Sunday, March 15, 2009

Unable to Dance, I’ll Crawl

There may come a day when I’ll dance on your grave
Unable to dance I'll still crawl across it
Unable to dance I'll still crawl
Unable to dance I'll still crawl
Unable to dance I'll crawl.
– “Hell in a Bucket,” The Grateful Dead

There’s a certain individual Heather and I know through SAR — he’ll remain nameless for today’s purposes — who really tried to fuck us over, once upon a time. It led to many hard feelings and the kind of mutually assured destruction that almost always follows a feud. I think we wound up losing less from the exchange than the other party did; a public fight with more-established personality in the SAR community probably gave us a stature and notoriety [1] that we probably didn’t otherwise merit.

Still, it was an upsetting and intense time, and I have it on good authority that bad feelings persist to this day on both sides, many years later. Heather, for one, looks forward to pissing on a certain grave; I’m less sanguine, and suspect this person may in fact be immortal. So the piss may fly in the opposite direction, at least where my final resting place is concerned.

Heather’s emotion — known, hilariously enough, by a German word, schadenfreude — is pretty much a human universal: that dark but satisfying feeling of joy we get from viewing another person’s (usually someone we dislike or envy) misfortune.

Fast forward to this morning, when I saw our Sophie, lying in the living room, going to town on a cow bone as big as her head. Just outside the sliding doors stood our Moe, whom Heather had let out for a restroom break. When I caught him watching her intently, I wondered how and whether what was going on in his head mapped to what a person goes through when he or she feels envy.

If you have multiple dogs, you’ve seen that they experience envy. The possibility always exists, though, that it’s in some way more primitive, or at least less conceptualized, than ours.

Which brings us to a Feb. 13 Science report by Hidehiko Takahashi and buds at a number of institutions, including the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba, Japan; Tokyo Medical and Dental University; and the Japan Science and Technology Agency in Saitama, Japan. They wondered what relationship the abstracted emotions of envy and schadenfreude had with the basic biological sensations of pain and pleasure, and decided to test the question with functional magnetic resonance scans of people’s brains as they experienced these emotions.

The answer was, “more than you might imagine,” with a side order of “can of worms.” Through a clever series of scenarios, they got their (human) subjects to imagine good and bad things happening to folks with whom they identified fully; whom they envied; and with whom they had little in common, reducing the tendency to envy. The idea is that if you see someone who reminds you of yourself, or even who’s different enough from you that you can’t make a comparison, you’re likely to vicariously share their good and bad fortune. But when it’s somebody you envy, then by Gaad you’re going to rue everything good and enjoy the hell out of everything bad that happens to them.

Their results stunned me, in that way that something you should have guessed but didn’t does. When their subjects experienced envy, the scans [2] displayed activation of areas of the brain’s periaqueductal gray, anterior cingulate cortex, and thalamus. These brain areas are known for their activation when a person is experiencing physical pain; they’re also associated with social exclusion, grief, and the experience of injustice.

When the same folks experienced schadenfreude, the brain areas that lit up were the ventral tegmentum, ventral striatum, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and amygdala. Think, physical pleasure, the feeling of virtue, experiencing a fair exchange, cooperation, and altruism.

Let’s stop for a moment to think about that last one: the parts of the brain that activate when we get jollies out of seeing some bastard receive what’s coming to him are essentially the same ones that light up when we rescue a baby from a burning building.

How messed up is that?

I suppose one valid observation would be the amazing way with which our complex minds have been cobbled together out of basic, even primitive components. It speaks to my earlier point that maybe we humans are special for a combination of otherwise biologically unremarkable features that, when united, create an awesome synergy. Certainly, there’s little new under the evolutionary sun; but oh, the amazing things you can unlock when you turn the tumblers to the right sequence.

Of course, we also have what Freud called the superego: that nanny-of-the-mind who comes along and scolds us into doing what society expects. A very interesting follow-up experiment would be to catch the subjects in the throes of schadenfreude and make them aware of what they’re doing. Shame in failing to uphold our own universal self image of being the good guy in the story, I’d suspect, would knock us back to activating the pain centers of the mind. And what next? Would atonement bring the pleasure centers once again online?

Me, I’m all too human; by no means have I gotten over our old resentments. But I suspect that, if our nemesis checked in before I did, I’d go to the funeral and keep a low profile. Because that would, at least, respect the brotherhood of SAR responders.

It may well be just another change of the pain-vs.-pleasure guard in my brain, deriving an ultimately petty charge out of offering props to someone not because he deserves it, but because I want to feel superior. But I’ve given up on worrying about what’s going on in people’s heads — it’s what we do that counts. The one person you have to try to respect, after all, is yourself.

[1] Note the etymological commonality with the word notorious.
[2] Of course, right now there’s an eye-gouging fight going on over the meaning of brain areas lighting up in an MRI scan. Functional MRI shows us which brain areas are receiving blood flow, which mostly equates to which are active. But recent reports suggest that the brain will also fire up an area that it doesn’t need quite yet but might need soon — so we can’t take these scans as gospel. (Sorry, for the life of me I can’t find that reference.)


Kathy said...

Hi Ken

Love the latest blog, you made the right choice in writing.


Ken Chiacchia said...

Well thanks -- you know what comes next. "Tell your friends."

Papa needs to up his hits!