So Size Really Doesn't Matter
July 20, 2007 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Heh. Heard about a similar case in college. Apparently a psych grad student submitted to a brain scan either for a school project or just because she had access to the equipment. Same condition really, undetected fluid build up in brain as infant (or prenatal), with no discernible mental deficient afterwards. A real surprise to her professors and herself, I'm sure.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 10:06 AM on July 20, 2007

I sent this to my wife this morning. She works for the IRS.

She was nonplussed. "Oh, this would explain a lot of people here," she said.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:08 AM on July 20, 2007

what's amazing to me is the sheer scale of the damage to the guy's brain--and yet he still leads a normal life. and at an IQ of 75, he's even at the lower end of the normal range!
posted by saulgoodman at 10:13 AM on July 20, 2007

He should take up boxing.
posted by milarepa at 10:21 AM on July 20, 2007

I am offended. As a Federal employee, I am outraged at all the jokes about us being


posted by The Deej at 10:21 AM on July 20, 2007 [5 favorites]

This isn't very suprising to me as we only use a small fraction of our brains anyhow. Unfortunately our culture has trained us to block even more of the activity that is occuring, (and in fear of sounding hokey) relative to our sixth sense and energy awareness/harvesting/directing.
posted by NotInTheBox at 10:23 AM on July 20, 2007

So you thought that old cliche about civil servants having only half a brain was just a conservative canard?

Conservative canard? For a conservative, having half a brain is a virtue.
posted by three blind mice at 10:25 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

NotInTheBox: This isn't very suprising to me as we only use a small fraction of our brains anyhow.

not according to this.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:26 AM on July 20, 2007

This isn't very suprising to me as we only use a small fraction of our brains anyhow. Unfortunately our culture has trained us to block even more of the activity that is occuring, (and in fear of sounding hokey) relative to our sixth sense and energy awareness/harvesting/directing.

I'm sorry, this means precisely nothing. This "we only use 10% of our brains" line, in particular, is the kind of unsubstantiated (and unsubstantiable) canard that should be smacked down every time it's encountered.
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:29 AM on July 20, 2007

Well, call me dumb. You have perfectly shattered my dreams for an expanding IQ. 34 here I stay.
posted by NotInTheBox at 10:32 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

adamgreenfield - you shouldn't appologize for your opinion... in doing so you undermine yourself.
posted by NotInTheBox at 10:35 AM on July 20, 2007

Don't worry about it adamgreendield... I'll apologize for your opinion for you. :)

Actually: I agree with adam; the whole "we only use blah% of our brains thing is a popular but unfounded myth. (One of many links.)

I also don't think he was apologizing by saying "I'm sorry." It's just a common shorthand. Like this: "I'm sorry (if this offends you) but you are slug-slime poured over maggot-puke."

On the other hand, if you were jesting about him no apologizing, then ha! yeah! funny! haha ha lol! :)
posted by The Deej at 10:56 AM on July 20, 2007

Looking for more info, I found this article, which mentions that the man went to the hospital for this three years ago. It also says, "Happily, this patient has made a complete recovery following his treatment, reports Feuillet, although a subsequent scan showed no change in his brain size. So the man with the tiny brain lives on."

But what was the treatment? I don't imagine they drained all the liquid out, leaving a deflated brain-balloon in his skull. Maybe they inserted a shunt that drains a little at a time.
posted by booth at 11:11 AM on July 20, 2007

I've had hydrocephalus since birth. I'd love to know how that guy manages with ventricles THAT enlarged on a daily basis. Any time I've needed a shunt revision, it was preceded by constant headaches and nausea, etc.

Interesting about the low IQ... mine was always on the higher end.
posted by emelenjr at 11:19 AM on July 20, 2007

I think it's not just neural plasticity that is permitting his continuing functioning, but also the extent to which his everyday thinking is offloaded onto his environment and habitual practises. I would imagine that his civil service job is highly structured, requiring very little imaginative activity.
posted by leibniz at 11:23 AM on July 20, 2007

I was.
posted by NotInTheBox at 11:24 AM on July 20, 2007

Woops, that should have said:

The Deej- Yes, I was.
posted by NotInTheBox at 11:25 AM on July 20, 2007

NotInTheBox... ya I figured. Is it ok if I still call you "slug-slime poured over maggot-puke" though? It really doesn't affect your life at all, but it makes me feel really good. Thanks!
posted by The Deej at 11:27 AM on July 20, 2007

With an IQ that low, I'm just surprised he hasn't been executed in Texas yet! (Hey-ooooo)
posted by inigo2 at 11:29 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

inigo2, that was terrible.

and funny
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:34 AM on July 20, 2007

Can I post one more time in this thread please?

