"I think we only use 10% of our hearts."
July 28, 2015 8:02 PM   Subscribe

Peter Watts: No Brainer.
For decades now, I have been haunted by the grainy, black-and-white x-ray of a human skull. It is alive but empty, with a cavernous fluid-filled space where the brain should be. A thin layer of brain tissue lines that cavity like an amniotic sac. The image hails from a 1980 review article[PDF] in Science: Roger Lewin, the author, reports that the patient in question had “virtually no brain”. But that’s not what scared me; hydrocephalus is nothing new, and it takes more to creep out this ex-biologist than a picture of Ventricles Gone Wild. What scared me was the fact that this virtually brain-free patient had an IQ of 126.

Watts goes on to reference Revisitng hydrocephalus as a model to study brain resilience [PDF] also at NCBI.

John Hawks: Ninety percent of your brain is (not) useless
Much of the apparent "surprise" in this case owes to the presumably small total volume of the brain, and the cerebrum in particular. Lorber interpreted the small cortical volume coupled with normal -- or even "superior" -- cognitive performance as especially surprising.

Let's take this claim part by part. What exactly is surprising about it?
posted by the man of twists and turns (48 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
Inverse phrenology: the next frontier.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:14 PM on July 28, 2015


Homeopathic brain cells.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:22 PM on July 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


That "Ninety percent of your brain is (not) useless" link has waaay too many air quotes in it. Someone has a personal stake.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:29 PM on July 28, 2015


That cliche about only using ten percent of your brain and just think what you could do if you used 100%! was debunked a while back. In an FMRI people were given problems to solve. They found that the more intelligent a person was, the less brain they used to solve the problem. I guess efficiency is part of intelligence.
posted by njohnson23 at 8:31 PM on July 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Inverse phrenology: the next frontier.

Have a seat in this chair and decide who you want to be while I fetch the hammer.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:32 PM on July 28, 2015 [21 favorites]


I have indeed heard of people such as this, who got degrees and led normal lives. What I'd like to know is -- what kind of normal were they? Getting a degree and a job is not a guarantee of normalcy. Were they capable socially? Was there ever, say, an M.F.K. Fisher or an Ursula K. Le Guin, a person with talent in language or insights into being human, that was missing so much of the brain?

Considering how many talented, articulate teachers and empathic emotional laborers die every year without anyone examining their brains before death, I wonder if we will ever know.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:37 PM on July 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


There may be a degree of diminishing returns; as neuron/synapse count increases, more and more of the brain becomes dedicated to *filtering* and *removing* signals rather than creating them.

Or perhaps without so many neurons the ability of the brain to clean itself of waste is dramatically increased, meaning each neuron is proportionally a lot more effective.

If there's anything I've learned it's that few things improve linearly.
posted by effugas at 8:41 PM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


The slideshow linked in the comments of the first link is worth a look. It suggests that the apparent functionality of those with 10% normal brain volume may be getting by on simple pattern matching from their "lizard brains", that is, they are sort of faking their entire social world. I find this kind of hard to believe but interesting because zombies.
posted by Rumple at 8:45 PM on July 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


Every time I read about the hydrocephalic college student I visualize Clint Howard.

Then I discovered this record he made with a punk band in the early 80s Clint Howard and the Kempsters: No Brains at All

I think its a clue!
posted by modernserf at 8:45 PM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, I find this kind of interesting because my little one has a pretty impressive hole in her brain where a tumour was, and yet it hasn't slowed her down at all. She's completely re-routed around it. The doc says it will be there for life.
posted by Rumple at 8:47 PM on July 28, 2015 [15 favorites]


So that's my problem. Too much motherfucking brain.
posted by telstar at 8:51 PM on July 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Blimey! Just noping-in to nope out of this one.
posted by comealongpole at 9:05 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's still pretty weird to hear even a joking "this breaks my conceptual models, therefore god exists" quip from a sci-fi author. I read up on neuroscience because I'm interested in pain as a massage therapist, and you don't have to dig very deep before you recognize how absolutely fucking bonkers the brain is...how this disparate set of millions, billions of processes that form an ecosystem as much as anything somehow creates the thing that is you. Just with that set of uncertainty I'm a billion miles from finding the results of that study to be remotely strange.
posted by MillMan at 9:09 PM on July 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


My go-to model of consciousness is that we actually are zombies running on auto-pilot; we just have a small process sitting on top that keeps going "Uhuh. Yeah. I totally meant for that to happen."
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:11 PM on July 28, 2015 [86 favorites]


Have I got a book recommendation for you: Blindsight
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:36 PM on July 28, 2015 [19 favorites]


Joe, I think that's both useful and completely accurate as an understanding of consciousness.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:43 PM on July 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Uhuh. Yeah. I totally meant for that to happen."

