Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Women of Deseret

What about feminism? A collision with the modern world. 

Continuing from last week, a particularly interesting topic in the field of Mormonism is the role of women. The church calls itself a "restored" Christianity, which is a fundamentalist position, in that it claims to attempt to reproduce the conditions of the early church, and proselytizes on that basis. This includes naming apostles, extending priesthood to all men, and thorough-going patriarchy. It even meant, during its formative period in the mid to late 1800's, polygamy, based on a bit of cherry-picking from the Old Testament.

Polygamy was also based on a revelation from god to Joseph Smith. One that his (sole) wife at the time, Emma, knew what to do with. She physically burned that revelation, by some accounts. She also agitated against this new doctrine, turning the female relief society into such a dangerous organ that the church leaders shut it down for a couple of decades, after which it was reconstituted and has behaved in properly submissive fashion ever since.

An intriguing aspect of polygamy is the patent lies and dissimulation practised in its defense. The Mormon authors of "The Mormon Expereince" insist that a large part of the rationale (as was the case for Muhammed and Islam) was to provide for otherwise unattached women, the destitute, and to correct for an excess of women due to warfare, etc. But the West in the US always had an excess of men (though see here). More tellingly, polygamy was not a matter of charity, but a reward to the highest officers of the church for their obvious spiritual blessings, to be converted into power and children. The fourth president of the church had six wives and forty-three children. The book also relates that if economically possible, a husband would build separate houses for each of his wives.

This hardly reflects how harmonious the institution was on behalf of women, or how charitable it was towards the destitute. No, it portrays a system of power-mad men, perhaps not wearing huge beards, but otherwise rewarding themselves in a way that suggests that they were somewhat impatient about becoming gods only in the afterlife.

Brigham Young, with what resembles a rather Islamist beard.

It is a problem we also see with the veil on Islamic women. How do we judge and react to oppression when its victims are acquiescent or even explicit supporters of the system and part of a culture which, whatever its flaws, is valued by its members? Can a system of oppression be so insidious as to be invisible? This comes up in the black lives matter movement, not that blacks in the US are acquiescent or supporters of racism, (though studies show that they are also unconsciously color-ist and racist by way of indoctrination), but that non-blacks require continual consciousness raising to a condition that is so ingrained in the social fabric and unconscious that great harms are inadvertantly, and continually done, while rationalizations accrue without end whenever a question or difficulty arises.

There is no objective judgement about social affairs, unfortunately. One group may be treated differently on an objective basis, yet that treatment be justified by any number of value judgements and attitudes whose quality is not objective at all. To take the devil's advocate position for a moment, it is clear that women and men are different, mentally as well physically. Thus it is no surprise that women may typically want different things out of life than men, and might naturally prefer a social system with roles which are different and respectively suited to each gender, both in talent and desire.

To go even deeper, all social organization involves oppression. Every relationship involves expectations and some desire to get something from the other person or change the other person. No one is innocent of manipulation, least of all the infant in its crib. We are social beings, instinctively ready to make commitments of service and sacrifice, working for family, company, nation in return for uncertain, and surely incommensurate, benefits. And ultimately we benefit from the social structures we are enmeshed in, in countless ways. But that is hardly freedom. No one is free.

So the question of civil rights, of equality, and freedom, are ones of degree, not of black and white. The problem of feminism (the problem that has no name!) is one of enumerating the various qualities of people of both genders and asking which ones are relevant to our various (modern) social roles, instead of throwing a lace-trimmed blanket over the whole thing by saying that men are better than women and should run the society from top to bottom, perhaps because they are more violent and warlike.

And even more importantly, it is a project of recognizing and accepting diversity among people, so that even if women and men mostly abide by their stereotypical interests and roles, exceptions are not judged as abnormal, destabilizing, even evil. To take another example, Mormons are no great friends of introverts:
"If our composite family contains members who are temperamentally introverts or 'loners', people preferring quieter life-styles, the church programs may seem uncomfortable- or they may be looked upon as opportunities to emerge from a shell and may help to develop a more balanced personality."

The "life-style" of homosexuality is likewise a source of horror, of course.

