What Did You Think?

Current events lately have vividly published the persistence of human violence against other human beings, which in turn has raised conversations everywhere around me in my particular circle of friends regarding issues of social justice and free will. You might be engaging in them yourself in response to Trump’s latest transgression, or the last atrocity in Orlando, or in remembrance of the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or the most recent instance of a collegiate man drugging a woman to rape her in peace. Take your pick: there are ample occasions to goad you toward thoughtful formulations of behavior.

Among my friendly conversations, the question arises whether these aggressions are necessary. Do people who want to hurt other people have any real choice in the matter, or are they compelled to aggress against others by deterministic forces–by environmental conditions and pressures, let’s say, or by genetic, hard-wired proclivities? Social violence is clearly both frequent and widespread enough to prompt outcries for just legal responses and political solutions. However, behavioral formulations are compelling not merely to political consciousness, but also to science itself with its outright investment in material causation. The aim in science, of whatever category, is to think preferentially about what determinism means: how one material entity effects another created thing: how atoms conglomerate to cause material substances, for instance, how gravity sticks us to our places, and so on. If any given person is determined to behave in a certain way–perhaps especially, though not exclusively, if the behavior is violent–, then we may want to understand the mechanisms responsible for the outburst.

Recently there have been a couple of articles in the scientific news that have introduced uncertainty into the accepted model of causative instrumentation. Historically the primary axiom has been that no effect can be created without a cause—which, on the face of it, seems a reasonable axiom to believe in. A material effect must be determined by a material cause. If something can be created without a cause, then we are in realms other than science–religion, for instance, or the paranormal, in which scientists would be admitting to the efficacy of ghosts haunting the world, miracles arising out of nowhere, and magic affecting the substrate of reality. Gandalf could be real, Harry Potter is roaming somewhere in London, and the Loch Ness Monster is still eating Scotsmen.

The trouble is, at no level has causality been determined, even as the degree of analysis sharpens, and so thus far there are no solutions to be had. Science keeps telling us that it really should be simple: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that sort of thing. It seems an easy matter to conclude that I throw a brick because the mechanical action of my arm is caused by thoughts, ideas and emotions directing me to throw it. The arm must be caused to throw, or it won’t move. Or, to be more provocative, if someone goes into a family planning clinic in Colorado to shoot the doctors, he must have motivations and ideas that caused his behavior. He is not a computer that can be taken over and controlled from without–like aliens directing his actions using bluetooth devices from their starship. (Of course, he might presumably be psychotic, but even then science would still say that the lack of reason is caused by material malfunctions among the dopaminergic neurons—but that is another conversation).

Hence brain functioning is itself laid out for exploration. The presumption is that brains are biological mechanisms that operate along recognized mechanistic principles. Thoughts arise within our minds according to functions that can be assayed: vision is intact, recognition of consensual reality is intact, and the aims of the behavior are programmed by cultural heritage, using language as its primary means of indoctrination. The programming must act upon the material substrate–we learn things–in the same way that programming a computer must act on the electrical components inside it. In examining the brain, we analyze its functions into its causative units. The mechanistic features of brain function derive from the neuronal components: a neuron releases a chemical neurotransmitter, which crosses a synaptic gap to bathe receptors on another neuron, which absorbs the flow of ions that— according to the electrical charge of the ions—then potentiates either an excited neuronal discharge, or an inhibition to excitation. The neuron is turned on or off.

Pursuing the analysis further, we have to descend another level into the neuron itself, because its functional mechanisms must be characterized too. If we want to influence brain activity, we have to know how to influence the neurons that purportedly create it. This is the basis, for instance, of the proliferation of psychoactive medications: SSRI’s to alter mood, neuroleptics to alter psychotic disturbances, anti-seizure meds to decrease kindling, neuronal hormonal function to influence sex and appetite, mood stabilizers, major sedatives, and so on.

