Let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow

Colour has always held me in thrall. I suspect I can trace its origins to those pre-recollection times when my mother read to me as I sat pointing at pictures in whatever book she had chosen for my bedtime. I had my favourites, I imagine, but all I can remember from those very early years were the vivid colours. They seemed more important than the words she spoke, or perhaps more accurately, they were the words, alive and beckoning from the page -depictions of things I suppose I was yet too young to understand. But, as the poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote, Let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow. And in those days, I think I did.

There are still faint traces of this atavism that linger in the colours I see in numbers, but I hesitate to attribute beauty to the pallid tints afforded to me from a lingering synaesthesia in my doddering years. They possess no magic -in fact, I rather think I’d like to colour them in bolder pigments that would elevate them like saints from their boring lists.

But there I go again -the need to colour things is strong, yet unfulfilled. Although my father tried his best to guide my hand, I never managed to colour within the lines of the many books that called me to my crayons. In looking back to those halcyon days, I suspect I saw the outlines as prisons I needed to escape -early evidence, maybe, of how I saw edges more as links to things around them, than boundaries that brooked no trespass.

At any rate, now that I am in Macbeth’s famous yellow leaf, I have begun to realize the subtle allure of margins. More often than not, they are only beginnings -invitations to explore what lies beyond. To experience only that which is insensibly glued to us is not to transgress, and yet skin is merely the introductory handshake with the world.

Of course, with age comes the inevitable rationalizations of both past behaviours and current epiphanies: things to excuse my inability to confine myself to standard doctrinal crayonal restraints -times when I no doubt felt I could label my obvious lack of talent as youthful exuberance. Seeing what others could not, outside the lines.

But in those almost ante-Gutenberg days, the choices I was offered in the colouring books to which I was privy, were not legion -a few standardized animals, and the occasional landscape which almost always included a house with a smoking chimney. None of these encouraged much experimentation outside the lines without confusing whatever archetypal subject with which I was forced to contend. Indeed, in retrospect I’m surprised that any of the obediently constrained colouring book acolytes ever succeeded in Art or Philosophy -or Life, for that matter- although I suppose there has always been more support for those who obey the rules.

The subject matter has changed however, I’m happy to report. As I was browsing through my Smithsonian app archives, I was drawn (sorry) to an article reporting on new colouring opportunities that promised great things: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/100-museums-transformed-their-collections-free-coloring-pages-just-you-180974116/

Written by Katherine J. Wu, a science journalist, as well as a PhD. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard, she notes that most classical historical art is preserved and guarded in museums, and is almost never made available to public crayons.

Recently, however, ‘with the annual  #ColorOurCollections social media campaign, the world’s art enthusiasts can try them out. The idea was apparently first launched by the New York Academy of Medicine Library [NYAM] in 2016. People can ‘download, color and reimagine thousands of black-and-white artworks sourced from dozens of cultural mainstays around the world. Currently at 101 strong, the list may continue to grow and is already encroaching on last year’s roster of 114 participants.

‘Among the institutions advertising their contributions are representatives from the academic world, including  Harvard University’s Countway Library and the University of Waterloo, as well as museums like  Les Champs Libres and the Huntington Library. The only commonality shared by the thousands of prints and drawings available on the NYAM website is their black-and-white appearance.’

There is a time-limit for these downloads (already passed, I’m afraid) but ‘this year’s illustrations—as well as a large repository of past submissions—will remain available to download.’

The temptation was overwhelming, and so I risked the ever-present threat of being phished and followed the links. Some of the drawings were just too charming to resist, so I have to admit to planning a trip to Walmart to stock up on crayons -I still feel more comfortable with them than coloured pencils with their oh-so precisely sharpenable points that seem programmed to stop on their own at each and every line they encounter.

