Am I capable of learning to like anything?

I conducted psyche experiments on myself when I was a child. You can’t blame me. There were things I needed to know, and I was my only cooperative subject. For instance, were all my preferences acquired tastes? This was important. If they were, then maybe I would eventually like beer, which was good because this appeared to be a necessary component to getting along as a teenager. On the other hand, it meant I might eventually wear pink polyester stretch pants like my mother, which was a horrifying concept. Either way, I had to know.

teaI also drank hot tea as adolescent, and somehow ended up with a box of Lapsang Souchong tea. If you’ve never tried it, it has a strong smoky taste and the first time I had it I gagged, then realized I had the perfect tool for my experiment. Could I change my own mind, and learn to love the taste of this tea?

I made an impressive effort, concocting strange myths about the origin of the taste relating to magic creatures in the woods drying the leaves over tiny bonfires and telling myself the burning embers imparted unknown powers to the daring humans willing to sip the strange potion. It worked. I slowly convinced myself that the taste was mysterious and intriguing, and once I began to enjoy it I could acknowledge that the myths were hogwash and it just plain tasted good to me. I still like it to this day, and story of how I came to do so makes me smile.

bonfireMy twelve-year-old brain didn’t think to take this to the next step, and I’m glad it didn’t. Lapsang Souchong tea is all well and good, but could I have forced myself to like, I don’t know, human blood, or, well, fill in any number of things for which I’m glad that I don’t have a yen. I was happy finding out that I could convince myself to like something if I worked hard enough at it. The question I didn’t ask was: could I get myself to like anything?

Or maybe the better question would have been: could I get myself to want to get myself to like anything?

I’m writing this blog on January 20, 2017, the day of inaugurating a president for whom I have no respect. In spite of my Midwestern working-class roots, I do not identify with his supporters. I consider my experiment with Lapsang Souchong tea, and wonder if I could feel differently?

I realize that there are three very different things are going on.

One, there is politics. I mean actual policy preferences. Mine are the result of a lifetime of observation and analysis and they reflect my core beliefs. I’ve agreed with some U.S. presidents more than others, and none of them completely, but I have respected that every single one of them was trying to do what he thought was best. But I don’t even know what this president believes in; he’s been conducting a reality show for over a year, not sharing his vision. I do dislike most of his choices in advisors, but I realize that is not the real source of my disrespect. I may not agree with his selections but these men (they are mostly men) are entitled to their world view. As an adult, I can hold a certain amount of understanding for the opinions of others.

barbecueThen there is style. Not his style; he acts like a flashy rich guy who is full of himself and I don’t think anyone actually likes that. I mean the style of his supporters. I don’t feel commonality with them because mostly their tastes aren’t mine. But they could be. I can teach myself to like a lot of different things and I still am. I could enjoy country music and barbecue instead of yoga and wine and I would be every bit as happy and fine a human being. That’s what Lapsang Souchong tea taught me. Taste is taste. Mine isn’t better than yours, and no one’s taste is unworthy of respect.

But it’s the third component that is the driving force behind my lack of regard, and that is trust. I don’t trust this man because he has raised saying anything he pleases to an art form. Half-truths, quarter-truths and complete falsehoods are trotted out as needed. People are insulted and belittled to serve his quest for popularity, much like in the world of an adolescent. Slights are responded to without reflection on the consequences, to him or to his country. And I don’t think you can teach yourself to like being led by, or being at the mercy of, someone you cannot trust.

Picture3Forget the politics, forget the style. The heart of the matter here is the heart. There is some inherent core decency, a certain regard for truth and a desire for kindness that I cannot define in words so much as I can feel in my heart, and no amount of effort will get me to want to embrace a lack of this. In fact, nothing would make me want to make the effort to do so.

Looks like it took a few decades for me to finish answering my own question, but I finally did.  No, I cannot get myself to like anything, and I’m glad that I can’t.

How happy is your brain?

From Crystalinks.com

From Crystalinks.com

My other blog includes occasional posts about telepathy because the hero of my other novel, x0,  is a budding telepath.  Last night I made an attempt to understand how telepathy might be possible without requiring magic that defies the laws of the known universe. (Please understand that I have no objection to law-defying magic.) I realized that much of my arguement came from my research for y1 into the workings of the human brain. Zane, the hero of y1, is a student of neuroscience because he desperately wants to understand how he can alter his appearance. Once he begins working for a pharmaceutical company dedicated to mental health issues, however, other aspects of the brain begin to intrigue him.  Like, what happens in your brain when you are happy?

A brain works by chemistry and by electrical impulse, and it directs hundreds of chemical substances called neurotransmitters that travel in-between the brain’s cells, delivering messages about thoughts and feelings. I share Zane’s amazement that such a system even works, much less with the precision that it does.

We do know that different substances deliver certain kinds of messages, like a FedEx that only does books or a UPS that exclusively delivers clothing. One of these messengers, serotonin, generally likes to blab to the nearest neuron about anxiety, mood, sexuality, and appetite. Another, norepinephrine, appears to focus on delivering messages about fatigue, alertness, and stress. Dopamine likes to communicate about motivation and reward. The theory behind antidepressants is that the neurotransmitters that like to communicate about feelings should be linked to a person’s happiness. So when people are depressed perhaps it is because they do not have enough of these particular messengers running around to spread the joy.

medicineThe very first antidepressants created in the ‘50s tried to raise the brain’s levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, to play with this mental message system. A second class of anti-depressants was based on inhibiting the enzyme that breaks down these guys in order to leave more of the good stuff in the brain. Basically the same idea. Next came the less side-effect-plagued successor, known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI), the most frequently prescribed antidepressants today. First developed in the ‘70s, and continuously improved upon by different pharmaceutical companies, SSRI’s work by stopping the process of reuptake, a fancy name for when a responsible neuron absorbs the neurotransmitter it has sent out, to take the messenger back off the streets once the message has been sent. The theory here is that by keeping the sending neuron from doing its re-absorbing, more of this “happy” chemical stays running around the brain. Again, the same idea.

From Wired.com

From Wired.com

While it sounds great to say that taking this medication is “fixing chemical imbalances in the brain,” the problem is that no one gets to do experiments on a live human brain. Thankfully. And dead human brains don’t send chemical messages and can’t be depressed. Neither really can animals, at least those generally accepted for grisly lab experiments. So no one actually knows whether depressed people have less serotonin in their brains. Or whether they reabsorb it too fast without medication. In fact, no one knows how much serotonin a generally joyful person has. Can one really have too little? Or too much? Because a few antidepressants lower serotonin levels, and they appear to work too.

Trying to figure out what makes for a happy brain is complicated even more because there is no way to tell how much these medications change a person’s serotonin levels, because there is no way to measure those levels in a live human. Which means that, in the end, the only evidence we have that serotonin levels might be related to human depression at all is that in more cases than not, the medication works.

Is it working because it is based on an accurate analysis of how chemicasl in our brains keep us happy? Or not?  That will be subject of another post.