Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains
By: Helen Thompson
Narrated by: Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson (British Author, journalist with a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience.)
“Unthinkable” is a series of interviews of people who have a reputation for seeing the world and their place in it, differently. The author is a journalist.
Thompson argues perception of the world comes from the mind. As synaptic activity of the mind is better understood, she infers what is real or false may become more universally understood.
Though Thomson’s interviews are anecdotal, they suggest the mystery of consciousness holds a key to mental health.
An interesting highlight of Thompson’s investigation is the existence of synesthesia in some people. Synesthesia is a neurological condition where information meant to stimulate one of your senses, actually stimulates more than one of your senses. Thompson notes people who have synesthesia may be able to hear colors, feel sound, or taste shapes. Two people with the same diagnosis may not perceive the world in the exact same way but their brains are stimulated to see more than what most people see, hear, or feel.
Synesthesia may be a mixed blessing in that it can overwhelm one’s senses, but it implies a more multifaceted view of reality.
One of Thompson’s last interviews is of a doctor who has a form of synesthesia that magnifies his empathy for patients. He actually feels some of what a patient is experiencing. Presuming the doctor’s senses are not overloaded by empathy, the patient seems more likely to be better served. If the mind’s neurological pathways for synesthesia can be identified, could empathy become instilled in every thinking being? Possibly, but the question remains whether that would enhance or burden humanity by making people who serve society emotionally drained, tired, and demotivated.
An earlier chapter addresses people who can develop “mind palaces” like the fictional character Sherlock Holmes.
They can recall the minutest details of an incident and compare it with information and experience they have acquired over the breadth of their life. If neurological pathways of a mind palace can be replicated in every human mind, could humans use those pathways to recall what they have learned from past experience and education to solve human problems?
One wonders if that is not the direction of A.I. in the future. This leads to concern of life becoming more machine-like than human with the added dimension of life as machine.
A third story is of the man who believes he is dead. His conception of himself is reinforced by brain scans that show very little neuronal activity though he continues to wake up every morning and function like a human during the day. He has little emotion or hunger and feels comfortable spending the day in a cemetery among those whom he feels are fellow travelers. Through medication, his neuronal activity is re-established, and he becomes more aware of his existence among the living.
There are more bizarre stories, but the underlying theme is life is defined by consciousness. Examples are given to show how parts of the brain are interconnected by neurons that pass information to the body about human existence in the world. The inference is that as humanity gains knowledge of how this interconnection works and which parts of the brain control neuronal activity, it will be possible to change human life. The impossible question to answer is whether that change will have good or ill effects on society. Of course, that may be moot if humanity cannot come to grips with the harm that is being done to the world’s environment.
This is a book one may set aside as an anecdotal journey into bizarre human anomalies. On the other hand, it affirms the importance of understanding everyone is part of humanity. It seems search for understanding of consciousness is essential for the continuation of human beings, whether mentally disabled, psychotic, neurotic, or diagnostically normal.
Michael Kinsley is an American political journalist and commentator. One may remember Kinsley on television a few years ago as a clever political commentator who figuratively fenced with conservatives like Pat Buchanan and William Buckley. He seemed a contrast to conservatives even while co-hosting with Buchanan on CNN and acting as moderator on “William Buckley’s Firing Line”. Kinsley exhibited a sly sense of humor. “Old Age” is a short book that exhibits that same slyness.
Kinsley notes he is 65 years old as he writes “Old Age”. He reveals his trials with Parkinson’s disease as an introduction to what it means to be nearing the end of one’s life. Though he has a less aggressive form of Parkinson’s, he notes his trembling hands and slow movement are more pronounced than when first diagnosed when he was 43 years old.
Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms
Kinsley explains the medical treatment he has received to mitigate symptoms. He writes about brain surgery and the medicine he takes and how both have helped him cope with the disease. Kinsley recounts the effect the pills have in improving how he feels for a few hours while having to take more pills when their effect wears off. Though this is Kinsley’s explanation of his personal experience, it is not the primary message of his book. His goal is to explain to baby boomers like himself about the end game of life.
As most know, Michael J. Fox has dealt with Parkinson’s disease since he was diagnosed at the age of 29.
Boomers who are nearer the end than the middle or beginning of life understand Kinsley’s reason for writing “Old Age”. Kinsley notes the greatest change in a healthy boomer’s ageing is the loss of driving privileges. City dwellers might take exception to that observation, but his point is that losing one’s license is a loss of individual freedom.
Kinsley is preparing “baby boomers” for their future.
