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It's a jungle in there
October 11, 2012 12:56 AM   Subscribe

It's the hottest new metaphor for the brain, they say. Your brain is a rain forest.

The human brain is not a machine; it is a biological organism. It is not hardware or software. It is wetware.
And it is messy. Millions of years of evolution have created hundreds of billions of brain cells organized and connected in unbelievably complex systems of organicity. The body of a neuron, or brain cell, looks like an exotic tropical tree with numerous branches.


To do a little re-Branding: If we are as jungles we might as well get good at it?

(Optional soundtracks: You Are Listening To)
(Big Picture Science discussion with author James Geary ... about 39 minutes in)
posted by Twang (39 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The best view is from the canopy.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:13 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Instead of celebrating the natural diversity inherent in human brains, too often we medicalize and pathologize those differences by saying, “Johnny has autism. Susie has a learning disability. Pete suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”

If you stretch this metaphor just a bit more and say that the rest of the body is also a biological organism subject to "natural diversity" would you celebrate a congenital heart defect? Or would you "medicalize" it and treat it?
posted by three blind mice at 1:16 AM on October 11, 2012


If you stretch this metaphor just a bit more and say that the rest of the body is also a biological organism subject to "natural diversity" would you celebrate a congenital heart defect? Or would you "medicalize" it and treat it?

And if you stretch this example a little bit further, would you say that a short person has a congenital height defect and medicalize and treat it?
posted by DRMacIver at 1:35 AM on October 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Alzheimer's is illegal logging.
posted by pracowity at 1:51 AM on October 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


My soul is an uncontacted tribe shaking spears at the helicopters of love.
posted by pracowity at 1:52 AM on October 11, 2012 [53 favorites]


(I feel the need to expand on that response)

What I'm saying is that yes, there are extremes of the mental condition where treating it as something wrong is obviously the right thing to do because it significantly impacts your quality of life. I don't have nearly enough experience with mental health issues to say which ones those are, but for example extreme depression certainly qualifies.

There is however an awful lot of variation in how peoples' minds work that if not stigmatized is harmless and possibly even beneficial in some ways, but people don't seem to be well equipped to deal with that without labelling it as a problem.
posted by DRMacIver at 1:58 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


All true, but it's not as if therapists are roaming the streets randomly diagnosing people. People typically come to them because they have a problem, because they're not happy. In that context, telling them it's all part of our wonderful diversity is liable to be a bit unhelpful.

On the other hand if my brain is a rain forest it does go some way towards explaining the monkeys.
posted by Segundus at 2:08 AM on October 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


It also explains why I dream of Ice Cube fighting snakes.
posted by mannequito at 2:10 AM on October 11, 2012


Nah, I'm sticking with "the brain is a collection of black boxes/Chinese rooms."
posted by infinitewindow at 2:13 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Segundus: I think that downplays how much of this happens in childhood. In a lot of cases, people are sent to therapists/child psychologists by their parents because people (their schools, said parents, etc) have been encouraged to think of things as problems.

I think it also underestimates how much social pressure there is to conform to peoples' ideas of what a healthy mind acts like, and how much of peoples' desire to "fix" themselves stems from that. I suspect (but have no real evidence to support) that over labelling things as disorders aggravates that tendency.

But if people are genuinely unhappy with aspects of their personality and want to change that, sure, obviously that's fine.
posted by DRMacIver at 2:19 AM on October 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


On the other hand if my brain is a rain forest it does go some way towards explaining the monkeys.

But the sharks, Segundus? The sharks?
posted by likeso at 2:22 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Being destroyed by competing industrial agribusinesses?
posted by windykites at 2:25 AM on October 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


In a lot of cases, people are sent to therapists/child psychologists by their parents because people (their schools, said parents, etc) have been encouraged to think of things as problems.

Isn't it more a difference between being healthy and ill? It is my layman's understanding that things like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are mental illnesses.

Being short is not an illness DRMacIver, but it was a nice example by you to show the limits of how far you can stretch the metaphor.
posted by three blind mice at 2:41 AM on October 11, 2012


I'm actually quite sympathetic to the notion of resisting the pathologisation of neurodiversity (neologisms ahoy!), but I have some fairly serious difficulties with this article. As a person with dyspraxia (perhaps one of the more obviously "disabled" of the specific learning difficulties, due to the physical component), the fact that I was identified as having a neurological disorder at a young age was precisely what enabled me to access the adaptive technologies I required to succeed. The problem with advocating a wide and wooly approach to neurodiversity is that human organisations need boxes and bright-lines in order to be able to react to difference. Also, the notion that this is something new is a bit ridiculous. Psychologists have been widely using the term "autistic spectrum disorder" for what, at least a decade? More, I'd think, can't bothered to check.

