Tag Archives: neuroscience

Rat Guillotines

rat guillotineMy York U. colleague Michael Pettit put me on to an item at the blog of the Medical Museion (U. Copenhagen) about home-made devices for the “sacrificing” of rats (and other small animals) that have completed their “service” as laboratory subjects, such as this improvised guillotine (left).

Most psychologists who have worked in an animal laboratory will be familiar with such objects, but they may come as a surprise to others, as they seemed to have been to the person who told the blogger about her discovery of one in a behavioral neuroscience lab in Sydney, Australia.

It is also worth checking out the comments on this posting, several of which are from people who have used machines such as this, and note that commercially produced versions have long been available as well.

Today’s Neuroscience, Tomorrow’s History

Tilli Tansey and Les Iversen recently produced a podcast series on the history of neuroscience, supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine. The first episode — “Today’s Neuroscience, Tomorrow’s History” — features Dr. Elizabeth Warrington, one of the pioneers of clinical and cognitive neuropsychology in the 1960s and 1970s. The interview is available, in multiple parts, as MP3 or as a written transcript. Videos have also been made available via YouTube.

Warrington was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1986. At the time, however, she was one of only a few women working in the field. Today, the Society for Neuroscience has a special committee devoted to pursuing remedies to address the challenges faced by those who choose to follow in the footsteps of such pioneers.

Objectivity given relationships in Neuroscience

Simon CohnIn a recent issue of History of Human Relations, 21(4), Simon Cohn (pictured left) explored the ways in which subjective experiences have been captured objectively through the use of brain-imaging techniques.  In his examination, he discovered a potential problem.

Although hidden from final scientific accounts, at the centre of this [imaging] process is the need for the researchers to forge brief but intimate and personal relationships with the volunteers in their studies. With their increasing interest in studying more and more complex mental processes, and in particular as researchers focus on what they term ‘the social brain’, a potential paradox arises from the commitment to the straightforward location of brain function and recognition of the more distributed and intersubjective nature of the objects of their study. Consequently, in order to elicit specific mental activities, such as empathy, the scientists inevitably employ a range of socially based resources, which includes establishing a personal relationship with the volunteers. The scientists themselves see this as ensuring that they can trust that the volunteers will participate in the ways intended. But in contrast, the article argues that the central feature is actually the creation of a sense of intimacy, which serves to align the expectations and experiences of volunteer and researcher. Yet, while this relationship is necessary in order to ensure the required mental state is generated, during the experiment itself a great deal of work is then done to ensure it can be excluded from the final conceptualization of mental activity. (From the abstract.)

In other words, Cohn examines the issue of how “objective measures” can be derived from what is a necessarily an inter-subjective process.

See also: Anatomy of an Invention: The Case of MRI

Henry Molaison Dies

Henry Molaison: For decades he has been known by virtually every student of cognitive neuroscience by his initials alone: H. M. The story is familiar to anyone who has studied memory over the past 50 years: In the 1950s, as a young man, he had a life-threatening case of epilepsy. Portions of his brain, including the hippocampus, were surgically removed in an effort to stop the seizures. The operation was effective but, before long, an unexpected and terrible side effect of the operation was discovered. H. M. was no longer able to form new long-term memories. He could remember much of his life from before the surgery. His personality remained essentially intact, but after less than a minute he would forget anything that he had experienced. He could not even remember the doctors, nurses and other people responsible for his care whom he had met dozens of times. Then Brenda Milner of the Montreal Neurological Institute discovered that H. M. could improve at complicated motor tasks such a mirror drawing, even though he would not recall having done the task before. And thus began the modern movement in memory theory to divide this central mental faculty into a set of distinct memory “systems”: implicit and explicit, procedural and declarative, and so forth. Continue reading Henry Molaison Dies

“In Our Time” on the History of the Brain, Part 2

fMRIThe latest episode of In Our Time discusses the development and evolution of neuroscience (here).  Although the focus is primarily on the present, historical aspects are included as well.

