Thursday, 16 October 2008

On Badger Brains

The climate change book is ticking along nicely. Badger has done some amazing illustrations, including these lovely frogs. She enjoyed drawing the frogs so much that she hardly ticked at all while she was working away at them.

Today we are mostly drawing brains. And I had one of those 'aha!' moments where a bunch of seemingly unconnected things suddenly came together.

Recently Badger's talent for spontaneous rhyming couplets has reached new heights. They were always tuneful and perfectly scanning, but when Badger ticked the answer to a question on University Challenge we were really impressed. The challenge was to complete the final line of a John Betjeman poem ...

Red hair she had and golden skin,
Her sulky lips were shaped for sin,
Her sturdy legs were flannel-slack'd,
The strongest legs in ...

'Pontefract!' ticked Badger. 

And she was right. Badger isn't into poetry - Betjeman's charitable request for friendly bombs to fall on Slough has passed her by. So, you can imagine how astounded Ms M and I were. As was Badger - who claims that she wasn't even sure of the meaning of the word Pontefract before she ticked it out.

So. We have a Badger who knows that she is going to sing but not which words might come out, and who completes poems spontaneously with correctly scanning and rhyming vocabulary, only partially aware of the meaning of the words being used.

And then, just now, I had to sketch a diagram of the brain, separating tasks by hemisphere. This stuff isn't an exact science, we are still very wobbly on what we do know about the relationship between the mind and the brain but we've got some rough ideas. One of the most well understood areas is language - the consequences of injury to parts of the brain being particularly obvious when they manifest in speech.

Conversation requires both sides of your brain. The left-brain (the logical, reflective side) stores vocab - the appropriate words to use for things and people. The right-brain (the creative, emotional side) stores tone, cadence, accent and meaning.

Badger is clearly a right-brain dominant person. She is very creative and spends most of her time engaged in stuff which can't be simply calculated or worked out. She even does the maths for her web designs by intuition - choosing a number and then guessing how much to adjust it by (a right-brain process, where calculation is a left-brain process). 

Badger's brain is positively brimming over with extra dopamine - this is what confirms her neurological diagnosis of tourettes. Her blood tests show far higher levels of this vital neurotransmitter than an average person. Our crude understanding of her tourettes is that it's a bit like spraying the inside of a computer with a fine mist of water. Everything still works but you get a lot of short circuits as well - generating activity that perhaps wasn't directly intended.

What's got me all excited is this connection:

1) Badger's brain is mostly firing on the right side when she's being all creative (which is most of the time).
2) So, any spontaneous firing is also more likely to kick off on the right side.
3) Badger says that she is aware of the urge to tic a tune, rhyme or rhythm.
4) Badger says that the actual words which emerge are a complete surprise to her. She only knows what they will be when she actually hears them out loud.
5) The words come from her left brain.
6) The words seem to be primarily selected on the basis of how they sound / fit, but are also then frequently influenced by some sort of context - just not necessarily the obvious one.
7) The choice of words may or may not be related to Badger's right-brain activity around meaning ... where no scanning / rhyming word fits the context Badger often makes one up out of bits of other words.

Badger's therapist has commented before that she doesn't believe the tics are utterly random - that they do have some meaning, at least in their selection. This is something I've observed as well, though sometimes it's harder to determine what that meaning might be than others.

And now I wish I knew more about neuroscience.

What this really illustrates though is the extent to which neurological differences such as tourettes, autistic spectrum disorder and aspergers really are primarily differences. Whether the difference turns out to be an asset or an impediment is then determined by a whole bunch of other factors, mostly environmental. I have no doubt that in the right small tribe Badger would be revered as a soothsayer or shamen. A walking 8-ball. You never know what you're gonna get next, but it's certainly not meaningless.

Oh, and I hope you like the frogs ... :)