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Week Two –

1: “This is amazing, I swear I’ve heard of it before.” Her flowery introduction made for good bait to get me started reading the article, but the connections I made with the science was what really got me. Even though I enjoy science articles, I really appreciate how fluently she mingled the hard concepts with her visualizations.

2. The essay is definitely a science essay, written about science; simply from a personal perspective. Thurmstrom can be paralleled with a journalist going in and doing some activity to get a better understanding of the story she’s reporting. While her history of chronic pain enables her to communicate on that level with other patients, and better convey to us her experience and the experience others could expect, the article isn’t about her. It’s about pain and the brain, and that’s not something she claims to have a monopoly on.

3. I think one of the most important parts of the essay for Thurmstrom was when she got burned during the trials. In her podcast, she mentions that she believes faith was a big played in the monks being able to pierce themselves without expressing pain, and here, she mentions that her unchallenged belief that the doctor was trustworthy and safe led to her mind reinforcing a limit on the pain she felt.

But even during the moments when I was actively trying to imagine the pain as negatively as possible, it remained in a mental box of “not even burned,” which kept it from really hurting: hurting, that is, the way a burn would.

As it turned out, I got a second-degree burn that later darkened into a square mark. I was so convinced that Mackey would not burn me that my brain had not perceived the stimulus as a threat and generated pain. I admired him, I trusted him, I was positive that he wouldn’t hurt me. And, ipso facto, he hadn’t.

4. For me, even before hopefulness came in, the article generated a feeling of giddy excitement. The idea of being able to stifle pain at your will, without the hazards of people who can’t feel any pain, is enormously attractive. Mix that in with the other possibilities such a leap into the realms of science and neurobiology could lead to, and you’ve got someone really eager to head to the fringes of biological research. Then, the hopefulness struck, as I thought of the people, including the ones I knew, who could benefit from this.

5. Thurmstrom did seem optimistic throughout most of the essay, but there were times I paused and considered the efficacy of the treatment, and I didn’t feel she let of as much doubt as I did. Before she gets to the portion of the article where she discusses her experience in the experiment, she does sound a bit bitter when she talks about chronic pain.

6. The first sentence is a question that sets the whole optimistic, just-over-the-horizon tone of the piece. It doesn’t actually pose a realistic scenario, but the first question seems to paint a “anything is possible with this” feeling at the very beginning, and with the way she introduces it, it makes us feel more susceptible to slight exaggerations of the possibilities the treatment can offer. Another question I felt had particular importance was Mickey’s “What if we were just creating a really expensive placebo?”, because it showed a potential problem with the research that I hadn’t thought of.

7. Thurmstrom doesn’t bring the term “fire” in until later in the piece, when she’s actually inside the fMRI. Before that, she describes the pain as “soggy, moldy, or perhaps ashy”, which I find curious. But fire, on the other hand, is a far easier prop to use to convey the idea of pain, and she uses it to give the pain a “physical” representation, and “personifying” it allowed her to try and manipulate it during her trial.

8. The article seems to want us to think more about how not just the brain works, but how the mind works, as it ends with remarks about consciousness in reference to the fMRI. I think Thurmstrom wants us to think about how something like this could affect our perception of reality, since that’s the same point she starts out with. Could we look at our minds like a painter looks at his painting?

9. My answer for numbers 3 and the latter half of 7 are the portions of the article that really cemented my feelings of intrigue and excitement and promise. It wasn’t until the very end of the article, the 2nd-last paragraph, where Thurmstrom explains that the imaging process really isn’t that spectacular, and barely manages to offer us a glimpse into the workings of the brain as we’d like to be able to have.  Her “silent film orchestra” was a slap in the face to a lot of the idealistic thoughts that would sprout during this.

10. A “striking” portion of the essay is definitely the “silent film orchestra” bit, and it’s brutally down-to-earth with clunky reality, as opposed to all the hopeful parts that flutter around the beginning of the piece. Even two paragraphs above that, she talks about how she’d really like to use this technology for self-inspection rather than merely treaing paink, which is exactly what I would do. But, alas, she shuts those hopes down by making clear the limitations of our technology. When I read it, this paragraph had a very snide “I’m sorry but” air to it, whereas in the beginning, it sounded more “What is anything was possible?”

11. Since my last two responses were on the ending remarks, I guess I notice now that the voices of other people are the “checks” on her idealist tones. Since she spent most of the article building the readers up with anticipation for these great ideas, she must’ve realized the conclusions that some of us had inevitably come to, and felt best to include the hard truth in it. But if she had done it in her own voice, it would have been a pretty traitorous, “leading-on”, bait-and-switch kind of ending, and she wanted to side with the hopefuls when the line was drawn between the possibilities of future research. Instead, she poses the question we would ask to someone else, and lets them deliver the bad news.

12. I’ve heard of phantom-limb pain before, and I remember a House episode on it, where a patient missing a hand felt a constant, “clenching” pain where the hand was. In the episode (The Tyrant), Dr. House uses a technique called the “mirror box” to trick the patient’s brain into believing that his missing hand was physically there. Once his brain saw that, the patient imagined he was unclenching both hands (in reality, only unclenching one) and miraculously, his pain went away. Looking it up, the technique was real and practical, invented by a Dr. Ramachandran, and pretty effective.

13. Obviously, I thought of #12 when reading this piece, since the term “phantom limb” was used in the piece. Since I’m thinking about it now, another House episode comes to mind, where the Doctors use brain scans to try and decipher the thoughts of one of the patients. Though I highly doubt the episode had much real science behind it, the technique seemed to be one of the things Thurmstrom was interested in- using brain scans to peer into the brain and understand it.

14. This article has strong relevance to the field of philosophy, and with the podcast, a great reference to religion as well. The philosophies of the mind, of loops, and of grandfather paradoxes, all plague and challenge the idea of altering one’s own brain. Her “faith” in Dr. Mackey is parallel to the monks’ faith in her podcast story.

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About Gib

I'm a college graduate with degrees in Biology and Political Science, and a minor in Bioengineering. I'm a self-taught programmer, and I love to learn.

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