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Subject: Percy-L: Literary, Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Discussion on Walker Percy

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  • From: Wade Riddick <wriddick AT>
  • To: Walker Percy List <percy-l AT>
  • Subject: [percy-l] Autistics, mirror neurons and representational monopolies
  • Date: Mon, 31 Mar 2008 05:00:45 -0600

I was surprised to see a topic on autism and language with nary a mention
of that relatively recent discovery, mirror neurons - which are distinctly,
specifically different in humans compared to other animals. This
biological difference is a necessary, if perhaps not sufficient, condition
for the development of language. In the last ten years, the study of
genetics and functional MRIs has shed much light on how the brain receives
words and images and processes them - how it interprets reality generally.
Mirror neurons are at the heart of that. We have a built in mechanism for
automatically understanding what other people are thinking and feeling. We
have separate, specialized visual processing for human faces and human eye
movements. The only creature remotely comparable is the dog, which, over
the last twenty thousand years, seems to have independently coevolved
methods for interpreting human gestures and expressions - if not fully
understanding them.

It seems to me the big social problem with representation is that it's
supposed to mirror reality and, at telling moments, it doesn't. We tell
each other things that aren't always true or completely true. This is what
Baudelaire might regard as the crashing low that came along with the
soaring high of ideals, drugs, love and other methods of transcending the
mundane (the essential problem being one shouldn't worry about transcending
the mundane oneself in the first place). When that constructed reality is
too ideological, too doctrinaire, too rooted in ideals eventually the
representation diverges from the reality independently perceived by the
audience, creating cognitive dissonance - and, in Walker Percy's case,

Kuhn would say when this dissonance becomes booming, it sets the stage for
a scientific revolution. The perception of human reality occurs inside a
social system. (And the ancient Greeks, as opposed to the Hebrews, have an
oral, circular - vs. linear - form of history-telling up until Herodotus.)
As people are always being born and dying, new recruits have to be
'educated' in the ways of the world - or at least whatever ways the adults
think the world has. The moment of revolution occurs when the newly
initiated receive the message and find it lacking in the concordance it was
supposed to provide. Once those failed initiates reach a critical mass and
a credible alternative interpretation appears, there is revolution.

Competition improves efficiency. If there is a monopoly on the means of
reproduction (the Catholic church in the 11th century) or a concentration
in the means of reproduction (say, the big three TV networks plus
government regulators), it's possible for presentations of reality to
greatly drift from that underlying reality. The greater the monopoly, the
greater the potential shock because the longer the pressure builds.

Every era conspires not to say something. In the words of Walter Benjamin,
"Every epoch not only dreams the next, but while dreaming impels it towards
wakefulness. It bears its end within itself, and reveals it... by ruse"
(_Baudelaire_). One has seen this fallout most recently in the collapse of
Bear Stearns (a panic among investors about the company's expected or
perceived ability to manage its obligations; it happens when financial
bubbles pop) and the collapse of the Republican party's popularity. George
Bush took the ideological dominance his party had after 9/11 (a 90%
personal approval rating) and used it to crush his critics and justify
whatever he wanted to do in the first place, claiming the right to do so by
simple assertion instead of reasoned argument. His family has never been a
big fan of Benjamin Franklin ("Our critics are our friends; they show us
our faults."). This points to a certain "conservative" (if you want to
call it that; I don't) attitude that man can't change and so intellectual
criticism is not only pointless but dangerous (what Joseph Goebbels would
call a menace to "character-building" - i.e., the adjusting of oneself to
the Nazi will). The Pharisee right has been radically insecure about
criticism to the extent of creating its own parallel educational
institutions to churn out incompetent party hacks like Monica Goodling.
This is quite literally political autism in action. Any type of political
party can fall victim to it. If we don't compete for power, if we aren't
open to criticism, we seem destined to attack ourselves from within,
falling prey to our own vices.

Received images processed by political parties tend to have generational
interpretations. I personally think we're witnessing the collapse of the
sixth party system in the U.S. which began in 1968 with the rise of
Republicans in the South and independents nationwide (a realignment of the
sixth electoral order, in poli sci parlance). Politics is about managing
social realities and every generation has its problems. To quote my old
professor, Walter Dean Burnham, some problems get organized in (like
abortion under Nixon or the cold war under Eisenhower) and some problems
get organized out (say, illegal immigration, deficits, the declining
dollar, rent-seeking in health insurance and so on) - at least until the
later become too pressing to ignore.