Kinsley suggests most boomers will realize there is no next step for their career. That may be true for boomers working for someone but less true for those in business for themselves. Nevertheless, loss of employment is a blow to many boomers who feel they have lost purpose in life when there is no next step for their career.
Kinsley argues most boomers who have mid-life success, as measured by material gain, were “losers” in high school. Interesting thought but listener/readers might want some statistical proof.
What is high school success? Is it popularity, (being class-president)? Is it being a sports star? Is it top grades? Is it just getting a basic education? It seems the last two are reliable indicators of future success. Being a sports’ star or being popular is like threading a needle while walking on a waterbed because it is difficult to transfer high school sport’s skill and popularity to the wide world.
The greatest concern a boomer may have as one ages is the potential for dementia.
An area where one may agree with Kinsley’s observation is fear of the loss of cognitive skill. Mental decline manifests in communication difficulties, getting lost in familiar places, having difficulty balancing a checkbook, knowing what day it is, or losing the desire to learn new things.
Kinsley implies wealth is wasted on the aged who have lost self-awareness. Kinsley argues reputation is important. That seems false to the person who is dead but has relevance to those left behind. Humans are living longer but, as Kinsley notes, longevity is not the issue. It is quality of life and reputation that matter.
There may be a brief period of assisted living when one cannot take care of themselves, but hospice and in some cases euthanasia, seem more humane for one who reaches their final stage of life.
The final chapter of Kinsley’s book seems to fall off the rail of reason. Kinsley argues the wealth of modern America is largely inherited (not made) by the boomer generation and it should be confiscated to eliminate the national debt.
This may have been a “tongue in cheek” suggestion but the idea of beggaring the boomer generation to eliminate national debt ignores the reality of homelessness, support of nations like Ukraine under siege, and the plague of inequality and discrimination in America. It also ignores baby boomers who have truly earned rather than inherited their wealth. In the end, Kinsley gives listeners a laugh while addressing a very difficult time of life, “Old Age”.
Mind Fixers (Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness)
By: Anne Harrington
Narrated by: Joyce Bean
Anne Harrington (Author, historian, Ph.D. in the History of Science from Oxford.)
Anne Harrington’s history is a reminder of the particular importance of psychiatry. Harrington explains how psychiatry evolved from quackery to a respectable treatment, if not cure, for mental dysfunction. Like treatment for cancer, the history of psychiatry ranges from brutality to rehabilitative treatment for damaged lives.
The initial interpretation of aberrant human behavior is noted as a neurological disorder, a diagnosis of disordered nerves.
Harrington notes a neurological explanation of psychiatry changes in the early 19th century. In the 1800s, it seems treatment for people who were tetched were generally isolated in asylums or cared for by immediate family members who dealt with patient aberrant behavior by isolation and/or restraint. The idea of treatment and cure is limited, if not non-existent in that century.
In the 20th century, neurological interpretation of psychiatric disorder is expanded. Sigmund Freud becomes famous by treating patients who exhibit abnormal social behavior by delving into their family histories.
Freud develops theories of psycho-sexual development from detailed interpretation of patient interviews about their lives. Psychoanalysis becomes an integral part of psychiatry as defined by neurologists, though each suspects the other as less effective in treating psychological imbalance.
The third stage of development in psychiatry is drug treatment. New drugs are expensive to develop, but once an effective drug is found, its value is immense.
The big drug treatment breakthrough is in the 1950s with Chlorpromazine (aka Thorazine) that treats psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. Its limitations were found in its application when the patient becomes anesthetized, uncaring about life and living.
A part of Harrington’s story is about other disciplines that deny scientific discovery and believe Christian Scientists, Scientologists, or faith in God as the best therapy for psychiatric maladies.
WWI, WWII, and surprisingly post Covid19 are wake-up calls for psychiatry. Though recovery from war is not the same as recovery from a pandemic, social reintegration is similar for both returning war veterans and pandemic survivors. Americans who survived war and those surviving Covid19 show similar social reintegration problems.
United States cases
Updated Mar 4 at 2:32 PM local
Isolation during Covid 19 created “foxhole” relationships in families that changed the social dynamic of relationships and individual roles in society.
There seems a need today for as much psychiatric help for Americans after the pandemic as Harrington writes about after two world wars. One might argue the rise in 21st century crime, unemployed young, and homelessness is partly a consequence of recovery from the pandemic.
Irvin D. Yalom (Author, Doctor of Medicine, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.)
Harrington’s history of the evolution of psychiatry offers a possible cure, or at least improvement for what ails 21st Century America. That improvement is expensive. The question every American might ask themselves–are more jobs all that is needed? Listening or reading “Mind Fixers” implies jobs are only a part of the answer.
