Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A New World Of Sensation

Imagine: you wake up one morning and you can see everything. Different shades of color pop into existence. You suddenly see all the different reds in your favorite carpet. The green stalk of your lilies becomes sharply distinct from the green underbelly of its leaves. Your mocha-colored coffee table becomes…well, a more defined mocha color. Your sense of smell comes alive too. You can now tell everyone apart by the way their smell feels; your best friend’s delicate rogue rose perfume becomes her calling card, signaling her arrival and lingering long after she’s gone. You no longer even need a map to navigate. Since the bakery a mile away smells like it’s below your apartment, all you have to do is follow your nose.   

Now, imagine that one day your senses go back to normal. The world’s colors become a dry palate and its smells no more interesting than a day-old candy wrapper. Imagine the loss you would feel. The nostalgia. This is what sometimes happens to people with an overactive rhinencephalon (our ancient ‘small brain’ that controls emotional tone and sensations.) It becomes extraordinarily active for a day or week at a time, then, it goes back to normal. We're not quite sure what causes it or why this part of the brain isn't hyperactive all the time. (Wouldn't it be beneficial?) But, we do know this phenomena real to those who have experienced it.   

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Whole; Yet Not

Humans are more than just the sum of our parts. If you opened us up and peered inside, you would see millions of neurons firing, thousands of muscle cells flexing in tandem, and tireless legions of white blood cells battling pathogens. But, if you just look at us; if you stop and study the faces of your parents, your friends, your lover…we become so much more.  
            Sometimes, though, we can become much less. When you take away or mutate small parts of the brain, the results can be devastating. A good example of this is Rebecca, a shy girl with a partial cleft palate, thick glasses, and stubby dwarf-like fingers. Because of her mental condition, she does poorly on standardized tests, and her body is extremely uncoordinated…except when she dances. When she dances, her jerky movements vanish; her body flows with rhythm, and you would have no way of knowing there was anything wrong with her. The same is true when she’s listening to a story, contemplating nature, or acting on-stage. Her mind connects when she’s doing these things. Connects in a way we can’t measure on any test.
After living in my mind for almost twenty years – and from paying attention in my Neuroscience class – I’ve come to see the human mind – our mind – as split up into two basic ways of thinking. I call them Deep Thinker and Socialite; my book calls them Paradigmatic and Narrative.
Deep Thinker is what most of us would consider our analytical mind. It’s the mind that’s analyzing these words right now, and trying to make cents of them. (Hopefully, it’s the type of mind that’s awake enough to recognize what I did in the last sentence.) This is the mind we can test. It’s the mind we at Macalester have been strengthening for almost fifteen years, and it has become quite developed.
The other mind is much more subtle. For me, it’s not even a mind I’m consciously aware of. (Ninety-five percent of everything I do in a social setting feels almost instinctual for me. Very rarely do I ever consciously ‘think’ about what I’m going to say. –Haha, I know. –) This is the creative mind. The mind that becomes enthralled by stories or poems. The mind that can sit motionless for an hour listening to an orchestra preform Beethoven or spend the entire day talking with one of your best friends. It’s a dynamic mind; an emotional one; the one that bonds with people. It’s the mind I’m using to write these words right now.
This is Rebecca’s intact mind. Her cleft palate makes it difficult for her to articulate, but her body language and actions make it clear that she has a profound sense of her own story. Of her own place in the world.
Can any of us say the same?