Thursday, 15 December 2005

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What I Will Have Done Over My Christmas "Vacation" A vacation? What would that be? A week in which you only think about your work instead of reading and writing about it? Some vacation. People think the academic life akin to the fine Southern tradition of sipping spirits on the long porch as the sun sets. Not quite. Between the moment I submit my grades and January 6th I will: Read every available article written by the panelists whose talks I will attend at the MLA so that when I work up the nerve to ask a question they won't assume they're being punk'd. Attend the MLA. Schmooze. Punk Michael Bérubé. Polish a nearly complete dissertation chapter on Silas Weir Mitchell and his evolutionarily-informed account of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Begin researching a dissertation chapter either on 1) utopianism and evolutionary thought in which I revisit the classic critical works about utopian thinking and smack 'em around for their social Darwinian assumptions or 2) race and evolutionary thought in popular literature and academic sociology. Shut it. There is logic there. Edit a manuscript I've been itching to read since it arrived but had to put aside because there are only so many hours in a day and my students had purchase on most of them. Learn Adobe InDesign. Create a template for the Valve's publishing venture. Begin bothering people to edit their contributions. Read for pleasure. Just kidding. Spend time with friends and family whose Christmas gifts have been purchased online and are being mailed to my parents' house in Houston. Inform parents not to open Amazon boxes which arrive lest they ruin Christmas for terminal orphans the world over. Blog. Blog. Blog. I'm not complaining. I love this life and couldn't imagine living another. My days and nights are spent thinking supremely deep thoughts about singularly important stuff. What more could I want out of life?
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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...

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