MADMAN - John R. Suler, Ph.D. - copyright 1995

Chapter 11 - Gravity


When I reached Dr. Karmel's office, everyone was already there - the three psychology interns from other hospitals in the area, two graduate students - and Karmel Himself, propped up in his throne behind the huge oak desk, sucking on his pipe, staring at the wall as if no one else was in the room. A member of the local clinical psychology consortium, he conducted the seminar on neuropsychology. The other interns nodded silently at me, and in the way they looked at me, out of the corner of their eyes, it was as if they were sharing a warning, "Oh no! Here we go again!"

I settled in, took out my pen and notebook, and waited. Karmel picked a match out of the ivory box on his desk, struck it with a majestic sweep of his hand, and held the flame to the bowl of his pipe as he tilted back his oversized, hoary head. He wrapped his big lips around the stem and sucked on it rhythmically, like a fish, making a loud smacking noise, until the embers glowed bright red and smoke billowed out of his mouth. His wide nostrils flared with each suck. A dense white cloud gradually formed around his head, hanging almost motionless in the still air, glowing as light from the window streaked through it. Tiny dust particles floated in and out of the streams of light, drifting aimlessly, gently swirling around each other, weaving subtle, complex patterns that condensed around Karmel's head, like a cloud of electrons enveloping a nucleus.

From the center of the cloud Karmel's voice sounded, "Today let's begin with the anatomy of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus lies at the base of the brain, and can be divided into three zones along the lateral-medial axis. The first is the periventricular region, which surrounds the third ventricle. The second zone, which is the medial region, contains most of the hypothalamic nuclei, including the supraoptic and paraventricular nuclei, the ventromedial nucleus, and the dorsal medial nucleus. The third and last zone is the lateral region, through which pass the fibers of the medial forebrain bundle..."

I listened to Karmel's verbiage for about a minute, then started to write. He would think I was taking notes, and that would surely feed his ego. But little did he know that I was actually writing in my journal:


***

To be or not to be. That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of neuroanatomy with His Majesty Karmel, or to take arms against a narcissistic personality, and by opposing, end him. Help me. Help me, please. It's only 2:10 - still another 50 minutes to go. This seminar is slowly driving me mad. Free association will save me. It's good for the soul. Very purifying. Free association. Here we go. Free. Tweedle-dee, tweedle-dum. The hypothalamic preoptic tract sucks swamp water. Why do we have to learn this crap? Will memorizing neural road maps make me a better psychotherapist? Boredom hangs thick in the air, over here, over there, mixed with Karmel's hot air. Where oh where have my neural impulses gone, where oh where can they be - they go up, they go down, the smoke goes in, the smoke goes out. His hairy nostrils keep the beat. Stream of consciousness, flowing, very clean, purging. My fellow student yawns. His eyes are watery. The yawns go in, the yawns go out. I think because I am. I think because I am biochemical. Molecular leggos colliding, fusing, splitting. Oh, God, my watch still says 2:10!! It's time for a nice long sentence, a complex sentence, with at least two or three commas, maybe even a semicolon added for spice; after all, short sentences lined up one after the other can be rather dull, although long ones inevitably say very little, or at least communicate very little, because both the reader and the writer will, most assuredly, forget where they started by the time they get to the end, no? Complex sentences require more neurons, preferably ones separated by semicolons. Isn't that true, oh Fishlips? Can you read my neurons? His words go on and on, like a bad dream. Does he really believe we're interested in this stuff? He doesn't even care. He just wants warm bodies in front of him, a psuedo-audience, an excuse to pontificate, to hear his own voice speaking his treasured knowledge. Holy shit! My watch reads 2:09! Impossible! Are even my eyes deceiving me!


I couldn't take it anymore. I raised my hand.

"Yes?" Karmel boomed.

I cleared my throat. "I have a question about neurons."

"What is it?" He seemed slightly irritated by having to deviate from the portrait of the hypothalamus that he was so masterfully painting.

"Is the action potential, the electrical charge that travels down the axon of a neuron, in any way similar to electric current that passes through wires in a circuit?"

