Bruce Grierson wrote this week’s cover story about Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who has conducted experiments that involve manipulating environments to turn back subjects’ perceptions of their own age. Grierson’s last article for the magazine was about Olga Kotelko, a 91-year-old track star, which became the basis for his book “What Makes Olga Run?”
How did you first hear about Ellen Langer or grow interested in her research?
Ellen must have been hiding in my blind spot. She’s been doing her thing for almost four decades, but I didn’t stumble across her until I was researching my book, What Makes Olga Run? A chapter of that book deals with human limits and the role of the mind therein. I called Ellen up. She told me the story of her mother’s and grandmother’s afflictions. Then I learned she was contemplating this cancer study. It started to feel like a story.
Did she surprise you in any way?
About 20 seconds into a conversation with her, you know she’s different. She doesn’t sound like a scientist. She speaks in the rhythms of one of those old borscht-belt comics — punch, punch, punch, stop-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-before. There’s almost a narrative intelligence — if that’s a thing — that’s more obvious than her scientific intelligence. She’s an artist — literally (she paints) and also in sensibility. She’d surely agree with Einstein that not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured. She’s fun to be around, but she kind of wore me out.
TO A CERTAIN kind of sports fan – the sort with a Ph.D in physiology – Olga Kotelko is just about the most interesting athlete in the world. A track and field amateur from Vancouver, Canada, Kotelko has no peer when it comes to the javelin, the long jump, and the 100-meter dash (to name just a few of the 11 events she has competed in avidly for 18 years). And that’s only partly because peers in her age bracket tend overwhelmingly to avoid throwing and jumping events. Kotelko, you see, is 94 years old.
Scientists want to know what’s different about Olga Kotelko. Many people assume she simply won the genetic lottery – end of story. But in some ways that appears not to be true. Some athletes carry genetic variants that make them highly “trainable,” acutely responsive to aerobic exercise. Kotelko doesn’t have many of them. Some people have genes that let them lose weight easily on a workout regime. Kotelko doesn’t.
Olga’s DNA instead may help her out in a subtler way. There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined. It’s an advantage that could help explain the apparently Mars/Venus difference between people for whom exercise is pleasure – the Olga Kotelkos of the world – and the coach potatoes among us for whom it’s torture.
In a spacious cage in a cramped lab in the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside, there lives an albino lab mouse who has no name, so I will call him Dean. Dean is small and twitchy, with slender musculature. He may be the world’s fittest mouse.
Dean is the product of a long-running study of voluntary exercise. Twenty years ago, the evolutionary biologist Ted Garland, then at the University of Wisconsin, gave a small group of mice access to a running wheel. The mice who liked using it the most were bred with each other, so that the trait of running fast and far was amplified in each successive generation until, almost 70 generations later, Dean emerged. When Dean wakes up in the evening (mice are nocturnal) he typically goes straight to his wheel – before eating, even – and just runs full out, making the wheel squeal. He has run as much as 31 kilometers in a night.
Garland and his colleagues believe that, genetically and physiologically, Dean is different from other rodents. “Marathon mice” like Dean seem to find exercise uncommonly satisfying – likely because of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to the brain’s reward circuitry. Exercise stimulates dopamine production, which in turn causes a cascade of other molecular effects – a process known as “dopamine signaling.” Dean’s dopamine signaling is unusual: when he runs, some as-yet-unidentified molecule, downstream from the dopamine receptor, gets altered so that it now provides reinforcement that normal mice don’t get.
Those differences, the scientists believe, may help explain why some of us merely tolerate exercise and why others, like Olga and Dean, love and perhaps even need a whole lot of it. If your genes predispose you to loving your workouts, as Olga’s appear to do, and if your environment offers the opportunity to work out constantly, as Dean’s wheel does for him, a certain chain reaction can start. Physical effort feels fantastic, which prompts even more effort, which delivers even bigger dose effects in mood and energy.
How does any of this matter for the rest of us schlubs, who may not be similarly endowed? File this question under “Where there’s a cause, there’s a cure.” If scientists crack the genetic code for intrinsic motivation to exercise, then its biochemical signature can, in theory, be synthesized. Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?
“One always hates to recommend yet another medication for a substantial fraction of the population, says Garland, “but Jesus, look at how many people are already on antidepressants. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good thing?” An up-and-at-‘em drug might increase our desire for exercise or, conversely, create uncomfortable restlessness if we sit too long.
It’s pretty clear that Dean the mouse experiences something way beyond uncomfortable restlessness if he sits too long. He is a full-on exercise junkie. When researcher Justin Rhodes, an experimental psychologist at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who joined the study at generation 20, took away his wheel, depriving him of his fix, Dean was miserable. Rhodes scanned Dean’s brain and found high activation in the area associated with cravings for drugs such as cocaine. Both “drugs” – indeed, all drugs – goose similar reward circuitry. “But I think there’s got to be some differences,” says Rhodes. “Because it’s not as if an animal that’s addicted to running is necessarily going to be addicted to cocaine or gambling.”
And therein lies another weird direction for the research to go. What if addicts could take a pill that exploits those minute differences, redirecting their jones from a harmful one to a positive one – a kind of running-as-methadone plan?
Such a pill is conceivable in principle, says University of Michigan psychologist Kent Berridge, who studies how desire and pleasure operate in humans, but developing it presents an enormous challenge. Without knowing exactly how the brain assigns urges to specific objects of desire, how do we ignite a yen to exercise without also stimulating the yen to do things that will land your customers in rehab? Or blunt the urge for drugs while leaving healthy urges untouched? Scientists within the big pharmaceutical companies are no doubt working on it, nonetheless. “I’m waiting for them to contact me and offer me funding,” Garland says dryly.
It’s the kind of drug that Olga – normally one to Just Say No – might even endorse.
From the archives: East Meets West in the Dentist’s Chair
From SATURDAY NIGHT magazine, 2002
For whatever reason—and there’s endless scope to speculate – pain is a hot topic these days. “That’s gotta hurt!” we say of the extreme snowboarder who lands face-first while jumping a Volkswagon, or of our friend’s kid who flashes her tongue stud or lumbar tattoo. But we’re fascinated. In an age where pain is optional, it has acquired a strange new cachet.
On today’s maternity wards, experiments in mystical stoicism have replaced old-style epidural-aided childbirth (which at least offered mothers-to-be some relief) with “natural childbirth, where lucky women get to sweat and holler and squeeze the doula’s hand, the pain simply the price of being fully present in the moment. The Dene and the Inuit of the Northwest Territories would understand. Many of their traditional games – the mouth pull, the knuckle hop – involve the mutual affliction of pain. “If we know how much pain we can take,” an elder named Big Bob Aikens explained to writer John Vaillant not long ago, “we know we can survive if we are injured.” Most of us below the tundra line are so far away from needing pain for that reason that it’s hard to fully appreciate what Big Bob is getting at. But the possibility glimmers on the periphery of awareness that maybe the Inuit are onto something. Maybe anesthetizing pain is a bad idea, evolutionarily. Maybe learning to feel pain, to take it, to “live inside” it, to study it, to re-engineer our relationship with it, is part of the secret of advancing the species.
There is, of course, another, more immediately relevant reason to study pain: as pain treatment goes, so goes the future of medicine. How we decide to deal with pain matters, now possibly more than ever, because pain disproportionately affects an enormous and growing number in an aging population.
And it’s hear that a clear division has emerged on which direction we ought to pursue. Ask a Western doctor what the future of pain relief is, and he or she will probably start naming drugs that end in x. Western medicine has cast its lot with pharmacology, and, increasingly, biotechnology.
But at the same time, and in record numbers, the afflicted are looking for something different. Collectively, we seem to be letting our guard down about those crazy Eastern remedies that at least do no harm, and may do some good. (British Columbia, where I live, was the first province where traditional Chinese medicine was recognized as a regulated discipline.) Herbs, guided fantasy, acupuncture, magnets, hypnosis, virtual reality, prayer: people will reach for anything when they’re in pain and the old standbys haven’t done the job. The “proof” that any of these “natural” remedies is effective – that is, double-blind controlled-study proof, Western science’s standard – is scanty at best, but the nature of the target, pain, is ephemeral enough that the phrase “controlled study” can seem hopelessly paradoxical.
What is clear is that the mind, when it comes to pain, is more powerful than we ever imagined. Pain, like, time, is an illusion. We interpret it as discomfort because discomfort is nature’s way of ensuring a damaged area gets attention. But is there anything to say that we can’t learn to “read” pain signals dispassionately, as just so many lines of source code, and remove the discomfort from the equation? Or even learn to interpret pain signals as pleasurable – so-called “eudemonic” pain? Hindu mystics have done it for centuries. As that stoic philosopher Arnold Schwarzenegger put it in The Terminator, “Pain can be controlled – you just disconnect it.”
Was Arnie right? I have decided to find out.
It happens that I am one of those people who never had their wisdom teeth removed. Now all four of mine sit like tiny thrones sunk in soft tissue – inviting a controlled test. I will have the teeth on the right pulled the Western way (which is to say, by an oral surgeon and with ample drugs before and after) and the teeth on the left pulled the Eastern way (by a holistic-oriented dentist using a cocktail of New Age measures, no anesthetic.) My own theory is that since the more soulful, creative right brain controls the left side of the body, I ought to be able to recruit some natural pain relief from there. Or at least draw on reserves of faith.
I will turn over my body – my mouth, at any rate – to science. East vs. West: may the best side win.
Dr. Martin (Marty) Braverman is one of the top oral surgeons in B.C. His office is in a mall.
Braverman can extract a couple of teeth in the time it takes to get your oil changed. On a busy day he might pull a hundred teeth. You pay a little extra for a guy like Marty Braverman, because he is a specialist and because he boasts a very low dry-socket ratio. (A dry socket, in which the bone holding the tooth becomes exposed to air, is the very definition of pain.) “Will I be able to drive afterward?” I’d asked the receptionist.
“Can you drive now?” she said.
“Then, yes.” Ba-rum-bum.
Sitting in Braverman’s chair, I survey a rolling cart with a few silver instruments on it. The smell of a dentist’s office provokes a kind of primal fear, and, fast on its heels, the urge to bolt. I have to remind myself: This is the easy side.
Braverman is short and bespectacled and almost alarmingly casual in manner. He’s wearing khakis. With a needle as fat as a fountain pen, he injects, lidocaine, but as he has applied topical anesthetic to numb the gum first, I don’t feel the needle go in. I don’t feel a thing.
“Now, lidocaine usually has about a three-hour duration,” Braverman says, “so in three or four hours you’re going to experience some discomfort.” A nurse pokes her head in to remind Braverman that he has a lunch date in twenty minutes.
He goes to work on the lower right-hand tooth, the trickier one because it’s half-buried. He makes an incision. “What we’re going to do is push the gum back away from the tooth,” he says. “You’ll feel some pressure as we do that.” A scratching sound, a cat at the door. He removes a bit of bone to create some space to lever the tooth up and out. The drill roars. Through the window, I can see the traffic light, hung on a wire over the intersection, being blown so far off plumb by the wind that the motorists can’t tell what colour the light is.
Braverman has the tooth out in two minutes, 35 seconds. He asks for a needle-driver, so that he can “re-approximate” the gum with some stitches. He packs the hole with a dissolving sponge and packs my cheek with dexamethasone, an anti-swelling drug.
The top tooth ought to go even faster, and it does. Braverman levers an instrument called an elevator – essentially a primitive wedge – between the tooth and the bone, grabs onto the tooth with the forceps, and, boom: done. One minute, 25 seconds. I have barely warmed up the chair for the next person. Pain? There has been none. The procedure is over so quickly as to be disorienting. This feels like cheating, the way plane travel feels like cheating, bridging distance you somehow haven’t earned.
Braverman prescribes Tylenol 3 and the antibiotic amoxicillin – a prescription I fill one floor down in the mall, before driving home. The cost is $250. There’s an industry joke about a guy who receives the bill from his oral surgeon. He’s outraged. “Three hundred dollars for 15 minutes’ work?!” The surgeon replies, “Would you rather I’d taken an hour?”
A problem arises as I try to monitor the degree of pain I experience during recovery: how do I measure it? Most doctors acknowledge that the task of calibrating pain is almost impossible, since the amount of pain people feel is ultimately subjective, varies wildly from patient to patient, and is influenced by factors such as mood and expectation. All of the pain scales thus far devised are imprecise, and in fact no one has improved on the old “On a scale of one to 10, how much does this hurt?” The pain I feel on Day 1, after the extraction, is about a 2.
On day 2, the pain climbs to three, and requires a couple of T3’s to keep it in check. I try to pay attention to the pain. It diminishes, narrowing to a little, lingering ache just below the right temple, then migrates to the hinge of my jaw. By Day 4, it is largely gone. For all intents, the right side, the Western side, is over – hardly more psychically disruptive, overall, than a bad haircut. The persistence of a very low-grade headache makes me wonder if there isn’t, just possibly, a little infection, so I start taking the antibiotics again, three a day. A week later I take a closer look at the label on the bottle: “Three a day until finished, as directed by Dr. Salzman.” Dr. Salzman? Oh yeah: the guy I sometimes see from the travel clinic down the street. I have been taking pills for altitude sickness.
EAST (The Preparation)
Canadians spent about $4 billion on alternative therapies last year, and more than two in five say they use some kind of “complementary” medicine. In most cities you can now find a holistic dentist who will manage pain with hypnoanaesthesia or herbology or acupuncture instead of burying it with sedatives or anesthetic. It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that the masses are flocking to these folks.
“People don’t like to feel pain,” says Dr. Craig Kirker, the founder of Biological Dental Investigations, a consultant at the Integrative Medicine Institute of Canada in Calgary – and the practitioner who has agreed to take me as a test subject. Kirker often uses acupuncture in his treatment of patients, usually ones who are terrified of the kind of big dental needles that deliver lidocaine (and for whom, therefore, the reduced pain felt with acupuncture is preferable to the full-throttle pain of no treatment at all). “When you’re frozen with anesthetic, you’ll feel, on a scale of one to 10, zero, maybe point-five. If you have no freezing you might feel a nine when it gets close to the nerve. With the acupuncture you feel about a four. And it’ll peak to about a six. Just once in a while. You know, just kind of like: ‘zing.’”
Regarding my own personal experiment, Kirker is curious, even keen, but offers no guarantees. No painkillers before, during or after? “If you’re just popping a tooth out, it’s not such a big deal,” he says. “If they have to touch the bone, you’re probably going to want freezing. It’s a little different kind of pain down there. But it’d be interesting.”
Kirker sets up the extraction for three weeks hence. He recommends a couple of ways I can prepare. One is a visualization exercise popularized by Jose Silva in a classic of New Age literature called You the Healer. Basically, the subject relaxes by counting backwards from 50. You imagine your hand immersed in a bucket of ice water. You leave your hand in the water for 10 minutes. Then you withdraw it, stiff and numb, and apply it to your face, where the numbness transfers to the jaw and settles deeply into the bone.
