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 ... :)


Kahless said...

I think the illustrations are absolutely stunning. Fantastic.
Well done Badger.

Random Reflections said...

The frogs are marvellous- as is Badger!

B said...

LOVE the frogs.

You make me wish I knew more about neuroscience too, and that has never happened before :)

uphilldowndale said...

The frogs are splendid and Badgers brain is awesome.

Anonymous said...

I am loving the frogs. They really tickled me. Hulla xx

Dale said...

Yes, great frogs. And brain. And reflection.

trousers said...

Love the illustrations. And the left-right side of the brain stuff fascinates me, especially when discussed in such a clear, readable and enjoyable style as here.

Excellent stuff :)

Daisy-Winifred said...

Love the frogs, they are a great illustration of your final paragraph too... difference not a difficulty that one is green and another brown.

Yep, I think 'development' has and continues to throw baby out with the bath water when it comes to difference, so much talent, insight and understanding is lost simply because it comes from places that don't tick some requisite box titled acceptable, what fools.

Have only just worked out how to comment here... yeah I know but I'm coming from outside requisite box:0)

Showed the pages of your book to a younger friend of mine who liked them but commented that he thought his brother needed to read them more. They are 10 and 15 respectively. When I asked if he thought his brother would even pick it up he laughed and said if the cover looked like a football programme or had 'lady loosing her clothes' on it he might.

He told me he and his friends knew about the environment but his brother and friends threw rubbish... he said a lot more but felt that the problem was the older boys not he and his friends.

Maybe it's that cross from 'small' school to 'big' school that pushes out thought? be interesting to talk to my friend when he's 12 and a year into 'big' school.

DOT said...

Fascinating post and spectacular frogs.

If you've never read Dr. Oliver Sachs, author and neurologist, I can recommend him. He wrote Awakenings which was turned into a film with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. I started with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

DOT said...

Sorry to post again, but here is a quote from the site I cited:

Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette's syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer's disease.

Juliette M said...

Fabulous frogs! They are very cute and intelligent-looking.

Badger is clearly a genius. I spent ages trying to think of the word that would rhyme with flannel-slack'd (I tried not to peek ahead and see if I could put the word in myself.)

I ended up with 'anoraked' which made no sense.

Well done Badger :)

That's So Pants said...

I too love the frogs. Thanks Badger.



Badger said...

Thank you everyone for liking my frogs! :)

Badger xx

oregontribal1 said...

Holy Humans!! I have arrived from whence the Black Box "became" a fixture on my blog!! How amazing is that?? I absolutely LOVE the Black Box....I am never sure where I might "travel" to however, I still love trying it out. It's almost as good as the "Floo Network" !! Have a safe and Happy Halloween! ~Teresa~