Rely on Reason

It is important for us to rely upon facts as the realm of mystic and faith is vulnerable to abuse and manipulation. To support this, I draw upon Galileo’s experience and the myth of Apophis.

Galileo

In 1615, Galileo discovered that “the sun remains motionless at the center of the revolutions of the celestial globes, and that the earth both turns on its own axis and revolves around the sun.”

As the discovery contradicted commonly held views, detractors began to “spread abroad the idea that these propositions are contrary to Holy Scripture and therefore to be condemned as heretical” and they found “others who were prepared to declare from the pulpit, with uncharacteristic confidence, that they were indeed to be condemned as heretical.” […]

In addition, “They pretend not to know that its author – or rather the one who revived and confirmed it – was Nicolaus Copernicus, a man who was not just a Catholic but a priest and a canon.” […]

Hence Galileo had no choice but to make a case for himself. He remarked, “It seems to me that the starting point in disputes concerning problems in natural science should not be the authority of scriptural texts but the experience of the senses and necessary demonstrations. For while Holy Scripture and nature proceed alike from the divine word…it is agreed that Scripture, in order to be understood by the multitude, says many things which are apparently and in the literal sense of the words at variance with absolute truth. Nature, on the other hand, never transgresses the laws to which it is subject, but is inexorable and unchanging, quite indifferent to whether its hidden reasons and ways of working are accessible to human understanding or not.” […]

“So I do beg these most prudent Fathers to consider very carefully the difference between statements that are a matter of opinion and those which can be demonstrated. If they keep in mind the strength of logical deduction, they will better understand why it is not in the power of those who profess the demonstrative sciences to change their opinion at will.”

The unbending spirit of Galileo in his maintenance of scientific observation and truth, reminds us that we should too be fact finders and defend truth with reason.

Apophis

In Ancient Egypt, Apophis or Apep was the spirit of evil, darkness and destruction who threatened to destroy the sun god, Ra.  It was associated with several frightening natural events, such as the unexplained darkness of the solar eclipse, storms and earthquakes. It was depicted as a huge serpent, all-powerful and impossible to overcome.

To defeat Apep, priests of Ra would conduct an annual ritual: “Banishing Apep”. An effigy of Apep would be taken into the temple and imbued with all of the evil of the land. The effigy would then beaten, crushed smeared with mud and burned.

After learning of this myth, I felt great sympathy for Apep. It was the scapegoat for all that it could not control; its name cursed and its image crucified for natural events that were bound to happen. Hence, it is important to have knowledge. We have come a long way from the times of Gods and myths, but our human nature remains the same. We still retain some irrational fear, some imagination; yet all must be in moderation and reason shall inform most of our modern lives.

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Lovaas’ Punishment of Electric Shock

As gleaned from the book, NeuroTribes:

In the book, Science and Human Behaviour (1951), B. F. Skinner cautioned on the use of aversive. He explained that while aversive may seem to stop undesirable behaviour quickly, the behaviour often returns with a vengeance after the punishment stops, because one has not been taught more adaptive ways to behave. Also, punishment creates fear, guilt and shame, resulting in less learning overall. 

Skinner also advised against the use of aversive in research. He propounded, “In the long run, punishment, unlike reinforcement, works to the disadvantage of both the punished organism and the punishing agency.” 

O. I. Lovaas disregarded the advice when working with Beth, an autistic child. He punished her for a range of behaviour that included hand flapping, rocking, spinning and other forms of self-stimulation. Based on his own experiments, he concluded that stimming made autistic children less sensitive to sounds, which hindered learning. He also believed that extinguishing this “garbage behaviour” would reduce a major source of stigma for autistic people and their families. 

Eventually, researchers would discover that autistic people stim to reduce anxiety – and also simply because it feels good. In fact, harmless forms of self-stimulation may facilitate learning by freeing up executive-functioning resources in the brain that would otherwise be devoted to suppressing them. 

[This reinforces my previous post on the importance of skepticism towards authority.]

