Sunday, 16 June 2013

Please Look After These Brains. Thank You.

by Amanda Wood

Last half term I presented an assembly to Latter House. I always find these occasions tricky. In years gone by, I thought little about why. The answer surely was obvious; standing up in front of large numbers of people is nerve wracking. But assemblies to me are particularly challenging, more so than other types of public speaking because the topic that you choose to talk about surely says something about you. Why, with all the topics in the world to choose from, did you choose this one? What does this say about me as a person if I choose this topic?
However, there is also another more pressing concern, for, behind the foreheads of those one hundred freshly polished faces staring at me, are 100 fabulous brains, and brains change in interaction with the environments in which they find themselves. I am about to commit “synaptic assault”. Through talking to these brains I am going to change them; the perception of my words will cause physical changes to the neural networks of these children. What an awesome responsibility!
Assemblies happen first thing in the morning too, and this is even more stressful. I usually feel rather bewildered until at least ten o’clock; that startling insult that is ‘day’, that dramatic inhibition of melatonin production, forcing me to wake up, is something I have never especially enjoyed. So I will be pruning the minds of 100 beautiful and clever children at the worst possible point in time for me and yet potentially the most receptive time for them. Assemblies require careful thought. The day will be young, yet to take shape. A lot can happen in 24 fleeting, precious hours and I am about to set the feel of the day.
What follows is a summary of my assembly; I started by telling them how privileged a position I felt I was in, standing in front of the afore-mentioned 100 beautiful and clever faces (tip: flatter your audience early). I told them my feeling of privilege stemmed from my knowledge that encased in all the skulls in the room there was about 135kg of brain (maybe more) and that I found this quite astonishing. An average human brain weighs 1350g, the equivalent of about three cans of baked beans; with all those beans (or all those brains, should I say?), there would probably be enough energy generated in this one room to power the lights in Cambridge House (frankly, we might have done a better job, given the problem in the second floor corridor at times!).
I reminisced about my Year 9 Psychology Club a fortnight previously, when we modelled a brain, imagining the gap between the tables was a synapse, the tiny gap between a brain cell and its neighbour. One group of pupils imagined they were vesicles, or little purses, filled with balls of neurotransmitter (they were actually balls of coloured paper). The pupils on the pre-synaptic table hurled the balls at the pupils on the post-synaptic table. These pupils had their hands in the air waiting to capture the balls; they were pretending to be neuro-receptors. We had a lot of fun.
Milky Way

Then I said to my vesicles and my neuro-receptors that I would like them to imagine that every child in the whole world was playing this game right now; that’s two billion children throwing balls of paper at each other and yet we would only have modelled 1/50th of the number of neurons between your ears at this very moment.
It is estimated that there are 100 billion neurons in the brain, the same as the number of stars in the Milky Way. So, in my assembly room, there would have been one hundred galaxies of stars: each star, each neuron, with up to 10 thousand synapses. That’s a 100 billion x 10,000 x the 100 brains in here; an extraordinary, unthinkable number of synaptic connections, in one room, in one school, in one special city.  And those synaptic connections are made and unmade with every passing second of the day.
I told those starry brains in front of me that morning that my responsibility in talking to them for just ten minutes was so awesome, because I would be responsible for altering their minds; you see, every moment of the day is mind-altering, our brains, our futures, every choice that we might make changing with every passing second.
I told them that we would have a little adventure in neuroscience just for a few minutes before I passed on a short message that they might do me the honour of thinking about, even if only for a few fleeting seconds, because every second matters.
“So lets us imagine that in this room we are a brain, we only have 100 neurons, though, because the Lower Sixth and Year 11 have abandoned us (for study leave); unfortunately, we only have about the capability of one tenth of a leech, so we aren’t capable of much, it has to be said, but still . . .
Some of you have a folded piece of paper in your hands, I want you to cut out the shape on the paper, and then unfold the bean stalk you have created. Don’t forget each of you is a neuron and you are about to reach out to each other and create some connections. When we do this, we are altering the probability of different courses of action for the creature whose mind we are controlling.”
The pupils cut out their branching streams of paper, which were dutifully unravelled and passed along the lines, crumpled dendrites extended, reflecting the etching of experience into the fabric of our very being. Together they created a tangled forest of connections. As the assembled housemates made that leap of faith, beginning to see themselves as one tiny part of the whole, a massive growing brain in the Middle School Common Room, I told them some stories but not before indulging in some personal reflections of my own. I can’t explain why, but I do have a hankering to know where my current mind came from and occasionally ponder the significance of the memories that surface each day: Why now? How are you useful, little thought? What is my brain trying to tell me…?

