Our Blessed Lady of the Cerebellum

marymri_t6001Thank God for Vaughn at Mind Hacks. Or should I say, Graça à Nossa Senhora (that’s Thanks to Our Lady for those of you scratching your heads)… He brings to our attention this brain image which shows Our Lady of the Cerebellum in his posting Immaculate perception.

According to the original story, we learn that in 2002, Pamela Latrimore underwent an MRI that, in the eyes of some, imaged the Virgin Mary where most of us have a cerebellum (although, that would explain if she was having some motor control problems…). The original story, Do you see the Virgin Mary in this brain scan?, appeared in the TCPalm, Florida’s Treasure Coast and Palm Beaches’ news leader.

As the story reports:

Latrimore, a 42-year-old wife and mother without insurance, hadn’t ever really looked at the results of a 2002 MRI scan of her brain. So she didn’t know what her Catholic sister-in-law was talking about a few weeks ago when she said, “Oh my gosh, Pam, you have Mother Mary in your head.”

This story would be unmitigated fun, a chance to spin out all sorts of jokes about which parts of the brain ‘light up’ when we see a pattern of the Holy Mary in our brain images, except for the fact that, if you read a bit further in the TCPalm, you learn why Ms. Latrimore was getting brain scans in the first place, and perhaps why she and her relatives are searching for signs of any divine intervention.

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Alesha Sivartha and the Phrenology of Culture

BibliOdyssey featured the Brain Maps of Alesha Sivartha two years ago, a fantastical collection of illustrations created by Sivartha as part of his 1912 “The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man.” You can explore the book some through Google, but the better spot to go is Sivartha’s great-great-grandson’s website which covers the book in some detail.

Sivartha goes well beyond the typical phrenology of the nineteenth century, which generally focused on individual traits (i.e., the “mind”) as located in specific parts of the brain. History and culture and religion find their way into Sivartha’s work, and even the brain/body. He might even be called an early representative of cultural neuroscience!

Indeed, I see the illustrations as showing us how problematic it can be to force cultural and social phenomena onto the metaphor or image of the brain. Our enthusiasm must be tempered by critical neuroscience and by neurocriticism. Everyday life matters greatly, whether while camping without worrying about culture or brains, or dwelling more specifically on our “everyday brain” or the flavors of cultural brain we might enjoy.

Still, I find Sivartha’s illustrations quite wonderful. Just like early anthropologists trying to cover all the important domains of one culture in one book, so Sivartha tries to jam everything in, to create an impossible representation. It doesn’t work, but the images do provide much to reflect upon.

Women on tests update: response to stress

A while ago, I posted an overly-long discussion of recent research on the ‘math gap’ between boys and girls on standardized testing (Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1). That posting discussed several studies published in Science that have shown the gap in average math scores between boys and girls is not set in stone. In one paper, an increase in the test pool brought on by the No Child Left Behind program, with mandatory universal tests instead of exams only for those wishing to go to college, caused the gap in average scores to disappear; in the other paper, a decrease in the ‘math gap’ was found to correlate with other measures of greater gender equality in European states.

As I pointed out in the previous post, however, many commentators suggest that it is not the gap in average test scores that really matters; rather, these critics argue that the different variance in boys’ and girls’ scores explains the disproportionate number of boys who produce exceptional scores (as well as exceptionally bad scores), and thus the marked gap of men and women in PhD math programs, in prestigious prizes for physics and related subjects, and in related fields like engineering. In the earlier post, I argued that even if this greater variance showed up reliably across all testing populations, what exactly was being illuminated was still not clear; that is, many other explanations–other than that men had better ‘math modules’ in their brains, or greater ‘innate’ mathematics ability, or something like that–could explain even very stable differences in math performance. At the time I suggested a number of other possibilities, such as sex differences in stress response during testing, as other possible explanations for even a universal ‘math gap’ (which still had to contend with studies like the two in Science which severely undermined the assertion of universality).

As if on cue, I stumbled upon a video and accompanying article in Science Daily on differences in stress responses among men and women: Neuroscientists Find That Men And Women Respond Differently To Stress (but don’t click on that link — keep reading!). Stress is a good candidate to explain a test-taking gap because the observable physiological processes offer abundant evidence that men and women don’t respond to stress in exactly the same way (although there are underlying commonalities). For example, stress causes different diseases in men and women, and some long-term psychological disorders that demonstrate sex-linked disparities seem to emerge from stress.

Unlike the ‘black box’ explanation that boys and simply better at math or evidence greater variability in innate ability, with no observable neural correlate or plausible explanatory mechanism, in variation in stress response we have a clear candidate for male-female difference that plausibly affects their performance and even physiology (for example, in different stress-related diseases).
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Culture on the Teen Brain

Harvard Magazine has a short piece this month on the work of neurologists Frances Jensen and David Urion to popularize information about the “teen brain” to audiences. As Jensen says, “This is the first generation of teenagers that has access to this information, and they need to understand some of their vulnerabilities.”