In the context of feminism, sure, relatively few women are lesbians, or are interested in joining the infantry, or running for president. But some are, and why not let them? What point do the normative, rather than descriptive, gender roles that conservative, patriarchial institutions like the Mormon church enforce to various degrees, and push with vast amounts of propaganda, serve?

I think there are two main answers. One is the raw power of the patriarchy. As the reader may recall, it took a decade and a half after the civil rights movement for the Mormon church to ask God about the fitness of blacks for the ministry. Here is president Spencer Kimbal writing to the church:
"... we have pleaded long and earnestly on behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance. He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple."

Note the word "man". Whether they are beseeching god on behalf of women, we have no idea. Personally, I doubt it. The transparent secular motivation of this revelation, as transparent as the federally induced revelation banning polygamy almost a century before, could hardly be more obvious. The patriarchial system likewise, with its old testament tradition, is a institution of power, with clear secular motivations. Why else deny the obvious: that women have as much access to god as men, whatever that might mean?

The second attraction of strict roles is plain orderliness and security. If the family and church is automatically organized by way of gender roles, then that is one less source of conflict and negotiation, or so it might seem to the naive. More psychologically, some standard of "normal" is a powerful organizing principle for us individually and socially. Teenagers want nothing but to be normal, and dread the opposite. People contemplating marriage are more secure in knowing that their partners are thoroughly indoctrinated into their role's "normal" template, minimizing surprise and heartbreak. Mormon institutions up and down the ladder, such as the Women's Relief Society, hum along based heavily on the slotting of all their round pegs into nice, round holes.

One could also bring up from the archetypal depths the common image of the father figure as decider and leader, and the mother figure as nurturer and consoler. Are such images innate, or are they programmed by the patriarchy itself? And even if innate, where else do we so give in to our instincts to pattern all of society on such an archaic basis? The fact of the matter is that women are natural executives, deciding on life and death as effectively, if less violently, as men.

Maturing as individuals out of wild uncultured children involves no end of repression and self-control, to form acceptable adults ready for taking on responsible, interconnected roles in society. What is one more bit of repression, for women to accede to the patriarchial system, in all its social, political, and other dimensions?

Of course, it is simple unfairness, a reflection of ancient feudal and tribal orders where the strong rode herd over the weak. We do not accede to such systems any more in politics and professional life. (With apologies to the GOP, Donald Trump, and our whole campaign finance system.) Why should we do so elsewhere? If the Mormon church really thought so highly of the family and motherhood, it would have opened the priesthood and high offices to women long ago.

The Mormons supposedly believe in the constitution, voting for political (if not ecclesiastical) office, and ironically were leaders in women's suffrage, back in the 1800's. But that constitution is based on the enlightenment principle of equality among all people, and the need for secular, practical, and compelling reasons to deviate from that fundamental assumption. Sure, the constitution in its original incarnation debilitated women, not to mention blacks, but that has since been repaired, again by voting processes, not revelation. The Mormon church, for all its protestations of protecting the family and the sacred roles of each gender, is in this respect an anachronism. Just as much as protecting the family from the homosexual "lifestyle" is an anachronism.

Is it in this respect a "restored" church of Jesus Christ, thus a purposeful anachronism? Obviously, I am no expert. But just because patriarchy was the norm in antiquity, and all the apostles as well as prophets were men does not mean that Jesus (if and however he existed) was not open to the feminine in a spiritual and apostolic sense. There is first of all the adulation and semi-divinity of Mary. Then there is the quasi-apostle-ship of Mary Magdalene. She seems to have had more importance and faith than the rest of the apostles. Indeed, Christianity started off as a religion very accepting of women in powerful positions. In all its cherry-picking, the Mormon church seems to have, in its attachment to hierarchical patriarchy, restored the structure of Catholicism rather than the broad dispensation of Jesus.

