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Sunday, June 18, 2006
 

We are All Xmen in Our Own Minds

If you had real wings and could fly majestically through the sky would you want a drug that would "cure" you? What if the simple touch of your hand would kill another person, would you want a drug that could cure you then? What if some people had scary powers that could cause great harm if abused, would you want them to be forcefully cured against their will?

This is the conflict at the heart of the latest Xmen movie. Similar themes are being explored in USA Network's 4400 series. And it's also an emerging issue at the heart of our ever growing understanding of how our minds work.

With new scanning technologies like fMRI, powerful genetic analysis techniques, and the patient work of scientists, we are peeling back the layers of Russian dolls standing in-between us and knowing how our minds really work.

In the past you might explain love as an instinct, but instinct is just a convenient box to put things in when you don't know how they work. Now when considering love you might talk about how the hormone oxytocin modulates pair bonding. The magic of instinct is slowly being replaced by mundane explanations of mechanism.

And knowing the mechanisms of how our minds work might end up being more disturbing than suddenly growing wings. Our minds define our essence, our identity, what makes us who we are. When you play in the mind-field of identity someone is likely to get hurt.

Most people readily accept their height as genetic. How tall we are has something to do with our parents (and the environment, of course). We can all probably live with that.

Now consider a recent study with this odd finding: our taste for meat and fish seems to be inherited, yet our taste for vegetables and dessert seems to be more nurture than nature. This is getting a little closer to home, home being our minds. I like to think my tastes are from me. Knowing my taste preferences have an inherited component bothers me a bit.

Scientists in Israel have recently pinpointed a common genetic trait that could make some of us hungrier for sex than others. Whoa! Messing with our sexuality is getting very personal indeed.

But that's nothing. Let's start getting really close to home.

Do any of these sounds like you?

  • Odd or eccentric mannerisms or appearance
  • Superstitious or preoccupied with paranormal phenomena
  • Difficult to follow speech patterns
  • Feelings of anxiety in social situations
  • Suspiciousness and paranoia
  • Odd beliefs or magical thinking
  • Appears shy, aloof, or withdrawn to others

If this does sound a bit like you, you might be schizotypal, which many believe is a mild form of schizophrenia and may have its origins in "defects" in your brain. Most of us probably recognize some of ourselves in this list.

Or does this sound like you?

  • Need for perfection and excessive discipline
  • Preoccupation with orderliness
  • Inflexibility
  • Lack of generosity
  • Hyper-focus on details and rules
  • Excessive devotion to work

If this does sound like you then you might be a touch obsessive-compulsive. Most of us probably recognize some of ourselves in this list as well. Not surprisingly, obsessive compulsive disorder is caused by a "defect" in the brain.

Or does this sound like you?

  • Experience intense emotions and sensory experiences including vibrancy of colors
  • See ghosts or UFOs
  • Have religious visions

If this sounds familiar then you might unknowingly suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy which is characterized by recurrent seizures arising from one or both temporal lobes of the brain. The symptoms can be so mild, unlike the typical epilepsy we are familiar with, you wouldn't even know you have it.

Some great artists, including Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe, and Dostoevsky, and a great many very religious people have temporal lobe epilepsy. They would probably be surprised to learn physical differences in their brain so deeply shaped their personalities.

We want to believe we are unique. We want to believe our essence is our own handy work. But we can see now that core aspects of ourselves are created by physical aspects of our brains. As science progresses we only learn more and more about how of our essences are directly mappable to biological processes.

Your mind is like a wild brain gumbo mixed together from bits of this and bits of that. Throw in one brain configuration and you'll be wildly creative. Toss in another brain configuration and you'll be orderly and a good worker. Have one brain setup and you'll like alternative philosophies and in another you'll be a fundamentalist in a main-line church.

Where are we in all this? This is where we get back to the Xmen thread. Only our powers aren't comic book fantasies, they are core pieces of our personality puzzle.

Let's ask our Xmen questions again, but with a twist. The twist is the questions now apply to our minds. If you could, would you want to be cured of however you are? Would you want someone to cure you of what they considered your brain defects? Do you want to cure other people of their brain defects?

Clearly there is a point where people need to be cured. You need help if you are a schizophrenic living on the street. If you have OCD and you feel compelled to drive back to your house every five minutes to check that your front door is locked, then you need help.

But that's the easy part of the curve, the extreme part. Most of us aren't in the extremes. Think about every aspect of yourself as a point laying on a curve. In some aspects you are at the extreme high end. On other aspects you are at the extreme low end. In most aspects you are somewhere in-between. All your aspects fuse together to create that unique marvel which is you.

Now let's think about situations where we disagree where each other lies on the curve. Keep in mind that once someone hits the extreme range we feel morally justified in forcibly curing them. The tricky part here is that our evaluation of where other people are on the curve is directly influenced by where we are on the curve. None of us sit on the objective high ground when judging others.

It's not hard to imagine liberalism or conservatism considered diseases that must be cured. It's not hard to imagine people who like rules wanting to cure people who don't like rules. It's not hard to imagine people who like artistic creativity wanting to cure those who think it is a waste of time.

Where will our need to cure others end? Where does our essence begin?

That's the world we are entering. A world where we are all Xmen.


Some interesting links:
1. http://feeds.feedburner.com/scienceblogs/cognitivedaily?m=110
2. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/15/health/15gene.html
3. http://brainethics.wordpress.com/2006/06/15/genes-brain-and-cognition-special-issue-of-cognition



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10:18:01 AM    



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