-occurring wave called the N400 is related to lan-guage. The brainchild of Marta Kutas and Steven Hillyard of the Universityof California at San Diego, it is the most recently discovered ERP. Whena person reads a sentence with an unexpected, incongruous, or nonsensicalending, Kutas and Hillyard discovered, a large negative brain wave appears
Adverbs in the Brain • 139
400 milliseconds later. DON’T TOUCH THE WET . . . flashes across onthe fluorescent-green terminal. If the next word is PAINT, there’s no N400.But if the word DOG appears instead, a large N400 is recorded from thereader’s scalp. This electrical pattern, Kutas and Hillyard propose, reflects»the ‘reprocessing’ or ‘second look’ that occurs when people seek to extractmeaning from senseless sentences.» The more improbable or out of contextthe terminal word, the larger the N400 wave. The sentence HE TOOK ASIP FROM THE WATERFALL evokes a moderate N400, according toKutas and Hillyard, while the more bizarre HE TOOK A SIP FROM THETRANSMITTER elicits a very strong one. (Violations of grammar thatdon’t involve «semantic incongruity» do not elicit N400 waves.) The dis-coverers of the N400 think their waveform has clinical promise as a toolfor evaluating reading impairments and language disorders.
At UCLA, psychologists Warren Brown and James Marsh exploredother relations between evoked potentials and language. In their studies,the word fire in the sentence «Ready, aim, fire» elicited a different P300wave from fire in the context of «Sit by the fire.» The brain evidentlydiscriminated between the noun form and the verb form of a homophone.Later, fancier experiments demonstrated that various different uses ofrows/rose and rights/rites/writes were associated with markedly differentbrain waves. Brown even traveled to Zurich and ran a similar experimentin Swiss-German, using noun and verb forms of fliege («fly»), with identicalresults.
But how far can this kind of thing go? Is there a characteristic waveformcorresponding to the word cauliflower? Could EEG machines provide a»readout» of nouns, verbs, and adverbs inside a person’s head? «No way,»says Marsh. «If we could do that, we’d be a natural resource; we’d bebehind barbed wire. It’s highly unlikely that anything as general as an ERPcomponent is going to reflect something as specific as lexical meaning.»Instead, Marsh and others think ERPs reflect broad linguistic categories,something like Noam Chomsky’s «deep structures.» Psychologist RobertChapman of the University of Rochester found that words with similarconnotations elicited similar brain waves: Words with «good» connota-tions, like beauty, triggered one sort of electrical response; «bad» wordslike crime another. Because these category/brain-wave correlations wereconsistent across different subjects, Chapman theorizes that there may bea universal language in the brain expressed in the EEG.
«Of course,» says Marsh, «the ERP is quite crude. Nobody even knowswhere a P300 wave is generated. Some say it’s the hippocampus. Some saythe parietal cortex. It probably involves a lot of different structures.»
R A u T>?nn Evoked potentials are recorded from the
Beyond the f5U0 scalp^ after ^ which .g a bk Uke trying tQ
figure out how a computer works by putting a microphone on top of theconsole. Not everyone is convinced that the N120 and the P300 are thealpha and omega of brain research. Certainly Alan Gevins, the thirty-eight-year-old director and chief scientist of EEG Systems Laboratory inSan Francisco, is not. «Okay,» he says, «whenever anything is novel, odd,or important to you, some population of neurons somewhere in the brainfires in synchrony. You get a couple of bumps, including a P300. It’s avery robust phenomenon; it’s unquestionably there. But what does it mean?People say it’s measuring ‘stimulus set selection,’ ‘controlled processingcapacity,’ the ‘updating of working memory,’ or other abstruse, highfalutinconstructs. I just see that someone put two or three electrodes on the scalpand asked the subject to tell the difference between a beep and a boop—something that really wouldn’t be called a higher brain function by anyoneon the street. Maybe I’m being kind of harsh on these people, but that’smy role in the field. Basically, I think they’re just being lazy. They spendtheir time devising occasionally ingenious variations on the same two orthree basic experiments, but how much can they hope to learn when they’reusing antiquated, twenty-five-year-old recording and analysis technologiesto study what may be the universe’s most complicated physical system?
«Researchers often get quite deluded. People have claimed to measurespecific EEG patterns for different words, for instance. A man at SRI[Stanford Research Institute] made this claim a couple of years ago, andhe was supported by someone in government. The bottom line was thathis ‘brain measures’ were contaminated by face and scalp muscle tension—and his work was disregarded.
«It’s a humbling experience to see what’s actually involved in recordingthese things. … If the person blinks his eyes, or grits his teeth, or raiseshis eyebrows just slightly, you should see what happens to the raw tracingon the polygraph. The way the person moves his tongue inside his mouthcan contaminate the brain potentials. I’ve learned that it’s very difficult topull out a signal from the brain that has to do with a higher brain functionwhen you’re working on the scalp. So I’m a real conservative guy.»
So obsessive-compulsive is the EEG Systems Laboratory about «con-taminants,» so austere and methodologically pure are its experiments, thatthe work here has the texture of high-tech Zen. And like a Zen proverb,the results resist easy translation into ordinary language. The subjects playa video game in which they line up an arrow with a target by pressing a»pressure-sensitive transducer» with an index finger, or, seeing a number
The Brain’s Native Language • 141
on the screen, they depress the bar with a force proportional to its mag-nitude. The aim is to isolate a discrete atom of perception from all otherneuroelectric events. «I look at very, very simple tasks,» says Gevins.»When you see a number, how is that information communicated to yourfinger, which moves a half second later? What is the difference betweenseeing a number and hearing a number? I control everything else to thehilt to make sure only one variable is varying.» The time windows throughwhich Gevins et al. view the working brain seem infinitesimal to us, butby electrophysiological standards, they’ve expanded to centuries. «We’rebuilding up gradually,» he says. «In our last generation of experiments in1980 to 1983 we analyzed about a second’s worth of activity surroundinga stimulus, and now we’re looking at about five seconds. Besides measuringthe effects of the stimulus, we’re looking at a person’s anticipation of astimulus, his response, and the updating that occurs when he gets feed-back.»
The results? No flashy little «Aha waves» or anything suitable for glossypictures in airline magazines. To the nonscientist the electrocognitive mapsmade by Gevins et al. might as well be Linear B. «Any behavior,even something as simple as seeing a number and pushing a finger, orseeing two lines and figuring out how far apart they are,» says Gevins,»seems to involve the coordinated effort of a lot of different areas all overthe brain.» Subtle landmarks come into view; the computer painstakinglyplots the shifting dance of correlations among wave shapes in differentparts of the brain; the data are expressed in «correlation diagrams,»otherworldly and abstruse as the Feynman diagrams in particle physics.You and I and the producers of TV specials might wish that the brain weremore like a telephone system or an electrican’s wiring diagram, but if itwere, would you be you?
, . , «Psychologists tend to think the brain
1 he Brain s thinks fa English>» Gevins tells us «But who
Native Language knows what language the brain thinks in?
The native language of the brain may be asfar away from English as the machine language of a computer is from LISP[a sophisticated programming language, invented by Stanford Al expertJohn McCarthy]. There’s probably more of a gap, actually.» The equivalentof the machine language of the brain, in Gevins’s view, is «very complexelectromagnetic field configurations, with very fine modulations in ampli-tude, frequency, wave shape, and spatial distribution.»
A working definition of «selective attention» alone can’t decode these
esoteric electromagnetic emanations, so the EEG Systems Lab houses anunusual interdisciplinary crew. Among its (mostly young, mostly hip) seniorscientists are a particle physicist, an electrical engineer with a specialty inelectromagnetic wave propagation, a neurophysiologist, a cognitive psy-chologist, a signal-processing expert with a background in decoding humanspeech, and several computer whiz kids. Gevins himself is equally com-fortable in neurophysiology, engineering and computer science, and cog-nitive psychology. What are all these high-tech types doing around thebrain?
«We’re working on building an advanced electromagnetic recordingand analysis device, with many, many channels,» Gevins tells us. The firststep was a sophisticated, custom-designed software system called ADIEEG,with state-of-the-art signal-processing and pattern recognition capability.»You can’t just go out and buy a packaged program to do brain-waveanalysis,» says Gevins. «It’s not like a spread-sheet program, a frequencyanalysis program, or even a standard set of statistical programs.» Andrather than presuming to read the brain with a couple of electrodes, theEEG Systems Lab equips its subjects with a space-age-looking helmetbristling with fifty or sixty of them. («CAT and PET scans use about 500sensors, after all. It’s absurd to think you can sample the brain’s intricateelectromagnetic field by putting an electrode or two on the scalp.») Theresult is a dense rain forest of data.
«Recording from just one person with sixty channels, we may get ahundred million bytes of data,» says Gevins. «In one experiment we mighthave ten subjects, so there’s a billion bytes. That’s about one hundredthousand times more data than you get in a typical average evoked-potential experiment. What do you do with that? To put a billion bytes ofdata through a complicated analysis with fifteen or twenty steps and comeout with the right answer at the end is a very neat trick.»
Certainly, the eye—or brain—alone can’t keep track of the swarm ofvariables. Nor can the crude «signal averaging» used in evoked-potentialresearch, a technique that Gevins dismisses as World War II vintage. What’sneeded is more sensitive signal processing, and that’s what’s at the core ofthe EEG Systems Lab’s software. Signal processing is a whole field withinelectrical engineering, with entire journals devoted to it. It’s used to restoreCaruso recordings, to detect the movement of Russian troops from spysatellites, to decode human speech, and to find oil. «What it comes downto is how small a signal you can resolve buried in what amount of back-ground noise, how far away you can see a penny,» says Gevins.
And that, in a nutshell, is the reality behind the fabled «thought ma-chine» at EEG Systems Lab.
The Impossibility of Mind Reading • 143
If anyone could create a brain-eavesdrop-77te Impossibility of ping device the EEG Systems Lab could
Mind Reading And it can’t, even if it wanted to. Gevins
even objects to using terms like «decoding»in connection with the dynamic, probabilistic processes of the brain. «I’vebeen asked a bunch of times, Is there a code in the brain for the worddogl» he says. «I think people have seen too many spy movies. First ofall, the brain probably doesn’t work that way. It isn’t a deterministic ma-chine with an invariant code; it’s statistical, probabilistic. And if the braindid work that way, I can’t imagine the kind of instrument you’d need toresolve it. If there were unchanging codes for the word dog, there wouldbe hundreds of them, corresponding to all your different associations withdog. And they might be scattered all over the brain. Do you know howmany billions of bits of information would be required each second to pickout something like that? And the number of contaminants that wouldinterfere with it?»
How about correlations between brain waves and semantics? «Theresults are in the wrong place,» he says. «Differences have been foundover Broca’s area [traditionally associated with the physical production ofspeech] when people were listening to words. The differences should havebeen over Wernicke’s area. I also have to ask, What is happening in aperson’s mind when he hears the same word or phrase over and over? Herows the boat. . . He rows the boat. . . He rows the boat. After a while,it doesn’t have any linguistic meaning.
«As for all this stuff that gets into the National Enquirer—you know,CIA Makes New Mind Control Device—people get awfully paranoidabout this, because it concerns the mind and the spirit, the last resortof privacy. But it’s pretty farfetched. Not that people won’t try it, but itwon’t work. A person can just grit his teeth, and the whole thing isscrewed up. Television works much better for mind control than EEGtechniques.»
If the mega-thinking-cap in the works at Gevins’s lab won’t read orcontrol minds, what will it do? Well, if this group succeeds in mapping outthe major nodes of the brain’s electrical communication system, a numberof things become possible, according to Gevins. Doctors could spot thedefects in electrical transmission that are probably the first signs of senility.One might more clearly identify and understand the information-processingmalfunctions in learning disabilities, attention disorders, memory deficits,and many neuromuscular and psychiatric diseases. Using a new science ofattention-regulation, hyperactive children could learn to focus and controltheir attention spans. Brain-damaged people might learn to deliberately
144 * Madness . . . and Other Windows on the Brain
«reprogram» their own software. «Right now we don’t know what happenswhen the brain is recovering from a stroke,» says Gevins. «It’s an electricalproblem, and we have no way to measure that. If we could, recovery couldhappen a lot more quickly.»
Beyond that, Gevins is thinking about hastening the evolution of thespecies. «I hope we’re not limited to being gorillas with big forebrainstrying to amass as many bananas as possible. If there’s a key to our futureevolution it must have to do with using the ‘software’ of the brain to itsfull capacity. A major difference between a person we call sharp and onewe call dumb is the ability to focus or expand the mind’s view at will—narrowing it for prolonged concentration, or expanding it to encompassthe relationships between many parts of a complex system. Those are theprocesses I want to understand.»
But expeditions into the electrocognitive jungle have brought humility.»As scientists we sometimes get very arrogant about all our fancy toys,»he tells us. «But we’re like cavemen when it comes to understanding any-thing fundamental about the relationship between the mind and the brain.If you try to imagine what astronomy was like before the invention of thetelescope or microbiology before the microscope . . . well, that’s wherewe are in brain science.»
Electrical Heavens and Hells
The premise of the book was this: Life was anexperiment by the Creator of the Universe, Whowanted to test a new sort of creature He wasthinking of introducing into the Universe. It wasa creature with the ability to make up its ownmind. All the other creatures were full-pro-grammed robots.
—KURT VONNEGUT,
Breakfast of Champions
IN THE WINTER OF 1963, in Cordoba, Spain, an event occurred thatwas surely modern neuroscience’s most flamboyant hour. As reportersand other spectators watched spellbound, a Spanish-born physiologistnamed Jose Delgado stepped into a bull ring armed with many of thecolorful accoutrements of bullfighting—plus a little neurotechnological se-cret that El Cordobes could never have imagined. Delgado waved his redmatador’s cape at a fierce-looking bull, and the bull charged in the usualmanner. All of a sudden, however, the animal stopped dead in its tracks,literally skidding in the dust a few feet from the unorthodox matador. Asthe world soon learned, Delgado had mastered his bull by remote control,pushing a button on his belt that radioed a signal to an electrode burieddeep in the animal’s brain.
At Yale University in the 1950s, Delgado and his co-workers had per-fected a method of implanting standard thin-wire electrodes in specificbrain regions and linking them to something called a stimoceiver. Thestimoceiver, which was anchored to the skull with dental cement, couldtransmit messages to and from the brain by radiotelemetry—sending spon-taneously produced EEGs to a distant machine for analysis or, alternately,delivering measured amounts of current to selected bits of gray matter.All the time this was happening, their laboratory animals could go aboutbusiness as usual: eating, sleeping, courting, or defending their territory,unencumbered but for the funny electronic boxes on their heads. In thecase of the bull, the exposed tip of the electrode tapped into an area inthe core brain called the caudate nucleus, and electrical stimulation thereapparently meant «Whoa» or «Calm down.» It is difficult to read a bull’s
145
thoughts, of course, and therein lies one of the problems of animal research.
Delgado was not the first practitioner of electrical stimulation of thebrain, nor is he the last word on the subject. Other scientists in otherlaboratories have performed feats of electronic conjury just as important,if less showy. The brain’s natural language is electrical, of course, and soit is not surprising that a small current delivered through an electrode couldprofoundly affect behavior. By altering the polarization across cell mem-branes, electricity in effect changes the neural code, the signals that neuronssend to other neurons, and thus ensues a whole chain of minute electricalevents that may culminate in rage, paralyzing fear, a strange ritual ofwalking in circles, or any number of behaviors.
The father of electrical brain stimulation was a Swiss Nobel Prize-winning physiologist named Walter Hess. In the 1930s Hess put electrodesin cats’ brains—specifically, in the hypothalamus, a master control centerfor basic drives and visceral functions in the brain’s core—and turned onthe juice, and his cats flew into a hissing, clawing rage. Or, at least, Hesssaid they did. Other scientists scoffed and claimed that the cats’ actionswere purely mechanical. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Hess was provedright.
In the early 1950s the advent of needle-thin microelectrodes allowedscientists to probe the neural circuitry of awake, behaving animals for thefirst time without unduly damaging their brains. New instruments thatcontrolled the placement of the electrodes according to precise coordinatesalso helped transform what had been crude, hit-or-miss brain raids intowell-planned expeditions. Still later, modern digital computers would bringorder to chaos, digesting and organizing the morass of EEG readouts thatthese studies generated. Piece by piece, a vast terra incognita within theskull was mapped: notably, the once-inaccessible territory below the cortexthat scientists of the 1930s and 1940s had ignorantly dubbed the rhinen-cephalon or «smell brain.» Thanks to a handful of brain-stimulation pi-oneers—most prominently a team of scientists at Yale and another at theMontreal Neurological Institute—we now know the old, primitive smellbrain as the crucial emotional circuitry of the limbic system.
The cortex may reason with the subtlety of angels or Platonic philos-ophers, but if there is a Freudian id in our brain it is surely in the limbicsystem. In 1953 a young American named James Olds, working at theMontreal Neurological Institute, made one of the great serendipitous dis-coveries of our age. Having sunk his electrodes into the hypothalamus ofa white laboratory rat, he stimulated it every time it wandered into a certaincorner of its cage. Since stimulation of the hypothalamus is highly unpleas-ant, Olds expected the rat to avoid that corner like the plague, but the
animal reacted to stimulation by developing a compulsive fondness for thatpart of the cage. A postmortem look at its brain showed why: The electrodewasn’t in the hypothalamus at all, but in a mysterious area just above itcalled the septum. This was the «pleasure center» that Olds and colleaguePeter Milner would eventually make a household word.
Olds went on to explore the topography of this intracranial Pleasurelandthroughout the next decade, and he soon found it was a complex pathway,or in his terms, «a river of reward,» rather than a distinct «center.» Even-tually, the researcher would eschew the word pleasure in his scientificwritings, for he had begun to wonder whether the compulsive behavior ofelectrode-stimulated animals always signified euphoria. The rat, of course,cannot tell us whether we’ve hit upon nirvana-in-the-brain or somethingmore like a neural itch.
Soon after their startling adventure with the white rat, Olds and Milnerhit upon the idea of letting the animals stimulate themselves, by pushinga lever that activated the electrodes in their heads. These «self-stimulating»rats were soon neglecting the mundane pleasures of food, water, and sexfor the superior joy of direct intracranial stimulation. Some would pushthe magic button thousands of times until they passed out from exhaustionor hunger. The rats also learned to master complex mazes and bravedswimming across dangerous moats motivated only by this neuroelectricreward. In the lingo of behaviorism, self-stimulation was «reinforcing.»
But life in the behavioral psychology lab deals in punishment as wellas reward, negative as well as positive reinforcement. When some parts ofthe limbic system and nearby areas were stimulated, rats attacked theircage mates in a frenzy; monkeys bared their teeth and struck out at imag-inary objects; cats hissed and their fur bristled. When the current was sentto still another region, cats shrank in terror from the very mice they wouldordinarily devour. For the scientists who first experimented with controlledbrain stimulation it was like viewing a series of invisible dramas, enactedall out of context—like the imaginary Napoleons and Marie Antoinetteswho fill state mental hospitals. If fear, rage, sorrow, joy, or longing areactually contained in certain collections of neurons, as the self-stimulationstudies seemed to show, does that mean our emotions are only phantoms?Which is real: the smile of our beloved or the discharge of cells in our»pleasure center»? Maybe we’d do just as well to live entirely inside ourskulls and dispense with the outer world altogether.
These are the sorts of imponderables that have preoccupied philoso-phers, and suddenly practical-minded scientists were looking them squarein the face. Delgado, for one, could not ignore the thorny philosophicaland social issues raised by his adventures with ESB (electrical stimulation
of the brain). He has even written a remarkable book, Physical Controlof the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society, in which he wrestles withsuch weighty matters as free will, the physical location of the self, and themind/body dilemma. But like a sixteenth-century conquistador dreamingof taming exotic wildernesses, he heralds the coming conquest of the mindas if control were the issue:
We may wonder whether man’s still ingrained conceptions about the untouchableself are not reminiscent of the ancient belief that it was completely beyond humanpower to alter omnipotent nature. We are at the beginning of a new ideological,technological revolution in which the objectives are not physical power and controlof the environment, but direct intervention into the fate of man himself.
Natural evolution is sluggish, measured in eons rather than decades,Delgado laments, but the emergence of self-consciousness on the sceneopens the possibility that «evolution may some day be directed by man.»Can we rewire our circuits and control our propensity for murder or may-hem? Design a better brain for our species? Delgado thinks so, though headmits that brain scientists are handling a potentially dangerous toy.
«Is it feasible to induce a robotlike performance in animals and menby pushing the buttons of a cerebral radio stimulator?» he wonders in thepages of his book. «Could drives, desires, and thoughts be placed underthe artificial command of electronics? Can personality be influenced byESB? Can the mind be physically controlled?»
If it did nothing else, his public toreador act made the dark fantasy ofelectronic mind control eerily real to millions. And Delgado’s lesser knownESB experiments do the same. Consider the case of Ali, the bad-tempered,irascible boss of a monkey colony in Delgado’s Yale laboratory. In thecomplex social hierarchy of monkeys, we may catch glimpses of our ownantics, and Ali’s fall from power is now recorded in the neuroscientificliterature much as a conquered Roman emperor figures in the historybooks. Radio stimulation of his caudate nucleus was Ali’s downfall. Itmade him so docile that he no longer engaged in the ritual hostile displaysthat had kept the troop in his grip, and he even allowed himself to becaught and handled by his human caretakers. After a while the controllever to his brain was mounted on the wall of the cage so that every timeit was pressed, it delivered five seconds of stimulation to his brain. Aresourceful monkey named Elisa, in a flash of simian logic, learned thatpressing the lever rendered Ali harmless.
«When Ali threatened her,» Delgado recalls, «it was repeatedly ob-served that Elisa responded by lever pressing. Her attitude of lookingstraight at the boss was highly significant because a submissive monkey
would not dare to do so, for fear of immediate retaliation. . . . She wasresponsible for maintaining the peaceful coexistence within the colony.»Could human dictators be so easily toppled?
Then there was Rose. Ordinarily a model monkey mother, accordingto Delgado, she lost all maternal instinct when her midbrain was radio-stimulated. For ten minutes she’d fly into a rage, biting herself compulsivelyand ignoring the pathetic distress calls of her infant, Roo. Finally, Roowas forced to seek solace with an adoptive mother.
Of course, it is the human beings who have walked about the wardswith electrodes in their brains who tell the most eloquent stories. Our fearsof mind control naturally center around the control of human minds byother humans. Very few theologians worry about whether a cat’s free willis violated by a five-milliampere current to its thalamus. And, of course,only humans can say what it is they feel. When a cat’s fur stands on end,the scientist can never be entirely sure whether his electrodes have triggereda rage response or merely hit some fur-standing-on-end neurons. (As amatter of fact, many investigators think that cats and other animals arecapable of something called «sham rage,» which consists of all the motorresponses without the corresponding emotional state.) When the same areais stimulated in a human being, however, he may report, as one of Del-gado’s patients did: «It’s rather like the feeling of just having been missedby a car and leaping back to the curb and [saying] Br-r-r-r.»
The humans who have been treated with ESB include severe epileptics,patients with intractable physical pain, and other severely ill people. Del-gado’s patients were mainly epileptics who suffered from several seizuresa day.
«J. P.» was a twenty-year-old woman who suffered from temporal-lobeseizures as well as inexplicable outbursts of violence. She had once stabbeda nurse in the chest with a pair of scissors during one of these rage attacks,but at other times she was no more homicidal than the average schoolmarm.We meet her in the following scenario with Delgado:
A 1.2 milliampere excitation of this point [the right amygdala] was applied whileshe was playing the guitar and singing with enthusiasm and skill. At the seventhsecond of stimulation she threw the guitar away and in a fit of rage launched anattack against the wall and then paced around the floor for several minutes, afterwhich she gradually quieted down and recovered her usual cheerfulness.
Stimulating other parts of the brain triggered a bizarre sequence ofmovements similar to the empty circling, stalking, or head-turning ritualsof stimulated animals. When Delgado stimulated a particular region, oneman turned around slowly, moving his head from side to side, exactly as
though he were searching for something. The stimulation was repeated sixtimes, with the same result each time. The patient’s actions had the me-chanical purposelessness of a programmed robot.
In Breakfast of Champions, a book full of tragicomic ruminations onthe mechanistic behavior of Homo sapiens, Kurt Vonnegut recalls a similarvignette from his own boyhood:
The syphilitic man was thinking hard there, at the Crossroads of America, abouthow to get his legs to step off the curb and carry him across Washington Street.He shuddered gently, as though he had a small motor which was idling inside.Here was his problem: his brains, where the instructions to his legs originated,were being eaten alive by corkscrews. The wires which had to carry the instructionsweren’t insulated anymore, or were eaten clear through. Switches along the waywere welded open or shut.
This man looked like an old, old man, although he might have been only thirtyyears old. He thought and thought, and then he kicked two times like a chorusgirl.
He certainly looked like a machine to me when I was a boy.
Yet we are dealing with human beings, and something in the humanbrain must crave meaning, for Delgado’s patient consistently offered rea-sonable explanations. «When asked, ‘What are you doing?’ the answerswere T am looking for my slippers,’ T heard a noise,’ T am restless, andI was looking under the bed.’ » Delgado couldn’t decide whether the elec-trodes had evoked a vivid hallucination or a meaningless motor routinethat the patient tried to justify after the fact.
The list goes on and on. Tiny electrical currents on the frontal-temporalregion brought on hallucinations, illusions, and sensations of deja-vu. Fron-tal-lobe stimulation made tactiturn patients chatty and responsive. Onewoman even felt moved to kiss the doctor’s hands and utter seductive andendearing phrases. Stimulation of the caudate nucleus—remember the bulland Ali, the deposed monkey boss?—provoked feelings of sudden, inex-plicable dread. But what is most unsettling is that Delgado’s patients ap-parently accepted these dramatic changes of mood or behavior «as naturalmanifestations of their own personality and not as artificial results of thetests.»
We humans walk around believing that we are set apart from thosewith hooves, claws, and fur by virtue of our special self-consciousness andour free will. But ESB experiments reveal that our species can be aspuppetlike as the next and that electrodes may, at least under some cir-cumstances, override our will. Do we even know where our thoughts comefrom? Delgado observes, somewhat smugly, that his research is bound tognaw at our pride. Not only did we have to learn from Copernicus that
we aren’t situated at the epicenter of the universe and from Darwin thatour forefathers swung from trees, but now: «The analysis of mental activ-ities in the context of brain physiology indicates that our own self, our ego,is not so unique or even independent as Freud pointed out many yearsago.»
Actually Delgado is only partly right. The notion of an autonomousego was hardly sacrosanct before ESB—or even before Freud. What wereAphrodite, the Furies, or the Cretan Minotaur but projections of psychicelements man can neither govern nor fathom?
And when it comes to «mind control,» what is «mind» and what con-stitutes «control»?
When your family doctor makes your leg jerk forward with a tap atthe knee, we do not say he is manipulating your mind, even though no actof will can make your leg sit still. Is eliciting a series of strange movements—or perhaps even a rapid mood change—with a brain electrode so different?Well, it is different. It is different because motivation is not a property ofmuscle groups or peripheral ganglia but of neurons. If you could controla person’s motivation, you’d certainly be knocking at the doors of hisselfhood. But can the electrode gang do that?
For all his neurovisionary zeal, Delgado admits that his craft is stillcrude and the results of ESB are quite unpredictable in humans. Thereare also many things that ESB can never do. For instance, you can forgetany fantasies of ESB-trained pets fetching your slippers or turning on yourtelevision set. Or of electrodes that will turn any untutored human into abrain surgeon or an Olympic-class skier. «Much of the brain participatesin learning and a monotonous train of pulses applied to a limited pool ofneurons cannot be expected to mimic its complexity,» Delgado writes.»The acquisition of a new skill is theoretically and practically beyond thepossibilities of electrical stimulation.»
Electrical pulses can’t simulate personal identity, language, or cultureeither. «Memories can be recalled, emotions awakened, and conversationsspeeded by ESB,» says Delgado, «but the patients always express them-selves according to their background and experience.»
Imagine that a Dr. X has placed electrodes into the brain of Patient Y,who happens to have a homicidal disposition. And that Dr. X’s futuristicEEG machine can match each of Patient Y’s actions with a distinct patternof brain waves. Now say that a certain pattern of firing occurs just beforePatient Y commits a murder and that the omniscient Dr. X can be absolutelysure that this slice of the EEG record reads «ready to murder.» He’s stillleft with some unsolved problems. Even if he could record the firing of
every neuron individually, he still wouldn’t know the reason for the murder.There’s only one way to know that, and that is to ask Patient Y.
An iconoclastic scientist named Robert G. Heath has done somethingvery much like that.
It’s true, though:
how strange are the back streetsof Pain City . . .
—RAINER MARIA RILKE,
Duino Elegies
A sick-sweet scent of mildew hangs over the French Quarter in NewOrleans, and the bodies of last night’s pleasure seekers lie in doorwayslike limp, unstrung puppets. On the day we arrive here, the Times-Picayunereports that police from St. John the Baptist Parish are still looking for amurder suspect known as the «swamp rat of the bayou» near Lake Pont-chartrain. The hunted man, a mental patient deranged by an old blow tothe head, has been hiding out in that dense, primordial bog for eight days,enduring lightning storms, moonless nights, mosquitoes, and torrentialrains. No one, least of all the posse that is pursuing him, can figure outhow he survives.
If New Orleans is a city with an overripe id, it is also home to TulaneUniversity Medical School and its unique department of neurology andpsychiatry. We have an appointment with its sixty-eight-year-old chairmanemeritus, Dr. Heath, a scientist well acquainted with the back streets ofthe id. A modern high-rise a few blocks from the French Quarter housesthe operating rooms where, in 1950, Heath first put depth electrodes intothe brain of a human mental patient. Now silver haired and nominallyretired, Heath looks rather like one of those semimythical television doc-tors who will drive fifty miles just to dispense a little down-home wisdomto a troubled patient.
Before Olds turned up the pleasure center in rats, Heath found it inthe human organ. His electrodes charted the circuitry of pain, too, in someof the illest brains in Louisiana. It was the first time electrodes had beenused inside human brain tissue (except very briefly during epileptic oper-ations just to guide neurosurgeons around the homogeneous macaroni ofthe cortex), and so Heath’s operations were controversial, to say the least.
In the years from 1950 to 1952, he implanted brain electrodes in twenty-six patients. Some of them suffered from incurable epilepsy, intractablephysical pain, Parkinson’s disease, and other medical conditions, but mostcame out of the dimly lit back wards of the state mental hospitals. Withdental burr-drills, Heath and his co-workers drilled through the patients’skulls, guided the electrodes carefully into specific sites, and then left them
there, at first for a few days, later for years at a time. The result was achronicle of the electrical activity of a conscious human brain—while itsowner talked, reminisced about his childhood, flew into a rage, wept, orhallucinated.
On Heath’s desk we notice a pottery ashtray decorated with odd wavyhieroglyphics. «Oh, a friend made that for me. That’s the schizophrenicspike-and-slow-wave,» he says. Sure enough, on closer inspection, theglyphs are EEGs. «We found, you see, that psychotics have this abnormalspike in the septal region, a key site in the pleasure system.»
He peels back the wrinkled outer cortex from a varicolored plasticmodel brain to show us the parts that dominate this saga of pain andpleasure. Septum, amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus. Even the namessound like creatures out of a medieval bestiary. «By implanting electrodesand taking recordings from these deep-lying areas,» he explains, «we wereable to localize the brain’s pleasure and pain systems. We’d interview apatient about pleasant subjects and see the pleasure system firing. If wehad a patient who flew into a rage attack, as many psychotics did, we’dfind the ‘punishment’ system firing.» The pleasure system includes theseptal area and part of the almond-shaped amygdala; the other half of theamygdala, the hippocampus, the thalamus, and the tegmentum (inthe midbrain) constitute the punishment system.
Interestingly, the septal spike that Heath spotted in psychotics’ brainwaves did not turn up in the EEGs of the patients who were being treatedfor epilepsy, intractable pain, or Parkinson’s disease. Whenever a mentalpatient flew into a violent rage or turned into a catatonic zombie, the EEGwas almost certain to display the telltale sawtooth pattern. If the patientgot well, the spike disappeared. Abnormal electrical activity in the septalarea, Heath became convinced, meant that something was terribly wrongwith the psychotic brain’s «pleasure system.»
«The primary symptom of schizophrenia isn’t hallucinations or delu-sions,» he tells us. «It’s a defect in the pleasure response. Schizophrenicshave a predominance of painful emotions. They function in an almostcontinuous state of fear or rage, fight or flight, because they don’t havethe pleasure to neutralize it.»
The psychiatric term is anhedonia, Greek for joylessness. (Anhedoniawas the working title of one of Woody Allen’s most successful films; laterthe name was changed to Annie Hall.) «Schizophrenics will often say, ‘Ijust don’t feel pleasure. I don’t know what it is,’ » Heath adds. «If youtalk to schizophrenics about falling in love, they don’t fully understand it.They’ve read books. They know how you’re supposed to act and they copywhat other people do. But they don’t have the qualitative feeling.»
It turned out that electrical stimulation of the pleasure system auto-matically turned off the punishment system—what Heath calls the «aversivesystem»—and vice-versa. And so Heath tried to cure mental illness withdirect electrical stimulation of the pleasure neurons. «If we stimulated theirpleasure systems, violent psychotics stopped having rage attacks,» he says.»We even stimulated the septal area in people suffering from intractablecancer or arthritis pain and we were able to turn off the pain. All of thismakes sense: When you’re feeling pleasure, you don’t feel angry, and whenyou’re in a rage you certainly can’t feel pleasure.» By stimulating the septalpleasure area, he could make homicidal manias, suicide attempts, depres-sions, or delusions go away—sometimes for a long time. And this treat-ment, curiously, also worked for epilepsy.
«At first we thought one stimulation would reverse the psychotic pro-cess,» he remembers. «In the old days we could only leave the electrodesin for a few days. One of our first patients was a hopelessly psychotic younggal. She was catatonic and wouldn’t eat, and her life was in danger. Westimulated her septal area and she stayed well for four years. We thoughtat first we had cured her.» But the patient eventually suffered a relapse.
As it turned out, it took more than a few pulses of current to exorcisemadness. Heath had to devise safer electrodes that could be left in thebrain for years so that a patient could be restimulated at intervals. Then,in 1976, the «most violent patient in the state»—a mildly retarded youngman who had to be tied to his bed because of his savage outbursts—receivedDr. Heath’s first brain pacemaker.
The pacemaker is an array of tiny battery-powered electrodes thatdelivers five minutes of stimulation every ten minutes to the cerebellum,at the very back of the brain. Its power source, a battery pack about thesize of a deck of playing cards, could fit neatly in the patient’s pocket.(Later it was miniaturized to matchbook proportions and implanted in therecipient’s abdomen; it requires recharging every five years.) The cere-bellum, Heath learned, is a better entryway to the brain’s emotionalcircuitry. Stimulating a precise half-inch of its cauliflowerlike surface au-tomatically fires the pleasure area and inhibits the rage centers, and so itwas no longer necessary to invade the limbic areas farther forward in thebrain.
The first pacemaker patient soon stopped trying to slash himself andhis caretakers and went home from the hospital. All was well, for a while.Then the man inexplicably went on a rampage and attempted to murderhis parents. Before he was subdued, he had severely wounded his next-door neighbor and narrowly missed being shot by the sheriff. Heath’sX rays quickly spotted the problem: broken wires between the pacemaker
and the power source. Once the wires were reattached, the rage attackswaned again. The young man is now in vocational rehabilitation and doingwell.
In 1974 a pretty, intelligent twenty-one-year-old librarian was shot inthe head during a holdup. After an operation that removed much of herfrontal lobes, she had frequent seizures, was barely conversant, and hadto be fed through a tube because she stopped eating. By the end of thenext year she was in a continual frenzy. She lashed out at anyone withinrange and once tried to stab her father. She screamed whenever she wastouched and complained of constant, excruciating pain all over her body.Her brain pacemaker was installed in November 1976, and, magically, therage episodes subsided. She started eating; her memory improved; and herdoctors began describing her personality as «pleasant,» even «sparkling.»
Another patient, a severely depressed former physicist, was troubledby voices that commanded him to choke his wife. When he got one of Dr.Heath’s pacemakers in 1977, the infernal voices vanished, along with hisperennial gloom. He and his wife began to visit relatives and dine togetherin restaurants for the first time in years. But his wires eventually broke,and once again his wife was threatened with strangulation. When the gad-getry was mended, so was the man’s psyche.
Ironically, the many technical snafus that plagued the pacemaker gaveHeath the perfect controls for his experiments. If Patient A behaves likea model citizen as long as his batteries work, only to run amok like apsychopath in a low-budget horror film when, unbeknownst to him, themachinery breaks, it’s probably not a placebo effect. Even so, the cerebellarpacemaker is not a psychiatric cure-all. By Heath’s estimates, about halfof the seventy-odd patients have been substantially rehabilitated—no meanfeat, given that pacemaker recipients come from the ranks of the «incur-able»—but others have never emerged from their private hells. For somereason, depressives and patients prone to uncontrollable violence havebenefited most; chronic schizophrenics the least.
Fortunately for posterity, Heath and his colleagues filmed many of theirbold journeys into the human emotional apparatus. In a windowless cubiclecrammed full of film reels, he shows us movies of some of the early stim-ulation sessions. They’re starkly real. We feel like high-tech voyeurs to theraw and primal scenes inside the human brain.
In the first film, a woman of indeterminate age lies on a narrow cot, agiant bandage covering her skull. At the start of the film she seems lockedinside some private vortex of despair. Her face is as blank as her whitehospital gown and her voice is a remote, tired monotone.
«Sixty pulses,» says a disembodied voice. It belongs to the technicianin the next room, who is sending a current to the electrode inside thewoman’s head. The patient, inside her soundproof cubicle, does not hearhim.
Suddenly she smiles. «Why are you smiling?» asks Dr. Heath, sittingby her bedside.
«I don’t know. . . . Are you doing something to me? [Giggles] I don’tusually sit around and laugh at nothing. I must be laughing at something.»
«One hundred forty,» says the offscreen technician.
The patient giggles again, transformed from a stone-faced zombie intoa little girl with a secret joke. «What in the hell are you doing?» she asks.»You must be hitting some goody place.»
The «goody place» is the septal pleasure center, which the unseentechnician is stimulating with an electrical current. «She was a mean one,»Heath muses. «She was hospitalized for years for a schizoaffective illness.. . . This film was made in 1969, and the treatment has held on her—she’sdoing well.»
Blue whorls of marijuana smoke float through the air of the next filmHeath shows us. The patient, a young man with a mustache, looks agitatedas a traumatized laboratory animal at the outset. Glumly he confides toDr. Heath, «To tell you the truth, I really couldn’t feel good if I tried.»An official-sounding voice-over informs us that he’s also prone to «ragefulparanoid ideation.»
Since this film has a split screen, we can watch the patient on one side,and the spidery script of his EEGs on the other. At first, there are sharpspikes on the line labeled SEPTUM. Then, after ten minutes or so, adreamy smile passes over the patient’s face, and he lapses into stream-of-consciousness nostalgia:
T. J. had the best grass. . . . We’d sit around in his living room like a couple oflittle children. It’s like a birdhouse and it overlooks the expressway [laughs]. . . .That’s really funny; it’s the other way around: The expressway overlooks us!
He told me a lot of tall tales from sea . . . said they grow real good grass inIndonesia. [Giggles] It’s too much—I’m about to start singing that song, ‘ThoseWere the Days, My Friend . . .’ before we got busted and came down from thatwave, down to a more earthlike level. . . . Things were really enchanting. We werelike a couple of children that live on the same block.
«There—see the big delta wave appearing in the septal region,» Heathtells us. Sure enough, large, languorous waves are now coming from thelead to the septal electrode. «There’s almost an exact correlation,» headds. «When he gets a rush of good feeling, the record shows large-am-plitude waves in the pleasure system.» (As an intriguing footnote, the same
electrical pattern crops up when the young man merely remembers pasthighs. Are memory and reality electrochemically indistinguishable?)
Drugs affect our pain and pleasure circuits by blocking or enhancingthe natural chemicals that course through them. But the ticket to the brain’sShangri-La isn’t so easily purchased. While marijuana does excite the septalarea temporarily, Heath tells us, its long-term effects are in the oppositedirection—depression, apathy, withdrawal. The same is true of cocaine,heroin, and all the other street drugs.
Along with the depth electrodes, Heath’s team would often surgicallyimplant a sort of tube, called a canula, through which they could deliverprecise amounts of a chemical directly into the brain. Oriental sacred texts(and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) mention a legendary bliss drugcalled soma, the food of the Himalayan gods. The real-life version mightbe acetylcholine, a natural chemical transmitter. When the Tulane re-searchers injected acetylcholine into a patient’s septal area, «vigorous ac-tivity» showed up on the septal EEG, and the patient usually reportedintense pleasure—including multiple sexual orgasms lasting as long as thirtyminutes.
«I can show you a film of one of the recordings,» Heath offers, fishingthrough some of the reels on the shelves. We half expect a neurologic peepshow, but the film he digs out is the raw EEG record of a woman patient,who was being treated for epilepsy, under the influence of acetylcholine.A flat, clinical voice-over accompanies the staticky march of brain wavesacross the screen:
Now we’re coming to the start of the changes. . . . It’s in the form of a fast spindle,about eighteen per second . . . first in the dorsal right anterior septal, then it spreadsto the other septal leads. . . . This is still correlated with the same clinical findingsof intense pleasure and particularly of a sexual nature. . . .
A half hour after the acetylcholine injection, the patient is still havingorgasms. Heath points at an ominous-looking scrawl on the EEG and notes,»See, it looks almost like the spike-and-dome pattern of epileptic seizure.It’s a very explosive activity.»
The flip side of joy is pain. The next film shows a patient having his»aversive system» stimulated. His face twists suddenly into a terrible grim-ace. One eye turns out and his features contort as though in the spasm ofa horrible science-fiction metamorphosis. «It’s knocking me out . . . I justwant to claw. . . .»he says, gasping like a tortured beast. «I’ll kill you. .. . I’ll kill you, Dr. Lawrence.»
Some might see Robert Heath as a sort of modern-day Virgil of the brain’s
underworld. To others he’s an almost Strangelovian figure. When he firstshowed his movies to an assemblage of psychiatrists, neurologists, andother scientists, some were outraged. Murmurs of medical hubris, mindcontrol, and unsafe human experimentation circulated—in large part be-cause of the film we just saw. But what looks like a scene from the SpanishInquisition, Heath assures us, is no more than electrical stimulation of therage/fear circuits. Unfortunately, the audience, back in 1952, misread it.
«They thought we were hurting him,» he tells us. «But we weren’thurting him. We were stimulating a site in the tegmentum in the midbrain,and all of sudden he wanted to kill. He would have, too, if he hadn’t beentied down. … He started remembering a time when he lost his temper—when his shirts weren’t ironed right and he wanted to kill his sister. Thatshowed us we’d activated the same circuit that was fired by his spontaneousrage attacks.»
It is hard to envision Robert Heath as a cold-blooded experimentalist.We’d seen his compassionate, almost courtly bedside manner on film. We’dwatched him put freaked-out paranoids at ease and coax intimate confi-dences out of sullen, mumbling shantytown depressives. There may be abit of the old-fashioned country doctor in Robert Heath—who is, as amatter of fact, a country doctor’s son. When Heath was fourteen, his fatherarranged for him to to see an autopsy, not realizing that the body beingcarved up in the icy light of the morgue was his son’s former scoutmaster.»I’ll never forget the horror of that,» Heath remembers. «Here was a manI’d known and liked, and they were cutting him up and cracking jokes. Ialways try to tell my students not to forget the human side of medicine.»
There was another force working against Heath in the early 1950s. TheAmerican romance with Sigmund Freud was in full flower, and schizo-phrenia was being blamed on schizophrenogenic («schizophrenia-causing»)mothers, oral fixations, and other incorporeal demons. To insist, as Heathdid, that mental illness was a biological disease was highly suspect; topropose to erase all those deep, dark traumata with a few pulses of elec-tricity was heresy. Today, of course, it’s hard to find an informed researcherwho doesn’t consider schizophrenia a biological process.
Dr. Heath’s movies are disturbing nonetheless. It is one thing to con-template, in the opaque prose of science-journal articles, the «continuousspindling, most pronounced in amygdala leads of an epileptic patient duringan episode of profound anxiety and irritability,» another to see stark terrorin grainy, home-movie black and white.
Man makes the best experimental animal because he can tell us whatis happening in his enormous, complicated cerebrum. But how much doeshe really know? Jose Delgado’s patients came up with pseudo-explanations
for their behavior. Did Heath’s patients accept their electro-transforma-tions as normal mood changes? What did the man whose terrible meta-morphosis we just witnessed on film think about his sudden murderousfury?
«As soon as we turned off the current he went back to normal,» Heathrecalls. «We asked him why he had wanted to kill Dr. Lawrence [not hisreal name], and he said he had nothing against Dr. Lawrence; he was justthere. He’s like a psychotic person on the street who lashes out at whoeveris around.»
What exactly sets you or me apart from the average psychotic on thestreet then? Can stimulation of the rage/fear circuits override our genteelJudaeo-Christian superegos? Or is the superego—or whatever we call theinternal censor that keeps us from uttering dark curses at innocent pas-sersby—an electrochemical phantom as well?
«No, your ethics are not an illusion,» Heath says. «But how are theyset up? You’re taught, Thou shalt not kill. I’m sure you’ve had rage attackswhen you felt like killing someone. Why don’t you kill? Because you’retoo damned scared!
«As a child your parents are the authority figures who will punish you.Later it gets internalized as God or whatever. But all moral learning isultimately based on the pain and pleasure circuitry in your brain—on yourinternal reward and punishment system.»
As for mind control, Heath insists that it is «impossible to controlanother mind.» He’s probably right, if by mind control we mean demonicscientists or overzealous CIA agents with their fingers on the control but-tons of innocent citizens’ pain/pleasure circuits. The fact is that the onlybrains to be outfitted with electrodes or pacemakers are decidedly abnormalones. No one knows whether a low-voltage current to your rage/fear centerswould turn you into a homicidal maniac. (If it did, imagine the courtroomdramas of the future: «Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client is notresponsible for his actions. The EEG record will demonstrate that at thetime of the crime his rage circuits were misfiring. . . .»)
Heath’s experiments raise questions that, so far, lie unresolved. Whois the real Patient X? The guy who wanted to murder Dr. Lawrence justbecause he was there, or the poststimulation persona, who politely apol-ogized for his outburst? If you say, «Well, of course, his real self is theperson he is when his brain is not being stimulated—the nonviolent one,»think again. According to Heath, Mr. X was subject to spontaneous stormsof rage, and electrical stimulation instantly triggered the memory of theday when he wanted to kill his sister because she’d put too much starchin his shirts. Of course, he refrained from actually killing her, but some
i6o • Electrical Heavens and Hells
people do kill their sisters (or try to stab their parents, or choke their wives)over trifles. In the next chapter, we’ll look further at the brain circuitryfor violence. For now, let’s say that «free will» is a more complicated issuethan Thomas Aquinas or the architects of British common law could haveimagined.
That evening we dine with Heath in an elegant restaurant converted froma nineteenth-century bordello. Afterward he gives us a tour in his small,beat-up yellow Volkswagen. Driving past the impassive, self-containedantebellum mansions of the Garden District, we turn abruptly into thegaudy nightworld of the French Quarter. On Rampart Street our guidepoints to the row of houses where nineteenth-century gentlemen kept theiroctoroon mistresses and explains the intricate legal contracts that governedthese liaisons. The subject turns to pleasure.
Heath tells us that some of his patients were given «self-stimulators»similar to the ones used by Olds’s rats. Whenever he felt the urge, thepatient could push any of three or four buttons on the self-stimulatorhooked to his belt. Each button was connected to an electrode implantedin a different part of his brain, and the device kept track of the numberof times he stimulated each site.
Heath tells of one patient who felt impelled to stimulate his septalregion about 1,500 times an hour. He happened to be a schizophrenichomosexual who wanted to change his sexual preference. As an experi-ment, Heath gave the man stag films to watch while he pushed his pleasure-center hotline, and the result was a new interest in female companionship.After clearing things with the state attorney general, the enterprising Tu-lane doctors went out and hired a «lady of the evening,» as Heath delicatelyputs it, for their ardent patient.
«We paid her fifty dollars,» Heath recalls. «I told her it might be alittle weird, but the room would be completely blacked out with curtains.In the next room we had the instruments for recording his brain waves,and he had enough lead wire running into the electrodes in his brain sohe could move around freely. We stimulated him a few times, the younglady was cooperative, and it was a very successful experience.» This con-version was only temporary, however.
On Bourbon Street, Heath parks the car, and we thread our way amongtourists in Bermuda shorts gazing raptly into bottomless/topless nightclubs.Rowdy disco music mingles with Dixieland jazz; delicate grillwork Frenchbalconies overlook souvenir shops hawking T-shirts with off-color slogans.Drunks lie down and sing spirituals to the plump yellow moon.
We ask Heath if human beings are as compulsive about pleasure as the
Electrical Heavens and Hells • 161
rats of Olds’s laboratory that self-stimulated until they passed out. «No,»he tells us. «People don’t self-stimulate constantly—as long as they’refeeling good. Only when they’re depressed does the stimulation trigger abig response.
«There are so many factors that play into a human being’s pleasureresponse: your experience, your memory system, sensory cues . . . ,» hemuses, as we stop to hear a mellow saxophone solo floating out of Pres-ervation Hall. «I remember seeing that guy from Harvard who used drugs—Timothy Leary—on television. He was asked whether drugs were a badinfluence on young kids, and he said, ‘This is nothing. In a few years kidsare going to be demanding septal electrodes.’
«But it doesn’t work that way.»
It isn’t very flattering to see ourselves as robotlike creatures programmedwith a persistent delusion of «free will,» among other follies. Zap a par-ticular slice of the amygdala (or wave a certain tricolor flag) and we’ll jumpto our feet and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. But is that the whole story?Obviously not. Some parts of our brains—for instance, the limbic structuresthat interpret all our experience in a simple binary code of pain and plea-sure—may be rather robotlike at times. As an experiment, watch exactlywhat you do every morning from the moment your alarm clock goes offuntil, say, your midmorning coffee break. Then ask yourself whether ameticulous observer from another galaxy might mistakenly conclude youwere a preprogrammed entity. On the other hand, human behavior isextremely unpredictable over the long run, as even the ESB subjects proved.(What else would you expect from a creature with ten billion neurons, and1014 interconnections, in its head?) Here is how Kurt Vonnegut, in anotherpassage from Breakfast of Champions, summed things up:
His situation, insofar as he was a machine, was complex, tragic, and laughable.But the sacred part of him, his awareness, remained an unwavering band of light.
And this book is being written by a meat machine in cooperation with a machinemade of metal and plastic. . . . And at the core of the writing meat machine is anunwavering band of light.
At the core of each person who reads this book is a band of unwavering light.
Caligula’s Brain:The Neurobiology of Violence
You dozed and watched the night revealingThe thousand sordid imagesOf which your soul was composed.—t. s. eliot, «Preludes»
EVER SINCE Cain put fatal dents in Abel’s skull, Homo sapiens hasbeen a pretty deadly creature. After a hundred thousand years ofevolution, we have not only failed to eradicate violence, we havedeveloped it into a global fixation. Some of the best minds of our specieshave dedicated themselves to building the A-bomb, then the H-bomb, andtoday particle-beam weapons. This obsession with violence all starts, ofcourse, in the brain—from that first punch to a sibling’s nose to the finalturning of the nuclear key in a Minuteman missile silo. But consider thefollowing neurofantasy:
Man finally gains control over the violence center in his head. Aroundthe middle of the twentieth century, electrodes in certain limbic centersare found to pacify wild bulls and wilder humans. But because it is neitherethical nor feasible to put brain electrodes into every man, woman, andchild on the planet, the leading neuroscientists of the 1990s begin diligentlymapping the chemistry of aggression, identifying and labeling thesixty-five different neurojuices that control our baser instincts. By 2030 achemical assay called the Bio-Aggression Index is administered to allschoolchildren. Those with scores above the mean begin a preventive pro-gram of brain-wave-biofeedback therapy and the new wonder drugs Pa-cifizine and Inhibitol. By century’s end most of the prisons are emptymausoleums and war has become a quaint, obsolete term like troubadour.
Is this fantasy possible?
„., _. ___.„ . _ At first glance it looked as if scientists
Why There Will Never fa the Netherlands had found it: an honest.
Be an Antiwar Pill to-goodness antiaggression drug. Called DU
27716, it was an experimental compound that
dramatically curbed certain kinds of rodent hostility. Among mice it’s
162
customary to attack any strange mouse introduced into the cage; but amale mouse treated with DU 27716 absolutely won’t do so. It’s easy enoughto turn an animal into a pacifist by simply tranquilizing it, of course, butDU 27716-treated mice are perfectly alert. Interestingly, too, the com-pound erases offensive hostility while leaving the defensive artillery intact:Mice on DU 27716 will fight back when attacked.
If there ever was a promising aggression antidote, it would seem to beDU 27716. The problem is that its effects on mice don’t necessarily predictwhat it might do to Homo sapiens. Even rats, which belong to the samegenus as mice (different species), react a little differently to DU 27716:They still attack newcomers, albeit less often. And there are other, moreformidable barriers to a peace pill.
One man smashes another over the head with a broken beer bottleduring a bar brawl. Another man plays with scenarios of «mutual assureddestruction» in the Pentagon’s computer room. These are both acts ofviolence in many people’s books, but in what misty never-never land woulda single chemical compound turn both off? For all we know, the men withtheir fingers on the launch code of those sleek, computerized Cruise missilesmight be the very sort of people least inclined to bar brawls. (Consider,for example, the vocabulary such folks use—for example, Peacekeepermissiles—to avoid the outward taint of violence. The Lawrence LivermoreNational Laboratories, a leading bomb lab, recently held a seminar entitled»Upgrading Lethality» for highly civilized physicists who would probablyhave shied away from a seminar on «How to Kill a Lot of People.»)
Even among lower mammals, aggression is a many-splendored thing.At Yale in the 1960s, a cat (with electrodes in its hypothalamus) was putinto a cage with a rat. Turning on the current sometimes transformed theanimal into a fierce, spiky-furred Halloween cat. It would hiss and clawand attack the rat, but it wouldn’t actually bite it. At other times hypo-thalamic stimulation triggered a very different attack mode, which thehuman observers dubbed «quiet biting,» in which the cat coolly capturedand bit its prey with no sign of emotion. The scientists reported that theyhad identified two completely distinct forms of feline aggression, one fullof melodrama and ritual display («affective aggression»), the other, a housecatversion of the normal, cool, predatory behavior of the big jungle cats. Ifthat’s the case with cats, we can hardly expect to trace wife beating, imperialpoisonings, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Manson family killings to asingle cause.
, ~ ^ 1 i Like the creatures in Aesop’s Fables, re-
A Power Parable , .
search animals sometimes expose our own
foibles in caricature, and a group of vervet monkeys might serve as a
parable of power. Three centuries ago the slave ships trafficking betweenWest Africa and the Caribbean also brought over vervet monkeys for saleas house pets to the island gentry. Their descendants now roam wild throughthe lush, humid hills of St. Kitts—except for those whose social life is beingmonitored (and manipulated) within the wire enclosures of research facil-ities in St. Kitts and faraway California.
UCLA psychiatrist Michael McGuire became an authority on monkeypolitics more by serendipity than design. «I originally planned to be in themonkey business for about six months and then get back to humans,» hetells us. «Now it’s fifteen years later.» Actually McGuire has a foot in bothworlds. We meet him in his office in the formidable brick high rise that isthe UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, where the minds he contemplatesbelong to troubled humans. The monkeys live out in the heat and dust ofthe San Fernando Valley, in large, wire cages on the grounds of the Se-pulveda Veterans Administration Hospital. But their social hierarchies arenot so alien.
Human history is full of kings, popes, emperors, generalissimos, andupstarts. Some simian societies—baboons, chimpanzees, and squirrel mon-keys, for instance—have a graduated pecking order, in which monkey Alords it over monkey B, who lords it over monkey C, and so on. A colonyof vervet monkeys, in contrast, is a tiny totalitarian state with an all-powerful dictator. «The dominant male does what he wants, sits where hewants,» says McGuire. «He has access to any resources, including thefemales. He defends the group if it’s threatened; he does a lot of herdingwhen they’re traveling; he surveys the periphery of the territory to makesure there’s no hanky-panky. And there are two peaks during the dayswhen the leader goes around flexing his muscles, as it were. If you’re asubordinate, then you get off the rock you’re sitting on. It’s not that theboss wants to sit on the rock. He never does. He just lets you know he’sboss.»
In the late 1970s an amazing fact emerged from the biochemical datathat McGuire’s colleague Michael J. Raleigh was collecting on one vervetcolony. Over the next few years, McGuire diligently took blood samplesfrom forty-five different monkey colonies, and there it was: The leader ofeach colony had twice as much serotonin in his blood as any of the othermales. That prompted a crucial question. Was the chief simply born withmore serotonin in his brain, or did his biochemistry get that way as a resultof his social rank? To find out, McGuire took the boss out of his socialgroup and quarantined him in a solitary cage, where his blood serotoninpromptly dropped. When he was put in a cage with only females, the samething happened. («It seems to be male-to-male interaction stuff; it depends
A Power Parable • 165
on a male’s rank among other males.») Meanwhile, back at the colony,another male rose to power in the boss’s absence and within two weekshis serotonin was at twice the normal level. But when the deposed monarchwas restored to his throne, his serotonin rose again, while his temporaryreplacement’s serotonin dropped back to its old subservient level. At leastin monkeys, serotonin levels closely mirror the ups and downs of socialstatus.
We muse about Napoleon’s serotonin levels before and after Waterloo.McGuire laughs and gives us a more down-to-earth analogy. «I just got acall early this morning from a guy from a talk show in Australia. And hisnotion was that you invite a man to dinner along with his wife’s ex-boy-friend, and you do a serotonin measure. . . . Yeah, I don’t think humansare very different.»
«How exactly does social status affect serotonin levels?» we ask McGuire.
«We don’t have all the details,» he replies, «but I can tell you this. Wejust did a study in which we put the dominant animal behind a one-waymirror, where he sees the rest of the group but they don’t see him. Hegoes through all the displays and threats, and, of course, the subordinatesdon’t respond. He sees the subordinates sitting where he usually sits orcopulating with the females, and his serotonin goes down. So apparentlyit isn’t enough just to flex your muscles. You have to get the responsefrom the others. The dominant male needs the subordinates to kowtow tohim.
«Now we’re asking, Are there critical information-processing differ-ences when an animal shifts from dominant to subordinate, or vice-versa?»he continues. «You’re the department head, and then someone is broughtin over you and you’re demoted. It may be that the whole process of socialinteraction produces a different physiological you. Maybe you’d see thesame stimulus differently. Say you’re dominant and I’m subordinate. It’sa hot summer day and suddenly an ice-cold Coca-Cola appears. You’ll seeit as yours and I’ll see it as yours. I might want it, but I wouldn’t doubtthat it’s yours.»
The irony is that it is clearly McGuire who is dominant here. Not justbecause we’re in his territory (a large, airy office with many of the trappingsof rank) but because he’s a man with an authoritative force field. Whensomebody broke into the vervet cages recently and twenty monkeys ranloose around the shopping malls and freeways of the valley, it was McGuirewho took charge and issued the orders to round them up. His penetratinggaze, beneath strong shaggy eyebrows, seems to size up a situation quickly,be it the power plays masked behind bureaucratic politesse or the bodylanguage of deference. And the truth of this situation is that he’s sick of
journalists. Besides early-morning phone calls from Australian talk-showpersonalities, there have been more cute stories in newspapers and wom-en’s magazines than a scientist cares to attract. First, it cuts into McGuire’stime. Also having one’s name in the popular press too often smacks ofpublicity, which is a mildly dishonorable state. Anyway, McGuire hasallotted us a half hour, and we sense we’d better make good use of it.
If power and prestige affect one’s serotonin levels, so, it seems, doesserotonin determine machismo. When McGuire gave passive males a drugthat boosted their serotonin levels, they soon assumed the demeanor ofpower, performing a series of intelligence tests with the quiet assurance ofchairmen of the board. Conversely, dominant monkeys seemed to turnsubmissive after they were given a serotonin-inhibiting drug—approachingthe same tests in panic and trepidation.
But behind the power struggles of males is the influence of females. Ifyou want to know who’s boss—or who will be—cherchez la femme. «Ifyou watch closely,» says McGuire, «you see that the females select onemale that they groom with, and they often flank him in his knock-downdrag-outs with other males. Within two weeks the male favored by thefemales will be dominant. Now, do the females know something we don’tknow? Do they know who’s going to become dominant? Or maybe behindevery male vervet there’s a female vervet. We don’t know.»
If, in some sense, a monkey colony is a human society in microcosm,what is the moral to the neuroscientific fable? First, McGuire would liketo correct a misconception that has been circulating. «This thing has gottenout of hand,» he tells us. «An Australian newspaper just ran a headlinethat portrayed the dominant male as a big bully who pushes everybodyaround. He’s just the opposite, really. It’s the subordinate males who arenasty and grumpy; when a male becomes dominant, all of a sudden hebecomes benevolent, sweet. He sits with the females and groomsthem. . . .»
«The leader is a benevolent despot, then?» we ask.
«Exactly. He’s less aggressive when he’s dominant. The fight is to getthere, but once you’re established and everybody acknowledges your power,you keep the peace.»
For the boss monkeys’ human counterparts, then, better look amonglaw-and-order types. McGuire did, at a UCLA fraternity. The fraternity’sofficers turned out to have higher serotonin in their bloodstream than therank-and-file members. At the University of Iowa, meanwhile, researcherDouglas Madsen tested the blood serotonin of male college students andreported that coronary-prone «Type A» personalities had higher levels.»We certainly won’t find that it’s just serotonin in dominant humans,»
The Internal Secretions of Henry Kissinger • 167
McGuire cautions. «There’s probably an interaction with norepinephrine—maybe it has to be high simultaneously—or with GAB A, or with someother chemical we haven’t even identified. But to find that serotonin istwice as high in the dominant males, in all of forty-five colonies . . . that’san astounding statistic.»
_. . n . The laws of biopolitics seem to run both
The Internal Secretions ways Not only can an indiv;dual>s neuro.
of Henry Kissinger chemistry affect society—we might visualize
internal events inside Henry Kissinger, forinstance, influencing peace negotiations in the Middle East—but the en-vironment (power and social rank) also changes the brain. And that inter-ests Lionel Tiger, the colorful anthropologist from Rutgers.
At a 1983 symposium at Rockefeller University, the author of Men inGroups and other ruminations on power gave a talk entitled «Social Struc-ture and Internal Secretions,» inspired in part by McGuire’s monkeys.»That there is a close and real connection between social status and internalsecretions,» he told the audience, «should interest people studying humanbehavior. … It may be that power has an impact on internal secretionssuch that people who have power don’t like to lose it, for instance.» Maybedominance is «immensely satisfying at the internal physiological level,»Tiger mused, in which case Henry Kissinger’s famous quip that «power isan aphrodisiac» might be literally true.
Having imagined the embodiment of the name Lionel Tiger as a pow-erful, stately presence, we were surprised to see an unimposing-lookingman of short stature and malleable, semicomic features. The power Tigerradiates is of the hyperkinetic, stage-show magician variety—pulling con-ceptual rabbits out of thin air and changing them into something else beforeyou can spot how he did the first trick.
«Around 1974,» he continued, in his 78 rpm speaking style, «I said itwas very likely that you’ll find a physiological basis for feeling good. Ifdepression is biological, why should there not be a neurophysiology ofenjoyment? At that time, of course, I had no idea we would be discoveringthe endorphins.» Something like optimism, he extrapolated, might be a»sociohormone,» vital to the well-being of a community. Operating per-haps through the endorphins circulating in our heads, it might even affectthe birth rate or attitudes toward investment.
«If you got a telegram informing you that you’d just won a PulitzerPrize,» he said, «and you monitored all your internal secretions, I’m abso-lutely convinced you’d find marked changes. It isn’t necessary that thenews be true. It’s the fact that you believe it’s true that counts.» The same
principle must operate in the collective «world of ideas,» according toTiger. A jingoistic State of the Union speech, for example, probably mod-ifies the citizenry’s «internal secretions» in one way or another.
Of course, it’s unlikely that future pollsters will add serum samples totheir questionnaires. Although neuroscientists are exploring links betweenspecific internal chemicals and schizophrenia, autism, and even learningdisabilities, they don’t hunt for correlations between serotonin levels andthe defense budget, because such phenomena are not testable. Tiger doesn’tclaim his theories lend themselves to the latest radioimmunoassay tech-niques. He simply observes that microevents inside the human brain arepart and parcel of the world of ideas; that endorphin, serotonin, and en-zymes X, Y, and Z are just as much the reason for wars, revolutions, andhuman rights manifestos as scarce natural resources or territorial disputes.
But since we’re eons away from a surefire scientific solution to war,let’s turn to the more tractable problem of individual violence.
tt7t , m i ^, , The «charley» of this story is actually a
What Makes Charley oomposite of severa, real sailors> but we>u
Run- speak of him as though he were one hard-
living young man, with a bad service recordand a chemical glitch in his brain. Charley’s troubles started long ago. Asfar back as grade school, his fidgety, impulsive ways and hair-trigger temperearned him a reputation as a troublemaker. By age seventeen he’d droppedout of school and was drifting from job to job (short-order cook, gas stationattendant, meter reader), never sticking around any place too long. Hisrelationships with girls were of the love-’em-and-leave-’em sort. He pickedfights in bars and once beat up a traveling salesman in an all-night diner.People in his hometown were relieved when Charley packed his bags andjoined the navy.
But if he was an ornery civilian, military life suited him less. For onething, he had definite problems with authority, and his superior officersdidn’t appreciate being given the finger. Nor did the navy approve whenCharley got drunk one night and pulled a knife on a stranger in a bar.Finally, after he took his rifle down to the railroad tracks and impetuouslyshot a hole through the window of a passing train, Charley was dishonorablydischarged.
He was sent for observation to the National Naval Medical Hospital,in Bethesda, Maryland, where he joined a number of other troublemakingsailors and marines. After taking down the young sailor’s life history andadministering a few standard psychological tests, the psychiatrists therediagnosed his problem as a «borderline personality disorder.» That’s psy-
What Makes Charley Run? • 169
chiatric shorthand for cases somewhere between sociopathy and florid psy-chosis—meaning that Charley suffered from occasional delusions but wasnot clearly psychotic. Then, in a scenario remote from the beer-soakedpool halls of his youth, Charley went on to make medical history.
