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Alice in Neuroland - Page 2

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We clip earring-like electrodes to Marcia's ears, run a few electronic tests, and plug the electrode wires into a small amplifier leading to a laptop. Marvin hits a computer key. On the screen, four squiggly lines, like tracings from an earthquake-monitoring machine, dance grayly across a dark field. It's Marcia's EEG--a display of the electrical activity occurring in about one-millionth of the total of 20 to 40 billion neurons in her brain. It's magic.

No longer is the skull a black box, its clockworks invisible, as it was to Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and the seminal thinkers and clinicians who have shaped 20th-century psychotherapy. For the past decade, in well-funded university neuroscience laboratories from Boston to Madison to San Francisco, the black box of the skull has been opening and spilling out diamonds. And in offices across the country, therapists today are struggling to make sense of this treasure.

What practical difference does it make to the average therapist that happiness can not only be intuited from a smile, but can be viewed on a home computer as an EEG pattern of moderately quick and intense neuroelectrical firings behind the left temple and forehead? That different forms of depression don't look alike in brain scans or on EEGs, and that some are characterized by slower bioelectrical activity on the left front of the brain than on the right? That feelings of compassion are no longer merely a religious ideal, but have been recorded as rapid brain waves coursing in the left foreheads of Tibetan Buddhist monks who have meditated intensely for decades?

Here, in this rented room, the demarcations between the psychological and the neurological are melting. With the help of a couple of laptops and a $5,000 computer program, Marcia Lipsky's skull is thinning like an eggshell before our eyes--sensitive, vulnerable, semitransparent.

In one wiggling line on the laptop screen, we can see some of her neurons firing in the rapid patterns associated with tension, while on the next band up, other brain cells fire at the moderate speeds associated with relaxed alertness, and on a third band, still others fire in the slower rhythms typical of withdrawal, depression, and daydreaming. We see through a glass darkly. We don't entirely know what to make of what we see, but we see something.
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