Phantoms in the Mind

By Paul


A visit to the hospital often brings up interesting things. A colleague I met at the hospital mentioned about a strange case of a woman who gave birth recently, refusing to take care of her new born.

The birth was normal and the woman took care of the baby initially. After about a week, the woman refused to give milk to the child and got angry when she sees the child. She complained that the child had come into this world after cutting her stomach. The doctor diagnosed her with a rare neurological disease. ( If any one of you had come across a similar disorder and know its technical name please let us know)

The relationship between mind and body has always fascinated me especially after reading the V. S. Ramachandran’s popular introduction to neuroscience, Phantoms in the Brain. The above case illustrates a physical change in the body triggering a reaction which affects the person mentally. In other cases like pseudocyesis or false pregnancy (it is said it affected Mary Tudor, a queen of England, who was falsely pregnant twice, with one episode lasting thirteen months) it is the other way. One explanation given by Ramachandran of false pregnancy is that it could be cultural; many women felt extreme social pressure to have a baby during the olden times and the disease is rarely seen today.

Ramachandran (first scientist to have done a successful amputation of a phantom limb) and Oliver Saks have been great popularisers of neuroscience. What I like about Ramachandran’s style of writing is that he always try to tell the big picture and adds humour as well. He also warns budding scientists not to ignore every anomaly they see and learn to differentiate between a trivial anomaly and a genuine anomaly:

[A]s a rule of thumb, if an odd, inconsistent observation has been lying around for ages and has not been empirically confirmed despite honest attempts, then it is probably a trivial one. (I regard telepathy and repeated Elvis sightings as belonging to this category.) On the other hand , if the observation in question has resisted several attempts at disproof and is regarded as an oddity solely because it resists explanation in terms of our current conceptual scheme, then you are probably looking at a genuine anomaly. (p.223, Phantoms in the Brain)

Ramachandran points out elsewhere that for sciences that are still in its infancy (like neuroscience and psychology) demonstration-style experiments play an especially important role. He notes for example, “in recent decades all medical students were taught that ulcers were caused by stress, which leads to excessive acid production that erodes the mucosal lining of the stomach and duodenum, producing the characteristic craters or wounds we call ulcers. And for decades doctors treated it with antacids, histamine receptor blockers, vagotomy (cutting the acid-secreting nerve that innervates the stomach) or even gastrectomy (removal of part of the stomach). But then a young resident physician in Australia, Dr. Bill Marshall, looked at a stained section of a human ulcer under a microscope and noticed that it was teeming with Helicobacter pylori- a common bacterium that is found in a certain proportion of healthy individuals. Since he regularly saw these bacteria in ulcers, he started wondering whether perhaps they actually caused ulcers.”

Bill did mention it to his professors and they were adamant that it was conventional wisdom that ulcers were caused by stress and what he was seeing was probably a secondary infection. Anyway Marshall did not stop there. He carried out an epidemiological study which showed a strong correlation between the distribution of Helicobacter species in patients and the incidence of duodenal ulcers. Even this did not convince his superiors. Finally Marshall swallowed a culture of bacteria, did an endoscopy on himself and demonstrated that his gastrointestinal tract was full of ulcers! He went on to do a proper clinical trail and showed that ulcer patients who were treated with a combination of antibiotics, bismuth and metronidazole recovered at a much higher rate- and had fewer relapses- than did a control group given acid-blocking agents alone.

As Ramachandran mentions:

[A] single medical student or resident whose mind is open to new ideas and who works without sophisticated equipment can revolutionize the practice of medicine. It is in this spirit that we should all undertake our work, because one never knows what nature is hiding…Every scientist knows that the best research emerges from a dialectic between speculation and healthy skepticism.”

For Discussion: Should economists give more emphasis to ‘demonstration-style experiments’ in doing economics like teaching capuchin monkeys to use money (and also to use money for sex) and approaches pioneered by Vernon Smith.

Links: There are several good neuroscience and cognitive psychology blogs like Mind Hacks, Brain Waves, Brain World, Cognitive Daily, Neurodudes and Neuroeconomics.

Here are lectures of Ramachandran which was made to his latest book The Emerging Mind. Even OECD has publications on the brain. Neuroeconomics is fast becoming an important area of economics.


Buzzcut wrote:

Mr. Engineer here takes issue with calling psychology a science. I just don't think that you can control enough of the inputs to do real scientific experiments in the field of psychology.

Even so called cognitive science falls short of the true science bar, in my opinion. Okay, you can do experiments where you measure blood flow in the brain, or whatever they do, but they're just assuming correlation between blood flow and whatever parameter they are truly interested in.

Let me put it this way. If your "experiments" result in data with R squareds routinely less than .9, your field is not a science!

-- August 12, 2005 5:16 PM

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