Brain researchers from the nearby National Institute of Mental Healthwere called in to study Charley’s spinal fluid and that of thirty-seven otherequally maladapted servicemen for clues to what made them so hyperag-gressive. What they turned up was a deficiency of serotonin, the sameneurotransmitter we met earlier in the UCLA monkeys.
Because there are laws against «sacrificing» human subjects, be theygraduate students or dishonorably discharged servicemen, the scientistscouldn’t actually measure the sailors’ brain chemicals. (That’s why we knowso much about the chemistry of rat aggression—the brains of violent ratshave consistently shown defects in serotonin transmission—and so littleabout man’s.) But there are ways around that impasse. As serotonin ismetabolized in the body, it breaks down into a chemical called 5-HIAA,which shows up in a person’s blood, urine, and cerebrospinal fluid.
Reasoning that levels of spinal fluid 5-HIAA might tell them somethingabout human aggression, two scientists from NIMH, Gerald Brown andFrederick Goodwin, entered Charley’s case. Between 1978 and 1980, theyanalyzed the spinal fluid of thirty-eight servicemen at the naval hospital;because they worked independently of the psychiatrists who made theclinical diagnoses, they did not know beforehand which vial of milky fluidcorresponded to which case history. Imagine their satisfaction when theygot a near-perfect match.
The truculent servicemen not only had generally low levels of 5-HIAA,but the more violent each man’s history and psychological profile, the lowerhis 5-HIAA. A graph of the 5-HIAA scores and «mean aggression scores»on psychological tests approached a neat inverse relationship. Since 5-HIAA in spinal fluid presumably reflects serotonin levels in the brain, theclear implication was that low brain serotonin and impulsive, aggressivebehavior go hand in hand.
How does this finding fit with the UCLA monkey study? To McGuire’smind the anarchic servicemen sound a lot like his low-status vervets, whoare likewise cursed with low serotonin. In these cases random aggressionis not the mark of dominance, but quite the opposite. «If you drive ser-otonin down in the monkeys,» he tells us, «you make them nasty, hostile,bitchy, crazy. It’s hard to know what an antisocial monkey is, but if youequate it with stealing things and so forth, the ones who are given a ser-otonin downer are more that way. The dominant male follows the rules.He sets them and he also follows them. Meanwhile, the other animals areup to all kinds of things when his back is turned.
«Of course,» he points out, «the advantage of animals is that you canswitch them from dominant to subordinate and back again and look at thesame animal in both conditions. But people—well, you get a bunch ofpeople who have been filtered through a social system that goes backhundreds of years, and they’re finally called sociopaths, for better or worse.God knows what the effects are. You certainly can’t shift them aroundovernight.»
c. • • j / d • Brown and good win, meanwhile, didn’t
Suicidal Brains rest on thdr laurels They soon turned up a
second, interesting correlation: A number of their wild bunch had tried tocommit suicide, some of them repeatedly. And these suicidal servicemenhad lower 5-HIAA levels than their nonsuicidal peers. «If a man was veryaggressive, he was likely to have low 5-HIAA,» Brown explains in a voicethat, like many of the voices around NIMH, has a faint, languorous traceof a southern accent. «If he was suicidal, he was also likely to have low5-HIAA. If he was both aggressive and suicidal, he was almost sure tohave abnormally low 5-HIAA.»
What does it all mean? Nearly a century before serotonin or its obscure-sounding metabolite 5-HIAA was heard of, Sigmund Freud theorized thatsuicide was really aggression turned inward. «My work has convinced methat Freud was right,» confides Brown, who is a practicing psychoanalystas well as a neuroscientist. «Suicide and aggression have the same sourcein the brain.» Low serotonin, Brown and his co-workers believe, is a signalof impulsiveness that may lead to violence toward others or toward one’sself.
How much can you generalize from the bodily fluids of three dozenmalcontent sailors? Not much, if they were an isolated case. But suddenlymany pieces of an elaborate neurobiological puzzle begin to fit together.
Two years before Charley and his gang donated their spinal fluid toscience, researchers in Sweden turned up an unexpected connection be-tween low 5-HIAA and suicide. The patients in question were being hos-pitalized for depression, and those with the lowest 5-HIAA levels, as ithappened, had tried to do away with themselves violently—using shotgunsrather than sleeping pills, for instance. The story has a rather macabresequel. The scientists separated the patients into two groups on the basisof 5-HIAA scores and followed up on them two years later. To their horrorone-fourth of the low-5-HIAA people were dead, the victims of successfulsuicide.
Since then several different experimenters have been able to look insidethe brains of suicide victims and compare them with the pickled brains of
The Case of the Missing Biochemical • 171
people who died of other causes. What they saw there was evidence thatthe serotonin receptors, the sites where the chemical binds to the brain,were unusually sparse.
One likely practical payoff from all this is a routine chemical test forsuicide risk. And it’s not so farfetched to envision tomorrow’s psychiatristsprescribing suicide-prevention pills to the suicide-prone. «A pharmacolo-gist at Eli Lilly,» Gerald Brown tells us, «has just published an interestingstudy. He gave animals a new antidepressant drug that increases serotoninlevels in the brain, and he also gave them tryptophan, an enzyme that isa serotonin precursor. When administered alone, the antidepressant hasonly short-lived effects on serotonin metabolism. But when combined withtryptophan, it enhances it for a long time.
«I don’t want to raise anyone’s hopes prematurely. But something likethat could turn out to be an antisuicide drug.»
tu r * Okay, but what about aggression toward
I he Case of the othersl Was the violence/low 5_hiaa con-
Missing Biochemical nection found in Charley’s gang just a lab-oratory curio or something more fundamen-tal? Finally, will Eli Lilly or Hoffman-LaRoche chemists design us a nice»anticrime drug» that boosts the serotonin levels of potential bad guys?
No sooner had Brown and Goodwin published their data, in mid-1982,than a Finnish-born psychiatrist named Markku Linnoila uncovered an-other clue in the cerebrospinal fluid of twenty-five convicted murderers.The convicts, who had been referred by the courts to the University ofHelsinki’s forensic psychiatry clinic, fell into two categories: psychopaths,who had committed senseless murders «totally out of the blue,» and par-anoid murderers, who killed their victims after lengthy premeditation.Linnoila, now at NIMH, and Matti Virkunen, of the University of Helsinki,analyzed the murderers’ chemical makeup and reported that the psycho-paths had strikingly lower 5-HIAA levels than either the paranoids ornormal controls.
While murder’s shapes are legion, psychopaths and paranoids are twovery distinct classes of perpetrators, in Linnoila’s opinion. The former killviolently, without rhyme or reason, and feel no remorse; the latter havewell-organized delusional systems. That the two crimes have differentchemical «fingerprints» suggests that biology may not be entirely out ofplace in the courtroom.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, the Case of the Missing Biochemical croppedup again when a group of mass murderers was found to have unusuallylow 5-HIAA levels. Only one of the convicts had normal levels of the
metabolite, in fact, and he was not your garden-variety killer. He turnedout to be a mild nursing-home attendant who had quietly performed eu-thanasia on two dozen aged patients in his care. The Karolinska Instituteresearchers seem to have stumbled on the provocative fact that Jack theRipper’s rampages and the mercy killings of a brooding stoic philosopherare not the same thing as far as the brain is concerned.
A lack of 5-HIAA in the spinal fluid is supposed to reflect a lack ofserotonin in the brain; so what do we know about this neurochemical witha name like a Greek muse? «In most brain tracts,» Gerald Brown informsus, «serotonin is inhibitory. And inhibition is one of the basic biologicalprinciples governing our organism. Without it, you can’t regulate yourbiochemical pathways, and things go awry. This was the case, if you will,with our very impulsive, antisocial servicemen. Freud saw inhibition as thebasis of civilization. In order to have judgment you need to pause, delay,reflect.»
A caveat: Don’t assume, whenever there’s a correlation between bio-logical factor X and behavior Y in a human being, that X (a missinghormone, a chemical imbalance, or whatever) causes Y. A little reductioad absurdum will illustrate why. Suppose one social scientist compilesstatistics on the average snowfall over ten winters, while another collectsdata on mean SAT scores during the same period. When a striking statisticalcorrelation turns up between the two, the scientists coauthor a learnedpaper on «The Effects of Winter Precipitation on Academic Trends,» thegist of which is that in snowy weather high-school students stay indoorsand study and thus do better on standardized tests. It has an aura ofplausibility, but what other, nonmeteorological factors—such as higher payfor teachers—were at work at the same time? If in lieu of SAT scores wehad statistics on unmarried couples who live together, would we believethat annual snowfall had an impact on «liberalizing trends in premaritalcohabitation»? Of course, conscientious researchers guard against silly cor-relations by doing controlled studies and screening out other factors, butthe point is that correlation is not necessarily causality.
Now, a few dishonorably discharged sailors and murderers show signsof low serotonin, while dominant vervet monkeys have the opposite chem-ical portrait. What’s the message here? Would we find high serotonin inthe blood of Pentagon think-tankers, heads of states, and student councilpresidents and low serotonin in outlaws, psychopaths, and pool-hall punks?Maybe, but watch out.
For example: High serotonin, the earmark of «dominance,» has some-times been considered a marker of depression, while other studies muddythings further by suggesting that depression actually involves low serotonin.
Low 5-HIAA, for that matter, isn’t always the mark of the psychopath,the suicide, or the dead-end kid. «We know there are normal people, whoare neither suicidal nor antisocial, who have low 5-HIAA,» says Brown.»Interestingly, though, we’ve yet to find anyone with high 5-HIAA whois impulsively aggressive.» In the salty bouillabaisse of the brain, serotoninis only one of about two hundred seasonings.
Now imagine we did have an antiaggression drug and that it really couldconvert a psychopath or a feisty small-time ne’er-do-well like Charley intoa sober, civic-minded Jaycee. Who should be given such a drug? Whatauthority shall decide what is «antisocial» and what is socially acceptablebehavior? Psychiatric diagnoses come in and out of fashion, after all—yesterday’s «pseudoneurotic paranoid schizophrenia» being today’s «bor-derline personality disorder.» There’s always a danger that the hypothetical»Pacifizine» might be used on the wrong people, just as prefrontal lo-botomies were in the 1940s and 1950s.
For a grim vision of antiviolence therapy, you can refer to the moralrehabilitation of Alex the street punk in A Clockwork Orange. In real life,of course, «violent brains» have been the subject of some baroque neu-rosurgical dramas, as we shall see.
In the last chapter we witnessed startlingThe Secrets Of conversions wrought by electrical stimula-
te Cerebellum tjon 0f the brain’s pain and pleasure centers.
We saw that Dr. Robert Heath’s brain pace-maker has rescued people afflicted with «intractable behavior pathologies»from a life of padded cells and strait jackets by turning down the fear/rageswitch in their heads. Now we’ll return to Dr. Heath’s astonishing gadget:If a continuous low-voltage electrical current applied to the cerebellum cancurb homicidal outbursts, does that mean that violence is an inborn neu-rologic defect? And that it has nothing to do with, say, growing up in abroken home in the South Bronx with a crazy, alcoholic or drug-addictedmother?
Wrong. When it comes to producing a violent person, the brain andthe social environment interact in such intricate ways that the old nature-versus-nurture debate seems rather like those hair-splitting early Christiancouncils about the precise proportion of humanity/divinity in Christ. Thestory of the cerebellum is a case in point.
The first clues came from the famous Harlow monkeys. At the Uni-versity of Illinois in the 1950s and early 1960s, psychologist Harry F. Harlowperformed a series of now-legendary experiments in sensory and emotionaldeprivation, raising infant rhesus monkeys in solitary wire cages without
toys or companions. After three months even an obtuse observer couldn’tmiss the signs of emotional damage. The small monkeys sat forlornly in acorner of the cage rocking back and forth like autistic children. When theycame of age and rejoined the colony, their social ineptness was pitiful.Unable to decipher the most rudimentary simian social signals, they couldbarely distinguish friend from foe, self from nonself. They recoiled in terrorfrom the sight of their own hands and compulsively mutilated themselves.The males never learned to court or mate, while the females who becamemothers neglected or abused their babies. Most important, from our per-spective, these monkeys were given to outbursts of inexplicable violence.
At first the Harlow monkeys were taken as proof of the psychoanalyticdictum that bad mothering (or in this case, no mothering at all) causedschizophrenia, for the isolated monkeys looked about as «schizophrenic»as is possible for a nonhuman primate to look. But Harlow confoundedthe Freudians by separating rhesus infants from their mothers and raisingthem with age mates. These monkeys developed quite normally. Whatcrucial sensory lack, then, was causing the «deprivation syndrome»? Aformer colleague of Harlow’s, William A. Mason, devised an ingeniousexperiment in the late 1960s to find out.
Mason compared three groups of young monkeys: One group was rearedin the usual way with their mothers. A second group grew up with a»movable surrogate,» consisting of a motorized, swinging bleach bottle;while a third group of infants got a stationary surrogate, a bleach bottlecovered with fur and fixed in place. The result? The monkeys reared withtheir mothers, of course, grew up normally, and the monkeys whose onlysolace was a fixed surrogate developed a bad case of the deprivation syn-drome. The monkeys given the movable surrogate, however, surprised thepsychologists by being much less screwed up. Was movement crucial toemotional development?
James W. Prescott, a developmental psychologist then working at theNational Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD),thought so. He managed to get hold of five of the emotionally stuntedHarlow monkeys, whose weird stereotypic rocking motions reminded himof some of the institutionalized children he’d seen. Any kind of sensorydeprivation must damage the growing brain’s emotional systems, he fig-ured. Noticing that an immobile surrogate produced such basket cases, histhoughts turned to the cerebellum, the three-lobed structure at the veryback of the brain that governs movement and balance.
«At that time,» he recalls, «there was very little data to support mytheory that stimulation of the cerebellum might have something to do withemotions. Actually, back around 1800, Franz Joseph Gall, the father of
The Secrets of the Cerebellum • 175
phrenology, said the cerebellum was involved in pleasure or lack of plea-sure, but he was discredited because of the phrenology stuff. . . .
«Anyway,» he continues, «I thought we’d find a neuropathology in theisolation-reared animals, so I shipped them to Tulane so Bob Heath couldimplant them. I suggested that he put electrodes in the cerebellum as wellas the limbic sites.» Where other investigators had failed to find anythingwrong with these sensory-deprived brains, Heath’s electrodes detected agreat deal amiss. There were abnormal «spike» discharges in the monkeys’limbic pain-and-pleasure areas, very like the pathological EEGs of violenthuman psychotics. And, to be sure, strange spikes also occurred in thecerebellum, where Heath had never thought to look before.
«The paleocerebellum, or old cerebellum, governs propioception,» Heathexplains. «That’s the input from your muscles, joints, and tendons thatlets you know what position your body is in, where you’re located in three-dimensional space. It also regulates balance, your vestibular sense. Now,why do children like to be tossed in the air, hang upside down, and ridemerry-go-rounds and roller coasters? Because these sensory experiencesfeed directly into the emotional system.»
Hard evidence came from the sad-eyed Tulane lab monkeys in theirlittle plastic restraining chairs. As electrodes in different sites of their brainsrecorded second-to-second electrical changes, Heath showed that burstsof activity in the paleocerebellum set off similar ones in the septum, hip-pocampus, and amygdala, and vice-versa. The upshot was that the cere-bellum, the limbic pain/pleasure centers, and various sensory relay stationswere all part of one circuit! This was not just a heretical rewriting ofneuroanatomy—the textbook drawings of nerve tracts don’t show cere-bellar-forebrain connections—but it explained to Heath how the isolation-reared monkeys got so weird. Messages from our eyes, ears, and skin, aswell as the body-sense signals processed in the paleocerebellum, stir trainsof electrical impulses in the distant emotional centers, setting in motion agiant emotional-sensory feedback loop. (We all can testify to how quicklya Mozart sonata or a good massage travels to our «pleasure center.»)Imagine, then, the effects of sensory isolation on an immature brain.
«We already knew from human studies,» Heath tells us, «that if you’resuspended in weightlessness you’ll hallucinate, have delusions, and expe-rience what is known as depersonalization.» Heath sees a curious connec-tion between body sense and sense of self in the shattered inner world ofpsychosis, for a psychotic’s body image is distorted along with his ego.»Psychotics, you know, often say they feel unreal or don’t know who theyare—that’s depersonalization,» he says. «And typically that lack of self-awareness can be detected long before the classic symptoms of halluci-
The deprivation syndrome: In a series of famous experiments performed by psy-chologist Harry Harlow, baby monkeys reared in isolation cringed in the corners,rocking forlornly like autistic children. They also became withdrawn, socially inept,violent, and incapable of mating. (University of Wisconsin Primate Laboratory)
nations and thought disorders appear.» Could an impaired cerebellum orfaulty cerebellar-limbic nerve connections be responsible?
Heath went on to develop the cerebellar pacemaker and implant it inthe heads of violent mental patients, some of whom improved dramatically.James Prescott, meanwhile, was embarked on a course of research thatwould leave him jobless, without funds, and mired in bitter lawsuits againsthis superiors at the NICHD.
Love Versus Violence
«I’m now convinced,» says Prescott, «thatthe root cause of violence is deprivation ofphysical pleasure. When you stimulate the neurosystems that mediate plea-sure, you inhibit the systems that mediate violence; it’s like a seesaw.»
During his fifteen-year stint at the NICHD, Prescott sought a cure forviolence as religiously as other researchers hunt for a cancer cure. Thebearded, gentle-voiced neuropsychologist started the NICHD’s Develop-mental Behavioral Biology Program specifically to trace the origins of
hostility in the developing brain. In particular, he wanted to answer somequestions about child abuse, since abused children often grow into violentadults, and it was his single-minded crusade on these subjects that wouldput him on a collision course with the whole, sprawling, concrete-and-chrome Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) bureaucracy.
«A whole variety of experiments,» he tells us, «have shown how plasticand changeable the mammalian brain is. You can change the function ofcertain brains cells by rearranging the sensory environment: Cats raised ina planetarium environment, for instance, can only see spots and dots.
«The primate brain is especially immature at birth and depends onsensory stimulation for normal growth. In cases of extreme somatosensorydeprivation—that is, touch and movement—the brain systems that nor-mally mediate pleasure don’t develop at all.» When that happens, theorganism, whether it’s an isolation-reared monkey or a child locked in acloset, tends to become violent.
Wandering away from neurohardware to test his hypothesis, Prescottasked whether child-care customs might have a bearing on a society’soverall violence. «We’d expect that cultures that give infants a lot of phys-ical affection—touching, holding, and carrying—would be less physicallyviolent,» he says, «and they are.» The neuropsychologist confirmed hishunch in anthropological studies of forty-nine cultures, from the peace-loving Maoris to the martial Comanches. Theft, child abuse, and customsof «killing, torturing, or mutilating the enemy» were uncommon or evenabsent in the nurturing cultures. When the statistics were run through thecomputer, a society’s ranking on the Infant Physical Affection Scale pre-dicted its rate of «adult physical violence» in 73 percent of the cases—anaccuracy rate that Prescott says would occur by chance only four times outof a thousand.
That today’s love-starved baby may be tomorrow’s hard-core felon,rapist, child molester, or wife beater is hardly a revolutionary proposition.But Prescott insists that the early emotional environment shapes the phys-ical structure of a child’s brain and not just the hazy contours of its ego.He can rattle off evidence that sensory deprivation during the brain’s form-ative period harms the endorphin system (an obvious chemical pleasurepathway) and stunts the fine, filigreelike branching of the cell dendrites.All this, he says, reduces the normal two-way traffic between cerebellumand forebrain, resulting in permanently warped «pleasure circuits» andviolent behavior. The whole pathology can actually be seen in the abnormalcerebellar «spike discharges» that Heath and his colleagues were pickingup down in New Orleans in the early 1970s.
«One of the things I was trying to do, and I was blocked by my boss
at NICHD, was to screen prisoners with a history of violent behavior tosee if they have this spiking activity,» Prescott tells us in his sotto voce.»Professor Bernard Saltzburg, who headed the Tulane research program,developed a computer analysis method to detect these deep brain spikesfrom ordinary scalp EEG recordings. I was excited because here was apossible neurodiagnostic technique for identifying impaired brain functionin violent criminals. That could translate into saving lives!»
In 1978 Prescott was invited by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to givea scientific seminar on «spikes» in inmates’ brain waves, and that’s whenhis troubles started. The NICHD had a new director, Dr. Norman Kretch-mer (a former president of the American Pediatric Association), who didn’tshare Prescott’s interests, and he forbade Prescott to speak to the prisonpeople on government time. Prescott asked permission to speak on hisown time, and when he didn’t get a response, he went ahead and gave theseminar during his vacation. Unfortunately, Prescott returned to his officeto discover that Kretchmer had red-inked even this request.
The psychologist filed formal grievances with the NIH and HEW, charg-ing Kretchmer with «Obstruction of Science and the National Health In-terest» and other sins of official misconduct. When his jeremiads fell ondeaf ears, he went public, firing off two dozen letters (on NICHD letter-head) to a potpourri of scientific associations.
On April 11, 1980, Prescott got his dismissal papers, which read: «Re-moval for improper use of official position and resources to promote re-search on ‘developmental origins of violence’ and ‘child abuse and neglect,’subjects that are not within the mission of the NICHD as part of theprograms of this institute.» The agency had been spending a hefty twomillion a year on child-abuse research, retorts Prescott, who claims he wasreally fired from his $43,000-a-year job in retaliation for whistle-blowing.Why was Kretchmer so dead set against child-abuse research? «Who knows?»Prescott tells us.
During the ensuing brouhaha, the NICHD boss confided to The ChildProtection Report (CPR), a newsletter, that Jim Prescott sometimes didthings that were «a little weird.» One of those things was publishing theorieson child abuse in a 1977 issue of Hustler magazine (which is not Archivesof General Psychiatry, after all). Kretchmer told CPR’s editor and publisherWilliam E. Howard that the graphic photos of battered children accom-panying Prescott’s text were designed for readers to «get off» on (a state-ment Kretchmer later denied after Howard published it but that Howardinsists is an accurate quote).
Prescott says public service (he received no money for the article), notprurience, inspired him to proclaim his message in a skin magazine. At
Love Versus Violence • 179
the same time, he’s an apostle of «body pleasure» as an antidote to violenceand an impassioned foe of paternalism and authoritarianism, and perhapsaspects of his antiestablishment pleasure principle did rattle some non-hedonic superegos around the NIH. For all his brilliance, Prescott occa-sionally sounds like a man who has spent too many hours in a hot tub.
«To experience profound states of consciousness,» he explains, «you’vegot to have the neural equipment. Sensory experience must be integratedinto higher brain centers, and that requires a cerebellar-limbic-neocortexconnection.» Ours is the age of violence and the quick fix, according toPrescott. Massage parlors, Forty-second Street pornography, alcohol, drugs,rape, sadomasochism, and other cheap thrills are imperfect substitutes for»genuine, integrative pleasure.» Unfortunately many of us can’t experiencethe latter, because our cultural anhedonia has stunted our neural pleasuresystems.
«Our Judeo-Christian tradition is based on denial of the body,» Prescotttells us. «Look at the ultimate message of Christianity—the crucifixion,mutilation, the agonizing death on the cross. Then you have hair shirts,self-flagellation, the whole penitential movement.
«If you read about St. Theresa’s ecstasies or the hallucinations of St.John of the Cross, you’ll find some very illuminating passages that reflectthe damage of sensory deprivation. I think it’s the same phenomenon asthe isolation-reared monkeys who bit and mutilated themselves in theabsence of sensory stimulation. You see it in deprived children, too.»
In place of an ascetic metaphysics, Prescott endorses a sort of new-agesexual mysticism. Its priests are more likely to be priestesses, for in Pres-cott’s view, women possess the «neurocircuitry essential to real spiritual-ity»—that is, rich nerve connections between the cerebellum and the higherbrain centers. The cerebellum, he thinks, may be responsible for the factthat female orgasms are full of floating, out-of-the-body sensations andquasi-mystical feelings of union. He did a survey on this subject a fewyears ago and reported that men’s sexual experiences, in contrast, areusually «reflexive,» knee-jerk reactions.
«You don’t need a supernatural deity at all,» he says, «if you belongto a physically affectionate, caring culture. We need to examine the bio-logical basis of our metaphysics. We’re violating our natural pleasure sys-tems, then looking for a reward in heaven—which, ironically, is supposedto be a pure pleasure state.»
Meanwhile, back at the establishment, Prescott’s appeal to get his jobback was turned down, prompting The Child Protection Report to writethat his case was «taking on all the trappings of an old-fashioned railroad-ing.» The Federal Employee ran an article entitled «NIH Hatchet Job on
Distinguished Scientist.» Prescott filed lawsuits against Kretchmer and thegovernment, and several divisions of the American Psychological Associ-ation championed his cause. As for Kretchmer, he left the NICHDunceremoniously in the summer of 1981, amid rumors of other officialcomplaints against him, and took a job as a professor of nutrition at theUniversity of California at Berkeley.
That didn’t help Jim Prescott very much. His dismissal left him stonebroke, in debt to lawyers, and so stigmatized that he couldn’t land anotherjob. He had to withdraw all the money from his government pension fundto live on, and then, in his words, a «domino effect» followed, in whichhe lost his house and ultimately his marriage. When we last talked to himhe was beginning to put the pieces back together by doing independentconsulting work and trying to raise funds for the Violence PreventionNetwork, of which he is president. (Actor Daniel J. Travanti, star of TV’s»Hill Street Blues,» is national chairman of the Network.)
Here the face of the prostrate felon slips,The Crocodile Man sharpens into a snout and withdraws its ears
as a snail pulls in its horns. Between its lipsthe tongue, once formed for speech, thrusts outa fork.
—dante, The Inferno, Canto XXV
Suppose that cerebellar spike discharges are diagnosed in the brain of anaccused murderer. The defendant’s lawyer summons Heath, Prescott, orother expert witnesses to explain about brain-wave spikes, rage centers,and the neurobiological origins of violence. Then he argues that his client,burdened with a grave biological defect, could not control his homicidalimpulses. The jury votes to convict him of a lesser charge (manslaughter,say) or not to convict him at all.
The «diminished-capacity» defense reached its nadir, perhaps, at themurder trial of Dan White, the disgruntled San Francisco ex-supervisorwho fatally shot Mayor George Moscone and supervisor/gay activist HarveyMilk in 1978. White’s attorney argued that a diet of junk food had addledhis client’s mind. The jury must have been impressed, for White spent onlythree years in prison for a double homicide. Although diminished capacityis no longer a legal defense in California, the infamous «Twinkie defense»illustrates the kind of moral and legal quandaries biology-of-violence re-search can stir up. What degree of «brain damage» constitutes «diminishedcapacity» or insanity? Who is responsible for his actions, and who is not?And what «expert opinion» should we trust, given that the brain is a vastworld and current diagnostic methods can only probe a few outlying ham-lets?
The Crocodile Man • 181
In their book The Crocodile Man: A Case of Brain Chemistry andCriminal Violence, authors Andre Mayer and Michael Wheeler recountthe real-life case of a young man they call Charles Decker. «Decker» hadreportedly picked up two hitchhiking teenage girls and proceeded to beatthem over the head with a stonemason’s hammer. He stopped just shortof killing them, and stricken with guilty second thoughts, dropped thevictims off at a nearby house and turned himself in to the authorities.
Decker’s father happened to be an endocrinologist, and he called upa friend, Dr. Mark Altschule, the noted Harvard Medical School diag-nostician, for advice. After pondering young Decker’s case—his history ofsudden, uncontrollable outbursts, the fit of sudden, senseless savagery, andthe abrupt remorse—Altschule found parallels in the book Violence andthe Brain, by Harvard neurosurgeons Vernon H. Mark and Frank R. Ervin.Under Mark and Ervin’s reign in the 1960s, no small number of psychoticsand violent felons left Massachusetts General and Boston City Hospitalwith electrodes in their amygdalae (and, in some cases, Delgado-designed»stimoceivers» atop their skulls). These violent people, Mark and Ervinproclaimed, suffered from an organic brain disorder they baptized the»episodic dyscontrol syndrome.»
The concept borrows heavily from Paul MacLean’s triune brain theory(Chapter 2), according to which a primitive reptilian brain lurks in thedeepest layers of human neural tissue like a Minotaur in a cave. Normally,Mark and Ervin theorize, our newer, more evolved «brains,» the neocortexand (especially) the limbic system, keep the oldest brain under wraps. Butif the limbic control apparatus goes haywire, the ancient, reflexive, un-thinking reptile brain can dart out, undoing 400 million years of evolutionin an instant. (Violence and the Brain contains drawings of a crocodile brainposed against the human organ.)
Convinced that Decker had the classic symptoms of «dyscontrol,» Alt-schule proceeded to test him for chemical abnormalities. A glass of Tabspiked with alcohol produced what appeared to be a toxic breakdownproduct in the young man’s blood, and this became the putative cause ofhis «dyscontrol.» As an expert witness for the defense, Altschule managedto persuade the judge—the heavy scientific testimony was deemed toocomplex for a jury to follow—that a biochemical jinx provoked Decker’sloss of self-control. At one point Decker’s lawyer solemnly «moved hispointer from a silhouette of the human brain to a second, contrastingdiagram labeled crocodile.» The result: The modern-day Crocodile Mangot a suspended sentence and six years’ probation for bashing in the skullsof two young girls.
In a thoughtful review of the Crocodile Man, published in The Sciences,Ashley Montague, the anthropologist, exposes the neurological voodoo
surrounding the case. He writes: «The fact is that the limbic system andthe triune brain are artifacts, creations of neuroanatomists, part of what Iwould call ‘the higher phrenology,’ and nothing more. Despite its reifi-cation, the idea of three brains in one is anatomically and physiologicallyunsound; there is only one brain. …»
Montague has a point. Triune-brain aficionados sometimes speak as ifthe bestial ghosts of our evolutionary past could actually rear up on theirfurry or scaly hind legs to haunt us. While there certainly are relics ofprimitive brain structures within our highly developed cerebrums, humanbeings are not snakes or salamanders. The fact is that reptile behavior ismore or less prewired—a salamander’s brain is elegantly designed forcatching flies, but remove the local insects and you have a starved sala-mander—whereas ours is not. We come into the world with a small rep-ertoire of programmed behaviors and a near-infinity of choices, and youmight say that choice makes a «superego» possible.
Can a biochemical anomaly erase that and toss us back to the primevalswamps? Montague thinks not, and he’s probably right:
Experiments in neuropharmacology have shown clearly that dysfunctions in thechemistry of the brain can substantially affect behavior ranging from mood tomurder. But this would not be taken to imply, as was done in the case of theCrocodile Man, that chemical changes alone determine a person’s actions. Everyhuman brain has a long individual history. … To some extent, all behavior dependson previous sensory inputs and experiences. That a reptilian brain can, on occasion,overcome the master-controlling power of the new brain I gravely doubt.
, . Now what does all this have to do with the
Amygdalectomy, mind/brain question?
Demonology Biological determinists assert that the
mind is «in» the brain, and there’s a curioustendency among the biology-of-violence people to speak as if violence were»in» the twin amygdalae (or the hypothalamus, or the brain stem, orwherever) like a resident demon. The new demonology may have hit itsapogee at a prison hospital in Vacaville, California, where, in 1968, threeinmates had parts of their amygdalae burned out with electrodes to exorcisetheir violence. (The prisoners gave their consent, but some people questionwhether inmates are in a position not to consent.) The man overseeing thesurgery was Dr. R. R. Heimberger, of the University of Indiana, a longtimefan of amygdalectomy as a treatment for epilepsy and violence.
Amygdalectomy has been known to change vicious animals into cud-dlesome Disney-like creatures, but the operations reportedly worked nosuch miracles in the three prisoners. Even if amygdalectomy had pacified
Amygdalectomy, Demonology • 183
the men, it would not have proved that violence is «in» two almond-shapedstructures behind the temples. As James Olds, the late dean of the «plea-sure center,» was wont to point out, there are no real centers in the brain,only complex, overlapping «pathways.» The fact that lesioning, stimulat-ing, or otherwise tinkering with one of those pathways may switch onecstasy, rage, or fear doesn’t mean that the emotions actually reside in thetissue. (Having part of your liver removed might make you depressed, too,but melancholia clearly isn’t «in» the liver.)
Mark and Ervin, the authors of Violence and the Brain, seem to locatepathological violence in the «old» amygdala, the portion we share withcrocodiles (the more recently evolved half of the amygdala, according tothe authors, is more civilized). And their book contains the following tersepronouncement about criminally violent «dyscontrol» victims: «Hoping torehabilitate such a violent individual through psychotherapy or education,or to improve his character by sending him to jail or by giving him loveand understanding—all these methods are irrelevant and will not work. Itis the malfunction itself that must be dealt with, and only if this fact isrecognized is there any chance of changing his behavior.»
Mark and Ervin took that ideology a step further in a 1967 letter tothe Journal of the American Medical Association, coauthored with Dr.William Sweet, chief of neurosurgery at Massachussetts General Hospital.Some of the people chucking rocks at police cars during the inner-city riotsthen sweeping the country, the neurosurgeons suggested, might be sufferingfrom localized brain damage as well as sociopolitical malaise. «The reallesson of the urban rioting,» they wrote, «is that, besides the need to studythe social fabric that creates the riot atmosphere, we need intensive re-search and clinical studies of the individuals committing the violence.»
In Physical Control of the Mind, Jose Delgado, too, ruminates on theneurophysiology of riots: «It would be naive to investigate the reasons fora riot by recording the intracerebral electrical activity of the participantsbut it would be equally wrong to ignore the fact that each participant hasa brain and that determined neuronal groups are reacting to sensory inputsand are subsequently producing the behavioral expression of violence.»While Delgado, at least, balks at the logistical difficulties of herding angryWatts residents into stereotaxic devices, notice that he states that «neuronalgroups . . . reacting to sensory inputs» produce violent behavior. What iswrong with this picture?
Accustomed to turning behaviors on and off with the flick of a switch,the electrode brotherhood sometimes falls into the most unabashed sci-entific reductionism. Admittedly without neurons, chemical transmitters,and such, there would be no behavior at all. (We’ll leave aside «computer
184 ‘ Caligula’s Brain: The Neurobiology of Violence
intelligence» for the moment.) But to equate a mental state—or the stillmore complicated phenomenon of «violent behavior»—with a populationof wet cells is a bold claim indeed. What Mark, Ervin, and Delgado haveall done is to leap boldly back and forth between two different domains,the behavior of a whole organism (and even groups of people) and theelectrical pulses of certain neurons, without acknowledging that there mightbe any translation difficulties. And there are.
Consider: To explain human behavior, we could look at groups ofpeople, as sociologists do, or we could perform psychological experimentson individuals. We could also use fine-wire electrodes and tap groups ofneurons or even the flickerings of single neurons. But why stop there? Ifyou reflect on it, behavior ultimately depends on molecules in the brainand on the atoms and subatomic particles that compose them. So we mightjust as well say that quarks «produce» violent behavior. Of course, fol-lowing elusive quarks around won’t give us a scintilla of information abouta psychopath’s tirades, whereas the electrochemical dances occurring inhis amygdala may reveal something interesting, even something clinicallyuseful. But they won’t tell us exactly what «produces» violence.
Memory:From Sea Slugs to Swarm’s Way
We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses onthe table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters andgrapes of the vine. He remembered the shapesof the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th ofApril of 1882, and he could compare them in hisrecollection with the marbled grain in the designof a leather-bound book which he had seen onlyonce, and with the lines in the spray which an oarraised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battleof the Quebracho. … He could reconstruct allhis dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times hehad reconstructed an entire day.
—JORGE LUIS BORGES,
«Funes el Memorioso»
AN ARGENTINE YOUTH falls off his horse one day in a story byBorges and wakes up with an eidetic memory («photographic» inthe vernacular). That is to say, he remembers every conversation,every sight, every sound, every word on every page in every book, theshape of every leaf of every tree of every forest in his experience. Eventhe exact configuration of the shadows at 3:15 p.m. on a certain Decemberday ten years ago is stored indelibly in his brain. Everything is.
A flawless memory turns out to be a dubious blessing, though, becausepoor Irineo Funes cannot see the forest for the excruciating detail of thetrees (to say nothing of the microscopic geometry of the leaves, the groovesin the trunk, and so on). «He was, let us not forget, almost incapable ofgeneral, platonic ideas,» Borges writes. «It was not only difficult for himto understand that the generic term dog embraced so many specimens ofdiffering sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dogat three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dogat three-fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his ownhands, surprised him on every occasion.» Funes is an idiot savant. Hisreality is so molecular, so fine grained, that abstractions and generalizationselude him completely.
185
That is how Borges imagined it. He could not have known when hewrote his story that a real Funes was living in Russia and being studied bythe renowned Soviet neuropsychologist A. R. Luria. In 1968 Luria pub-lished a book called The Mind of a Mnemonist about «S.,» a man withtotal recall, who could repeat entire conversations verbatim and reproducecomplex nonsense formulas twenty years after the fact. Luria spent aboutthirty years analyzing S.’s methods, one of which was to take «memorywalks» along the streets of Moscow, envisioning certain objects placedagainst buildings, store windows, and statues. When he wanted to recallthe items, he would simply imagine the street with the memories strewnalong it. But this tactic was not foolproof. «Sometimes I put a word in adark place and have trouble seeing it as I go by,» he wrote in his journal.»In one instance, the word ‘box’ was placed in front of a gate. Since it wasdark there, I couldn’t see it.»
There were graver problems. Words became fused with images andtook on a life of their own, rising up all out of context: «Take the word’something’ . . .»he wrote. «For me there is a dense cloud of steam thathas the color of smoke.» Since even the most neutral phrase would set offan endless chain of associations, S. was hard put to make sense of simpleconversations. Reading was a Herculean task: «Even when I read aboutcircumstances that are entirely new to me, if there happens to be a de-scription, say, of a staircase,» he confided, «it turns out to be the one ina house I once lived in. I start to follow it and lose the gist of what I amreading.» Overwhelmed by the swarming mass of the particular, S. was ashandicapped as the hypothetical Funes. He’d been a newspaper reporter,a stock market analyst, and an efficiency expert, but finally, unable to cope,he was reduced to earning a living as a sideshow memory man.
_, — . -. , Now meet «N. A.» He’s an amiable forty-
The Other Side c ,, c ^. ,
five-year-old San Diego man who sports a
Of trie Coin military crewcut and whose conversation is
seasoned with the slang of the late
fifties. His ruling obsession is a vast collection of guns, shells, and rocks,
which he loves to show off to visitors. N. A. has lived with his mother in
the same house for many years, but when he tries to find his way home
from woodshop at the V. A. Treatment Center, it is like looking for a
strange house on a strange street in a dream. Despite an IQ of 124, he is
baffled by TV programs; every time there’s a commercial break he loses
track of the plot.
N. A.’s affliction is called global anterograde amnesia, which in his case
means he’s stuck forever in 1960. Unlike the temporary amnesias that soap-
The Other Side of the Coin • 187
opera characters so often fall prey to, his won’t be magically reversed bya fresh blow to the head, because the part of N. A.’s brain that is responsiblefor laying down new memories is damaged beyond repair. In 1960 he wasa bright young air force recuit living in a dormitory with a roommate wholiked to play around with a miniature fencing foil. One day N. A. turnedaround at the wrong time, just as his roommate was executing a thrust.The foil entered his nostril and pierced his brain.
Though doctors may not be able help N. A. very much, the reverseis certainly untrue. The things that N. A.—and the better-known»H. M.,» who lost his memory stream back in 1953 following an operationfor epilepsy—can’t remember and the things he can are clues in a com-plicated medical detective drama. Put yourself in N. A.’s shoes:
You have only the haziest recollection of yesterday or even of half anhour ago. You don’t know whether the person you’re talking to is a perfectstranger or someone you’ve known for years. You can’t hold a job. Yoursocial life evolves around occasional Mah-Jongg games with your motherand her friends and visits from the doctors who study your memory lapses.Although you clearly recall rebuilding the engine of an old Cadillac anddriving it halfway across the country in 1958, your every moment since1960 vanishes behind you as soon as it is lived.
«The outstanding feature of N. A.’s life-style is its constricted regular-ity,» notes the team of University of California scientists who have beenobserving him for the past nine years, in a 1981 article in the Journal ofNervous and Mental Disease. «Only those routines learned through yearsof living in the same place can be performed reliably. . . . Cooking appearsto place a great burden on his memory. … He is constantly going throughhis closets and cupboards, arranging things. Indeed, he seems to expressobsessive concern that everything is in its right place and becomes irritatedeven if the telephone receiver is askew.»
H. M., whose amnesia is even more severe than N. A.’s, recently toldhis doctors: «Every moment is like waking from a dream.» Without anongoing memory stream to connect one moment to the next, H. M. andN. A. are stranded in a perpetual, vacuous present—except that they dohave their respective pasts intact. What if the past were also removed, andone had no memories at all? The idea is almost unthinkable because in avery important sense you are your memories; without them you’d be aboutas individual as the lobby of a Ramada Inn. Imagine that your entirememory store was surgically removed and transplanted into the brain ofJoe X. Who would then be «you,» your body without your personal recordor Joe X? The private kingdom of our memories gives us «continuity ofself,» in the words of the Nobel neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles. «The
self changes,» he notes in The Self and Its Brain. «We start as children,and we grow up, we grow old. Yet the continuity of self ensures that theself remains identical, in a sense. And it remains more truly identical thanthe changing body.»
But what is a memory? Is it actually located somewhere in your brainand, if so, where? What is the neural code for memory storage and re-trieval? Are particular memories—say, the image of the house you livedin when you were eight years old—stored in particular chunks of braintissue; in patterns of electrochemical connections (perhaps widely distrib-uted throughout the brain); or in some other way? Are memories filedpermanently, and if so, how does the brain manage to pack a lifetimeof reminiscences into an organ the size of a melon? (Information the-orist John von Neumann once estimated that the memories storedduring the average human lifetime would amount to 2.8 x 1020[280,000,000,000,000,000,000] bits—assuming that nothing is forgotten.)
A physiological mechanism for memory is a sort of Holy Grail in brainscience, and not surprisingly. If scientists ever turn up an exact corre-spondence between a group of neurons and the memory of your first com-munion, we would be close to knowing how three pounds of wet tissuecan house a mind. At the center of this quest is the engram, or «memorytrace,» which no one has ever seen but which a lot of people believe in.
tl j?i ‘ t? ^HE KING °f tne engram hunters was the
I he Elusive Engram venerable physiological psychologist Karl
Lashley, who directed the Yerkes Laboratory of Primate Biology, then inOcean Park, Florida, until 1956. For some twenty-five years Lashley triedto find where a particular memory trace was stored in the brains of rats.He trained his rats to run mazes and then systematically removed sectionafter section of cortex and retested them on the same maze. Sooner orlater, he thought, his scalpel would zap the piece of tissue that stored thatknowledge, and he would then see a rat with zero maze-running know-how. He was bitterly disappointed. What he observed were rats with mas-sive holes in their cortex stumbling, staggering, and hobbling but never-theless navigating around the maze. The operations certainly interferedwith their performance, but no part of the cortex seemed to matter morethan another. The impairment was more or less proportional to the totalamount of cortex removed, and Lashley was forced to conclude that theengram didn’t reside in any place in particular. Toward the end of his life,in a rather morose paper entitled «In Search of the Engram,» he reflected:»This series of experiments . . . has discovered nothing directly about thereal nature of the engram. I sometimes feel, in reviewing the evidence on
the localization of the memory trace, that the necessary conclusion is thatlearning just is not possible.»
Of course, Lashley knew that learning was possible, and so he for-mulated a theory of «equipotentiality,» according to which all parts of thecortex are equally important for storing information about mazes. Thecorollary: Memories are widely distributed rather than local.
Lashley’s theory was a compromise—and a disappointing one at that—in the search for the memory trace. But even while Lashley was reachinghis cul-de-sac, up north, one of the great breakthroughs in memory sciencewas being made, accidentally, by a Canadian neurosurgeon.
When one of these flashbacks was reported to meFlashbacks in the by a conscious patient, I was incredulous. . . .
TemDOral Lobe ^or example> when a mother told me she was
suddenly aware, as my electrode touched the cor-tex, of being in the kitchen listening to the voiceof her little boy who was playing outside in theyard.
—WILDER PENFIELD,
The Mystery of the Mind
Dr. wilder penfield wasn’t looking for engrams when he performedhis historic operations at the Montreal Neurological Institute in the 1940sand 1950s; he was cautiously probing the brains of epileptics with electrodesin order to pinpoint the damaged regions. These patients had to remainconscious throughout so that their responses could guide the surgeon aroundthe mysterious folds of the exposed cortex. If, when he touched a certainsite, the patient heard buzzing sounds, Penfield would know he was in theauditory cortex; stimulating an area of the «motor strip,» on the otherhand, might make the left hand jerk upward like a puppet’s. In this wayPenfield and his colleague Herbert Jaspers sketched in many of the details(thumb, nose, left toe) of the brain’s sensory and motor maps, for whichlater generations of neurologists would thank them. But that was workadaystuff compared with what the doctors discovered around the temporallobes.
The late Hughlings Jackson, Penfield’s mentor, had observed yearsearlier that epileptic discharges in the temporal lobes (behind the temples,on either side of the brain) could produce «dreamy states» or «psychicalseizures»: sensations of deja-vu, odd reveries, inexplicable feelings of fa-miliarity or strangeness, and so on. When Penfield probed this area of thebrain he seemed to summon up memories. Actually they were more likesudden flashes of the past—a conversation in a drawing room, the ghostlyvoice of a child calling, the sound of cars passing outside—complete with
all the emotions of the original event. It was as if the surgeon had tappedinto some Freudian storage bin: One patient accused him of unleashingher «subconscious.»
«It was evident at once that these were not dreams,» Penfield musedin his book The Mystery of the Mind, written shortly before his death inthe mid-1970s. «They were electrical activations of the sequential recordof consciousness, a record that had been laid down during the patient’searlier experience. The patient ‘re-lived’ all that he had been aware of inthat earlier period of time as in a moving-picture ‘flashback.’ »
Amazed at what his electrode had conjured from a strip of gray matter,the surgeon tried to disprove the phenomenon, but it did not go away.»D. F. could hear instruments playing a melody,» he reported. «I restim-ulated the same point thirty times (!) trying to mislead her, and dictatedeach response to a stenographer. Each time I re-stimulated, she heard themelody again. It began at the same place and went on from chorus toverse.» In the case of another patient, Penfield placed numbered squaresof paper on the surface of her exposed brain to mark each spot he stim-ulated. Here is a portion of the record, with the numbers matched to pointson the temporal-lobe surface:
12—»Yes, I heard voices down along the river somewhere—a man’s voice and a
woman’s voice … I think I saw the river.»
15—»Just a tiny flash of a feeling of familiarity and a feeling that I knew everything
that was going to happen in the near future.»
17c—»Oh, I had the same very, very familiar memory, in an office somewhere. I
could see the desks. I was there and someone was calling to me, a man leaning on
the desk with a pencil in his hand.» [At this point Penfield warned D. F. he was
going to stimulate, but actually did nothing. Her response: «Nothing.»]
18a (stimulation without warning)—»I had a little memory—a scene in a play—
they were talking and I could see it—I was just seeing it in my memory.»
After seeing small electrical currents miraculously produce many suchtableaux vivants, Penfield concluded that the brain stores everything itsowner has ever experienced and in its original form. After all, didn’t hispatients recall things of which they had no conscious recollection? Andrather than being jumbled or distorted, as one might expect, the «flash-backs» seemed to play themselves out in their proper order like scenes ina movie. «Since the electrode may activate a random sample of this stripfrom the distant past,» he reasoned, «and since the most unimportant andcompletely forgotten periods of time may appear in this sampling, it seemsreasonable to suppose that the record is complete and that it does includeall periods of each individual’s waking conscious life.»
It certainly looked like an engram, but where was it stored? In the
Flashbacks in the Temporal Lobe • 191
tissue of the temporal cortex itself? Penfield thought so at first and ac-cordingly renamed this area the «memory cortex.» A few years later,deciding that stimulation there actually «activates a record located a dis-tance from that cortex»—in the diencephalon, or higher brain stem, to beexact—he came to refer to the temporal cortex as the «interpretive cortex.»
How to explain the apparent contradiction between Lashley’s dead-endquest and the highly localized memory stores of Penfield’s patients? Onepossibility is that memories are coded redundantly, over and over againin various parts of the cortex, so that if one «engram» is wiped out, there’sa duplicate somewhere else. (The brain is a highly redundant organ, afterall.) Or maybe memories are stored as dynamic processes spread over thewhole brain, which can nonetheless be triggered from local spots (like Area17 of the temporal cortex), much as dialing Area Code 202 plugs yourtelephone into part of Ma Bell’s network. Or perhaps what Penfield con-jured was not an engram at all.
The idea of an inviolate, if often inaccessible, memory record is prettysacrosanct in this business. It fits nicely with the notion that truth serums,hypnosis, free-association techniques, as well as electrical brain stimula-tion, can uncover a lot of dusty antiques in the mental attic. Freud’s dictumthat «in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish» re-mains a central gospel of psychoanalysis. And, of course, there is theProustian petite madeleine, a little pastry in a scallop-shaped shell thatlaunched the world’s most celebrated literary flashback.
You remember the incident in Swann’s Way. Proust, or his narratoralter ego, has a bad cold one day. His mother gives him a petite madeleineand a cup of tea, and the taste of the warm liquid mixed with crumbs setsoff existential shudders, as luminous bits of the long-forgotten past floatback into his mind. But the state of grace fades almost immediately, andso the narrator detaches his consciousness from the present and concen-trates on making the holy moment reappear. Another sip of tea, a fewmore pastry crumbs, a medley of dismembered visions. Finally he identifiesthe source of this rapture. Many years ago, when he was a little boy, hisgreat-aunt used to give him madeleines and lime-blossom tea, and thisfamiliar taste is a hot line to the village of his childhood.
Immediately the old grey house upon the street . . . rose up like a little stage setto attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden . . . and with thehouse the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where Iused to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in thegame wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with waterand steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character orform, but the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on color and
Marcel Proust: A scalloped pastry launched the original Proustian experience. (TheBettmann Archive)
distinctive shape … so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M.Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village. . . and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity,sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
Most of us have probably experienced similar, if less literary, sensationsof deja-vu. But what if Proust’s magic muffin recaptured a phony past!
Fake Memories
That possibility was raised recently by aUniversity of Washington memory re-searcher who does not believe in a permanent engram. To psychologistElizabeth Loftus, memory is not a fastidious court reporter but a badanswering service manned by frazzled or negligent operators. As an ex-treme example, take the case of the «Hillside Strangler» of Los Angeles.As the police and prosecutors listened spellbound, Kenneth Bianchiconfessed to murdering a string of Los Angeles-area women in 1977 and1978 as well as two young women in Bellingham, Washington. There wasa problem however. As the months dragged on, Bianchi’s gruesome storykept flip-flopping. Sometimes he had complete amnesia for the killings.
Fake Memories • 193
At another time he said he’d strangled one victim, waitress-prostitute Yo-landa Washington, in the back seat of the car while his cousin and ac-complice, Angelo Buono, drove. Then he said he remembered walkinginto the house and seeing his partner choking the woman. At another timehe told his lawyers and psychiatrists that he really wasn’t sure if he hadstrangled any of the girls himself or if the details he «remembered» wereactually gleaned from police files and interrogations. If he was not a path-ological liar, Bianchi’s on-again/off-again amnesia raised some weird ques-tions. College students may forget the lists of nonsense words they’re askedto memorize in psychology experiments, but was it really possible forsomeone to «forget» something like mass murdering?
Yes, thought Elizabeth Loftus, who was consulted on the case, it wasaltogether possible. «From the information we had,» she tells us, «therewas no way to prove whether he was lying or not. But I think you canmanufacture a reality for yourself that is indistinguishable from true reality.»
The thrust of Loftus’s research is that anyone’s memory can be tam-pered with and falsified after the fact like an embezzler’s account ledger.Even solid citizens walk around with their heads full of fake memories.Say a person is shown a «murder suspect» with glasses and straight hairand later overhears someone mention the suspect’s curly hair. The witnessalmost invariably «remembers» a frizzy-haired culprit (often without glasses),according to Loftus. In a series of other «eyewitness» experiments, detailssupplied by other people inevitably contaminated the memory. Stop signsbecame yield signs, barns grew up out of thin air, yellow cars turned fire-engine red. And what happens to the underlying «engram»? Loftus thinksit has vanished forever into the limbo of lost things. «It may be that thelegal notion of an independent recollection is a psychological impossibil-ity,» she says.
As for hypnosis, «truth serums,» polygraph tests, and all those othersupposed portals to the truth: «There’s no way even the most sophisticatedhypnotist can tell the difference between a memory that is real and onethat’s created,» she tells us. «If you’ve got a person who is hypnotized andhighly suggestible and false information is implanted in his mind, it mayget embedded even more strongly. One psychologist tried to use a poly-graph to distinguish between real and phony memory, but it didn’t work.Once someone has constructed a memory, he comes to believe it himself.»
Now let us journey back to the operating room at the Montreal Neuro-logical Institute. In a paper called «On the Permanence of Stored Infor-mation in the Human Brain,» published in the American Psychologist,Elizabeth Loftus and her husband, Geoffrey Loftus, reexamine the Penfieldrecord with a more jaded eye. Of 1,132 cortical-stimulation patients, they
note, only forty reported «experiential flashbacks,» the bulk of which con-sisted of disembodied voices, snatches of music, and vague thoughts. Eventhe more lifelike recollections, the Loftuses believe, are probably less thanfaithful to the original. For example, they cite one of Penfield’s patientswho suddenly saw herself as she had appeared in childbirth. The Loftusespoint out that when a patient sees herself from the sidelines, she is morelikely reconstructing the experience rather than «reliving» it. Another pa-tient said, «I think I heard a mother calling her little boy somewhere» andsaid it was «somebody in the neighborhood where I live.» But eighteenminutes later, when the same spot was stimulated, she said, «Yes, I hearthe same familiar sounds. It seems to be a woman calling. The same lady.That was not in the neighborhood. It seemed to be at the lumberyard.»She added that she had never in her life been around a lumberyard. Onceagain, the Loftuses conclude, this is the case of a patient reconstructingrather than reliving an experience, because it involved a location in whichshe had never been.
Penfield’s conclusions raise other questions. If so much is recorded (allperiods of an individual’s waking, conscious life, no less!), is there anylimit to what the human brain can store? If you need to recall, say, thesummer of 1965, you really don’t want an impeccable, second-to-secondreplay of June through August 1965. You need something much moredistilled: perhaps a handful of «peak experiences» at the beach. Maybe,of course, the entire, unexpurgated record of your summer of 1965 issomewhere (dormant) in your brain cells, and it is only in the retrieval thatyou somehow fast-forward past reams of irrelevant details, but that isunlikely. If you were designing the sort of information-processing systema brain is, it would be extremely impractical to store memories permanentlyin their original form. You need mechanisms for transforming and record-ing them; for «chunking» information into categories (Baseball Games IHave Attended; Blind Dates I’d Rather Not Have Had); for performingmultiple correlations very quickly (Is this cylindrical object a cup? Doesthis woman remind me of my ex-wife?), and so on.
Is your memory a phonograph record on which the information is storedin localized grooves to be replayed on demand? If so, it’s a very bizarrerecord, for the songs sound different every time they’re played. Computermemories are assigned to particular «addresses,» from which they can beretrieved by typing the correct code. Computers are not supposed to havehazy recollections, add false information, embellish the facts or otherwisechange the story. Human memory, in contrast, is more like the villagestoryteller; it doesn’t passively store facts but weaves them into a good
Cannibal Worms • 195
(coherent, plausible) story, which is re-created with each telling—like oralepics, the chansons de geste, of the Middle Ages.
So how, exactly, does your brain store memories? The principal theoriesfollow.
Back in the 1960s memory researchers be-Cannibal Worms came infatuated with the master informa-
tion-containing molecule, DNA—whose alphabet of nucleotide sequencesspells out the shape of your nose, the whorls on your fingertips, and a lotof other things about you—and looked for an analogous code for memory.It couldn’t be DNA, of course, because you don’t inherit memories. Butmaybe memories were stored along the amino acid chains of short proteinstrands. Perhaps there was even a unique protein molecule for each ofyour recollections. The idea had a certain mystique—after all, immunologic»memory» is coded in this way, with elaborate intracellular mechanismsto distinguish between «self and foreign tissue, familiar and unfamiliarviruses, and so on. Moreover, if it were true, one might actually extractthe salient remembering molecules from the brain. Thus ensued a seriesof picturesque experiments in «memory transfer.»
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a researcher named JamesV. McConnell worked on training the humble planarian, or flatworm. Firsthe taught a bunch of worms to «scrunch up» at the sight of a flashing lightby shocking them just after a light flashed. Then he killed them, groundup their bodies, and fed the mush to a group of untrained planaria. Sureenough, McConnell reported, the «naive» worms also had an aversion toflashing lights. Had they actually ingested a memory when they ate theirbuddies? McConnell said they did, but the chief of the worm runners tooka lot of flak when other researchers failed to replicate his results.
In another famous memory-transfer experiment, at the University ofTexas in Houston, mice were injected with purified peptides—short frag-ments of protein molecules, in this case, eight to fifteen amino acids long—taken from the brains of rats that had been trained to fear the dark. Thepeptide was dubbed scotophobin, Greek for «fear of darkness.» The sco-tophobin recipients reportedly headed straight for the illumined part of atraining box, which mice, being nocturnal, normally avoid.
But despite the allure of ingesting knowledge for breakfast and despitesome «statistically significant» improvements on the part of some of thepassive-learning animals, memory transfer fell out of fashion around thelate 1960s. Nowadays most scientists have dropped the idea. For one thing,a one memory-one peptide scheme would require an awful lot of different
peptides to store a human being’s life story, and from what we know thebrain does not have anything like that many. Besides, the cell’s proteinshave plenty to do without including memory coding in their job description.Most important, if intracellular proteins store memories and other highermental functions, what does the elaborate code of connections betweenneurons do? That, of course, brings us to the following theory.
, _ , . , The theory: Memories are encoded in
iviUCri Ado at
changes in particular synapses. By altering
trie Synapse tjje wav one neuron speaks to another («Fire»
or «Don’t Fire»), these synaptic events setup particular circuits, called cell assemblies or neural nets, that correspondto specific memories. This theory was first proposed by the Canadian psy-chologist Donald Hebb in 1949, and it is the reigning one today.
Here is the basic idea: When a cell is activated—for example, by alearning task with a reward at the end—its synaptic connection is strength-ened. With many such strengthened synapses, you get a temporarily excitedcell assembly, which is the physiological basis of short-term memory. Short-term memory, which lasts for a matter of hours—a couple of days, atmost—thus involves transient electrochemical events at many synapses.But how do you get long-term memory out of this scheme?
That’s trickier, but the hypothesis is that temporary electrochemicalchanges at the synapse can in time evolve into long-lasting anatomicalchanges. If a neuronal pathway is traversed over and over again, like awell-worn footpath, an enduring pattern is engraved. Neural messages tendto flow along familiar roads, along paths of least resistance.
This idea is curiously reminiscent of the ancient Hindu concept of sam-skaras. In The Bhagavad-Gita for Daily Living, Eknath Eswaran definesa samskara as «nothing more than a thought repeated over and over athousand times. … A person with an anger samskara, for example, isprone to anger over anything. …» Samskaras are «engrams,» ghostlytraces of past experiences (which in Indian philosophy include the storedexperiences of many lifetimes, perhaps back to a dim memory of being asea anemone). As samskaras slowly accumulate in the subconscious mindlike sandbanks along a river, «character» takes form.
«What we call personality,» writes Eswaran, «is nothing more than acollection of samskaras. … On the one hand it means that there is verylittle freedom in what we do or even what we think. But on the other handit means that personality is not really rigid; it too is a process. Though wethink of ourselves as always the same, we are remaking ourselves everymoment we think. …»
Ironically, we owe our best knowledge ofMemories of a the neural mechanics of memory to creatures
Sea Slug y0U might have thought had no memory
at all. If you dropped in on a memory seminarat the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience these days, youmight be in for a shock. The speaker at the podium might not be discussingN. A. or H. M., or even the journeys of rodents around electrified radialmazes, but learning in the leech, the lip reflexes of a trained garden slugcalled Hermissenda, or such microcosmic matters as «Differential ClassicalConditioning of a Defensive Withdrawal Reflex in Aplysia Californica.»
Aplysia is a brown, splotchy sea slug with a head shaped like a pig’s,ears like a hare’s, and the body of a tortoise without the shell. It’s ratherlarge for a slug, about the size of a human brain, and left to its own devices,Aplysia grazes contentedly on sea lettuce in the tide pools off the Californiacoast. Columbia University neuroscientist Eric Kandel and his colleagueswere drawn to the simple architecture of Aplysia’s nervous system, whichconsists of only about twenty thousand neurons, many of which are con-veniently large enough to be seen by the naked eye. If you want to knowthe cellular details of learning, Kandel and company reasoned, why notstudy the simplest biological system that can answer your questions? Inthe early 1960s, therefore, this uncharismatic snail-without-a-shell wasscooped up and shipped to Columbia in great quantities, and Kandel pro-ceeded to draw a meticulous cell-by-cell wiring diagram of its nervoussystem.
No paragon of intellect, Aplysia californica is nonetheless equippedwith a humble repertoire of hard-wired reflexes. If anything touches thegill on its back side, for instance, it hastily jerks it back into a little «mantle»it has for that purpose. When Kandel and his colleague James B. Schwartztried to «teach» aplysia, they worked on modifying this inborn reflex.
First, Kandel and Schwartz squirted a jet of water on Aplysia’s gill overand over again. After a while the creature learned to ignore the now-familiar stimulus, and its gill-withdrawal reflex grew more lackadaisical.This is called habituation, a common learned response in humans as wellas unicellular beasts. As an extreme of human habituation, consider the»Bowery-el phenomenon» described by Karl Pribram in Languages of theBrain: «For many years, there was an elevated railway line (the ‘el’) onThird Avenue in New York that made a fearful racket; when it was torndown, people who had been living in apartments along the line awakenedperiodically out of a sound sleep to call the police about some strangeoccurrence they could not properly define. The calls were made at thetimes the trains had formerly rumbled past. The strange occurrences were,of course, the deafening silence that had replaced the expected noise.»
Sensitization is the opposite: an enhanced response to a stimulus. Ha-bituated to the screech of metal wheels, the Bowery-el neighbors became»sensitized» to silence. If an electric shock accompanies the jet of water,Aplysia’s gill withdrawal becomes more vehement. Kandel and Schwartztouched the mantle on Aplysia’s back while simultaneously zapping its tailwith electricity. After fifteen repetitions or so, the animal reacted to thegentlest prod by violently withdrawing its gill. What the Columbia inver-tebrate trainers were teaching the sea slug was «classical conditioning,» aphenomenon immortalized by Pavlov’s dogs, who would salivate at thesound of a bell once it became associated with juicy slabs of meat. It’s notThe Education of Henry Adams, but it is a modest form of learning.
And everything Aplysia can do, Limax, Hermissenda, and the homelyoctopus (just to name a few) can do, too. The garden slug Limax normallyloves potatoes, but when its favorite snack is «punished» with a bitter taste,the creature soon gives spuds a wide berth. (Moreover, its sensitive lipsand brain can be surgically removed and trained to respond differently totwo food extracts.) The octopus can learn a number of things, includingthe difference between vertical and horizontal lines, and its huge, simplywired ganglia make it a living neuroanatomy lesson.
At Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, in Massachusetts, Dan-iel Alkon put a sea slug called Hermissenda in one end of a glass tube,flipped on a light at the other end, and then spun the animal on a phono-graphlike turntable. After a few rounds of this, the trained slugs hesitatedand flinched whenever the light went on instead of making a beeline forthe illuminated area as uneducated slugs do. In some dim way, Hermissendamust remember, Light precedes rotation. What’s more, Alkon was able totrack the memory to changes in the slug’s nervous system—and this pavedthe way for a pioneering experiment in «artificial learning.» Alkon’s col-league Joseph Farley, of Princeton, performed brain surgery on some un-trained sea slugs. Sticking microelectrodes into individual neurons, he usedelectricity to induce the learning-related membrane changes. When theseslugs were sewn up and placed in the training apparatus, they behaved justlike their trained brethren.
Meanwhile, back at Columbia, Aplysia was becoming a superstar. Kan-del and company found that conditioned messages such as Gill prod meansshock could live on in the slug’s memory for hours or even weeks, to judgeby its responses. More to the point, the researchers were able to showexactly where in the animal’s nervous system the learning occurred: at thesynapse. The memory was stored in measurable changes in the number ofneurochemical quanta (or packets) released from specific neurons. Habit-uation reduced the amount of the chemical messenger, thereby weakening
Memories of a Sea Slug • 199
the electrical signal sent to the postsynaptic cell. With sensitization, con-versely, more of the chemical squirted into the gap, and a stronger messagewas relayed. It all made exquisite sense.
Learning the details of Kandel’s work is like entering the diminutive,perfect world of a Persian miniature. With intracellular electrodes thescientist recorded the electrical potentials of the cell membrane and matchedthem to the number of transmitter quanta released into the synapse. Delv-ing deeper, he determined that the amount of transmitter secreted de-pended on molecular events in the microscopic calcium channels of themembrane. Because the channels at the synaptic terminals are too tiny torecord from directly, Kandel and colleague Mark Klein ingeniously inferredtheir properties from measured changes in the calcium channels of the cellbody. Thus the ultimate physiological basis of habituation and sensitizationwas traced to the minute ebb and flow of calcium ions through semiporoustissue. Kandel did more. With an electron microscope, he showed that thephysical structure of a sensitized synapse is different—at least after many,many stimulations—from a normal cell junction. Is this the lasting ana-tomical change believed to underlie long-term memory? Nobody is sureyet, but at long last, short-term memory has been nailed to a definitecellular mechanism—in Aplysia californica, anyway.
Whether the reeducation of Aplysia sheds any light on your memories—or even a laboratory rat’s maze knowledge—is another matter. Certainlythe invertebrate work proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that learninginvolves changes in nerve transmission, just as Hebb said. Kandel thinksmore complex learning machines like mammals use the same basic cellular»building blocks» and that a universal «biological grammar of mentation»will one day replace the cognitive language of the psychology laboratory.In a 1979 lecture entitled «Psychotherapy and the Single Synapse» (he’s apracticing psychiatrist, as well) he even reflected on synapses on the couch:
When I speak to someone and he or she listens to me, we can not only make eyecontact and voice contact, but the action of the neuronal machinery in my brainis having a direct and, I hope, long-lasting effect on the neuronal machinery in hisor her brain, and vice-versa. Indeed, I would argue that it is only insofar as ourwords produce changes in each other’s brains that psychotherapeutic interventionproduces changes in patients’ minds.
