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The Unthinkable: A Journey Through The World's Weirdest Brains - Reviews
The Unthinkable: A Journey Through The World's Weirdest Brains - Reviews

Video: The Unthinkable: A Journey Through The World's Weirdest Brains - Reviews

Video: The Unthinkable: A Journey Through The World's Weirdest Brains - Reviews
Video: Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Though the Worlds Strangest Brains by Helen Thomson | Review 2023, June
  • Unthinkable: A journey through the strangest brains in the world. The neurological revolution from Oliver Sachs to the present day
  • By Helen Thomson
  • Publishing house "Peter", 2019

We publish a fragment of the book

An unthinkable journey through the strangest brains in the world
An unthinkable journey through the strangest brains in the world

The brain is a stranger organ than we think. It is believed that we can remember, feel emotions, empathize and understand the world around us. But how will our life change if these abilities are significantly expanded - or disappear overnight?

A disciple of the great Oliver Sachs, Helen Thomson describes nine incredible examples of brain disorders that make their owners' lives fantastic and full of extraordinary events. This fascinating and true book will revolutionize the concept of the human brain.

You will learn:

  • how can you fake memories that will never disappear;
  • how to grow an alien limb;
  • how to see dreams in reality;
  • how to learn how to turn into a tiger.

The book is written for lovers of intellectual reading. It shows the neurological revolution and the changes that have occurred since the time of Oliver Sachs, whose ideas and spirit permeate this work.

* * *

Not so long ago, for the unusualness of your brain, you could have been thrown into an insane asylum. The concept of mental illness came into use only two hundred years ago, and before that, any deviation in behavior was attributed to insanity and explained by anything, from a curse and demons to a violation of the balance of fluids in the body.

If you were such a madman in England, you would end up in Bethlem Hospital, popularly known as Bedlam. Mike Jay, in his book The Way to Madness, describes Bethlem as an ordinary insane asylum in the 18th century, an asylum for the mentally ill in the 19th, and an exemplary mental institution in the 21st. By the way the hospital has changed, one can trace a radical transformation in the approach to the treatment of an unusual brain. At first, it was intended to clear the streets of the so-called sleepwalkers. Its guests were those who raged and raved, lost their memory, speech or reason. They were kept in prison along with vagrants, beggars and petty criminals.

Patients were treated with universal remedies aimed at restoring general health: bloodletting, cold showers, and vomiting to remove a suspected plug in the digestive tract. The attitude towards such patients has changed largely due to the illness of George III. The king contracted a stomach virus, but then he began to foam at the mouth and showed signs of insanity. They called the priest Francis Willis, famous for the healing of just such patients. Willis's method was straightforward: he got Georg to work in the fields and do the exercises, dressed him well and kept him in a good mood. After three months, Georg's mental and physical health improved. In the medical community, the idea began to take root that insanity could be corrected.

Over the course of the 19th century, the explanation of how the brain works was gradually rationalized, and the conditions in asylums for the mentally ill changed accordingly. Not everything went smoothly: it was common practice to use straitjackets and therapies that were barbaric by today's standards; however, doctors began to think about how communication could help patients, how to establish connections with the outside world, what drugs could relieve pain and suppress anxiety.

In the early twentieth century, "insanity" was renamed "mental illness", and doctors began to think about the biological nature of mental disorders. As Thomas Willis predicted, they began to closely study the brain and learned to determine which changes correlate with strange behavior and perception.

Today we understand that mental illness, and in fact any mental abnormality, can be the result of minor disturbances in electrical activity, hormonal imbalances, bodily harm, tumors or genetic mutations. Some are treatable, others are not, and others are no longer a problem at all.

The understanding of the brain as a whole is still very, very far away. We have no satisfactory explanation for any of its higher functions - memory, decision-making, creativity, consciousness. For example, we can hallucinate anyone with a regular ping-pong ball, but we know few ways to deal with the hallucinations common in schizophrenia.

However, we know for sure that the strange brain provides an exceptional chance to penetrate the secrets of the so-called normal brain, discovering the amazing abilities contained in each of us and waiting for an opportunity to manifest. He makes us understand that the perception of the world is not the same for everyone, and literally imposes the question: is our brain as normal as it wants us to think?

* * *

Memory. Not a minute of oblivion

Have you ever wondered what memory is? Scientists have been looking for an answer to this question for centuries. In the 1950s, a piece of the puzzle appeared in the person of Henry Moulison

Life had a lot to offer for a handsome boy with dark wavy hair and a strong chin, noticing a racing cyclist a second earlier. No one has ever figured out whether this collision caused Molison to have seizures, but by the age of 27, they had intensified so much that he had to quit his job. In 1953, he agreed to an experimental method that had never been tested on anyone. Hoping to put an end to the seizures, doctors drilled holes in Molison's brain and removed the areas involved - parts of the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped area located in both hemispheres of the brain. The operation was successful in the sense that the seizures almost stopped, but the side effect was disastrous: Molison lost the ability to long-term lucid memories. And although he has a lot in his memory about the period,before the operation, after the surgery, he began to forget everything that was happening after 30 seconds.

