Brain Matters


Endlessly fascinating images and videos here. Enjoy!

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Curious Facts: Surviving Hanging (Updated)


I came across this rather intriguing clipping from New York Times published in 1884 – apparently more females survived hanging than males. The reason this rather curious fact came across my rather unorganized research path is following: the story of Anne Green who was hanged in 1650 in Oxford and was later revived by Thomas Willis and William Petty, Oxford physicians, opens the new edition of Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of Mind that I have just managed to acquire for mere $50. The most interesting fact about Anne Green’s case is the fact that…

Although the authorities wanted to hang Anne again, Willis and Petty fought in her defense. She had been accused of killing her baby, but the doctors argued that her baby had been stillborn and its death was not her fault. They also argued that her miraculous escape from death by execution was a divine providence proving her innocence. [1]

So, clearly authorities had the case – they tried to hang her, they thought they did it, but she survived, therefore, she must be now rehung properly. I suppose the technics of hanging was still being perfected. On the other hand, the doctor’s expertise showed that she was innocent – other accounts state that she had a premature delivery and the child died – it’s not difficult to show that the appropriate amount of time did not pass from conception to birth. My favorite part, however, is the one about “divine providence” – what kind of unusual circumstances qualify to be considered “divine providence”? Whatever happened to “divine providence” argument these days? Is the fact that George W. Bush, having almost choked on a pretzel, survived and continued to rule in a way most today find to be highly questionable, a sign of “diving providence”? Can this incident be used as a justification of his policies and as a first building block of his “legacy”?

Again, it would be an interesting avenue for someone’s investigation: How many recorded cases of failed hangings are out there? Does the law require on try to hang the criminal and if he escapes, he’s free to go?

PS. Dr. Thomas Willis went on to become a professor of natural philosophy at Oxford and to coin the term neurology. Below is a drawing from his book: Continue reading

Morning Madness


Oliver Sacks reviews some books on madness: 

Mania is a biological condition that feels like a psychological one—a state of mind. In this way it resembles the effects of various intoxications. I saw this very dramatically with some of myAwakenings patients when they began taking L-dopa, a drug which is converted in the brain to the neuro-transmitter dopamine. Leonard L., in particular, became quite manic on this: “With L-dopa in my blood,” he wrote at the time, “there’s nothing in the world I can’t do if I want.” He called dopamine “resurrectamine” and started to see himself as a messiah—he felt that the world was polluted with sin and that he had been called upon to save it. And in nineteen nonstop, almost sleepless days and nights, he typed an entire autobiography of 50,000 words. “Is it the medicine I am taking,” wrote another patient, “or just my new state of mind?”

I’m pretty sure Zizek is mad, and Derrida was not – maybe that’s the problem with secondary lit as well?

The Lobotomist


Thanks to this BBC 4 documentary about surgery (I’m not in the UK, so I had to download the torrent which is of a great quality) – Blood and Guts: A History of Surgery – I got to also enjoy this PBS program on Walter “The Lobotomist” Freeman:

Walter Freeman at W. V. State Hospital, 1952.

INTRODUCTION

“The precipitous rise and fall of lobotomy raises important questions about medical innovation,” says filmmaker Barak Goodman. “At what point do interventions meant to alleviate suffering begin to conflict with essential human qualities?”

It was hailed by the New York Times as “surgery of the soul,” a groundbreaking medical procedure that promised hope to the most distressed mentally ill patients and their families. But what began as an operation of last resort was soon being performed at some fifty state asylums, often to devastating results. Little more than a decade after his rise to fame, Walter Freeman, the neurologist who championed the procedure, was decried as a moral monster, and lobotomy one of the most barbaric mistakes of modern medicine.

American Experience presents The Lobotomist, the gripping and tragic story of an ambitious doctor, the desperate families who sought his help, and the medical establishment that embraced him. From award-winning producers Barak Goodman and John Maggio (The Boy in the BubbleThe Fight), this one-hour film features interviews with Dr. Freeman’s former patients and their families, his students, and medical historians, and offers an unprecedented look at one of the darkest chapters in psychiatric history.

The great lesson of lobotomy, of course, is the issue of surgical intervention and mental illness: with the mind/body distinction between progressively disregarded by both folks in the medical profession and those of us on the humanities side, is there a future lobotomy-like procedure that is bound for a comeback?

Intelligence vs. Effort: Stop Reading, Start Trying!


From Scientific American:

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids

Hint: Don’t tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life

By Carol S. Dweck

Growing Pains

Many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success. But more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent—and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed—leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.

Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.

Parents and teachers can engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their effort or persistence (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost their son’s confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings. Continue reading