Kandel is certainly correct about the building blocks, for nature has ahabit of using the same materials—such as the endorphins that circulatethrough human beings and leeches alike—over and over again. And it’sno doubt true that thoughts can change your brain. But if you’re waitingfor a unified field theory of memory, you may have to wait a long time.
Even if the ion channels of rabbits, first-graders, and presidents did behaveexactly like Aplysia’s, those cellular details won’t necessarily be the Rosettastone of mammalian memory. We need to know other things besides. Howare the synaptic changes organized into circuits? Which regions of the brainare important? Is there one kind of memory or many? What is the flowdiagram of information-processing events and how does that add up to thememory of your senior prom?
, «We have been the first to demonstrate
? unequivocally in a mammalian brain a mem-
Found? ory trace that js highly localized,» Stanford
neurophysiologist Richard F. Thompson an-nounced at the 1983 convention of the Society for Neuroscience. The brainThompson was discussing belonged to a rabbit, and his lecture was entitled»The Memory Trace Found?»—a note of bravado in this understated uni-verse where talks on «The Relationship Between Simple and ComplexSpike Responses of Cerebellar Purkinje Cells Located in Identified Cor-ticonuclear Zones» and «The Localization of p-NGF mRNA in TissueSections Using in Situ Hybridization» are the norm. In any case, all severalhundred metal folding chairs in the auditorium were occupied.
Thompson’s rabbit was put through a simple course of classical (Pav-lovian) conditioning, basically, a modification of an eyelid-closing reflex.A tone sounds, immediately followed by an unpleasant puff of air to theanimal’s eyeball. After a few repetitions the animal squeezes its eyes shutwhenever it hears the tone—its memory, of course, providing the linkbetween the two stimuli.
That particular memory trace, Thompson reports, is actually stored ina particular cubic millimeter of brain tissue. Using surgery or chemicals todestroy a patch of neurons deep in the cerebellum, Thompson and co-worker David McCormick managed to accomplish what Lashley could not:the total extinction of a learned response. After surgery the rabbit nolonger closes its trained eye when it hears the tone and cannot be retrained.It’s not that it can’t physically shut its eyelid—it will still do so as a reflex—or that it can’t hear the tone. Thompson and McCormick showed that itcan. The loss, they say, is specific to the memory of the tone/air-puffassociation.
The auditorium lights dim and a green oscilloscope fills the movie screen.A white rabbit, looking just like one of the floppy bunnies in a BeatrixPotter tale, crouches nervously in a sort of metal dishtray. There’s a toneand an air puff, and a little flotilla of EEGs crosses the oscilloscope screen.We see histograms of cerebellar activity «during the CS [conditioned stim-
Fragment from an Imaginary Science • 201
ulus] period.» We see the white bunny hopping around the lab, pausingto nuzzle somebody’s flannel pants cuffs (no motor damage after lesion).Thompson believes that the cerebellum contains some of the hardwareessential to classical conditioning, at least with «aversive» stimuli. But itis not the sole seat of rabbit memory. When the scientist complicated thelesson by putting a half-second pause between tone and air puff, his rabbitshad to call on higher brain regions for assistance. A rabbit without an intacthippocampus can’t learn this task, although it can master the simpler one.»We don’t know exactly where the trace is stored, but it is just a matterof time,» Thompson concludes.
These strangely disturbing eye blinks (which causedFragment from an the whole phenomenal world to vanish and ma-
Imaginary Science terialize again like an apparition in a fairy tale)
were always preceded by the same dolorous toneand the same exquisite pangs of deja-vu, as if inthe brief, tenebrous passage between uncondi-tioned stimulus and conditioned stimulus the rab-bit foretasted the inevitable evil winds, the min-iature siroccos that would sweep through hisconsciousness, stirring febrile waves on the lu-minous, emerald sea of the oscilloscope. Perhapsthe memory was preserved, whole and uncor-rupted as the corpse of a saint, cloaked in thesensual folds of the cerebellum, just as within theinfinitesimal, ion-soaked membranes of Aplysia,traces of past associations linger for days, untilthe minute interstices of the synapse itself assumethe same shape, like a delicately molded pate,and I wondered for the first time whether onemight disturb the muse of memory herself.
—A mock-Proustian view of the learnedeyelid response
Would any sane person think of translating the data of the behavioristlab into the syntax of Proust, or vice-versa? Of course not. But why is thisa weird and impossible hybridization experiment, like cross-breeding a cowand a sea urchin? One problem, of course, is that we’re dealing with twodifferent species, namely, laboratory rabbits and turn-of-the-century Frenchliterati. The other difficulty has to do with language, and we don’t meanFrench. In the tongue of experimental psychology, «memory» may be asimple conditioned reflex; in Proust, it’s a rococo interior journey throughParisian high society, the battles of the First World War, and a hundredloves, sorrows, and disenchantments. And the fact is that your memory ismuch more like Remembrance of Things Past than it is like a stimu-
lus/response machine. We’re not suggesting that behaviorists should studyProust, only that you should guard against the reverse anthropomorphismof attributing to humans the motivations of lab animals.
Proust was not a scientist in the formal sense, but notice how, in themadeleine episode, he systematically experiments with his own senses: «Idecided to make it [the state of consciousness] reappear. I retrace mythoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I re-discover the same state, illuminated with no fresh light. I ask my mind tomake one further effort . . .»He frames hypotheses («Undoubtedly whatis thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visualmemory which, being linked to that taste, is trying to follow it into myconscious mind») and painstakingly tests them out. He refines his methodsagain and again and formulates a sophisticated theory of memory: thattaste and smell, the senses to which the conscious mind pays least attention,are conduits to buried information:
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, afterthe things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but moreenduring, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a longtime, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; andbear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, thevast structure of recollection.
(Perhaps the reason smells are so evocative is that the olfactory nervefibers project directly to the memory and emotion structures in the amyg-dala and hippocampus, whereas visual signals are filtered through severalintermediate processing stations first.)
Much as Proustian memory is poorly translated into the idiom of drivesand reinforcement, analogous, if less obvious, language barriers separateone scientific domain from another. Moving down the biological scale from,say, the level of social groups (where anthropologists and sociologists dwell)to organisms, to organs, to cells, to molecules, to atoms, one finds oneselfin separate fiefdoms pervaded by different languages, laws, and customs.A basic canon of science is that phenomena of each level can be explainedby (translated into) those of a lower level, as a chemical compound canbe translated into its constituent molecules. That, in a nutshell, is reduc-tionism, and it’s not necessarily a bad word. But although color may beexplained in electromagnetic terms and ultimately as a probabilistic smearof electrons, does the behavior of electrons really describe the special blueof the Sargasso Sea?
And so the slug connoisseurs sometimes have trouble conversing withthe vertebrate people, who in turn may have little to say to the cognitive
Kinds of Memory • 203
psychologists who know computerspeak, or to the neurologists who treatstroke patients, or to the pharmacologists who test memory chemicals invitro. All of which makes it difficult to come up with a single definition ofmemory.
. Just limiting our scope to humans, here’s
Kinds of Memory a partial list.
1. Short-term Versus Long-term Memory. The definition of short-termkeeps changing, and some researchers also talk about something called»immediate memory,» which is even shorter. But for simplicity’s sake,think of short-term memory as something like your grocery list, andlong-term memory as more like the face of your first love. Short-termhuman memory is said to have a storage capacity of about six or seven»chunks» of information (a chunk can be anything from a single digitto a whole thought), which is why you can remember your phonenumber better as 213-788-9986 than as 2137889986.
2. Verbal and Spatial Memory. The distinction speaks for itself. As youmight guess, in most people verbal memory is linked to the left cerebralhemisphere and spatial to the right.
3. Episodic and Semantic Memory. Episodic, or «autobiographical,»memory is the memory for particular times, places, and contexts (asin, what you did during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.). Semanticmemory is context-free knowledge of facts, language, or concepts (asin «Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States»). Episodicmemory tends to go downhill with age, while semantic memory stayscomparatively fresh. Some researchers believe certain of the amnesiasyndromes selectively interfere with episodic memory.
4. Procedural Memory and Declarative Memory. This dichotomy comesfrom the kingdom of artificial intelligence, but it’s handy for humanmemory, too. Procedural knowledge is «how-to» stuff, which in com-puters means general rules and operating procedures and in humansmeans knowing how to drive, swing a golf club, or repair a toaster.Declarative knowledge is made up of facts, specific items of infor-mation, such as who is President of the United States, the fact thatthere are nine planets in our solar system, and that you are thirty-three years old. In computers declarative knowledge is usually encodedlocally, whereas procedural knowledge is, in Douglas Hofstadter’swords {Godel Escher Bach), «spread around in pieces, and you can’tretrieve it, or key in on it. It is a global consequence of how the
program works, not a local detail.» Does the same local/global dis-tinction hold true of «biological computers»? Stay tuned.5. Habit Memory and Informational Memory. This may be a restatementof number 4, with the difference that habit memory (at least in thecase of some rhesus monkeys) is associated with reward. Informationalmemory is essentially the equivalent of declarative memory.
There are myriad other subdivisions of memory, which are a lot ofPh.D.s’ bread and butter but which needn’t concern you. The only otherinformation you’ll need is that the memory process is generally dividedinto three stages: coding, storage (or consolidation), and retrieval. Theparty line is that it takes hours or days for a new memory to be enteredinto the long-term file and that in the interim (the consolidation period)it can easily be erased. We know this because lab animals given a memory-disrupting chemical in the first few hours (or sometimes days) following alearning task forget it completely, whereas the same drug administered abit later—after consolidation is complete—leaves the memory intact. Don’tbelieve this. The new evidence is that consolidation may go on for years.
In 1917 a neurologist described a curiousJ incident involving a woman who suffered from
Korsakoff’s syndrome, a brain disease caused by severe alcoholism thatleaves its victims with an even blanker memory record than N.A.’s orH.M.’s. As if to compensate for their mnemonic bankruptcy, Korsakoff’spatients are notorious for «confabulating,» or making up plausible-sound-ing stories out of whole cloth. Anyway, as an experiment this doctor shookhis patient’s hand, deliberately pricking her finger with a hidden pin. Thewoman quickly jerked her hand away, but when queried about why shedid this, she answered vaguely, «Isn’t it allowed to withdraw one’s hand?»Though she (or her conscious mind) didn’t seem to know the reason forher action, some part of her brain obviously remembered.
«What is of interest,» observes memory researcher Larry Squire, whorecently exhumed this strange-but-true episode from the neurological ar-chives, «is that the patient’s behavior is altered by experience and that thisaltered behavior outlasted the patient’s memory of the experience itself.»What is the explanation? Do we have two different minds inside our head,one of which can know something that the other has forgotten?
Larry Squire thinks he knows the answer, and so do his colleagues atthe medical school of the University of California at San Diego, who havebeen following N. A. around for nine years. So does an equally astuteteam of MIT researchers who have been keeping tabs on H. M. So does
Amnesia Reconsidered • 205
Mortimer Mishkin, who’s been surgically creating amnesic monkeys at theNIMH. But before we tell you what it is, let’s take a closer look at amnesia.Here is N. A., as seen through the eyes of Squire and colleagues PhilipI. Kaushall and Dr. Mark Zetkin (in a paper called «Single Case Study:a Psychosocial Study of Chronic, Circumscribed Amnesia»):
At first meeting N. A. impresses the visitor with his normality. … A visitor athis house is invariably invited to inspect his collections and vacation mementos.The guns are his pride, and he wipes them carefully after each handling. «Theacids in human sweat will disfigure the metal.» There are model airplanes, whichhe has built himself, and, in his bedroom, objects by the hundreds—rocks, shells,and artifacts. «He buys on impulse like a child,» his mother complains.
He will tell the visitor where he acquired things, and his discourse is lucid andintelligent. Occasionally, he hesitates, wondering when some object was acquiredor perhaps whether it was bought in India or Fiji. He apologizes for forgettingyour name each time. Unlike the senile patient … N. A. is not confused. Withina short time span, he does not repeat himself or show the same objects twice: butafter the third or fourth visit, after he asks each time whether he has shown youhis collections, his remarks and activities come to reveal a devastated life and anisolated mental world.
When a phone call interrupts him, N. A. loses track of whatever hewas doing, and even without any interruptions, he can scarcely perform asimple sequence of steps. Although he knows «Watergate» was a politicalscandal that happened in either «Washington or Florida» and that someAmericans were held hostage in Iran, his life since 1960 has generally beenlike the hazy, disappearing vapor trail of an airplane. «At one memorytesting session recently,» the scientists recall, «he [N. A.] repeatedly triedto recall a question that he wanted to ask. He finally searched his pocketsand found a written note: ‘Ask Dr. Squire if my memory is getting anybetter.’ » It wasn’t. Yet his memory of events before the accident is crystalclear.
A . „ .fi Exactly what part of N. A.’s memory pro-
Amnesia Reconsidered …., , A%7 wiwu *• * ♦• •
cess is damaged? Is it (1) that information is
improperly encoded and does not enter his memory stream; (2) that theinformation is filed but poorly consolidated and maintained; or (3) thatthe information is stored and maintained perfectly well but N. A. can’tretrieve it?
Traditionally diagnosis number 3, retrieval failure, has been the theoryof choice in amnesia. It would explain, for one thing, why patients withglobal amnesia nonetheless seem to remember some things. When recallinglists of words, for instance, many amnesics are known to make «intrusionerrors»—that is, they give wrong answers that are, in fact, words from
previous tests—but (here’s the puzzle) they do not remember ever havingseen the words before. From this peculiar state of affairs many memoryresearchers concluded that amnesics store memory traces but cannot getat them for some reason, though they may be able to do so under the rightconditions if given the right cues.
If retrieval were the problem, however, it should affect all memoriesequally—yesterday, last year, and ten years ago—and as we’ve just seenin the case of N. A., this is not so. He has excellent access to his pre-1960data bank. H. M. likewise retains his presurgical past intact—well, almostintact. H. M. became a neurological celebrity in 1953, when surgeons atthe Montreal Neurological Institute cut out most of the hippocampus andamygdala on both sides of his brain to treat his epilepsy. The operationwiped out his ongoing memory stream and also voided about three yearsof memories preceding it, so that he has, in the lingo, a little retrogradeamnesia on top of his global anterograde amnesia. The upshot is that hismemory record dead-ends somewhere around 1950, which places him ina curious time warp. Now in his mid-fifties, H. M. is stuck with exactlythe same vocabulary he had at age twenty-seven, and his days pass in asomnambulistic haze of TV, crossword puzzles, and visits from scientists.In a paper presented at the November 1983 annual meeting of the Societyfor Neuroscience, MIT’s Suzanne Cor kin supplied this doleful slice ofamnesic life:
He still exhibits profound anterograde amnesia and does not know where he lives,who cares for him, or what he ate at his last meal. His guesses as to the currentyear range from 1958 to 1993, and when he does not stop to calculate it, he estimateshis age to be 10 to 26 years less than it is. Nevertheless, he has islands of remem-bering, such as knowing that an astronaut is someone who travels in outer space,and that a public figure named Kennedy was assassinated, and that rock music is»that new kind of music we have.» He can still draw an accurate floor plan of thehouse in which he lived from 1960 to 1974; moreover, he believes he still livesthere.
So H. M.’s amnesia, having spared his earlyI he forgotten memories, can’t really be a retrieval prob-
Autobiography lem> Patients with alcoholic Korsakoff’s syn-
drome, on the other hand, suffer from bothanterograde and retrograde amnesia. Not only do they sleepwalk throughthe present like N. A. and H. M., but they don’t remember the past verywell either. That might suggest a memory-retrieval failure were it not forthe fact that their retrograde forgetting has an interesting temporal gra-dient. The more remote the memory, the better it is preserved.
The Forgotten Autobiography • 207
The difficulty with studying retrograde amnesia, however, is that thereis no way to tell for sure what the amnesic used to know, unless you justhappened to give him a memory test before he was stricken. Or unlessyou find someone who wrote an autobiography and then promptly devel-oped Korsakoff’s disease—as Patient X did. He was a respected scientistwho had authored three hundred papers and five books, including his 1979autobiography, before the tell-tale lesions of Korsakoff’s showed up on hisbrain scan in 1981. To measure his retrograde forgetfulness, a team ofBoston scientists tested Patient X on details taken from his own autobiog-raphy—facts, in other words, that he had known only a short time before.»Can you tell me about that scientific conference you went to in 1972?»they would ask him, and the former scientist would reply, as often as not,»What conference?»
The misfortunes of Patient X clarified two important details. First,Korsakoff s patients really have forgotten what they once knew; their ret-rograde amnesia can’t be explained away by supposing that they’d justbeen absorbing less and less information as their alcoholism progressed.And secondly, their retrograde memory loss follows a distinct temporalcurve. The more remote the event, the sharper their recollection of it.Patient X, for example, recognized the names of scientists who becamefamous before 1965, while those who hit the big leagues after 1965 wereunknown to him. The reason, the memory experts think, is that morerecent memories aren’t yet fully consolidated and are therefore more vul-nerable to loss. If this is true, it would explain how H. M.’s operationcould have retroactively wiped out three years of memories; and it alsosuggests that consolidation goes on much longer than anyone dreamed—for many years, no less.
Coding and consolidation, then, not retrieval, is the problem in am-nesia. The other revelation of these studies is that the injured brain regionsthemselves can’t contain the memory stores, for if they did, all old mem-ories would be gone. N. A. and Korsakoff’s patients suffer from damageto the medial thalamus (or diencephalon). That part of the brain seems toplay a role in the initial coding of information, for, according to LarrySquire, these patients’ memories never get coded and filed properly. Whatis missing in H. M., on the other hand, is the hippocampus-amygdala region(beneath the temporal lobe). This circuit must be a consolidation stationof sorts, for H. M.’s memory suffers from a «post-encoding-consolidationdeficit,» according to Squire. «It appears,» he says, «that at the time oflearning, the medial temporal region [what H. M. is lacking] establishes arelationship with memory-storage sites elsewhere in the brain, primarilyin neocortex.»
, c In bethesda, Maryland, sits a low, shed-
Monkey bee, Uke building with green paint peeling from
Monkey tor get jts waus tjjat ls home to a group of amnesic
monkeys. They didn’t get that way by acci-dent. If you want a flow diagram of neural information processing, youcan wait for the right disease or injury to strike a human brain (and actsof God are usually pretty crude in their scope) or you can delicately tamperwith a monkey’s brain and see what happens, as Mortimer Mishkin, NIMH’sneuropsychology chief, does. Having created a bunch of simian H. M.’sand N. A.’s—monkeys who forget an object only seconds after seeing it—Mishkin can tell you exactly where the damage is.
«Deep inside the temporal lobe we find these two very important struc-tures, the amygdala and the hippocampus,» he tells us. «We know thatrats without a hippocampus can’t perform in a radial maze. There is aswimming test in which they have to find an underwater perch, and theycan’t do that either. So we think the hippocampus is very important forlocalization memory. The amygdala seems to govern a different kind ofassociative memory. If you look at a cup, you have a fairly good idea ofwhat it will feel like. When we train a monkey to touch an object and thenchoose that object from a pair just by looking at it, and then we removeits amygdala, it can’t do it at all.
«If you damage both the amygdala and the hippocampus you produceglobal anterograde amnesia,» he continues. «You’re unable to lay downnew stores, so you live from moment to moment, like H. M. You getbasically the same effect if you damage the medial diencephalon, the partof the brain affected by Korsakoff’s disease, for instance; you interrupt thesame circuit in a different place. For an object to leave a permanent orsemipermanent trace, it appears that this limbic circuit has to enter theperceptual process at a crucial point. We think it does something like givethe order PRINT.
«Now, if you damage the temporal cortex itself, you take out the actualstore. You can’t lay down new memories, and you lose old memories too.You get dementia. One can rightly say the mind is gone.»
Since Mishkin seems to have had little difficulty locating memories onthe neural map, we ask him about Karl Lashley’s famous failure.
«Lashley set neuropsychology back many decades when he enunciatedhis principle of equipotentiality,» he says. «I am an out-and-out localiza-tionist, and I suspect that every neuron in the brain is doing somethingdifferent. Even the cerebral cortex, which looks like it’s made up of equiv-alent pieces of tissue everywhere, is actually a quiltwork of different areas—
Memoryless Memory • 209
each doing its own thing and not doing what its neighbor is doing. It’s notthe bowl of porridge that equipotentiality theorists propose.
«That’s not to say that a psychological function resides in a piece oftissue, which is what localizationists are charged with believing. That’s notthe way our nervous system is built. It’s built as a connected network.»
. _ . Over a dozen years ago McGill Univer-
Memoryless Memory sity,s Brenda Milner the chief sdentist on
the H. M. case, noticed that her patient had no trouble mastering therarefied skill of drawing while watching his hands reversed in a mirror.»Just a simple motor skill,» most scientists scoffed at the time. But recentlyLarry Squire and a graduate-student protege, Neal Cohen (now a psy-chologist at MIT), took another look at such phenomena and discoveredthat, contrary to all logic, a person without a functioning memory streamcan manage to learn and remember some things.
Today H. M. sits cross-legged on the floor playing with a puzzle calledthe Tower of Hanoi. Five wooden blocks with holes at the center arestacked pyramid style on one peg, and there are two empty pegs. H. M.’stask is to rebuild the pyramid in the same order on the «goal peg,» whileobserving two rules: Move only one block at a time, and never put a biggerblock on top of a smaller one. When he announces that he’s stuck, theMIT scientist observing him says, «You can do it; you’ve done it before.»In fact, he did the puzzle four times yesterday, four times the day beforethat, and again the day before that, each time surpassing his earlier record.»Really?» asks H. M., since for him it is always the first time. Nonetheless,he solves the Tower of Hanoi with the minimum number of moves—aperfect score.
H. M. can also recognize fragmented pictures, read mirror-reversedscript and recall repeated words—becoming more adept with practice, justlike any normal person, but never remembering any of the previous tests.The same is true of N. A. and other severe amnesics. Like the Korsakoffpatient who recoiled from her doctor’s handshake in 1917, they seem to»remember» things they do not consciously remember.
For the solution to this paradox, recall Kinds of Memory, number 4:Declarative versus Procedural, and consider them as two entirely differentmemory systems, or classes of knowledge, in the human brain. If youprefer, you can think of procedural knowledge as «knowing how» versus»knowing that.» Whatever you call it, the message is that while amnesicsdon’t record specific facts, events, faces, words, and so on, they can stilllearn certain kinds of skills, from hitting a tennis ball to assembling the
Tower of Hanoi (no mere motor skill). «We think of procedural learning,the kind of learning that is preserved in amnesia, as the tuning or adjustingof existing circuitry,» Squire tells us. «Information is accessed by ‘runningoff’ particular programs, but there’s no ‘representation’ of the specificcircumstances. Some people have called it ‘memory without record.’ »
When Mortimer Mishkin happened on the same phenomenon in hisamnesic monkeys, he called it «stimulus/response memory,» or «habit,»as opposed to «informational memory.» A monkey minus its crucial hip-pocampus-amygdala circuitry cannot remember anything from one momentto the next, exactly like its human counterparts. For example, it can’tremember for even a few seconds to select the right object from a pair.To Mishkin’s amazement, however, the amnesic animal can learn andretain under special circumstances.
«If you hide a banana pellet under one of a pair of objects and let themonkey find it,» he explains, «and then do the same thing again once aday, the monkey will learn to go to the right object. Yet we know it doesn’tactually remember the object. It’s very puzzling, and it led to our speculationthat there are two different systems in the brain responsible for storingexperience. One stores information, and the other stores stimulus-responsebonds. The latter, which I call ‘habit,’ is a type of learning that can go onwithout awareness—noncognitive learning.»
This discovery might even patch up the age-old rift between two campsin psychology. Do we act on the basis of ideas or stored knowledge, asthe mentalists claim, or are we «conditioned» by rewarding or aversiveinteractions with our environment, as the behaviorists say? «Both are right,»says Mishkin. «Our nervous system can encompass both stimulus/responselearning and cognitive learning.»
«I think there’s a phylogenetic story to allConsciousness this„LarrySquiretellsus <Thoseofuswho
Without study mammals find it hard to associate
Consciousness memory with Aplysia, and perhaps that’s be-
cause aplysia memory is more like proce-dural memory. The animal learns to respond, but it couldn’t ‘tell’ youwhy—in a nonverbal way, of course. There’s no consciousness. Maybewhen you go from invertebrates to vertebrates—or maybe the cutoff pointis mammals—the circuitry for declarative memory comes in, a kind ofawareness.»
What does that «awareness» consist of? And how to define the strange,unfathomed layers of consciousness that seem to lurk beneath the surfaceof conscious life? Consider, for instance, the surreal cases of «blindsight»
Consciousness Without Consciousness ■ 211
discovered by a pair of British researchers a few years ago. (The numberof oxymorons in this section gives you an idea of how paltry our intros-pective vocabulary is.) The scientists were working with patients who weremissing the visual cortex on one side of the brain, which rendered themtotally blind in the corresponding visual field. But, inexplicably, thesepatients were 80 to 90 percent accurate in pointing to lights and guessingdifferent shapes—jt’s and o’s, vertical and horizontal stripes—in the blindvisual field.They claimed they saw nothing, however; they were just «guess-ing.»
«When a blindsight patient sees something and tells me he can’t see,»says Stanford’s Karl Pribram, who thinks blindsight raises interesting ques-tions about consciousness, «that makes me think there are two levels ofseeing: one that consists of instrumental behavioral responses to opticalinformation and another that refers to subjective awareness.» Coinciden-tally Elizabeth Warrington and Lawrence Weiskrantz, the researchers whodiscovered blindsight, were among the first to notice the curious «intrusionerrors» that amnesics make on word lists. Whether or not blindsight andthe memoryless memory of procedural knowledge have any neural ma-chinery in common (we don’t know if they do), both seem to hint at akind of consciousness without awareness. Perhaps infant memory worksalong procedural/habit lines, and that’s why we don’t consciously rememberour bassinet days. In fact, baby monkeys tested by Mortimer Mishkin seemto be born with a working stimulus/response memory but can’t manage theother kind until they’re about a year old, probably because the neuralmachinery behind declarative/fact memory takes time to mature.
Maybe there are memory circuits operating below the threshold ofawareness in the odd cases of epileptic «automatism» that fill the neuro-logical literature. Wilder Penfield, among others, was fascinated by thefact that people could be turned into «mindless automatons» by epilepticdischarges around the temporal lobes. He relates the case of «A.,» whohad a seizure while playing the piano. After a brief pause the man wentright on playing «with considerable dexterity» on automatic pilot but withno memory of the episode. And of «B.,» who suffered one of these seizureswhile walking home. «He would continue to thread his way through busystreets on his way home,» the neurosurgeon reported. «He might realizelater that he had had an attack because there was a blank in his memoryfor a part of the journey, as from Avenue X to Street Y.» Everybody inthis business seems to have his or her favorite automatism story. PaulMacLean tells us about an epileptic train motorman who blacked out butnevertheless drove his train from the 125th Street station right into GrandCentral, obeying all the red and green lights on the way. Karl Pribram
recalls a state-hospital psychologist who remembered going to her roomand falling asleep on a certain evening, but who, in fact, suffered a seizure,got dressed, went to a party, had a gay time, and returned home again—all in a somnambulistic trance.
Who is playing the piano/driving the train/attending the party while theconscious self is AWOL? «I don’t know,» admits Pribram. «Perhaps the’self is a particular code. Unless our experience is translated into thatcode, it stays outside our memory stream.» Of course, we now know thatcoding is the problem in amnesia, and we know, moreover, that the coding-consolidation process can take years and years. «I think we haven’t givenenough attention to the fact that the brain must code and recode everythingover and over again,» Pribram adds. «You change. You aren’t the sameperson you were five years ago.»
T , \a \ Wilder penfield, interestingly enough, was
1 wo (or More) one of the first scientjst/philosophers to grap.
selves in Une. pje wjth tjje enigma of dual consciousness.
«Consider the point of view of the patient,»
he wrote, «when the surgeon’s electrode, placed on the interpretive cortex,
summons the replay of past experience. The stream of consciousness is
suddenly doubled for him. He is aware of what is going on in the operating
room as well as the ‘flashback’ from the past.» Take the young South
African patient who was astonished to find himself «laughing with his
cousins on a farm in South Africa,» while simultaneously lying on an
operating table in Montreal.
In Penfield’s view, there were two parallel conscious «streams» in suchcases, one «driven by an electrode delivering sixty pulses per second tothe cortex,» the other by stimuli in the immediate environment. Butdid the patient ever confuse the two? No, said Penfield. He knew he wason the operating table and not in the Transvaal. Therefore, according toPenfield, the patient’s mind «can only be something quite apart from theneuronal reflex action.» In other words, the crack neurosurgeon fromMontreal was saying that the mind is not in the brain.
«It is all very much like programming a private computer,» he wroteof the mind/brain connection. «The program comes to an electrical com-puter from without. The same is true of each biological computer. Purposecomes to it from outside its own mechanism. This suggests that the mindmust have a supply of energy available to it for independent action.» Inanother passage he again revealed himself as a card-carrying neo-Cartesiandualist: «As Hippocrates expressed it so long ago, the brain is ‘messenger’to consciousness. Or, as one might express it now, the brain’s highest
mechanism [which Penfield tentatively located in the higher brain stem] is’messenger’ between the mind and the other mechanisms of the brain.»The «highest brain mechanism,» then, plays a role rather like Descartes’spineal gland, and the mind itself hovers somewhere outside the machinerylike a guardian angel.
Apart from the general problems of mind/body dualism, there are sev-eral fallacies in Penfield’s argument. The fact that the patient’s «real»stream of consciousness (the one that is aware of being on an operatingtable) isn’t being activated by electrodes does not mean that it doesn’tdepend on neuronal activity. Presumably, since the patient is alive andconscious, neurons are firing in many parts of his brain. Indeed, bothstreams probably depend on neuronal activity. How does the patient sep-arate the real impressions from the ersatz? How does he know he’s in thehospital having flashbacks of South Africa and not in South Africa havinghospital flashbacks? That can be explained without invoking an aloof,observing mind. The patient’s ongoing perceptions of the surgery, thedoctor’s conversations, and so on flow in a continuous, uninterrupted se-quence in which every moment is connected with the immediate past. Thevision of South Africa, on the other hand, is a sharp detour in the consciousstream. From these sorts of clues, the patient is able to label one experiencereal and the other a flashback.
But if the phenomenon of dual consciousness is not hard-and-fast proofof a disembodied mind, it is nonetheless extremely interesting. How manydifferent selves can inhabit a brain? After all, we’ve seen that there is morethan one knowledge/memory system in us and that a mysterious somebodycan operate the controls when nobody’s home (as in automatism). The realpuzzle, perhaps, is not that pathological/extraordinary consciousness shouldon occasion resemble one of those chimera—the sphinx, the manticore,the centaur—that combine the torso of one species with the head or hind-quarters of another but that «ordinary» consciousness should be unitaryat all.
T, „… On a mild may day, the campus of the
me Silicon California Institute of Technology (Cal-
Uaraen Slug Tech) seems deserted except for the ubiq-
uitous gardeners clipping hedges. Thecarefully groomed lawns, uncluttered by benches, falafel stands, or loiteringundergraduates, suggest the little patches of green in an architectural modelof a city. (Perhaps students are imported from a nearby community collegewhen it is necessary to have a photo depicting «Student Life» for the collegecatalog, or perhaps no one cares.) But we didn’t come here for Sigma Chi
toga parties; we had an appointment with biophysicist John Hopfield’smodel brain, one of the few computer programs that is shedding light onthe puzzle of human memory.
«Okay,» he tells us, as green numbers flash across his computer screen.»The system has one hundred ‘neurons,’ each of which at any time has avalue of zero or one. One means on, firing; zero means it’s not firing.Some of the neurons are making inhibitory connections to the off neuronsto keep them off. Some make excitatory connections to the firing neuronsto keep them firing. The memories are in the pattern of the connections.»
The «neurons» of which Hopfield speaks aren’t real neurons but math-ematical equivalents of neurons. With a set of equations he has endoweda computer with the ability to set up simple neural nets, to remember andforget, to free-associate, to create false memories, and generally to operatemuch as a flesh-and-blood brain does. Despite the fact that its reminiscencesare expressed as strings of ones and zeros, this system’s memory is alto-gether different from ordinary computer memory.
«A typical computer,» explains Hopfield, «keeps memories in a waythat can be likened to a very tall, very skinny library—with a hundredthousand floors and one book stored per floor. If we write the informationwe want to keep connected together in one book and store the book onone particular floor, all we have to know to get that information out is thefloor it’s stored on.» That sort of memory is known as «addressable»memory, and it is not the way brains work. Unlike a Cray computer, youdon’t store your memories at particular addresses and you can use frag-ments of a memory to retrieve the whole. (Let’s see, her name started witha D, I think . . . She was engaged to that guy, you know, who kept thegerbils—Bernie Somebody from Sioux Falls or Sault Sainte Marie or some-thing . . . She was always talking about the military industrial complex—Daphne . . . Daphne Quackenbush!) You can lose a certain percentage ofbrain cells between the ages of twelve and fifty, and still be smarter at fiftythan you were at twelve; yet, says Hopfield, «If one percent of the tran-sistors in a computer go bad, it won’t do anything at all.» Those are justsome of the differences between machine intelligence and the biologicalkind. Another key difference is that every brain cell makes thousands ofconnections, whereas a typical computer chip has only two or three con-nections per gate.
So when Hopfield got interested in creating a mathematical simulacrumof associative (biological) memory, he built in three hundred connectionsfor each of the one hundred «neurons.»
«Every memory is embedded in many connections, and each connectionis involved in several memories,» he tells us. The result is a system that
can use incomplete or ambiguous information to find a memory. «Okay,I’m going to turn off a bunch of ones and then take a bunch of zeros andturn them on and make a bunch of garbage information.» Hopfield delib-erately falsifies the input, but after just four turns, the computer producesmemory 22. «If I throw more garbage at it, though, it will start to give mesome of the other memories some of the time. The memories are the stablestates of the system. Imagine raindrops flowing downhill. Water dropletslanding somewhere nearby will follow a path to the lowest point on thevalley floor. You can think of the precise information as that particularlocation in the valley.»
If that sounds a trifle abstract, you should know that Hopfield’s com-puter can be trained to act like Limax, the garden slug with the conditionedaversion to potatoes. The scientist types some numbers on the keyboardand the display terminal says: TASTING A NEW FOOD. «I’m trying tomake a simple neural network behave like Limax,'» he says. «In this casethe food memories are the stable states. When a new food comes in—Ihave the system always learning—it will learn the food. Then if somethingelse happens to it, a ‘punishment,’ it will associate it with the food.»
How does the computer model compare to a real slug?
«I’ve learned some interesting things about networks by modeling areal biological system. In the classical conditioning paradigm, time ordermatters. In the conditioned eye-blink reflex, the bell has to come beforethe puff of air for the animal to learn. Same with Limax. If you give itpotatoes and then give it quinidine—it’s a bitter-tasting chemical that slugsdon’t like—Limax learns to hate potatoes. If you give it quinidine beforepotatoes, it doesn’t learn anything.»
«Is that because the animal is internalizing a crude notion of causality?»we ask. «Potatoes cause the bitter taste; the bell causes the puff of air?»
«Yes. Time is so important for a biological system because it must learnto predict the future better. It must ask, ‘What’s likely to happen next?’So you get Limax to learn a food. No problem. It eats food one, then foodtwo, then food three. Then you give it quinidine, the punishment. It’ssupposed to know that food three is to blame. But how does it know whichmemory is most recent, which food it had last?
«The system I showed you before had these stable memory states, butit had no idea of the sequence of states. The learning algorithm was com-pletely symmetrical. If A came before B, or B before A, it learned just aswell. Well, it turns out that with a minor change in the hardware you canmake the system understand time order.»
«What sort of change?»
«It’s a question of the rules you put in for changing the strength of the
2i6 • Memory: From Sea Slugs to Swann’s Way
synaptic connections. You know there was a rule described by Hebb forneural nets: The strength of a memory is proportional to the strength ofthe synaptic connections. It’s a fine rule, but it has no sense of time order.But you can change the rules and modify the net so that locally—at thelevel of the synapse—you understand the direction the information is flow-ing. Then it’s capable of knowing that A comes after B and behavingdifferently if the time order is reversed. The synapse really does havedirection.
«If you do that, if you convert a standard Hebbian synapse into onewith a time lag between the two sides, the thing can learn causality or whatpasses for causality. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.»
«So a sense of time,» we ask, «is really built into the brain?»
«It really is,» he says. «If I ask you, ‘What’s the letter after xT you’llsay v without hesitation. But if I ask, ‘What’s the letter before xT Youhave to think. You learned the alphabet in time, and you can’t go back-wards so easily.»
Hopfield’s brainlike system also spews out bogus memories on occasion.»In a machine you can’t get anything out that you didn’t put in. But withour system we do. We get these spurious things—maybe they’re errors,maybe brilliant new insights—which are produced by the correlations be-tween memories. It just starts doing it.» It also free-associates like ananalysand on a couch. «If we built ‘habituation’ or ‘fatigue’ into the neu-rons—so they turn themselves off if they’ve been on for a while and turnon if they’ve been off—the memories are no longer absolutely stable. Thesystem starts going from one memory to another. It will just naturally free-associate.»
The secret to this is what Hopfield calls collective properties. «Whenyou make the leap from one cell to a hundred cells or to a billion cells,you see new phenomena you wouldn’t have dreamed of,» he says. «Manyphysical systems are like that. If you put two molecules in a large box,every once in a while they’ll collide and you can study the collisions. Youcan put a thousand molecules in the box and get more frequent collisions,but the collisions will look the same as they did when there were only twomolecules. However, if we put a billion molecules in the box, there’s anew phenomenon—sound waves. There was nothing in the behavior oftwo molecules—or ten or a thousand molecules—that would suggest toyou that a billion molecules would make sound waves. Sound waves area collective phenomenon.»
Many neuroscientists labor like Hercules cleaning out the Augean sta-bles under the reductionist assumption that billions of separate single-cellrecordings pieced together will yield a circuit diagram of thought. But
The Silicon Garden Slug • 217
studying cell membranes won’t tell you about collective properties, ac-cording to Hopfield. He sees individual neurons as a little like Rosencrantzand Guildenstern in Hamlet, minor characters who unknowingly play arole in some grand scheme of memory, intelligence, or consciousnesss. Or,to put it in physical terms, they’re like the atoms in a magnet. «Individualatoms have electron spins that point up or down—which is what magnetizesthe metal. But each guy just interacts with the other spins and has no ideathat because of these interactions the whole bar is going to be magnetizedin one direction. All the behaviors you see on a large scale are the con-sequence of a bunch of atoms, or what have you, simply interacting, withoutany idea of the global panoply of events.»
It isn’t necessary, therefore, to invoke a cosmic Programmer to explainhow random accretions of cells could evolve to produce «Call me Ishmael.»The magic arises spontaneously out of the collective properties as long asthere’s a little chaos, a little noise, in the system. «Computer people usuallytry to avoid noise,» says Hopfield. «But I’ve tried to mimic noise—ran-domness—in my system. The brain, of course, is an open system. There’salways this stuff coming in, this whimsical noise from the outside. That’swhy the chances of predicting what thought will be in your head a minutefrom now are about zero.
«How did cells get together,» he continues, «and create more and morecomplicated life-forms without some guiding force saying ‘Now do this’?I think all the mysteries of the brain come from the fact that there are newlaws when you have many things around. That manyness is the centralthing.»
The Many-Chambered Self
She went on and on, a long way, but, whereverthe road divided, there were sure to be two finger-posts pointing the same way, one markedTo
Tweedledum’s House,’and the other
To The
House of Tweedledee.'»I do believe,» said Alice at last, «that they livein the same house! I wonder I never thought ofthat before.»
—LEWIS CARROLL,
Through the Looking GlassI find that I am at two with nature.
—WOODY ALLEN
WAKING UP after brain surgery, the patient said he felt fineexcept for a «splitting headache,» and, though still woozy fromthe anaesthetic, he could repeat the tongue twister «Peter Piperpicked a peck of pickled peppers.» To prevent his grand mal seizures fromricocheting back and forth between the two cerebral hemispheres, doctorshad severed the big cable of 250 million connecting fibers called the corpuscallosum. It was the third in a series of historic «split-brain» operationsthat would eventually earn a Nobel Prize (in 1981) for Roger Sperry ofCalTech, but back in 1961 nobody was entirely sure what a person lackinga bridge between his hemispheres would be like. Remember that eachcerebral hemisphere controls the opposite, or contralateral, side of thebody and links the brain to half a sensory world. Given the facts, youmight think that a person without a corpus callosum would be a flailing,unstrung puppet, unable to integrate information coming in through hissenses, incapable of walking down the street or dressing himself. You mightthink splitting the brain in half would leave a mind without a center, a selffractured and misshapen like a portrait by Willem de Kooning. The firstmarvel was that it did no such thing.
Sperry had already tested the waters with split-brain monkeys at theUniversity of Chicago (otherwise, the operations would not have been
218
The Many-Chambered Self • 219
done on human beings). But he and neurosurgeon Joseph E. Bogen, ofthe University of Southern California, were nonetheless relieved to seetheir patients speaking, joking (asked «How do you feel today?» one manquipped, «Which half of me?»), scoring normally on intelligence tests, andbetraying no obvious signs of brain damage. Occasionally the two hemi-spheres would be at odds, and a patient would find her left hand unbut-toning her blouse as quickly as the right hand could button it, but in general,says UCLA’s Eran Zaidel: «If you met such a person you wouldn’t be ableto tell him from your next-door neighbor. It takes extremely subtle teststo find anything wrong.» But extremely subtle tests did reveal a surrealsituation.
For starters, a split-brain patient would categorically deny the existenceof an object placed in his left hand. With special tachistoscopic (from theGreek for «quickest view») equipment, Sperry launched a series of now-legendary experiments. Asking the patient to fix his gaze on a dot in thecenter of a translucent screen, he’d flash a picture to either the right orleft side for a fraction of a second—too fast for a person to shift his gazeand pick up both visual fields. If a picture of a spoon appeared in his rightvisual field (which communicates with the left hemisphere), the patientwould name it readily. But when it was presented to the right hemisphere—via the left visual field—the patient drew a blank or made wild guesses.»Pencil? Cigarette lighter? I don’t know.» Why? In the bisected brain thespeech centers in the left hemisphere (in a right-handed person) are cutoff from the experience of the other side of the brain. The patient’s righthemisphere knows about the cup in the left hand, but can’t talk, and theleft hemisphere can talk but doesn’t get the sensory message. The left handcould sometimes point out the cup among a pile of objects or even drawa picture of a cup, proving that the voiceless right brain was not a completecretin.
In this first group of split brains, operated on in California between theyears 1961 and 1969, science found a remarkable experimental laboratory,for Sperry’s tests soon revealed two separate domains of awareness. Neitherhemisphere seemed to know what the other was doing; they might havebeen in two different heads. When the word heart was flashed across thewhole screen, with the he portion to the left of center and the art to theright, patients would report having seen the word art. But when asked topoint with the left hand to one of two cards, art or he, they pointed to he.(The right hemisphere could sometimes recognize words.) In one mem-orable experiment, Sperry presented a nude pin-up photo to a patient’sright hemisphere. The patient, a young woman, blushed and giggled ner-vously. Asked why, she replied, «Oh, Dr. Sperry . . . that funny machine.»
It was a puzzle: Had an «emotional tone» somehow leaked across theborder—perhaps through still-intact subcortical structures—which thespokesman left brain felt compelled to explain, even though it didn’t knowexactly what the right side had seen?
In hundreds of such tests Sperry could document a strange doubling ofthe stream of consciousness. «The surgically separated hemispheres ofanimals and man,» he concluded, «have been shown to perceive, learn,and remember independently, each hemisphere evidently cut off from theconscious experiences of the other.» The scientists who studied these pa-tients fell into the habit of speaking of the two halves of the brain as ifthey were two distinct personalities—as in «The left hemisphere did X»or «I flashed a picture to the right hemisphere and it did Y.»
t A/f’ A ‘ n ? ^HE BISECTED BRAIN began to suggest a
1 WO Minds in One. Wondrousmonstrosity,likeatwo-headedman
in the circus. If each hemisphere has an inner life, do two hemispheresmean two minds or even, horror of theological horrors, two souls? If so,why does a single, imperious «I» take credit for all our thoughts, beliefs,and actions? The great Charles Sherrington had written, «The self is aunity … it regards itself as one, others treat it as one. It is addressed asone, by a name to which it answers. The Law and the State schedule it asone.» Is the unitary self a fiction?
Even before the split-brain operations there were hints that each hem-isphere had a mind of its own. One garish example was the 1908 case ofa woman whose left hand would travel up to her neck and try to strangleher unless she forcibly pulled it away and sat on it. Her neurologist, KurtGoldstein, reasoned that damage to the corpus callosum had uncoupledher two hemispheres. The neurology texts also tell of weird «neglect»syndromes. A patient with a large right-hemisphere lesion may comb hishair only on the right side and put on his jacket with only the right armin the sleeve, as if the left side of his body did not belong to him. In hisbook The Nervous System Dr. Peter Nathan, a London neurologist, recalls:
During the last war I saw a patient with a severe injury of the right parietal lobe.When I held up his left arm in front of his eyes, he would take no notice of it; andwhen I asked him whose limb it was, he answered, «Oh that! That’s the arm Sisterputs the penicillin injections into.» In such cases, the patient may think that thearm on the opposite side to the brain lesion is someone else in his bed, and hemay give it a name. Another of these patients . . . used to say that the limbs werehis brother. He strongly objected to their presence in bed with him and would tryto hurl them out of bed.
Two Minds in One? • 221
After the surgical removal of an entire hemisphere (hemispherectomy)many a patient is still demonstrably «himself,» proving, in Bogen’s opinion,that «one hemisphere is sufficient to sustain a personality or mind.» If so,then two hemispheres would constitute two selves and the «I» would bean ontological bystander—unless, of course, the minor (right) hemisphereis not self-aware. Well, Sperry had shown that a patient’s right hemispherecould recognize a picture of the patient and generate «appropriate emo-tional responses,» but the issue of right-brain self-consciousness is far fromsettled. To say nothing of the larger puzzle: What is consciousness, anyway?An all-or-none phenomenon, or a continuum? Not to mention a smorgas-bord of subproblems: Where is the boundary between the mental processeswe call «conscious» and those that are «preconscious»? Can you havethought (consciousness, self-consciousness) without language? To what ex-tent are higher human faculties localized in one hemisphere or another—language on the left and drawing on the right, for instance—or in evensmaller compartments? «Is recognition of animate objects a faculty sepa-rable from recognition of the inanimate . . . ?» Bogen mused in a 1969essay, «Is love of children a function to be localized in some particularpart of the brain as Gall once maintained?» The split-brain pioneers them-selves were not unmindful of the metaphysical oddness of the frontierthey’d opened. «As knowledge of brain function and the mind/brain re-lation advances,» Sperry wrote, «one would anticipate that terms like’mind’ and ‘person’ would have to be redefined, or at least more preciselydefined.»
To the conundrum «How many minds in a brain?» there seemed to befour possible answers.
1. Despite the subjective voice in your head that says, «I am a personnamed Randy Black, with a social security number and a valid driver’slicense to prove it,» you are really a dual being. At least, that’s whatBogen thinks: «Pending further evidence, I believe,» he wrote, «thateach of us has two minds in one person.»
2. Though «divided in the bisected brain,» consciousness is «unitary inthe normal brain,» according to Sperry. «Since each side of the sur-gically divided brain is able to sustain its own conscious volitionalsystem . . . ,» he said in a 1983 Omni interview, «the question arises,Why, in the normal state, don’t we perceive ourselves as a prair ofseparate left and right persons instead of the single, apparently unifiedmind and self we all feel we are?» He decided that the everyday miracleof «I» was an emergent property. «The normal bilateral consciousnesscan be viewed as a higher emergent entity that is more than just the
sum of its right and left awareness and supersedes this as a directiveforce in our thoughts and actions.»
3. Only the dominant, vocal hemisphere is truly conscious. As JohnEccles («Brain and Free Will») sees it, the Cyrano de Bergerac of theleft brain is «uniquely concerned with giving conscious experiences tothe subject and in mediating his willed actions.» A lesser consciousnessdwells in the mute right brain, to be sure, but «the absence of linguisticor symbolic communication at an adequate level prevents this frombeing discovered. It is not therefore ‘self-conscious.’ » How could itbe self-conscious, he argues, since a split-brain patient, divorced fromall the happenings in his minor hemisphere, is nevertheless «recog-nizably . . . the same person that existed before the brain-splittingoperation and retains [his former] unity of self-consciousness»?
4. Selfhood is multiple, not double. The mind is not only divided betweentwo hemispheres but splintered into many neural subsystems. Neu-rologist Michael Gazzaniga, a 1966 graduate of the Sperry lab whonow works with his own «stable» of split-brain patients at CornellUniversity Medical College, writes in The Integrated Mind: «The mindis not a psychological entity but a sociological entity, being composedof many submental systems.»
. One of the first questions confronting
° ‘ split-brain researchers was (as Gazzaniga
Imbecile or would phrase it in a 1967 Scientific American
Sleeping Prodigy? article): «Did this [linguistic] impotence of
the right hemisphere mean that its surgicalseparation from the left had reduced its mental powers to an imbeciliclevel?» The answer, it seemed, was no. When shown a picture of a cigarette,the silent right brain could select an ashtray from a group of objects—although even with the ashtray clutched in his left hand, the patient couldnot name it or the corresponding picture. It demonstrated rudimentarylanguage comprehension (reading the word pencil, for instance, and un-derstanding spoken instructions) and responded with thumbs-up or thumbs-down signals to photos of familiar faces, including Winston Churchill (up),Joseph Stalin (down), and Richard Nixon (a horizontal thumb). The searchwas on for tasks the minor hemisphere could do better, and by 1968 Sperryand his star graduate student Jerre Levy—who, in the 1970s, launched awhole hemispheric dominance factory at the University of Chicago—werereporting that «the mute, minor hemisphere is specialized for Gestalt per-
The Right Brain: Imbecile or Sleeping Prodigy? • 223
ception, being primarily a synthesist in dealing with information input. Thespeaking, major hemisphere, in contrast, seems to operate in a more log-ical, analytical, computerlike fashion.»
The two hemispheres weren’t just a verbal/nonverbal combo but tworadically different mental landscapes, two «cognitive styles.» Levy usedphotographs of two vertical halves of a face and other nonverbal tricks toreach the languageless right hemisphere. She showed that if the left brainbroke things down into component parts and excelled at logic, the rightbrain perceived things «wholistically,» as «gestalts.» The right hemispherewas good at visuospatial tasks; it could draw well; it was better at recog-nizing faces; it had musical skills. As early as 1745, doctors had ponderedthe case of a man with severe aphasia (the only word he could say was»yes») caused by a left-hemisphere stroke. Nonetheless, they observed,»He can sing certain hymns which he had learned before he became ill,as clearly and distinctly as any healthy person.»
There are suggestions that the right hemisphere is more «emotional»than the left. Patients with right-hemisphere damage are often strangelynonchalant about their condition, even when one side of the body is com-pletely paralyzed. In 1982, noticing that victims of right-hemisphere strokestypically speak in flat monotones even about the most emotionally chargedmatters, a University of Texas researcher, Elliott Ross, coined the termaprosodia (from the word prosody, referring to pitch, melody, rhythm,and intonation) to describe a sort of right-hemisphere version of aphasia.The damage, he says, is to «emotional centers» in the right hemispherethat are mirror images of the left-brain speech centers. There is one centeron the right for the perception of feelings, corresponding to Wernicke’sarea in the left hemisphere, he hypothesizes, and another for emotionalexpression, corresponding to Broca’s area.
Thus the perennial tug-of-war between emotion and reason, «heart»and «mind,» Freud’s «primary process» (primitive, mythic thought, as indreams) and «secondary process» (rational analysis), seemed to have areal embodiment in the twin hemispheres. Joseph Bogen was among thefirst to hail the dual brain as a fundamental human dichotomy. (He baptizedthe left brain «propositional» and the right «appositional,» noting «thisterm [appositional] implies a capacity of apposing or comparing of per-ceptions, schemas, engrams, et cetera.») A widespread cult of the rightbrain ensued, and the duplex house that Sperry built grew into the K-Martof brain science. Today our hairdresser lectures us about the Two Hemi-spheres of the Brain and mail-order pop-psych tapes urge us to awakenthe latent creativity of our neglected right hemisphere. We even met apsychologist who runs workshops for people who are sloppy or neat because
of right- or left-hemisphere dominance and who are unhappily mated to aperson with the opposite tendency. Is any of this true?
Well, some of it. But in this chapter we’ll tell you that: (1) Your mentallife isn’t neatly zoned along right or left lines. (2) The right hemisphereisn’t as gifted as the human-potential gurus think. (3) If your husbandleaves the cap off the toothpaste it probably has nothing to do with cerebraldominance.
\uu n v \ji «Imagine waking up one morning and—to
What Do You Mean, paraphrase Kafka—instead of finding your-J^ght. self a cockroach, you find yourself a split-
brain patient,» says Eran Zaidel. «Whatwould you do? Well, at first you’d be scared because you wouldn’t havenormal control over your body maybe. Things would happen to the lefthand that you don’t really understand. . . . But the remarkable thing isthat these patients behave like normal human beings in most everydaysituations. In fact, they deny there’s anything unusual going on.»
From a drawer he extracts a set of four pictures drawn in the plain,didactic style of elementary-school textbooks: a fingernail, a nail, a ham-mer, and a mailbox. «Say I show the right hemisphere these four pictures,and I ask it to point to two pictures whose names sound alike but whichmean different things. It’s a fairly linguistic task—you wouldn’t expect theright hemisphere to be able to do it. But it can. It points to nail and nail.I say, ‘Right.’
«The patient says, ‘What do you mean, right? How could I do it? Howcan I tell you those two pictures have the same names when I don’t knowwhat the name is?’ The one who is talking is the left hemisphere, and it’sgetting upset because I’m praising the right hemisphere, and it doesn’tknow what the hell is going on. It never, never comes to terms with itsinability to know what the other hemisphere is experiencing.»
An engineer and mathematical linguist by training, Zaidel spent hisgraduate years at CalTech trying to teach computers to understand English.But the human side of the man/computer communication problem beganto obsess him instead, and by 1970 he was part of Sperry’s charmed circle,doing neuroscience. Eventually he focused on half a brain: the right. Wemeet him in his narrow office at UCLA on an April day when brisk Pacificbreezes blow acacia blossoms, purple jacaranda flowers, and eucalyptusleaves across a hard, blue sky. From Zaidel’s window the landscaped greensand subtropical flora of the Bel Aire Country Club on a distant hilltop aresupernaturally clear in the uncustomary smogless air.
«My focus is language, especially in the right hemisphere,» he tells us.
Id and Ego • 225
«How much language is there in a normal right hemisphere, and if thereis some, as we believe there is, when is it used and how?
«There are patients called deep dyslexics who are very interesting. Be-cause of large left-hemisphere lesions they have problems with languageand reading. When they read words aloud, they’ll read chair as sofa, hatas tie, orchestra as band. That shows they got to the general meaningsomehow but not to the exact meaning address. They also read concretenouns better than abstract function words like prepositions and conjunc-tions. If you give them the word in, they can’t read it, but add another nand they can. They also can’t read nonsense words aloud, sound out wordsphonetically, or do rhyming tasks.
«These are the very same symptoms we see in a split right hemisphere.So the question is, Are deep dyslexics using the right hemisphere forreading? The answer is sometimes. The patients made more errors whenwe flashed words to the right hemisphere. This suggests that when the lefthemisphere can’t do it, they shift to the right hemisphere, which suppliesthe general meaning. Then they go back to the left hemisphere for thename, and it gives one but not the precise one. Sometimes it says ‘orchestra’instead of ‘band.’ »
A wispy undergraduate enters to report a problem with the testingequipment on the next floor. «Umm, the key monitor isn’t working,» shesays. A numbing litany of technical problems follows. Key monitor . . .start stimuli. . . light. . . goes off. . . press button . . . sometimes it doesn’tstop the clock . . . sequence is screwed up. … I have a test tomorrow soI can’t stay . . . subjects tomorrow.
«What does the right side contribute to language in the normal brain?»we ask Zaidel after the student leaves.
«We don’t know exactly. There’s evidence that right-brain damageresults in some loss in the appreciation of humor, metaphor, and connectedtheme—what the point of the story is. Our research suggests that themeaning structures in the right hemisphere are very rich, full of nuances.Maybe it’s important for creating a rich semantic structure when you’rereading. The left hemisphere is very literal.»
j , , „ It is tempting to picture the logical, ra-
° tional left hemisphere as a sort of «ego» and
the right hemisphere as an «id.» In some circles the right brain is treatedas a Rousseauian noble savage, bursting with raw creative energy. On theother side of the coin, there are those Kafkaesque case histories of evil,idlike right hemispheres, as in the case of the woman with the rogue, self-
strangling left hand. Is the left brain, with its gift of gab, the brain’s ego,and does the id live in the right?
«I don’t think the ego is the left hemisphere,» says Zaidel. «There hasbeen a push to assign unconscious, primitive, idlike creature behavior tothe right brain and egolike behavior to the left. But I worked with a girlwho had her whole left hemisphere removed at age ten because of a tumor.She was severely aphasic, but she was kind and pleasant. There was nothingdark in her personality. So where is that dark, negative right hemisphere?»
«I saw a movie,» he continues, «of a patient with a natural callosallesion who was performing a block-design test. The left hand [controlledby the right brain] builds the design, and it does a good job. Then the righthand starts taking it apart. Finally, the man gets so frustrated he sits onhis right hand and completes the design with the left. The French have aname for this syndrome: la main etrangere, ‘the strange hand.’ »
Furthermore, when Zaidel gave a personality test to the left and righthemispheres, the right came out more «superegolike.» «It behaves like agoody-goody, always does the right thing, doesn’t interrupt in class, followsthe teacher’s instructions. The left hemisphere tends toward more idio-syncratic responses.» But he takes the results with a grain of salt, sincethey were based on a test designed for preliterate children.
Do those of us with normal brains and intact corpora callosi have twoparallel streams of consciousness in our heads?
«Yes,» says Zaidel. «But they’re talking to each other. But how oftenand through which channels? We know nothing about this. How do twosystems, each of which carries on complex analyses of the environment,interact? Are there situations when you’re better off inhibiting callosaltraffic because the conflict would make it impossible to behave? I thinkso, and I think there are ways for a human being to stop callosal traffic atwill. We now have evidence that anxiety may do this a bit.»
Unlike Bogen and others, Zaidel doesn’t see a metaphysical dilemmain the split brain. «So you get conflicting responses from the two sides ofthe brain,» he says. «Is that really so unusual? We all sometimes haveconflicting feelings about the same thing. Each of us has two or moredifferent perspectives depending on our mood, the time of day, and othercircumstances. Why should that be fatal to a unified theory of conscious-ness?
«To me, the mind is the brain,» he continues. «Consciousness is aparticular pattern of cerebral activation. To say that someone has con-sciousness is to say he has a complex enough cognitive system to producewhat we consider signs of consciousness: namely, a concept of self, a senseof the past, a sense of the future, maybe a fear of death, some kind of
Why Two Hemispheres? • 227
internal representation of the self as part of the environment. I don’t thinkof consciousness as an absolute; it is a continuum. Some people, somecreatures, are more conscious than others.»
According to jerre levy, the grande dame
‘ of hemispheric-lateralization research: «Ce-
tiemispneres. rebral dominance evolved because it’s an
efficient use of space, particularly whenyou’ve got an animal whose biological fitness . . . became more dependentupon intelligence. Two hemispheres absolutely identical in function wouldbe sheer redundancy. We can hardly afford that feature if we live by ourwits.» Ergo, evolution built two separate neural programs, side by side.The brain’s left half is tuned to time (sequential logic, counting, and so onare organized temporally), the right half to space. Since the 1970s Levy’slab at the University of Chicago has been churning out landmark studieson the neurological basis of sex differences, handedness, even neuroaes-thetics (the human brain, it seems, favors pictures in which the eye-catchingfeatures are on the right side). She tested for subtle differences in cerebrallateralization in left-handers (particularly the interesting 30 to 40 percentwho have language centers on both sides of the brain), dyslexics, mathe-matical prodigies, autistic children. To Levy’s chagrin, this labor oftenturned to cliche in Sunday-supplement features, and in the public con-sciousness women were indelibly branded as «verbal» and «left-hemisphere dominant» and men as «right-brain dominant» and whizzes atspatial relations—as if a female architect or a male novelist were a biologicalimpossibility. «People seem to have an irresistible tendency to simplifydata,» she said in a 1985 interview in Omni. «The fact is that for each sexeach hemisphere may specialize in a different skill. It has been endlesslyverified that males excel in three-dimensional, spatial visualization. But ifyou look at studies that measure lateralization in the understanding ofemotion . . . the female right hemisphere is more specialized than that ofthe male, in this instance. It may be less specialized for spatial relationshipsand very specialized for understanding the meaning of facial expres-sion. . . .»
Some psychologists became convinced that the two sides of the brainought to be educated differently. If Johnny can’t read, it may be becausehe is a right-hemisphere-dominant child stuck in a left-brain-oriented world(few would deny that the school is designed around the left hemisphere).Along came special remedial classrooms where Johnny does his spellinglessons to the tune of taped Vivaldi strings and where visualization exercisesare used to coax out the peculiar genie of the right hemisphere.
Indeed, there is new evidence that learning disorders like dyslexia anddiscalculia (trouble with numbers) result from defects in the prenatal «hard-wiring.» Slicing up deceased dyslexic brains, neurologists at Children’sHospital in Boston saw little clumps of nerve cells, particularly on thebrain’s left side, that were askew, as if hooked up incorrectly. NormanGeschwind of Harvard pointed to the following statistics: (1) Boys faroutnumber girls among the learning disabled; (2) left-handed children areten times more likely than right-handers to be learning disabled; (3) left-handers have a high rate of immune disorders, such as allergies; and (4)the left side of the brain develops more slowly than the right (to judgefrom rat experiments). The link between these seemingly disparate factors,Geschwind speculated, is the male hormone testosterone. When the fetusproduces excess testosterone, it stunts the growth of the left hemisphere—causing left-handedness, learning disorders, and immune diseases (testos-terone is known to weaken parts of the immune system).
«It is common to hear that our Western educational system discrimi-nates against the right brain,» writes Eran Zaidel (1978). «The left isconstructive, algorithmic, stepwise, and logical. It benefits from narrowexamples and from trial and error; it can learn by rule. The right hemi-sphere, on the other hand, does not seem to learn by exposure to rulesand examples. It needs exposure to rich and associative patterns, which ittends to grasp as wholes. Programmed instruction is certainly not for theright hemisphere, but I am not sure what is the proper method of instructionfor our silent half. It is part of the elusiveness of the right hemisphere thatwe find it easier to say what it is not than what it is.» Nonetheless, someseers do not hesitate to hail it as a pipeline to the oversoul, a sleepingprophet, an exotic Eastern antidote to our sterile Western logic. In a way,the mystical right hemisphere has become a substitute for the soul thatscientific rationalism has banished.
_. _ , _ _ This whole right brain/left brain thing has
The Emperor s New gotten out of hand„ says Alan Gevins> fa
domes fine debunker form. «The underlying model
is basically a dual-processor computersystem, a left computer and a right computer connected by two hundredfifty million fibers. And the left computer is specialized for language andsequential processing, and the right for holistic, spatial function. It madea good metaphor for the early seventies when the Now Generation, or theMe Generation—or whatever that generation was called—was trying toemphasize the necessity for nonlinear, nonlogical thought. But it’s grosslyoversimplified.
«We did EEG recordings of people doing reading, writing, arithmetic,
mental block rotation [a spatial task], and so on. At first the data lookedgreat. With eight EEG channels I could tell whether a person was readingor writing or doing arithmetic just by looking at his brain waves. Theproblem was, though, I couldn’t tell the difference between writing Englishand scribbling. I was just measuring motor control. So then we did a secondexperiment where everything was very controlled—the position of the hands,the difficulty of the task, et cetera—and there wasn’t an iota of differencein the EEG. The amount of energy coming from those eight channels wasthe same whether the person was doing arithmetic or writing or blockrotation!»
When Gevins and his colleagues at the EEG Systems Laboratory pub-lished these results in Science in 1979, they did not endear themselves tomost scientists in the hemispheric-lateralization business. «I wasn’t realpopular,» he says. «But I figured somebody had to do it—you know, itwas like the Emperor’s New Clothes. I stood my ground. I can say to thisday I know of no study that has recorded the ongoing, continuous EEGand found a difference in pattern that could be attributed to a spatial versusa verbal kind of intellect. The studies that reported that sort of thing werejust not controlled.»
The real story, like most brain stories, proved to be more convoluted.The EEG Systems Lab found that even the most austere, scaled-downmental task generated a complex weather map of wave fronts, spreadingrapidly over the entire scalp. «When you’re reading or writing, it isn’t asif the left half of your brain is turned on—if you’re right-handed—and theright is turned off,» he explains. «True, there are these critical areas forlanguage on the left side, Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area, that have veryspecific functions. It looks as if Wernicke’s area is a phonemic decoder forunderstanding language. Broca’s area assembles strings of words into asyntactical framework. I think they are more like input/output areas thananything; it isn’t like the thinking is there.
«There are many areas on both sides of the brain involved in the processof comprehending and expressing language. The same is true of spatialtasks. When you construct a map of the world in your mind, or you findyour way through a dark room based on a memory of what that room islike, the left brain isn’t shut off.»
_,. TT7 „ , White colonial church spires point
The War Between the . ,. A. , u , /XT
heavenward in the sleepy, tree-shaded New
^e*ves Hampshire town where Joe (known in the
journals as case «J. W.») lives. A good-look-ing, dark-haired man of thirty-one, Joe underwent split-brain surgery forepilepsy in 1982 at Dartmouth Medical College and now lives an unex-
ceptional life, working in the local egg-packing plant—except that once amonth a large, air-conditioned recreational vehicle crammed with tachis-toscopic equipment, cameras, computers, and Cornell University scientistspulls up to his house.
The word pear appears on the right side of the translucent screen (pro-jected, of course, to Joe’s left hemisphere).
«Pear,» says Joe.
