Monday, April 27, 2015

Individual Happiness

Human Nature

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness, 1859
Happy Childhood by Gustave Doyon, a French painter born in 1837: The painting, “A Young Girl Holding a Bouquet,” suggests beauty and innocence and perhaps happiness. Is childhood happiness a good and reliable predictor of adult happiness? Not always, but questions on an unhappy childhood might be the more interesting of the two, as it is often the catalyst for positive change in adults. Unhappy persons often would like to forget their formative years, and thus take great pains to re-invent themselves into something else more happy, more productive. Are the most driven people the product of an unhappy childhood?
Credit: Gustave Doyon, artist; L. Prang & Co., publisher; 1861-97. From a photo taken at the Boston Public Library.
Source: Wikipedia

All individuals would like to be happy; this statement is common knowledge and accepted as common wisdom. It is also accepted truth that happiness is related to individual freedom, namely, the freedom of the individual to pursue his or her goals and ambitions in accordance with his or her individuality or individualism; it often follow that this means without restraint. It often follows that this means that in some cases laws need changing. So far so good; most persons would not find anything here with which to disagree. Nothing disagreeable; nothing offensive.

This makes me “happy” for some reason that has to do with social acceptance. But before I pursue this line of inquiry, I would like to bring up a few words that are often used similarly in speech and in writing, their simple unadorned definitions below:
Individual: A separate human being;
: the qualities of characteristics that makes one person different from another;
; a philosophical belief where the needs of a human being are greater than that of the collective or society where that person resides; also called egoism
It would follow that all humans generally subscribe to the first two, but not necessarily to the third word on the list. Individualism is a fairly modern idea, dating to the writings of  English philosopher, John Stuart Mills, and in particular, to his 1859 essay, On Liberty. In terms of political thought and theory, classical liberalism is viewed as a milder and socially acceptable form of the practice of individualism; there are many others, including libertarianism and anarchy, and subsets and variations of both, which in their most extreme forms view the state and collective rights as unnecessary, if not punitive and anti-individual.

At the heart of the matter are the working out of ways of thought, of living and of being. Living together on the same planet, while meeting individual needs. This is not easy, and it is getting harder, as the needs become greater, more varied.

For example, one central question is how an individual is supposed to live in a society of other individuals, each who has particular views, ideas and thoughts on living that confer meaning, hope, and happiness. How does a society accept or, rather, tolerate and, in some cases, affirm a person’s individuality and individualism? When do the rights of one individual negate the rights of another? Or to put in the language of our definitions: When does one individual's view on individualism bump against another individual's view, which is diametrically opposite to his or hers. This can and does happen today, and it is a thorny issue that has no easy resolution. It leads to unhappiness for some individuals.

Consider the family, which is many cases is a microcosm, a small ecosystem of the larger society in which it resides or exists. Families share many things in common, but they also do not, hence the arguments, the hurt feelings, the resentments. When Tolstoy said one of the most famous lines in literature about unhappy families in Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”), he spoke from an experience and, might I add, about an experience that escapes no one. There is an insightful 1989 article on Tolstoy in Commentary (“Tolstoy and the Pursuit of Happiness”) that you might find time to read.

Not everyone can be happy at the same time, including couples who are generally happy with each other, co-workers, colleagues, and life-long friends; while someone you know might be happy, you might not. Does this make you a downer? Does this make you bad company? someone to avoid? Most persons will find themselves in periods of unhappiness and struggle through these, often alone, but more often than not with the help and support of other individuals. In biology, when two different groups help each other, it is called symbiosis. We use the term here in its most liberal sense; what is understood is that a lone-wolf approach is no healthy or happy way to live. There is a connection among us, even if we do not see it or admit it.

This calls to mind another famous literary term, “No Man is An Island,“ written by John Donne, the 17th century metaphysical English poet, in his 1624 work, “Devotions”:
No Man is an Island
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Eventually it does, and all individuals, whether they thought themselves as the full expression of individualism, or not, have to consider what mark they left on others. The individual's importance is only as important, it seems, as how others measure it. Children are often the harshest critics, sometimes cruel in their criticism of their parents’ vices and virtues, notwithstanding any personal accomplishments or notable achievements—they, the children, always say with sincere conviction that theirs will be better record, that they understand better the rules of happiness. This equates to freedom to pursue all wants, with little understanding that this is not happiness. But they speak then as children, and not as mature adults, and not as parents with a lot of history. (Later on, they might forgive.)

The willful pursuit of happiness might be as easy as chasing the wind, which is given to changing direction and force; it’s difficult if not disconcerting life’s work, with the possibility of little reward. Personal happiness and the determined pursuit of it might not be as important a goal as many today say it is; there are others, less individual, less self-aggrandizing, that might indirectly lead to happiness, including the pursuit of justice, of liberty, of peace, of knowledge, of kindness and of generosity of spirit. It might well be that the moderate but serious pursuit of a life of giving and of helping others might eventually lead to the kind of quiet and steady happiness that eludes many individuals today.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Feeling Good About Chocolate

Annals of Confectionery History

Chocolate, Please: “Advert for Fry’s Chocolates, one of the biggest players in the chocolate industry throughout the 18th and 19th century.”
Photo Credit: J.S. Fry & Sons, Ltd.; 1900.

