- POPULAR CULTURE
- MENTAL HEALTH
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES
- APPLIED SCIENCES
- PRINT & MEDIA
PHYSIOLOGY MEMORY AND DRUGS
There is an individuality within any autobiographical narrative at a purely physiological level. Over the course of the last several decades physiologists and psychologists as well as specialists from a wide rage of sub-disciplines in the medical profession have come to know a great deal about the human anatomy and its expression in each individual. To choose but one example which is crucial to autobiography I'll say one of two things about the process by which strong emotions make for strong memories. This process has been traced in some detail in the years since I went pioneering in the early 1960s. At the onset of an emotionally charged event, adrenaline is released from the adrenal medulla and this activates beta-receptors in the brain. These receptors are protein receptors and neurons that receive adrenaline and its first cousin noradrenaline. Their activation enables strong emotions to make strong memories. The basolateral amygdala is also involved in this process of making stronger memories. On the other hand there are several memory blockers, drugs with anteretrograde amnesia effects used to counter the affects of post-traumatic stress-disorder. In my own 5 volume autobiography I have not discussed memory enhancers or memory blockers and the role they may have played or may not have played in what has become my 2600 page autobiographical narrative.
During the four epochs that this autobiography documents, some sixty years now, in its very personal way a series of drugs occupied the attention of society in the West. In the post-war period up to the 1960s alcohol and cigarettes dominated the social landscape. Beginning in the 1950s psychoactive drugs began to dominate the psychiatric profession. Beginning in the 1960s marijuana came to the fore, then heroin and cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s. In Australia in the 1990s and in the first decade of the new millennium ecstacy and other mood-altering substances came to occupy the attention of the media and the populace. I don’t want to give this subject much attention here. With the exception of tobacco which I smoked from 1964 to 1994 and, of course, the drugs I took for my bi-polar disorder from 1968 to the present, all of these chemical enhancements played no direct part in my life.
WRITING AND HIERARCHIES OF RELEVANCE
Although there are many basic accounts, basic stories, varying emphases to various topics, in my life that I could recount, there are what Barbara Herrnstein Smith calls "hierarchies of relevance and centrality" that enable me to distinguish certain elements and relations in my life. There are elements in my life which are central or peripheral, more important or less important, more basic or less basic, insufficiently present or too much present, not presentable at all or in my face, as it is said these days colloquially, hidden or manifest, able to be clothed in words or ineffable. As one analyst put it, there is a domain of life which is brought into being by the very act of telling the story. There is, inevitably, a conflict between what is deemed narratable, eligible for telling and what is not or, to put it another way, what is private and what is public. No matter how much my autobiography reflects and explores Baha'i identities in an emerging global culture; no matter how much or how little this long narrative of mine and its extended analysis becomes part of one of those grand theatres of public life and our print culture, the writing of this work is, for me, a finding, an expressing, of life's many-coloured mansions.
My writing is a performance of my identity, a description of my intimacies and my distances as well as a part of a sentimental commerce which I exhibit and which, in a certain way, I own. In autobiography, at least in the sentimental-romantic tradition since Rousseau in the 18th century at the very outset of the modern autobiographical tradition, there is the impulse to bare all. This is now epitomized in the expose journalist search for the in-depth documentary and in a great mass of autobiography and biography which has come on the literary scene during these several epochs of my life, the years after WW2. For the most part, though, I temper this impluse to bare my soul with the cautious words of the fourth Imam, Ali, who it is said by some that he advised that "not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed nor is everything that can be disclosed time or suited to the ears of the hearer. The medical element in my memoir is, without doubt, central to my story.