“Here’s another little tidbit,” Kirker advises by e-mail. “Get into your quiet space and have a little conversation with your wisdom teeth and jaw. It would be nice if they felt OK about parting ways as well. I know it sounds a little flighty, but I have actually run into cases where this could have prevented a lot of trouble if we had listened more carefully.”
And so Jose Silva joins my night-table stack, atop Mark Salzman’s novel Lying Awake. In that book, a nun named Sister John has been suffering from killer migraines, which we later discover are linked to epilepsy. “I try to see pain as an opportunity, not an affliction,” she explains to a neurologist. “If I surrender to it in the right way, I have a feeling of transcending my body completely. It’s a wonderful experience, but it’s spiritual, not physical.”
EAST (The Indoctrination)
The IMI, a cozy little brick building not far from downtown Calgary, is on the frontier of the field of “integrated medicine.” Its mandate is similar to Andrew Weil’s bailiwick at the University of Arizona – to get the two solitudes, Western and Eastern medicine, to meet for lunch. Mind-body medicine is about breaking the old dichotomy – not “East” or “West” but “the medicine that works at the right time for the right reason.” “The body is capable of healing itself,” the Canadian alternative-medicine pioneer Wah Jun Tze often said. IN fact, perfect health is the body’s natural state, and anything that interposes itself in that process, the mind-body tribe says, is probably hurting more than it’s helping in the long run.
I arrive the day before the scheduled extraction. My vow to do this side the Eastern way forces the direction of treatment somewhat. Kirker will work as part of a team: he’ll do the prep work and the acupuncture while a colleague named Bill Cryderman, a dentist who is on the same page with IMI philosophically, will pull the teeth. “We could have gone with an oral surgeon, but I thought you’d have a more exciting experience with Bill,” Kirker says. But before I meet Cryderman, there’s a little “tuning up” to be done.
“Here in the West we’re hunt up on the double-blind placebo study,” Kirker says as I frump into the chair next to a “bioresonance” machine called a MORA. “First we observe. We make theories. Then we test those theories, and that’s science. When Newton proposed an invisible force called gravity, they almost threw him out of the institute – but then they started testing and found out he was right.”
Craig Kirker is a nice guy. If Mr. Rogers ever decided to have a dentist on his show, Kirker would be the man he’s invite. He has a habit of telling an anecdote with a surprise ending involving spontaneous or dramatic healing, and punctuating it with “Interesting.” The MORA machine is making high-pitched squeals. Its job, Kirker says, is to detect imbalances in my body’s “harmonics” and try to kick me back into plumb. A nurse jots down the readings she’s getting. Apparently I’m a little out of balance,” “possible from the plane ride,” Kirker offers, charitably.
Next, in another room, my autonomic reflexes are tested to determine how much my body reacts to anesthetics the dentist might have if the pain proves too much to bear. Kirker puts a number of different samples in a little receptacle, one by one, and determines how they conduct energy through an acupressure point in my finger.
In still another room, I lie on a massage table with an oxygen mask over my mouth. I get a fix of ionized oxygen for 16 minutes – eight minutes of positively charged ions followed by eight minutes of negatively charged ions – which Kirker tells me has a general “detoxifying” effect and boosts my immune system. (If you could take a picture of the energy field around my body, he says, you’d see that after the oxygen had saturated the cells, the energy field would have expanded to Michelin Man dimensions.)
Then we add light. From the hood of a “biophoton machine” poised over my scalp, tiny red pulsing diodes send light energy into my body, filling me, Kirker says, with qi energy. A magnetic ring around my ankles catches energy that would apparently otherwise be lost, and sends it back into my body.
Finally Kirker puts a tiny vial of liquid in the “honeycomb” – a device that takes the frequency signature of whatever you put in it and feeds it through the lights. The liquid is a homeopathic remedy created from a flower essence – an ultradilute solution of dew collected from a flower petal in a meadow in Western Canada just as the light of dawn struck it – selected for me by an IMI staff “intuitive” named Iris.
“We’re working on you from all levels,” Kirker says.
Now, there is plenty in New Age medicine to be suspicious of. In my suitcase is a thick folder full of articles that take the air out of exactly the sort of thing we’ve been doing. But I haven’t read them yet. I’m highly motivated to believe. What’s going on here seems nutty, but my job is to take my own cynicism out of the equation at least until my teeth are handed to me in a sack. No theories, no baggage, just direct experience.
As he finishes the tune-up, Kirker tells the story of his own drift from hard science to the speculative fringe. How, almost as a lark, he played along with the leader of a workshop called “Body Symptoms as a Spiritual Process,” and allowed the possibility that symptoms happen for a reason and that the painful kink in his neck was just his body’s subconscious trying to tell him something. (The kink vanished.) And how, a while later, a naturopath using a similar technique managed to cure him of chronic abdominal pain. As far as extra-normal talent goes, for that matter, Kirker’s associate Iris, the “medical intuitive,” has a reputation for being downright psychic. Sometimes she turns up in pictures of gatherings she wasn’t even at. And here she is now, poking her head into the treatment room. “Will you be there tomorrow?” I ask.
“Not in body,” she says.
“Then how will I know if you’re around?”
“I’m a little clumsy,” Iris says. “If somebody knocks something over, that’s me.”
EAST (The Extraction)
Bill Cryderman’s workplace feels less like a dentist’s office than like the “pioneers” wing of a museum of natural history. Water rills down a slate waterfall and trickles lazily into a catch basin. Fire blazes in a hearth. A pair of snowshoes sits propped in a wall niche. And overhead, positioned so that its ribs fill the field of vision of the prone patient, is a ‘40s-era wide-bodied wooden canoe.
Cryderman himself is a small man with a sort of jocular confidence. “Good to meet you,” he said, emerging from behind a partition and pumping my hand. “Are you all psyched?”
I am lying in his high-tech dental chair. With a low hum, parts of it move to adjust to my contours. Some money falls out of my pocket onto the floor. “That’s the automatic coin-remover,” Cryderman says.
He draws himself in close, trying to gauge my level of trepidation. “You know we have a backup, right?” He means lidocaine. “It’s just for your mental security. I don’t want to give you a back door. This is going to work.”
It’s hard to tell whether Cryderman’s as certain as he seems to be, or as certain as he needs to be fore me to believe him.
There comes a point – and actors and speakers must feel this – when apprehension becomes a bigger burden than the thing you’re apprehensive about, and you actually wish yourself forward in time to meet the event. I felt that way this morning. But now I’m in full retreat, my stomach in coils.
For the past week, I’ve been practicing the ice-bucket exercise. In theory, I should be able to effect an actual physiological change. In other words, I’m not just fooling myself into thinking the area’s growing numb – it IS growing numb. Neurons generate electrochemical charges that actually block the pain messages coming back from the brain. In theory.
Craig Kirker is beside me. He seems quietly stoked. He is the pit crew, the doula, overseeing the acupuncture. Carefully, he hooks up tiny needles to acupressure points in my right ear, left hand, left food and face. Some of these needles are basically just electrodes, through which a mild current (called, oddly, a tsunami) will run from a machine called, unpromisingly, an Accu-O-Matic. There’s very little sensation: the needles hardly feel as if they’ve penetrated the skin. This could easily be a total ruse. “Now I’m just going to dial it up,” Kirker says. “The frequency you’re on right now is for healing.”
What am I doing here? No, really, literally, what am I doing here? Trying, in a sense, to reprogram the body. Pain is the fire alarm of a healthy, functioning nervous system. So the question becomes, can we make the mind aware that, yes, we’ve heard the alarm, we’re aware of the fire – but it’s a controlled burn, a regeneration burn, and therefore there’s no need to ring anymore. Can we tell it that? And will it listen?
I close my eyes and move slowly backwards from 50, breathing deeply, rhythmically. The idea is to slow down the brain activity and drift toward an alpha state, where the right brain, the creative, intuitive side, predominates.
“We’re going to just allow the body to numb,” Kirker says, “and we’re going to give the release to the teeth. We’re going to allow them to leave, and we’re going to allow the process to take place without invasion. The tissues will adapt if they need to, and healing will begin to take place as soon as the tooth is gone. We’re going to do the same visualization we’ve been doing, with the ice water, but we’re also going to draw our consciousness back from the body. To do that we’re going to go up some stairs in the mind. Only a few stairs until we reach a landing. Now look back and see your body in the chair.”
I can see it. The body. It’s me but it isn’t. It looks like an exhumed mariner from the Franklin Expedition, mummied in ice. The eyes are buried like bulbs under the skin, the whole left half of the face is crusted over with thick, white frost. This guy is dead.
Kirker reinforces the image with another. There’s a thermostat in the wall. The thermostat will be used to put the jaw into a deep freeze. At “1” the jaw is already numb. “When we turn the dial to the number 2, the numbness deepens, becomes more pervasive. Now turn the dial to 3. Turn it to 4. Deepening almost to the very tip of the root, now. Five. It’s starting to feel almost like stone. No sensation. Numb and very dense. You’ll still feel pressure, but nothing other than pressure.”
Image-making. In repressive regimes, the room where victims have been tortured has often been given a nickname. In the Philippines it has been called “the production room.” In South Vietnam “the cinema room.” In Chile “the blue-lit stage.” The very thing that manufactures and heightens sensations of pain – the projection booth of the mind – can be recruited to do propaganda for the good guys. In theory.
Somewhere across the room Cryderman is laughing. He and the receptionist strike up the Johnny Cash tune “Ring of Fire.”
I can hear things being unwrapped, instruments.
“Breathing in numbness,” Kirker says, “breathing out tension.”
A machine issuing three tones: GEG…GEG…
Cryderman is standing, for better leverage.
“Bruce is wired for sound,” he says, surveying the electrodes on my face.” “Second floor: lingerie.”
The top tooth is lying at an angle, like a newspaper box that’s been tipped over and frozen into a snowdrift. “It’s pointing a little sideways, but it’s manageable,” Cryderman says. His assistant, Monica, is at his flank. “I’m going to apply some pressure now around the upper wisdom tooth.”
You’ll feel pressure, but no pain.
Extracting a wisdom tooth is like prying an oyster off a rock. You’re pulling ligaments away from the bone, and attached to each ligament are nerves.
“Try and shift your lower jaw towards Monica,” Cryderman says. “Good for you.” The man is relaxed. He’s selling this. A little probing, a little digging – pressure, as promised, but pressure is not pain. Stone cold, bone numb.
“I’m going to try a straight elevator,” Cryderman says. “That was too easy.”
So far, so good. The dentist is smooth. He’s in there working on my mouth, and I haven’t really felt much of…
Mother of God.
Cryderman has leaned on the tool as if it were a tire iron. There’s a sick-making twisting, each sucker being yarded off the rock like snot till it pops free. Painwise, that was a six at least. Or was it? The lateral motion was what got to me, that unfamiliar sensation I interpreted as pain.
“You OK?” Cryderman says. “Yes? He’s going to be fine, then. You are going to be just fine.”
Pain is a private experience. To feel it even for a moment is to glimpse how it must, for chronic suffers, be a brutally estranging force. The human being is affiliative by nature, constantly reaching out; but the human being in pain is isolated, constantly looking in, drawing on reserves, spinning down to a hidden centre.
Quell the fear. Most of pain is fear. Breath in numbness, breathe out tension. Hey, this isn’t so bad. On the other hand, if the same procedure were happening in a different circumstance – the Tower of London in the 18th century, say – my subjective experience would likely be different.
“Hang in there, buddy,” Cryderman says. “Good show. So, we’re done there.” The top tooth is out. In seven minutes. Not exactly a slow float in the shallow end of the kidney pool, but manageable, surprisingly so. One down, one to go.
If I could somehow have known what was to follow, I might have bailed right there – paid up and been on the next plane home.
“I’m going to enlist your aid here, OK?” he says. “I want to control the bleeding in the lower left. I want you to imagine that the blood supply to that corner of your mouth is delivered by a garden hose. I want you to turn the tap off. Imagine yourself turning it right off. Cinch it down tight and shut the blood supply off to that wisdom tooth area. That’s it. Just imagine that you’ve stopped it altogether.”
Most of the tooth is covered by a crown of skin, which will have to go. Cryderman picks up a scalpel. Its blade is as long as my thumb.
“For all I know, this is the part that will bother you more than the actual tooth removal.” He pushes the blade in deep, drawing it down nearly a quarter of an inch and all the way forward, creating two flaps he then peels back on either side to expose the bone. It feels like a scraping, a scouring, a beating of rugs, uncomfortable for sure, but by now I have defined pain down – anything that doesn’t involve twisting is OK by me – and I let him go on.
“So we’re going to make some noise just like for a filling.”
Constant suction. Cryderman needs a point of leverage to get the tooth out of there. He starts to drill. Now he is digging a little trench in the bone. What helps stave off panic is that the drill, I discover, is preferable to the elevator, whose sudden, stump-uprooting action creates a more mentally vivid and therefore more flinchworthy sensation.
I can feel him moving back there. He’s a long way back, so far back that maybe he’s working on somebody else’s mouth. The mouth of the dead guy, Franklin’s man in the ice.
The tooth is butted up to the next molar too tightly. It’s not going to come out in one piece.
Cryderman starts to drill. He burrs down from the top of the tooth at an angle, the sound of a jet plane on takeoff heard through earmuffs. He brushes the pulp – a zing of pain, electric, a fist flying open. “Hang in there,” he says. “We’re making great headway.”
Whenever the rational mind is activated, there is suffering. Cryderman can tell when I am in my rational mind. He knows the circuit is open, two people receiving each other. He’s talking to me now, engaging directly. He knows I’ve gotten off the lift and am taking the stairs, and he is helping me up those stairs.
I fall back on the Jose Silva technique. The trick, Silva figured, is to concretize the pain, make it a physical thing. The right brain, which creates pain sensations, deals with subjective constructions. It can’t deal with things. So once you’ve given pain dimensions, you’ve taken it out of the right brain and put it into the left, which feels nothing. Concretize the pain. It is the shape of the sun, the sudden weight of a wheelbarrow full of rocks.
“Thanks for opening so wide,” Cryderman says. “I had a little girl just before you, and I keep wanting to say, ‘Bruce is being a big helper.’”
With a loud crack the corner of the tooth shears off. The idea is to plug the elevator in and try to level the tooth out. But again, it refuses to budge.
Strategy changes. Cryderman and his assistant have a little conference. Kirker, who has been down at my feet massaging the acupressure points, pops up to have a look. “OK, let’s try it,” Cryderman says finally. “We’ll just go really slow and see how we do.” He begins to drill straight down into the pulp chamber of the tooth. If lidocaine were ever going to be needed, it’s now. I can feel the burr going in, but the pain is more a frisson than a jolt, no worse than some of the bad dentistry I had as a kid, nothing I can’t handle. If the other “pain” sense cues were absent – the scraping of the scalpel, the cracking of the teeth, the smell of burning pulp – there would be almost no sensation. At intervals Cryderman stops drilling and tries levering. I can hear myself making whale sounds. “Let’s give him a rubber bite-block – that should improve his ability to stabilize his own jaw,” Cryderman says. “I think that’s going to help you, Bruce, because I’m torquin’ on ya.”