The word bike is flashed on the left.
«I don’t see it. I saw a flash but I didn’t see the word.»
Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, the chief of the Cornell team, asks him to drawa picture with his left hand. Joe sketches a bicycle, complete with spokesand handlebars. Asked why he drew a bicycle, he shifts in his seat andmumbles awkwardly like a teenaged boy at a dance.
Banana and red flash on the screen, banana on the left, red on theright. Paul’s nonverbal right hemisphere sees banana, and the verbal leftsees red.
Picking up a red pen, his left hand carefully draws a naturalistic banana.Asked why, he gives a convoluted explanation about how a banana seemeda natural thing to draw with his hand in the position it was in.
Paul, a/k/a case «P. S.,» sits facing a screen with a red dot in the center.A slide projector behind the screen flashes two pictures, a snow scene anda chicken claw, to the left and right sides of the «fixation point,» respec-tively. (See Figure 8.) The snow picture is perceived by Paul’s right hem-isphere; the chicken claw by the left. As the impassive eye of a mountedvideo camera records the scene, Paul selects pictures of a shovel and achicken from a group of four.
«Good,» says Dr. Gazzaniga gently. «What did you see?»»I saw a claw and I picked the chicken,» he says, explaining: «Youhave to clean out the chicken shed with a shovel.»
Vicki, or «V. P.» is a divorced mother in her mid-thirties from Ohio whosecorpus callosum was surgically severed in 1979. The operation curbed therecurrent seizures that had plagued Vicki since the age of nine, but for atime it made getting dressed in the morning a surreal Marx Brothers rou-tine. The left hand chose clothes «she» didn’t want; it snatched things likea perverse child; sometimes Vicki found herself putting on two pairs ofshorts, one on top of the other. And tests at Cornell continue to revealthe presence of two Vickis.
A picture of an Indian headdress is projected on the left, a submarine
The War Between the Selves • 231
Figure 8 In classic experiments Dr. Michael Gazzaniga demonstrated that theleft hemisphere in a split-brain patient will give false «explanations» for the per-ceptions of the right brain. Here, Paul’s right hemisphere sees the snow scene,while the left side of his brain is shown a chicken claw. His right hand (controlledby the left brain) points to the chicken while the left hand (controlled by the rightbrain) picks out the shovel. Asked to explain, Paul—or rather, his left hemisphere—said, «I saw a claw and I picked the chicken, and you have to clean out the chickenshed with a shovel.» (After Gazzaniga)
on the right. Asked to choose the correct drawings from a set of four,Vicki’s right hand points to a picture of water; her left to a picture of afeather. Gazzaniga asks her why.
«I pointed to the water because it was a boat . . . uh, Indians. Andthe boat goes in the water. That’s what I’ve seen.»
«What did you see that time?»
«I saw a boat. A boat would float in the water and on the boat therecould be Indians and they would have feathers. I guess that’s all.»
With their talking right hemispheres, Joe, Paul, and Vicki are the threestars among the hundred-odd split-brain patients in the «East Coast series»(patients who live in the states from Minnesota eastward fall into Gazza-niga’s research stable). When Paul’s right hemisphere began to expressitself twenty-six months after surgery, Gazzaniga thought at first that theleft hemisphere was doing the talking, that sensory information was leakingfrom Paul’s right brain to his left through remaining interhemispheric con-nections. But tests showed that the two sides of his brain were still incom-municado. Then nine months after Vicki’s operation, her right hemispherebegan to write and then talk. Joe’s right hemisphere can’t speak, but ithas the artistic skill to convey its thoughts in drawings.
«We focus on these patients because a right hemisphere without lan-guage is very boring to study,» Gazzaniga tells us. «It can’t respond to anyverbal stimuli or follow instructions. It can’t even do some of the so-calledright-hemisphere tasks. . .. What we don’t know yet is whether the engramsfor language are over there, but there is no ‘executor.’ To use a loosecomputer metaphor, the executor is the thing that accesses and manipulatesdata. It may be that the amount of right-hemisphere language in the dis-connected right brain depends on the extent to which the executors arepresent.»
The ninth-floor offices where Gazzaniga and his team work are aninterior decorator’s meditation on variations of brown and beige: institu-tional-beige linoleum corridors, beige walls, mud-puddle-brown carpeting.The buzzing fluorescent lights and schoolroom-style clocks evoke the torpideternity of a Friday afternoon in grade school, but there are invisibleradiations of fervid intensity. For one thing, our visit coincides with grant-proposal season, when this country’s neuroscientists must petition the fund-ing bodies of the NIMH much as Renaissance artists had to curry favorwith their Medici patrons. Besides, split-brain research seems to inspire ahigh intellectual passion in its devotees, for good reason.
A talking right hemisphere becomes an «assertive agent,» in Gazza-niga’s words, no longer the tongue-tied servant of the left. In the dividedbrain with two voices the Cornell researchers found the ideal test tube forexperimentally induced states of conflict. Flash the message smile on oneside of the screen and frown on the other, and «you can see the person
Dumber Than a Chimpanzee • 233
fighting to get out both responses; parts of the mouth try to smile, whileother parts frown.» No doubt about it: There are two people in there, andthey may not even be compatible. «Here’s Paul,» he says, pulling out amultiple-choice test. «We made up a five-point scale of the things we knewhe was interested in. He had to rate them from ‘like very much’ to ‘dislikevery much,’ and we had each hemisphere do the evaluation. One day hewas absolutely polar. If one side liked something, the other side didn’t.And he was impossible that day—abusive, bad tempered. … A monthlater we had him do it again, and each side rated things the same. Thatday he was calm, pleasant, engaging.
«Now, what happens when you and I experience states of anxiety?We’re sitting here with two parallel mental systems evaluating the samestimuli differently. The biological system tries to resolve the conflict, andthat may be what gives rise to our anxiety.»
What Gazzaniga wondered was this: How does the dominant left braincope with behaviors and statements initiated by the newly vocal right side?What manner of French farce would occur when «conscious» and «un-conscious» processes collide? One answer surfaced in experiments like thethree described above. Apparently the language centers in the left hemi-sphere will turn mental cartwheels to rationalize the puzzling behaviorsemanating from the right. Thus the left brain will solemnly explain that itdrew a banana because a banana could be drawn with several downward-sweeping strokes of the pen or that it picked a picture of a shovel becausethe concept of chicken suggested the idea of cleaning out a chicken shed.In short, it is the nature of the dominant linguistic hemisphere to constructtheories about the world, including the unseen or unknown part.
There is a war on in the academic journalsDumber 1 nan these days between Eran Zaidei5 who thinks
a Chimpanzee the aVerage right hemisphere stores crucial
language skills, and Gazzaniga, who believesa talking right hemisphere is a very rare bird. «Zaidel and I disagree aboutthis. In Sperry’s lab in the sixties, two of our first three patients had right-hemisphere language, and so we thought it was common. We were livingin a statistical illusion. I think the percentage is really quite small. In ourseries of a hundred patients we have only three cases.»
The average disconnected right hemisphere without language is a prettydim bulb, in Gazzaniga’s opinion; its abilities may be «vastly inferior tothe cognitive skills of a chimpanzee.» It may not even be self-aware. «Achimp can be conditioned to respond to a picture of itself with thumbsdown or thumbs up. I don’t know if that means it knows itself or not.»
Before it could speak, Paul’s right brain answered the question «Who areyou?» by spelling out Paul in building blocks, a feat that was interpretedas self-awareness at the time. «Yet,» says Gazzaniga, «that same ‘smart’right hemisphere can’t take the words pin and finger and point to the mostappropriate answer, bleed, when it’s told to set these things in a causalrelationship. We worked through it with pictures and demonstrations tosee if this right hemisphere could make inferences, and it couldn’t. It’sstupid.»
What is the right brain good for then? «It does a lot of things. First ofall, it’s controlling half the body. It might also be a sort of fast processorfor things that don’t require verbal analysis: Get in or get out; match thesample; make quick perceptual judgments. It doesn’t need to go throughthis analytical naming and classifying that the left side does. Bogen viewsit as a sort of mismatch detector, which is probably correct.»
We visit a cluttered testing room, where a translucent screen with ared + in the middle sits on a scuffed metal desk next to an Apple liecomputer and a slide projector. Labeled 35-millimeter slide boxes («Hor-izontal and Vertical Dots») line the shelves. White lab coats hang likediscarded ghosts from a wooden coat tree. If a mute right hemisphere isbelow chimpanzee level, a talking one may still lag behind the Premacks'»Sarah,» the ape who has theoretically mastered elementary logic andinferential reasoning. That, anyway, is the drift of Gazzaniga’s recent ex-periments. «Vicki’s right hemisphere is something else,» he tells us. «Itcan talk, but it still can’t compute. It can’t subtract, multiply, or divide.And it has a rotten time generating mental images. If it is shown a capitalY and told to make a mental image of the lowercase version and say whetherany part of the letter goes below the line, it can’t do it.
«The right hemisphere has a hard time making inferences about eventsthat go beyond simple association. If you flash dog, it points to cat. That’sa simple associative response. But if you flash dog and leash, and it has togo to walk, it can’t do it. It’s too abstract.»
«It sounds,» we say, «like you agree with Eccles’s idea that the rightside of the brain has only a rudimentary consciousness.»
«Well, there’s more to that than we originally wanted to give him creditfor,» he says with a grin. «My sense of these patients is that they live inthe left hemisphere, even the ones who talk out of both sides.»
The first split-brain cases seemed to offer a rare opportunity to studythought without language. But, ironically, the Cornell group may havediscovered just the opposite. «The assumption has always been that lan-guage is the basis of cognition,» says Gazzaniga. «But this experiment ofMother Nature’s has allowed us to see something very interesting. Here
The Self as Public Relations Agent • 235
you have a right hemisphere with clear language skills but no real cognition.Now, the question is, what does that mean about language in the normalleft hemisphere?
«It may mean that language is merely the press agent for these othervariables of cognition. There are many parallel, co-conscious systems inthe brain, not just two. There is no ‘general’ in charge. To make sense ofall the different behaviors, there has to be a system that interprets andformulates theories. Language is closely related to it, but it isn’t the thingitself.»
«What is the thing itself?»
«That’s what we’re trying to get at. I can’t say anything more. That’smy book. It’s called the Social Brain—that’s a hint.»
«The idea we’re pushing around here,» he continues, «is that the brainhas a modular, parallel organization—well, it’s silly to argue whether thebrain is serial or parallel because it’s obvious the system has to be serialin some ways and parallel in others. Think about a small home computer.If one bit is down, the whole thing’s down. But I can take you across thestreet»—he points to the grave, gray towers of New York Hospital risingin the mauve November dusk like a massive stone effigy—»and show youpeople with pounds of brain gone who are sitting there reading the Times.If the brain were organized as a general serial system, a lesion in any regionwould be devastating.»
The center that he sought was a state of mind,The Self as Public Nothing more, like weather after it has cleared.
—WALLACE STEVENS,
«Artificial Populations»
Relations Agent
Mental unity, according to Gazzaniga, is as fraudulent as a Cecil B.DeMille movie set of ancient Rome. The sense of «I» is a slick publicrelations job. «The emerging picture,» he notes, «is that our cognitivesystem is not a unified network with a single purpose and train of thought.A more accurate metaphor is that our sense of subjective awareness arisesout of our dominant left hemisphere’s unrelenting need to explain actionstaken from any one of a multitude of mental systems that dwell within us.»This picture of the mind as an uneasy coalition of multiple subminds—of many parallel «subroutines,» in computerspeak—is much in vogue. Thelate Dr. Norman Geschwind regarded our thought organ as a «loose fed-eration» of neural systems. «The extent of the disunity varies from personto person,» he told author Jonathan Miller in States of Mind. «In any case,there does not seem to be a central prime mover overseeing all behavior.»Rather, our various behaviors are ruled by countless controllers in the
brain, some of which behave like warring Balkan states. For example, aspontaneous smile and a consciously produced smile (as when the photog-rapher tells you to say «cheese») are under the control of separate brainsystems, according to Geschwind:
[There is] a region in the depths of the brain which contains the innate programfor smiling. If we ask a patient who has suffered paralysis of one half of the faceafter a stroke to smile, he cannot produce even a poor smile on one side since theface area of the cortex has been destroyed on the opposite side of the brain. Yetwhen something amuses the patient, the region in the depths is still intact andproduces a smile.
Consider: In earlier chapters we described two separate memory sys-tems, one of which seems to operate semiautomatically, even «uncon-sciously.» We met florid examples of epileptic automatism, of human beingsrunning on «automatic pilot,» seemingly without benefit of consciousawareness. We met people with «Hindsight,» who see without knowingthey are seeing. Even in nonpathological brains conscious and unconsciousmental processes are often at odds. Paul MacLean’s three-in-one braingives us a mind trisected into semiautonomous reptilian, paleomammalian,and neomammalian centers of consciousness. It’s safe to say that the dramaof the dueling hemispheres is only one instance of a «split brain.»
If the brain is a menagerie of subselves, how do we experience ourselvesas one? To Gazzaniga, the unitary self is a «sociological» creation, a taleconcocted by a mental system that is kin to but not identical with the left-hemisphere language centers. Bogen thinks the self is double-headed likeJanus; Sperry sees it as a higher emergent property bridging the mirrorworlds of the two hemispheres; Eccles views it as an incorporeal entitythat whispers to the left hemisphere. Computer aficionados speak confi-dently of a «self symbol,» an internal «self-representation» inside the bio-computer.
In a perplexing syndrome known as borderline personality disorder,psychiatrist Arnold Mandell (1980) sees a parade of actor-selves upon anempty stage:
The stability of self called character is disturbed so that over the years such peoplehave periods when they may behave like distinctly different people: an unconscion-able psychopath, a guilty obsessional, a hysteric with a paralyzed limb, hypersexual,frigid, a born-again religious convert, a depressive with hypochondriasis, a bizarrepsychotic, and for months or years even, an apparently normal individual with littleof the previous manifestations. Whereas most of us have a limited number of what[William] James called tendencies, a narrow range of stable states . . . these «asif people can be anything, but not for very long. Deeper looks at them . . . haverevealed (between clinical «periods») feelings of insubstantiality, a continuing feel-ing of nervousness, «pan anxiety,» along with feelings of emptiness, lack of identity,
and an absence of meaning. Some use social roles to pretend a continuity of selfthey do not feel.
But that is solidity compared with the strange affliction of multiple per-sonality disorder.
. I am thirty-five years old and I was a mul-
Multiple Perspectives tipk ^r thirty.two years> oecause / was tnree
when it started. I was molested a lot by my stepfather, and when I was sixI was raped. My core personality went out then, at age six, and my hostpersonality, Mary, took over.
Only one person in my family knows. That’s the case with most multiplepersonalities. You just don’t see it if you’re not looking for it. My firsthusband, poor dear, never knew what hit him.
See, part of my personality went to sleep for a year and woke up marriedto Eddie—that’s my ex-husband—and I could not tolerate him. Monica wasthe one who married him. What happened was that Mary’s fiance had drownedand when he drowned she konked out for a year. When she woke up marriedto Eddie she couldn’t stand him. She also resented being thrown into thissituation because she didn’t know she was a multiple at the time. She didn’tknow that Monica existed.
In 1983 we wrote a short magazine article about multiple personalitydisorder (MPD), the bizarre psychiatric syndrome known in the vernacularas «split personality.» You may know it as The Three Faces of Eve syn-drome, after the 1957 best-seller. (The real Eve actually developed twenty-two different personalities before she was healed in 1974; the eponymous»Sybil,» a midwestern woman, had sixteen.) Several weeks after the articleappeared, we received a well-written and thoughtful letter from «M. M.George,» a self-described «multiple.» We wrote back, eventually estab-lishing contact with Marion, the thirty-five-year-old western Massachusettswoman behind the pseudonym (M. M. George is an amalgam of her threemajor personalities, Mary, Monica, and George). Marion is not her realname, either; proper names and certain personal details in these passageshave been changed to protect her identity.
Marion’s story is painfully real. Like most multiples, she has beenthrough more trials than Job, including misdiagnosis as a schizophrenic,commitment to a Bedlamesque state mental hospital, repeated suicideattempts, inappropriate drug treatment, even a would-be exorcism. Yet,as she wrote us in one letter, «I am all in favor of educating the publicand letting them know that we multiples are really ordinary people witha bit of an odd illness … but we live and survive. That’s what it’s all
about, a unique and wonderful defense mechanism that not everyone canhave.»
Until recently, multiple personality disorder was usually dismissed asa rare and rococo psychiatric hoax. If a many-faced Eve or Sybil appearedon the couch, mainstream psychiatry labeled her (for most multiples arefemale) a schizophrenic, a manic-depressive, or a clever, manipulative fake.Psychiatrist Frank Putnam discovered his first multiple languishing in award for depressives at NIMH—glum, suicidal, totally unresponsive totreatment. «She had been presented at grand rounds as a classic exampleof various neurological diseases—brain tumor, epilepsy, you name it,» hetells us. «In my therapy group she went through a series of startling changesthat she did not acknowledge. Usually she was withdrawn, rigid, hostile,and quiet, and then she’d suddenly shift and become funny and witty,laughing and making puns.»
That was 1979, and over the next few years, Putnam went on to assemble
some 150 «Eves» and rigorously analyze their brains as well as their psyches.
«When I got into multiple personality disorder, I got so involved in it I
essentially gave up everything else,» he says. He and his co-workers at the
NIMH and St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington can now report that the
alternate selves inside a multiple are more real and more autonomous than
anyone suspected. If Eve has three faces, she also has three voices, three
separate memory circuits, indeed (in a neurophysiological sense) three
different brains. This fact could force some revision of our old notions of
selfhood.
___ 0 .„ . „ First, Putnam and EEG veteran Monte
The Several Brains of Eve _ .’ , _ VTTWTn , . .
Buchsbaum (then at NIMH) analyzed the
brain waves of ten multiples, mapping the patterns of event-related po-tentials (ERPs) in response to light flashes. «In each multiple we studiedat least three different personalities that were capable of cooperating—usually, the core personality, a child personality, and an obsessive-com-pulsive personality,» he explains. «And we tested each personality at leastfive times. For controls we used normal actors, who merely imagined beingdifferent people.» His results elevated «split personality» from late-late-show melodrama to hard neuroscience: While the actors’ EEG patternsdidn’t change much from one feigned personality to another, the Sybils,Joes, Harriets, and Marys inhabiting each multiple patient looked likedifferent people, neuroelectrically speaking. MPD—which California psy-chiatrist Ralph Allison likens to a cancer of the personality, because selvesmultiply wantonly like malignant cells—proved to have a basis in biology.Putnam did not rest on his laurels. With Daniel Weinberger, he didcerebral blood-flow studies (in which inhaled radioactive xenon is used to
illumine active brain regions) and reported «striking differences» betweendifferent personalities. Since it’s common to find both left-handed and right-handed characters inside a multiple, Putnam did a series of physiologicaltests and found corresponding shifts in hemispheric dominance.
«We now know of a thousand cases,» says Putnam. «So while it’s arare disorder, it may not be as rare as we thought.» Women comprise 85percent of the victims. «But,» says Putnam, «I suspect that there are manyunrecognized male multiples in the criminal justice system, because theyusually have one personality that’s violent.» In 1978 William Milligan ofColumbus, Ohio, became the first person in the United States to be ac-quitted of a major crime (four counts of rape) by reason of multiple identity.His ten personalities included an intellectual named Arthur who spoke ina clipped, British manner; several child personalities; two lesbians; «Ra-gan,» a feisty male with a Slavic accent who threatened to fire his lawyers;and an escape artist named Tommy, who once slithered, Houdini-like, outof a strait jacket in ten seconds flat. Although each personality knew thedifference between right and wrong, all of them together did not composea whole person, according to the seven psychiatrists and psychologists whotestified at the trial—ergo, Milligan could not be held responsible for hiscrimes.
Many multiples, however, shuffle through their pack of selves incon-spicuously, working as corporate lawyers, secretaries, PTA presidents, ordentists—incognito even to themselves. The first hint may be odd gaps inthe temporal stream, disquieting memory lapses, perhaps the «TwilightZone» experience of waking up in a strange motel room with a perfectstranger (if not married to one).
One day in 1979, I woke up—or rather, Mary, woke up—in a motelroom with somebody Monica was involved with. I called my psychiatrist atfour a.m., and said, «All right, what’s going on here?» He said, «Okay,it’s time we talked.»
That’s when we discovered Monica. And shortly afterwards, we discov-ered George, and we have that on tape. Since I have it on tape I can listento all three personality voices—Mary, Monica, and George—and they’re alldifferent. George had kind of a deeper voice. People would kind of lookwhen he came out. Monica’s voice was very light and lilting. Daphne’s wassort of low and sexy.
Lurking somewhere behind all the personae is the «original,» the corepersonality, which may take years to unearth. In the meantime the «host,»the facade that the patient uses to simulate unity, presides like a long-termguest host on the «Tonight Show.» Usually no one perceives the change.
Virtually all multiples have a child-self, an opposite-sex self, an obsessive-compulsive self, and a self that is depressive, suicidal, or violent. Theremay also be several incomplete «personality fragments.» Typically someof the personalities are more charismatic, more flamboyant, than the ratherdrab original. But despite their myriad identities, most multiples are notpsychotic, according to Putnam, and may function quite well, often dele-gating different tasks to different personalities.
Mary was a marvelous artist, a good writer, a moderate singer. Monicawas the real singer in the bunch; she had a beautiful voice. In my high-school chorus I was listed in three different categories—second soprano,which was Mary; alto, which was Monica; and George was first tenor. Itdidn’t happen very often but whenever my singing teacher needed an extravoice he’d put me in wherever, because I had a three-octave range. MostlyI was in the alto range, which was Monica’s range . . . I don’t considermyself as good now. My husband thinks I have a chance to be as good asMonica was if I just practiced.
Therapists who treat multiples often find themselves in dialogue withdifferent voices—some male, some female, some childlike—eerie as thealien voices emanating from a medium at a seance. In 1983 neurologistChristie Ludlow of the National Institute of Neurological and Communi-cative Disorders and Stroke (NINCDS) tested this phenomenon by makinghigh-tech «voiceprints» of some of Putnam’s patients. Using a computer-ized technique called spectral analysis, which essentially sorts out the dif-ferent frequencies composing a single sound, Ludlow confirmed that thesubvoices were indeed very distinct.
One multiple has three menstrual periods every month, one for eachof her identities. Others require different prescription glasses for their alteregos. A multiple can harbor one identity that knows how to drive andanother that doesn’t; one that speaks a foreign language fluently and an-other with a tin ear. Chicago psychiatrist and MPD authority Bennett Braunstudied a man who was allergic to citrus drinks in all personalities but one.Putnam has met multiples who are actually married to two different people.»I wouldn’t be surprised,» he adds, «if a certain percentage of people wholead double lives—spies, double agents, bigamists—are actually multiples.Some mediums and victims of ‘demonic possession’ probably are, too.»The repertoire of a multiple includes dramatic shifts in facial expression,accent, vocabulary, body language, clothing and hair styles, handwriting,phobias, and—above all—memories.
For twenty-eight years of my life I was amnesic. When I was younger Ididn’t notice it; I just thought everyone had these moments. Later, as things
got more traumatic there was more and more time I would miss. I justthought I was crazy.
Mary, the «host,» the one who was «me» the majority of the time, didn’tknow about the other personalities. Monica knew about Mary but not aboutabout George. She was amnesic when George came out. George knew every-thing. He is the one they call the link or the bridge, the one who has all thememories.
So there were all these things that happened, but to an observer it justlooked like I was acting strange some of the time. My mother never believedthat I tried to commit suicide because she said I called for help, that I wasjust doing it to get attention. The point is, Mary would try to commit suicideand Monica would wait till she started to fall asleep and then she’d get upand call for help. But an outsider would just see that this person took abunch of pills and then called for help.
Sometimes Eve fails to keep Lucille’s appointments or (more omi-nously) mild Bruce does not recall the crimes committed by Harry. Multipleamnesia made for high courtroom drama at the trial of Kenneth Bianchi,the Los Angeles «Hillside Strangler,» when Bianchi convinced severalpsychiatrists that he was unaware of the activities of a murderous doppel-ganger named «Steve.» The jury didn’t buy Bianchi’s multiple routine, butwhat of the selective amnesias of genuine MPD patients? With a batteryof sophisticated tests, Putnam and NIMH psychologist Herbert Weingart-ner determined that multiples’ memory circuits are well and truly com-partmentalized. Personality X may remember nothing that happens to Y,while Z is consistently aware of Y but not of X, and so on. Braun believesthat MPD may be an extreme case of state-dependent learning, which isthe psychological law that information encoded during a given psychophy-siological state is best retrieved in the same state. (In other words, if youmisplaced the car keys while drunk, a couple of pina coladas may be thebest route to finding them.)
What causes a personality to split apart in the first place? The clearand chilling answer is child abuse: 85 to 90 percent of MPD patients werebeaten, cut, burned, half-drowned in bathtubs, locked in closets, hung outof windows, and/or sexually assaulted as children (generally before the ageof ten), and their early histories are sagas of criticism, betrayal, abandon-ment, and inconsistency. «It is a coping mechanism,» says Putnam. «Thechild compartmentalizes his or her pain so as not to have to deal with itall the time. A form of self-hypnosis is probably involved. The child goesinto trances, and that trance-state consciousness grows more and moreautonomous and differentiated.»
When I was six, the «Topper» series was on TV and I was madly in lovewith George Kirby, the ghost who always helped to get Topper either intoor out of trouble, who mostly helped him against the bad guys. I used tothink, «Gee, I wish I had a George who could protect me against mystepfather.» And then the night I was raped, bingo, there was George, andI (Marion) was gone. I went out with a scream, that’s what I heard. Georgewas there to save me. He pulled me away from my stepfather. Then Marywas born a few instants after. She was like the temporary host of the body.I never actually knew her because I went to sleep and when I woke up shebecame part of me.
Monica, who was born when I was three, also went to sleep when I wassix and stayed gone until I was fourteen. She came back then to help out.Monica was the domestic one, the cheerful, the happy one. She was the oneeveryone liked best.
Unfortunately it isn’t very easy to put Humpty-Dumpty together again.MPD is not cured in a day. «I don’t believe there are any medications thatwork,» says Putnam. Integration, as the healing process is called, can takeyears. Therapy takes the form of an intrapsychic encounter group, in whichthe various buried identities are coaxed into the open, sometimes via hyp-nosis. «The first step in treatment,» Putnam explains, «is to get the per-sonalities to meet each other.»
T.„ «. . .. „ « Fourmillante cite, cite plein de rives,
The Reintegration of _ % . , . . , ,
Oute spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant.
Marion —charles baudelaire
As for Marion, six different personalities took their turns upon thestage of her life for thirty years. Despite her potpourri of nicknames (threeof her personality-monikers appear under her picture in the high-schoolyearbook), her three-part harmony in the chorus, her often baffling be-havior, her own family didn’t notice her psychic multiplicity. Like manymultiples, she was (and is) intelligent and talented, an accomplished singer,artist, and writer. But depressions, mental breakdowns, suicide attempts,and confusion inevitably aborted all her career plans.
Not until 1979, after her sobering morning-after in the motel room with»Monica’s» date, did she learn she was a multiple personality. With atherapist, she began the slow, painful process of reconnecting her scatteredselves, establishing lines of communication between them. Mary, the acting»host,» learned of George and Monica; Monica began to leave notes forMary («Oh, by the way, I made an appointment for you . . .»); thepersonalities heard one another’s voices and traded memories. On Hal-loween 1982 integration occurred, and all her «personal spirits» coalesced
into a whole person. With her self-taught psychologist husband (who «fellin love with all of us» and married them/her in 1982) acting as hypnotistand guide, the real Marion returned after her long, Rip Van Winkle-likesleep. She now assists with the reintegration of other multiples and isworking toward a career as a therapist for abused children. This is herstory.
There were six personalities in all, Mary, Monica, George, Daphne,Ginny, and me. There was also a fractional personality, Nancy, but shenever really developed into anything. She was a reaction to a car accidentand then she was integrated, so we don’t really count her.
Each personality was born from a crisis; it’s an elaborate defense mech-anism. You’re in a situation you can’t handle and you hypnotize yourselfinto being someone else who can. When I was raped at the age of six, Georgecame in and he saved me; he was the one who pulled me away from mystepfather. Mary was also born then. She was the host-personality after thereal self, Marion, went to sleep. She was not a happy person. As she gotolder she got severely depressed and negative. She gained weight as a defenseagainst men. At one point she allowed the body to reach a peak of 310pounds.
Monica was the one I call «our little homemaker»; she was cheerful andbouncy, the one everyone liked best. She was created when I was three,when my stepfather started molesting me. But then she went to sleep whenI was six and came back at age fourteen. At that point things got really badat home and Mary couldn’t handle it, so Monica came back to help out.But Monica could get depressed, too. Usually it was Mary who tried tocommit suicide, but Monica tried to kill herself once. She was the one whofell in love with Eddie, my ex-husband, and married him. Later she had abrief affair with a guy who reminded her a lot of Eddie and she went homeand tried to kill herself.
Daphne came out in ‘eighty-one. She was sexual revenge, feminine anger.Men had treated me very badly and then when I lost weight and men startedpaying attention to me, Daphne was there to get even. She was this seductiveeighteen-year-old siren. She was the one my [present] husband first fell inlove with.
A major trauma happened in late ‘eighty-one that caused me to feel veryabandoned, and Ginny was born. She was six years old and an orphan.She actually started out as an infant and my George personality adopted herand raised her to the age of six.
Once I was in a car accident and had severe internal injuries, and afractional personality, Nancy, was born from that. All she’d do is just lay
there in internal pain. The problem was, though, she wanted to die. Mydoctor thought it wouldn’t be a good idea to integrate her with all that pain,so she healed Nancy and then integrated her. So if you have a personalitythat is really negative you would probably work to change that personalitybefore integrating it.
I’m unlike a lot of multiples in that I don’t have a whole slew of people.I knew a girl who had nineteen personalities and I sat down with a piece ofpaper and worked out all their attributes. . . . When I got married, therewere three other multiples there who were all patients of my doctor. So wehad a picture taken and we called it the Multiple Exposure. Between all ofus, we figured out, there were forty-two people in that picture.
One psychiatrist told me that anyone who believed in multiples wasderanged. Many of us have had people try to exorcise us. My mother triedto bring in a priest once. . . . She still won’t believe it.
Before I was recognized as a multiple I was classified as a schizophrenicand, another time, as a manic-depressive. They tried lithium on me and itdid absolutely nothing. You see, what they were seeing was first Monica,then Mary, then George—so, you know, elation, depression, then anger, inrapid succession. In ‘seventy-seven I had a major breakdown. I was in thehospital almost more than I was out of it, first as a voluntary patient andthen I was committed. Being committed to a state institution is a sheer hell-hole. I didn’t know what was going on; I didn’t find out till two years later.
In ‘seventy-nine I woke up. I was sitting there in this office with thisdoctor, who looked familiar to me. I thought some little kid had come in,because that’s what it sounded like, a kid whispering. It was Monica whis-pering to me. I just started slowly and finally got to the point where I couldeasily carry on conversations with her. We discovered George not longafterwards.
My husband and I started working together in September [1982]. I couldn’tafford a therapist and he said he was willing to be my lay therapist. We usedall the material I already had, all the experiences I’d gained from my ther-apists. We had charts of all the major incidents in my life, all the majormemories that had to be dealt with.
On Halloween I integrated. We took the personalities in reverse order,integrating Ginny first and working back to Monica. We did it with hypnosisbecause we figured it would be easiest. Some people integrate in their sleep.I know of one girl who went to sleep and woke up the next morning inte-grated. There’s no tried-and-true way. We taped it, but I don’t remembermuch of it. I embraced each of them, and when I embraced them theybecame one with me.
When I got to George, I just broke down and cried. He’d saved my life.
Multiple Perspectives • 245
He’d been therefor me so many times. But I realized later I didn’t give himup. He’s still a part of me.
One night, my girlfriend Lynn and I were in the car. It was shortly afterintegration. I hadn’t seen any sign of the others [personalities] yet, but whenyou first integrate you aren’t sure whether it’s really happened. You won’tknow till there’s a real crisis. So I was in the car with Lynn singing to asong on the radio. She said something, and I got angry with her. All of asudden, she heard my voice drop and she looked over. George always worehis glasses down on the end of his nose. And she looked over and therewere the glasses hanging down on the end of the nose. So at first she thoughtit was George yelling at her. But then she saw it was me; she could tell Ihadn’t left.
Lynn always knew when George was in the room. She wouldn’t evenhave to look up; she could sense it. She’d just say, «Hi, George.» See, Lynnwas George’s lover, and that’s something that does happen quite often withmultiples. George defined himself as a man; therefore he had an interest inwomen. And that bothered me. Other people would have seen us as lesbians,I suppose, if they had known. But George was very discreet; no one knew.But that’s why they were so close. Lynn had a really hard time giving upGeorge.
Anyway, after that incident in the car, I looked at her and said, «Thatwas me. I got angry.» I had never gotten angry before. When I got angryI’d let go and George would take over. That wasn’t my role.
George was about anger. And destruction, protection, firmness. He hadmany sides to him. He grew up to have quite a temper. Once he grew upto age fourteen, he stayed fourteen for a number of years. It’s a volatile age.It’s more acceptable for a fourteen-year-old to have temper tantrums andthrow things. So he stayed fourteen till he was discovered and my therapistaged him hypnotically.
There is a humorous side to being a multiple. My Daphne personalityliked to go out partying and dancing with Lynn. One night Daphne starteddrinking and dancing, forgetting that I had just taken some pretty potentmedication. Halfway through the wine, it hit her hard and Lynn had to driveher home. Daphne happened to comment that Ginny—my little one—wasdrunk, on the inside. (At this point I was close to fusing and there was agreat deal of cooperation between personalities.) Lynn couldn’t resist andasked to see the six-year-old in such a condition. Ginny came out, glassy-eyed and feeling silly. She was curled up in the stuffed chair staring aroundin a way that suggested the room was moving around her. She focused onthe shelf where she kept her four stuffed animals. She looked amazed andsaid, «I got three Teddy Bears, and three Katrina Kitty Kats, and three
246 • The Many-Chambered Self
Tommy Tommy Tom Cats and three Pokey Turtles . . . I got more animalsthan I thought I got.»
Since I am integrated now, I have all the memories. I am still affectedby some of them; I can still go into withdrawal over some of them. Myhusband and I had to go over them several times to neutralize them. Hewould give me what we call a volume control on the pain and I could observethe scene with no commitment at all, and then turn up the volume and geta little closer, and a little closer, until I could accept the whole thing.
I think my stepfather may have been a multiple himself. He has a lot ofdifferent names. He was severely abused as a child. And there were timeswhen his personality would just switch. He’d be beating me and then, boom,he’d just stop and walk away as if nothing had happened. There was oneincident when I, as George, got angry and sideswiped him across the headwith a bowl, and he just walked away.
He also had this strict religious side, and I’ve never known a multiplewithout a religious, almost fanatical side to them. My Mary personality wasobsessed with certain things; she was obsessed with religion for a while.Another thing is migraines. I don’t know a single multiple who doesn’t havethem. Mary had migraines all the time.
This summer I may try to see my stepfather, whom I haven’t seen inyears, I am thinking of going back to visit the house where I grew up, whereall this happened. See, logically, I know that that house is a nice little houseon a nice little street in a normal city. But in my mind it’s the Amityvillehorror. I’ve got to go back to put it in perspective. . . .
It’s hard being integrated. There are so many situations when you wishsome of them were around to take care of it. You’re totally responsible forall your actions now.
A doctor I once worked with said that in a sense we are all multiples.To his seven-year-old he’s «Daddy»; to someone else, he’s «Doctor»; heplays different roles. It’s just that with a multiple the roles are a little morefor keeps.
A few months after this conversation, we got another letter from Mar-ion, which read, in part:
To be perfectly honest, I have re-split but we don’t think it is a serious situation.There were stressful circumstances involved with the possibility of seeing my step-father again. That on top of an overloaded work schedule and doing volunteerwork, too. … I just blew a fuse. We feel (my doctor and I) that as soon as I cancalm down, put my stepfather out of my mind, and rest from the overload, I shouldbe able to reintegrate George and the new young personality named Anna (aged15). They seldom come out, and when they do, it startles my husband. After all,I had been integrated for 16 months. But I think I can reintegrate soon. . . .
Some Embarrassing Questions • 247
It’s time that people understood that this illness is a reality, not just a figmentof someone’s imagination.
. Like the «split brain,» MPD raises some
Some Embarrassing awkward, even embarrassing, questions. Will
Questions the Real Self please stand up! Who is in
charge? How does it feel to share a bodywith a host of other minds? Is a person morally responsible for the actionsof alternate selves he/she doesn’t know about?
Given the often-astonishing gifts of their satellite personae—like theability to converse in fluent Russian or to perform Houdini-like escapefeats—multiple personalities make a strange showcase for the untappedpotentials inside every brain. Rather than freaks, multiple personalitiesare like you and me—only more so, or so some psychiatrists maintain.
Maybe you, too, harbor closet «selves» in various degrees of evolution:an intellectual, a Don Juan, a bon vivant, an ascetic, a hero, a melancholiac,a housewife, a revolutionary, a hysteric, a lonely child, a Machiavellianpower broker, an artist. Perhaps mental unity is a matter of repressing thealternate selves struggling to be born. And consider the dream self, yournocturnal alter ego: Is that you? What about your pack of previous selves:four-year-old, bed-wetting Stevie, teenage Steve with the ducktail haircut,and so on? You are amnesic for your own infancy; «you» disappear inanesthesia, deep sleep, coma, and certain twilight states. Where’s the self?
So far no electroencephalogram, no PET scan, has pinpointed the neu-ron, or network of neurons, that encodes the «I.» Obviously, the self is aglobal property of the brain—if, that is, it is «in» our gray matter at all.Even in this age of neurotechnological miracles, selfhood remains a deep,dark mystery.
ALTEREDSTATES
The Hanged Man:Altered States of Consciousness
The Hanged Man is suspended from a gallows, aT-cross of living wood. His arms, folded behindhis back, together with his head form a trianglewith the point downward; his legs form a cross.. . . There is a deep nimbus about his head, andhis face expresses deep entrancement rather thansuffering.
—eden gray, The Tarot Revealed
THE ORTHODOX VIEW is that the mind is a biological computer,totally self-contained and limited by physical laws,» Charles Tart tellsus in his house in the Berkeley hills, as the late-afternoon sun illu-mines a row of sedate Buddhas on the window curtains and a dreaminghouse cat stirs on the carpet. «If you have an experience of leaving yourbody, becoming one with the universe, or meeting a spiritual being, West-ern science tells you it’s an illusion. Just as if you programmed your Applecomputer to say T have just attained oneness with the Ultimate Chip.’
«However, it seems quite possible that things like precognition andremote viewing, which violate our assumptions about physical laws, dohappen. There are certain altered states in which, moreover, such phe-nomena seem neither illogical nor unnatural.»
Beneath the thin patina of ordinary mental life lies a glittering empo-rium of «altered states of consciousness» (ASCs). They range from theexotic (the peyote trips of South American curanderos) to the routine (sleepand dreams); from the sordid (angel dust nightmares) to the sublime (SaintTheresa’s ecstasies). Tart is the man who put them on the map, scientificallyspeaking. Back in 1970 the University of California at Davis psychologistedited a fat, sky-blue volume, Altered States of Consciousness, which wastouted in the Last Whole Earth Catalogue as a must-read «if you’re doinganything with meditation, dope, hypnosis, dreams, subjective explorationof any kind.» Today, after all the Indian-print bedspreads have faded, thebook is still the ASC connoisseur’s bible, and Tart is still scrutinizing thehuman mind’s outback.
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Not haphazardly, and not by zoning out into a chemical never-neverland. Rather, Tart proposed scientific methods for cataloguing out-of-the-ordinary states, for testing them, for mapping their varied terrain. He evenfathered a new science, state-specific science. Remember the drug exper-iments of the 1960s, in which aloof, white-coated technicians observedcollege students stoned on marijuana or LSD in sterile, windowless labs?»Eyes bloodshot, thinking impaired, subject confused and disoriented,»the scientists would note down. Altered states, Tart believes, can’t bemapped that way. To an «objective,» note-taking observer, someone onLSD (or a yogi in deep samadhi) may appear catatonic, but inside thesubject’s head the Hallelujah chorus may be playing. That’s where state-specific science comes in.
The basic idea is to get inside the subjective world. For instance, Tartasked pot smokers if they could identify the moment of transition from»straight» to «stoned» (they couldn’t) and codified their experiences in alandmark marijuana study. He discovered that LSD users typically transita whole series of unstable, rapidly metamorphosing states of consciousness.Early on he pointed out that drug dosage X did not automatically producepsychological state X, for so much depended on setting, mood, thehelper/guides, and the user’s own psychic structure.
If Tart had his way, a new breed of state-specific scientists would be
The Hanged Man of the Tarot deck: His inverted position symbolizes the completereversal of ordinary thought patterns that occurs in altered states. {The BettmannArchive)
trained to enter various ASCs and report the landscape in scrupulous detail.Is time oddly dilated? Space foreshortened? Are the colors vivid, pulsating?What happens to memory, identity, thought processes? «Then,» he adds,»once a researcher has identified a certain state, he can go back and domore minute mapping. For example, most reports of the near-death ex-perience include traveling through a tunnel. One could ask people to de-scribe the tunnel in detail. What are the sides made of? How many peopletouch the sides? What is the means of locomotion? These are questionswe never thought to ask before.»
But why bother? Who cares if acid heads see luminous, Day-Glo colors,or if some turbaned ladies squinting into the Absolute have funny brainwaves? What’s this ouga-bouga stuff doing in a book about the brain?
Our subject here is consciousness, which can’t be ground up and ana-lyzed in a petri dish. We can’t stick electrodes into it, see it in a radioim-munoassay, or control it with inescapable foot shock. So just as neurologistshave studied brain tumors and bullet wounds to map the topography ofthe cortex (if region X is down, the big toe won’t work), researchers canuse altered states to illumine little-known regions of the mind. Halluci-nations and dreams can tell us about the brain’s perceptual machinery aswell as about the psyche’s back streets. «Much of the brain’s informationis stored as images,» says UCLA’s Ronald Siegel, the Leif Erikson of thehallucinatory world, whom we’ll meet in Chapter 10. «By studying hal-lucination we are learning about the brain’s storage and retrieval pro-cesses.»
A great deal of information is stored in ASCs in fact. We have men-tioned the well-known psychological law of state-bound knowledge, whichsays, in essence, that information learned in a given state is best retrievedthere, too. Since information isn’t easily transferred from one state toanother, one wonders what uncharted human abilities and what valuablestate-bound knowledge lurks in ASCs. The chemist Kekule solved thestructure of the benzene ring in a dream after all. «Most religious teachingsare actually state-bound knowledge,» Tart notes. «They make excellentsense in certain altered states, but in other states they turn into emptycreeds that people are forced to believe in.»
If the first part of this book described the «machine,» this section isabout the «ghosts.» The division is a bit meretricious, of course, for we’vealready encountered a whole funhouse of altered states: schizophrenichallucinations, the strangely truncated mental life of multiple personalities,the «auras» of temporal-lobe epilepsy, various distortions of memory. Itgoes to show just how difficult it is to set up any apartheid between whatis «altered» and what is «normal» in human consciousness.
Among the ASCs known to humankind are dreams, daydreams, drugand alcohol intoxication, whirling dervish rites, the ecstatic !kia dance ofthe ! Kung bushmen of Africa, fire-walking ceremonies, ESP visions, mys-tical reveries, a medium’s trance, the «auras» preceding a migraine attack,the near-death experience. Fasting, meditation, prolonged sleeplessness,the monotony of an arctic winter or a total body cast, hypoglycemia, ahigh fever, chanting, hypnosis, brain-wave biofeedback, and isolation tanksare all possible routes to our inner gardens.
The quintessential ASC includes these features: distorted time percep-tion or a sense of timelessness; «depersonalization,» or loss of self; loweredinhibitions; ineffability; and heightened empathy, even a sense of mergingwith other people or objects. Whether he or she has just swallowed fivemicrograms of LSD, meditated on a blue vase (as in a classic experimentby psychiatrist Arthur Deikman), or is merely dreaming, a person in analtered state typically links thoughts associatively and metaphorically ratherthan logically, dwells on paradoxes, prefers the concrete to the abstract,and may enjoy «synesthesia,» an overlapping of the senses in which wordsevoke colors or a Strauss waltz tastes like lime sherbet.
Because of strong «family resemblance» among disparate ASCs, somescientists believe they all spring from a similar brain state. The commondenominator often seems to be either sensory isolation (e.g., monastic life,an isolation tank, meditation, dreams) or sensory overload (e.g., repetitivechanting, Holy Roller revival meetings). But can science explain the exactelectrical/chemical/physical mechanisms that cause auditory hallucinations,satori, or a medium’s trance? Can it find God (or the experience of God)in the brain?
That’s the great hope, and at first it looked easy. The first ASC to bequantified in the laboratory was sleep, Everyman’s route to nonordinaryreality. When researchers in the early 1950s discovered that distinctiveEEG patterns and rapid eye movements (REM) characterized dreaming,some hopeful investigators foresaw an exact science of altered states. Maybeclairvoyance or the hypnotic state would be accompanied by a certainsawtooth-shaped brain wave. Maybe Zen meditation would make a bio-feedback machine’s needle move. In the early 1960s, biofeedback pioneersElmer and Alyce Green, of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas,traveled to India, wired up some yogis, and brought their neuro-transcen-dent secrets back to the lab. At Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, inSan Francisco, Joe Kamiya compared the brain-wave, breathing, and heart-rate patterns of Zen monks, Tibetan Buddhists, and ordinary daydreamers.A group of sleep researchers at Maimonides Hospital in New York workedon experimentally induced psi. By the early 1970s, when Maharishi Mahesh
Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation (TM) started producing a standardized,Middle-American type of meditator that made a perfect experimental an-imal, mantras entered the lab.
The results? A few flashy EEGs here and there in the yogis, many ho-hum statistics about heart rate, galvanic skin responses, and lack of «stress»in the meditators. But, by and large, altered states did not make for hardscience. Only in sleep and dreams do EEGs precisely mirror states ofconsciousness, and they still can’t tell what you’re dreaming about. Sci-entists can explain how LSD tampers with brain chemistry but not whethera given tripper will merge with the universe, jump off a ledge, or merelygroove on the wallpaper pattern. The two-hundred-year-old science ofhypnosis so eludes scientists’ probes that some doubt it’s an ASC at all.As for meditation: Research at Yale University’s Center for BehavioralMedicine turned up the surprising fact that regular «reading therapy»—that is, reading a book for half an hour a day—is neurophysiologicallyequivalent to the practice of TM. (Whether this means the Maharishi’smantras are comparable to Heidi or merely reflects the crudeness of ourmeasuring devices, we’ll let you decide.)
Nonetheless, there are a few places where hard science and alteredreality meet, and we’ll take you to them in the next chapters, in whichwe’ll meet:
• A no-nonsense behavioral psychologist at UCLA who is compiling theworld’s first hallucination «dictionary.»
• A pair of Harvard sleep researchers who, after years of probing dreamswith microelectrodes, propose a drastic revision of Freudian dreamtheory.
• A Stanford researcher who has made «lucid dreaming» scientificallykosher and who is training a corps of «oneironauts,» or dream travelers,to consciously direct their dream life.
• A hard-nosed Atlanta M.D. who launched an empirical study of thenear-death experience (NDE) in order to disprove the phenomenonand wound up a believer. And some psychologists who concur.
• A heterodox group of neuroscientists with startling opinions on «Godin the Brain.» What modern neurochemistry and mysticism, the opiatereceptor and William Blake, have in common.
We have tried to stick to good, hard neuroscience: studies of neuro-receptors, EEG recordings, models of brain circuitry, and the like. Un-fortunately «state-specific science» is still a science in search of a lab. «Noone has ever systematically applied the idea,» says Tart. We would countRon Siegel’s anatomy of hallucination (Chapter 10) and Stephen LaBerge’s
256 • The Hanged Man: Altered States of Consciousness
lucid-dreaming studies (Chapter 11) as the closest approximations. But thefollowing section could be viewed as an outline of possible methodologies,the scattered pieces of a future science of the subjective universe. If someof the scientists interviewed here are renegades, if their theories clash withthe worldviews of Science and The Archives of General Psychiatry, that’sbecause mainstream brain science has mostly neglected altered realities.
When someone has visions, orthodox science says, «Oh, schizophrenia.This is what happens when the brain is diseased.» (And, more often thannot, the diagnosis is correct.) If a biblical figure had a tete-a-tete with Godon the road to Damascus, well, okay, that’s in the Bible, but if the con-version occurs today on the highway to Peoria, cerebrospinal-fluid samplesare ordered. If several million Americans tell pollsters that they had aclassic near-death experience (NDE), scientists say, «Severe depersonal-ization.» Altered states are, for the most part, considered pathologies.
Out-of-the-ordinary realities aren’t just difficult to quantify and controlin the lab. They also challenge conventional ideas of the brain/mind. Peoplewho are revived from near-death, for example, typically report afterlife-type visions, which the scientific orthodoxy views as lunatic-fringe stuff(Chapter 12). If the near-death experience is genuine, it would come closeto proving Plato’s doctrine that the nonphysical mind can exist apart fromthe bodily hardware. How would neuroscience handle that? The world’smystics, as well as many drug messiahs, also speak of a reality quite contraryto our sacred scientific paradigms. After tasting transcendent realities, JohnLilly discarded his former scientific beliefs and decided that the mind canfloat away from its physical container. (Ron Siegel, in contrast, is convincedby his altered-states research that mind and brain are one and the same.)
So-called normal consciousness, as Tart sees it, is merely «consensusreality,» that safe, tidy plot of mind that our culture calls home. Thus thegeneric term altered state has been banned from his vocabulary and replacedby «discrete state of consciousness» and «discrete altered state of con-sciousness» and other phrases that don’t exactly roll off the tongue. «West-ern science implicitly assumes that there is a normal state of consciousnessand that all others are degenerate forms of it,» he says. «But that’s nottrue. What one person experiences as an altered state may fall into thesphere of ordinary consciousness for another. We don’t all start from thesame baseline consciousness, and we vary widely in our ability to transitbetween different states.» In his everyday consciousness, for instance, theinventor Nikola Tesla could design a machine in his head, specifying theparts to one ten-thousandth of an inch.
Besides, ASCs are as all-American as apple pie and the Superbowl. AsAmazonian Indians have their tribal ceremonies, we have ours: cocktail
The Hanged Man: Altered States of Consciousness • 257
parties, discotheques with strobe lights, Superbowl fever, the febrile cad-ences of Billy Graham. In fact, 90 percent of the world’s cultures havesome sort of institutionalized mind-altering ritual, according to Ohio StateUniversity anthropologist Erica Bourguignon. «The fact that they are nearlyuniversal,» she tells us, «must mean that such states are very important tohuman beings.»
Why? No one really knows. As Chapter 11 will tell, science has yet toexplain why nature gave us sleep and dreams, our nocturnal theater of theabsurd. But there are theories. In Chapter 10, we’ll hear why Ron Siegelbelieves higher mammals need periodic vacations (via altered states, chem-ical or otherwise) from quotidian, workaday reality, and we’ll meet Dr.John Lilly, the former enfant terrible of the NIMH, who has taken a per-manent, mind-altered vacation. Perhaps without ASCs we’d all go insane.
Every night, regular ninety-minute cycles of REM and non-REM (deep,dreamless) sleep alternate in the human brain. And during the wakinghours—according to studies at the University of California at San Diego—human beings fall into spontaneous daydreams every ninety minutes if leftto their own devices. Maybe these natural cycles of reverie are as necessaryto the organism as REM sleep is. (Deprived of REM, animals and peopleare known to go quite bonkers.) Yet modern, nine-to-five life is obviouslynot designed around them. «My hypothesis,» muses Patricia Carrington,a psychologist and meditation authority who teaches at Princeton, «is thatwe are starved for the natural rhythms, the biological alternation of restand relaxation we see in animals. Only in man is there such a thing asseventeen hours of constant wakefulness.» Deprived of our own mini-ASCs, we have the three-martini lunch, angel dust, and Disneyland.
ASCs may serve other purposes, too. «Altered states remind us thatwe’re more than we think we are,» says Tart. «There is tremendous humansuffering because we’ve banished them. We live so immersed in our ownongoing psychological processes that we’re in a kind of waking trance. Andit’s ‘normal’—everyone is in it. All science has to tell us about ourselvesis that we’re locked inside our skulls, that we’re automata totally shapedby our environment, and that, whatever happens, we’ll just die, anyway,so what does anything matter?»
Anatomy of Hallucination:Prophets of the Void
If we tested Socrates or Joan of Arc, I think we’dbe able to classify their experiences comfortablywith our code.
—RONALD SIEGEL
The miracle is that the universe created a part ofitself to study the rest of it, and that this part, instudying itself, finds the rest of the universe in itsown natural inner realities.
—JOHN C. LILLY, M.D.,
The Center of the Cyclone
WE CAN NOW TELL YOU that pigeons see a lot of red dotsand circles when they hallucinate and that monkeys see food-related objects,» Ronald Siegel, of UCLA, tells us. «The tech-nique has its limits, of course.»
The forty-one-year-old Siegel is probably the world expert on scientif-ically engineered hallucination, which sounds like an oxymoron and pos-sibly is. We’re sitting in the muted modern interior of the Westwood apart-ment that houses his office. Vivid tropical fish swim languidly in the artificialparadise of a large glass tank, a row of South American peyote cactusescreates a little desert metaphysic on the windowsill, and a phone in thenext room rings every twenty minutes or so with mysterious, possiblyglamorous, emergencies.
The animal hallucinations he’s describing occurred in a psychology labat Canada’s Dalhousie University in the early 1960s, long before Siegelbecame a drug savant. He was a psychology graduate student experi-menting with such austere things as pigeon memory and Skinnerian con-ditioning. One day a Dalhousie student was arrested for marijuana pos-session, and the student’s lawyer phoned Siegel to ask what he knew aboutthe drug. He didn’t know very much, so he had some grass sent over tothe lab and made a potent extract, which he fed to one of the lab’s pigeons.Then he opened the window (for this was a homing pigeon) and watchedthe weird flight patterns of a stoned bird.
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Ronald K. Siegel, psychopharmacologist, cartographer of inner space, and ency-clopedist of hallucination. {Courtesy of Ronald K. Siegel; reprinted with permission)
«He did this kamikaze nosedive to the ground,» Siegel recalls. «I thought,’Fascinating.’ Since there was a little of the extract left, I took it and / dida kamikaze nosedive to the ground, where I was laid up for about eightor nine hours, surrounded by these wondrous images.»
How do you study hallucinations in a Skinner box? No problem. Siegelhad already trained pigeons to match a flashing light on a screen by peckinga button of the same color. So he simply adapted this standard animal-learning paradigm to the internal world. He’d give LSD to a test pigeonand show it a blank screen: If the bird pecked a blue light, say, or a circle,Siegel would know what it thought it saw while under the influence. Be-cause, make no mistake, animals do hallucinate.
«You know, animals are religious, too,» he confides, a faint smile atthe corners of his thin, chiseled lips. «At Dalhousie we trained a pigeonnamed Noah to have religious experiences. It was kind of cute; he wouldgenuflect superstitiously in front of a cross. . . . Now Noah’s preaching toall the pigeons in the parks.» It tells you something about Siegel’s opinionof religion.
As it happens, there’s no shortage of messiahs in Los Angeles the springwe visit Siegel. There were reports of at least five different ones in a singleweek. But this is a land where hallucination is cheap. Shopping malls look
like Spanish missions; French chateaus couple with Moorish arches; andthe painted billboards look more real than the orange-toned sky. If youdrive up to the Griffith Observatory at night, you tend to look for con-stellations in the vast, glittering electronic grid of the city below.
We figure that Siegel, as a sometime psychopharmacologist to the stars,might have a handle on some of the local alternate realities. Savvy andrelentlessly articulate, he’s a medium-cool character, the sort of personyou’d imagine would have a high freak-out threshold. He also happens tobe the only U.S. scientist who continued to do LSD research in the post-psychedelic era. (For scientific purposes the LSD age ended in 1966, theyear the compound became a «controlled substance,» surrounded by morered tape than an official tour of the Soviet provinces.) But without breakinga single law, Siegel has served up LSD, mescaline, marijuana, ampheta-mines, cocaine, psilocybin («magic mushroom»), angel dust, barbiturates,and other psychoactive drugs to hundreds of volunteers at the UCLANeuropsychiatry Institute. And no one, he says, has ever had a bad tripin his lab.
Tunnels at nine o’clock . . . moving toward me in a pulsating, explosiveway . . . with 560 and 780 millimicrons . . .
The story of the first scientific dictionary of inner space is marked bysome interesting psychopharmacological karma. For instance, Ron Siegelwas born in the same year (1943) that Albert Hofmann, a chemist workingat Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland, accidently ingested an obscurelysergic acid compound and took the world’s first acid trip. History doubledback on itself a quarter century later, when Ron Siegel was doing chemistry-of-memory experiments at Dalhousie and weighing out the fine white pow-der that was pure Sandoz LSD-25—the Ding-an-sich, the Pouilly-Fuisseof acid. Some of it must have stuck to his fingers and entered his blood-stream, because the researcher soon found himself in a decidedly alteredstate. «There is no way pigeons are going to tell us about this!» he toldhimself when he came down.
Rather than disappearing into the Om, Siegel looked for a way to applyhis habitual behaviorist sangfroid to the subjective world. It wasn’t longbefore a new science of «experimental introspection» (another Siegeloxymoron) hit the scene.
«In the early years of psychedelic research,» Siegel remembers, «thedrug experience was considered too complicated to describe. About themost articulate statement you could get from a user was ‘Wow!’ »
«Wow» being too soft for Siegel, he went to work on a standardizedhallucination code. Through ads in underground newspapers in 1971, he
recruited a pioneering group of inner-space explorers to his lab at UCLA.Before giving them a single drug, he used colored slides to teach them anew visual vocabulary. «They wouldn’t just say, ‘That’s sort of a sick green,or a pea-soup green,’ » Siegel explains. «They’d say, ‘That’s 540 millimi-crons [the precise wavelength],’ and they’d be accurate within a couple ofmillimicrons.» The other landmarks of the mindscape were geometric formsand patterns of motion. If a picture was flashed at Siegel’s trainees foreight milliseconds (V125 of a second) they could classify its color, form, andmovement dimensions as precisely as zoologists label genera and species.
Later, with a certain dose of a certain psychoactive drug circulating intheir bloodstreams (the drug and the dosage varied each week), the «psy-chonauts» entered the lab’s darkened, soundproof chambers. (We’re notallowed near the hallucination zone, for Siegel is smart enough to avoidthe publicity that tainted Timothy Leary’s Harvard experiments in the early1960s.) There, they’d communicate their visions, in the prearranged code,over an intercom about twenty times a minute. «We took these reportsfrom all our subjects and did a statistical analysis to get the mean proto-typical image,» Siegel recounts. «Then we’d get a graphic artist to drawit. The images were played back to the subjects, who then picked the onesthat best matched their hallucinations.»
After several years of painstaking mapping of these psychic never-neverlands, Siegel discovered an extraordinary thing: The mind of man containsonly so many visions.
When the psychonauts closed their eyes and looked inward withoutdrugs, they saw black, white, and violet hues. Under the influence ofpsychedelics the predominant colors were reds, oranges, and yellows, whileTHC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active ingredient of marijuana, broughtout cool blues. On placebos, depressants, and amphetamine, the volunteerssaw mainly boring black and white forms moving randomly; on LSD andmescaline, they hallucinated geometric shapes that became increasinglyintricate as the trip progressed. As the experience got more intense, theseforms rotated, pulsated, and exploded—and then gave way to personal,idiosyncratic images (more about that later).
But what most interested Siegel was this: No matter what hallucinogenthey were on, the psychonauts kept hallucinating four basic, recurrentgeometric forms—the same four shapes, or «geometric constants,» inter-estingly enough, that a University of Chicago scientist, Heinrich Kluver,had deciphered in mescaline hallucinations back in the 1920s. It was Kluverwho named them: the spiral, the tunnel or funnel, the cobweb, and thelattice (or grating or honeycomb).
Being a collector of drug-influenced art, Siegel can show us lattices and
This yarn painting, made by one of the Huichol Indians of Mexico, is part ofSiegel’s collection of drug-influenced art. The Indian at the left, carrying a basketof freshly harvested peyote, is witnessing visions of pulsating and exploding colorsand shapes. The peyote cactus is depicted on the right. {Copyright 1977, RonaldK. Siegel; reprinted with permission)
tunnels from other lands too. A trio of Huichol yarn paintings faces usfrom a wall of his office, like a race of gaudy alien gods. The psychologistnot only visited the artists in the rugged Sierra Madre cordillera of Mexico,he can tell you the blood level of peyote that produced each painting.»Structurally,» he explains, «they are very similar to what our subjectswould see on mescaline—latticelike tunnels with bright lights at the center.The revolving deer heads are cultural, of course. You might see revolvingmagazines or something.» The lesson is that a human brain, whether itbelongs to a UCLA sophomore or to a Huichol shaman, is built the sameway and hallucinates along similar lines. All possible visions are predeter-mined by our electrochemical wiring.
On the weekend Los Angeles’s Venice Boardwalk is one large, rathersurreal yard sale. Dozens of vendors sit cross-legged facing the Pacific,each presiding over a semicircle of objects that appear entirely random.A rusted hot plate, a pair of mirrored sunglasses, a faded Indian-printbedspread, a 1965 issue of Time, a wrinkled paisley blouse, a souvenirashtray from Yosemite, a New Riders of the Purple Sage album. Hundredsof people pause to examine these little displays, as if they were artifacts
The lattice pattern in this Huichol embroidery is one of four «geometric constants»found over and over again in hallucinatory imagery. According to Siegel, schizo-phrenic art shows a similar preoccupation with repetitive geometric designs.
In Siegel’s studies, phenobarbitol and amphetamine induced «black-and-whiterandom forms moving about aimlessly.» The visual hallucinations fueled by psil-ocybin, LSD, mescaline, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredientof marijuana, became less random, more organized and geometric, more colorfuland pulsating, as the experience progressed. (Copyright 1977, Ronald K. Siegel;reprinted with permission)
from Pompeii. What is the attraction of such prosaic relics? Perhaps eachis a mundane haiku, a momentary configuration of the personal.
Hallucinations have a similar property, if you believe Ron Siegel. Ourbrains store information in the form of images, and these old images aredischarged whenever we turn our senses inward. Siegel has his own favoritemetaphor, derived from the landmark 1931 theory of the late British neu-rologist Hughlings Jackson:
«Imagine a man sitting in his study,» says Siegel, «looking out hiswindow at the trees swaying, at passing cars, and so on. … As night falls,he can’t see out the window anymore, but he has a fire burning brightlyin the fireplace behind him. Now when he looks out the window, what
264 * Anatomy of Hallucination: Prophets of the Void
does he see? His own reflection, and the images of the ‘furniture’ insidehis brain.
«When it’s ‘dark’ outside, when your senses don’t give you access tothe real world—as in sensory deprivation, cardiac arrest, or sleep, forexample—you see the furniture of your own mind, its stored images. Theother way to hallucinate is to stoke up the ‘fire,’ overstimulate the brainwith a lot of LSD or something, and see your internal images superimposedon the outside world.»
To be precise, there are two stages of hallucination. Phase one is thegeometric one we’ve heard about. Phase two is more complex and itsimagery is idiosyncratic, personal: white rabbits, little green men, three-headed serpents, angels, demons, «Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,» out-of-body travel, the face of your dead grandmother. What had been a similein the first phase («I feel like I’m flying») becomes literal reality in phasetwo («I am flying!»). Phase two obviously does not lend itself as readilyto a scientific classification system—yet. But, says Siegel, there are stillcertain rules of motion hidden in all the weirdness (things tend to pulsateand then revolve, for example). There are laws that govern how imagesmetamorphose—birds commonly turn into bats, bats into brooms, and theninto witches. Details tend to cluster in the peripheral visual field, and brightlights at the center. And these rules are really neural rules, says Siegel.
«Look,» he says, pointing to his Huichol paintings. «There’s somethingthat happens here that we call multiplication or duplication. It’s a commonhallucination phenomenon. You see one little toy soldier and then up popsan army of toy soldiers going across the visual field. The Huichol Indianswill see one maize plant, then a whole field of maize plants marching acrossthe sky.
«The form suggests that a column of cortical cells, which store certainmemories in image form, is being excited, and that triggers a row of images.A colleague of mine, Jack Cowan at the University of Chicago, has workedout a neurophysiological model, which he can stimulate to produce all thepatterns that my subjects produce. You should talk to him.» (We did, andwe’ll tell you about it later.)
The master of hallucination has also applied his cartography to a wholefunhouse of nondrug altered states. Hyperventilation, hypoglycemia, mar-athon running, and the dementia of neurosyphilis, to name a few. Extremefear states, dreaming, daydreaming, and the surreal «auras» that precedemigraine attacks; glue sniffing, crystal gazing, sensory bombardment, sen-sory deprivation, rhythmic dancing, and strobe lights. Not to mentionshipwrecked sailors and spelunkers trapped in caves, who sometimes havevisions resembling those of saints.
Anatomy of Hallucination: Prophets of the Void • 265
«I think,» he says, «there is a continuum of mental phenomena rangingfrom thoughts to fantasies to dreams to hallucinations. How far you travelalong this continuum depends on the degree of cortical arousal.»
question: Why altered states?possible answer: Because they’re there.
One reason, of course, is simple curiosity, also known (especially inlower mammals) as «exploratory drive.» In a classic psychology experi-ment, monkeys housed in a sensory-deprivation box would repeatedly pressa lever that opened a window. Siegel tried a takeoff on this. «We wonderedwhat would happen,» he says, «if the monkey’s only window to the worldwas a chemical window. After about eight days of darkness, of sensorydeprivation, two out of three monkeys started taking DMT.» DMT is apotent, fast-acting hallucinogen often called the businessman’s-lunch-hour-high, which nonhuman primates usually eschew.
The moral: «All primates, and especially the human organism, seek toadjust their levels of arousal,» says Siegel. Which brings him to the themeof new and improved chemical Utopias—safe, custom-tailored recreationaldrugs. «I know this sounds like an advertisement for the Bionic Man, butwe can make them better, stronger, faster, safer—and I’m talking aboutdrugs.» One of his pharmacologic daydreams is a real-life equivalent ofAldous Huxley’s fictional moksha, a «truth-and-beauty pill.» It would besomething like psilocybin (the drug that the psychonauts preferred overall others) but would be completely nontoxic and capable of having itseffects turned on or off at will.