I ended up buying a 96-pack box of crayons online, though, since I was there anyway. Do you remember what it was like in a candy store when you were a child and your mother asked you to choose, oh maybe five, from the thousands of specimens on display? I always chose the brightest coloured wrappers, not realizing that what they contained seldom lived up to their appearance. I suppose what I’m getting at is that I should probably have chosen the basic crayon box of 16 (Maybe it’s not in their best interests to sell an even smaller-sized selection) because I really only used the red (for the sundry brick walls and chimneys), blue (for the sky -what else?), and green (by now, I’m sure you can guess) -childhood habits, I imagine. I did colour-shift once or twice though, once I really got into it.

Sometimes a building, or the garden in front of it seemed to beg for what I would now rationalize as an aura and I would grab a yellow and engage in what might seem to be random smears outside the lines. I tried orange and pink on a whim, but they seemed garish somehow -like Parkinsonian blunders. Not at all what I was striving for.

And yet, I’m beginning to wonder if I was actually striving for anything other than proving to myself that there’s still a remnant of the younger me inside. My hoped-for free form seemed contrived at my age. And that which drew gasps of admiration for my extra-linear adventures when I was a toddler, now seemed to bespeak something far more ominous than naïve playfulness. At my age, I suspect it is not seen as a mere idiosyncrasy. Society is harder on its elders than its children for their misadventures, I fear. More suspicious. More circumspect.

It was epiphanous that I suddenly recognized the freedom I had to lose were I to leave evidence of my folly in plain view. Even the crayons might arouse concerns -provoke questions I would as lief avoid. It is perhaps enough to live through youth but once; any return may be judged as an ill-advised trip through the mirror, so I have donated my uncoloured downloads to the community kindergarten. Perhaps I will return some time to see what they have decided to pin on their walls; I’d like to see if they have dared to show any crayonal attempts by their children that stray beyond accepted boundaries. Of course, maybe they only use soft felt pens with sharply pointed edges and raised, built-in borders to colour nowadays -I forgot to ask…

He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf

I am an obstetrician, and not a neuropsychiatrist, but I feel a definite uneasiness with the idea of messing with brains –especially from the inside. Talking at it, sure –maybe even tweaking it with medications- but it seems to me there is something… sacrosanct about its boundaries. Something akin to black-boxhood -or pregnant-wombhood, if you will– where we have a knowledge of its inputs and outputs, but the internal mechanisms still too complex and interdependent to be other than interrogated from without.

I suppose I have a fear of the unintended consequences that seem to dog science like afternoon shadows -a glut of caution born of reading about well-meaning enthusiasms in my own field. And yet, although I do not even pretend to such arcane knowledge as might tempt me to meddle with the innards of a clock let alone the complexities of a head, I do watch from afar, albeit through a glass darkly. And I am troubled.

My concern bubbled to the surface with a November 2017 article from Nature that I stumbled upon: https://www.nature.com/news/ai-controlled-brain-implants-for-mood-disorders-tested-in-people-1.23031 I recognize that the report is dated, and merely scratches the surface, but it hinted at things to come. The involvement of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. military) did little to calm my fears, either –they had apparently ‘begun preliminary trials of ‘closed-loop’ brain implants that use algorithms to detect patterns associated with mood disorders. These devices can shock the brain back to a healthy state without input from a physician.’

‘The general approach —using a brain implant to deliver electric pulses that alter neural activity— is known as deep-brain stimulation. It is used to treat movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, but has been less successful when tested against mood disorders… The scientists behind the DARPA-funded projects say that their work might succeed where earlier attempts failed, because they have designed their brain implants specifically to treat mental illness — and to switch on only when needed.’

And how could the device know when to switch on and off? How could it even recognize the complex neural activity in mental illnesses? Well, apparently, an ‘electrical engineer Omid Sani of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles — who is working with Chang’s team [a neuroscientist at UCSF] — showed the first map of how mood is encoded in the brain over time. He and his colleagues worked with six people with epilepsy who had implanted electrodes, tracking their brain activity and moods in detail over the course of one to three weeks. By comparing the two types of information, the researchers could create an algorithm to ‘decode’ that person’s changing moods from their brain activity. Some broad patterns emerged, particularly in brain areas that have previously been associated with mood.’