Warning: This has little to do with the original post.

On the contrary, this is funny because I hadn't noticed the common shorthand, it DOES undermine his opinion. Either the apology or the opinion then means less/nothing. A statement should be 'rocked out' ya'll. Why say it if you have to apologize for it? Or, why apologize first if you are going to say it anyways?
posted by NotInTheBox at 11:36 AM on July 20, 2007

If it makes you feel better - which is of course my primary purpose in life, then by all means. Eat your "slug-slime poured over maggot-puke" name calling heart out. ;-)
posted by NotInTheBox at 11:37 AM on July 20, 2007

*making "NITB is slug-slime poured over maggot-puke" t-shirt*
posted by The Deej at 11:42 AM on July 20, 2007

Famous, one way or another.
posted by NotInTheBox at 11:53 AM on July 20, 2007

I remember seeing a case like this on TV a long time ago (like 20 years or so). They also did a PET scan (which measures blood flow) and showed that the person with reduced brain size had the same amount of activity as a person with a normal brain, it was just concentrated in a smaller area.
posted by Potsy at 12:31 PM on July 20, 2007

I'm wondering if it's just that the brain was compressed by the hydrocephalus. That is, it has the same number of cells as a normal brain, but in a much smaller volume.
posted by ShooBoo at 1:00 PM on July 20, 2007

I would very much like to meet this gentleman.
posted by brain_drain at 1:00 PM on July 20, 2007

I would very much like to meet this gentleman.
posted by brain_drain

posted by saulgoodman at 1:32 PM on July 20, 2007

Interesting. It's as if there's some part of his awareness or intelligence that does not reside in the brain at all...
posted by Crabby Appleton at 6:49 PM on July 20, 2007

crabby - how exactly is it like that?
posted by russm at 7:07 PM on July 20, 2007

I think this thread would be a lot better if everyone only said "WTF" instead of offering their opinions.

And that's my opinion.
posted by Dagobert at 8:03 PM on July 20, 2007

Well, russm, it's like that in that this guy has a nearly empty cranial cavity. He's a man of Very Little Brain, and, although I'd be willing to bet that long words Bother him, he seemed completely normal to everyone. At least, he did right up until they took a peek inside his skull.

Current dogma states that all our thoughts, our memories, our experiences, indeed our very consciousness, are nothing more than epiphenomena of the computation performed by networks of neurons in our brain. In other words, a purely physical process. Carried out by the brain. The largest brain (proportionally) in the animal kingdom.

Except that this guy seems to do just fine without much of a brain at all. Sort of makes you wonder whether the current dogma is correct. Pondering this might lead one into all kinds of outlandish speculation. For example, what if the brain is more like a wireless transceiver communicating with...what? Some disembodied intelligence perhaps?

If one is intellectually honest, one might begin to wonder: is the brain really necessary?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:26 PM on July 20, 2007

//zombie #1:

Braaains.. braaainss... braa-- damn it! I ordered a regular, NOT diet!
posted by cardoso at 9:15 PM on July 20, 2007

aha, so I'm just dogmatic and intellectually dishonest... gotcha... no worries...

I'm curious though... what purpose do the brains of non-sentient creatures serve?
posted by russm at 10:51 PM on July 20, 2007

russm, I don't know you from Adam. You asked me a question and I answered it. When I wrote my response it seemed entirely possible to me that you were simply perplexed by my admittedly oblique initial comment. Apparently that wasn't the case. My response was addressed to you because it was in response to your question. However, I didn't intend it as a private response; I wrote it with the entire MeFi audience in mind. Interesting that you interpreted it as you did.

Now that your position is less obscure, I'll admit that I find your rhetorical style distasteful. Instead of asking ostensibly innocent questions to draw me out, why not just lay your cards on the table? I have.

