Excitotoxicity and The Death of Dreams [jacob]

A few months ago, I was listening to an episode of Radiolab (via podcast) centered around rabies, which (apparently) has an (almost) 100% fatality rate if left untreated until after symptoms occur. [The episode is absolutely fascinating and highly worth listening to (and only 30 minutes long), so I would recommend listening to it before reading this blog post, because it will contain spoilers.] This post is not about rabies, but Radiolab’s exploration of the disease introduced me to terminology that my conceptual mind had been hunting for, more or less unknowingly, for quite some time.

To start, it’s important to know that the way rabies works is very different than most viral diseases. Most viruses (as I’m sure most of you reading this are aware) enter the host organism’s body through the bloodstream (which would make sense of an illness transmitted through a bite, yes?) and latch onto a blood cell, multiply themselves within the cell until the cell is destroyed, and then all those viral copies spread to other cells and multiply themselves until various organs, systems, and eventually the host organism itself are destroyed. Think of Morpheus’ biology lesson with Agent Smith.


Rabies, however, does not enter through the bloodstream, launching an attack on your body: it enters through your nerves and aims for your brain. Because of this, rabies travels very slowly, working its way, bit by bit up the synapses of your neurons. The further away from your brain (meaning the greater the literal physical distance), the longer it will take to reach its destination, and the longer it will take for the host to become symptomatic. But by then (if you’re the host), you’re basically already dead, and your central nervous system is well on its way to being shut down.

There is a controversial theory about rabies (which led to an even more controversial treatment — which the aforementioned podcast episode is all about) that claims that rabies doesn’t actually shut down your brain and kill you, but that it causes a state of excitotoxicity in your brain, which can be outlasted and recovered from if the rabies patient is induced into a coma, allowing their body to slowly build up an immunity and fight back against the disease. This is known as the Milwaukee Protocol (i.e., the controversial treatment).

So… that thorough and titillating introduction brings me to the focus of my post: excitotoxicity. Wikipedia explains it in far more complicated detail than I’m able or willing to go into, but my understanding of it (based on Radiolab’s explanation) is that excitotoxicity is basically the brain being crippled by neural overstimulation. In the case of rabies, the theory is that rabies never reaches the brain proper, but, since it has hijacked the neural pathways to the brain, sends such a barrage of signals that the brain simply can’t respond, and one by one those pathways are shut down and the brain is rendered isolated and incommunicative. Necessary functions shut down and the person then dies.

Again, if you want a much better explanation from far more qualified people, please, listen to the podcast. But if I may draw an analogy from this scientific, medical condition to a layman, non-scientific concept (which I know scientists love to see people do), when I heard described this state of cognitive disruption — this actually toxic state of mind as a result of overstimulation — I experienced, like a neuron unimpaired by rabies, a leaping flash of connection to the overstimulated world in which we live.

We, and especially our kids (biological and otherwise), are steeped in a culture which desires nonstop rapidity of stimulation. Immediate amusement, relief from the grips of ‘boredom’ (without that nagging obligation to think, feel, process). Unlimited access to information (without the tedium of discernment as to its worth). Constant connection to relationships (without all the pesky requirements of depth, listening, accountability, empathy, concern for anything other than how we’re perceived by the other person).

overstimulationMy kids at the Youth Center are in the throes of an excitotoxic existence. Inches away from a flickering, colorful, LED screen at all hours of the day and night. On their phones, on their tablets, on their laptops. Constantly subjecting their eyes and minds to senseless amounts of stimulation (and just plain senselessness). Whether they’re playing games, surfing Facebook posts, or #tweeting, they are constantly plugged in, endlessly consuming without a moment of rest. A bombardment of useless noise, crippling their brains (under the guise of “multitasking“).

It’s an addiction, really. They almost can’t handle a lapse in the static, a game on pause — let alone a moment of contemplation, or a reflective conversation. More often than not, if I’m having a conversation with a kid, only one ear can even detect my voice because the other is obstructed by an ear bud nestled snuggly into place, blaring Justin Bieber or reggaeton.