"Not only did I totally mean for that to happen, but the thing that made it happen? I'm totally that!"
posted by flabdablet at 9:59 PM on July 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


As I sat there, while my 8-month-old daughter was scanned, and she cried over and over again, but doc said she had to do it, because she might have hydranencephaly, and he had seen kids with that if only it was caught in time. It was a horror, but it was less of a horror than the reality. She had a big brain, inherited from her father. The neurologist had her picking up raisins from his hand, and many other tests, but you can never feel the fear of your baby in the machine, wondering if her brain is okay, and not feel scarred. I was so scared. And it turned out that she just had a big brain, and now it turns out that she is a badass woman.. Thank god!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 10:16 PM on July 28, 2015 [20 favorites]


Huh. This is why the Bear of Little Brain is actually the wisest creature in the Hundred Acre Wood.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:19 PM on July 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Getting a degree and a job is not a guarantee of normalcy.

A brain is a very mediocre commodity.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:53 PM on July 28, 2015


Have I got a book recommendation for you: Blindsight


Have been reading the Rifters books and have come to the conclusion that Watts actually becomes more cheerful as he goes on, Blindsight and its sequel being lightweight breezy books by comparison.
posted by Artw at 11:03 PM on July 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


My go-to model of consciousness is that we actually are zombies running on auto-pilot; we just have a small process sitting on top that keeps going "Uhuh. Yeah. I totally meant for that to happen."

but what if 'one' were _aware_ of their neo-bicameralism?
posted by kliuless at 11:11 PM on July 28, 2015


Joe in Australia: "My go-to model of consciousness is that we actually are zombies running on auto-pilot; we just have a small process sitting on top that keeps going "Uhuh. Yeah. I totally meant for that to happen.""

Sam Harris wrote an entire book about this.
posted by scrump at 11:20 PM on July 28, 2015




Then I discovered this record he made with a punk band in the early 80s Clint Howard and the Kempsters: No Brains at All

Holy crap. They have a couple of music videos online. Twentyish Clint Howard with ginger clown hair and eyeliner is equal parts Chuckie from the Child's Play movies and the Firestarter guy.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:23 AM on July 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


I remember first hearing about this phenomenon in a TV documentary back in the 90's. (Maybe the 80's? Not sure.) Anyway, it's bloody fascinating. A true mystery that appears to contradict current neurological dogma. Bravo to Mr. Watts for bringing this back from the mists of time.

Does it have something to do with small-world, scale-free networking? Maybe, but I highly doubt it. That still doesn't explain why these particular hydrocephalics have all the normal brain functions when the specific brain areas responsible for those functions have been destroyed. For example, if Broca's area is responsible for language could any old random part of the brain be capable of filling in for it? There's real, structural differences between different kinds of brain tissue. And what process guides the "rewiring" itself? How does some of the remaining tissue "know" it "needs" to become an ersatz Broca's area while another part has to keep regulating breathing? There's clearly some sort of synaptic "rewiring" involved, but it's way more complicated than the simple brain-is-a-computer dogma.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:41 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


There was a bit about this on neuroscience blog Neuroskeptic:
While the enormous “holes” in these brains seem dramatic, the bulk of the grey matter of the cerebral cortex, around the outside of the brain, appears to be intact and in the correct place – this is visible as the dark grey ‘shell’ beneath the skull. What appears to be missing is the white matter, the nerve tracts that connect the various parts of the cerebral cortex with each other, and with the other areas of the brain.

However, some white matter is still visible as the pale grey layer that borders the holes. The big question is whether this layer of white matter is sufficient to connect up the grey matter and allow it to function normally. There doesn’t seem to be much of it, but on the other hand, we really don’t know how much white matter is strictly necessary.

I wonder also if the white matter might be denser than normal i.e. if the fibers were packed together due to being gradually compressed by the expanding fluid spaces?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:13 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, digging into this, it seems that what happens in hydrocephalus is that much of the white matter of the brain is missing – creating a dramatic "shell" effect – while the grey matter is still present. If the grey matter is what does all of the work attributed to the brain in modern neuroscience, this makes sense of the problem. After all, most of neuroscience is based on "Hey, this person has no activity in this area of the brain and X happens." If you removed or damaged the corresponding areas of grey matter in the hydrocephalic brains, they'd probably have the same problems.

