Monday, November 23, 2009


Dear fellow ponderers on this mortal coil,

Join me for a moment in the world of contemplation and thought, where the material slows to a halt and the mental consumes our focus.

Our class was assigned to consider some ethical complications of neuroprosthetics, a very possible future technology in which we can enhance or recreate cognitive and sensory processes in humans. You could, for instance, have neurosurgery in order to be a math whiz, or to have an incredible memory for every fact or number you encounter, or to be able to perceive sounds from miles away, etc. This brings up a number of moral dilemmas,as you can imagine. The following question was posited by our teacher.

Research Assignment for Biopsychology Class: Question # 4. Would you become “less” human with all of these prosthetics?

Perhaps the knowledge of one with a neuroprosthetic would be valued and yet not admired as much as the naturally acquired abilities of an unmodified human or a savant. While intrinsically speaking the knowledge or ability would be the same in both, its artificiality in the former may to some degree taint its beauty or metphorically cheapen it, similar to a manufactured ruby which is physically and molecularly identical to a natural one, and yet cheaper and less valuable by virtue of its unnatural fabrication.

To know if a person would become less human by means of the use of neuroprosthetics, scientists must first grapple with the complexity of what makes us distinctively human. Since scientists have worked tirelessly to erase any distinction between humans and other mammals, can we then not pointedly ask them how anybody or anything could become less human?

Thoughtfully yours,

Mrs H
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Dear members of the press and others:

Part of the brain that is involved in initiating activities is the Basal Ganglia, a structure at the base of the forebrain involved in motor learning, muscle memory, skills, and habits (such as typing without consciously deciding where to put your fingers for each letter). When you decide (in the Prefrontal Cortex) that you want to initiate a certain action, such as standing up, then your brain goes into sequencing mode. This is a simplistic model, but essentially signals are sent from the prefrontal cortex and the primary motor cortex (a structure that controls your muscles) to the Basal Ganglia.

Myriad things are happening in your brain at the moment you make the rational decision to stand up. As your brain rapidly sends the signals via a variety of pathways to the alpha-motor neurons of your skeletal muscles, another area of your brain is pumping Dopamine up to the Basal Ganglia. This Dopamine is vital for initiating and repeating activities. It reassures the Basal Ganglia that the movement is good, it is correct, and it should continue. For instance, when you strike a chord on a piano and it turns out awful, the Dopamine flow is reduced (but never completely stopped). When you strike it correctly, the Dopamine flows rapidly again, and you feel good.

When Dopamine flow is chronically reduced by means of a disorder, you end up with a condition such as Parkinson's Disease, where it is very difficult for a person to initiate an activity. Although they consciously may want to, it may be near impossible for them to get started. (Once they get started they can carry out the activity just fine if they know it well, but if they try to initiate stopping the activity, they may not be able to and hence might run into a wall, keep rocking their chair, etc.)

This morning, I laid in bed for an hour after my alarm went off, dozing and reawakening with the horrible guilt of knowing that I should be getting up to swim. I eventually got so frustrated that I hauled myself out of bed and shuffled off to the YMCA, where I had a satisfying, invigorating morning swim. But it seemed as though just getting that momentum, getting that initiation to occur, was near impossible. My brain was hampered with indecision as it weighed the almost equal balances of staying in a warm bed to sleep, against getting up and swimming and refreshing myself.

The brain weighs decisions in terms of the power of various inputs synapsing upon the neurons - how much weight I place on an input is up to me. Are the inputs of staying warm, comfy, and resting more important to me? Or is getting up, starting my day, eating oatmeal, and swimming more important? I need to rationally and logically place more and more weight on the side of getting up to go swim, and downplay the attractions of staying in bed, as that conviction will make it easier for my brain to tend towards the desired activity. I need to cognitively reinforce myself as I go to the YMCA, swim, and relax afterward - consciously think about how good it felt, how refreshed I was, how motivated I was, how enjoyable it was.

I need to make the decision process simpler so that the initiation process will follow more easily, with solid conviction to back it up. Flow Dopamine, flow!