Source: Miami University Libraries, Oxford, Ohio

An article, by Christine A. Jones, in Public Domain Review looks at a time when 17th century Europeans considered chocolate as a medicinal drug—to be used with caution and only under the advisement of a pharmacist or physician. Jones, an associate professor of French and comparative literary and cultural studies at the University of Utah, writes:
In the seventeenth century, Europeans who had not traveled overseas tasted coffee, hot chocolate, and tea for the very first time. For this brand new clientele, the brews of foreign beans and leaves carried within them the wonder and danger of far-away lands. They were classified at first not as food, but as drugs — pleasant-tasting, with recommended dosages prescribed by pharmacists and physicians, and dangerous when self-administered. As they warmed to the use and abuse of hot beverages, Europeans frequently experienced moral and physical confusion brought on by frothy pungency, unpredictable effects, and even (rumor had it) fatality. Madame de Sévigné, marquise and diarist of court life, famously cautioned her daughter about chocolate in a letter when its effects still inspired awe tinged with fear: “And what do we make of chocolate? Are you not afraid that it will burn your blood? Could it be that these miraculous effects mask some kind of inferno [in the body]?”1
These mischievously potent drugs were met with widespread curiosity and concern. In response, a written tradition of treatises was born over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Physicians and tradesmen who claimed knowledge of fields from pharmacology to etiquette proclaimed the many health benefits of hot drinks or issued impassioned warnings about their abuse. The resulting textual tradition documents how the tonics were depicted during the first century of their hotly debated place among Europe’s delicacies.
Chocolate was the first of the three to enter the pharmaceutical annals in Europe via a medical essay published in Madrid in 1631: Curioso Tratado de la naturaleza y calidad del chocolate by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma. Colmenero’s short treatise dates from the era when Spain was the main importer of chocolate. Spain had occupied the Aztec territories since the time of Cortés in the 1540s — the first Spanish-language description of chocolate dates from the 1552 — whereas the British and French were only beginning to establish a colonial presence in the Caribbean and South America during the 1620s and 30s. Having acquired a degree in medicine and served a Jesuit mission in the colonies, Colmenero was as close as one could come to a European expert on the pharmaceutical qualities of the cacao bean. Classified as medical literature in libraries today, Colmenero’s work introduced chocolate to Europe as a drug by appealing to the science of the humors, or essential bodily fluids.

“Humoralism,” a theory of health and illness inherited from Hippocrates and Galen was still influential in 1630. It held that the body was composed of four essential liquids: black bile, blood, yellow bile, and phlegm. Each humor echoed one of the four elements of nature—earth, air, fire, and water—and exhibited particular properties that changed the body’s disposition: black bile was cold and dry, blood was hot and wet, yellow bile felt hot and dry, and phlegm made the body cold and wet. Balanced together, they maintained the healthy functioning of an organism. When the balance among them tipped and one occurred in excess, it produced symptoms of what we now call “disease” in the body. While common European pharmaceuticals had long been classified as essentially cooling or heating, cacao presented both hot and cold characteristics. Later treatises faced the same conundrum regarding coffee. Depending on how it was administered/ingested, hot chocolate’s curative effects also crisscrossed the humoral categories in unexpected ways.
It been hundreds of years since chocolate was met with such hot caution; today, chocolate is happily consumed, and the chief concern is getting fat or consuming too much sugar. Who today doesn’t enjoy a good hot chocolate on a cold day? There is something happening in our brains that induces feelings of well-being when we humans consume or ingest chocolate. While medical and scientific theory has progressed beyond the prevailing idea of the four humours, we have in some ways returned to it.

We today acknowledge that food does affect our moods our health and our over-all well-being, yet today we consider the chemical reactions that take place in our brains as the primary reason for these good feelings. Chocolate contains chemicals that make us feel good; Kostas C. Kloukinas writes in “All About Chocolate” (2001):
There are some scientific reasons why chocolate makes us feel good and is good for us. To begin with, the main factors of sugar, fat, and carbohydrate provide a boost of energy. Then there is chocolate's seductive mouth feel, the result of cocoa butter, which melts at close to body temperature. Also, chocolate contains theobromine, caffeine, phenylethylamine (PEA), and anandamide that add to its appeal. These chemical substances have a profound effect on the brain and demonstrate that chocolate has a definite physiological effect on the body.
It might well be that chocolate is one of those foods that both tastes good and provides medicinal effects.

For more, go to [PublicDomRev]

Monday, April 20, 2015

Why Canadians Talk So Much About The Weather

National Identity

Spring-Like Day: Today’s photo shows a northwestern view from my sixth-floor balcony, taken on the afternoon of April 15th. As for the weather, it was partly cloudy and 15°C (59°F). The only green evident are from the evergreens of G. Ross Lord Park; this should change in a few weeks, when the maple, oak and ash trees start to bud and form their generous leaves.
Photo Credit & Source:
©Perry J. Greenbaum; April 2015

People generally talk about and complain about things that deeply affect them, but feel powerless to change; this explains why Canadians talk and complain about the weather; it might be the same reason why Americans complain about taxes and the political process, Brits about how things were better in the past and the French about everything, from banks to boyfriends to poor restaurant service.

Returning to Canada for a bit. It was a particularly cold winter, one of the coldest in memory; the Farmer’s Almanac, which first published in 1818, said in August 2014 that this winter would be severe (they claim 80 per cent accuracy in their forecasts, certainly no worse prognosticators than Environment Canada, our national weather service).