In the mid-19th century a doctor had a patient who had suffered a stroke. The patient was unable to speak save for one word. The word was ‘Tan’ which became his name. When Tan died, the doctor discovered damage to the left side of his brain and concluded that the ability to speak was housed there.

This is how neuroscience used to work — by examining the dead or investigating the damaged — but now things have changed. Imaging machines and other technologies enable us to see the active brain in everyday life, to observe the activation of its cells and the mass firing of its neuron batteries.

This discussion builds on an earlier program on the history of the brain (here and at AHP here).

Working with Brain Scans, Part 2

Morana AlacIn the latest issue of Social Studies of Science, 38(4), Morana Alac adds a new dimension to the history of visualization provided by the recent special issue of JHN (at AHP here).  She explains:

A significant part of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) practice in neuroscience is spent in front of computer screens. To investigate the brain, neuroscientists work with digital images. This paper recovers practical dealings with brain scans in fMRI laboratories to focus on the achievement of seeing in the digital realm. While looking at brain images, neuroscientists gesture and manipulate digital displays to manage and make sense of their experimental data. Their gestural engagements are seen as dynamical phenomenal objects enacted at the junction between the digital world of technology and the world of embodied action.

This latest essay builds on previous work published in, among other places, the Journal of Cognition and Culture and Social Epistemology.

Additional readings on the role of gesture in meaning-making are provided below the fold. Continue reading Working with Brain Scans, Part 2

Visualizing the History of Neuroscience

Amy IoneThe latest issue of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 17(3), is wholly devoted to the use of visual images and visualization in the long history of brain studies. Guest editor Amy Ione, in an introduction also made freely available at her blog, explains the contribution she intends it to make:

In the history of the neurosciences, physical images and cognitive visualization offer two frames of reference for thinking about the historical development of the field. The images of neurological illustration, for example, constitute a sourcebook on early medical theories. We can also identify a body of images that articulate how cultural beliefs influenced conclusions about behavior and learning as they relate to anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and our nervous system. More recently, the enthusiasm generated by brain imaging technologies has highlighted the role of visual images in our efforts to capture the form and function of the brain. In light of the many precursors that show our urge to know the brain has long had a visual component, it seems that the time is ripe to reexamine the historical role of visual images and visualization techniques in enhancing our understanding of the brain and human behavior. The eight articles that comprise this compendium offer a small step in this direction.

For all those who teach the history of psychology, this special issue offers a treasure trove of imagery. My only regret is that — even in the electronic edition — the graphics are all presented in black and white. For such an important collection as this, it is truly a shame that the publisher failed to provide a colour edition even if only for the web. (The image of the journal’s cover, appended to the front of every article, is the only colour in the entire issue!)

“The Psychologist” on Scientific Myths

The British Psychological Society’s flagship journal, The Psychologist, has published two items related to the history of psychology in its latest issue, and it has kindly made them freely available on its website.

The first is an article by Australian psychologist Malcolm Macmillan on the mythology surrounding the case of Phineas Gage, the Vermont railroad worker who had a tamping iron blasted through his head in 1848 and lived to tell about it.

Macmillan’s research on the case was published in An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage (MIT, 2002), and he has been interviewed for my podcast series, “This Week in the History of Psychology” (Sept. 11-17). Through extensive examination of the primary documents in the case, MacMillan has discovered that the Gage case has been distorted repeatedly through the century-and-a-half since, to suit the neuropsychological theories of the person writing the account. Continue reading “The Psychologist” on Scientific Myths

Classic Science from “The Giants’ Shoulders”

a giantThe second issue of the “The Giants’ Shoulders” — a blog carnival focusing on reviews of “great” scientific publications of the past — has been posted at the blog “The Lay Scientist.”

Of particular interest to historians of psychology will be the account by SciCurious of Paul Broca’s “discovery” of Broca’s Area of the brain. Although the account is valuable enough, it unfortunately appears to trade in the myths about Broca that were described in Roger Thomas’ article about commonly repeated untruths in the history of psychology (which appeared in the fall 2007 issue of American Journal of Psychology ). Continue reading Classic Science from “The Giants’ Shoulders”