Perhaps this might be the time to wonder if ‘broad patterns’ can adequately capture the complexities of any mood, let alone a dysphoric one. Another group, this time in Boston, is taking a slightly different approach: ‘Rather than detecting a particular mood or mental illness, they want to map the brain activity associated with behaviours that are present in multiple disorders — such as difficulties with concentration and empathy.’ If anything, that sounds even broader -more unlikely to specifically hit the neural bullseye. But, I know, I know –it’s early yet. The work is just beginning… And yet, if there ever was a methodology more susceptible to causing collateral damage, and unintended, unforeseeable consequences, or one that might fall more afoul of a hospital’s ethics committee, I can’t think of it.

For example, ‘One challenge with stimulating areas of the brain associated with mood … is the possibility of overcorrecting emotions to create extreme happiness that overwhelms all other feelings. Other ethical considerations arise from the fact that the algorithms used in closed-loop stimulation can tell the researchers about the person’s mood, beyond what may be visible from behaviour or facial expressions. While researchers won’t be able to read people’s minds, “we will have access to activity that encodes their feelings,” says  Alik Widge, a neuroengineer and psychiatrist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and engineering director of the MGH [Massachusetts General Hospital] team.’ Great! I assume they’ve read Orwell, for some tips.

It’s one of the great conundrums of Science, though, isn’t it? When one stretches societal orthodoxy, and approaches the edge of the reigning ethical paradigm, how should one proceed? I don’t believe merely assuming that someone else, somewhere else, and sometime else will undoubtedly forge ahead with the same knowledge, is a sufficient reason to proceed. It seems to me that in the current climate of public scientific skepticism, it would be best to tread carefully. Science succeeds best when it is funded, fêted, and understood, not obscured by clouds of suspicion or plagued by doubt -not to mention mistrust. Just look at how genetically modified foods are regarded in many countries. Or vaccinations. Or climate change…

Of course, the rewards of successful and innovative procedures are great, but so is the damage if they fail. A promise broken is more noteworthy, more disconcerting, than a promise never made.

Time for a thought experiment. Suppose I’ve advertised myself as an expert in computer hardware and you come to me with particularly vexing problem that nobody else seemed to be able to fix. You tell me there is a semi-autobiographical novel about your life that you’d been writing in your spare time for years, stored somewhere inside your laptop that you can no longer access. Nothing was backed up elsewhere –you never thought it would be necessary- and now, of course, it’s too late for that. The computer won’t even work, and you’re desperate.

I have a cursory look at the model and the year, and assure you that I know enough about the mechanisms in the computer to get it working again.

So you come back in a couple of weeks to pick it up. “Were you able to fix it?” is the first thing you say when you come in the door.

I smile and nod my head slowly. Sagely. “It was tougher than I thought,” I say. “But I was finally able to get it running again.”

“Yes, but does it work? What about the contents? What about my novel…?”

I try to keep my expression neutral as befits an expert talking to someone who knows nothing about how complex the circuitry in a computer can be. “Well,” I explain, “It was really damaged, you know. I don’t know what you did to it… but a lot of it was beyond repair.”

“But…”

“But I managed to salvage quite a bit of the function. The word processor works now –you can continue writing your novel.”

You look at me with a puzzled expression. “I thought you said you could fix it -the area where my novel is…”

I smile and hand you back the computer. “I did fix it. You can write again -just like before.”

“All that information… all those stories… They’re gone?”

I nod pleasantly, the smile on my face broadening. “But without my work you wouldn’t have had them either, remember. I’ve given you the opportunity to write some more.”

“But… But was stored in there,” you say, pointing at the laptop in front of you on the counter. “How do I know who I am now?”

“You’re the person who has been given the chance to start again.”

Sometimes that’s enough, I suppose…