So easy to get out of sync, it’s absurd

It's pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings
Image reads: It’s pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings. We can find ourselves out of our personal element at a moment’s notice, just by taking a wrong turn in an unfamiliar locale. Take a left instead of a right, and you can find yourself in a hostile situation, facing off with someone who’s armed and dangerous. You can actually end up dead – whether in the city, the country, or the suburbs. Or you can find your entire way of life displaced by events beyond your control – market  downturns, corporate mergers, even war. Whatever the scope, whatever the scale, the disorientation is intimidating. Destabilizing. Scary. Even in the most stable of unfamiliar circumstances – surrounded by friendly (but unfamiliar) co-workers at a new job – the conditions are less than ideal.

So, the Facebook drama continues.

Like countless people (I’m sure the number keeps changing), I downloaded my data and took a quick look earlier today. Hm. Pretty boring, actually. I don’t use Messenger that much, and I don’t have an Android phone, so that’s been a bit prophylactic. I’ve been in the web space for over 20 years, and from the start, I’ve been skeptical  about the ability of anyone to keep me safe online. Safe from others. Safe from myself. Safe for others.

So, I’ve self-censored considerably over the years.

I hear a chorus of dismay rising up — Censor yourself?! How horrible!  It seems, at times, that total freedom is the goal of our modern world, and that’s fine for everybody else. But seriously, this place is full of people who wish others less-than-well, and that’s as true online as it is offline, so caveat emptor. For days. Yeah, I’ve censored myself. And the result is that I haven’t been rocked by the shock waves of indignation that lots of other people feel.

Either that, or I’m not being pessimistic enough about how creatively data scrapers can use my PII against me.

But I digress. This isn’t really about me, after all. It’s more about us. Our need to connect, to stay connected. Our fear of missing out and getting disconnected. We all know just how easy it is to get cut off from our social circles. Sometimes, all it takes is a wrong word, a misspoken opinion, or even a look that gets taken the wrong way. You wear the wrong piece of clothing in the wrong season, and you’re a marked person. Things seem to have loosened up around the “no white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day” rule that was etched in stone during my childhood, but you know what I mean.

Sure, you do.

You know as well as I do, the feel of that internal cringe, when something comes out wrong, or somebody doesn’t respond to you the way you’d hoped. You mis-hear what someone else says and/or they misinterpret your response. And before you know it, you’ve got Problems.

Those Problems are very real, for they’re all wrapped up in the whole of our identities, our sense of safety and belonging in the world, as well as our definitions of what will and will not keep us safe. Those Problems can go so far as to get you beaten up. Even killed, if you’re in the wrong situation. It’s easier than ever, these days, to end up in the wrong part of town, and pay for it.

I’m not just talking about White folks in Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, or Black men driving through predominantly White neighborhoods. I’m talking about University of Georgia fans speaking out of turn in an Auburn sports bar — I once had an extended conversation with a woman whose husband had to be hustled out the back door of such a bar after having a few beers and running his mouth against his wife’s advice. I’m talking about somebody losing their filter while they’re in the middle of political opposites and ending up with their car keyed.

Say the wrong thing in the wrong way at work, and you can get shown the door. And there goes your monthly credit card payment, toppling your credit rating, as well as your future job prospects (since many employers run credit reports on prospective new hires). A poorly timed joke can turn from a pebble dropped in a pond to an earthquake that sets off a tsunami. Or the wrong piece of information can leak to the Wall Street Journal, and before you know it, your employer’s in full “spin mode” and you have to watch what you say to anyone and everyone, since you’re a walking, talking representative of the company.

It’s all so precarious.

Sheesh, how did we get to this place? I mean, people can get seriously hurt over things that used to just elicit eye rolls and shrugs. Ah… simpler times. I remember those days when you could detest other people (and vice versa) without homicide being in the mix. I remember when an honest misunderstanding wouldn’t push a person to social-media-fueled suicide. Apparently, I’m a dinosaur. Like I said, simpler times. Lord, how did this all get so … dire?

But here’s the thing, though. In spite of it all, I still have hope. If we got to this place, we can extract ourselves from it. I really, truly believe that. Life is cyclical. Pretty much everything alive moves in patterns of back-and-forth vacillations. And I believe with every cell in my body, we have the capacity to back away from the brink, just as we’ve danced along its edge, over and over and over again, throughout the course of human history. We’re just learning a sh*t-ton of tough lessons, right now, absorbing an array and variety of data points in massive volumes that never, ever factored into the mix, before. The Way Things Have Always Been Done… well, that’s sorta kinda imploded/exploded, and we’re left picking up the pieces that fell closest to us, trying to fit them into a cohesive narrative about our world.

So, where was I…? Oh, yeah, how easy it is to get out of sync.