After Lovaas’ work with Beth, he conducted a series of experiments with a pair of five year old twin boys named Mike and Marty.

For one of his first rounds of experiments, his punishment was exceptionally loud sound. He aimed blasts of “well over 100” decibels at them – comparable to the roaring of a power saw at close range. His aim was to produce “pain or fear” so that they may learn to seek safety in adults. The results were disappointing as the twins did not respond to the punishment that could have caused physical damage to the eardrum

Hence, Lovaas turned to electric shock. He argued, “It is important to note, in view of the moral and ethical reasons which might preclude the use of electric shock, that their future was certain institutionalisation.”

He taped strips of metal foil to the floor and wired them to a modified Faraday coil. When the grad students tested the aversive barefooted, they remarked that it was “definitely painful and frightening”.

In a typical round of trials, a researcher would say “Come here,” beckoning to the boy with outstretched arms. If he didn’t approach within three seconds, he would get a shock. The same procedure was repeated over and over again, for hundreds of trials. In just a few sessions, the twins learned to jump into the researchers’ arms to avoid the painful shocks. Lovaas deemed these experiments a stunning success.

In a subsequent round of trials, instead of the electrified floor, he employed a remote-controlled device (used in canine obedience tests) affixed to the boys’ buttocks. A researcher would ask either twin to  “hug me” or “kiss me” and apply shock if the boy didn’t do so in three seconds. Lovaas noted that their behaviour “changed markedly toward increased affection.”

Next, Lovaas subjected the twins to strict behaviourist diet: no food at all, seven days a week, but the token scraps earned by performing a complex social task while pressing a bar to avoid shock. Water deprivation was also stringently enforced. 

In order to legitimise his unorthodox techniques, he invited members of the press down to the lab to watch him in action. Before his demonstration, he showed them footage of children who had attempted to chew through their own limbs or bite off their nails with their teeth. His message was clear: This is what autism looks like if it is left untreated. 

Even journalists who might normally be troubled by the use of electric shock, were persuaded by his solemn pronouncements that “No one punishes who isn’t prepared to devote a major part of his life to that child. Nobody punishes a child who doesn’t also love that child.” One reporter was so impressed that he dubbed Lovaas a visionary – a “poet with a cattle prod”. 

Life magazine brought Lovaas to international fame with a profile that ran under the headline “Screams, Slaps, and Love.” It praised his work as “a surprising, shocking treatment that helps far-gone mental cripples” and the article shaped public perceptions of autism for decades to come.

It is clear to our conscience that the above punishments amount to abuse. It is appalling that many doctors, researchers, students, journalists and parents deemed these methods as acceptable. Hence, it is important to gain more information across sources and regard loud voices – of authority, of media – with circumspect. Also, one needs to form one’s own moral and ethical judgment by reading more.

Furthermore, the use of electric shock tools is not just a question of “Is this ethical when used on a child deemed mentally handicapped?”; it is also a question of “Is this ethical at all?” The response of the child mimicked that of an animal: I would do anything to avoid pain. What makes it unacceptable in the former and acceptable in the latter? 

Time is not immutable

Time is not immutable. Our experience of time – our perception of hours and minutes – follows a largely regulated and cohesive system. Hence, we’re able to organise our lives and let late-comers pay.

There’re two instances whereby we lose sense of time.

Firstly, when one is deprived of his/her senses. In the mid-20th century, scientists carried out extensive sensory deprivation experiments which reduced what their subjects could hear, see and touch. Due to the deprivation of senses, the restless minds eventually conjured hallucinations and subjects began to lose emotional stability and suffered deterioration of mental function. 

In 1993, Maurizio Montalbini, a sociologist, spent 366 days in an underground cavern to simulate space mission. When he emerged, he thought he had only passed 219 days as his sleep-wake cycles have almost doubled. In 2008, the BBC aired “Total Isolation” which depicted the experience of six individuals under 48 hours of partial sensory deprivation. Two individuals who have been placed in complete darkness lost their sense of time in less than 24 hours. In Mind Field: Isolation, host Michael Stevens subjected himself to 72 hours of isolation in a sound-proof, fully-lit room. In less than 8 hours, after a nap, he perceived it be about 9am when it was in fact only about 5am.

