Tanya: Brain and Behavior Case Study

by anna on December 5, 2008

It was the same fateful quarter that would forever acquaint you with the standard procedures of incarceration for those individuals deemed a danger to themselves or to others, and you had a week to find an elective to cover the science area requirement for graduation. Admittedly, it had been stupid to put it off this long: you had covered the other annoyance, the math area requirement, by taking Stats 60 the first quarter you had been at school. That was back when you actually rode your bike to class, paid attention to things like office hours, and performed well in courses concerning topics outside of the comparatively narrow subject matter of the formal novel of the long British eighteenth century.

Compounding your stupidity that Fall was the fact that you decided to take an upper division course to cover the requirement, when you could easily have taken Rocks for Jocks or Oceans or some other lecture course teeming with athletes to bring down the curve. But Elaine, your “little sister,” had really wanted you to take the course with her, since it also counted for her major. The major that she had this week, that is. Plus, it was psychology, so how hard could it be?

Your times in class were not as productive as they could be. You tried, but there were so many joke openings, what with the constant reference to laboratory rats and their psychological tormentors. This was the class that spawned the entire comic book mythology of Brutal Researcher, a research psychologist of the Mengelean school, and his white whale-like sidekick, Happy Mouse, a lovable ball of fluff who seemed always to have a trick up his sleeve for evading the menace of Brutal Researcher’s gigantic hypodermic needle. Sure, when the Brain and Behavior lectures featured stories with titles like “the little boy who liked salt,” about a child born lacking some kind of brain connection having to do with salt, your ears perked up. But it was always disappointing, because at the end of the scientific study of a young child’s obsessive compulsion to eat salt, you hungered for an explanation–even if only a narrative one, for the introduction of salt to the story . . . why salt, and not vinegar? or sugar? or pepper, for that matter? What did the salt represent, you wondered?

But it was all for naught. The Brain and Behavior lectures were ripe for constructing stories with fully realized narratives of your own, but they rarely provided the kinds of neat explanations upon which you had come to depend. Perhaps it was your first brush with the mechanisms of creative non-fiction–the kind of stories that did not end, could not end, with anything other than death. Like the woman who–on a manic high–bought six pink Cadillacs and allowed research psychologists to videotape her exploits. She was not going to have her problems magically solved by the scientists who studied her: their goal was not to cure her illness, but to map it. And more importantly, they did not even seem to care about its solution or its trajectory. They did not seem to need more of an explanation for her circumstances beyond a chemical one. Ultimately, if she refused treatment, they were happy to just let her be. Let her be crazy.

What would it be like to be so concrete, you wondered? To study a problem just for the wonder of it, and not to draw some kind of aphorism or judgment? Surely they could understand a need for a linear narrative, though? Could they not see the poeticism involved in Korsakoff’s syndrome, if nothing else? In a syndrome–bearing the name of a brand of vodka–that was caused by the excessive ingestion of alcohol at the expense of all other food? Could there be any more literary of syndromes in all of history, you wondered? A syndrome that resulted in the complete loss of short-term memory, so that its sufferers would look at themselves in the mirror and start crying, because they would forget how old they were, and then be forced to fabricate their own narratives in order explain to themselves how they had arrived there?

And so it was perfectly understandable that you got so easily distracted during your study sessions with Elaine. Taken away from the discussion of how serotonin reuptake blockers worked and distracted by the asides in the text, such as the one on Trichtillomania:

Self-Injurous Behavior: Trichotillomania
Trichotillomania is a type of impulse control disorder in which the subject suffers repeated impulses to rip out patches of their own hair. This behavior persists in spite of pain and often occurs to the point of noticeable hair loss. The most common areas for hair pulling are the scalp, eyelashes and eyebrows, but may involve hair anywhere on the body. Trichotillomania is thought to be caused by both biological and behavioral factors, and links to imbalances in certain neurotransmitters have been identified.

It could not have been surprising to discover that one of Tanya’s neuroses was featured as an aside in a college psychology textbook. Still, it was disheartening to see it there in black and white. While you read the words, you could see her, sitting at her desk, plucking her eyelashes out, one-by-one, her own unfinished narrative working itself to a climactic height, even if it wasn’t the only story arc.

“Hey, did you know that you have trichotillomania?” You asked, casually.
“The obsessive urge to pull out my own hair? Sure,” she said, even more casually. Tanya was a psychology major.

You failed the class. And aced Oceans that Spring.


J. December 5, 2008 at 11:35 am

I’ve found that most people who are deeply into psychology are also seriously whack. It’s like they’re seeking answers to why they’re so screwed up. Either that, or they’re creepily interested in other people’s secrets and malfunctions.

J.´s last blog post..Right Now

~Monkeyinlove December 5, 2008 at 12:53 pm

This is the most beautifully written piece of yours that I’ve read. It’s ‘tight’ and disciplined, and lovely.

~Monkeyinlove´s last blog post..monkeyinlove: Also, Back to Basics Toys–staffed by retarded monkeys. As a monkey, I should take offense, but man, retarded.

Joanne December 5, 2008 at 2:02 pm

I only took one psych class in college and it was the intro class where you just did all the work by yourself and never went to class. Whatever grade you got on the final that you went in and took, was your grade for the class. I got a B, which was awesome for only spending about 10-15 hours on the class the last week of the semester. I wish all GE’s could take up so little time:-)

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