Once, while playing a game of dodgeball, one of my kids gave me attitude, and I took him outside the gym to talk to him. But, rather than look me in the eye or give any indication that he could even hear me, he grabbed his school-provided iPad and began scrolling rapidly through his Facebook newsfeed, feverishly opening videos and memes and chuckling as if I wasn’t even standing there. The only way he could be safe, the only way he could ‘protect’ himself from the conversation happening, wherein I was upset with him, was to retreat behind a wall of digital stimulation.

I mentioned that the iPad was provided by his school. It’s true. All high school students in the city school district, starting this year, have received an iPad as part of a change in the learning structure. And I understand that this is common (at least in slightly wealthier school districts), to integrate technology into education. For what it’s worth, I see the value in it. But I worry that, rather than creating a culture of academic advancement, or some kind of post-Information-Age model of education, we’ve created a culture of cognitive crippling. That we’ve fostered an inability to think critically (or to understand the point of such a process).

The greatest casualty, though, in this excitotoxic conflict is the ability to dream. Dreams, hope, imagination — the creative ability to perceive a world that, as yet, does not exist, but could exist — this is the mind’s true work. Perceiving potentiality is what allows a person to excel in school, to build trust, to understand themselves, to resolve conflict, to appreciate beauty, to know God.


But continual exposure to a world of ceaseless stimuli has misinformed, misled, the mind and disrupted its true work, interrupted it with false enticements, the misfire of neurons co-opted by pleasure-seeking impulses, hunting for instant gratification.

This dying of dreams, the killing of the creative mind, is referred to by all those age 11-18, who unwittingly endure its effects, as boredom. Like rabies, boredom corrupts pathways to and from the mind through a shield of constant, meaningless stimulus, eventually causing a complete mental shutdown, and a life that looks more and more like death.

Unlike rabies — and perhaps this is the dreamer in me talking — but perhaps, even once the symptoms start to show, it’s not too late.

Hope is creative; and life can be found in death.

6 thoughts on “Excitotoxicity and The Death of Dreams [jacob]

  1. Great post Jake. Radiolab continues to amaze. That story you told about trying to talk to the student hidden behind the school supplied ipad is really interesting. It’s so sad that that screen is where safety was found, when someone who clearly loves them was in person with them. Thanks for the thoughts.

  2. Great article. I like your unexpected Rabies-101 approach to illustrating the less desirable effects of digital engagement.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this post ever since I read it (yesterday), and I really wish we could broadcast this to the entire human population right now. DO YOU KNOW THE CONSEQUENCES OF OUR SCREEN ADDICTIONS??? The effect that things like social media, online gaming and other information addictions are having on our children is a grave concern of mine, highlighted by your story of the kid frantically flipping through his ipad at a moment when he needs to connect with what is going on inside himself and with you, his wise counsel. That is horrifying, truly horrifying.

    • Let’s not get all “old” and worry only about the whipper-snappers when our generation has similar addictions in different forms.

  4. I started reading this on my iphone while stuck in traffic and finished it on my laptop once I got to where I was going.

    I so affirm this post and its content, Jake. I can’t think of anything ever in the history of humanity that possesses the depth of duality that is technology as presented with a screen. What a blessing; what a curse. What a confusing concept through which to parent and lead.

    I’m becoming more and more convinced that at the core, the technological addiction is the fruit of our fruitless human search for significance outside of Christ. God, save us from ourselves.

  5. I remember listening to that Podcast on the way back from Ohio after picking up an Upright Bass with one of my friends. Go figure.

    I can’t help but think that personal discipline is a huge part of this. As you said, the benefit of technology is viable, but the (over)use of it is detri-mental (good word). Which is harder, disciplining ourselves in the appropriate uses of technology, or personally throwing them away to some degree? Hard to say, hard to say.

    I think I’ve mentioned it before, but you should really consider taking some of your theocult youth center posts, stripping them down, and incarnating them into a short opinion piece for the local newspaper. It could be a really cool thing…

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