Attention and Victory

A Neurologist Analyzes the 2016 US Election

When I was a geeky, quasi-teen at Belmont Hill School in eastern Massachusetts, I was an aspiring writer. Flourishes of rhetoric, captivating prose, lyrical sermons and anything Gatsby-like invigorated me. I expressed myself in every literary club, writing elective, and oratorical contest in which I could contribute. This included a boisterous mock Republican convention of 1996, where I impersonated the fiery character of Alan Keyes, and presaged the crude tone of our current GOP primary by saying of eventual nominee, Senator Dole: “He doesn’t have the balls to take on the Democrats!”

My high school Government instructor can be assured that this particular essay is not about Belmont Hill School’s 1996 mock GOP convention. Alas my political career is on hold for the time being as I sharpen my skills in my profession of pediatric neurology. Rather, A more illustrative case for the purpose of this essay comes from one of my high school creative writing classes. A workshop centered around non-fiction experiences. It was a younger student’s characterization of a wrist fracture that has followed me into my career as a neurologist and that lends so much insight into the psychology of our current primary campaigns. I do not recollect the circumstances of the student’s injury, but the way he described the pain. He recited from a handwritten note “ When I first fell on my outstretched hand, I felt nothing for a few moments. Then it slowly built inside my forearm, a pain so bad that I felt my brain was in my wrist.” That eloquent yet childlike description of his broken arm illustrates the most important feature about human conscious experience when it is interrupted by pathology. It also translates nicely into a metaphor about politics in the age of social media: its all about attention.

Attention is a word that is gaining in stature in the world of neuroscience and childhood development. To attend to as many tasks, in as short a time as possible is the most useful predictor of neurologic health as it pertains to recovery from global injury, as well as to optimal childhood development. I propose that attention can also assess how our traditional democracy responds to two very recent traumas in our national psyche. The first being the tragedy of September 11th 2001, the second being the Financial crisis of 2008.

Any migraine specialist will tell you that the key to breaking a patient’s headache, is to take their mind’s attention away from the pain. Most patients do this naturally, by falling asleep. But keeping them awake and drawing the attention from the debilitating and pulsating sensation in their heads is a particularly difficult task for even the experienced physician.

The same dilemma applies to politics in the wake of these tragedies. Donald Trump has demonstrated the uncanny ability to utilize these tragedies to direct the attention of media around the nation, the same way a slipped disc pressing on a nerve root can send neurons firing in anguish down the leg of a patient with sciatica. You could say he has brought the brain of the right wing into the issues that he claims ownership, such as immigration, domestic security from terrorism, and international trade agreements. Bernie Sanders has a similar strategy on the left by demanding attention to issues such as financial industry monopolies, universal health care, and college tuition.

The real question for the GOP establishment, and for the nation as a whole, is whether Trumpism is a migraine that we can eliminate by distracting its attention, or is he a tumor that we need more drastic measures to cure?