The neuroscience of loss, and egocentrism

12 April, 2007

Scroll down for the cheesecake. Keep reading for some meat.

Got an interesting idea from this post:

When people speak of losing a part of themselves when a loved one dies, they are speaking quite literally, since we lose the ability to effectively use the neural patterns in our brain that had self-organized to interact with that person.

What a great and accessible application of a neuroscientific idea to explain a psychological phenomenon — and it doesn’t even rid that phenomenon of its substance and depth.

I recently read Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, which is an extensive exploration of the psychology of grief and loss (I recommend it). If you read it with this thought in mind, I think it will give you an interesting angle on why grief can take the shapes it does. This certainly makes me think of how the same book could be written about the neurological changes Didion underwent in that time…and how that’d be a completely different but also valuable book.

I, for one, have gotten value out of both approaches, at different times. In difficult emotional situations I fixate on coming to an understanding of WHY — what could lead a person to do act X? Only later can I process them at a more emotional level. In the train ride to my parents’ house the night we got the news of my aunt’s suicide, I read this book like a novel. It provides an exhaustingly comprehensive psychiatric perspective on suicide’s origins, from the personal all the way to the epidemiological level. It’s written by a clinician/researcher and popularizer who’s respected in both areas, which is no easy feat. It’s later now, and so Didion’s book has been important to the current stages.

While I’m making book recommendations, I found the suicide book a bit too depressing before I had a particular reason to read it. On the other hand, Jamison’s memoir of living with bipolar disorder is gripping and of general interest.

The rest of the ideas in the post are the standard kind of annoying “we’re so close to developing supercomputers that we can download our brains to, and therefore use to live forever” crap we can expect from a certain stripe/era of AI research. Oh, so many issues I have there. A few:

1) One of my favorite neuroscientific truisms is “if the brain were simple enough to understand, we would be too simple to understand it.” Where would a bit dump of our brains/minds even BEGIN? The upper-left-hand neuron? (What about cultures that read right-left?) Memories (“I was born a poor black child”)? And which historical point in time to capture? Should we do backups to keep it current? Save older versions, perhaps to retain health, and ditch the body once deterioration sets in? Not to mention the utter meaninglessness of a consciousness without physical input. Just look what sensory deprivation can do to an embodied brain.

2) Metaphors squelch understanding and new ideas, and all the more so when they try to cover more complex phenomena. “The brain is a computer” squelches understanding of its function because it ignores a lot of the types of connections made between neurons.

In fact, it’s just this disconnect between computer simulations of brain function and the actual functioning of the brain that switched me from computer science geekery to neuroscience, lo these 10 years ago now. In a Neural Networks class, I kept trying to make my network’s neurodes more like biological neurons, and got more and more impressed with the impossibility of the task and how it revealed how little we knew about the brain. Considering that each year of biological education teaches you more and more about what the last class didn’t even get near, to have finally run up against the limits of knowledge in a field was heady stuff. I switched majors posthaste.

N.B., the metaphor of DNA as blueprint/book of life is similarly harmful to the understanding of genetics. But that’s another post.

Yeah, I fully and humbly acknowledge that these objections may someday seem as hilarious as “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” and other statements are today.* In fact, one of the coolest things about extended lifespans, to me, is getting to see so many new things developed and so many old things proved wrong. Not to mention the chance that I could see the Cubs win the World Series, although my brain may need to be in a computer for that one.

In other news, vote for me for DC’s Sexiest Female Blogger. Here is some cheesecake to encourage you.

No, I have no idea who nom’d me (Reaganite swears it weren’t him), why I care, or why I would be OK being associated with some of the most gossipy damn people in the DC internet tubes. Since becoming aware of the Best DC Blog site on Monday, I tried to figure it out by reading a few comment threads there and “DC blog wars” posts on BigHeadRob’s blog, and I tell you whut: I’m never getting that two hours back.

Here’s another perspective though. While I had fun comparing the bizarreness to junior/high school on Monday and Tuesday, on Wednesday we spent an hour in lab meeting discussing some psychiatric-genetics-research-field politics. And as any DC resident knows, politics is high school. When I tell him some of my hair-raisers, Reaganite assures me that scientist politics is not substantially different in form from Hill politics. So when we tell the poor kids who find themselves at the bottom of high school food chains that “it’s not always like this, it gets better, people grow up,” we are lying. Lying lying lying!

Other reasons I care. Well, I’m self-centered. Show me a blogger who isn’t. Heck, show me a human being who isn’t. I’m competitive too, in weird indirect ways that are hard to describe: more against past versions of myself than other people. In my defense, I think people who know me will agree that these are not my mortal-est sins. (Guess which is!)

Also, as a child, I was an ugly duckling. Glasses filling half my face, feathered hair, not grown into the nose yet…maybe if I win I’ll post a photo of those days. Yay for the exorcism of childhood demons. And how better to prove the old saw that DC is Hollywood for ugly people? šŸ˜‰

Also also, it’d make a truly hilarious addition to my imaginary business card. Dr. Scientist. Photographer. Sexiest Blogger DC 2007. OK, only sorta hilarious.

Yeah, I’m in Florida. Reaganite’s mom and I get on fine, as I knew we would. But we are all tired and stuff, and R. has to do some work, which is why I have all this goddamned time to blog. Shouldn’t have much more until I get back–going to Disney tomorrow, for the first time ever.

Vote for me!


*As you may know, Bill Gates denies saying “640K ought to be enough for anybody.”

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3 Responses to “The neuroscience of loss, and egocentrism”

  1. Momb Says:

    I would swear there was a photo of you standing there in this dress very prim and proper showing every lovely bias drape…Is it just in my mind?

  2. Eric B Says:

    Yow! Hot cheesecake! Arroooooooooo!!!!!!

  3. avocado Says:

    Congrats on the contest winning! I like your new idea for business cards! I’d go for it. Especially for scientific conferences. šŸ™‚


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