Topic 7: Brains

[Back to the course overview]

We begin our cautious approach to brains by reminding ourselves of the pseudo-science of phrenology, which worked with the assumption that the brain was, in fact, best understood as a collection of independent organs, each devoted to a specific mental function or psychological faculty. Unfortunately, nobody could ever agree what the set of faculties was (poetical talent, anybody?). For us today, the important lesson is that it is unwise to project our naive understanding of ourselves onto the brain through the simplistic association of a function with a location in the brain.

In this short video we meet Phineas Gage, whose injury to the frontal lobe went down in medical history.

Next we encounter Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

Next we meet DIffusion Spectrum Imaging and Diffusion Tensor Imaging, and we discuss the proliferation of nonsensical neuro-rubbish fields.

Electroencephalography, or EEG, recording provides the oldest form of neuroimaging, dating back to 1924. The signal recorded at the scalp is very difficult to interpret, but provides a useful index for some purposes.

We finish our brief study of brains by considering how different neuroimaging technologies can be usefully combined, how we can record from more than one brain at a time (the brain in social interaction looks very different from the isolated brain) and we briefly look at brain-computer interfaces.

Required reading:

Wall, Matt. (2013) What are neuromarketers really selling? The poor data and shoddy logic behind a hyped business boom. Slate Magazine

Janik, Erica (2014) The shape of your head and the shape of your mind. The Atlantic

Further resources:

The Brain Tutor software is a fun way to learn your way around the brain, to find out about the conventional forms of representation, and for decoding much of what you may read about brains. It is available for free here:

More on neuromarketing: Meskauskas, Jim (2014). Media maze: Neuromarketing, Part 1. iMedia.

I strongly recommend any book by Oliver Sachs, a clinical neurologist with a gift for describing neurological problems in a very empathic way, who passed away recently. Among his many books, you might be interested in “The Mind’s Eye”, and he is probably best known for “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”. “Musicophilia” documents odd conditions associated with altered musical sense. “Awakenings” was made into a slightly dodgy film. Stories contained in any of these are relevant to the whole of this module. His autobiography, published around the time of his death is “On The Road”.

Espinel, Carlos Hugo (1996) de Kooning’s late colours and forms: dementia, creativity, and the healing power of art. The Lancet.

This article is about the artist William de Kooning. Its importance lies in how an understanding of a whole person can change the way we think about a brain pathology. Or you might choose to  disagree?