Monday, 19 December 2005

Remembering to Forget; or, Take a Pill, Lose a Memory, Gain Bliss Psychoanalysis irks because it insists on the independence mind from brain but not from the rest of the body. Hunger? Important. Pain? Important. Humping? Important. The consolidation of short term memory and reconsolidation of long term memories by synapse-strengthening proteins? Not so much. Following Freud, psychoanalysis amounts to folk wisdom about the mind's bodily perceptions. Declarations about protean Desire and its pernicious and/or salutary influence on the mind abound. When I read a psychoanalytically-inflected argument I constantly ask myself "What?" I know what the words mean but they lack reference. "Desire"? What is "Desire"? I sense endless elaborations of an invisible entity and unfalsifiable logic and think about Gertrude Stein. No there there indeed. When I think about the possibility that psychoanalysis may be dangerous blood rushes to my face and I spit in indignation. I will "for example" that statement in a moment. First I present the shortest primer about how the brain stores memories ever written: an electric pulse causes an axon to release neurotransmitters neurotransmitters bind to receptors on adjacent dendrite [thanks Jonathan E.] causing the synapse to "fire" if those axons fire a lot over a short period of time a short-term memory is created the more often they fire the easier it is for them to fire synapse-strengthening proteins arrive to make it easier still and a long-term memory is created The transition from short-term to long-term memory is called consolidation. Many things can mess it up. In the 1960s Bernard Agranoff trained goldfish to swim to one side of the tank when a light switched on. When he tested the control group three days later they all remembered what to do. When he tested a group he had injected with a drug that blocked protein synthesis three days later they behaved like any fish would when a light switched on: like a fish. The protein synthesis inhibitor prevented the consolidation of short-term into long-term memory. A psychoanalyst would claim the fish were repressing the memory of Dr. Agranoff's training. He would investigate the reasons for the repression. ("My parents? Sorry. 'Parents.' Milt and run. Says it all. The fuckers. Figuratively speaking.") He would not consider that Dr. Agranoff had introduced a protein synthesis inhibitor into their systems and that said inhibitor prevented the memories from consolidating in the first place. In 1994 researchers at UCI demonstrated that the same thing could be done to humans. They administered medication which hinders the brain's ability to convert short- into long-term memory to victims of car accidents. Three months later, the patients given the placebo still had the recurring nightmares and existential horror associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. The patients given the medication still remembered the accident, but only foggily and without the emotional immediacy that terrorized the control group. Are the patients in the test group repressing the event? The psychoanalyst would say . . . well you know what he would say and what he would say it about: the mind. The real culprit is...
Texas Is Like Slippers Visiting friends and family in the middle of Texas puts your life in California in perspective. All those minutes you steal from your dissertation to blog, for one, disappear into the communal life of your parents' house. Cooking. Cleaning. Conversing. You also lose the time you normally use to think about your blog. Like when you're standing there fixing a sandwich and processing that paragraph you read this morning. Or when you're sitting there eating that sandwich and thinking about that last comment someone left on that entry you should've thought more about before posting it. Those stolen moments become the property of others when you're at home. You talk to your mother as you grab the mustard. You talk to your sister as you slice the bird. You talk to your father as you wash the lettuce. You talk to your brother as you grind the pepper. You talk and talk but you never really say anything you haven't thought before because you're on the spot. With no time to formulate new ideas you take comfort in the ones you have. The familiar patterns of exchange you fight so hard to avoid in California become old slippers in Texas and you like old slippers. A history of your feet worn into a pair of slippers your mother bought you when you were thirteen and which she breaks out every Christmas for you to wear again. You are not the person you try to be in California. You are who you are in Texas. And there's nothing wrong with that. Except that you neglect your blog. Which you won't anymore. You promise.

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