Monday, 16 April 2012

Not quite Phineas Gage but...

For my birthday last week, I went to see a neurosurgeon. Well, it wasn't for my birthday, but it was a worthy day to sped visiting such an august fellow. I do so admire experts, especially those who you would be happy to sit next to at a dinner party, should I ever get invited to one.

He was an interesting fellow and answered all my questions, which have been burning in the area of my brain which deals with curiosity for sometime.

So, to quickly explain, merely by way of illustration of a point I want to come to later, about my lingering interesting symptoms and their explanation: The gentleman in question listened patiently for me to articulate precisely my frustrations and to ask for some understanding of the nature of their origin.
Then he got out his brain. Well, not his brain, obviously, but a life-sized model of a brain in, I suppose, carefully modeled plastic. I was shown the places through which the arteries and viens are routed and the point at which my own creaky blood vessels had succumbed to the pressure and let out some of their contents into spaces where there shouln't be blood.

"But!" cried I in indignate incomprehension "If my own haemorrage was down at the less scary end of the scale, why all the fuss and headaches?"
Apparently, at the other end of the spectrum, huge bleeds fill the ventricles of the brain and kill its owner immediately. I did not have such a serious form of this affliction, fortunately. But nevertheless, the brain does not like blood in the wrong place and finds it extremely irritating and disruptive to function, even with a relatively small bleed. It's still, apparently, extremely serious and not to be taken lightly. I started to calm down a little.

So, the esteemed gentleman continued, the part of my brain afflicted was the pre-frontal cortex. It seems there is still a lot of "cellular debris" and the wreckage of clots hanging around in various membranes, disrupting the blood flow and causing various problems with normal brain activity, and this will continue for some months if not a year.
"Just what kind of activity?", I wondered aloud.

Well, quoth he, "executive functions". And this is where it gets interesting. It is now understood from extremely credible evidence, that the pre-frontal cortex deals with interesting higher functions of mental processing such as motivation, decision making, attention and personality. It is, he said (and after all, he should know!), "that part of the brain which makes us us"
"Ahh!" I exclaimed mischievously "That's where the soul lives!"
I surmised from his expression that he had long since discounted the notion, given his understanding of the machinery of cognition and concsciousness.

However, motivation here is a fascinating concept. It is not, as it might initially seem, that which causes us to want to go to a football match or consume another pint of beer, or even strive towards a goal at work. Though, it is implicated in all of those. No, in this case motivation means "that which causes us to want to choose one course of action over another on an unconscious level".
You can probably see then how it has and effect upon attention and decision making. Given a panoply of data from the eyes, ears, nose and perhaps a rumbly tum, the brain has to categorise that information and choose what significance to apportion to it.
This was helpful when there were leopards, for instance, because a leopard shape glimpsed fleetingly through the trees was a more powerful piece of information than "Gods! I could murder a yam!" or "Ogg has a splendid new loin cloth. I wonder where he got it", at least where survival was concerned. Those who put their attention in the wrong place perhaps ended their introspective days under the hooves of an angry bison and did not get to pass on those genes, leaving their more switched-on contemporaries to survive to produce us (though sometimes looking around me in a shopping centre, I do wonder at the results of this particular selection process...)

Hence attention seems not to be under our control. It is directed by an unconscious decision making process based upon inputs from our senses, apportioning relevence and accordingly causing us to look in that direction regardless of our previous interesting thoughts. And this is the case for the defence when I find my eye drawn by a pert female bottom on a sunny day at the beach. But I digress in a shameful manner.

When I am in a roomful of people and there are mutliple conversations going on, I currently find it distressing. That process which directs my attention and decides where I should focus it is not functioning correctly. Because of the detrimental effects of this aspect of my brain of bits of blood clot and inflamatory agents from my immune system, I am unable to follow a conversation in the presence of other information. At this point, my mind stalls and I have a small kind of panic attack. Usually someone notices and takes me to one side and gives me a biscuit or something, for which I am grateful. But it is a wonderful illustration of how the brain works (or in my case, currently doesn't work).

So, on further investigation, I discover there are other bits: The amygdala which recognises emotional stimuli and flags them to the aforementioned frontal lobe for processing, the facial fusiform gyrus which deals with facial recognition and interpretation of expression, the anterior cingulate cortex which (I think) deals with error detection in expected perceptions (for an understanding of how this bit is exercised, try saying out loud the colours of the following words - Blue Purple Red. Thats called the "Stroop Test" and you have probably seen it before).
Its all really rather exquisitely put together and connected.

But what comes across to me again and again is just how contingent upon the integrity of the brain our cognition and consciousness is. Having had mine not working properly, I am fascinated by the way the function of the system (i.e. me and my personality and all the things I do, say and experience) is dependent upon the correct functioning of all of its parts together.

And though I may look at this process - the process as the man says which makes me me - with awe and fascination, I cannot help but begin to reaslise it is nothing but (and this in no way diminishes its spectacular wonder) a very powerful and complex difference engine - an analogue computer, if you will, which balances up a number of inputs to provide an output.

Ok the resultant phenomenon of consciousness which I enjoy every day (except for some periods during sleep) is pretty amazing. But it appears to be an emergent property of this incredible and complex machine (which currently is providing me with an altered view of consciousness on account of not working in the same way as usual). There are evident and glaring conclusions from the recent improved discoveries of neuroscience. I shall not go into those here because sometimes I find my views upset or offend people.

But for now, I shall continue to work with this astonishing machine that evolution has provided me with and since it has no manual, I shall carry on seeing what it can do by playing with it and being generally in a state of childlike delight at what I subsequently discover. Even when it's playing up a bit.



For someone who has had a bit of a bad head, you can't half go on. All that technical talk has my brain smarting now! I am, however, fascinated by the function of the brain, mainly due to working very closely with an epileptic child who had a lobotomy. It didn't help ease the fits at all, just screwed his emotions up - laughter at pain, tears at funny things etc.
Your brain can only be enriched by the insult it received. And turmeric may help mop up the clots and unwanted blood. Or so I've been told.

Kay G. said...

You really should consider that your brain is working hard to get back to its former state of operation but in the meantime, the part that controls your sense of HUMOUR has not diminished and, in the long run, that truly is the most important part.
Take care.
Kay P.S. My birthday was yesterday. We April babies are a bit weird, you know. Just saying.

Jenny Woolf said...

Very interesting piece. Years ago I read a book which made the point that we are who we are because of our bodies and the way they function. Obvious really but we often don't recognise such truths until we can fit them into an intellectual structure.

I detect no signs of mental ill-functioning in your post, but imagine that even subtle effects can be deeply annoying, just because we're used to everything working together seamlessly.

Your attitude is very positive and I look forward to further updates. .

PerlNumquist said...

yes, I suppose I do go on a bit. I think part of the purpose of this post was to explain to myself the situation given the amount of information that was imparted. It still confuses me a little but writing it down helped. Sorry to inflict it on you Lucy ;-)
Our bodies and physical presence is a huge part of who we are I think. The recent Horizon programme on BBC2 bout artificial intelligence seemed to come to the conclusion that for a machine to be intelligent, it needed a body to help it form its relationship with the world. I know I am more "evil" when I have a headache :-)

Librarian said...

I have never seen "myself" as separate from my body. In fact, I AM my body. And therefore I am at my happiest when all is well with me health-wise, and I feel in good shape and well up to anything I want to do.
Your post did not "go on" too much - it was a very interesting read on a fascinating topic, explained in a manner even the likes of me can understand.
So, thank you for this one!