You Bet Your Life (From Blood Transfusions to Mass Vaccination, the Long and Risky History of Medical Innovation)
By: Paul A. Offit, MD
Narrated by: James Hoban
Paul Offit (Author, American pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases, vaccines, immunology, and virology.)
Like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies”, Paul Offit reflects on patients who risk their lives based on medical treatment and prescribed drugs by educated scientists, physicians, and drug manufacturers. Both Mukherjee and Offit write of the medical causes of death and attempts made by the medical profession to save lives. What both books have in common is that the medical industry, just as in all life’s work, is influenced by money, power, and prestige. Those influences carry risks and rewards.
Both Mukherjee and Offit are doctors with wide expertise in their respective fields. Offit’s book is shorter but equally important and impactful. Medical practice is just what the words mean.
Both physician/authors imply the word “practice” entails experiment on human beings. A physician can only be sure of successful medical procedures and treatment based on repeated healthful results for human beings.
Doctors, scientists, drug manufacturers, and medical employees make good and bad decisions based on educational achievement, hands-on medical experience, and personal motivation. That is true in all forms of work employment. The difference is we who are not part of the medical industry are intimately and mortally affected by its practice and advertisement.
Bad medical decisions can end a life; good medical decisions can save a life.
As a surgeon, Mukherjee reviews the history of cancer treatments and medical decisions that both killed and saved lives. Offit, a pediatrician, and member of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), reviews the history of medical innovations and treatment of infectious diseases that killed and saved lives. In the age of Covid19, Offit’s history is enlightening and somewhat frightening.
The hard push (called “warp speed) for a vaccine that treated Covid required risks to be taken. Putting aside the politics enshrined in American freedom of choice, in 2020 nearly 700,000 Americans may not have died if the vaccine had been accepted more quickly by the public. On the other hand, Offit’s history shows errors have been made by both physicians and drug manufacturers that have killed Americans in search for cure. Even with the great success of polio elimination in America, some died from improperly manufactured vaccines.
Offit reminds listeners of the history of heart transplants, blood transfusions, and anesthesia that reminds one of the gruesome details reported by Mukherjee about cancer in the early days of a search for cure.
Louis Washkansky lived for 18 days after having his heart replaced by a human donor’s heart. Only after years of research on rejection, did heart transplants give years of life to recipients.
Ryan White, a teenage Indiana boy, is saved from hemophilia after being given a blood transfusion that infects him with HIV. He was diagnosed in 1984 and given six months to live. He lived until 1990 but was ostracized by schools and society because of American fear of the disease. Too little was known about how the Auto Immune Deficiency was transmitted.
The search for a way to conduct surgery without pain led to the use of chloroform in the 1800s. Hannah Greener, a 15-year-old, dies from application of chloroform for surgical removal of an infected toenail in 1848. Offit does go on to explain chloroform became notorious for criminal use in robberies. In any case, the principle of anesthesia made a great contribution to surgical practice.
Hannah Greener (1833-1848, dies from an overdose of chloroform when anesthetized.)
Contrary to Offit’s claim of an overdose, the cause of death may have been aspiration of fluids in trying to bring her back to consciousness.
There are many more interesting stories from Offit’s historical account of medical innovation. The fundamental point of both Offit and Mukherjee is that errors will be made by the medical industry. Risks are taken by patients who rely on the industry to cure or ameliorate the ravishes of ill health. Government oversight, like the FDA, CDC, USDA, and the World Health Organization, work on minimizing risk to society but risk reduction is a work in progress. Offit notes there are many ways for medical cures to go wrong. From misleading advertising to poor medical practice, to human greed for money-power-prestige, human risk abounds. Of course, the ultimate risk is the patients.
The lesson one draws from these two physicians is that the public has a right to be skeptical but there is no right to be stupid. Dying will always be a part of our lives, whether mistakes are made or not.
His book “As Gods” is a skeptic’s view of cellular science and Recombinant DNA. Cobb infers science is as far away from understanding genetic function as it is about how the brain works.
However, from Cobb’s perspective, a lack of understanding genetics poses greater danger to the world than understanding the brain. Science seeks understanding of brain function to improve technological productivity. On a much wider stage, the science of genes deals with the ecosystem of life. The danger of genetic science is pinpointed by historian and author Yuval Noah Harari who suggests human history “…will end when men become gods.”
To change the hereditary characteristics of life is a giant step toward becoming godlike because it takes evolutional heredity out of life’s equation.
