Showing posts with label brain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label brain. Show all posts

11 March 2018

The making of a psychopath - A vignette

by Mary Fernando

If Leigh Lundin suggests an article topic, it is always one that is both intriguing and complicated. His ideas keep me up at night. They get under my skin.

When Leigh asked me what creates a psychopath, I knew that was a question worth tackling. It is too big a question to answer fully. I would, however, like to present a small vignette, a window into this issue: please let me introduce Phineas Gage and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPC.

In 1848, a railway foreman named Phineas Gage, had a horrific accident. An explosion shot a metal rod shot through his head. If you look at the diagram of how the rod entered his brain, the fact he survived was remarkable. At first it appeared that Phineas survived the accident with his physical and mental abilities intact. However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that his personality changed. He went from being a well-liked, balanced man who was socially adept, to being socially inappropriate and uncaring.

Phineas and metal rod
Phineas and metal rod
What is interesting for the purposes of our question, is that Phineas developed an ‘acquired sociopathy’, or ‘pseudo-psychopathy’. Since then, we have noted that lesions to this part of the brain have left other people with similar impairments, with otherwise normal intellectual function. They have an absence of empathy. They lack interest in the well-being of others.

Every area of the brain is a true team player. No area functions independently, each receiving inputs from many areas and sending outputs to many areas. So, to just talk about one area is a little odd but for the purposes of this essay, I will treat the VMPFC as a sole player. It deserves a spotlight and to take centre stage.

We know that damage to this area causes a defect in empathy. However, few psychopaths have injuries to their brain like Phineas. There may be a genetic component to the development of psychopaths, but here I would like to concentrate on the development of this area.

The VMPC does not come fully developed at birth. It grows and develops, most rapidly before one year of age, and continuing during early childhood.

The VMPC changes in response to the relationships the baby has which can either enhance or diminish its growth.

Enhancing the VMPC growth comes from being loved, with hugs, holding and – most importantly – a responsive adult who says, hey, you are hungry, scared, alone, in pain, let me help. I will hold you, feed you, take care of you. That interaction is the opposite of neglect. It is love in action. And love for a baby is always love in action. From this, the baby gets the social information to form connections later on, and the happiness bathes the VMPC with growth enhancing substances released by the brain.

If an infant is neglected, the VMPC does not grow as successfully, in part, because of the lack of social information and growth enhancing substances. The rest of the story is that the stress of being unattended bathes the baby’s brain in the stress hormone - cortisol - that has a corrosive impact on brain development. This is not an all-or-nothing situation. However, true neglect, like that found in infants raised in orphanages with no interaction, results in true deficits. In some severely neglected infants, we find a functional hole in not just the VMPC, but in the area around it called the orbitofrontal cortex.

Abuse is another way that the VMPC gets damaged. The VMPC of a frightened infant will be bathed in corrosive cortisol and that does not bode well for future empathy.

Now that I have introduced a few of the players in the crafting of a psychopath, I would like to emphasize another one: nuance. Many neglected and abused people do not turn into psychopaths. There is something in the severity of the early experiences and also, likely, a genetic predisposition.

A final thought. For mystery writers, the issue is often about murder and, quite frankly, most murders are not committed by psychopaths. The vast number of murders are committed by people who forget to look into someone’s eyes and see another person. This can be momentary or it can be part of a general lack of empathy. So, nuance means that people who are neglected and/or abused may have a deficit of empathy that allows them to commit murder.

If Phineas and the VMPC have another lesson to teach us, I believe it is that we need to treat our infants well. We all make mistakes as parents but if, on balance, we love them, hold them and don't let them live in fear, we are likely to grow that part of the brain that allows them the most human gift of all: empathy.

25 January 2016

The Boss

by Jan Grape

An old joke is something I shall utilize here. I can't credit anyone because I don't  know who wrote it first and besides my version here is my own creative invention.

The joke sorta goes this way. The parts of the body were arguing one day about who should the BOSS. The eyes said, we should be boss because we're the one who sees everything and can guide the body into or out of danger. The ears said, No, we should be boss because we hear everything that is necessary for the body to keep out of danger. The mouth said, y'all don't  have the control that I do. I'm who should be boss. The body gets nourishment from to keep the body strong and hydrated. The brain said, just wait darn minute. I should be boss. I'm who really controls all of you. The eyes, ears, mouth...none of you could function without me controlling each of you. Why I keep the heart beating regularly. The nerves leading from me to all parts of the body would not be able to do anything...the body can't  breathe without my telling the lungs to take in air. The body couldn't  move without my say so.

All well and good and true. However, I discovered that a knee can be the boss of my body, quickly.
I fell on 14th of December. My feet and knees folded up under me. My right hand was skinned and rt. foot was hurting. My knees seemed fine then but stiffened up a short time later. The left knee was the cranky one for a day or three.

