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Human brain disease is a subject that piqued my interest, as I am self diagnosed with strange abilities and given the superhero name of Apophenio. That self absorption, to my way of thinking, means the ability to see things which other people do not see and to hear, feel and comprehend things which others don’t. Since I have given the supername to myself which implies I have some sort of mental disorder, for me, a lecture by one of the world’s foremost researchers on brain pathology was not to be missed.

Katherine Rankin from UCSF ( New York Times review of her work) gave a talk entitled, Is there a Neuroanatomic Basis for Personality?: New Insights from Neurodegenerative Disease. This was a wonderful fact filled lecture with an abundance of slides of various brain scans of degenerate human brains associated with detailed descriptions of the personality anomalies associated with the particular problem areas in their brains. Because of time constraints, the lecture was limited to an “academic hour” but more complex words, pictures and movies were packed into that hour than any outsider to brain pathology, such as myself, could possibly comprehend. I wasn’t watching for it but there didn’t seem to be a single filler word like, uh, you know and like, in the blizzard of rapid-fire five syllable words strung into long sentences. I loved it. Words seen in the title like neuroanatomic and neurodegenerative would be the easy ones. I can’t remember any of the juicy ones to repeat or spell but most scientific words are to some degree self-explanatory so the lecture was easy to follow if you have a mind willing to be nimble and just let some of the obviously good stuff slide by.

After the lecture there was a luncheon which had more sandwiches than attendees so they didn’t seem to mind my sitting in on their graduate seminar and eating one. I tried to ask a few good questions when the ball came rolling round to me and I guess they were good ones because Dr. Rankin said they were very appropriate to her research. One question dealt with a comment she made during the lecture, that when someone holds a pen in their mouth it interferes with that person’s ability to feel certain emotions. I mentioned my experience with Bell’s palsy and the fact that when I smiled my internally perceived feeling was that of hypocrisy and not pleasure because only one side of my face smiled and the other side was totally slack. Then I asked if there were similar effects when a person’s upper face eye-expressions were mechanically constrained as they were with the mouth constraints in her example and in my Bell’s palsy. Although she was widely read on this subject and there were several others present who were also graduate level psychologists no one mentioned knowing of any research of that type.

This evening while writing this blog I have gone to the mirror and tried to do some experiments with my own face. It is a little difficult to do effectively — but by stretching the muscles out with the fingers and then an expression which would contract them is attempted it feels as if the emotion which should be felt isn’t being felt as strongly. For example when I pull my eyebrows up and back with my fingers and then try to express the emotion of a scrunched-face-anger it doesn’t feel very compelling but when I release my finger grip and let my face contract into the angry expression my internal emotional state feels angrier.  When, at the same time, I use my thumbs to hold my mouth up and back into a more smile like expression there is even less feeling of anger and releasing my grip produced an even more pronounced effect as my face assumed the angry expression.

This reminds me of the Charles Darwin experiments reported in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals which I read in the 1960s, where he placed some electrodes on the face of a subject and with applied voltage forced the man to grimace. The new experiment presented by me here is essentially the opposite of that one. Here the muscles are prevented from contracting rather than being forced to contract. If the brain is hooked to the face muscles in such a way that there is a feedback between the two then it would seem reasonable that any type of direct influence upon the face muscles or upon the equivalent brain cells would effect its correlated opposite. A more controlled experiment could be done with temporary muscle inhibiting chemicals. Perhaps a less invasive experiment would be to give people about to have Botox injections various personality assessment tests and then retesting a week later, after they were adapted to their new facial condition, to see if they are having a personality response to not being able to perform certain expressions.

I have commented in the past, on this blog I think, that when I go to bed at night, if I place my face on the pillow in such a way that it is stretched into a smiling expression that I feel happier and more comfortable as I doze off to sleep.