The human brain doesn’t work out of the box: it has to learn tasks; processing has to be developed. By “grey matter” we mean the 80 billion or so brain cells with which we’re born, but it’s the fatty white matter – or myelination – growing along the cells’ axonal projections, connecting different parts of the brain, that make it work faster and better. In this episode of the Neuromantics, we take a look at the surprising effects of that learning process on the neurophysiology of older people, as studied by Yuko Yotsumoto et al, in “White Matter in the Older Brain is More Plastic than in the Younger Brain” (2014).
Both the young and the elderly can do new things. In Yotsumoto’s experiment, they learn to pick out letters against a variety of backgrounds (and both age groups get better at it). But MRIs show that the really marked changes in white-matter arrangement are confined to older participants. Why? Is that a good or bad thing? And how might these changes be related to more general cognitive decline, where, because the grey cells are dying off, white matter no longer has much to connect?
Maintaining a connection with the world, as well as suffering its loss, is one of later life’s challenges, and nowhere is it more beautifully evoked than in Alice Munro’s short story about the strange plasticity of affection, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, first published in the New Yorker in 1999. Fiona has Alzheimer’s and goes into care. But it’s her unworldly and rather selfish husband, Grant, who finds himself changing, unlearning assumptions, and being driven by love to an act of uncommon kindness.
D'autres épisodes de "The Neuromantics"
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 10
49:00If you’re funny and you know it, you’re probably not funny – and the same goes for theories of humour (like: comedy makes us feel superior, or: it’s about “benign violations” of expectation), which can’t begin to explain the context for humour, or get big laughs out of a tough crowd. Freud was great on “The Joke”, but then again he never played the Glasgow Empire on a Monday night, so what does Freud know? In “Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?”, 2019, Chris Westbury and Geoff Hollis narrow the focus. What if humour turned out to be a semantic property of some words and not others? They look closely at a data set of 5,000 words rated for humorousness and find certain patterns – insults are funny, the “oo” vowel is funny, and so are various other phonemes, particularly a hard “k”. As Mike Nichols once put it, “‘Casey’ is a funny name. Robert Taylor is not.” It‘s persuasive stuff, until you add a lot of other words – sense, that is – and begin to wonder what happens to “funny” sounds in any extended context. Comedians on tour know all about this: “funny” can be shared, but it isn’t universal. Things don’t have to make one kind of sense, of course, and most comedy doesn’t, because it relies on inversion and doubling up, either for the hell of it, or to make a point. The Nonsense Songs (1872) of Edward Lear turned the world upside down and “The Jumblies”, famously, went to sea in a sieve: it’s delightful nonsense, because sieves can’t be boats, but it’s also a parody of Victorian adventuring, so the innocence has a sharp edge to it. Even sharper are the thrills we get from tales of the impossibly macabre, such as Florence Sunnen’s “The Hook” (Nightjar Press, 2018), in which a bored undergraduate eats himself. The narrator watches her brother disappear, with his parents’ approval. Real food is still on the table, but the limbless consumerist won’t touch it. No one says “Stop!”. Are they mad, or are we?
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 9
49:22This month, on the Neuromantics, we’re looking at stories about hormones, brains and sexual behaviour that run counter to expectations. Testosterone has a masculinising effect on the body in utero and in development, but it also has an effect on the brain, and in mammal brains it turns out that it’s only having that effect after it has interacted with an enzyme called aromatase – and become an oestrogen (estradiol). That’s the shifting ground explored in Brain Aromatisation: Classical Roles and New Perspectives by Charles E. Roselli et al. We might then ask: which hormone is actually responsible for masculinisation – the testosterone or the estradiol? And the answer is a complex one, suggesting that complementary processes are at work, and that to masculinise a body part need not imply that it is defeminised. This has implications for our view of the hormonal control of mammalian sexual behaviour. An interpretative gap seems to open up between sex differences in the brain and sexual behaviour; and (in humans) between partner preferences and the broad spectrum of behaviour, all of it socially modulated, that is exhibited in order to attract those partners. Some of this complexity turns on gender identity – the social construction of sex – and some of it on the category “sexual behaviour”, the kinds of interactions that we consider “sexual” in the first place. What would 007 think about all this? And more to the point, what would he do? In Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel, Diamonds Are Forever, much of what the hero does has its roots in aggressive male behavioural traits. It’s a surprise, then, to see our hero packing a suitcase, and taking such loving care of his branded luggage, silk pyjama onesie, and sentimental knick-knacks. The closer one looks, the more interesting this fetishisation of things becomes. Everything in Bond has a sexual connotation, but not all of it feels typically masculine, perhaps because, like all heroes, 007 is an outsider who belongs nowhere, a dandy with a professional interest in concealing himself. The homosexual protagonist of James Baldwin’s famous 1957 novel, Giovanni’s Room, practises more naked self-deception, but his creator – a political activist as well as a great artist – ruthlessly exposes him.