The advent of television ushered in a bevy of critics claiming that under
the constant glare of the camera politicians would never again be able to
lie and get away with it. They obviously knew nothing about sociopaths or
con men. We have a press corps so stupid or corrupt it couldn't figure out
how absurd it was for Saddam Hussein to go to Africa to buy yellow cake
uranium when he had barrels of the stuff sitting around Iraq under U.N.
seal (which, by the way, concerned Bush so much he left them unguarded for
months after the invasion along with all the Iraqi arms depots; talk about

The same utopian claims about the internet are being made again today but
the truth is people with money and vested interests will eventually figure
out to pervert its depiction of reality too. Reality is socially
constructed and the only thing the internet has going for it today is that
rent-seekers aren't innovators and they've been slow to turn their
attention from the traditional center of power, Washington, D.C. (but
notice the fear, loathing and irrational absurdity typical journalists
often use to describe the internet hoi poloi; they rightly fear that a
college student can report on reality more accurately with a shoestring
budget than they can with millions to spend; sometimes "less is more").

Photography is an art, not a science. Photography classes are taught in
art departments. Perhaps someday journalism will be placed in art
departments too, where it belongs along with creative writing. Certainly
little about most of today's journalism could be considered scientific or
deliberately representative of reality (deliberate in the full sense of
'deliberation'). It's descended into mere public relations. As it exists
presently, it should be stuck in advertising.

Ideology and propaganda are two separate entities. Ideology and reputation
are cognitive short-cuts for navigating a confusing world and simplifying
information. Most of the time they're efficient at what they do. Until
they leave out something important. At that point, people clinging to
bankrupt ideologies are left clinging to lies of omission. But it's
usually not consciously intentional.

Propaganda, however, is different. Propaganda isn't new. Alcybiades used
it and had to put up with it when it was mainly spread by word-of-mouth -
and he eventually got hoisted on his own petard. Text propaganda is the
kind we're most familiar with, given the tremendous success Nazis and
Communists had with it. You don't have to photoshop images, although you
do need to have your Eisensteins and Riefenstahls lying around to make sure
everything's staged perfectly for the camera. But even without film, text
propaganda requires significant capital expenditure. You need printing
presses, distribution, freedom to operate and you a bunch of con men
willing to lie at the top of their lungs, even when the lie is absurd.
It's deeply ironic that Freud fled Nazi propaganda and his nephew, Edward
Louis Bernays, helped create public relations in America. Small world.

Although these insights about the eye may seem new to Hockney, they aren't.
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan and Daniel Boorstin (The Image, 1962) wrote
about the same topic. Or you could have waited to hear Obi Wan tell you
your eyes will lie to you - in a theater, no less.

Today almost every single advertisement I see for food is pure propaganda.
Pretty packaging is added to trick our visual instincts into making a
purchase. Food has been transformed from an object of sustenance and
nutrition to an object of pleasure. Settings, packaging and even content
are manipulated to get us to overeat foods that are unsound to begin with.
The demographic data is pretty clear. Relative to whole, fresh foods,
processed food is far less healthy. Grains are often "refined" (corrupted)
to the point they have no fiber left and the amount of sugar instantly
released trips the same dopamine reward circuitry involved in drug
addiction, creating euphoria. But feeling good and being good are
sometimes two different things. Let's face it. If the Swedish bikini team
really airlifted into your backyard barbecue every time you bought beer
like the ad says, you wouldn't need to advertise beer in the first place.
That stuff would just fly off the shelves from word of mouth alone. (Maybe
something about the female figure triggered that same circuit in Elliott

Just as political systems fall into decline when elites are shielded from
competition with one another and don't have to work hard to stay in power,
so too does our digestion fall into disrepair when it gets too much of what
it's after too easily (sugar). Fiber is hard to chew and digest and very
difficult for manufacturers to process and package - but without it your
customer gets insulin resistance from the blood sugar spikes. That's
exactly what advertisers want. Those spikes release dopamine in the brain.
Better living through chemistry - well, the *illusion* of better living
through chemistry, but it's purely perceptual. Actual body chemistry
slowly goes to hell.