  • A little feminist outrage.
  • What happens when social order breaks down.
  • Nihilism may be a problem, but not ISIS's problem.
  • Why friends with Saudi Arabia, and not with ISIS?
  • Is Iran really the enemy? Or would it be a better friend than the Sunnis?
  • Sam Harris on Islam.
  • Want to hear more JFK assassination theories?
  • Someone is wrong on the internet. Not to say that a recession in the near future is impossible, but raising interest rates would bring it on faster, rather than helping solve it once it arrived. We have to get over expecting monetary authorities to be the only adults in the room.
  • Lawrence Lessig on equality.
  • Requiem for Douglass North.
  • Appreciation for John Locke, and modernity.
  • Is renewable energy reaching liftoff?
  • On the mechanics of the Fed and its rate liftoff.
  • Paul Mason on basic income and the end of work.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The People of Deseret

Mormonism: From a prophet talking through his hat to a quasi-state with lessons for us all. Review of "The Mormon experience" by Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton.

What happens when god speaks to an otherwise unremarkable man, telling him to found a new religion? In the case of Islam, that prophet conjured a mishmash of Christianity and Judaism into a new doctrine that took its world by storm. The stronger subtext, however, was Arab tribalism. It is that tribalism that finds such rich expression in the martial and ceaselessly vitriolic aspects of the Quran, and in the problems we face internationally today.

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, another prophet received his revelation, and after authoring an even more bizarre scripture, (though likewise a pastiche of Old and New testament materials, in part), trod a similiar path of nascent church building, continuing prophecy, practical leadership, occasional skirmishes with enemies, mass migration, and even polygamy. As an aside, the book I am working from was written by Mormons, indeed by an official church historian, so while detailed and highly interesting, is hardly an unbiased account. A chapter on the role of women is particularly tortured in its apologetics.

The parallels are deeply interesting, yet the differences are stark. Mormonism flirted with armed resistance, but very sparingly, and has been a stable and exceedingly peaceful part of the national scene for the last century. Its proselytizing is determinedly, boringly, peaceful. Both religions emphasize charity within their community and separation from gentiles, (termed infidels in the Quran), yet Mormonism has always had a much stronger internal governance structure, even though it has never (to my knowledge) had pretensions of running a fully autonomous state or of providing a comprehensive legal code, as Islam has. Indeed, Mormons regard the US constitution as divinely inspired. Mormonism has been dedicated first and foremost to self-reliance, practical development and social togetherness, for its cultural subtext was American frontier can-do-ism, rather than Arab tribalism.

One might think the differences to be subtle, after watching lots of Westerns. Clans, clan wars, and plenty of six-shooters seem to characterize the epoch. But in reality, Americans were probably more obsessed with orderly self-government and institution building. The annals of early California are full of systems of law passed for transient mining camps, and an eagerness for setting up local and state governments. From the first charters that authorized colonization by the English and Dutch in North America and the long legal traditions and enlightenment that the colonists had left behind, to the newness of the land and the colonist's ideals of freedom in a promised land, Americans were experts in self-government. Indeed the Western is not typically a celebration of lawlessness, but  quite the contrary- is a cautionary tale of its baleful consequences. Every Bonanza show ends with the forces of law and order triumphant.

I digress because, coming out of this tradition, Mormons are compulsive organizers. From the first with Joseph Smith at the helm, they selected or elected apostles and other governing bodies. The succession after Smith's death brought an even more talanted organizer to the helm, Brigham Young, who managed the hegira from their freshly constructed city of Nauvoo, Illinois to what the Mormons called for some time the State of Deseret, now Utah.

The beehive symbolizes Mormonism and Utah.

The original territorial government featured Brigham Young as governor, and other church leaders in all other offices. This seemed completely natural at the time, and few even paid much attention to the formality of elections. When the Federal government attempted to appoint its own officers to oversee the territory, the Mormons simply ran all their affairs unaltered, using a shadow system where church officers held all the power and the obedience of the people. It took far sterner measures from the US government, including moves threatening to destroy the church entirely, before the Mormons acceeded to federal supremacy, normal political forms, and particularly the illegality of polygamy, which finally happened concurrent with the grant of statehood in 1896.

