Category Archives: Health: Mental and Physical

Brain Science 3, Or: Fear

Noting that brain scientists have long ignored the feelings and emotions, the emotion that figures most prominently in Huther’s discussion of the brain is the one that lies at the root of the fight/flight response: fear. Fear, for Huther, can produce a disequilibrium in the brain; it is a state of extreme stress. The ability of the individual to deal with this feeling is determined primarily in the first year of life:

There are children who enter this world with much more fear than others. And there are children, who following their birth, encounter conditions that are not conducive to developing a sense of security. These children have less confidence than others about their ability to eliminate a a disturbance to their inner balance through their own efforts and with the help of their mother–and less confident that they can share their joy over this successful enterprise with her. There are psychologically disturbed mothers, immature mothers, unhappy and discontented mothers, insecure and fearful mothers who are plagued with self-doubt, moody and fickle mothers, overly self-centered mothers or mothers who are overly controlled by others.

Children who enter the world with an excess of fear or children whose nurturing (environment) is inadequate can and do develop what Huther calls “Defective Installations,” brain networks that allow the child to deal with the fear but in ways that make their responses to the world “one-sided.” Once a child has developed such a one sided coping strategy there is little hope that he or she will abandon it in later life with the consequence that he or she will cease in large part to be capable of continued development. He or she is stuck.

I don’t know that Huther has read any psychoanalysis but the conclusions he reaches remarkably resemble those psychoanalysts reached some 80 years ago by means other than cutting up the brains of rats.

In her “Our Inner Conflicts,” Karen Horney, for examples, writes of the “basic conflict” and those environment factors that can produce a “defective” response to that conflict:

A wide range of adverse factors in the environment can produce this insecurity [basic anxiety] in a child: direct or indirect domination, indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for the child’s individual needs, lack of real guidance, disparaging attitudes, too much admiration or the absence of it, lack of reliable warmth, having to take sides in parental disagreements, too much or too little responsibility, overprotection, isolation from other children, injustice, discrimination, upkept promises, hostile environment and so on and so on.

Horney continues:

Harassed by these daunting conditions, the child gropes for ways to keep going, ways to cope with this menacing world…. In doing so, he develops not only ad hoc strategies but last character trends which become part of his personality. I have called these “neurotic trends.”

One sided development or neurotic trends. Take your pick. In either case, the child becomes stuck and doomed to follow in the same rut for the rest of its life.

Brain Science 2; Or, What Is Huther onto?

So what is Huther onto (see previous entry)?

In summary:

For decades the presumption was that the neuronal pathways and synaptic connections established during the brain’s initial development were immutable. Today we know that the brain is capable throughout our lifetimes of adaptively modifying and reorganizing the connective pathways that it has laid down, and that the development and consolidation of these pathways depends in quite a major way on how we use our brain and what for.

So what does this mean in some larger sense. Well, it means the structure of any particular brain….and one can only study particular brains…may well not be the structure of any other brain with the consequence that locating an immutable DNA conditioned structure is difficult, if not down right impossible. Certainly down there somewhere is a structure determined by DNA but “overlaying” that structure are all the structures or networks that arise from the inter-relation of the organism with its environment.

Huther writes:

A few years ago, no researcher in the field of brain science could have conceived the possibility that what we experience could be capable of changing the structure of the brain in any way. Today most scientists who study the brain are convinced that the experiences of our lives do become structurally anchored in the brain.

This notion that experiences themselves can “program” the brain or create structures provides some “scientific” proof for the process of socialization…that sociologists talk so much about. We learn, it might be said, from experience when those experiences create a new structure or reprogram the brain in some way.

Consequently, Huther argues that human beings did not develop big brains so that they might think or reason but so that they might become socialized. He writes: “Our brain is thus much more a social organ than it is a thinking organ.”

The brain of course is not equally open at all stages of development to being reprogrammed through experience (as the interaction of the organism with it environment). Rather, more like Freud than not, Huther suggests that the most profound and possibly unalterable experiential reprogramming occurs during the first year of life. Reprogramming or possibly first programming at this level is so profound, so obdurate that structures produce by it may appear DNA determined. They are not however and possibly because they are not Huther proposes as a kind of ideal brain one that is not boxed in by its early experiences but capable across the whole life cycle of learning (being reprogrammed by experience).