The roots of the tooth have grown together into a kind of monoroot, which means Cryderman will have to bore down almost all the way down to the jawbone before the tooth splits. Then all that will remain is to slip an elevator into the crack, twist it, and the two pieces should split like cordwood, free to be lifted out. In theory.
Light blooms periodically as Cryderman’s headlamp beam passes over my eyelids. I can feel tight skin near my temples where the tracks of tears have dried.
The steady trickle of the waterfall. Kirker has turned up the current on the electrodes on my face so I will feel a reassuring buzz, but I don’t feel a thing.
A hazy notion is born and forms and tries to take hold. It’s the sense that there are two worlds in opposition – the world I normally live in, the grasping world, self-centred and busy and messy, my brain full of way too much pop-cultural arcane; and the other world I am beginning to glimpse, a letting-go world, a place of acceptance and submission and yes, faith, where the real show is happening beyond conscious awareness, your biochemistry sensitive to toxins at almost an atomic level, dead relatives along with you for the ride and every organic thing pulsing at an almost audible frequency, giving off a visible light. A place that, once you decided to live in it permanently, would probably make the other world look like the restroom of a gas station next to the beach.
How we experience pain, eventually, falls into the preverbal realm, or possibly postverbal – casting us back into the frustrating limitations of infanthood or forward to the final mumblings in the vapour tent before the ventilator is turned off English has no words for it. At best our descriptions are crude approximations. Pain is the original language, not what the body speaks to the world but what the world speaks to the body: you are still alive.
Cryderman is almost entirely through the tooth. “Hang on,” he says. “I think I’m going to have some good news for you pretty quickly.”
The tooth splits with a crack. “OK, let’s see what we’ve got.” The two pieces should lift out easily. But they don’t. They are fused to the bone. Akylosis. Cryderman will have to pry each out individually.
At this point let me collapse the story. Plenty of things happen in my mouth, and plenty of things happen in my mind, not least of which is that I adopt a new strategy, leaning not on images, but on fact (“Look, this is the way it was done for thousands of years”) and affirmations (“The only way out is through”). Cryderman describes a required manoeuvre to Monica as a “dipsy-doodle.” He tells her to be a little more aggressive. At a certain point, I find myself talking to the tooth: “Let go, pal.” The tooth and I have fairly clear communication going. We are staring at each other across the table of a bad Mexican restaurant on the night, after 25 years together, that it all ends. The tooth says, “Why are you doing this to me? What have I ever done to you?” It senses an impure motive. This is not a diseased tooth. It wasn’t causing any trouble. Strictly speaking it did not need to come out. Was the thrill gone? Was there another, younger tooth in the picture? No. I was doing this for the money.
“OK, Bruce,” Cryderman says. “You made it.”
Sixty-five minutes after he began to tackle it, the last piece of this tooth is out. Cryderman’s face is filmed with sweat. “Holy mackerel,” he says. He puts a couple of stitches in. I don’t feel them. I am floating on endorphins.
This has turned out to be one of the most stubborn extractions Cryderman has ever undertaken.
“OK, I’m not ordering anything with sun-dried tomatoes on it this weekend,” Cryderman says “Monica is destroyed on sun-dried tomatoes now. Possibly forever.”
In his byzantine excavations, Cryderman managed to miss the major nerve that runs under the wisdom teeth – if he’d hit it I doubt any amount of acupuncture or guided imagery would have prevented me from jumping out of the chair. But even so, this was a pretty sensational bit of trauma. And with acupressure, and what amounts to positive thinking, I was able to endure it. the dissociation from my own body in the chair – not “astral travel,” but something closer to a state of light hypnosis, suggestibility with awareness – worked. “Turning off the tap” worked. Cryderman removed only two gauzes’ worth of blood – way less than there should have been for a wound that size. A dental patient who’s not completely frozen will typically feel pain the moment the drill penetrates the enamel, moves into the dentin and brushes the pulp. Cryderman drilled right through the pulp. “That,” says Kirker, “is like doing surgery.”
Here’s the truth. I am not a tough guy. I cry at track meets. And I’m easily distracted. A stronger person with a more disciplined mind could almost certainly enjoy something close to a pain-free experience.
“Western medicines definitely have their place,” Kirker says as we make our way back to the IMI in his minivan. “They’re very useful for some things. It’s hard to beat a good nerve block.” I know what he means. Strictly in terms of quantifiable pain, the Western side of this experiment “won” hands-down. But the Eastern side was a lot more interesting.
No doubt Silva made some mistakes, and Iris misses the barn some days, and Deepak Chopra bends some facts to fit his myths, and a lot of the “Kirlian photography” people you see at science fairs are charlatans, waving the Polaroid over a 60-watt bulf before handing you back an aureole-ringed picture of yourself. But somewhere in the fog is the right way forward – to a future where doctors are paid even if they don’t make a referral or prescribe a pill, and patients are encouraged to do all they can for themselves, and Western and Eastern medicine collapse into something we call ‘using what works.’ And pain still exists though we all start thinking about if differently, trying to answer the question of why it dogs us from a little further upstream.
The healing curve on this left side is steep. Kirker gives me a couple more sessions of the oxygen and the lights. He makes a liquid homeopathic out of the pieces of my own tooth. He feeds into the bioresonance machine he’s using on me the signature of healthy tissues from pigs raised on an organic farm in Germany. (Using healthy human flesh would no doubt present, um, ethical issues.) There is very little swelling, which surprises him. “When you touch bone,” he says, “almost invariably you swell up like a chipmunk.”
The night of the operation there’s a little low pain, maybe a Two, not enough to prevent me from sleeping. The next morning it is gone.
On Monday, Kirker and I shake hands goodbye.
“Oh. Iris phoned,” he says. “I asked her if she was there. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘Dragged on awhile, eh?’”
From THE RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT, by Liberty Mutual
The sign just inside the doors of Surrey City Centre Library was small enough, or strange enough, that most of the patrons who’d been waiting outside filed right past it without even noticing.
Human Library—Open Today
Surrey City Library, in a bedroom community of Vancouver, British Columbia, is a just-opened Modernist gem, and it has all of the things you’d expect in a library — books and magazines and scores of multimedia options —plus one rare new thing: a small collection of “human books” that you can “sign out” for 30 minutes at a time.*
Human books are, simply, people. They are volunteers who have made themselves available to the public, as stories. They were chosen because they have something unique to say and a compelling way of saying it, and because they reflect the cultural diversity of the community. Theirs are stories that – because they don’t involve vampires or boy wizards or ladies’ detective agencies— might otherwise be lost, in the blockbuster-or-nothing climate of today’s publishing world.
The books sat at tables, waiting for readers. About half of them were mustered in a big room. Beside each was a glass of water, a timer, and a little box of breath mints. (Aesthetes might argue that printed books “breathe” – and indeed the subtle smell of paper and glue is a crucial part of the reading experience that’ll be lost when we all go fully digital. But actual bad breath would surely be a bringdown for any reader.) One book stood out. It wore a vest bearing a sign in thick black block letters: I AM A BOOK.
The vested man was named Abdifatah. He had an easy smile and red-rimmed eyes —the badge of new-fatherhood. Abdifatah was a Somali refugee who had fled that country’s civil war in the mid-1990s and resettled in Canada. His story was ostensibly about “the immigrant experience” – but that title, I discovered after checking him out, barely scratched the surface.
You don’t read a human book the way you read a regular book. The exchange is, in principle, more like a dialogue. “Ask any question that occurs to you,” Ravi Basi, the project’s co-coordinator, put it, by way of instruction. But once Abdifatah got rolling, I didn’t dare interrupt him. Around ten minutes in, the poetic heart of his tale breathtakingly emerged.
When Abdifatah was 11 years old, growing up amid growing chaos in Mogadishu, he and his older brother were kidnapped and held for months by rebel soldiers. The boys were forced into servitude, given chores like making meals and laundering bloodstained clothes. It was corrosive stuff for a little kid, and Abdifatah’s brother was determined to protect him from the worst of it. He would soften the nightmarish edges of day-to-day life by confabulating stories that sanitized the truth.
“He’d make it like a fairy tale,” Abdifatah said. “He would say, ‘Abdi, they’re hunting animals – that’s how the blood got on these clothes!’” (In actual fact Abdifatah’s brother had stripped those bloody clothes off of dead soldiers himself.) The older boy kept the younger boy’s spirits up, day after day. It became clear that this human book wasn’t really about a young African man’s transition to Western culture, as advertised. It was about brotherly love.
It is the responsibility of a community to protect its stories. So an anthropologist might argue. It is the responsibility as human beings to step into each others’ shoes on a regular basis. So a philosopher might argue. Actually, that’s one of the reasons we read books. But it’s not the only one.
We read to confirm our biases. We read to bore deeper into an area of interest. Sometimes – though not often, it must be said – we read to “challenge ourselves,” says Basi, with a book that relates experiences or beliefs that oppose our own.
That, indeed, was the founding principle of the first-ever human library experiment, launched a dozen years ago in Denmark after a tragic event. A young man had been stabbed in a nightclub, and five of his friends were grasping for answers. Violence, they concluded, is a product of ignorance and misunderstanding; it melts in light. So if potential adversaries could sit down with each other—the book and its hostile reader, so to speak — anger and mistrust could be defused. The project was born. One of its first “books’ was a policeman, and one of his first readers was an illegal graffiti artist.
Since then, a handful of other human-library experiments have sprung up here and there – notably in Australia—each nodding to the original concept, but broadening it to scratch other, less political, itches of curious readers.
After the timer on Abdifatah’s desk buzzed, signaling my time with him was up, I thanked him and moved, a little stunned, out into the main stacks. By this time more readers had found their way to the human library. One was a man who had just come to drop off a book, then co-incidentally discovered a kindred spirit in a human book named Sara Grant, the mother of an autistic boy. He promptly signed her out, and the two settled in to a quietly intense discussion. (The man’s grandson is autistic; he had done a lot of book-reading, but had spoken to precious few people in similar circumstances.)
I started giddily signing out other human books.
One was about “laughing yoga,” by a teacher of that emerging discipline. Another concerned an East-Asian woman named Anita who had remained defiantly single, despite her parents’ best efforts to marry her off. A third was about the world of competitive crossword-puzzling, told by an international champion. All of my books were chatty and unguarded –qualities of temperament that the organizers selected for. At least one book – Anita– was unaware of how great a premise she was, and unsure if she’d make a compelling read. “I was kind of worried no one would check me out,” she admitted. More than once I thought: this is the real thing, a tale told around the primitive fire—no editing, distribution or downloading required.
Moving from table to table felt dizzyingly promiscuous, like literary speed-dating. But my mind kept returning to Abdifatah and his brother.
I confess I can’t tell you the brother’s name. I forgot to ask, and now it’s too late. There’s no going back to Abdifatah to check.
Unless I renew him.
* Note that Surrey library’s human books, unlike its print books, aren’t continuously available. (That would be a lot to ask of volunteers.) Rather, they will be made available periodically. Staff have yet to decide how frequently to run human library days.
Postscript: Abdifatah has checked in. His brother’s name is Mohamed.
From THE RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT by LIBERTY MUTUAL, June 29, 2011
Not long ago, a French-Canadian skydiver named Pascal Coudé, who hopes to break a world record by freefalling for 6 to 7 minutes from an altitude of 30,000 feet, was telling me about his preparation. He plans to make the jump in a baggy costume known as a “wingsuit” – a specially designed jumpsuit with webbing that catches wind and creates massive air resistance. Sounds fun, but in fact it’s incredibly dangerous. If you tire and lose your stable position, you can start tumbling uncontrollably.
When the time seemed right I asked Coudé: “Do you have kids?” He replied that he does – a 19-year-old son.
“Do you think about him as the plane nears the drop zone?”
No, Coudé said. “I’m thinking only of the jump: nothing else.” There could be no distractions up there, in the brief prelude to glory.
Everything about “adventurers” tends to be writ large – which is what makes them such appealing profile subjects. Over the years I’ve covered a guy trying to skydive from the troposphere; a woman diving unprecedentedly deep in the ocean on a single breath; a Norwegian explorer walking across remote northern Canada, without support or even a phone. These are seriously brave people, and very often there’s poignancy to their motivations.
For years I never thought to ask such people, the takers of ungodly risk, if they have children. But now I always ask. It strikes me as an essential question. Seven years ago, when my wife called her dad to tell him his first grandchild – our daughter – had just been born, his first word was: “Congratulations!” He left a beat, and then said: “Your life is no longer your own.” Welcome, in other words, to the world of real, adult responsibility. His statement raised questions about the costs of adventuring. Did morally defensible risk now begin and end with serving past-the-date spaghetti sauce once in a while?
British mountaineering writer Robert Macfarlane makes the distinction between “acceptable risk” and “gratuitous risk.” The moment you become a parent the dividing line shifts, he suggests, and those life-threatening ascents that once earned you praise for courage now fall into the zone of indefensible. On this subject utilitarian philosophers are likewise pretty clear on the rules. To put it in Spock-ish terms: the needs of the many trump the needs of the one.
And so when my daughter Madeline was born I decided, with some encouragement from my wife, that my own Darwin-baiting escapades were over. No more aimless multi-day rambles in the British Columbia wilderness; no more solo kayaking across the Strait of Georgia or scrambles across snow bridges on Rainier. It was an easy choice for someone like me, who really was just goofing around under the flag of extended adolescence. Risk was a hobby, not a calling, and I happily let it go.
But what about professional adventurers like Coudé? For them it’s not about growing up: they’re grown. It isn’t really even about choice. Risk is so much part of what they do, and what they do is so much part of who they are, and who they are is so closely linked to a script that they feel was written for them, that thinking about stopping doesn’t compute. Force them to change and they would simply … cease to be.
“How could I have stopped her?” responded James Ballard when reporters asked what business his wife, Alison Hargreaves, had in summiting K2 – a far more treacherous peak than Everest – when she had young children waiting patiently for her to return. Hargreaves, considered by many the world’s best woman climber, was blown off the mountain in a violent storm in 1995. Hers became a morality tale for the issue of acceptable risk. Harsh judgment tarnished her legacy – harsher, arguably, than it would have been for a man. (Putting a mountain ahead of one’s kids struck many as antithetical to the natural mothering instinct.)
But Hargreaves had her defenders. After the climb that left him a widower, Ballard received letters from women who praised her for not capitulating to domestic life and setting down her ambitions. Her life, even shortened, was a victory for women, they said; becoming a parent doesn’t foreclose on our questing human nature, or at least it shouldn’t. We’re here to see what we can do. Hargreaves had inspired them to follow their own trajectories, these mothers said, no matter what anybody else thought or said.