The image is about to become even more central to our existential crisis
than we might think. Beauty is considered by evolutionary biologists to be
an unfakeable signal of genetic fitness. Fit bodies look good because
unfit bodies don't have enough reserves or resources to be beautiful. And
beauty affects earning power, especially in highly visible professions like
drug company sales that involve meeting random members of the public. One
economist who examined the amount of money female office workers in such
public jobs spend on cosmetics and clothes concluded that it wasn't a
cost-effective investment to overcome the wage advantage pretty women had.
But he admitted he hadn't considered the investment value of cosmetic

Rather than stop to consider whether we're getting accurate reporting from
our news anchors, we tune in if we think they're nice to look at. Truth
still matters, it's just not the top concern. In political markets, one
reasonably scientific study concluded that good looks alone didn't help you
win office but it got you an extra 5-10% of the vote (drop out of the race
there, Hillary, and let the alpha male have the job). Our solution to
eating food that ages you faster? Ignore it and get cosmetic surgery to
hide the aging. I don't see how this trend gets reversed simply by giving
everyone on the internet a camera and a YouTube account.

The cost of maladjusted social models of reality is measured in very real
blood and tears; what we think of as 'science' is, in its day-to-day
practice, anything but. The FDA is a political construction that doesn't
always respond to scientific evidence. The same can be said of medicine;
doctors are as much scientists as computer programmers are. The FDA went
and jumped on the transfats bandwagon in the 1960s and '70s despite an
utter lack of evidence for safety. Since transfats kept "fresh" longer on
shelves they had more economic utility and hence must automatically be
superior for one's health. Commoditization of food equaled food industry
economic health equaled consumer health. It didn't occur to many people
that if no self-respecting microorganism would touch partially-hydrogenated
canola oil sitting on a shelf, our livers might not want to touch it
either. The head of the American Heart Association argued for the benefits
of margarine over butter during this era. He died of heart disease
<>. Irony.

In my personal life, I've endured half a dozen categories of malpractice.
Each time doctors could have stopped, weighed the evidence, checked the
contemporary knowledge base and done the right thing. They didn't. I
contracted mercury poisoning from a cracked filling. Seems you're not
supposed to put such fillings into people with bruxism or autoimmunity. I
had both and both pre-existing conditions then became unmanageable.
Mercury by itself can cause autoimmunity. Had I not been trained in
political economy and irony, I doubt I would have survived to type this.

To treat my autoimmune inflammation, in 2001 I was given Vioxx, a Cox-2
inhibitor (and hence a PGE2 inhibitor). There were many reasons this was
contraindicated for me at the time (e.g., I had thrush and a history of
sinus infections; PGE2 is needed to fight infection). In 2005, Cox-2 was
determined to be central to the function of regulatory T-cells (Tregs).
Blocking Cox-2 blocked Tregs. Tregs are the cells in your immune system
that *prevent* autoimmunity in the first place. Cox-2 inhibitors are
designed to block PGE2, which happens to cause pain and inflammation in
addition to fighting infections, mobilizing stem cells and preventing
autoimmunity. You can block the negative effects of PGE2 without losing
its autoimmune protection simply by consuming more omega-3 fats and fewer
omega-6 fats. The body then has to ration out PGE2 production. But that's
bad for the modern food industry since the omega-3's aren't as "stable" at
room temperature and consumers would have to move away from manufactured
foods back to whole foods and personal cooking. That's also bad for the
patented drug industry. Celebrex (a cox-2 inhibitor) is under patent, fish
oils aren't.

Consider the implications of the true state of reality. Every rheumatoid
arthritis patient and anybody else with autoimmunity is experiencing
malpractice whenever they are prescribed Celebrex for more than a few days.
Without PGE2 working, their Tregs become even more dysfunctional - and yet,
the ads for Celebrex keep flowing some three years after this important
discovery. That's not the reality to which the FDA is designed to respond.
The FDA exists to provide a barrier of entry for established pharmaceutical
firms - which, I will admit, has a notional basis in scientific evidence.
If a drug is efficacious, it is supposed to get approved. If it isn't,
it's not. But the human body is complicated, long-term studies are rarely
performed on drugs like they're supposed to be and specific illnesses can't
be well-represented in general clinical trials of a few thousand people.
(The Supreme Court, by the way, has said recently that scientific evidence
and state safety laws are not a basis for suing over medical devices once
they've been licensed by the FDA - even when the FDA never conducted valid
trials of said licensed device - a good example of this being arterial
stents, which were assumed to be so efficacious, denying them to patients
would be unethical; turns out skipping them might have saved a lot of
stroke victims; but, hey, the FDA approved them for sale anyway).

