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GRAY MATTERS



I was watching the TV show Naked and Afraid last night as I sometimes do. The show teams together two strangers, a man and a woman, who attempt to survive on their own for a period of 21 days in some remote and isolated region. Some of the locales featured include the Australian Outback, the Amazonian rainforest and the African Savanna. The man may have a military background, or be an adventurist or deep sea fisherman. Sometimes he's an ordinary dude who lives with mom. The woman is a park ranger or extreme fitness enthusiast or "just a mom" herself. Sometimes the couple quarrel, sometimes one or both "tap out" (quit) in a fit of anger or illness. It is satisfying to see them actually make it through the challenge and reach their extraction point. The victors are usually exhausted, emaciated, begrimed and bare ass naked. 

Even more satisfying, at least for me, is the occasional ass shot, snuck in at strategic intervals to boost viewership, of course. It's comforting to know there are others like myself who appreciate a well-formed booty. The producers blur out the contestant's front parts, since we are in America and this isn't cable TV; sometimes the contestants themselves piece together make-shift garments of leaves or thatch or let their satchels - supplied by the show, along with one tool of their choice - double as skirts. Alas! Because there is nothing quite so delightful as seeing a fit and filthy girl sit back on her haunches to make fire and unwittingly present her butt crack to the camera. It is a moment of exquisite pleasure for me, and it happens much too infrequently! 


Browsing the Bible, as I sometimes also do, I chanced upon the passage which I believe served as inspiration for the show's title. The passage is found in the Bible's first book, Genesis. In Chapter 3, which is set in the idyllic Garden of Eden, the serpent (played by Satan) persuades the first couple (played by Adam and Eve) to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree (called the knowledge of good and evil). Adam and Eve do so and instantly are made aware of their nakedness. So they cover themselves with fig leaves and hide. When God calls out to Adam, the first man says (Genesis 3:10): "I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked." There it is. He was naked and afraid. Just another little useless tidbit from me to you. 

Sometimes the show features a "pop-up" edition, with tidbits that aren't so useless. In one episode, an introvert (and also a former marine) gets paired with a bubbly extrovert from Georgia. Initially they lock horns as a power struggle ensues. Each has a different way of operating. The extrovert is always in motion, jumping from task to task, while her partner is slower to act. A pop-up appears which says something to the effect of "studies have shown that introverts have more gray matter in the area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is associated with decision making and abstract reasoning. This is why when making a decision introverts often deliberate for long periods while extroverts jump in." 

Introverts also make more capable leaders, the show tells us, because they don't let their egos get in the way and are more receptive to the suggestions of others, even of their inferiors. I agree, having the temperament of an introvert. At least that's what personality tests tell me. And when I read Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking I was brought to tears. It was so a vindication of me! And in outspoken LA, where introverts are a rarity, I am not so alone after all. Maybe I should get out more.

When I do get out, I can be gregarious and even loquacious if the situation calls for it, like at keg parties. But my personality is such that I rarely put myself in such situations. And so I commune with silence. My mother, an extrovert, used to give me a hard time for not opening up and communicating. I don't like idle chatter, gabbing for its own sake. Communing doesn't have to involve words, I used to tell her. I do it in nature all the time, among other equally pleasurable solitary activities I won't get into. When I was in high school my mom gave me a journal one year for Christmas, hoping I'd fill it with my feelings. I knew she'd rifle through these feelings when I was at school so I left the pages blank. Nice try! After graduating college I did develop a diligent diary-keeping habit which I still maintain today. You're reading it now. How do you like them feelings....

Scientists have known the location and history of the frontal lobe for over 150 years. Neurology textbooks often mention Phineas Gage, who in 1848 was accidentally struck by a pointed iron bar projected by an explosion. The projectile damaged his frontal lobes and destroyed a portion of the left prefrontal area. Gage went on to develop personality changes resulting in behavior which left him virtually unrecognizable even to his closest friends. After recovering from his accident and surgery, Gage was, in the words of one doctor, "fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity, manifesting but little deference for his fellows." He had the intellectual capacity of a child but the animal desires of a grown man. A dangerous combination and in stark contrast to the shrewd, smart, energetic businessman Gage had been before getting impaled through the skull. Luckily for our hapless victim, some of the more unsavory traits wore off in the twelve years between the tragedy and his death. 


