How Brain, and Spirit, Adapt to a 9/11 World
The New York Times The New York Times Health September 10, 2002  

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How Brain, and Spirit, Adapt to a 9/11 World

By NATALIE ANGIER

These days at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, before visitors can see the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flier, Charles A. Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, a touchable sample of lunar rock or any other souvenir of humanity's bounce toward the heavens, they first have to pass through a reminder of that morning the sky fell to earth.

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The family-friendly museum now has visitors pass through a metal detector, open backpacks and diaper bags for inspection and, if need be, step aside for a brief pat down or a few waves of the beeping wand.

The reaction of the crowd outside to yet another gantlet of Big Brothers and Bossy Older Sisters in uniform? "Mom, this is so boring," a girl of about 6 grumbled.

After all, sanctioned nosiness and an almost aerosolized military spirit have become the humdrum standard, as expected as rush-hour traffic jams. Anybody who flies has the opportunity to feel like a war correspondent, as one's effects are searched and visibly armed officers wander airport corridors.

The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., used to be an open complex, a symbol of the free spirit that is the essence of the scientific enterprise. But with the temptations the laboratories hold for potential bioterrorists, vehicles are inspected from trunk to hood and even underneath with a mirror on a stick. A lake that will be a protective moat against car bombers is being built on the southern side of the site.
The Bush administration is talking about vaccinating hundreds of thousands of Americans, if not more, against smallpox, a menace thought to have been eradicated from the earth.

And though a few people blink, tremble or grumble, many find the signs of official vigilance comforting.

"I travel a lot, and when I'm waiting on line at the airport I have a lot more patience than I used to," said Dr. Dennis S. Charney, chief of the mood and anxiety disorder research program at the National Institute of Mental Health. "We're all doing what we have to do."

In sum, the abnormal has been normalized, integrated into the bristling, blaring ecosystem through which Americans navigate every day. And it is because human beings are so good at adapting to change, including to stimuli that would under many circumstances be considered negative and to updating their world view as readily as they hyperlink from Web page to Web page, that it sometimes looks as if the predictions of last fall have failed to come true and that, gee, we have not really changed at all.

We are still as fatuous and self-involved as ever, still hankering after bigger and stronger Botox and S.U.V.'s, still reading snarky "ironic" books like "Slander" and "Stupid White Men," and Leonardo DiCaprio is still among us, starring in not one but two movies this fall.

As scientists who study learning and memory see it, though, we have changed in numerous, subtle ways, from a newfound interest in world affairs and the inner workings of the once-reviled United Nations, to a barely conscious but unshakable expectation that the terrorists, whoever and wherever they are, will surely strike again. Yet we hardly notice these changes, any more than our skin expresses its disturbance at being encased in long sleeves one day and short the next.

The mechanism responsible for humanity's capacity to adjust and, in former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's phrase, to "get on with life," is called habituation, and it is essential to the functioning of the brain and the construction of a life.

"Habituation is really important and fascinating in its details," said Dr. Thomas J. Carew, chairman of the department of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California at Irvine. "Typically what you habituate to are stimuli of no proven consequence like the clothes on your body or the ticking of the clock. It's adaptive to not pay attention to everything."

The ease with which one can habituate to even the most striking of stimuli became clear to him when he and his wife were driving through the mountains of Canada.

"My wife coined the phrase, `Oh look, another breathtaking view,' " Dr. Carew said. "That sums up how the bar needs to be raised higher and higher for you to keep paying attention."

Through studying laboratory animals and patients with brain lesions, researchers have put together a rough model of how the brain habituates, said Dr. Joseph E. LeDoux, a professor at the Center for Neural Science at New York University. When a rat is exposed to a sound followed by a nasty shock, for example, the rat quickly learns to associate the sound with pain, a reinforcement carried out by the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the brain's limbic system, the seat of emotions and emotional memories.

