Dreaming of Me

My belly button has all but disappeared. In its place, an odd little pillow of skin lies flush with the rest of my stomach. A dark line – the linea nigra – now runs down the length of my abdomen, dividing me in two. My appendix and intestines, previously at home in my abdominal cavity, have been pushed up and to the sides so that they now form mysterious bulges just below my ribs. Stranger still, I find myself in possession of someone else’s breasts. And then there’s the most noticeable change: the beach ball sized stomach that wholly eclipses my view of my feet.

Of course these changes didn’t come on all at once. I’ve had many months to notice and adjust to them. Still, they’ve happened more rapidly than any other physical changes I’ve experienced in my life. Faster than an adolescent growth spurt, certainly, or any weight gain or loss. My brain has had trouble keeping up. I bump into things with my belly, forgetting its size. I struggle to maintain my balance as my vestibular system tries to adjust to my changing weight distribution. But the lag that has fascinated me most is how I envision myself in my dreams.

Even months into my pregnancy, after my stomach had visibly ballooned, the self I inhabited while dreaming remained as lean as ever. Although thoughts of my pregnancy filled my waking hours, at night I wasn’t the least bit pregnant. In fact, I often dreamt of myself as a high schooler again, wandering the halls without a class schedule or scrambling to find a bus that would deliver me there on time. Why high school? I don’t put much stock in the elaborate interpretation of dream symbols, but I imagine that my dreams of being a lost high school student reflect my waking awareness that parenthood is at my doorstep and I am unprepared. In the face of such a dramatic life change, I can’t help but feel that I’ve lost my lunchbox or forgotten a homework assignment somewhere.

Then, a month or so ago, my dreams began to change. Or rather my dream self changed. My new self often had a swollen midsection and wore maternity clothes (or in one case, a maternity prom dress). She couldn’t drink alcohol and got worn out just walking from the car. The dreams weren’t usually about my pregnancy; my enormous belly was simply present, just like my arm, hands, and feet. Something about my self-image, my internal body schema, had updated. A switch had been flipped and my mind was caught up with my changing body.

I began to wonder about these internal self-schemas that reveal themselves in our dreams. Do other pregnant women experience the same switch and a similar lag? And how long does it take for them to switch back after they’ve delivered their babies? What about other changes to one’s appearance, like growing or shaving off a beard? Or, in a more dramatic example, what happens when someone loses a limb?

I haven’t found much written on baby bumps and beards, but several people have studied whether amputees dream of themselves with intact or amputated bodies. The answer, in short, is it depends. One study found that a majority of surveyed amputees dreamt of themselves with amputated bodies at least some of the time. Among them, 77% made the switch within the first 6 months following their amputations. But the study also showed that a surprising percentage of the surveyed amputees (31%) dreamt exclusively of themselves with intact bodies, even a decade or more after their amputations. Preliminary findings suggest that those who undergo the amputation at a later age, those who regularly use a prosthetic limb, and those who experience phantom sensations from the missing limb may all be more likely to dream with their bodies intact.

It should come as no surprise that the results of the studies are complicated and variable. We can’t expect anything as complex as dreams and internal self-representations to be wholly consistent from person to person or from one dream to another. In my case, I may be pregnant in one dream but not in the next. At times I even dream I’m someone other than myself. Wading into dreams can be a messy business, certainly, but my curiosity is piqued and I’m eager for more data. To all those pregnant or post-pregnant ladies, beard growers, or head shavers out there: please comment and share your experiences! How long did it take for your dream self to catch up with the real thing?

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Photo credit: Sabin Dang

Full of Mind

8746021327_7ac16de746_bThere’s that term again. Mindfulness. It seems to pop up everywhere these days, like the phrase “Don’t have a cow” did in the early 90’s. Like the concept of free love in the 60’s, or isolationism of the 30’s, mindfulness is all the rage in this new millennium.

I’ve come across the concept through family and friends, readings, and now relaxation techniques for labor. Advocates say you can use it to relieve stress, improve physical health, and manage depression and anxiety disorders.