Molison was found and studied by a young researcher, Susanna Corkin. She later wrote a book about their friendship, where she called him a diligent student. Living in a world lasting 30 seconds, Molison was not prone to anxiety, which is the result of worries about the past or plans for the future. And as the weeks and months passed, events took an unexpected turn.

It all started when Corkin and her former research advisor at McGill University, Brenda Milner, showed Molison a drawing of a five-pointed star. Then they asked him to draw the outline of the star with a pencil, but looking strictly at the drawing hand and at the reflection of the star in the mirror. Try it, it's not that easy.

Over time, Molison learned this and some similar skills, although he had no memory as he did before. So it turned out that he is capable of long-term motor memory. Molison's unique brain gave us the first reliable evidence that different types of memory are realized in different areas, and pointed out where the identified memories can be stored.

Korkin continued to see Molison for over 46 years, despite the fact that he perceived every conversation as the first. “It's funny,” he told her, “you just live and learn. I live, and you learn."

Molison was operated on more than half a century ago, and scientists are still arguing about the nature of memory. Usually, three types of memory are distinguished: sensory, short-term and long-term.

Sensory memory is the first to enter our brain. It lasts a fraction of a second - just enough for us to feel the environment: the touch of clothes on the skin, the smell of a fire in the air, the noise of cars from the street. But although we use this memory, it disappears forever. Ten seconds ago, you were oblivious to the touch of your socks to your feet. This sensation flashed in your brain and then disappeared. And now you sit and think about your socks, because I started talking about them and transferred your sensory memory to the short-term area.

Short-term memory contains current events - what you are thinking about at the moment. You are using it all the time without realizing it. For example, you only understand the end of a sentence because you remember the beginning. It is believed that short-term memory is capable of holding about seven objects for 15-30 seconds. But if you repeat these seven objects, they will be transferred to long-term memory - a potentially limitless storehouse of memories designed for a long journey.

This is probably the most important of the types of memory. It is he who allows us to mentally return to the past and predict the future. It is no exaggeration to say that memory helps us see meaning in the world. Director Luis Bunuel succinctly and clearly expressed this in his autobiography: “Life without memory is not life at all … Memory is our unifying principle, our reason, our feeling and even action. We are nothing without her."

Most neuroscientists now agree that memories live in synapses - the spaces between neurons where electrical impulses travel from one cell to another. When impulses pass between two neurons over and over again, this synapse becomes stronger, and any subsequent activity of the first neuron is more likely to stimulate the second.

It looks like a path through a thicket: the more people pass along it, the wider it will become and the more likely it will be further walked along it. Conversely, if the neural pathways are not used, they become unusable, just like the real ones. This is why we forget things we don’t do or think about regularly.

Most of this activity takes place in the hippocampus, but it doesn't work alone. Imagine being handed a bouquet of flowers. The case of Henry Moulison showed that the formation of short-term memory of this fact does not involve the hippocampus at all: it is occupied by the parts of the cortex responsible for touch, sight and smell. The hippocampus is connected when a fact needs to be remembered for more than 30 seconds, and here we see how the connections between the hippocampus and relevant parts of the cortex grow and strengthen, which allows the memory to be permanently recorded in the architecture of the brain.

So the hippocampus sticks together different kinds of memory. Indeed, when we try to learn new associations and then remember them, the people whose hippocampus was most active during memorization remember better that they managed to connect them more tightly from the very beginning.

This is why I like to think of memories as a neural web stretched between different areas of the brain and getting weaker and stronger. The more numerous and stronger the connections, the more vivid the memory will be and the easier it is to awaken it. Tear the web and the memories will disappear forever.

* * *

Change of personality

In 2000, schoolteacher Luke found himself in dire straits: he developed an irresistible interest in child pornography. He began buying pornographic magazines and photographs on the Internet, with the main characters being children and teenagers, and ordering the services of prostitutes from massage parlors

Knowing that his behavior was unacceptable, he made great efforts to hide it. But the "pleasure principle," as he later admitted, conquered all urges for abstinence. Only when Luke tried to molest his stepdaughter, who complained to her mother, did his pedophilia cease to be a secret, and he was arrested for attempted molestation of a minor.

The judge announced to Luke that he must go through a 12-step program for sex addicts, otherwise he will go to prison. Luke agreed to the program, but was expelled because he constantly asked the nurses for sexual favors. On the evening before the sentencing, Luke himself appeared at the University of Virginia hospital, said that he was suffering from a headache and was afraid that he would rape his landlady.

Doctors took a brain scan and reported the startling news: an egg-sized tumor had formed in the right area of the orbital-frontal cortex. This region of the brain may differ significantly from person to person, but there is growing evidence that it influences the understanding of the likelihood of reward or punishment for certain actions, and is also responsible for urges, motivations, and judgments.