When I was five or six, my father used to play “Puff the Magic Dragon” on his guitar. It’s a special song with a poignant message: “Dragons live forever but not so little boys”. Little boys and girls grow up and the child without becomes the child within, never lost but silenced to a lesser or greater extent. Today, my other memory is that of a picture by John William Waterhouse: The Lady of Shalott. For sure, I did not know the poem by Tennyson when I was five or six, but I remember the tender ache in her face as she floated down the river. I recently asked my father (who, weirdly, does look very much like Tennyson!!) whether I could borrow the picture to hang in my house, interested to know whether my little face-ache (aged 8 ½) would remember The Lady’s beauty in years to come as I do now.

Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse

My father replied, “I don’t know where it is”. “Really?” I said. “Yes,” he said “Who would want that morbid thing hanging in their house?” “You did,” I replied, “when I was six.” Thirty years have not altered the poem yet I wonder how the architecture of my mind has changed since then --- in the 1, 576, 800 blocks of ten minutes that have passed:
On either side the river lie,
Long fields of barley and of rye
That clothe the wold and meet the sky
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot
And up and down the people go
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott
Willows whiten, aspens quiver
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers
Overlook a space of flowers
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott
The relentless rhymes and rhythm running through this yarn drag us on and on, marking out the passing time, that, in the Lady’s case, is, as for us all, in finite supply. I reminded the pupils to keep snipping, with each passing moment I wanted them to see how our Latter House brain was changing: a dynamic house, a connected house.
In psychology, detailed case studies, involving observations, hours of testing and interviewing, and often secondary data collected from a wide range of sources, help psychologists to understand the extraordinary in order to explain the ordinary. I was about to tell the tales of three participants whose experiences of the world are quite striking and extraordinary.
Firstly, Capgras Syndrome; inside the temporal lobes you will find a tiny brain structure known as the ‘fusiform gyrus’ necessary for recognising faces. Some people who have sustained an injury or have had a brain infection affecting this area suffer prosopagnosia, meaning face blindness; they are unable to recognise the faces of people that they know from celebrities, to their own family and even to the point of not recognising their own face in a mirror. However Capgras Syndrome is something even stranger. Let us imagine someone has sustained a nasty head injury and, on waking from a coma, they see their mother or father before them. They may recognise the face but will claim that the person is an imposter, an alien or even a robot. Although the syndrome can present as a part of a psychotic illness this is not always the case and it seems that it can be explained by thinking about how the brain works.
Usually speaking, visual information comes in through eyes and is directed to visual areas of the brain at the back, and then onto the fusiform gyrus where the face is decoded. This information is then cascaded onto the amygdala, an emotion centre in the brain which will tell us about the emotional significance of whatever we are looking at. If whatever it is is important to us in an emotional sense, i.e. someone we love or something that scares us or disgusts us, then our body will react in various ways which indicate arousal, not least sweating which can be measured using something called a galvanic skin response (GSR).  It is interesting to see that Capgras patients show no GSR when looking at their loved ones. This may be because the areas of the brain responsible for recognition and for emotional reactions have become disconnected (sometimes as a consequence of an injury). It seems that the wiring from the fusiform gyrus to the amygdala has been severed and so they see their family member and recognise their features but have no feeling about the person and so assume that they cannot be their loved one. A very sad state of affairs for all involved.
Prosopagnosia can be equally poignant, patients may well have non-conscious emotional reactions to their loved ones but, as their fusiform gyrus is dysfunctional, they have no idea who these people are and treat them as strangers.
My second weird and wonderful neuroscientific diversion is that of Phantom Limb Syndrome. When an arm or leg is amputated, a person may still vividly feel the presence of the amputated limb. Some of these patients have the sensation that the limb can move, yet many others feel the limb is paralysed and clenched resulting in agonising pain. This is often the case in patients who have actually had a real paralysed limb, which has presented unbearable pain and subsequently been amputated in attempt to remove the pain. Imagine how horrific a situation it must be, to have a limb removed and then experience the same pain in a limb which isn’t even there! Some of these patients have become so depressed they have even committed suicide to escape. This situation may arise because, for months before the amputation, the brain has commanded the paralysed arm to move and received the message loud and clear back from the arm: “No!” The brain then learns that movement is not possible. The renowned neurologist, VC Ramachandran devised a beautifully creative plan to treat these patients and simultaneously demonstrated how the brain can be tricked and retrained.  He developed a ‘mirror box’ whereby the patient puts his or her phantom left arm behind the box and then holds out the right arm and wiggles the fingers, so that in the cleverly aligned mirror it looks like his left arm has been resurrected as the reflection of the hand appears on his left arm. To the patient it actually feels as though the phantom arm is able to move and the pain is momentarily relieved, but only while he or she is watching his right hand moving. The pain returns when the patient closes his or her eyes. However, if the patient practices and teaches the brain to unlearn old habits, the pain can be relieved long term. Old synaptic connections are pruned away and experience creates new connections in their place.

