Back to the old school

HighSchoolNew York Magazine has a fantastic article on the psychological impact of high school and how it affects you through your adult life.

It’s a fascinating subject because so much of developmental psychology has focused on childhood and yet our adolescent school years are probably the most formative for our view of the social world.

Not everyone feels the sustained, melancholic presence of a high-school shadow self. There are some people who simply put in their four years, graduate, and that’s that. But for most of us adults, the adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories…

Yet there’s one class of professionals who seem, rather oddly, to have underrated the significance of those years, and it just happens to be the group that studies how we change over the course of our lives: developmental neuroscientists and psychologists. “I cannot emphasize enough the amount of skewing there is,” says Pat Levitt, the scientific director for the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, “in terms of the number of studies that focus on the early years as opposed to adolescence. For years, we had almost a religious belief that all systems developed in the same way, which meant that what happened from zero to 3 really mattered, but whatever happened thereafter was merely tweaking.”

The piece is focussed on the American high school experience, with its weirdly formalised social structure – like a teenage Brave New World, but you can see the universal parallels.

Either way, it’s an excellent article that explores an oddly under stage of development. Recommended.

Link to New York Magazine on ‘Why You Truly Never Leave High School’.

Owner of Broca’s area identified

A patient who could only say the word ‘tan’ after suffering brain damage became one of the most important cases in the history of neuroscience. But the identity of the famously monosyllabic man has only just been revealed.

Broca’s area was one of the first brain areas identified with a specific function after 19th Century neurologist Paul Broca autopsied a man who had lost the ability to speak.

When examining the man’s brain (you can see it on the right), Broca found selective damage to the third convolution of the left frontal lobe and linked this with the fact that the person could understand speech but not produce it.

This type of speech problem after brain injury is now known as Broca’s aphasia but his innovation was not simply naming a new type of neurological problem.

Broca was one of the first people to think of the brain in terms of separate areas supporting specialised functions and studying patterns of difficulty after brain damage as a way of working this out – a science now known as cognitive neuropsychology.

The patient Broca described was nicknamed ‘Tan’ because this was the only syllable he could produce. The scientific report named his as Monsieur Leborgne but no further details existed.

Oddly, personal details were not even recorded in Broca’s unpublished medical notes for the patient.

Because of the mystery, people have speculated for years about the identity of Monsieur Leborgne with theories ranging from the idea that he was a French peasant to a philandering man struck down by syphilis.

But now, historian Cezary Domanski has tracked down the identity of Broca’s famous patient through detective work in record offices in France and published the results in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences.

According to the Broca’s report, the health problems of Louis Victor Leborgne became apparent during his youth, when he suffered the first fits of epilepsy. Although epileptic, Louis Victor Leborgne was a working person. He lived in Paris, in the third district. His profession is given as “formier” (a common description in the nineteenth century used for craftsmen who produced forms for shoemakers).

Leborgne worked until the age of 30 when the loss of speech occurred. It is not known if the damage to the left side of Leborgne’s brain had anything to do with traumas sustained during fits of epilepsy nor, as reported in some recent publications, does it appear to have been caused by syphilis, as that was not indicated in Broca’s reports. The immediate cause for his hospitalization was his problem with communicating.

Leborgne was admitted to the Bicêtre hospital two or three months after losing his ability to speak. Perhaps at first this might have been perceived as a temporary loss, but the defect proved incurable. Because Leborgne was unmarried, he could not be released to be cared for by close relatives; he therefore spent the rest of his life (21 years total) in the hospital.

Domanski’s article finishes on a poignant note, highlighting that Leborgne became famous through his disease and death and his life history was seemingly thought irrelevant even when he was alive.

“It is time” says Domanski, “for Louis Victor Leborgne to regain his identity”.

Link to locked article on the identity of Broca’s patient (via @Neuro_Skeptic)

2012-01-18 Spike activity

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

Yes, it’s the return of Spike Activity. As I no longer spend time in the jungle (no not that one) and 140 characters are just not enough for respectable levels of sarcasm, the weekly roundup is back.

Cross-dressing meth priest liked sex in rectory, reports The Connecticut Post. Bishop looking forward to public defrocking.

