A new year with an old friend

I’ve just found a curious article in the scientific journal Clinical Anatomy which reprints a Victorian story called ‘Celebrating new year in Bart’s dissecting room’ where the corpses come to life. It finishes with some interesting observations about the psychological impact of dissecting a dead body as a rite of passage for medical students.

The story is of “a somewhat desultory student” who has been treating the body on which he has been working disrespectfully and is reminded of its humanity as it comes to life. “As a result, he resolves to behave differently in the future”.

The authors of the article, which reprints the story, discuss its modern day relevance for young medical students faced with a dead body they have to cut up.

In some dissecting rooms, even into the twentieth century, the dead were still being treated with irreverence and levity (Smith, 1984).

Today, it is understood that some of these behaviors may result from unresolved tensions. Recent studies by Hafferty (1991), Horne et al. (1990), and Gustavson (1988), have shown that first reactions to the dissecting room and to dissection itself may include faintness, physical symptoms of unease, even flight. Anxiety may be expressed as embarrassment, levity, or bravado.

Coping mechanisms include the bestowal by students of fictitious names or speculative personalities or life stories upon the dead. A curious sort of bond can develop between the student and the “person” of the dead body. The emotional experience contrasts with and supplements students’ efforts to internalize anatomical knowledge. There may evolve a sense of familiarity, contact and intimacy, mixed perhaps with a sense of transgression or guilt, and of obligation.

For those not from the UK, ‘Barts’ refers to St Bartholomew’s Hospital which is the oldest working hospital in Europe and probably best known for being associated with Sherlock Holmes.

The article is open, so you can read it online in full.

Link to ‘Celebrating new year in Bart’s dissecting room’.

Why you can live a normal life with half a brain

A few extreme cases show that people can be missing large chunks of their brains with no significant ill-effect – why? Tom Stafford explains what it tells us about the true nature of our grey matter.

How much of our brain do we actually need? A number of stories have appeared in the news in recent months about people with chunks of their brains missing or damaged. These cases tell a story about the mind that goes deeper than their initial shock factor. It isn’t just that we don’t understand how the brain works, but that we may be thinking about it in the entirely wrong way.

Earlier this year, a case was reported of a woman who is missing her cerebellum, a distinct structure found at the back of the brain. By some estimates the human cerebellum contains half the brain cells you have. This isn’t just brain damage – the whole structure is absent. Yet this woman lives a normal life; she graduated from school, got married and had a kid following an uneventful pregnancy and birth. A pretty standard biography for a 24-year-old.

The woman wasn’t completely unaffected – she had suffered from uncertain, clumsy, movements her whole life. But the surprise is how she moves at all, missing a part of the brain that is so fundamental it evolved with the first vertebrates. The sharks that swam when dinosaurs walked the Earth had cerebellums.

This case points to a sad fact about brain science. We don’t often shout about it, but there are large gaps in even our basic understanding of the brain. We can’t agree on the function of even some of the most important brain regions, such as the cerebellum. Rare cases such as this show up that ignorance. Every so often someone walks into a hospital and their brain scan reveals the startling differences we can have inside our heads. Startling differences which may have only small observable effects on our behaviour.

Part of the problem may be our way of thinking. It is natural to see the brain as a piece of naturally selected technology, and in human technology there is often a one-to-one mapping between structure and function. If I have a toaster, the heat is provided by the heating element, the time is controlled by the timer and the popping up is driven by a spring. The case of the missing cerebellum reveals there is no such simple scheme for the brain. Although we love to talk about the brain region for vision, for hunger or for love, there are no such brain regions, because the brain isn’t technology where any function is governed by just one part.

Take another recent case, that of a man who was found to have a tapeworm in his brain. Over four years it burrowed “from one side to the other“, causing a variety of problems such as seizures, memory problems and weird smell sensations. Sounds to me like he got off lightly for having a living thing move through his brain. If the brain worked like most designed technology this wouldn’t be possible. If a worm burrowed from one side of your phone to the other, the gadget would die. Indeed, when an early electromechanical computer malfunctioned in the 1940s, an investigation revealed the problem: a moth trapped in a relay – the first actual case of a computer bug being found.

Part of the explanation for the brain’s apparent resilience is its ‘plasticity’ – an ability to adapt its structure based on experience. But another clue comes from a concept advocated by Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. He noticed that biological functions are often supported by multiple structures – single physical features are coded for by multiple genes, for example, so that knocking out any single gene can’t prevent that feature from developing apparently normally. He called the ability of multiple different structures to support a single function ‘degeneracy’.

And so it is with the brain. The important functions our brain carries out are not farmed out to single distinct brain regions, but instead supported by multiple regions, often in similar but slightly different ways. If one structure breaks down, the others can pick up the slack.

This helps explain why cognitive neuroscientists have such problems working out what different brain regions do. If you try and understand brain areas using a simple one-function-per-region and one-region-per-function rule you’ll never be able to design the experiments needed to unpick the degenerate tangle of structure and function.

The cerebellum is most famous for controlling precise movements, but other areas of the brain such as the basal ganglia and the motor cortex are also intimately involved in moving our bodies. Asking what unique thing each area does may be the wrong question, when they are all contributing to the same thing. Memory is another example of an essential biological function which seems to be supported by multiple brain systems. If you bump into someone you’ve met once before, you might remember that they have a reputation for being nice, remember a specific incident of them being nice, or just retrieve a vague positive feeling about them – all forms of memory which tell you to trust this person, and all supported by different brain areas doing the same job in a slightly different way.

Edelman and his colleague, Joseph Gally, called degeneracy a “ubiquitous biological property … a feature of complexity”, claiming it was an inevitable outcome of natural selection. It explains both why unusual brain conditions are not as catastrophic as they might be, and also why scientists find the brain so confounding to try and understand.