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 8
52:56How does a profound emotional experience in one generation affect the next? Is it handed down? Both the scientific paper and the short story under scrutiny in this month’s Neuromantics consider the ripple effect of trauma, and its observable consequences not just for survivors, but for those who come after them. Offspring of all the higher primates have an extended period of infancy in which they are dependent on their mothers. If the mother dies, the infants are less likely to survive. But survival rates are also impacted before the mother dies, according to Maternal Death and Offspring Fitness in Multiple Wild Primates, by Matthew N. Zipple et al. And the children who do make it to adulthood tend to have fewer chlldren themselves. Why is this? Gorillas and humans can re-allocate the maternal role and reconfigure family hierarchies, often successfully, but other primates have fewer safety-nets (and often a shrinking habitat): they seem to have witnessed something irrevocable. They see a parent struggle and they “know” their vulnerability. Mixed up in the experience of traumatic grief is fear – that people can disappear, that you or someone else can be taken, that your circumstances can change. And if we see that kind of fear at work in our parents, it works in us, too. In “Loose Change”, by Andrea Levy, the narrator – the English child, like Levy, of Jamaican parents – borrows a trifling sum of money from a stranger, a young girl recently arrived in London from Uzbekistan. They have coffee together. The narrator resolves to be kind, to help, but her resolution is tested by a deeper struggle with its roots in racism and handed-down shame. Can she do more than listen? Can she break the cycle?
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 7
54:48Something happens when we go to the theatre, visit an art gallery, or hear music in the company of others, and it’s good for us, whatever our background, whatever the socio-economic indicators that mould our perceptions and expectations of art. That’s the contention – and, in part, the conclusion – of Daisy Fancourt and Alan Steptoe in their paper on Cultural Engagement and Mental Heath: does socio-economic status explain the association? (1982). But Fancourt and Steptoe leave important questions unanswered: what is the difference between the social and the personal experience of art, and how do we measure our collective interest in the kind of art – some poetry might be a good example – that has, over time, exchanged social ritual for individual contemplation? How does this less popular “engagement” with the world of art, music or literature affect our relationship with class, our sense of belonging and obligation, all things that can affect our mood and prevent our interests finding expression in the first place? Maybe all art involves an exchange of self-consciousness (including class consciousness) for imaginative awareness. An actor discovers the intoxications and responsibilities of presence, we speak of being liberated by music. Those autonomous qualities – presence and the feeling of liberation – are what make artistic activity difficult for authoritarian regimes, and necessary for the artists (and audiences) who must try to survive them. They’re also signposts on the way back from personal contemplation to social significance. The Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (1945–2021) wrote lyric verse, but its beautiful vigilance is disturbed by the shadow-side of watchfulness, the presence of the censor, and by his own urgent requirement for what he called “non-naive realism”. In the two poems discussed here – “Night is a Cistern” and “Tierra del Fuego”, both wonderfully translated by Clare Cavanaugh – the poet speaks to us directly and we become his ambiguous political witnesses, at once refugees and bystanders; also, perhaps, spies.