Neuroskeptic covers the disappointing DSM5 field trial results which have just been released. Thankfully the manual was finalised first. Close call.

Can people really grow out of autism? asks Forbes.

Time magazine has a truly heart-breaking obituary for US military psychologist Dr Peter Linnerooth.

Is It Time to Treat Violence Like a Contagious Disease? asked Wired Science

Ten Percent Of U.S. High School Students Graduating Without Basic Object Permanence Skills reports The Onion. The other 95% lack conservation of number. Yes folks, we’re your number one source for Piaget jokes.

The Guardian has a brilliant review of Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday by anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis.

At the DSM5 launch conference, a missed opportunity in getting Bill Clinton as keynote speaker for the scientific programme. They could have got Beyonce for the same money.

The Neurocritic covers a fascinating study finding that the letter-colour mapping in many cases of synaesthesia is the same as Fisher-Price kid’s letters.

There an excellent review of the books ‘Coming of Age on Zoloft’ and ‘Dosed: The Medication Generation Grows Up’ at the ever-excellent Somatosphere.

The New York Times has an obituary for influential psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema.

A new study analysed DNA from 34,549 people and found no genes related to vulnerability to depression. Science News covers the results.

A brain of warring neurons

A fascinating talk from philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett where he refutes his earlier claims that neurons can be thought of like transistors in a computational machine that produces the mind.

This section is particularly striking:

The question is, what happens to your ideas about computational architecture when you think of individual neurons not as dutiful slaves or as simple machines but as agents that have to be kept in line and that have to be properly rewarded and that can form coalitions and cabals and organizations and alliances? This vision of the brain as a sort of social arena of politically warring forces seems like sort of an amusing fantasy at first, but is now becoming something that I take more and more seriously, and it’s fed by a lot of different currents.

The complete talk is over at Edge.

Link to Dennett talk at Edge.

The search for a genetic killer

Photo by Flickr user Null Value. Click for source.The medical examiner for the Sandy Hook shooting has requested a genetic analysis of killer Adam Lanza. Following this, a powerful editorial in the science magazine Nature has condemned the move suggesting it is “misguided and could lead to dangerous stigmatization.”

But the request to analyse the DNA of Lanza is just the latest in a long line of attempts to account for the behaviour of individual killers in terms of genetics.

Perhaps the first attempt was for a case that bears more than a surface resemblance to the Sandy Hook shooting. In 1998, a 15-year-old high school student called Kip Kinkel killed both of his parents before driving to school and shooting 24 students, one of whom died.

In his trial a child psychiatrist argued that Kinkel had “genetic loading” that made him susceptible to mental illness and violence.

His appeal also relied upon this angle. His lawyer argued that “owing to a genetic predisposition, and therefore through no conscious fault of his own, the defendant suffers a mental illness resulting in committing his crimes.”

Perhaps for the first in decades, an appeal to genetics was used in an attempt to explain the killer’s behaviour.

The genetic arguments became more sophisticated with the trial of serial killer Cary Stayner where a psychiatrist and geneticist presented a genealogy of the his family showing how mental illness and violence ‘ran through the family’.

By the time of the trial of murderer Stephen Mobley, the defence based part of their case on molecular genetics – suggesting that Mobley had a version of the MAOA gene that made him susceptible to violence.

It’s worth noting that none of these appeals to genetics have been successful in the courtroom but it’s interesting that in light of the tragic events in Sandy Hook there has been, yet again, a look towards genetics to try and make sense of the killer – this time presumably based on the yet more advanced technology of whole DNA sequencing.

On this occasion, however, the reasons seems less related to issues of legal responsibility and more for scientific motivations, supposedly to better understand the ‘DNA of a killer’.

As the Nature editorial makes clear, this is foolish:

There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence. Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.

However, it shows an interesting shift away from the courtroom genetics of past incidents to a ‘public health’ approach, where, as sociologist Nikolas Rose has noted, the justification is given…

…not in the language of law and rights, but in terms of the priority of protecting “normal people” against risks that threaten their security and contentment. Biological factors are merely one set of factors among others predisposing individuals to antisocial conduct, and “therapeutic interven­tions” are proposed for the good of both the individual and society.

There is a valuable science of understanding how genetics influences violent behaviour but analysis of individual killers will tell us very little about their motivations.