Another way to think of it: this is probably where the "you only use ten percent of your brain" myth comes from. Most of the brain volume is white matter, which is functional in a neuroscientific sense but isn't what does the thinking. The brain can route around missing white matter but doesn't work the same with damaged or missing grey matter. So don't go throwing out your brain too quickly on this one.
posted by graymouser at 3:50 AM on July 29, 2015 [5 favorites]


Where is the TV drama featuring a brilliant but brainless person either making astounding medical diagnosis, solving perplexing crimes or saving the world? This is an untapped vein in the TV writing bullshit mine!
posted by srboisvert at 4:04 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


My go-to model of consciousness is that we actually are zombies running on auto-pilot; we just have a small process sitting on top that keeps going "Uhuh. Yeah. I totally meant for that to happen."
"Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs. In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”" - Michael Gazzaniga, "The Ethical Brain"

"You are not the king of your brain. You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going "a most judicious choice, sire"" - Steven Kaas, Twitter
posted by roystgnr at 5:11 AM on July 29, 2015 [35 favorites]


Fascinating stuff in this post.

My own brain scans never showed that that much of my brain matter was missing, but I've been living with hydrocephalus myself for 41 years now.

I also have a condition known as agenesis of the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that acts as a bridge between both hemispheres. That terrified an old college girlfriend of mine who was studying psychology, but my neurologist assured her that the brain figures out other pathways to use when that bridge isn't there.
posted by emelenjr at 5:19 AM on July 29, 2015 [8 favorites]


I think the money quote in this context is:
"That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality: it reads the summary and it sees the hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other."
- Peter Watts, Blindsight"
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:53 AM on July 29, 2015 [3 favorites]


And yet, some people still believe we'll achieve artificial intelligence via computation.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:24 AM on July 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Have been reading the Rifters books and have come to the conclusion that Watts actually becomes more cheerful as he goes on, Blindsight and its sequel being lightweight breezy books by comparison."

Well, I did get married somewhere in there. And survived flesh-eating disease. Maybe that had something to do with it.
posted by Squidnapper at 6:32 AM on July 29, 2015 [38 favorites]


Hey, there, Squidnapper!
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 7:02 AM on July 29, 2015


I have indeed heard of people such as this, who got degrees and led normal lives. What I'd like to know is -- what kind of normal were they? Getting a degree and a job is not a guarantee of normalcy. Were they capable socially?

I guess this guy was, as far as anyone could tell:
He had a first-class honors degree in mathematics. He presented normally along all social and cognitive axes. He didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with him until he went to the doctor for some unrelated malady, only to be referred to a specialist because his head seemed a bit too large.
posted by ignignokt at 8:47 AM on July 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have indeed heard of people such as this, who got degrees and led normal lives. What I'd like to know is -- what kind of normal were they? Getting a degree and a job is not a guarantee of normalcy. Were they capable socially?


I used to work with a chap who, officially, was in charge of maintaining and running a couple of machines for our research department. This was nowhere near enough to keep him entertained, so unofficially he was also in charge of making extensive modifications to existing kit or designing and building new machines to meet researchers' needs. Easily one of the smartest, most inventive, and most capable people I've ever met, and definitely at least tied for actually being the friendliest.

Our neuroscience department were constantly sending emails around asking for healthy volunteers to be in their MRI studies, so one day he wandered off for a couple of hours to do that... and came back with a couple of printouts of sections through his head, showing clearly that a good 30% of his frontal lobe was missing, the space filled with fluid.

He had a couple of brief meetings with doctors, the upshot of which was that as far as he knew it had never caused him any problems, and as far as the doctors knew if it had been fine over the past several decades it'd probably be fine for the next few.
posted by metaBugs at 8:57 AM on July 29, 2015 [8 favorites]


Cognitive reserve is the idea that the brain has built into it a certain degree of resilience or redundancy. The amount of cognitive reserve a person has reflects the amount of damage their brain can sustain while continuing to maintain apparently normal functioning. This explains why, for example, two people with the same degree of neuropathological damage from Alzheimer's disease may differ significantly in terms of their cognitive function. It's important to note, however, that apparent cognitive function may not be equivalent to actual cognitive function--deficits may be subtle or emerge only under certain conditions. For example, some people with traumatic brain injury experience more cognitive difficulties when they're tired.

"Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs..."

The term for this is confabulation. One theory centers on the medial temporal lobe, which is thought to be responsible for maintaining a continuous narrative of the causal flow of events--a subconscious sense of "this happened because of that". But it relies on other parts of the brain, like the frontal lobe, to help make meaningful conclusions. When those other parts are damaged, the medial temporal lobe just starts to wing it, basically. The narrative becomes divorced from reality, though to the individual it still makes perfect sense. Some experiments suggest that this is just a more extreme version of something we all do on a regular basis. For example, a skilled magician can use nonverbal cues to subconsciously induce a person to choose a particular card with a fairly high degree of reliability. But if you ask the person later why they chose that card, they will give an entirely plausible reason for their choice that maintains a sense of their own free will.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:19 AM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Everyone I know who proclaimed to me, breathless, that "Like, did you know we only use, like 10% of our brain?" seemed to be trying to get to 100% allocation by way of burning out the other 90% with high-powered controlled substances.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:12 PM on July 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


I get creeped out imagining being the person, though. I'd be constantly self-interrogating, wondering if this was where my deficits were going to show up. Plus being worried that if I was already maxing out the redundancy of my brain, what was going to happen as I got older.
posted by tavella at 1:12 PM on July 29, 2015


I'd be constantly self-interrogating, wondering if this was where my deficits were going to show up.

