Wednesday, June 6, 2007

If I only had a brain.

It came to my attention today that whether or not the brain is important to the human organism is still an open question. No, really.

Denyse O'Leary, a frequent intelligent design advocate at Uncommon Descent writes in her post entitled Brain: Do you really need a brain?:

Recent research has cast doubt on just how neurons transmit information in the brain, and some wonder just what role the brain as a whole plays in thinking.
Beg pardon? What role the brain plays in thinking? I thought this problem had been solved quite some time ago... But no, she presents this anecdote from Richard Milton:
In 1970, a New Yorker died at the age of 35. He had left school with no academic achievements, but had worked at manual jobs such as building janitor, and was a popular figure in his neighbourhood. Tenants of the building where he worked described him as passing the days performing his routine chores, such as tending the boiler, and reading the tabloid newspapers. When an autopsy was performed to determine the cause of his premature death he, too, was found to have practically no brain at all.
What, no data? Watch, I can do that too. I knew a guy in college. He doesn't have a liver. Or a heart. Nice guy. I wonder what role the heart plays in pumping blood... Apparently not an important one. (hint: I'm lying).

But wait, Mr. Milton has more to contribute to this important topic:
what on earth is the brain for? And where is the seat of human intelligence? Where is the mind?
Watch for it. Next you'll be hearing demands for medical schools to teach the controversy.

Update: Thanks to Paul for pointing me towards the original proprietor of this anecdote: John Lorber. An brief news report was published about him in Science over 20 years ago. Nonetheless, in the intervening period, apparently he has never published proof of his brainless wonder.



Paul said...

I've heard of this.... Search for "John Lorber" and "Sheffield University" for the origin.

ERV said...

Well, I mean, its no secret the brain is malleable. You can suffer a lot of brain damage and still be *okay*.

I dont think that leads to "OMG YOU DONT NEED A BRAIN", but thats UD for ya.

Anonymous said...

"Published proof"

Roger Lewin (December 12, 1980). "Is Your Brain Really Necessary?". SCIENCE 210: 1232-1234.

The Factician said...

Thanks, anonymous.

I dug up that paper last night. That's the news report I refer to in the update above. For those of you who don't have access to Science archives, there's not one lick of data in it (though for reference, they do show a photo of what a hydrocephalic brain scan looks like).

Paul said...

How in the world did unsubstantiated claims get published in a prestigious, peer-reviewed scientific journals? I am a little naive of how the scientific journal process works...

Thanks for looking up the article. I do not have access to Science archives.


The Factician said...

Science magazine actually has several sections. The front section is a news section and contains tidbits about various things in science, from changes in funding, to political appointees at the NIH to scandals. This story was reported in that section. It was a blurb about a guy who has some crazy ideas, written (as best as I can tell) by a journalist. None of this is peer-reviewed because it almost never contains data.

The middle section of Science is the "News & Views" section. This contains a dumbed-down version of some of the primary literature that is appearing in the paper (and some of the implications raised by those papers). It's primarily written for people outside the field. For example, I read the physics News & Views stuff because I lack the background to read the primary literature (I'm a molecular biologist). This is a great section for folks trying to understand new and cutting edge stuff. It's not clear to me if this section is peer-reviewed or not. I rather think that it is (but primary data doesn't appear here).

The main section of Science magazine is where the "letters", "reports" and "articles" are printed. These are all primary scientific literature (meaning they have data in them) and are peer-reviewed. The difference between the letters, reports and articles is mostly in the length and format, but they're all peer-reviewed.

I hope this helps.

Paul said...

Yes, it does help, very much. I'm disappointed that something that was always in the back of my mind as a "medical mystery" turns out to be totally lacking in substance. Thanks for ruining my fun! :P