Of course, Hargreaves’s children never got a vote in the matter. Their mom went to work and one day she didn’t return, plain as that. But her daughter, Kate, and son, Tom, 20 and 22 respectively, are now in a position to weigh in. Both say they are proud of their mother. Tom in particular has become a seriously skilled mountaineer. He’s currently in training to summit the peak that killed his mom, and he may become the first to scale it in winter. He understands her compulsion to push the limits of the sport because, he says, it’s in him too.
Maybe the Spock doctrine about “the needs of the many” and the “needs of the one” is insufficient. It gives equal weight to every life without measure of the quality of that life – how enhanced or impoverished it becomes when you add or subtract risk. The question What do we owe to others? is incomplete without its corollary: What do we owe to ourselves?
Sometime this summer, probably over Arizona, Pascal Coudé will leap from a plane in his wingsuit. And I’m positive that, as he falls — a flying squirrel fighting to hold position in the sky —he won’t be thinking about moral calculus, or utilitarian philosophy. Neither will his son.
The moment they were born, on October 25, 2006, in Vancouver, this much was known about Krista and Tatiana Hogan. The girls were conjoined—what used to be called “Siamese”—twins. Their skulls were fused such that their tiny bodies together made the shape of an open hinge, the girls facing the same direction but essentially away from each other. Each had her own organs and limbs, but they shared plenty of blood vessels in the netlike sheath beneath their scalp. And they shared something else, too, something believed to be unprecedented among living twins: a “bridge” of tissue connected their otherwise-separate brains amidships, at a crucial relay station called the thalamus.
Eight hours after the twins’ birth, a remarkable thing happened, and it immediately transformed the story of two little girls from Vernon, B.C., into something almost mythic. Tatiana got a shot and Krista flinched. Clearly, the girls were not just attached but connected. Sensory information passed between them.
“This is not telepathy. This is not ‘sixth sense,” says Douglas Cochrane, a veteran pediatric neurosurgeon at BC Children’s Hospital who has been the twins’ wingman—their doctor, advocate, and, in a sense, protector—since they were in utero. “The girls send chemical messengers in the bloodstream between each other. They send electrical impulses and information between each other along this bridge”—on the CT-scan image he’s pointing to, it looks like a long kidney bean—“and I’m sure along the coverings that they share.”
The bridge has been likened to a FireWire connection between their brains, and its bandwidth appears broad. Months after their birth, tests confirmed that images falling on the retina of Tatiana were processed in the visual cortex of Krista. What one girl looks at, the other girl sees.
This development, bordering on miraculous, had a flipside: separating them would be a bear. The risks were extraordinary. At best it would likely mean, at the end of many complicated operations teasing apart bone, skin, and vessels, some vision and speech impairment for both girls. Plus: “Given the way the brains are packed together—they’re physically separate but they sort of interdigitate like the teeth of a zipper—it was clear to me that we’d end up with weakness on one side for one twin and on the opposite side for the other,” Cochrane explains. “What else would happen no one knows.”
A semi-crazy-sounding philosophical question presented itself: Is it better to be healthy and fused to someone at the head, or to be impaired and partially paralyzed but on your own? To answer means having to assign a value to independence. Do we perhaps overvalue it? And undervalue—because no singleton can appreciate it—the presence of someone who gets you because they are in you, of you?
Cochrane viewed his job, in those early days, as articulating what splitting the girls up would mean (in terms of gains and losses), and then stepping back and letting mother Felicia Simms—then just 21—and the rest of the family make the call. The family chose not to separate. The twins would move into the future as one.
Brain surgeons have a reputation for an appalling bedside manner—almost as if they’re unwilling to devote even a bit of RAM to niceties that could go instead to saving lives. But David Douglas Cochrane has somehow found space inside himself for both. He is a big man with softly recessed eyes and a cultivated patience. On the consumer website RateMDs.com, where patients can describe their experiences with physicians, a father weighed in. Cochrane had successfully excised a bone cyst from his son’s skull. “Dr. Cochrane is the most professional, talented, kind, humble man I have ever met,” he wrote. Other comments strike a similarly devotional tone. (Alerted to the praise, Cochrane laughingly dismissed it because the sample size isn’t statistically significant.)
Cochrane became a doctor for some of the usual reasons: he wanted to help people, a family friend whom he idolized practised family medicine in hometown Cambridge, Ontario, and he (Douglas) had the brains and the stamina to get through med school. His ambitions drew him into the wider world. At the University of Toronto, he won the Faculty of Medicine’s Cody gold medal, then struck out for Angola and worked under the medical missionary Robert Foster at the tail end of a brutal civil war. Foster’s resourcefulness under fire (literally) provided a new benchmark. Cochrane decided there to specialize in neurosurgery. Neurosurgeons are medicine’s bomb squad—brain disorders are among the most threatening to patients, and treatments carry the most risk. Family medicine it isn’t, but for Cochrane that combination of complexity and high stakes was exactly the appeal. “I found I enjoyed trying to solve tough problems,” he says. Pediatric neurosurgery is the no-limit table: the highest stakes of all. If your itch is to help, life offers few more useful places to scratch. He has been at Childrens’, where he specializes in fetuses with congenital neurological malformations, for 25 years.
But nothing in his background, he says, prepared him for a case like the Hogan twins. Cochrane is watching and listening like everyone else to see what the girls reveal about who they are.
The twins, chestnut-haired and blue-eyed, are nearly five years old. Developmentally they’re closer to four, Cochrane says, but that may just be the Ginger Rogers syndrome: they do what other kids do, but backwards and in heels, so to speak. “They have had to learn motor movements differently,” Cochrane says. “They had to work on how to sit and stand and cruise and walk.” (Even bum-scooting required heroic teamwork.)
Their language has come slowly. Cochrane admits he doesn’t quite know why but reckons the answer might be social rather than physiological. The twins are the not-so-still centre of an extended family of 14 people, all mustered under the roof of a 10-room rented house, all more or less devoted to the insatiable needs of the world’s rarest craniopagus twins. “You could say that there’s a household there that’s so full of adults and kids communicating that they’re kind of communicating for them,” Cochrane says. “It’s like the third child: he’s not going to talk until he’s three because the other two are doing all the talking for him.”
Exactly what the girls’ internal landscape is like we can’t yet know. The best tool for getting a real-time snapshot of what’s happening in the brain is an fMRI scan, which measures changes in blood flow (which correlate to changes in neural activity). For those pictures the girls will need to go into the scanner without anesthetic, which means getting their cooperation. It’ll likely be at least a year before Cochrane lets that happen. For now everybody is guessing.
Some things are established. It seems clear that Tatiana will “see” the sickle moon that Krista is looking at (and vice-versa). Very likely, in some fashion, she will hear the Bruno Mars song piping into Krista’s ear bud, and taste the Tin Roof ice cream Krista just licked, and feel the give of the soft-shelled crab Krista just picked up. (One exception: she may not smell the chrysanthemum Krista has leaned down to sniff; olfaction appears to be the one sense that routes around the thalamus.) The fear Krista experiences in her nightmare will agitate sleeping Tatiana, too. And when Krista jars awake, so will Tatiana. (The thalamus governs wakefulness.) So they will save money on alarm clocks.
It’s not clear how their brains will sort out the interference from the two-way traffic on the bridge. If they are both reading a book, will each see both sets of words? (Some neurologists wonder if the twins will have an increased chance of synesthesia—a blending of senses disproportionately common in visual artists.) The communication between them will likely prove to be a uniquely intimate call-and-response. But can we say what they are sharing are actual thoughts?
The thalamus relays not only sensory information but also some memory information to a part of the midbrain called the cingulate cortex, which is involved in, among other things, processing emotion. So the exchange is bound to have at least a dimension of what we think of as “thoughts.”
Felicia Simms is convinced her girls are playing a sort of private game of tennis, mentally. Kelowna filmmaker Alison Love, who spent a year with the twins while helping create the documentary Twins Who Share a Brain, believes it, too. “In the beginning we weren’t sure ourselves,” she says. “Is it just Mom hoping that the kids are really more special than they are?” But then both she and filmmaking partner David McIlvride began to see the same thing: a tight, coded link between the girls’ behaviour without a sound passing between them.
Cochrane, for his part, is somewhat a kindred spirit to Atul Gawande, a Boston-based endocrine surgeon and popular writer. Both men crusade for patient safety, ensured by systems of checklists and protocols for doctors to work more efficiently and limit catastrophic errors. Gawande wrote a book called Better, which promotes these issues; Cochrane co-directs the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and was recently appointed to chair the inquiry into thousands of medical scans performed and interpreted by a couple of B.C. doctors unlicensed to do so.
But Cochrane is like Gawande in another way, too. Gawande has an oft-quoted line that could easily be Cochrane’s mantra: “The social dimension turns out to be as essential as the scientific.” Cochrane is a listener above all else. Patients know better than doctors do whether their treatment has been “successful,” but that’s not the way the equation works now. Correcting that thinking, Cochrane says, “becomes more important to me the older I get.”
A powerful social lens may prove one of Cochrane’s best assets as far as the girls are concerned. (For theirs is going to be as much a social story as a medical one, a story of standing out and fitting in.) Cochrane is a curator of the twins’ uniqueness who emphasizes their ordinariness. “My sort of mental model of these kids is that they’re two kids who come to visit me,” he says. “I’m involved in the care of many kids with deformities and malformations, kids who don’t look normal and their arms and legs don’t work normally.” In this sense, the twins are like any other of his patients. “I see them as children.” If this case were special, the other ones wouldn’t be.
Cochrane doesn’t burn much daylight thinking about the philosophical and poetic implications of the girls who share a brain. Even the twists and turns of the neuroscience don’t preoccupy him. “I am interested,” he says, “and when the time is right we’ll try and put some sense to this. But I’m not prepared to put the girls out as medical curiosities. I mean, where historically did these people end up? In circuses.”
This is Cochrane as protector—trying to create normalcy around a family circumstance that would quicken the pulse of a reality-show producer. That 14-member extended family—including mom Felicia and father Brendan, five kids (the twins have an older brother and a sister, plus a baby sister called Shaggy), grandmother Louise, and various aunts and uncles and cousins—are stretched impossibly thin. The monthly budget doesn’t cover the frequent car trips to Vancouver for medical tests, which are only partly subsidized by the provincial health ministry. Some of the adults, at least three of whom have health issues of their own, report that they sometimes go hungry so that the twins can eat. To manage the twins’ exposure and drum up income (through things like speaking gigs for Felicia), the family has retained Los Angeles agent Chuck Harris. The self-described “Wizard of Odd,” Harris counts among his other clients “Lizard Boy,” “Wolf Boy,” and a guy who balances a car on his head. (Not to mention 49-year-old Lori and George Schappell of Reading, Pennsylvania, the world’s oldest set of craniopagus twins.)
The frenzy of academic interest in the twins is its own kind of P.T. Barnum scrum, in Cochrane’s view. “It’s ‘Who’s published about it? Show me the article!’” he says. And here the face of this perfectly controlled man clouds with frustration. (Cochrane has published no papers on the girls himself.) “The kids need to develop in order for us to understand some of the things that they’re asking. And the case study of these two twins will in fact be important when we can do it.”
The Hogan twins—the fact of them—is a little like the fact of life on Earth: a series of odds-defying events compounded to a level of staggering improbability. They weren’t supposed to make it this far. Early fears were that Tatiana’s heart, which was doing almost the work of two hearts, might fail. But now that the twins have grown, and grown stronger, that fear has faded and they are thriving beyond all expectation. Cochrane heaps credit on the family. “The support I remain in awe of,” he says. “That family has remained absolutely committed and absolutely strong. Without them the girls probably would have ended up in foster care.”
Out in public the girls still generate strong reactions. That’s not likely to change. “People’s immediate response is, ‘The twins should be separated—let’s make them like us,’ ” Cochrane says. Whatever the motives for that reflex—to spare the girls an impossibly complicated life or just to spare ourselves the uncomfortable feelings they might arouse in us—it’s not likely to happen now. “The only two other twins I know of who had this form of joining, though not the bridge, were two Iranian sisters,” Cochrane says. “They chose to do it in adulthood. And they did not survive.”
So, barring some game-changing microsurgical advance 30 years down the road, these two British Columbian sisters, bred in the bone, will move through life together, communicating in ways they’ll probably never be able fully to articulate. No one else will understand. But one man will understand better than most.
Paula Wishart, a career counselor from Ann Arbor, Michigan, learned in her 40s a sinister family secret: Lynch syndrome runs through their genes.
Lynch syndrome is caused by a collection of genetic mutations that vastly predispose a person to an early and aggressive form of colon cancer. (In women it’s linked, too, with uterine or endometrial cancer.) The mutations were discovered in the early 1990s. That was too late for a whole string of Wishart’s ancestors—including her great-grandfather and her grandfather. Their mysterious deaths fostered the mythology that there was, as Wishart puts it, “bad blood in the family.”
Lynch syndrome is like an assassin hiding in the attic with a dozen different ways to kill you. It’s a specter so dire that, when Wishart’s aunt learned a decade ago that there were now tests for diseases like Lynch, “she wanted no part of it,” Wishart recalls. “The feeling was, ‘Why would I want to know that?’” That aunt died of colon cancer. Shortly thereafter, her daughter—Wishart’s beloved first cousin—succumbed to cancer in her 40s. “If my aunt had been screened, then my cousin would have been screened earlier,” Wishart says. “It could have prevented their deaths.”
Wishart’s aunt’s choice to remain in the dark was by no means unusual. Genetic screening for a potentially fatal illness is so fraught and frightening that most candidates for such a disease don’t get tested.
Wishart, too, had been scared to know. But she was more scared not to know. When her mother’s tissue sample tested positive for Lynch syndrome, she and her four siblings were tested. Her three older siblings came out clear. Wishart and her twin brother weren’t so lucky.
She had a mutation in one of the Lynch genes. Initially, the recommended course was that she just keep close watch, via regular internal exams with a scope. Then one of those exams revealed a small polyp. Within a year, it had swelled into a growth that completely encircled a portion of her colon. This wasn’t cancer—but cancer is certainly what it would become, doctors insisted, unless decisive measures were taken. That meant radical preventative measures to remove not only the growth but places cancer might appear in the future. Like her colon. And her uterus. And potentially her ovaries.
Now the full calculus of life and death and risk and pain and prevention came into play. Her cancer-stricken cousin had left small children behind. Paula could not bear to think of her own kids growing up without a mother. She dutifully reported for the full program of excisions. She was 44 years old.
Not long ago, fatal vulnerabilities were known—so it was said—only to the gods. Mortality was fated. Then doctors replaced gods and that information passed into their hands for safekeeping. Now the so-called genomics revolution has changed the game again. It has passed that information on to us. This has complicated matters, for better and worse.