Cobb begins his book on genetics by reminding listeners of the discovery of the double helix by Watson, Crick, and Rosalind Franklin (though he doesn’t mention Franklin). The discovery of the double helix opens a new field of research. DNA is first discovered by Fredrich Miescher in 1869 but it is not until the 1950s, with discovery of the double helix, that science reveals the form in which DNA exists. The double helix model makes it possible for scientists to study the elemental structure of life.
The first test of a Recombinant DNA human experiment is in 1990. Two unrelated girls are diagnosed with adenosine deaminase (ADA), a symptom of which is low white blood cell count which usually becomes fatal in childhood. One of the two girls is alive today (according to a May 1, 2021, report). Cobb notes this result is positive but not definitive because the patients’ treatment is an early human experiment in Recombinant DNA therapy. It relies on an early form of gene therapy where a virus is used to allow molecular invasion of aberrant cells. And of course, one of the young girls in the experiment dies.
Cobb’s point is that the tools of this first Recombinant DNA’ uses a foreign virus to invade a human cell and experimenting with an untested treatment should be weighed against the effectiveness of known treatments.
With the helix model discovery of human DNA, science could study heredity and variation of inherited characteristics at a molecular level.
Yoshizumi Ishino (Japanese molecular biologist and discoverer of CRISPER.)
When CRISPR is discovered by Japanese scientist, Yoshizumi Ishino, in 1987, observation and sequencing of DNA could be changed by the medical and industrial communities. Without being too hyperbolic, the scientific community enters the realm of mythological gods with the availability of CRISPR. Scientists now can change the course of life on earth with direct modification of DNA, rather than use an accompanying virus to modify the patient’s DNA.
With the power to manipulate life, one hopes human history does not end but becomes more peaceful and less disease ridden. Cobb details successes and failures of Recombinant DNA. He confirms his skepticism by raising concern about intentional blindness of self-interested scientists. Some patients have been improved by Recombinant DNA, some have died for the wrong reason.
In 2020, OSHU in Oregon uses CRISPR to successfully provide a treatment for blindness in a patient with a genetic mutation. Sickle cell anemia, a genetic abnormality that deprives oxygen to red blood cells, is shown to have cured a young woman in a recent “60 Minutes” program.
Agricultural crop production has been improved by genetic modification, but Cobb notes ecological consequence of genetic modification is often not fully researched or explained to the public for wide approval. Cobb argues resistance to GMO products is largely due to a failure to communicate with the public. He also argues that a consequence of genetic modification of species has potential for eco-system collapse.
The example Cobb offers is modification of genes in mosquitoes that eliminate malaria. What is not fully explored is the consequence to predators that feed on mosquito progeny. If that source of food is lost, what is the consequence to mosquito predators. Do they change their diet, or do they die?
The point Cobb makes is that genetic manipulation that eliminates one species may start a spiral of species distinction. It is not to suggest malaria carriers are not worthy of genetic modification but that any change in a gene that eliminates one species may have wider ecological consequence. That consequence needs to be researched and understood.
One other aspect of Cobb’s story is the morality of patenting Recombinant DNA that enriches discoverers.
Unlike the discovery of a polio vaccine by Salk, many academic and industry scientists are focused on patenting their discoveries for personal gain, not public service. He raises the question of industries and some scientists who scramble to patent genetic therapy based on Recombinant DNA despite its questionable benefit. A tangential issue is industry, educational institutions, and scientists who benefit from getting patents for genetic research funded by public dollars. If public dollars are used, who should own the patents?
Cobb touches on biological warfare from weaponized viruses that accidently escape or are purposely deployed from labs designed to produce vectors of disease. There can be no mistake. Recombinant DNA has been and is still considered by many as a governments’ tool of war.
Recombinant DNA can become a weapon of mass destruction.
The ramification of Cobb’s history is a warning and benediction for the science of genetics. Genetic research is a sword of Damocles hanging over human society. It can kill if not properly secured and understood as a threat to life as we know it. Removing the sword is not possible because the genie of Recombinant DNA is out. It cannot be put back into Pandora’s box. Hope for honest, fully understood, and explained science is all that is left to humanity.
Cobb’s perspective on the path for science, in this case genetic science, is skeptical but seems hopeful.
“Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole” offers insight to those at a crossroad in life.
“Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole” is an apt book-title for diagnosis of brain dysfunction. Like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, truth of a neurological disorder is like following a rabbit down a “…Rabbit Hole”. Diagnosis of neurological disorder resonates with the obscure analogies of Lewis Carrol’s imagination.
