Don’t Go Arguing with Neurons

As I continued reading Matt Gallagher‘s Youngblood, I also happened upon a trending article from The Atlantic,  “Power Causes Brain Damage,” by Jeremy Useem.  Well-written, the article’s background premise presents no surprise: when people attain positions of power, often they display diminished capacity to empathize with the sufferings of others.

Anyone who’s taken an Intro to Psychology course since about, say, 1965 should be able to tell you as much—just as those folks who came across Stanley Milgram and his Yale shock machine in the early Sixties. True, the point of that particular experiment was more about social pressure, but power sure makes social pressure much more, say, sociable.

Mr. Usheem, though, reports that the background premise now lights up a screen in (literally) living technicolor.

He writes about current work in the neuroscience of empathy, especially concerning mirror neurons, brain structures that appear to be triggered when one is watching someone else doing something or even experiencing something. They’re sort of like our species’ built-in “There, but for the grace of God” mechanism.

According to the researchers quoted by Mr. Usheem, when folks feel powerful, their mirror neurons don’t feel so inclined to fire. Or so it seems.  Obliviousness, at least in such cases, appears to have a neurochemistry.

Neuroscientific psychology, psychological neuroscience: take your pick. If you want a good intellectual bar fight to break out, link those two words together, publish them, and then check out the comment section. Trust me: someone will eventually snarl “biological reductionism,” after which another will pipe in with “mentalistic presuppositions,” or some such, and you’ll be off to the races.  Like a charm.

Academia is so predictable.  At least something in this world is.

I’ll confess, though: I’m a linguistic mercenary when it comes to neuroscience. We live in such a Cartesian society, no hour of my professional life  goes by without my meeting persons who assume that what happens in their mind has little to do with what happens in their brain, let alone their body. People might pay  lip service to “mind-brain”, but that and $3.50 gets you a latte, most days.

So you’ve got to be straightforwardly sneaky.  This is how the mercenary mission goes:

If you think something, feel something, or will yourself to do something—while also connected to a snazzy machine—your brain will light up (or not).  No light-up-brain, no think-feel-will.

Simple as that.

Correlation, not causation, you say?  Perhaps.  But  when one is a linguistic mercenary, one need not let a trifling like that stop the show.

For one advantage to our societal allegiance to Descartes, at least in the early twenty-first century?  Most folks in the West are so impressed with the bells and whistles of machines, once you mention the word body, they stop nitpicking with you about the word mind.   Biology trumps psychology, every time.

For combat vets, for example, all you then have to do is say something like:

1. The body registers what happens to us, whether we want it to or not.

2.  The body doesn’t forget.  Even when you order it to do so.

3.  Neither does it take orders from Central Command as to how it will or will not respond in any particular situation.  Training takes you far.  But only so far.

4.  Your body tells your mind what will happen far more readily than your mind tells your body.

5.  But then, my combat vet friend:  you already know that.  You live it every day, down to your last cell. Sometimes every night.

6. You don’t just remember War. You relive it.

Point not just made, but felt.  Mission accomplished.

To take the body seriously is to take seriously that language can only do so much to express the body’s depths of experience.  Power is a social phenomenon, true, like words, for it happens between at least two people, whether any words are spoken or not.

But to realize how power feels in the body of the powerful—while being oblivious to the feel of that power in the body of another, less powerful? Ah, that’s inside a single mind, inside the neuronal compromise between a single brain and a single body, a series of neuronal firings that convinces the brain not to waste too many neurochemicals on cells that, ultimately, will never get the mind, i.e., you, what you want.

So forget empathy, soldier.  This is War. It is what it is.  Mirror lights off.  Onward.

The researchers tell Mr. Usheem, in fact, that if those series of obliviousness-neurons fire together often enough, the pesky mirror neurons might not bother you again for quite a while.  Maybe never.

But caveat miles, let the soldier beware: mirrors in the brain can start picking up the reflections of others at the most inopportune of times. Maybe even in an instant of battle.  Maybe in the days, even the years back stateside.

I’m about halfway through Youngblood now.  Already Lieutenant Jackson Porter is struggling with the biology of power as it ebbs and flows throughout his cortex, his midbrain, his brainstem, his lungs, his hearts, his guts. However it turns out for him, War has changed not just his outlook, but also his physiology.

Since Lieutenant Porter narrates in the first-person, though, we may also assume that he has learned another truth about neurons:  once they have fired together, they may once again reunite for good—or bad—times’ sake.  That’s called memory.  It is often not a friend. Only the few can claim the luxury of days, months, even years of enjoying power’s oblivious biology after War.

For the many, like the good Lieutenant, those oblivious times must eventually be confronted during later times less oblivious, as they face the memories of their bodies that might have been present fully at some particularly memorable moments, yet the realities of their minds that might have been far less so at those same moments.  They may have known exactly what they were doing, what they were saying at those times, in other words, while at the same time not having been fully they. 

As they face memories of minds that were the products of brains that, at least at some moments, were not firing on all cylinders.

And so the linguistic mercenary doctor fires off once more:

1. It was both you, and it wasn’t you back there, Lieutenant Porter

2.  That’s just how the body works.

3.  But, thankfully, biology is not destiny.  It’s just biology.

4.  Memories may feel like present reality, but they too are just biology.

5.  Present reality, fortunately, is far more than biology.  And, fortunately, it can be a spot from which new biology can be formed.

Trust me: it wouldn’t be “mission accomplished” for our good Lieutenant.  But it would be start.

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