The above shows how important environment is for accurate perception of time. Once our senses are warped, time moves out of alignment. 

Secondly, when one suffers from physiological damage. In Awakenings, late Dr Oliver Sacks recounted on Mr. V who seemed to be stuck in frozen “poses”. In the morning, he would observe Mr. V standing against the door, with his right hand apparently motionless a few inches from his knee. Later, in the middle of the day, his hand would be “frozen” halfway to his nose. Then, a few hours later, his hand would be “frozen” on his glasses or on his nose.

After Mr. V was awakened and accelerated by L-Dopa, Dr. Sacks mentioned the above observations and Mr V. responded:

Mr. V: “What do you mean, “frozen poses”? I was merely wiping my nose!”

Dr. Sacks: “But Miron, this just isn’t possible. Are you telling me that what I saw as frozen poses was your hand in transit to your nose?”

Mr. V: “Of course. What else would they be?”

Dr. Sacks: “But Miron, these poses were many hours apart. Do you mean to tell me that you were taking six hours to wipe your nose?”

Mr. V: “It sounds crazy and scary too. To me they were just normal movements, they took a second. You want to tell me I was taking hours instead of seconds to wipe my nose?”

The above experience shows how our perception of time can be incredibly different if our brain suffers damage from illness.

Henceforth we shall consider “time” in a wider scope, beyond Back to the Future or The Time Machine. 

A Forgotten Epidemic

Encephalitis, also known as acquired brain injury, is an inflammation of the brain. Most of the types of encephalitis are caused by viral infection. 

Between 1915 and 1926, an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica spread throughout the world, affecting five million people, a third of whom died in acute stages. Those who survived were conscious but not fully awake – sitting motionless and speechless all day, lacking motivation to do anything. 

In the spring and summer of 1969, the late Dr Oliver Sacks began to use the drug, L-Dopa at Mount Carmel – a total palliative care centre. This sparked the “awakening” of fifty individuals. They emerged from their decades-long isolation and find themselves back in the world. They all began to dance and talk together, and delighted in each other’s daily-increasing health and vitality. There was communal health, of shared excitement and hope.

However, in September, there emerged tribulations of all sorts. Some suffered treacherous side-effects of L-Dopa, such as respiratory crises, while others to their own regressive needs. In the small wards, the despondency would spread from one to another. Every setback then aroused fear in others and every discouragement a blow to the morale of the community. The atmosphere of the ward, its mood, became all important.

The condition of encephalitis lethargica is poignantly expressed in the following recounts.

“Nothing, just nothing.” Miss R would say when asked what she was thinking about.

“I think of a thought, and it’s suddenly gone – like having a picture whipped out of its frame. Or I try to picture something in my mind, but the picture dissolves as fast as I can make it. I have a particular idea, but can’t keep it in mind; and then I lose the general idea; and then the general idea of a general idea; and in two or three jumps my mind is a blank – all my thoughts gone, blanked out or erased.” – Miss R

“She seems to have no appetite for anything, really no appetite for living.” wrote the speech-pathologist, Miss Kohl.

It is a wonder how the world can forget such a moment in history – when a strange disease stole the lives of millions, and for which a cause has yet to be determined. Also, it serves the question of “Should life be sustained, when all hope seems lost? Especially since these cases have shown that recovery is possible after a frozen state of 50 odd years.”

Why research to benefit few?

After learning of rare medical conditions such as butterfly syndrome and muscular dystrophy, I asked: “Why would researchers invest time and money into solutions that would only benefit a small percentage of human race?”

To this question, my friend answered:

  • With finite resources, governments, organisations and companies will only fund what will give valuable returns.
  • There may be chance discoveries that lead to other scientific breakthroughs.