So how do neurons manufacture their neurochemicals? How transport them? How create energy to fuel their activities? This is the level of scientific inquiry into cause and effect addressed by those articles to which I alluded above, the links to which I give here:

a. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/26/youre-powered-by-quantum-mechanics-biology

b. http://secondnexus.com/technology-and-innovation/physicists-demonstrate-how-time-can-seem-to-run-backward-and-the-future-can-affect-the-past/?ts_pid=2

In them we have research—pure, hard, materialistic research published within refereed journals—that is concluding there is no simplistic determinism of the nature that science presumes to be seeking.

This new research is revealing the hidden, underlying premise of all previous brain research, which was taking as its axiomatic model the theories of classical chemistry and physics. But suddenly those deterministic models are surmounted by the non-deterministic activities of quantum mechanics. The revelation of those articles is that the classical models no longer explain neuronal function—upon which brain activity depends. This is the same theoretic disagreement to be found between Einstein (who famously states the ‘God does not play dice with the universe’) and Niels Bohr, whose work in quantum theory discovered the indeterminacy at the essence of atomic activity. Chance is at the heart of the universe, not material control.

It appears, in other words, that determinism may be a matter of the level of inquiry. I can build a car engine that–when an air/fuel mixture is introduced into the cylinder at the correctly determined time–will cause an explosion, which in turn will cause a piston to move that is connected to a drive shaft that, in its turn, is connected to a wheel. All those material things and activities derive from a use of materials at the daily level of human visibility. We can’t ask too many questions about the actual nature of those events and materials, however. We just use them. If you do keep asking, causality fades away in the process of continued analysis. It’s the difference between mechanical engineering and theoretical physics.

If brains cannot be constrained by classically deterministic models, then we at least approach another conversation about freedom of thought, and the relation between brain activity and cultural education. We need new models of brain function and its relationship to behavior; these two articles, and the world of research they imply, are opening up a theoretical space in which such models can be imagined and researched. In particular, the possibility arises for a model that escapes the simple dualism between material being and spiritual ectoplasm–between science and religion, normal and paranormal, matter and mind.

There is some urgency for such a defining conversation, given the brutalities arising daily within an interconnected world of faults and problems. There is no persuasive materialist explanation that proves, for instance, that a person is physically determined to take an automatic weapon and preferentially train it on other people—let’s say (because I think the stakes are very high here) people of color worshipping in a church, people who also happened to befriend the appalling man in their Bible study class before he pulled out his handgun. Dylann Roof was not constrained to act as he did. There was no locus of control originating outside of his own volition: no chemical imbalance, no cultural programming, no poverty, no ignorance, no aliens directing him.

Nevertheless, he did shoot those people anyway, of his own choice and planning. He was personally accountable, and the possibility of individual freedom and responsibility are perhaps not terrible concepts to reconsider in general within our culture of proliferating virtual realities and fantasy escapes. People–and the governments they populate–can do better.



Gender Differences

photo 1-2


photo 2-2


I’d like to be unorthodox, and propose a choice: you can bear with me for a minute and let me explain what these pictures are about, or you can skip to the George Carlin quote in paragraph 7, whereupon this article might appear more overtly crafty. Or at least more conventionally organized.

But if you do that, you’ll want to come back to these photographs anyway: they display a region in the brain called the medial pre-optic area, which is a locality involved in, among other things, the expression and regulation of various important hormones— which in turn regulate various important behaviors you’ll probably want to know about. The brain sections shown here are from a gerbil–actually, two gerbils: a male and female. I took these pictures during my years in training in a neuroscience laboratory, where my lab mates and I were pursuing neuroanatomical differences between the two genders. The top picture depicts the medial Sexually Dimorphic Area (mSDA) of a male (on the left) and female (on the right) brain. The bottom picture depicts the SDA pars compacta (SDApc) of a male (on the left) and a female (on the right) brain. At the time they appeared some 22 years ago in The Journal of Comparative Neurology, these pictures and others like them caused discrete but obvious excitement among neuroscientists–who as a group are turned on by the most unlikely things.