The beehive is a fitting symbol, expecially of the early Mormon experience, which in the early Utah period was one of extreme hardship leavened only by thorough social organization and communal support. Communal larders were set up from the tithes which were all paid in kind, and in turn fed the poor and placated the local Indians. Communal effort was essential to manage the scarce water, for agriculture was only possible by irrigation. When the Union Pacific railroad building project came through, Brigham Young arranged for Mormons to do the work in the territory, to prevent the immigration of undesirable elements. Then he used a large part of the proceeds to build his own railroad within the state. And in a thousand other ways, from the territorial militia to the building of the Salt Lake City temple, orderly government and communal activity was and remains fundamental to Mormonism. (How ironic, however, that beehives have a queen as their president, who has mated with multiple husbands.)

To some, this degree of togetherness can seem rather creepy, and there is a dark side of extreme patriarchy and conformity. Plural marriage, for instance, was not just an odd and occasional peculiarity, but a reward and sign of church leadership, reserved for top officials. It was Old-Testament patriarchy, and natural selection, in action, Mormon style. But there are also positive lessons for our national economic questions, which largely turn today (in the right-left spectrum) on how together we feel, and how high we wish to set the dial of brutal competitiveness and laissez faire, versus a more compassionate egalitarianism. Mormons are typically Republicans due to their social conservatism. Yet their social organization was at the outset virtually communistic, with high social mobility with the possibility of high office (for men), and thoroughly organized social support. This organization was highly effective, not only socially, but economically, taming an extremely forbidding wilderness and creating a strong state out of nothing. Mormons teach us yet again that it takes management and cooperation to run a successful society, not just competition.

Does it also take religion? Mormonism is explicitly Christian, which, hard as it is for an atheist to say, has contributed, on balance, a peace and compassion-oriented ethic or at least counter-weight to other social forces, over the last millennia. (As has Buddhism in its sphere, even more effectively.) Does strong social bonding require something beyond the Lockean contract, of a more spiritual nature? Does the civic religion of baseball, George Washington, and the Bill of Rights suffice to keep everyone in the US working on the common projects of e pluribus unum, or is a more comprehensive narrative required, of humans as embryonic gods, America as the promised land, and our lives in eternity built upon our diligence, faithfulness, and loving kindness in this life?

It is a difficult question when faced with the obvious social efficacy of bizarrely false and seemingly impractical doctrines- not to imagine that such doctrines are true, but to consider whether we as humans can be communally motivated, idealistic, and purpose-driven without them. We differ, some people being allergic to religious drama, and others being unfulfilled without it. Yet societies can not operate without some degree of fervor and common narrative, to clothe the brute competition that forms the base of natural and social existence, and emphasize more idealistic and cooperative ends. What we have on the national scene in the US is a fraying of this narrative, as the wealthy have pulled away, into their gated compounds and isolated social world, even while they control the political system and put anything resembling the public good on the back burner. The sclerosis and atomization are palpable. The Mormon church carried their narrative and communal principle to extremes, sorely testing the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, but also showing the effectiveness of communalism.

Turning back to the comparison with Islam, great communal projects, especially of a charitable nature, are hardly unknown in Islam, particularly during its golden age. But something about the traumatic collision with the West seems to have sapped the ability of the Islam to function as an effective governing philosophy or ideology. The impulse towards fundamentalism is sadly, and ironically, the opposite from what is needed, and is not just the province of a small extreme minority, but represents the leading direction in the world of Islam, from its twin leading sects / countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It took centuries for Judaism to adapt to the position of a minority religion during its diaspora, giving up its dreams of temporal (and Temple) power. Perhaps something similiar, (though hopefully less protracted, degrading, and traumatic), possibly coming from Muslim diaspora in Europe, the US or Indonesia, will be needed to burn off the bitter elements and steer Islam in a new direction.

  • Yes, ISIS is Islamic. Ultra-Islamic.
  • American misadventures in the Muslim world. Why so many bad choices and terrible allies?
  • More on comparative religions.
  • More somewhat aimless, yet apposite, discussion of "whence Islam".
  • Is ISIS fighting a strictly Sunni-Shia civil war, or something a little more ideological and theological? And just how broad is its support?
  • Taliban status report.
  • Our State Department defends crime and immorality.
  • Outstanding TED talk on the minds of animals.
  • David Eagleman's wonderful brain.
  • Honestly, if we are short of our inflation target, the solution is very simple.
  • Is Uber evil, or not so bad?
  • Wall Street votes Republican ... why does anyone else?
  • Some notes on Adam Smith.
  • Splitting hairs on printing money.
  • Indeed, dropping the gold standard and fiscal stimulus saved Japan from the depression.
  • While European policy has not done so.
  • Sanders Snippet of the Week:
"We have a system, which during the 1990s allowed Wall Street to spend $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions to get deregulated. Then, ten years later, after the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior of Wall Street led to their collapse, it is a system which provided trillions in government aid to bail them out. Wall Street used their wealth and power to get Congress to do their bidding for deregulation and then, when their greed caused their collapse, they used their wealth and power to get Congress to bail them out."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Babes in the Woods