Genetic tests vary wildly in their predictive value— from absolutely definitive to so speculative as to be worth not much more than a horoscope. (This latter is the realm of direct-to-consumer outfits that cater mostly to healthy, curious tire-kickers—with no known hereditary risk of serious disease.) Fatal diseases are very rarely linked to a single gene—usually they are the product of an interplay of genes beyond the current understanding of scientists. So discovering you have a glitch in a snippet of DNA thought to be linked to a disease may be quite significant or not very significant at all. “Probability rather than certainty is the rule,” says Edward McCabe, a Denver pediatrician and former president of the
American Society of Human Genetics. Usually, when someone’s a candidate for a heritable disease, at least one piece of the puzzle—a reliable test or an effective treatment—is missing.
And so the era of widely available genetic testing has created a kind of laboratory for studying uncertainty: How well do we handle it?How clearly can we see our way through it?
UBC cultural psychologist Steven Heine discovered profound differences between Western and Eastern minds. A recipe for prejudice, or just the opposite?
from VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, April, 2010
It would be overstating things to claim it made Steven Heine famous—because nobody in his emerging field of cultural psychology is famous—but a study led by the young UBC professor did generate chatter in all kinds of quarters, from academic journals to the back page of Time. It got people thinking about the Western mind and the Eastern mind and the differences between them. Now that the East has just overtaken the West in economic strength (the tipping point, after a couple of centuries of Western dominance, came in 2006), Heine’s experiment seems positively pregnant with meaning.
Here’s the scoop. Heine and three colleagues recruited two groups of students—one Euro-Canadian and the second Japanese—and he gave them a bogus “creativity” task. The test was graded, and the students were told they had done well on some parts and poorly on others. Heine was interested in what would come next. The students were given a second, similar test, and the psychologist and his colleagues secretly watched how the subjects tackled it. Turned out there was a glaring difference. The Westerners worked longer on the stuff they were told they had aced the first time. The Easterners concentrated on the areas they thought they had botched. Students from the West—where the cult of self-esteem reigns supreme—wanted a tummy rub. Students from the East were more concerned with fixing their blind spots, becoming well-rounded. The Westerners polished up their strengths while the Easterners addressed their weaknesses. You could hardly fail to take away a moral: what gains might be made if Westerners could just check their egos and learn to see opportunity in failure! (Largely on the strength of the study, Heine received in 2003 the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions to Psychology.)
But Heine wasn’t trying to sermonize or shill for the Ministry of Education. By exposing this deep cultural rift, Heine punctured a long-held myth. You’d think positive self-regard gets everyone through their day, but it doesn’t. If such a seemingly basic human motivation is culturally determined, what else is? Turns out, lots. Western and Eastern minds fare dissimilar in ways that we’re only now able to measure.
On a recent Sunday, Ross Harvey sat in the back pew of the North Shore Unitarian Church in North Vancouver, BC. A visiting gospel choir from Oakland filled the vaulted ceiling with soaring harmonies, and Harvey, whose flash of white T-shirt beneath a black dress shirt made him mistakable for a padre at a distance, was among the first to stand and clap and groove at the chord changes, the shared emotion in the room. The only thing preventing full-on abandon was the part himself that was irked by the words. (Later, over soup and coffee in the church basement, he would joke to some of the visitors: “You know why the Baptists are such better singers than us, don’t you? It’s because UUs are always reading ahead to make sure that what we’re about to say we actually believe in. That kind of slows us down.”)
Harvey is an atheist. That he found a church that welcomes him will seem a head-spinning concept to some. Unitarian Universalists are full of questions not answers, heavily into social justice and community service, strong on religious education for kids, dogma-free. “I remember saying to Gabi, I wish there was a church you could go to where you sang and heard inspirational talks and you didn’t have to get into all that other nonsense,” he says. Gabi was pregnant then with their son, Jackson when they found this one. The first year they joined the churchthey were asked if they’d be interested in starring in the Christmas pageant. Ross laughed. Then he said yes. His face was equal parts bemusement and the comfort of belonging that Sunday morning as the trio moved up the aisle toward the crèche: Joseph and Mary and Jackson as the baby Jesus.
It’s risky to say anything categorically about atheists – for a more individualistic bunch would be hard to find. But let’spropose that there are two kinds of atheists: the kind you hear about, and the kind you don’t.
The kind you hear about are crusaders with a specific agenda: to challenge religious bigotry wherever it raises its head. Since 9/11 particularly, they have stepped up their campaign, galloping through the chapel with the guns-ablaze fervor of a persecuted minority, cataloguing the harms that have been done in the name of organized religion. That strategy, while it has definitely raised atheism’s profile — partly by polarizing the religious debate — hasn’t exactly endeared atheists to the majority of Americans. Indeed, polls consistently show that dislike and distrust for atheists goes wider than for any other identifiable group.
The kind of atheist you don’t hear about is different—in strategy or temperament or both.
No name has been coined for this much larger cohort of nonbelievers – at least none as catchy as their loud and politicized cousins. If they had a cardinal law, it might be —to paraphrase Paul Kurtz, founder of the freethinking organization the Center for Inquiry—the dignity owed to every person alive. That “a” in a-theism simply means without, not against belief in God, they point out. Not an adversarial position, in other words: just a position.
In the vast middle of the religious spectrum, a space not occupied by fundamentalists of any sort, is where millions of this kind of atheist and agnostics live, more or less quietly, with their families.
Family, indeed, still trumps just about every social force in American life. In their respect for that central role of family, most atheists and religionists are alike. It’s in their interactions with their family, especially with their children, that nonbelievers and believers alike get to figure out what they believe and why. A spirit of inquiry, the open-minded investigation of options that that implies, animates many atheists and agnostics in these vast midwaters. And many seem to take especially seriously the need to find a way to talk to their kids about a religion, in a way that coaches respect for difference but suspicion of doctrine – even the doctrine that there is no God.
Elaine Ecklund had somewhat expected to find this trend—the nonreligious engaged in religious matters. But she professes “deep surprise” at the numbers as the results of her recent survey rolled in.
Ecklund, a sociologist of religion at Rice University and author of Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, was convinced Americans were getting a cartoonishly distorted picture of atheists, and of their relationship to faith. Because religion and family in the US are joined at the hip, she wondered how atheists and agnostics handle that delicate nexus—a subject about which surprisingly little was known. With funding from the Templeton Foundation, she set out to investigate.
She looked in the place atheists are found in greater concentration than anywhere else: the scientific community. Ecklund went for the cream: tenure-track social scientists and natural scientists at America’s top research universities.
Around 60 percent of them identified as either atheist or agnostic. That’s more than ten times the proportion you’d find in a random slice of Americana, but actually lower than you might expect, given that previous highly-publicized surveys had pegged the percentage of atheists among top scientists at over 90 percent.
Within that group of self-identified atheists and agnostics, almost one in five were part of a religious community—attending a church or temple or mosque with some regularity. Ecklund pumped for explanations. And with sociologist Kristen Schultz Lee, she published her findings last fall in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Turns out, her subjects’ reasons were mostly perfectly rational – as befit a group that “places a high premium on reason and making sure that they live consistently,” as Ecklund says. Her atheist scientists found themselves in the precarious centre of a Venn diagram. They needed to reconcile, all at once, their identities as scientists, as nonbelievers, and as spouses and parents. They may have had a religious husband or wife. They may have drifted into the pews after they had kids, drawn to the social glue a church community can provide, or the moral structure that kids can benefit from, or the chance to reconnect with family cultural traditions. Whatever motivated them, there they all were, in the church or synagogue or mosque or temple, cheek-by-jowl with believers, and unchallenged in their reasons or right to be there.
Sociologists have long known that people within families can phase in and out of religious commitment according to need, chance meetings, stage of life. Ross Harvey’s story is a case in point.
His parents raised the kids as Christians, but “the kind of Christian that was more religious than spiritual,” as he says. At age 15, Ross dug in deeper, after what he calls a “summer camp of indoctrination,” and became entrenched in the Brethren Christian church for a couple of years. Then came a pivotal moment when the scales fell from his eyes. One of his Brethren leaders, cornered by Ross’s queries, admitted that, yes, Gandhi would be going to hell, by definition of church doctrine. That was enough for Ross. He was out.
His sister, meanwhile, who had never been as deeply “in” as Ross, met a committed Christian, married him, and joined his evangelical Presbyterian church in Australia.
In many ways Ross admires his sister and brother-in-law. “The way they raise their kids is a total inspiration to me,” he says. “They’re caring and they’re involved in their life and their education.” But her religious choice confounds him and tests his patience. “They’re two of the smartest people I know, so for them to go down this road and start believing in Bronze-Age myths is … hard to take.” There are practically grooves in Harvey’s tongue where he has had to learn to bite it. It is all anthropology, he has reminded himself. “We went to church with them last time we visited them in Australia. I kept having to remind myself: Look, Ross: you loved visiting the Hindu temples in Bali. This is just the same.”
Harvey’s journey away from faith separated him, ideologically, from the rest of his natural and extended family. And that, as Californian Richard Wade points out, can be a recipe for drama.
Wade is a retired marriage and family counselor (with a specialty in addiction medicine), who counseled more than 10,000 couples in his practice. He is also the in-house advice columnist for the popular website “The Friendly Atheist” – a unique perch from which to observe the sometimes unbelievable vitriol in the blogosphere around issues of faith, with both sides freed by anonymity to let loose.
Wade, who is 61 years old, 39 years married, and has a 26-year-old daughter, came by his own atheism pretty naturally. He was “brought up on a steady diet of science.” Both parents worked at a major Natural History Museum as exhibit designers and illustrators, and so as a kid he’d go on digs with his parents’ archaeological friends, or help their entomologist friends with specimens in the lab. (He still puts on science shows for children.)
“My parents were basically non-religious,” he says. Wade’s father described himself as an agnostic. His mother’s position was that if there is a clockmaker, He isn’t intervening in the affairs of the universe any more. The implicit family message was that religion wasn’t worth devoting much RAM to.
But in fact Wade devotes quite a lot of RAM to religion—because he has seen how much strife can ensue, among friends and in families, when beliefs collide.
An atheist popping up in an American family can rip that family apart. Wade frequently receives letters about those inter-family tensions. One family member can simply no longer believe, and the rest of the family members simply cannot accept that fact, and the stalemate has become toxic, threatening to overwhelm whole lifetimes of love and goodwill that had been built and banked. There is genuine tragedy in some of these letters, and Wade often meets it with a tone befitting a caring stepfather or a benevolent coach.
“Begin and end every one of these conversations with ‘I love you,’” Wade often counsels. And don’t give up. “People can soften their hard and fast positions over time, especially if love is always offered as an ongoing invitation.”
In one instance, to a young atheist whose minister father threatened to withhold the son’s college tuition, and whom the young man worried was going to abandon him outright, Wade counseled the son to keep his side of the door unlocked. Assure his parents that whatever happened, he would not abandon them. “We teach others how to treat us,” Wade says.
If Wade is a kind and avuncular atheist, it was not always so. Indeed, he used to plunge into Internet debates on faith sites and delightedly eviscerate the fundamentalists. If there was blood, well, truth is a bloody business.
But one day something prompted him to step back from himself. He was browsing the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, which he calls “the world’s largest text-only bar room brawl.” An American woman who had converted to Islam had told her story—and been engulfed in flames. Abuse rained down on her from the atheist commentariat, and “she just took it and took it,” Wade recalls. The whole episode “woke me up to how brutal I was,” Wade recalled in a recent exchange on camelswithhammers.com. This woman’s amazing patience deeply impressed Wade. And “I began to realize that I could do this in a completely positive and constructive way.” He developed a phrase that became his de facto motto: “Agreement is not important—only understanding is.” The difference between Wade’s old position and this new one is the difference, you might say, between radical honesty and compassionate honesty. Remembering the smartass he used to be helps Wade counsel atheists who are tempted to stoop to sarcasm and insult. “When you want someone to see things more clearly,” he’ll tell them, “don’t start by poking them in the eye.”
Not long ago Wade received a letter from a British woman who called herself “Christmas Elf,” and described her fairly common dilemma thus: Her aging parents had asked her help putting on the Christmas Pageant at her church. Kind of awkward, as she is an atheist. Love and familial duty was suddenly colliding with an uncomfortable personal sense of hypocrisy. She was leaning toward helping with the pageant. What did Richard think?
He was with her. “You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents,” he said. “You’ll have the rest of each year and the rest of your life to follow your own convictions more meticulously.” By Richard Wade’s lights, there are times to be fiercely principled, and times to be pragmatic, and you have to do the calculus case by case. When you turn pragmatism outward like that, it becomes pretty close to empathy. And that, Wade believes, is the key to dealing with anger and hurt in a family divided by faith.
“I have a saying: ‘Speak with your ears instead of with your mouth,” he says. “Hear your words as if you were the person who is listening.”
Of all the family issues atheists and agnostics deal with in a faith-based country, raising children is perhaps the most complicated. Wendy Thomas Russell, a writer in Long Beach, CA, found herself drawn into this world, and its twists and turns, partly by accident.
Raised in small-town Missouri, Russell drifted in her teens from any pretense of religion. (Her mom was Presbyterian; her father, it turned out, was never a believer, but Russell didn’t learn this fact until she was in college.) As an adult, she found herself increasingly uncomfortable about the Clintonian “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” approach to religion that had become her default position. It seemed cowardly. Because, hey: this was important stuff – too important to avoid for fear of ruffling feathers. Bit by bit, she “inched out of the closet” as an atheist.
And then came the day of the ambush.
“I was driving her home from preschool one day, and Maxine” – her then-five-year-old daughter— “popped up from the back seat. She said: ‘You know what, mommy? ‘God made us.’” That bit of news, Russell says, had come from her little Jewish boyfriend, who had learned it at home and brought it to school.
Russell was struck dumb. It felt like a no-win situation. “I was worried about telling her: ‘That’s not true.’ Because then she brings that back to school. ‘My mommy says that’s not true.’ And now you’ve created tension where there doesn’t need to be any.” Plus which, Russell has some quite religious family members, “and I’m now thinking about what might be repeated in the wrong company.” Some people of faith see a pretty clear distinction: being an atheist yourself is one thing; foisting that view on your kids is quite another.
In that moment Russell’s book was born. Relax, It’s Just God is a survival guide-in-progress for atheist and agnostic parents. The book is deals with practical matters, like “How to talk to your kids about death without evoking the comforts of religion.” “The question,” she says, “is how do we approach religion with our kids so that we’re being honest but not indoctrinating them or scaring them, or putting them in a position to be made fun of or teased or hurt? These are fine lines. And because so many of us are first-generation secular, we can’t fall back on what we ourselves have learned before.”
After her daughter’s bombshell Russell had wandered, still reeling, into the kitchen where her husband Charlie was cooking dinner. She told him the story. Charlie, who is an attorney, heard her out, then, coming closer, offered his own submission. “To me, it’s what she does in life that matters — not what she believes.”
