Saturday, June 23, 2007

Ode to Joy

It is a whimsical Sunday morning for me. I have been reading 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,' by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a book as well written as its title. Bauby developed locked in syndrome. The former editor of Elle magazine suffered a brainstem stroke that left him unable to communicate except by moving one eyelid. He was cognitively intact, and thus like many patients I have worked with - plenty to say and no way to do so. So I say as my fingers glide gracelessly over this inefficient and unnatural interface, one that my research field will supplement and ultimately replace.

I was reading this book while on the streetcar this morning heading to the lab. It stopped three stops before the university, understandably; who the hell goes to a university at 7 AM on Sunday? I got off, annoyed, then further annoyed that my realization of the gift of a working motor system did not assuage my annoyance. I decided to cut through a pretty park, pondering the human attentional system. Why exactly can't people focus on more things at once? I am supposed to be an expert in this topic, at least from a cog neuro pserpective, and never could answer it. I type, while 'ignoring' other sensory input - the sun slowly climbing the ivy clad brick wall out the window to my right, the faint breeze nudging me through the window, the chair against my body, Bach's Fourth Brandenburg Concerto through my headphones, the cluttered desk around me - yet am aware of it all, and can shift attention there easily, but not while typing. Why not? What limits me? Basal ganglia? Thalamus? Anterior cingulate? Nah. I think it is more of a process than a region. And, like anything else, you can train attention. Why does practice help? Could 60 years of practicing Zen ever be approached, or replicated, by anything a neuroscientist could develop? Clever new therapies, drugs, implanted electrodes, TMS? Answer: no experience nor perspective nor life can be replicated, nor can the processing thereof. Otherwise, yes, but watch them side effects.

So I mused while trying to focus on details of trees, while also composing this blog entry, thinking about a grant app, and pondering which type of tea to make once I got here. Peppermint, I decided. Is that a peppermint plant? Out in the middle of a field in Germany? No, my right leg told me, those are stinging nettles. Pain grabs attention like a leash. Loud cursing escaped before I realized I should not yell. Then I realized I was in the middle of a park, thought further, and indulged in more eloquent cursing in three languages. The act of pondering cursing amused me. Just then, it started to rain. Did I mention I was in the middle of a park? I sprinted toward a tree, stubbing my left toe, and yet my mood had changed dramatically. I sat down under the tree, watched the rain, and laughed. My left toe and right leg hurt no less, but bothered me no more.

'There comes a time when the heaping-up of calamities brings on an uncontrollably nervous laughter - when, after a final blow from fate, we decide to treat it all as a joke.' -- Jean-Dominique Bauby, 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.'

His calamities were of course beyond mine, but it's all relative. Even relativity is relative. Lottery winners are often no happier than others; patients with locked in syndrome, according to Birbaumer's research, are often no less depressed. Hence Dad's old adage: 'Happiness is prior to conditions.' Maslow had his take, which (loosely interpreted) is that satisfaction stems from the ratio of accomplishments divided by goals. This leads to the odd conclusion that one can become happier by setting weaker goals. Oh, how I have tried to do this, and failed. Ambition is my most powerful addiction, a curse and salvation, empowering and inescapable. I can no more sit on my laurels than stinging nettles. I cannot remember being truly relaxed, nor at peace. I see pictures of me as a kid, and I can still see it in my eyes. Happy, sure; peaceful, no. Many things are relaxing - extreme physical exercise, hiking in Colorado and then lounging in the hot springs, the beach, strategic intoxication, friends, family, music, meditation, even work - but there's always something more, crawling under my skin, driving me on. I accept it. One of the most consistent themes in quotes across cultures is to know thyself, and to thine own self be true, and so here I am in the lab on Sunday morning. It is my church, which I attend with the devotion and sincerity of any believer. And I do believe in the power of science and knowledge, and always have. These become even more powerful when tempered with appropriate perspective; knowledge is a path to some knowledge, not the only path to all knowledge. To paraphrase PT Barnum (and gain some narrative closure with my musing on attention): You can understand some things some of the time, but not all things all of the time. George W Bush has a more telling adaptation: “You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.”

Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.

I find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success. -- Both quotes from Thomas A. Edison.

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