Wayne’s World: From Formula 409 to loneliness to the complexity of the brain

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Formula 409. Thinking about it a lot.

My mother bought Formula 409 with gusto, likely with extreme prejudice against dirt with intent to terminate. 

  Maybe she pulled a spray bottle off the shelf at South Bend’s BriteWay or at Shopper’s Fair in Mishawaka. More than likely, she pick up a bottle at Osco’s in downtown South Bend, just a half-block down  from the Philadelphia and just across the street from the State Theater. Like Formula 409, they are all gone. 

  She was a deep believer that this all-purpose cleaner contained a magical formula that would wipe away even the smallest smudge. But let’s call that smudge by its real name: an imperfection that required immediately elimination or “Satan, get thee hence.”

But, as you know, I am not writing about Formula 409. 

But before I go on to today’s topic, I’d like to mention one of the true gentlemen in broadcast radio in South Bend, Joe Kelly. 

Every afternoon, Joe would go on air at the WSBT-AM radio station to host one of the most popular shows in the 1960s. It was called Open Line. The concept was simple: Joe invited listeners to call in and speak their minds about anything. Mom was a true addict.

Ladies (hardly ever men) called in by the boatloads.  The wonders of Formula 409 were a huge topic on Open Line in 1966. Poor Joe was a saint for enduring this monotony of hearing about the wonders of Formula 409. 

  The only time I recall Joe getting upset on the air was when a woman called in to report three high school lads had walked past her house after school. The teenagers were laughing and carrying on. She was sure they were high on drugs. Joe’s rebuttal: “Maybe they were just happy.” He had to put up with a lot of inane, vacuous jabber from housewives who I suspect were bored out of their gourds.

   This time  – for once – I’m not digressing.

  1966 was my high school graduation year. Big change was in the air for me and for the Beatles.

   In August,  the Fab Four released their seminal album “Revolver.” The album’s first song, “Taxman,” featured George Harrison complaining about taxes. A real downer of a topic to sing about. George was better than that. 

   “Taxman” was followed by the monster blockbuster, “Eleanor Rigby.”

   Just like the empty man who made nowhere plans for nobody, lonely Eleanor represented those forgotten, elderly people who go through their last stage in life waiting at the window. Over in the nearby church,  Father McKenzie wrote the words of a sermon that no one will hear. 

  If you are still with me, we have now arrived at my topic: loneliness, the lack of mental and emotional stimulation and the long-term consequences of trauma. Thank you for going this far.

   Open Line perhaps was treated as mere entertainment for some. But for other WSBT listeners, Open Line  was an important social connection to other people and a vital antidote to isolation. 

   Rural people find social connection at church. If they don’t attend church, where do they all belong?  

You read about farmers voting against their own interests. Ever wonder how that happens? How about rural Michigan incels attempting to kidnap the governor? Do you think that just maybe . . . 

It’s fair to say the people need connections to other people — even it’s over the radio. Their lives depended on tuning into shows like Open Line. But there are consequences.

This is not my discovery. It’s the work of psychologist John T. Cacioppo. 

   Cacioppo conducted sophisticated research into loneliness and even wrote a book about it entitled (What else?) “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.”

   He and fellow psychologist Gary Bernston pioneered the field of social neuroscience that probed how our biological systems require social interaction that underlies families, friends, groups,  civilizations and cultures.

He founded the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

As described in Wikipedia: “Social neuroscience investigates the biological mechanisms that underlie social processes and behavior, widely considered one of the major problem areas for the neurosciences in the 21st century, and applies concepts and methods of biology to develop theories of social processes and behavior in the social and behavioral sciences. Social neuroscience capitalizes on biological concepts and methods to inform and refine theories of social behavior, and it uses social and behavioral constructs and data to advance theories of neural organization and function.”

  As further described in Wikipedia: “By employing brain scans, monitoring of autonomic and neuroendocrine processes, and assays of immune function, he (Cacioppo) found the overpowering influence of social context — a factor so strong that it can alter genetic expression in white blood cells. The work further showed how the subjective sense of social isolation (loneliness) uniquely disrupts our perceptions, behavior, and physiology, becoming a trap that not only reinforces isolation, but can also lead to early death.” 

   Cacioppo died of cancer in 2018.  But others continue to carry on the investigations into the biological mechanisms involved in social perception, interpersonal processes, cognition, emotion, and behavior.

   America is a country with an economic system based on capitalism, competition and individualism even at the expense of other Americans. We know all about two-legged money-making machines.  Calling billionaire Elon Musk. “Are you reading this?”

     Capitalism even advances the myth of the heroic solitary isolationist — read that “workaholic” — toiling alone. It’s a fable ingrained in our culture. 

   Taken to the extreme, the workaholics  have nothing to do but to go through the motions of living until the finality of death arrives and then — eventually — to be forgotten.

    Recently, I ran across an acronym called ACEs, for Adverse Childhood Experiences.

   To quote the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity.”

 Adverse Childhood Experiences are traumatic events. You know them as household violence, physical or emotional abuse, be it at home or outside the home.

According to the CDC approximately 61 percent of adults have experienced at least one ACE and 16 percent of adults have experienced more than four ACEs. ACEs are linked to chronic health conditions, mental health disorders, and substance use in adolescence and adulthood. Children who have experienced four or more traumas are ten times more likely to use illicit drugs, four times more likely to have depression, and thirty times more likely to attempt suicide. 

  Now follow me on this: summer vacation will soon end. Returning to school comes next for kids and the potential for trauma. 

  Those of you who know me have heard me say that my favorite part of the brain is the amygdala, one of the centers of our emotions.

    Here is where I make an admission for which I am truly sorry. 

   I believed the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan who wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Dragons of Eden,” suggesting that humans have a reptilian brain deep within our minds. 

 This reptilian brain, he wrongly claimed, is responsible for functions like movement and breathing as well as instincts like hunger, survival, and mating. All the basic behaviors of human life can be traced to our reptilian ancestors. Baloney.

  Sagan continued to advance this garbage  in his book “Cosmos.”

 He wrote: “Deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like a brain of a crocodile. Surrounding the R-complex is the limbic system or mammalian brain, which evolved tens of millions of years ago in ancestors who were mammal but not yet primates. It is a major source of our moods and emotions, of our concern and care for the young. And finally, on the outside, living in uneasy truce with the more primitive brains beneath, is the cerebral cortex; civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.”

 Sagan was wrong and I was wrong to follow his distorted notion of the human brain. The brain is much more complex than Sagan ever imagined.

  Newer science reveals that  people who live lives  during war, threats and violence will develop larger amygdalas. You know — fight or flight. 

   Furthermore,  individuals with ACEs have less developed prefrontal cortices.  I think it’s obvious. Think of kids who need to react immediately to physical danger and the potential for death be it at home, on the streets, or in school. There’s no time to ponder.

   So there you have it. I’ve given you enough to chew on. Do your own research. 

   As for me, I believe the 2024 election year as when violence, hatred, loneliness, ACEs, grudges, retributions, grievances and resentments could all coalesce to destroy America. Forever. There are simply too many damaged people out there. 

I’ll end with a joke:

A narcissist, a psychopath, and a Machiavellian go on stage separately in a comedy show lineup. The narcissist thinks he got the best applause, the psychopath doesn’t care, and the Machiavellian actually gets the best applause, though at the expense of the other two.