Ephemera

Human life is full of little ironies.  For example, one hot area for collectors is ephemera, things we produce that aren’t meant to last, like calendars, tickets, magazines, and posters.  Because these things are meant to be used and thrown away, what survives becomes valuable.   Usually these items are paper, but they can also include bits of film or video or even advertising items, like plastic whistles or the metal “cricket” clickers given away with Pol Parrot shoes when I was a little kid.

Another irony that fascinates me is The Cloud and other amorphous computer storage places.  If you have a smart phone, at some point you’ve probably thought or said that it contains “my life,” like your mother’s phone number, your grocery list, the date of your next dentist appointment, fitness records, email, texts, and a dozen apps that keep you entertained.  If you’re like me, you shiver with dread at the thought of losing or dropping it.  For that reason, you may “sync” your phone with your home computer or back up the information on The Cloud.  In fact, you may back up all your computer data on The Cloud.  Our treasured electronic devices are fallible, after all.

Ironically, The Cloud is, itself, merely an electronic device, an array of computer servers somewhere, consisting of diodes and circuit boards, with wires hanging off the back.  Although the industry depends on redundancy to keep running, all the machinery is merely machinery and just as susceptible to flood, fire, insect infestations, human error, and natural and man-made disasters.  It is all also susceptible to business failures and power outages that can be permanent.  Even though we intend to keep the details of our lives, the medium in which we keep them is by its nature ephemeral.

Perhaps, in the cosmic view of things, this transition from paper records to ephemeral electricity is a good thing.  All life is transitory.  After all, human history and the brief lives of mayflies (genus Ephemera) are different only in matters of scale.  In one sense, humanity has been preparing to disappear for millennia.  We’ve gone from writing on stone and clay tablets to writing on paper and now to zeroes and ones in the wiring of big black boxes.  No new iteration of humanity or potential intelligent species is going to stumble upon our banks of computers a thousand years from now and devote years of scholarship to deciphering what is written there, because nothing is written there.  It is encoded and requires wiring that lasts a thousand years plus knowledge of specific electronic manipulation to even be available for decoding.

But we don’t have to wait for a thousand years for bits of the future-past to disappear.  While we might feel blushing amazement still to find and read the love letters grandpa and grandma wrote 60 years ago, the love notes we might write on email or the limited characters of Twitter have already disappeared, never to be seen by wondering grandchildren decades from now.

Maybe it doesn’t matter, because our grandchildren’s Internet-influenced attention spans will be shot to heck anyway.

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Melancholy Mouse

Keywords: psychology, depression, mice

Sometimes a raton just can’t catch a break.  Eneritz Gomez, a psychologist at the University of the Basque Country, has been researching the behavior of “chronically defeated mice” or, in the Spanish title of her thesis, “ratones derrotados cronicamente.”

Gomez wanted to know why some mice become ill under stress and others do not.  According to the summary in a press release on Science Daily, Gomez filmed mice under stress and analyzed their behavior:  “Mice are very territorial.  Five males and one female tend to live together.  Only one male mates with the female, the same one that gains control of all the resources right from the start.”  The males fight, and the consistent winner gets the female and, one assumes, the power to control their tiny world.  The other four males suffer “defeat-induced chronic social stress.”  Apparently, no one asked the female’s opinion on all this.

Gomez categorized the reaction of the stressed mice according to the “strategy chosen,” either active or passive.  “The passive ones remain still nearly all the time,” she says, and they become even more still.  They avoid any contact with the leader, not even looking at it.

However, she says, “The active one is also aware that the stress is very hard and that it cannot get out of it, but it puts up greater resistance.”  According to the summary, “the one that makes use of the active strategy is interested in what is going on around it, it sniffs the dominant one, and tries to interact with it.”  She sees similarities in human behavior, but she also has determined that physiological changes (neuroendocrine, immune, neurochemical) are “not far removed from [those] of human depression.

Since Gomez’s thesis isn’t published and is probably in Spanish, I cannot read what else she said about her research.  So I realize I’m relying on the university press release and the translation skills of the person who wrote it.  However, I have a couple of bones to pick with Gomez.  One is the judgmental anthropomorphism of her analysis, and the other is her assumption about what is really going on in the little brain of the “depressed” mouse.

Researchers have long extrapolated conclusions about human behavior from rat and mouse studies, so there are a fair number out there.  In one study from January 2011, two Japanese researchers claim to have found a geneticmolecular mechanism” that identifies a predisposition for depression, at least in mice.   According to co-author Shusaku Uchida, “Dynamic epigenetic regulations of the Gdnf gene play important roles in determining both the susceptibility and the adaptation responses to chronic stressful events.”

In a different study of stressed-out, depressed mice, researchers found that, weeks after a stressful event, the “mice displaying social avoidance had more nerve cells in a region of the brain called the hippocampus that survived the stressful event than mice that were more resilient” (summary).  These researchers then tried zapping the hippocampus of both resilient and depressed-type mice shortly after the stressful experience.  There was no change in the resilient mice, but, sure enough, the depressed-type mice didn’t develop social avoidance.  Indeed, they started doing really stupid things, like approaching the aggressor mice.  “You wanna a piece a’ me?  Hunh?”

Let us return to Gomez’s assertion that a depressed mouse has “chosen” a passive “strategy,” while an active mouse is “also aware that the stress is very hard . . . but it puts up greater resistance.”  I have no idea of the author’s age or her experience, either clinical or in the research lab.  In trying to track back to a full version of what she wrote, I found a few lines in the original press release which suggest this may have been her dissertation or doctoral thesis.  Whether it is or not, someone among her advisors should have caught the judgment she is making.

The Japanese study, among others, finds a genetic predisposition to depression in some mice, so, even if a mouse has the high-order thinking skills to determine a “strategy,” it’s reaction may well be genetic rather than a “choice.”  The neurogenesis in mice that caused social avoidance and lack of resilience also isn’t a choice.  And, if we can extrapolate back to mice from human studies, that poor mouse may be “passive” because its brain may be humming, sizzling, and sparking like a nest of extension cords plugged into an overloaded outlet.

I find it easy to forgive the tendency to anthropomorphize the mice for which a student might come to feel affection, but it is her admiration for the active mice that troubles me.  People do admire resilience, that never-say-die stick-to-it-iveness.  The inverse of that admiration is almost inevitably a disdain for the depressed mouse—or the depressed person.  Seemingly, even among university faculty and students studying psychology there is a subconscious belief that if depressed people would just buck up, pull themselves together, change their mindset, forgive and forget, apply those cognitive strategies more consistently, choose an active strategy, then all would be well!  Human beings do think, and they can make choices, but at what point in their recovery?  The mouse never even begins recovery; it merely sickens and dies.