Focus on your breath, they tell you. Become aware of the sensations in your body. Clear your mind of other thoughts and just be in the present moment.

This is, of course, far easier said than done. Now more than ever, with cell phones going off and email, Facebook, and television all clamoring for our attention, we are accustomed to constant entertainment. Even in the few spare moments while we wait for a friend or stand in line at the store, our smart phones feed us a steady stream of news updates, comedic videos, and celebrity gossip. With such entertainment at our very fingertips, it seems impossible to simply focus on our breaths. We would just get so bored.

The problem is that, while distracting ourselves might ward off boredom, it doesn’t seem to make us very happy. Consider a research article published in Science last year with the catchy title ‘A Wandering Mind in an Unhappy Mind.’ The authors used an app that contacted subjects on their iPhones at random times during the day and asked them to record what they were doing at that very moment and rate how they were feeling, from very bad to very good. Finally, it asked them whether they were thinking about something other than what they were currently doing (i.e., not being mindful) and if so, whether that thought was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

What did the authors find? About half of the time, subjects reported that they were thinking about something other than their current activity. The study showed that subjects were less happy when their minds wandered to neutral or negative thoughts than when they were being mindful about the present moment. Even when their minds wandered to positive thoughts, they were no happier than when their thoughts were engaged in the current activity. In short, being ‘mindless’ doesn’t make you feel better, and it can potentially make you feel a whole lot worse.

Another example comes from the remarkable personal experience of a neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke that damaged much of her left hemisphere. In her memoir, My Stoke of Insight, she describes the extraordinary changes she underwent as the stroke ravaged her left hemisphere. She lost the capacity to produce or understand speech and could not walk. But perhaps the most striking detail in her description was the mindfulness she experienced as a result of her brain trauma.

As she writes, “I stopped thinking in language and shifted to taking new pictures of what was going on in the present moment. I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.”

Her experience of perfect mindfulness in the present moment brought her a profound sense of peace and oneness with the rest of the universe. Many who regularly use mindfulness techniques say they experience those same feelings as a benefit of their practice.

Over the course of several years, Dr. Bolte Taylor underwent a miraculous neurological recovery that returned her brain functions. But with all of those gains, she lost something as well. As she puts it, “Now that my left mind’s language centers and storyteller are back to functioning normally, I find my mind not only spins a wild tale but has a tendency to hook into negative patterns of thought.” She now uses mindfulness techniques like focusing on the sensations in her body to bring herself back when her mind is wandering to negativity.

By now, I’m sold on the benefits of mindfulness meditation. I’ve listened to meditation tapes, taken mindfulness classes, and even done a daylong retreat. Yet I still can’t coax myself to sit down and practice it regularly. There are just so many other things to do, and even household chores sound more fun (or at least less boring) than just breathing for a half an hour.

Now, more than six months into my pregnancy, my thoughts are turning to my impending labor. I’ve looked for tools to handle the pain and fear that may come with it. Today, Lamaze is out and meditation is in. From medical doctors to so-called hypnobirthing classes, everyone is recommending mindfulness meditation techniques for relaxation during labor. So I’ll give just being another try because this time it seems that the New Agers are actually on to something.

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Photo credit: Darla Hueske

Guessing at Sex

Something’s happened. Something both miraculous and mundane. Over the past few months I’ve been transformed from a woman into an incubator. A walking, talking (and often eating and napping) incubator programmed to provide the perfect environment for a growing baby . . . something. We’ll find out the gender in a couple weeks. Still, it’s always the first question people ask when they hear that I’m pregnant: “Is it a boy or a girl?” And since we haven’t had an answer for them, my husband and I have been showered with an astonishing number of guesses. It seems that everyone we’ve ever met is secretly a gender-divining expert.

They all have their methods. One woman had me turn around so she could size up my back fat. “If you gain weight in the back, it means you’re having a boy,” she explained. Another examined my face as she explained her theory that women who carry a girl look more beautiful (thanks to the added female hormones) while those carrying a boy start looking more, well, dude-like. Others have sworn by the shape of the belly – if the stomach looks pointed versus broad. One acquaintance asked for the baby’s fetal heart rate, saying that babies with faster heart rates always turn out to be girls. Another friend described her theory that the mother’s personality predicts the baby’s sex; apparently, soft-spoken mothers tend to have boys.