The source of the excitement were those differences visible in the neuroanatomy between the two brains–the male and the female. Anyone can see them, which is the point of these pictures. The black irregular dots, lines and smudges densely evident in the male brain are neurons and interconnecting tracts full of vasopressin. Males have a considerable amount of these neurons in these brain areas, and females have comparatively little. Such differences were first discovered by my lab director in a set of studies in 1982–and so for the first time evidence was found to indicate that there were structural differences between male and female neurology.

This was a big deal. Given the materialist way that scientists think, to locate a difference in the brain meant that they could locate the source of differences in behavior. This is of course an axiomatic belief in science and medicine. The great longing is to connect an underlying neurological structure (basal ganglia, let’s say) and its resulting behavior (Parkinson’s disease, for example). Once a correlation can be established, then the next step is to create a technology that can repair the brain, and thereby change, in this case, the deteriorations of the Parkinson symptoms. We could save Michael J. Fox (among all the other people suffering with the disease). There are many diseases we are all familiar with–Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Schizophrenia–that are studied under this primary conceptual model of brain/behavior research.

Now with that in mind, the pictures above show a brain area that is involved in other pretty interesting behaviors, among them aggression, stress responses, parental behavior, and the really big one: sexual behaviors. And not too long after the work in our lab was published, a gentleman in a lab in San Diego claimed to have found an analogous structure in human brains, which he pronounced as the source for homosexual behaviors. You maybe can grasp the initial excitement of that discovery. All sorts of godly people were clamoring for follow-up research that would allow surgical interventions in the brains of gay men to relieve them of their unChristian urges–techniques that would allow that nucleus to be ablated without actually killing the poor sinner whose brain they wanted to tweak so they could control the nature of his desire.

In the nick of time, it was discovered that the brain area found in the human beings studied in that one lab could not be found in other human brains by other scientists in other labs, which suggested that this purported homosexual nucleus was merely an artifact of the immunocytochemistry used to stain for it in San Diego. Much of the Republican world wept in consternation. About this same time, other scientists announced related findings that somehow had, until that time, escaped their detection: human sexual behavior is really really complicated. Naturally, other corollary discoveries soon followed: there is no end to the number of brain areas involved in sexual behavior, including those also involved in violence and aggression, and there certainly is not one tiny nucleus hidden somewhere that governs everything.

There was at that time at least one young scientist (i.e. me) who thought that this hope for a solitary place in the brain that governed everything should have passed out of common belief after Descartes picked the pituitary gland as the resident palace of the soul. That was in the 17th Century, after all, and I had thought the whole project would have been abandoned after 3 futile centuries. But, no, there remains an interest in material explanations to account for the differences between genders–an abiding fevered energy pursuing why, as George Carlin observed, “Women are crazy, and men are stupid.”

Carlin has, to my way of thinking, an especially poignant way of articulating the observed differences, and he is equally memorable regarding the conclusions he reached about the source of those differences: “Women are crazy because men are stupid“. Well, yeah, he was on to something, though I suspect that he derived his hypothesis by taking into account other sources of evidence than looking at the brain cells of gerbils.

There are plenty of them–other sources, I mean. And in the spirit of George Carlin, let’s look at, oh, maybe one random example: the recent movie Her. In this film, for those of you who may not have seen it, we follow a sensitive male in the person of Theodore Twombly, who makes his living writing love letters for other less articulate males–those who are tongue-tied, who are less in touch with their sensitivities, and need help. Theo is a contemporary Cyrano de Bergerac, eloquently seducing women for the pleasure of dumb, under-socialized, but physically attractive men. He himself has had his own successes with at least one woman, which regrettably proved temporary: his marriage to her failed. And therefore, with the logic of a precocious fifteen-year-old, he decides to have telephone relationships with other women, with whom he does not actually need to talk, except insofar as they try to bring each other to sexual climax by referring to their dead cat fetishes.

In the end, that doesn’t work for him any better than his marriage did, though the cause of the failure did not turn out to be what I expected. His problem is not that the whole relationship is a fantasy conducted over a telephone, but rather that it is still engaging, however weirdly, with an actual person. Even on the telephone Theo is constrained to interact with an individual different than he is, with likes and sources of satisfaction other than those he would prefer.