Review of the film Restrepo, about US soldiers lost in Afghanistan.

Restrepo is perhaps the foremost cultural document of US involvement in Afghanistan, an documentary of platoon assigned to one of the hottest zones in the war. As film-making, it is very good, mixing post-action interviews and perspective with close footage embedded at the front. Restrepo is the name of an outpost in the Korengal valley of Kunar province some ways west of the Pakistani border, which this platoon founded and held against constant attack by the local population, Taliban, et al. The outpost and valley were later given up to the Taliban after further years of futility. (The film's sequel, named Korengal, is a sentimental pastiche of outtakes from the first effort.)

The men are exemplars of our armed forces; extremely young, immature, good-natured, and given enormous fire-power. They are shattered when a fellow soldier is killed, but kill their enemies with light-hearted glee. Their leader comes across as exemplary as well; disciplined, profane, and effective. Yet something seems sorely missing- knowledge about the social and political setting they have helicoptered into.

Much of the film is taken up with firefights, each side taking potshots at the other. The Taliban set occasional ambushes, but the US soldiers seem only to act as fire bait. They never seem to control the terrain. They set up key forts and mini-forts, and patrol on occasion. But the wider landscape is not theirs to control. Physically, the country is mountainous and thus favorable to guerrilla warfare rather than a mechanized army. And for all our space-based intel, it appears that knowing where the enemy is continues to be extremely challenging.

But the social landscape is even worse, completely incomprehensible to youngsters from the US. Sure, they have GPS, maps and doubtless all the intel our government can provide. But not knowing the local language is an enormous block. The soldiers are tongue-tied trying to relate to villagers through interpreters, hardly getting to first base, as it were, in the campaign for hearts and minds while they are busily tramping through the villager's homes and shooting up the countryside. Their lip service about projects and benefits for the villagers in return for cooperation could just as well have been spoken in Klingon.

Each village is manned by a skeleton crew of boys and ancient codgers. The women are sequestered, and all able-bodied men are off shooting at the Americans. Language barrier or not, the degree of possible cooperation could hardly be more clear. The film-makers don't investigate the local terrain either. They are fully embedded in that sense, not stepping beyond the wire of US control. Could they have clarified the degree to which, and reasons why, the local populace acceed to the terror of the devil they know over the foreign devil they had seen once before, in Soviet uniforms? Doubtful, I am sure, but the question virtually answers itself.

If the US were a traditional conquerer, this wouldn't make much difference. The Afghan men would be killed, the women sold off into slavery, and, as Rome did before us, we would call it peace. But we have renounced such wholesale terror and aim to behave by a higher moral code, as well as hoping to gain friends by practicing temperate and targeted warfare.

Were we even a traditional 20th century conquerer, we would have sent in far more more soldiers. The platoon of Restrepo is hopelessly out-gunned, despite their technical resources. If they had been welcomed as friends, a light footprint might have been sufficient. But at it was, near the border to Pakistan where the Taliban was comfortably ensconced as valued allies of the Pakistani government pursuing its bigoted war against all neighbors, in a rural region were the people are even more attached to their guns and religion (and control of their women) than they are in West Virginia, well, the welcome was not friendly at all. It was like being set down as a lonely platoon on the Ho Chi Minh trail and told to stop the traffic. In that case, as we now know, all the bombing in the world wasn't enough.