Surgeons removed the tumor, and Luke's pedophilia disappeared without a trace. Seven months later, he was recognized as not posing a threat to society and returned to the family. A few years later, Luke began to feel the signs of pedophilia again - this time he went straight to the hospital. The pictures showed that a tumor had grown again in the same place. As soon as it was removed, Luke's character and behavior returned to normal.

There are few such vivid indications of how fragile our personality is, but in general, personality changes are not a rare phenomenon. More than five million Americans live with Alzheimer's, and it can severely deform personality. In Great Britain, every three and a half minutes someone is hit by a blow, which can also cause temporary or permanent changes in character, morality, and the degree of impulsivity. We used to think that our personality is something reliable and unshakable, but in reality it can change rapidly.

The differences between personalities are clearly visible in real life, but they are difficult to study objectively. Many scientists began to solve this problem, defining our personality in terms such as traits, patterns of behavior, thoughts, emotions - relatively stable over time. The extraordinary variety of personality traits, as a rule, is divided into five groups - the so-called Big Five: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism.

Openness means general curiosity and willingness to accept new experiences, information, ideas. Conscientiousness is the ability to manage your impulses, plan your life, and exercise self-discipline. Extroverts are drawn to all kinds of activity, they are sociable, confident, like to be in the spotlight. If you have a high level of livability, you value agreement and may be easier to compromise; you are kind, generous and respectful of others. Finally, neuroticism is a measure of your anxiety and tendency to experience negative emotions. It is assumed that the degree to which an individual has each of these traits determines his personality.

Jim Lewis and Jim Springer are identical twins, but a few weeks after birth they were sent to different foster families, so the boys grew up separately and under different surnames. Reunited 39 years later, they discovered that they had more than just the name Jim in common. Both suffered from headaches and the habit of biting their nails, worked in law enforcement agencies, were fond of carpentry, smoked Salem cigarettes and drove the same brand of cars. Both spent their vacation on the same beach in Florida, both were married to women named Linda, then divorced and remarried to women named Betty. Both had sons: James Alan Lewis and James Allan Springer. They even gave their dogs one nickname - Toy.

Coincidence? For Nancy Segal, a psychogenetic and evolutionary psychologist at California State University, Fullerton, things are much more complicated. The Jimmy twins story culminated in a sensational experiment, the Minnesota Separated Twins Study, launched in 1979. For twenty years, scientists from the University of Minnesota have observed the life of twins separated at birth. In total, they examined 137 pairs of twins: 81 pairs - identical, developed from one egg, which split in two, and 56 pairs - identical, that is, from two different eggs.

A number of scientists, including Nancy Segal, analyzed the data from this study in comparison with data from another registry of twins - those who were raised together - and came to an interesting conclusion: identical twins, raised separately, were as similar in personality type as twins brought up together. Propensity for leadership, obedience to bosses, resistance to stress, fearfulness and some other traits were determined by genes for more than 50%.

Research results suggest that a child genetically predisposed to shyness may grow up to be more or less shy depending on upbringing, but is unlikely to grow up to be a bright extrovert

“It was really unexpected,” Seagal replied to my question if she had foreseen such an amazing result. "We thought we would see more differences between twins raised apart, but we found nothing."

The research has sparked a wave of criticism, including a recurring objection that the similarities in the personality of twins can be explained by simple similarities in appearance that cause other people to behave similarly towards them.

In 2013, Segal found a way to test this theory. If physical appearance does elicit a certain response from others, the personalities of the twins - people who are similar but have different genes - should show the same similarity as identical twins.

Segal brought in 23 couples from a project by Canadian photographer François Brunel, who has been creating black and white portraits of doubles for many years. Each participant was given a questionnaire that assessed their personality in accordance with the Big Five model, as well as other aspects of behavior, such as self-esteem. What is the bottom line? The twins did not show significant similarities in personality traits, they had much less in common than the identical and fraternal twins raised together or apart.

What explains the many coincidences in the lives of the Jim twins - their common genetic history?

“This is not to say that there is a special gene that will pull us to rest on the same beach,” says Segal. - But why do you choose a beach holiday? Probably, you do not tolerate the cold or are very sociable, prefer crowded places. Some of these things are dictated by genetic bias. Taken together, they can explain your choice of destination.”

Nonetheless, nurture plays a fundamental role in the nature-nurture debate. One of the most impressive examples of the impact of the environment on a person was provided by a series of experiments conducted in the 1990s by Robert Plomin and his colleagues at King's College London. Research has shown that different experiences of identical and fraternal twins have led some to decline and others to well-being.

None of the studies described are perfect. However, the results suggest that we do not inherit the personality development scenario. Our genes can lead us to one or another choice of path, but our personalities are shaped throughout life by the environment and circumstances. And they can change overnight.

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