THE DIVIDED BRAIN
Iain McGilchrist was a Research Fellow in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. He has published articles and research papers in a wide range of publications on topics in literature, medicine and psychiatry. At the Creative Innovation 2012 conference, he discusses the ideas in his latest book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - how the bihemispheric structure of the brain influences our understanding of the world. Go to this link to listen to his lecture:http://www.themonthly.com.au/divided-brain-and-courage-think-differently-iain-mcgilchrist-7304
A VIDEO ON BRAIN PLASTICITY
This video deals with the issue of brain plasticity. Neuroplasticity is a word that comes from neural, pertaining to the nervesand/or brain, and plastic, moldable or changeable in structure. This is also known as brain plasticity, refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury. Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how - and in which ways - the brain changes throughout life. This video deals with many aspects of this plasticity and its application to life: the origins of beliefs, the development of capacities, consciousness and behaviour, neural activity, selfishness, and a scientific view of self and others. The video has a very convincing voice-over and narrative. Go to this kind:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oPEdDcs_8ZQ
MEDICAL HEALTH AND PHILOSOPHY
Many people in western countries abhor paternalism. They think that people should be able to go their own way, even if they end up in a ditch. When they run risks, even foolish ones, it isn’t anybody’s business that they do. In this respect, a significant strand in western culture appears to endorse the central argument of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In his great essay, Mill insisted that as a general rule, government cannot legitimately coerce people if its only goal is to protect people from themselves. Mill contended that: "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right." For a detailed diswcussion of this health, medical and philosophical topic go to:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/mar/07/its-your-own-good/?page=1
Two recent television programs available in Australia1 had a great deal to say about the history of psychosurgery, neurosurgery and, specifically and especially, transorbital lobotomy, a surgical procedure that for a decade or so after WW2 looked like a solution to the immense health problem that was mental illness, institutionalized and non-institutionalized. The immense strides in these fields is revolutionary and is yet one more example of the transformation that society has undergone in our time, let us say for convenience, in that ‘century of light’-the 20th century. Of course, behind this light and obscuring its radiance are the billion--that’s 1000 million—deaths from various forms of violence in that same one hundred years.
My interest was peaked in these TV programs due to lobotomy’s association with and origins in the treatment of mental illness which I have suffered from since the discordant voices against lobotomies in the middle to late ’50s and the introduction of neuroleptic drugs like thorazine and some of the antidepressants which were coming into psychiatry. In 1968, when I was first institutionalized in Ontario, I was given a massive dose of largactyl which could be compared to a very short term chemical lobotomy. It seemed to produce the same kind of effects as a lobotomy. I only stayed on this medication for two or three weeks at the most although, after forty years and with no access to my medical records, I’m not sure of this time period.
I have had various symptoms of mental illness which I could variously diagnose retrospectively now in these years of my late adulthood with its old age pension—back to specific times over a period of fifty years to puberty(1957/8) and my adolescence. These symptoms included: psychosis in the form of paranoia and obsessive compulsive disorder, schizo-affective disorder, hypomania, explosive disorder, bipolar disorder and depression among a range of terms that I could list to label various behavioural abnormalities I exhibited during that half century from 1957/8 to 2007/8.
In the autumn of 1968 I was given a series of eight shock treatments or ECTs as they were called then and as they are called now. The ECT, electroconvulsive therapy, was the first stage of a lobotomy and, in my case, the ECT was a helpful treatment, or so I was then given to understand, although I will never be sure. -Ron Price with thanks to 1The Lobotomist, SBS TV, 29 December 2008, 8:30-9:30 p.m. and Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery Into the Brain, SBS TV, 6 January 2009, 8:30-9:30 p.m./repeated 23/3/10.
Was there any collateral damage from
those ECTs administered in the autumn
of ’68? Thank the Lord for antipsychotic
and anti-depressive drugs in the 1950s &
1960s to protect me from the lobotomies!
It was still a nightmare in those buildings,
that great warehouse---snake--pit---after
that Great War, World-War I, enormous
psychiatric hospitals, where transorbital
lobotomies, psychosurgery, neurosurgery,
the cutting of neural pathways to the soul,
ice-pick like, performed by the 1000s after
that second great war on those emotionally
and psychologically deformed millions----.
And, me, from another war, the third great
war of the twentieth century, a war with no
name, sent me into more reformed-milder...
snake-pits where drugs like: largactyl and...
thorazine, stelazine, lithium, luvox & naval
put me back together in revolutionary ways
which transformed modern psychiatry and
the treatment of the mentally ill—and me!
And with a Bahá'í psychiatrist back in ’68!
I could hardly believe it then or now.......
