Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My brain made me do it?

Good article over at CNN about how brain differences that correlate with psychopathic behavior can be seen in children as young as three.

The article gives me hope, but as usual, the comments do not:

I swear I didnt kill that person.. My brain made me do it...

Ah, snideness. The easiest way to bury your head in the sand while trying to look clever.

Then there's no way that you can be rehabilitated. We'll have to remove you from society....permanently.

Armchair neurology: if it's in your brain, then there's no way to change it! And then a scary threat... punctuated by a scary... ellipsis.

There was, however, one comment that I am glad to have read:
I know I'm one of these people. My lack of guilt and fear of consequences have led me to make some huge mistakes. I've had to work very, very hard to make some major changes in the way I live my life and make decisions. This is a very interesting study. I hope that good things come from it.
What do you know? Sociopaths are people too! Of all the things I'm glad for, high on the list should be my acute sense of guilt, remorse, shame, and the host of other social emotions that keep me both from causing harm and being vilified.

Do you punish your child differently depending on how intentional you deem his act to be? Would you label him a monster if you were to learn that you passed on genes that made it painfully difficult for him to act in accordance with most of society? Or would you do your damnedest to make sure he stops hurting himself and other people?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Meditation is boring

There, I said it. A friend and I were chatting earlier today about ways of revamping the brain. I wanted to suggest meditation -- as I have a thousand times in the past -- but I hesitated, and not only because I hate sounding like a preachy bastard all the time. It's also because I've been lousy at keeping up my practice myself, and I suppose it's not hard to understand why.

The thing is, meditation isn't supposed to be fun. I know that as well as anyone. But if I feel it's so boring that I don't do it, maybe it's time to be more practical and less idealistic. So here's an alternative I suggested to him. It's one I do myself when I'm not too lazy.

Pick up a challenging magazine that's only marginally interesting to you. I use The Economist. Spend five or ten minutes reading articles, being careful not to let your mind wander from the topic at hand, or even far from the details of the passages. Every paragraph or so, give yourself a very brief quiz ("What was this paragraph about? The PM of Japan. What's his name? Naoto Kan. Check."). Try to be as engaged as possible, allowing those details to seep into longer-term memory, even as you read on.

It's similar to attention meditation in that you're expected to carefully monitor your attention and detect when it's going off course. It's easier in that the subject is generally more engaging (than your breath, for example), and that you're able to wander further from the exact subject before you must accuse yourself of being off course (the sensation of the breath at your nostrils is a rather precise percept).

But even this simple exercise is not trivial to do well for most of us, and I believe that practicing it is a step in exactly the right direction if you're looking to strengthen the circuits in your brain that allow you to live your life in a directed and conscious manner (more on that soon).

So if you're not ready to give full-blown meditation a try, or are just feeling lazy, reach for a nearby magazine or book and give your brain a more manageable workout.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Revisiting a hard-to-pronounce Greek word

I guess it's high time I update this thing. Had a few thoughts yesterday, and figured I'd commit one of them to writing.

In Nov 2009 I wrote about a condition called anosognosia. That's a condition where you have a disability but don't know you have it. I'll repeat one of the quotes:
Neuroscientist Edoardo Bisiach at the University of Milan in Italy reported one 74-year-old stroke patient who repeatedly claimed that his left hand belonged to the doctor examining him. The doctor finally grasped the paralyzed hand between his own two and held it up to the patient's face.

"Whose hands are these?" he asked.

"Your hands," the patient replied.

"How many of them?"


"Ever seen a man with three hands?" the doctor asked.

"A hand is the extremity of an arm," said the patient. "Since you have three arms, it follows that you must have three hands."
When we are attacked or affronted by another person, how do we decide how much to blame the offender? For many people, part of that decision is based on how much we think the other person should know better.

Well, how do we know whether they should, or even can, know better? For an amputee with anosognosia, surely he should know he's missing an effing arm. And still, no amount of yelling at him will change the fact that he does not.

I really enjoy learning about neurological disorders because they remind me how profoundly differently other people may experience the world. And I'm constantly reminded that the only thing people seem to have in common is that we're all trying to do well for ourselves, with the limited mental resources we have.

What mistaken beliefs might you hold you don't know about? Are you sure you'd recognize or accept them if they were pointed out to you by even your closest friends? I'd like to end again with the same quote as last time. It's something I believe fiercely:
"Looking at patients like Mrs. M. can be spooky at first," says Ramachandran, a neuroscientist and physician at the University of California at San Diego, and the Salk Institute nearby. "But then you realize you're really looking at yourself, in amplified form."
Do yourself a favor and spend an extra 15 seconds asking yourself if you're really really sure you're right the next time someone criticizes you. You just might be missing an arm.