Thursday, April 26, 2012


      Isn't it fascinating that two people raised in the same culture, educated equally, maybe of the same occupation can hold fundamental beliefs that are deeply separated? Even mutually exclusive? What is it in us that causes one person to hold vehemently that the world was created over the course of a week some 4000 years ago by a supernatural force while another will "know" for certain that the universe is14 billion years old and that life has developed quite slowly and through the forces of natural selection.
        One funny thing about deeply held beliefs is that while they are vast and far reaching in their influence over us they lay dormant most of the time. Our beliefs subtly influence all the decisions we make, which people we become close to and how we spend our time yet it isn't until they are challenged that they rise to the surface and we begin defending (sometimes irrationally) our slender explanation of reality. I can't help but wonder about the biological correlate(s) of this drive to explain the world, to seek truth. Is there some structure or pattern in us that causes one to favor a particular world view over another?
        In the great debate between religion and science I have yet heard a cry from either side to provide the neural structure that determines our "reality". Wouldn't it clear the argument up mighty quick? It seems that we simply assume that our ability to determine the "truth" of our environment is unquestionable so there is no need to search for a "truth center". I'm not trying to get crazy here but we have to admit that two different people (consider an atheist evolutionary biologist and a young earth creationist) can view the same reality even the very same data then can spin it (sometimes very adeptly) to support their point of view.
        I'm immediately drawn to the fascinating condition known as depersonalization disorder (DPD). DPD manifests in a person as an unshakeable feeling that the entire world around them, or everyone that they know is "fake" or unreal. Fortunately I don't have the condition but it sounds wholly and uniquely unsettling. I've been interested in DPD for a while and the amount of research on it (at least on the neuro side) is relatively paltry. A very good review was published in 2004 on the condition but with little previous research to work with the review makes few big conclusions. This paucity seems to be due to a number of factors including that the disease is not as debilitating as MDD, Schizophrenia or bipolar, that the prevalence of the disorder is low, that it is simply difficult to describe, and I think most importantly because the disorder affects only higher order processes. The review mentions studies that find altered activity in the temporal lobe and a few other (cortical) spots which is (and always has been) very unsatisfying to me. Perhaps the most interesting is that DPD represents an inability to match incoming information with stored information. Could this be extrapolated out to suggest that we build our reality from our memory, that what we believe now, what we find to be true is only a reflection of where we have been and the experiances we have had before?       
             The review does mention a kappa-opioid blocker (enadoline) which is capable of eliciting depersonalization like effects in certain people. This isn't terribly surprising considering another, more famous, kappa-opioid blocker salvinorin A is specifically used by unwitting college freshmen as a quick and decidedly unpleasant recreational drug renowned for its dissociative properties.
       So what if we could find an area (or process, or pathway, or neural oscilation or whatever) that could utterly convince someone of the reality or unreality of a situation? That you could put someone somewhere, have them be totally conscious but have them swear up and down after the fact that they weren't there...even if they remember it perfectly? Or the converse; have someone absolutely convinced of the reality of a fact or event or even world view when it is absolutely false. Very 1984 I suppose. Better dystopia through biology.

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