Category Archives: neurology

Proust, & the path of the olfactory nerves

It’s the basic bureaucracy of the brain- all sensory nerves have to synapse through the thalamus before they get to the neocortex and we process them properly. But the olfactory nerve does something strange and special, grandfathered in from our reptile ancestors. It goes the allocortex first, near the seat of memory and perhaps emotion, and does its fast and furious business ahead of the neurological queue of higher reason. Proust describes the subjective experience of this physiological curiosity in Swann’s Way.

And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile.The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach ofintellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that materialobject will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, hadany existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, mymother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I didnot ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particularreason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plumplittle cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though theyhad been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon,mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressingmorrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soakeda morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs withit, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and Istopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached,with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of lifehad become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevityillusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love hasof filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was notin me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental,mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I wasconscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but thatit infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of thesame nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? Howcould I seize upon and define it?

I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is timeto stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the objectof my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself. The tea hascalled up in me, but does not itself understand, and can only repeatindefinitely with a gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; whichI, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call uponthe tea for it again and to find it there presently, intact and at mydisposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down my cup and examine myown mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyssof uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayedbeyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark regionthrough which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail itnothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with somethingwhich does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality andsubstance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

And I begin again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of itsexistence, but only the sense that it was a happy, that it was areal state in whose presence other states of consciousness melted andvanished. I decide to attempt to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughtsto the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I find againthe same state, illumined by no fresh light. I compel my mind to makeone further effort, to follow and recapture once again the fleetingsensation. And that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut outevery obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit allattention to the sounds which come from the next room. And then, feelingthat my mind is growing fatigued without having any success to report,I compel it for a change to enjoy that distraction which I have justdenied it, to think of other things, to rest and refresh itself beforethe supreme attempt. And then for the second time I clear an emptyspace in front of it. I place in position before my mind’s eye the stillrecent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start withinme, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise,something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; Ido not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I canmeasure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.

Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being mustbe the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, hastried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are toofar off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colourlessreflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley ofradiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, asthe one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of itscontemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea;cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, ofwhat period in my past life.

Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, thismemory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical momenthas travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of thevery depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now that I feel nothing, it hasstopped, has perhaps gone down again into its darkness, from which whocan say whether it will ever rise? Ten times over I must essay the task,must lean down over the abyss. And each time the natural laziness whichdeters us from every difficult enterprise, every work of importance, hasurged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merelyof the worries of to-day and of my hopes for to-morrow, which letthemselves be pondered over without effort or distress of mind.

And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumbof madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on thosemornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say goodday to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping itfirst in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of thelittle madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it;perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, withouttasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their imagehad dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place amongothers more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandonedand put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; theforms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry,so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were eitherobliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power ofexpansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in myconsciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, afterthe people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still,alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, morepersistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised along time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for theirmoment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in thetiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure ofrecollection.

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked inher decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memorymade me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, whereher room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself tothe little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built outbehind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment hadbeen all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning tonight and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon,the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we tookwhen it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by fillinga porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paperwhich until then are without character or form, but, the moment theybecome wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctiveshape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable,so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park,and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village andtheir little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combrayand of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid,sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

A poet on addiction: “Maybe it’s what sweet would be without sugar.”

Nabbed off the web, here is an except from Dale Pendell’s wonderful Pharmako/Dynamis, part of the indispensable Pharmako series, which you should go buy at once. This is probably one of the most vivid and beautiful descriptions of the disease to be rendered in the English language.

Stealing From Tomorrow

A peculiar clean taste, slightly chemical, but not unpleasant.  Once you taste it you’ll never forget.  Nothing else quite like it.  Treble notes.  Trace of metallic, trace of bitter.  Tongue numb.  Maybe it’s what sweet would be without sugar.

Seems like a convenient mode of ingestion of small quantities.

Keep wanting
to get back
to where things were clear.

“So good that if you use it once you’re hooked.”  Talk about good advertising!  Did the cartels pay for that line?

The free amine base is simply prepared by basifying.  The rule of thumb that alkaloid salts are water soluble and bases oil soluble hold well for cocaine.  A few drops of ammonia in an aqueous solution of the salt precipitates the base.  Extract the base with petroleum ether (not diethyl ether) or naphtha.