«If we don’t develop these drugs, our underground chemists will,»Siegel points out. «We need to recognize that people are already selectingchemicals to alter their consciousness. They’re not happy with one two-week vacation a year.»
The quest, however, is not without its casualties, and Siegel points tothe toll cocaine has taken among our folk heroes and other inhabitants ofAmerica’s high circles. And recently Siegel has spotted signs of a psy-chedelic renaissance, at least on the Coast. «I don’t think there’s a cocaineconsciousness in the sense that there’s a psychedelic consciousness,» hesays. «Coke moves you in the direction of arousal, narrows down the gatesof perception. It’s speedy, focused. Negative hallucinations—not seeingthings that are there—are very common in cocaine psychosis.
«Psychedelics, on the other hand, are very plastic. The experience isvery much shaped by the setting and the user’s programming. LSD is anasocial drug, by the way; animals on LSD isolate themselves. Nonhumanmammals usually won’t self-administer psychedelics. They avoid them.»
Normal spider web
Hashish-inspired web
Do different drugs produce qualitatively dif-ferent altered states? How do LSD visionsdiffer from mescaline visions, for example?According to the Psychedelics Encyclope-dia by Peter Stafford, connoisseurs tend torate mescaline and peyote as «earthy» andLSD as more «cerebral,» but people arenotoriously inarticulate about such things.Spiders, it seems, are quite eloquent. Thesephotos show the results of a curious ex-periment in which spiders wove their websunder the influence of various mind-alter-ing drugs. Note the perfect symmetry of theLSD web, compared with the helter-skeltercaffeine web. {Peter Witt, Berlin 1956)
Mescaline-inspired web
Don’t mistake Ron Siegel for a drug guru. As a frequent expert witnessat drug trials he’s seen the chemical hell realms at close hand (Leslie VanHouten of the Manson family, the case of Elvis Presley’s doctor, the chem-ical circumstances surrounding the Howard Hughes will). At our second
LSD-inspired web
Web after a high caffeine dose
meeting he surprises us by jumping up to pull a stack of police snapshotsfrom his files. Then he tells us a true story about LSD in Chicago, abouta man full of lysergic acid and alcohol, his lover, and her twelve-year-oldson. Siegel produces Polaroids in sequence, as if dealing out a hand ofseven-card stud or an especially black series of Tarot cards. The first twentyshots are prosaic interiors: a dinette set with kitchen objects, a living roomwith all the appliances unplugged. Finally Siegel quietly sets down his ace,a photo of what appears to be a sleeping boy in pajamas. Except that heis not asleep and there is a huge jagged red crack where his head shouldmeet his neck. Siegel notes that after the suspect decapitated the little boy,he also repeatedly raped the mother.
«So you see,» says Siegel, «LSD experiences are not necessarily tran-scendent.»
On the coffee table the face of John Belushi stares out at eternity fromthe glossy cover of People magazine. Our host recounts a dream:
I went into the future—it was after the War, of course, when everything wasdestroyed and rebuilt. My guide was taking me around, showing me the architectureand stuff, and then he said, «Would you like to see a movie?»
I entered the theater and sat down. I remember the lights going off and therewas a white light on the screen that started to glow and glow and glow. It got
bigger and bigger, and the audience was saying «Oooooh, Aaahhhh!» Then thelights came back on, and I said, «That was a marvelous experience, almost a sexualexperience.»
I asked my guide how they did that, and he said, «That was an experientialprojector.» Then I went to the local drugstore, and on a rack of books I foundone called Build Your Own Experiential Projector. I went to the corner to buy thebook, but I didn’t have the coin of the future. … I woke up.
The next night I went back into the dream of the future, back into the drugstore,and I pulled the book off the shelf and read it right there.
When he woke up, Siegel wrote down the dream instructions and foundhe had a schematic design for a device he now calls FOCUS, a pair ofgoggles that can simulate a psychedelic experience. The lab psychonautsget hallucinogenlike images when they wear them. «FOCUS does some-thing to visual perception that is like what stereo headphones do to theaudio modality,» he explains. «With stereo phones, you know, the soundisn’t really in your left or right ear; it’s someplace between. With FOCUS,the image is projected directly on your retina. You have the sense of imagesbeing inside your head and out there at the same time.»
There are other futuristic fantasies in Siegel’s head. He wishes he hada «little camera» he could stick into his pet cat’s brain and watch the worldthrough its eyes. He sees interspecies communication as a possible appli-cation of his cartography. He also thinks his inner-space research mighthelp man deal with outer-space realities: «On one Apollo mission, I re-member, one of the astronauts got very excited and compared the expe-rience of orbiting the moon to what he imagined having a baby would belike,» he tells us. «We need a more refined vocabulary to describe thoseexperiences—of weightlessness, of being on another planet. . . . When wecontact extraterrestrial worlds, populated or not, we’re going to be over-whelmed by a lot of alien sensory input, and understanding an alien en-vironment of our own can prepare us.»
Among our everyday alien worlds are dreams, daydreams, and reveriestates. These altered states contain a lot of untapped information, to whichSiegel’s methodology could give us access. Imagine, for example, a moreexact science of dream interpretation. Or a new visual language for com-municating with schizophrenics in midhallucination—which is somethingRon Siegel has already done.
One of his patients, a schizophrenic artist, had a private hallucinatoryland called Nid, where her job was to draw murals on the castle walls. Inreal life she painted dreamy Nid landscapes, full of ethereal winged wolvesand dragons, one of which hangs in Siegel’s collection. «She was suicidal,»he recalls. «Her therapists were always pulling on one hand, telling her,
‘Come back. Nid isn’t real,’ while a dragon was pulling on the other. Iasked her to give me a mind tour of Nid. She did, and she introduced meto all the characters, who started talking to me. Because of my own hal-lucination experiences, I was able to teach her techniques for controllingand describing her images.»
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,To be stuck inside of MobileWith the Memphis blues again?
—BOB DYLAN
Paradox City. Here’s a no-nonsense behaviorist who studies the most mer-curial mindstuff. Who speaks casually of contacts with aliens but does notbelieve in a soul beyond the complex wiring of the human brain. Thoughhe uses passages from The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a training manualfor his psychonauts, Siegel takes a jaundiced view of the mystical andenjoys telling anecdotes about one psychonaut who «became one with anashtray.» Whenever anything transcendent creeps into his hallucinationchambers, he brings his subjects back to earth and wavelengths in milli-microns as rapidly as possible.
«It’s safe to say,» he tells us, «that the similar characteristics of the so-called mystical states—tranquility, bliss, et cetera—don’t reflect a commonobjective reality but simply an internal landscape that is common to allHomo sapiens. If we tested Socrates or Joan of Arc, I think we couldclassify their experiences comfortably with our code.»
There is an old story about the drunk who hunted for his lost keysunder a street lamp because the light was better there. Siegel sticks to theform, color, and movement dimensions of visual hallucination because thelight is better there. Yet isn’t phase two of visual hallucination, which fallsoutside Siegel’s categories, the more interesting part? And what aboutauditory «visions» (the voices that spoke to St. Paul on the road to Da-mascus and to Joan of Arc) and queer happenings in other senses? Caneight-miles-high emotions ever be described in millimicrons?
This is not to denigrate Siegel’s considerable accomplishments. He doesn’tclaim to map the entire visionary scene, for an experimentalist must meas-ure the measurable. And if he hasn’t cracked the whole hallucination code,he has at least isolated some of the mind’s basic grammatical units. Weneed such a refined language of introspection—and not merely measure-ments of twitching rabbit ears or the squeals of foot-shocked rodents—totackle the mind/brain problem.
A week after our meeting with Siegel, we phone Jack Cowan in Chicagoand ask him about the mechanics of a hallucinating brain. Cowan is a
biophysicist-mathematician who designs mathematical models of the brain.»With a student I worked out what actually goes on in the individual brainwhen a person sees hallucinations,» he tells us. «This tells you a lot aboutwhat the circuits are like in the cortex.»
Lo and behold, funnels, cobwebs, spirals, and lattice/honeycombs—Kluver’s four geometric constants—materialized in the abstract realm ofCowan’s computer simulations, just as they had in Siegel’s visionary cham-bers. Cowan’s equations demonstrated that whenever electrical excitationexceeds a critical threshold, the cortex will generate the familiar halluci-natory forms. That these geometries resemble other patterns in nature,notably the rising-and-failing convection currents in heated fluids, is noaccident, according to Cowan, for the same mathematical laws apply tobrains and to turbulent fluids.
«If you heat liquid in a saucepan, you’ll see honeycombs in it,» heexplains. «The patterns are the same as the patterns that turn up in hal-lucinations. The mathematics of this is known as symmetry breaking.Whenever you have a physical system with symmetries—such as the restingstate of a fluid where all the molecules are moving randomly and are moreor less evenly distributed—and you disturb the system, the symmetries getbroken. Then patterns form.» In the brain the equivalent of the heat underthe saucepan might be LSD, a petit mal seizure, a psychotic state, oranything that overstimulates the cortex.
If you were to actually look inside a hallucinating brain you would seestripes. «If you know the map from the eye to the brain you can work outthe patterns in the cortex,» Cowan explains. «They are very simple—stripes, basically. The stripes are really standing wavefronts of firing neu-rons, separated by columns of inactivated neurons.» Cowan has even cal-culated the wavelengths of the stripes and says they correspond to the»hypercolumns» that Hubel and Wiesel mapped out in the visual cortex.The optical pathway translates the stripe patterns into the spirals, lattices,and tunnels the hallucinator sees.
«What one learns is that the brain is intrinsically unstable,» says Cowan.»Any excitation that destroys the normal balance can produce hallucina-tions or epilepsy.»
The control switches are the chemicals norepinephrine and serotonin.»When you increase norepinephrine or shut down serotonin,» he explains,»you stimulate the cortex and destabilize the brain.» LSD does this; so doour other favorite mind-benders; and so do, Cowan suspects, near-deathcrises, migraine attacks, and other visionary states.
«And phase two?» we ask him. «How about white rabbits and littlegreen men?»
Cowan doesn’t have that worked out yet, but he can tell us that ashallucination progresses, the «stripes» move forward from the visual cor-tex, in the back of the head, toward the more symbolic forebrain. «Whena column of cells gets activated here, each of those cells codes not just asimple geometric property but something very, very complicated,» he says.»We just don’t know how to read that yet.
«But we can account for some things. A hallucinating person tends tosee a whole row of faces instead of a single face. And there’s also megalopsyand micropsy, when objects grow very huge or very tiny, like Alice inWonderland. We know the mechanisms for this aren’t in the primary visualcortex but farther forward, in the inferior temporal cortex. So the excitationis already moving forward, and we can probably get our hands on someof these phenomena.»
I pushed back through, I would estimate, twothousand generations and suddenly the face of ahairy anthropoid appeared on my face. My humorcame to the fore at this point, and I said, «Oh,you can project anything, including the Darwin-ian theory of the origin of Man.» I started tolaugh, enjoying the spectacle. Suddenly the faceof a saber-toothed tiger appeared in the place ofmine, with six-inch fangs coming out of his mouth.
—JOHN C. LILLY, M.D.,
The Center of the Cyclone
If Siegel and Cowan are right, if the central switchboard of reality is inthe cortex, then you are a very complicated dream machine. Think aboutit. Columns of neurons fire and produce images—real, remembered, orhallucinated—and those images are the only world you’ll ever know. Canyou ever get out of the machine and experience reality directly? Of coursenot, says Siegel (and most of his peers), because you are the machine.
John Lilly, on the other hand, has spent the better part of his adult lifeas a brain-machine escape artist.
You may know him as the Dolphin Man (George C. Scott played asanitized, Disney-fatherly Lilly in The Day of the Dolphin). Or maybe yousaw the Paddy Chayevsky/Ken Russell film Altered States, whose isolation-tank-crazed hero is modeled on Lilly or someone very much like him.(Unlike the mad scientist of the film, however, Lilly never exactly regressedinto a prehominid and trashed the lab. It was his friend and fellow-tripper,the late Dr. Craig Enright, who «became» a prehominid—and that wasonly in his head. But that’s another story.) What you may not know, unless
you’ve read his autobiographies, is that John Lilly, M.D., was a straightneurophysiologist before he fell in love with the Void.
As a whiz kid at NIMH in the 1950s—he was fluent in neuroanatomy,neurophysiology, electronics, biophysics, and computer theory—Lilly helpedillumine the brain’s pain and pleasure circuits. It was his technical geniusthat gave science the first electrical recordings from the cortexes ofunanesthetized animals. In 1954 he turned to a classic neuro-puzzle: Whatwould happen to the brain if it were deprived of all sensory input? Mostscientists assumed it would go unconscious in the absence of stimulation,but no one had ever tested it out. So Lilly built the world’s first isolationtank—a pitch-dark, soundproof, ultrasaline void, the first version of whichrequired wearing a skindiver’s mask—and immersed himself in it.
Instead of going to sleep in this tranquil, man-made sea, Lilly’s brainsurprised him by experiencing dream, reverie, and trance states, mysticalilluminations, and out-of-body travels. «There you are suspended in anembryonic silence one hundred miles out in deep space,» he would reportin The Deep Self, his tanking memoirs, «and suddenly the Logos, theUniversal Vibration, begins to pervade the fabric of awareness, coming atone from inside and all directions.» These aren’t the sort of data thatscience journals print, and Lilly’s previous «belief system,» the basic NIMHdoctrine that the brain contains the mind, gave way to what he would cometo call his «leaky-mind hypothesis.»
«A human being is a biorobot with a biocomputer in it—the brain,»he tells us. «But we are not that brain, and we are not the body. A soulessence inhabits us, and under acid, under anesthesia, in a coma, you’llfind that the essence isn’t tied to brain activity at all. Brain activity can bevirtually flat and you can be conscious—off somewhere in another realm.»
It is August, the season when the Malibu hills have a supernatural look.In our rented Ford Escort we drive through a landscape of steep canyons,sagebrush, yucca, and twisted oaks, thinking of fires, Santa Ana winds,and other wild forces.
It hadn’t been easy to track the Dolphin Man here. We’d asked hisvarious acquaintances where Lilly lived and had received answers like,»You mean, what dimension?» Someone said he worked at Redwood City’sMarine World, with the performing dolphins, but the receptionists whoanswered our phone calls had never heard of the illustrious Dr. Lilly. When,at last, we got a Malibu phone number, Lilly himself answered and agreedto see us on the condition that we arrive within the next hour. His drivingdirections turned out to be accurate to the tenth of a mile.
A grave, life-size wooden Indian guards Lilly’s doorway. We knock,
John C. Lilly, M.D., and friends. The king of altered states invented the isolationtank in order to experience a dolphin’s world. (Courtesy of HumanlDolphin Foun-dation)
and the high priest of human/dolphin communication appears in a navy-blue zippered jumpsuit. The sixty-eight-year-old Lilly is lean, tan, andathletic-looking, a landlocked Lloyd Bridges with haunted, extraterrestrialeyes. «Hi,» he says, in a flat voice, and ushers us silently into a spaciousliving room, where trapeze-artist iron rings hang from the ceiling and thepicture windows frame a Wild West movie set of arid mountains, scruboaks, sagebrush, and a deep, shadowed gorge.
«We have one rule in this house,» says our saturnine host. «No onecan take any drugs—even aspirin—and drive back down that mountain.»
Since his latest near-death experience occurred on the hairpin turns ofMalibu Canyon Road, Lilly knows whereof he speaks. With forty-twomilligrams of angel dust dancing in his head he rode his bicycle down themountain. The brakes failed, and he ended up in a five-day coma. Whilehis pain-wracked body lay in the hospital, Lilly’s mind visited alternateuniverses, where guides took him on a tour of a bleak future. It was theyear 2500, and the «solid-state entities» (which inhabit computers and othersilicon-based forms) had wiped out most of water-based, biological life,including man. Later Lilly would disown the SSEs as a temporary para-
noia—»I was just getting in touch with my bones and teeth»—but otherparts of his experience were eerily real.
«I can’t make up my mind whether that was an experience of genuinerealities or just a projection of the damage to my body,» he tells us.Anyway, he begged the guides to let him go back to his wife, Toni, onEarth, and they told him, «You can stay here, in which case your bodydies, or you can go back.» He chose to go back, as evidenced by the facthe is here being interviewed by us, but we get the feeling he’d sometimesrather be elsewhere.
Assuring him we won’t take any drugs, we take out a tape recorder.Lilly counters by producing his own matchbook-size Japanese tape recorderand carefully adjusts the microphone. He watches us through his blue-graygimlet eyes, his face a mask, and answers our first questions in crypticmonosyllables. The interview isn’t going well.
«Do you want some acid, some K, some pot?» he asks suddenly. (Ordid we hallucinate that?) It could be a test, a challenge, or a strange koan.There’s a chill of paranoia in the air. «No, thanks,» we say, rememberingthe hairpin turns and feeling like tourists with cameras and Hawaiian shirtsblundering up the steps of a sacred temple.
Lilly’s early isolation-tank trips were drug free. He was not to get his firsttaste of LSD until 1964, which was when his leaky-mind experiments reallytook off. While floating around in the Epsom-salted waters at the NIMH,though, his thoughts turned to dolphins: «I thought, ‘Gee, I wonder whatit would be like to be bouyant twenty-four hours a day.’ A friend of minesaid, ‘Well, try the dolphins.’ » He did and eventually resigned from theNIMH and went to sea to talk to the large-brained mammals that, he wassure, were not only smarter than man but had ancient «vocal histories» aswell. In 1961 he set up the Communications Research Institute in the U.S.Virgin Islands and Miami and became acquainted with cetaceans (whales,dolphins, and porpoises) as no other human ever has.
«Because they have voluntary respiration,» he explains, «dolphins areinterdependent in ways we aren’t. They have a group mind. If a dolphinpasses out for any reason, his friends must wake him up. Otherwise, he’lldrown. So every dolphin is aware of where every other dolphin is, just incase he’s needed. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’is one of their rules, and unlike us, they follow it twenty-four hours a day.They’re also more spiritual, since they have more time to meditate. Trythe isolation tank and you’ll see what it’s like.» (We will.)
Whenever Lilly talks about a dolphin, he uses the pronoun he, neverit. His fine, chiseled-granite features turn gentler, and he seems to come
down from the remote, glacial realms behind his eyes. Why, we ask him,if the Cetacea are the most intelligent beings on earth, do we humansassume we’re God’s chosen creatures?
«Because we can’t talk to anyone else. The highest intelligence on theplanet probably exists in a sperm whale, who has a ten-thousand-grambrain, six times larger than ours. The problem is that that big brain is ina body that can be killed by man. Maybe he wants to get out of that body.»
Because Lilly would like to get out of his—or out of the cramped humanWeltanschauung anyway—he spends a good deal of time at Marine Worldthese days, trying to see the world through a dolphin’s eyes. His currentattempt at an interspecies dialogue uses a computer system called JANUS(the name stands for the two-faced Roman god and for Joint AnalogNumerical Understanding System) to exchange messages with the dolphins.Unlike the baby-talking Hollywood dolphins that called George C. Scott»Faaa,» real dolphins communicate in «acoustic pictures.»
«We’re trying to develop a sonic code as the basis of a dolphin computerlanguage,» he says. «Our computer system transmits sounds underwater,via a transducer. If a group of dolphins can work with a computer thatfeeds back to them what they just said—names of objects and so forth—and if we can be the intercessors between them and the computer, I thinkwe can eventually communicate. I think in about five years we’ll have ahuman-dolphin dictionary.»
If tanking led to dolphins, it also led to LSD. And the two parallelromances of Lilly’s life, interspecies communication and altered states,proceed from the same break-on-through-to-the-other-side longing.
«There were a lot of ‘LSD pushers’—all legal of course—at the NIMHwhen I was there in the fifties,» he reminisces. «But I didn’t take it then.After about ten years in the tank I decided there was something new tobe learned. So I came out here to California, in 1964, where a lady I knewwho had access to Sandoz LSD-25 gave me the LSD for my first two trips.
«On my first trip I went through all the usual stuff: seeing my facechange in the mirror, tripping out to music. During the first two movementsof Beethoven’s Ninth I was kneeling in heaven, worshipping God and Hisangels, just as I had in church when I was seven years old. On that trip Idid everything I’d read in the psychedelic literature so as to save time andget out of the literature the next time.»
The phone rings and Lilly answers it. «Who are you?» he demands.His end of the conversation is curt, and he hangs up without saying good-bye. Small talk is not his long suit. «That was just someone asking aboutthe solid-state entities,» he says.
The LSD initiation was the beginning of an unparalleled hallucinogenic
high-wire act. With the single-mindedness of a God-crazed medieval monk,Lilly spent the next two decades stalking the brain’s truth with LSD, PCP,and—above all—»Vitamin K,» the superpotent hallucinogen he prefersnot to identify. In the Virgin Islands, in 1964, he mixed tanking with LSDfor the first time and got even higher highs, like the following (from TheCenter of the Cyclone)’.
I traveled through my brain, watching the neurons and their activities. … I movedinto smaller and smaller dimensions, down to the quantum levels, and watched theplay of the atoms in their own vast universes, their wide empty spaces, and thefantastic forces involved in each of the distant nuclei with their orbital clouds offorce field electrons. … It was really frightening to see the tunneling effects andthe other phenomena of the quantal level taking place.
He floated through Pascalian infinities great and small, from interstellarspace to the minutiae of his own cells, and met otherworldly beings who»reminded me of some of the drawings I had seen of Tibetan gods andgoddesses, of ancient Greek . . . gods and of some of the bug-eyed monstersof science fiction. …» Some became his «guides.»
By now Lilly was no longer writing up his research for scientific journalsor even reading other people’s physiology papers. Instead he started au-thoring popular books to record his state changes, from Roman Catholicismto CalTech electronic wizardry to medical science and psychoanalysis; fromNIMH neuroscience to tanking, dolphins, and LSD, and finally to Esalen-New Age mysticism. When the vibes started to go sour around 1965-66(his second wife filed for divorce, LSD became a controlled drug, and someof the dolphins at the institute reacted to captivity by committing suicide),he set the dolphins free and came out to California to join the human-potential Gold Rush.
But the LSD and tank excursions of 1964-65 were, in their way, asmethodical as Ron Siegel’s research. If Lilly used his own nervous systemas an experimental laboratory, he did so in the tradition of the greatJ. B. S. Haldane, who, when he wanted to measure the brain’s temperature,had thermocouples inserted through his jugular vein into his own brain.Lilly wanted to map successive slices of inner space, and he did it system-atically, using ascending doses of LSD and tank immersion. In fact, hefound that one hundred micrograms corresponded to x level of internalreality, two hundred micrograms to y level, and so on, up to «infinitedistances—dimensions that are inhuman.»
A certain reentry shock was to be expected.
«If you get into these spaces at all,» he tells us, «you must forget aboutthem when you come back. You must forget you’re omnipotent and om-niscient and take the game seriously, so you’ll have sex, beget children,and the whole human scenario. When you come back from a deep LSDtrip—or coma or psychosis—there’s always this extraterrestrial feeling. Youhave to read the directions in the glove compartment so you can run thehuman vehicle.
«After I first took acid in the tank and traveled to distant dimensions,I cried when I came back and found myself trapped in a body. I didn’teven know whose body it was at the time. I felt squashed.»
The leaky-mind/escaping-self hypothesis had turned into a living-on-the-edge life-style. «Acid and K,» he explains, «set up the chemical con-figuration of your brain so as to loosen the connection between the brain/bodyand the soul essence. Then the essence can move into alternate realities.That’s the the leaky-mind or escaping-self hypothesis. . . . There are lotsof ideas about the soul’s location in the body. In Spanish, when you’rescared out your wits, you say your soul is in your mouth—you have el almaen la boca.
«But the junction between the biocomputer and the essence is notlocalized in the brain; it’s throughout your body. If you get out of yourbody, you can assume a fake body, an astral body, which can walk throughwalls. Your essence is represented in every cell of your body.»
We were used to scientists who discussed the mind in terms of dopaminemetabolites, refined bioassays, and tighter parameters, and so we ask Lillyif he thinks the human mind can be mapped in that way. He doesn’t.»Neurochemistry is interesting, but not specific enough yet. I suspect we’llfind there are a million different compounds operating in the nervoussystem.
«You know,» he adds, «[mathematician Kurt] Godel’s theorem, trans-lated, says that a computer of a given size can model only a smaller com-puter. It cannot model itself. If it modeled a computer of its own size andcomplexity, it would fill it entirely and it couldn’t do anything.»
«So the brain can never understand the brain?» we ask.
«That’s right. We are biological computers. And Godel said that youcannot conceive in full a computer the size of your own, for it would takeup all the space you live in. But a sperm whale, with a brain six times thesize of ours, could model a human brain and do a pretty good job of it.Since the model would take up only one-sixth of his software, he coulduse the remaining five-sixths to manipulate the model, predict its actions,and so on.»
Is Lilly a Whitehead or an Ouspensky? His so-lipsistic, hallucinogen-facilitated head burrowinginto brain and space has the appearance of a ra-tional search. I know of that sound, its disguises,its path near suicide. I too have looked to thebrain’s cortical mantle, the moonless sky, and theempty space inside that comes from hours of themantra. . . .
—ARNOLD MANDELL, M.D.,
Coming of Middle Age
If there were an Association for Scientists Ten Tokes Over the Line, manyof Lilly’s former colleagues would elect him president. Some say he’s bril-liant but strange. Some think that too much acid and K or his many standoffswith death have damaged his nervous system. To Ron Siegel, who knowshim pretty well, Lilly is «one of the bravest explorers of the inner world,»a Jacques Cousteau of the psychic undersea.
«The trouble with Lilly is that he’s in love with death,» one psychiatristfriend of his tells us, and mentions Thanatos, the Freudian death wish.That Lilly has flirted flagrantly with death on at least three occasions is amatter of record. During his early acid phase, he once gave himself anantibiotic injection with a hypodermic that contained foam residue and itsent him into a coma. A few years later, during a period of daredevil»Vitamin K» use, he almost drowned. And then, in 1974, there was thebicycle accident.
«Were these accidents or quasi-suicides?» we ask Lilly.
«The whole issue of suicide is very complex,» he answers. «I think thebrain contains lethal programs, self-destruct programs, below the level ofawareness, which LSD or K can release or strengthen. My accidents werenear-death learning experiences. There’s nothing like them for training youfast.
«We have a saying in our workshops: ‘If you pass the cosmic speedlimit, the cosmic cops will bust you.’ I got busted in 1974. I’d spent mostof the year in satori, a state of grace, mostly living in alternate realities. Ihad a ball. But I’d been out there too long and hadn’t paid enough attentionto my planetside trip. So the ECCO guys called me back by throwing abike accident at me.»
«The echo guys?» we ask, picturing an infinite inner echo chamber.
«The Earth Coincidence Control Office—ECCO. They’re the guys whorun Earth and who program us, though we’re not aware of it. I askedthem, ‘What’s your major program?’ They answered, ‘To make you guysevolve to the next levels, to teach you, to kick you in the pants when
Anatomy of Hallucination: Prophets of the Void • 279
necessary.’ I appreciate what they did. They’re not cruel; they’re in a stateof high indifference.»
Lilly leads us outside and around a semicircle of manicured lawn to hisrustic workshop/office. He turns on his computer, and the table of contentsof his book-in-progress, From Here to Alternity: A Manual on Ways ofAmusing God, appears on the terminal. TIME, BITS, BYTES ANDTOASTED HONEY, we read. BEGIN GOD. THE DUSTBOWL GOD.It has the feel of a cosmic programming language.
«I can run this thing on very high doses of K,» he says. «In spite ofeverything vibrating.»
Alternity is about Lilly’s journeys on K, his favorite chemical nirvana.He once spent a hundred sleepless, dreamless days and nights on K, tuninghis «internal eyes» to the dim borders between alternate realities, rotatinguniverses, yin and yang, hyperspace from within. We ask him about con-tacting God.
«In many cases,» he says, «I didn’t know whether I was taken on atrip by God or by one of His business officers in the outer galaxy. Guidesat each level above ours pretend to be God as long as you believe them.But when you finally get to know the guide, he says, ‘Well, God is reallythe next level up.’ God keeps retreating into infinity.»
If there is a bureaucratic feel to these infinite spaces, if Lilly’s heavensometimes resembles a vast civil-servant hierarchy, it may not be acciden-tal. You can find such multitiered hierarchies in the brain, as Lilly wellknows from his former lifetime in the neuroanatomy lab. You can findthem in computers, along with infinite loops and iterations like a Godretreating into infinity. (Lilly is a computer master, too, and in the mercilessconfessionals of his books he often bemoans the «stainless-steel computer»side of his being.) What this says about the mind/brain relationship we’renot entirely sure.
We ask what or who the Dustbowl God is.
«Oh,» he says, «in my book I have a theory about the Dustbowl God.God got bored with this universe and the distribution of intelligence in it.So He made a dust bowl out beyond the galaxies. In this dust cloud everyparticle is intelligent; on the atomic level each particle is as intelligent asa human being. The dust particles made themselves into stars and planetsand animals and humans, and everything was totally aware of everythingaround it. . . . Now, the problem is: If every particle is equally intelligent,what are the traffic rules for relations between, say, humans and elephants?
«It would be nice to see such universe, wouldn’t it?» he says. «TheDustbowl Universe.»
28o • Anatomy of Hallucination: Prophets of the Void
Later, submerged in the wet, dark, womblike void of Lilly’s Samadhitank, we try to get a handle on these things. The water temperature is 94degrees, close enough to body temperature so the junction between insideand outside, body and water (if not body and mind), is blurred, but slightlylower to allow some heat loss so the tanker doesn’t die of hyperthermia.We float weightless, a crouton in a primordial soup, with no sights, nosounds, no time—in the same tank where Jerry Rubin, Charles Tart, estmogul Werner Erhard, Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman, an-thropologist Gregory Bateson, and other luminaries have floated and hadvisions.
Ours are pretty rudimentary. Lilly’s «metaprogrammings,» «belief-sys-tem interlocks,» and «Earth Coincidence Control Offices» echo in the headlike mantras. We seem to see him in various disguises: a reincarnated OldTestament prophet waiting out the locust years; Cybernetic Man, with abrain full of codes; a wounded sorcerer; a shipwrecked hero befriendedby dolphins. It occurs to us that the mind/brain problem may not be solvablein this universe.
When we emerge the low sun casts elongated shadows over the canyons.We locate Lilly back in his living room, but he seems indifferent to ourpresence, like someone who is just about to board a plane and is alreadymentally in a different time zone. From another room the canned laughterof what sounds like an «I Love Lucy» rerun drifts out to us. Then ToniLilly walks in, smiling, carrying a bag of groceries. By all accounts, Lilly’sthird wife is the life force that keeps him around the planet these days,and he comes noticeably alive in her presence. He jumps up to help herunload firewood from the car. We call good-bye to his receding back andtry to thank him for the interview.
«Well, we’ll see how it comes out,» he says and disappears into somezero-g universe beyond us.
Chuang-tzu and the ButterflyDreams and Reality
Anyone who when he was awake behaved in thesort of way that [he does] in dreams would beconsidered insane.
—SIGMUND FREUD,
The Interpretation of Dreams
What if you slept? And what if in your sleep, youdreamed? And what if in your dream you wentto heaven and there plucked a strange and beau-tiful flower? And what if when you awoke, youhad the flower in your hand? Ah! What then?
—SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE
WHEN she’s ready to dream, Beverly Kedzierski checks intowhat looks to be a small, California-ranch-style motel behindthe ultrasuburban Stanford Shopping Center. The technicianwho pastes electrodes to her head, chin, and the skin just below her eyeswill stay up all night in the room next door, watching seven parallel streamsof squiggles course over polygraph paper. That doesn’t cramp Kedzierski’sstyle. She’s the Stanford sleep lab’s star lucid dreamer. By now the taskof controlling the protean substance of dreams boils down to a pragmaticritual: Plug wires into headboard. Rehearse the eyeball-movement codethat she’ll use in her lucid dreams. Rehearse that night’s specific task. Goto sleep.
Lucid dreaming is nothing new. You can find references to it in Aris-totle, in various mystical texts, and in rapturous Victorian memoirs full ofseance tricks like astral projection and precognition. Perhaps you have afriend who does it spontaneously; or perhaps you have at one time or other»awakened» in middream to discover you could rewrite the plot and shufflethe characters like an imperious Hollywood director on location.
Kedzierski started lucid dreaming when she was a five-year-old childwith a recurrent nightmare about witches. «Every night they chased mearound and around the yard,» she remembers. «I’d say, ‘Listen, you canhave me in tomorrow night’s dream, but just let me go free now.’ They’d
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let me go, but sure enough, the next night they’d be chasing me again. Soone night I just said, ‘Okay, enough is enough. What do you want?’ Theydidn’t answer, but they never came back after that.»
It took a young Stanford sleep researcher named Stephen LaBerge tomake lucid dreaming a science. No reputable scientist before him had everconsidered breaking the communication barrier between dreams and wak-ing life—for what could be more private than a dream, that twilit cloisterguarded by the ever-vigilant «censor»? The best one could do was toreconstruct one’s dream the morning after (when its «soul» was alreadycold) and fumble around in its gnomic gibberish for symbols planted bythe subconscious. But LaBerge’s solution was surprisingly unmystical.
If dreams were soft science, sleep research was hard. Since 1953 dream-ing sleep was known to be accompanied by characteristic rapid eye move-ments (or REM), which are easily detected by a sensor under the sleeper’seyes. If it really was possible to be conscious in a dream, LaBerge mused,why couldn’t the dreamer «speak» to the outside world; and why not usehis eye movements as the lexicon? For several nights running, in 1978, hehooked himself to a polysonograph, a lie-detector-like device that auto-
Lucid-dreaming researcher Stephen LaBerge prepares oneironaut Beverly Ked-zierski for a night’s sleep in the Stanford sleep lab. The electrodes will monitorher brain waves, eye movements, and facial muscles throughout the night. (Chris-topher Springmann)
matically monitors eye muscles and other physiological signals; each timehe dreamed a lucid dream he moved his eyes in a prearranged sequence:left-right-left-right. When he scanned the record later, there, embeddedamong the slow EEGs and familiar eye flickerings of REM, was his codedmessage—four giant, sweeping zigzags on the eye-muscle channel. Luciddreaming was no hallucination, and it did occur during sleep.
LaBerge graduated to fancier feats. He began using a complex seriesof eye and body movements to send out Morse code signals, once spellingout his initials from within a lucid dream. For several years he meticulouslyrecorded a total of 389 dreams, and still there were scoffers. «People weresaying ‘Oh, this lucid dreaming is just a dissertation effect: LaBerge is theonly one who does it.’ » Finally he stopped sleeping with electrodes himselfand trained an elite corps of oneironauts, or «dream navigators»—includingKedzierski, the first and most gifted—to communicate from the vaporousland of dreams to the high-noon world of technicians, EEG machines, andscience journals.
We meet him in his office, an unprepossessing cubicle off the labyrin-thian cinder-gray corridors of the Stanford Medical Center’s R wing. Fromfloor to ceiling the bookshelves are crammed with large cardboard boxesof graph paper covered with serpentine tracks of red ink. The place mightpass for a cheerless medical technician’s annex and the thirty-five-year-oldLaBerge for any boyish jean-clad student but for his aura of quiet authorityand a certain laserlike intensity in his eyes.
«Let me show you one of our experiments,» he says, opening one ofthe boxes. Each box contains the psychophysiological record of one night’ssleep, and this is one of Kedzierski’s. Over his shoulder we peer down atthe special calligraphy of sleep: Taut little bunches of alpha brain waves(the subject is awake); the slower, «sawtooth» dreaming waves; the flat-lands on the chin-muscle line that distinguish dreaming from dreamlesssleep. «The top two channels are EEGs,» LaBerge explains. «The nexttwo are eye movements—see, up and down means left and right. This lineis chin-muscle tone. The bottom two are skin potential, or galvanic skinresponse, a measure of excitement.
«Now we’ll see when she’s having a lucid dream.» He shuffles throughthe perforated pages. «Right here, see, she’s dreaming—those are the so-called sawtooth waves of REM sleep, and here are the eye movements.The muscle tone is depressed, as it always is in REM sleep. She’s definitelyasleep. But now there’s the eye-movement signal—left-right-left-right! She’stelling us she knows she’s dreaming.» There’s no way to miss it: The luciddreamer’s call to the waking world jumps off the page like a famous facein an old group photograph.
284 * Chuang-tzu and the Butterfly: Dreams and Reality
The ink tracings don’t reveal anything about how it feels to wake upinside a dream, though, and it’s hard for the oneironauts themselves todescribe the peculiar, surreal frisson they experience. «When I notice some-thing doesn’t fit or someone doesn’t belong there,» Kedzierski tells us, «Isay, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this might be a dream. If I test it out and realizethat it is a dream, it’s very thrilling, very emotional. It’s like being at theGrand Canyon for the first time, and I think, ‘Wow! I’ve never seen itlook like this before; I want to remember everything, every detail.’ »
Back around 1967 lucid dreams were the farthest thing from StephenLaBerge’s mind. He was just a nineteen-year-old Stanford prodigy workingon a doctorate in physical chemistry. Then the Acid Age came along andattracted him to the nascent «chemistry of mind.» He began taking moreand more extended leaves of absence and even found himself a job syn-thesizing hallucinogens at the University of San Francisco. «I wanted totest a series of LSD analogues,» he recalls, «to see if I could find anyinteresting improvements.» After a while, the grants dematerialized likethe visions they fueled, but by then LaBerge had hit a familiar psychedeliccul-de-sac, anyway. «I’d take LSD, and I’d feel that I almost knew—thatstate of incipient knowledge. I think the drug turns on a ‘significance’ signalin the limbic system, but without any particular content. So you come backempty-handed the next day.»
Eastern metaphysics turned out to be a better route to the study ofconsciousness; and LaBerge was drawn to the notion that normal, wakingconsciousness is a kind of collective dream. One day in 1970 he attendeda lecture at Esalen, where a Tibetan master spoke of maintaining wakingconsciousness in the dream state. That night LaBerge did something hehadn’t done since he was a small boy in Florida swimming underwater forhours in his dreams: He had a lucid dream.
«I was climbing K-2, the second highest mountain in the world. ThereI was going through these snowdrifts and I noticed I was wearing a T-shirt.I instantly recognized that I was dreaming and flew off the mountain.. . . Today, of course, I wouldn’t fly off the mountain; I’d climb to the topto see what was there.»
It took a few more years and much dissertation angst, but by the late1970s, LaBerge had found a place for his unorthodox specialty within thesleep-research mainstream. By that time, too, he’d gained remarkablemastery over his own dream life and had a few tricks to pass on.
One was a technique called MILD (mnemonic induction of lucid dreams)that can help the novice convert ordinary dreams into lucid ones. Whileusing MILD, LaBerge had an average of 21.5 lucid dreams a month. Hefound it most effective in the early morning hours, when dreams are fre-quent, and right after waking from a dream. Here is how it works:
Chuang-tzu and the Butterfly: Dreams and Reality • 285
Step one: Train yourself to wake up early in the morning right after a
dream.
Step two: Recall your dream, fixing all its details in your mind; then
spend ten to fifteen minutes doing something (like reading) that requires
full alertness.
Step three: Before you go back to sleep, tell yourself, «Next time I’m
dreaming I’ll recognize I’m dreaming.»
Step four: Visualize yourself asleep in bed. At the same time imagine
that you are inside the dream you just recalled—and that you’re aware
that you are dreaming.
Now repeat steps three and four until your intention is firmly lodgedin your mind. With a little practice, you may train yourself to wake upat a Transylvanian masked ball and alter the script as you see fit.(Recurrent dreams are particularly fertile soil for lucidity.)
Can anyone do it? Theoretically, yes, but LaBerge estimates that onlyone person in ten is a natural lucid dreamer. At the University of NorthernIowa, a psychologist named Jayne Gackenbach has done a survey thatconcludes lucid dreamers are less neurotic, less depressed, and have higherself-esteem than nonlucid people. They also tend to have excellent emo-tional balance (if you don’t keep your cool when a dream turns lucid, itquickly evaporates), and their physical balance, as measured by walkingon a balance beam, is equally superior—a fact that might explain dream-flying ability.
The plain criterion of lucidity is to be aware that you’re dreaming. Oras LaBerge puts it to his oneironauts, «You have to remember you’re ina sleep lab doing an experiment; you have to remember there’s an outsideworld.» Beyond that, there are infinite shades and variations. «Full lu-cidity,» says the dream maestro, «is knowing, ‘Every part of this dream isin my own mind and I take full responsibility for it.’ If you don’t fly becauseyou don’t think you can, then you’re not fully lucid.»
Beverly Kedzierski tells us, «To test whether I’m lucid I’ll float up intothe air. If I can fly I know it’s a dream.» Then she recounts how she hasfine-tuned her aerodynamics over the years. «In the beginning I was flap-ping my arms as a little bird would do. When I woke up, I thought, ‘Well,if I can fly, it shouldn’t take any effort; it’s all a dream anyway.’ So in mynext dream I tried just gliding through the air like Superman. It workedfine, but I was still avoiding rooftops and telephone poles.
«Later, I thought, ‘Why do I have to do this? I should be able to flyright through rooftops.’ Now when I’m flying in a dream, I can fly rightthrough things—as long as I believe I can do it. When I don’t believe it,I crash into the rooftops and fall down.»
He understood that modeling the incoherent andToppling Freudian vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed
Towers was tne most difficulttas^ tnat a man could un-
dertake, even though he should penetrate allenigmas of a superior and inferior order; muchmore difficult than weaving a rope out of sand orcoining the faceless wind.
—JORGE LUIS BORGES,
«The Circular Ruins»
The fourth floor of the medical center overlooks a disjointed geometryof red-tile roofs, domes, towers, treetops, and white-gold meadows. Wetry to imagine how this campus would look from the aerial view of a luciddream. Would the dreamer set his or her compass by Hoover Tower—that unabashedly tumescent monument always known in these parts as»Hoover’s Last Erection»? Would the gnarled live oaks, mournful euca-lyptus, and neurotic, attenuated palms seem to possess souls?
To Freud, flying in dreams usually meant sex. To LaBerge and hisproteges, flying is psychic freedom. When lucid dreamers choose to dreamabout sex, they do so frankly, like the female oneironaut who made loveto a giant department-store Easter bunny. This is only one of the differencesbetween the old school and the new psychology of dreaming.
Freud’s dreamworld was a musty, semidarkened, red-brocaded Vic-torian parlor cluttered with phallic symbols, distortions, inversions, wish-fulfillment fantasies, condensations, and bizarre associations. Althoughrepressed yearnings from the unconscious could leak into dreams whenthe rational cortex went to sleep, there was, between the conscious mindand the unconscious, an ineradicable wall of frosted glass. Everything wasfiltered, sifted, censored, coded. And dream analysis was a Hermetic sci-ence accessible only to initiates.
Consider for a moment this quote from The Interpretation of Dreams(1900): «We shall take the unconscious system as the starting-point of alldream formation. Like all other thought-structures, this dream-instigatorwill make an effort to advance into the preconscious and from there toobtain access to consciousness.»
This rigid trinity of conscious-preconscious-unconscious is the very cor-nerstone of psychoanalysis. What does LaBerge’s new science do to that?Instead of furtive, sybilline mutterings between the «conscious» and the»unconscious,» there is frank discourse in lucid dreams; the ego directlyintervenes in the dreaming self’s operations. Could the blockade that Freudposited between different compartments of the mind be a phony one?
An accomplished lucid dreamer doesn’t just lie there like a supineanalysand and have nightmares and anxiety dreams. He/she takes control
Toppling Freudian Towers • 287
and changes things, as Beverly Kedzierski did with her witches at the tenderage of five. And the dreamer can lucidly search for solutions to real-worldproblems. Recently, faced with writing a proposal for her computer-sciencedissertation, Kedzierski had a bad bout of writer’s block. «I told myselfI’d dream about it,» she said. «So when I had a lucid dream I rememberedto try sitting down at my computer terminal. Well, as soon as I tried to sitthere, there was all this turbulence that just sort of swished me away. WhenI woke up, I realized my problem wasn’t that I didn’t have enough ideasor that I wasn’t capable of writing. The problem was that I wasn’t sittingdown at my desk.» The solution? Back in waking life, she just sat downin front of her terminal and pretty soon she’d done the proposal.
A peculiar Instant Karma operates in dreamland, too, according toLaBerge. «In a dream,» he explains, «there’s a perfect reciprocity between’you’ and ‘them.’ As soon as you change your attitude toward them, theychange. Loving your enemies in your dreams works instantly, because whoare they to have swords when you love them? They don’t have any beingindependent of you. . . .»
As we talk, a dragon-shaped cloud scuttles across the hard cobalt skyoutside the window. In the parking lot below a coagulated rainbow hidesin an oil slick, and several new, shiny Audis and Volvos maneuver arounda life-size gameboard of coded A, B, and E spaces. Is the world a differentorder of dream, as the mystics say? If so, lucid dreams may guide us tohigher states of consciousness, offering us a glimpse of what it would belike to awaken from the common slumber.
«In the dream state the person I’m seeing is my construction, just animage in my mind,» LaBerge comments. «Now, in waking life the ‘you’I’m seeing is an image in my mind, but there is somebody out there, too,and it’s an autonomous being.
«Right now we’re agreeing on consensual reality. We’re observing cer-tain social rules about an interview—what’s appropriate, what’s not. Butmost people just accept the situation as a given and don’t recognize thatthey help construct it. If you experience lucid dreaming, though, you takefull responsibility for your experience. And that carries over into wakinglife. You try out different approaches to real situations; you develop psy-chological flexibility.»
Anyone who when he was awake behaved in the sort of way that he doesin dreams would be considered insane. Maybe, maybe not.
But how does the brain generate a lucid dream—if it is the brain that doesit? «Here’s stage-two sleep, dreamless sleep,» LaBerge says, pointing tosome telltale EEG «spindles» on the polysonograph record. «Now, here
she enters REM sleep—look at the sawtooth waves and the rapid eyemovement. And after just thirty seconds, there’s the lucid dream signal!
«What happens,» he continues, «is that in the transition from non-REM to REM, the cortex is turned on by the reticular activating systemdown in the brain stem. We’ve measured cerebral blood flow and founda large increase in the transition from non-REM to REM sleep, and theeye movements are also a sign of cerebral activation.
«It’s very interesting: Lucid dreams often occur right at the beginningof a REM period, as you saw here in this chart. It’s like a control system:As the nervous system goes from a lower to a higher level of activation,I think you sometimes get an overshoot—you can demonstrate mathe-matically that this often happens when you go from one state to another—and that can result in a lucid dream.»
«Is lucid dreaming a state-specific science, in the Charles Tart sense?»we ask LaBerge.
«Well,» he pauses, scanning his internal data bank for the most preciseanswer. «State-specific science is based on the idea that you can’t carrysome kinds of knowledge from one state to another, and I think that’smistaken. You can learn to remember your dreams, and you can learn tobe awake in your dreams, too. What we’re doing is trying to relate lucid-dream reality to waking reality.»
He and Kedzierski have just been comparing dream time to real time,as a matter of fact. And, at least in these rather austere experiments, tenseconds in a dream takes just as long as ten seconds in reality. WhenKedzierski estimated the passage of ten seconds during a lucid dream—signaling with her eyes before and after to mark off the interval—she wasoff by two seconds, just as she had been when awake. Dream countingand dream singing mimic wide-awake counting and singing. That’s not tosay that all oneiro-chronology—like flying from the Grand Canyon to yourgrandmother’s house in Omaha in a flash—obeys real-world laws. But itdoes prove a neat «psychophysical correspondence,» in LaBerge’s lingo,between the two realms.
«When you’re dreaming about doing something,» says LaBerge, «yourbrain is going through the same patterns it would if you were awake. And,indeed, if you believe the mind is in the brain, that would seem obvious.But if you believe that when you go to sleep your mind somehow leavesyour body . . . well, it’s clear where the ‘astral silver chord’ is.»
Since he speaks like a mind-is-brain believer, we ask him about it. Hereis his answer:
«The brain is the most wondrous piece of organized matter—in the
Why Do We Dream? • 289
local universe at least. We don’t know what’s in other galaxies,» he says.»And it’s capable of what look like miraculous things, so miraculous thatwe’re tempted to say it’s divine, that it’s not ‘natural.’ But I don’t thinkthere’s any mystery about where different levels of mind come from. I seethem as the result of various complex interactions in the brain.»
Stephen LaBerge is not one of those flat-footed reductionists who onlybelieve in things that move a dial, however. Lately he’s been thinking thatif the mind can heal the body, it might do it best in the comparative sensoryvacuum of the dream state. As a first experiment, he plans to make tinyscratches in oneironauts’ arms (both arms, in each case) and then instructthem to heal only one arm during a lucid dream. (He doesn’t rule out psi,either, though he’d prefer to keep his dream science out of the paranormalhinterlands.)
As for Beverly Kedzierski, the splendor of her dreams has not distractedher from artificial intelligence. In a way she’s found a link between thesilicon world and lucid dreaming. «We’re working with automatic pro-gramming of a knowledge-based system,» she tells us. «Our system is self-referential; it knows about itself. And that circular knowledge about itselfis sort of like a consciousness.
«Knowing in a dream that this is a conscious body and that there isanother body in bed that is dreaming, I think, is similar to the architectureof these computer systems.»
XT™ ^ tt7 ^ o There’s the rub. Nobody knows exactly
Why Do We Dream? why nature invemed REM sleep> with its
accompanying little theater of mirages. The fact that all animals and birdsdo it, though, argues that dreaming sleep must have some evolutionarypurpose beyond providing cerebral jigsaw puzzles for analysts. Fetusesengage in REM sleep in the womb (what they might dream about, wedon’t know); newborns dream about half of every day; and adult humanbeings rack up a total of about an hour and a half of REM a night. Andif they don’t, they’re in deep trouble.
Much of the basic science of REM, or «paradoxical sleep,» as it usedto be called—the paradox is that the dreaming cortex is cut off from normalsensory input yet remains active—comes from the landmark research ofthe French physiologist Michel Jouvet. In his lab in Lyons, in the 1950s,Jouvet proved that REM sleep was controlled by a part of the brain stem’sreticular activating system (RAS) called the pons, or «bridge,» and thatanother part of the RAS gives us dreamless, non-REM sleep. One day the
father of modern sleep physiology turned his laboratory into an archipelagoof small islands surrounded by water and placed cats precariously on theislands. The cats were fine as long as they were awake or in deep, slow-wave sleep, but whenever they went into the characteristic muscular re-laxation of REM, they lost their grip, automatically slid into the man-madesea, and woke up. After a few weeks of REM deprivation the animalsbecame extremely weird—some even died—proving starkly that the mam-malian brain needs dreams.
Why?
Theory number 1: Dreams are the mind’s safety valve, a way of sneakingdangerous, taboo, emotionally charged or contradictory messages past theprim, Oxford-donnish superego. This was Freud’s idea, in a nutshell. Mem-ory traces or residues of daytime happenings commingle in an intracranialforest primeval with «regressive» material from our deep dark past. Thedreamscape reenacts not only our own personal infancy but the wholephylogenetic childhood of the race. «We may expect,» wrote Freud, inThe Interpretation of Dreams, «that the analysis of dreams will lead us toa knowledge of man’s archaic heritage, of what is psychically innate inhim. Dreams and neuroses seem to have preserved more mental antiquitiesthan we could have imagined possible.»
No doubt there is a lot of truth to the psychoanalytic theory of dreams,but it doesn’t explain why your dog has REM sleep. And how repressedcan a week-old infant be?
Theory number 2: We need dreams for psychological equilibrium. «Ifyou’ve received an insult to your self-esteem during the day,» notes StephenLaBerge, who has one foot in the psychological-balance camp, «you’ll tryto compensate in your dream with an ego-enchancing dream.» Theorynumber 2 can be seen as a variation on number 1, except that instead ofFreud’s dual (or maybe triune) self, we must picture the mind as a sort ofHindu heaven with multiple gods. Or, to use the more fashionable parlance,as a multilevel information-processing system.
«We have many different goals, ranging all the way from higher goalslike ‘Be a better person’ to lower-level ones like ‘Buy a magazine,’ » saysLaBerge. «How to arrange all the goals in an effective order—how to geteverything one wants—can be a mathematical problem. One thing dreamsprobably do is work out possible solutions.»
Theory number 3: Dreams serve another kind of information-processingfunction, namely memory consolidation. This would account for the famousMidterm Effect (it’s better to sleep a few hours after memorizing the reignsof the English monarchs than to cram all night) as well as the popularityof mail-order sleep tapes («Learn Yoga/Serbo-Croatian/Double-Entry
The Overwrought Computer • 291
Bookkeeping in Your Sleep»). It may also explain why reptiles and fishdon’t dream and why newborn humans dream so much.
The idea is this: The mammalian brain, born without all of its neuronalconnections ready-made, relies on experience to weave meaningful pat-terns. What dreams do is to replay experiences and reinforce the crucialsynaptic connections. Think of a child’s connect-the-dot drawing. Add athree-dimensional structure of multiple superimposed images so that eachdot is intersected thousands of times to take part in thousands of differentdrawings. A young brain that is still laying down synapses, says the we-dream-in-order-to-remember school, needs a lot of REM sleep to hook upall this wiring. Conversely, reptiles, which are relatively hard-wired at birth,have no special need of dreams.
Theory number 4: This is a brand-new one, and it’s the reverse ofnumber 3: We dream in order to forget. We’ll need a little space to explainwhy Francis Crick, the eclectic co-discoverer of the double helix, andCambridge researcher Graeme Mitchison think that you should forget yourdreams. But hang on to the connect-the-dot image, for it comes in here,too.
Isn’t it interesting, mused Crick andThe Overwrought Mitchison, that the only creatures endowed
Computer wjth rem sleep are those that have a neo-
cortex—or in the case of birds, an analogousstructure called a wulst? A single mammal lacks REM, and it is more ofa pseudomammal: the primitive, small-brained, egg-laying spiny anteater.Do dreams fulfill a special neocortical need, the scientists wondered, andif so, what?
Consider again the human cortex with its 50 billion interconnectedneurons and 500 billion glial cells all packed into two fistfuls of thickcustard. Somewhere in the dense web of local cell connections that brainscientists call a neural net is stored the face of your first-grade teacher, thedefinition of amanuensis, the knowledge that a turnip is an edible vegetableand not a volcanic rock. Or at least that’s the reigning hypothesis. As wesaw in Chapter 7, the great Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb pos-tulated that the stronger the synaptic connections are in a specific neuralnet, the stronger the engram it encodes. But isn’t there an upper limit toinformation storage? Wouldn’t it sometimes make sense to «erase» yourfirst-grade teacher’s image or the ancient Greek pluperfect subjunctive tomake space for other, more useful patterns?
To test this idea, Crick and Mitchison used a computer program tosimulate a neocortical neural net and endowed it with the Hebbian law of
information storage (the information stored is proportional to the strengthof the synapses). Such artificial-intelligence models can nowadays be trainedto «recognize» a certain stimulus when the computer equivalent of «syn-aptic strength» is set at a certain level—which is to say they can mimicbrains in a primitive way. With a neat computer-graphics attachment theycan even turn an incomplete or blurred glimpse of a face into a realisticportrait, just as your neocortex does every day of your life. But what Crickand Mitchison wanted to know was this: What would happen if a neuralnet got overloaded, if it were force-fed too many superimposed, overlap-ping patterns?
The result was a computer gone berserk. Their model neocortical netdisplayed «parasitic modes of activity,» wherein it printed out bizarre as-sociations, fantastic silicon ravings. Sometimes it became «obsessed» andgave multiple versions of the same memory or else it printed out only abare handful of memories in response to any stimulus. At other times it»hallucinated,» generating a completely inappropriate picture out of inputthat should have been ignored. If all this evokes the locked wards atBellevue, it’s because flesh-and-blood neural nets are also vulnerable toinformation overload. Or so Crick and Mitchison speculate.
Although the human neocortex possesses many more «bits» (and there-fore more storage capacity) than the Crick/Mitchison model net, the bulkof its synapses are excitatory; and self-excitation can lead to electricalinstability—and epilespy, psychosis, and other pathological states, accord-ing to the scientists. Fortunately most of us aren’t mentally ill or epileptic.Crick and Mitchison believe that’s because REM sleep erases unwantedsynaptic connections, all those associations and memory traces that, if filedpermanently, would overwhelm us. Nocturnal «unlearning» or «reverselearning,» then, is evolution’s solution to the mathematical dilemma posedby the gargantuan mammalian neocortex. (Unbeknownst to Crick andMitchison, John Hopfield of CalTech had independently conceived theidea of reverse learning, though he hadn’t connected it with dreaming. InHopfield’s simulations «unlearning» did indeed improve the behavior of aneural network.)
Instead of knitting up raveled sleeves of care or anything else, Crickand Mitchison propose, dreams are the fleeting shades of neural nets un-raveling. Thus, in their 1983 article in Nature, they counsel us to ignorethem: «In this model,» they write, «attempting to remember one’s dreamsshould perhaps not be encouraged, because such remembering may helpto retain patterns of thought which are better forgotten. These are the verypatterns the organism was attempting to damp down.»
I was lying in bed and a gentleman who was knownThe Deinterpretation to me entered the room; I tried to turn on the
of Dreams ^8nt but was unable to; I tried over and over
again, but in vain. Thereupon my wife got out ofbed to help me, but she could not manage it either.But as she felt awkward in front of the gentlemanowing to being «en negligee,» she finally gave itup and went back to bed. All of this was so funnythat I couldn’t help roaring with laughter at it.My wife said, «Why are you laughing? Why areyou laughing?» but I only went on laughing untilI woke up.
—freud: a patient’s dream from TheInterpretation of Dreams
Poor freud. Everybody’s dismantling his theoretical castles these days,and now a pair of eminent sleep physiologists, armed with microelectrodes,EEG machines, and pseudoneurotransmitters, are demystifying the dream.
One might nitpick about the correct decoding of certain dream speci-mens in The Interpretation, of course, or about Freud’s knee-jerk responsesto towers and caves, but never, never about the central sacrament, thedream’s meaning. Until now. To Harvard’s J. Allan Hobson and RobertW. McCarley, two high priests of modern sleep research, dreams are justa glitzy sideshow, not the main act.
Hobson, who studied with Michel Jouvet in France, and his colleagueMcCarley co-direct the Neurophysiology Laboratory at the MassachusettsMental Health Center. The dreams they «analyze,» in a basement labo-ratory in Boston’s Back Bay, are the dreams of cats. It is a long way fromthe Viennese boudoirs of Freud’s rambling neurasthenics. From a micro-electrode in a sleeping cat’s brain, the firings of a single neuron can beheard crackling over an audio-amplifier like a bad car radio. Hobson andMcCarley inject microscopic drops of chemicals and change the neuron’sfiring rate. They have their fingers, in short, on the on/off switch for dreams.
The REM on-switch, or «dream state generator,» is the concertedactivity of a collection of cells in the pons (bridge) of the brain stem. Unlikethe parochial neurons of the cortex, these pontine neurons are gangly giantswith long-distance fibers reaching all the way from the top of the spinalcolumn to the neocortex. By secreting a neurotransmitter called acetyl-choline, they «wake up» the sleeping cortex and produce dreams. As forthe off-switch, that’s controlled by a part of the brain stem called the locuscoeruleus. The locus coeruleus cells make the chemical norepinephrine andautomatically inhibit REM. Together, these two reciprocal systems gen-
erate cycles of REM sleep in the human brain every ninety minutes of thenight. (In the cat, the cycle takes thirty minutes; in the rat, twelve.) Likegenies out of the The Arabian Nights, Hobson and McCarley have managedto conjure dreams (or at least the right electrical correlates in a cat brain)with a drug that mimics acetylcholine. And they turn them off again,plunging the animal into dreamless, non-REM sleep, with a drug that actslike norepinephrine.
But, Professor, how can these feline brain waves tell us anything aboutthe interpretation of dreams?
In late 1977 Hobson and McCarley took on this psychoanalytic sacredcow in an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry. After all, wasn’tFreudian dream theory based on the outmoded, turn-of-the-century neu-rophysiological model? Although they stop short of saying that dreams aremeaningless, Hobson and McCarley push psychic motives to the backburner:
Freud believed that the dreaming sleep state (D) and dreaming were initiated andpowered by the combination of the day residue (certain memories of the day) withthe energy contained in a repressed unconscious wish. … It can now be categor-ically stated that there is no experimental support for Freud’s theory . . .
Freud could not have known . . . that neurons are elements of a signalingnetwork, that neurons have their own metabolic sources of energy and influenceone another by the transmission of small amounts of energy. Freud . . . believedthat all neural energy was entirely derived from outside the brain, chiefly from. . . instincts. Neurons acted as passive conduits and storage vessels for this en-ergy.
In short, Freud was wrong, say Hobson and McCarley. Dreams arepowered by the spontaneous firing of neurons, not by repressed libidoenergy. Even dream content sometimes has less to do with veiled Oedipalwishes or castration panic than with purely neural events. Take the commonnightmare of being chased. That can be explained by the physiologicalparadox that motor commands are given during REM sleep, but the im-mobilized dreamer is powerless to obey them. If you should feel paralyzedor dream of running in slow motion through a field of thick oatmeal aftera train that keeps receding, you now know why. (When the motor-inhibitingparts of the pons are removed, cats actually act out their dreams. Theyrun, chase dream mice, and arch their backs in a facsimile of attack.)
Why are dreams so distorted, fragmented, and fantastic? Freud saidthat in our dreams we revisit a psychic Jurassic Age, prehistoric, irrational,garbled, full of fabulous monsters. «Condensation,» «displacement,» andsymbol formation, according to Freud, are the dream’s way of disguisingthe forbidden wishes of the dreamer. Hobson and McCarley have a simpler
The Deinterpretation of Dreams • 295
explanation: The brain, like a fairytale princess lost in a haunted Schwarz-wald, is faced with the task of weaving together a lot of contradictory andnonsensical information. Some of our senses, like vision and sound, arevery active in REM, while others—pain, taste, and smell—hardly functionat all. Our limbs don’t move when the brain tells them to. The sudden,uncoordinated eye movements of REM may make the dreamworld movein odd ways, so that we dream of floating on a magic carpet over anundulating landscape.
In analyzing hundreds of dream reports compiled by Cincinnati dreamresearcher Milton Kramer, McCarley pursued correspondences betweendream content and neurophysiology. One thing he observed was the curioustendency of dreams to truncate, dissolve, or shift suddenly in midstream.Freud explained this as the dreamer’s attempt to elude the unpleasant andthe taboo, but McCarley thinks the normal cycles of neuronal activationare responsible. One group of cells simply runs its course—and voila!—abrand-new dreamscape.
While McCarley and Hobson allow that dreams still make nice «phys-iological Rorschach tests,» they think you shouldn’t overinterpret them.As Freud himself once said, «Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.» Andsometimes a flying-carpet ride over Machu Picchu is just an ephemeralshadow show scripted by the neurons in the pons. «Even in dreams,»Hobson concludes, «the mind and the brain are one.»
It is an impressive picture: the slumbering cat in a little glass box, thewaves and troughs on the sea-green oscilloscope, the electric cackle of thebrain’s tiniest components. But it cannot strike anyone as a complete theoryof dreams. What about the rich sepia interiors of «Irma,» «Herr M.,» andthe other turn-of-the-century analysands? Do we find the dream’s «soul»in a cat’s intracerebral chatter any more than we can relate Proustianmemory to the conditioned reflexes of Aplysia californical
Gordon Globus, of the University of California at Irvine, would sayno. But then he left the technological miracles of sleep physiology aboutten years ago for the pure domain of «existential psychiatry,» which hepractices at Capistrano-by-the-Sea Hospital, a place that looks a lot likeits name.
To get there (from Los Angeles) you don’t so much drive as get sweptsouth by the straight, seventy-mile-an-hour current of the San Diego Free-way. Past the sprawling industrial badlands between Long Beach and theinterior, past a dozen or more luminous green exit signs for overnightcondo havens—always called Something-Vista or Something-Mar; thoughusually there’s neither a «mar» nor a «vista» in sight. Finally, just as Irvinevanishes behind you, an exit in the middle of nowhere announces «Pacific
Coast Highway» and fifteen minutes later, you’re there. The sudden ap-parition of palms and ocean, a new marina with its perfect crescent ofSpanish Mission-style stores and seafood restaurants feels curiously like adream, a movie set, or maybe a mural in a mall. Nearby, atop a littlewindswept, eucalyptus-fragrant hill overlooking the whole shimmering Pa-cific Ocean is Dr. Globus’s hangout.
«I was a psychophysiologist for many years,» he tells us with the be-mused detachment of someone recalling a previous incarnation. He is mid-fortyish, intense, reserved, with an academic’s manner of pronouncing hisideas slowly and as if in perfect paragraphs, so that the listener can endup with legible class notes. «I was interested in dreams, sleep-cycle phys-iology, biological rhythms. But my talents aren’t suited to the lab. I’m notvery compulsive. I was spending all my time at the computer center pro-gramming statistics, when what I was really interested in was consciousness.So as soon as I got tenure I gave up my laboratory.»
Isn’t neurophysiology a route to consciousness? we ask him.
«Most bench scientists, who are studying at the neurochemical level,the cellular level, the single-unit level, don’t care about consciousness,»he says. «That level of investigation is so molecular that consciousnessdoesn’t make a difference. It’s only at higher levels of the nervous systemthat consciousness matters.
«What brain science has done in my career is amazing. That’s wherethe Nobel prizes lie, not in molecular biology any more. However, allyou’re really finding out is correlates. We know that certain consciousprocesses co-vary with the amplitude and latency of the P300 wave of theevoked potential, for instance. This principle of psychoneural covari-ance»—we imagine the invisible student underlining the italicized phrase—»is a good place to begin in trying to solve the mind/brain problem. Byitself, though, it doesn’t prove any particular theory. It’s compatible withidentity theory, with crass materialism, with dualism, with parallelism, withanything. …»
The mind/brain problem is to Gordon Globus what the pole star is toa sailor: the fixed point of his cerebral navigational system. Over the years,as he approached it first from one angle and then from another, the solutionhas sometimes hovered just above the horizon—only to recede, or, by acurious philosophical parallax, to shift with the position of the observer.But Globus is a patient man. He is, he tells us, prepared to devote hislifetime to solving it.