The alternative proposed to diagnostic criteria and programmes of treatment seems to be, "well, autistics might be happier in California..." which seems to suffer more from silly stereotyping than any current approach. My most autistic friend is a visual artist. People with neurological disabilities, as the article tries to identify but then loses track of, are individuals with particular talents, interests and weaknesses. The notion that autistic people are good at x so that balances out y is vastly more reductive and disempowering than the current pathological approach.

A few specific gripes:

1. Autism is not the desire to isolate oneself socially, it is a specific set of difficulties with interpreting and processing certain types of information.

2. A self-serving diagnosis of slaves is not the same thing as the use of uncongenial and damagingly judgmental terms for low intelligence. Pointing at two different bad things from the past and trying to draw a pattern is weak argument. It should also be noted that Cartwright's "drapetomania" was recognised as the politically motivated nonsense it was by contemporary commentators.

3. A mental illness or disorder is not the same thing as a neurological disorder or disability. Treating the terminology with such lack of care is highly suspect to me. I note that while Thomas Armstrong's website identifies him as holding a PhD clearly and repeatedly, his bio is less forthcoming about what that PhD is in or where it was awarded. The site also screams "snake-oil salesman" to me.

In short, there is a good popular article to be written on neurodiversity, neurological disability and the risky boundaries of pathology in this field. This is emphatically not that article.
posted by howfar at 2:41 AM on October 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


Goddam brain howler monkeys never stop HOWLING!

Sigh... the brain forest can be a noisy place.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:59 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


three blind mice: My point is that the difference between "healthy" and "ill" is entirely one of labelling, whether it's physical or mental. A particular state of mind or body can have both positive and negative consequences, and there's no clear dividing line where you can draw the boundary and say "On this side everything is an illness, on this side everything is not", even though there are things which you clearly want to say are on one side or the other (heart disease and severe depression versus shortness and irritating cheeriness). Further, there are dangers in trying to push the boundary to the point where too much is considered an illness.
posted by DRMacIver at 3:04 AM on October 11, 2012


I agree his site looks "funky", but a lot of this chimes with my experience, both of myself (I have, for example, literally no visual imagination whatsoever, which isn't "neurotypical") and of young people I know.
posted by imperium at 3:21 AM on October 11, 2012


Oh great, now I have that John Mayer song stuck in my "rain forest".
posted by hypersloth at 4:21 AM on October 11, 2012


Back in the Mechanical Age, the brain was a machine. In the Steam Age, it was a steam engine. In the Computing Age, it waAs a computer. Have we entered the Rain Forest Age? I don't think so. Maybe we've entered the Biological ge, but I don't see much evidence in the general public. Age of Diversity maybe, although all the previous metaphors were scientific. But maybe that's just because the culture is scientific (I don't know what they thought the brain was in pre-scientific times). So maybe science is waning and we are entering into the Age of Diversity.
posted by DU at 4:47 AM on October 11, 2012


Is this why we now refer to brainstorming as thought showering?
posted by arcticseal at 4:59 AM on October 11, 2012


Snakes on a brain.
posted by blue_beetle at 5:01 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


DU: "The brain is a really complicated biological system which we don't really understand the details of" at least has the virtue of being quite a direct metaphor. :-)
posted by DRMacIver at 5:03 AM on October 11, 2012


I heard it was like a maze with a little metal ball in it. Not sure in what sense, though.
posted by acb at 5:06 AM on October 11, 2012


Back in the Mechanical Age, the brain was a machine. In the Steam Age, it was a steam engine. In the Computing Age, it waAs a computer. Have we entered the Rain Forest Age? I don't think so. Maybe we've entered the Biological ge, but I don't see much evidence in the general public. Age of Diversity maybe, although all the previous metaphors were scientific. But maybe that's just because the culture is scientific (I don't know what they thought the brain was in pre-scientific times). So maybe science is waning and we are entering into the Age of Diversity.

I suspect what have entered is the Ecologic Age of Personal Health. There is a lot of similar work going on looking at how what we have always thought of as us turns out to be bugs - our gut is home to alien bacteria and our skin is crawling with creepies. We are pretty much walking and talking critter condos and the importance of maintening healthy diverse populations is just starting to be understood.

But yes all metaphors break down badly at their edges. Though I would point out that things in rain forests do die and rot so the diversity isn't all roses. Perhaps it would be better a better metaphor to think of a human's brain as a tended garden.
posted by srboisvert at 5:33 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I note that while Thomas Armstrong's website identifies him as holding a PhD clearly and repeatedly, his bio is less forthcoming about what that PhD is in or where it was awarded.

