Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Brain Awareness Week Part 1: Your host & brains

First off, I would like to apologize to our regular customers for not getting this post up yesterday, as was my initial plan. I opened Spring Break by driving to Chicago and back this weekend, which sort of wiped me out even more than I intended to, leaving me just barely re-achieving the phenomenon of human consciousness by last night.

So I thought I would open this week's posts celebrating by giving a bit of a short introduction and explanation for my own interest in and obsession with brains.

I would like to point to some half-remembered memory, a definitive childhood moment. Or even a definitive adolescent moment, where I started to appreciate the brain in all its glory, and became obsessed with its proper functioning, its wiring, laying in bed at night while dreaming of neurons firing. But to the best of my recollection, there isn't one.

As I mentioned in my profile, my degree in Neuroscience is actually a second Bachelor's, with my first being a BA in Religious Studies from Macalester College in Saint Paul. I generally don't talk about that, because there's a level in which I'm a bit embarassed. I was never a student who knew exactly where he wanted to go in life, what he wanted to do. There was a certain level on which I wanted to eventually become a writer, but I had a certain appreciation for some idea that I'd have to deal with the real world before I'd experienced enough to have something to write about. I never really thought about it much more than that, which was my fatal error.

My approach to my education at Macalester was that of a ten-year-old in a candy shop: I wanted one of everything. I had no interest in focusing in on any one topic, I just wanted to take classes on whatever random topics came up that happened to interest me. I never really thought about what I would do with my education: I was going to school because I was a smart kid, and it was the thing that smart kids who wanted to have a future did when they graduated. They get into good schools and go onto great things. There were points at which I realized I hadn't really figured out what reaction occurred as A -> B, but I just sort of figured that I'd figure out the arrow in my own course. And I suppose, after a fashion, I did.

The point being that I got a major in religious studies because of all the things I was interested in, it was the easiest major that I had the most abstract interest in learning about, and left me with the most time to take other classes that I was also interested in learning about. In terms of what I would do with it, I pretty much convinced myself that most things I would enjoy doing would really only care that you had a piece of paper from a secondary institution, not what it said on it.

That didn't work out so well, as I'm sure you can imagine. So two years out, I'm working a crap temp job at the local home mortgage monolith. I've already come to realize that I have no interest in this becoming a life path whatsoever, and need to do something different. I'd recently applied to go to the local tech school to get into their sound engineering program, on the theory that it sounded interesting and would be a viable career that I'd enjoy and actually make a living off of. And then sitting at work today, I had a series of revelations. It was honestly the closest I think I'll ever have to a religious experience.

Revelation #1: I have a brain. I should use it.
I wouldn't argue that there's a dearth of smart people in the world, but it nonetheless seems the case that the world can use every one of them that it can. And there's not point in being furious about the world's problems if you're not doing anything to fix it. So revelation #1 can be best phrased, a human is personally responsible for using the tools at their disposal to determine how they can best better the world around them.

Revelation #2: Science was no longer intimidating.
I had been intensely interested in science as a kid--along with everything else. At some point, it became somewhat initimidating--I think--and I convinced myself that I should stick with the humanities. I think taking Calc. 2 in my junior year of high school may have had a part in this. But for whatever reason, science had always seemed too threatening at a college level for me to want to try it at Macalester. But by this point, that had worn off. I was dating a bio major at Mac. One of my best friends was a neuroscience major at Mac, another was a bio major working on her Master's in Plant Bio. So I realized that on a certain level--not to sound condescending or anything--that if my friends could manage this, I could too.

Revelation #3: Decisions can be required solely to overcome inertia.
This is the part that, in memory, is almost reminiscent of Paul on the road to Damascus. My problem at Macalester--as I'd said--had been a lack of desire to actually focus on any one topic. I realized that when I'd come to Macalester, I'd reached a crossroads I'd never really passed. One that I was still waiting at. I had considered going back to school before this point, but had never been willing to commit to any one topic as the one I would study for the rest of my life. It just wasn't in my blood, I told myself. And at this point, my fundamental realization was that sometimes a decision has to be made simply for the sake of making the decision. Why did I choose Neuroscience? I didn't, yet--I chose Bio. Because it interested me at that point as much as many other things, and I had to choose something. I was clearly influenced by my aforementioned friends in this regard. If I did it again now, who knows? I may have decided to become an engineer and build solar panels for the third world, for all I know. If I'd waited another six months, that seems like a very realistic possibility.

I ultimately ended up adopting neuroscience after realizing that I'd have to basically do the bio program from scratch, so why not just add on another year and get something even cooler? But I don't want this to seem like a long-winded anecdote about how I'm studying neuroscience for purely arbitrary reasons and don't really care about it that much.

Although it may be a bit late for that.

So why is Jonathan Michael Ehrich, BA & imminent BS, studying neuroscience? Why does he care about brains? Why is he obsessed with brains?

There are a lot of reasons. Here's a few:

--I'm interested in mind. One of my big interests in cognitive psychology, because I'm fundamentally interested in how the mind works. But I'm of the opinion that I can't really understand how the mind works on a useful level until I know the hardware through & through.

--I'm interested in questions about materialism and mechanism. The brain is a collection of parts, wired together, that seems to synergistically generate consciousness. Just think about that for a moment. Although it may be fundamentally unknowable, I will nonetheless posit the claim that a rat or a cat has no sense of self, no ability to reflect on its existence, no ability to think about things. And these are mammals that have most of the same parts we do, just smaller. At some point, we reached a perfect size and a perfect development, and suddenly reached cognition. Did it just flip on like a switch? No, probably not. But it's just such a bizarre idea, this historical accident, that it makes me want to understand how it functions in every gory detail.

--Those questions have, for now, led me to study drug addiction. Because it's this weird state where a human can take something that just totally messes up the system--but in an incredibly specific way. Mark Thomas, my Professor, is interested in drug addiction because it's this bizarrely gross-yet-very-specific manipulation that can tell us a lot about learning. And that intrigues me as well, but I'm more interested in it as an intersection of fundamental pharmacological functions of brain with higher-order, cognitive functions of brain.

Just think about it, your brain and your mind. Our minds generally feel like our own, like the one thing we can usually argue we have some useful control over. But do we? We feel that our desires, our wants, are our own. We may want things that aren't good for us, but at least we can appreciate this and make decisions from this stand point. But can we? The idea that you can add a drug to this balanced system of desire, motivation, and reward that throws the whole thing out of whack, making you want the drug more than you care about food or the fundamentals of life... it just fascinates me. And I want to know how that works.

Alright, I think that's enough of my deep dark secrets for now. More later on, throughout the rest of Brain Awareness Week!

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