Therefore, with movie wisdom he discovers his true love in Samantha, who is a virtual intelligence that sounds like Scarlett Johansson (and not like Phyllis Diller, which is lucky), and is constructed to fulfill his every wish. She is smart, entertaining, subservient to the nature of his interests, available at all hours of the day and night, adjusts to his sleep and work schedules, and admires the way he thinks. She even concocts a considerate plan for sex, using a physical woman hooked up through ingenious blue tooth devices to the computer, so that Theo might have an actual consummation with an actual physical being, who in turn is electrically connected to the cyberlife of Samantha. What could go wrong?

Well, let me tell you I have yet to find a single woman I know who has been remotely seduced by the premises of this ideal. Of course, from the point of view of science, my female sample is merely anecdotal evidence, but the logic of their friendly complaint seems to me to bear the weight of generalization. The guy in the movie wants his own romantic illusion, which is too much of a mirage even to allow the electronic succubus as a possible erotic evolution to his connection to Samantha. He only wants exactly what he wants, and only by his own terms. No blemishes, no human smells or fluids, no hair, no independence. Eventually, even the artificial intelligence is smart enough to leave him before things go too far, and he imagines some coercive means to compel her to fit his ideas of a soul mate. Fidelity appears to be one of them, since he is crushed by the disclosure that Samantha has been ‘mating’ 600-and-something other men. We can almost hear Othello lamenting in the background “that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites.

Theo as Everyman prefers to keep his ideals remote, and unhampered by materials he cannot control. Which is a problem in real life, where most of us have to reside, since any attempt to import them into the daily round of experience is bound to be frustrating, disappointing, aggravating. They have no relationship to reality, which simply refuses to behave according the way men have wanted it to act. Naturally, a certain percent of males will want to do something about that–say, for example, drive through parts of the UC Santa Barbara campus and shoot all the blonde women who wouldn’t have sex with them–whom they didn’t actually know, never actually tried to relate to, but only stood in for their ideal. The male preference has always been to prefer the idea, and compel the material world to accommodate to it. And the social world, the political world, the religious world, and every other world that males have populated. Hence the truth value of Carlin’s category, “Men are stupid.”

I won’t presume to indicate what crazy thing women might prefer, except to note that thus far it has not included shooting all the blonde men they know, or taking assault weapons into elementary schools to massacre all the children, or even making bombs out of horse manure and use them to blow up Oklahoma day care centers. Those decisions remain the province of masculine choice and action, guided by a masculine version of idealism. As our generals told us during the Vietnam War, we have to destroy the village to save it. These separations in behavior between men and women are startling, or at least I find them startling. Here we have a set of behaviors—or perhaps a proclivity for a set of behaviors—that distinguishes the members of the stupid group from those in the crazy group.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to identify the basis for those differences? Doesn’t it seem important? That’s what led me into the laboratory in the first place, where I took those photographs. Just like any other male, I was inclined to pursue an ideal to its logical conclusion—though in my case I neither had an interest in virtual women like Theo, nor a desire to change someone’s brain surgically to alter his sexual orientation, to alter his concept of beauty. Instead, I had my own proclivities—let’s call it my own inclination to look into the male brain, identify the region of violent sociopathy, and remove it. It sounds like such a good idea on paper, at least from the point of view of a masculine call to direct intervention. Ideas like this always look good in theory to somebody hunting after the definitive remedy, the perfect fix, the final solution.

I probably at this point should confess that I am still male, and still can be fooled by my logical extremities. So you probably shouldn’t take everything I say to heart. Besides, I am not the materialist I used to be. I’ve given up the idea that we can fix evil by materially removing the source of it from the brain. Some new pill won’t work either, though that isn’t stopping the pharmaceutical industry from imagining further expensive medicines to try on our children. It’s not going to go away.

Evil isn’t, I mean, evil won’t be going away any time soon–though maybe our unarmed, idealistic women have counsels to offer, or proposals to counter male ideas about material domination. It’s possible. Let’s go ask them.