Add a layer of solvent, cap the container, and shake:  when the solution turns clear the precipitated base has dissolved in the solvent layer.  Draw off the solvent layer with a pipette (like, an eyedropper) and squeeze into a wide, flat-bottomed dish to evaporate off the solvent.  The crystals are quite beautiful.

This much is well documented.

The first flash is the best. Never
quite that good

The fleeting quality of the hit…how an interruption, a word or request from someone else, the telephone ringing, your spouse wondering about the shopping, any outside engagement can dispel the brief enchantment.

So you try to avoid the interactions.

You go again, but as the metabolic half-life of the coke far outlasts the duration of the rush, the stimulant continues to build up in your system.  So you need a downer.  Something to take the edge off.  Some way to get leveled.

We’re talking poisons here.  But poisons going nowhere.

But you do it some more.  We can call it an Experiment.

Finally you do it even when you don’t like what it does to you.  You get too much edge.  You get too many jaggies.  So maybe you take something to take the edge off.  Speedballing.  Except maybe you take slightly more than you needed because you wanted to feel it and now you are drowsy, so you toke some more crack, or base.  That puts you too far on the stimulated side, so you try the cycle again.  Eventually you get leveled.

Brain won’t work.  Too jumpy to read.  Too bored to do nothing.

Plenty late enough to go to bed.  Just one more hit.  Just one more lift.  Maybe a small one this time.

Small one didn’t do it.

you hide your pain in the blinding whiteness
of your crystals.  You hide the night.
Already I can feel it:  tasks undone,
papers left scattered.  A slow accumulation
of flotsam.  Or a word too sharply spoken.
A craving that calls me, through any job or meeting.
during an evening with friends,
from my bed where I went thinking to sleep.
So quickly she makes her bed in your ear,
but she is not the singer, she
bringeth not the lyre, but the lie.

To keep the vapor
from condensing in the stem
I warm it first,

moving the pipe
back and forth slowly
over the flame

trying to heat
the whole pipe

Brushing the long stem with a flame must be the lightest way to touch something.  It’s like polishing, or cleaning.

You can see the spots
that haven’t gotten hot enough
from the crud and stuff
in the pipe.  Stroke
the bowl a few times
and then come back
to the stem, twist
a little left or right
to try to get
the sides.  Wait till
it’s all hot to
put the sustained
heat to the bowl.

I like to see
the crystals melt
before emptying out
my lungs, exhaling, then
three or four
final stem passes,
back to the bowl
and inhale slowly, you want
that vapor to hit
the bottom of your lungs, pal,
then hold it in,
and hold, or even when
you can’t anymore just
breathe shallow.

The flame is like a brush.  It bends when I move the lamp.  I can bring the lamp around and along the stem and the flame tip follows precisely, always a little bit behind.

Like a tongue tip, lightly licking all along it.

You love it.  You want to do it again and
morning come and again and ever
so closer and ever and
I still haven’t slept.

If I could just find some activity that didn’t require concentration.

Morning is morning, but now is now.  Should quit this stuff soon.

Freebase is the hardest substance to leave in the cupboard that I know of. That doesn’t mean you can’t quit, you can.  But you’re going to have to leave town.

Buying in small quantities is safest.

No.  There IS no “safest.”

Coke can overpower the Critic, but in whose service?  It can put aggression on auto-pilot, a much-valued state of mind in our culture, but in whose service?

It turns out that stealing from tomorrow is just the first stage.

Stealing from tomorrow is like going into debt, spending tomorrow today, or tonight, actually.  So you’ve wrecked tomorrow.  Stolen all of its energy, stolen its waking hours, stolen its good will.  Tomorrow you will be behind all day.

If you get up at all!

After stealing from tomorrow for long enough,

weeks, maybe for months,

you start stealing from today.

Stealing from today means that the ally is not giving you power or aid or assistance in accomplishing some task.  Rather, the ally takes today for her own service.  Ingestion, filling the bowl, the preparation, the scoring.  And just the time taking the hits.  A little bit of time to space, to flash or level, and that’s about it for today.

Just the worship service.

Weren’t you supposed to get something from all this?

You’re doing your part for her.  That’s for DAMN sure!

But you’re not at the end.