And how absurd that is.

In Beloved Distance, I talk a lot about meaning… the patterns we use to figure out how what’s happened fits into our understanding of the world, as well as where events are going to take us… and how. While I was absorbed in my meditations on meaning, last year, I coincidentally happened across a lot of writing about the “absurd” state of the human condition immediately after World War II. Samuel Beckett. Albert Camus. Václav Havel. Existentialism. You know… light reading.

And it occurred to me that absurdity — the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable — could be seen as the quality or state of lacking meaning. After all, we rely on meaning to reason. We rely on our sense of meaning to establish balance and predictability. And our understanding of which causes lead to which effects (and why) makes it possible for us to stabilize ourselves in a confusing and disorienting world. When we lose meaning — lose the plot, lose touch with the overarching patterns — everything starts to look ridiculous and unreasonable.

Which is where Europe was after World War II with the rise of authoritarian states, and all the upheaval of the Cold War. The old monarchy and Order of Things … well, that was history. Literally. There were no clear patterns ahead, there were no circumstances that could reliably point to predictable outcomes. Everything was impossible to fathom, in a historical sense, because it was all new… and unexpected.

That, I feel, is where we are now — in the same kind of situation. Past patterns can’t be relied upon, because we’ve never had conditions like this: The Internet. Facebook (and everybody else) collecting data on a vast scale. Defense contractors deploying information warfare techniques against the civilian population in service to political interests. I’m not sure we’ve ever been here before.

And yes, it is absurd.

In the midst of it all, perhaps the most absurd aspect of it, is how disconnected we are, even as we are hyperconnected technologically. We have the means to bridge gaps, to find belonging, to become a part of something larger than ourselves, and yet… we don’t. Maybe our human natures haven’t quite caught up with our capabilities. Well, yeah. They really haven’t yet. And so we miss out on a whole lot of opportunities to make more of ourselves and our situation than what it’s been.

It’s absurd, really.

It’s like we’re not at all the macro equivalent of the billions of interconnected cells in our brains, in our bodies. It’s like we’re neurons that think we’re cut off from each other, when we’re actually in close communication and interaction, every living moment of our lives. It’s like we think we can actually function as a species, by pushing others away and cutting ourselves off.

How bizarre.

And yet, here we are.

Meanwhile, Facebook is trying to become more human

You may have heard that Facebook is changing its algorithm to show less public content in your feed. The goal is to get people to engage more with their feed, using the personal connections you have with real-live people, versus paying advertisers.

About a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced:

The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.

Based on this, we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.

And while I’m not actually on Facebook enough to notice a huge shift in my own life, a number of friends have commented on it. One more instance of Facebook just doing its own thing and messing around with the platform — love it or hate it — that a lot of people have come to depend on for keeping connected to their personal networks.

What I find particularly interesting about this move, is that it’s making the digital experience of Facebook more analog. And it’s making it behave more like our own neural networks, which rely on the analog synapses to transmit not only sense information, but also let us do something with/about it.

So, what does that mean? Digital? Analog? What’s that about, and who cares?

Ahem… here’s the high-level view:

Digital signals are binary on/off — they’re either there, or they’re not. And as data about the sensation of stepping on a tack travels — OW! OW! OW! — along your nerves, until it reaches your synaptic cleft, where it suddenly becomes “analog”, or varied. It’s just just about whether pain is there or not. It’s pain the context of the many, many neurotransmitters and synaptic processes which interact with the pain signals traveling along.

Very roughly, it’s like this:

progression of pain signals down nerves

Oh, look… a tack — OW! OW! OW! — and then when the pain signal hits the synaptic cleft, you have a slightly different experience, where more of your body is interacting with that data and doing something with it. Glial cells interact with the neurotransmitters. The little packets of dopamine or serotonin or histamine trigger interactions with other “stuff” in our system, and our experience gets “built out” by all that interaction. We feel things other than “just” the pain. It’s not just about whether our tissues are being damaged by a pointy object; it’s about everything that goes along with that. And after the pain gets to the other side of the cleft, the signal continues on as something that “just is”, rather than being something varied or subject to interpretation.

Until it hits the next synapse, where it goes analog again.

So, very, very roughly, that’s the difference between digital and analog.

And in a very real way, Facebook is trying to become more analog:

digital analog transformation

Shifting people from a digital Pissed Off / Not Pissed Off state, to being more thoughtful, more engaged, having more variation in the “signal” that’s transmitting through the vast network of interconnected Facebook users.

It’s a worthy goal, to get people out of the mindless On/Off state of intense arousal.

The only problem is… opioids. And how social media gets us addicted to them. It’s not just dopamine that Facebook triggers. Also, the opioids our own bodies produce (called “endogenous opioids”).

