Monday, February 5, 2018

We Are All Star Stuff

Cosmic Webs, Neurological Disorders, and Human Compassion
Image credit: GUI.Brush Blog,
On a recent Friday evening, I took my 12-year-old daughter to a free Boise State University public astronomy lecture presented by Dr. Christy Tremonti,  assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who leads a sky-scanning spectrometry project to map the chemical composition of galaxies. If Walt Whitman had heard this learned astronomer, I promise he would not have been bored and wandered outside to stargaze. With visible excitement, Tremonti shared the realization, expressed by Carl Sagan, that “We are star stuff.”

“Think about it,” Tremonti gushed. “Right now, the blood flowing in your veins—in every single person’s veins—contains iron that was born in the center of a star.” 

Tremonti then touched briefly on the mysterious dark energy and dark matter that make up 95% of the universe.  She showed the audience a new (to me) model of galaxy creation, with galaxies forming as nodes at the intersections of a cosmic web. To me, this image looked remarkably like the human brain’s neural network. 

I’m not the first person to make this observation. In a 2017 Nautilus article, astronomer Franco Vazza and neuroscientist Alberto Feletti observed:
It is truly a remarkable fact that the cosmic web is more similar to the human brain than it is to the interior of a galaxy; or that the neuronal network is more similar to the cosmic web than it is to the interior of a neuronal body. Despite extraordinary differences in substrate, physical mechanisms, and size, the human neuronal network and the cosmic web of galaxies, when considered with the tools of information theory, are strikingly similar.   
As I thought about the astonishing similarities between our brains and the universe, my mind turned to the news of Morgan Geyser’s 40-year sentence to a mental institution. Morgan and her friend Anissa Weier were just 12 years old, the same age as my daughter, when they carried out a plan to stab their friend in an attempt to appease Slenderman, a shadowy mythological Internet figure who epitomizes the unseen dark matter of the World Wide Web. 

Under a cruel and misguided Wisconsin law, Morgan and Anissa were both charged as adults and both pled guilty, Morgan to attempted first-degree murder, and Anissa to being party to a crime. While incarcerated, Morgan was diagnosed with juvenile-onset schizophrenia, a rare and serious neurological disorder that can cause a child’s sense of reality to bend and break. 

I met Morgan’s mother Angie shortly after the attack. Angie was emotionally bruised and battered from the media circus that assaulted her family. As often happens in cases where children are charged with sensational crimes, the Internet determined that Angie was undoubtedly to blame. She was a terrible mother. 

I can personally relate—when my essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” went viral five years ago, I immediately became the Internet’s Exhibit A for bad parenting, all because I talked about my child’s then-undiagnosed mental illness. 

In fact, Angie Geyser is a remarkably competent and caring mother by any standard of measurement. She is involved in both her children’s lives, has a clear moral compass and models it for her children, and works hard to provide them with a stable and supported life. After Morgan’s diagnosis, Angie fought tirelessly to get her daughter medical care, since untreated psychosis can cause brain damage.   

Morgan Geyser, treated, with her mother Angie in 2017
(photo used by permission of Angie Geyser)
In April 2016, I interviewed Angie by telephone, planning to write an article about her experiences. While I ultimately concluded that the subject matter—a mother losing her child—hit too close to home for me personally to write about it,  one line from that interview with Angie has stuck with me: 

“She’s herself again. She is treated and now she is our Morgan again, the sweet loving child we knew. She is not a danger to herself or others.”

This statement was so significant because anecdotally, my experience was exactly the same. My own child was sick with an undiagnosed mental illness and often had violent behavioral outbursts. In 2013, after my blog post caught the attention of a specialist in pediatric bipolar disorder, Eric was correctly diagnosed, started treatment including medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes, and it worked. For five years now, my son has lived in recovery. And in fact, that outcome is common for people who live with mental illness. When treated, they are no more likely to be violent than anyone else.  

But sadly, most people in our society live in fear of those who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. While these mental illnesses affect just 4% of the population, they cause a whirlwind of “dark matter” in the media. Charging children as adults in itself is horribly wrong, but what happened to Morgan because of her mental illness is just as bad. Our fear of people like Morgan Geyser far outweighs our fear of the unknown and unseen universe.

This pervasive cultural fear leads to harsh consequences for those who commit crimes while living with mental illness. In fact, research has shown that “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” pleas result in longer incarceration times than people would have incurred if they had just pled guilty. New York Times writer Mac McClelland wrote in 2017:
Though forensic detentions get little attention, they can range from ethically questionable to flagrantly unconstitutional and illegal. In 1983, a national study found that Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. patients often lost their freedom for twice as long as those actually convicted of the same offense.
Another type of plea now available in 20 states, “Guilty but Mentally Ill,” also tends to result in longer institutional stays and is opposed by the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.   

What if Morgan Geyser had been diagnosed with a brain tumor instead of schizophrenia? Would people have been so quick to blame her and her mother? 

In fact, researchers are increasingly understanding schizophrenia as a biological disorder of neural networks, the brain’s “cosmic web.” One 2016 study noted that “Cognitive impairments are one of the core symptoms associated with schizophrenia, and manifest even before the onset of the disorder. Altered neural networks involving PFC contribute to cognitive impairments in schizophrenia.”  

Today, Morgan is in treatment, but it took 19 months from her initial diagnosis to get the medical care she needed—and treatment is not always guaranteed for people who have mental illness in prison. Her mother told me that Morgan “wants to stay on medication. She feels better. She has insight into her illness now which she didn’t have previously.”

If Morgan had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that caused her actions, I like to think that most people would probably be celebrating the medical miracle that healed her. Instead, as the comments on ABC News’s interview with Morgan’s mother demonstrate, blaming and shaming continues to define the conversation about children’s mental illness.  

I want to stress here that we don’t have to feel any less sorry for Morgan’s unfortunate victim—and I am personally truly sorry—because Morgan acted under the influence of now treated psychosis. It doesn’t make the victim’s trauma any less serious or the act itself any less awful. 

What makes the whole situation more awful, however, is refusing to acknowledge that treatment has worked for Morgan, that she is in recovery, and that she is no longer a danger to herself and others. Instead, because of her brain illness, Morgan may spend the majority of her life locked away from society. Substitute “brain tumor” for “schizophrenia.” Is such a life sentence fair when the “tumor” has been treated and the behavior is no longer dangerous?

I thought about all of this—crime, punishment, parenting, and mental illnesss—as my daughter and I left the astronomy lecture. Sadly, the stars were hidden behind winter clouds, but as we drove home, we saw the glorious super moon peak through, spreading silvery tendrils across the sky, like the gasses that streamed toward galaxies or the neurochemical axons that stretch toward soma, ferrying our best guesses about reality.

My lovely, lively 12-year-old daughter chanted softly in the moonlight, “I am made of star stuff, you are made of star stuff, we are made of star stuff.” 

We only see 5% of the universe. And we still know so little about the human brain. That is why, above all else, we must be kind to each other.  If only we could replace fear with wonder, judgment with compassion. If only we could understand that all of us—parents and children, sick and well—share a fundamental cosmic reality: iron atoms forged in stars flow in our veins. 

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