Very few and relatively rare individuals however achieve this brain ideal. Rather, to use Huther’s phrase, most of us develop brains that are in one way or another “one-sided” and relatively unopen to alteration. To address this problem he suggests scientists should expend less energy on asking how the brain is structure and more on how the brain is used, for how we use the brain is what determines whether “…the potentialities built into it can really be fully actualized.”

Brain Science

I got a book from Amazon, as I said, called “The Compassionate Brain: How Empathy Creates Intelligence.” I read the whole thing in a day–or rather parts of a day–not because it was all that interesting, but it was short and with pretty big print (helpful for me, these days).

The subtitle was really misleading. Huther, the author, says very, very little about empathy and nothing at all about how empathy creates intelligence. That was disappointing. I guess the publishers wanted some sort of catchy title, though had they been honest they would have called it “A User’s Guide to the Brain” which is what Huther calls it in his introduction. I don’t know. The book was written in German. Maybe something got lost in translation.

Huther is a brain scientist. He admits to having cut up in his day lots of rats’ brains and seems to have learned a good deal about the social life of rats. In fact, what he learned about the social life of rats seems more important to his line of thought than he learned cutting up the brains of rats. He has pretty much transcended that sort of brain science. He writes:

They [certain other brain scientists] think that the amygdala is the source of fear, the hippocampus is the source of learning, and the cerebral cortex is the source of thinking. Now in case you have heard of any of this stuff, you can just go ahead and forget it. The same goes for any claims that particular genetic configurations are responsible for what goes on in your brain. There are no genes for laziness, intelligence, melancholy, addiction or egoism.

I am glad he says this because I have long been suspicious of such claims, as in Looky-Looky when we have X masturbate this part of his or her brain lights up! First of all the brain never “lights up.” That’s just some sort of digital special effect. And the whole business of making things light up and then inferring something about “intelligence” or “addiction” strikes me as no more than slightly advanced phrenology.

Hegel pretty well did in phrenology as science as far as I am concerned; he writes in part (he always writes “in part”):

Thus then, on one side we have a number of passive regions of the skull, on the other a number of mental properties, the variety and character of which will depend on the condition of psychological investigation. The poorer the idea we have of mind, the easier the matter becomes in this respect; for, in part, the fewer become the mental properties, and, in part, the more detached, fixed, and ossified, and consequently more akin to features of the bone and more comparable with them. But, while much is doubtless made easier by this miserable representation of the mind, there still remains a very great deal to be found on both sides: there remains for observation to deal with the entire contingency of their relation. When every faculty of the soul, every passion and (for this, too, must be considered here) the various shades of characters, which the more refined psychology and “knowledge of mankind” are accustomed to talk about, are each and all assigned their place on the skull, and their contour on the skull-bone, the arbitrariness and artificiality of this procedure are just as glaring as if the children of Israel, who had been likened to “the sand by the seashore for multitude”, had each assigned and taken to himself his own symbolic grain of sand!

Now that’s a long quotation, but I would point to the line that suggests that implicit in phrenology (as science) is a ” miserable representation of the mind.” I think Huther would agree. Modern day let’s light it up brain science is based implicitly up a pretty miserable representation of the brain.

He is unto something else.

Not phrenological.
phrenology.jpg

Klonopin

I have been taking Klonopin since 1993 for anxiety. At first I ran 1 milligram a day: .5 in the morning, .5 before bed. But the stuff wore me out so much during the day, I cut the morning dose down to .25. And I have been at that dosage for maybe ten years. Now I am trying to reduce the .25 morning dose.

Unfortunately, Klonopin belongs, along with Valium, to the benzodiazepine family of drugs. These drugs are addictive and not mildly. If a person should make the mistake of going cold turkey, he or she could put him or herself a risk for any number of nasty things up to and including seizures.