But more on that later. I’ll just leave this here, for now:

Facebook’s change may not make sense to a lot of people. It may seem cynical, or it might seem like too little, too little. But in fact, with this shift they’re actually more closely emulating the human neurological system, ostensibly in hopes of mitigating the damage from a predominantly digital experience.

We’ll see how that works out.

Why write? Why think? … Why not?

glowing light bulbI’ve always gotten in trouble for thinking the way I do.

Not necessarily for specific thoughts I’ve had, but the manner in which I think.

While some people think / philosophize / study in order to master a subject, establish their expertise, or carve out a corner of the intellectual landscape as their own, I think to explore.

Life is absolutely fascinating, and there’s so much to dig into… connecting the dots… seeing the correspondences… finding out what leads to what and what else is on the horizon.

Frankly, I’m more interested in asking interesting questions — with or without decent answers — than I am in reaching definitive conclusions. And that’s true, all across the board.

It gets me in trouble. It always has. And it’s probably not going to stop, anytime soon.

Some of my most dramatic troubles used to happen with a guy who’s now one of the up-and-coming stars of American philosophy. He’s published a number of books and a bunch of papers, and he was invited as a guest lecturer at a British university not so long ago. He’s apparently a pretty big deal in certain circles, and I’m really happy for him. The last time I saw him was about 10 years ago, and he was amiable — a lot more amiable than I was expecting, actually.

See, he and I used to really go ’round. Our families were connected, and we ended up in each others’ orbits repeatedly. On good days, we had some amazing discussions. We could talk about just about anything, and when we were on the same wavelength, our exchanges were some of the most invigorating I can ever remember having.

On the other hand, if we were out of sync, he had a bad habit of attacking me. He’d get really intellectually aggressive, pressing me on points, not giving me much room to think… even physically attacking me on several occasions.

Of course we were something like 8 or 9 years old, at the time.

Back in the day, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal when we kids scuffled.  I often tussled with other kids — from the neighborhood or my own family. It was just one of those things we did. But the scuffling that happened with my philosophical compadre was… different. It didn’t seem to happen just because he wanted to horse around. It felt more like it was a direct physical attempt to dominate me, to put me in my place, to establish superiority over me, when intellectual attempts fell flat. If my self-created rival (who I always thought of as a friend) couldn’t win his point with words — because he was arguing to win, whereas I was thinking out loud to explore, and there really was nothing to win — he’d use his larger size and heavier weight to overpower me.

Literally.

Supposedly, he nearly killed me, once… according to my mother. She said something about him trapping me in a closed space where I could have smothered? I have a faint recollection of that, but it was really just one in an extended series of attacks from him.

He’s famous, now. He’s got a wife and kids, and he’s all set. I’m happy for him.

I’m also happy I’ve gone my own way. Far from that counter-productive sort of exchange, where there have to be intellectual winners, there have to be losers, and anyone who doesn’t participate isn’t worth the breath of arguing with them.

To be honest, I don’t have much use for that approach. I understand how people can be into it. I understand the draw. I’m just not interested, myself. I’d much rather find a meaty problem and dig into it, exploring all the nooks and crannies, ruminating, marinating, celebrating the intricacies of life on earth. A wide open world where there are no absolutes doesn’t intimidate me. It invigorates me. I figure, I’ll find out in the end… or not. Either way, it’s just how life rolls.

And life should be free to roll. No necessarily in ways that flatten others without regard for their well-being (because that would impact my well-being in turn), but in ways that widen the world and expand our options. In ways that add meaning to life and flesh out our purpose, that shine a little more light into the corners of our experience that often go unnoticed or undervalued. We’re learning so much more about neuroanatomy, so much more about biochemistry, so much more about how our “wiring” works — that electrical / chemical network that helps make us who and what we are.

The whole point of thinking and writing and publishing, for me, is to expand. My mind is pretty open, but it could be even moreso.  My options are pretty extensive, but wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what else is out there? My understanding of life is finite and human, but that doesn’t mean I can’t grow in all directions. There’s a whole lot else I’m interested in finding out, and thinking, writing, philosophizing, are just some of the ways I have at my disposal.

So, why not use whatever tools and resources I have available, to see what else is out there?

Why not?

Let the live tweeting begin – #AChristmasCarol, viewed through a #BelovedDistance lens

christmas carol start

I’ll be watching “A Christmas Carol” shortly, and tweeting my way through, drawing connections between what’s in the story, and what’s in our nervous system.

As I’ve said before, Scrooge’s transgression is that he refuses to be “synaptic” – he refuses to connect with others across the distance at Christmas time. And when he sees the error of his ways an finds it in his heart to fix that, it resolves the tension that made his whole story possible.

