Opinion » John Rember

Brain Damage

As a matter of fact, it's all dark


Nietzsche suggested that if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will start gazing back. That's why I limit my reading about sports and brain damage to two or three articles a week, far less than the 1,370,000 articles on sports-related concussions that today's quick Google search turned up.

But those two or three articles are enough to make me think that if you're a football or soccer player, you aren't doing yourself any favors. Repeated small concussions wreck the neocortex, that part of the brain where higher human thought resides.

The capacities for mathematics and abstract language, the concepts of spirit and soul and honor and justice, the qualities of compassion, empathy and self control--all these arise from the layers of neocortical gray matter that line your skull. These layers also function as bubble wrap for the more important, archaic parts of your brain. I say more important and archaic because if you damage these older parts of your brain--their designs dating from hundreds of millions of years ago--you die. You share these deeper structures of your brain with rats and cattle and dogs, and they're responsible for rat and cattle and dog sorts of things: memory, herd and horde behavior, rage, maternal defense of offspring, fear, hate and jealousy. Even deeper down, in the brainstem, are the controls for balance, heartbeat, breathing, body temperature, hunger and thirst, and, not least, territoriality, sex and the will to survive at any cost.

Your body prioritizes the parts of your brain according to their survival value. Get carbon monoxide poisoning, or undergo general anesthesia during heart surgery, or come close to drowning or have a heart that stops pumping as much as it should, and oxygen will get to your archaic brain first. If there's any left over, it will go to your neocortex.

When open-heart surgery was first practiced, patients came out of operations with "pump head," neocortex damage that caused temporary problems with language and reasoning and self-control. It still happens occasionally--it happened when Bill Clinton had his open-heart surgery, judging from his post-op press conferences--but heart-lung machines and operating room procedures have improved since the early days.

Which brings me to the abyss in human form: Dick Cheney. Besides playing high-school football, he had his first heart attack in 1978, at age 37. He's had four more, the latest in 2010. In 1988 he had quadruple bypass surgery, back when the effects of the operation were so severe that many patients elected to die rather than go in for another set of bypasses. Cheney's replacement arteries were stented several times. He's had surgery to repair aneurysms in his legs, angioplasty, and pacemaker and defibrillator implants.

In 2010, in a massively traumatic operation, a battery-powered pump was implanted to help his heart while he waited for a transplant. The operation left him unconscious for weeks. Two years later, he received a new heart, one that has allowed him to be interviewed whenever Fox News needs a diagnosis for President Obama's foreign policy.

Cheney's neocortex and brain arteries are not so healthy. He's been under general anesthesia for a substantial portion of his life. One can assume high-school concussions, some months or years of not enough blood to the brain, some hardening of the cerebral arteries, long moments when one or more of his hearts ceased to pump blood, times when, fascinated with videos of waterboarding, he simply forgot to breathe. I'm pretty sure Dick Cheney has no functioning neocortex.

This is where the abyss comes in. By the yardstick of the culture, Cheney is a brilliant success, with the kind of wealth and power a lot of young people would like in their future.

Forget the richness and variety the neocortex gives to human existence. Empathy, compassion and a concern for justice are useless in a business or political career. Fear, hunger and an overwhelming rage to dominate are much more valuable assets if you're going to flourish in extractive industries or cut through the Machiavellian miasma of a cabinet meeting.

Nobody's neocortex was in charge when Cheney and his cohorts launched two futile wars, made torture a national policy, cut social welfare programs and looted the treasury. The language Dick Cheney used to promote these actions was blunt, concrete and instantly comprehended at the brainstem level.

Dick Cheney is a company man. He's semi-living proof that in America, a neocortex makes you unfit for corporate life.

If the Supreme Court is correct, and corporations are people, many of the people who work for them aren't people at all, but something less. Call them domesticated animals. Like a lot of domesticated animals, they need to be altered to do their job.

I have wondered why an entire country continues to send its young people into sports now known to cause severe neocortical damage, and have concluded it's a way to produce people who have no concern about the consequences of their actions, no empathy for the poor and downtrodden, little understanding of the greater meaning of their lives, and complete dedication to the needs of the moment.

People without compassion or empathy can make tough, bottom-line decisions without a second thought.

So football and soccer produce corporate feedstock, good kids coming out of high school or college whose brains have been rebalanced to favor a tooth-and-claw social system. They make excellent singers in the Corporate Tabernacle Choir, intellectual castrati whose guttural voices never change, whose deadly songs lure the rest of us toward the darkness and the deep.