Our occupation of Europe after World War 2 succeeded largely because of cultural knowledge and affinity. We knew how to be friendly to a population utterly burned out by war, and even in Japan, we made friends in the wake of the nuclear bomb, due to Japan's strong Westernizing project that had been in motion for the preceeding near-century. In the Middle East, we seem to have very little cultural affinity. Islam is at the core of this, I think, as it combines a bigoted attitude towards infidels (and many forms of social and technical progress) with a lack of governing discipline that leads to endless free-lancing, militia formation, and romantic heroism. Why is government by a polygamous royal family in Saudi Arabia acceptable in the modern world, and accepted as the center and heart of the Islamic world? Yes, it resembles the feudal or even tribal orders of the past. But what kind of justification is that? When is the revolution in political theory and social justice going to happen in the Islamic world?

In Afghanistan, we started well ahead, as the population was not, on the whole, pro-Taliban. But social power is not always democratic, and in Afghanistan, it is a traditional and brutal competition between armed gangs, run by natural predators. Some youngsters from the US might have understood this, but not those in this man's army. Gang warfare is particlarly a matter of social knowledge, knowing were invisible lines are drawn, who is big, who is small, how far to push each person, and what each tag and sign signify. The soldiers of Restrepo are almost completely blind in this respect, which in combination with their other shortcomings made them rather unsuccessful.

But this was just a part of the larger policy. Where are we generally in Afghanistan? The country is slowly losing ground to the Taliban. The government is disorganized and corrupt. Without the US to prop it up and feed the maw of corruption, it is not really clear whether the central government is a going proposition. Which is somewhat odd for a culture so obsessed with morality and honor. Unfortunately honor is a very ambiguous sort of virtue, given to competitiveness and winning over all other considerations, causing suicide bombers to wear burkhas and the like. One may even take it as a cautionary tale for our own slow path towards hyper-competition and feudalism in the West.

After almost fifteen years of occupation / assistance, most Afghan's first allegiance still seems to be tribal rather than national. The cultural elite treat the national government as a part-time affair, good while someone else is paying the bills, but not essential to their power centers, which remain local, in the form of tribal structure, militias, local extortion rings, smuggling, and other pursuits that one might call organized crime. The police operate similarly, by bribery and abuse of citizens. We allied ourselves with the existing powers to get things done locally, while at the same time attempting to change the game nationally by setting up a veneer of democracy and modern bureaucracy in association with ostensibly friendly Afghans. It has been a confusing mess, as much to our own soldiers as to the Afghans whose hearts and minds we intended to change.

  • Now that the Taliban has it so good, it can have fights among rival gangs.
  • Evidently we have to get out of the Middle East because they really are nuts after all, and deserve their caliphate.
  • Why the US needs to police the world, and needs more than kids to do it. Some good, some not so good arguments.
  • On the other hand...
  • A Mormon insurgent politely asks for change.
  • What is going on in Asia and Japan, from a left perspective?
  • More about the robots and unemployment, using the horse analogy.
  • Decoding Republican love of small government.
  • Neural oscillations track both speech and music.
  • Image of the week- life expectancy across the US. The Red South needs better health care and lifestyle ... why are they so dead-set against it? Another aspect of feudalism.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Where Did My Soul Go?

Exploring the neurocircuitry of loss-of-consciousness seizures.

While the question of a physical basis of consciousness is batted around by armchair philosophers, it is no light or abstract matter for people whose consciousness doesn't work as it should. From coma to narcolepsy, epilepsy and schizophrenia, there are many ways that consciousness can be disturbed for organic reasons (not even to mention pharmacologic and recreational interventions). One type of epilepsy, absence seizure, is a particularly interesting example, characterized by brief (10 seconds) loss of consciousness with no other symptom, typically. The subject just stares into space, or lets the current action such as speaking slow to a crawl. Memory of this time is absent, and the subject is not conscious. Then everything picks up again as though nothing had happened. It sort of resembles a reboot of a machine or computer.

Epilepsy, of which there are dozens of kinds, generally is a syndrome of electrical/chemical over-activity and over-synchrony somewhere in the brain. Our normal state is a chaotic noise from which a surface EEG captures occasional regularities. Consciousness seems to be the occasional and restricted synchrony of coalitions of neurons reaching the various areas which give it content, whether visual, abstract, tactile, etc. Probably also not just any neurons, but coalitions anchored in the cortical and thalamic areas that are most closely associated with loss of consciousness when they are injured. Beyond this, it is not yet possible to say just what consciousness is in physical, anatomical terms.