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 6
46:47An all-purpose definition of “metaphor” might be, as the OED suggests, a name or descriptive term given to an object to which it is not properly applicable – something described in terms of something else. Can such a transfer of meaning be more than a figure of speech? Hernan Pablo Casakin thinks so. In Tel Aviv, a group of first-year architectural students were asked to redevelop an old bus station. All stages of planning benefited from ideas and images from other disciplines, but especially those involving practical difficulties of space and resources. Thinking about the city “as a bazaar of knowledge” helped one student overcome relative inexperience to create a mixed-use neighbourhood with fifteen flats, public buildings and amenities. Casakin records the experiment in Metaphors in Design Problem Solving (2007).A longer, stranger, and more beautiful experiment, conducted by the writer, musician, artist and “psychonaut” Peter Blegvad, treats metaphor less as a tool or guide and more as a way of meeting the strangeness of the world. Imagine, Observe, Remember (Uniform Books, 2021) is a dazzling picture-essay in which the author paints and repaints objects and places in situ, from memory, and as his inner eye “sees” them. Radiators grow in stature, pianos become icons, a river delta acquires perfect symmetry. This is Transformers for the everyday environment, but with speculations in place of body armour. If the world comes to us through perception, then what is it “really” like, and are our senses just metaphorical descriptions? If they are, how does one shake off their influence? And do we want to?
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 5
53:33The good news from neuroscientists in Australia (Jiang, et al, 2020), as published in NeuroImage and reported in Psychology Today (“How Some People Stay Sharp After 95”, May 6, 2020), is that very elderly people (90-100 yr-olds) exhibiting strong connectivity between the right and left frontal parietal lobes tend not to experience cognitive decline. The bad news is that, while it may sound like a great idea for nonagenarians to keep walking and learning new things, scientists find it hard actually to demonstrate the benefits of any specific activity in preserving brain function. It’s also hard, ethically, to defend the notion that staying “sharp” represents a “model of successful ageing”.In the latest episode of The Neuromantics, we stop to consider some of the prejudices at work behind this view of longevity and cognitive health. To whom are we comparing these elderly groups? Often there’s context missing from the discussion (the socio-economic background of any late learner is as significant as the task s/he undertakes) and an unwillingness to accept that our educational development, at any age, has a dual aspect: we make bad choices as well as good ones. A useful guide to the limited predictive value of the things we do to “stay sharp” is the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–92). In three witty essays – “On the Length of Life”, “There is a Season for Everything”, and “On Not Pretending to be Ill” – the rationalist lawyer and devout Catholic advises us to enjoy a contemplative old age. In particular he tells us to deepen our thinking; to aim for intellectual consistency – the perfection of habit – rather than novelty. “We can always continue our studies,” he suggests, “but not our schoolwork.”
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 4
42:50We’re on to the hard stuff now: sub-saharan baboons and grooming as a tool for promoting longevity, rogue males, currencies in friendship, feral children, niche succession, the mythical hinterland of the Peak District in weird fiction, and 1980s Variety Club Sunshine Coaches.One of the main findings of “Social Bonds. social status and survival in wild baboons”, a fascinating (and recent) paper by Fernando A. Campos et al, is that male baboons who are “strongly bonded” to older females (ie groomed by them) live longer. But dominant males without these tactile platonic relationships with females have shorter lifespans. Why? And do we need to revisit some assumptions about dominance itself? If grooming by females is so crucial, then is the troop really “led” by the alpha male?In Climbers (1989), a novel by 2020 Goldsmiths Prize-winner M. John Harrison, scaling peaks is another kind of bonding, or grooming, for humans. The end of manufacturing in the 1980s turned UK’s industrial heartlands into places of acute socio-economic deprivation, with a high incidence of (often male) suicide and substance dependency. What Harrison’s book makes clear is that the road back to social cohesion is participatory, though the most interesting participants may not look much like alpha citizens. His central chapter, “Escapees”, is an allegorical fantasy about lost and directionless children who take over a landscape and a niche vacated by more responsible adults.