Let the tweeting begin… The full thread can be found here: https://twitter.com/AuthorKLorraine/status/943826918108954624

The Beloved Distance of “A Christmas Carol”

christmas tree with synapses in the backgroundI’m at an interesting juncture, these days. Christmas is coming, along with all the attendant seasonal festivities. Hanukkah is over, after today, while the holiday parties, shopping, gift giving, card exchanges, travel, and so forth, are continuing apace. For me, the activity continues till that magical week between Christmas and New Years, when my work shuts down, and I have time to decompress and catch up with myself and finishing off my book.

And in the midst of this all, I can’t help but see all the holiday activities through the lens that writing Beloved Distance has permanently installed in my world view. So much of what’s happening around us — the connecting, the joining, the increased communication and reciprocity — parallels what’s happening deep inside of us.

It’s all unfolding in a delightfully fractal manner. Like those myriad miniature biochemicals released into the gaps between our neurons, we flow into malls and main streets, exchanging money for goods, like so many neurotransmitters docking on their receptors and keeping the flow of information going through our wiring. And just as impulses travel the lengths of our nerves countless times a day, the highways are full of travelers, the vast majority of us (fortunately) getting to our destinations. Some of us don’t make the trip, or we turn back before we get too far down the road. And then there’s the return trip home, mirroring the signals from brain and spinal cord that get us to pull our hand away from the candle flame or get off the Lego piece hidden in the carpet at 11:30 p.m.

There’s constant interplay between our bodies and outward lives. The reduced daylight prompts variations on seasonal affective disorder, which compels us to make up the difference with colorful displays that light up dark neighborhoods. We compensate. Sometimes we overcompensate. But we tend to take over-the-top reactions with good humor, in fine “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” spirit.

“As above, so below,” some of my friends say. And so it is. As within, so without — the same kinds of connecting we do on a microscopic, cellular level are playing out on a macro level. It’s all there, if you know where to look.

This time of year, I think a lot about Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol”. Of course, it’s a popular story that’s got enduring appeal. It’s been remade and retold many times over. The version I think of most is the 1969 animation. By modern standards, it’s crude. It’s more cartoon than animation. But it’s the version I love most, since it reminds me of my early childhood when I was enraptured by the story — as well as the medium. Back in the day, we had three (not 300) television stations, and not all of it was fit to watch. So, when something compelling came along, it had my full attention, and in this particular case, I just loved it.

There’s a reason that story has stood the test of time. It explores our most innate and essentially human activities — connecting and contributing during the Holidays. It’s absolutely synaptic. And even more importantly, it warns us emphatically against refusing to participate. Its warnings don’t just apply to our social experience — they also apply to our neurology. And when you look at “A Christmas Carol” through a neuroscientific lens, you can find a whole lot of correlations with our innermost cellular processes — and what can happen when those processes go wrong.

I’ve got to finish up my last morning of work before my holiday time off. But tomorrow I plan to live-tweet to “A Christmas Carol”, calling out the places where it’s all about our Beloved Distance and the good that happens when we turn our separations into connections… as well as the bad that happens when we don’t.

Oh, this should be fun…

But for now, it’s time to get some work done.

What’s the *real* problem with the #NetNeutrality ruling?

steel cable frayed
It feels like everything is coming apart

I just read a fantastic article at The Atlantic – Net Neutrality Was Never Enough (how the internet is as much the enemy as it is the hero of contemporary life). It was a welcome respite of rational thought in the midst of the pitched battles raging to keep the (recent – and assumed good) regulations in place.

I’ve been on the fence, myself, about the issue. And I agree with the author that

In addition to being a public good that ought to be regulated, the internet is also an amplifier of panic, malice, and intemperance. Like it or not, those vices helped get the nation into the political moil it currently faces, from internet policy to immigration to taxation to health care—as well as to the validity of elections themselves.

With great power comes great responsibility, and it feels like we have some catching-up to do, as regards the latter.

In any case, it’s been tough to keep a clear head, when it comes to all the issues. The dire warnings about Terrible Things (with Capital “T”s) that can happen, if the Obama-era Open Internet Order were rolled back, sounded awfully familiar in form, as well as substance. This could open the door to despotism. It could make widespread surveillance that much easier. It could unfairly tax already strapped consumers and innovators. It was not a good thing, and we needed to join the fight to oppose it.

The combative tone was familiar and reminded me of so many other political flares that have been fired into the proverbial fog-filled atmosphere that hasn’t had a chance to clear the smoke from the last set of flares, before the next set get shot into the collective consciousness. Reading the warnings — how they were phrased, what sorts of imagery they used — sparked the same type of visceral sense I’d gotten during the last presidential election cycle. More of the same.

