The alpha and omega of Crick and consciousness

I just found a touching tribute to Francis Crick published in PLoS Biology in 2004 that also describes some little know aspects of his life during his study of consciousness.

One fascinating part of the article discusses his meeting with David Marr, a brilliant young neuroscientist who was fated both to revolutionise our understanding of the brain and die of leukaemia at the age of 35.

The two scientists worked together for only a month, but their meeting obviously last a lasting impression on them both, as they feature in each other’s work and particularly influenced Crick’s thinking on the conscious mind.

David Marr was a young mathematician and physiologist whose doctoral thesis on a theory of mammalian brain function at Cambridge had brought him into some contact with Brenner and Francis. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he began working with Tomasio Poggio of the Max Plank Institute in Tübingen on a computational theory of neuroscience. Following an invitation from Francis, Poggio and Marr spent the month of April, 1979 extending their intense examination of the core problems of visual perception.

They spent hours sitting at the most western end of the Salk Institute, at the cafeteria or in Francis’s office, gazing into the Pacific Ocean with all its daily changes, discussing not only architecture of visual cortex and visual perception, but the ramifications of a good theory of brain function. We know of these conversations, as the probing of Marr by Francis is captured in the final chapter of Marr’s now classic book ‚ÄúVision‚Äù (Marr 1982). (Although Marr speaks of a three-way conversation, judging from our own experiences as Francis’s younger colleagues, the interlocutor simply seems to be Francis.)

Marr had been diagnosed with acute leukemia in the winter of 1978 (Marr and Vaina 1991). The one-month visit to the Salk Institute was an intellectual gift, for eighteen months later, Marr died. Francis had simultaneously lost a young friend and colleague who had brought an “incisive mind and creative energy” (Crick 1994, p. 77) and his best new ideas of a theoretical neurology to the brain (Marr 1969, 1970). And he saw the tragedy of Marr being cut off from solving the big problems for which he was so clearly destined.

During those early years, Francis must have thought that consciousness was tractable‚Äîif only the right way of thinking was brought to bear on it. Francis’s brain was capable of collecting and filing away many disparate data, which he could then combine uniquely and imaginatively, leading to that ‚Äúdramatic moment of sudden enlightenment that floods the minds when the right idea clicks into place‚Äù (Crick 1990, p. 141). Whatever his initial thoughts about the nature of the problem, Francis soon came to realize that the problem of consciousness was even tougher than he imagined, that the ‚Äúclick‚Äù was not happening with consciousness. In 1988, he wrote, ‚ÄúI have yet to produce any theory that is both novel and also explains many disconnected facts in a convincing way‚Äù (Crick 1990, p. 162).

Ironically, for a man who wrote a book called Vision, there seems to be no pictures of David Marr on the internet.

Of course, there are many of Crick, and the PLoS Biology article is an excellent tribute to the multi-talented researcher.

Link to article ‘Francis Crick’s Legacy for Neuroscience’.

Great history of brain surgery programme online

The BBC has just begun broadcasting a fantastic series called Blood and Guts on the history of surgery with the first episode on neurosurgery. If you live in the UK you can watch it again on the BBC iPlayer for a few days more, or otherwise, it has appeared online as a torrent.

It’s not the most coherent trip through the history of neurosurgery, more a collection of highlights (or, in some cases, lowlights), but it’s very well made and has some fantastic historical footage and interviews with modern neurosurgeons.

It covers Harvey Cushing, Phineas Gage, Jos√© Delgado, Walter Freeman and the frontal lobotomy, transcranial magnetic stimulation, deep brain stimulation and the cutting edge of brain surgery today. There’s a particularly interesting bit where lobotomy survivor Howard Dully has a brain scan and you can see the effect of his operation.

If you’re still hungry for more, BBC News website has an article and video clip of neurosurgery while the patient is conscious, and you can even buy the book of the series.

Link to BBC iPlayer archive (for 7 days).
Link to torrent of Blood and Guts brain surgery episode.

The genius of Harvey Cushing

Neurophilosophy has a beautifully illustrated and carefully researched article on Harvey Cushing one of the greatest neurosurgeons of the 20th century and a pioneer in treating previously inoperable brain tumours.

The article has loads of fantastic photos of Cushing at work, and also includes the one of his remarkably detailed drawings, illustrated in the image on the right.

Cushing is particularly famous for his work on the surgical removal of tumours, and for identifying what is now called Cushing’s syndrome, a disorder caused by high levels of cortisol in the blood, sometimes caused by a tumour in the pituitary gland. The tumour can be removed, curing this debilitating hormone disorder.

Neurophilosophy notes that Cushing removed more than 2,000 tumours during his lifetime. As we noted in an earlier article, one of these operations was to remove a brain tumour from the sister of Wilder Penfield, who was one of Cushing’s most famous pupils.

The Neurophilosophy article also has links to loads more photos and even a video of one of Cushing’s last operations.

Link to excellent Neurophilosophy piece on ‘Harvey Cushing photo journal’.