I like when people guess the gender. It’s interesting to hear their varied theories and sweet to think that they’re excited enough about our pregnancy to venture a guess. It makes a personal, biological experience more communal. But I can’t say much for their accuracy. So far, the guesses have been evenly split between boy and girl.

That’s the thing about guessing gender; with a 50-50 chance of either outcome, it’s unimpressive if you’re right and even more unimpressive if you’re wrong. And yet with such odds, it’s only natural that people start thinking they’ve hit on a good heuristic. No matter how wrong your method, you will, on average, be right 50% of the time. That already subjectively feels like a lot of rightness. If you try your method out on a small number of people to start, you could wind up with a lower success rate (by chance) and perhaps abandon your technique, but you might luck out and guess right 75% of the time or higher, at least for a little while. Someone who starts out on a lucky streak may well become a diehard believer who swears by his method, even after his batting average declines.

There’s simply no way that so many people can be so sure of their gender-guessing strategies unless they pick and choose their outcomes. Or unless, as I suspect, their memories do it for them. Consider the conundrum of the grocery store line. Many of us believe we are cursed (or mysteriously inept) at choosing a checkout lane at the grocery store. No matter which line we wind up in, it turns out to be the slowest. If we switch to another, that one mysteriously slows down. You rarely hear about the reverse – people who claim to have a special gift for picking the fastest lane. How can the majority of people be below average at the same task? If their memories are skewing the results. We never notice and remember the times we breeze right through checkout or overtake our neighbors in the next line over. The salient events – and the ones we’ll remember – are the times we’ve been stuck behind someone arguing prices or heaping coupons on the counter. Times when six people go by in the next line over while your food wilts and thaws on the conveyor belt.

It must be the same with guessing gender. When people are right, they are ecstatic and vindicated. When they are wrong, they notice and remember it less. And those that do notice their error may wonder if they misjudged the belly shape or back fat. The problem wasn’t necessarily with the heuristic, but rather with its execution. If only the pregnant lady’s dress had been tighter or if the guesser hadn’t been distracted by hors d’oeuvres, the method would certainly have worked!

I am by no means immune to these twisted ways of thinking. I can’t help but believe that I’m cursed at picking grocery lines. And I also seem to have a guess about this baby’s gender. For no apparent reason, I have it in my head that the baby is a boy. No heuristic here, just a feeling I can’t seem to shake. It’s not that I’d prefer a boy – I’d be equally delighted to have a girl. And I know that there’s no scientific merit to the inkling. Even if a woman could tune into some subtle something in her body and know, she’d need prior experience to compare it to. This being my first pregnancy, I have no idea what it might feel like to carry a boy versus a girl, if such a thing were even possible. So I should put no stock in such a feeling.

And yet when the ultrasound rolls around, I know I’ll be surprised if we learn that the baby’s a girl. Equally happy and excited, to be sure. But most definitely (and illogically) surprised.

The Little Glacier That Could

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My husband and I just returned from an Alaskan cruise. Yes, life is cruel. We ate dessert at every meal, had our very own butler, and enjoyed every type of hedonistic frivolity. We also experienced Alaska for the first time and had our first encounter with a glacier. And it looked, well, cold. And hard. And not nearly as much fun as the ship’s chocolate buffet.

It seems to me that glaciers are suffering from a public relations problem. As temperatures rise, they’ll continue to disappear, altering sea levels and destabilizing ecosystems. Only idiots and corporate zealots think global warming isn’t happening or isn’t harmful. The rest of us are at least aware that glaciers are going the way of popsicles in an August sun. And after seeing a glacier firsthand, I’ve decided the problem is one of image. Glaciers simply aren’t cute.