It does, however, reflect a desire to find something different in people who commit appalling crimes. Something that is comprehensible but distinct, alien but identifiable.

This may give us comfort, but it does little to provide answers. In the midst of tragedy, however, the two can easily be confused.

Link to Nature editorial.

More than just bumps

Phrenology was the practice of reading someone’s personality from the bumps on their head based on the idea that the shape of the brain affected the shape of the skull.

Contemporary neuroscience lectures often have a part where the professor puts up an image of a phrenology head and says “although this was a rediculous concept, it sparked the idea that the brain could have parts that were specialised for particular functions”.

Phrenologists are usually considered to be quacks and that serious neuroscientists ‘took over’ from where they left off, but I’ve found lots of old copies of The Phrenological Magazine in the Institute of Psychiatry library and it turns out they had a keen interest in serious neuroscience.

PhrenologicalMagazineNeuroanatomyThe images on the right are from the June 1890 edition (the brain) and October 1895 edition (the neuron) and both show some of the then cutting-edge neuroscience that the magazine regularly featured.

The brain is from the work of legendary neurologist David Ferrier showing his map of cortical functions transposed from his work on open-brain stimulation on animals.

The second image shows the structure of the neuron. The text describes how “molecular movements generated within any individual cell can probably be transmitted to other cells in the same striatum in the cortex” and the feature article goes on to highlight the latest discoveries in neuronal function.

It’s worth saying that this detailed discussion of neuroscience with accurate neuroanatomical images is far more common in the magazine than phrenological brain maps. It seems serious medical men wrote some of the articles and neuroscience debates are common in the pages.

The magazine is not without a bit of kookiness, however, although it’s hard to judge how much of this was considered kooky at the time.

My favourite part is where every issue has a portrait of a famous person with an interpretation of their character underneath. This is the interpretation from the portrait of Lord Wolseley, new head of the British Army, from October 1985.

The head of the new Commander-in-Chief indicates a fair balance of all the powers of his mind. He has no superabundance in any particular to give bias, no special deficiency to cause eccentricity. His head is well formed and appears to be well-developed in all parts.

Inside one issue I found an insert that just said “WANTED TO PURCHASE: a Tatoo’ed New Zealander’s Head. – Apply to Major-General H. ROBLEY, 7 St Alban’s Place, Haymarket”. It turns out that Robley was a renowned collector of such things and it seems phrenologists were one of his sources.

In fact, the magazines are full of wonderful adverts. This list of ‘penny lectures’ isn’t that different from pop psychology and neuroscience today.

There’s some good names for a band lurking in there.

Moving through the waters of human attention

apollorobbinsThe New Yorker has an amazing article on pickpocket and illusionist Apollo Robbins that is packed with gems about attention, misdirection and sleight-of-hand.

Robbins is a self-taught but dedicated aficionado of human consciousness and has learnt the many ways in which our attention can be manipulated.

The article discusses how Robbins does many of his pickpocketing techniques but also discusses how he got into the business and how he has begun collaborating with cognitive scientists to help us understand scientifically what he has learnt artistically.

Robbins uses various metaphors to describe how he works with attention, talking about “surfing attention,” “carving up the attentional pie,” and “framing.” “I use framing the way a movie director or a cinematographer would,” he said. “If I lean my face close in to someone’s, like this”—he demonstrated—“it’s like a closeup. All their attention is on my face, and their pockets, especially the ones on their lower body, are out of the frame. Or if I want to move their attention off their jacket pocket, I can say, ‘You had a wallet in your back pocket—is it still there?’ Now their focus is on their back pocket, or their brain just short-circuits for a second, and I’m free to steal from their jacket.”

In fact, he jointly published a scientific study in 2011 based on his discovery that when something starts moving in a straight line people tend to look back to the origin of the movements, but if something moves in a curve they stay fixed on the object.

If you want to see Robbins in action, and it really is astounding, you can catch him in various videos on YouTube.

There’s even one where he explains how he does it in terms of the neuroscience of attention which is particularly good.

But don’t miss this New Yorker article, it’s both an entertaining and informative guide to a master of human attentional blindspots.

Link to New Yorker article ‘A Pickpocket’s Tale’.