Winters in Canada are generally cold and snowy; most of the country, with the exception of southern parts of British Columbia, Canada’s California, sees winter arrive early in November and stay late: five months is the average. then there is a transition period of non-winter, which arrives around April 1 and lasts for three or four weeks, or so; the weather is unpredictable and iffy, and one has to keep both winter clothing and spring clothing easily at hand. It's a familiar ritual.

The month of April might be the most difficult to bear, and it might be “the cruelest month,” as T.S. Eliot said in the beginning of his 1922 poem “The Waste Land”:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
—Section I: The Burial of the Dead
Eliot was here referring not so much to the temporary and transient destruction that winter often provides, but to one that is man-made: war, and in this particular case, The First World War, and its many losses, including those of the old order and its familiar and understood ways. Yet, taking poetic license, it is somewhat true that Canadians view April, or at least its beginnings, this way, that is, as cruel; and Eliot in all fairness could not understand, given that he was an American residing in England, and never to my knowledge had ever visited Canada.

Still, the poem is full of depressing and disturbing imagery that speaks of a lost time. Time and memory form a strong bond, it becomes more important when you have less, and we speak of better times, quality time, time well spent, having a good time and good times remembered. For many here in Canada, winter seems like a waste of days, and summer like fleeting fun; I do not go this far, as winter serves a purpose as a precursor to the regeneration of the land. But the complaint is understood, if not appreciated.

After so much complaining and words like “tired,” “exhaustion” and “unfair” get used over and over gain, it ends, winter, that is. It not so much leaves quietly with dignity, but in frustration and anger like a house guest who has overstayed his welcome. You almost feel sorry for winter.

Spring finally arrives at the end of April, or early May, and it might last for about a month, before the hot weather of summer arrives at the end of May or early June. If we are fortunate, we have three good summer months, before another one-month transition period of non-summer arrives in September; and October is Fall or Autumn. And so begins the true cycle of Canadian seasons.

I have seen it snow here in Canada in every month except for July and August.

Five months of winter, three months of summer, two months of transition and one month each of spring and autumn (or fall). That’s Canada, and that's what we Canadians talk about.

The weather today (Sunday the 19th of April, when this article is being written) is for a forecast high of 15°C (or 59°F); it is expected to be partly cloudy. The rest of the week, the forecast calls for temperature below normal—reaching no higher than 10°C (or 50°F) and much rain. Nothing like a cold rain to dampen your warm-weather spirits, which no doubt in the minds of Canadians confirms April’s cruelty. Oh, well, it looks like a week indoors, where I can catch up with those pile of books on my bedside table. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Seeing Black

Human Perceptions

Black Square: “Robert Fludd’s black square representing the nothingness that was prior
to the universe, from his Utriusque Cosmi (1617).”
Image Credit & Source: Wellcome Library, London.

An article, by Eugene Thacker, in Public Domain Review looks at the colour black; we have all entered into the debate of whether black is a definite colour or the absence of any colour, or something more enigmatic, not easily defined. But black also conjures up ideas about existence, pre-existence and nothingness, bringing up mathematical concepts like infinity, and astronomical ideas about black holes.

Thacker, who teaches at The New School in New York, writes:
Some time ago I was doing research for a seminar I planned to offer on “media and magic”. I was interested in the concept of magic as it existed in the Renaissance, and in particular with the so-called occult philosophy of thinkers like Marsilio Ficino, Giordano Bruno, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Robert Fludd. It was while reading about Fludd that I discovered a startling image. It was from his major work, an ambitious, multi-volume, syncretic theory-of-everything with the cumbersome title The Metaphysical, Physical, and Technical History of the Two Worlds, the Major as well as the Minor. Fludd published his work between 1617 and 1621, and each volume is generously supplied with diagrams, tables and images. The image that jumped out at me is quite simple. In a section discussing the origin of the universe, Fludd was compelled to speculate on what existed prior to the universe, which he describes as an empty nothingness, a sort of “pre-universe” or “un-universe”. He chose to represent this with a simple black square.

The image was startling to me because it was so different from the other images of Fludd’s that we are used to – elaborate, ornate, hyper-complex diagrams that detail all the movements of the planets or of the mind. The black square was also startling because it immediately brought to mind examples from modern art, the most noteworthy being Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square on a White Ground from 1915. Being a former literature student, I was also reminded of the enigmatic “black page” from Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67). Fludd’s black square was, to be sure, enigmatic. Not only that, but Fludd also seemed aware of the limits of representation, noting, on each edge of the black square, Et sic in infinitum, “And so on to infinity…”
Infinity is one of those concepts that can be easily discussed by mathematicians and physicists, but it is not easily understood by the rest of us. What is this sideways eight (∞) represent other than some abstract principle? So it is with quantum theory and black holes; it is said that black holes are dense bodies of matter with such a strong gravitational pull that no matter or radiation can escape; this includes light, hence their blackness. There is truly something enigmatic, poetic if you will, about blackness, it giving a sense of stillness and silence. It evokes other human senses, as all colours do, but in a more potent manner. In some perceptual sense, to look into a pool of blackness is to see nothing, a nihilistic view, perhaps, but it is a view held by some skeptics who use their minds to rationalize that before there was something, there had to be nothing—non-existence, or is it pre-existence. And this is as far back as I would like to go.

