Aphasia and studying the human brain - 15 October 1993

A couple of fascinating items were published this week that reminded me of an object that was in my boyhood as much a part of the domestic furniture as an upright piano or, in most rows of houses in the North, an aspidistra. I'm thinking of a human head on a small pedestal, not the thing itself, goodness, but a model that looked like marble and was probably polished plaster.

The cranium the part that encloses the brain was marked off into partitions of various shapes and so you would not think that these markings were guidelines for a surgeon in those days of course brain surgery was like me in its infancy, each of the partitions was boldly described by its function, so the moment you looked at this stolid face, among it you read in one division reasoning, in another ambition, in another desire and so on.

The idea was that each drawn, separate triangle, rectangle whatever identified a particular organ or locality of the brain, which was the seat of a distinct emotion and this was certainly until the First World War, I'd say, propounded quite seriously by serious men who maintained that they could tell what was wrong with you mentally that is by the shape of your skull. The theory was developed by Franz Josef Gall, it was popularised in this country by two brothers, it was known as phrenology. And I well remember in any town you lived in, at sometime you would pass by an office or a house with a printed sign in the window "Dr J Ramsbottom, Phrenologist". Just as many people in those days believed in phrenology as today I imagine in astrology. But since there was absolutely no scientific proof of any of it, it faded away to be replaced by other superstitions and bugaboos.

Today, you would have to haunt the auction rooms to find one of those heads and the last one I saw brought an outrageous price, in the region, oh say, $20,000 or the price today of a single frame, one 24th of a second of a strip of a Walt Disney movie cartoon. Well, anyone who saw one of those heads today would surely burst out laughing, though I don't suppose our laymen's view of what goes on inside the brain is much more sophisticated, but there are obviously by now 60, 70 years after the introduction of brain surgery, there are other experts, people who call themselves neurobiologists, who don't cut and repair the brain, but develop tests to try and find out what goes on, why and which part of the brain triggers what sort of motion or emotion.

Two women and a man at the University of California at Irvine, that's south of Los Angeles, have come up this week with an hilarious, very credible discovery that listening to Mozart's music improves your score in an intelligence test if you take it immediately after the concert. The study was of a quite small sample 18 men and 18 women students at the university and after a bout of Mozart, the intelligence rating of all 36 went up by somewhere around eight or nine points. No change incidentally in the pulse rate, so I guess they weren't listening to Don Juan's, Don Giovanni's account of the 1,003 women he'd seduced in Italy, no it was exclusively piano music.

You may well ask, what sort of IQ test? I've always felt that the IQ business was unsatisfactorily vague not to say naive since there are all sorts of intelligence. I once knew an actor of towering fame who had the most exquisite theatrical intelligence, he could contrive and woo the subtlest meanings out of single phrases, off the stage and in conversation about anything else, he was one very dull you might have thought retarded bloke, so it ought to be said that the Irvine students heard Mozart and then were given what are described as non-verbal tests involving questions about the geometric shape of paper objects that had been folded or cut up. The three researchers say they are now moving on and are going to test the effect of other sorts of music including minimalist stuff of course and rock. I'll say no more about the team at Irvine except to add that if their students after listening to punk rock show any increase in intelligence at all, I am going to get me a phrenologists head and start studying it all over again.

Research of a more, shall we say, not more serious but more touching, more healing and complicated kind is being done just now at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and this is a continuing attempt to discover through brain damage people how we do our own word processing. All the patients studied are victims of some sort and there are many sorts of aphasia, which is the loss or partial loss of the ability to communicate through speech or writing or science, maybe because something went wrong with the brain centres. The Baltimore study is concerned with people who have different speech disorders and the doctors hope that by discovering why some people can recall everything but verbs and somebody else nouns and somebody else can see everything clearly but can't pronounce it, they hope that by discovering how the brain has gone wrong they hope to learn in the foreseeable future to put that part right.

The Baltimore researchers believe they've found out something about our brains that we didn't know till now, such as till recently, we thought we, we being linguists and certainly psychologists thought or assumed that the brain processed words through the original stimulus of ideas and images. You see a piece of furniture with four legs and a flat top and back there in the memory bank is the word that is tapped and comes forward "table", but the scientists studying these people with a brain defect, with aphasia have discovered that that's not the way the brain responds or deals with words. The brain for all these ailing people and the fair guess is for us sorts outs words by categories. Hence, the trouble the man had who could say right off "there's a crack in the mirror" when crack was a noun, but stumbled on cracking a nut, a verb, may be, it's tentatively suggested, the brain has separate storage bins for nouns, verbs, adjectives, also for written verbs as distinct and spoken.

Well, I tell you this may sound awfully laborious and picayune, the scientists are at the moment looking at the processing of words only, they hope to move on to sentences, but it will be quite a while before they attempt the grand survey of human language that some of our modern linguists simply announce as rediscovered gospel – pick your grandee … But if some of these defects can be corrected, then we should be on the way to the likelihood in time of curing aphasias.

The most severe pathetic case I myself have known was of the American journalist and the prose scourge of the nation HL Mencken of Baltimore, he had in his mid-70s a massive stroke. He recovered physically and he got his speech back painfully word by word by identifying objects and learning to say "finger, finger, spoon, spoon", a heartbreaking fate indeed for a man who'd been the master of one of the most personal styles in the English language and now was like a sailor on a raft marooned amid his favourite element. He looked up at the thousands of books in his library, useless without meaning, he could focus anything written or printed as well as you or I, but it all made no sense, It could have been an exotic foreign language.

By the grace of God, I can't think of any other benefactor, he had humour about his affliction, which may also tell us something about the brain. At that time, we're in the mid-1950s a fear of China and Chinese Communism was almost as rampant as the dread of the Soviet Union. Mencken used to go out and walk around his neighbourhood and when he looked up at the street signs and the shops names and the cinema marquees, anything with bold printed words in full view, he said "I don't know what all this fuss is about a Chinese invasion they're here already".

The Baltimore team and their colleagues and disciples around the country don't just listen and guess at the puzzling mechanisms going on, they have new machines that peer into the brain while the subject, the human being is talking, stumbling, hesitating, listening, writing, reading and their discovery so far is that the brain reveals, I quote, "a previously unimagined complexity". Now this may depress them for the time being, but it has excited one of the researchers to a startling generalisation. He says, "humans can take a limited set of sounds and arrange them in tens of thousands of different combinations, words, they can then link these combinations of sounds together in a limitless variety of sequences sentences and convey and infinite amount of information." Well I never.

I really don't recall running into anybody of that type, it seems to me I meet many more people, politicians, advertising, copywriters, lawyers who took a limited set of sounds arrange them in one or two combinations, link them together to convey a depressingly finite amount of information. People who have the gift, which Winston Churchill said nobody could deny Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, the gift of compressing the smallest possible amount of thought into the largest possible number of words.

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