Next is stealing from yesterday.

The third stage of the ally’s conquest.

Your savings, your bank accounts – nothing very esoteric there.

Sometimes your friends.  Sometimes your marriage.

Sometimes your children.

Your reputation.

And your memories.

Nothing very esoteric there.

Perhaps the best writing on the effects of cocaine is by David Lenson in his book On Drugs.  Lenson writes about the “runaway engines of desire.”  He suggests that the American power structures reacted with such intensity and virulence against cocaine because cocaine presents such a clear image and parody of consumerism.  You buy it, it’s gone, more makes you want to buy more.  But buying cocaine is buying the desire itself, the desire itself is the product.  A devilish perfection.

The desire, the consumerism, is too blatant, too obvious:  a parody of the holy rite, and hence condemned with all the fury of the Inquisition.

A citizen set fire to a house because it was a “crack house.”  Though he admitted setting the fire, the jury found him not guilty, using jury annulment:  an auto-da-fé for the Holy Cause is not a crime.

The hard part.

You do it instead of eating.
You do it instead of sleeping.
You do it instead of doing.

The hard part.
is stopping, sitting down.
The hard part,
the hard part concerns time.
The hard part is just sitting,
without inspiration,
with no ideas and not knowing…

No, that’s not it.  Lots of ideas.
The hard part is doing it.
And there is so much to do:
much more than you have time to do.
It’s easier to keep the accelerator pressed
and to keep rushing, touching this, touching that,
and to keep doing that.

The hard part is quitting.

Clear enough?

Too beautiful, too stark

Infinite Jest, pg 347

— and then you’re in serious trouble, very serious trouble, and you know it, finally, deadly serious trouble, because this Substance you thought was your one true friend, that you gave up all for, gladly, that for so long gave you relief from the pain of the Losses your love of that relief caused, your mother and lover and god and compadre, has finally removed its smily-face mask to reveal centerless eyes and a ravening maw, and canines down to here, it’s the Face In The Floor, the grinning root-white face of your worst nightmares, and the face is your own face in the mirror, now, it’s you, the Substance has devoured or replaced and become you, and the puke-, drool-and Substance-crusted T-shirt you’ve both worn for weeks now gets torn off and you stand there looking and in the root-white chest where your heart (given away to It) should be beating, in its exposed chest’s center and center-less eyes is just a lightless hole, more teeth, and a beckoning taloned hand dangling something irresistible, and now you see you’ve been had, screwed royal, stripped and fucked and tossed to the side like some stuffed toy to lie for all time in the posture you land in. You see now that It’s your enemy and your worst personal nightmare and the trouble It’s gotten you into is undeniable and you still can’t stop. Doing the Substance now is like attending Black Mass but you still can’t stop, even though the Substance no longer gets you high. You are, as they say, Finished. You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction. You are in the kind of a hell of a mess that either ends lives or turns them around. You are at a fork in the road that Boston AA calls your Bottom, though the term is misleading, because everybody here agrees it’s more like someplace very high and unsupported: you’re on the edge of something tall and leaning way out forward….

Regarding the senses, and a Northpaw update

There is no more powerful teacher about the nature of human senses than the migraine. Within the headache’s state senses are heightened to the point of vicious permeating pain. Light stabs you, smells choke you, sounds can hit you with the force of a shovel. It is an argument whether you are sensing more or filtering less- I am with the latter camp.

Once, about 30 minutes post Imitrex during the worst of my migraine seasons the pain passed enough for me to process the sensory data incoming. I was walking along a one-way street in Cambridge with Aaron. I started telling him what each type of car was as it came up behind us, based on the sound of its engine and suspension. I could have guessed that some people can distinguish cars by sound, people *really* into cars, but I had no idea I was one of them. I found my new ability unsettling, as much for wondering what other canons of knowledge my brain wasn’t telling me about as for the oppression of unexpected information. At dinner I heard all the adjacent conversations simultaneously. I repeated snippets back to Aaron. I wanted to convey how entirely strange this experience was, but that was hopeless- describing senses themselves, rather than their integrated gestalt, is nearly impossible.