For more, go to [PubDomainRev]

Monday, April 13, 2015

Canada: Accommodation To Our Nature

Canadian Geography

Red Maple Leaf by A.Y. Jackson: The National Gallery of Canada writes: “Painted in A.Y. Jackson's Toronto studio in November 1914, this landscape is based on a sketch from nature produced along the Oxtongue River in Algonquin Park. With its foreground screen of fragile young branches and fluttering red leaves set against a background of churning rapids, this composition captures a distinctive natural phenomenon in Canada, and one symbolic of budding nationalist sentiments, which the outbreak of war a few months earlier had made more acute.”
Photo Credit: National Gallery of Canada; November 1914

When I was in high school, in the 1970s, we learned a lot about Canadian geography; I do not know if this is the case today. One of the parameters that define a nation is its geography, and Canada has much of it, the second largest country in the world after Russia. And most of it is found in what would be described as the frozen north, north of the 60, that is, north of latitude 60 as such things are measured on global maps.

And, yet, like most Canadians, I reside in a thin strip of geography close to the border we share with the United States. Like most Canadians, I reside in an urban area. I now reside in Toronto, and before that in Montreal, where I was born. Unlike any other nation, except for Russia, a great majority of people do not reside outside this thin ribbon. Yet, the major part of Canada, unseen and hidden from our everyday view, reminds us about the importance of Canada's geography. This is what in many ways defines us Canadians; Canada is about geography, the land, its hugeness, vastness and its natural diversity and how we survive within it.

Many years ago, I was driving an Israeli businessman west outside of Montreal; after driving for about an hour, he remarked how large, how vast and how much green forest defined Canada (this was during the summer). All this is true and expected for the world's second-largest nation that has vast riches in natural resources, including its rich and diverse forests and fauna.

How important is geography? More important than I had originally thought sitting in that high-school classroom taught by Mr. Davies. During this time, there was much written and discussed about Canadian identity; one of the prevailing views was that we Canadians defined ourselves as not Americans, and some took this as a negative, in that we didn't have our own identity, that we did not have a definition of who we were, or are.

But we do; but it it not as precise or particular as some would like. For example, if you place an American and a Canadian in the same room with a Brit and a German, the non-Americans will immediately know who the Canadian is, and it has nothing to do with politeness or niceness or aloofness. Or some other sentiment that many Americans hold about Canadians. If you look at films, for example; Canadian films differ than American ones. (e.g., one is about conquering and owning the land; the other is about understanding and accommodating the land. Lately, as an aside, I haven’t seen too many well-made or thoughtful American films, now preferring Canadian documentaries and foreign-produced films.)

For reasons that everything to do with whom I have become, I now have a hard time viewing American news or American-made films and TV shows (although I enjoy Charlie Rose and many PBS cultural shows). I find many overly strident, noisy and, of course, U-S.-centric without a concerned international understanding of the world and of other peoples; the combined effect is that I am reminded that I am neither American nor could never be, despite previous desires to become. (My favourite Canadian-produced shows are Murdoch Mysteries, The Nature of Things and Doc Zone.) This is not American bashing or a bout of envy, but a sentiment of mature preferences, and nothing more. Yet, I have respect for many things and ideas American, even if many Americans do not. Again, this has to do with the intersection of geography and the culture it generates.

There is a reason for this view or change of heart. I am a Canadian at heart, but like most Canadians I neither wear this on my sleeve, nor see a rational reason why I ought to, chiefly because I am a Canadian. The question then is asked, So, what is Canada? a Canadian? The answer, if it can be found, returns to geography, and our history of survival in a cold, harsh climate and carving a civilization from it. Unlike the American idea of conquering the land and of manifest destiny, Canadians view it as an accommodation, a co-existence with the land. You can’t really conquer Canada; you can only live within its boundaries in a way that gives beauty and pleasure. And a feeling of survival from the elements. This is starkly different from living in a warmer climate; Russians understand this, and their novels reflect this understanding, as do Canadian novels.

Consider Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, which was published in 1972:
The central symbol for Canada -- and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature - is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance. Like the Frontier and The Island, it is a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of "hostile" elements and/or natives: carving out a place and a way of keeping alive. But the word can also suggest survival of a crisis or disaster, like a hurricane or a wreck, and many Canadian poems have this kind of survival as a theme; what you might call 'grim' survival as opposed to 'bare' survival. For French Canada after the English took over it became cultural survival, hanging on as a people, retaining a religion and a language under an alien government. And in English Canada now while the Americans are taking over it is acquiring a similar meaning. There is another use of the word as well: a survival can be a vestige of a vanished order which has managed to persist after its time is past, like a primitive reptile This version crops up in Canadian thinking too, usually among those who believe that Canada is obsolete.

But the main idea is the first one: hanging on,staying alive. Canadians are forever taking the national pulse like doctors at a sickbed: the aim is not to see whether the patient will live well but simply whether he will live at all. Our central idea is one which generates, not the excitement and sense of adventure or danger which the Frontier holds out, not the smugness and/or sense of security, of everything in its place, which The Island can offer, but an almost intolerable anxiety. Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience -- the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship -- that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life. 
You can also read a New York Times piece (“Canadians Writers Debate Nationalism”: April 24, 1973), by Jay Waltz. Canadian nationalism or patriotism is not something that receives much attention today, the discussion diminishing, notably after the signing of two free trade agreements with the United States, first in 1989, then in 1994.