Of course, my sense of impending online doom is tempered by the fact that I was one of the first people I knew who actually embraced the internet before it was taken for granted. I lost count of all the hours I spent online at the local library in 1992, searching and researching and reading everything I could get on-screen on the dumb terminal that was connected to the fat pipe of the local community college. I was the first person in my family to have an email account. And I lobbied enthusiastically for my family members to get their own — especially my parents, so we could stop arguing about who said what, when (we’d have the email thread to confirm).

I can well remember the experience of having a computer that wasn’t hooked up to the internet. And I still get a visceral response to the sound of a 28.8 baud modem chirping and tweeting. I remember the surge of anticipation, followed by uncertain will-I-get-online-this-time? trepidation when the phone connection failed and the modem went silent… and then the satisfying prolonged digital siren song that meant I was connected after a second (sometimes a third) try. When I upgraded to a 33.6, it was a whole new world. And to be honest, I still kind of miss that connecting ritual. I might still have my old 28.8 modem around somewhere.

Those first few minutes of connecting  back in 1995 were a mix of hope and trepidation, because A) I was about to connect to the rest of the world in ways that were never before possible, and B) it was going to cost me. I could easily run up a hefty phone bill, in the course of just goofing around. I’d done it before, by accident. And I didn’t want to do it again. I had to be vigilant. I had to watch my time. In 1995, I didn’t have a lot of extra cash to splash into the pockets of my ISP, so I had to make the most of every moment I spent online.

When broadband came along, and I was no longer paying per minute for a connection, everything changed. And I’m not sure it was entirely for the best.

I do know this — while I’ve turned that fascination into a solid career that’s let me provide nicely for my household, I’ve also lost a lot in the process. All those hours I sank into activities which ultimately didn’t produce anything useful or life-improving. All the energy expended on protesting issues which turned out to be bigger than anything I could have influenced. The friends I’ve (re)discovered, then remembered why we drifted apart as the old irreconcilable differences seriously disrupted my peace of mind. And the shift away from spending an afternoon curled up with a book, to sitting hunched over my laptop. Carpal tunnel. Back problems. Headaches. Extra weight that took years to work off. Online life has given, and it has taken away.

Was that a real puppy? I may never know. All I know is that those 10 minutes … 10 hours… however many cumulative days… are gone. And what do I / we have to show for it?

Here’s what: A sense of connection. To the world. To friends, family, and compadres. To ideas, thoughts, and concepts that I wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. Connecting online has become so easy, so relatively cheap, so ubiquitous, we just take it for granted.

Then along comes the reversal of Net Neutrality. And all hell breaks loose. Or so it seems.

Internet zealots warn of widespread blocking and throttling, not to mention pay-for-play fast lanes

And it doesn’t sound unfamiliar. Heck, that’s how it always used to be. The internet was slow and expensive and sparsely populated. And yet, we survived. What’s so terrible about interrupting our seemingly unassailable access to All The World All The Time?

Here’s what: It’s threatening our livelihood — as in, the thing that most bring us to life: our connections. The very idea of limited access is a dark cloud looming over the ways we’ve become accustomed to interacting with the world. And in a world where More Is Better, that limitation is blasphemy. How dare the ISPs and telcos that keep the floodgates of information open threaten the very lifeblood of our modern life? Indeed, the thought plunges us into  a chasm of uncertainty. When internet connectivity is the one given in our otherwise uncertain lives, threatening that puts us all on edge.

Even people like me who don’t think the way things are now, is the way they should always necessarily be.

Yep, reversing Net Neutrality poses an existential threat of sorts. And that’s bringing out the worst in people, who subsequently rely on their persistent internet connections to vent the full range of their consternation. Not only might this endanger the steady stream of movies and sports and gaming and other entertainment we’ve come to take for granted, but it’s impinging on our very ability to express ourselves wherever we want, however we want, whenever we want. If the new order is (supposedly) going to cost us more to tweet and post and consume, that puts a serious crimp in our 21st Century style.

But this is about more than style. It’s about who we understand ourselves to be, and how we create ourselves in the world. It’s about just how much we’ve come to depend on connection. And yes, true to the prevailing theme of my life, these days, it’s about Distance… Separation… How we understand the gaps between ourselves and others, how we bridge those gaps, as well as how we increase our knowledge about certain topics and reduce the “conceptual distance” which separates the state of not-knowing from knowing.

The crisis about Net Neutrality is, in my opinion, as much about our human need to connect, as it is about the threat of surveillance, control, or throttling innovation. It’s about us retaining our self-determination in the face of a rapidly changing world. And the drama extraordinaire is ample evidence of just how central connection across distance is to our very existence.

If it didn’t matter, we won’t be getting so worked up. But clearly, connection matters — today, more than ever before. How we’ll continue to work with it, remains to be seen.