Mrs H
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Monday, November 16, 2009

The Circus Isn't the Only Place You Find Jugglers ... or is it?

Dearest compatriots,

I hardly know where to begin! No philosophy here today ... just clearing my brain from the cobwebs of exams.

My husband is home, which is wonderful - it is so good to have the man back in the house. He spent his first day home chugging through a long to-do list to get himself caught back up on everything from union dues to cleaning the mail bin in the office. This was wonderful! He even cleaned out underneath our kitchen sink (zealous boy), bringing in a bin to rearrange the recycle-trash-plastic bags that reside down there.

I am excited to announce that in his absence, my brother, sister, his parents, and I assembled some amazing shelving for all our canned goods. I really could not be happier ... I had to go look at them at least twenty times after they were assembled just to make sure I wasn't dreaming. I can finally access a jar of pickles without lifting thirteen forty-pound boxes! Many thanks to all who contributed to this effort, which was a surprise for Mr. H!

It seems like my plate is full right now, but happily full. I am extremely cautious about adding things to my schedule, even just visits or dinners, much less regular activities. I am currently engaged in school (daily), choir (1 - 2 times weekly), church (weekly), and housekeeping and being a wife. That is all I feel I should be trying to shuffle right now; it is just enough to keep me busy, with the occasional evening arriving with nothing to do (how wonderful!) so that I can let off the pressure for a while.

I know that if I were to add much else, although it would definitely be feasible, I might go a little crazy!

For now, things are holding steady. Steady as she goes!

Yours till errands do us temporarily part,

Mrs H
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Two Weeks Can Seem Quite Long

Dear readership,

On Saturday evening after a full day of packing and housecleaning, Mr. H and Joe (his brother) decided it would be best if Mr. H were to ride with Joe and Kristina in the U-Haul to help them move into their new house in New Mexico. Mr. H packed up a duffel bag that night, and on Sunday morning we got up at 4 and headed over to Joe & Kristina's house in Bothell. We finished stuffing things into the U-Haul, vacuumed the living room carpet one last time, hitched the Jeep to the back of the truck, and they took off.

And then, Mrs. H was left all alone!

I grew up with seven other siblings, and lived at home until Mr. H whisked me away to be married; so I have essentially never lived on my own! Even if I was housesitting for a friend, I usually had a sister with me and if no sister, a few dogs and cats.

The first evening was very long, and very quiet. I would have gone to an evening service at church to get out and about, but I had to complete a homework assignment. When I left to go to the bookstore for a while, I intentionally left a light on in the living room so that I wouldn't have to return to a darkened house!

It took me quite some time (about an hour) to fall asleep the first night of Mr. H's absence. I slept very lightly and woke up many times to check my phone and see if there were any messages from him, as he was driving straight through the night with his brother.

Despite the lack of sleep, by 4AM I didn't even feel tired and I was off to the swim class at the YMCA. My coach understood the strangeness of aloneness as her husband is currently working in Flagstaff, Arizona. "Come swim any morning if you get lonely," she said, "and I'll be here! But it's the evenings that are the hardest." As long as I keep busy, it doesn't seem too lonely.

The mornings seem even stranger than the evenings, I think; Mr. H is not in the bathroom brushing his teeth, or pulling me out of bed, and I am not packing a lunch or making Pop-Tarts for his breakfast. On Tuesday, I kept hitting the snooze button on my alarm like a morphine drip, and got out of bed a full 45 minutes later than normal.

I can't help but think of my girls with husbands in the military (Kira, Kimberly, Allison!). I am impressed with how they deal with their husbands' absences, especially in the case of Kira, who has little ones to watch. You girls are my heroes!

I have a suspicion the menfolk don't always miss us as much, because they are in strange foreign surroundings with new tasks and even dangers to keep their minds occupied. To be at home repeating the rituals of normal life with a blank spot left by your spouse can be, I think, the lonelier of the two.

But Mr. H will be home by the 12th, and in the meantime, he is helping his brother and sister in a much-needed way; and that brings great joy to both of us!

With love,

Mrs H
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