6 January 2009
Updated on: 23/3/’10
VISIONARY: MEDICAL BREAKTHROUGHS IN CONTEXT
Visionary poetry can live with the uncertaintly principle, but not with total skepticism or with the belief of many of the newest critics that poetry is not “about” anything. As it has been said “where there is no vision, the people perish.”(Proverbs 29:18) Without vision behind it this poetry, I’m sure, would not have been written. All perception is theory-laden and we need the power of symbols to extend our perceptual models. Perception itself is a dynamic searching for meaning. The visionary poetry I draw on begins in perception, in the ‘suchness’ of things, in us as participants and in works of poets, especially poets in the last two centuries, but also more generally in the entire tradtion of humankind going back to the Greeks and the Hebrews in the first millennium B.C.
Since Shaykh Ahmad left his home in about 1792 to prepare the path for the Bab and since Wordsworth began writing poetry just a few years before while the Shaykh was enjoying his last years at home in NE Arabia, there has arisen two centuries of a richly veined tradition of visionary poetry on which I draw from time to time. -Ron Price with thanks to Hyatt Waggoner, American Visionary Poetry, Louisiana State UP, Baton Rouge, 1982, pp.1-18.
Something out there on that hill,
quite beyond what I see, running
way down to the ocean depths,
identities of a spiritual world,
beyond my praise, an eternity
of men and women, a thought
rising, calm, like the stars shining
immortal, luminous, real vision,
taking possession of my soul,
celestial light, mystery, weight,
a divine perplexity, the infinite hidden
in the infinite to this peculiarly intimate
bit of world, this joyous seer. Flood tide
above me: I see you, at last, face to face!
Thousands go up with loving eyes,
thirsting, fine spokes of light leading
to the unseen. Grand is the scene here
to me and the unseen buds hidden under
the terraces & marble like babes in wombs,
latent, compact, sleeping, billions of billions
beckoning-out beyond Mars-beyond all these
computers, engineering miracles, medical
breakthroughs, the staggeringly complex
knowledge explosion and that burnt match
in the urinal. Not just memories of spiritual
gates here, intricate iron tracery, real-bathed
in blood. No need for me to create a new Bible
for one has come, spring-board , luminescent
source that helps me stab at truth, and evoke
a common consciousness, an innocence, & an
absolute beauty amidst all the tears, the broken
bones, as well as all the boredom and chouder.
1 With thanks to Hart Crane in ibid., p. 78
December 21st 2005 to 28/7/'11
HUMAN PENDEMICS: AN OVERVIEW
For better or worse, Homo sapiens has become the most abundant large mammal ever to roam the planet. We have spread into nearly every conceivable terrestrial habitat. We have increased our fertility and decreased our mortality. We have reengineered ecosystems and food webs and disinterred fossil stores to produce our calories and condition our dwellings. We are seven billion strong, growing at a rate of 70 million people a year.
As E.O. Wilson, both an entomologist and a conservationist, put it, “When Homo sapiens passed the six-billion mark we had already exceeded by perhaps as much as 100 times the biomass of any large animal species that ever existed on the land.” The biomass is the mass of a living organism. He was talking about wild animals. We are only about five times more numerous and probably a little less massive than our livestock—herded, fattened, and medically dosed just for us. Or, as David Quammen puts it in his masterful new book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic: we are an “outbreak,” a species that has undergone a “vast, sudden population increase.” “And here’s the thing about outbreaks,” warns Quammen: “They end…. In some cases they end gradually, in other cases they end with a crash.” For a discussion of "Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic", an article in The New York Review of Books in April 2013 by David Quammen, go to:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/apr/25/how-animals-may-cause-next-big-one/
WE ARE WHAT WE EAT
There is an old cliché and what some take very seriously and consider to be a simple truth? “We are what we eat!” What many are discovering over recent decades is that the food we take into our bodies, whether it be actual physical food that feeds our bodies, mental thoughts or whatever exists in the visible and invisible environment surrounding us, creates us and all that we are. It always has and always will. Whether we are in great physical and/or mental condition, or poor, we have created this state through the biological and psychological food that we ingest. So developing the knowledge of what to allow into our bodies is one of life’s important practices. For more on this topic go to:https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?shva=1#inbox/13c8a36f44d76b15
OBJECTIVE AND SUBJECTIVE HISTORY: medical records and other findings
Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta....in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past. Although I am no Thucydides, I have taken inspiration from this great historian and feel that, in some ways, my own writing is part of the history of a great war, a modern war, perhaps the greatest in the world's spiritual history.-Ron Price with thanks to Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Penguin, 1972, p.35.