And that has become a foundational principle for her. No one particularly cares about our private beliefs: it’s what we do that gets up on the scoreboard. That perspective has further helped her talk about religion in an even-handed way – as neither a good nor bad thing in itself (as evidenced by terribly bad and the surpassingly good things different people do in its name). Look at the outcome, not the input.
Last year, Russell penned a widely read essay in The New Humanist called “Ten Commandments for Talking to your Kids About Religion: Exposing your Kids to the World’s Religions While Being True to Your Own Values,” where she worked some of this out and packaged it in Cliff-Notes form.
Like Commandment 3: Don’t Saddle Kids with Anxiety Over the World God. “Kids may pledge their allegiance ‘under God,’” it reads in part, “not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes.”
Or Commandment 8: Don’t steal your child’s ability to choose. “There’s no shame in wanting your kids to believe the way you do. So guide them. Teach them the value of science. Explain the difference between fact and faith, between dogma and freethinking. Teach them morals and ethics. Tell them everything you know about religion. And then let them take it from there.”
If there is a Golden Rule of parenting for the new, new atheist, perhaps this is it. In a 2006 study of 300 self-identifying atheists, University of Manitoba psychologist Bob Altemeyer found that while they were very confident in their own beliefs (just one percent conceded any doubt in their position), almost all placed great stock in letting kids reach their own conclusions on religious matters. And Elaine Ecklund, while studying a more specialized population of atheists and agnostic, found the same pattern too.
In fact, one of the prime reasons her scientists flirted with religion was to expose their kids to many religious traditions “so that they did not inadvertently indoctrinate them with atheism.” That, after all, is the scientific method: you gather data and test it and emerge with the most sensible, replicable conclusion. “They’re participating in religious communities primarily for reasons that, ironically, are shaped by their identity as scientists,” Ecklund says.
Ecklund’s irreligious scientists gave three other main reasons for taking their kids to church. Those reasons were “having a religious spouse,” “providing kids with a sense of moral order and community,” and “as a way of following up on traditions.”
Norman Tepley was not part of Ecklund’s study, but some of those reasons resonate with him too.
Tepley, a retired physics professor at Oakland University near Detroit, was a founder of the Neuromagnetism Lab at the Henry Ford Hospital, where he still works part time. He is an atheist who goes to temple, well, religiously. It is the Birmingham Temple, founded by the “atheist rabbi” Sherwin Wine, who was killed in a car crash in 2007. Wine stressed that religion is only a small part of Jewish tradition. “If you look at Jewish history,” says Tepley, “there were people who persevered and survived in a hostile world because of their character, their literature, their songs, their common history.” That, not anything supernatural, is what he and his fellow congregants come to celebrate. (In the Birmingham Temple, tellingly, the Torah is stored in the library, not the room where services are held.)
The comic essayist Anne Lamott once made the distinction between “Moses-y Jews” and the “bagel-y Jews” — the latter of whom come solely for the cultural trappings and amscray before any religion breaks out. Sherwin Wine defined a kind of secular Judaism whose commitment goes deeper. Formally, it is secular humanistic Judaism, which implies a certain duty of mutual care. As Tepley puts it, “We believe in each other and have responsibility for each other.” That duty of care, further, extends to anyone who walks through the door. The temple “accepts anyone who wants to call her- or himself a Jew as a Jew – we don’t have a conversion process.”
Tepley was raised by observant Jewish parents who celebrated the holidays and kept a kosher home. Norman and his brother were bar-mitzvahed. But cognitive dissonance soon ensued. “In religious school, God was frequently presented as just and merciful. But questions arose about how a just and merciful God could allow the Holocaust—I know I wasn’t unique in asking that.”
His atheism was eventually cemented in a natural scientist’s way. “I did a sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation,” he recalls. “What’s the likelihood, starting with a universe of fast-moving and colliding hydrogen atoms, of producing living cells and eventually animals?” That’s of course an argument theists deploy to argue for intelligent design – the spectacularly unlikely chain of perfect conditions. “But what’s missing is mention of the incredible amount of time for nature to perform every possible experiment. We’re talking about billions of years of random collisions. I decided it was pretty certain life was going to evolve over this time, 20 or so billion years, just from the laws of physics.”
So far, so scientific. But Tepley, unlike many of his colleagues, ended up back in the pews. The reasons for that, apart from the charismatic pull of Sherwin Wine, circle around his Dad.
“My father – who was a strong personality, a wonderful guy — often spoke of how many generations back the Tepley (originally Teplitsky) name went, and they were all Jewish. And without talking about it directly, he made it understood that the tradition had to be preserved.”
And so there is, in the Tepley home, the celebration of the Sabbath, the singing of Hanukah songs. There is a certain amount of judicious editing of the rituals and prayers – replacing those with supernatural underpinnings with newer, culturally based ones. “We light candles because they’ve been part of every Jewish holiday,” he says. “They’re a great attraction to the kids.”
Tepley has three children. None of them observe the faith. They don’t go to the temple, nor do their children — Tepley’s grandkids. “My two sons were bar-mitzvahed but they drifted away very soon afterward. I would like them to come back, but I would not like to drag them back. They are all very accomplished and very good and something to be proud of. I guess that’s what’s important.”
Would his father be disappointed to see them break that link in the chain?
Tepley leaves a short beat. “I think he would, yeah,” he says softly.
Research science is an international, collaborative venture. Ideas tend to be stronger than politics and affiliations jump borders. You could argue that science by its nature promotes open-mindedness just generally. In that light it’s not surprising that even irreligious scientists would take a test-everything approach to religion, especially if they have young families.
“If your kids have questions they think can be answered by learning about religion, by golly let them seek answers,” says Juli Berwald, an Austin, Tx-based science writer with a Ph.D. in oceanography. “There’s no worry that it will uproot your belief system as a scientist parent because science isn’t about belief.” A bigger speed bump for her and her husband, she jokes, was the cost of Hebrew lessons and Sunday school. “I like the seeking,” she says. “I just hate the price tag.”
Unlike that of their “New Atheist” forebears, the approach of many mid-spectrum nonbelievers is not tactical. For them, religion isn’t something to do complicated ju-jitsu against; it’s just, well, honestly, not that big a factor in their lives. And this is the first generation to think like this.
“I actually find I have a lot more in common with moderately religious people than I do with militant atheists,” says Wendy Thomas Russell. “And I think most moderately religious people would find they have more in common with me than they do with fundamentalist factions. Those of us in the ‘middle majority,’ as I call it, we’re more interested in people’s personalities than they are in people’s faith. Humor, I think, is a far greater bond than religion. Intelligence, too. If I think a person is funny or admire a person’s mind, I don’t give a damn what faith that person practices. And I think — I hope — most people feel the same about me.”
Here is what an increasingly pluralistic world does: it creates the possibility that the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us – including religion. And that rule holds into our closest relationships. As prohibitions of marrying “outside the faith” slowly fade into irrelevance, a mismatch of faiths doesn’t necessarily preclude successful partnerships. Love can happen without it; indeed, love can actually trump religious affiliation.
The American playwright Geoffrey Naufft, in his acclaimed play Next Fall about a kind of inter-faith Odd Couple (one’s a committed Christian and a committed atheist), uses a clever plot device to explore some of these issues. Luke, the Christian, has been struck by a taxi and lies comatose in hospital. As Adam, the atheist, keeps a bedside vigil, family and friends from both sides stream in and bump against each other in that pressure chamber of that hospital room, as the story of the two men’s unlikely union unspools in flashbacks.
Naufft is himself a kind of “middle-majority atheist,” in Wendy Russell’s coinage, and he partly modeled the character of the caustic and judgmental Adam, after himself—or at least the self he used to be. Naufft grew up without religion, the child of two unobservant mixed-whatever parents. What softened and gentled him, Naufft recalled, in a recent interview with the New York Times, was meeting and befriending deeply religious people inside and out of the theatre world whom he came to greatly respect.
“It’s really easy to write off people with any kind of religious belief, especially if they’re fervent,” he said. “But what I saw was a struggle, internal turmoil, to exist in the world and hold on to your beliefs, the things you grew up with.”
The chorus of religious tolerance grows, in America and beyond.
In mid-February the Supreme Court of Canada penned a landmark ruling, a libretto for a new era. A French-Canadian Catholic couple had been fighting to exempt their high-school children from a province-wide Ethics and Religious Culture course — fearing it would weaken the kids’ commitment to their singular family faith. They claimed the course violated their freedom of religion and conscience.
Madam Justice Marie Deschamps saw it differently. “Exposing children to a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them does not constitute indoctrination,” she wrote. To suggest as much, Mme Deschamps continued, amounts to a willful blindness to modern multicultural society.
Many of the issues around atheists and agnostics and family may soon be moot. Secular humanism won’t be a minority position under scrutiny, because it will have become, well, quite normal. The fastest-growing religious position is “none,” according to 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, a huge study sponsored by Trinity College. The faithless have almost doubled in number in the last 20 years – to around 15 percent of the population. So sharp is that spike, the report’s authors concluded: “The challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.”
About the only spiritual position rising as quickly as Atheist/Agnostic is SBNR — “Spiritual But Not Religious”—according to the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Indeed, some scholars describe a kind of phase change in North American religion, with unprecedently large numbers of people constructing their own, private and highly individualistic faiths, which observe no dogma but honor deep feeling and a strong hunch that there is something to be reckoned with beyond what can be logically understood. This tribe has, to paraphrase the philosopher and author Sam Keen on his own experience, abandoned the formal encampments of religion, headed out into the open desert, and found something there under the stars that they are not afraid to call sacred.
But they can’t talk about it, because language fails. The words mean so vastly different things to different people as to be almost meaningless.
Almost half of Elaine Ecklund’s scientists who called themselves “atheist” or “agnostic” nonetheless also described themselves as “spiritual.” But when Ecklund pressed them to explain what they meant by that, it became clear they were quite far from New Age mysticism or hopeful magical-thinking. These were beliefs, as Ecklund put it, “more congruent with science than religion.” Being “spiritual” meant trying, for example, to behave ethically, or to use one’s talents to advance social-justice issues. Or else it was an aesthetic thing, an appreciation, or gratitude, for the complexity of life. (“Like Spinoza,” on political scientist said of his “spiritual commitments,” “I see beauty and value to everything around me.”)
“I hear people toss around the term “spiritual” for want of a better term, and some even say ‘for want of a better term’ when they use it,” says Richard Wade. “We ought to come up with a better term, possibly based on psychological and sociological thinking, even if we have to coin an entirely new word.”
Some of Ecklund’s irreligious scientists aligned themselves with eastern philosophical traditions. Indeed, that’s how Ross Harvey puts the “spiritual” in atheism as well.
Having abandoned the Christianity of his youth, Harvey grew attracted in his early Twenties to Taoism, with its circle of life. (The tattoo over his heart is the yin/yang symbol.) Shortly after, teaching English in Japan, he more formally began studying Zen Buddhism. Then, when a beloved cousin disappeared under suspicious circumstances, a new kind of quest for meaning ensued. Religion hadn’t offered up answers to his questions, but the questions — big and timeless ones, the Whys of philosophy rather than the Hows of science — asserted themselves anew.
“I don’t believe in God, but the fact that we’re alive and conscious is to me a kind of spark” for investigation, he says. “What’s my relationship with the universe, since I am conscious? That’s my spiritual journey. To figure out how I fit in here, and to figure it out without gods.”
As he grows up, Harvey’s two-year-old son Jackson will likely find himself asking the same big questions his father asks now. But as for his position on faith, we cannot be sure. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has repeatedly demonstrated that we tend to believe what our parents believed – and the pattern holds too, though somewhat less strongly, for atheists and agnostics. On the other hand, New York University psychologist Paul Vitz will get to test his theory that, paradoxically, a loving atheist Dad stacks the odds toward his son becoming a believer – because children, by Vitz’s reckoning, tend to equate a loving father with a loving Father. You might think of the whole enterprise as a large-scale social experiment. No one can perfectly predict the outcome. A small but growing literature, with titles like Parenting Beyond Belief, and Between a Church and a Hard Place, documents the effort in real time of a new generation to turn the childhood of their kids, without God, into an apprenticeship in tolerance.
Cue “We Are The World.”
But Richard Wade offers a word of caution. Atheists need not – and should not, in his view – become so conciliatory to the American religious majority that they’re reduced to silently gumming their dinner in the corner. Taken to its extreme, the image of the “kinder, gentler atheist” becomes almost a joke.
Wade recently performed a clever thought experiment. To test whether it’s possible for atheists ever to be truly inoffensive – that is, to see whether it’s not their manners but their very existence that people object to — he dreamed up the most benign billboards imaginable. (Sample: “Please Drive Carefully.”) Each is just a simple message or a big dumb happy picture, with smaller type identifying their sponsor: Atheists of America.
Wade posted his fake billboards online. The post went viral on Tumblr. A collection was enthusiastically taken up, and some billboards are now actually being constructed. (One of the slogans already in beta: “Kittens are Cute.”) “The ads don’t challenge any religious ideas at all,” Wade says. “They only implicitly challenge negative beliefs that people have about atheists.” If you see one and are irked, it’s worth asking yourself why. If you see one and laugh, well, that’s probably the best icebreaking, stereotype-smashing outcome atheists can hope for.
And there will come a day – perhaps it is very much closer than we think — when “going to exhausting lengths to avoid “offending” people will be beside the point.
“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Wade says. “Atheists will never go back to the invisibility and inaudibility of only haunting ivy-covered halls or espresso cafes.”
NOTE that this is a longer version of the story that appeared in print. The PT story appears here:
Let me tell you a few things about my relationship with the points of the compass, and then we’ll jump to the meat of this thing.
At shopping malls, my eldest daughter has to frequently tell me where we parked. She is five.
Once, while visiting Paris, I went out for a jog and got disoriented. Eventually I spotted a police officer, and I pulled from my shoe the address where we were staying. “Ah,” he said. “You want to go back to Paris.”
On a quest many years ago to climb the highest mountain on Vancouver Island, a pal and I got so lost that there was no turning back, because it just wasn’t clear which way back was. It wasn’t clear where forward was, either, except that we’d seen a plane fly in over the ridge ahead, so we went that way. (Did I mention that my pal was bleeding from a head wound?) It was a long shot but—don’t you see?—it was the only shot, because that slot in the horizon was our lone landmark.
I am like Captain Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show, who was so navigationally inept that the crew kept him on a fake bridge, with dummy instruments, so that he’d think he was in charge while the ship was in fact being steered elsewhere. My instincts are reliably wrong—which is as good as their being reliably right. You can take a “gut” reading and—Hello, Cleveland!—go do the opposite.
I tell you this not as a pathetic cry for help, or a claim to a perverse kind of pride, but to try to understand: Why does people’s sense of direction vary so wildly?