In view of that, rather than playing your rather juvenile game, I'll play my own and answer your second question as follows: "To cool the blood, what else?"
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:34 PM on July 20, 2007

No offense crabby, but I think this case points more to the elasticity of the brain than to the existence of a soul.
posted by rosswald at 1:57 AM on July 21, 2007

I think what Crabby is saying though is that if the Brain is this elastic to begin with, what are the advantages of it being so big. Apparently, it doesn't have to be (to make us human) so why is it?

Admittedly, maybe this guy is stranger than we think. There seems to be not much information about him.
posted by vacapinta at 9:35 AM on July 21, 2007

None taken, rosswald; I'd never take offense at someone simply expressing his opinion. You may well be right. And I mean absolutely no offense when I say that, to me, that response seems pat. This case might not directly imply the existence of a soul (which notion I termed "wild speculation"). But I think it should at least give us pause, or make us say, along with Dagobert, "WTF?"

vacapinta identifies what might actually be a more interesting issue. I hinted at it, but didn't discuss it so the credit for explicitly stating it belongs to vacapinta. But let me elaborate on it briefly. Our big brains make our heads big, which makes childbirth more dangerous. That's a big evolutionary disadvantage; it's an expensive adaptation. So there must be a very good reason for it. The case in question makes it harder to identify that reason.

Finally, let me apologize for the tone of my response to russm. It was late (I'm on the east coast USA) and I was tired, and I was baffled as to why this guy thought I was calling him names. But I shouldn't have gotten snippy.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:53 PM on July 21, 2007

Crabby - point taken, particularly in regard to (metaphorical) cooling of the blood...

My point, if I'd bothered to make it instead of just sniping, was that I don't see how this offers any evidence either way as to the brain being the seat of consciousness or just a conduit to the soul. I'm assuming we are agreed that either way the brain is intimately connected to consciousness. And also, that whatever it's doing, it's a prety complicated thing.

The article you linked quotes "To talk of redundancy is a cop-out to get around something you don't understand.", but if our big complex brain is just a radio to the soul you still need to explain how the radio can keep functioning at such reduced size the same way I might argue that the (purely mechanistic) cognitive functions are able to keep functioning in these individuals. They are an anomaly, and I expect as difficult to explain for either of us.
posted by russm at 7:57 PM on July 21, 2007

russm, I can agree with everything you just said, up to a point. This case is problematic for both of us. I can't explain exactly how the "soul radio" operates, and I don't think you can explain exactly how neural processes give rise to consciousness. I'm not prepared to seriously defend the soul radio hypothesis.

That said, I think this case is more of a problem for the mechanistic theory. I can only make a hand-waving argument for this because I don't really know enough about the science to do more. The hand-waving argument goes like this:

The human brain seems to be very complex, both at the level of gross neuroanatomy and at the neural network level. I think we believe that that level of complexity is required for it to do all the things it does. It is an expensive adaptation, and consumes a large fraction of the energy consumed by a human body. For evolution through natural selection to produce such an expensive adaptation, the expense must be justified.

In the case at hand, we're looking at a brain volume of 25% to 50% of normal. The article to which I linked cites cases with a brain weight of 10% of normal. I think this makes it difficult to imagine that all that complex neuroanatomy is still intact but just smooshed up against the inner surface of the skull. So we're faced with much less brain matter than we consider sufficient to support the observed level of functioning. I realize that this argument is not iron-clad, but I don't think it's ludicrous, either.

I think this situation constitutes a problem for the mechanistic theory. It might not be an insurmountable problem. But I think it demands a more substantive response than "gee, the brain really is elastic, sort of like Plastic Man, isn't it?"

To continue with a weaker argument in favor of the soul radio hypothesis, one could observe that animals get by with with much smaller brains (proportionally) than humans, in most cases. If we assume that the soul radio is not a large structure (which is a big assumption), then a human brain the size of an animal's brain, plus a little bit more, would be sufficient. This raises the question of why the normal human brain is larger than strictly necessary, but that is also a problem for the mechanistic theory, and a more difficult one. The size of the soul radio would presumably be proportional to the communication bandwidth required. (I can't resist pointing out that Descartes thought the soul radio was in the pineal gland.) If a lot of what is thought to be functions of the brain actually resides outside the brain, then it's easier to see how a smaller brain might still be able to function normally.

