Sunday, October 16, 2016

An Inventory of Brain Functions

In an earlier post, I mentioned that my body makes too many platelets.  These are the tiny particles in our blood that create clots when there is a hole in our circulatory system.  Having too many of these has some odd but not dangerous effects, like your spleen can grow larger.  Our spleens store up a bunch of platelets, presumably so that they can be released to help seal off the holes so we don't bleed out if we suffer a really bloody injury.  Another symptom is numbness or a tingling sensation in our extremities - fingertips, toes, hands, and feet.  My spleen has never been enlarged, but I think have felt the paresthesia in my fingertips, but I have proven to myself that the feeling can be psychosomatic.

There is a dangerous effect of having too many platelets, and that is the risk of ischemic stroke.  A stroke is the medical term for depriving brain cells of energy, either by creating static pools of blood ("hemorrhagic") or by preventing blood from getting there ("ischemic") by blocking an artery.  Of course, if your blood vessels are too weak, blocking them can lead to a hemorrhage "upstream" from the clot, and then you have both kinds of stroke.  Since I have too many platelets, I'm concerned about getting a clot that prevents blood from getting to where it's needed.

I decided it would be a good idea to create for myself an inventory of brain functions.  According to Wikipedia, brain tissue ceases to function after being deprived of oxygen for sixty to ninety seconds.  Of course, that doesn't mean the tissue is dying, but without oxygen, it will eventually die.  Meanwhile, if that tissue would normally help me restore oxygen to itself, I have only 60 - 90 seconds to use that help.  So I want to be able to run through some mental tests quickly.

There is already a well known acronym that everyone can use to recognize when a person is having a stroke, and that is FAST.  The letters stand for "Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties, and Time."  So, look in the mirror to see if you look funny.  Well, I always look funny because the left side of my mouth is about half a millimeter lower than the right.  Pretty slight, but the guy who made a portrait of me in art class 25 years ago noticed.  Then close your eyes and raise your arms so they're straight out, and then look to see if they're really straight out.  Then say to someone "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" or something else (maybe "I think I might be having a stroke, how do I sound to you?" might be better). You can say it to yourself first, but we have powerful ways to mask our outward failures, so getting an external opinion would be useful here, especially if you really are having a stroke.  Finally, find the second hand on a clock, or memorize the seconds from your watch, close your eyes, and count off ten seconds and check if you are about right.

That is easy enough for me, but I have more concerns.  I've noticed late at night sometimes that my ability to think is off kilter.  Maybe it would be noticing motion in my field of vision, or naming a color, or doing math, getting a joke, remembering something I just said or something I've always known, or having a reasonable emotional response to something.  I attribute these peculiarities of cognition in myself to parts of my brain going to sleep.  I think "late night humor" is a good example to which most people can relate.  I imagine the same kind of thing could happen if some of my brain tissue ceased to function because it wasn't getting enough oxygen.  So I want to do more than look in the mirror, raise my arms, talk to someone, and look at my watch.  Here's what else I'll do:
  • Find the square of some number over 12.  I have most of them up to 20 memorized, so I can also compare the explicit mental multiplication to the memory, if the memory is there.
  • Remember my mom's name.
  • Read something.
  • Stand on one foot.
  • Be curious about something.
  • Sense something with each of my five senses.
  • Fold my fingers together, right thumb on top (normal, for me) and then left thumb on top to make sure it feels weird.
  • Sense other things with each of my five senses and compare the previous thing to the new one.

That's it.  Now the question is, if I'm having a stroke, how the hell am I going to find this blog post?

Monday, October 10, 2016

School is Like a Drug

I made this claim to my youngest daughter a few years ago because I had grown concerned about the effects of government indoctrination.  According to a few different schoolteachers (Brett Veinotte, John Taylor Gatto, and Alexander Inglis), school has six main functions, which, to be blunt, are 1) Remove judgement and opinion, 2) Fashion students to be obedient, 3) Sort students into normalized groups, 4) Create a ruling class, 5) Cut off students who don't fit the desired mold, and 6) Control the students.  I can see these things happening to all students who speak openly enough about their school experience, though they may not be able to see it themselves.

It's possible that I've taken the words of these three teachers too seriously and allowed their views to pollute my thinking, but all my efforts to verify that as the case have failed abysmally.  I conclude that they are correct, and that school tends to create unthinking "yes men."  It also, at least in the case of my own children, attracts many of its victims to itself.

Seeing the damage being done and the victims maintaining a desire for its source, I gave a few minutes of thought to finding a good analogy, and heroin is what I came up with.  Something makes school feel good enough, and the damage it does is subtle enough to prevent some of its victims from rejecting it.  It is my hope and, indeed, my expectation that, just as I did, my children will also eventually think their own way out of the habits that make most people into unthinking yes men.  I can't help but feel that my own relationships with them provide them ample opportunities to judge, have opinions, obey their consciences rather than anyone else, remain the beautiful distinct creatures my wife and I created, disavow power over others as I have, embrace the marginalized, and defy those who attempt to control them.

There are some other elements of drug use which have analogs to school too.  My friend Roslyn Ross shared the insight that what makes something a drug in the psychological sense is that it allows us to "numb out."  She writes that we also use substances as spices (to enhance whatever we're enjoying) and as medicine (to help change what needs to change). 

School demands that we do homework, listen, sit still, raise our hands to pee, and other things which cause a lot of psychological pain, but it numbs us to that pain also.  Gold stars, letters near the beginning of the alphabet, aka "high marks", and certificates of achievement help to salve the damage to our intrinsic motivation.

School forces us to associate with a lot of people our own age with whom we wouldn't normally interact.  It also provides group projects, activities, and sometimes actual discussions in which we get to interact with those whom we do enjoy.  We are wired to remember and appreciate the good things in life, and the togetherness of similarly aged children provides episodes both good and bad.  School magnifies the experience of being a child, and in that sense, it provides an enhancement.

Importantly, school teaches that government is good, which is an altered perception. As we age, our trust in government falls.  Teenage rebellion is a kind of rejection of authority that is natural in cultures that value and teach authority - the coercive kind, not the expertise kind.  It is also only through school that the Rite of Passage goes backwards, pushing students away from their own consciences and back toward authorities as the guides for their lives.  This is the necessary change from the point of view of (coercive) authority, obviously.

I thank Anne Stirling Hastings for motivating me to write this post. I recommend her and her work to anyone with an appreciation and love for humankind.