Happy Camper and Reno, the Doc’s take: Pizza Neuropsychology.

I keep ordering white pizza. It’s becoming somewhat of a problem.

I don’t mean to keep ordering white pizza on my Pizza Adventures with the Maestro, understand. It’s not even that I’m particularly into white pizza– I’m not. In fact, when I think of pizza, one of its defining characteristics is the quality of the tomato sauce. How thick, how bright, how salty, how tomato-ey. My ideal pizza, actually, is the traditional Chicago deep dish “casserole” style pizza that the Maestro so loathes: pizza that is, you know, basically crust, topped with maybe a thin layer of cheese, which is then topped with orderly layers of thick, chunky, red tomato sauce.

That’s pizza to me. Crust plus cheese plus sauce. Yes, yes, as the Maestro is fond of pointing out, I do like various veggies on my pizza as well, but they’re not defining characteristics of pizza for me. Cheese, crust, sauce. That’s what I need.

Which begs the question of why, at both of our most recent Pizza Adventures, at Happy Camper and Reno, I ended up chomping on perfectly delicious pizza missing that last, vital ingredient– “pizza” that, while in some ways delectable on the palate, nonetheless doesn’t really activate that neural network labeled “pizza” in the Doc’s brain.

Ah, neural networks. I spend a lot of my day educating patients on what neural networks are. What the hell, let’s talk about neuropsychology for a sec.

See, our nervous system, that infrastructure of wiring within us that allows us to experience, feel, and think, is comprised of specialized cells called neurons. Your brain is made up of a mass of neurons, which are organized, layer by layer (much like deep dish pizza!) by function. The wide strip of neurons that allow for decision making lives near the front of your brain, kinda right behind your forehead (the prefrontal cortex). The layers of neurons dedicated to feeling things are nestled deep beneath that layer, kinda near the middle of the brain (the limbic system). The cluster of neurons devoted to keeping your body breathing, balancing, and otherwise functioning are located near the back, kinda near the top of your neck (the brain stem).

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It’s a truism in psychology that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” That is to say, neurons that are all activated at once, tend to form relationships, which make them easier to fire together in the future– that’s what we call a neural network. We have neural networks around all sorts of things, which get triggered by all sorts of stimuli.

For example, when the neurons of my occipital lobe see the words “STAR WARS” on a movie screen, and the neurons in my auditory cortex register the opening notes to the John Williams Star Wars theme, that activates all the other neurons in the “Star Wars” neural network for me: neurons associated with childhood memories wake up; prefrontal neurons devoted to finding the nearest theater in which to see “The Force Awakens” (or, barring that, for figuring out what the next best opportunity to see “Star Wars” might be, whether it’s accessing iTunes, watching a DVD, reading a comic book, whatever) flare to life; neurons sensitive to interpersonal relationships jolt awake and make me crave the company of people who I know love Star Wars as much as I do; neurons in the limbic system associated with all the feelings “Star Wars” evokes for me (excitement, nostalgia, connection, confidence, anticipation) come on line. The neural network gets activated, in other words.

So. We have neural networks associated with stories; with people; with relationships; with concepts; and, yup, we damn sure have neural networks associated with pizza. The thing is, though, activating a neural network is like picking out a combination lock on a safe: all the elements have to be there, in the proper order, for the network to get truly activated. This is a concept we call psychological syntax (“syntax,” here, implies exactly what it implies in grammatical terms: there’s a reason why the words “the dog bit Tony” do not mean the same thing as “Tony bit the dog.” Sequencing matters).

All of which is to say, while many of the elements that should, by all rights, activate the “pizza” neural network for me have been present in our recent Pizza Adventures, I have been left, dear reader, feeling like I haven’t had much goddamn pizza at all these last couple weeks. And not just because I’m dieting.

(Down twenty-two pounds since January 1st, kiddos. That’s not a humblebrag– that’s a straight up brag. The Doc is lookin’ good, just sayin’.)

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Enough with the neuropsychology. I accidentally ordered white pizza at Happy Camper, this joint down on Clark and Wells, mostly because I was somewhat overwhelmed by my vegetarian options. In fairness, the place is kind of overwhelming. It’s themed like…well, like a…camp site, I guess…a campsite that had been bred with the dance club in Parks and Recreation where Tom Haverford was pressuring his coworkers to peddle his Snake Juice Liquor. What was it called?

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The Snakehole Lounge. Happy Camper is like a KoA campsite had a baby with the Snakehole Lounge. What could only be described as club music blared from overhead speakers. Hipsters swarmed around us in bearded, flanneled waves. And yet, in the background, you could literally see…was that a camper, like an RV, where people could sit, rather like Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace occupied a Chrysler at Jackrabbit Slim’s in “Pulp Fiction?” Why, I believe it was. And tire swings. I swear, this hipster club pizza joint had goddamn tire swings in the bar.