What does autoimmunity have to do with the autism in the subject line?
When pregnant monkeys are given immunoglobulins (IgG - basically,
antibodies) from human mothers with autistic babies, the monkey offspring
develop autistic-like symptoms [PMID 18262386] - implying autism isn't so
much genetic as it is an acquired reaction from being exposed to
self-reacting maternal antibodies.

Why is autoimmunity a modern ailment? Why is autism growing? Why are we
losing empathy for one another in the modern era?

Well, part of that answer is becoming clear. We wiped out intestinal
parasites from our water supply without realizing how these critters
manipulated our immune systems to protect themselves. Without them, our
immune systems are prone to overreacting and attacking us. Autism may be
one sign of not paying better scrutiny to Diogenes. Tourette's and
anorexia are definitely caused, at least in part, by autoantibodies as are
some cases of violent rage. None of this is to imply that biology is
destiny; but it's certainly a part of destiny. To parody Jack D. Ripper,
our precious bodily fluids must be corrupted with helminths or we will, in
fact, bomb ourselves. (Notice how central disruptions to language are in
two of these autoimmune disorders - Tourette's and autism.)

I can't help but wonder how many other people have died from what nearly
killed me. Should a person be sentenced to death simply because they lack
the proper perspective to understand what's happening to them? I suppose
in a broad Christian sense, that's the reality we all must face. But in a
narrower secular sense, the short answer must be 'no.' Voodoo recipes are
not an acceptable substitute for scientific reasoning in the practice of
medicine. Why does medicine today not have even the most rudimentary
statistical quality control procedures that Detroit now takes for granted?
Is one industry closer to God and thus unquestionable?

Of all the gifts we are given, a sense of humor and irony is perhaps the
greatest. Humor is the only good feeling you'll ever get from knowing
life's not perfect. I think it also saves that life.

If you're interested in the brain and language, I recommend you bone up on
mirror neurons.

Wade Riddick


mirror neurons in the insula register uniquely human social emotions like
guilt, shame, pride, embarrassment, disgust and lust; mirror neurons in
various brain areas are activated when someone watches someone else perform
an action and when someone performs the action themselves; some mirror
neurons activate when kicking a ball, seeing someone kick a ball or hearing
the word 'kick'; observation improves muscle performance via mirror
neurons; mirror neurons also activate in men watching other men having sex
with women, thus accounting for the vicarious thrill of pornography;
multiple mirror neurons in the human brain not only carry out actions but
understanding the actions of others - both how and why they perform them -
the social meaning of those behaviors and the emotions involved; mirror
neurons underlie the acquisition of culture by children by sharing,
imitation and observation and form the basis of language, philosophy and
art; in autistics, defects in mirror neurons prevent them from feeling the
emotion they identify on another's face even though they can imitate the
facial expression; autistics don't know what it's like to feel sad, angry,
disgusted or surprised from simply observing other people; in children
watching violent TV, mirror neuron involved in aggression overactivate
leading to the increased probability of violent behavior

the degree of tested empathy in a person is proportional to the amount of
mirror neuron activity; it's lower in autistics; mirror neurons in people
and macaque monkeys extend to auditory types which activate when you hear
something; the sound of someone eating an apple, for instance, activates
many of the areas of the brain which would activate if you were actually
eating an apple yourself (which is why advertising works so well); hearing
sounds of eating potato chips or crumpling paper activated brain areas
associated with chewing or hand action; overlap occurred in the bilateral
temporal gyrus and superior temporal sulcus

autism is a dysfunction of mirror motor neurons - circuits which enable
people to perceive and understand the actions of others and even imitate
them; these neurons fire when you do an action or you watch another person
doing it; in autistics these only respond to the actions they do and not
what others do; in humans these mirror neurons are important for learning
language, imitating others and empathizing with their pain (also valuable
for not taking metaphors literally); mu rhythm, a human brain-wave pattern,
is suppressed or blocked when the brain is engaged in doing, seeing or
imagining action and this correlates to the activity of the mirror neuron
system; in most people mu rhythm is suppressed both in response to their
own movement and observing the movement of others; autistics only suppress
mu rhythm in response to their own actions; mu rhythm may also be a factor
in phantom limb pain and it may explain why mirror therapy is helpful for
alleviating the pain

