an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘US politics’ Category

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? part 2

leave a comment »

Before going on with my thoughts about little Donnie’s brain, I want to address two pieces of relevant reading I’ve done lately. 

First, the short article by ‘Neuroskeptic’ entitled ‘Don’t blame Trump’s brain‘. Now, as anyone who’s read much of my blog knows, I consider myself a skeptic and a supporter of the skeptical community. However, I don’t entirely agree with Neuroskeptic here. First, describing people’s attempt to work out Trump’s psychology or neurology from his words and actions as ‘Trumphrenology’ is a silly put-down. In fact, all psychiatric conditions are diagnosed on the basis of observed words and acts – duh, what else? Unless there’s a brain injury or genetic abnormality. So the medical terms used to describe Trump and others do have some validity, though I agree that ‘medicalising’ the problem of Trump can be counter-productive, as it is with many ‘conditions’ which have appeared recently to describe the spectra of human behaviour. It’s more important, in my view, to recognise Trump as a career criminal than to put a psycho-neurological label on him. Then again, as someone who doesn’t believe in free will, the brain that makes Trump be Trump is of some interest to me. Second, Neuroskeptic describes the arguments of those who attribute medical conditions to people on the basis of behaviour as ‘circular’. This is false. Behaviour is more than s/he thinks it is. When we try to understand the brain, we look at how it behaves under particular conditions. According to Neuroskeptic ‘it’s rarely useful to try to understand a behaviour in neuroscientific terms’. If that’s true, then the monumental 700-page book Behave, by Robert Sapolsky, one of the world’s leading neurobiologists, was largely a waste of time. Third, Neuroskeptic questions the validity and ethics of Trump ‘diagnosis-at-a-distance’. This is absurd. Over the past two years alone, Americans have been subjected to several thousand tweets, hundreds of televised speeches and comments, and the day-to-day actions of the lad in the White House. Unless they make a real effort to switch off, most Americans can’t help knowing more about Trump than they do about just about anyone in their intimate circle. Where’s the distance?

Second, on The dangerous case of Donald Trump, by 27 people working in the field of mental health. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read the ‘summary’, attributed to Bandy X Lee, the contributing editor of the full book, though I prefer to believe that Lee, a respected Yale professor of psychology, had no hand in writing this summary, which is, syntactically speaking, the worst piece of published writing I’ve ever read in my life (I say this as a language teacher). I prefer to believe it was written by an intellectually disabled computer. I’m sure the full book is far far better, but still I’m amused by the variety of conditions Trump may be suffering from – ADHD, malignant narcissism, borderline personality disorder, psychopathology, sociopathology, delusional disorder, generalised anxiety disorder etc (OK that last one is what most reasoning Americans are supposedly suffering from because of Trump). All of this is a bit of a turn-off, so I won’t be reading the book. I tend to agree with what Neuroskeptic seems to be inferring – that we don’t need a psychiatric diagnosis as an excuse to get rid of Trump – his obviously asinine remarks, his insouciant cruelty and his general incompetence are in full view. His criminality should have seen him in jail long ago, for a long time. Further, the idea that a diagnosis of mental instability could lead to invoking the 25th amendment is absurd on its face. Anyone who’s read the 25th amendment should see that. I don’t see any evidence that Trump’s condition is deteriorating – he’s been consistently deceitful and profoundly incurious throughout his life. That means he was elected as a fuckwitted dickhead. Don’t blame Trump, blame those who elected him. And blame the lack of checks and balances that should make it impossible for just anyone to become President. Democracy does have its flaws after all.

So what are the patterns of behaviour that might lead to a diagnosis, which then might be confirmed neurologically – if, for example we were to apply a tranquillising dart to this bull-in-a-china-shop’s voluminous rump, then tie him up and probe his frontal and pre-frontal regions and their connections, in response to questioning and other fun stimuli (I’d love to be in charge of that operation)?

I’ll first list some notable Trump behaviours and traits, recognised by the cognoscenti, without suggesting anything about their relation to frontal cortex disfunction.