That information? That, given the way their brain is maturing (both fast-growing synapses and other sections relatively unconnected), adolescents are more “easily influenced by their environment and more prone to impulsive behavior.” As expected, there follows a typical line of parental angst: the sexes are different, drugs harm brains, kids need to sleep and get exercise, they are suffering from sensory overload from all the new technology. By implication, it is all due to being in “this paradoxical period in brain development.”

Certainly there are some intriguing results about brain development in adolescent related to differential brain maturation, developmental plasticity, and the like. Some early research based on longitudinal research is summarized here in an NIMH press release, which concludes in better fashion: “the teenage brain is a very complicated and dynamic arena, one that is not easily understood,” whether for parents or for researchers. But as I covered earlier in a post on emotion and decision making, teenagers can actually be seen as rather good decision makers, just focused on differential goals and contexts than most adults.

And come on, teenagers are overwhelmed by information and multitasking in today’s “brave new world”? I wish I had half the skills that my incoming freshmen display in this arena-I’m the one who doesn’t quite know how to handle the sensory overload…

Another graphic accompanies the Harvard article (only in the pdf though), an illustration by Leslie Cober-Gentry. For me, it shows the enormous gap between the brain imaging graphic and this more cultural graphic. As with all imaging research, there can only be correlations between level of activity and a particular task at hand. But that equation leaves out all the other important correlations that exists between, say, being impulsive and a particular environmental context. The juxtaposition of the two images capture perfectly what Urion and Jensen do, project our everyday life and concerns onto our newest explanatory cause-the brain.

Cultural Neuroscience

Shihui Han and Georg Northoff have just published Culture-Sensitive Neural Substrates of Human Cognition: A Transcultural Neuroimaging Approach. This article will prove foundational for “cultural neuroscience,” a term Han & Northoff use near the end of the article. I highly recommend that everyone read the full version (pdf), but will outline and comment on it here.

In this Perspectives piece in Nature Neuroscience Reviews, Han and Northoff review the evidence on how culture influences neural mechanisms, highlight the need to integrate social neuroscience and cultural cognition research, argue for transcultural neuroimaging as an effective method for cultural neuroscience, and lay out implications for the future of this emerging field.

But if you don’t take my word for it, here’s their abstract:

Our brains and minds are shaped by our experiences, which mainly occur in the context of the culture in which we develop and live. Although psychologists have provided abundant evidence for diversity of human cognition and behaviour across cultures, the question of whether the neural correlates of human cognition are also culture-dependent is often not considered by neuroscientists. However, recent transcultural neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions. The findings provide a novel approach by which to distinguish culture-sensitive from culture-invariant neural mechanisms of human cognition.

Cultural Effects on Cognition

Han and Northoff systematically cover research on “cultural effects on cognition,” including perceptual processing, attentional modulation, language and music, and number representation and mental calculation. Their Figure 1, presented below, summarizes research on culture and attention, highlighting context-dependent differences in attention between Americans and East Asians.

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Integrative Neuroscience

Integrative Neuroscience is a multidisciplinary endeavour to build unified models of the brain from the various disciplines within the neurosciences. It is an effort to break down the boundaries and encourage a freer exchange of information across disciplines and scales. The highly jargonised world of science can often mean that findings from one area of science are completely incomprehensible to another. However, it is crucial that efforts are made to consolidate the knowledge from various streams within the brain sciences. From the micro-scale findings to the macro-scale findings, integrative neuroscience deeply informs clinical research and practice. It means that when a patient is diagnosed with a brain disease, we can typify the genetic, neurological, social and environmental influences on his/her condition. It is a form of diagnosis and treatment that has never existed before.

While two brains may perform the same function, the way in which they do it is never the same. Statistically it is almost impossible for the underlying connections of any two brains to be exactly the same. What does this mean? Well, it means that no two brains react to the same actions or events in the same way. You may jump out from a hiding place and scream “boo” at your best friend who freezes in fright, while someone else might react more aggressively. Similarly, if you administer a neuroactive drug to two different people, the effects can be dramatically different. That is why some patients who are prescribed medication for a brain disorder may get better, while other patients may have little or no reaction to the same drug. You will often find that Psychiatrists, neurologists and other clinicians will personalise treatments for patients. Whether the treatment is behavioural, cognitive or pharmacological, nearly all treatments must be personalized. These treatments can only become better when more people share their experience and knowledge of personalized medicine. So what is your story?


Integrative Neuroscience Links         

Journal of Integrative Neuroscience   

Brain Dynamics Centre                                                

Integrative Neuroscience Facility                                             

Centre for Integrative Neuroscience and Neuroengineering


Brain Resource Company