The Gage case led to breakthroughs in the relationship between the brain, specifically the front part of the brain, and personality. The prefrontal cortex isn't fully developed until around the age of 25, which explains why so many teens can exhibit reckless behavior and often fail to consider the consequences of their actions until it's too late - read: until after the car is trashed or they've vomited back the bottle of tequila into their bedroom hamper, or both. I speak from experience, but not my own. Not initially at least.

As an adolescent I was rarely reckless or rash. My parents bought me a car for my sixteenth birthday, to reward me for earning all As and so I could relieve them of their duties and take myself and my brothers to school. On the weekends which followed my still-underaged buddies would beg me to drive them to keg parties. I preferred to sit at home by the fire, often in a robe and slippers, and commune with myself. If you ask me, I was born with all the gray matter I needed. My parents used to tell me I came out of the womb already an old man - and with my double chin and shiny bald head, I looked like one too. 

Seriously, I distinctly remember when my prefrontal cortex finished filling itself out. It was around the age of 20. Before then, my perspective was very narrow. I'd block everything out and deal with the task at hand, be it conversing on the phone with a girlfriend, writing a term paper or hitting a fastball. Wherever I was, I was there. Books are now written on being here now and the power of now, but as any child demonstrates, living in the moment comes naturally to everyone until they grow up. I had two younger brothers who were constantly making mischief in my midst, and to this day I have no idea what they were doing or saying, so immersed was I in my own private life.

And then shortly before my 20th birthday, something happened. I became considerate and aware. I could hear my brother's conversations in the other room with his friends, or my mother chatting on the phone with her coworkers. Not only did I hear, but I listened. I noticed what my family ate and drank, I was receptive to their moods. Imagine you're watching TV but you only get the basic channels, then your friend comes over and fiddles with the box outside and suddenly you have access to all the stations, cable too. You get nature channels and the psychic network and adult TV of course. I speak from experience. My mind rapidly expanded, and it was initially quite unsettling. For it felt as if I was getting to know these people, flesh and blood family who I shared a bathroom and sometimes a bedroom with for all my life, for the first time.

Life opened up, but it became harder. With knowledge comes responsibility, is a misquote from Spiderman. Suddenly it wasn't enough to bury myself in my school work. I had to be a conscientious brother and son. Doing merely what I was told wasn't enough either. I had to filter matters through my enlarged gray matter. I sometimes deliberate for days or months or even years before making up my mind on weighty issues, such as whether to get married, which I'm still mulling over. You add up the pros and cons and sometimes they cancel each other out. So what do you do? I often toss a coin. If there is a higher intelligence that governs the universe, it can communicate with me through the U.S. mint.

Of course, like most red-blooded American men I too had my wild stage, only it happened later in life. After a few family tragedies marred my early 20s, I spent the latter half throwing caution to the wind, and how it blew! In even the most serious individual, mind-altering substances produce some erratic behavior, like taking your clothes off at parties and heading South to pen your memoirs - which drip with imagined sexual interludes and riotous excesses - merely as an excuse to get naked some more and have sex with prostitutes. Okay, one prostitute. Those were sunny days. "But all days aren't sunny, there are gray ones too, and cold ones and wet ones that made me feel blue." A line from my poetry of the time. 

Given my early awakening into adulthood, my so-called precociousness, I'm left to wonder whether acting like a frat guy ten years removed makes me an early bloomer or late to the party. Or whether it even makes any difference. Like the brain, the matter is gray, as in not black or white. And as you can gather from my poem, gray is not my favorite color anyway.

Gray matter is where all the synapses are at, in case you're wondering. Synapses are areas where the brain communicates with itself. Or communes, silently. Like me. Another fun factoid from my new favorite show: many animals spend their entire adulthood in solitude. Among them is the skunk. I wonder why this is, while also no longer feeling so alone. Thanks for being here now with me.





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