Wait, does everybody not do this?
posted by flabdablet at 8:49 PM on July 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


Are there any videos or stories about these supposed people with anencephaly living to adulthood and being successful people? To be quite frank, I straight up don't believe the writer of the story. This is the condition where they are born with just bits of their brain, have collapsed skulls, and bulging eyes? I was under the impression that was always eventually fatal before adulthood, usually near birth or a few years depending on the cruelty of the parents.
posted by GoblinHoney at 11:59 AM on July 30, 2015


Oh, hey, my friend always kind of struggled with math and directions and stuff. Then she finally got an MRI and found out she had a hole the size of a lemon in her brain, and then she wrote a pretty good book about it. It might be biased, but I think it's worth a read; her life as a punk-rock-loving bookstore and coffeeshop employee with writerly aspirations was more relatable than other personal stories I've read about brain stuff .
posted by redsparkler at 12:45 PM on July 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


I don't think anyone's linked to this yet, and I found it a very good read:
One Head, Two Brains
How a radical epilepsy treatment in the early 20th century paved the way for modern-day understandings of perception, consciousness, and the self
What I'm wondering is, we're assuming that there is a unitary brain linked by the corpus callosum (except when it's severed). Maybe there isn't! Maybe our right hemisphere and left hemisphere are intrinsically the bases for two minds, and they're just synchronised by the signals going across. Maybe we occasionally make different decisions or reach contrary conclusions in different hemispheres, and we just don't realise it because there's an overrriding central process entraining them, to preserve the illusion of a single mind.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:03 PM on July 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, and also this very entertaining website:
Parable of the Hemispheres
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:04 PM on July 30, 2015


My go-to model of consciousness is that we actually are zombies running on auto-pilot; we just have a small process sitting on top that keeps going "Uhuh. Yeah. I totally meant for that to happen."

My go-to model, from a friend, is that of small, squeaky narrator mouse-like-thing on top of large, silent, elephant-like-thing. The mouse is along for the ride, and but if it squeaks in one direction long enough and loud enough, the elephant usually moves in that direction.
We think we are just the mouse.

Which leads to, one of the most distressing symptoms of depression for me, was the motivation disconnect. At it's worst, my verbal brain was squeaking away, louder and harder, begging, cajoling, and just... nothing was happening. I'd be sitting, trying to plan to get up and go to the bathroom, because I needed to go, and, nothing. A feeling of panic, trapped in my own body. It was even more disorienting when my action would happen after a significant delay that I had no conscious control over. In a particular case of the above, after deciding, ok, there is a book next to my hand, reading that seems less stressful than sitting here panicking about not being able to will my body, wait, it's on golf, I know nothing about golf nor do I care, and then partway through reading a sentence, some pages in, I feel myself start to standing up, put the book away and walk to the bathroom.
Woah, the mouse-I thinks, I really am just along for the ride...

I am often impressed, or delighted, but sometimes despairing at how my sub-/un-conscious works. I've found that I can guesstimate material usage for projects to an eerily accurate degree, if given time to just stare at the quantities, and waffle around 'procrastinating' for a few hours. I don't think it has the same 'tastes' as me, do I even like puns? I'm not sure, but some process throws fully formed jokes and puns up to me regularly, and it is the surprise of them that makes me wince (and often they are just bad). The mouse influences the elephant, but it is not the elephant.
I think of therapy as training the mouse not to squeak in ways that stress the elephant out further, and how to squeak more consistently in a single direction rather than alternating around the place, and finally and most importantly, how to figure out what the elephant actually wants, mostly via deduction (argh! It has no words!), and then start plotting out a route for the elephant to take.

Still, if only the elephant would talk to me in words, like the Mouse-I understands. I am separated from myself, even in my own brain... how endlessly lonely.
posted by Elysum at 7:00 AM on July 31, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is the condition where they are born with just bits of their brain, have collapsed skulls, and bulging eyes?

That would be anencephaly. This article is about hydranencephaly, which while related, is a different condition.
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:03 PM on August 3, 2015 [1 favorite]




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