. Not long ago he had a dream. On the
The Infinite Library surface ft wasn,t particularly remarkable—
or at least it had none of the phantasmagoric, topsy-turvy, now-you-see-
it, now-you-don’t quality of many dreams—but it became the centerpieceof an abstruse paper called «The Causal Theory of Perception: A Critiqueand Revision through Reflection on Dreams.» Here is the simple, crys-talline dream fragment that concealed a radical metaphysics:
/ am swimming out of the ocean into a rocky grotto. I gaze up, andagainst the dark vaulted ceiling I perceive a starry display of luxuriant, green,luminous growth, which I experience with some feeling of pleasurable awe.
For Freud dreams were composed of second-hand stuff, memory tracesand «day residues,» all decomposed and rearranged. The new compositemight seem original, but each of its elements harked back inevitably tosome real-world impression, however obscure and fleeting. Vivisecting oneof his own dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud theorized:
What I did was to adopt the procedure … of family portraits: namely by projectingtwo images on to a single plate, so that certain features common to both areemphasized, while those which fail to fit in with one another cancel one anotherout and are indistinct in the picture. In my dream about my uncle the fair beardemerged prominently from a face which belonged to two people and which wasconsequently blurred.
Globus doesn’t think dream perception works that way at all. True, hecould track a few of his dream’s details to daytime impressions. The daybefore he’d been «gazing ruefully» at his swimming pool, envisioning aPlexiglas half-dome that would cover half of it, and that memory mightaccount for the bare outlines of the grotto’s shape. For the vegetation onthe dream-grotto’s ceiling he could summon up a more remote memory:»I once unexpectedly came upon a place where water very slowly seepedinto a small niche in the face of a rocky cliff. It was filled with a fantasticand beautiful luminous display of green slimy growth of all kinds.» How-ever, these «family resemblances,» failed to explain his dream. «Freud’sconception,» he observes, «is that the dream object concatenates propertiesof previously experienced objects and averages across them. But the grottoof my dream is not a patchwork assemblage or collage of the dome andseep or a blurry average. …» Globus hadn’t even seen the Plexiglas dome,for that matter, only imagined it: It was an abstraction, immaculate ofsensory input. Furthermore, he’d never gone swimming in a grotto in hislife. Yet the world of the dream was totally convincing, compelling, andreal—at least to the dreamer, Globus thinks: «Not only does the dreamself feel like my usual self, but the dreamworld also seems entirely au-thentic. The rocky dream grotto appears just as real as if I were ‘actually’swimming in such a grotto. Even if I were to fly like a bird, it would still
seem like ‘my’ world I was seeing (from a bird’s-eye view). . . . Thus, mydream experience is both authentic and novel.»
The dreamworld a la Globus is not a pale, lunar reflection of wakinglife; nor are dream objects poor, flimsy, hand-me-down versions of pastsensory messages. Although day residues may influence dream images, thedream is a totally original creation.
And here’s the radical corollary: Waking perception is not fundamen-tally different. Once you suspend the question of whether anything existsor not (in philosophical lingo, that’s called bracketing existence), you findthat the dreamworld and «real world» have the same ontological status.Globus writes:
It must be remembered that there are strong biological grounds for supposing thatperception utilizes comparable mechanisms across waking and dreaming. It is bi-ologically absurd to hold that evolution would abruptly bifurcate into two distinctforms with distinct mechanisms at its very pinnacle—human consciousness. . . .(As Freud . . . indicates, dreaming is but a special form of waking thinking, takingplace under the peculiar conditions of sleep.)
Basically Globus argues against the commonsense notion that sensoryinput is a message from external reality—that the tree in your head is acopy (maybe an imperfect or transmuted copy, but a copy nonetheless) ofthe tree outside it. For Descartes, the simple tree message was carried tothe pineal gland and then to consciousness. Though we now know thatperception is far more complex, that the brain subjects each message toelaborate analysis and computation, most scientists still believe that whena sensory message finally reaches consciousness its basic order is preserved.(Hubel and Wiesel’s model of visual perception is a case in point.)
Globus’s perception of perception is an extreme departure: «There isno message received from the external reality,» he asserts. «Instead amodel of reality is created de novo» To explain what he’s getting at (it’sa long way from the glass beakers and micropipettes we’re used to), here’sa partial record of our conversation:
we: You’ve said that you’re an «identity theorist.» Do you mean that themind’s operations boil down to workings of the physical brain?
globus: Yes. Otherwise you’re stuck with dualism—two different sub-stances, which would be impossible. But it has taken me ten years tounderstand identity theory. It’s much more radical than people think.Naive realism, you know, is the doctrine that what you see now is areality that you directly perceive. It’s the traditional, commonsenseview: As much as your brain might transform, analyze, or compare thesensory input, the original message is retained. Perceptual order con-serves input order.
The Infinite Library • 299
But any neuroscientist knows that couldn’t be true. The world yousee is a representation. If you follow that to its logical conclusion, youhave the existential dilemma of Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan,where Don Juan tells Carlos that we’re all enclosed in a «bubble ofperception.» That’s what’s really radical about identity theory. Al-though it seems you and I share this world here now, strict identitytheory says we are totally isolated, that each of us individually constructsthis world. . . .
we: So we’re all locked inside our separate skulls, experiencing the worldonly indirectly through the filter of our senses—or, worse, perceivingtotal chimera?
globus: That’s the loneliness of the journey to Ixtlan. Don Genaro dis-covers that the people he had always seen as warm, flesh-and-bloodhumans are but apparitions. The other person is an apparition, a con-struction.
we: Is there any way I can tell that you are not an apparition?globus: No, there is no empirical way to know. Reality is a distant thing,
which we know only by inference. What you’re doing, what your brain
is doing, is telling a good, comprehensive story.
we: Is that what a neuroscientist does—construct a «good story» aboutthe brain?
globus: Yes, that’s why the phenomenologists, like [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty and Husserl, rejected science—because they rejected the com-monsense view. The scientist was just reading a meter or something.Husserl was after transcendental, absolutely certain knowledge, notempirical knowledge. But he was working with an impoverished con-ception of the brain.
we: You’re not in favor of ignoring the physical apparatus?
globus: No. If you’re going to solve the mind/brain problem—and I thinkit’s a solvable problem—you have to think about the brain the way abrain scientist does in order to make any headway. But if you’re goingto translate between brain and consciousness, you also need a modelof consciousness, and neuroscience has a very impoverished one. Someof the best definitions of consciousness come from the phenomenolo-gists.
we: How do you think about consciousness?
globus: Well, Walter Weimer [a mind/body theorist from PennsylvaniaState University] says, «The organism is a theory of its environment.»That’s a koan, it’s beautiful. In my terms the organism is an abstract
classification system. By that I mean it has a program, a set of rulesfor taking input and generating the life-world, the objects we see.
we: How do we know there is anything out there at all?
globus: Brain scientists tend to be realists—antimetaphysical. Is there aworld out there? Well, that’s just an assumption. It would be intolerableif it weren’t, though. I’m interested in nice theories—that’s a Californiaterm, as in «Have a nice day»—and a nice theory postulates existence.My theory says that all the worlds we might perceive exist a priori inthe brain. The world we see now is selected from this infinite a prioristore. How do you get a particular «book» out of this infinite library?Well, there’s input from the senses. The input is classified by the brainand it provides a selection signal, a rule of explication; it picks a par-ticular book out of the infinite library. But all the books are alreadythere. They’re built in genetically. From moment to moment we gen-erate the world. When we fall asleep it goes away.
we: That brings us to dreams. How does your theory of perception account
for dream phenomena?globus: Well, it explains why the dreaming world is infinitely creative.
The dreaming mechanism selects out of that infinite library worlds we’ve
never seen before, whole new created worlds.
we: Say I took a spaceship to the planet Remulak, twenty-four light-yearsaway, where the scenery resembles nothing whatever on Earth. Doesyour theory predict that I would be able to perceive this entirely foreignreality by selecting certain pictures out of the infinite store in my brain?
globus: Yes, and that’s what you do in your dreams. It’s an extremelymystical notion. If it’s all there a priori—or at least the mechanismsfor constituting it are—that means that from moment to moment weuphold the world we see.
. ,. As neurophysiology, Globus’s theory is
a bit threadbare—or at least science has yet
Bishop Berkeley to invent. the instrument that could detect
his abstract perceptual «mechanisms.» (One
suspects he’s not that interested in down-and-dirty neuroscience, anyway.)
His metaphysics, on the other hand, take us right to the nerve center of
an age-old philosophical conundrum.
«He’s dreaming now,» said Tweedledee. «Andwhat do you think he’s dreaming about?»Alice said, «Nobody can guess that.»
Alice Meets Bishop Berkeley • 301
«Why, about you!» Tweedledee exclaimed,clapping his hands triumphantly. «And if he leftoff dreaming about you, where do you supposeyou’d be?»
«Where I am now, of course,» said Alice.
«Not you!» Tweedledee retorted contemp-tuously. «You’d be nowhere. Why you’re only asort of thing in his dream!»
«If that there King was to wake,» addedTweedledum, «you’d go out—bang!—just like acandle!»
«I shouldn’t!» Alice exclaimed indignantly.»Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream,what are you, I should like to know?»
«Ditto,» said Tweedledum. . . .
«I am real!» said Alice, and began to cry.
—LEWIS CARROLL,
Through the Looking Glass
The Red King’s dream is a metaphysical hall of mirrors. Alice, beinga seven-and-a-half-year-old pragmatist, adopts the commonsense, «naive-realist» position: «I am real!» She accepts everything she perceives, in-cluding the snoring Red King, as solid objects in a solid world. She «knows»herself to be a real, sentient being named Alice—just as Descartes knewhimself as a thinking «I.» Tweedledee and Tweedledum, on the other hand,are disciples of Bishop Berkeley, to whom all material phenomena wereonly «sorts of things» in the mind of God, the Big Dreamer Upstairs.
Alice’s plight is that nothing she can do, not even her «real,» saltytears, can get her out of her painful existential position. She is, she’sinformed, a figment in the Red King’s dream, and no one can prove oth-erwise. Furthermore, the entire looking-glass universe—the King, Tweed-ledee and Tweedledum, and the dream-character Alice included—existsin a dream of Alice’s. (Hence her retort: «If I’m only a sort of thing . . .what are you, I’d like to know?») In the looking-glass tale, the questionof who-dreamed-whom reverberates forever.
«A sort of infinite regress is involved here in the parallel dreams ofAlice and the Red King,» the philosopher/mathematician Martin Gardinerwrites in his annotated Alice in Wonderland. «Alice dreams of the King,who is dreaming of Alice, who is dreaming of the King and so on, liketwo mirrors facing each other, or that preposterous cartoon of Saul Stein-berg’s in which a fat lady paints a picture of a thin lady who is painting apicture of the fat lady who is painting a picture of the thin lady, and so ondeeper into the two canvases.»
Oh, come on, you say (for you’re a commonsense realist), this is a
302 • Chuang-tzu and the Butterfly: Dreams and Reality
game for world-weary philosophers. I know I exist, and there’s a worldout there that we all agree exists, and everybody—except perhaps poorAunt Sadie who went off her rocker twenty years ago and has been gettingvalentines from Henry VIII ever since—knows the difference betweendreams and reality. If I crash into a real door I get a bump on my head,but a dream door may be so insubstantial I can slip through it like a ghost.Besides, my dream is my own private cosmos, whereas you and I and thegardener all see that the lawn needs weeding.
Yes, as Stephen LaBerge’s oneironauts attest, there are clear and pal-pable differences between a dream (wherein you can fly and tamper withtime and space) and «reality,» with its crude, ineluctable physical laws.But consider the dilemma of Chuang-tzu, the Chinese philosopher (a con-temporary of Plato) who dreamed of being a butterfly, and then awokeand asked himself, «Am I a man dreaming I’m a butterfly, or a butterflydreaming I’m a man?» Chuang-tzu, like Alice, was faced with the possibilitythat ordinary, waking life, not the dream, might be the unreal interlude.This happens to be a doctrine that the Senoi people of Malaysia, who putmore stock in dreams than «real life,» take as an article of faith. Manycultures view dreams as a separate reality, parallel to our normal wakingworld, in which one may commune with gods, spirits, and departed ances-tors.
Okay, you reply, but what about the fact we all perceive the same worldwhile awake? Actually, we don’t necessarily experience exactly the sameworld (your «blue» and my «blue» may be quite different), but we doagree about enough of its physical features to construct a consistent «story.»So far, so good. But we’re still left with the unsettling possibility that thiswhole physical universe, from the strange celestial objects called blackholes down to the equally bizarre quarks, is a grand, collective «dream.»
Maybe we perceive it as we do only because the brain of Homo sapiensis built that way. Recall how Ron Siegel attributed the similarity of allnear-death visions to the neural wiring common to humans: By the sametoken, couldn’t we also dismiss «reality» as a mass hallucination? Maybea God-brain, or a differently evolved extraterrestrial brain, would «con-struct» a different universe. If Dr. Lilly’s dolphins can ever tell us howtheir world works, would it or would it not resemble our own?
Border Stations:The Near-Death Experience
I remember reaching the hospital entrance andthem dragging me out of the car. That’s when Istarted going out. … I remember them saying,’He’s had a heart attack.’ During this stage, mywhole life flashed in front of my face . . . likewhen we got married . . . flashed and it was gone.. . . That’s when I went into a tunnel. … At theend of the tunnel was a glowing light. It lookedlike an orange—uh, you seen the sunset in theafternoon?
—Cardiac arrest victim, interviewed by
michael sabom, m.d., in Recollec-
tions of Death.
IN 1976, when he was in his first year of cardiology at the University ofFlorida in Gainesville, Dr. Michael Sabom was conversant enough withdeath. No gaunt, apocalyptic horsemen, of course; death and near-deathvisited routinely, if dramatically, in the form of «Code Blues,» or «Code99s,» hospital-intercom distress calls for a patient in extremis. Doctors,nurses, and technicians would rush through the halls with defibrillators,oxygen, injections of lidocaine, and the other paraphernalia of modernmedical resurrection, and quite often the patient was snatched from clinicaldeath, or something very close to it. Being so invested in high-tech life-saving, it did not occur to Dr. Sabom to wonder about the fate of thosewho did not return.
During that year a friend introduced Sabom to the book Life After Lifeby Dr. Raymond Moody, the first popular account of the near-death ex-perience (NDE), published in 1975. Dr. Moody had talked to people whohad been at death’s door and who returned with rapturous tales of the»afterlife.» They told him of dark tunnels and ethereal golden lights, tech-nicolor life flashbacks, and visions of their own lifeless bodies being workedover by doctors. There were also rendezvous with departed relatives, heav-enly landscapes complete with biblical characters in robes, and an eventualre-descent into the body—all of which was much too «far-out» for the
303
skeptical cardiologist to swallow. «I thought Moody’s claims were ridicu-lous,» Sabom recalls. But since resuscitation-from-near-death was part ofhis business, he decided to query patients informally about any peculiarexperiences they might have had on the life-death border. He certainlydidn’t expect to hear anything Moodyesque.
The third patient he approached was a middle-aged Tampa housewifewho’d passed through several near-death crises and was in the hospital forroutine tests. The cardiologist slipped in a question about her experienceswhile unconscious. «As soon as she was convinced that I was not an un-derground psychiatrist posing as a cardiologist,» he recalls, «she begandescribing the first near-death experience I had heard in my medical career.To my utter amazement, the details matched the descriptions in Life AfterLife. I was even more impressed by her sincerity and the deep personalsignificance her experience had had for her.» He decided to do some NDEresearch in earnest. Five years and 116 interviews later, he published hisown startling findings in a book, Recollections of Death: A Medical Inves-tigation.
Before we tell you the details, you should know what a life-after-deathchapter is doing in a book about the brain. So let’s go back to our originalquestion: Is the mind (consciousness) in the brain? To the average neu-roscientific bench-worker that’s like asking whether the earth is round. Toconceive of mental activity outside a working brain is to regress to the levelof medieval spirits, pallid ghosts in the machine, everything science hasworked so hard to exorcise from the rational universe. But what if thepsyche could detach itself from its physical container—even for a moment—and continue to see, hear, reason, and remember? If that were so, wewould have to conclude that brains are unnecessary, a notion that violatesevery axiom of brain science. No wonder neuroscientists queried aboutNDEs tend to mention the National Enquirer.
You’ve seen the headlines: New Proof Of Life After Death, rightnext to Amazing Arthritis Cure and I Was Held Hostage On AUFO. At the time Sabom tackled it, the NDE was hardly respectable.Medical textbooks mention the phenomenon, when they mention it at all,in chapters on «Psychiatric Complications.» The rare NDE descriptionsthat Sabom came across were lodged among paragraphs on «severe per-sonality decompensation,» «acute brain syndrome,» and «other psychiatricreactions.» In 1961 a parapsychologist named Karlis Osis published a col-lection of deathbed visions, most of which came from doctors’ and nurses’retrospective reports, and no one paid much attention. In the early 1970sDr. Elisabeth Kiibler-Ross, of death-and-dying fame, lectured passionately
Border Stations: The Near-Death Experience • 305
on the subject, claiming to have interviewed hundreds of NDE veterans,but her statistics remained vague. The scientific establishment was notimpressed by Moody’s best-sellers, either, though the physician gets creditfor coining the term near-death experience and for cataloging the commonpattern of experiences: the feeling of overwhelming serenity, floating outof one’s body, moving through a darkness (often a tunnel), perceiving awarm light, encountering a «being of light» or some supernatural presence,entering a beautiful supramundane «world,» meeting dead relatives, andso on.
Later, more systematic studies corroborated the classic Moody NDEand brought a bit of scientific rigor to a field that was, at best, anecdotaland fraught with strong religious overtones. Psychologist Kenneth Ring,of the University of Connecticut, for example, collected and analyzedhundreds of NDEs over a six-year period using standardized statisticalmethods. Among other accomplishments, Ring codified the «core» featuresof the NDE—tunnel, brilliant light, out-of-body travel, panoramic lifeflashbacks—that were first observed by Moody. Other scientists, such asUCLA’s Ronald Siegel and even Sloan Kettering’s Dr. Lewis Thomas,added weight to the field by offering physical explanations for the NDE.
But it was Dr. Sabom who attacked the NDE head-on. Moody’s sta-tistical vagaries and lack of objectivity had disturbed Sabom. How manyof Moody’s subjects had the full NDE with all the prototypical features,he wondered? And how typical were these people anyway? Were they justplain folks, or weirdos? Had they really been clinically dead? Were theirrecollections real or fabricated?
Sabom’s methods were more scrupulous. He approached a randomsample of patients who had survived a brush with death (three-quartershad been in cardiac arrest) without tipping them off to the purpose of hisinquiries. He tracked down the medical records and culled only those NDEsthat occurred during a true near-death crisis («any bodily state that causedphysical unconsciousness and that could reasonably be expected to resultin irreversible biological death» without medical intervention). He col-lected data on the patients’ socioeconomic, educational, and religious back-grounds to determine whether any of these factors had a bearing on theNDE.
To his surprise fully 40 percent of his patients remembered their «deaths»in lucid and often wondrous detail. A third of them recalled floating abovethe operating table, hospital bed, or scene of the accident where the tem-porarily discarded body lay. Half reported close encounters with beautifullights, unearthly landscapes, and other transcendent phenomena. Many
had both the autoscopic, or «self-visualizing,» experience and the tran-scendent part. Even more remarkably, dyed-in-the-wool atheists were justas likely to have NDEs as born-again Christians—although the pious moreoften communed with a biblical God, the nonbelievers with a «warm pres-ence» or a holy light.
. . n ,. But sabom’s real coup was to focus on
Autoscopic Realism the one element of the NDE that unhke m
flashbacks and scenes in heaven, might actually be tested empirically: theautoscopic experience.
He began his investigation with the «Code Blues,» those modern-dayLazaruses revived from cardiac arrest in the ordered, antiseptic world ofthe hospital—where detailed medical records were filed. «I anxiously awaitedthe moment when a patient would claim that he had ‘seen’ what hadhappened in his room during his own resuscitation,» Sabom recalls. «Iintended to pit my experience as a trained cardiologist against the professedvisual recollections of laypersons. I was convinced that obvious inconsis-tencies would appear that would reduce these purported visual observationsto no more than an ‘educated guess.’ » He was wrong.
«Mr. P» was a fifty-two-year-old security guard who went into cardiacarrest in a Florida hospital. He blacked out for a moment, he told Sabom,and when he came to, there was his body below him, curled up like a fetuson the black-and-white tile of the emergency room floor. With an oddsense of detachment, he went on observing the scene from ceiling level,as several people placed his body on a gurney and wheeled it down thehall to another room, where it was hooked up to a strange machine and»thumped.» Here is a portion of the interview, recorded in Recollectionsof Death:
mr. p: I thought they had given my body too much voltage. Man, my body
jumped about two feet off the table. . . .sabom: From where you were, could you see the monitor?mr. p: It was like an oscilloscope. Just a faint white line, running with a
little fuzz dropping down to the bottom. . . .sabom: Where did they put those paddles on your chest?mr. p: Well, they weren’t paddles, Doctor. They were round disks with a
handle on them. No paddles. They put one up here, I think it was
larger than the other one, and they put one down here.sabom: Did they do anything to your chest before they put those things
on your chest?
Autoscopic Realism • 307
mr. p: They put a needle in me. I thought at the time it looked like oneof these Aztec rituals where they take the virgin’s heart out. They tookit two-handed—I thought that was very unusual—and shoved it intomy chest like that. He took the heel of his hand and his thumb andshot it home. I thought that was very unusual.
sabom: Did they do anything else to your chest before they shocked you?
mr. p: Not then, but the other doctor, when they first threw me up on thetable, struck me. And I mean he really whacked the hell out of me.He came back with his fist from way behind his head and he hit meright in the center of my chest. And then they were pushing on mychest like artificial respiration, not exactly like that but kinda like ar-tificial respiration. They shoved a plastic tube like you put in an oilcan, they shoved that in my mouth. . . .
This account of the minutiae of cardiopulmonary resuscitation was re-markably accurate in all its details, Sabom noted, including «the propersequence in which this technique is performed—that is, chest thump, ex-ternal cardiac massage, air-way insertion, administration of medicationsand defibrillation.» (The defibrillator is the machine that «thumped» thepatient’s body with electricity, jolting it two feet off the table.) And thiswas a man, Sabom discovered, who’d never even seen a CPR scene ontelevision. It was his first heart attack, so he was no veteran of the cardiacwards. «At no time did I find any indication that he possessed more thana layman’s knowledge of medicine,» reports the cardiologist, who thor-oughly examined his subjects on this score. «I was particularly struck byhis reaction to my inadvertent use of the word paddle to describe theinstrument that is held on a patient’s chest during electrical defibrilla-tion . . . ,» he comments. «The man demonstrated his unfamiliarity withthe term and with the resuscitation technique by his response: They weren’tpaddles, Doctor. They were round discs with a handle on them.'» Ofcourse, the patient would not have known the medical nomenclature forthe strange round discs he saw.
Mr. P. was one of thirty-two patients who claimed to have witnessedtheir own resuscitation from above and whose reports squared with doctors’accounts—down to the color of an oxygen mask, the number of shocksadministered to the chest, and the serious or trivial conversations of doctorsand nurses. But could some chronic cardiac patients simply have fantasizedrealistic autoscopic «recollections» on the basis of prior knowledge of re-suscitation techniques? To find out, Sabom asked twenty-three long-termcardiac patients to give a detailed account of the resuscitation procedure.Twenty of them made major errors.
Patients who traveled out of their bodies during surgery described suchgritty details as the placement of clamps and sponges, the appearance oftheir exposed organs, and the doctors’ remarks: «It seems Dr. C. did mosteverything from the left side,» reported a fifty-two-year-old man of hisopen-heart surgery. «He cut pieces of my heart off. . . . They even lookedat some of the arteries and veins and there was a big discussion on whetherthey should do the bypass up here. . . . All but one doctor had scuffs tiedaround his shoes, and this joker had on white shoes which had blood allover them.» A forty-two-year-old woman who suffered cardiac arrest dur-ing back surgery recalled the scene thus: » ‘Arresting,’ I think he said,’arresting.’ He said, ‘Close’ and all of sudden they started pulling out clampsreal fast out of my back and closing up my skin. I was still down close tothe operation and they started sewing up from the bottom. They weresewing up so fast that when they got up to the top there was a gaping pieceof skin on my back. I was really annoyed. … I was thinking: I could havedone better than that.»
Okay, but maybe these «dying» patients were
~°J y really semiconscious, and maybe everything
Perception. they supposedly saw autoscopically was no
more than ordinary sense perception: frag-ments of overheard conversations or scenes glimpsed through half-closedeyes. That’s one of the standard theories, and for obvious reasons, itremains more palatable to the medical mind than the disturbingly para-normal alternative of a patient ejecting from his body, in full possessionof his faculties, like James Bond bailing out of one of his sportscars. Butconsider the case of Mr. S, a retired air force pilot who during a cardiacarrest in 1973 coolly observed every step of his resuscitation, including theintricate movements of the defibrillator’s gauges.
In the operating room, Mr. S. was lying on his back, the oxygen maskobstructing his vision. Even so, he remembered the hospital personnelpulling over the cart with the defibrillator and the shape and details of itsmeter. («It was square and had two needles on there, one fixed and onewhich moved.») Mr. S. also described how the fixed needle «moved eachtime they punched the thing and somebody was messing with it.»
Mr. S. is Sabom’s star witness. As far as the cardiologist could deter-mine, even if Mr. S. had been partially conscious, he could not have seenthe defibrillator—still less, the needles on its meter—from the position hisphysical body was in at the time. An oxygen mask covered his face and
The Big Secret • 309
the defibrillator machine was located out of his visual range, yet his re-portage was rigorously correct. «I was particularly fascinated by his de-scription of a ‘fixed’ needle and a ‘moving’ needle on the face of thedefibrillator as it was being charged with electricity,» Sabom notes. «Thischarging procedure is only performed immediately prior to defibrillation,since once charged, this machine poses a serious electrical hazard. . . .Moreover, meters of [this] type … are not found on more recent defi-brillator models, but were in common use in 1973, at the time of his cardiacarrest.»
The man said he had never seen a working defibrillator before, andSabom had no cause to doubt him. Despite his materialist-reductionisttraining, the cardiologist was forced to conclude that Mr. S. must havewitnessed his temporary death from an out-of-body vantage point. «I couldn’tpinpoint the position where I had been,» said S., «but it was almost likeI was in an amphitheater, and I was observing. I was at the foot of thebed to either side. … I could have walked around or whatever. I wasfree to do whatever I wanted, move around, watch what was goingon »
z?c Mr. S.’s supreme indifference to the grave
° physical facts was typical of the autoscopic
scene, during which patients felt like disinterested bystanders watching aremote movie or a scene in a play. As one patient put it, it was «like beingup in a balcony looking down and watching all this and feeling very de-tached as though I was watching someone else.» In this incorporeal statethere was no pain: «That’s when Dr. A. began to do the pounding on thechest,» a patient reported, «and it didn’t hurt even though it cracked arib. …» Nor was there any death anxiety: «I knew I was going to beperfectly safe, whether my body died or not.»
But indifference to physical realities was rarely accompanied by phil-osophical or emotional indifference. Most near-death survivors, Sabomreports, were deeply moved by their walk on the weird side:
That was the most beautiful instant in the whole world when I came out of thatbody! … I can’t imagine anything in the world or out of the world that couldanywhere compare. Even the most beautiful moments of life would not compareto what I was experiencing. —Fifty-five-year-old heart attack patient at the AtlantaV.A. Medical Center
I feel it was God, and it was a very religious experience for me. —Thirty-seven-year-old woman relating the NDE she had at age fourteen
I think once you’ve penetrated the big secret just a bit like I did, it’s enough toconvince you, enough to convince me that I’m going to have no fear…. I don’t think God wanted me to die. … He wanted me to get a peek intothis big secret and shoved me right back again. —Heart-attack victim
Not all of Sabom’s subjects met a Sunday-school Jesus or becameovertly religious during an NDE, but virtually all of them returned withan unshakable belief in postmortem survival. («Before I had this experienceI figured when you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s all. I believe now thatyour spirit does leave your body.») And this foretaste of the hereafter, ifthat is what it was, had definite aftereffects. «For the NDE survivor, lifein the here-and-now became more precious, more meaningful,» Sabomtells us. «Some people even took on jobs where they could help othersstruggling with the fact of death. And these profound psychological changescan last for years. We interviewed some people who had an NDE thirtyor forty years ago and still professed no fear of death.»
«Dying,» he adds, «may not be the universal ‘horror and agony’ manyof us were brought up to believe. All the people I interviewed recalled theoverall experience as pleasant, though some were temporarily afraid orbewildered during the moving-through-the-void phase, and some felt re-morse at the thought of the loved ones they were leaving.» Sometimes thenagging memory of unfinished business, children left behind, et cetera,played a part in the person’s «decision» to return. «At that time,» saidone typical patient, «I thought about my family and all and I said, ‘Maisie,I better go back.’ It was just as if I went back and got into my body.»
. ,. The «transcendent» NDEs in Sabom’s
Londos in Faradise samp\e included a broad spectrum of oth-
erworldy environments, ranging from a children’s illustrated New Testa-ment-style heaven and «the Sea of Galilee» to realms of «cottony clouds,»radiant pastures, and landscapes full of people «of all different nationalities… all working on their arts and crafts.» None of these small eternitiesresembled a damnation scene out of Hieronymus Bosch or even a garden-variety Baptist hell, which must have come as a great relief to some. Hereis what two of Sabom’s subjects saw in the Beyond:
I went out the window. I guess you’ve flown an airplane into the clouds when thesun shone on it? All it was was a bright light that got brighter and brighter but itdidn’t hurt your eyes.
Just as clear and plain the Lord came and stood and held his hands out for me…. He was tall with his hands out and he had all white on, like he had a white
robe on. . . . It [the face] was more beautiful than anything you’ve ever seen. Hisface was beautiful, really and truly beautiful.
«It’s very interesting,» Ronald Siegel, the hallucination master of UCLA,tells us with a knowing smile. «In the afterlife the loved ones are alwaysfully clothed, looking just the way we remember them from the familyalbum. . . .
«I hardly believe they’re going to be fully clothed on the Other Side,if there is an Other Side, or that they’re not going to show any physicalchanges. You know, we’ve had descriptions of golf courses, even condo-miniums, in the afterlife.» He pauses to savor the joke. «What we’relooking at,» he continues, «is the projection of your own internal imagesonto the outside. It’s your own projector, your mind, which is generatingthese images. I don’t think we have to postulate a lot of untestable con-structs like the hereafter. We can explain it all by the well-known disso-ciative properties of hallucination.»
With his silver-tongued skepticism and his impeccable credentials as aconnoisseur of altered states, Siegel has emerged lately as a high prophetamong NDE nonbelievers. Not that he is a lone debunker. His view thatthe so-called near-death experience is an unholy marriage of wish fulfill-ment, superstition, and hallucination is still the basic scientific doctrine.Freud declared that the belief in immortality is a pathetic attempt to denythe terrible reality of physical annihilation, and Siegel wouldn’t disagree.»The most logical guess,» he wrote in a paper, «The Psychology of LifeAfter Death,» published in American Psychologist in late 1980, «is thatconsciousness shares the same fate as that of the corpse. Surprisingly thiscommonsense view is not the prevalent one, and a majority of humankindrejects [it].»
Indeed, it does, to judge by George Gallup, Jr.’s recent poll of 1,500people, 70 percent of whom said they believed in life after death. (Thesurvey also revealed the extraordinary statistic that some eight millionAmerican adults have probably experienced a textbook NDE with all themind-boggling trimmings.) But to Siegel, the 70 percent are no less deludedfor being a majority, and the happy hereafter is a psychological talisman,a teddy bear for grown-ups afraid of the existential darkness. And Homosapiens isn’t the only superstitious animal. Even elephants, he tells us, burytheir dead comrades with fruit, flowers, and other little memento mori, asif they too believed in life everlasting. He also likes to point out that thepeople interviewed by Moody, Sabom, and other NDE researchers weren’treally dead. «No one has died and come back to give an interview on the’Johnny Carson Show,’ » he says.
Here Siegel is attacking a straw man. Except for Kiibler-Ross, who didnot endear herself to serious scientists by saying she knew «beyond ashadow of a doubt» that there was life after death, the NDE fraternitycarefully avoids this claim. «My research does not prove life after death,»Michael Sabom tells us. «The people I studied were near death, not deadand resurrected. My study suggests that the physical brain and the non-physical ‘mind’ are distinct and that they may split apart somehow in theprocess of dying. Otherwise how can we explain accurate out-of-the-bodyperceptions? Whether this immaterial ‘mind’ persists beyond ultimate bi-ological death, however, is purely speculative.»
So leaving the immortality of the soul out of the picture, let’s focus onthe rest of Siegel’s argument. His best case against the NDE’s validity isits family resemblance to the hallucinatory states he has cataloged so ex-haustively. Tunnels, bright lights, the sensation of floating out of one’sbody, luminous extraterrestrial landscapes, celestial guides, ineffable peace,and all the other NDE phenomena, he points out, are also commonplacelandmarks of drug trips. For example, listen to two Moody subjects de-scribing the passing-through-the-tunnel experience:
I found myself in a tunnel—a tunnel of concentric circles … [a] spiraling tunnel.
I felt like I was riding on a roller-coaster train at an amusement park, going throughthis tunnel at a tremendous speed.
And here are two of Siegel’s subjects narrating their psychedelic jour-neys, as reported in his 1980 article «The Psychology of Life After Death»:
I’m moving through some kind of train tube. There are all sorts of lights and colors.
It’s sort of like a tube, like, I sort of feel . . . that I’m at the bottom of the tubelooking up.
If the NDE people saw wondrous lights, so did the UCLA hallucinators:
And it seems like I’m getting closer and closer to the sun, it’s very white . . . andthere’s like a geometric network or lattice in the distance.
Panoramic life reviews? Supernatural beings? Heavenly scenes? Siegelcan find those in the annals of drug intoxication, too. And if you want asensational out-of-body trip, try this one, which Siegel culled from the drugaficionado magazine High Times:
My mind left my body and apparently went to what some describe as the ‘secondstate.’ I felt I was in a huge, well-lit room in front of a massive throne draped inlush red velvet. I saw nothing else but felt the presence of higher intelligence
Condos in Paradise • 313
tapping my mind of every experience and impression I had gathered. I begged tobe released, to return to my body. It was terrifying. Finally I blacked out andslowly came to in the recovery room. That’s my ketamine experience.
Ketamine, a superpotent hallucinogen related to angel dust, simulatesthe classic near-death experience extremely well, Siegel claims. «This thingof floating above one’s body and looking down is a very common disso-ciative phenomenon,» he tells us. Not just drugs like ketamine, but sensorydeprivation, extreme fear, and other mind-altering states can also dislodgethe «mind» from the body, NDE-fashion. As you might have guessed,Siegel reads in the core features of the NDE no more than the old universalgrammar of human hallucination.
«We’ve studied a group of hostages and also a group of people whoclaim to have been abducted by a UFO,» he tells us. «The phenomenologyof their experiences—the visions of the inside of the craft, of floating outof their bodies down a corridor or tunnel into a well-lit room where theyare examined—is structurally identical to the so-called NDE.»
One of the key arguments for the NDE’s reality is its uniformity. Grade-school dropouts and college graduates, red-clay walk-with-me-Jesus Chris-tian fundamentalists, Orthodox Jews and free-thinkers, men, women, smallchildren, people of every demographic shape and size float disembodiedamong tunnels and beautiful lights, and so on. To this Siegel retorts, «NDEbelievers are naive about hallucination. They think hallucinations are quirky,variable, individual, but hallucinations are not variable.»
Remember the perceptual-release theory of hallucination, the imageof the man looking out his window at nightfall with the fire stoked up inthe background? Applying it to life-after-death experiences, picture thedaylight of sensory input fading at the moment of death, while the «interiorillumination» (central-nervous-system arousal) keeps shining. In this state,says Siegel, «images originating within the rooms of the brain» are per-ceived as if they came from outside. «Like a mirage that shows a magnif-icent city on a desolate expanse of ocean or desert,» he notes in a burstof lyricism, «the images of hallucinations are actually reflected images ofobjects located elsewhere.»
What exactly causes the brain of a dying (or almost-dying) person tohallucinate? Here are Siegel’s hypotheses: «Phosphenes, visual sensationsarising from the discharge of neurons in the structure of the eyes,» couldcreate such phantasmagoria. So might the shutdown of physical sensorysystems at the hour of death, which would certainly qualify as an extremesensory-deprivation state. Other factors like oxygen deprivation (hypoxia),neural overexcitation, medications like morphine, or the progressive death
of organs could also turn the patient’s consciousness inward toward miragesof heaven. Then, of course, there’s the psychological phenomenon of de-personalization, which is the ego’s way of distancing itself from a reallybad scene. But whatever the exact neural mechanism, Siegel is convincedthat the so-called NDE is hallucination pure and simple and «just isn’t anexperience of the afterlife.
«When the Book of John tells us,» he concludes, » ‘In my Father’shouse there are many mansions,’ or when the Apache tells us, There aremany tents in the camps of the dead,’ there are probably no more mansionsand tents than there are images of those structures in our own brains.»
But Seriously, Folks. . . A Review of theStandard Medical»Explanations»
• Psychodynamic explanations: The NDE is a psychological defense usedby the freaked-out ego to deny death. According to this school ofthought, the «illusion» of viewing the death scene dispassionately fromoutside the body is an extreme case of dissociation, or depersonaliza-tion. «Depersonalization is a frequent reaction to life-threatening dan-ger,» says Russell Noyes, a psychiatrist at the University of Iowa:»It alerts the organism to its threatening environment while hiding po-tentially disorganizing emotions in check. As a psychological mechan-ism it defends the endangered personality against the threat ofdeath. . . .»
To this Michael Sabom replies that the death anxiety/depersonalizationtheory would require the patient to perceive the threat of death. There-fore, it fails to explain why patients who suffered Stokes-Adams at-tacks—in which the heart stops without warning, producing a suddenloss of consciousness—had full-fledged NDEs.
There is also a logical flaw here. Death anxiety, denial, wish ful-fillment, and other psychodynamic bogeymen may well hover aroundthe near-deathbed, but none of these explanations tells us anythingabout the reality or unreality of the NDE. «There are compelling psy-chodynamic explanations for a person’s belief in God,» says MenningerClinic psychiatrist Glenn Gabbard, who has studied the NDE in depth.»These, however, say nothing about whether or not God exists.» Hav-ing surveyed a hefty 339 out-of-body experiences, Gabbard and co-
A Review of the Standard Medical «Explanations» • 315
worker Stuart Twemlow can report that people who leave their bodieshave no greater death anxiety than those who don’t.Semiconsciousness: The NDE voyagers were never really unconsciousand certainly never left their bodies. They merely constructed an ac-curate mental picture of the death-and-resuscitation scene out of con-versations they heard while in a semiconscious state.
That’s what Sabom’s colleagues said when they heard about theNDE, but the cardiologist asserts that this explanation won’t wash. Thesemiconscious perception theory doesn’t fit with the characteristic lu-cidity and visual richness of the autoscopic reports. According to Sa-bom, research has shown that when semiconscious patients overhearconversations, they remember them only aurally, without any accom-panying visions. Moreover, patients who undergo a painful procedurelike defibrillation while in a drug-induced twilight state commonly de-scribe it as «like having everything torn out of your insides.» NDEmemories, in contrast, are blissfully painless.
Hallucinations: Ron Siegel is only one avatar of the hallucination the-ory. Many NDE skeptics have pointed to hospital medications, hypoxia,hypercarbia (a buildup of carbon dioxide in the brain), temporal-lobeseizures, or some combination of the above, as probable triggers. Phy-sician/author Lewis Thomas, among others, has speculated that en-dorphins, the body’s natural opiates, might have a lot to do with thenear-death high.
But if the euphoric, painless state of the NDE was caused by amassive release of endorphins, Sabom retorts, it would last longer thanthe several seconds to several minutes typical of the experience. Theinstant these patients «return» to their bodies, they’re right back in apain-wracked world. Besides, opiates, natural or otherwise, aren’t knownfor producing states of hyperalertness like the autoscopic NDE. Tem-poral-lobe seizures? Not likely, says Sabom: NDE patients don’t ex-perience the feelings of fear, sadness, loneliness, and the perceptualdistortions that the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield recorded among thecommon effects of temporal-lobe epilepsy. Hypoxia? Hypercarbia?Morphine visions? Read on.
«Ron Siegel is totally invested in a reductionist paradigm, and henever supports his theory that the near-death experience comes fromthe same ‘neural status’ as hallucinations,» Menninger’s Glenn Gabbardtells us. «NDEs have occurred in thoroughly oxygenated patientsand in patients with unclouded minds. As a matter of fact, undruggedpatients are more likely to have them.» Other NDE investigators wequeried agreed.
R A T ‘ ^AN A HALLUCINATION theory really ac-
P count for the legions of ordinary people—
the NDE Way 35 t0 40 percent of those who reach death’s
door, according to all the surveys—who notonly have been to the «other side» but will swear up and down that it wasno dream? Could so many people be so deluded?
Well, let’s go back to the ketamine trip quoted by Siegel. «I begged tobe released, to return to my body,» this patient recalled. «It was terrifying.Finally I blacked out and slowly came to in the recovery room.» This terrorresembles nothing we’ve heard about NDEs, which are almost invariablytranquil if not downright ecstatic, according to every single researcher whohas inventoried them. For all the touted resemblances, then, there seemto be some interesting differences between drug hallucinations and NDEs.
«I can honestly say we’ve never run across a negative experience, evenin people who attempted suicide,» says University of Connecticut psy-chologist Kenneth Ring, who has systematically collected and analyzedhundreds of NDEs. Drug hallucinations, in contrast, can often be hellish,grotesque, or just so-so.
Siegel may speak of chemical netherworlds so vivid they appear as realas browsing through Macy’s housewares section, but Ring has his doubts.»I think if Siegel had talked to more people who’d had NDEs he’d reachdifferent conclusions,» he tells us. «Again and again, these people say, ‘Iknow it was real; it really happened.’ When somebody hallucinates, on theother hand, he usually recognizes he’s hallucinating—at least afterwards.»Some of Ring’s NDE veterans had had previous experience with drughallucinations, and they «just laughed» at the idea that the two phenomenawere the same. So did those of Sabom’s patients who had also knownmorphine visions.
Another point: «Most hallucinations,» Ring tells us, «don’t have theprofound psychological aftereffects that the NDE does.» After their littledeath-and-rebirth, Ring’s subjects (like Sabom’s and Moody’s) underwentquasi-conversions, typically becoming «kinder, more compassionate, moretolerant, more spiritual, though not necessarily more religious.»
But if the NDE is not hallucination, fabrication, or fantasy, what is it?Sabom theorizes that during a near-death crisis the mind and brain flyasunder, and the mind goes on doing its thing outside the physical organ.Toward the end of his book he invokes Wilder Penfield’s mind/brain theory(mind as a disembodied pilot, brain as computer) and wonders: «Couldthe ‘separate self in the NDE represent the detached ‘mind,’ which ac-cording to Penfield is capable of experiencing contentment, happiness,love, compassion, and awareness, while the unconscious physical bodyrepresents the remains of the ‘computer’—a lifeless automaton?»
Platonic Dualism Revisited • 317
. Sound familiar? It should. Two millennia
Platonic Dualism before Sabom began accumulating evidence
Revisited 0f minds casting aside their physical vehicles
on operating tables and in intensive-care units,Plato enunciated the doctrine that man’s soul was imprisoned in his bodyin life and delivered from it at death. As a matter of fact, death should bethe philosopher’s finest hour: «For then, and not till then, the soul will beparted from the body and exist in herself alone. . . . And thus having gotrid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse withthe pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is noother than the light of truth.»
Like Plato, the NDE traveler is oblivious to the lowly physical self. «Isaid to myself, ‘Oh, that girl is going to have a tracheotomy,'» one ofRing’s subjects recalled. «It was ‘that girl.’ It wasn’t ‘me.'»
«It is at this moment [during the NDE],» Ring observes, «that we maycome to a realization of who and what we truly are. Death punctures ahole in the tight fabric of the ego, which allows us to slip through in amoment outside of time to experience ourself as infinite perfection.» Whenthis happens, he adds, «we realize in the depths of our own being the truthof Meister Eckhart’s dictum that ‘God is at the center of man.’ »
Natural scientists are not very high on Plato, however, and for goodreason. If all sense impressions are flickering shadows on the walls of acave, and if the «truth» lies in the chaste soul domain, then anything onecan observe through electron microscopes, PET scans, the giant radiodishes at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, or any other mechanical extension of oursenses, is illusory. But scientific truths are derived from empirical obser-vations of the physical universe, of course. To the scientific mind, Plato’sworld of ideas, wherein abstractions such as Beauty float about devoid ofsubstance, is rank nonsense. «Because science deals with concrete entitiesonly, because it acknowledges only properties of such entities rather thanproperties in themselves,» Mario Bunge of McGill University writes in TheMind/Body Problem, «it has no use for properties . . . [that are not prop-erties] of some concrete entity or other, be it atom or neuron, brain orgalaxy.»
And Plato’s dualism poses special problems. If mind and body areseparate, how are they so coordinated that a brain event (such as a stroke)is paired with a simultaneous mental event (such as aphasia)? If the mindis immaterial and autonomous, it should be immune to blows to head,chemicals, surgery, electrical brain stimulation, disease, and so on. But,of course, it’s not. «The only way the dualist can evade this conclusion,»avers Bunge, «is either by ignoring the huge heap of experimental evidenceor by claiming that the brain is governed by an otherworldly spirit.»
T ., . , ^,, , «We know that when people are knocked
Leibniz s Clocks A. . j A-
over the head, they go unconscious, says
Daniel Robinson, a philosophical neuropsychologist from GeorgetownUniversity, who is one of the last of the pure dualists. «So how do weaccount for the remarkable correlation between the mental and the phys-ical? Well, [the seventeenth-century philosopher Gottfried von] Leibnizsaid we must assume that mental life follows its own natural history andso does the physical body. The two run their respective courses in parallel;there’s no interaction between the two but the correlation will be perfect.It’s as though two watches had been synchronously wound. An observerwould say, ‘How remarkable! When one watch moves, the other watchmoves, too,’ and such an observer would be inclined to see a causal re-lationship between the two. Leibniz’s solution, of course, was the GreatClockmaker in the Sky—a ‘pre-established harmony.’ You-Know-Who setthe clocks in motion, and the mere destruction of one clock has no bearingon the other.»
As you might imagine, psychophysical parallelism, or preestablishedharmony, as Leibniz’s theory is known, is not popular in this age of neu-roscientific wonders, when the magenta, pink, and emerald-green patcheson PET-scan or EEG maps are taken for states of mind—schizophrenia,dementia, aphasia. Robinson invokes it only as a last resort, after findingflaws in all the other solutions to the mind/body problem. «When it comesto the affairs of the universe,» he tells us, «I only work here. I don’t knowthe answer. I only know that the answer I find most compelling is pre-posterous on its face.» There’s no question that psychophysical parallelismis unscientific. The cornerstone of the scientific method is causality, butthe doctrine that brain and mind glide along their parallel paths, neverdirectly interacting with each other yet never falling out of step, is basedon an acausal principle: synchronicity.
0 . . . . Synchronicity found an articulate twen-
Synchronicity and the tieth.century partisan in Carl Jung; the psy.
Mlfia chiatrist. In his essay «The Interpretation of
Nature and the Psyche,» he expressly appliesit to the mind/body problem:
We must ask ourselves whether the relation of soul and body can be consideredfrom this angle, that is to say, whether the coordination of psychic and physicalprocesses in a living organism can be understood as a synchronistic phenomenonrather than as a causal relation. Leibniz . . . regarded the coordination of thepsychic and the physical as an act of God, or some principle standing outsideempirical nature.
Synchronicity and the Mind • 319
Guess what Jung’s prime example is? It seems that one of his patientstold him about a remarkable experience she had during childbirth. Herlabor was difficult, complications set in, she lapsed into a coma, and presto:
The next thing she was aware of was that, without feeling her body and its position,she was looking down from a point in the ceiling and could see . . . herself lyingin the bed, deadly pale, with closed eyes. Beside her stood the nurse. The doctorpaced up and down in the room excitedly, and it seemed to her he had lost hishead and didn’t know what to do. . . . Her mother and her husband came in andlooked at her with frightened faces. . . . [Behind her, she saw] «a glorious park-like landscape shining in the brightest colors, and in particular an emerald greenmeadow with short grass, which sloped gently upwards beyond a wrought-iron gateleading into the park and [she knew that] if I turned round to gaze at the picturemore directly, I should feel tempted to go in the gate and thus step out oflife »
Had this woman simply been in a «psychogenic twilight state in whicha split-off part of consciousness continued to function?» Jung wondered.No, by all indications, she had completely blacked out. Yet «she couldobserve actual events in concrete detail with closed eyes. …» How? Ifconscious mental faculties (perceiving, thinking, willing, desiring, and soon) really operate outside the physical brain and its sensory apparatus,we’re stuck with two equally absurd propositions. Either we must suppose,against all neuroscientific evidence, that extremely primitive parts of thenervous system are more conscious than we think. Or we’re stuck with theheresy of dualism.
As for the first possibility: Although «the cortex or cerebrum which isconjectured to be the seat of conscious phenomena» is out cold in a com-atose patient, Jung muses, «the sympathetic system is not paralyzed . . .and could be the possible carrier of psychic functions.» Consider bees, hesays. Their nervous system is very rudimentary, but they perform complexdances to communicate information about food sources—an activity thatwe would call «conscious» if it were carried out by human beings. Maybe,he speculates, there is a «kind of intelligence in lower centers of the brainand nervous systems» after all. Maybe so, but it seems unlikely that thevivid perceptions and thoughts of the NDE are the work of the sympatheticnervous system.
The only other possible explanation, in Jung’s view, is that «the pro-cesses that go on during loss of consciousness are synchronistic phenomena,i.e., events which have no causal connection with organic processes.» Inother words, there is no biological substrate for this peculiar consciousness.
We are accustomed, of course, to operating in a physical universedominated by three despotic rulers—space, time, and causality—so acausal
connections strike us as supernatural or weird. But consider our inneruniverse. As Jung points out, «most psychic contents are non-spatial, andtime and causality are psychically relative,» and he’s right. Thoughts andmemories occupy no space and wander crazily through time, backward aswell as forward. And the whole notion of cause and effect presupposes amind to perceive the connection. Jung suggests that the «fact of a causelessorder, or rather, of meaningful orderedness» may be as valid for mentallife as the stodgy trio of space, time, and causality. «Synchronicity is aphenomenon,» he notes, «that seems to be primarily connected with psychicconditions, that is to say, with processes in the unconscious.»
Maybe the events we interpret as amazing coincidences, extrasensoryperception, or the clairvoyant hunches of Madame Zodiac, are manifes-tations of a fourth law of the universe, synchronicity. These, of course,are phenomena that scientists dismiss as ougabouga stuff, because theycan’t explain them in causal terms. But ours is not the only way of viewingthe universe. As Westerners worship the god of causality, the Chinesemind, for instance, kneels at the altar of chance and coincidence. In hisfamous foreword to the / Ching, the ancient Chinese «Book of Changes,»Jung finds synchronistic order in this game, in which a toss of coins oryarrow stalks is interpreted in the light of sixty-four wise hexagrams.
Just as causality describes the sequence of events, so synchronicity to the Chinesemind deals with the coincidence of events. The causal point of view tells us adramatic story about how D came into existence: it took its origin from C, whichexisted before D, and C in its turn had a father, B, etc. The synchronistic view onthe other hand tries to produce an equally meaningful picture of coincidence. Howdoes it happen that A’, B\ C\ D\ etc., appear all in the same moment and in thesame place? … In the / Ching the only criterion for the validity of synchronicityis the observer’s opinion that the test of the hexagram amounts to a true renderingof his psychic condition.
The flavor of the moment necessarily includes the observer (a particularmind) as well as the thing observed, just as in quantum physics the ex-perimenter’s consciousness is an inextricable part of his experiment. «It isonly the ingrained belief in the sovereign power of causality that createsintellectual difficulties,» says Jung.
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described by mystics from St. Theresa of Avila to Ramakrishna. Bothconditions are characterized by a sense of timelessness, ineffable beautyand serenity, divine lights, and a conviction that earthbound things aremere phantoms (or maya) and that the «real self» is not the physical one.
The Clear Light in Atlanta • 321
Like mystics, NDE returnees commonly undergo profound personalitytransformations, «conversions» of a sort. Is the near-death experience acase of accidental satorP.
That’s how Kenneth Ring sees it. «I think what happens,» he says, «isthat the person is thrust inadvertently, for a brief period of clock time,into a transcendental state of consciousness. It’s like involuntary yoga.Your breathing is interrupted, your sensory systems are shut down. . . .But the difference is that the NDE is accessible to everyone. You don’tneed special training. You don’t need to meditate for twenty years. It’slike the spiritual principle being democratized.»
He tells us about the ancient Egyptian mystery schools, in which seekerswere put into deep hypnotic trances to learn the supreme secret of im-mortality. «If we can believe the accounts, these schools were mysticaltraining programs in which initiates were taught the great secret: that thereis no death. The trainees then were just a handful of people who went onto become the priests or hierophants for the masses. Well, today millionsof people are involuntarily going through the same mystery rites and comingback to say, ‘There is no death. It’s all perfect.’ They’re the initiates. Thehierophants are the doctors who resuscitate them, and the initiation, ofcourse, is the NDE.
«Any explanation of the NDE,» he adds, «is going to have to accountfor transcendental experience in general.»
Thine own consciousness, shining, void, and in-The Clear Light separable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath
ifl Atlanta no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light,
Buddha Amitabha.
—The Tibetan Book of the Dead
As transcendental NDEs go, the Bardo Thodol, which Westernerscall The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is probably the creme de la creme.Basically a traveler’s guide to the after-death realm, or bardo, this text(committed to writing in the eighth century A.D.) was intended to be readinto the ear of the dying person—and then to the corpse—for forty-ninedays to help him sort out the phantasmagoria on the road between deathand the next incarnation. (For Tibetan Buddhists, of course, there is notone death, but innumerable deaths and rebirths.) It begins, very cour-teously, thus:
O nobly-born [so and so], the time hath not come for thee to seek the Path. Thybreathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face before with Clear
322 • Border Stations: The Near-Death Experience
Light; and now thou art about to experience it in its reality in the Bardo state,wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotlessintellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or center. At thismoment, know thyself, and abide in that state.
«It is highly sensible of the Bardo Thodol» writes Jung in a commen-tary, «to make clear to the dead man the primacy of the soul, for that isone thing which life does not make clear to us. We are so hemmed in bythings which jostle and oppress that we never get a chance, in the midstof all these given things, to wonder by whom they are given.» Note thatthe first thing the departed man encounters in the bardo plane is the clear,colorless light of the soul, the same light, perhaps, that was glimpsed bythe patients who «died» and were revived in the cardiac wards of theAtlanta V. A. Hospital. This is the ultimate reality, the Godhead itself,which to the Buddhist takes the form of a Void, and not an anemic-lookingperson wearing a halo and sandals.
The reason we invoke The Tibetan Book of the Dead at this point isthat, in the manner of many an Oriental paradox, it supports both RonSiegel’s theory and the claims of NDE believers. How is that possible?Remember the condos in heaven about which Siegel quite rightly scoffs.How seriously can we take after-life golf courses, Jesus in hippie sandalsand robe, or dear old Aunt Maude still wearing her gingham apron? Siegelmaintains that such images are mental projections, and the Bardo Thodolcouldn’t agree more. After the Clear Light (which is the only reality inthe universe according to this cosmology), the rest of the text is a manualof hallucination. All the other phenomena the dead wayfarer runs into, itplainly states, are apparitions «issuing from the [eastern quarter] of thineown brain.» Before it finds a new womb in which to be reborn, the souldrifts though a series of well-defined bardos populated by serene Buddhas,shades of dead relatives, hungry ghosts, hideous demons, and other phan-tasmagoria. These realms degenerate progressively until, at last, the gro-tesque Lord of Death himself appears, gnashing his teeth. But the guidecounsels the dead man, over and over again, to pay no attention: «Apartfrom one’s own hallucinations,» it insists, «in reality, there are no suchthings existing outside oneself as Lord of Death, or god, or demon, or theBull-headed Spirit of Death. Act so as to recognize this.»
Carl Jung notes, very astutely, that the Bardo Thodol can be readbackward as a handbook for spiritual/psychological progress. Traveled inreverse, its various bardos describe stages of increasing perfection, cul-minating with the Clear Light of spiritual illumination. Perhaps this is itssupreme message.
In any case, the lesson of Bardo Thodol is that the NDE is part reality,
No Answer • 323
part dream. The soul’s survival is real, as is the radiant light. But just asTibetans might hallucinate the «dull red light of the Preta [hungry ghost]world» or the «Greenish-Black Elephant-Headed Big-Nosed Goddess holdingin the hand a big corpse and drinking blood from a skull,» you and I mightwander through Middle-American bardos full of kindly Jesuses, billowycumulus clouds or, yes, even divine golf greens.
«Maybe we make a mistake in thinking thatNo Answer death has t0 be just one thing You might
go to Christian Heaven One-B. I might be reincarnated as a shoehorn,»Arizona State University death-and-dying researcher Robert Kastenbaumtells us. Kastenbaum is basically an agnostic on the NDE issue. He thinksendorphins might explain the experience or that it might be a matter ofswitching from the rational, analytical left hemisphere to the visionary,magical right. But he admits he’s not sure about anything.
The NDE, if it is genuine, raises questions to which there are no an-swers. How could one ever prove (or for that matter, disprove) life afterdeath? Kastenbaum brings up the notion of using electrodes to track thebrain waves of dying animals into the Beyond, but he’s speaking halftongue-in-cheek. And what would EEGs tell us about out-of-body per-ceptions anyway, if such mental states are not tied to brain states? If themind can be uncoupled from the physical apparatus, then the brain is notthe organ of consciousness, and all our neuroscientific know-how tells usit is. Otherwise why spend years mapping opiate receptors, designing bettermind drugs, or hunting for the biological cause of schizophrenia?
Sorry, but we have to leave this chapter without an answer. Perhaps,as the legendary Maine curmudgeon said to the tourist, «You can’t getthere from here.»
«We must consider, at least,» Sabom tells us, «that there may be moreto the human experience than what the nerve cells and chemicals of ourbodies and brains can account for.»
And from Kastenbaum, the man who claims to be sure of nothing, oneprediction. «I will say,» he says, «that somewhere down the pike—andMike Sabom’s work is bringing us closer—there’s going to be a wonderfulcrisis in the minds of scientists.»
God in the Brain:Cleansing the Doors of Perception
I have always found that Angels have the vanityto speak of themselves as the only wise. This theydo with a confident insolence sprouting from sys-tematic reasoning. —william blake
IT WAS NOT your basic Fillmore West, paisley-poster acid trip. Ateleven o’clock one brilliant May morning in 1953, in the Hollywoodhills, Aldous Huxley, the writer/philosopher, swallowed a small whitepill. Half an hour later he became aware of «a slow dance of golden lights»and of «sumptuous red surfaces» swelling, expanding, and vibrating. Afteranother hour, he was lost in contemplation of a small glass vase containinga pink Belle of Portugal rose, a large magenta-and-cream carnation, anda pale purple iris. At breakfast the same arrangement had seemed garishbut now it was a living icon. «I was not looking now at an unusual flowerarrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of hiscreation—the miracle, moment by moment, of creation.»
This transubstantiation had a lot to do with the chemical structure ofmescaline sulfate, as Huxley was well aware. Though he didn’t know thathis incantatory pill was a chemical cousin of the neurotransmitter serotonin,he certainly knew that alterations in various «enzymes» in his brain (anda drop in brain glucose) caused the room to resemble a still life «by Braqueor Juan Gris» and Huxley to perceive «the Dharma Body of the Buddhain the hedge at the bottom of the garden.» He also noticed that his artificialparadise strongly resembled the mystical epiphanies of Meister Eckart, theZen masters, and the enlightened seers of the Bhagavad-Gita. Perhaps theSat Chit Ananda, the Godhead, the Beatific Vision, was available to Every-man in his double-mortgaged duplex with the metal awnings and the im-itation fieldstone veneer.
It wasn’t an entirely new idea. In The Varieties of Religious Experience(1929), the psychologist William James catalogued similarities betweensaintly rhapsodies and the nitrous-oxide visions of a Boston dentist, forexample, and noted that the religious experience did not necessarily have
324
God in the Brain: Cleansing the Doors of Perception • 325
to occur in a Gothic-style building with a stained-glass window. If Huxley’smescaline-transfigured flowers assumed a celestial glow, James would havemethodically filed them alongside Blake’s «world in a grain of sand» andSt. Francis’s conversations with birds. Mystics of all cultures (as well asacid poets merging with the wallpaper) tend to read cosmic truths in themeanest particulars.
«If the doors of perception were cleansed,» William Blake wrote, «theworld would appear to man as it is—infinite.» Borrowing Blake’s phrase,Huxley wrote a classic essay, «The Doors of Perception,» about his mes-caline experiment. In it he suggested that the main function of the humannervous system is to filter out infinity.
Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has happened tohim and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being over-whelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge,by shutting out most [of it]. According to such a theory, each of us is potentiallyMind at Large.
Surely all the information in the universe would overload our circuits.Our brain’s sensory equipment is tuned to rather narrow bandwidths, suchas visual wavelengths between about 375 and 750 nanometers. Other wavesof electromagnetic energy swirl around us all the time, but we don’t seethem. If our senses were more acute, we might hear random movementsof molecules (perhaps this is the Zen «sound of one hand clapping»?) orsee ghostly coronas of UHF waves around TV-transmission towers. Wemight find ourselves in the unendurably bright, cacophanous, and porten-tous world of Norma MacDonald, a Canadian nurse who described herpsychotic break in The Journal of the Canadian Medical Association in1960. On the streets of Toronto she experienced an «exaggerated aware-ness» such that every passerby seemed to bear messages from either Godor Satan. «To feel that the stranger passing on the street knows yourinnermost soul is disconcerting . . . ,» she wrote. «The real or imaginedpoverty and real or imagined unhappiness of hundreds of people I wouldnever meet burdened my soul, and I felt martyred.» In Huxley-like fashion,she imagined that a protective «filter» in her brain had broken down.
«To make biological survival possible,» Huxley concluded in The Doorsof Perception, «Mind at Large has to be filtered through the reducing valveof the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is ameasly trickle of the kind of consciousness that will help us stay alive onthe surface of this particular planet.»
If a person manages to bypass the reducing valve, on the other hand,»all sorts of biologically useless things» can happen, according to Huxley,
such as extrasensory perceptions, spiritual illuminations, a glimpse of «na-ked existence» in all its glory, even perhaps an encounter with the Creatoron the road to Damascus (or Mecca, or Benares, or Peoria).
It was a metaphor when Huxley invoked it. But perhaps there is a real,biological «reducing valve» in the brain, the circumvention of which couldopen the mind to nonordinary realities. In this chapter we’ll explore somepossibilities.
tu J? 1 J? A ‘ ^HE NOTION ^at «normal» consciousness is
1 he Real Reducing a wan illusion? a paltry slice of life? is a mys.
Valve tical commonplace. According to the mys-
tics, most of us view the world «through aglass darkly» (St. Paul), «through a narrow chink» (Blake) and, like Plato’scave dwellers, mistake flickering shadows for real things. «The Atman [thesoul] is the light; the light is covered by darkness,» says the Bhagavad-Gita, the gospel of Hinduism. «This darkness is delusion; that is why wedream.» Reality, with a capital R, lies beyond the world-of-appearancesthat Eastern texts call may a (illusion) and we call «real life.»
«Our brain defines how much reality is let in,» says Candace Pert.»Reality is like a rainbow or like the electromagnetic spectrum. Eachcreature is a finely evolved machine built to detect the electromagneticenergy most useful for its survival. Humans can see the part of the spectrumbetween infrared and ultraviolet, while bees can see up through severalshades of ultraviolet.»
But it isn’t just the receptors in our skin and nostrils, the rods andcones in our retina, the minute cilia in our ears, that restrict Mind at Largeto a utilitarian trickle. What matters more is how we interpret and edit theincoming messages. Human gray matter, after all, is 90 percent interpre-tation equipment, 90 percent storyteller. «The cortex,» says Francis Crick,the master of the double helix, who now practices neuroscience at the SalkInstitute in La Jolla, California, «is a machine looking for correlations. Itspends most of its time talking to itself.»
When our brain cells talk to one another, they use a chemical code,which can turn to gibberish if even one chemical messenger is missing oroverabundant. When brain cells are starved of acetylcholine, a persondevelops Alzheimer’s dementia and forgets his wife’s name. A brain bom-barded with dopamine may hallucinate. To say that neurochemicals colorreality is an understatement. But for the moment let’s focus on the en-dorphins, our internal opiates.
«We’re developing the concept that the opiate system filters input from
The Real Reducing Valve • 327
every sense—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—and places it in anemotional context,» says Pert. «Through our natural opiate system wescreen signals from the environment. The brain’s criteria for selecting whatto pay attention to and what to ignore are not ones that you and I madeup last week. They’re standards our ancestors worked out about a millionyears ago. They have to do with survival, and with pleasure or pain.»
In Pert’s opinion, the internal opiate system is a dead ringer for Huxley’shypothetical reducing valve. «If Huxley were alive today, his mind wouldbe blown,» she muses. «He’d probably be a pharmacologist.» If it is true,as T. S. Eliot remarked, that «humankind cannot bear very much reality,»endorphins may reduce reality to bearable levels. They are our naturaldefense against physical pain, for one thing. Even before the discovery ofendorphins and their receptors, scientists spoke of «opiate gates» regulatingthe flow of pain impulses through the nervous system. But what of emo-tional pain, esthetic or spiritual pain, the soulsickness of Eliot’s Wasteland,the mechanical amours of the typist and the «young man carbuncular»?In Chapter 3 we saw that endorphins soothed freaked-out baby animalsafter they were separated from their mothers. And there’s an ancienthuman tradition of escaping from a too-grim world into a narcotic fog,into heroin, morphine, or opium. A series of experiments at the NIMHsuggests that endorphins do, in fact, buffer some people against too muchreality.