Ron Price, a Canadian-Australian hybid, provided a massive autobiographical work through several genres. What some regard as ‘the priviledged way to historical, or social, reality’(1), autobiography, he believed, was part of his way of playing a role in this greatest drama in the world’s history: his own age. His literary exercise, he felt, certainly deserved the best he could contribute in a measureable way, a way which inspired his imagination, perhaps an important way which he thought could one day be useful to future generations. The medical side of his story, his society's story, had some relevance.-Ron Price with thanks to (1) Martin Kohli, “Biography: Account, Text, Method”, Biography and Society: The Life History Approach in the Social Sciences, editor, Daniel Bertaux, Sage Studies, 1981, p.64.
Personal life-records, as complete as possible, constitute the perfect type of historical and sociological material especially if, along with the narrative, there exists a family history, medical, psychiatric and psychological findings, official criminal and other records, indeed, any verifiable material. These records help to balance with some things objective, what is essentially a subjective account, albeit sincere and of the highest authenticity. -ibid., p.71.
He knew these were still the early days,
part of that springtime when the many
are called and few are chosen, whatever
that meant. Somehow it seemed absurd
to include those items official; this would
tend to self-promotion which was not what
was intended here. Rather, a restructuring
of a life, a way of deriving meaning since
all becoming the product of an interaction
of my producing self and produced result
of social evolution, some impulse for the
defining of the self & its world in the great
maelstrom of history, its drama and its very
profound confusion & immense complexity.
And so I apply my personal canons of relevance,
accept the large chunks, gaps and silences;
and aim at some understanding, a search
for meaning, with art and insight, into the
history of our times, our age, and our era.
MEDICINE AND ONE'S 'END TIMES'
As the last item on this introductory page on medicine, I want to deal with death and dying, with the aging process and the stages of late adulthood(60-80) and old age(80++) in the lifespan. I am now 67, at the beginning years of the middle period(65-75) of late adulthood and for this section I want to draw on John Hatcher's book Understanding Death: The Most Important Event in Your Life(Wilmette, 2009). I want to draw particularly on the pages: 266 to 276 of his book. As he points out our physical-emotional and psychological-spiritual development are more or less in sync until the mid-teens and a certain maturity is achieved by then. Although this subject is complex and arguable, as we head through our teens we assume more and more responsibility for our own conduct and making decisions. By the time I was 19 I had made a choice of my religion, and of my general educational-career trajectory to university.
By my early twenties I had decided on becoming a teacher and on who I was going to marry. By my early 20s, that is by 1968, I achieved what human development psychologists call the peak of my physical development. After this point in time physical development tends to diminish even if one improves one's physical condition. In our early 20s our mental and psychological, our spiritual and philosophical capacities, our inner strengths, begin their ascent. All of this requires much more context than I am giving it here in these somewhat gross and generalized statements.
I begin my remarks about aging and death with some very general statements about my early years because the more one aspires to intellectual and spiritual development, the more one must cease to rely on physical and sensual experience as an end it itself. At least such is my view. The famous, and infamous, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas pleads with his father not to accept his decline submissively, but to rage against death:
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In W.B. Yeat's poem "Sailing to Byzantium," the speaker distinguishes between those who allow themselves to become intellectually and spiritually stagnant in old age versus those who strive relentlessly to attain a spiritual and intellectual ascent. Yeats writes:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
"Tattered coat upon a stick" is a powerful image, one of the most powerful I find in literature, and it stands in sharp contrast to the real self, the soul, which can "clap its hands and sing." Of course, I assume there is such a thing as a real self. This is an assumption, an assumption which can neither be proved or disproved. These words of Yeats can be seen as a provocative allusion to one's ability to acquire and express wisdom through art or some other sensibly perceptible idiom---whether one believes in a soul or not. Yeats's beguilingly simple language gives advice to all of us as we head into late adulthood and old age. So, too, does the American novelist William Faulkner, the English poet Tennyson and many others right back to the Old Testament in the Hebraic tradition and Homer in the Greek tradition. I will come back to this interesting and, for me, timely subject at a later date.