Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

Vania Smith-Oka, my colleague at Notre Dame, pointed out this NY Times article “Curiouser and Curiouser” by Siri Hustvedt.  The piece starts by exploring changes in body image, “The afflicted person perceives herself, or parts of herself, ballooning or diminishing in size. The neurological terms for the peculiar sensations of growing and shrinking are macroscopy and microscopy.”  Equally interested is how the article examines “medical materialism,” a tendency to view the varieties in our lived experience in both a pathological and materialist light, the result of nerve cells and associated molecules run amock.  

The essay argues eloquently for the need to see complexity as the way to understand ourselves, overcoming dichotomies such as nature/nurture or materialist/subjective:

The human infant is born immature, and in the first six years of its life, the front part of its brain (the prefrontal cortex) develops enormously. It develops through experience and continues to do so, although not as dramatically… A child who has good parental care — is stimulated, talked to, held, whose needs are answered — is materially affected by that contact, as is, conversely, the child who suffers shocks and deprivations. What happens to you is decisive in determining which neural networks are activated and kept. Since we are born with far too many neurons, the ones that aren’t used are “pruned”; they wither away. This explains why so-called “wild children” are unable to acquire anything but the most primitive form of language. It’s too late. It also demonstrates how nurture becomes nature and to make simple distinctions between them is absurd. A baby with a hypersensitive genetic makeup that predisposes him to anxiety can end up as a reasonably calm adult if he grows up in a soothing environment.

Hustvedt also speaks to the importance of an interpretative approach to understanding human phenomena, something that many anthropologists would echo: “Crick’s reductionism does not provide an adequate answer to Alice’s question. It’s rather like saying that Vermeer’s “Girl (or Woman or Maidservant) Pouring Milk” is a canvas with paint on it or that Alice herself is words on a page. These are facts, but they don’t explain my subjective experience of either of them or what the two girls mean to me.”

Another quote, one that resonates with much of what we’ve written on this site:

It is human to clutch at simple answers and shunt aside ambiguous, shifting realities. The fact that genes are expressed through environment, that however vital they may be in determining vulnerability to an illness, they cannot predict it, except in rare cases, such as Huntington’s disease; that the brain is not a static but a plastic organ, which forms itself long after birth through our interactions with others; that any passionate feeling, whether it’s about politics or tuna fish, will appear on scans as activated emotional circuits in the brain; that scientific studies on weight and longevity tell us mostly about correlations, not causes; that the feelings evoked by the so-called “God spot” may be interpreted by the person having them as religious or as something entirely different — all this is forgotten or misunderstood.

Hustvedt ends with a similar call to our own: “We are all prisoners of our mortal minds and bodies, vulnerable to various kinds of perceptual transfigurations. At the same time, as embodied beings we live in a world that we explore, absorb, and remember — partially, of course. We can only find the out there through the in here… Our thinking, feeling minds are made not only by our genes, but through our language and culture.”

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