After reading the article, “Determined Parents are Moving the Needle on Gene Therapy” by Emily Mullin, there are further answers:

  • Gene therapies have become safer and better at hitting intended targets in the body, leading to a handful of remarkable cures in clinical trials. The success rate has risen.
  • Hence, advocates for rare-disease patients are increasingly establishing patient advocacy organisations, raising money for research and even founding their own biotechnology startups to find treatments.
  • Also, many rare diseases are monogenic – caused by a mutation in one gene. It is significantly easier to engineer a targeted protein to reverse the disease.

If you were a medical researcher, would you invest your entire career on a solution that would only benefit a few hundred persons in the world?

Sleep and Consciousness

Sleep occurs in regulated cycles of NREM and REM. For every 90 minutes of sleep, we drift into stages of NREM and REM: N1 -> N2 -> N3 -> N2 -> REM. During REM sleep, the body is paralysed, except for shallow breathing and eye movements. For most of us, REM stage occurs ninety minutes or so after falling asleep.

However, people with narcolepsy or sleep deprivation may fall into REM at the very start of sleep, plunging into dreaming and sleep paralysis. They may also wake at the “wrong” time, so that the dreamlike visions and the loss of muscle control persist into the waking state. At this stage, the person is wide awake but suffers from nightmare like hallucinations and be unable to move or speak. These hallucinations may be visceral, auditory or tactile as well as visual and are accompanied by a feeling of suffocation or pressure on the chest, the sense of a malignant presence, and an overall sense of absolute helplessness and abject terror.

Yet one need not have to have narcolepsy to experience sleep paralysis with hallucinations. Research has shown that about a third and half of the general population has had at least occasional episodes of this. In fact, folklore across cultures share a common experience: supernatural figures that assault the sleeper, some paralysing the victim and even sucking away his soul. While these frightful experiences have led many to believe in supernatural forces, there is in fact a physiological basis for this occurrence. Where our minds fail to comprehend, we can always look to science.

For me, I have had an experience of awakened consciousness in sleep, accompanied with bodily movements. On 25 August 2013, I woke mid-sleep at what may have been 3am. I found myself scratching my legs and told myself to stop. Yet, I knew I could not will myself to do so. I even mused to myself, as if one half of my brain was talking to the other, as I observed my bodily movements. I heard sounds as I made them. Then, I got off the bed and made my way to the washroom. As I sat on the toilet seat, I heard myself hum a tune. I found it funny that I was humming, and yet I knew I could not will myself to stop. I do not know if I saw myself in the mirror, or how I made my way back to bed. Yet, all these observations were remembered clearly when I woke fully the next day. It impressed upon me that we know so little about our consciousness, about our minds. It was an unforgettable experience. I never had the same experience since then.

Nevertheless, there were several times I woke to realise that I had sent a message mid-sleep, with absolutely no recollection of having unlocked the phone, and sending one. It would seem right to say that I had sent a message unconsciously, but that offends logic. It would then seem appropriate to say that I sent it subconsciously, while asleep.

Sleep, dreams, our consciousness and our minds continually interest me over the years and this curiosity will never be satiated.

For more information on narcolepsy (and cataplexy), hallucinations and sleep paralysis, do read Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks.

 

Oliver Sacks was a Druggy

As gleaned from Hallucinations:

His first drug experience was in 1953 when his childhood friend, Eric Korn went up to Oxford to visit him. They each took 25 micrograms of LSD and felt nothing, for the dosage was too small.

Starting a neurology residency in 1962, he became increasingly curious about the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

He began with cannabis. He took two puffs of a friend’s joint and saw that his hand was getting larger and larger and moving away from him. He could see a hand stretched across the universe, light-years or parsecs in length. It looked like a human hand yet it seemed like the hand of God. His first pot experience was a mix of the neurological and the divine.