One presumes “Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole” is written and edited by Brian Burrell. It may be that division of a doctor’s and writer’s expertise may not be a fair description of this book’s creation. But, unquestionably, Dr. Ropper’s stories drive the narrative. In any case, from a potential patient’s perspective, this is an insightful examination of what it means to live or die when a serious neurological disease strikes.
Dr. Ropper’s experience at a leading hospital in Boston is a terrifying journey into the art of neurological medicine. The terror lies in what doctor’s do not know about brain function. When one’s neurological system fails, diagnosis and prognosis are keys to a patient’s decision to live or die. What Ropper’s experience suggests is doctors must carefully interview every patient who seeks help for what is abnormal behavior.
What Ropper explains is–careful physical examination and detailed interview notes improve diagnosis and treatment for neurological disorder.
It is somewhat understood that doctors, and the medical profession in general, are extremely busy, particularly in this age of Covid19 and a perennial flu season. What Ropper’s experience shows is accurate diagnosis in a case of brain dysfunction is inhibited by a three headed monster–time, education, and practice. For the medical profession, there will always be some medical crises that overburdens services.
The natural consequence of medical overburden comes from population increase, a 24-7 work week, and burn-out which affects a doctor’s time for diagnosis.
Of particular interest in Ropper’s stories are neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and medical emergencies like stroke. Ropper implies many doctors do not spend enough time interviewing patients to clearly understand what is going on with their neurological disorder. Doctors don’t ask enough questions about when symptoms began, how they exhibited, and the effect they have on the patient’s life.
A three headed monster (time, education, and practice) interferes with proper diagnosis by attending physicians.
Doctors only gain experience through education and, more importantly, practice. Mistakes are made in every profession, but none more directly impact the individual than in doctor/patient relations. Ropper notes the best way of reducing mistakes is to learn from them and not make them again.
When a mistake in diagnosis leads to death, Ropper explains it is important for doctors to fully investigate the details of the mistake. Ropper argues autopsy should be used as a tool for understanding mistakes and improving future treatment.
Michael J. Fox, as is generally known, is struck by Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that creates a palsy or tremor in one’s body. Fox went to Ropper in his late thirties when the symptoms first appear. Fox wishes to continue his career but needs help with the tremors. Initially, Fox and his career handlers wish to keep the diagnosis secret. However, Fox grows to understand he can continue to act and do more for research and cure by going public. Fox, according to “Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole” raises millions of dollars for treatment of Parkinson’s disease. As is well known, Fox continues his career successfully as an actor with Parkinson’s disease.
Living with a neurological disorder is closely examined in “Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole”. Living with the disorder is a personal choice.
Some embrace the disorder like Michael J. Fox, the only “real name” patient in the book. Others suffer, many in silence, with what treatments are available to mitigate their symptoms.
Another impactful story takes two different directions. Two patients are diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) which is presently incurable and fatal. After careful diagnosis, Ropper explains the progression of ALS to two of his patients. One chooses to be kept comfortable to end her life rather than deal with its progressive debilitation. The second person chooses to deal with the debilitation and live longer with his family despite its consequence.
Stephen Hawking is not mentioned in “…Rabbit Hole” but is known as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He became a noted author of Astrophysics with contributions to the science of black holes, space, and the concept of time.
There is much more to be learned by listening to “Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole”. The fundamental message is that when a neurological disorder interrupts one’s life, the decision about what one should do is based on two things. One accurate medical diagnosis and two, a personal informed decision about what to do with one’s life.
The book’s conclusion is that a decision about living or dying from an incurable neurological disease can only be made by the stricken patient, no one else. This is not to say a doctor and one’s family is not a part of the decision but that the final answer lies with the patient.
Magda Szabo (Hungarian novelist, 1917-2007, died at age 90)
“The Door” is a story of the human psyche, and religious belief. Every human has a locked door in their consciousness, behind which life’s meaning is hidden.
Often, neither individuals nor acquaintances have a key to that door. Magda Szabo creates characters searching for that key. To some listener/readers, her primary character has the key. Emerence Szeredas is Szabo’s primary character who, some may argue, has keys to other’s doors, as well as her own.
Emerence is a mysterious community caretaker. As Szabo tells her story, listeners find Emerence has lived an eventful life.
She realizes much of life is out of her control but believes that which is under one’s control should be controlled absolutely. Emerence lives in an apartment. Her front door is locked to outsiders–excerpt in a rare circumstance when a fugitive needs to be hidden from the world because of societal transgression. Emerence becomes a place of temporary refuge for societal transgressors in a hidden room in her house.