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Anyway. The menu was bifurcated between dead animal and non-dead animal selections, and the pizzas had names (and, yes, the Tony resided on the meatzza half of the menu, whereas the Glenn resided on the cruelty-free side). Finding the “Glenn” uninspiring (as many do), I went for the Guarav, which promised portabella mushrooms (yum), ricotta cheese (yum-o), sun-dried tomatoes (yummy yummy yummy), and,  think feta cheese (eh). But note, dear reader, what poor, poor Guarav lacked: he lacked tomato sauce.

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My own theory is that the sun-dried tomato thing threw me off. Well, that, and the club-type atmosphere. I mean, I’m a Highly Sensitive Person in the best of times; but, when I have club music thump-a-thump-a-thumping in my ear, and there were TV’s and this funky Great Lakes neon thing on the wall, and goddamn if I hadn’t fallen a little bit in love with the hostess who sat us and couldn’t take my eyes off of her even to pretend to be listening to the Maestro talk about whatever music thing the Maestro tends to talk about (or how bad the Star Wars prequels are, he talks about that a lot, I guess)…I think I was just a little off my game.

So my pizza came, sans sauce. And it was good. I mean, you’re never gonna find me complaining about portabella mushrooms on anything, really. But, let’s be honest: I’d ordered glorified cheese flatbread. The “pizza” neural network wasn’t activated in the slightest (in fairness, the neural network that hostess had activated miiiiight have made the activation of other, competing neural networks unlikely).

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So that was Happy Camper. In retrospect, it kinda feels like something I might have dreamt, or part of an acid trip, or something.

So then, the next week, the Maestro and I hit up Reno, over in Logan Square.

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I’ll say this: there might, just might, be part of my pizza neural network that, in addition to crust, cheese, and sauce, that says it’s not pizza if you can’t wolf it down. I mean, we have body memories associated with our neural networks as well as sensory memories; this is why I can type these words, why I can still easily rescue the Princess in Super Mario Brothers and Super Mario Brothers 3 (Super Mario Brothers 2 is always a crap shoot), why the Jamaican bobsled team lines up and sways left and right before making their run. And, since going on my diet (I’m also doing thirty pushups a day, did I mention that? I’m gonna be ripped by the time you read this), I’ve noticed that, well, in addition to having less food overall? Food is less fun these days.

Don’t get me wrong, I still like food. I mean, you don’t get to the point where you need to go on a diet unless you like food. And my love of pizza, specifically, is legendary. But it occurs to me that, these days, eating pizza is just less fun unless I’m jamming piece after piece into my face.

Why? I dunno. My own hypothesis is that there’s something about my pizza neural network that, in addition to crust and cheese and sauce, associates pizza with freedom. With nobody telling me how much goddamn pizza I can or “should” eat. With being able and allowed to eat a whole pizza in a sitting, if I so desired.

Obviously, you can’t do this and end up ripped like Dolph Lundgren in the Cannon Films masterpiece “Masters of the Universe.” So, I’ve been eating my pizza mindfully. Bite by bite. Trying to savor it. Chewing each bite thirty times.

It’s a huge goddamn drag. Not only do I fill up quicker, but that Cookie-Monster-esque release of cramming piece after piece of pizza into my mouth? Non-existent.

Which doesn’t help that I’ve been accidentally skimping on the sauce that is likewise so important to activating my Pizza Neural Network.

What was I talking about? Oh, right, Reno. So we get to Reno, and I see, on the menu, Butternut Squash pizza. Now, c’mon. Butternut goddamn squash. If you’re a vegetarian, or, say, a human being with taste buds, you’re not going to pass up the opportunity to have butternut squash on your pizza. I ordered it, even knowing that I was going to have to eat this thing one bite at a time, and thus risk non-activation of my Pizza Neural Network.

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Then the thing came, and fuck me. No red sauce. In my enthusiasm for the butternut squash, I’d forgotten the goddamn pizza sauce, again.

The butternut squash pizza was good. A little rich, really– I think they slathered olive oil or something on it to enhance the flavors (flavors that, in all fairness, popped the hell out at you from jump street). I ate maybe three slices, which, I figured, would be enough to appease my appetite without displeasing the MyFitnessPal app too greatly, while my best friend across the table wolfed down every last shred of Dead Animalpalooza pizza he’d ordered (note: I suspect this isn’t the actual name of the pizza he ordered, perhaps correct this before final publication of blog?).

Yeah, it was good. But it wasn’t…pizza.

The place itself, Reno, was quirky. Kind of like a non-contrived version of TGI Fridays. But then, welcome to Logan Square.

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I’m looking to get my Pizza Neural Network activated again. I will get it activated again. Even if I have to approach this project slice by goddamn slice, I will have my pizza. Oh yes, I will have it.

 

 

 

 

 

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