I found this to be true as well with the magnet. To this day I have still never found a way of explaining what it was like: electrical, oscillatory, a pure sensation, ‘like putting your hand in an ultrasonic cleaner’, sharp but not painful, tangy, metallic, synthetic, fluctuating, warm, tugging. I feel that I’m a good writer, in particular I’ve been told more than once that I have a gift for explanation. Explaining a sense, just the sense, stumps me.

I have the least useful, most common, barely present, probably most boring form of synesthesia there is. Every so often I taste colors. I don’t taste something and see the color, I don’t taste and associate the color, I just taste the color. It’s useless to ask me what, say, red tastes like. It’s not hot or sweet or anything like that, it tastes like red. It’s an awareness of an element of red in my food, on parr with sweet or hot rather than suggestive of them. That’s what tasting a color means. It happens to me once a year at most. It used to happen more, but it’s declined as I’ve gotten older. It was so natural, so clearly part of the food, that for most of my life I didn’t believe it was synesthesia. Everyone had to taste those occasional colors, they were just there. Come on. It was finally a pharmacist friend in Las Vegas that pinned it down. I had a drink that was pink, and tasted pink. That was unusual, tasted colors rarely matched visual colors, and it amused me a great deal. I handed it to my friend and said “Taste this! It tastes pink!” He said “Ok…” dragging out the k long enough to make it a 15 cent word at least. He tasted it, and told me I was a synesthete.

I suspect all new senses are somewhat synesthetic. You are leveraging an existing sensory infrastructure, running something new on old roads into associative areas of the brain. I ‘felt’ electricity, right now I ‘feel’ north on the left of my left ankle. Feel is touch, but touch is not a state of awareness. When it’s working as a sense my awareness is not the buzzing, it’s the awareness of north from the buzzing Northpaw. I make it dance around by spinning my office chair. Sometimes it doesn’t keep up. I believe I get nauseous and dizzy much quicker wearing the Northpaw than I do spinning my office chair without it. Right now I can feel it buzzing, and I can feel north. The Northpaw gives you a recombinant sense.

Here is the thing about a new sense: calibration in a bitch, because experiencing it subjectively is kind of the point. That a new sense is unreliable goes with the territory – all your senses are unreliable. Senses not about accuracy, but they kind of require that you think they are about accuracy. Senses are integrative. They create the world that you inhabit- but it’s important to understand that they create a world you can inhabit rather than the whole of, or even a slice of, the objective truth of your environment. This is one of the many reasons people make terrible eye witnesses.

What lets you process a new sense isn’t that it’s right, wrong, precise, superpowerful, or pathological, it’s that integration. What you need from a new sense is consistency, or it becomes part of the noise you are filtering all the time. You need to train and force yourself to rely on it just enough that it gets plugged into the continual associative process of creating the useful fiction you spend your days wrapped in. Integration and consistency means far more to us than accuracy.

The Northpaw is not always, in fact not usually, integrated into my perception. That was never really a problem with the magnet, so this is a bit of uncharted territory for me. Admittedly it’s only been three weeks since I first put one on, so it might actually be coming along nicely thankyouverymuch. I can say it’s begun to uproot and reassemble DC in my mind, which I’m thankful for. The two spacial maps were distressing, and at one point got me lost more than I was without the Northpaw. That is past, though I can’t say I never get lost. It hasn’t done that for me. The experience is similar to the magnet in that it’s been more realigning of reality than useful. It tells me more about how the world works rather than giving me immediately practical information. Grids aren’t quite so griddy anymore. As a native of LA, that’s actually quite an insight into the nature of the city.

My Northpaw article is due soon, but I hope to keep on with my study and reporting on it. I think there is more to learn from this little thing. (No idea what I’m talking about? See all entries on the Northpaw.)

Wait, if it’s the white matter, aren’t women are smarter than men?

There yet another study on intelligence that surely has it nailed down this time.

Surely. Study gives more proof that intelligence is largely inherited – talks about intelligence being determined by the volume of the white matter, and therefore having a high genetic correlation (Let’s not even get into correlation v causation, much less figuring out what the hell intelligence is.) Of course the punchline here is that studies show that women have more white matter than men, so we must just be genetically smarter, right? Except maybe we’re smarter by brain volume than men because we have more grey matter. Confused? That’s brain imaging studies for you. Then again, maybe volume of white v grey only account for a few kinds of intelligence, and we should just stick with good ol’ phrenology for the rest.