Emerence cracks the door of her life for a writer who is married and needs help with her household. The writer asks Emerence to become her housekeeper.
The slight opening to the writer of Emerence’s psyche ends in tragedy. Through many years of work and acquaintance with the writer, Emerence reveals personal information about her life. Emerence resists opening her locked door but counsels the writer on how she should live her life. Emerence becomes close to the writer and plans to leave the contents of the house to her when she dies.
Emerence has a stroke. She refuses help from anyone and refuses any food or medical assistance while recovering behind her closed door.
She refuses to allow anyone, including the writer, to come into her apartment. She quits eating and is near death. The apartment begins to stink of pet excrement and rotting food. The writer chooses to organize the community to break down Emerence’s door and force her into a hospital for care. Emerence threatens to kill anyone who tries to knock down her door. In great distress, Emerence wields an axe, inadvertently smashes the door to her apartment, and is unable to stop the community from taking her to the hospital.
Now that Emerence’s door is broken, both metaphorically and physically, she blames the writer for invading her privacy and denying her the right to die as she chooses.
The writer interferes with Emerence’s fundamental right to control that which she can control. Emerence heatedly explains to the writer that her wish to die behind her door is her choice.
Emerence is recovering in the hospital. She refuses to talk to the writer. The writer cannot grasp Emerence’s reasoning. The writer feels she saved Emerence’s life. What the writer did not understand is Emerence’s need to be in control of what she can control to give meaning to her life.
Despite Emerence’s physical deterioration, neglect of pets in her house, and the unhealthful condition of her surroundings, in her apartment she had control of her life. Survival in the hospital, the stinking condition of the house, and her physical disability became an embarrassment to Emerence. To Emerence, if she had died in the house, the embarrassment would mean nothing because she would be dead. With survival, Emerence’s locked door would be opened for all to see, a circumstance beyond her control.
Emerence is told by the hospital that she will not be released to return to her apartment. She is to be sent to a convalescent facility. She refuses with anger and physical reaction that ends her life on terms she chooses.
“The Door” appears in Hungary in 1987 and has been translated into French and English. It raises many questions about life, faith, and individual rights. In this age of “right to die”, Szabo’s story has particular relevance.
Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition
By: The Great Courses
Lecturer: Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky is an author, American neuroendocrinology researcher, and doctor of neuropsychology, educated at Harvard and acting professor at Stanford.
Sapolsky’s lectures begin with optimism. He infers one can understand the biological origin of human behavior. However, as the lectures progress one becomes skeptical. By the end of Sapolsky’s lectures, the source of human behavior seems too complex for human understanding. In a future age, it may be possible to reduce uncertainty, but determination of the sources of human behavior are likely to remain a probabilistic endeavor.
Sapolsky begins with neurological, physiological, endocrinological, genealogical, and environmental influences on behavior but ends with no definitive origin for human behavior.
This is not to say these lectures are not interesting, but science is far from understanding how any discipline can effectively or accurately identify the sources of dysfunctional human behavior. Cures for psychological maladies remain elusive because of the complexity of their origin.
There is no nerve that can be cut, no drug that can be administered, no gene that can be removed, no environment created that singularly cures abnormal human behavior. Sapolsky is saying the origin of human thought and action begins with genetic history, is influenced in the womb, is subjected to hormonal disruption, lives to be changed by environmental circumstances, and dies either early or late depending on the circumstances of life.
Sapolsky begins his lectures with a lesson in physiology and discussion about cells and the nervous system and how it works.
He explains limbic and autonomic nervous systems. A limbic system is where subcortical structures meet the cerebral cortex. It influences the endocrine system and the autonomic (breathing, heartbeat, and digestive system) functions of the body.
Sapolsky explains how regulation of body function is affected by hormones that come from many organs of the body. These hormones affect brain function (which is also a hormone producing organ) that have a great deal to do with how one acts. The physiology of the nervous system and blood circulatory system carry hormones throughout the body.
Sapolsky goes on to explain evolution of behavior that comes from genetically inheritable social history. What is revelatory is the myth of evolution based solely on a genetic singularity which preserves itself at all costs.
Sapolsky argues preservation of species, not specific gene preservation, is the key to understanding evolution. (This is a partial disagreement with the “selfish gene” postulated by Richard Dawkins.)
The example Sapolsky offers is the Wildebeest herd that plans to cross an alligator infested river.
An early interpretation of that crossing is that a leader of the herd voluntarily steps into the river to sacrifice itself to allow the herd to cross the river while it is being feasted upon by alligators. Sapolsky explains the Wildebeest is not sacrificing itself. Careful observation shows an older Wildebeest is forced into the river by the herd. It is not a voluntary action but a heritable social behavior of the herd to preserve itself.