Some schizophrenics are extremely insensitive to pain—you could usetheir hands as pincushions and never evoke a wince—and unreactive toother sensory stimuli, as well. Several years ago psychiatrist Monte Buchs-baum, then at the NIMH, measured such patients’ brain-wave responsesto electrical shocks and auditory signals and found these EEGs to beabnormally flat, especially at higher levels of intensity. He concluded thata subgroup of schizophrenics were «reducers» (as opposed to «augmen-ted»), that their brains naturally reduced, or dampened, sensory stimuli.When he gave the «reducers» naltrexone, an opiate-blocking drug, theirEEGs became almost normal. The implication was that endorphins werefiltering environmental messages on the way to consciousness. Then Buchs-baum noticed something else: Schizophrenics who were «reducers» weremore likely to get well than those who weren’t. «If schizophrenics are ableto ‘turn off with internal opiates,» he tells us, «perhaps it’s an adaptiveresponse to their illness.» Perhaps endorphins dull emotional as well asphysical pain.
What does this tell us about the nature of reality? Do we glimpse onlythe narrow spectrum of Mind at Large that our chemicals select as im-portant and miss everything else? As Pert puts it, «We don’t even know
if there is a world out there. The first pages of Hume say it all. If a treefalls in a forest and nobody’s there. …»
But the opiate system is not the only candidate for the real reducingvalve.
Daiju visited the master Baso in China.The Pharmacological Baso asked: «What do you seek?»Bridge to God «Enlightenment,» replied Daiju.
«You have your own treasure house.Why do you seek outside?»
—Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Nearly fifty years ago, a Swiss chemist tinkering with derivatives ofan ergot grain fungus synthesized something called lysergic acid diethylam-ide, or LSD-25. It had no apparent effect on laboratory animals and didn’tinterest him much. But five years later, in 1943, Albert Hofmann returnedto his creation and accidentally absorbed a little of the powder, whereuponhe fell into an unusually vivid daydream among his beakers and pipettes.Several days later he took what he thought was a tiny experimental dose,.25 milligram, and when the funhouse images in his head made workimpossible, he bicycled home. As he watched the staid streets of Baselmetamorphose into the phantasmagoric shapes of a Grimms’ fairy tale,Hofmann marveled, as scientists still marvel, that a quarter of a milligramof anything could so transform reality.
Years later the peculiar djinn of LSD was traced to its chemical resem-blance to serotonin, which plays a largely inhibitory role in the brain. Byplugging up the serotonin receptors and thereby removing inhibition frommany brain structures, hallucinogens such as LSD and mescaline unlockthe mind’s secret gardens, for better or worse. Or so the prevailing theorygoes. «Hallucinogens alter what seems important or trivial,» says Stanfordpsychiatrist Philip Berger. «LSD does exactly that. It opens up the part ofthe brain that confers significance on things.»
Sometimes the significance is such as to constitute a religious experi-ence, as the father of LSD himself discovered. «To see the flowers in myown garden is to see all the mystical wonder of creation,» said Hofmann.»You don’t have to go to India to see it.» Alan Watts, the philosopher,took LSD-25 at San Francisco’s Langley Porter Clinic in 1959. «In thecourse of two experiments,» he recounted in Does It Matter?: Essays onMan’s Relation to Materiality, «I was amazed and somewhat embarrassedto find myself going through states of consciousness which correspondedprecisely with every description of major mystical experiences I had everread.» What LSD told Watts was that «you yourself are the eternal energy
of the universe playing hide-and-go-seek (on and off) with itself. At root,you are the Godhead, for God is all there is.»
This might sound like blasphemy to the average «Phil Donahue Show»audience. Indeed, in early times, many people were roasted alive for less.Our Judeo-Christian heritage has no good translation of samadhi or satori,Watts noted, «because our own Jewish and Christian theologies will notaccept the idea that man’s inmost self can be identical with the Godhead,even though Christians may insist this was true in the unique instance ofJesus Christ.» The Judeo-Christian God is monarchical, a «King of Kings»up in his remote Delft-blue dome, encircled by adoring choirs of cherubim,seraphim, powers, dominions, principalities, angels, and archangels. Attimes He has been more approachable, making deals with prophets andsending His only son to Earth, but mostly He (and He is a He) is far aboveus.
Not so the God of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, and theesoteric Christian and Jewish traditions. Divinity may assume the shapeof many-armed gods and goddesses; it may answer to the name of Allah,Jehovah, Krishna, Brahman, Buddha, or I-am-that-I-am; but, in the wordsof the Katha Upanishad: «The Supreme Person, of the size of the thumb,dwells forever in the heart of all beings.» Eastern religions consider everyhuman being a God-in-embryo, a potential Christ or Buddha, which is themeaning behind one of the fundamental credos of Hinduism, Tat TvamAsi, or «That art thou.»
While the God-within has not always been popular with ecclesiasticalcouncils, it is the true mystical God. The Way of the Pilgrim says: «Every-where, wherever you may find yourself, you can set up an altar to God inyour mind by means of prayer.» Meister Eckhart declared: «My soul ismy kingdom . . . and this kingdom is greater than any kingdom on earth.»St. Paul preached, «Not I, but Christ in me.» And, finally, Jesus himselfis quoted as saying, «The kingdom of heaven is within.»
Is the kingdom of heaven within the brain? So says Arnold Mandell,the iconoclastic neuro-philosopher of the University of California at SanDiego: «William James, the great turn-of-the-century psychologist, foundthat the transcendental experience was the same wherever he examinedit,» he notes, «and its most commonly invoked source, God, was actuallyin the brain.» But where? In an unorthodox paper called «God in theBrain: Toward a Psychobiology of Transcendence,» Mandell proposed ananswer that owes something to LSD, which Hofmann called his «problemchild,» and something to a disease called temporal-lobe epilepsy.
Temporal-lobe seizures are known to trigger deja-vu and jamais-vu,dreamy «fugue states,» ineffable cosmic insights, strange islands in the
memory stream. There are even cases of «clinical mysticism,» accordingto Karl Pribram. «A lesion in the temporal lobe near the amygdala canproduce something akin to mysticism,» he tells us. «There is a disruptionin self-awareness. There is a kind of consciousness-without-content, likethe oceanic consciousness of the mystical state. The distinction betweenthe self and the other disappears.»
As a man in the embrace of his loving wife knowsnothing that is without, nothing that is within, soman in union with the Self knows nothing that iswithout, nothing that is within.
—Bridhadaranyaka Upanishad
Between seizures some temporal-lobe epileptics experience long-lastingbeatific states, permanent personality changes, even religious conversions,according to Mandell. St. Paul’s conversion may have been a case in point.Another temporal-lobe saint, Mandell thinks, was Fyodor Dostoevski, aknown epileptic, who ascribed to his characters states of grace that resembleclassic temporal-lobe epilepsy. When a flash of light goes off in his mind,the epileptic Prince Myshkin of The Idiot, for example, savors an immortalsecond, «the very second which was not long enough for the water to bespilt out of Mahomet’s pitcher, though the prophet had time to gaze at allthe habitations of Allah.» This sort of timelessness, in which the historyof the universe contracts into the blink of an eye or a second dilates intoeternity, is typical of the mystical state. Are all mystics undiagnosed tem-poral-lobe epileptics then?
No, but Mandell thinks mystical revelations spring from a similar brainstate.
Epilepsy is the result of a process called «kindling,» in which nervesignals are amplified exponentially, causing a raging electrical storm in partof the brain. In temporal-lobe epilepsy the storm spreads over the temporallobe and underlying limbic structures, particularly the hippocampus. Or-dinarily, says Mandell, the hippocampal cells are inhibited by serotonin.But if the brain is deprived of serotonin, they fire in an overexcited,kindlinglike fashion.
So one route to God in the brain might be to repress brain serotonin,which, of course, is precisely what hallucinogens do. No wonder that thesedrugs have been dubbed a «pharmacological bridge to transcendence»;that mescaline awakens a «benign empathy» with «inanimate and livingthings, especially small things,» according to California pharmacologistAlexander Shulgin, an independent drug designer; that Albert Hofmann,and many latter-day acid prophets, found God in less than a milligram.
The Pharmacological Bridge to God • 331
Arnold J. Mandell, M.D.: After a «nightmare season,» a mid-life crisis, and apsychic metamorphosis, he has a different outlook on the brain. (Courtesy ofUniversity of California, San Diego)
But how exactly does tampering with brain serotonin levels produce tran-scendental consciousness?
Mandell’s hypothesis is this: The hippocampus is a meeting place be-tween two different circuits, one from the external world via the sensesand the other from inside the organism. One job of this sea-horse-shapedstructure is to adjust moods and emotions to incoming information fromthe environment. When «lightning» strikes the hippocampus, however,this reality check is gone. Internal reality and external reality fly out ofsync, and the inner experience predominates. «The Bhagavad-Gita suggeststhat transcendent consciousness is associated with ‘detachment’ from theobjects of desire,» Mandell notes, and synchronous, epilepticlike brainwaves in the hippocampus of monkeys have been associated with a declinein social bonding and sexual interest. Is this the «neurological substrate»of holy detachment?
Of course, Lao-tzu, St. Theresa, and the Buddha weren’t smoking funnyherbs. There are other ways to dampen serotonin activity, including mar-athon running and meditation, according to Mandell. Perhaps the world’sgreat mystics have done it with prayer, fasting, repetitive chanting, thesensory deprivation of monastic life, or by some completely unknown means.
The consequence, in Mandell’s words: «William James called it a ‘mys-tical experience’; St. Paul called it ‘the peace that passeth understanding’;Thomas Merton, the ‘transcendental unconscious’; . . . Lao-tzu, ‘the ab-solute Tao’; Zen Buddhism, ‘satori’; Yogis, ‘samadhi’; St. John of theCross, ‘living flame.'» And so on through Blake and Brother Lawrenceto Plotinus, Gopi Krishna, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
That’s what Mandell used to think anyway.Anatomy of a Today, in the wake of his own conversion—
Conversion or series 0f conversions—he sees the formula
for God in terms less pharmacologic. Whenwe visit him at the U. C. San Diego campus, he reflects, «Hallucinogensdid contribute to a religious revival. They let thirty or forty million Amer-icans into a place that only fourteen Arabs in the desert ever knew about.There is a close physiological relationship between the primary religiousexperience and hallucinogens. But the context changes it. Fifty thousandof you got lost in the hills. You have twenty thousand kids in Santa Cruzwho can’t find the bathroom. Topology [the mathematical science of forms]tells you why the context is more important than the content.»
These days Mandell jogs on the beach in a T-shirt ensloganed:BOUNDED CHAOTIC MIXING PRODUCES STRANGE STABIL-ITY. The motto—which must mystify the surfers at Del Mar and Laguna—comes from chaotic dynamics, a far-out branch of mathematical physicsthat is Mandell’s current obsession. What it means, he says, is that «youhave more stability if you surrender to God.» Mandell himself surrenderedto God in the early 1980s, at a local charismatic Christian church. But thatcame after an epic midlife crisis, which «on another level was a religiousconversion, though I didn’t recognize it at the time.»
Before his conversion, Mandell was founding chairman of UCSD’spsychiatry department, a post he attained as a workaholic wunderkind ofthirty-five. He lived in a fancy apartment on the La Jolla coast, the SouthernCalifornia Riviera, drove a Lincoln Continental, and by his own accountslived out a competitive, grant-grubbing scientific success story. Then camelegal troubles, a divorce, a heart attack, a nervous breakdown, and a desertof the soul. One of the events that shattered his old life was a scandalinvolving the San Diego Chargers football team. In 1975 the Chargers’head coach had hired Mandell to investigate the psychological factors be-hind the team’s erratic ups and downs. The psychiatrist stumbled on whathe called «The Sunday Syndrome»—massive amphetamine abuse. To keepthem away from dirty street drugs, Mandell (as he later testified) wrote
Anatomy of a Conversion • 333
amphetamine prescriptions for some veteran users, an action that wouldcome to haunt him. He wrote a book, The Nightmare Season, allegingwidespread amphetamine abuse in the National Football League, and whenit came out in 1976, all hell broke loose. A year later an administrativejudge found Mandell guilty of «clearly excessive prescribing of a dangerousdrug» and placed him on five years’ probation. Though he later won onappeal, the psychiatrist lost his chairmanship.
Waking up in a plastic-tent-covered bed in the coronary unit to themuted hum of the heart monitors and the steady drip-drip of IV bottles,the former boy wonder confronted the psychic badlands beyond «Darwin’sclimactic hill of fighting and fucking.» He had thoughts that put him in thepsychiatric unit for a while. At one point Arnold Mandell, M.D., meta-morphosed into an alter ego called Dr. Sam Shambhala, a self-describedshaman, whose emergence is chronicled in a remarkable 1978 autobiog-raphy, Coming of Middle Age. The Shambhala persona spoke out of hisDionysian right brain—»Out of a blackened middle brain to the blue-whiteof the upper one. High and Free»—and turned away from the smoothparabolic dose-response curves of the laboratory. He turned away frommechanistic wiring diagrams and Freud’s phallocentric universe. He turnedaway, above all, from his father’s legacy.
Mandell’s father was «a virulent Jewish intellectual,» a rigid taskmasterwho forced his son to practice the piano for hours every day and beratedhim constantly. One day, after one of his father’s tirades, the young ArnoldMandell found a phrenology chart in a book, which prompted the reas-suring revelation that «there were biological forces beyond good and evilthat caused good and evil—maybe it was my forehead.» The brain becamehis religion from then on. He would run rats, figure dose-response curves,and investigate Oedipal complexes to extract its secrets. «It was probablya vicarious religious quest,» he reflects.
But the neuroscience he was taught was «very molecular, determinis-tic.» The brain was «a big piece of machinery,» whose parts certainly didnot answer the most important questions on his mind. One of these ques-tions was: «How does a person change into an entirely different person inan hour? And change forever. You know, some nasty drunk who beatshis wife turns into an elder of the church. The religious conversion phe-nomenon is well documented in the turn-of-the-century psychological lit-erature. It happened to about thirty percent of the population. WilliamJames wrote about it. This is something our modern deterministic biologycan’t account for.»
So Mandell strayed from biological determinism. In the late 1970s, hetook up long-distance running and a mantra. The brain, to which he had
devoted his whole life, began to appear in a different guise, more like aliving cathedral than a box of wires. He dreamed of a new psychophar-macology in which marathon running, psalms, and mantras were the drugs:»Cold, heat, music, overwhelming beauty, simplicity and repetitious dailyroutine, hypnosis, muscle-relaxation training, and short periods of swamp-ing psychological overload are all powerful mutators of the color pool.»He even pioneered an unusual chemoliterary criticism, as in this passagefrom his book.
Amphetamine brings red and sometimes pink, if that brain’s high white comesfrom winning. The quick, flashing prose of Tom Wolfe and the sacking of a quar-terback are in the bag of red. Kerouac was on amphetamine when writing the red,restless prose of On the Road; on pot to make the cool blue sounds of The Sub-terraneans.
Today Mandell does not call himself Dr. Sam Shambhala, but he didnot revert to his old ways either. In 1982 he followed his sons into whatsome might call Jesus freakhood, a movement Mandell himself used toconsider «lunatic fringe, filled with righteous persecutors of liberal causes.»He doesn’t sound like your average Jesus freak, though. He certainlydoesn’t talk like the rapt young man with the broken guitar who had talkedScripture at us the day before on the beach at Venice, a long, ramblingspeech about fornication, the whore of Babylon, and the Book of Daniel.Mandell is more likely to talk about mathematical models of enzyme rates.But in the local talking-in-tongues Christian community he evidently foundan antidote to sterile scientific rationalism.
We ask him if he still believes God is in the brain.
«He’s always been there and he always will be,» he answers. «God isthe essence of the state of bounded mixing. A personality is an interplayof stable and unstable forces. How do you keep your brain from gettingso organized you’re rigid or obsessive, and not so flexible you’re bizarreor hysterical? I think the key is the surrender of the self. The charismaticChristians say, ‘Jesus died for you.’ It’s an exercise in bounded madness.
«In psychoanalysis, you talk about the same event over and over again.It doesn’t get rid of the ego; it glorifies it. I’ve been there; I know. As anorganizing force I think charismatic Christianity is better. I see sick peoplecoping that way. In some ways they look rigid, but inside they’re freaky.They speak in tongues, hear God’s voice, and talk to it.
«I read the New Testament every day—and the Old Testament too. Ihaven’t left Judaism, but Judaism doesn’t have a charismatic movement.I want God to get up and walk around with me, right here and now. Letme see him.»
Heaven and Hell in the Brain • 335
I can hardly clap as some did, Phil, about the fact
Heaven and Hell you’re going to hell.
in the Brain —bob jones hi, president of Bob Jones
University, on the «Phil DonahueShow,» January 20, 1982
Perhaps in some corner of our universe there are sulfurous hells stokedby horned devils with cloven hooves, where bad people go. Perhaps thereare heavens full of saints in pastel robes and angels playing harps. But itseems more likely that these are realms of the mind (or brain).
Long before PET scans and EEG machines were heard of, poets andphilosophers described our inner universe quite well. We could exploreparallels between Dante’s tripartite afterlife—inferno, purgatorio, and par-adiso—and our three-layered brain. We could view mental illnesses asunderworlds, and vice-versa. Seen through Dante’s eyes, the schizophreniaward might resemble the Fifth Circle, where: «There are souls beneaththat water. Fixed in slime/they speak their piece, end it, and start again.»The depressives, futilely circling a piece of their past, again and again,might bring to mind the wan, dolorous shades of the Aeneid. Angels anddemons; muses, sirens, furies, and gods; hells, limbos, purgatories, andparadises; the Garden of Eden and the archetypal Babylon: Don’t theylive inside the brain?
Recall the varied demons and angels uncovered by electrical brainstimulation. If we wanted vivid illustrations of the Oriental concept ofmaya, the world of appearances, we’d need look no farther than to Olds’sfamous «self-stimulating» rats, swimming across moats, navigating complexlabyrinths, even going without food and water for the pleasure of a fewmilliamps of current to the brain. Not to mention the electrode-implantedcats hissing at invisible enemies or running in terror from mice; monkeys»displaying» to shadows; human beings threatening murder under the in-fluence of minute electrical currents. We recognize that the emotions elic-ited by electrodes are mere simulacra, shadows flitting across the walls ofthe brain cave. But are our «real» emotions any less illusory?
The chemical brain, as Pert and others depict it, is a Manichean bat-tlefield of opposites. Valium and anti-Valium, endorphins and SubstanceP, hunger and satiety, heat and cold, love and rage. Our neurochemicalssort all possible experiences into two piles, «Like» and «No Like.» Theircode is relentlessly binary. As Paul MacLean told us, emotions are eitherpleasurable or painful, never neutral. The nervous system could be likenedto a paranoid person who translates all his inputs into a fixed delusionalsystem: «You can’t trust people from New York,» or «Communists aretrying to put fluoride in our water supply.»
Eastern mystical texts preach that the «sweet and bitter fruits of thetree» are alike may a; they are like the laughter and tears in a movie,compelling only so long as we’re inside the darkened theater. God liesoutside the «world of opposites,» heaven and hell, I and thou, subject andobject, and the eternally spinning hamster wheel of pleasure and pain. Toenter this realm beyond duality, one must free oneself from the «addictionsof the senses,» in the words of the Bhagavad-Gita.
tu rw v f If there is one semimystical message of the
lhe Chinks of Brain Age it fa that the universe we se6j
Perception taste? feei} sme\\9 and hear is not the real
universe. As the British neuropsychologist
Richard Gregory puts it, «Brain states represent the world rather as a letter
on a page represents fiction or truth.»
Around the turn of the century, William James, using the bare tools
of introspection, observed in The Principles of Psychology.
There is no reason whatever to think that the gap in Nature between the highestsound-waves and the lowest heat-waves is an abrupt break like that of our sen-sations; or that the difference between violet and ultraviolet rays has anything likethe objective importance subjectively represented by that between light and dark-ness. Out of what is in itself an undistinguishable, swarming continuum, devoid ofdirection or emphasis, our senses make for us, by attending to this motion andignoring that, a world full of contrasts, of strong accents, of abrupt changes, ofpicturesque light and shade.
Too bad James could not have witnessed the brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning experiments of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel. «In the visualsystem,» Hubel reported in Scientific American in 1979, after two decadesof painstaking single-cell mapping expeditions, «. . . it is contrasts andmovements that are important, and most of the first two or three steps [ofvisual processing] is devoted to enhancing the effect of contrast and move-ment.»
Your brain has certain idees fixes about this world. In the late 1950sMIT scientists discovered neurons in the frog brain that fired whenever aconvex object moved across the visual field. The object had to be movingand it had to be the right shape or the cells wouldn’t respond. If a deadfly was dangled in front of a frog’s nose, the animal would ignore it, evenwhen ravenous, but if the string was jiggled slightly, it would stick out itstongue and eat the fly. Such was the discovery of the «bug detectors» withwhich nature has equipped the frog brain.
Then Hubel and Wiesel came along to prove that we, too, come pre-
wired with something like «bug detectors.» (Well, strictly speaking, theirexperiments were conducted on macaque monkeys, but jnven the similarityof the primate visual system, we can safely extrapolate to man.) Boring atiny hole through the skull with a high-speed dental drill, the scientistswould drive a minute electrode, less than a thousandth of an inch in di-ameter, into the monkey’s striate cortex. The striate (or «striped») cortex,on the underside of the occipital lobe, is the primary visual cortex, whereour visual universe is first interpreted. As images were projected to theanimal’s visual field, the electrode would pick up the firing of a single cell.Then Hubel and Wiesel would spear another neuron, and another, listeningto the popping and crackling over a loudspeaker, until they had chartedthe whole striate cortex.
What they discovered were feature detectors, highly specialized cellsthat «recognize» lines or bars with horizontal, vertical, or oblique orien-tations. Rotate the line 10 degrees, and the cell quieted down. Rotate it30 degrees, and it stopped firing altogether. When all the single recordingswere pieced together, the six layers of the striate cortex formed an «intricateedifice of orderly columns,» as Hubel put it. If you pushed an electrodedown through the area you’d find a neat ledger-book column of neuronsthat respond to lines or edges of a particular orientation.
«The brain takes input from the eye and puts it in a preengineeredmachine,» says Francis Crick, who on a chilly November evening in Bal-timore is giving a guided tour of the cortex at a «Mind/Brain» symposiumat Johns Hopkins Medical Center. As he lectures, he waves a pointer atwhat looks to be a serried geological cross section of the earth but is, infact, a cross section of monkey striate cortex. «See, there are clear archi-tectonic differences between the different cortical areas. There are stripes,discontinuities, edges.
«The system is not a general-purpose computer. The brain has beenengineered to do a specific job. Mammals have been looking at the samesort of visual world for a long time, a world that consists of solids withsurfaces. So through natural selection we have evolved some special gad-getry for that.»
That single neurons have preferences and that these mirror the geo-metric features of nature would have gratified Immanuel Kant. Kant saidthat certain «pure concepts,» or «categories,» exist in our brains a priori,before we perceive anything outside us. Space, time, causality, quantity,and certain other concepts are features not of the external world, but ofthe human mind. The ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who was a disciple ofKant, thought that these hereditary notions were comparable to the inborn
instincts of animals. According to Kant, our innate laws of thought foreverprevent human beings from perceiving true reality—the «thing-in-itself,»or Ding-an-sich.
«Perhaps Immanuel Kant was right,» muses Bela Julesz, a prominentpsychophysicist at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, who has uncoveredwhat may be the psychological counterpart of Hubel and Wiesel’s featuredetectors. Julesz set out to unravel the earliest stage of the visual recog-nition process. «We’re like astrophysicists,» he jokes in a Central Europeanaccent in which Rs and Ws are interchangeable. «We asked, What happensin the first seven seconds?» What he turned up were the «quarks of per-ception,» the elemental building blocks of vision. Human beings, he de-termined, are capable of a kind of preconscious, or «preattentive,» seeing,processing an entire visual field in a flash, without scrutiny or consciousattention. The reason, Julesz’s experiments determined, is that the humanbrain is hard-wired to perceive three basic forms, or «textons»: (1) «elon-gated blobs» (rectangles, ellipses, or line segments of particular colors,orientations, lengths and depths); (2) «terminations» (ends of lines orblobs); and (3) «crossings of elongated blobs.»
«How to find a needle in a haystack?» he says. «Well, if the needle isof a different texton from the hay, we can find it very easily.»
The brain, in short, perceives the world in terms of stereotypes, «cat-egories» not so different in principle from those that dictate that «for thefrog a dark, moving convexity must be a fly,» as Daniel Robinson observes.We may look down on the lowly frog in his lily pond, for whom the entirephenomenal universe is an array of buglike forms, but what would a dif-ferently wired alien make of us? «Our experiments show conclusively thatEarthlings are incapable of perceiving uqqwzzzs. When a moving uqqwzzzis dangled in their visual field, they mistake it for a flying saucer.» Ourdoors of perception are tailored to a particular planet with a particulargravitational field, at a particular distance from a particular star. (Unlessthis world is the effect, not the cause, of our particular brain. Perhapsconsciousness created the universe, instead of the other way around.)
«Perception is not direct,» says Karl Pribram. «It is a construction.»In order to see the broken yellow line down the center of the highway orhear the Veteran’s Day marching band, your brain performs complex math-ematical operations on the frequencies coming into it. «When I move myeyes even slightly there’s always a little jiggle in the image on the retina,»Pribram adds. «Yet I perceive the environment as still. Obviously the brainis doing very complicated computations to subtract out the motion andkeep the world still. It’s like what the NASA computers do in the Venusflyby.»
The Chinks of Perception • 339
DEVIL’S TUNING FORK
Figure 9
a
a
a
The image in your head is not a straightforward copy of anything. Palmtrees and Ella Fitzgerald’s high notes are represented in your brain byabstract codes. There are no colors, no sounds, no smells in your neuraltissue. As Vernon Mountcastle puts it, «Sensation is an abstraction, not areplication of the real world.» Your neurons tell a story—usually a good,plausible story—about the world outside. You can witness this yourselfwith a simple experiment:
Study for a minute or two the «devil’s tuning fork» in Figure 9. Nowlook away and draw it.
Not so easy, was it? This tuning fork could not exist in our universe.It is a two-dimensional image containing paradoxical depth clues, likeM. C. Escher’s blatantly impossible staircases. Your brain, however, au-tomatically interprets it as a three-dimensional object and tries to matchthe marks on the page with an internal model of a fork.
Now consider the Necker cube (Figure 10).
Why does the cube flip back and forth from a hollow square to a solidblock? Because, according to the distinguished professor of illusion RichardGregory, the information on the retina isn’t sufficient to allow the brainto frame a single «model.» So it must entertain two rival hypotheses si-multaneously. Such illusions speak to Gregory of the brain’s magical ca-pacity to construct rich worlds out of bare sticks and lines.
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Figure 10
NECKER CUBE
Relativity by M. C. Escher. This lithograph employs reversible perspectives likethat of the Necker cube. Unable to make sense of the paradoxical perspectiveclues, the brain is forced to juggle alternative interpretations of this impossiblebuilding. Such pictures remind us that seeing is not a passive process but «a dynamicsearching for the best interpretation of the available data,» in the words of neu-ropsychologist Richard L. Gregory. We are constantly matching what we see toour internal theories of staircases, buildings, faces, and so on. {Photograph bycourtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C. 20565)
The eminent Cambridge University visual physiologist Kenneth Craikproposed that the brain builds «small-scale models of external reality» andtests them out. At U. C. Berkeley, physiologist Walter Freeman has dis-covered an olfactory «search image» in the rabbit brain that supports thisidea. No doubt you have an internal space-time map of the route betweenyour home and your office. A rabbit has a model of the smell environmentin its brain—specifically, in its «palatial, beautifully organized» olfactorybulb. With advanced multiple-electrode recordings, Freeman managed todecipher the three-dimensional electrical pattern corresponding to a rab-
bit’s «theory» of its world. «The animal has a template in its brain to whichit matches any incoming odor input,» he explains. «This template, or searchimage, is constantly being refined and updated. Smell is actually a processof hypothesis testing.» With every breath it draws, the rabbit revises itstheory of the environment.
Freeman props his heavy work boots on the desk and leans back in hischair, puffing on a cigar. With his grizzled beard, jeans and lumberjackshirt, and his off-the-cuff manner he suggests a mountain man teleportedinexplicably to a university campus. His office, on the ground floor of theLife Sciences Building, has the run-down, cluttered look of a storage roomin a natural history museum. Next to his desk a prehistoric-looking lizard,a dinosaur in miniature, gazes unblinking from a glass terrarium, in stonyreptilian freeze time. A staring contest with a reptile gives you an inklingof where the image of the Medusa came from. Needless to say, WalterFreeman is anything but the eccentric, out-to-pasture naturalist one mightat first mistake him for. «He’s light-years ahead of everybody else; he’sprobably the smartest man in the neurosciences,» one EEG expert tellsus. «His work is so advanced that no one else knows how to do it.» In afield where most scientists count spikes from single cells or chart the volt-ages emanating from two electrodes, we gather that Freeman’s analysis ofthe complex electromagnetic patterns of 64 channels is like a passage fromFinnegan’s Wake inserted into a seventh-grade class discussion on GreatExpectations.
«The brain has this incredible capacity to make images,» he reflects.»It can take random numbers or words and make poems. We’re wired upto make patterns. The essential nature of brain function is to make senseof the mass of raw stuff coming in. The operation I described in the rabbitbrain is a metaphor for how scientists work. When you do an experimentyou’ve got to have a search image, a reason for doing it in the first place.We’re constantly selecting images and looking for them on the outside—in the data. If there’s no discrepancy, we don’t learn anything.»
Turn therefore from your outward senses and doBeyond the Senses not work with them neither within nor outside
yourself. All those who undertake to be spiritualworkers . . . and believe that they should hear,smell or see, taste or feel spiritual things . . .surely are deceived and are working wronglyagainst the course of nature.
—The Cloud of UnknowingSchopenhauer saw that Kant’s a priori categories were equivalent to theHindu/Buddhist may a, the veils of illusion obscuring pure reality. To theWestern mind the a priori forms seem God-given and immutable. Eastern
philosophy, however, insists that one can suspend the Kantian categoriesof three-dimensional space, time, and causality—all of which is just aprojection, anyway. If the senses deceive, the truth seeker would do wellto circumvent them.
«One can look at some religious aphorisms as a form of psychophysicalnoise reduction,» says Charles («Chuck») Honorton, who directs the PrincetonPsychophysical Research Laboratories in New Jersey. «Purity, poverty,contemplation, and so on aren’t just for the sake of piety. These aremethods of removing sensory distractions and increasing mental concen-tration. A good example is Patanjali’s Yogasutras, composed in the secondcentury B.C. in India. All the practices can be seen as systematic noisereduction, which eventually culminates in samadhi, a transcendental statein which the normal boundaries between the self and others disappears.It may not be dissimilar to what people experience on marijuana whenthey find themselves staring at the wallpaper for twenty minutes.»
Sensory deprivation is a common religious practice. One thinks of themonotony of monastery life; of hairshirts, beds of nails, strict dietary laws,and other saintly mortifications; of the solitary mountain caves of holymen. «The tortoise can draw in his legs,» says the Bhagavad-Gita. «Theseer can draw in his senses. I call him illumined.» To withdraw his sensesfrom the world, the anchorite St. Anthony (ca. 250-355 a.d.) went to livein the desert, where (if we believe Brueghel the Younger and GustaveFlaubert) he experienced a carnival of grotesque and beatific hallucinationson the path to God. St. John of the Cross wrote his mystical «SpiritualCanticle» in a solitary prison cell. The Buddha’s enlightenment followeda long arid spell of disenchantment and renunciation.
When John Lilly tested his prototype isolation tank in the 1950s, theelders of the NIMH preached that a brain cut off from all sensory stimuliwould simply «turn off,» like an unplugged appliance. Today this notionof a mechanistic brain powered by external inputs seems astounding, forwe now know that brain cells are spontaneously active, as, for example,during REM sleep, when spontaneous electrical activity in the brain stemgenerates the opulent magic of dreams.
It was, in fact, in a dream lab at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Hospital inthe 1960s that Honorton got his basic training. Reasoning that the «sixthsense,» if it existed, would be more accessible when the ordinary senseswere turned off, Honorton and his fellow researchers tried transmittingtelepathic messages to their dreaming subjects in mid-REM. When a distant»sender» gazed at a photo of the Firpo-Dempsey fight, one subject re-portedly dreamed of Madison Square Garden, according to Honorton.After the dream lab dissolved, Honorton went on to preside over the
Beyond the Senses • 343
computers, psychic video games, brain-wave biofeedback machines, andrandom-number generators of his high-tech parapsychology palace inPrinceton.
«John Eccles argues that the mind is more than the brain, that there’sa nonphysical aspect of mind,» he tells us. «Every time you carry out avolitional act you are literally invoking psychokinesis, mind over matter.From that perspective what we call parapsychological phenomena are thechannels through which mind and brain connect. PK [psychokinesis] is theway the mind acts through the body.
«If Eccles is right, then an act of normal will, such as raising your handto your forehead, should have a psychokinetic correlate that can be mea-sured.»
Indeed, Honorton believes this theory is testable. To detect PK, heuses a psychic geiger counter called a random-number generator (RNG),a box containing a small sample of radioactive material, such as strontium90. At random intervals some of the strontium decays, setting off the geigercounter, which, in turn, signals a computer to display either a one or azero, depending on the time interval between counts. Radioactive decaybeing one of nature’s truly random processes, if a subject can will thecounter to stop at a certain number, this is considered evidence of PK.Anyway, Honorton rigged subjects up to an EEG biofeedback machineas well, and preliminary tests showed that RNG hits were most likely tooccur when a person was «successfully controlling his own brain circuitry.»
«We do have some evidence that is consistent with Eccles, though it’snot conclusive. … I don’t think,» he adds, «that we’re in a position yetto say with authority what is or is not unlikely in the mental domain.»
We are not especially interested in psychic research, which seems atedious business of combing a jungle of variables for «statistically signifi-cant» results, with all the glamour of an H & R Block workbook. We aremore interested in Honorton’s Ganzfeld chamber. The German scientistwho invented this sensory-isolation technique {Ganzfeld means «homog-enized field») immersed his subjects in a uniform, foglike atmosphere.Figuring that the messages bombarding our eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tastebuds might be drowning out the faint small voice of psi, Honorton putshis test psychics in a Ganzfeld chamber to do their thing. We are given aguest pass.
A technician tapes the split halves of a Ping-Pong ball over our eyes,and as bug-eyed extraterrestrials we enter a small, soundproof cubicle.Through our translucent orbs we stare into a rose-colored light. Our earsare encased in headphones, through which a calm taped voice tells us torelax all our muscles in sequence. We count backward, as directed. Then
as swooshing noises—a jetty rocked by the incoming tide? ancient windstrapped in a conch shell?—serenade us, we fall into a vague daydream.
Time dilates. Old memories surface like gaily colored tropical fish. Wedo a random-number test. We become excruciatingly aware of our breath.New York Post headlines flood our mind like ancient curses: Death BidBy Man With No Friends On New Year’s Eve: Heartless CrowdYells «Jump.» We do not hear any celestial voices in this artificial desert,nor do we achieve any of the yogic powers itemized in Patanjali’s sutras,such as, «By making samyama on the relation between the body and theether, or by acquiring through meditation the lightness of cotton fiber, theyogi can fly through the air.» Later, we learn that our psychic ability testsat «significantly below chance,» a score that is sometimes considered evi-dence of «negative psi.» Obviously we are not latent Jeane Dixons.
«There’s a democratic assumption that we’reThe Joan of Arc all at the same levd of consciousnesS5 and
Personality that>s wrong,» says Theodore X. Barber (the
X stands for Xenophon), an eminent hyp-nosis authority and altered-states connoisseur who works at Cushing Hos-pital in Framingham, Massachusetts. «Just recently, we found a group ofpeople who live in a different place all the time, and this has importantimplications for consciousness.» Barber calls these natural visionaries «fan-tasy-prone personalities» (FPPs). The altered states that others use drugs,hypnosis, or long years of yoga or meditation to attain are home base tothem. FPPs comprise about 4 percent of the population, the majority ofthem are female, and, according to Barber’s controlled study, they are nobetter or worse adjusted than the average nonvisionary. They are simplythe Mozarts of introspection, blessed with a remarkable talent.
Seventy-five percent of the fantasy-prone people Barber and colleagueSheryl Wilson studied could reach sexual climax by pure fantasy. All ofthem could weave imaginary scenes «as real as real» in all five senses,mentally touring the Hanging Gardens of Babylon even while carrying oncocktail-party small talk in Fort Lee, New Jersey. As children, they hada menagerie of imaginary playmates, fairies, elves, and guardian angelsand regarded their dolls and toy animals as real, sentient beings withdistinctive personalities. Typically they grew up without TV sets and wereavid readers. They are extremely hypnotizable, vivid dreamers, whizzes atguided imagery, and so easily overwhelmed by LSD and marijuana thatthey give drugs a wide berth.
«You see, it’s all the same state,» says Barber. «They’re hypnotized
and they go into deep hypnosis. They go to sleep and they have luciddreams. They take drugs, and their hallucinations become much too vivid.It’s the same fantasy state behind it all the time.»
The life of a typical fantasy-prone person is also full of clairvoyantdreams, precognitions, past-life regressions, psychic healings, out-of-bodyexperiences, and other paranormal adventures, according to Barber. Hethinks that the world’s great visionaries—the likes of Joseph Smith, Ma-dame Blavatsky the Theosophist, St. Bernadette, Joan of Arc—were fan-tasy-prone personalities. St. Joan’s divine voices were compelling enough,of course, to convince the king of France to let her, a mere female child,command his armies. «Does this mean these things are just fantasy?»Barber muses. «Maybe. Or maybe these people really are perceiving otherrealities.»
If so, where are these nonordinary realities that a handful of mystics,saints, clairvoyants, and table-tappers glimpse and the rest of us don’t?Karl Pribram of Stanford has a hypothesis.
I confess I do not believe in time. I like to foldThe Brain as my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to
Hologram superimpose one part of the pattern upon an-
other. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoy-ment of timelessness—in a landscape selected atrandom—is when I stand among rare butterfliesand their foot plants. This is ecstasy, and behindthe ecstasy is something else, which is hard toexplain.
—vladimir nabokov, Speak Memory
A hologram is a three-dimensional photograph made from light beams.You may have seen one hanging lifelike in midair at a science museum,or in the cinematic heavens of Star Wars or Superman, in which case youprobably were not reminded of brains. But you are not Dr. Karl Pribram.We arrive to find the father of the holographic brain hunched over acomputer terminal in Stanford’s psychology building, a modern buildingthat rather resembles a napkin dispenser from afar. A small-boned, com-pact man in a pea-green T-shirt, forest-green slacks, and beads, he has thelush, gray beard and wizardly eyes of a Druid sorcerer. His magic evidentlylies somewhere in the data, in the pale numbers glowing on the phospho-rescent ocean of the screen. Even at a glance, one senses how a problemcould obsess Karl Pribram like a sphinx’s riddle. When he finds the answer,he jumps up and ushers us into his office, where a nearly life-size stuffedorangutan—»my newest graduate student»—slouches in an armchair andother simian memorabilia decorate the walls and desk.
Pribram’s life has been full of monkeys, apes, and chimpanzees. Hehas meticulously taken apart thousands of simian brains and chronicleduntold hours of monkey learning, sex life, social relations, and colonypolitics. In 1980 he lost a finger to a chimpanzee, and no ordinary one atthat. He was visiting Washoe the «talking chimp» at the University ofOklahoma’s Primate Research Institute. «Washoe and I were getting alongjust fine,» he recalls, «until I reached over to feed her from a sack thatRoger Fouts, her trainer, was holding. Washoe must have interpreted mygesture as an attack on Fouts.» Reverting to a lower level of communi-cation, the chimp reached through the feeding hole of her cage, bit Pri-bram’s right hand, and then raked it against the sharp extruded metal. Thescientist looked down to see hit, middle finger hanging from a string offlesh. While he was frantically flushing the wound with water, Washoereportedly signed, «Sorry, sorry, sorry.»
The finger was reattached by microsurgery at Oklahoma City’s Pres-byterian Hospital in a five-hour operation. The next day Dr. Pribramclimbed out of his hospital bed and rode the elevator downstairs to thehospital’s new clinical neuropsychology department, where, clad in hishospital gown and with an IV needle still in his arm, he delivered hisscheduled dedication address. «The talk was very well received,» he says.He later lost the tip of his finger above the first joint to gangrene, but thatdid not keep Pribram from performing delicate neurosurgery on animals.When his swollen, bandaged finger could not be stuffed into a standardsurgical glove, he put a condom over the injured finger and then donneda regular glove with the middle digit cut out. «You can imagine the jokeswhen it came to sterilizing the condom along with all the other stuff requiredfor surgery,» he remarks.
The story tells you something about Karl Pribram. A man who wouldgive a public address in his hospital gown and perform neurosurgery witha prophylactic finger is the sort of man who would also boldly propose—in the face of widespread peer skepticism—that the brain works like ahologram.
Holography is a form of lensless photography invented by Dennis Gaborin 1947. Unlike an ordinary two-dimensional photograph, a hologram isan eerily lifelike three-dimensional image. Its code, stored on the film,bears no resemblance to the object photographed, but is a record of thelight waves scattered by the object. Suppose you drop two pebbles into astill pond and then immediately freeze the rippled surface. In the overlap-ping wavefronts is stored a complete record of the pebbles’ passage througha moment of time. So it is with a hologram.
A beam of light energy—a laser, in most cases—is split in half. One
part, called the reference beam, travels directly to the holographic film;the other is bounced off the object to be photographed before continuingon to the film. The two beams collide on the film, forming an interferencepattern like that of the pebbles’ intersecting wavefronts. It looks like ameaningless tangle of swirls. As Gabor himself said, «It looks like noise.»But when the film is illuminated with a «reconstruction beam,» a laserbeam identical to the original reference beam, the object is magicallyreborn. It’s as if the wavefront had been frozen in time in the holographicplate and then released to continue its path to your eye. And behold,there’s Uncle Sid in his Naugahyde armchair, in vivid 3-D, so lifelike youreach out to touch his can of Budweiser—but only slice through thin air.Archimedes had his Eureka experience in the bathtub; Pribram’s hol-
Dr. Karl Pribram demonstrates a Multiplex hologram, composed of holographicstrips, each of which represents a frame of a movie. Pribram believes that theneurons in the visual cortex function much like this type of hologram. (Courtesyof News and Publication Service, Stanford University, Stanford, California)
ographic brain theory was born of a chance reading of a 1966 issue ofScientific American. Perusing an article on holography, he was struck byseveral interesting properties: A hologram can store nearly infinite amountsof information in almost no space at all. Any part of the hologram containsinformation about the whole. Should you drop and shatter the plate, youcan salvage a fragment of the wave pattern and reconstruct the entire image.The «message» in a hologram is located paradoxically everywhere andnowhere.
Pribram thought of the dead-end quest for the engram, in which hehad briefly participated, hunting memory traces in the chimpanzee brainunder Karl Lashley’s tutelage in the 1950s. If the brain used a scattered,holographiclike code for information storage, it would explain why ratswith massive brain damage can still remember mazes and why human strokevictims don’t lose discrete parts of their memory store—the years from1966-1974, say, or all words beginning with h. It would also account forthe fact that an organ the size of a cantaloupe can hold a lifetime ofmemories. Just as many different holograms can be superimposed, Pribramspeculated, so can infinite images be stacked in our brains. When we recallsomething, we may be using a certain «reconstruction beam» to zoom inon a particular encoded memory.
At first it was a metaphor. But by the early 1970s, the holographicbrain had become something more. «Of course, there are no laser beamsor reference beams in the brain,» Pribram tells us. «I’m simply saying thatour brains use a holographiclike code. The brain performs certain opera-tions, which can be described by the mathematics of holography, to code,decode, and recode sensory input. There is no other technique known toman that allows for the storage of so much information.»
Holography is based on a mathematical operation called Fourier trans-forms. Roughly speaking, this is a method of breaking down any complexpattern into sets of simpler waves. The outline of a face, for example, canbe represented as a series of sine and cosine waves, ultimately as a set ofnumbers, a Fourier series. Satellites use Fourier transforms to filter outirrelevant shapes and zero in on the forms that mean submarines on themove. CAT scans and other imaging techniques use them to constructthree-dimensional pictures of the body. Scientists use them in their com-puters to cull statistical wheat from chaff.
When you see something, your retina works pretty much like a camera.But then, Pribram believes, a «scatter effect» takes place. «You see, yourbrain is operating in two modes simultaneously. You have the spatial rep-resentation which maps the retinal image onto the cortex. And then, in
The Brain as Hologram • 349
the membranes of the cells, the image is transformed back into the fre-quency mode—the scatter that you’d see if you saw without a lens. Theneuron’s code for storing information resembles the interference patternson the holographic plate.» Thus, according to Pribram, your brain doesnot store a literal reproduction of your grandmother’s face, but somethinglike a Fourier transform of her face. If you could look inside the brain,you’d «see» an abstract code of wave-phase relationships no more like theperceived world than the overlapping patterns of light and shade on theholographic plate are like Uncle Sid in his armchair.
Why doesn’t the brain simply print an image, like a photograph? Hubeland Wiesel discovered neurons that are tuned to the physical dimensionsof the external world: Why not suppose that the brain starts with bars,lines, and edges and builds up to complex images such as faces and build-ings? The ultimate extension of this idea is the «grandmother cell,» ahypothetical neuron that lights up when your grandmother walks in theroom. But think about it: How could the same cell detect Grandma fivehundred yards away in profile, as well as across the breakfast table? How,moreover, could the brain contain cells that are prewired to see toasters,calico cats, apple trees, ten-speed bicycles, and discotheques?
«In the midsixties,» Pribram recounts, «everyone believed that featuredetectors were the basis of perception. That’s the idea that each neuronresponds to a particular feature of the sensory input—such as redness,greenness, or verticality—and that these features are later combined intoa whole image. But how is it that when I view your face from differentdistances or different angles, I still perceive the same face? There can’t bea single brain cell that says ‘Bzzz—Judy’s face’ or ‘Bzzz—Judy’s nose.’Perception must be a very flexible thing, not a pattern that’s wired in.Brain cells do selectively respond to features but not uniquely so. Eachcell is something like a person with many traits. So when you abstractblueness, you must address all the cells in the network that detectblue. . . .
«A holographic code automatically takes care of imaging from differentdistances and angles. The problem of grain is solved; you can have veryfine-grained textures. But perhaps the most important reason is the samereason Fourier transforms are used in computers: In the Fourier domain,correlations can be performed almost instantaneously. That’s exactly whatour brains do when we instantaneously process the table’s color, texture,dimensions, luminosity, distance, and relation to all other tables we’veseen.»
What does all this have to do with God in the brain? As Pribram was
quick to perceive, the kingdom-of-heaven-within may be the holographicrealm. At least, it is as good a place as any to look for the counterpart ofthe City of God, the Realm of Light, the Beatific Vision, the Clear Lightof Tibetan Buddhism.
Consider: A cross section of the airwaves at any moment would resem-ble a hologram. It takes a radio or TV receiver to transform this «noise»into auditory and visual images, into «Love Boat» or the classical hour onKFEX. In the same way, your senses take frequencies and make objectsout of them. They translate William James’s «undistinguishable swarmingcontinuum» into the forms, colors, sounds, and shapes of our ordinary,three-dimensional world. But is this the «real world» or just a movie?
«If we got rid of our ‘lenses,’ » Pribram proposes, «we’d experiencethe interference patterns themselves. We would be in the pure frequencydomain. What would that domain look like? Ask the mystics. Though theyhave trouble describing it, too. . . . Space and time would be collapsed,or, as I prefer to say, enfolded. Think of an EEG recording. On the verticalaxis you have amplitude; on the horizontal axis, frequency. There’s nospace and no time.
«Our brains can apparently perform the transforms back and forthbetween space-time reality and the frequency reality, the light domain. Ormaybe they keep track of both sides of the equation. A computer usingFourier transforms does this in performing rapid correlations.»
Outside Pribram’s window Stanford undergraduates cycle through aflawless green-and-gold afternoon. Most of them look as if they had spentthe morning mountain climbing and then got together to film a soft-drinkcommercial. Does the mind, we ask, dwell in the physical brain like aghostly hologram, everywhere and nowhere simultaneously?
«Yes, mind isn’t located in a place,» says Pribram. «What we have isholographiclike machinery that turns out images, which we perceive asexisting somewhere outside the machine that produces them. We knowour eyes are involved, but I don’t image you on the surface of my retina.Even though the codes are in my brain somewhere, I perceive you overthere on the chair.
«I’ve always felt,» he continues, «that dualism is okay in the ordinaryimage-object domain—the domain where the eye constructs images andthe brain operates on the sensory images to make objects. Dualism’s okayfor the Newtonian domain. But it doesn’t apply to the holographic, en-folded order. There is no space and time, no causality, no matter and nomind. Everything is enfolded. There are no boundaries; so you can haveneither mind nor brain.»
The Universal Hologram • 351
Even so large as the universe outside is the uni-The Universal verse within the lotus of the heart. Within it are
Hologram heaven and earth, the sun and the moon, the
lightning and all the stars. Whatever is in themacrocosm is in the microcosm also.—Chandogya Upanishad
The holographic theory finds some experimental support in the workof U. C. Berkeley scientists Russell and Karen DeValois, who have iden-tified cells in the visual system that respond to spatial frequencies insteadof lines, edges, and other features of three-dimensional space. And thereis good reason to think that distributed nerve networks, not single «wiseneurons» (in Francis Crick’s phrase) are the important units in the brain’sinformation-processing code. As Crick puts it, «We don’t think a neuronby itself can do very much.» Most scientists we met, however, had notembraced the holographic-brain faith. «It’s absurd,» said one. «There areno Fourier transforms in the brain.» Others said that it was a useful met-aphor, as long as it was understood as a metaphor.
Even if it is only a metaphor, though, the hologram is a compellingone for the brain’s magic show. It suggests how a finite lump of matter,the brain, could contain an infinite mindscape. It may be a better modelin many ways than the oft-evoked computer. «The computer’s mind is acreature of the linear, Euclidian world of its origin,» notes Paul Pietsch,an anatomist at Indiana University, who has written a book on the holo-graphic brain called Shufflebrain. «Its memory reduces to discrete bits. Abit is a binary choice—a clean, crisp, clear, yes-no, on-off, efficient choice.. . . The hologramic continuum is not linear; it is not either-or; it is notefficient.»
Holography may also explain why time and space in the brain do notresemble physical space-time. «People have dreamed ten-year scenes withinthe span of a ten-minute dream,» notes Pietsch. «The reverse also canhappen. … A character in a recent Neil Simon play tells how during about of depression he couldn’t cross the street because the other side wastoo far away.» Said Albert Einstein: «WTien a man sits with a pretty girlfor an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for aminute—and it’s longer than an hour. That’s relativity.» Psychological timeis relative, and holography is built on relativistic principles. Instead ofquantities, its code is based on relationships between waves, phase rela-tionships. Compressed into a hologram is the entire history of the waves,just as your entire past is contained in your memory. Time is collapsed ina hologram as it is in the mystical state.
Perhaps it was a case of Jungian synchronicity that while Pribram wasdreaming up the holographic brain, a renowned quantum physicist sixthousand miles away in London was coming to the conclusion that thewhole universe was a hologram. The two scientists did not know of eachother at the time; only later did they compare notes and start appearingon the same lecture circuits. Physicist David Bohm, who is a disciple ofthe Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, relates the image-object domain (the»unfolded order») and the frequency domain (the «enfolded order») tothe Hindu Manifest and Unmanifest. According to Hindu philosophy, allof creation is latent, «enfolded» in the Unmanifest, rather as a potentialhuman being is «enfolded» in DNA. Out of the formless Unmanifest isborn the Manifest, the world of myriad objects, creatures, and forms. Theenfolded order to which quantum theory has led Bohm is «a reality im-mensely beyond what we call matter. Matter is like a small ripple on atremendous ocean of energy. And the ocean is not primarily in space andtime at all. . . . Space and time are constructed for us for our convenience.»
There are other deep spiritual principles embodied in holography. «Ina hologram every part is distributed in the whole, and the whole is enfoldedin every part,» Pribram tells us. This recalls the Hermetic doctrine: «Asabove, so below,» the microcosm that recapitulates the macrocosm. Ahologram is like the «network of pearls in the heaven of Indra» of Buddhistlegend, so arranged that «if you look at one you see all others reflectedin it.» Just as each creature is a compressed record of the Godhead, so isthe individual hologram part of the universal hologram, according to Bohm.»Each individual manifests the consciousness of mankind,» he observes.
a. j 0 . , , Since language is embedded in dualism
Sick Souls and Mad (subject and object)? ^ mystical ^ is
Saints said t0 be «ineffable.» In Lao-tzu’s phrase,
«The Tao that can be told is not the eternalTao.» The fourteenth-century mystical handbook The Cloud of Unknowinginstructs the seeker that the way to know God is through «unknowing.»Paranormal realities tend to come clothed in obscure paradoxes, oxymo-rons (St. Theresa’s «pain of God»), riddles, and koans («What is the soundof one hand clapping?») expressly designed to short-circuit the rationalmind. To rational ears, mystical pronouncements sometimes sound likethe babbling of madmen.
Indeed, many famous saints were, in William James’s words, «sicksouls.» St. Paul showed symptoms of epilepsy. St. Theresa has been calledthe «patron saint of hysterics.» George Fox, the founding father of Quak-erism, was a «hereditary degenerate,» according to James. The unsavory
visions of St. Anthony in the desert do not suggest a healthy, well-roundedmind. Many saints have practiced what we would regard as excesses ofself-mortification: Both St. Catherine of Siena and St. Catherine of Genoa,for instance, subsisted for weeks on nothing more than consecrated Com-munion wafers. Obsessions, compulsions, rituals, «religious melancholia,»brooding dark nights of the soul, and manic highs are at least as commonamong religious geniuses as they are among artistic ones.
To Freud mysticism represented an infantile «regression» to the oralstage, even to the primal unity of the intrauterine life. Modern psychiatry,for the most part, takes an equally dim view of the phenomenon. In 1960the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP) issued a report onmysticism, stating: «The psychiatrist will find mystical persons of interestbecause they can demonstrate forms of behavior intermediate betweennormality and frank psychosis.» A surefire way to be diagnosed as schiz-ophrenic at the state hospital is to punctuate your conversation with ref-erences to God, Satan, sin, or miracles.
But one culture’s lunatic may be another culture’s shaman, curandero,or holy man. Perhaps some of the shopping-bag ladies mumbling to them-selves in Greyhound bus terminals are latter-day sybils attuned to theequivalent of Delphic oracles. What the American Psychiatric Associationcalls depersonalization or poor ego boundaries may fit the criteria for sa-madhi in parts of the Himalayas. In a 1971 article, «Eastern and WesternModels of Man,» in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Ram Dass(formerly Harvard Professor Richard Alpert) observed:
There are some beings that we call psychotic who in India would be called «GodIntoxicants.» They are people who have experienced compassion outwardly andthen their entire energy turns inward to inner states that they are experiencing.We see them as catatonic. Because we are not getting an elicited response out ofthem, we project onto them a certain kind of psychological state. Now in Indiathey project another kind of interpretation … so that a God-Intoxicant is treatedwith great reverence and respect. Ramakrishna, a very famous mystic in India, wasoften God-intoxicant.
«For aught we know to the contrary,» mused James in The Varietiesof Religious Experience, «103 or 104 Fahrenheit might be a much morefavorable temperament for truths to germinate and sprout in, than themore ordinary blood-heat of 97 or 98 degrees.» This was his reply to thelearned doctors who dismissed mystical insights as the by-products of «he-reditary neurasthenia,» a «gastro-duodenal catarrh,» a bad liver, tuber-culosis, or some other organic ailment. Against the medical materialismof his day James argued, «To plead the organic causation of a religiousstate of mind … is quite illogical and arbitrary. . . .»If you explain away
354 * God in the Brain: Cleansing the Doors of Perception
our spiritual insights as mere by-products of a disturbed biochemistry,James pointed out, then «none of our thoughts and feelings, not even ourscientific doctrines . . . could retain any value … for every one of themwithout exception flows from the state of its possessor’s body at the time.»James’s argument seems timely. If the belief in God is no more thana series of neurochemical reactions, then why not also ascribe atheism—or the doctrine that thoughts are merely chemical reactions—to chemicalreactions in the nonbeliever’s head?
It is interesting that the path to God seems to be a negative path, a pathof «unknowing.» All the methods of tapping into heaven-within-the-braininvolve getting rid of something. A protective filter, a reducing valve, alens, a set of hard-wired perceptual «categories,» serotonin, endorphins,or some other neurochemical keep us earthbound. The face of God isveiled by the may a of the nervous system.
If our brain were a different size and shape, what would our religionsbe like? If we had a single cyclopean eye in the center of our forehead, ifinstead of two hemispheres we had three, if we navigated by echolocationlike bats, would our philosophies, our geometries, our mythologies, ournotions of causality, space, time, and number be radically different?
Perhaps we’d perceive an «effect» before the «cause.» Perhaps, insteadof experiencing temporal continuity, we’d feel ourselves at each momentto be altogether different beings (as, in Ulysses, Stephen Daedalus jokedthat since all the molecules composing him were different, he was no longerbound to repay the money he’d borrowed seven years earlier). Maybe we’dlive several parallel lives simultaneously (as some multiple personalitiesmay). Or perhaps space would flow by us at a uniform pace, like our clocktime, while time could be traveled in any direction.
Some people’s brains are wired up so as to experience synesthesia, a»cross-wiring» of the senses in which one sense evokes another. The mostcommon form of synesthesia is audition coloree, or colored hearing, im-mortalized by the poet Arthur Rimbaud in his famous poem «Les Voyelles»about the hues of vowels. When Maryland neurologist Richard Cytowicstudied the brains of synesthetes in mid-audition-coloree, he found thatthe blood flow decreased in the neocortex and increased in the limbicsystem. «The brain’s higher information processing turns off during coloredhearing,» he told Brain/Mind Bulletin. «An older, more fundamental wayof viewing the world—more mammalian than language-related—takes over.»
Even more exotic realities occur in certain neurological syndromes. «Ishall never forget a group of patients with deep lesions of the right hem-isphere . . . ,» writes the Russian neurologist A. R. Luria in The Working
Sick Souls and Mad Saints • 355
Brain. «They firmly believed they were in Moscow and also in anothertown. They suggested they had left Moscow and gone to the other town,but having done so, they were still in Moscow, where an operation hadbeen performed on their brains.»
In certain brain states time flows more slowly or stops completely,arrested, like Pompeii, at the scene of some primal tragedy. In others, likethe postencephalitic states described by neurologist Oliver Sacks in Awak-enings, «cinematic vision» occurs. One such patient, «Hester,» was seeingthe world at about «three or four frames a second» when she received avisit from her brother. As she watched him light his pipe, some of the»frames» appeared out of sequence, and she saw the pipe being lit beforeshe saw her brother’s hand, holding the lit match, approach the pipe. NotesSacks, «Thus—incredibly—Hester saw the pipe actually being lit severalframes too soon; she saw ‘the future,’ so to speak, somewhat before shewas due to see it.»
Should we dismiss this kind of thing as a quaint pathology? Or can weregard people like Hester as neurological Marco Polos who have been toremote and otherworldly climes of mind? After all, our stolid reality, withits familiar «categories» of space, time, and so on, is simply one state ofbrain that we happen to call normal.
THEBRAIN /MINDCONNECTION
Chaos, Strange Attractors, and theStream of Consciousness
A great disorder is an order. Now, A
And B are not like statuary, posed
For a visit in the Louvre. They are things chalked
On the sidewalk so that the pensive man may see.
—WALLACE STEVENS,
«Connoisseur of Chaos»
FOR five days in a row, a Stanford psychiatrist has been watching the»shopping-bag ladies» in a public park. By his calculations each of thewomen has a stereotyped routine of postures, gestures, and mono-logues that is repeated over and over again like a musician’s set. Later hejots down some equations for dopamine synthesis in the schizophrenicbrain.
Fiddling with his parameters just a little, a scientist in Pennsylvaniamakes a high-speed computer «epileptic.» A Chicago biophysicist studiesthe «hallucinations» he conjured with digital representations of neurons.In Santa Cruz, California, a mathematician adds stress variables to ROVER,a computer simulation of a dog’s adrenal cortical system. «When we addACTH,» he says, «it responds just like a dog.»
In La Jolla, rats on LSD, amphetamine, cocaine, antidepressants, lith-ium, and caffeine wander at random in cages. Each time their tails passthrough a photobeam, an electrical blip is transmitted to a computer, whichcalculates the «frequency» and «amplitude» of their journeys. Studyingthe patterns, a neuroscientist reflects, «The stream of consciousness is arandom walk, but an order emerges over time.»
These scientists are «connoisseurs of chaos,» practitioners of a scienceso new it doesn’t have an official name, only a nickname—chaos. (Officiallyit is known as nonlinear dynamics, or sometimes as chaotic dynamics.) TheChristopher Columbus of chaos was an MIT meteorologist named EdwardLorenz. While working on the problem of long-range weather forecastingin 1963, he proved mathematically that the weather was impossible topredict. This may be big news for Willard C. Scott—and for you when
359
you’re worried about rain on your parade—but what does it have to dowith the brain?
Well, years after Lorenz’s quiet discovery (known for a decade only toreaders of an obscure meteorology journal), it became apparent that thelaws he discovered also governed water flowing through a pipe, hurricanes,airplanes in flight, chemical reactions, the waxing and waning of wildlifepopulations, economic cycles, the ebb and flow of hormones in the body—and the 1011 interconnected nerve cells of the brain.
«The mind does not easily grasp nonlinear interactions between billionsof cells,» says Stephen Grossberg, a mathematician and interdisciplinaryscientist at Boston University’s Center for Adaptive Systems. «That is whywe need mathematical models.» Says Arnold Mandell, «The machinery ofthe brain is just too complicated. Two hundred neurotransmitters, eachwith seventy thousand receptors! How can we ever understand all theplumbing? We have to get away from the plumbing to see the brain’s deepmessages.» Of course, many researchers have made brilliant careers outof digging up the «plumbing.» Out of Eric Kandel’s microscopic scrutinyof cell membranes came the elementary building blocks of memory; fromHubel and Wiesel’s single-cell recordings, a map of the visual cortex. Butcan this explain how you think?
Mandell, Grossberg, and the other scientists you’ll meet in this chapterdon’t think so. If you want to know how New York City functions, wouldyou interview three passersby in depth? Or would you take a helicopterride over the city and look down on the different boroughs and the majortraffic routes, the clusters of skyscrapers that mark the financial centers,the densities of flashing red lights that might mean dangerous neighbor-hoods? If you are looking for the brain’s basic organizing principles, its»deep messages,» mathematics can lift you above the gritty details. Thelingo of chaos is esoteric, and many of its pioneers labor in rarefied andotherworldly realms of theoretical physics. But the interesting thing aboutit is that chemists, mathematicians, biologists, physiologists, meteorolo-gists, and neuroscientists are all tuning in to the same «deep messages.»There are some who think chaos is a universal language of nature.
T, . «Only once or twice in a millennium,»
1 he Dripping taucet says mathematician Ralph Abraham, of the
as Microcosm University of California at Santa Cruz, «is
there a true scientific revolution, a paradigmshift. Newtonian mechanics and the invention of calculus in the seventeenthcentury brought about the last one. The current scientific revolution willsynthesize the whole intellectual discourse of the species.» While Abraham
makes this prophecy, in a Szechwan restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz,ragged armies of sixties’ casualties drift by the window, hollow-eyed, ladenwith knapsacks, like refugees from an Antonioni film. If there is a darkside to the third millennium, these are the people who will gather onmountaintops to witness the end of the world. Abraham and his fellowchaos theorists expect to witness quite the opposite.
Up the hill, the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) is aland of sun-bleached, windblown meadows and cool redwood groves.Something of the Zeitgeist of the sixties lingers in the air; the students donot look like accounting majors, and it is possible here to obtain a Ph.D.in the History of Consciousness. Perhaps it was the right objective cor-relative (as T. S. Eliot might have called it) for the Chaos Cabal.
In 1977 physicist Rob Shaw was just winding up his Ph.D. dissertationon superconductivity when a professor asked him to take a look at somepuzzling differential equations. He programmed them into an analog com-puter he’d salvaged from the basement of a defunct engineering departmentand got the shock of his life. By having the computer perform iterations—essentially repeating the same equations over and over again—he fell intoa looking-glass world where order spun off into chaos. Soon he lost allinterest in superconductivity (the dissertation was never completed) andtook to sleeping in his lab and staying up all night to ponder the enigmaticshapes on his screen. (They were «strange attractors,» though Shaw didnot know that yet.) When three friends, also physics students, dropped byto see what he was doing, they became possessed too. In late 1977 theSanta Cruz Dynamical Systems Collective—or, colloquially, the ChaosCabal—was formed. (Abraham, who had heard the gospel of chaos a fewyears before, became a sort of chaos elder.)
To enter Shaw’s office is to walk into the bowels of a dismantled ap-pliance—a maze of meters, dials, plugboard, wires, terminals, plotters, andgauges. «I’m a technotwit,» he confesses. He takes us next door to see acontraption that looks like a precocious child’s project for the science fair.A plastic tub of water is mounted above a brass faucet. The drops fromthe faucet interrupt a laser beam, which precisely records the intervalsbetween them and transmits them as pulses to the computer next door.This is Shaw’s famous chaotic faucet. «The fascinating thing about a stan-dard faucet,» he tells us, «is that it’s got this random element in it. Theflow is constant, the spigot doesn’t move, and nothing has perturbed thesystem, but you get this chaotic pattern in it that never repeats itself. It’sa microcosm.»
When the Chaos Cabal first presented results like these at scientificconferences, other scientists would shake their heads dubiously and ask,
«Are you sure this isn’t just a numerical error?» But chaos is not the resultof a numerical error. It is a fact of nature.
Physical theories since Archimedes, Galileo, and Newton have beenbuilt around a stable, linear world, an idealized cosmos of frictionlesspendulums, efficient machines, and eternal trajectories. The serene as-sumption—articulated by the French mathematician Pierre Simon, Marquisde Laplace—was that you could predict the future in its entirety if youknew the position and velocity of every particle at one moment in time.Alas, this is untrue. Half a century ago, the founders of quantum mechanicssaid that the subatomic domain was haunted by randomness, and the bestmeasuring devices on earth could not make it less uncertain. Albert Ein-stein could not accept this idea, objecting, «God does not play dice withthe universe!» Well, God does play dice, and not just with quarks. Wa-terfalls, cloud patterns, heart arrhythmias, waves crashing against a seawall during a winter storm, the fluctuations of a predator/prey population,the collective song of your neurons, and many other systems in nature alsohave pockets of randomness that make them unpredictable. We can writeequations for the orbits of remote planets, but the trajectories of tumblingdice forever elude us. Why?