If over time, however, the rat hears the sound and is not given a shock, another region of the brain, the frontal cortex, sends signals to the amygdala to inhibit the fear response. The frontal cortex, it seems, strives constantly to shift as much information as possible from "amygdala alert" to the polite yawn. Paying constant attention is resource-intensive and exhausting.

Moreover, said Dr. Terrence J. Sejnowski, a theoretical brain scientist at the Salk Institute in San Diego, maintaining perpetual alertness, particularly of the anxious, fearful variety, requires a chronic release of stress-related hormones like the corticosteroids, which can eventually break down muscle tissue, bone tissue and the neurons in some of the more fragile parts of the brain like the hippocampus.

There is also a strong tendency in all biological systems to return to a state of so-called homeostasis, or equilibrium. The body has an array of mechanisms to maintain the blood in a very narrow pH level, for example, as close to the ideal of 7.4 as possible, because that is the balance of acidity and alkalinity at which hemoglobin is best at grabbing oxygen.

By the same token, said Dr. Steven R. Quartz, director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the brain has a deep need to return to homeostasis, to its particular mix of signaling molecules like serotonin and dopamine, whenever a powerful event has thrown it out of biochemical whack. A tragedy like Sept. 11, Dr. Quartz said, "triggers massive chemical reactions in the emotional structures of the brain."

A result, he added, "is bereavement, the inability to focus on everyday tasks or follow a routine and social withdrawal."

But within days, weeks or months, depending on the person, the brain generally returns to its chemical set point.

"Thus," Dr. Quartz said, "paraplegics report themselves as basically happy in a matter of months after their accident. "Lottery winners also report themselves as being at their same old level of happiness within a year after they hit the jackpot."

A return to equilibrium is by no means guaranteed, and great shocks can leave deep plangent scars on a subset of people, particularly those who experienced the collapse of the World Trade Center directly. Some have suffered from the terrible syndrome called post-traumatic stress disorder, with its symptoms of nightmares and flashbacks, chronic hyperanxiety and a tendency to detach from the world.

Dr. Charney, who studies the syndrome, said various interventions, including intense psychotherapy and the right cocktail of antidepressants, had been shown to ease the symptoms. And doctors emphasized that few of the many millions who watched the attacks on television were likely to have fallen into its vise.
As Dr. Quartz sees it, the nation has been eased back to emotional homeostasis through the display of exactly those symbols and actions that would in more ordinary circumstances seem obtrusive and disturbing, the armed guards, the metal detectors and the ID cards dangling around every employee's neck. Large, intricate and impersonal though contemporary society may appear to be, he said, it holds elements of ancient human needs for the comforts of family, the strength of the tribe.

"We see familial metaphors all around us," Dr. Quartz said. "The White House as the national family home, the first family and so forth."

When disaster struck, laying waste the figment of our invulnerability, we needed symbols that the family and tribe still held, and we needed them quickly.

"It was imperative that protective symbols like armed guards and heightened bag searches be put in place," Dr. Quartz said. "Had they not, I wonder if there might have been a major crisis of identity and statehood."

Even though many people may suspect that such measures are largely useless knives and guns still manage to pass through airport security gates they serve the same consolidating, totemic purpose, Dr. Quartz said, "as the ritual spear a tribal chief might carry."

Children, who have no choice but to be very good at accepting change (their bodies are doing it to them every day), likewise know the power of symbols, rituals, rules, the Word.

Dr. Ellen R. DeVoe, an assistant professor of social work at Columbia, who with Dr. Tovah Klein of Barnard has been studying the reactions of young children in Lower Manhattan to the trade center collapse, said children had a remarkable capacity to create stories that reconstruct from the sorrow they see around them a safe and bearable world. She described two children who suggested that the towers be rebuilt, but this time with a billboard on them saying, "No airplanes can come here."

That sign would stop nothing, of course, except, perhaps, a grown-up's tears.




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Associated Press
Experts say the brain's need for equilibrium helps humans see features that were abnormal, like checkpoints at airports, as normal.



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