I didn’t know any of this when I started taking the stuff and I don’t recollect anybody telling me. I could have paid more attention I suppose, but frankly I was grateful. After ten years or more of insomnia, I was happy to be able to get to sleep. And the Klonopin helped with that. It got me to sleep, though over the years I have experienced quite frequently extended episodes of waking up way to early, like at 3 in the morning. A ghastly time to be awake.

But Klonopin is like alcohol. The longer you take it the more more you need to achieve the same “high” or whatever it is you are aiming for. I am fairly convinced at this point that I suffer tolerance withdrawal. Daily! I mean the dose I take no longer achieves the effect it once did, and the Brain wants More. So I go into withdrawal. Daily. Usually at around 11:30. The energy continues to drop, and after lunch, I am useless and aching.

The usual “cure” for tolerance withdrawal is to up the dose. But I don’t want to up it. I want off it. But given the side-effects of withdrawal, one has to move very, very slowly. I am dissolving my morning tab of .25 in a cup of water. I am slowing removing one tablespoon at a time from that cup. There are 16 tablespoons in a cup, and at my current rate, it will take a month for me to get off the .25.

So that will be the core of my summer vacation, my basic project. The pains of withdrawal. I don’t know how people who work nine to five and take drugs of this kind could ever get off. I mean how could one work or do one’s job properly feeling utter exhausted and at the same time ready to jump out of one’s skin from withdrawal.

So I am lucky.

Sleep Apnea Again

Brother Dan continues his struggle with the effects of his stroke. He has been feeling exhausted, especially in the afternoon, and so made a couple visits to his doctor. One visit resulted in an adjustment to his high blood pressure meds; at the second the doctor suggested he get checked out for sleep apnea.

He went in Saturday night for the sleep test where they stick all sorts of electrodes to your upper body and head and tell you, all tangled up in wires, to go to sleep on a strange bed. Dan got to sleep pretty quickly, and at 1:30 AM they brought in the sleep apnea mask for him to try out. That’s a pretty sure sign that the tech detected sleep apnea. If they don’t detect it, they don’t have you use the mask; if they do detect it, they have you try it out to see if it helps.

So now Dan will have to get used to the agonies of the sleep apnea cure, the mask, the air flow machine, waking up with the tube completely around your neck. And there’s nothing quite like trying to sleep with a sleep apnea mask while suffering from a cold.

Still, if it helps him to feel less tired, that’s for best…and maybe more than that is involved because, looking into the issue, Brother Dan came across the results of a study indicating a significant correlation between sleep apnea and strokes.

Sort of scary….

An update: just got off the phone with Brother Dan.  The results of his sleep test indicate that he has 52,8 episodes of disturbed sleep per hour.  This puts him in the range of “severe” sleep apnea.  He will be getting his machine and mask soon.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Endlessly

I want to be happy, I guess. Though I would settle, if it is in fact settling, for J.S. Mills definition of that as the absence of pain or suffering. That would do me fine. But I think the great bulk of people who are not me (and that is the great bulk of people) want something more. Not that I would know myself what that might be exactly. I seem to know less and less about that mythical “most people.”

Zygmunt Bauman looks into this business of happiness in his “The Art of Life.” There he argues, pretty definitively, I think, that happiness has little or nothing to do with affluence. Experts have tracked the correlation of the rise in GNP with happiness, and they report, according to Bauman, “that improvements in living standards in such nations as the the United States and Britain are associated with no improvement–indeed a light decline–in subjective well being.” Further: “On the whole, only a few percentage points [on the happiness index] separate countries with an annual income per capita between 20,00 and 35,000 dollars from those below the barrier to 10,000 dollars.” Leading Baumont to assert: “The strategy of making people happier through raising their income does not seem to work.”

Apparently the “advanced” western nations have not only their own physical complaints, like colon cancer, but also their particular spiritual or psychological problems. Along with not being so happy, the people of the “advanced” nations also, according to Baumont suffer from “…an uncomfortable and uneasy sensation of uncertainty, hard to bear, let along live with permanently. Of diffuse and ambient uncertainty, ubiquitous yet seemingly unanchored, unspecified and for that reason all the more vexing and aggravating..”