As for our national identity, I am not sure what Ms. Atwood now thinks about it; what I can say is that she has become a fine writer and a national treasure, holding an international reputation that extends far beyond our borders. Canada has established itself as a place where one can “survive nicely,” without the fanfare or fuss of other places, including Britain or the U.S.  We celebrate life in our way, which to some might be understated, but so be it. Too much noise and dissonance is distracting and unpleasant, causing unbalance and disharmony, which is less than enjoyable.

There we have it. Despite its geography, its climate, its peculiarities (or because of it), there is no other place I would like to live. Only a Canadian would understand this. Understandably so.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Apprehending Depression & The Neurobiology Model

The Human Mind

Societal Alienation & the Human Brain: Begun writes: “The larger concern is that in our eagerness to resort to brain-based explanations, we sacrifice an interpersonal form of understanding. While social neuroscience appears capable of illuminating myriad connections between social and biological phenomena, and therefore of uncovering the ways in which social conditions mediate mental illnesses like depression, our enthusiasm for it may turn us away from the kinds of contemplation and action through which we relate to other human beings. As Benjamin Y. Fong, a scholar of philosophy and religion, put it in a blog post on the New York Times website, ‘neuroscientists unconsciously repress all that we know about the alienating, unequal, and dissatisfying world in which we live and the harmful effects it has on the psyche, thus unwittingly foreclosing the kind of communicative work that could alleviate mental disorder.’ ”
Image Credit & Source: The New Atlantis

Sometimes you read an article, and you know it rings true; this is the case with an exceptionally written and argued article, by Michael W. Begun, in The New Atlantis on depression. Major depression is a debilitating illness, which affects about 8 per cent of Canadians; it is important to add that 20 per cent of Canadians will suffer some form of mental illness in their lifetime. How brain scientists have viewed and treated depression has changed over the last few decades, which is an important point to make, given that how medical science views depression generally informs clinicians on how to treat it.

Today, “the model” is governed by the science of neurobiology, a discipline of neuroscience, which is the study of how complex neural circuits are shaped and developed during the formation of the adult brain. Depression, simply put, is viewed as something gone wrong (sometimes drastically so) with the normal functioning of the brain's neural network. The move away from understanding depression, since 1980, as emanating from social and psychological roots to originating in human biology, that is, in changes or abnormalities in brain chemistry (e.g. neurotransmitters) has lead to the treatment of depression with a class of drugs that are supposed to stabilize the brain, and thus one’s mood.

Yet, in “The Neuroscience of Despair,” (Summer/Fall 2014), the article questions rather strongly on whether these drugs are really that effective in relieving individuals of feelings of despair; Begun writes:
Many patients find that antidepressants do not alleviate their depression, and some find that the drugs have no impact on their moods at all. A 2002 meta-analysis published in the journal Prevention and Treatment found that for six of the most prescribed antidepressants, placebo control groups matched 82 percent of the medication response. This situation led a 2014 article in Nature to claim that “five decades of work on antidepressant drugs have not made them more likely to lift people out of depression.” It has also led pharmaceutical companies to develop secondary drugs intended to enhance the effectiveness of antidepressants, with multi-drug treatment becoming more common.
Despite the limited effectiveness of antidepressants and the theoretical gaps in understanding how they work, they have immensely shaped the theory and practice of psychiatry. The drugs provided clues to chemical processes involved in depression, which fueled attempts to formulate hypotheses for neurobiological causes of depression. These hypotheses were first formulated by looking at the biochemical effects of antidepressant drugs and attempting to infer the neurobiological abnormalities they were thought to fix.

But antidepressants were much more than an example of new technology changing the course of scientific research; they also helped widen the range of symptoms thought to be caused by depression. The Food and Drug Administration loosened restrictions on direct-to-consumer advertisements in the late 1990s, allowing pharmaceutical companies to run ads for antidepressants in national magazines, television shows, and elsewhere. Many of these advertisements limned the most general and benign symptoms included in the DSM’s criteria for depression (like irritability and fatigue) and their role in interpersonal problems and workplace difficulties, implicitly pushing the idea that drugs could relieve everyday human troubles.

Before these changes in FDA regulations, pharmaceutical companies advertised mostly to physicians and psychiatrists in specialized medical journals rather than mainstream outlets. The change in regulations allowed for “educational” advertising that focused on the disorder instead of the drug itself. As Horwitz writes, Prozac advertisements showed women happily performing work and family roles, using slogans like “better than well.” Pharmaceutical companies sold the idea of depression as much as the drugs themselves, promoting the belief that depression stems from a chemical imbalance in the brain, with a marketing apparatus rival in scope to national political campaigns. (By 2000, pharmaceutical companies were spending over $2 billion in direct-to-consumer advertising. By comparison, spending by candidates in the 2000 presidential election totaled a mere $343 million.) This marketing effort played no small part in shaping the public’s understanding of depression.
And it is likely a misinformed understanding on the effectiveness of such “antidepressants.” Yet the narrative remains, even among clinicians, who want to help their patients. This explains to some degree, why doctors prescribe anti-depressants; an article, by Sharon Kirkey, in The National Post (“Psychiatrist warns against trying to cure ordinary sadness as Canadians among top users of antidepressants; January 19, 2014) points out that Canadians are the third highest users of such drugs among the 23 member-nations of the OECD.