Where do we start?

namibia dirt road leading to desert
Like so many other people, this morning, I woke up to news that someone had won a hotly contested political contest, while someone else had lost. Actually — full disclosure — I couldn’t get to sleep last night, until I checked the news and found out what the election results were.

Some people are ecstatic about the results, while others are convinced it’s a sign of the Beginning Of The End. Some are chortling about their victory and pointing out how the losers are scrambling to regroup. Others are voicing various degrees of despair on Facebook.

So it goes. It’s never actually been any different than that for me, in the course of my 50-some years on this earth. I’ve been hearing dire warnings about our inevitable plunge into chaos, thanks to certain sorts of political outcomes. The warnings come from both sides, and they’re so similar, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

It’s not the ideology and the platforms that seem different to me, rather the dire tone each side adopts to compel their constituency (both current and hoped-for additions), to join their side. Join the fight. Join the battle. Everything is on the line.

Again.

To say I’m battle-weary would be an understatement. It’s not that I don’t agree that we’re in a dire situation. I believe we are. I mean, look around — war and disease and pestilence are so common, they’re “old news”. The United States seems in a state of perpetual cultural warfare, with all sides utterly unmoved by the criticisms and complaints of everyone else. People seem to have dug in, and exit polls show how sharp the voting divides are, across race and gender. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of our socio-cultural deep freeze that seems to have completely immobilized us — like a tourist from Peoria frozen with fear as a charging hippopotamus bears down on them. (And yes, hippos are the most human-dangerous land animal in Africa.)

Good grief.

While it is encouraging to see some election results which lean in my preferred direction, the whole process sort of depresses me. Even if “my side” does win, as a whole community we still lose something. Every time we splinter into factions and go at each other over ideology or agenda, we pay a price. Some days, it feels like the only one fretting over the cost, is me.

But I know I’m not the only one. There are plenty of people out there who are distressed by the ever-deepening chasms between various segments of our society. Rich vs. poor. Haves vs. have-nots. Whites vs. … er… everybody else. Cities vs. rural areas. Men vs. women. Powerful vs. vulnerable. At every single turn, it seems like we’re splintered along identity lines. And where identity isn’t clearly marked, people seek to create new categories that set them apart.

All this separation. Sigh.

And yet… Is the real problem separation? I’m not so sure. Indeed, I think the real issue is that we don’t really know how to work effectively with separation. We tend to see it as a barrier, and little else. Of course, separation divides us. That’s the point. That’s why we turn to it — specifically because it divides us, it separates us out. And there are a bunch of advantages to that, which I discuss in Beloved Distance. A sense of belonging. A sense of safety. Knowing whom to trust. Knowing whom to avoid. Separation is one of our most valuable tools, and yet it seems to be wreaking havoc with our world.

Seems.

And yet, I have to ask — Isn’t there more to the story than just division? Isn’t there more to our experience than schism? Might our separation actually offer us something we need, both in terms of division and connection? Are we missing something?

I think, yes.

I think we’re missing a lot.

And because of that, we’re losing out on clues about how we can move forward.

By having this one-sided view of things, and not understanding — really understanding — what’s at work in our world, as well as deep within us, we’re passing up an amazing opportunity to step forward and head down a path that may not be all that clear and well-marked, but is still a path forward.

We don’t even have to know exactly what’s to come, or exactly how we’re going to get there. We just need to know that the path exists, and that we have the in-born capacity to really make the most of that path.

You can see current events as a scourge or a gift. I choose to see it as both. And I’m determined to find out how we can make the most of the whole range of these experiences we’re having. I have some ideas about how we can do that.

Watch this space. More to come.

 

Have Yourself A Very Synaptic Holiday Season

network of nerves

When we think of our nervous system, a lot of us tend to think of it as a continuous, connected network that seamlessly transmits information immediately from the experienced sense to the brain and back again. When you step barefooted on a pointy building block at 11:00 p.m. when you’re turning out the lights to go to bed, or you brush your hand against soft fabric while you’re shopping for a coat, the experience is so immediate, it’s easy to think that the neurons transmitting the info from your skin to your spinal column and/or brain and back to your muscles are directly connected to one another.

One would think it’s true. Even Camillo Golgi, the scientist who won the 1906 Nobel Prize for coming up with the staining technique to let us actually see neurons, believed the nervous system was just like the vascular system — a continuous, undifferentiated network that had no gaps. In fact, he devoted his whole Nobel Prize lecture to explaining about how the “Neuron Doctrine” — that all our nerve cells are separate and distinct entities — couldn’t be right. His co-winner of the Nobel Prize, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was a proponent of the Neuron Doctrine, didn’t use his time shooting down his rival, but simply talked about “The structure and connexions of neurons“.

History showed who was right — Cajal and others who agreed with him, with their counter-intuitive conviction that our nervous system had to be comprised of separate cells.