  • A tendency, or need, to take credit for everything positive that happens within his particular environment, and a concomitant tendency, or need, to blame anyone else for everything negative occurring in that environment
  • a winner/loser mentality, in which losers are often members of ‘losing’ cultures, sub-groups or entities (blacks, latinos, women, the failing NYT) and winners are judged in terms of pure power and wealth (Putin, Kim, Manafort, Fred Trump)
  • lack of focus in speeches and an inability to listen; generally a very limited attention span 
  • frequently cited temper tantrums
  • lack of empathy and consideration for others, to quite an extreme degree, close to solipsism
  • emphasis on compliance and deference from others, inability to deal with criticism
  • extreme lack of curiosity
  • lack of interest in or understanding of ethics
  • lack of interest in or understanding of concepts of truth/falsehood 
  • extreme need to be the centre of attention

I think that’s a good start. As to how these traits map on to psychopathological states and then onto cortical development, I won’t be so psychopathological as to provide clear answers. Most people I’ve spoken to suggest malignant narcissism as a pretty good fit for his behaviour – perhaps due to its all-encompassing vagueness? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a hypothetical, experimental diagnostic category’, which doesn’t sound promising, and it isn’t recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), though narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is. I suppose that some people want to particularly emphasise Trump’s malignancy, but I think NPD is bad enough. Here’s the Wikipedia description, drawn from the latest DSM and other sources:

a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. Those affected often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or on their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of social situations.

Now, I came up with the Trump behavioural traits before I read this description, I swear. I think the fit is pretty exact, but it’s clear that those responsible for diagnosing someone with NPD don’t do so on the basis of brain scans. I’ve explored enough neurology to fairly safely say that NPD, psychopathy and many other psychiatric conditions just can’t, as yet be reliably correlated with neurological connections or lack thereof. Even schizophrenia, one of the more treatable psychotic conditions, is rarely described in terms of brain function, and is diagnosed entirely through behaviour patterns. 

Having said this, all of these conditions are entirely about brain function, and in Trump’s case, brain development since early childhood. We’ll never get to know what precisely is up with Trump’s frontal cortex, partly because we’ll never get that tranquilising dart to penetrate his fat arse and to then practise Nazi-like experimentation… sorry to dwell so lovingly on this. And partly because, in spite of the galloping advances we’re making in neurology, we’re not at the knowledge level, I suspect, of being able to pinpoint connections between the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus and the various regions of the frontal and prefrontal cortex. I plan to do more research and reading on this, and there may be another blog piece in the offing. However, one thing I can say – Trump probably isn’t a psychopath. Psychopaths tend not to have temper tantrums – their emotional responses are minimal, rather than being exacerbated by life’s slings and arrows, and their violence is instrumental rather than impassioned. Their amygdalae – the founts of aggression and anxiety – are correspondingly reduced. Doesn’t sound like Trump.

Again, though reflection on Trump’s curious psyche may be intrinsically interesting, it’s his crimes that should do him in. As I’ve said before, the fact that he’s not currently in custody is a disgrace to the American criminal and legal system. His fixer is facing a jail term, and in pleading guilty to two felony counts of campaign finance violations, has fingered Trump as the Mr Big of that operation. Those authorities who have not arrested him should themselves be facing legal action for such criminal negligence. And of course other crimes will be highlighted by the Mueller team in the near future, though such scams as Trump University should have seen him jailed long ago. Others have suffered lengthy prison terms for less. But that’s the USA, the greatest democracy in the greatest, free-est and fairest nation in the history of the multiverse. Maybe such overweening pride deserves this fall…

Written by stewart henderson

October 12, 2018 at 4:20 pm

What’s up with Trump’s frontal cortex? – part 1

with one comment

He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity… manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. 

Trump, when asked who he consults with on foreign policy

You might be forgiven for thinking the above description is of the current US President, but in fact it’s a 19th century account of the change wrought upon Phineas Gage after his tragically explosive encounter with a railway tamping rod in 1848. It’s taken from neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. A more fulsome analysis is provided in Antonio Demasio’s landmark work Descartes’ Error. The 19th century account is provided by Gage’s doctor.

Due to an accident with blasting powder the iron tamping rod blew a large hole through a part of Gage’s brain, exited through the top of his skull and landed some eighty feet away ‘along with much of his left frontal cortex’ (Sapolsky). Amazingly, Gage survived, though with great changes to his behaviour, as described above . Before the accident he had earned a reputation as a highly skilled, disciplined and reliable railway team foreman.