in lung cancer, COX-2 and PGE2 underlie an immunosuppressive network that
is important in the formation of non-small cell lung cancer; CD4+ CD25+
regulatory T-cells (Tregs) block antitumor immune responses when tumors
secrete PGE2 and activate Foxp3 in the Tregs which increases Treg activity;
this effect was significantly reduced without an EP4 (E-prostanoid)
receptor and totally absent without an EP2 receptor; COX-2 inhibitors
(Vioxx, Celebrex) reduced Treg activity, blocked FoxP3 and decreased tumor
growth (this provides a pathway whereby COX-2 inhibitors can exaggerate
allergies) [PMID 15958566]; and this is exactly what was hypothesized in
this paper: broad-spectrum COX inhibitors can be arthritigenic interfering
with the acquisition of tolerance to some arthritigens [PMID 16259716]
(blocking COX-2 also blocks the ability of growth hormone to prod stem
cells into making new cartilage for eroded joints)

there is an inverse relationship between parasitic infection (especially
worms/helminths) and allergy; as parasitic infections dropped on the
Pacific island of Mauke, allergies increased proportionately; one theory is
that when freed of parasitic targets, the immune system has time on its
hands and turns on innocuous allergens; the body's Y-shaped IgG antibodies
usually target bacteria and viruses by latching directly on to target
proteins and recruiting immune cells; parasites activate a different
mechanism - Y-shaped IgE antibodies - which attach their tails to the
surface of mast cells; mast cells are found wherever the body comes into
contact with the outside world and thus multicellular parasites - mucous
membranes of the eyes, nose, and throat, and in the lining of the lungs and
gut; once the initial IgE response is complete, each mast cell has 100,000
to 500,000 Y-shaped antibodies protruding from its surface with
outstretched arms; usually within two weeks of worm infestation, the immune
system is primed and each mast cell contains a thousand or more large,
globular granules; a worm protein sticks to the arms of two adjacent IgE
antibodies and sets off a reaction causing the mast cell to burst and spew
its granules (mast cell degranulation) of histamines and other inflammatory
chemicals that infiltrate local tissues; this causes itching; blood vessels
dilate and leak; tissues swell and mucus production increases; this
response may prevent worms from infiltrating further through the skin;
other cells are attracted to dump toxins on the parasites; intestinal
worms, on the other hand, come in through the mouth and attack the GI
tract; in this case, an inflamed gut producing fluid and mucus causes in
diarrheamaybe to flush out worms before they can attach; some worms can
also spend part of their life cycle in the human lung (like
schistosomiasis); this may trigger coughing and sneezing; this responses
are all more acute to newcomers in the tropics when first exposed to
parasites; some worms do get through though mostly the system works to
protect people; in the absence of helminths, IgE antibodies can zero in on
airborne allergens (causing asthma or hayfever) or ingested foods instead;
worm infested rats have weak allergy responsesl their IgE antibodies are
tied up fighting worms; however, in rural New Guinea, worm infestation
doesn't lessen the asthma rate; there's an IgG antibody that competes with
IgE; this G antibody (IgG4) grabs the worm protein before it bumps into the
E antibody attached to a mast cell and this prevents the mast cell
degranulation; IgG4 (1-2%) is the rarest of the IgG's; IgG1 targets viruses
and bacteria and is the most common; in people with parasites; IgG4 jumpts
to 18% <>

the hygiene hypothesis was advanced in 1989 by David Strachan of the London
School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; the immune system expects a dirty
environment and when it isn't living in on it becomes hyperactive; Gabonese
children with worm infestations have fewer allergies (and more IL-10, which
blocks inflammatory signals among immune cells); children treated for worms
became much more sensitive to dust mites; Alan Brown of Britain's
University of Nottingham has treated his hayfever with intestinal
hookworms; they cause anemia and require overeating; Joel Weinstock (once
at the University of Iowa, now Tufts) used pig whipworms (Trichuris suis;
TSO from Ovamed) to treat ulcerative colitis

"The American citizen lives in a world where fantasy is more real than
reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly
dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so
pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so
thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of
the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves."
- Daniel Boorstin, The Image, 1962

  • [percy-l] Autistics, mirror neurons and representational monopolies, Wade Riddick, 03/31/2008

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