Kirkey writes, citing Dr. Joel Paris, professor and past chair of the department of psychiatry at Montreal’s McGill University:
The OECD figures, contained in its recently released “Health at a Glance” report, shows Canadians consumed 86 daily doses of antidepressants for every 1,000 people per day in 2011, more than the United Kingdom (71 doses per day), Spain (64) and Norway (58). Canada was behind only Iceland (106 doses per 1,000 people per day) and Australia (89 doses) among the countries surveyed.
(The data are expressed as “defined daily doses,” which means the average daily maintenance dose for the condition for which the drug was prescribed.)

In Canada 42.6 million prescriptions for antidepressants were filled by retail drugstores in 2012, up from 32.2 million in 2008, according to figures provided to Postmedia News by prescription-drug tracking firm IMS Brogan. Citalopram (sold under the brand name Celexa), venlafaxine, (Effexor) and the generic drug, trazodone, make up the three top-selling antidepressants in Canada.

Paris and others stress that antidepressants are essential in cases of severe, debilitating and life-threatening depression.

But the pills, including Prozac and its cousins that were held out to be miraculous when they hit the market in the late 1980s, are being swallowed by millions of Canadians every day, even while studies suggest that, in cases of mild depression, where “you’re still working, you’re still functioning,” Paris says, the drugs often don’t work, or they produce a temporary placebo effect, which doesn’t last.
Many other articles and studies confirm this well-informed view. We know that drugs like pain relievers, chemo drugs and drugs to regulate the heart, blood pressure and other body function work, because we can measure the effects. This is not the case with drugs that regulate brain chemistry.

Moreover, there are many problems with looking at an individual's brain state as an indicator of how well a person is from a mental or emotional point of view, Begun writes: “Another problem for neurobiological explanations of depression is that a mere correlation between a particular brain state and symptoms of depression in some people does not prove that other people with that brain state have a disorder.” And there are many problems distinguishing causation from correlation; there is no test or brain scan that can definitively show a person is depressed. There is no scientific evidence that depression results from a faulty neural mechanism, a neurotransmitter gone awry, etc.

Yet, not only is this model lauded, it continues to play a large part in how depression is viewed and treated.  While it is true that such drugs are necessary and quite effective to treat serious psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and other delusional disorders of the mind (and these are indeed life-savers), there is really no proof that such drugs are effective in treating mild to moderate cases of depression, which forms the largest cohort of persons clinically diagnosed with depression. In many cases, these same people are anxious and unable to fully function in doing tasks they once enjoyed doing; in many cases the reasons are normal and expected, a result of loss, of sadness, of grief, of bereavement.

Antidepressants might help in the short-term, but these drugs will not help such people in the long-term; they might actually make things worse. Everyday sadness is not depression; it is a human response to a real-life situation. Sadness is difficult, but depression is a magnitude of order greater.

Psychological counseling can often bring about a better result, because the problem is human, and this requires a human remedy. This takes time. So do solutions centred on building  friendships, communities and societies that view people as important. Social media is a poor substitute for genuine relationships, but for many it is the only source of relationships. It might well be that societal alienation might be one of the largest causes of depression, and this forms a large cohort of individuals today. This will not be cured or made better or ameliorated by the use of antidepressants.

Let’s speak about sadness, which is more common than many would like to admit. Sadness, which we all feel, informs us about a loss, and the greatest losses centre on those human qualities that cannot be reduced to neurobiology: human relationships, human understanding and human intimacy.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Drones Seek Out Rhino Poachers

Double Tragedy: Evans of CBC News writes: “Rhino horns can fetch more than $75,000 per kilogram on the black market. The demand is highest in parts of Asia where it's widely-believed the horns, which are made out of keratin, have medicinal properties.” There is no scientific evidence, however, that they are medically effective.
Photo Credit: Margaret Evans; CBC News
Source: CBC

An article, by Margaret Evans, in CBC News, reports on the efforts being made in South Africa against the illegal killing of rhinos by poachers. Rhino horns can sell for more than $75,000 a kilogram on the black market, thus explaining its appeal.

Demand is greatest in Asia, notably in South Korea, Malaysia, India and China, where the horns are used in traditional potions as a curative for various ailments, including snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting and food poisoning. Yet, the ground-down horns are not effective, at least when meeting the rigorous standards of evidence-based medicine, making the killing of rhinos a double tragedy

Evans writes:
As night draped itself across the savanna in South Africa's Kruger National Park, a small round disk twinkling with green lights and sounding like a swarm of bees rose straight up into the sky.

Here, on the tarmac of a small airstrip near Skukuza, the latest in drone technology is being tested out as rangers seek to gain the upper hand against poachers who are slipping into the park and felling an average of three rhinos a day in pursuit of their horns and the riches they will buy.

The little unmanned aerial vehicle shooting about 250 metres into the sky is just one of a number of models that will be tested in a year-long pilot project run by a company called UAV and Drone Solutions.

The idea is to give extra reach and eyes to rangers trying to police 20,000 kilometres of territory often covered in scrubland and offering plenty of places for poachers to hide.
This is one use of the drone that I can support. It alone will not deter poachers from cashing in on a lucrative trade in rhino horns; it will also take education and a societal pivot away from curatives that have no effect.

