Monday, November 9, 2009

Brain Wiring and Self Determination

The more you write with thoughtful comments and questions, the more it seems to me that it’s not self-determination that is the central issue with which I’m grappling in brain surgery strangeness. Maybe the central issue is more one of morality. That may sound odd, so try coasting along for a bit.

It makes perfect sense that a physical assault, say surgery, on my brain would have consequences, and the thought of that doesn’t trouble me. That my right arm stopped working after surgery seemed completely logical. Ditto the problems typing gibberish before the tumor was detected, the balance problems and falling down, etc. What I’m now struggling with is accepting that the state of my brain, clearly in some kind of flux, should have such profound yet subtle effects on who I am, and more particularly, what I’m interested in and enjoy. It seems to me to carry the nature-versus-nurture thing a little too far for comfort.

I get that this isn’t a rational perspective; it’s just how I feel. Which might be completely an artifact of my brain chemistry. That’s the rub.

On the nature versus nurture debate, I’ve always believed that any expert who comes down entirely on the side of nurture is likely to be a man who’s never spent any time around an infant. I still believe that, as so much of who we are, our personality and outlook appear to be hardwired, original equipment. My theory of parenting, as an extension of these beliefs, thus has always been that you can help shape whatever nature provides, that it’s clearly possible to stunt and warp it, but fundamental change isn’t in the cards. Thus, with the sunny and cheerful babies that came into our home, we could guide them to use more and less constructive ways to pursue their paths, and we could have (god forbid) done damage to their fundamental inclinations, but the likelihood is that the basic good cheer would still be there, underneath. In passing, this is how I explain to myself why I’m positive and resilient: it’s wired in my brain/nature. It took decades for me to understand the extent to which I prefer to be happy, as the traumatic events of my adolescence had me convinced for a long time that I was a depressive type. I’m not. These world views are consistent with the changes that messing with my brain have brought… but it’s easier to accept that something “came that way” than that it can change more than a year after surgery with no physical intervention. (I know, I know, the steroids are physical interventions, it just doesn’t feel that way. See the foundation rule that I get to think anything I want, it's my actions on which I judge myself. It's been a mainstay, particularly in these last difficult years at the university.)

Here’s how I’m thinking about it now. We all have strengths that are related to how our brains are wired, plus our interests (also probably at least in part related to how our brains are wired, plus exposure to people and experiences), plus how much we work at those issues.

In my case, the changes I’ve seen that are the most unsettling are things that I’d come to think about as “me” because of how I’ve shaped myself, and that events have revealed are much more likely to be simply results of the rolls of the dice of my genetic heritage and brain wiring. Thus, having been a reader all my life was a confluence of how my brain was wired to begin with, plus early exposure to people who loved books and plenty of books around me. Of course, those people themselves had similar combinations of nature and nurture leading them to create the environment I grew up in. While nature provided the basic abilities and interests, nurture built upon them, supported and extended them.

This brings me right back to how unsettling it is that my interest in, enjoyment of and ability to read for pleasure has become intermittent since surgery. I’ve tried several times this week to finish the book I started on our trip and picked up another I’d ordered when “enjoyment of reading” was turned on that week. The pleasure I’ve always found in that activity simply isn’t there. At least for now.

So how is this all a question of morality?

If our strengths come as original equipment (buttressed or kicked around by serendipity), then it means that we should be aware of that, humbled by it, and avoid blaming others for their own wiring, etc. This brings up the question of accountability for our actions. It cannot mean giving people a free pass for bad conduct and bad choices. It does mean avoiding self-congratulation for things over which we have little control and devoting energies to setting the boundaries for accountability thoughtfully: what does a society have the right to ask of its members in order for the community to function? The moral piece is fundamentally the humbleness, I think. Just as it’s hard to appreciate all the privileges with which we’ve grown up, it’s hard to appreciate the strengths of our basic brain functions if we’ve always had them. So the arrogance of smart people in so many settings--which of course we attribute to our own hard work and virtue--is something that we need to get over.

There’s not much original in any of these thoughts. Still, I struggle with them. Experiencing different “me”s as a result of this adventure this way is strange and it looks like I will be wrestling with them for some time to come, as a settled way of thinking about them is hard to come by.

I noted elsewhere that my favorite comment of the week in one of the student papers I graded was "All in all this week was another great application of the readings; sometimes I am pretty sure you do this on purpose." Ya think? On that note, I sally forth to teach school today.

No comments:

Post a Comment