My BBC Future column from before Christmas. The original is here. Thanks to everyone on twitter who chipped in on the plural of cerebellum

Spike activity 19-12-2014

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

MIT Tech Review has an interesting piece about ‘troll hunters’ – a new wave of internet abuse vigilantes.

ABC All in the Mind has a good edition asking whether mirror neurons have been oversold. Spoiler alert: yes, they have.

The New York Magazine’s Science of Us section has an interesting piece on whether terrorists can be rehabilitated.

The LSE has an excellent interview with Nikolas Rose on the social implications of the Human Brain Project.

A new study covered by Neuroskeptic finds that head motion biases yet another area of neuroimaging – this time voxel-based morphometry.

Science magazine has an interesting piece on how ideas flow between languages.

There are some excellent extended video interviews with psychologist Gary Marcus on the ‘future of the brain’ over at Live Science.

Foreign Policy magazine has an extended article which perfectly captures the ‘global mental health’ approach to extending mental health services. Please note: other approaches are available.

There’s an extended post on the Skype site that explains the AI tech behind their real-time language translator software.

Economics against sexual violence

PBS has an article on ‘How economic theory can help stop sexual assault’ which despite its unappealing title is actually a genuinely thought-provoking piece on how game theory and social norms marketing could help prosecute and prevent sexual violence.

Both approaches look at how people’s behaviour is shaped by their perception of other people’s beliefs and behaviour.

People are less likely to report rape when they think they’re going to have to do it alone and people are more likely to intervene to prevent violence if they believe other people will also intervene.

The article discusses two existing interventions to tackle sexual violence based on game theory and social norms marketing and the article is also a great guide to the theories themselves.

Link to PBS article on approaches to preventing sexual assault.

The celebrity analysis that killed celebrity analysis

Most ‘psy’ professionals are banned by their codes of conduct from conducting ‘celebrity analysis’ and commenting on the mental state of specific individuals in the media. This is a sensible guideline but I didn’t realise it was triggered by a specific event.

Publicly commenting on a celebrity’s psychological state is bad form. If you’ve worked with them professionally, you’re likely bound by confidentiality, if you’ve not, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about and doing so in the media is likely to do them harm.

Despite this, it happens surprisingly often, usually by ‘celebrity psychologists’ in gossip columns and third-rate TV. Sadly, I don’t know of a single case where a professional organisation has tried to discipline the professional for doing so – although it must be said that mostly it’s done by self-appointed ‘experts’ rather than actual psychologists.

A new article in Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law traced the history of how this form of ‘celebrity analysis’ first got banned in the US under the ‘Goldwater Rule’.

The Goldwater Rule stemmed from a scandal surrounding a 1964 publication in Fact magazine that included anonymous psychiatric opinions commenting on Senator Barry Goldwater‘s psychological fitness to be President of the United States. Fact, a short-lived magazine published in the 1960s, carried opinionated articles that covered a broad range of controversial topics. In the 1964 September/October issue entitled, “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater,” the opinions of over 1,800 psychiatrists commenting on Goldwater’s psychological fitness were published…

Of the 2,417 respondents, 571 deferred from providing comments, 657 responded that Goldwater was fit to be president, and 1,189 responded that he was not fit. None of the psychiatrists whose comments were published had examined Goldwater, however, and none had permission from him to issue their comments publicly. In the article, Goldwater was described with comments including “lack of maturity”, “impulsive”, “unstable”, “megalomaniac”, “very dangerous man”, “obsessive-compulsive neurosis”, and “suffering a chronic psychosis”… Much was made of two nervous breakdowns allegedly suffered by Goldwater, and there was commentary warning that he might launch a nuclear attack if placed under a critical amount of stress as president.

Goldwater responded by bringing libel action against Ralph Ginzburg, Warren Boroson, and Fact… The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York returned a verdict in favor of the senator… The AMA and APA immediately condemned the remarks made in the Fact article after its publication. Individual psychiatrists also spoke out against the ethics of the published comments.

Most people who are subject to ‘celebrity analysis’ don’t have the luxury of bringing libel suits to defend themselves but it’s probably worth remembering that if someone is seeming to give a professional opinion on someone’s psychological state whom they’ve never met, they’re probably talking rubbish.

Link to article on ‘Psychiatrists Who Interact With the Media’

Towards a nuanced view of mental distress

In the latest edition of The Psychologist I’m involved in a debate with John Cromby about whether our understanding of mental illness is mired in the past.

He thinks it is, I think it isn’t, and we kick off from there.

The article is readable online with a free registration but I’ve put the unrestricted version online as a pdf if you want to read it straight away.

Much of the debate is over the role of biological explanations in understanding mental distress which I think is widely understood by many.

Hopefully, amid the knockabout, the debate gets to clarify some of that.

Either way, I hope it raises a few useful reflections.

Link to ‘Are understandings of mental illness mired in the past?’ (free reg).
pdf of full debate.

Spike activity 12-12-2014

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

The new trailer for upcoming Pixar movie Inside Out is very funny and has a remarkably accurate depiction of brain function.

Neurocritic covers hipster neuroscience.

Is the ‘bilingual advantage’ in cognitive performance a result of publication bias? Maybe, suggests the Science of Us.

The Economist asks whether behavioural economics could be a tool to tackle global poverty.

Why do friendly people usually lead happier lives? asks BPS Research Digest.

Fastcompany has an interesting piece on the curious results from an online lingerie company who use extensive A/B testing of model photos to see underwear.

The science of why torture makes for useless interrogation – in New Scientist.