Yet there is a good deal known about the electrochemical circuits of epilepsy, which is one route to learning more about consciousness in general. Many patients have been helped by careful investigation of where their seizures begin, and intervening by either removing some portion of that brain tissue, or implanting electrodes that give corrective shocks continuously. In the case of absence seizures, which may be a particularly incisive and minimal disruption of consciousness, the driver seems to be a circuit between the cortex and thalamus.

The thalamus sits atop the midbrain and brainstem, and is the gateway to the cortex, relaying sensory information from outside and motor signals back downwards. In the sensory direction, this is an inter-active process. The cortex sends many connections back, at least in part to direct the spotlight of attention to selected inputs. The thalamus also plays central roles in sleep/wakefulness, as it is the source of the slow wave patterns of deep sleep, and damage to it can cause coma.

But sometimes the cortico-thalamic connections get too strong, and evolve into a positive feedback loop of ~ 3Hz waves that characterize the absence seizure. In susceptible persons, (it is a syndrome of children, typically), brief hyperventilation can cause it routinely. This suggests a possible connection with the sleep circuitry, related to the yawning, dizziness, and other effects of hyperventilation.

EEG waves during an absence seizure, which lasts from a few to 20 seconds.

Obviously, the brain circuitry has been difficult to figure out. Not only is the brain in general, and the human brain in particular, hard to experiment on, but the thalamus is especially central and hard to get to. The authors of a recent paper resort to computational modelling, based on the experimental work of others (and their own prior work). The idea is to get as much of the detailed knowledge into a model as possible, and then ask whether the seizures can be reproduced, and if so, what can be done about them.

The answer is that .. yes they can. The model below describes what is known generally about the network involved. It brings in another key anatomical site, the basal ganglia, which sit right next to the thalamus and conduct signals from the cortex to it, substantially increasing the complexity of the network.
Circuitry diagram of brain elements and connections involved in absence seizures, as used in the current paper's model. Glutamate connections are excitatory, while GABA connections are inhibitory.

One theme is that not all connections in the brain are excitatory, as though neuronal connections were simple wires. The red (glutamate neuro-transmitter) arrows represent activating connections, while the blue (GABA) arrows represent inhibitory connections. Just like in organizational management or artificial circuitry, the careful balancing of positive and negative feedback results in optimal control. Here, after constructing a ~40 parameter model containing everything known about the circuitry, the authors find that an unusual and recently-found inhibitory circuit that points from the basal ganglia (GPe, globus pallidus externa) directly back to the cortex might be critical for damping absence seizures.

Dialing up the inhibitory circuit voltage (-Vcp2) from the globus pallidus externa to the cortex, to a modest degree, reliably shuts down the firing rate (Øe) that is characteristic of absence seizures.

A further example of their data, (below), plotting (A, B) the voltage (Vse) from the thalamus (SRN, specific relay nuclei) to the cortex, versus the delay of action (tau in milliseconds) of the inhibitory circuit between the thalamus internal nuclei, TRN (thalamic reticular nucleus) and SRN. Extending the delay, or increasing the excitatory feedback voltage, moves the graph up and right, towards higher-firing states, as show in the lower individual graphs. The absence-seizure type of firing is in graph D, corresponding to the light blue area of graph A.

The absence seizure oscillation (SWD) happens in a sort of sweet spot of voltage applied between the thalamus (SRN) to the cortex. The vertical axis (tau) describes the lag characteristic of the inhibitory circuit between the TRN and SRN areas within the thalamus, which is also influential over the absence seizure oscillation.

While this kind of modelling is no substitute for empirical investigation, it is tremendously useful to advance scientific theorizing and speculation about the systems at hand. Systems about which our knowledge is increasingly complicated to the point that we may not be able to understand them without the help of computerized models that can keep track of a myriad of details and dynamics. In this case, the hypothesis might be, that if treatment is really necessary, an electrode placed into the basal ganglia / globus pallidus externae, to stimulate its inhibitory action with modest constant voltage, may be one way to go about it.