I was quite happy to be reacquainted with Gage’s story this morning, because in a recent conversation I was expounding upon Trump’s pre-adolescent nature, his tantrums, his solipsism, his childish name-calling, his limited language skills, his short attention span, his more or less complete ethical delinquency and so forth, about which my companion readily agreed, but when I suggested that this was all about a profoundly underdeveloped frontal cortex, she demurred, feeling I’d gone a bit too far.

Of course, I’m not a neurologist, but…

Any full description of Trump’s apparently missing or severely reduced frontal cortex needs to be evidence-based, but Trump is as likely to submit to any kind of brain scan or analysis as he is to present his tax returns. So the best we can do is compare his behaviour to those we know to have frontal lobe impairment.

Sapolsky tells us about the importance of the frontal lobe in making the tough decisions, the kinds of decisions that separate us from other primates. These are decisions in which our emotions and drives are activated, as well as higher order thinking involving a full understanding of the impact upon others of our actions.

Interestingly, in the case of Gage, his personality transformation meant that he couldn’t continue in his former occupation, so for a time he suffered the humiliation of being an exhibit in P T Barnum’s American Museum. I find this particularly intriguing because Trump has often been compared to Barnum – a showman, a con-man, a self-promoter and so forth. So in some ways – for example in Trump’s rallies, which he clearly loves to engage in – Trump has a dual role, as exhibitor and exhibit.

More importantly though, and this story is I think far more important than his injury and humiliation, Gage recovered almost completely over time – a testament to the brain plasticity which has recently been highlighted. On reflection, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Gage had been a person of rectitude and responsibility for decades before the disaster, and the neuronal pathways that his habitual behaviour had laid down, perhaps since early childhood, had only to be recovered through memory. It’s astonishing how this can happen even with subjects with less brain matter than ‘normal’ humans. Different parts of the brain can apparently be harnessed to rebuild the old networks.

The case of Trump, though, is different, as these higher order networks may never have been laid down. This isn’t to say there isn’t something there – it’s not as if there’s just a great hole where his frontal cortex should be. It’s more that his responses would map onto the responses of someone – a teenager or pre-teenager – who reliably behaves in a certain way because of the lack of full development of the frontal cortex, which we know isn’t fully developed in normal adults until their mid-twenties. And when we talk of the frontal cortex, we’re of course talking of something immensely complex with many interacting parts, which respond with great variability to different stimuli among different people.

But before delving into the neurological issues, a few points about the recent New York Times revelations regarding Fred Trump’s businesses, his treatment of young Donald and vice versa. The Hall & Oates refrain keeps playing in my head as I write, and as I read the Times article. What it suggests is a gilded, cosseted life – a millionaire, by current financial standards, at age eight. It seems that right until the end, Fred Trump covered up for his son’s business incompetence by bailing him out time and time again. This adds to a coherent narrative of a spoilt little brat who was rarely ever put in a position where he could learn from his mistakes, or think through complex solutions to complex problems. Trump senior clearly over-indulged his chosen heir-apparent with the near-inevitable result that the spoilt brat heartlessly exploited him in his final years. Fred Trump was a business-obsessed workaholic who lived frugally in a modest home and funnelled masses of money to his children, especially Donald, who basically hoodwinked the old man into thinking he was a chip off the old block. In the usual sibling battle for the parents’ affection and regard, Donald, the second son, saw that his older bother, Fred junior, was exasperating his dad due to his easy-going, unambitious nature (he later became an alcoholic, and died at 42), so Donald presented himself as the opposite – a ruthless, abstemious, hard-driving deal-maker. It worked, and Donald became his pretend right-hand man: his manager, his banker, his advisor, etc. In fact Donald was none of these things – underlings did all the work. Donald was able to talk the talk, but he couldn’t walk the walk – he had none of his father’s business acumen, as the Times article amply proves. In the late eighties, with the stock market crashing and the economy in free-fall, Trump made stupid decision after stupid decision, but his ever-reliable and always-praising dad kept him afloat. He also bequeathed to his son a strong belief in dodging taxes, crushing opposition and exaggerating his assets. The father even encouraged the son’s story that he was a ‘self-made billionaire’, and it’s not surprising that the over-indulged Donald and his siblings eventually took advantage of their ailing father – enriching themselves at his expense through a variety of business dodges described in the Times article. By the time of his death, Fred Trump had been stripped of almost all of his assets, a large swathe of it going to Donald, who was by this time having books ghost-written about how to succeed in business.

