Altered States and the Brain

Some things you sign up for because you hear who else is working on it and you’re sold. Before you even know anything about it. You’re just like, yes, of course I will do this crazy/stupid/dangerous thing with you. Well so, when one of the Top Humans to ever exist, Benji Merlin Gaub, told me he was facilitating a DeCal in the Spring called Altered States and the Brain, I was like, well yeah, if Benji is doing this I obviously need to be along for the ride, because otherwise………well, otherwise, I would miss it.

So that is how I came to be one of six co-facilitators for this semester’s class. Guys, this is the most Berkeley thing I have ever done. The truth about this class is, yes, we will probably get lots of kids who like drugs and no, we cannot give them drugs. Even at Berkeley, this is frowned upon. The class IS, however, comprised of an experiential component alongside the lecture and demo components. And the experience, demo, and lecture are a package deal, meaning they must all relate to a single topic. Given these constraints, now how much of the class is about drugs? Very little. There may be some coffee.

OK, so, if the class isn’t about drugs what is it about and why are you teaching it? Well, because when I was a young spitfire in Neuroscience 101 I was fascinated by the concept of molecules from the environment interacting with our brain molecules. I was also fascinated by the ways in which our own endogenous chemicals (neurotransmitters! hormones!) work, and the ways in which people have gone about figuring these things out. I am referring, of course, to experimentation. Scientific experimentation. In rats.

Soon, I was part of a ragtag bandof undergrads (read: lab course) given free rein to give drugs upon drugs to rats within what, in retrospect, was perhaps a somewhat haphazard experimental design. But we were tinkering and we were learning and we were in love. We recorded behavioral measures like how long rats take to remove their front paws from a dowel, as a way of indexing the catalepsy induced by various doses and combinations of typical and atypical antipsychotic medications. Later, I worked on a project studying the role of a particular kind of squeak (“laughter?”) in the play behaviors of juvenile rats. Instead of injecting drugs, I was administering what to a child is the greatest drug of all: playtime. I spend hours tickling rats (yup) to mimic play behavior, tracking their preference for the playtime chamber over the boring chamber, and analyzing their vocalizations. 

Let’s think about what those two scenarios have in common. Both projects required me to alter the level of some variable, either tickles or drugs, and observe some output. This turns out to be a really universal principle of the scientific method as well as how we learn things in life. It’s really hard to learn just by observing–you need to shake things up to see what would happen if things were different. In my motor learning experiments, I exaggerate the size of errors in order to observe how people correct for their errors. Other people in my lab want to know what role a brain region has in motor learning tasks, so they apply disruptive magnetic pulses to see how people learn without that part of the brain. The other day, I listened to Scott French, Berkeley geologist extraordinaire, tell me about how you can look at how fast earthquakes travel through different parts of the earth to deduce how dense those parts are. But you need earthquakes, to know what’s there. We disrupt systems because how else can you get to know them?

What’s more, we apply this process to our own minds. At the first organizational meeting for the Altered States class, Gautam, who started the class a couple of semesters ago, was asked why he thought the class had been such a success. He answered, “People like messing with their brains.” IT’S TRUE. It is fascinating to me that people like to mess with their brains. And in thinking about what it means TO mess with our brains, I’ve realized it’s important to think about WHY we mess with our brains. As scientists, we perturb systems to learn about them. Broadly considered, altering our brain states are a way of learning the structure of our minds. When I was tickling rats, I learned that rat pups play as a way of creating dominance dynamics that allow them to learn about their world. It’s why play is so essential–not just in rats, but in human children too. Human adults continue to play, albeit less rough-and-tumble play and more sudoku. It keeps us sharp. Rat pups, like humans, seek out opportunities to play because, little scientists that we all are in the animal kingdom, we must mess with things before we can understand them.

And here we go, preparing to lead a cadre of intrepid Brain Explorers into the depths of their minds. I am excited to see who shows up for class, and excited to see what they get out of it. I’m excited to use both objective information and subjective experiences to come to know the structure of our minds together. I’m excited to alter their notions of what constitutes an altered state (and, just as importantly, what doesn’t). And there’s the sticking point. As an educator, it’s important to understand students’ backgrounds and their motivations for taking a course. Messing with that most sacredly important organ, the brain, must surely require a certain cavalier attitude. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone, in any context, is a privilege contingent on having a comfort zone, which may help explain why Burning Man is so full of white people, for instance. It’s interesting to think about whether recreational drug use is for kids without better options, as the much-ballyhooded rat park studies suggest, or whether it’s for kids who can afford it (or have the time, or feel safe doing so)By now I’ve hopefully convinced you of two things: 1) that altering brain states is a way of learning about the brain,  and 2) that drugs are by no means the only way to alter those brain states. I hope to convince my students that 3) examining our motivations for voluntarily altering those states can tell us just as much about ourselves as being in the state. 

And so that is how I come to find myself with this OBNOXIOUSLY LIBERAL ARTSY stack of books which pretty much just represents “anything I thought was interesting in college” as having something to say here. I’m such an asshole. So, I maybe need to edit. Which by itself will be an interesting exercise in curriculum development. Pictured here are readings for possible readings on sensory substitution, nature, po ver ty, prism adaptation, love, stress, subconscious perception, and a whole boatload of other topics like identity, escapism, religion, pleasure, pain, mental illness, biorhythms, dreams, meditation, music, oppression, spontaneous neural activity, addiction, sensory deprivation, etc. etc. etc. The sheer height, if not the intellectual breadth, of the materials I’ve amassed so far should show how excited I am to teach a group of students with wildly varying interests and backgrounds, as opposed to the upper-level psychology, cognitive science, and molecular biology students I’m used to teaching here at Berkeley. Wish me luck!

i hate myself
Totally not too much to cram into 13 weeks.
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One Response to Altered States and the Brain

  1. Pingback: Why I cheerlead for science even though sometimes I think it hates me | Unsolicited Honesty

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