In one of my recent posts, Six Loves Seven, I wrote about our natural inclination to personify objects. We are social animals and we naturally ascribe genders to our cars and personalities to our misbehaving gadgets. Historically, we’ve even personified nature. We had gods of the sea, of the sun, moon, and earth. And with that personification came respect, or at least awareness. We’re such social animals that we can’t make ourselves care about a hunk of rock, even if that rock happens to be our home. But call that rock Mother Earth and the guilt pours in. Guilt and maybe even the action that it engenders. When we personify, we make ourselves care.

Humans can feel some strong emotions toward inanimate objects – just think of the look of yearning on a window shopper’s face. Or how people will fight over possessions – from divorcing spouses to those divvying up a loved one’s estate. But inanimate objects can’t engender the love and guilt that seems uniquely able to spur us to philanthropy and self-sacrifice.

On an intellectual level, we may understand that glacial melt poses a serious risk to our planet and possibly ourselves. We may even feel anxiety about it. But all of that knowledge and self-interest has probably amounted to less individual action (and certainly less personal agonizing) than the reports that polar bears have been dying as a result. The image of exhausted polar bears searching in vain for sea ice evokes a personal empathy that a block of frozen water never could. If you’re like me, you feel physical discomfort when clips of hungry children flash on your TV screen or when mass mailers stuffed with sad photos arrive in the mail. We understand misery best when we see it on a face.

The solution came to me as my husband and I sailed away on our luxury ocean liner. What we need is a mascot. Maybe a new cartoon franchise featuring Glen the Baby Glacier. Little bitty Glen wants nothing more than to grow to be big like his dad. If only it weren’t so gosh darn hot! Maybe if he’s cute enough and famous enough, kids will start asking to ride their bikes to school. Adults will shell out for the energy-saving light bulbs. And next time my husband and I will opt for a more eco-friendly vacation. Maybe, if only glaciers seemed a little more, well, warm and fuzzy.

My money’s on you, Glen.

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Photo credit: Sabin Dang

Good Morning, Sleepyhead

A few weeks ago, I passed out. One moment I was standing by the door to our apartment, wishing my departing husband a good day at work. The next, my eyes had rolled back in my head and I fell face-first into the wall. My forehead struck the lower hinges of the door; I bruised my cheek and arm and knee, nothing badly. My husband, who was halfway out the door when I fell, rushed to gather me up. He held me and said, “Are you all right? Are you okay?” And that was how I awoke, as if from a long dreamless sleep, on the floor beside our front door.

I was only out a few seconds, but it felt like it could have been hours. I remembered the minutes leading up to my dramatic tumble, but they felt like long ago. A bit ethereal, and separated from the present by a gap that didn’t feel odd to me in the slightest.

I’ve always tended toward low blood pressure and often felt dizzy when standing up. After the fall, doctors checked me out and said I was fine. (My prescriptions are to drink more water and maybe eat more salt.) Still, the experience got me thinking about memory and how it’s a strange and elusive creature. How we always think we’ve caught it but we never have.

Back in my grad school days, we studied the case of H.M., the famous amnesic patient who was unable to form new memories. We learned that his journal was filled with descriptions of waking up as if for the first time and having no recollection of writing any of the prior journal entries, nor of how he came to be where he was. I wonder if the feeling was something like my contradictory experience on the floor, when I lacked memory of the preceding moments and yet felt as if nothing were missing. Time felt continuous, despite the fact that my memory was not.

The experience also reminded me of a dramatic story I read in the nonfiction book Soul Made Flesh. In 1650, a young British servant named Anne Green was seduced by her master’s grandson and gave birth to a stillborn baby. Thanks to the social mores of the time, she was tried and convicted of infanticide and sentenced to death. She proclaimed her innocence to the crowd that gathered in the courtyard of Oxford Castle to watch her hanging. After her speech, the executioner kicked the ladder out from under her and she hanged for almost half an hour before they cut her down and sent her body down the street to be dissected for science. Her designated dissectors were Drs. William Petty and Thomas Willis (of the Circle of Willis). But when they opened the coffin, they heard a rattle in her throat and managed to revive her with water, heat, and herbs.