My own case by no means defines the low ground. There is a woman in my hometown of Vancouver—I can’t tell you who because she’s only described, not named, in the journal Neuropsychologia—who suffers from a pathology called “developmental topographical disorientation.” She’s in her 40s, and in most ways fully functioning—she can watch TV and read the newspaper and even get to and from work so long as she doesn’t deviate one iota from her regular route. But she can also get lost on the way home from the bus stop. She can’t make and store accurate mental images of her environment.
This kind of impairment is vanishingly rare, but it does make you wonder. Are those of us with more moderate symptoms different in kind or just degree? Is there a genetic component to this?
There’s a new movement out there to get children into nature
from EXPLORE MAGAZINE, August 2009
A huge—and I mean huge—black bear walked right past the car as I was loading my infant daughter into the back seat. It was in no particular hurry. It had emerged from the forest and was cutting through our driveway en route to the dumpster near the elementary school, where it would poke around and then hang a left back into the wild. We both watched it recede. At 300 feet it still looked pretty big. Lila was curious but not frightened: it occurred to me that living among bears—not to mention coyotes and the odd cougar—is normal for her now. And that’s a good thing, I think.
“You know why I like it here?” my wife explained to someone not long after we’d moved to this little townhouse complex, high on the flank of Vancouver’s North Shore mountains. “Because the only predators you have to worry about have four legs. And I’ll take those over the two-legged kind any day.”
The familiar becomes invisible. And that’s a problem.
from VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, July 2009
“Choice architecture” is suddenly a sexy idea, thanks largely to a recent book called Nudge. A nudge, as authors Richard Thaler (an economist) and Cass Sunstein (a legal scholar) explain, is a little intervention in our daily lives from the unseen hand of an engineer or a designer that subtly encourages a behaviour, presenting options in such a way that we’re inclined to do the socially beneficial thing. It tricks us into eating our spinach. Some of the most ingenious examples come from traffic-engineering departments. On a dangerously winding stretch of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, the city dealt with speed-caused fatalities by painting lines on the road. The lines become more tightly spaced on the curves, giving drivers the illusion that they’re speeding up-and so those drivers slow down. (In 1996 here in B.C., on a soporific stretch of Highway 5 between Little Fort and Blackpool, engineers first installed those now-familiar “rumble strips” on the shoulder hem of the lane, which function as alarm clocks if you drift onto them, producing “Holy crap, I’ll never do that again!” moments that may change driving habits permanently.) Other intriguing examples abound. It turns out people can be nudged to save more money (by manipulating the psychology of pension plans) or to use energy more efficiently (if a hydro meter is installed in a place where they can actually see their energy consumption as it happens). Should we be worried about the coercion implicit in such tactics? Well, there is coercion in any tactic, as Thaler points out: “There’s no such thing as a neutral environment.” The salad bar is either in the front or the back; the hydro meter is either in view or not. It’s better to choose the better thing, and the experts make no apologies for stacking the deck that way.
Nudges matter because if you take action early in a behaviour chain you’re attacking problems at the level of prevention, not repair-and preventing problems is a lot cheaper and less trouble. That’s one of the reasons Barack Obama is such a huge fan of the concept. He thinks this sort of “libertarian paternalism” might help show America the way out of its economic woes, by getting a lot of people doing small responsible things from the get-go. (He appointed Sunstein, his former law-school pal at the University of Chicago, to his administration, as his “regulatory czar.”) Choice architecture has made designers the new “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and from Mumbai to Vancouver, their modest acts reverberate and produce big, if sometimes hard to quantify, changes in the behaviour of the masses.
Failure destroys some people. Others rise from the ashes.
from PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, May 2009
In September of 2008, Philip Schultz, a humble and plainspoken fellow, crossed the hardwood floor and slid in behind a temporary lectern in the Center for Well-Being at The Ross School in East Hampton. It was commencement day for the eighth-grade class. Some students recognized Schultz, who was giving the address, as the father of eighth-grader Eli. He was a local poet.
Schultz told the students he hadn’t learned to read until he was 11. By then, he’d been held back a grade and was a permanent member of what the other kids called the “dummy class.” Teachers just didn’t know what to do with a kid like Phil Schultz—who, it turned out, was dyslexic. When a teacher asked him what he wanted to do with his life and Schultz said he wanted to be a writer, the teacher laughed. “I wasn’t insulted,” Schultz recalls. “I understood it was a funny thing to hear from someone who hated to read and couldn’t write a simple English sentence.”
Schultz’s punishment for being a dummy was exile to shameful outsiderdom within a class moving forward. And that’s exactly the kind of experience from which writers are made. Within “the loneliness of having so little expected of me, and the pain of being overlooked and forgotten,” as he put it to the assembly, was time for careful attention to his interior life. All a writer really needs are the self-knowledge to decipher his feelings, the judgment to recognize the original ones, and the courage to make them public. It’s a job open to anybody—even dyslexics. And so Schultz steamed ahead toward the one career for which others thought he was the most ill-suited—poetry.
Cut to 2007. A working poet now, Schultz realized that almost everything he wrote was about failure. Failure was his clay. He was writing about his dad—a drunkard who’d been a lousy parent and a worse provider—but he was also tapping the part of himself that felt like a failure. Schultz had aimed to be a novelist, but couldn’t pull it off. Alongside the very personal poems about his father, a long poem took shape about a character who walked other, more successful, people’s dogs.
The voltage that shot through the plainspoken language was unlike anything Schultz had produced. He called the collection, simply, Failure. On its cover: a bent nail in a board. Last year, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Mirror neurons may hold the key to understanding how human beings respond to one another’s plight
from IN CHARACTER, April 2008
Simon Lovell is a British-born stage magician whose long-running Broadway show Strange and Unusual Hobbies exploits his dexterity with playing cards. But for most of his adult life, Lovell turned a less reputable dime. He was a full-time con man. It was a trade he came by naturally. By age four he was already learning gambling-table tricks from his grandfather, and before long young Simon was traveling with carnivals and three-card-monte troupes, absorbing the patter and the confidence and the ethic of the “short con” (in and out before the victim knows what hit him). It was an easy way for Simon to put himself through college; it was an easy way to put himself through life. Like some opportunistic grifter in a David Mamet play, seducing hapless victims and then betraying them without remorse, Lovell plied his craft for ten lucrative years, until the age of thirty-one.
And then one day everything changed.
He had spotted his mark in a hotel bar in Europe, and, after chumming the man up and plying him with drinks, had drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of the team, primed to make a bundle if he just, well, plays his cards right.
It went beautifully. “He lost the whole enchilada on one big hand,” Lovell recalls. “We took him for an extremely large amount of money.”
The script at that point called for Lovell to berate the mark (“I told you to wait for my signal!”), drag him out of the hotel room, and tell him to get lost. But in the hallway of the hotel, the disengagement sequence faltered. The mark went to pieces. “I’ve never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell says. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing, and in a very sorry state. He looked as though he was in need of a visit to Bellevue.”
And that’s when it happened. “It was like a light suddenly went on,” Lovell recalls. “It was very strange. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. It was the only time I had ever felt that. It was like my heart started to beat. For the first time I actually felt sorry for someone.”
Lovell did something, then, that he couldn’t quite believe himself. I gave him some of the money back. Not all of it—I had my people to pay—but I gave him enough.” Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured himself a drink, and said, that’s it. When you run cons you have to have an ice-cold heart,” he says. “There was an absolute epiphany that if I’m going to start feeling sorry for people, I just can’t do it anymore.”
Almost overnight, his life changed. The necessary ink cloud a con throws up to keep the world (and himself) from knowing who he is, cleared. “I had become,” he says, “a real human being again.”
Just what happened to Simon Lovell in that hotel corridor? He himself is not much help here. All he knows is that whatever happened to him was fast and dramatic and, apparently, permanent. It felt like an almost Promethean kindling of compassion. But what really went on inside his brain?
We do not yet have a neuroscience of compassion, although a number of scientists are converging on compassion’s more quantifiable cousin, empathy. Empathy is sometimes described as “emotional sympathy.” Both compassion and empathy are complex responses that seem to involve many brain systems. Both consist in tuning in to another person’s emotional experience— although compassion involves the added dimension of care, a desire not just to imagine another’s circumstances but to want to relieve his suffering. Empathy is contained by compassion, but does not contain it. You can have empathy without compassion, but you cannot have compassion without empathy.
Empathy is increasingly being recognized by scientists for what it is: the very denominator of what it means to be human. It seems to be hard-wired into us almost from birth, though actually imagining the perspective of others might more accurately be said to emerge around the age of four. If sociopaths are sometimes considered “inhuman,” it’s because they apparently lack one of the signal determinants of what we’ve decided it means to be human: the ability to connect with another. And one way we connect is by imagining ourselves into each other’s worlds.
“The neuroscience of empathy is still young,” says Tania Singer, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich and one of the field’s most active investigators. The terrain is a forest of questions. Are the old mechanistic models of the brain still valid, or are they obsolete? Is there a lateral difference – that is, do the two hemispheres play different roles? Does emotion or cognition dominate? And is the pathology model of understanding the brain – we discover how parts of it work by studying people in whom those parts aren’t working at all – going to yield to a more, well, holistic approach?
This much is becoming clear: The story of empathy is probably going to involve fairly recently discovered cells called mirror neurons. And it’s probably going to involve the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a plum-sized area a couple of inches behind the eyebrows, where primal social emotions are thought to be packaged. It may involve a curled little strip of tissue in the middle of the brain called the anterior cingulated gyrus, which seems to detect and manage conflict. And it’s sure to involve other parts of that mighty prefrontal cortex, which just generally plays traffic cop in the busiest city in the universe.
Mirror neurons are cells that fire not only when they’re commanded to fire to move us, but also automatically, as reliably as an echo, whenever we notice someone else moving. Discovered accidentally in monkeys by researchers in Parma, Italy, in the early 1990s, and later pegged in roughly the same spot in the brains of humans, mirror neurons have been hailed as the most major discovery in neuroscience in two decades. Together the cells form a circuit, spread through several brain regions and attached both upstream to the prefrontal cortex and downstream to the most primitive parts of the limbic system. They connect who were with whom we evolved to become.
Mirror neurons seem to prove an explanation – really the first explanation – of how empathy works at the cellular level. Though scientists vary in the degree of meaning they place in the find, Vittorio Galese — one of the original discoverers of mirror neurons in monkeys, and one of the most radically enthusiastic — believes mirror neurons are a tiny model of the brain’s organizational structure: the whole brain functions as a kind of mirror device.
If that’s even mostly true, it blows apart the long-embraced model of the brain as a kind of sequential processor, in which other people’s words and gestures are detected in the hindbrain, fed through the limbic system, and finally converted into meaningful emotions in the frontal cortex. “That old model is just wrong,” says the neurologist Marco Iacoboni, in whose California lab human mirror neurons were discovered. “It sounds completely counterintuitive to say, but there’s evidence that motor actions are actually part of our perception.” It’s not the joy or distress I see in your face that makes me smile or slump in sympathy, in other words: it’s that I reflexively mirror the joy or distress I see in you, and that action – my body reading my own behavior – is what generates the emotion. The most intriguing research to support this theory was conducted by the eminent British neuroscientist Jonathan Cole on patients with facial-muscle paralysis. These individuals couldn’t smile in response to another’s smiles, or frown in response to another’s anxiety. “It turns out that these patients are not even able to understand the emotional state of others,” says Iacoboni.
Such findings make empathy seem a richer and subtler process than we thought. We aren’t merely radios tuning in to other people’s frequencies, the research implies. We’re more like stringed instruments that other instruments set vibrating – and are amplified by the vibrations we get back – and so on in an infinite feedback loop. It changes the whole idea of communication between human beings from something almost robotic into something almost organic.
“When Bill Clinton said, ‘I feel your pain,’ everybody made jokes about it,” Iacoboni says. “But he was actually anticipating what neuroscience was about to tell us.”
So essential to empathy are mirror neurons believed by these researchers to be that the eminent neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has said he thinks autism may be caused by a mirror-neuron dysfunction. Iacoboni expects we will learn that sociopaths, too, are deficient in mirror neuron cells – or are at least saddled with a flawed mirror-neuron system. “It’s going to be difficult to know if that’s because they were born without those cells, or if their experience did not shape the system enough. It’s hard to study.” In the older model of empathy, we all functioned in our interpersonal dealings as detectives, deducing other people’s internal states by observing their behavior. The new research suggests we’re more like Method actors, actually reproducing those states in ourselves. Empathy, by this telling, is as automatic as seeing or hearing. It just happens. Mirror neurons simply fire. Even, we have to assume, in Simon Lovell as he pulled con after con. The reason the message didn’t get through for so long is that there is another neural system in play.
A useful way of appreciating how the brain seems to work out “moral” issues is to think of it as a kind of Odd Couple-like partnership between two modules. You might call them, very unscientifically, the Grandmother Module and the Spock Module. (A third region, the anterior cingulated gyrus in the middle of the brain, seems also to be involved as a kind of referee between them.)
Spock captained the debating team in high school. He does the packing on car trips, counts cards in Reno (always playing the percentages), reads the philosopher John Stuart Mill (who argued that we should choose to do what produces the best results for the most people), and lives mostly in the frontal cortex, up top and to the outsides of the hemispheres. Grandmother always wanted to be a nurse, but discovered she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. She prefers Kant to Mill (believing, like him, that some things are just intrinsically right and good and we should honor them). She reads Harlequins, plays the lottery (when she’s feeling lucky), fastens her goals on the fridge with little daisy magnets, and picks up her mail in the ventromedial region – at the bottom of the frontal cortex, near the middle. The two are in constant dialogue, and together form the machinery of moral reasoning. During moral dilemmas – those pregnant moments that can define values, expose character flaws, or even change lives – the two are drawn into a kind of competitive tension. The Grandmother Module asks questions like, Oh my, are you sure you can pull the trigger? Are you sure you can fleece this poor fellow? Look at him: he’s … like you. The Spock Module relies on pure utilitarian reason: What’s “right” is circumstantial, but generally, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Spock is often called on to explain, after the fact, our own instinctive behavior.
The Spock Module dampens our natural empathic impulses – which is not so much a killjoy function as an essential one. Those impulses need dampening. Mirror neurons fire less strongly when we observe someone performing a function than when we perform it ourselves, and that’s by evolutionary design. “If we felt a sufferer’s pain to the degree that they feel it,” says Iacoboni, “we’d be overwhelmed and unable to help them.” To dial down the empathic response, to let us keep our head amid chaos: that seems to be the job of still-little-understood systems in the frontal lobe — the Spock Module. “And I guess in some people that control system is really, really robust,” Iacoboni says. Robust from birth, possibly, and certainly strengthened over time by, say, practicing cold-hearted cons on innocent people, over and over.
What seems to have been happening in the brain of Simon Lovell, as he inched toward his epiphany, was an epic Mexican standoff between Grandmother and Spock. “At some point, evidently, for some reason, Simon’s control system just couldn’t contain [the emotion] any more,” Iacoboni says. Had he been brain-scanned as it all unfolded, “What I would predict is that there’s a strong mirror neuron response, a strong limbic response – and in these frontal areas that we believe repress the limbic activity, there would be no activity whatsoever.”
