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Journal of a Plague

Norman Doidge, the pioneering author of two ground-breaking books about neuroscience—The Brain that Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing, as well as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with a background in poetry, has been keeping a journal of sorts about the pandemic. In these illuminating dispatches, ruminations, and essays, Doidge connects what we learn about the virus to what we already know about human development and evolution and ponders potential lessons for us individually, communally, and as a society.

Click through to the right to find all of Doidge’s previous journal entries in chronological order.

We have been here before.

Many times, in fact, as a species. Each of us has something, deep within us, that “knows” or “senses” this. Epidemics are part of our history and, as archeological evidence shows, of our “prehistory” before written records existed. That they have had such an impact on humanity also means that adaptations to parasites and pathogens are a major part of our biological inheritance—or, to use the reductionist shorthand, “are part of our DNA.”

Click here for the full article.

Most people assume that it is the virus—and the policies and practices we are being advised or compelled to follow now, such as the cleaning protocols, shutting of the borders, shutting ourselves in, and so on—that is driving what is going on in our brains, which are just reacting to these events. But actually, it is, more than one might think, the other way around. The “knowledge” and “action plans” inherent in our biological pandemic suite are the foundation of our public health techniques, and even some of our more advanced medical approaches to dealing with the pandemic. What public health has learned in the last hundred years is in fact a relearning, in large part, tested and retested through evolutionary trial and error over vast time scales.

Click here for the full article.

Even though the behavioral immune system, at a conscious level,helps us to recognize potential threats, it is not a purely conscious system, divorced from our deeper biology. Indeed, it can have a profound effect on our cellular, and bodily state. A recent study by Schaller and colleagues showed subjects pictures of diseased people, then measured their immune response, and found just seeing disease imaged actually triggers an aggressive white blood cell response.

In other words, the BIS is, as it were, braided into our being, from cell to psyche, from the literal braids of our DNA, up through to the tangled extensions of neuron cell bodies and axons that make our brain circuits, and it is braided into our mental lives.

Click here for the full article.

Once the behavioral immune system is firing in a population, the very thought of an alternative to it that involves people getting infected, becomes taboo. Whoever argues for it risks being treated like an infectious agent, and being ostracized. (Please don’t ostracize me, dear reader, for saying so! I’m not here making an argument for, or against. I’m trying to describe how, once we accept the logic of lockdown, our thoughts about how to get out of it become paralyzed by our protective instincts.)

It’s fascinating that even trying to think through the idea of a herd immunity strategy can arouse terror and rage in us—even though, we might be well aware, in the very same instant, that lockdown is not a sustainable strategy because of the total harm it does, not only to the economy, but to health, mortality (increases in untreated cancers, missed cancer diagnoses, strokes, heart attacks, suicide, appendicitis attacks, drug addiction, murder secondary to domestic abuse, etc.).

Click here for the full article.

This is the confusing moment we find ourselves in. The very phrase, “science says,” invoked over and over by our politicians and public health officials, implies consistency, and it implies that science races ahead of the rest of us and has already answered the questions we now have and already solved the problem we only just realized we had. It implies that science speaks in a univocal way, as though it were a single person. Univocality assumes there is a reasoned consensus, overwhelming agreement, and “the science is settled.”

“Science says, ‘do this’” are the four most reassuring words in the English language.

Until science says, “do that.”

Click here for the full article.

Plague as Punishment.

Examining one’s actions after a political catastrophe, in which there is often a human hand in the matter, makes sense. But blaming ourselves for plagues, famine, and drought, does, for someone living in the shadow of science, seem to take human responsibility rather far. It seems to partake of that egocentric frame of mind that characterizes the psyche in its earliest stages of evolution, or at its most primitive: The world revolves around us; the physical forces of the universe are woven into our lives, and if lightning strikes us, it is not random, it’s personal. If rain comes after long absence, it is because we are blessed; if a plague comes, it is because we are cursed. That seems so archaic.

So, why do we still do it?

Click here for the full article.

The ‘war’ narrative of the battle over scientific truth was constructed to draw the attention of viewers, to the detriment of science and the public.

Khaled Talaat on What We Know—and Don’t

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Needle Points

Why so many are hesitant to get the COVID vaccines, and what we can do about it. Chapter I: The unexpected occurs.

Since my days in medical school, I have had a fascination with the kernel insight behind vaccination: that one could successfully expose a person to an attenuated version of a microbe that would prepare and protect them for a potentially lethal encounter with the actual microbe. I marveled at how it tutors an immune system that, like the brain, has memory and a kind of intelligence, and even something akin to “foresight.” But I loved it for a broader reason too. At times modern science and modern medicine seem based on a fantasy that imagines the role of medicine is to conquer nature, as though we can wage a war against all microbes with “antimicrobials” to create a world where we will no longer suffer from infectious disease. Vaccination is not based on that sterile vision but its opposite; it works with our educable immune system, which evolved millions of years ago to deal with the fact that we must always coexist with microbes; it helps us to use our own resources to protect ourselves. Doing so is in accord with the essential insight of Hippocrates, who understood that the major part of healing comes from within, that it is best to work with nature and not against it. And yet, ever since they were made available, vaccines have been controversial, and it has almost always been difficult to have a nonemotionally charged discussion about them. One reason is that in humans (and other animals), any infection can trigger an archaic brain circuit in most of us called the behavioral immune system (BIS). It’s a circuit that is triggered when we sense we may be near a potential carrier of disease, causing disgust, fear, and avoidance. It is involuntary, and not easy to shut off once it’s been turned on....

Continue reading →︎

Needle Points By Norman Doidge: Chapters I-IV

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