Here are a couple of interesting articles I’ve read over the past few days:
In Aeon, Michael Hanlon explores the mystery of consciousness. He begins by pondering a bird he sees on a chimney of a nearby house.
What is it like to be that bird? Why look this way and that? Why be proud? How can a few ounces of protein, fat, bone and feathers be so sure of itself, as opposed to just being, which is what most matter does?
Old questions, but good ones. Rocks are not proud, stars are not nervous. Look further than my bird and you see a universe of rocks and gas, ice and vacuum. A multiverse, perhaps, of bewildering possibility. From the spatially average vantage point in our little cosmos you would barely, with human eyes alone, be able to see anything at all; perhaps only the grey smudge of a distant galaxy in a void of black ink. Most of what is is hardly there, let alone proud, strutting, cock-of-the-chimney-top on an unseasonably cold Cornish evening.
We live in an odd place and an odd time, amid things that know that they exist and that can reflect upon that, even in the dimmest, most birdlike way. And this needs more explaining than we are at present willing to give it. The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called ‘hard problem’, is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table.
Here’s another wonderful passage.
Asked to name the most violent events in nature, you might point to cosmological cataclysms such as the supernova or gamma-ray burster. And yet, these spectacles are just heaps of stuff doing stuff-like things. They do not matter, any more than a boulder rolling down a hill matters — until it hits someone.
Compare a supernova to, say, the mind of a woman about to give birth, or a father who has just lost his child, or a captured spy undergoing torture. These are subjective experiences that are off the scale in terms of importance. ‘Yes, yes,’ you might say, ‘but that sort of thing only matters from the human point of view.’ To which I reply: in a universe without witness, what other point of view can there be? The world was simply immaterial until someone came along to perceive it. And morality is both literally and figuratively senseless without consciousness: until we have a perceiving mind, there is no suffering to relieve, no happiness to maximise.
Ben McGrath’s New Yorker article on The NFL and the Concussion Crisis has changed the way I watch football this fall. I remember being fascinated by the 1985 Chicago Bears–The Fridge, Jim McMahon and his headbands, Kangaroo Velcro Shoes, the Superbowl Shuffle–it was all so much fun. I later played high school and a couple years of small college football, dedicating countless hours to trying to become a better player. All of this makes taking in at least part of the biggest college and NFL games a pleasurable diversion.
But reading about the frequency and severity of brain injuries suffered by NFL players, I feel disgusted, rather than thrilled when I see a violent hit. McGrath’s article describes Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that is believed to result from accumulation of subconcussions experienced during a football player’s career. CTE was
first diagnosed, in 2002, in the brain of the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, who died of a heart attack after living out of his truck for a time. It was next diagnosed in one of Webster’s old teammates on the Steelers’ offensive line, Terry Long, who killed himself by drinking antifreeze. Long overlapped, at the end of his career, with Justin Strzelczyk, who was also found to have C.T.E. after he crashed, fatally, into a tanker truck, while driving the wrong way down the New York Thruway.
McGrath notes that
Credit for the public’s increased awareness of these issues must go to the New York Times, and to its reporter Alan Schwarz, whom Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Steelers’ neurosurgeon and a longtime medical adviser to the league, calls “the Socratic gadfly in this whole mix.” Schwarz was a career baseball writer, with a heavy interest in statistics, when, in December of 2006, he got a call from a friend of a friend named Chris Nowinski, a Harvard football player turned pro wrestler turned concussion activist. Andre Waters, the former Philadelphia Eagles safety, had just committed suicide, and Nowinski was in possession of his mottled brain. The earliest cases of C.T.E. had been medical news, not national news. Nowinski’s journalist contacts, as he recalls, were in “pro-wrestling media, not legitimate media.” He needed help.
Schwarz, acting more as a middleman than as a journalist pitching a hot story, set up a meeting between Nowinski and the Times’ sports editor, Tom Jolly, for whom Schwarz had been writing Sunday columns about statistical analysis on a freelance basis. Rather than assign the story to one of his staffers, Jolly suggested that Schwarz write it. The result, “Expert Ties Ex-Player’s Suicide to Brain Damage from Football,” wound up on the front page, on January 18, 2007. It described Waters’s forty-four-year-old brain tissue as resembling that of an eighty-five-year-old man with Alzheimer’s, and cited the work and opinions of several doctors whose research into the cumulative effect of head trauma was distinctly at odds with that of the N.F.L.’s own Mild and Traumatic Brain Injury committee (M.T.B.I.), which had been created by Tagliabue. “Don’t send them back out on these fields,” Waters’s niece told Schwarz, referring to young would-be football players.
Ted Johnson, a recently retired New England Patriots linebacker, read the Waters piece and called Schwarz. He was thirty-four- years old and had been locking himself in his apartment with the blinds drawn for days at a time. He believed that his problems had started in 2002, when, he said, his coach, the sainted Bill Belichick, ignored a trainer’s recommendation that Johnson practice without contact while recovering from a concussion. Schwarz accompanied Johnson to a meeting with his neurologist, Dr. Robert Cantu, who said, “Ted already shows the mild cognitive impairment that is characteristic of early Alzheimer’s disease.” Two weeks after the Waters piece, Schwarz landed another freelance submission on A1: “Dark Days Follow Hard-Hitting Career in N.F.L.”
Schwarz’s phone kept ringing. Several of the callers were the mothers and wives of football’s damaged men. They represented a readership far less likely to have come across, say, the annual men’s-magazine features about mangled knees, wayward fingers, and back braces, which had hardened almost into a sportswriting trope. In March, Schwarz published another front-pager: “Wives United by Husbands’ Post-N.F.L. Trauma.” Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor at the Times who oversees long-term, Pulitzer-worthy projects, read this piece and decided to intervene. Schwarz was given a full-time position, with no responsibilities other than to broaden his new beat’s focus beyond the N.F.L. to the more than four million amateur athletes who play organized football. Although Schwarz was assigned to the sports desk, the Times framed the story as a matter of public health, akin to tobacco, asbestos, and automobile safety. Schwarz covered high schools, helmets, workmen’s comp, coaching, and so on, earning the nickname Alan Brockovich among friends. “You can imagine how many lawyers I hear from,” he once told me.
Schwarz’s math background came in handy, too, as he batted away the statistical objections about the unknown incidence of C.T.E. from skeptical doctors. And Schwarz had the backing of a news organization that did not see itself as having any symbiotic ties to the game’s economic engine. (ESPN, which drives the national conversation on sports, invests more than a billion dollars a year in football broadcasting.)
What we now know, from reading Schwarz, is that retired N.F.L. players are five to nineteen times as likely as the general population to have received a dementia-related diagnosis; that the helmet-manufacturing industry is overseen by a volunteer consortium funded largely by helmet manufacturers; and that Lou Gehrig may not actually have had the disease that bears his name but suffered from concussion-related trauma instead. (Since 1960, fourteen N.F.L. players have had a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is about twelve more than you would expect from a random population sample.) In the manner of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Dr. Maroon has delineated four stages in the N.F.L.’s reaction to the reality of brain damage: active resistance and passive resistance, shifting to passive acceptance and, finally, in the past few months, active acceptance.
I don’t envision my two young sons as ever having much aptitude for or interest in football. But if they ever do, knowing what I know now, I will do my best to talk them out of it.