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 3
54:12The human brain doesn’t work out of the box: it has to learn tasks; processing has to be developed. By “grey matter” we mean the 80 billion or so brain cells with which we’re born, but it’s the fatty white matter – or myelination – growing along the cells’ axonal projections, connecting different parts of the brain, that make it work faster and better. In this episode of the Neuromantics, we take a look at the surprising effects of that learning process on the neurophysiology of older people, as studied by Yuko Yotsumoto et al, in “White Matter in the Older Brain is More Plastic than in the Younger Brain” (2014).Both the young and the elderly can do new things. In Yotsumoto’s experiment, they learn to pick out letters against a variety of backgrounds (and both age groups get better at it). But MRIs show that the really marked changes in white-matter arrangement are confined to older participants. Why? Is that a good or bad thing? And how might these changes be related to more general cognitive decline, where, because the grey cells are dying off, white matter no longer has much to connect?Maintaining a connection with the world, as well as suffering its loss, is one of later life’s challenges, and nowhere is it more beautifully evoked than in Alice Munro’s short story about the strange plasticity of affection, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, first published in the New Yorker in 1999. Fiona has Alzheimer’s and goes into care. But it’s her unworldly and rather selfish husband, Grant, who finds himself changing, unlearning assumptions, and being driven by love to an act of uncommon kindness.
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 2
50:09How do birds know where things are? “The keys are where you last saw them”, we often say, meaning that, as mammals, we have to recall both an internalised map of location and the lost keys’ visual identity (their shape and colour) in order to find them again. And for a long time it was thought that birds did something similar, matching object cues to spatial memory. New research is taking us on a different journey. In “Taking An Insect-Inspired Approach to Bird Navigation”, by David J. Pritchard and Susan D. Healy (2018), the picture that emerges is of an avian world much closer to that of insects, driven by action and motion parallax, where hummingbirds “see” in a way that only reveals itself when movement starts, where spatial memory is prioritised over object identification. Move a feeder six feet to the right, and the bird misses it. Why?Maybe we’re a bit like that, too. Expecting our minds to be broadened by travel, we find ourselves flummoxed by the reality. Rather than confront it, we look for ways to confirm the original hypothesis, the expectation. Three pin-sharp tales of disorientation demonstrate just this problem with human navigation. In the first, “The Long Crossing”, by the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia (from The Wine-Dark Sea, Granta, 2001; translated by Avril Bardoni), a group of penniless Italian immigrants looks forward to arriving in the United States. In the second and third, “BF and Me” and “Teenage Punk”, from A Manual For Cleaning Women (Picador, 2015) by Lucia Berlin, the journeys are developmental: an old lady cuts a drunk handyman some slack, a dawn safari shifts in the memory. Experience changes us. Even so, it takes a lot to stop us believing in a stable identity.
The Neuromantics – S2, Ep 1
46:08The verse produced in Baghdad by the Abbasid dynasty poets Abdullah Al-Mu’tazz (ninth century) and Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’aari (tenth century) speaks to us across the years in vivid and at-once familiar translations by Abdullah Al-Udhari and George Wightman (Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster, Penguin Classics, 1975). The poets’ subject-matter is the beauty of natural phenomena and human frailty; how language conserves that beauty and frailty; why honouring the earth matters. The poems also address impermanence and wonder. There are frank admissions of disappointment in others (“Some people are like an open grave”), meditations on celestial mystery (“The Comet”), and everywhere the sense that life-cycles never repeat exactly. Tradition and cultural transmission entail variation.Something similar might be said about psychological development – very few behavioural preferences are inherent and even these can be environmentally shifted. All babies respond to faces, but children in different cultures, with different ideas about politeness, look at them in different ways.Visualisation isn’t a given, either. In a fascinating paper on the interdependence of visual imagery and sensory-motor skills (“Mental rotation and the human body: Children’s inflexible use of embodiment mirrors that of adults”, by Markus Krüger and Mirjam Ebersbach), the authors show how the ability of children to perform mental rotation tasks depends on knowledge of how the body works: if kids can see anatomical orientations reflected in standard cube combinations, they can rotate these combinations (more) successfully. Psychologists already knew this was true of adults, but the extension of “use of embodiment” to children is revealing. It suggests that “imagery” isn’t a discrete ability, but one that’s formatively bound up with sensorimotor processes and only separated from them over time.Everything is conditional, in other words – a fact worth bearing in mind as you listen to this first episode in season two of The Neuromantics, recorded in lockdown, and always responsive to a changing environment . . .