Strip Club Hunter, or the attractions of anatomy

It’s hard to start a paragraph with “I was strolling through London’s red light district the other evening…” without seeming a little dubious, but it’s the truth, so I shall have to begin by sounding suspect.

If your suspicions have already been raised, I doubt that if I say that I became interested in one of London’s biggest strip clubs for its importance in the history of neuroanatomy that I will seem at all convincing. But it was also the case, so I shall I have to also begin by sounding a little implausible.

The photo on the left depicts the neon drenched Windmill Theatre, the first venue in London to have risqué shows displaying the naked bodies of young women to breathless crowds of young men.

In the 1930s the owners realised there was a loophole in the law, and that if the naked girls stood still, they weren’t acting and so weren’t subject to legislation banning nude actors. Decades of titillating ‘living statue’ shows followed, using increasingly inventive ways of presenting the spectacle of the unclothed and unmoving girl.

The theatre and the Windmill Girls, like the one on the right, became legendary, even being the subject of a recent Hollywood movie. Time could not stand still, however, and with changing morals, inevitably, the law changed, and along with it, the theatre. It now operates as a standard lap dancing club in the centre of Soho.

While the Windmill Theatre advertises its pedigree in large strips of red neon, the seemingly nondescript building to the right has nothing but a modest blue plaque to mark its heritage, but it drew similarly excited crowds wanting to glimpse the anatomy of the naked.

The plaque reads “Hunter, William. This was the home and museum of Dr William Hunter, Anatomist (1718-1783)”. While the plaque and the association with one of history’s great anatomists gives it an air of respectability that the gleaming Windmill lacks, it was no less salacious in its day.

For over a thousand years, medical men had used the 2nd century Greek physician Galen as their guide to the structure of the human body. The trouble was, Galen was often wrong and his work had only recently been challenged owing to a taboo over dissecting the dead.

Two local men decided that Galen would have to go, and thankfully for us, they were riotously successful. William Hunter, to whom the Soho plaque is dedicated, is now famed for his contribution to anatomy, and his brother, John Hunter is considered the first scientific surgeon – the founder of modern surgery.

The Hunter brothers were living in a time when the taboo over cutting up corpses was slowly being broken, but dissections were still considered seedy. A kind of edgy horrorshow for the strong of stomach and certainly not for the ladies.

To compound the air of disgust, bodies were acquired on a ‘no questions asked’ basis, and many were rumoured to be from the murdered poor, or from bodies stolen from graves.

On one horrific occasion in 1784, the physician John Sheldon, proprietor of the Blenheim Street School of Anatomy, was presented with his recently deceased sister by one of the school’s regular ‘suppliers’.

But the first of these independent school’s of anatomy was opened by William and John Hunter, on Great Windmill Street, where the famous strip club now stands. William Hunter (shown on the left) actually lived on the same site, with his brother living round the corner, in Golden Square, before moving to a large house in the prestigious Leicester Square where his bust can still be seen.

One of the school’s star pupils was Sir Charles Bell, the noted physician who revolutionised the understanding of the nervous system through his careful anatomical dissections and clinical studies, and whose name still resides in our bodies through numerous eponymous labels and disorders that scatter the neurology textbooks.

The Hunter brothers did more than just tutor, however, they catalogued – virtually every new discovery, anatomical oddity and grotesque pathology they found.

This systematic study led to many new discoveries, particularly in comparative anatomy and the understanding of the nervous system. In fact, you can still visit the Hunter’s collection, at the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum, which, as I’ve noted before, is full of neuroanatomical curiosities.

Great Windmill Street has hosted anatomists, professional and pornographic, for centuries, and still continues its proud tradition, although not necessarily in the form that the Hunters would have imagined.

So that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

Experienced drivers perceive the road differently

Experienced drivers are not only better skilled at the actions of driving, but learn to perceive and attend to the road in a different way

We found that novices eye-movements were different from those of the more experienced drivers in several ways, though the extent of scanning on a particular section of dual carriageway was particularly limited. We have since examined this effect in the laboratory using video-based stimuli replicating the same impoverished scanning in novice drivers (e.g. Underwood, Chapman, Bowden, & Crundall, 2002).

We have also further explored why this might be the case, examining the possibility of whether this was due to the novice drivers having a deficient mental model or whether they were simply overloaded by the requirement to control the car (a process which requires less attention with increased experience), and found that even when car-control demands were eliminated, the effect persisted (Underwood et al., 2002).

Another aspect that appears to be important in understanding this effect is the extent of the inexperienced drivers’ peripheral attention (Crundall, Underwood, & Chapman, 1999, 2002). We found that the less experienced drivers have a smaller field of peripheral vision, and are more likely to miss even abrupt onsets. This is especially the case when they are focusing on something that is potentially dangerous.

For example if the car ahead brakes suddenly, a novice driver will focus so much attention on that car that they may miss the errant cyclist emerging from the side road. More experienced drivers have a wider spread of peripheral attention however, and this appears to be linked to their spread of search.

The paragraph is an excerpt from a commentary on an interesting article on the relevance of lab studies to the real world from the latest edition of the British Journal of Psychology. I’ll post more about the main article shortly, but this snippet just caught my attention, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Link to PubMed entry for commentary paper.