Sapolsky identifies myths about what causes abnormal human behavior. The idea that testosterone levels are a cause for aggression is untrue. The National Institute of Health found that increased or decreased levels of testosterone have a weak correlation with aggression. Sapolsky notes that testosterone levels vary based on environmental circumstances and interaction with other hormone producing organs. It is not found to be a hormonal cause of aggression.
Every country of the world is populated with people like the wildebeest. Until the world is one herd, it seems humans are destined to lose their way as a species. The river to cross is the world’s environmental crises. With disparate herds in the world, the alligator in the river (our environment) will eat us all.
Stephen Nowicki (Professor of Biology at Duke University.)
Professor Stephen Nowicki offers a 36.5-hour lecture on Biology. From the origin and growth of life to the chemical and neuronal function of living things, Nowicki systematically reveals experimentally tested knowledge of the “…Science of Life”. This brief review only addresses a few of the many fascinating details Nowicki explains.
Nowicki suggests, cells evolve from the agglomeration of detritus from the “Big Bang”.
The early formation of these cells is missing two ingredients for life. Nowicki explains these early cells evolve from violent volcanic and electrical activity of the “Big Bang”, an environment in which those two missing ingredients are created.
Nowicki explains early non-living cells are bombarded by electrical storms that generate amino acids (organic compounds) and sugar from violent atmospheric conditions that include water.
In the early 1950s, these conditions were tested in laboratory conditions and found to create two essential building blocks of life. Nowicki explains, these building blocks (amino acids and sugars) became part of non-living cells.
The eukaryotic cells had a nucleus containing genetic material while prokaryotic cells carried free-floating genetic material without a nucleus. Nowicki then explains the role nucleotides (protein) play in activating genetic material within these cells.
Nowicki notes DNA is present in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, but they need to have a way of being activated. With replication, molecules (chemical compounds) could form. Nowicki explains living matter originated from the clumping and replication of these molecules.
Nowicki explains ribonucleotides (proteins) were created in the primordial soup of early earth. These ribonucleotides transformed into RNA which activated DNA genetic material and replicated both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.
Evolution of species, established by Darwin in the 19th century, appears quite consistent and reminiscent of the primordial process Nowicki outlines.
With that reflection, Nowicki reminds listeners that evolutionary process should not be thought of as a necessarily progressive improvement. Evolution is chancy. It can either preserve or destroy species. Nowicki wanders back in history to explain classification of species as theorized by Linnaeus in the early 18th century.
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778, Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, physician.)
The second doubling of a zygote creates four cells separated in a vertical axis with all genetic material present in each cell. Subsequent doubling is separated on a horizontal axis. These new cells do not have all genetic material enclosed. The new cells have a more limited genetic role. There is significance in that axis change because of the location of genetic material in respective cells. With a change in axis, the viability of one cell carrying all the characteristics of its host goes from certainty to doubtful. The specialization of cells removes some of the genetic material that would contain all the characteristics of the life form.
The zygote at four cells is mature. The next doubling becomes an embryo. All four cells have the genetic material of a male’s and female’s contribution. Each multiplication reduces the size of sister cells until they form a mass that surrounds a vacant space within its middle. This vacant space is the blastocyst stage. The blastocyst is made up of an exterior shell, a middle shell, and an inner shell. Each shell becomes the seat of design for what is to be born.
All amassed cells around the blastocyst carry site specific genetic material of life that forms a living thing.
The process of design in a human begins with an intrusion into the blastocyst without breaking its shells. That intrusion (a human gastrula), around the 7th or 8th day, uses the membranes as laboratories within which genetic codes create skin, bone, internal organs, and the digestive system.
Each of the three membranes are the laboratories of creation. The exterior or outer shell for example would become skin, the middle shell would become organs, the inner shell would become the digestive system.
The next exploration of biology by Nowicki is more suited to students of biology. Nowicki makes a valiant effort to explain the chemistry of ADP and ATP phosphates that provide energy needed for growth and maintenance of life. This part of the lecture series becomes too technical.
As molecules of ATP and ADP break down, they fuel cells of life to act in specific ways to promote growth and maintenance. Like the importance of protein messengers for activation of genetic material, life cannot exist without the energy provided by ATP and ADP. Nowicki diligently tries to explain the mechanics of this phosphate process but loses this reviewer’s interest.
