A Few Notes On How Brains Affect Smarts, Sex, And Sensibilities

Ed Raymond

We have a long way to go in discovering how all those circuits in the brain work. Experts are working on the case of the Italian man who always wants to speak in French. In 2012 an Italian man suffered a brain injury from an arterial anomaly and immediately started to speak in French. He had taken French in high school but he hadn’t used the language for over 30 years. Some scientists say he suffers from a “compulsive foreign language syndrome.”  His French is filled with inaccuracies, but he insists on speaking it to his wife, his relatives, and to his fellow hospital patients. He has offered to teach his neighbors his favorite language. He not only expresses euphoria in French, he buys and reads French magazines, relates well to French movies, immediately likes French food better than Italian, and welcomes friends with a hearty “bonjour!” instead of with “buon giorno!” There are quite a number of cases of brain injuries causing complete language changes. If interested in this language phenomenon, read many cases caused by strokes covered by Dr. Oliver Sacks, who recently died of cancer. My wife Corky had a stroke a few years ago where the words suddenly disappeared from the pages in a book she was reading. Why does a Croatian teenager recovering from a 24-hour coma wake up speaking German to her parents? They need a translator to talk to her. In 2013 a 61-year-old U. S. Navy vet woke up in a Florida motel speaking Swedish because he had forgotten English. There has to be brain connections somewhere we know nothing about.
Diet has great influence over how our 100 billion connectors connect. French fries, the favorite food of young children, are not brain food.  Here are foods that have “grown brains” and scientifically cut dementia and Alzheimer’s as much as 53% in some tests: Olive oil, broccoli, spinach, kale, beets, tomatoes, avocados, nuts, pomegranates, blueberries, grapes, dark chocolate, and green tea! The problem is low-income families cannot afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, so they buy foods that diminish hunger—and brains.

We Have To Build Brains Early

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof  has written how income inequality and other factors have a role to play in building brains. He cites a West Virginia study which indicated that one-fifth of the babies born in the state were born with alcohol or drugs already in their system. Those two items are not brain-compatible. Even pre-school programs for four-year-olds may be a little late to help in brain development. Brain research over the last decade indicates that adult life may be shaped by what happens between pregnancy and age three. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago, bluntly states: “The road to college attainment, higher wages, and social mobility in the U.S. starts at birth. The greatest barrier to college education is not high tuition or the risk of student debt; it’s in the skills children have when they first enter kindergarten.” Kristof writes: “Heckman is not a touchy-feely bleeding heart. He’s a math whiz renowned for his work on econometrics. But he is focusing his work on early education for disadvantaged children because he sees that as perhaps the highest-return public investment in the world today.” Dayton evidently agrees with that analysis. Heckman argues that less money will be spent on juvenile courts, prisons, health care, and welfare; consquently early education programs will pay for themselves several times over in the long run. Sound like something real conservatives would like.  National Gallup polls support early education programs by a two-to-one margin.
Poverty is still the biggest determiner of brain development. Good nutrition and the relief of toxic stress from poverty can improve connections among circuits in the brain. Exposure to language is very important, the more exposure the better. Experts say that by age 4 a child of professionals has heard 30 million more words than a child on welfare. Words promote and form connections. Research by neuroscientists reveals that children in poverty have high levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, which has a deleterious effect on areas of the brain such as the amygdale and hippocampus. Cortisol may affect impulse control and emotions, memory, and even metabolic functioning which may impair brain growth. Roger Thurow in his book The First 1,000 Days states: “It is in the first 1,000 days of life that the stage is set for fulfilling individual potential. If we want to shape the future, to truly improve the world, we have 1,000 days to do it, mother by mother, child by child.”

Do We Have Male And Female Brains?

The recent kerfuffles about the LBGTQ community and the use of bathrooms by transgenders have created interest in the old questions about differences between male and female brains. Researchers at the University of Tel Aviv recently studied the MRI brain scans of 1,400 individuals. It seems that very few brains have distinctive male or female characteristics, that with the vast majority one just can’t tell whether the brain is from a male or female. This tends to support the idea that it’s really not what’s between your legs, it’s what’s between the ears. A researcher put it this way: “Brains with features that are consistently at one end of the “maleness-femaleness” continuum are rare. Rather, most brains are comprised of unique “mosaics” of features, some more common in females compared with males, some more common in males than females, and some common in both females and males.”  In other words sexual identity cannot be identified by brain scans. The tentative conclusion from this first real attempt to identify male and female brains: We can’t tell gender differences from examination of brains. Scientifically everyone seems to be different.
While writing about transgenders and their use of bathrooms I ran across the fascinating story of the highest ranking transgender official in Pennsylvania, the physician general. Richard Levine played linebacker on his high school’s football team at an all-boys institution in Boston, then graduated from Harvard and Tulane Medical School and became the chief resident at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York where he also taught classes. In the meantime he married, had two children, and enjoyed his career at the top of his specialty. But something was missing, so Richard started to see a therapist 15 years ago. Eight years ago Richard grew his hair long and announced he was actually a transgender woman.  Five years ago he changed his name to Rachel. Her signature stayed the same, but Rachel’s mother, who accepted the sexual change readily, told her that she and her husband had decided to use the name Rachel if she had been a girl at birth! Now Richard was over fifty when assuming the name Rachel. Richard-Rachel moved to Pennsylvania in the 90s, worked at the renown Hershey Medical Center, and has become Pennsylvania physician general  (like a surgeon-general) and an advocate for the LBGTQ community. Rachel divorced three years ago, has taken voice lessons for a year and a half to sound more like a woman---but is still a baritone. I wonder if Richard-Rachel has ever had an MRI. I’m curious about the male-female brain aspect. Could we have forecast that Richard the linebacker would transgender to Rachel who loves chunky necklaces after age 50? With what Richard-Rachel is going through, those 100 billion neurons in his brain must be going snap, crackle, and pop.

With a 17-pound Brain, Are Sperm Whales Six Times Smarter Than A Human Being?

We haven’t even scratched the surface of the sperm whale’s big brain, so we have no idea of their speech except a few recordings of their communications. They seem to know their world quite well, but that’s about as far as it goes. Elephants have brains weighing up to 12 pounds, exhibit empathy, sympathy, family and motherly love, and grief at the death of a relative or friend. They even have funerals.They can distinguish sounds at 20 miles, know and remember waterholes for decades, entertain us with unbelievable acts at circuses, and sometimes get pissed at their arrogant human caretakers and squash them. They’re a lot like us—but we don’t know enough about them yet. We don’t know enough about us yet either. What possessed this Ohio man?
In an argument over religion, Baptist David Chapin killed his best friend Catholic-pagan-Buddhist Donald Lining when they were roommates at age 23. Chapin, now 60, has been denied parole for the sixth time, probably because when he killed his buddy, he ate part of his brain. At his trial he said it had been part of a mutual agreement between the two. He pleaded insanity but was sentenced to life by the court. Chapin is still considered to be unfit for release. Geez, how come?  What was he thinking? What parts of his brain made these connections? Would a sperm whale or elephant do the same thing to a buddy? We really don’t know yet.
Last week we killed a rare male silverback gorilla because a three-year-old boy fell into the Cincinnati gorilla exhibit and was in some danger from the inhabitants. The boy survived ten minutes with the 420-lb gorilla before the gorilla was dispatched with a rifle shot. It was a three-day national major news story. But during that news extravaganza of three days, 93 of us humans were killed by firearms in the U.S., and 246 were wounded. But our brains mourned one gorilla. We live in a curious world. Since 2001 30,000 children ages 0-17 have been killed by firearms.