2008-08-22 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

If you’re after a level-headed discussion of the ‘contraceptive pill makes girls go for Mr Wrong’ story, Dr Petra has a great review.

SciAm Mind Matters has a great article by the Cognitive Daily duo on how tone deafness and bad singing may not go hand in hand.

A gentleman with extensive frontal lobe damage ‘loses’ his memory and identity, leading to a curious medical mystery – covered by Frontal Cortex.

ABC Radio National’s Health Report has a fantastic programme and video report on the ongoing problem of adolescent PTSD after the Bosnian conflict.

PsyBlog finds some vintage ‘candid camera’ TV footage illustrating social conformity with a too-good-to-be-true ending.

The burgeoning research on the use of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of medical conditions is covered by The Guardian – with brief podcast discussion.

Facial Frontier – sounds like the title of a porn movie but actually an article on the psychology of facial expression from The National Post.

The Guardian has a great podcast about music and the brain.

A number of new doom and gloom books about the effect of the internet on relationships, mind and brain and due out, report Wired. I predict many words, no hard evidence.

Live Science on a new study on how the ‘visual cortex’ is used in hearing and sound processing.

Another cool example of ‘hijacking intelligence‘ is covered by the Boston Globe that discusses the innovative use of CAPTCHs to solve difficult OCR problems.

We look at faces differently depending on our cultural background, according to new research covered by Wired Science. Full text of study in PLoS One.

The Times has a video of creepily lifelike avatar face animation which apparently ‘heralds new era for computer games’

Cool interactive brain games and learning suite from McGill University.

Science News on how dopamine has been a ‘forgotten’ neurotransmitter for sleep regulation. Forgotten? Huh? Amphetamine?

Levels of <a href="
“>aggression can be partly predicted from face structure in ice hockey players, reports New Scientist.

MSN Lifestyle has a spectacularly bad and clich√©d article that is full of scientific misappropriation – rather ironically titled ‘The Male Brain, Explained’.

Colic psychology

I’ve just found a surprisingly psychological New Yorker article on colic, the persistent and mysterious episodes of crying that affects some newborn babies.

I always thoughts that colic was just discomfort caused by trapped wind but apparently this is just one theory and the cause of colic is still medically unexplained.

The crying tends to stop after a few months and although thought to be physically harmless it can cause a great deal of discomfort to both baby and parents.

The New Yorker article, written by the talented physician and writer Jermone Groopman, notes that some of the most important discoveries about colic have not focused on the biology of the babies digestive system but on the psychology of parenting and carer-child interaction.

Lester believes that some infants who suffer from colic are “hypersensitive to normal stimuli”: they perceive and react to changes in their bodies (such as hunger or gas pangs) or in their environment (such as loud noises or the experience of being touched) more acutely than do other babies. In the mid-nineties, he studied forty-five children between the ages of three and eight who had had colic as infants (and had been seen at his clinic). He found that thirty-four of them—about seventy-five per cent—suffered from behavioral problems, including a limited attention span, tantrums, and irritation after being touched or coming in contact with particular fabrics or tags in their clothing. “Some of the kids would get very annoyed and refuse to put on a hat,” he told me. The children apparently objected to the sensation of having fabric on their head.

Lester speculates that many colicky infants are so sensitive to stimuli that physical contact with their parents is unlikely to soothe them, a theory that may be supported by data from societies in which babies are held continuously. Ronald Barr, the co-author of the 1997 study on infant cries, has analyzed data gathered by Harvard researchers between 1969 and 1971, during a study of the !Kung San, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Botswana who practice a version of attachment parenting. “We found that the !Kung San carry their babies upright, have skin-to-skin contact day and night, breast-feed every 13.69 minutes for the first one to two years of life, and respond within fifteen seconds to any fret or whimper,” Barr, who now teaches at the University of British Columbia, told me. “The duration of the crying is fifty per cent less among the !Kung San compared with Western babies, but the !Kung San still have what we call colic, with episodes of inconsolable crying.”

A great deal of clinical psychology work concerned with difficult behaviour in children focuses on how people respond to certain behaviours. It is often the case that our natural reactions inadvertently reinforce and maintain the problem.

This can be the case even with severe difficulties like self-harm. Imagine that the parents of a child go through a period where they are so caught up in work they don’t have much time for the child no matter what he or she does.

The child accidentally harms themselves and suddenly gets a great deal of attention because the parents, who are not ‘bad parents’, just massively overworked, want to make sure their child is OK.

The child works out that harming themselves gets them attention but this causes resentment, so the parents act more negatively towards the child he or she does not harm themselves, meaning that caring attention is all the more attractive.

Although this type of cycle is most likely to crop up with children with learning disabilities, you can see how less severe versions (replace self-harm with tantrums) could easily occur. Or perhaps how the same cycle could occur in a child with learning disabilities in a specialised care environment (replace parents with staff).

Similar sorts of response-reaction cycles seem to occur in colic and Groopman’s article recounts how for even the youngest babies, social relationships are of prime importance.

Link to New Yorker article ‘Colic Conundrum’.