He’s right about that. Whether or not we are heading to hell in a hand basket, there’s certainly a good deal of uncertainty about where we are heading, and how that direction, whatever it might be, will affect our daily walking around and whether or not we will find what we want in the grocery store or anything there at all. That could be paranoia. But if all the bees die, then more than likely so will we.

Consumer society has sought to salve the wound of this uncertainty by giving us plenty of goods to consume. This, however, has not led, according to Baumont, to happiness but to the endless pursuit of it. Baumont puts it, “One of the most seminal effects of equating happiness with shopping for commodities which are hoped to generate happiness is to stave off the chance that the pursuit of happiness will never end.” As one of my students put it, “I looked in my closet. It was completely full. But I had absolutely nothing to wear.” Her clothes, because of incessant changes in fads, had worn themselves out just hanging there.

Somebody benefits I suppose from this incessant churning of goods. Somebody is making profit, and the endless pursuit itself keeps the wheels of industry world wide churning. If Americans and the members of the other western nations suddenly stopped consuming, the whole damn world economy would collapse.

But we’re not going to find happiness this way, even as the absence of pain. 

Dental Accident

As I sit here, my stomach is growling or more precisely gurgling. The GI issue remains. I am drinking ginger tea. It does not taste good, but so far it has proven to settle and sooth my distempered gut. Also I am taking some thing called Jarro-Dophilus designed to help the good bacteria make a come back in the colon. The box says, “Five Billion Organisms Per Capsule.” Frankly, that freaks me out a bit–how small are these organisms that one can get 5 billion of them in a capsule. Are they dead organisms or free-dried? I suppose I could do some research. Instead I just take them.
jarro.jpgLast week some time I was eating and felt with the tip of my tongue–as one does–out of nowhere a rough patch on one of the teeth in the upper left jaw. I probed a bit further and found–Jesus Christ!–a huge hole in one of the teeth. Whatever had been there–tooth or filling–was gone, and hanging out I assumed somewhere in my troubled gut.

Next day, the dentist said they could only take me in for an exam real late in the day, but then just as I was getting in my car to go to the grocery store, the cell rang and they said, “Hey, come on down.”

So I spend the next three hours in a dentist chair. I had not planned on that, but the dentist really didn’t give me a choice. First he looks in there and says, Jesus Christ! and even as he is speaking he is pumping in pain killer. Something about this dental accident seems to energize him. I was like a dental adventure. Immediately he is diagnosing the situation, and calculating what needs to be done, and how to do it so he can save the tooth by putting a cap on it–and all this while working me in between his other clients. I am also a logistical challenge.

I never did get clear on what happened exactly except that a chunk of tooth fell off, and it did not crack down below the gum line and there was no abscess and thus no need for a root canal.

I guess I was lucky, though the dentist enjoyed himself a lot more than I did.

I hope this tooth incident proves isolated. 

Normal?

Went to my medical person again because this stomach thing–vague nausea, loss of appetite, profound flatulence, incessant stomach gurgling (loud enough to hear across the room), non-traditional stool plus fatigue–just wouldn’t remit.

I was happy to see she had on hand the results from my blood work up that is part of the yearly physical. I figured those might indicate something or better yet nothing relative to this gastrointestinal issue. And thank goodness, the results of the blood work throughout and on every item were “Normal.”

That word perplexed me because it is not one I would ever think to apply to myself, not having felt normal, for at least 40 years and probably longer.

But according to the tests I fall into the norm in every area.

I have been normed but do not feel normal. You can see the word “normal” written on the test results.
results.gifBut being normal did not afford a diagnostic avenue for this stomach thing.

I paid attention though when the medical person’s assistant said, as she was walking me to the office, “A stomach thing, huh? I don’t know what is worse. A back problem or a stomach problem.” This was heartening in a way since it suggested that my stomach problem would probably prove no more fatal than the ubiquitous back problem, but not so heartening since it suggested the stomach thing could be chronic and something of a mystery–in the way back problems sometimes can be. Just one of those things–for which there is no cure precisely except to learn to live with it.