"The action potential is an electrochemical impulse, whereas the current in wires is purely electrical - though there are some similarities."

"Well, I guess what I was wondering about is this - we know when current passes through a wire it creates an electromagnetic field around that wire. Is it true, then, that when a neuron fires, an electromagnetic field appears around the axon?"

"Yes, in fact some research has actually measured the strength of these magnetic fields." He seemed pleased with his answer.

I twirled my pen between my fingers. "That's interesting, because the magnetic field around a wire alters or creates current in a wire lying near it. Does that mean that any single neuron can influence the action potential of other nearby neurons not just through the synapse, but also through the changes in its magnetic field - and doesn't that add a level of complexity to how the brain functions that far surpasses our current knowledge, especially since our theories primarily emphasize synaptic transmission?"

Karmel's pipe dropped from a stout, upright angle to a limp, downward slant. He pulled it out of his mouth and leaned across his desk towards me, squinting slightly, as if trying to bring me into sharper focus. "I suppose the magnetic fields around axons might influence the activity of other axons, but the communication of information in the brain is primarily through the synapses.... Now, as I was saying, the hypothalamic nuclei are intricately interconnected and receive information from motor systems and from olfactory, gustatory, visual, and somatosensory systems..."

Neuropsychology. A brand of reductionism endorsed by many psychologists. Where is "mind" or "self" inside that glob of muscle, bone, fat, and neural tissue we call the body? Where is the soul, if it even exists? I thought of Jon and smiled. He was right. Sir Eccles, a Nobel prize laureate, in fact did believe the soul could be located in a specific area of the cerebral cortex. Three centuries earlier, Descartes had stated that humans are an "animal machine" in which the soul is linked to the physical body through the brain's pineal gland. He planted the seed for later physiological reductionists, but he had to be careful to add in the stuff about the soul. If he didn't, his religious peers surely would have burned him at the stake. Sir Eccles had the opposite problem. When he claimed he had located the soul in the mechanistic machine, his biological colleagues thought he was crazy. What goes around comes around. Nowadays, the concept of soul is publicly attacked or laughed at by most of the scientific community. Sometimes even scientists are not very scientific: They're afraid to be open-minded. But in private gatherings of avant garde physicists, mathematicians, and computer wizards, such ideas as soul and mind are being discussed in hushed voices.

A black sheep among white lab coats. That's me too. But who was I trying to kid? There's more to my dissatisfaction with science than being intellectually disillusioned. I was basically oppositional, quietly defiant of authority, driven by a need to be different. I hated to be told what to do, especially by my superiors. But then again, as much as I cherished the idea of being a renegade, of standing on my own, of being the marginal man who achieves success - I was also scared to death of it. A bit of a paradox, isn't it? Paradoxes always point the way to something important in human nature.

"The hypothalamus sends fibers to the thalamus, cortex, and motor systems. The most visible tracts are the medial forebrain bundle, which connects the hypothalamus with midbrain structures, the fornix, which interconnects the hippocampus, septum, and hypothalamus, and an efferent system that divides into the mammillothalamic and mammillotegmental tracts."

There was a knock at the door.

"Come in." Karmel said loudly.

An older woman with graying hair and bifocals stuck her head into the room. She was one of the secretaries. At first glance, her aging face looked tough, hardened by many years of enduring this profession. Her eyes seemed tired, defeated. She spoke with flat affect, "Dr.Karmel, Dr. Bodkin is here to see you."

"Oh, yes, please excuse me," Karmel said, rising from his chair. As soon as he stepped out of the room, we fell into a huddle. Though we didn't know each other very well, we felt a common bond as psychology interns. The two graduate students from the local university, who were permitted to attend the seminars, listened intently, but did not interrupt. The counterpart to medical students among residents, they knew the value of deferring to us psychology interns.

"Can you believe it?"

"I wish I had the guts to walk out."

"Why doesn't he just teach us about the psychiatric symptoms resulting from brain damage, rather than spend so much time on this stuff?"

