For a while now I have been reading books on neuroscience. Though I am prone to brief obsessions with subjects of curiosity, my interest in the workings of the nervous system, and in particular the brain, has lasted longer than most. How do we think? A fundamental question to both philosophers and drunks alike, with neither reaching a particularly satisfactory outcome (then being able to remember it). You will be glad to know I haven’t come up with an answer. In fact, I haven’t even tried.
But we (by which I mean my academic superiors) have been able to make educated guesses, and to deduce some of our own inner workings, based on study and reasoning. Scientists have been making progress on this since the days of Da Vinci, and the then-outlawed practice of dissection. Recently, the subject has become considerably more accessible, with notable experts writing works on interesting areas within neuroscience, aimed not just at colleagues but the public at large. These are of interest from a scientific perspective. but also from the point of view of the anonymous patients, who are oft described at considerable depth by their physicians, as they adapt to the challenges of living with the side effects of accidents, fluke conditions, or neurodevelopmental disorders.
Neuroscience is for geeks, Doctors, and that
Balderdash. Neuroscience is defined as the study of the nervous system, including the brain, and logically, study of the (human) mind. Since we all have a brain, are we not all equipped to study it? Perhaps, since most of us haven’t had the privilege of attending medical school, with its associated cost and trials, we are unequipped for diagnosis and accurate evaluation. This, however, does not prevent us from making theories, suggesting ideas, and understanding much of what has already been written.
In fact several of the cases outlined in this post and in the titles mentioned, have formed episodes of the popular television series, House M.D. As a longtime fan of the series, I was particularly excited when a case study I recognised came up recently, especially since the writers embellished little for the public.
The man who mistook his wife for a hat
The bizarre title of an Oliver Sacks publication, this is just one of many neurological texts I have had the pleasure of reading recently. Although they tend to focus on the more extreme, weird cases, these non-fiction accounts of doctors’ experiences treating conditions, are nonetheless helpful to us in our everyday lives. With a better understanding of how the mind works, we can respond more fairly to the mood changes of a colleague, the mental difficulties faced by an amputee, or the outbursts of a Tourette’s sufferer, to name but a few.
This understanding may also apply to you too. Though the science has yet to be proven, I have found explanations for why we are able to come up with solutions to complex problems during dreams, or whilst performing mundane tasks. There are explanations for why we are more capable of recognising snakes than fast-moving vehicles, and why we prefer the sound of some words to others.
An anatomical explanation of the foot fetish?
Along the way of course, you may find out some interesting, if unverifiable, information. For example, when reading V. S. Ramachandran’s “Phantoms in the Brain” last year, I came across a ‘homunculus’ (little man) diagram which appeared to explain why some people experience foot fetishes. Apparently a prominent scientist, Wilder Penfield, discovered how sensation from certain parts of the body mapped to areas of the brain in the 1940s and 1950s. Using electrodes (placed on anesthetized humans rather than unwilling monkeys, somewhat against the trend), Penfield was able to locate a strip of brain real estate along which sensory perception was focused. Whilst most of these mappings were in logical order (hands next to thumbs, lips next to face), sensations from the genitalia were mapped right next to the feet, leading to the deduction that in some humans the two might be confused, leading to the titular foot fetish.
These, and many more interesting topics, are explored in laymans’ terms in Ramachandran’s Phantoms of the Brain, Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and An Anthropologist On Mars, amongst other exceptional titles.