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May, 2009

Neuroscience and the Creativity of Connections

Since as usual The New Yorker has decided not to post the full text of the best article in it's latest issue, I'm going to quote from it liberally. (As a side note, this drives me nuts. I just don't get it. If you ask me reading The New Yorker in print is 100 times more enjoyable than reading it online because of the length of the articles. Seems like the website should just have everything and be used as a way to promote print subscriptions -- which should cost more. But that's neither here nor there, they can do whatever they want.)

Anyway, the article Brain Games is a profile of behavioral neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran who has made a number of kind of crazy advances in neuroscience (including the only real progress on phantom limb pain). First off, Ramachandran's general approach is pretty amazing. He recognizes the power of illusion to solve brain problems (reminds me a little of the neuroscience of magic article I pointed to a few weeks ago). Take, for instance, his solution to phantom limb pain:

In his office in Mandler Hall, Ramachandran positioned a twenty-inch-by-twenty-inch drugstore mirror up right and perpendicular to the man's body, and told him to place his intact right arm on one side of the mirror and his stump on the other. He told the man to arrange the mirror so that the reflection created the illusion that his intact arm was the continuation of the amputated one. Then Ramachandran asked the man to move his right and left arms simultaneously, in synchronous motions - like a conductor - while keeping his eyes on the reflection of his intact arm. "Oh, my God!" the man began to shout. "oh my God, Doctor, this is unbelievable. For the first time in ten years, the patent could feel his phantom limb "moving," and the cramping pain was instantly relieved

First off, holy crap. Second off, basically what Ramachandran realized that was the phantom pain was worst for people who had an immobile limb for sometime before it was amputated. It turns out that while the limb was immobile "a kind of 'learned paralysis' was burned into the brain's circuitry, as repeated commands from the patients' brains to move the limb were met with touch, visual, and nerve evidence that the limb could not move. When the limb was later amputated, the patient was stuck with a revised body-image map, which included a paralyzed phantom whose neural pathways retained a memory of pain signals that could not be shut off." Total madness. Just amazing stuff.

Later on in the article Ramachandran goes onto explain his appraoch, which he calls "opportunistic."

"You come across something strange - what Thomas Kuhn, the famous historian and philosopher of science, called 'anomalies.' Something seems weird, doesn't fit the big picture of science - people just ignore it, doesn't make any sense. They say, 'The patient is crazy.' A lot of what I've done is to rescue these phenomena from oblivion."

This, maybe more than anything else in the article, made me smile. Over the last few months I've been putting some thought into building a cirriculum to help kids learn how to make stuff on the internet. Basically my feeling is that "making stuff" offers an interesting interdisciplinary opportunity for kids. While part of it is certainly learning the actual building, there are lots of other lessons you can make part of the process: From coming up with ideas to help getting the word out about them. Anyway, thinking about it a little more (and discussing it with my mom) I got to thinking about teaching really little kids where ideas come from. Essentially it's been my feeling that the best ideas really just come from people paying attention to the stuff that doesn't make any sense. While most of the world ignores or gets angry when things don't work, inventors see an opportunity to fix a problem (or at least think about why things are the way they are). This is certainly something I strive for and I really liked how simply Ramachandran stated it.

Finally, one more quote from the article to wrap things up. In his studies of synesthesia ("an intermingling of the senses that causes some people to see each letter of the alphabet in a particular color"), Ramachandran noticed that artists had a propensity towards synesthesia. He explains the link quite simply:

"What do artists, poets, and novelists have in common?" Ramachandran asked me. "The propesnity to link seemingly unrelated things. It's called metaphor. So what I'm arguing is, if the same gene, instead of being expressed only in the fusiform gyrus, is expressed diffusely through the brain, you've got a greater propensity to link seemingly unrelated brain areas in concepts and ideas. So it's a very phrenological view of creativity."

I don't even know if there's anything to say about that except yeah. Oh, and go read the whole article. I'm tempted to scan it and post it.

May 9, 2009
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.