Back in 1977 Shaw observed that the realm of chaos was ruled by certainlaws. One of these was «sensitive dependence on initial conditions,» aphenomenon starkly illustrated at the casinos of Las Vegas. At the momenta roulette wheel is spun, the tiniest twitch of the finger controls the ball’strajectory. Similar infinitesimal influences determine how dice will land.In meteorology there is the so-called Butterfly Effect, the idea that theflapping of a butterfly’s wings in the air over Peru in February could affectthe weather in Los Angeles in March. Because of sensitive dependence oninitial conditions, minuscule measuring errors are magnified into huge onesfarther down the line, and prediction becomes impossible. So it is notnecessarily your local weatherman’s fault if he’s wrong about the weathera week from Monday. We are condemned to live with chance.
One of the founding fathers of chaos, the German theoretical chemistOtto Rossler, once watched a mechanical taffy puller at work, pulling thetaffy and folding it back on itself again and again. In his mind Rosslerfollowed the diverging course of two imaginary raisins and jotted downequations for a new «strange attractor.» Rossler was observing a secondfundamental law of chaos, «rapid divergence of nearby trajectories.» Vari-ables that start out highly correlated—the mathematical equivalents of theraisins—drift apart and become uncorrelated. After lots of stretching andfolding, which a computer does with «iterations,» differences in the systemwiden and a deterministic system becomes indeterminate.
The Dripping Faucet as Microcosm • 363
Shaw was to learn, of course, that the terra incognita he stumbled onwas not entirely incognita. Edward Lorenz before him had discovered how»sensitive dependence» and «rapid divergence» produced lumps of chaosin the convection currents of the atmosphere. Then, in 1971, a study offluid turbulence really put chaos on the map. Werner Heisenberg, the fatherof quantum uncertainty, once remarked that when he went on to the nextworld, he wanted God to explain two things. One was the mysteries of thequantum realm; the other was fluid turbulence. Generations of physicistshad tried in vain to write equations for the hydrodynamics of waterfalls,cascading rivers, even water rushing out of a faucet, and concluded thatthese phenomena, for reasons no one could identify, were just too com-plicated to predict. But two European scientists, David Ruelle and FlorisTakens, showed that a wild river had a form to it after all, albeit a strangeone. In the dynamics of turbulent fluids they divined ghostly geometricforms similar to the one Lorenz had identified a decade before in theweather. They named them strange attractors.
So what is an attractor, and what makes one strange? Any physicalsystem—a chemical reaction, the motion of a pendulum, a heartbeat, orthe fluctuations in a population of gray foxes—can be plotted as a seriesof mathematical points representing successive temperature readings, ve-locity, amplitude, or whatever. In time the points describing the changesin the system are drawn toward the invisible geometry of an «attractor»like metal filings toward a magnet.
There are three types of attractors, two of which are old news. Thefixed point attractor describes a system at rest, after all the motions haveceased. If you fill a pan with water and shake it up, the liquid will swirlaround for a while and then stop. Mathematically speaking, it settles intoa fixed point. After all the chemicals have stopped reacting, a chemicalsystem would have a point attractor (equilibrium) structure.
The second type is the periodic attractor, or limit cycle. The periodicmotion of a pendulum or metronome, the regular beating of a humanheart, a smoothly oscillating EEG, or the mood swings of a manic-depressive might all be described by the limit cycle. The key thing aboutthe fixed point and the limit cycle is that they are regular and predictable.If you know the initial state, you can plot all the future states.
Suppose you heat french-fry grease in a saucepan. At first the greasejust sits there. As it heats, convection currents form, periodic wiggles thatmake a limit cycle. If you turn up the burner a little more, the patternsmake doubly periodic wiggles (wiggles upon wiggles). At a certain criticalvalue of heat, however, the grease abruptly «bifurcates,» in the lingo, toa strange attractor motion.
v A n a What does a strange attractor look like?
Paradoxical Order Aiming a creaky school projector at the wall,
Shaw shows us movies of the strange attractors captured on the localcathode-ray screens. «This is our local compulsion,» he says, as the tenthousand mathematical points that represent ten thousand future statesunfold in an instant, bringing these odd mathematical creatures to life.They are beautiful: baroque spirals, elaborate filigrees, intricate webs spunby non-Euclidian spiders, shapes like amusement-park rides as depictedby Marcel Duchamp.
There’s a method to this madness, however. At first chaotic behaviorseems to follow no rules, but in time it assumes a definite shape. Strangeattractors may sprout extravagant thickets of randomness, but they neverfly out of the «phase space,» a determined mathematical envelope. Andwhether you’re dealing with water in pipes or clouds or swirls of smokeor jet engines, certain rules and numerical constants always apply whennature «bifurcates» into disorder.
«By the very nature of our activities,» says Shaw, «we try to avoidchaos. What do we try to do with our machines? Keep them stable andavoid oscillations, or if we have oscillations, try to keep those stable. Butnow we can see that chaos has a lot of order in it.
«The Old Guard—people like [information theorist] Norbert Wiener—used equations for total randomness as a model for nature,» explains DoyneFarmer, a graduate of the Chaos Cabal who has carried the seeds of chaosto Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico. «When you havecomplete chaos, you can perform probability studies. This is the case withthe molecules in a gas, which get pretty evenly distributed. However, thereare many situations in nature where orderly things happen in the midst ofgreat chaos. Some systems have a ‘clock’ inside them that goes on keepingperfect time in the midst of very chaotic stuff. For those systems, deter-ministic chaos, with its strange-attractor structure, is the best model.»
Paradoxically the study of chaos seems to lead into a higher realm oforder. (Farmer’s Ph.D. dissertation, «Order in Chaos,» describes howorder, information, and structure arise in these systems.) Under nature’spolymorphous surface lies a finite set of hidden principles. «There are onlya few movies, and everything we see around us is the working out of oneof those movies,» says Ralph Abraham. If you know how to look, theinvisible blueprints of strange attractors determine the behavior of riversand jet engines, chemical reactions and cloud formations, heartbeats, theBig Bang, EEGs, and economic cycles.
You can use nonlinear equations to model a two-nation arms race, asphysicist Alan Saperstein, of Wayne State University in Detroit, has done.
Paradoxical Order • 365
«I think,» he says, «the idea of a transition from laminar [smooth] toturbulent flow or, if you will, from predictable international relations tochaotic international relations is important.» You can look at the economythis way, plotting the often-quirky «oscillations» of business cycles. Youcan analyze the heart as a dynamical system, as a pair of researchers atMontreal’s McGill University did, and isolate the conditions under whicha normal, periodic heartbeat will «bifurcate» into dangerous heart fibril-lations. You can mix together certain chemicals and see the genesis ofchaos. You can build a nonlinear model of the female endocrine system(the interlocking hormonal feedback loops of which act like coupled me-chanical oscillators) to study the premenstrual syndrome. Ralph Abrahamdid, and he also fathered ROVER, the computer simulation of a dog’sstress response.
«It is interesting, even comforting,» muses W. Ross Adey, a neuro-scientist who is conversant with chaos, «that the laws that determine atomicinteractions in cosmic interstellar dust are the same laws that determinethe interactions of molecules on the surface of brain cells.»
j . . The walls of Don Walter’s office, in the
Chaos and the Brain basement of UCLA.S Life Sciences Build.
ing, are covered with graphs of different biological processes. Some, likethe computer-graphics portrait of systolic and diastolic rhythms, resemblestylized mountain chains with Japanese-style clouds around their peaks.As we arrive, his computer terminal is displaying sawtooth waves of blueand violet. «Chaotic spikes,» he explains.
By running equations for three linked neurons, Walter and Alan Gar-finkel, of UCLA’s Crump Institute for Medical Engineering, have conjuredup a bit of chaos. Orderly chaos. «If you link together a bunch of neuronswith cross-inhibitory coupling, they will fire erratically,» says Garfinkel.»And yet there really is a pattern in that chaos that we can tease out withsophisticated methods.» As a wallpaperlike pattern on the screen growsmore intricate, Walter adds, «You can’t predict the thing in detail, but ithas tendencies.»
If three coupled neurons make unpredictable patterns, imagine what1011 billion interacting cells could do. A working brain is more like theweather or a turbulent stream than it is like a digital computer, accordingto the chaos connoisseurs. In the classic lock-and-key model, one moleculeof a brain chemical fits into a specific receptor on a cell membrane. Butneuroscientists now know that a population of receptors can fluctuate rap-idly under the influence of many microscopic conditions inside and outsidethe cell. «Instead of receptors, it may be better to think in terms of re-
ceptivity» says Alan Garfinkel. The neuron itself isn’t a hard, little marbleor a microchip in a computer but a «complex chemical reaction in solution,»a «bag of enzymes,» prone to the same fluxes as other chemical reactions.
‘There are some predictable things about the brain and some predict-able things about people’s behavior,» says Walter. «You can predict whenmost people will get up tomorrow. You can predict that brains will get oldand clanky and wear out and die. But for many brain processes you haveto give up even the ideal of determinism. Chaotic dynamics tells us thatmany things that look deterministic can’t be predicted in a practical sensefor more than a short time.»
Calculus describes a smoothly changing, predictable world, and its in-ventor, Gottfried von Leibniz, once declared, «Natura non facit saltum»(«Nature does not make jumps»). But nature does make jumps. When aparameter is increased beyond a critical value, metals snap, a smoothlyflowing fluid becomes turbulent, chemical concentrations turn chaotic. Theseare some of nature’s nonlinearities. A linear relationship is one in whichif x equals y, 300* will equal 300y, and so on, for all possible values of xand y. «But all of biology is nonlinear,» says Garfinkel. «Double thedimensions of a bone and the result has eight times the weight but onlyfour times the strength. That makes a thirty-foot-tall man impossible.»
In the brain, twice the input may mean/owr times the output—or halfthe output. Perception, for example, is organized along log (decibel) lines.And whether you’re measuring the behavior of an animal or a neuron, theeffects of heat, chemicals, or electricity can have decidedly unpredictableeffects. «The brain is funny,» says Arnold Mandell. «If I gave you twomilligrams of amphetamine you might feel very alert; at seven or eightmilligrams you might feel sleepy; at twelve, you might be alert again; attwenty, full of rage; at fifty milligrams, totally out to lunch. So in the brainmore is not necessarily more. Sometimes more is just different.»
If there are universal patterns buried in the brain’s «plumbing,» if thereis a grand theory—perhaps an E = mc2—latent in all the data flowing outof electrodes and radiation counters, perhaps nonlinear dynamics can pryit out. «Now that people like Hubel and Wiesel and Mountcastle havemade these marvelous discoveries about what single cells can do and alittle about how columns [of neurons] are arranged,» says Jack Cowan,the University of Chicago biophysicist whom we met in Chapter 10, «nowcomes the next problem. How is it all put together? What are the generalorganizing principles of the brain?»
Cowan has been working on a mathematical model of epilepsy andhallucination. These «bifurcations» occur in the brain, he thinks, whenneuroelectric activity, cranked up past a certain threshold, forms «travelingand rotating waves.» His abstract pictures of these crashing electrical wave-
The Secret Messages of Shopping-Bag Ladies • 367
fronts are identical to the scroll-like waves generated by the famous «cha-otic» Belousov-Zhabotinski chemical reaction. Meanwhile, Paul Rapp, ofthe Medical College of Pennsylvania, has also been tracking «seizures» ina computer. As electronic brains grow more complex, he reports, theybegin to exhibit failures analogous to epileptic convulsions. Brains andhigh-speed computers both can be easily tipped into chaos.
The grass was still beaded with dew whenThe Secret Messages Roy King arrived Like a Margaret Mead of
OJ Shopping-Bag tfoe park bench, King was keeping a metic-
Ladies ulous record of several homeless «shopping-
bag ladies» in a San Jose, California, publicpark. One of his subjects was sitting rigid on a bench, a petrified Pompeiianmummy with a masklike face. From time to time she’d lift her right armin a stiff salute and rock back and forth for ten minutes, before goingcatatonic again. Another pushed a shopping cart full of yellowing news-papers and broken appliances around a fixed route, pausing at intervals tocomb her hair with a dirty blue comb. A third woman obsessively circleda bench, head bowed, muttering the same malignant phrases over andover. The tape recorder in her brain seemed stuck in one place, condemnedto repeat one terrible message forever, like the «black box» of a crashedairliner.
For five days in a row, King timed their behavior with a watch. Eachof the women (who were evidently chronic schizoprenics) had a «stereo-typed routine of movements, postures, and gestures,» he noted. «Theiractivity had an erratically periodic course. The same routine was repeatedin the same order roughly every twenty minutes.»
Most psychiatrists-in-training don’t hang out in public parks timingshopping-bag ladies, but King was chasing a theory. The outlines had cometo him while he was still in medical school at Stanford in the late 1970s.He was working at an alternative psychiatric-treatment center in San Fran-cisco, where he was able to observe the «natural evolution of psychosis»in unmedicated patients. Certain rhythms in their behavior struck him ascurious. The acute schizophrenics were swaying like pendulums betweenagitated frenzy and catatonic withdrawal every twenty minutes. The moodand behavior swings of manic patients, in contrast, formed regular ninety-minute cycles, like the cycles of REM and non-REM sleep.
«What I saw was that people were fluctuating between opposite states,»he tells us. «And a light bulb went off in my head. I saw that the key topsychotic behavior was not too much or too little of a specific neurotrans-mitter. It was unstable fluctuations in a chemical system.»
Fortunately King had a Ph.D. in math from Cornell under his belt. Hewent to his computer, plugged in the variables for dopamine synthesis andrelease, and in 1981 «Catastrophe Theory of Dopaminergic Transmission:A Revised Dopamine Hypothesis of Schizophrenia» was published. (Ca-tastrophe theory is not about earthquakes and towering infernos; it refersto the sudden jumps and phase transitions that nonlinear systems are proneto.) The gist of the theory is that the key to schizophrenia is chaoticfluctuations in dopamine production. As King explains it, he draws neatdiagrams and graphs in our notebook: a synapse with DA (dopamine)hovering in the presynaptic terminal, a curve shaped like a U, a chain ofjagged peaks and valleys (dopamine release plotted against time). Whenhis equations spawned a telltale, U-shaped curve, King did a double take.That classic nonlinear curve said that the dopamine system was unstable,extremely sensitive to small inputs. A relatively minor influence could setoff wild bursts of dopamine release. Plotting the time course, King gotsteep waves of dopamine release that spanned twenty minutes from peakto peak. This exactly matched the behavioral rhythms he’d observed inpsychotic patients.
The model also said that a schizophrenic’s dopamine neurons wouldstart to fire in two different rhythms and rapidly become uncoupled. Couldthis be the organic basis of the psychological splitting Eugen Bleuler hadin mind when he coined the word schizophrenia? «I think that in schizo-phrenia the brain fragments into active and inactive clusters of neuronsand different parts of the brain become dissociated,» says King. «Youmight get an asymmetry between the left and right side, say. Schizophrenicsoften feel that their minds and bodies are split apart. I had one patientwho said her left hand was possessed by a foul, fuming substance and herright hand was pure light, ecstatic, blessed. Another patient said his fatherput a stake through the left side of his head when he was six years old andthat the right side of his head was possessed by his mother, who wantedto have sex with him. When he was most psychotic, he said he felt likeHumpty-Dumpty, all in pieces. Therapy helped him reconnect the differentparts of himself.»
The principle goes beyond schizophrenia. With equations for norepi-nephrine and its receptors, King has been studying the abstract geometryof panic disorder. «In panic attacks,» he says, «you get these bursts ofadrenergic [norepinephrine and epinephrine] activity that last five to eightminutes. You get symptoms like tachycardia, cold sweats, confusion, coldextremities, fear. I found that the system was very unstable, supersensitive.
«Why did nature design the brain this way, so that it is highly sensitiveto small changes in input? If the brain were linear, you’d have the same
A Mathematics for Biology • 369
sensitivity in every state. It would seem that an organism in the wild needsto be acutely aware of danger. The fight-or-flight reaction has to be verysensitive.»
. In king’s model the crucial difference be-
A Mathematics for tween schizophrenia and sanity is not a quan.
Biology tity but a quality. Not x amount of dopamine
or x amount of walking or talking, but theshape of the chemical curve, the quality of behavior. This is a key point.
«Topology, or qualitative dynamics [out of which chaotic dynamicsgrew] is the perfect mathematics for biology,» says Alan Garfinkel. «Inbiology we see forms everywhere, but there is not the numerical precisionfound in much of physics. People all share the same form, but we differin the details.»
We meet Garfinkel one rainy evening in the bright, mirrored interiorof a cafe-bar in Venice, California. When we leave, our cocktail napkinswill be covered with ellipses, spirals, graphs, diagrams of the orbits of thesun, earth, and Jupiter. And the tape recording of our conversation willbe laced with the tinkle of ice in glasses, juke-box songs, and shards oflocal conversations («I’m getting into bioenergetics these days»)—givingit a signal-to-noise ratio comparable to a bad Yoko Ono recording.
«Poincare is really the father of this whole field,» he tells us. «Morethan half a century ago, he realized that you can’t get exact solutions tothe equations describing many phenomena, and even if you could theywouldn’t tell you what you want to know. If you’re studying the motionof the earth around the sun, it’s more important to know the shape of itspath, its topological type, than the exact distances it travels. Is the orbitan ellipse, or a very long curved line that doesn’t close—in which case theearth might eventually spin off into space? So Poincare invented topology,the science of forms of motion.»
At UCLA, where he teaches kinesiology, Garfinkel is applying Poin-care’s mathematics to movement disorders, or dyskinesias. He tells us,»The hyperstability of Parkinsonism, the hyperinstability of Huntington’schorea, and the oscillations seen in various tremors are each characterizedby specific forms of movement, and by studying those forms you can inferthe neurophysiological processes responsible.» Just as coupled pendulumscan be jolted into irregular oscillations, Garfinkel theorizes, so can thebrain’s interlocking chemical feedback loops. The result may be a dyski-nesia, chaos in the motor system.
Chaos is not always a bad thing in biology, however, and Garfinkel
briefly ticks off the virtues of chaos for us (including the «chaotic mixing»of the rum and coke molecules in our Cuba Libre). More to the point: «Ithink sensitive dependence on initial conditions in the embryo is whatmakes us individuals,» he says. «As one undifferentiated cell develops intoa zillion differentiated cells, there is a distinct sequence of changes. Thereare epochs of smooth, quantitative change, then—boom—qualitative changeand differentiation.»
The topological view may discern things in madness, for example, thatspinal-fluid samples do not. What is the underlying «form of motion» ofschizophrenia, for example? «In schizophrenia,» says Garfinkel, «you seetwo distinct sets of symptoms that are exactly opposite. On the one hand,you have extremely labile [unstable] behavior. You wander quasi-randomlyfrom one thought to another. That’s extreme sensitivity to initial condi-tions. Then, on the other hand, you have very rigid behavior, fixed de-lusions and obsessions. Everything reminds you of x. Every little thingtakes you back to the ‘attractor.’ Cindy Ehlers thinks chaos is the primarysymptom in schizophrenia and the delusional symptoms are the brain’sdesperate attempt to regain order.»
. When we visit the Salk Institute, in La
Ihe Mysterious Joll^ the Padfic is turning metallic under
Geometry of Rats storm clouds that, depending sensitively on
initial conditions, may or may not bring rain.In the room where Jacob Bronowski wrote The Ascent of Man, we meetCindy Ehlers. «What is the difference between walking and dancing, andwhat does the brain have to do with that?» she says. «I don’t think do-pamine, a single transmitter out of hundreds, can explain the differencebetween a walk and dance. How do you measure the quality of activity?»
When Ehlers asked herself this question, she thought of what she knewbest: EEG analysis. There are sophisticated mathematical operations, suchas spectral analysis, for picking out salient patterns in brain waves. Couldone analyze behavior as if it were an EEG?
«I took rats and put them in cages with photobeams to measure theirlocomotor activity. Every time a rat runs through the beam, you get a blip,and it’s counted by the computer. Rats are nocturnal; so I recorded theiractivity at night for five-to-seven-hour periods. And I found there was anatural pattern of locomotor activity. It occurred in bursts every sixty toninety minutes.
«Then, I thought, Why not use this model to study the effects of psy-choactive drugs? The standard paradigm is to give the rat a very high doseof a drug and see whether it jumps up on a shelf or something. I wanted
to see how drugs in low dosages would affect activity—the quality of activity.So I looked at the activity record as if it were an EEC What were thefrequency components? What is the amplitude? That is, if I draw a linethrough it and say this is the mean, what is the variance?»
The result? Sure enough, lithium, Valium, antidepressants, caffeine,amphetamine, and other mind drugs produced characteristic patterns inthe rats’ odysseys. Ehlers draws them for us on the blackboard: jaggedspikes; little, bunched waves; lopsided waves; regular, languid waves. «Onlithium the activity was much more randomized,» she tells us. «It blockedthe bursts. Antidepressants had the opposite effect: The spikes got bigger.On caffeine you got tight, little waves. It increased the mean activity, butthe variance went down. That makes sense when you think of caffeine:People say they can be more focused. Amphetamine increased the meanand the variance.»
Later she did EEG studies and found they corresponded strikingly tothe behavior patterns. «Maybe what brings the whole system together frombehavior to the EEG down to enzymes is this frequency organizer,» shereflects. «Arnold Mandell says frequency is a basic language, a globalproperty. … A description of consciousness may be a description of thevariability of mental states and the organization of those states in time. Inpreliminary studies of TM meditators, for example, it looks like the var-iance of the EEGs is reduced. I’d like to find out, What does that statemean cognitively?»
When Farmer, Garfinkel, King, and other chaos cognoscenti checkedout the waveforms Ehlers was getting out of her computer, «they startedrealizing the brain was emitting patterns similar to the patterns producedby equations for hydrodynamic flow.»
J? 1 j i Arnold mandell sees a lesson for psy-
treud, Jung, and chiatry fa the nocturnal journeyS of the Salk
Strange Attractors rats If a computer followed your tail for
many hours, many days, or many years, he
thinks, your random odyssey would have a shape as distinctive as your
signature. Human behavior has its underlying geometries, if you know how
to look. «William James’s ‘preconscious stream’ is a random walk,» he
says, «but an order emerges over time. How is it that your thoughts are
in flux from moment to moment, yet you remain the same person with the
same mind? The concept of deterministic chaos can resolve that paradox.
It’s like an almanac, which is better than a three-day weather forecast.»
The first time he heard Doyne Farmer describe a strange attractor—
«This thing just can’t wait to roll itself up,» he remembers Farmer saying
of some hydrodynamic phenomenon—Mandell was hooked. To penetratethe cryptic geometries that, he felt, must be in neurons as surely as inconvection currents and rising columns of cigarette smoke, he spent fiveor six years teaching himself difficult differential equations. «This is abitch,» he confides. «It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.» But he did itwell enough, apparently, to win a Mac Arthur Foundation Prize in 1984.
«Whether you’re talking about electricity or water or clouds or thebrain or the behavior of crowds,» he says, leaning forward in his chair andfixing us with his electric eyes, «there are only a few plays, a few dances.
«I think of Doyne’s incredible image. You take a bunch of dots—thoseare the initial values in a computer system—and throw them on the at-tractor. Do they get together and make waves? Or do they spread out allover the attractor? The attractor is like a magnet. It looks random, butover the course of time it makes a shape. The brain is like that. A per-sonality is like that.
«What Freud discovered was very profound. If you put a person in anoffice in Vienna in 1900, turned out the lights, and had him say whatevercame into his mind, there were only a few basic patterns: the obsessive,the compulsive, the hysteric, the psychopath. Out of the infinite possibilitiesof free association, only a few ‘myths,’ like the Oedipal myth and thecastration-anxiety myth, recurred again and again. The details of the per-sonality might be different—one person might be a doctor, another mightbe a plumber—but at a deeper level there were only a few patterns ofresistance against the stress of circumstances. In a sense when a psychiatristlooks at a person, he is taking infinite dimensions and making a ‘low-dimensional attractor,’ a simple myth that ties everything together. Oraldesperation, or anal ambivalence; control, or pride, or sexual jealousy.»
On his blackboard Mandell clears a «phase space» and draws a pointattractor and a limit cycle. «If you get stuck anywhere,» he says, «youmight get a disease. This»—he indicates the point—»might be death. This»—his chalk goes round and round in the endless circle of a limit cycle—»might be manic-depressive disease.» The limit cycle also reminds him ofobsessions, fixed ideas, the circling «stereotypes» of rats on high-doseamphetamines, and the obsessive detail of speed art. «The obsessive styleis too coherent, like a limit cycle,» he says. «You go round and round inthe same circle. ‘People are bad.’ ‘Relationships are like that.’ We all havea little of that.
«These were the only dynamical stabilities we knew about until a fewyears ago. Then this new one was found.» He scrawls a spiky, bristlingstrange attractor. «This might be that Christian church I told you about.Those kids do a lot of far-out things. They speak in tongues, have visions,read the Bible, and say, Til do it, Lord,’ but they are stable because
Freud, Jung, and Strange Attractors • 373
they’ve surrendered to God. I think that’s the stability of the strangeattractor. It is phaseless, but it’s definitely a shape.
«I think,» he adds, «we all oscillate between two brain states: thelaminar [the smooth flow described by a fixed or periodic attractor] andthe chaotic. You can see the dynamics of the two hemispheres that way.The left brain is laminar, orderly. It gets home by saying, Two blocks left,one block right, six blocks north.’ The right brain just gets home by thegeometry. It’s a disorganized flow, a strange attractor. Freud saw the ob-sessive and the hysteric as the yin and yang of the personality continuum.I think these are the two basic brain styles, and every personality is somemixture of the two.
Hang out with chaos long enough and it will become a personal phi-losophy. The paradoxical «bounded madness» of the strange attractor islike a Zen koan, the mathematical equivalent of «What is the sound ofone hand clapping?» Many of the chaos people we met spoke like poetsand mystics—Ralph Abraham, who once spent seven months in India witha guru, is exploring the Vedic theory of vibrations in a computer simulationof neurons—and Mandell is no exception. The worldview he wears on hisT-shirt (BOUNDED CHAOTIC MIXING PRODUCES STRANGESTABILITY) is not as succinct as E = mc2. But it has cosmic resonancesfor Mandell.
It means: «You have greater stability if you surrender to God.» Itmeans Jung instead of Freud. «Freud’s paradigm is ego determinism: ‘Icause it.’ Jung’s is a different sort of causality—mythic, a word church. Ithink that’s closer to the way the world works.» It means «nonattachment,the mysterious theme of the Bhagavad-Gita»
He shows us a picture of a strange attractor spawned by a computersimulation of a pituitary cell’s response to tropic hormones. «Otto Rossler,a German theoretical chemist, stood in front of his analog computer andsaw one of the first ones like this and went psychotic,» he tells us. «It waslike a hallucinogen psychosis, I’m sure.»
The Lewis Carroll landscape of chaos can do weird things to your head.If you make a cross section of a doughnut, you get a circle. If you makea cross section of a strange attractor, you get an infinite regress of folds-within-folds-within-folds like nesting Chinese boxes. Magnify an inch ofone fold, and you’d see more folds inside, with the same rich detail repeatedin miniature. It is like a map of the English coastline each curve of which,when enlarged, contains a smaller version of the coastline, and so on adinfinitum. Mandell thinks the brain is a little like that.
«Whatever way you slice it, the brain shows you infinity with the sameface,» Mandell says. «I’ve gotten the same patterns now from dopaminereceptors, from the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase that makes dopamine,
from the serotonin receptors, from single-cell recordings, from EEGs, allthe way up to behavior. Your style, whatever it is, is imprinted in everyneuron. It appears in your EEGs and in your handwriting, in the way youbrush your teeth and the way you keep your car. At every level, down tothe atomic, I think you’d find you see the same dance, the same scenario.It’s a signature. A year of your life, if we could describe it geometrically,would have the same ‘coastline’ as your day.
«If you give someone lithium, it changes all the dances, at all the levels.It randomizes things, creating an ionic mesh of ‘noise’ in the water. Thewaves are less bunched, less phased, less coherent. Tricyclic antidepressants[such as Elavil and Tofranil] do the reverse: They speed things up so youget to the next state faster.
«Cocaine and amphetamine produce kindling, the waves become phased.If you look at the character disorder that cocaine produces, it’s as if randomevents become organized into one frequency. You’re very positive abouteverything, arrogant, monotonic. I think Freud described a cocaine sliceof the brain. He got very nasty, territorial, and defensive in his later papers.
«Hallucinogens, I think, are strange attractors. They scramble detail;they disorganize. When enough detail is scrambled, all you can hang onto is the underlying geometry. If you’re used to the sequential, laminarmode, you can panic. But sometimes for the compulsive who has knownonly the laminar mode, they can add a new dimension.»
Needless to say, the brain Mandell contemplates does not look anythinglike a wiring diagram. It is not a switchboard or a computer but somethinglike a soup—uncertain, fluid, full of nonlinear eddies and currents.
«To study a neurotransmitter in a test tube,» he explains, «you addthe precursor enzymes and co-factor enzymes, then measure the rate atwhich the transmitter is produced. Most researchers add enzymes at con-centrations a thousand times greater than those found in the brain. At suchlarge concentrations, the biochemical reactions move toward equilibriumat an orderly rate. The graph is a smooth curve. But when we used lowbiochemical concentrations like those in the brain, the lines on our graphsstarted wiggling and dancing like crazy. I’ve flown all over the country withthese graphs, and some of the finest brain scientists told me they were justnoise, garbage, because they don’t have a linear behavior. But I’m tryingto map the wiggles.
«You get these wiggles in any nonlinear system. They’re the vorticesyou see if you put a rock in the path of a fast-moving stream. They havean order of their own. We can map them, but they’re not inches or mil-ligrams; they’re dances.
«I think we’ll understand the global things about the brain—temper,
impulsivity, obsession, hysteria—before we figure out how we see or howwe drive a nail,» he tells us. «There is deep order in there that we can getat with some of these mathematical tools. Now we’re asking things like,When do you ‘come down’ from a hallucinogen? Maybe you never reallydo.
«The brain’s gonna change,» he assures us. «I should have been a buyerin a department store. I can call these things.»
One of the key insights of chaos is that,A Higher Form of as Alan Garfinkel puts itj «chaos is not dis-
^r»^r order; it is a higher form of order.» The
loops of randomness in nature, the lumps,wiggles, whorls, eddies, and nonlinearities in a system, contain information.The «noise» self-organizes and creates complex patterns. When you heata fluid past a critical value, for instance, millions of individual molecules,as if on cue, organize themselves into hexagonal cells. A similar processhappens inside your brain.
«In the brain individual molecules may appear to be behaving ran-domly,» W. Ross Adey tells us, over prefab chili dogs in the ultramoderncafeteria of Pettis Memorial Veterans Administration Hospital in LomaLinda, California. «And if you look at electrical processes, the noise atthe synapse appears random. If you go from the atomic level all the wayup to systems at the ganglia, you get randomness. But at each level someaspect of order emerges.
«When I say order,» he explains, «I mean that a certain graininessappears that makes it nonrandom. It shapes itself into something.»
One of the shapes is the EEG, the complex, shifting patterns of manyneurons firing in unison. «There is an organizing principle in the EEG wedon’t really understand yet,» as Cindy Ehlers puts it. «In the language ofchaos, it may eventually be defined as an ‘attractor.'»
On a warm April day we rent a car in Los Angeles and drive eastwardto La Loma, a Seventh-Day Adventist town in the shadow of the SanBernardino mountains. They are stark, lavender, otherworldy mountains,the arid flanks of which make one think of John Wayne movies and thebleached bones of pioneers who never made it across the desert. Adeycame here from UCLA’s prestigious Space Biology Lab, which he directedduring the 1960s and early 1970s. In a reductionist age, he became some-thing of a lone ranger.
«Thirty-odd years ago, the British biologist J. Z. Young gave a seriesof lectures for the BBC,» he tells us. «He said if he were to build a model
of the brain he would liken it to a telephone exchange. Calls come in andthe operators plug circuits in and out, directing calls to the proper recip-ients. But the operators would also be doing a lot of eavesdropping, andthey would whisper together about the things they overheard. And Youngsaw this whispering as the fundamental function of brain tissue. Not theimpulses going through the switchboard, but what the cells picked up fromthe traffic and whispered about among themselves.»
In the traditional, connectivist model of the brain, all communicationpasses through the individual «switches» of the synapses, and the elemen-tary unit of cognition, the essential information carrier, is the individualnerve impulse. Adey disagrees. «Every organism needs its sewage system,»he says of the nerve impulse. He is part of the «globalist» camp, whichsees the brain’s real language as the synchronized «whispering together»of millions of neurons—the EEG.
«One of my earliest experiences in neurobiology,» he says, «was study-ing the central nervous system of a giant, five-foot-long earthworm. It hasa little brain with only two hundred neurons arranged in a pallisade. Andyet the worm has a complex repertoire of behaviors. This would not bepossible if everything depended on the impulse system. There aren’t enoughcells.
«The first thing that happens in the nervous system is the transmissionof wavelike information between cells, and not impulses. There’s this slow,wavelike process we call the EEG. God didn’t put it there as somethingfunny for humans to observe.»
Unlike the discrete voltage spike of the nerve impulse, the EEG is acontinuous wave that has sometimes been viewed as mere backgroundnoise, the «noise of the brain’s motor.» But to Adey the EEG has «sig-natures in it of great importance.» At the Space Biology Lab he analyzedthe EEGs of chimpanzees playing tic-tac-toe, of hallucinating schizophren-ics, and of NASA pilots and astronaut candidates performing differentmental tasks. Whether or not it could foretell how a mind would processcelestial navigation data in a claustrophobic capsule on the far side of themoon, the EEG did contain signatures of «truthfulness,» «correct decisionmaking,» «auditory vigilance,» and «specific hallucinatory behaviors,» ac-cording to Adey.
Furthermore, he insists, an individual brain cell «senses» the surround-ing electromagnetic waves. If a weak electromagnetic field is applied tothe head, neurons will synchronize their firing to the surrounding rhythm.When Adey’s team put a monkey’s head inside a radiomicrowave field thatpulsed to the same frequency as the brain’s alpha waves (a slow, seven-
A Higher Form of Order • 377
to-ten-hertz rhythm that accompanies relaxed states), the animal’s EEGbecame locked in phase with the external field. Its brain started to producemore alpha. «In one case, the monkey had to press a lever every fiveseconds to get apple juice. When we applied a seven-hertz field, the ani-mal’s estimate of time sped up by one second. Maybe these fields alter ourcircadian rhythms.»
If this is so, it’s a bit ominous, for we’re surrounded by weak electro-magnetic currents. Can the waves flowing out of telephone lines, trans-mission towers, radar installations, video display terminals, and microwaveappliances alter the mind like a psychoactive drug? Do they make usirritable or calm, sleepy, alert, forgetful, or depressed?
For years it has been rumored that the Russians have a mind-controlmachine. They do, and, as part of a Soviet-American scientific exchangeprogram, they’ve loaned one to Adey. An odd-looking contraption madeout of vacuum tubes and other components of World War II vintage, it isan electrical tranquilizer called the Lida. Adey and his colleagues testedit by putting a nervous cat in a metal box and the Lida next to it. Whenthe machine began to hum and broadcast radio waves in the frequency ofdeep-sleep EEGs, the cat went into a trance. «Instead of taking a Valiumto relax yourself,» says Adey, «it looks as if a similar result could beachieved with a radio field.» Soviet scientists claim they’ve used the Lidato treat insomnia, hypertension, anxiety, and «neurotic disturbances.» (Ofcourse, if a tranquilizing field is possible, so is an anxiety-producing field,and there are rumors of a more sophisticated version of the Lida that iscapable of long-distance mind control.)
None of this is supposed to be possible, according to the switchboarddoctrine, because these fields are far too weak to trigger a nerve impulse.But Adey showed that fields too weak to make a cell fire an impulse changedthe way charged calcium ions bound to the membrane, setting off powerfulchemical reactions within the cell.
«We have seen this terrible era in the last twenty years when engineershave proudly prated that the brain is like a computer,» he tells us. «Well,it is and it isn’t. The part that is not like a computer is the fundamentalpart of brain function. A computer is totally linear. We have evidence oftremendously nonlinear interactions in the brain. A linear equilibriummodel cannot explain why a field at twenty hertz has much more powerfuleffects on brain chemistry than a field at sixty hertz.»
Look at this egg: with it you can overthrow allSlime Mold and the schools of theology and all the churches in
Society tms world. What is this egg? . . . How does this
mass evolve into a new organization, into sensi-tivity, into life? . . . First there is a speck whichmoves about, a thread growing and taking color,flesh being formed, a beak, wing-tips, eyes, feetcoming into view. . . . Now the wall is breachedand the bird emerges, walks, flies, feels pain, runsaway, comes back again, complains, suffers, loves,desires, enjoys. . . . And will you maintain, withDescartes, that it is an imitating machine pureand simple?
—DENIS DIDEROT,
d’Alembert’s DreamIf your brain had no «noise» in it, you would lack both free will andindividuality. As Mandell puts it, «Your personality is the style of yournoise.» If every input triggered a determined, linear output, you would bea flesh-and-blood automaton, a «meat computer,» incapable of hatchinga new idea. «A linear system cannot generate new information,» saysCalTech’s John Hopfield, the father of the forgetful computer. «If you aretrying to build a system that can reconstruct a total memory from partialinformation, you need a nonlinear system.»
«In a computer you have to round off at nine places,» says Mandell.»There is noise at the boundaries, and if you let it, that noise can beginto shape itself into something. The not-quite-rightness gets bigger in time.It self-organizes. The brain has this spontaneous, self-organizing activity,like clouds, air, and water. It makes eddies and whorls. As you go fromthe level of neurons, to electromagnetic fields, to a person, to a family, toa society, you get emergent properties.»
But how does noise shape itself into something? How does order ariseout of disorder? How do cells floating in a sea of extracellular fluid giverise to ideas, the «causal potency» of which, in Roger Sperry’s words,»[becomes] just as real as that of a molecule, a cell, or a nerve impulse?»Who or what is directing the traffic, giving the orders, drawing the blue-prints?
Well, consider slime mold. Alan Garfinkel did, and was fascinated bythe organism’s ability to self-organize. «When I first saw it, I said, ‘Alan,stop what you’re doing; this is the most beautiful thing in the world.’ «You and I might not see the attraction in the green slime that coats thesurface of stagnant ponds, but to the connoisseurs of chaos it is a paragonof emergent order.
«The creature has two life phases,» Garfinkel explains. «In the first,
The Belousov-Zhabotinski reaction, above, discovered in the early 1960s, is a classicexample of self-organization in nature. Traditionally, chemical reactions were sup-posed to return to equilibrium, but as these particular inorganic chemicals react,a pattern of scroll-like waves unfolds in a shallow petri dish solution. If dyes areadded, the solution can be seen oscillating from red to blue to red, as the constituentmolecules spontaneously organize themselves into a «chemical clock.» The equa-tions describing the Belousov-Zhabotinski reaction can also be applied to the meta-morphosis of slime mold, the internal dynamics of a hallucinating brain, and otherphenomena in nature. (Fritz Goro)
it’s a single-celled amoeba that crawls around, leading its own little life.But when it’s deprived of food—bacteria—it undergoes a radical transfor-mation, a phase transition. It starts pulsing a chemical messenger, cyclicAMP, which signals to all the other amoebas. They all start to cluster, inbeautiful wavelike patterns, into colonies of thousands of cells. Then anamazing thing happens. The colonies, originally homogeneous, undergoan internal transformation and become one differentiated animal.
«The front part becomes a head; the back, a stalk. The body becomesspores covered with hard cases. They break away, the cases crack open,and out come individual amoebas, completing the life cycle. You get thisincredible, structured, differentiated, organized piece of macroscopic orderout of individual cells!»
Believe it or not, there are equations to describe this process, and thepattern the slime mold forms is the «solution.» The equations have a self-organizing property that, in this case, transforms a loose collection of
unicellular creatures into a single, many-celled animal. But the same prop-erty operates in many parts of nature, including the Belousov-Zhabotinskichemical reaction, and some scientists suspect it is the hidden factor inmorphogenesis, turning a spherical, undifferentiated fertilized egg cell intoa complex, structured, differentiated animal or human being. (Is this theanswer to Diderot’s question?)
Slime mold also offers a model for the emergence of human socialorder, Garfinkel thinks. How do societies, nations, global economic sys-tems, trade unions, and so on arise out of the random, unpredictablebehavior of individuals? How is it that we all agree to drive on the rightside of the road, to observe a nine-to-five workday, and to file our incometaxes on April 15? «The total state of the system will move to a certainattractor—say, cooperation—even if the individual doesn’t consciously in-tend it,» says Garfinkel.
The dramatic reorganization of slime mold occurs when the individualamoebas begin pulsing to the same rhythm, a phenomenon known as «phaselocking» or «phase entrainment.» Crickets and fireflies do this, too, chirp-ing or flashing in concert, and there is a widely observed tendency for themenstrual cycles of women living together to become synchronized. Loverssleeping together will naturally breathe in unison. And, Garfinkel tells us,a mechanical «breathing» teddy bear has been used to stabilize the breath-ing of infants with breathing arrhythmias, for the baby’s respiration au-tomatically becomes entrained to the bear’s. Perhaps, he suggests, someof our social conventions, such as the nine-to-five workday, involve ananalogous frequency entrainment. It is the nature of things to beat inunison—neurons not excepted (as we have just seen from Ross Adey’sexperiments).
Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which wasa dialogue between two pieces of yeast. Theywere discussing the possible purposes of life asthey ate sugar and suffocated in their own excre-ment. Because of their limited intelligence, theynever came close to guessing that they were mak-ing champagne.
—KURT VONNEGUT,
Breakfast of Champions
Question: When you think, what thinks? Do your individual brain cellsthink? Does a neuron possess a quantum of consciousness? We think theanswer is no—even though there is a school of thought that sees the neuronas an atom of cognition, as in Hubel and Wiesel’s feature detector cells,which «recognize» lines or edges. It seems unlikely that a neuron can know,perceive, or feel sorry—even a little bit. A single neuron is mindless. How
A New Dialogue with Nature • 381
then does it produce a mind? No matter how many billions of mindlessthings you put together, they could never make a mind, could they? Well,the paradoxical laws of chaos suggest that they could.
There is no Hobbesian sovereign to hold the social contract of slimemold together; no king amoeba or supervisor amoeba to give orders: «Justmove one centimeter to the right, next to Harry, there.» And individualamoebas are no more aware of the grand scheme than the bits of yeast inKilgore Trout’s story. But nonlinear equations show that the behavior ofa million amoebas, a million atoms, a million people, or a million neuronscan be totally different from the behavior of one. Thus the slime-moldorganism is emphatically more than the sum of its parts. No matter howconscientiously you probe a single amoeba, you won’t uncover the dynam-ics of slime mold. Only when tens of thousands of amoebas are packedtogether does this startling self-organizing property operate.
This picture of a self-organizing world con-A New Dialogue stitutes a «new dialogue with nature,» ac-
witri Nature cording to Ilya Prigogine, a Belgian theo-
retical chemist and 1977 Nobel laureate. «Ithink,» he remarks, «we are beginning to perceive nature on earth inexactly the opposite way we viewed it in classical physics. We no longerconceive of nature as a passive object. … I see us as nearer to a Taoistview in which we are embedded in a universe that is not foreign to us.»
The universe of classical physics is static and lifeless, according to Pri-gogine, because it is based on closed, equilibrium systems, which are ar-tificial. «In order to produce equilibrium,» he writes in Order Out of Chaos,»a system must be ‘protected’ from the fluxes that compose nature. It mustbe ‘canned’ so to speak, or put in a bottle like the homunculus in Goethe’sFaust. …»
You might say we have been studying the brain in an airtight glass jar.When we refrigerate brain tissue and puree it in a blender, we freeze time.By studying artificial still lifes—dead tissue sections and static micro-graphs—we miss the brain’s moment-to-moment transformations. A real,living brain is constantly reshaping itself, down to the level of synapsesand receptors.
«The brain is self-organizing,» says Berkeley’s Walter Freeman, whouses nonlinear dynamics to discern the shape of an olfactory «search image»in the electrical din of sixty-four electrodes. «That’s where free will comesin. This is only true of open systems, where there’s traffic of matter andenergy with the surrounding environment. As far as the brain is concerned,the body is just as much outside as the external environment.»
Newton’s universe was a rationalized machine wound by a clockmaker
382 • Chaos, Strange Attractors, and the Stream of Consciousness
God, and the mechanical Cartesian body harbored a ghost. Long afterscience tossed out the clockmaker and the ghost, the machine lives on.Our favorite contemporary model for the brain is the computer, which, ofcourse, requires an external program to animate it. (The central faith ofartifical intelligence, that the brain’s «software» can be lifted from itsorganic «hardware» and duplicated by a processor of symbols, can be seenas a form of mind/body dualism.) In a world that is a cold, lifeless, per-petual-motion machine, man and nature, mind and matter, seem to bemade of different stuff.
Now, however, we see that matter itself has a kind of soul. «Just heatit up and it will make itself into something,» as Mandell puts it. Insteadof winding down, as the second law of thermodynamics (entropy) predicts,the world progresses from disorder to order. The detritus of the Big Bangcoalesced into stars and solar systems. Life-forms sprang out of the pre-biotic mush on earth and grew increasingly complicated as a result of chaos(copying errors) in the DNA code—eventually producing the exquisiteinformation system of a human brain. (Doyne Farmer, for one, suspectsthat evolution wasn’t completely random, like a million monkeys bangingon the keys of a million typewriters until they accidentally produce all theplays of Shakespeare. Rather, he theorizes, the «DNA of higher organismsevolved to enhance certain errors ‘on purpose’ and to repress others.»)
The quintessence of nature’s self-organizing principle is consciousness.In an Oregon laboratory a well-known faith healer, Olga Worrell, recentlytested her powers on the Belousov-Zhabotinski reaction. According to areport in Brain!Mind Bulletin, the chemical solution treated by Worrellproduced organized waves twice as fast as a control solution. «We havedemonstrated the ability of a healer to influence the self-organizing be-havior of an experimental system,» one of the researchers concluded. Theidea was that «paranormal» healers might be enhancing the body’s self-organizing processes, its ability to counteract entropy and decay.
But paranormal feats aside, consciousness arranges randomness intopatterns every day. According to Hobson and McCarley’s theory of dreams,the reticular activating system, for purely physiological reasons of its own,fires meaningless nerve signals, which the storyteller of the neocortex weavesinto a dream tale. Human memory is a «story,» not a faithful transcript.Out of Rorschach inkblots the mind makes faces, poplar trees, churchspires; in the night sky it sees constellations, celestial bears, archers, anddippers. It orders biological forms into phyla, genera, and species; chem-icals into the Periodic Table of the Elements; stones into cathedrals; lettersof the alphabet into Moby Dick and Don Quixote. Confronted with a bunchof dots, the mind naturally plays connect-the-dots.
We are nearing the end of our journeyUn Unosts ana around the nation’s brain labs, a journey we
Machines started with a handful of questions as ancient
as Plato. Whence do our ideas, dreams, andemotions spring? Is the brain in the mind? Can a three-pound organ thetexture of warm porridge account for consciousness?
We have talked to drug designers, computer jocks, dream technicians,pharmacologists, phenomenologists, hallucination engineers, Freudians,behaviorists, lucid dreamers, rat runners, mystical psychiatrists, mind con-trollers, and inner space explorers. We have looked inside the brain withPET scans and electrodes to find the source of dementia and madness. Wehave tracked the relation between chemical messengers and mental illness,between dreams and electrical activity in the reticular activating system,between memory and alterations at the synapse. We have met reptilesuperegos, surprise waves, pleasure centers, multiple personalities, «dreamstate generators,» boss monkeys, talking apes, and talking right hemi-spheres.
Our initial questions began to fall by the wayside. Caught up in themarvels of opiate receptors and neural networks, we stopped asking aboutghosts in the machine. The machine seemed remarkable enough, with orwithout ghosts. But have the ghosts been exorcised?
Several years ago we met a man who had built a ghost-catcher. It wasan elaborate arrangement of random-number generators, polygraphs, am-plifiers, and so on. A team of physicists had designed an electrically shieldedbox equipped with sensors, special metal gauges «extremely sensitive tovibrations.» The gauges were connected to an amplifier, which multipliedany vibrations in the metal, and sent them to a polygraph machine formeasurement. With this machine parapsychologist Karlis Osis was tryingto «catch an apparition.»
A pale, white-haired man of rather ghostly mien, Osis has investigatedhaunted houses, mediums, poltergeists, psychics, deathbed visions, andother paranormal phenomena for many years. One of his subjects wasAlex, a Portland, Oregon, man who from time to time had out-of-bodyexperiences (OBEs) in the lab of the American Society for Psychical Re-search in New York. While the physical Alex lay swathed in electrodesand electromyographic equipment in one room, his incorporeal self, whichhe calls «Alex Projection Two,» would journey to the room next door.This was the «apparition» Osis wished to catch.
Alex was instructed to go into the room next door during his OBE andcrawl inside the machine’s little box («Alex Two can change his size»),and «without telling him we were monitoring him,» Osis and his colleagues
«Headquarters»: One of many mechanistic representations of the organ of thought.Of course, memories are not neatly filed in one neural filing cabinet, nor is therea «main office, where all orders start.» If the brain were structured as such a rigidhierarchy, the loss of a single neuron might suffice to turn us into vegetables. (TheBettmann Archive)
looked for any vibrations his etheric double would trigger in the metal.»So far,» he told us, «we have very encouraging results.»
Maybe so. But our encounter with Osis served to convince us that it isno easy matter to catch a ghost in a machine. «An apparition,» as he put
On Ghosts and Machines • 385
it, «is a very slippery fish.» You may say you don’t believe in ghosts, butin fact you are surrounded by them. Not wan beings of ectoplasm, perhaps,but things that are not easily caught in a material net. «Is what you thoughtyesterday still part of your mind?» Rudy Rucker asks, in Infinity and theMind. «If you own and use an encyclopedia are the facts in that encyclo-pedia part of your mind? Does a dream which you never remember reallyexist? . . . Would the truths of mathematics exist if the universe disap-peared? Did the Pythagorean theorem exist before Pythagoras? If threepeople see the same animal, we say the animal is real; what if three peoplesee the same idea?»
The newcomer to the brain lab is awed by the high-tech rites of spikecounting and frequency measurement, by intracellular amplifiers, signalaveragers, and voltage-controlled oscillators. Rats are conditioned in com-puterized shuttle boxes that print out histograms of their reflexes, amiddrinking and feeding monitors and startle-reflex meters. The brain is ex-plored with «vibroslice tissue cutters»; radioimmunoassay antisera for bom-besin, somatostatin, Substance P; scanning electron microscopes; osmoticpumps that deliver measured amounts of drugs to an animal’s brain aroundthe clock; and many other intimidating tools.
If he or she is lucky or skilled or both, a neuroscientist may snare afaint trace of mind. A conditioned gill-withdrawal reflex in Aplysia cali-fornica, a neuron that «recognizes» vertical lines, a statistical correlationbetween suicide and a breakdown product in spinal fluid, a «shadow ofthought» (in Alan Gevins’s phrase) in an EEG. Yet apparitions remain.The late Karl Lashley, trying to catch one with his scalpel, patiently cutup rat brains for twenty-five years, with the «memory center» always re-ceding before him like a watery blue mirage on the Nevada highways. Thecause of schizophrenia has proved so elusive that many researchers, wewere told, have given up and gone into the depression business instead.Of the estimated 200 chemical transmitters in our heads, more than 150are still incognito.
When we ask «Is the mind in the brain?» we assume we know whatwe mean. But after our journey around the organ of thought, the mindappears a far murkier thing than Descartes’s res cogitans. Where is themind under anesthesia, in a coma, in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease?Where is the mind of a multiple personality when an alter ego is on stage?Can a Korsakoff’s patient who has lost all his memories be said to have amind?
Do dogs possess consciousness? Does a disconnected right hemisphere?A disconnected left hemisphere? A newborn baby? A baby in utero? Atalking chimpanzee? Aplysia californica? A computer?
When he divided the world into mind and matter, Descartes was con-
suiting his senses. Matter was res extensa, a solid body occupying physicalspace, while mind (res cogitans) could not be apprehended by the senses.»It is ironic that such important problems should be frozen into old molds,»Don Walter remarks. On a certain night in the early 1600s, he tells us,Descartes had a series of dreams on which he based much of his philosophy.Reexamining those seminal dreams three centuries later, a psychoanalystnamed B. D. Lewin concluded that Descartes actually suffered an unrec-ognized epileptic fit and that the divorce between his cogitating self andhis extended self was a dream solution to his feelings of loss of bodilycontrol. What a curious irony—if the classic formulation of the mind/bodyproblem were the result of a brain pathology!
In any case the line of demarcation between the mental and the materialseems less certain now than it did in the seventeenth century. To Descartes’seyes, walking was a simple mechanical act that did not require a «mind.»But we now know walking is a highly complex performance, no less «men-tal» perhaps than calculating. Indeed machines can solve advanced algebraproblems with ease, but navigating in three-dimensional space is a Her-culean task for a robot with a computer brain. And what would Descarteshave made of a massless particle like the neutrino or of the schizoid ex-istence of light as both particle and wave?
The philosopher Gilbert Ryle, of ghost-in-the-machine fame, called themind/body problem a «philosopher’s myth.» It all came from a «categorymistake» of Descartes, who, said Ryle, was rather like a bewildered foreignstudent on a guided tour of Oxford. As the library, the dormitories, thechapel, and so on are pointed out to him in turn, the student keeps asking,»Yes, but where’s the university!» Asking «Where’s the mind?» and findingit nowhere in physical space, Descartes granted it a spectral existence. Butmind, says Ryle, is not a thing but a process.
Some philosophers liken the brain/mind to the «wavicle» in quantummechanics. Under certain conditions light behaves as a wave; under otherconditions as a particle. Whether it is a particle or wave in a given instancedepends on the angle of observation. So it is with the mind/brain. Perhapsdualism is, as Karl Pribram puts it, «the product of conceptual procedures—not of any basic duality in nature.» The mind/body problem, in short, maybe in the eye of the beholder.
«Go back to the fertilized egg where it all began,» psychologist Theo-dore Barber tells us when we ask him whether he thinks the mind is in thebrain, «and then ask where mind comes in. It’s obvious that it’s both mindand matter from the very beginning. The molecules have mental as wellas physical properties in that they have plan and purpose, which are at-tributes of mind.»
Please show us (the seat of consciousness, the memory center, the head-quarters of will) on this map.
An illustration from the 1930s depicts the brain as «The Control Stationof Your Body.» In their separate offices sit a «Manager of Speech,» a»Brain Headquarters (in Cerebrum),» a «Manager of Reflex Actions (Cer-ebellum),» a «Tester of Foods,» while in the «Camera Room» industrious»camera operators» run the giant projector of the eye.
Of course, we all know this factory-brain is about as realistic as thoseancient maps of the world with their leviathan-infested seas («Here bedragons») and enchanted isles. But we tend to confuse our more sophis-ticated «maps»—such as the simplified textbook diagrams of nerve path-ways—with the real thing. Hence the reductionist dream of a point-to-point correspondence between a mental event and a brain event, as if,ultimately, our entire mental life could be mapped onto the surface of thecortex. But the more we learn about the organ of consciousness, the furtherwe seem to be from such a wiring diagram.
«What you will be thinking a few minutes from now,» says John Hop-field, «is extraordinarily sensitive to what was happening a few minutesago. And we don’t know what relatively minor physical influences—suchas light energy of a star shining at night—might affect the state of thesystem several days from now.» Thus no EEG apparatus ever dreamed ofcould plot the course of the stream of consciousness. Nor can obsession,paranoia, or creativity be explained by measuring microscopic amounts ofchemicals or by trying to label neuroreceptors as if they were stuck on acircuit board. «Much of nature,» says Mandell,»including this bonded elec-trochemical jelly in our heads, is like a cat. It’ll move and you can relateto it, but you can’t control it. You can’t make it orderly.» The mind is notunlike the Red Queen’s croquet game in Alice in Wonderland, where themallets were live flamingos, the balls live hedgehogs that uncurled them-selves and ran away at the approach of another «ball,» and the soldierswho doubled over to make the «arches» were continually wandering offthe field.
r-, _ T A1 B.f. skinner, king of the behaviorists, once
The Rat Is Always , , «-, \. , . U4. „
J remarked, The rat is always right.
™gm An exemplary tale: To make autoradi-
ographic maps of neuroreceptors, you mustfirst sacrifice a rat. Laboratory rats are beheaded with miniature guillo-tines—a fairly humane method, but death is death. On one of our visitsto the NIMH we found Candace Pert and her laboratory up in arms. They
had just been told to decapitate their rats in the lab rather than in the»animal room» down the hall. The reason: The animal room was full ofhundreds of rats in cages, all subjects in various experiments, and someonehad just figured out that whenever a rat was killed in the presence of otherrats, the other rats knew. Indeed, they freaked out, and this mortal fearwas contaminating every experiment in the room.
Moral: Even rats live in a world of «ideas.» If you do not take theseideas into account, all your graphs, quotients, indices, schedules, and ratingscales—the effects of Fluorazepam on sleep latency, motor-activity countsas measured in a Motron Produkter apparatus, baseline blood-pressurereadings and EEG recordings prior to shock-induced fighting, the P<03and mg/kg figures—will be meaningless.
A few days later, in a lab full of rows of labeled rat brains, we talk toMiles Herkenham about the mind/body problem. He mentions a philos-opher who tried to solve the problem by examining freshly decapitatedheads during the French Revolution and who was disturbed to see thebodies jerking after their heads were gone.
«Every time you guillotine a rat,» he tells us, «you try not to get theanimal all upset. If the rat gets upset, its body will twitch more vigorouslyeven though it’s no longer attached to the head. There’s this weird timedelay. You throw the headless body in the corner of the counter and thirtyseconds later it is twitching. Some stress signal got to the body before thehead was removed and the body is still responding. …»
«But surely there’s no consciousness?» we ask.
«I don’t know,» he says. «If I were Aristotle and I saw that, I’d reachsome real strange conclusions.»
The sight of chickens running around with their heads cut off convincedAristotle that the mind was in the heart, not the brain. Now we knowbetter, or at least we know the heart is not the organ of thought. ButHerkenham doesn’t think that luminous star charts of radioactive receptorswill solve the mind/brain problem any more than Aristotle’s barnyard ob-servations did. After fifteen years of patient scrutiny of the rat cerebrum,he is a confirmed agnostic. «I guess the mind is in the brain, but studyingthe brain as an organ doesn’t answer the question.
«It was because of my original interest in the problem of consciousnessthat I study the cerebral cortex,» he adds. «And I guess it’s possible tokeep the grand questions in mind when you do research. But here I amspending all my time looking at differences between iodine tritium andsome other isotope for autoradiography. I phone up radiation physicistsand ask them, ‘Is it X rays, gamma rays, or electron emissions that areaffecting the film?’ How did I get from consciousness to these questions?»
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«There’s this funny thing that happens to neurophysiologists at aboutthe age of thirty-five or forty,» Don Walter tells us. «They get discouraged.
«The unspoken ideal of science, is, ‘Well, I have to approximate a littlein my experiment today, but next week when I get my new instrument Ican do better, and next year even better, and eventually it will all becomedeterministic. Scientists treat the P300 wave, for example, as a real objectthat is obscured by a little noise, and if you just average a little more andtake out the noise, you can determine the thing more and more precisely.But that’s wrong. You’re sitting inside a little telephone booth, gettinglimited messages from the outside. Maybe the ‘noise’ is meaningful.
«The metamorphosis that we’ll see in neuroscience,» he continues, «willbe more profound and more existentially upsetting than quantum me-chanics. What will our new brain models be like? Well, they might besomething like dreams—Der Traumwerk, or the ‘dreamwork,’ as it is ratherinelegantly translated in The Interpretation of Dreams. A lot of our thinkingis like that. Not like Descartes’s ‘clear and distinct ideas,’ but like thestories we tell about the funny things that happen to us in our dreams.»
Aphasia, alexia (inability to understand the printed word), hallucina-tions, delusions, hyperkinesia, tremors, echolalia (parroting of words),echopraxia (parroting of actions), satyriasis (excessive sexuality). Tics, au-tomatisms, catatonia, catalepsy (rigidity of posture), agrypnia (total in-ablity to sleep), coma, choreas (involuntary «flickering» muscle move-ments), aphagia (inability to swallow), agnosia (perceptual difficulties),amorphia (inability to judge form), anorexia, orexia (incontinent gluttony).Aboulia (lack of will or initiative), bradykinesia (slowness of movement),tachykinesia (excessive speed of movement), ophthalmoplegia (paralysisof gaze), coprolalia, amimia (loss of expressive capabilities), algolagnia(lust for pain), paralysis, blindness, dementia.
These are a few of the misfortunes that can befall people when theirbrains are diseased or injured. Like the liturgy of a black mass, the termsconjure worlds infernal, unearthly, unspeakable; zones of nonbeing, ofdamnation, of eternal torment such as that endured by Prometheus, Sis-yphus, and Dante’s Paolo and Francesca. Although lobotomy mogul WalterFreeman once pronounced lobotomies no more hazardous than tooth ex-traction, most of us feel instinctively that the brain is something more than»just another organ.»
Computers can do many impressive things: prospect for oil, land a manon the moon, prove mathematical theorems, impersonate a psychiatrist,play chess, design new molecules, and build Chevrolets. But only a braincan synthesize dopamine, adapt to a changing climate, wiggle the big toe,
390 • Chaos, Strange Attractors, and the Stream of Consciousness
grow new proteins, monitor the environment for enemies, decode wave-lengths, invent a new kind of computer, monitor body temperature andgastric fluids, send messages to the glands, and reflect on its own nature—all at the same time.
So where are we? After all the lab rats have been beheaded, all the nervecells stained with horseradish peroxidase, all the receptors illumined withradioactive ligands, what final truth is revealed to the neuroscientist? Isthe brain just a marvelous machine, an accident of evolution, that can bemastered and controlled like any other machine?
We asked Candace Pert, the brilliant, flamboyant discoverer of theopiate receptor, a final question about her science. «Einstein and otherphysicists,» we said, «have described experiencing an almost religious awewhen contemplating the laws of the universe. Do you ever feel that wayabout the brain?»
«No,» she said, «I don’t feel an awe for the brain. I feel an awe forGod. I see in the brain all the beauty of the universe and its order—constant signs of God’s presence. I’m learning that the brain obeys all thephysical laws of the universe. It’s not anything special. And yet it’s themost special thing in the universe.»
action potential the nerve impulse, a transient change in electrical potential across
the neural membrane.affect feeling or mood, general emotional state.agonist in pharmacology, a drug that mimics the action of a neurotransmitter at
the synapse.alpha wave an EEG pattern of a characteristic frequency (eight to twelve hertz)
signifying relaxed wakefulness.Alzheimer’s disease a progressive dementia caused by the death of neurons in a
region of the brain called the nucleus basalis.amplitude the height of a waveform.amygdala an almond-shaped structure in the limbic system thought to control
such emotions as aggression, fear, and rage.antagonist in pharmacology, a drug that blocks the action of a neurotransmitter
at the synapse; the opposite of an agonist,aphasia loss of language ability.
Aplysia an invertebrate marine animal resembling a large, shell-less snail, some-times referred to as a «sea slug» or «sea hare.»association areas parts of the cortex occupied with higher integrative or symbolic
functions rather than direct sensory processing.automatism a robotlike state in which one performs involuntary acts as if on
«automatic pilot.»axon the neuron’s «output» side: a single fiber that carries the nerve impulse
away from the cell body.
basal ganglia a region at the base of the brain below the cerebral hemispheres
comprising the globus pallidus, putamen, and caudate nucleus.behaviorism a school of psychology that focuses on the objective, measurable
parts of behavior (stimulus and response) and ignores the subjective, inner life
of the person or animal.benzodiazepine the class of Valium-like chemicals for which the brain possesses
special receptors.beta-endorphin a morphinelike brain chemical; one of the family of natural opiates
collectively known as endorphins,blood-brain barrier a network of membranes between the circulating blood and
the brain that prevents some drugs (but not others) from passing into the brain.brain stem the central core of structures between the spinal cord and the cerebral
hemispheres, including the medulla, pons, and midbrain.
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Broca’s area a localized center (in the left hemisphere in right-handed people)governing the production of speech.
central nervous system the brain and spinal cord.
cerebellum a large, convoluted structure above the pons concerned with motorcoordination.
cerebrospinal fluid the clear fluid filling the ventricles of the brain and the spinalcanal.
cerebrum the largest and uppermost portion of the brain.
chaotic systems physical systems whose dynamics cannot be predicted with cer-tainty.
chlorpromazine an antipsychotic drug and major tranquilizer used to treat schizo-phrenia.
classical conditioning a paradigm invented by Ivan Pavlov in which an animal istaught to associate a neutral stimulus (such as a bell) with a meaningful one (e.g.,food, electrical shock); also known as Pavlovian conditioning.
corpus callosum sheet of white matter connecting the cerebral hemispheres.
cortex layer of nerve cells forming the outer covering, or «bark,» of the cerebrum.
deja-vu an inexplicable feeling of familiarity as if everything had happened before;a phenomenon sometimes encountered in temporal lobe epilepsy.
dendrite one of the fine filaments that branch off from the body of a nerve cell;along it are located multiple synapses, where the neuron receives messages.
diencephalon one of the major subdivisions of the vertebrate brain, containingthe hypothalamus and the thalamus.
dopamine a neurotransmitter closely related to norepinephrine (noradrenaline)and associated with arousal, mood, etc.; deficient in Parkinson’s disease andabnormal in schizophrenia.
dualism the philosophical doctrine that mind and matter are two separate sub-stances.
electrode a wire or other conductor used to stimulate the brain with an electrical
current or to record spontaneous neural activity.electroencephalogram (EEG) the recording of the brain’s electrical patterns through
electrodes placed on the scalp.
endorphin the class of natural opiates made by the brain.engram memory trace, a putative physical record of a past event.enkephalin a brain opiate, a short fragment of the larger beta-endorphin molecule.enzymes catalysts produced by living cells that speed up chemical reactions.event-related potential the electrical response of the brain to a given stimulus or
task; sometimes known as an evoked potential.
feature detector a neuron specialized to perceive one particular feature of thephysical world, such as greenness, verticality, etc.frequency the number of times an event occurs during a certain period.frontal lobe the frontmost of the four major subdivisions of the cortex.
glial cell a type of brain cell that provides support and nourishment for the neu-rons; traditionally not thought to play a role in information processing.
glucose a sugar used in metabolism.
Golgi stain a dye that stains entire neurons (including the cell body, axons, and