"Yeah, that would be a lot more useful."

"Maybe we should tell the consortium directors."

"What could they do? Tell Karmel what to teach in this course? Tell him NOT to teach this course? We don't even know if they'd listen to us."

"Yeah, in fact they're not even too happy with us lately."

"What do you mean?"

"I heard that they think that we're not cohesive enough. The interns last year were good friends. They went to dinner, visited each other, socialized a lot. The consortium wants us to be like that."

"Oh, that's bullshit!" I said. "First of all, it's none of their business whether we socialize or not. And besides, we ARE cohesive. We've gone to lunch together, and last month we were the ones that organized the party for the consortium. You know what the problem is, don't you? THEY are the ones who are not cohesive. It's taken them years to get this consortium going, and all along the way they've been bad-mouthing and back-biting each other. They still haven't resolved the conflicts, so they project them onto us."

"Yeah, I agree. I think we are cohesive. In fact, I brought my camera in to take a picture of us, for the new consortium newsletter."

"Wait," I said. "Take a picture of this."

I jumped into Karmel's seat, put my feet up on his desk, and poised his pipe at my mouth as I struck a contemplative expression - my version of the Thinker. "Put this in the newsletter!"

Everyone laughed.

Just seconds after the flash popped, the door opened and Karmel walked in. I quickly dropped my feet to the floor. Terror ripped through my whole being. Karmel stopped short, looked at me, at the pipe in my hand, then back at me, his face completely emotionless. Instantly I felt myself regress dozens of years, to that naughty boy who got caught, who must justify himself before the authority, before omnipotent Father - but too psychologically unsophisticated, and feeling too ashamed, to be able to pull it off. Out of the pits of desperation, I grasped at a feeble plan of action.

"It's... it's a beautiful pipe. My grandfather had one like it."

"Is that so?" Karmel said as he stood before his desk, waiting for me to abdicate his throne. I slunk out of his chair and returned to my seat, along the way noticing that the interns were biting their lips, trying not to laugh. Karmel resumed his position behind the desk, briefly examined his pipe, and then, convinced that it was unharmed, struck a match to light up with a self-satisfied smacking of his lips. He began to speak, with each word a small puff of smoke issuing from his mouth, "As I was saying, the hypothalamus contains what is referred to as the 'satiety center' which is located in the ventromedial section..."

I tried not to look at him, or at anyone. A bad boy. A very bad boy. What shame for someone who was usually a very good boy, who always behaved, who always got good grades. I was trapped in the conflict between obeying and defying authority.

I remembered an argument my father and I once had at the dinner table. I was 15, filled with new ideas about physics from my science class, rather boastfully describing the law of gravitation, how an object falling to earth would continue to accelerate as it approached the ground. My father, twirling spaghetti on his fork, disagreed. He insisted that the falling object must at some point reach a constant speed, that it could not fall faster and faster forever. My father, a high school dropout, knew car mechanics but was a stranger to Newton's laws. I persistently defended my idea, he insisted I was wrong. Finally, frustrated with his authoritarian stubbornness, but too weak in the knees to fully challenge his inept argument, I asked to be excused from the table.

Sitting on the front steps of the house with my friend Kevin, I described the whole dinner table debate, complained about how stupid my father was. Suddenly, I sensed there was someone standing behind me, inside the screen door, listening. I panicked, but when I turned to look, no one was there.

Later that night, as I was flipping through T.V. channels, looking for a Star Trek rerun, I noticed that one of the encyclopedia volumes on the bookshelf protruded from the evenly aligned set. It was "G." I pulled it out, found the section on gravitation, and scanned through it. My eyes were drawn to paragraph three quarters of the way down, where a small greasy fingerprint smudge appeared in the margin. "...The theory predicts that a falling object will continue to accelerate as it approaches the center of the earth's mass. However, due to the resistance created by air friction, the velocity reaches a maximum limit known as terminal velocity."

My father was right. But he never again said anything about that argument.

I often think about that fingerprint in the encyclopedia - and when I do, I feel sad.

to chapter 12



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