Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Philosopher's Stone

Imagine that my rate of perception (the speed at which the brain processes the world) was twice that of yours. There would be twice the amount of thoughts racing through my mind in comparison to the number of thoughts which would occupy yours. I would not experience reality in slow motion though, my thoughts would act as a metronome which would dictate the experience as 'normal', but if you were to observe me, my behaviours would appear manic to you. It would look like I was whizzing around the room, racing to complete any tasks I had been given, and if I was unfocused, I might easily get distracted and try to do all the jobs at once. Any conversation on my part would appear fast, and quite possibly frenzied. When I think of this scenario , I can't help but make a comparison to behaviours which can be a part of anxiety/stress disorders, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and also schizophrenia. Is it possible that in the cases of some of these disorders, that the rate of perception has been sped-up, and if so - how?

Young children are thought to have a faster rate of perception due to a higher metabolic rate. This is perhaps due to a ravenous brain which needs lots of energy to develop in a procees known as competitive plasticity. In researching these stress disorders, one might expect to find a high metabolic rate was also associated with them, but this however, is not quite the case. What has turned up has been far more intriguing. A theme that runs throughout all these disorders, is a problem with the inner ear, also known as the vestibular system. Vestibular disorders are already officially recognised as being associated with stress disorders, and below I have included a few examples:

"Vestibular (inner ear) disorders can cause dizziness, vertigo, imbalance,hearing changes, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and other symptoms, with potentially devastating effects on a person's day-to-day functioning, ability to work, relationships with family and friends, and quality of life."

"Vestibular deficits and increased neuro-hypersensitivities (sensory overload disorder) follow a variety of neuro-pathological changes in the brain, including, migraine, autism, ADHD, post TBI, hydrocephalus, PTSD, and others."

"A total of 82 schizophrenic patients participated in this study from Takeda Hospital in Sapporo And Jimmiekai Hospital in Nishinomiya. As the results of this study, 72 out of 82 patients show the abnormal degree of vestibular reactivity, which indicates highly possible involvement of vestibular system in schizophrenia. "

The vestibular system's association with stress disorders perhaps signifies it is part of a survival mechanism designed to get an animal out of sudden danger. A neat trick of nature is to speed up the rate of perception, so that reality 'slows down', and in so doing, it gives an animal time to think about its escape plan. War veterans often speak of a similar experience at times when their lives are in jeopardy. Is the emergence of a stress disorder where the vestibular system fails to de-activate, or slow down, once a danger has passed?

Kids with ADHD use a trick to stimulate the vestibular system ( and speeding up the rate of perception), by becoming more active. I'll quote from an article by The Spectrum Center in Bethesda MD, a treatment centre for children with ADHD: "...Problems arise with ADHD where the vestibular system of the inner unable to provide the brain with the sensory stimulation it needs in order to function optimally. In response, the body finds other ways of stimulating the vestible and brain, such as constant body movement. This response would be diagnosed as hyperactivity." Quite bizarrely, there's an example in nature where this behaviour is also mirrored - the territorial displays of the anole lizard.

Terry J Ord et al, of University of California Davis , produced research on how lizards speed up visual displays in noisy motion habitats. "We found that two species of Puerto Rican lizard, Anolis cristatellus and A. gundlachi, increase the speed of body movements used in territorial signalling to apparently improve communication in visually ‘noisy’ environments of rapidly moving vegetation. This is the first evidence that animals change how they produce dynamic visual signals when communicating in noisy motion habitats." Anole lizards communicate using vertical movements of the head, known as head-bobs. If they really want to get their point across a commotion of rustling leaves, the lizards have to start bobbing the head faster. Is it possible this behaviour is being used to stimulate the vestibular system, in order to speed up the rate of perception, so that its brain can digest, and interpret, the enviroment more readily?

The vestibular system is important in maintaining balance or equilibrium. There are two otolithic organs of the vestible - the utricle and the saccule. They translate head movements into neural impulses which the brain can interpret. The utricle largely registers accelerations on the horizontal plane, while the saccule is sensitive to linear translations of the head, specifically movements up and down (think about our head-banging lizard). When the head moves vertically, the sensory cells of the saccule are disturbed and the neurons connected to them begin transmitting impulses to the brain. Does the rate of these impulses have anything to do the brain's regulation of the rate of perception? Do we now have a pin-point specific area to which the rate of perception can be tweeked, and in the case of stress disorders, can it be there's a way to slow it back down to normal.

For those us that are interested in the mystical, the word for otolith is derived from the Greek oto - meaning 'ear', and lithos - meaning 'stone', or 'earstone'. If we are able to manipulate the rate of perception and bend the rules of time, we have a very realistic opportunity to create the elixir of life. Is the otolith the well sought after Philosopher's Stone?

I would like to thank all my sources, and a further mention for:

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