For more, go to [cbc]

Friday, April 3, 2015

Making Order Out Of Disorder

The Human Body

Lack Of Homeostasis: Sacks writes:It is especially when things are going wrong, internally — when homeostasis is not being maintained; when the autonomic balance starts listing heavily to one side or the other—that this core consciousness, the feeling of how one is, takes on an intrusive, unpleasant quality, and now one will say, “I feel ill—something is amiss.” At such times one no longer looks well either.”
Photo Credit: Trent Parke;
Magnum Photos Newcastle Beach, New South Wales, Australia, 2000; Source: NYRB

The preferred state for all organisms including humans is homeostasis, where the body is in a state of balance, where all parts work as they ought to in accordance with their design and function. In an article in The New York Review of Books, Oliver Sacks gives a first-person account (“A General Feeling of Disorder; April 23, 2015) of the means medical science has at its disposal when our bodies fail to work the way they ought to; it is equally about our desires for recovery and balance, however and by whatever means this can be achieved.

Sacks, 81, a well-known author and a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, has publicly shared that he has a form of metastatic cancer that has no real possibility of being stopped (“The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted”); he describes a procedure to both increase his life and give him more energy, a temporary but needed restoration of balance in what is called palliative treatment:
If new thoughts about illness and recovery—or old thoughts in new form—have been stimulated by thinking back to my first patients, they have been given an unexpected salience by a very different personal experience in recent weeks.
On Monday, February 16, I could say I felt well, in my usual state of health—at least such health and energy as a fairly active eighty-one-year-old can hope to enjoy—and this despite learning, a month earlier, that much of my liver was occupied by metastatic cancer. Various palliative treatments had been suggested—treatments that might reduce the load of metastases in my liver and permit a few extra months of life. The one I opted for, decided to try first, involved my surgeon, an interventional radiologist, threading a catheter up to the bifurcation of the hepatic artery, and then injecting a mass of tiny beads into the right hepatic artery, where they would be carried to the smallest arterioles, blocking these, cutting off the blood supply and oxygen needed by the metastases—in effect, starving and asphyxiating them to death. (My surgeon, who has a gift for vivid metaphor, compared this to killing rats in the basement; or, in a pleasanter image, mowing down the dandelions on the back lawn.) If such an embolization proved to be effective, and tolerated, it could be done on the other side of the liver (the dandelions on the front lawn) a month or so later.
The procedure, though relatively benign, would lead to the death of a huge mass of melanoma cells (almost 50 percent of my liver had been occupied by metastases). These, in dying, would give off a variety of unpleasant and pain-producing substances, and would then have to be removed, as all dead material must be removed from the body. This immense task of garbage disposal would be undertaken by cells of the immune system—macrophages—that are specialized to engulf alien or dead matter in the body. I might think of them, my surgeon suggested, as tiny spiders, millions or perhaps billions in number, scurrying inside me, engulfing the melanoma debris. This enormous cellular task would sap all my energy, and I would feel, in consequence, a tiredness beyond anything I had ever felt before, to say nothing of pain and other problems.
I am glad I was forewarned, for the following day (Tuesday, the seventeenth), soon after waking from the embolization—it was performed under general anesthesia—I was to be assailed by feelings of excruciating tiredness and paroxysms of sleep so abrupt they could poleaxe me in the middle of a sentence or a mouthful, or when visiting friends were talking or laughing loudly a yard away from me. Sometimes, too, delirium would seize me within seconds, even in the middle of handwriting. I felt extremely weak and inert—I would sometimes sit motionless until hoisted to my feet and walked by two helpers. While pain seemed tolerable at rest, an involuntary movement such as a sneeze or hiccup would produce an explosion, a sort of negative orgasm of pain, despite my being maintained, like all post-embolization patients, on a continuous intravenous infusion of narcotics. This massive infusion of narcotics halted all bowel activity for nearly a week, so that everything I ate—I had no appetite, but had to “take nourishment,” as the nursing staff put it—was retained inside me.
The procedure, although resulting in post-surgical tiredness, pain and unwelcome physiological changes,  eventually had the intended effect; it worked, Sacks writes:
On day ten, I turned a corner—I felt awful, as usual, in the morning, but a completely different person in the afternoon. This was delightful, and wholly unexpected: there was no intimation, beforehand, that such a transformation was about to happen. I regained some appetite, my bowels started working again, and on February 28 and March 1, I had a huge and delicious diuresis, losing fifteen pounds over the course of two days. I suddenly found myself full of physical and creative energy and a euphoria almost akin to hypomania. I strode up and down the corridor in my apartment building while exuberant thoughts rushed through my mind.
For anybody who has been in a state of disorder, when there is knowledge that something is not right with your body, when there is knowledge about being in a state of despair, having a felling of severe malaise, the desire for recovery is the primary object. Does anything else matter? I, like many others, have experienced a portion of what Dr. Sacks so eloquently and articulately describes. It is human poetry; I wish him many good days to enjoy his life. His voice is rich and strong. Thank you, Dr. Sacks, for sharing your knowledge and your humanity with us.

For more, go to [NYRB]

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Story Of Property Rights

Legal Justice

Woman in Gold:
“Maria Altmann fought her way to the Supreme Court to force the Austrian government to give
back this painting by Gustav Klimt of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.”