The final phenomena for discussion was synaesthesia. Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, was first to document this. For someone with synaesthesia, every time they see a number they sense a colour, the same colour every time. Sometimes, differing musical tones generate a sense of colours or even tastes. Synaesthesia is a muddling and mingling of the senses, the condition appearing to run in families, which suggests a genetic predisposition; it is also eight times more commin in creative types, such as painters and novelists, than in the general population. It seems that, since colour and number areas are next door to each other in the brain, an accidental cross-wiring may be responsible for this unusual phenomenon. More interestingly, however, it seems that it is not that these area have become wrongly connected but rather that they have not been disconnected. When we are born, our neuronal networks are thick with synaptic connections, every area is wired to every other and, over time, the wiring is trimmed and pruned. Genetic problems may mean that the brain does not prune itself quite as it should.
And so, throughout our stories, our modelled brain has become connected and, through genetic inheritance and environmental experiences, we have seen how areas may become overly connected or indeed disconnected.

So what should we learn from all of this?

Firstly, let us return to "Puff the Magic Dragon". The lyricist of this popular song was Leonard Lipton, who wrote the poem later set to music while a 10-year-old Physics student at Cornell University, in the United States. You are probably more familiar with Lipton than you think as he later invented stereoscopic cinema and was responsible for those geeky black glases we war in the cinema to view a 3D film. And, finally, to Tennyson's words, which have crept into our collective unconscious, recent and memorably: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" chosen as an inscription engraved in the 2012 Olympic Village, inspiring athletes from the four corners of the globe.


But what other notable expressions can be attributed to Tennyson? Two seem especially pertinent: “I am a part of all that I have met” relates well to our discussion of the way in which experiences sculpts our tangled web of neurons, and “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers” captures the idea that, although fragments of experience, of knowledge, may be caught in this neuronal web, amidst the pieces is a truth to be discovered only later in reflection.
Jackie Paper grew up and Puff was sad, he felt redundant. We will never know what sort of man Jackie Paper became; maybe he bumped his head and went to bed and woke up with Capgras Syndrome, or maybe, due to Puff’s nurturance, he grew into a wise and loving father himself, to one day play his guitar and hang pictures in his home that would leave an indelible mark on his own Paper boy or girl.

Please look after your astonishing brains and please take responsibility for the mark you leave on the astonishing brains of others.

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