When Anne Green came to, she began reciting the speech she’d delivered at the gallows. She didn’t remember leaving the prison, climbing the ladder, or giving the speech, much less (thankfully) hanging. A pamphlet later circulated about the event described her memory as “a clock whose weights had been taken off a while and afterward hung on again.” The incident illustrated the machine-like quality of memory. Today we describe it as flipping a switch. Anne Green’s memory had been turned off and then turned on again.

As strange as the stories of H.M. and Anne Green sound, their wild memory lapses aren’t so different from what happens to us everyday. We all experience time as continuous and ongoing, even though our memory is often shot through with holes. We spend a full third of our lives in unconscious slumber and remember little of our dreams. Even our waking lives are terribly preserved in the vault of our memory. How many of your breakfasts can you recall? How many birthday parties and drives to work? How many classroom lectures and airplane rides and showers can you individually call to mind?

Our recollections are mere fragments. They pepper the timeline of our past just enough to form a narrative – one’s life story. This story may feel solid and unbroken, but don’t kid yourself. Your memory is not. We are all amnesic, all a little untethered from the passing moments of our lives. We are continually rediscovering and resurrecting our past to move forward in the present. In one way or another, we have all roused from our coffin reciting a speech from the gallows or come to on the floor with a sore face and an astonished husband. We are all perpetually in the process of waking up for the very first time.

Who Am I Again?

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Thanks to a recent kerfuffle over the Earth’s precession and its effect on our astrological signs, many people have spent this week questioning their personality traits. I went from being a life-long Gemini (changeable, duplicitous) to a possible Taurus (stubborn, steady), neither of which I think describe me. I’ve never believed in astrological signs, but many people do, and this week must have been a confusing one for them.

The whole thing got me thinking about how we look outward for explanations and definitions of our inner selves. No one has a better vantage point than we do to observe our own personal thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. How funny that we once looked to the stars in order to understand ourselves! Those of us who consider ourselves scientific and modern are no better. Although we scoff at sun signs and palm readings, increasingly we are turning to our brains and our DNA for answers that they simply can’t give.

In the 1800’s, the Phrenological Fowlers (later Fowlers and Wells) founded a nationwide industry on reading people’s personalities based on the bumps on their heads. They published extensively and sent emissaries to small towns throughout the U.S. so that, for a small fee, the masses might come to know themselves better. The company and its methods were an unrivaled success. America was obsessed with phrenology. Sometime in the 1860’s, a curious Mark Twain visited Fowler’s office under an assumed name. Fowler read his head and said that his skull dipped in at a particular point where it should have bulged out – a sure sign that Twain, the preeminent American humorist, utterly lacked a sense of humor.

Nowadays, many still look to their brains for answers. When I used to scan participants in fMRI experiments, they would often ask what I could tell them about their brains. I couldn’t tell them anything; all the analysis took place later, back at the lab. But as a frequent subject in pilot experiments for my own and colleagues’ studies, I’ve had unfettered access to data from my own brain. I know that I have a large and robust fusiform face area (a region thought to be critical for face recognition) and a rather dinky visual word form area (implicated in identifying letters of the alphabet.) What does that mean, when I am an avid reader and often embarrass myself with my poor ability to recognize faces?

While people still look to the stars and to brains (if not skulls) in order to understand themselves, the next big thing has arrived. The age of personal genomics is upon us and countless startups out there are eager to swap a check and a swab of our cells for a glimpse into our futures and ourselves. I have to admit, I fantasize sometimes about having my genome read. I would love the chance to pour through details about my ancestral line or learn what type of diseases I am predisposed to developing. But the biggest draw is to learn about myself. What forms of the anxiety genes do I have? What about genes linked to mental illness, intelligence, novelty-seeking? As a scientist, I know that complex traits are determined by a mixture of environment and numerous genes, many of which we haven’t yet discovered. Beyond that, epigenetic factors influence the expression of our genes in ways we don’t yet understand. Yet I still find myself wishing someone would hand me that printout with the secrets to myself.