Photo Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images
Source: NPR

 An article, by Nina Totenberg, in NPR discusses how a combination of determination, courage and moral legal arguments helped return a Klimt painting to its rightful owner—Maria Altmann—after it was stolen by the Nazis when they took over Austria in 1938.

In “After Nazi Plunder, A Quest To Bring ‘The Woman In Gold’ Home,” Totenberg writes:
 This week, Mrs. Altmann's amazing and triumphant story comes to the big screen in Woman in Gold, a film about one of the great legal battles in art history. The movie, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, begins with the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938. Newlyweds Maria Altmann and her husband are wealthy Jews fleeing for their lives, leaving her family's famous artworks behind.

Against all odds more than a half century later, she fought her way to the U.S. Supreme Court in her quest to force the Austrian government to give back the painting of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the Woman in Gold of the film title.

Painted by Gustav Klimt in 1907, the enormous, shimmering gold and oil on canvas was one of six Klimt paintings confiscated by the Nazis from the Bloch-Bauer home.

After the war, the works turned up in Austria's federal art museum, the Galerie Belvedere. The Austrian government claimed the paintings had been willed to the museum, a claim that would later be found to be fraudulent.

But even after the falsehood was finally exposed in 1998, it was a long road to getting the paintings back, especially the painting of Altmann's aunt, the Woman in Gold.
Randol Schoenberg, the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, represented Maria Altmann, and became the winning lawyer in what was an eight-year legal banner, culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court decision. (The George W. Bush Administration sided with the government of Austria, not a real surprise.) The paintings were returned and auctioned, in 2006, selling for hundreds of millions of dollars; the Woman in Gold (officially known as Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer) was purchased by Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder for $135 million, where it is on display at the Neue Galerie in New York. Altmann died in 2011, aged 94. The question to ask is why the Austrian government fought so viciously to keep a painting it knew was not theirs to keep.

For more, go to [NPR]

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

New York City Needs More Apts To Support Retailers

Selling Retail

A city is defined by its people; and the greater amount of people populating its streets the greater the prosperity of its shops. Or so it has been since retail shops have existed. The Internet has changed this, allowing people to purchase things without having to go outside. The result is that retail shops have felt the chilling effects, and a large city like New York is no exception. But high rents and few apartments have made it difficult to attract people to come live inside the city's core, notably Manhattan, Prof. George Jochnowitz writes. “Perhaps a new way to find housing for poor and middle-income people is to build more. Apartments are getting ever more expensive — like everything else.”

by George Jochnowitz

There has been a vacancy at the corner of W. Eighth St. and Sixth Ave. since Dec. 31, 2012. That’s when Barnes & Noble closed its bookstore there.

When I first moved to the Village, in 1951, there was a Nedick’s at that corner. Nedick’s was a fast-food restaurant that sold hot dogs. One could also get hot dogs on the west side of Sixth Ave. at Chock full o’Nuts. Books and hot dogs still exist, but it is much harder to find a store that sells them nowadays.

Two and a half years is a long time for a vacancy to exist. There have been lots of vacancies on W. Eighth St., including five vacant shops at the corner of MacDougal St., at 38 W. Eighth St., which have been unoccupied for a good, long time.

Greedy landlords are often blamed for vacancies. High rents are certainly a problem. But how much does a greedy landlord earn from a site that has been vacant for months or even years? Can a new tenant come in and pay a rent high enough to make up for the extended vacancy? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

Mom-and-pop stores have been going out of business. High rents are part of the problem. Nedick’s, Chock full o’Nuts and Barnes & Noble had to leave their locations. They are not, and were not, mom-and-pop stores.

There are other factors at work. In the case of bookstores, the Internet is part of the problem. People can buy books online without having to go outdoors. There are e-books, which some people prefer to traditional printed books.

As for hot dogs, there are potential customers nowadays who don’t want to eat processed meat.

Unfortunately, there are all sorts of different stores that are failing. Can it be that retailing is in the process of becoming history?

Shopping streets are a major part of life in the city. Busy streets are safe places. When the pedestrians go, the criminals come.

A surprising essay appeared in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times on March 22, 2015, called “Viva Gentrification!” The author, Hector Tobar, writes, “In Highland Park, as in other Latino barrios of Los Angeles, gentrification has produced an undeniable but little appreciated side effect: the end of decades of de facto racial segregation.”

Hector Tobar is aware that residents may be priced out of the neighborhood and adds, “Strengthen rent-control laws, and develop new ways to find housing for poor and middle-income people.”

Perhaps a new way to find housing for poor and middle-income people is to build more. Apartments are getting ever more expensive — like everything else.

I remember when the subway fare was a nickel. In 1948, it doubled, to a dime. It has just gone up to $2.75.

In the case of apartments, there may be a factor that can slow down the rate of increase: the law of supply and demand. If there are more and more apartments available, prices ought to go down as a result of competition. The threat of vacancies in apartments, unlike the vacancies in stores, should allow prospective buyers and tenants to shop around for a good deal. This is different from the case of retail stores, where there are few tenants since there are fewer and fewer customers.

We need a more thickly populated city, to keep our streets filled with pedestrians and to provide customers for retail shops, even in this age of computers.

Furthermore, if people live closer to their work, commuting time decreases and pollution resulting from automobiles is lessened.

We have to build more tall buildings. New York doesn’t have enough people.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2015. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This article originally appeared in The Villager (March 26, 2015).  The article is republished here with the author’s permission.