Existential & neural plasticity

helmet pink use

In the last two posts, we’ve seen how tobacco smokers and anthropogenic climate-change deniers demonstrate a similar psychology.


Jack Shackaway now looks at a third such group — those, including himself, who take motorcycle taxis in Bangkok. Jack offers this as a follow-up to both my “How I quit smoking” and my “Immortality for Joe Atheist” posts.

He claims the following sketch has been sitting on his computer since back in a time (or a parallel universe) when the motorcycle helmet rules were actually being sort of enforced in Bangkok and back when neural plasticity was indeed the media flavor of the month, and not merely old hat.

Extradimensional currents

Here I am, in Bangkok traffic, sitting on the back of a motorcycle taxi, telling myself, yet again, that I should remember never to find myself sitting on motorcycle taxis in Bangok traffic. My driver’s spare brainbucket, being too small for my head, hangs from the side of our vehicle. Anyway, the strap’s broken, not to mention the helmet is shocking pink. Whatever. Right away, I can see my driver has little or no depth perception. Given the way he leans the wrong way into corners he may also suffer an inner-ear infection. From the outset he keeps seeing openings among the contending currents of traffic, holes that no one else — especially me, what with my eyes closed in terror — can see. Never mind his apparent death wish, I can only conclude he’s either the unluckiest attemptive suicide in the world, or else he knows something the rest of us do not. Perhaps it’s due to some understanding on his part of extra-dimensional physics that we don’t have a head-on collision with any of these cars, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks or other motorcycles.

Big surprise — we actually get to the printer. But it’s closed. So what do I do? I suggest he takes me back to a noodleshop on my soi, my sub-street, thereby indicating serious brain damage on my own part even if we have avoided leaving my brains strewn across the road.motosai massed

Second chances

Never mind. The media flavor of the month is neural “plasticity”. Back when, in the Stone Age of behavioral psychology, we were told with confidence that, after the age of 15, our neurons started popping off at the rate of about one a second. I was never really able to relax and enjoy life after watching one prominent scientist standing there at the podium telling us this while she snapped her fingers, counting off the death of our brain cells.

That was about the same time I discovered booze and the fact that sufficient quantities of this substance could erase the fear of steady neural attrition at the same time, sufficiently applied, it could erase millions and millions more cells, preferably the ones in charge of inciting anxiety about such matters. But good news! Current wisdom says this steady and inevitable brain death is not a fact of life. Indeed, freelance writers and other piss-artists get another shot at sentience. That’s right. Brain cells regenerate, in some uncertain way and at some uncertain rate. I’m actually hoping that they regenerate faster than Dr. Donald Hebb, the behavioral psychologist, claimed they died in the natural course of events, or else, by my own calculations, I’ll have to live 2,700,000 years to regenerate what I lose in a year, at a very conservative estimate of 1 million cells per booze-up at the rate of 2 per week, or around 700 per year, given that there are nearly 2 trillion seconds in a year, and that’s only if I stop boozing now.

I’ve just revisited that last paragraph, and it confuses me, which is no more than one should expect given the fact that I’ve been drinking too much twice a week all my adult life. … Wait a minute—if there are really nearly 2 trillion seconds in a year, and my neurons had been dying at the rate of 1 per second, I should have run out of brain cells long ago. … What’s that you say? …

Ha, ha. Anyway, I’m a writer, not a mathematician.

I could really use a beer.

But wait! My point is this. Collin has recently offered us other grounds for hope in such matters, where I can fall on my bare head off as many motorcycles as I like and still persist reasonably intact in a bunch of other parallel worlds where, as it happens, this doesn’t actually occur. Hey, and doesn’t that also mean I inhabit infinite other universes where I can erode my brain down to a nub, a game of Pong between two remaining neurons, and so what? Because a bunch more universes remain where I haven’t done this yet and can still do it if I feel like it. Collin doesn’t generally go around tsk-tsking people but, if he did, he’d be doing it now. Maybe in the next adjacent universe, eh?max tegmark quantum_cartoon

In fact I think I’ll go get that beer right now.

brain cells numberThe multiple universe cartoon is from Max Tegmark’s website. * The Whole Brain diagram is from http://www.suzanaherculanohouzel.com/azevedo-et-al-2009-j-comp-neur/, which is a rich source of related information. The massed motorcycles shot is from http://www.thailandodyssey.com/bangkok-local-private-transportation/.