Friday, September 17, 2010

Reflections: A Mind Apart

Susanne Antonetta has been living with bipolar disorder and manic depression ever since she was a child. Despite the misconceptions and lack of adequate understanding and empathy for her condition, she has carved a life for herself as a writer and a university professor. In this book, she explores her thoughts on her life and of Life in general, offering an expansive view of her mind, of her world, of the countless voices that speak to her and try to take charge of her. As she tries to place herself in the evolutionary map of our species, she wonders if her genes, which are brushed off as abnormal, do play some role in Darwin’s theory -  that biodiversity is just part of natural selection’s way of propagating our species. Is neuro-diversity any different? When we struggle to define and comprehend consciousness, who is to say what the limits are for a human mind? Within its dense and intricate network of neurons and arbitrariness, is there even a beginning and an end to the spaces it can conquer, the thoughts it can splutter? Perhaps neuro-atypical people like her, only stretch the potentials of the human mind, and may, if given some consideration, offer new forms of creativity and intelligence to our species? Maybe genetic engineering needs to pause at this conjecture?

The human mind is one of the most complicated and elusive mysteries. It fascinates me to no end because of its compelling mysteries. It’s whimsical to me that we use our own minds to understand them. The beauty of this exercise lies in the incremental exploration of our own limits - the more deeper and farther we stretch the limits, the more entangled we become with basic existential questions. Susanne, is no different. She tries to figure out who she is, and what controls her. She swims around in her chaotic and energetic hub of thoughts and consciousness, to relate to us how her mind and thoughts are different from the average human. It’s challenging to engage in such a dissection of one’s mind, especially when you are clinically diagnosed of depression, so I commend her on her quest towards self-realization.

It’s also equally challenging for the reader, a supposed “neuro-typical” person, to keep track of her thoughts, which resonate with her mood swings, and swing from one thought to another, one context to another, in such rapid succession like a skilled trapeze artist. It’s beautiful at times, and too abstract and wrapped in her own bubble of clarity at times. I found her mind to be bubbling with so many deep questions about our consciousness and “normalcy” of our minds, and her writing felt like I was being slowly immersed in that bubbling cauldron, to see and feel the colors, the nuances, texture, and spirit of all those questions floating inside her. I really could connect with the thoughts and questions, but I emerged, mostly confused, and with little clarity. The questions are all obviously too elusive for concrete answers, but I didn’t get a sense of her views - she was never bold or firm in her opinions - everything seemed slippery to grasp. Perhaps that wasn’t her aim - all she wanted was to share her thoughts, her questions and provoke new streams of thoughts.

I loved her discussions on what consciousness is. Is it the voice that speaks to you from deep within? When did it start existing in humans? What role does language play in cognition and consciousness? If you didn’t have language and its varied representational units, how would you make sense of the world inside you? How would your consciousness help you with getting that awareness - of yourself, the world around you and the interaction between the two? Her discussions were well researched (I happily recognized all the famous scientists in the field) and were lyrically expressed, taking the weight of academia from them. I strongly believe that language plays a fundamental role in cognition. It gives the ability to express and explore thoughts, ideas, views, hypotheses and mold them into something concrete and cogent - more tangible than a mere ephemeral feeling, to give structure and details. It is that which helps us store learning blocks within our memory. By language, I mean the symbolic, logical representations we all use within our heads, and which, in their own ways “speak” to us and emerge as language. And finally, this is the reason why we benefit from conversing with our thoughts, and the reason why I ramble so much.

The one aspect that I struggled to agree with her, was her plea to not alter the minds of neuro-atypical people to the state of normalcy, through drugs. While I understand, that to her, her mind is her definition of her self, and its uniqueness (however “abnormal” to us) is private to her, I focus on what this “uniqueness” of hers is doing to her and to her loved ones. To me, its an illness no different than physical illness. She has managed to come so far in her life, only through medication, but to argue that too much medication to alter her mind completely, is unacceptable, poses these questions - what is too much medication, when it goes towards helping the person live her life? What does it mean to not alter the mind “completely”, when the mind doesn’t give her peace? She clearly sounds traumatized by her bizarre experiences, but she holds onto them in defense of her sense of self that is projected from them, and tries to assert that she is not an aberration or abnormality, and it’s society which has stringent rules to define normality.

I do agree in part that our rules and expectations on normality may be too myopic and cloistered at times, but my argument is about what such different views of normality does to them, in being happy with themselves, regardless of what society impinges on them. Why compromise on one’s happiness and hurt oneself? Why remain rooted to a mind that “seems to be on fire”, that drives one to end their life and suffer knowingly from paranoia? I understand that these are just the workings of different parts of the mind, which are not objectively “wrong regions” and that their side-effects are out-of-the-box creativity and lateral thinking, but what are the costs to retaining these side-effects? And if scientists need to retain creativity and remove the harmful and dangerous roots, doesn’t it again result in a confused alteration of their mind?

This is where I am not as convinced that genetic engineering should step back and have faith that natural selection will take care of things it has designed, with the hope of reaping beneficial fruits from such people. As Susanne mentions cynically, our world is dominated by “unnatural selection” now, thanks to medical intervention and empathy. The proliferation of such conditions is very much the act of “unnatural” selection. How then, does the knowledge that in a decade, 1 of out every 10 Americans is likely to be autistic, offer any form of complacence?

To summarize, while I definitely agreed and appreciated that we need to respect and reach out towards understanding and empathizing with neuro-atypical people with a creative and different stream of consciousness, I gear towards being practical in how I weigh the costs and risks of these conditions against some benefits, most of which are currently speculative. I agree that the human race is dooming itself by homogenizing and artificially engineering our current views of perfection on our genome, but there has to be a balance. It’s necessary to recognize what forms of diversity, and what range of diversity is essential to the race, as well as to the individual.


SecondSight said...

This sounds like a fascinating read !! It's interesting that the writer would ask that minds such as hers not be 'normalized' by medicine, I have heard similar quotes from people with other disorders such as epilepsy and schizophrenia as well. Strangely, I can empathise..There is no clear demarcation between normal and abnormal, the gradation is so gradual, that to me, it is difficult to decide at what point 'treatment' is necessary. As an example- How would you feel if you were told your bookishness and introverted nature was destroying your relationships, people's lives and dreams were being ruined by your behavior, and it was necessary to medicate you in order to make you mingle and make small talk at cocktail parties? :)

Neeraja said...

I definitely can relate with her need to maintain her self, but as I mentioned, reading her experiences gives a clear picture of how much they affect her emotionally. You wouldn't say she is happy the way her mind is taking control of her and constantly fears it. To me, that's a good enough indication for intervention. I would do too, if my reading and introversion bothered me and made me unhappy and traumatized!