Indeed, our nervous system is comprised of billions of individual nerve cells (neurons), which aren’t actually in direct contact with each other. Oh, sure, in some cases, the connection is direct — individual neurons can be connected in electrical synapses, where tiny proteins join them at “gap junctions”. But for chemical synapses (the vast majority of the connections between neurons), there’s a tiny gap that is never actually connected.

Think about that for a moment. (It’s fun! I’ve thought about it for a number of years, now, and it never ceases to amaze me.) The vast majority of our nerves aren’t actually in direct contact with each other… Hmmmm… But they still manage to do their jobs getting sensory data — and more — back and forth in a dizzying, complex system of sending, receiving, decoding, and acting on signals. There’s all this electricity… all this chemistry… time, space, quality, experience… kicking of thousands, even millions of interactions, each living moment of our lives.

That’s amazing.

So, what does this have to do with the Holiday Season?

A lot, actually.

See, synapses are the connections — the bridges — which join all our disconnected neurons. And although they may be minuscule, they are incredibly powerful in their ability to connect. They’re built to connect, in fact. Their purpose is to bring together separate entities — axons and dendrites, for example — and get them “talking” to each other.

The fact that I’m writing this — and you’re reading it — is evidence of how well they’re working. Even if you’re not totally on board with what I’m saying, the fact that you differ tells us that your synapses are doing their job extremely well.

So, yeah. The Holidays. They’re a time when usually separate people come together in season-specific ways — families, friends, co-workers gather for meals and gift exchanges. We reduce the separation between ourselves with parties and get-togethers and reunions, and we connect in ways that are a bit different from our usual means.

We build special kinds of “bridges” in the Holiday Season — ways we can be more in sync with each other, exchanging presents to show we care enough to think about what would make someone else’s life a bit better. We donate presents, money, food, clothing, to put joy and comfort just a bit more within reach for complete strangers.

In many ways, the Holidays make us about as synaptic as we can be. And those who withhold, who don’t lend their support, are viewed as the exception rather than the rule. Ebenezer Scrooge is a quintessential example of the anti-synaptic human. At the time when the most connections are being created, he refused to participate… until he was brought back in line with a series of disturbing and alarming experiences.

Ultimately, he got back in line with the rest of humanity and did his part — even moreso. And there was great rejoicing.

The same thing happens in real life — on a micro and macro scale. We see the same dynamics that animate our cells, bringing this time of year to life. There’s correspondence. There’s similarity. Perhaps we feel that so deeply about hour holidays specifically because of the similarities to our most intimate inner processes.

In the spirit of the electrical-chemical-electrical sensory transmission process, I wish you the most synaptic of Holiday Seasons.

What’s wrong now? Cycling through the agony and the ecstasy of the daily news.

hands holding smartphone
I should know better than to start my day, checking my phone

Every morning I get up and ride my exercise bike for 20 minutes. Even if I don’t want to. Even if I’d rather be doing something else. It takes a real emergency to keep me from my morning ride. What started out as a way to wake myself up (I’ve never been a morning person, but the working world is unsympathetic to my plight), has become a daily ritual that’s helped me lose 25 pounds over the past 2 years — and keep the weight off.

Sometimes I’ll lift free weights afterwards, but my primary purpose when I get up, is to get on the bike.

That’s really when I do most of my news-reading and social media checking. I don’t have a lot of time, in the course of the day, to keep up with current events. I’ve got a full plate at work, and I keep busy with a variety of other activities that don’t leave me a whole lot of time for Twitter or Facebook or (especially) Pinterest and Instagram and the other outlets for social interaction. So, I read while I ride.

Some days, I really question the wisdom of starting out the day reading the news. I mean, seriously. It feels a little masochistic, considering all the … problems we’ve got going on. War, pestilence, crime, a whole range of sexual infractions, and the endless political battles over really core aspects of our lives, like taxes and insurance and who gets in and out of the country. sigh. (I’m too weary to capitalize that.)

What a way to start the day.

Then again, I’m asking for it. Nobody’s forcing me to keep the news tab open on my browser and refresh it, first thing when I unlock my phone. So, I have only myself to thank for the sinking feeling that accompanies the breathlessness that sets in when I’m having a really good ride.

And every now and then, I get rewarded. If I can manage to scroll past the irritants at the top of my feed, something interesting now and then crosses my path. Something in science or technology. Something that sheds light on the nature of how we’re built, and gets me thinking about what it all means. And on a semi-regular basis, something neurological comes up.

I’ve been fascinated by the brain for years, now. Advances in imagery, along with increased computing power and the increasing availability of research papers online, have opened up the whole subject for me. I’ve participated in a couple of online neurology courses from the University of  Chicago and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (thank you, Coursera), and I’ve picked up a bunch of textbooks and classics from my favorite site of all time — abebooks.com. And over the past 10 years, I’ve become comfortable enough with the concepts and terminology, that I recognize topics of interest to me at first glance.

