random neuronal firings
There’s been a lot written about psychology professor Jerry Burger’s recent replication of the famous “obedience” experiments first carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. Here’s Burger’s paper in which he reports that obedience rates are almost the same today as they were nearly 50 years ago.
Wikipedia’s page on this experiment has an excellent summary of the methodology and results of the original study if you’re not familiar with it.
It’s a testament to the importance of the original obedience experiment that many who know nothing else about psychology have at least heard of it, and it’s common knowledge that Milgram found that a startlingly high proportion of ordinary volunteers were willing to administer very strong “shocks” to an innocent victim, on the orders of the experimenter. But there’s much more to the “Milgram Experiment” than many people realize. So - read on. That’s an order.
You should really read the Neuroskeptic article. It was very interesting, even for someone like me who thought she had heard everything there was to hear about Milgram.
If you’re interested in a more lengthy treatment of the topic, check out The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phil Zimbardo. (He’s the guy who conducted the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, by the way, not to mention being the narrator on every Psych 101 video ever) It’s a long but fascinating look at the ways in which normal people end up doing horrible things.
I wish that every high school in America had a course using The Lucifer Effect as its central text. So frequently we represent those who commit acts of torture or genocide as “inhuman” somehow. We call them monsters, represent them as “other.” What’s so frightening, and so important to remember, is that in most cases, there is no important psychological distinction between them and us.
Your neighbors were willing to shock a friendly, “affable” older man—one they liked—to death. Because a researcher told them to. Well-adjusted, high-achieving, likeable undergraduate students began devising ingenious tortures for the “prisoners” they supervised, despite knowing that they had been assigned randomly to the condition of “prisoner” rather than “guard” and had done absolutely nothing to deserve such treatment.
We must all learn—we must remind ourselves, over and over, that the capacity to be monstrous is in all of us, not just the inhuman few. We must remind ourselves that when the choice faces us, our inclination will be to go along.
A brain on the Sistine chapel?
Dr. Frank Meshberger published an article (reprinted here by Wellcorps, whoever they are) in the Journal of the American Medical Association back in 1990 titled “An Interpretation of Michaelangelo’s Creation of Adam Based on Neuroanatomy.”
“The Creation of Adam fresco shows Adam and God reaching toward one another, arms outstretched, fingers almost touching. One can imagine the spark of life jumping from God to Adam across that synapse between their fingertips. However, Adam is already alive, his eyes are open, and he is completely formed; but it is the intent of the picture that Adam is to ‘receive’ something from God. I believe there is a third ‘main character’ in the fresco that has not previously been recognized.”
Look at the shape of God in his cloud of angels in the Creation of Adam, and compare it to the diagram of a midsagittal section of the brain. Do you see what could be the cerebellum? The pons? The spinal cord? The pituitary gland (the little angel foot sticking out down in front?) The vertebral artery (the green scarf)? What is particularly convincing to me is the shape that God’s left arm takes arcing over the back of one of the angels. It mimics quite well the shape of the cingulate sulcus, and the more shadowy part beneath it (where the angel’s chest is) would be the lateral ventricle.
I don’t know that we could ever be certain that Michelangelo depicted God inside and animating, in a sense, the human mind, but we know that he had the experience that would make such a depiction possible; he dissected numerous cadavers. I would like to think that he created this brain intentionally. It’s a glorious representation—so active, vibrant.
Last Da Vinci post, I promise.
Ray Damadian used his large-bore scanner “Indomitable” to acquire the first MR image of the human body in 1977. One of his postdoctoral students at the time, Lawrence Minkoff, sat in the coil for four hours while a single slice through the torso was acquired (originally, they had tried to use Damadian himself, but he was not skinny enough to fit into the coil—although he was not by any means obese, just a large, healthy man with a very small MR coil!). Voxels were acquired one at a time; two minutes were required for the acquisition of each voxel and a total of 106 voxels were acquired. Indomitable’s magnetic field was only .05 Tesla—compare that to today’s typical scanner, which is usually 1.5 or 3 T. (For comparison, the earth’s magnetic field is approximately .00005 T).
Anyway, I kind of geeked out a little bit when I saw these images. It is amazing to me the amount of work and time and genius, really, that went into creating that single, low-resolution image. And yet, the technology rapidly revolutionized medicine and science, particularly neuroscience. Thanks, Ray Damadian!
—> Damadian, R., Goldsmith, M., & Minkoff, L. (1977). NMR in cancer: XVI. FONAR image of the live human body. Physiol. Chem. Phys., 9, 97-108.
If you want to read more, I highly recommend the following textbook, which provides a great intro to the history, science, and practice of fMRI:
—>Huettel, S. A., Song, A. W., & McCarthy, G. (Eds.). (2009). Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. (2nd Ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.
A photo of Phineas Gage has been discovered! Gage is one of the most famous case studies in psychology and neuroscience, due to his survival of an accidental explosion that drove a tamping iron through his skull. The giant rod passed directly through his frontal lobe, and despite his physical recovery, Gage was never the same. His personality was greatly altered thereafter; he became emotionally labile, vulgar, and unable to hold down a steady job. His story is really kind of tragic; he survived, but the pleasant, well-liked person that he had been before the accident disappeared. Read more about the discovery by the Wilguses, who posted the photo on flickr, and about Gage himself.
This gives you an idea of how the image is constructed…