The first inkling of cause for plant growth is noted by Jan Baptist van Helmont in the 17th century. Nowicki explains Helmont planted a tree in a tub of soil. He carefully weighed the soil and tree at the time of planting. Over several years, he observed the growth of the tree. At the end of those years, Helmont weighed the soil and tree. He found a small decrease in the soil’s weight and a gigantic increase in the tree’s weight. Helmont speculates the difference is from water added over the years. Though his conclusion is only partly correct, he paved the way for discovery of photosynthesis.
Jan Baptist van Helmont , a Dutch chemist and physician (1580-1644, On the left with his son on the right.)
That synthesis is a more complete explanation of the weight gain noted in Helmont’s experiment. The fundamental point being made by Nowicki is that species growth and demise is based on resource availability. Jan Ingenhousz completes Helmont’s theory with the discovery of photosynthesis.
Jan Ingenhousz (1730-1799, Dutch physiologist.)
Around 1779, A Dutch physician named Jan Ingenhousz found that green plants use sunlight to synthesize food for plants from carbon dioxide and water.
The remaining lectures are about Malthusian limits to life. There are natural and societal actions (meaning acts of war) that affect species survival. For natural calamities, one is reminded of the Black plague in the 14th and 17th centuries, the Spanish flu after WWI., the Irish famine in 19th century, the great Chinese famine during the “Great Leap Forward”, and now Covid19.
From man’s inhumanity to man, there is the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century, two 20th century World Wars, the holocaust atrocity of WWII that murdered 11,000,000 (6,000,000 of which were Jews), and most recently, an estimated 600,000 dead in the Syrian Civil War.
How many more deaths will there be from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Of course, Nowicki’s attention is on the biology of life. Nowicki explains, the key to balance of nature is biodiversity. Nowicki notes the unprecedented loss of species in the post 20th century world risks life’s future. Nowicki briefly explains how drug discoveries and loss of genetic material from species extinction affects the balance of nature by diminishing the sources and utility of future medical discoveries.
The fundamental point of Nowicki’s view is that no species escape the natural biological limits of life. Nature balances life based on resources available. A listener may imply Nowicki believes humanity is threatened as much by ignorance of biology as of “man’s inhumanity to man”.
Edward Luce (Author, English journalist, Financial Times columnist and US commentator.)
Edward Luce offers a troubling picture of 21s century America. His argument depends on one’s definition of “…Western Liberalism”. If the definition is belief in human individuality and a relaxation of public custom, law, and authority, there is evidence to support Luce’s argument.
Luce notes the election of Donald Trump is not an American aberration but a symptom of “The Retreat of Western Liberalism”.
The advent of the internet has reinforced a group think driven by belief in alternative facts that create conspiracy theories. It is a discontent coming from many Americans ignored by rising wealth of a nation controlled by special interests. Trump taps into that discontent.
The irony of Trump’s rise is his personal wealth when the American gap between rich and poor is skyrocketing. Putting that irony aside, Trump suggests America can be “Great Again” by returning to a past.
Trump creates a false hope of re-industrializing America with new jobs. The falseness of Trump’s pitch is that new jobs in America are not being created by industrialization but by technology and human services. Trump’s appeal is loaded with false representations, amplified by media trolls. Public custom, law, and authority are undermined by conspiracy theories that convince Americans they have been cheated out of their fair share of America’s wealth. In truth, they have, and that is why Trump’s false pitch about “Making America Great Again” got him elected.
Trump’s anti-immigrant falsehoods feed conspiracy theories about jobs being taken from poor Americans. Equal opportunity is a function of rising wealth in the hands of the few. Public education and health care are unequally distributed in America. The wealthy can afford higher education and the best health care, the poor cannot.
Americans are poor because they are being denied equal opportunity, not because of immigration.
Education and health care are critical for American labor’s adjustment to a changing world. Private industry and the government have equal responsibility for assisting all Americans, not just those who have benefited from the technological revolution.
Job transition requires re-education and on-job training by employers that offer decent wages and health care.
Luce’s point is a “rising tide has not lifted all boats”. The technological revolution offers the same potential for western liberalism as the industrial revolution. The election of Donald Trump was America’s “wake up” call.
A large part of America’s population has been left out of the American Dream of western liberalism that came from opportunities provided by the industrial revolution.
Western liberalism needs to be reinvented by investment in a technological revolution for all Americans, not just those who have benefited from the industrial revolution. The question is whether private industry and the government are up to the task. Will western liberalism be reinvented and promoted by ossified industrial leaders and elected representatives? Most industry leaders and elected representatives are satisfied with the status quo while too many Americans struggle to make mortgage or rent payments. Luce defines the problem but offers no solution.