Since I had an appointment with my primary care physician a few days later I mentioned the left knee.  It wasn't hurting, just had a twinge or two, but my doctor ordered a round of physical therapy. During the next few weeks my left knee locked and would protest by handing me severe pain. These locked episodes which happened 3 or 4 times only lasted three to five minutes and as soon as the knee unlocked everything was back to normal.  I continued with the physical therapy and exercises at home and felt my knee was stronger and well on the road to full recovery.

Until my left knee showed me who was the real boss of my body.  I had driven to Ft. Worth to attend to my only granddaughter's wedding. I was staying with my nephew and his family along with my sister and bro-in-law who also drove up from Austin. We had finished lunch and I said that I wanted to go to the mall and get my hair styled. I started to get up and the left KNEE said "Nope. not going to let you do that."

I wasn't too upset because the knee had locked before and lasted only a few minutes. I sat there and rubbed my knee trying to get it to cooperate. Not this time. I couldn't stand or straighten my knee. I couldn't put any weight on it. After a conversation with my daughter who had flown in from Nashville and was staying with other family members, she suggested I might  need to rent a wheel chair as I did not want to miss the wedding. I asked her to let my son and his wife know who are the parents of the bride that I couldn't attend the rehearsal dinner.

Of course, this happened on a Saturday and all the wheelchair rental places close at noon and it was now 4:30. We tried everything, even calling friends who might know someone who could rent a chair. Finally, the only solution was to purchase a wheelchair… found one at Walgreen's.

My nephew's wife is a doctor and when she came in that evening she took a look at my knee and said she thought a muscle relaxer could help and she would call in a prescription. Again this is a Saturday and most pharmacies close early. We finally found a twenty-four hour drugstore in the downtown area.

The heating pad and muscle relaxers and my pain pills helped and the knee felt much better the morning of the wedding day. Jackie's wedding was scheduled for 3:30 in he afternoon. My grandson who was supposed to escort the grandmothers down the aisle, had to push me down the aisle. BUT I was at the wedding. During the reception and dinner and dancing I was there but couldn't move around because this wheelchair didn't have big wheels that I could push.  I had to depend on others to push me. But family and friends came over to my table to talk to me, including my beautiful granddaughter and her new husband.

Jackie D Lee
My granddaughter, Jackie D. Lee

 The next morning the knee was much better but it still would lock and unlock for no reason. My youngest son drove me and my car and my wheelchair back to my house in the hill country.  My knee is still the undisputed boss of my body, it still does the lock and unlock bit. It is slowly better. And I am going to see an orthopedic doctor on Wednesday. Hope he can find out what is going on and if he can take that bossy power away from the left knee and let me get back to bossing my own self.
Hope all of you are healthy, dry and warm. This Lizzard (blizzard) of 2016 has shaped up to be rather wicked.

Jackie and A.J. Vaughn
Jackie and A.J. Vaughn

 See you next time.

26 February 2012

Meditation On Imagination and Logic

by Louis Willis

I’m not sure what adjective describes what I’m doing in this post. Brainstorming? No, it takes more than one person to do that. Speculating? No, wrong connotation; meditating is probably the word for what I’m doing. I got the idea of calling this post a meditation from an essay “A Few Thoughts on the Meditative Essay” by Robert Vivian in which he says the essay is more pondering and contemplation than opinions and ideas (I paraphrase).

After reading Dixon’s post on Print Zombies, and thinking about the post on whether to outline or not to outline, I couldn’t stop my left brain from thinking theoretically, which it does occasionally without any prompting from me. I sometimes read as much theory as I can stand without getting a headache, thinking it will help me understand and enjoy fiction on deeper level. You know what I’m talking about, all that headache-inducing stuff called deconstruction, postmodernism, reader-response, aestheticism, ethical criticism, and a whole lot of other theories of literature and criticism. All that theory stuff does is interfere with my enjoyment of a good story.
Nevertheless, the theorist in me had to get out, so the left brain just kicked the right brain to the side and took over, and the result is this article. It is not about theory of storytelling but a meditation on the imagination and logic in the creative process, that is, their relationship to each other and function in the art of storytelling (okay, it is a meditation on the theory of imagination and logic). 

When you start a story, do you use logic and say I’ll write about so and so. Maybe, but at some point, your imagination takes over, whether you want it to or not, and your muse offers her help in letting your imagination roam where it may. The subconscious probably takes over at some point in the creative process before logic steps in. Thus, you have already told the story in your imagination but not in a coherent order—an outline puts it in order. If you don’t put the outline on paper, logic demands you think outline: how does this character function, what is the need for this scene; how can I make this character come alive? Logic edits and in some cases sanitizes what goes  in and what’s left out of a story. Whether to outline or not outline doesn’t matter because imagination and logic are at work no matter what, and if properly used can prevent those Print Zombies from remaining so dry.

Anxiety, the feeling that you might miss an editor-imposed or self-imposed deadline, or that for some reason, the story isn’t right, or maybe imagination has gone hog wild (a cliché and I don’t even know what it means), you stop and think, and logic sees an opening and rushes (well maybe not so quickly) in to provide answers.

As for the Print Zombies, what is missing is a lack of imagination and too much logic. And maybe a little laziness is present.