Of course it can be argued that Trump has one real talent – for self-promotion. This surely proves that he’s more than just a spoilt, over-grown pre-teen. Or maybe not. It doesn’t take much effort to big-note yourself, especially when, due to the luck of your family background, you can appear to walk the walk, especially in those rallies full of uncritical people desperate to believe in the American Business Hero. Indeed, Trump’s adolescent antics at those rallies tend to convince his base that they too can become rich and successful idiots. You don’t actually have to know anything  or to make much sense. Confidence is the trick.

It’s not likely we’ll ever know about the connections within Trump’s frontal and prefrontal cortices, but we can learn some general things about under-development or pre-development in those regions, and the typical behaviour this produces, and in my next post – because this one’s gone on too long  – I’ll utilise the chapter on adolescence in Sapolsky’s Behave, and perhaps other texts and sources – apparently Michelle Obama brought Trump’s inchoate frontal cortex to the public’s attention during the election – to explore further the confident incompetence of the American president.

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2018 at 5:38 pm

the Vietnam War – liberation, ideology, patriotism

with 2 comments

a heartfelt cliché from the land of the free

I’ve been watching the Burns and Novick documentary on the Vietnam War, having just viewed episode 6 of the 10-part series and of course it’s very powerful, you feel stunned, crushed, angry, ashamed, disgusted. There are few positive feelings. I have in the past called the ‘Great War’ of 1914-18 the Stupid War, from which we surely learned much, but this was yet another war whose only value was what we learned from it about how to avoid war. That seems to be the only real value of war, from which such unimaginable suffering comes. People speak of ‘collateral damage’ in war, but often, at the end of it, as in the Thirty Years’ War, the Great War, and I would argue the Vietnam War, collateral damage is all there is.

Over the years I’ve taught English to many Vietnamese people. Years ago I taught in a Vietnamese Community Centre, and my students were all middle-aged and elderly. They would no doubt have had many war stories to tell. In more recent times I’ve taught Vietnamese teenagers wearing brand labels and exchanging Facebook pics of their restaurant and nightclub adventures. For them the war is two generations away, or more. Further away in fact than WW2 was from me when I was a teenager. Time heals, as people die off.

Of course Burns and Novick provide many perspectives as they move through the years, as well as highlighting historical events and characters I knew little about, such as the Tet Offensive, the South Vietnames leaders Thieu and Ky, and North Vietnam’s Le Duan and his side-lining of Ho Chi Minh. But it’s the perspectives of those on the battlefields, wittingly or unwittingly, that hit home most.

When I was young, Vietnam was a major issue for Australians. My older brother was suspended from high school for participating in a Vietnam moratorium march in 1970. I was fourteen at the time and had no idea what ‘moratorium’ meant, except that the marchers were protesting the war. I also knew that my brother, three years older, was in danger of being conscripted and that I might face the same danger one day, which naturally brought up the Country Joe McDonald question ‘what are we fighting for’? Why were Australians fighting Vietnamese people in their own country, killing and being killed there? The unconvincing answer from government was that we were fighting communism, and that we were there to support our allies, the USA. This raises further obvious questions, such as that, even if communism was odious, it was even more odious, surely, to go to faraway countries and kill their inhabitants for believing in it. The Vietnamese, whatever their beliefs about government, were surely not a threat to the USA – that was, to me, the obvious response to all this, even as an adolescent.

Of course, the situation was more complex than this, I came to realise, but it didn’t really change the principles involved. At about this time, 1970, I happened to stumble upon a Reader’s Digest in the house, from around ’67. It featured an article whose title I still vividly recall – ‘Why not call China’s bluff in Asia?’ Written by a retired US general, it argued that the enemy wasn’t Vietnam so much as China, the root of all communist evil. China was acting with impunity due to American weakness. The USA would never win in Vietnam unless it struck at the heart of the problem – China’s support and enabling of communism throughout Asia and elsewhere. The general’s answer was to show them who had the real power – by striking several major Chinese cities with nuclear bombs.

Killing people was wrong, so I’d heard, but apparently communism was even more wrong, so the ethics were on this general’s side. Of course I was disgusted – viscerally so. These were apparently the kind of people who ran the military. Then again, if people are trained to kill, it’s tough not to allow them the opportunity… and they’re only Chinese after all.