To hear Simon Lovell tell it, the flood of compassion came out of nowhere. “Which makes sense,” Iacoboni says. “These are cognitive-control mechanisms. You need to be almost un-alert, need to be caught by surprise for these to be subverted – because otherwise you’d use your control systems to suppress these emotions. So it makes sense that it was something sudden.”
But that still doesn’t explain what triggered the moment when Spock was unable to surmount Grandmother – and why.
Here’s one guess: at a certain point the whole circumstance had simply become personal for Simon, in a way that made it impossible to duck responsibility for the suffering he was causing.
The work of the Harvard philosopher and cognitive psychologist Joshua Greene sheds light here. In an experiment, Greene presented subjects with moral dilemmas, all the while scanning their brains with a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine. The dilemmas required snap decisions in imagined life-and-death situations. They were cunningly designed to manipulate the degree to which either emotion or cognition was brought to bear. Greene guess that it would depend on the nature of the dilemma — to what degree the “moral violation” the subjects were asked to perpetrate felt “personal” or “impersonal.” The more personally on the hook the subjects felt for the morally objectionable act, the more likely the Grandmother Module would come into play — emotions would overtake reason. The more distance they could keep from the damage, the more emotion could be kept out of the moral calculus.
Imagine, Joshua Greene proposed, a runaway train. Five people are helplessly stuck on he tracks. If you could save their lives by pulling a switch and shunting the train onto a siding where a single person was stuck, would you do it? Most people, Greene reckoned, would say yes. (And his research subjects in fact did.) But then Greene threw a curve. What if simply pulling a switch to reroute the train wasn’t an option? What if the only way to stop that train from barreling down on those five people was to physically push somebody off a bridge, into the train’s path, listening to his screams as he fell? Most people, he figured, would probably balk – even though killing the one was still the “rational” thing to do. (Green’s research subjects indeed balked.) Most of us can’t overcome the physical revulsion at doing actual harm to other human beings. (As Grandmother would say, They’re like you.) The likelihood that a subject will undertake a deeply taboo moral violation – like killing someone, or hurting him, or betraying him – even for a “good reason,” depends on how much emotional detachment he can muster.
Greene looked at the scans of brains choosing to sacrifice one person to save five by shunting the train. Then he looked at the scans of brains of those unable to push somebody onto the tracks. The in the first instance, the scenario that allowed emotional detachment, regions associated with cognitive processes – the Spock Module – lit up. But in he second instance, when the subjects had to face their demons square on, and recoiled, the ventromedial area was aglow. We might expect that, for a spell, both areas were furiously active as Grandmother sent signals of moral disgust and Spock tried desperately to rationalize the behavior. But then activity in the higher prefrontal areas would have diminished – as if the subjects were finally simply unable to be clinically detached. Grandma had wrestled Spock into submission.
If you think of Simon Lovell’s turning point as essentially a moment of moral decision-making, when some personal “truth” burns through a long-held, self-serving cover story, then Joshua Green’s model is a relevant prism. For ten years Lovell had found plenty of ways to distance himself from the victims (“They weren’t people, they were walking wallets, that’s all they were,” he says of his marks), and plenty of ways to rationalize what he was doing. But the gathering guilt and unease – what Lovell calls the accumulated weight of “ten years of bad karma” – finally became stronger than his cognitive control system’s ability to manage it. The whole enterprise became, you might say, unavoidably personal for Lovell. Grandmother’s sermonizing grew too loud to ignore. He fell victim to compassion.
Compassion, according to Aristotle – the first thinker to propose a theory on how it is (or is not) generated I human beings – involves a three-step process. We must see the suffering is significant, that it is undeserved, and that the sufferer could just as easily be ourselves. (“There but for fortune go I.”) Without these three conditions in place, the heard remains locked. Advances in brain-imaging technology within the last decade have allowed us to test what Aristotle could only guess at, to see the effects of these three triggers on the brain.
When we notice appreciable suffering, empathic circuits in the brain light up: this much mirror-neuron research has been pretty much proven. Another person’s suffering makes us emotional, so long as it captures our attention.
Is the suffering undeserved? This is a front-brain question – a job for Spock. The University of Chicago cognitive neuroscientists Jean Decety has addressed it, roundabout, in a number of studies. When suffering is detected the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, probably chiefly on the right side, pumps for context – and it’s the context that will determine to what degree the cognitive apparatus suppresses the limbic response, downgrading the state of emergency, reducing the empathic pulse. A man being beaten on the sidewalk immediately arouses our interest and compassion – but if we learn that the copy was simply defending himself after the man had cold-cocked him with a beer bottle, our compassion for the stranger flags. Mothers generally cannot easily bear to see their children in pain. But if the pain derives from, say, a flu shot, then the urge to intervene to stop the suffering diminishes – for now the suffering is deemed not wicked bad luck but rather a necessary cost of getting better. (Last year, Decety set up an experiment in which subjects were asked to observe a painful treatment for tinnitus. Brain scans revealed a stronger empathic response when the treatment was ineffective – the suffering was, you might say, without purpose – than when it was effective.)
Can the observer imagine a similar fate: What happened to this person could happen to me? It is the cognitive component to empathy – responsible for the simple act of trying to imagine another’s circumstances – that allows us, over and above the natural, primal compassion we feel for a member of kin or tribe, to project ourselves into the shoes even of those who are utterly dissimilar from us. You don’t have to have walked in those shoes – you just have to imaging that you could. In a study co-authored by a number of neuroscientists last year, subjects were asked to remember a personal experience of fear and anger from their past. Then they were asked to imagine an equivalent experience of another person, as if it were happening to them. Scans revealed that “when people could relate to the scenario of the other,” they felt the sufferer’s pain as if it were their own: the neural signatures were almost identical. “But when they could not relate to the other’s story, differences emerged on all measures.” The actual physiological response was reduced, there was less recruitment of emotive brain regions. Clinton thus stands definitively exonerated: “I feel your pain” is a valid trope – at least “to the extent that one can relate to the state and situation of the other.”
Compassion is an ephemeral, elusive thing, and so efforts to take a neural “snapshot” of it seem quixotic at best. Nonetheless the neuroscientist Richard Davidson approached the task directly when he set out not long ago to map a kind of compassionate embrace-of-everything that Buddhists call lovingkindness.
Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin’s W. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior recruit as research subjects Tibetan monks hand-picked by the Dalai Lama. The monks were injected with a radioactive tracer and fitted with electrodes, and Davidson and his colleagues watched the results onscreen as the monks climbed the ladder of their breath up, up into the rarefied precincts of good will. No single area of the monks’ brains came alive, but Davidson and the researchers did see discrete changes – notably, a shift in activity from the parietal love (as the monks detached from their conscious sense of self) to the premotor part of the frontal lobe, a region connected to the deeper emotions and involved in plans (such as springing to the aid of those in distress).
The root of lovingkindness meditation is the extension of care, in ever widening sweeps, until not a living creature is missed. Receive everyone as if they were your mother is the famous dictum: the compassion you feel, when you can convince yourself they are, is almost boundless. And the neural signature of those moments should be dramatic. So too, Simon Lovell, whose ability, cultivated over a decade of ruthless cons, to view his marks as not quite human, could not withstand that final test in the hotel hallway. Those clinical rationalizations were smashed by something like a sense of common humanity. “Maybe in that moment,” Joshua Greene conjectures, “Simon Lovell became a little more monk-like.”
Public identity and private faith are never more at odds than when a preacher loses his faith
from PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, January 2008
James McAllister, a 56-year-old Lutheran minister in the midwest, was working on his sunday sermon one Thursday afternoon last summer. It wasn’t going well. The reverend wasn’t suffering from writer’s block—in fact, he was crafting quite an elegant parable about “the importance of making our whole lives a prayer.” No, the problem was bigger than that. The sermon skated around a private truth that McAllister could no longer deny.
McAllister has learned that you can tell inspirational stories, grounded in social justice and tolerance and peace, without having to bring God into the picture—and this sermon was a masterful case in point. A woman in his congregation had recently dropped everything to care for her cancer-stricken daughter, and that selfless commitment was sacred in its way. “You can see how I cook the books a little bit to make it easier to look in the mirror,” he says of his sermons. “But there are times when I get that sort of empty feeling in my stomach, like I’m a fraud.”
It’s easy to get the sense these days that you’ve stumbled into a party where the punch is spiked with some powerful drug that dramatically alters identity. The faces are familiar, but the words coming out of them aren’t. Something has happened to a lot of people you used to think you knew. They’ve changed into something like their own opposite.
There’s Bill Gates, who these days is spending less time earning money than giving it away–and pulling other billionaires into the deep end of global philanthropy with him. There’s historian Francis Fukuyama, leading a whole gang of disaffected fellow travelers away from neoconservatism. And in the back, humming Give Peace a Chance, the new Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, former head of the Marxist Sandinistas. The comandante has come around on open economies and free trade and is courting foreign investment as the way out for his nation’s poor.
From modest recants–Oprah Winfrey on James Frey, NBA commissioner David Stern on leather balls, Rupert Murdoch on global warming–to full-on ideological 180s, reappraisal is in the air. The view long held by social psychologists that people very rarely change their beliefs seems itself in need of revision.
To flip-flop is human. Oh, sure, it can still sometimes be a political liability, evidence of a flaky disposition or rank opportunism. But there are circumstances in which not to reverse course seems almost pathological. He’s a model of consistency, Stephen Colbert said last year of George W. Bush: “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday–no matter what happened on Tuesday.”
It is not considered good judgment to wade into the issue of recovered memories without skin as thick as permafrost and caller ID on the phone. Rare is the academic field in which colleagues on opposite sides of a debate — people with international reputations — dismiss the very foundations of one another’s work, sometimes not so privately, with common barnyard epithets; in which two of the most prominent reference books are almost Jesuitically contradictory; in which more than a decade of fairly sound research has done little to settle a debate that has raged ever since Freud popularized the term ”repression.”
Yet this is just where Susan Clancy found herself eight years ago when she joined the psychology department at Harvard University as a graduate student. At one end of the field of ”trauma memory” were people like her new professors and future co-authors, the clinical psychologist Richard McNally and the cognitive psychologist Daniel Schacter, chairman of the Harvard psychology department and one of the world’s leading experts on memory function. At the other end were Harvard-affiliated clinicians, including Judith Herman, Bessel van der Kolk and Daniel Brown, whose scholarly writing on the psychological effects of trauma remains highly influential.
Geographic profiling pioneer Kim Rossmo has been likened to Sherlock Holmes; his Watson in the hunt for serial killers is a digital sidekick — an algorithm he calls Rigel.
from POPULAR SCIENCE, March 2003
Until he was called in on the Beltway Sniper investigation, Detective Kim Rossmo’s most confounding case was the South Side Rapist. For almost a decade, an unknown assailant,
his face bandit-wrapped in a scarf, had been stalking women in quiet Lafayette, Louisiana, and then assaulting them in their homes. He remained at large in 1998 when Rossmo, then a detective inspector with the Vancouver Police Department in Canada, was called in to help. The police were under pressure. The town was hungry for an arrest. There was a glut of raw information. But after a couple of thousand tips and close to a thousand suspects — numbers that would be dwarfed by the 15,000 tips a day that the sniper case would generate, but a sea of data all the same — investigators were no further ahead.
Rossmo’s job was to help direct the manhunt. If he couldn’t find the needle, he hoped at least to radically thin the haystack. And he would do so through the careful application of that most powerful of investigative tools: a mathematics equation.
Rossmo, 47, is the inventor and most zealous proponent of criminal geographic targeting (CGT), more commonly known as geographic profiling. He uses CGT to hunt society’s most dangerous game: violent serial criminals — arsonists, rapists and murderers whose taste for carnage seems only to sharpen with time, and who tend to programmatically continue their offenses until they are caught. There’s no mistaking Rossmo for the FBI profilers down in Quantico’s Behavioral Assessment Unit, the ones that movies like The Silence of the Lambs have turned into celebrities. He can’t tell what kind of offender is terrorizing the town, how old or what race, whether he has delusions of grandeur or issues with Dad — nor does Rossmo particularly care about those things. His interest is in the most neglected of the Five W’s: Where did the offender strike? From this Rossmo can usually calculate where, most likely, he lived.
In Lafayette, Rossmo and lead investigator McCullan “Mac” Gallien walked the city’s streets for three straight days, revisiting the crime sites. Then Rossmo produced a computer-
generated printout that resembled a tie-dyed shirt; its bands of color — from cool violet to hot yellow — told police, essentially, where to look first. That narrowed the hunting area to half a square mile, and reduced the pool to a dozen suspects who lived in that zone. Investigators were buoyed. But the bubble burst when, one by one, each of the suspects was cleared based on DNA evidence.
Then Gallien received an anonymous tip that he almost dismissed as a joke. The man the informer named was someone Gallien knew personally — another cop — Randy Comeaux, a pleasant-mannered Stephen King lookalike who was a
sheriff’s deputy in a department just outside of town. Idly curious, Gallien checked Comeaux’s address and compared it to Rossmo’s probability map. Not even close.
To be complete, though, Gallien fished out Comeaux’s personnel file. At the time of the rapes, he discovered, Comeaux had resided someplace else. Gallien checked that address against Rossmo’s profile and drew in a breath. The house fell right into Rossmo’s “hot zone.”
Every September, the office of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Cincinnati issues a crisp new edition of ”Paideia,” a comic-size booklet that lists thousands of obscure words that will appear in spelling bees across the country over the coming year — words that any competitive speller in America should know cold. Most families wait for their ”Paideia” to arrive at school; but serious devotees know when the advance audio version of ”Paideia” will go up on the Scripps Howard Web site. On that day each year, the Goldsteins of West Hempstead, N.Y. — Amy, Ari, J.J. and Amanda, along with their parents, Jonathan and Mona — assemble like the Von Trapps in a thunderstorm. The whole family squeezes into Amy’s bedroom and fires up the computer, and the familiar, baronial voice of the National Spelling Bee pronouncer, Alex J. Cameron, carefully enunciates each new addition to the list — aition, campanile, kittel, giaour. Each Goldstein sits with pen and paper in hand, as still and focused as a game-show contestant, and spells the words, one by one. It takes hours.
It is the equivalent, for this family, of the first scrimmage of the year. It signals the beginning of bee season, a long nationwide winnowing process that starts with the 10 million kids who enter class bees in December, passes through countless district and regional bees in the spring and concludes at the National Spelling Bee in late May, leaving a lone speller standing on a stage, holding a jug-handled trophy in clammy hands. Of all the rituals the Goldsteins observe — and as Orthodox Jews, they observe many — this is one of the most important and perhaps the most personal. It is a reminder of what binds them, and defines them, as a family.