Then, he began to sample LSD and morning glory seeds as they were readily available. Once, a friend told him to try Artane for a “really far-out experience’, asserting that one will still be in partial control with a dose of twenty pills. So one Sunday morning, Oliver took twenty pills. He expected disorganisation and paranoia but besides a dry mouth, large pupils and finding it difficult to read, he felt nothing. Then, he heard a knocking on his door and found his friends Jim and Kathy dropping by for breakfast. He made them ham and eggs, walked to the living room and found it completely empty. He had not thought that Jim and Kathy’s “presences” were unreal. He was shocked and frightened, as this did not happen with LSD and other drugs. He said to himself “Take yourself in hand. Don’t let this happen again.” Then, he heard the sound of a chopper and thought his parents had flown from London to give him a surprise visit. As he rushed out to greet them, he found that it was empty. The silence and emptiness, the disappointment, reduced him to tears. He then went back into the house and a spider on the kitchen wall caught his attention. It began to speak to him and they had a conversation on analytic philosophy.

As he was working as a resident at UCLA’s neurology department, he avoided drugs during the week and often experimented with them during the weekends.

One Saturday in 1964, he developed a concoction of amphetamine, LSD and cannabis. After about twenty minutes, he saw the colour of indigo. He was overwhelmed as he thought it a colour of heaven, of which Giotto had spent a lifetime trying to get but never achieved. He thought it was the colour of the Palaeozoic sea, the colour the ocean used to be. Suddenly, the colour disappeared and he was left with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness.

One day, he took a hefty dose of Heavenly Blue morning glory seeds with vanilla ice cream. After about twenty minutes, he found himself in a realm of paradisiacal stillness and beauty. At this time, he saw an a taxi backing up the steep trail to his house. An elderly woman got out of the taxi and he ran towards her shouting “I know who you are – you are a replica of Augusta Bonnard… You look like her but you are not her. I am not deceived for a moment.”  Augusta then got back into the taxi and took off. The next time Augusta met Oliver, she asserted that his failure to recognise her was psychotic. Also, his habit of taking mind-altering drugs every weekend, alone and in high doses, testified to some intense inner needs or conflicts.

In the summer of 1965, he had three months of break. In this idle time, Oliver descended deeper into drug taking, no longer confining it to weekends. He tried intravenous injection of several vials of morphine. Then, he hallucinated hundreds, thousands of men – two armies, two nations – preparing to battle. He did not realise he was merely staring at a spot on the sleeve of his dressing gown and laying in bed. He felt that the drug effect was fading fast, yet when he woke, it was ten, the next day. He had been gazing, motionless, for more than twelve hours. This shocked and sobered him, and it became his first and last opium experience.

In the December of 1965, he was having a difficult time. He was depressed and insomniac, and was taking ever-increasing amounts of chloral hydrate to get to sleep. It was up to fifteen times the usual dose every night. One Tuesday, a little before Christmas, he ran out supply. He went to bed without the usual knockout dose and had poor sleep. The next day, after a brain-cutting session in the hospital, he went across the road to get lunch, as usual. Suddenly, the coffee turned green then purple. He looked up and saw a customer with a huge proboscidean head. Realising that he was hallucinating, he quickly made his way home (suffering frightening hallucinations along the way). Thinking that he had lost his mind, he phoned his friend, Carol and told her “I want to say goodbye. I’ve gone mad, psychotic, insane.” Luckily, Carol knew that he was just suffering from DT – delirium tremens as he had just stopped taking chloral hydrate (in huge doses). For the next ninety-six hours, he continued hallucinating and when it finally stopped, he fell into exhausted stupor.

In February 1967, he had amphetamine and started reading Edward Liveing’s book on migraine. In ten hours, he read steadily through the five hundred pages. At times, he was unsure if he was reading or writing the book. He was moved by Liveing’s humanity and social sensitivity, the mix of science and humanism, and heard a very loud internal voice telling him to be the Living of his time. The next day, he began to write his own book. The joy he got from writing was real – infinitely more substantial than the vapid mania of amphetamines- and he never took amphetamines again.