I must make an admission here. I don’t have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve just never felt it, not even slightly. Okay, sure I support Australia in soccer and other sports, just as I support local teams against interstaters, insomuch as I follow sport. But I’ve never in my life waved a flag or sung a national anthem. When I first heard the Song of Australia being sung at school assembly, as the national flag was hoisted, I noted that the words extolled the wonders of Australia, and presumed that other anthems extolled the virtues of Guatemala, or Lesotho, or Finland, and I could have been born in any of those countries or any other. It all seemed a bit naff to me. Maybe the fact that I was born elsewhere – in Scotland – made me less likely to embrace the new country, but then ‘God Save the Queen’ – could anything be more naff than that little ditty?

So the idea of my possibly being forced to fight in a foreign war just because I’d landed up in a country whose rather vague ANZUS obligations supposedly entailed an Australian presence there seemed bizarre. I couldn’t look at it from a nationalist perspective (had I known the term at the time I would’ve called myself a humanist), which freed me up to look at it from a more broadly ethical one. From what I gathered and am still gathering, the US intervention in Vietnam, which began with Eisenhower and even before, with US military assistance to French colonial rule in Indo-China, was fueled first by the essentially racist assumption that South-East Asians weren’t sufficiently civilized to govern their own regions, and then by the ‘better dead than red’ ideology that caused so much internal dissension in the US in the fifties. The idea, still bruited today, that the ‘rise of communism’ was a direct threat to the USA seemed far-fetched even then.  The Vietnamese, it seemed obvious, had been fighting off the French because, as foreigners, they had little interest in the locals and were bent on exploitation. Naturally, they would have looked at the Americans in the same way. I certainly had little faith in communism at a time when Mao and the Russian leadership seemed to be vying for ‘most repressive and brutal dictator’ awards, but I didn’t see that as a threat to the west, and I also had some faith that a fundamentally unnatural political system, based on a clearly spurious ideology, would die of its internal contradictions – as has been seen by the collapse of the USSR and the transformation of China into a capitalist oligarchy.

So it seemed to me at the time that the Vietnamese, whatever their political views, aspirations and allegiances, were above all bent on fighting off foreigners. They were seeking autonomy. The problem was that foreigners – the Americans and their allies, as well as the Chinese and the Soviets – were all seeking to influence that autonomy to their own national and ideological benefit. Of course, the Vietnamese themselves were ideologically divided (as is every single nation-state on this planet), but the foreign actors, and their military hardware, gave those divisions a deadly force, leading to Vietnamese people killing Vietnamese people in massive numbers, aided and abetted by their foreign supporters.

War, of course, brutalises people, and some more than others. That’s where the nationalism-humanism divide is most important. That’s why, in watching the Vietnam War series, I’m most moved by those moments when patriotic bombast is set aside and respect and admiration for the courage and resolution of the Vietnamese enemy is expressed. It’s a respect, in the field, that’s never echoed, even in private, by the American leaders back in Washington. So often, patriotic fervour gets in the way of clear thinking. I was watching the last moments of the sixth episode of the series, when Hal Kushner, a doctor and POW in Vietnam, was speaking in a heartfelt way of his experience there: ‘we understood that despite different backgrounds’, he said, ‘different socioeconomic backgrounds, different races, different religions, that we were… Americans.’ I actually thought, before he uttered that last word, that he was going to make a statement about humanism, the humanity of all parties, at last saying something in stark contrast to his patriotic pronouncements up to that point. But no, he wasn’t about to include the Vietnamese, the enemy. Of course, Kushner had had a bad time in Vietnam, to say the least. He’d been captured and tortured, he’d seen many of his comrades killed… I could certainly understand his attitude to the Vietnamese who did these things, but I could also understand the rage of the Vietnamese, equally patriotic no doubt, when they saw this horde of fucking foreigners coming over with their massive weaponry and arrogance and fucking up their country, destroying their land for years, bombing the fuck out of village after village without discrimination, killing countless babies and kids and young and old folk, male and female, all to prevent the Vietnamese from installing a government of their own choosing just in case it wasn’t sufficiently in keeping with the will of the US government. If patriotism blinds you to this unutterable inhumanity, than it’s clearly a sick patriotism.

I look forward to watching the rest of the series. I wonder who’ll win.

Written by stewart henderson

August 5, 2018 at 8:41 pm