Here’s something I discovered today:

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Microglia: The Brain’s First Responders

By: Staci Bilbo, Ph.D., and Beth Stevens, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: New knowledge about microglia is so fresh that it’s not even in the textbooks yet. Microglia are cells that help guide brain development and serve as its immune system helpers by gobbling up diseased or damaged cells and discarding cellular debris. Our authors believe that microglia might hold the key to understanding not just normal brain development, but also what causes Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease … schizophrenia, and other intractable brain disorders.

Early in the 19th century, the nervous system was believed to be a continuous network— essentially one giant cell with many spidery extensions bundled to form the brain and spinal cord. The discovery that nervous tissue, like any other bodily tissue, is composed of individual cells upended this theory, but the idea of interconnectedness persists.

Indeed, one of the most surprising findings in the neuroscience field in recent years is the degree of the nervous system’s interconnection. We ’ve learned that its cells are intertwined not only with each other but also with those of the immune system, and that the same immune cells that work in the body to repair damaged tissues and defend us from infections are also critical for normal brain development and function. 1,2 Some of these immune cells, called microglia, live permanently interspersed with neurons in the central nervous system and play crucial roles in nerve cell development, brain surveillance, and circuit sculpting.

Read the rest of the article here

This is the kind of news I love to read. Something that shows how much more we’re learning about how our internal systems work. It’s important we learn this, for it reaches beyond our biology and actually affects how we think about — and understand — ourselves in a larger sense.

We leverage our knowledge about our physical systems all the time in our larger lives. We talk about “stretching” ourselves, thinking about extending our abilities and professional capabilities in much the same way that we think about stretching our leg muscles before a run. We talk about “growth”, getting a palpable sense of increase as we draw on our lived experiences about growing up and watching things around us grow. We use physical metaphors all the time to wrap our heads around abstract concepts, and we don’t think twice about it.

That’s just something we do to make sense of our world so we can interact with it, master some parts of it, or at the very least learn a thing or two.

So, it’s pretty exciting for me to read about new discoveries and developments on a microscopic scale. Because even though everything’s playing out on a stage so small you need advanced equipment to see much of it, it’s still  playing out. And all those minuscule interactions are affecting us on an all-encompassing scale — they make up the difference in mass with sheer quantity, just as successful crowdfunding initiatives collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from a flood of relatively small contributions.

For me, seeing new research (which is so new it’s not in any textbooks) about how microglia interact with and support the nerve cells of the body… doing things nobody thought they could (or would) do… gives me a palpable sense of potential that’s absolutely massive. Those glial cells may be tiny, but the implications of their activities has real impact. And as our understanding about the literal jobs they do continues to deepen, we create new metaphors that parallel that knowledge — and widen how we think about the rest of our world as a result.

Scientists now realize that certain kinds of cells they’ve been discounting / dismissing for years actually serve a vital purpose that lets other cells function at their best. Where else might that be true in our lives? What else have we been discounting, that actually matters? The shift in our thinking might not be obvious, and it might not be instantaneous, but I’m convinced that it does happen. And it’s such a subtle process, we don’t even realize it’s happening.

I hope you’ll read the rest of the article  and have that same sense of discovery and wonder.

Because our bodies really are amazing.

And so are we.

The daily news notwithstanding.

… and yet, we’re so distant from each other…

woman at festival with crowd in the backgroundAs much as we may want to connect, it seems as though there’s always something keeping us apart.

We feel separate from the group. Or we don’t feel like the group even knows we’re there. We do what we can to find our place, to contribute, to belong… But somehow, we often feel as though we’re doing it all wrong.

Nobody really knows us.

We’re not sure anybody even cares.

And the rest of the world goes on without us… try as we might to keep up.

Sometimes, the harder we try to fit in, the harder it is to find a place that really works for us.

It’s the ultimate irony, really — we’re built to want to connect… we long to connect — and yet, it’s so easy (and often so natural) for us to feel disconnected, cut out, left alone.

Certainly, we all feel this, now and then. Some of us feel it more than others. But it’s something pretty much everybody has in common — and again, how ironic, that the very thing that sets us apart from each other, is one of the things that connects us.

I’ve thought about this a lot, over the past years, piecing together one clue after another, certain things made more sense… and of course, other things made less. And the thing that’s struck me, time and time again, is how we dance this intricate dance between separation and connection… joining and splitting up… merging and dividing… in countless ways in our lives and in the world.

It really is remarkable. And when we really dig into the true nature of our separation, our distance… and the ways that they actually connect us, the more wondrous and wonderful the human condition seems.

Not just seems. It is.