The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker wrote a wonderful essay wading through his results when his own genome was sequenced. In it, he struggles with the discrepancies. His genome says he should be sensitive to bitter flavors, yet he enjoys beer, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. His genome says he has a high risk of baldness, yet he is known for his thick mane of overflowing, curly hair. Other results he believes or would like to believe. What is a person seeking direction and self-wisdom to do?

So at the end of this astrologically confusing week, I find myself at a loss. Why do we crave external guidance to help us understand our internal selves? It may be because we are less static and more changeable than we like to believe. As I alluded to in my post about our potential to do evil, psychology experiments (and history) have shown that human beings are heavily influenced by their circumstances. Because we are adaptable, we behave very differently depending on who we are with and what we are doing. Although the adaptability may be advantageous, I suspect it unsettles us. We want to believe we have a solid, stable identity, and we will look to mystics or scientists – anyone who can give us that assurance. I know who I am and who I always will be.

The hard (but in its own way beautiful) truth is that we are each a complex and contradictory landscape of traits, behaviors, and passions. Be wary of those who try to describe you with a handful of paltry adjectives. Know thyself. Or keep trying, anyway. It should take at least a lifetime.

Six Loves Seven

Ever since I was a child, numbers have been boys or girls. I remember moments of boredom in second grade when I looked at the number line stretched out above the chalkboard and made up stories about the digits between 3 and 9. (For some reason, 1 and 2 were too small to interest me much.) The numbers 3, 5, 6, and 9 were male, while 4, 7, and 8 were female. Six was in love with 7 and sought love advice and pick up lines from the clever trickster 5, the Cyrano de Bergerac of numbers. Meanwhile, 8 was the silent, wise woman, advising her neighbor and protégée 7 toward caution. To this day, when I call to mind these digits, their personalities and genders are as tied up in their meaning as their numerical representation. Just as 7 will eternally be the sum of 3 and 4, in my eyes it will always and forever be a girl.

My foray into the love life of digits may or may not be typical, but we all personify the world around us. Children naturally personify their teddy bears or action figures. Adults often name and genderize their cars, musical instruments, or gadgets. Historically, boats are given genders, as are ‘mother countries.’ Consider the success of Tron, a movie based on personifying computer programs. Consider the fan clubs devoted to Roombas (small, automated vacuum cleaners), and the many people who call them ‘cute’ or think of them as pets. We have one of those handy little guys, and when he is roaming around the house, I can’t help but think of him as alive.

Certain types of objects or concepts evoke personification more than others. Things that move or interact with us. Things that are important to us or that we rely upon. And certainly, things whose workings we don’t understand or can’t control. When our computer or television isn’t working, don’t we yell at it and talk to it? Isn’t there some frustration that comes from the fact that it’s not cooperating, like a stubborn child? When a vending machine “steals” our money, do we strike it merely because we think it will magically release our bag of Fritos? Or isn’t part of the reason because we’re angry at its bad behavior? It has acted unfairly; it has taken our money and reneged on its end of the deal.

Before the modern era of scientific gadgetry and examination, the whims of weather, reproduction, disease, and death were mysterious and fickle. Imagine how terrifying life would have been in such an extreme and unpredictable world, when harvests could be ruined without reason and infants struck down with inexplicable pox. It was in our nature, as creative, thinking beings, to explain the unexplainable. To create a framework in which we could try to understand the world, and in doing so, control it.

Should it surprise us that, since ancient times, societies the world over have developed mythologies and religions with anthropomorphic gods? We are inherently social animals and it is in our nature to think in terms of conscious entities with thoughts and emotions like ours. We know how to behave with each other, and if the gods are like us, then we know how to behave with them. We can make offerings to them, please them, appease them. We can win their favor, and in doing so, win ourselves good fortune. By conceptualizing the world in terms we understand, we believe we gain some purchase on our fate.

Now when I see children talking to their stuffed animals, bandaging their wounds or serving them tea, I think that they are practicing. When I remember my younger self, enraptured by the love affair of numbers 6 and 7, I think that I was in training. Like other children, I was just beginning to try to make sense of this world.

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