You know me and TED talks. The other day I watched a video of Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who gave us The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a group of case studies of neurological damages and their results. I was surprised at his British accent—I guess after watching Awakenings, I figured that he’d sound sort of like Robin Williams. (Awakenings was the 1990 movie about people who fell into stupors after having encephalitis, and how Dr. Sacks brought them back to life. Robin Williams played the Sacks character).
The focus of this particular video was how the brain will sometimes amuse itself by creating stuff when its lifeline to the stuff itself is cut. For example, some people who have lost limbs will experience “phantom pain”, a feeling that the limb that is no longer there is cramped, or achy, or otherwise unhappy. Though not rooted in reality, the pain can be excruciating and unremitting. Because there is no limb to adjust, there is no way to tell the brain that the limb’s position has been altered, which would allow the nerves to relax.
The only thing that has provided some relief from phantom pain is the “mirror box”, invented by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. The box works by fooling the brain into thinking that the lost limb is back, and is capable of motion. Say that a patient has lost his left arm, but feels constantly as though that arm is cramping. The patient inserts his right arm into the box. The box has a set of mirrors, which project an image of the right arm as though it were the left arm. The patient clenches his right arm, which looks to him as though he is clenching his left arm, then he relaxes that arm. The brain is fooled into thinking that the left arm has relaxed, and the pain goes away.
Dr. Sacks was discussing a related phenomenon. Patients whose eyesight had been impaired or lost reported seeing hallucinations. Once again, the brain, deprived of an actual sense, came up with its own way to provide some stimulation for itself. Those pesky neurons just have to have something to do. If the outer world will not provide, then the neurons will fire on their own.
Because, like an errant neuron, I simply cannot help myself, I relate almost everything to politics. Why do people behave the way they do? is the central question, surrounded by the peripheral conundrums of How can we keep them from imposing their will on the rest of us? and Is there anything we can do to change the behavior/attitude of power-hungry people?
The examples presented by Dr. Sacks and Mr. Ramachandran, among others, illustrate why we must severely restrict the power that we bestow on members of government. (This principle is otherwise known as the “nature abhors a vacuum” system of governance).
Joe Politico is elected to office, so that he can fix an ancient wrong. He soon discovers that it takes a long time to get anything done. There is lots of downtime for him to consider just what he is doing here. While he’s waiting, he also gets plenty of suggestions from his constituents about other wrongs to be righted. In addition, he makes trade-offs with his fellow office-holders, to help them fight the good fight as well.
Whatever he does, Joe cannot abide merely sitting, and waiting, and only fulfilling his initial goal. His idle hours must be filled somehow, and what better way to do so than to expand his mission to correct all of the evils that he is aware of, or that are brought to his attention? Over time, he comes to realize that his initial term of office will not be nearly long enough to accomplish all of the goals that he should have thought of before he arrived. And if he has access to unbridled power…
Even without outside stimulation, the brain will find ways to keep its neurons busy. Even if Joe Politico sits in his office without a mandate from the citizens, he will come up with something to occupy his time and his fertile mind. Without some curb on those ideas, Joe Politico will be free to attempt to enact whatever he can. His prime goal switches from doing what he promised, to doing what he feels is right, abetted by his fellow politicos, who are also trying to fill their idle hours.
Image courtesy of digitalart/freedigitalphotos.net