Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, February 16, 2008

I’m on semi-vacation this week (as though my “normal” weekly schedule doesn’t represent vacation to the majority of people in our driven, workaholic societies), which gave me more time to read more articles and books. So here are some more gems to stock away for upcoming blackout periods in my blog as in my life:
1.) A recent Dutch report has shown that, against what is generally said, healthy, thin, non-smokers cost more in health care than smokers and obese people, because while smokers and obese people die younger and thus end their health care costs, healthy people tend to live longer and, as such, require more medical treatment . Check out their surprising logic and data:

On average, healthy people lived 84 years. Smokers lived about 77 years, and obese people lived about 80 years. Smokers and obese people tended to have more heart disease than the healthy people. Cancer incidence, except for lung cancer, was the same in all three groups. Obese people had the most diabetes, and healthy people had the most strokes. Ultimately, the thin and healthy group cost the most, about $417,000, from age 20 on. The cost of care for obese people was $371,000, and for smokers, about $326,000.

2.) Caffeine Blues or Caffeine Pop Song? In college, I was marked or frightened by a book a friend of mine recommended called Caffeine Blues. The book more or less presented the negative impacts of caffeine addiction on a personal and societal level. I eventually stopped drinking coffee and tea for awhile, but I felt like I had less energy, particularly in a mental concentration way. Subsequent studies have been done showing numerous neurological benefits and advantages of (moderate) caffeine usage. People’s concentration and memory is increased. Regular caffeine consumption also has been shown to decrease the chances of diseases like type II diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Check out this excellent article on Caffeine: A User’s Guide to Getting Optimally Wired. In spite of the risk of an occasional caffeine bluesy downer, I think I wouldn’t risk a mental day without a morning or afternoon pop-song pick-me-up of tea or coffee. So when’s the next step in cognitive upgrades?

3.) Oh-Oh-oh, the Science of Feet-y Orgasms. In spite of the fact that I have yet to really understand the anatomy or the functionality of the human brain (a task I hope to rectify in the coming weeks and months), recent neurological research never stops to amaze me. For example, there were a number of recent neurological articles attempting to understand what an orgasm is and does this phenomenon relate to the body, mind, brain, and neurological network. If you want something light try this piece from the LA Times entitled The Science of Orgasms. But if you want to get down to more nuts and bolts, check out this piece by Dr. Barry Komisaruk on Orgasms. Check out this extreme anecdote, “Witness the curious case – described by UC San Diego neuroscientist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran – of the man who had orgasms in his phantom foot” :

*When the man’s foot was amputated, cells in the “foot” part of the brain were suddenly deprived of stimulation. They died, leaving prime cerebral real estate vacant.

Then, like an opportunistic roommate, a neighboring region in the man’s brain likely sent sprouts to commandeer the vacated landscape. That region? One that processes input from penis and vulva.
The result: The man felt foot-sized orgasms in a foot he no longer had.*

4.) Proust was a neuroscientist? While neuroscience is providing us with important insights into the functioning of the brain and its connection with behavior, I think there still remains an important distinction between our chemio-phyico-mechanistic understanding of the brain and our lived experience as human agent or actor. As Ricoeur says, I am not my brain! We don’t say, “Oh, my brain thinks that that painting is beautiful.” We say, “I think that painting is beautiful.” The same could be said about pain. It isn’t my brain that feels pain, but it’s me or I as an engaged and lived presence who feels pain. In any case, neuroscientists like sociobiologists before them are attempting to make all knowledge and experience reducible to brain activity—neurons firing and blood transmitters circulating.

Science writer Jonah Lehrer talks about the need for neuroscience to deal with artistic experience in an interview entitled Proust was a neuroscientist (in audio and transcript form). I agree that literature has much to teach about our minds but Proust wasn’t a neuroscience in the sense that he was exploring the brain as a scientific object of study but he was examining the mind and the body—err the lived body—as a connective and holistic experience. Lehrer is looking for a dialogue between science and art that finds wonder in what we learn from scientific experiments and from personal artistic experiments. That doesn’t mean a scientific or a poetic description. It means a phenomenological description from the objective perspective of me-and-us. But isn’t a word he mentioned but his words reveal themselves, the self reveals the self, when, he says, we try “to actually take the ideas as they arrive.” If phenomenology in the Husserlian tradition represents the rigorous discipline of understanding and describing experience to and for us, then we would be better in claiming that Proust was in fact a phenomenologist. In any case, Lehrer’s words speak so beautifully at times they bear repeating:

[Virginia Woolf] I think really did anticipate a modern way of thinking about how the self emerges from the mind, from this machine underneath, this cortical machinery. How we do emerge through the act of attention. And I think it’s a question neuroscience really hasn’t come up with an answer for. And I think she also is a warning – teaches us about the limits of neuroscience in general, the limits of reductionist neuroscience to solve its grandest questions about consciousness, about the self. And I’ve no doubt that one day we’ll trace back self-consciousness to some discreet network of neurons [but] that still won’t explain the real mystery of consciousness, which is how the water of the brain becomes the wine of the mind, which is why we feel more than just the sum of ourselves. I mean that’s what her prose captures, the mind from within, the mind as we actually experience it.

5.) Whose the prettiest—err dumbest—of them all? It’s a fairly well-known fact that U.S. Americans don’t follow the news, have a rather poor global awareness, and are rather anti-intellectual, anti-rational. In a New York Times piece Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge? a sad, new statistic surfaced: “a 2006 National Geographic poll…found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map.” Not only do Americans not know what’s going in the world and where these events (some of them even enacted by their government) are happening; they don’t really care to know either.

6.) Obama’s American Hope Campaign. My friend at the Catholic Atheist has been keeping me up-to-date on the presidential happenings in the U.S. since I’ve been living in France. Watching things from France makes voting for a political candidate more of an intellectual act than an emotional regrouping force. I left the U.S. roughly at the moment when Obama’s star started to rise. I knew his name, but I was never “touched” by this radiance many people remark about. A recent poster by John Brown from Kansas entitled An Open Letter to Obama gave me an the ground view of voting for Obama in Kansas and how Obama represents for many U.S. people more than just another candidate, he represents their very hopes and dreams for the future. Chanting “We can” do it could be mistaken by a child not understanding the contest, but chanting by anyone over 20 means a lot more, it means loyalty to a team, a concept, an idea. Obama has people chanting for me, believing in him. This is a truly dangerous idea at a dangerous moment in U.S. geo-history.

Who Knew?

Early Brain Surgery? In our advanced technological and medical society, countless studies including brain surgery and neurological imaging are being preformed daily on the brain and its relation to comportment, diseases, etc. But apparently trepanation, which is a form of neurosurgery where holes are put in the skull or even a portion of the skull is removed dates back more than 5000 years and can be found in numerous cultures including ancient Greek and Peruvian! While there is little agreement as to why these surgeries were performed, evidence of trepanation is so widespread and common that some recovered skulls appear to have had multiple surgeries. If you want more historical detail, check out An illustrated history of trepanation on Neurophilosophy. And if you want to see the gory details in action, there is even a video showing an Australian group proforming this procedure with no anesthesia!

Quote of the Week:
Personal Motto, Be obscene…

“It is only the great men who are truly obscene. If they had not dared to be obscene, they could never have dared to be great.”

  • Havelock Ellis