He has a Ph.D. in East-West Psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies according to his LinkedIn profile.
posted by vacapinta at 5:35 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a nice metaphor and as far as childhood diagnoses of ADHD, etc., I've had similar thoughts, so I'm sympathetic. It's a better comparison than an engine or a computer. But ecosystems can experience imbalances that cause devastating, systemic effects from which they can't recover without intervention (or there is significant loss). I think that goes for the brain as well. Yes, there is variability, but sometimes there are imbalances that create a struggle to maintain, let alone thrive.
posted by peacrow at 5:36 AM on October 11, 2012


It's a brainy night in Georgia.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:00 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


If the brain is a rain forest, how come Indiana Jones didn't already know how to speak Hovitos?
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:03 AM on October 11, 2012


In the Steam Age, it was a steam engine. In the Computing Age, it waAs a computer... Maybe we've entered the Biological ge

So, the brain is biological? Who knew.
posted by philipy at 6:48 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


...explains that burning smell...
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:54 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, at least that's a poetic improvement on the brain-as-computer model, which I am heartily sick of. I never want to hear again about how certain things beyond eating and sleeping are "hardwired", or "programmed", let alone complex cultural behaviours.
posted by jokeefe at 8:03 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


And my body is a wonderland.
posted by stormpooper at 8:31 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


METAFILTER: an uncontacted tribe shaking spears at the helicopters of love
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 9:12 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


When the rain comes it rains inside your heads
You rang a tang bipeds
You’re a rainforest, you’re a rainforest

Like a clockworks, that’s how the world appears
Like music of the spheres
When the gears turn, when the gears turn

Ra-a-a-a-in, forest in my mind
Whee-eels, turn ‘em one more time

I’m a program, running in a see pee you
Is that all I am to you
Need an upgrade, need an upgrade

So-o-o-o-o, ciety of mind
Try-y-y-y-y, one more time

Can you hear me, the metaphors you shine
They’re all just in your mind
Can you hear me, can you hear me

Rain . . . Notwen Cassi dna Yksnim
Shine . . . Selteab eht ot seigolopa
 
posted by Herodios at 11:01 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just walked out of a special ed meeting regarding a student who has "processing difficulties" as we call them in perhaps the most non-specific diagnosis ever, but common among teachers who are not psychologists. This particular child had great difficulties with reading and writing when he entered our school in 6th grade, but as a senior he writes well enough to deal with college. It has been a struggle for him, though. As most here would agree, the original FPP's attitude that we are all "different," not "better or worse" is a simplistic and sentimental point of view. This child just happens to have had difficulties in performing the kind of tasks schools ask of kids. He is happy, very bright...and then there is this: he is an actor, and way better at memorizing lines than you and I probably are. How does that work? The human brain is a wondrous thing.
posted by kozad at 12:30 PM on October 11, 2012


Maybe we've entered the Biological ge, but I don't see much evidence in the general public.

I see us as entering the age of complexity theory, which encompasses all complex systems. Including, but not limited to biology, ecology, economics and psychology.

The general public is usually 10 or more years behind in psychology, so they should just start to use it now. Although business has been attempting to use this information since Dee Hocks wrote Birth of the Chaordic age about 12 years ago.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 12:52 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


...we need to admit that there is no standard brain, just as there is no standard flower, or standard cultural or racial group, and that, in fact, diversity among brains is just as wonderfully enriching as biodiversity and the diversity among cultures and races.

This is a nice sentiment and it is of course absolutely true that pathologizing differences that just reflect the natural spectrum of human diversity leads to a world full of unhappy, dysfunctional people who really just need to be given the opportunity to have a life that suits their needs. It's probably true that in times past there was more leeway for these sorts of differences and that a lot of the dysfunction that we see today is the result of a culture that asks people to fit into a pretty standardized (not to mention unnatural) mold. On the other hand, fuck you, we have a society to run.
posted by Scientist at 1:46 PM on October 11, 2012


Perhaps it would be better a better metaphor to think of a human's brain as a tended garden.

A healthy brain, anyway. Coincidentally, I was just listening to Gary Snyder and he commented (5:12).

"Television is the clear-cutting of the mind. So that your mind can then grow a desirable crop. Get rid of all those wild weed thoughts, and be a consumer."
posted by Golden Eternity at 3:41 PM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some days my mind is just a cold bowl of oatmeal.
*sigh*
posted by BlueHorse at 9:12 PM on October 11, 2012


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