I don't understand why there isn't more discussion in this thread. It's a fascinating topic. I hope my snarkiness didn't scare anybody off.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:56 PM on July 21, 2007

This case is absolutely not a problem for the mechanistic thesis. First of all, the man is clearly stupid, but manages to get by. His memory and imagination have not been thoroughly tested. Secondly, please note my comment above for a fairly common sense explanation, also relevant to the case of animals, who are very non-flexible in their interactions with the environment. It suggests that a lot of thinking is offloaded onto regular/routine features of the world (known as externalism in theory of mind). This has some parallels with your comments above Crabby (though utterly without mystical overtones).

The standard objection to dualism (in this case soul radio) remains: how could a physical thing interact with a non-physical thing? How could a non-physical thing even have [i]location[/i], let alone the ability to push/pull electro-chemical processes??

By the way, current dogma definitely does not state that consciousness is epiphenomenal. Instead a popular view is that consciousness is nothing over and above the representational capacities of the mind. For a decent philosophical explanation of how neural processes can lead to mental representation see Fred Dretske's [i]Naturalising the Mind[/i].
posted by leibniz at 5:49 AM on July 22, 2007

Thanks, leibniz, for hitting the ball back over the net. I suspect the crowd has long since gone home, but I'll still try to volley.

I still think this case is a problem for the mechanistic formulation because I don't find your arguments convincing. I think you overestimate the difference between Einstein and a French civil servant, at least as it relates to brain anatomy. The gross anatomy of Einstein's brain was within normal limits except that his parietal lobes were bigger. Also, I don't think externalism (as exemplified by the Sphex wasp) is a sufficient explanation.

Regarding dualism, who said the soul (or whatever is on the other end of the radio link) is non-physical? (Actually, I probably said that, but anyway...) Perhaps it's something physical that we don't understand yet.

Regarding current dogma, I guess I've been reading too much Dennet. So let's stipulate that consciousness is not epiphenomenal. I don't see that it changes much.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 5:21 PM on July 22, 2007

Ha ha, very funny.

I'd bitchslap you but I don't have the right form.
posted by Lucie at 8:34 PM on July 22, 2007

crabby - I would actually love to continue this (with less of a time lag) but unfortunately external time constraints are restricting me... this thread is the only thing I've been popping back in for over the last couple of days...

to be clear about where I'm coming from... I only intend to argue that this particular case (or type of case) is no more evidence in favour of your argument than it is for mine - I don't think we're going to solve the particular issue of the nature of conciousness in these pages...

I'm not prepared to seriously defend the soul radio hypothesis

I'm treating this as purely an analogy for some sort of communication channel between an external soul and the physical structures of the brain... no "how does radio interact with the brain" straw man to be seen... while I don't believe in this, I'm prepared to accept it's possible for the sake of discussion since I think you're wrong for other reasons too... :)


the hypothetical structures that communicate with the external soul are either spread throughout the brain, or they're localised... if they're spread throughout the brain then these cases seem to me to be as difficult for you to explain as they are to me (unless you argue that the remaining brain tissue has a much higher concentration of these structures than a normal person's brain, which should be detectable)... alternatively, if it's a small localised thing (like the pineal gland) then why is our brain so large and energy-hungry compared to non-sentient animals?

If a lot of what is thought to be functions of the brain actually resides outside the brain, then it's easier to see how a smaller brain might still be able to function normally

but why then do the rest of us waste *so* much energy growing and fueling these big-ass brains we've got? I think it's worth pointing out that these cases are rare, and that apparently most of them are severely mentally restricted... if a normal human could, on average, get by without 75% of their brain I'd think that there would be a pretty strong evolutionary trend towards smaller cheaper brains...

perhaps we're just at an "it's obvious to me"/"it's not obvious to me" impasse, but I just don't see how these cases make any significant argument in favour of my "Me" residing outside the physical structure of my brain...
posted by russm at 10:55 PM on July 22, 2007

russm, I also have external time constraint issues, so I'm willing to let you have the last word. Just for the record, what I really wanted to get across was that I think the case presents real problems for the mechanistic model that can't be dismissed cavalierly. We probably just have to agree to disagree on that one. The issue you raised in your next-to-last paragraph is probably the more interesting one, but I think it requires real scientific expertise (and probably more investigation) to address. That I can't provide.

Also, somebody wants to bitch slap me, so I guess I'd better scoot. :-) Thanks for the discussion.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:15 AM on July 23, 2007

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