Possibly my stomach or more precisely my colon is just showing the wear and tear of age. According to the results of my colon exam a couple years back I have a good deal of diviriticula in that same colon. These can become irritated from eating the wrong sorts of food. While I may be headed in that direction I do not have full blown diverticulosis. This can be accompanied by very sharp pain and blood in the stool.

So for now–more tests most especially to check for a bladder infection, since that too could produce odd sensations in those regions–and next week I must harvest materials for a stool study to determine if I have become a habitation for a parasite.

About I can do in a personally way is to eat very bland and non-irritating foods for a couple weeks and see if that makes a difference.

Great!

So I am alive but, without Mexican food, can I call it living?

Yearly Physical

Went in for my yearly physical this morning. Don’t know how many yearly physicals that makes. But it’s been quite a few. The package of materials on me has reached small phone book size.

According to my PCP (primary care person) I am–and I quote–“doing great.” My weight is even further down from last year to around 160. The PCP thinks I shouldn’t let it go lower than that and a few more pounds wouldn’t really hurt. The heart seems good, and the lungs sounded good. Also all the stuff in the lower parts is, well, hanging in there.

Still have to do the blood tests though and don’t know what that will show. Brother Dave went in recently for a routine physical, and it turned out not routine at all with all sorts of follow up tests before they finally concluded that all was fine.

I think I mentioned feeling as if I were suffering a fatal attack of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Turns out, according to the PCP, I had an intestinal bug making the rounds, a low grade infection, down in the bowel, hard to get rid of, that makes a person feel bloated (that’s what I felt) and that upsets the bowel (I had that too) and pretty much screws the appetite. I had that too. I mean I knew I was hungry but I just didn’t feel like eating. At one point I started drinking a lot of water. Turns out that was the thing to do. The bug is still there a bit. But I continue drinking water and herb tea.

So things could be worse. For me, that’s optimism.

On the way home from the physical, I stopped off at a Walgreens to get the H1N1 shot. Man, was that a pain. All sorts of paper work and then the person giving the shots disappeared for a half hour. So there I was mingling with a bunch of other old folks in a Walgreens waiting for a damn shot. A lady who was seated…and seemed clearly older than I…kept asking if I wanted to sit, because she would get up, if I wanted, and shouldn’t feel ashamed or anything. And I kept saying no thank you and wondering how the hell old do I look or miserable that she should keep offering me her seat.

And then when the person giving the shots finally showed up, the old folks there insisted I go first (the line wasn’t quite clearly defined), so I took the seat, displacing a mentally ill person who had failed to do the paper work. And the shot person kept trying to poke me through my nicotine patch, so I took it off finally. So I got up and thanked the others for their courtesy, and they said, Don’t smoke. Because they had heard me talking about my nicotine patch.

And I left wondering how the hell decrepit do I look.

This getting older stuff is the pits.

For me, that’s optimism.

cannady-d.jpgMy PCP

Retirement: Who Knows?

I am 63, going on 64. I had thought I would retire at about 65.5. But who knows.

I received a email with the subject heading: Post-Employment Benefits Local Forum.

Just the phrasing scares me. What the hell are Post-Employment Benefits? Is that some attempt to change the definition of “retirement.” Because that’s what they will be talking about “retirement” benefits.

Apparently the UC Pension plan is in significant trouble; and I am of course concerned that these troubles may affect me significantly. That I may have to work longer than anticipated, and that even if I do, I may received reduced benefits, in terms of money and medical.

But something is afoot and it is hard to know what to think, or plan or feel.

This language appeared in the email:

The University’s long-term liability for retiree health benefits for current and future retirees is also projected to increase, from $13 billion today to nearly $26 billion by 2018. In other words, the liability is increasing at a rate of more than $1.5 billion per year. Governmental accounting regulations now require UC and other employers to include this liability in their financial statements. Such a significant liability could affect UC’s credit rating when borrowing money for campus buildings, hospitals and other projects.

If in fact the liability associated with the pension fund might inhibit
the University’s power to build buildings, support hospitals, as well
as unnamed other projects, whatever those might be, then they may do
something drastic. One does not have to look far to get some sense of
how businesses treat their employees these days, and more it more it
appears the University is a business.