Transplanted corneas are a window to the soul

A fascinating note on the social meaning of eyes and why people are much more reluctant to donate the cornea after death than other bodily organs.

From a recent article in the journal Transplanatation:

At the time that a patient is diagnosed as brain dead, a substantial proportion of families who give consent to heart and kidney donation specifically refuse eye donation. This in part may relate to the failure of those involved in transplantation medicine and public education to fully appreciate the different meanings attached to the body of a recently deceased person.

Medicine and science have long understood the body as a “machine.” This view has fitted with medical notions of transplantation, with donors being a source of biologic “goods.” However, even a cursory glance at the rituals surrounding death makes it apparent that there is more to a dead body than simply its biologic parts; in death, bodies continue as the physical substrate of relationships. Of all the organs, it is the eyes that are identified as the site of sentience, and there is a long tradition of visual primacy and visual symbolism in virtually all aspects of culture.

It therefore seems likely that of all the body parts, it is the eyes that are most central to social relationships. A request to donate the eyes therefore is unlikely to be heard simply in medical terms as a request to donate a “superfluous” body part for the benefit of another. That the eyes are not simply biologic provides one explanation for both the lower rates of corneal donation, compared with that of other organs, and the lack of adequate corneal donation to meet demand.

What’s interesting is that the operation to remove the cornea does no visible damage to the donor. It’s just the idea of the thing that puts people off.
 

Link to locked article on eyes, meaning and cornea transplants.

Elvis in potato chip neuroscience

A new study just published in Cerebral Cortex on the neuroscience on how we see meaningful information in unpatterned visual scenes, seems a little fixated on Elvis.

The study concludes:

Future studies of the neural processing relevant to pareidolia and to meaning more generally may provide novel insights into how the organization of conceptual processing differs across individuals (see also Pizzagalli et al. 2001), thereby addressing the question of what neurocognitive architecture is necessary to see a potato chip not just as a tasty snack but as the embodiment of Elvis.

They even include a photo of the potato chip (proper spelling: crisp) that supposedly contains the image of The King which you can see above.

Unfortunately, I can’t see it, which I suspect means my brain has been ruined by the overuse of Fidonet as a child.
 

Link to Elvis obsessed neuroscience study.

The dreams and hallucinations of cloistered monks

French sleep scientists have studied a group of monks who have virtually no contact with the outside world and have taken a vow of silence.

The monks are of scientific interest owing to the tradition of having two sleep periods per night interrupted by a 2-3 hour prayer and psalm reading session.

The research group were interested in how the sleep-regulating circadian rhythm adjusts to this two sleep system.

It turns out that the automatic rising and falling of body temperature seemed to sync with the two-period sleep patterns but that the monks still had sleep problems (difficulty sleeping, waking, daytime sleepiness).

This suggests that they were not fully adjusted, even after decades of practice (the researchers report that “They all used several (two to six) alarm clocks”!)

Delightfully, the monks were also asked about their tendency to hallucinate and about the content of their dreams.

Although only ten individuals were studied, the answers are oddly appropriate for members of a silent, closed order.

Six monks had experienced mild (n = 4, ringing of the cell door at sleep offset or of the alarm clock, feeling that someone hit them briefly in the back, waking-up during the second sleep while mentally singing psalms) and moderate (n = 2, nightmarish, prolonged feeling of a demoniac presence at sleep onset after Matins) sleep-related hallucinations vs. one control (p = .06). Occasional nightmares were more frequent in monks than in controls.

All monks reported dreaming more often after than before the Matins [midnight prayers in between the two sleep periods], and to have conversations in their dreams. These conversations were rare (n = 3), hard to understand (n = 2), or frequent (n = 5). As for prayers, six monks were able to pray while dreaming, although it was rare, whereas two others dreamt of acts of piety, or imagined a disrupted liturgy, and finally two of them dreamt they were never monks.

 

Link to locked study. Not very charitable really.

A history of the mid-life crisis

Scientific American’s Bering in Mind has a fantastic article on how the concept of the mid-life crisis was invented and whether it has any evidence behind it beyond the occasional inadvisable pair of cycling shorts and sudden interest in cheesy sports cars.

It turns out that the idea of the ‘mid-life crisis’ is surprisingly new – first touted in 1965 – but was invented to refer to a crisis of creativity in geniuses – rather than a sudden urge to dye one’s greying hair.

There isn’t actually any evidence that middle age is more of a time of crisis than any other period of life, but the concept has stuck.

In the decades since Jacques and Levinson posited their mostly psychoanalytic ideas of the midlife crisis, a number of more empirically minded psychologists have attempted to validate it with actual data. And with little success. Epidemiological studies reveal that midlife is no more or less likely to be associated with career disillusionment, divorce, anxiety, alcoholism, depression or suicide than any other life stage; in fact, the incidence rates of many of these problems peak at other periods of the lifespan.

Adolescence isn’t exactly a walk in the park either—as a teen, I’d worry so much about the uncertainties of my future that I vividly recall envying the elderly their age, since for them, no such uncertainties remained. Actually, old people—at least Swiss old people—aren’t fans of the “storm and stress” of adolescence, either. Freund and Ritter asked their elderly respondents which stage of their lives they’d prefer to return to, if they could. Most said middle age.

From another point of view, of course, the concept could also be a socially convenient way of helping to curtail certain behaviours in men when their actions are no longer thought to be age appropriate.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
 

Link to Bering in Mind on the mid-life not so crisis.

Game not over

The Guardian covers a new study on how video games can persist in our perception as fleeting hallucinations in an effect labelled ‘game transfer phenomena’.

Unfortunately, the study has been published in an obscure journal which means I’ve not been able to read it in full, although the write-up quotes the lead researcher, Mark Griffiths:

“The academic literature goes back to 1993,” says Griffiths. “There was a case of a woman who had auditory hallucinations; she just couldn’t get the tune of the game she was playing out of her head – it was very intrusive. But what came out of our pilot research were lots of different experiences, some that were auditory, some visual and some were tactile. We had the example of a teacher who dropped his pen and immediately reached for a joypad button to retrieve it, as though he were in a game.

“Most of the experiences were neutral and often quite positive. We distinguished between what we call automatic GTP, which are almost like reflexes or classically conditioned responses, and those where players deliberately take elements out of the game and work them into their day-to-day routines.”

Needless to say, the tabloids got carried away and ran with ‘gamers losing touch with reality’-type stories although it sounds like the authors of the study were probably a little over-enthusiastic with their own descriptions.

Despite this, it sounds like an interesting study describing how conditioned responses and perceptual expectations learnt in video games might be get triggered in other situations.

I knew someone would get round to studying those weird thoughts about Tomb Raider at some point.
 

Link to Guardian article on ‘game transfer phenomena’

Your face in every flower

Billie Holiday sings about the phenomenon of seeing meaningful patterns in vague or non-connected visual information in her well-known track The Very Thought of You

Scientifically, these effects are known as pareidolia or apophenia.

However, the song notes that the perceptual biases are induced by love and, of course, ‘The Very Thought of You’.

I see your face in every flower
Your eyes in stars above
It’s just the thought of you,
The very thought of you, my love

For those tempted to connect these experience with Billie Holiday’s heavy drug use, which can cause these forms of misperception both through their immediate and long-term effects, it’s worth noting that the song was not written by her and was covered by a number of famous jazz artists, of which Holiday was perhaps the most famous.
 

Link to Holiday’s version of the song on YouTube.
Link to information on the song on Wikipedia.