Most brain imaging studies involving transgender people or people with gender dysphoria have focused on whether their brains look more like what’s typical for the gender they identify with, rather than the gender they were assigned at birth based on their biological sex. For example, whether trans men have “masculine” brains, and trans women have more “feminine” brains.
The results have been mixed and if anything point towards trans people having brains with distinctfeatures that are neither stereotypically male or female.
A new study in Brain Imaging and Behaviour adds to this trend, showing that trans men have unusual patterns of connectivity in brain networks involved in processing of the self, as compared with male and female controls. “The present data do not support the hypothesis that sexual differentiation of the brain of individuals with gender dysphoria is in the opposite direction as their sex assigned at birth,” the researchers said, adding that the unusual connectivity patterns they found in trans men “was detected in comparison with both male and female controls, and there were no differences between the control groups”.
Three years ago, the film Lucy came out starring Scarlett Johansson as the eponymous heroine who is implanted with drugs that allow her to use the full capacity of her brain rather than the mere 10 per cent that the rest of us supposedly use. In response I wrote an article for WIRED “All you need to know about the 10 per cent brain myth in 60 seconds“. Soon afterwards I received an angry, acerbic 1,200-word email from a reader: “I am obviously not going to insist you take your article down since that isn’t my place,” she wrote, “but you should certainly not feel proud to be spreading such misinformed information to the public”.
What particularly shocked me was not just the tone of the correspondence, but the fact this email, endorsing the 10 per cent brain myth, came from a Masters student in neuroscience at Yale. But perhaps this wasn’t such an odd occurrence. A new US survey published in Frontiers in Psychology finds that belief in brain myths remains widespread, and moreover, that extensive education in neuroscience seems to provide little protection from such beliefs.
Studying people who have brain damage or illness has been hugely important to progress in psychology. The approach is akin to reverse engineering: study how things go wrong when particular regions of the brain are compromised and it provides useful clues as to how those regions usually contribute to healthy mental function.
As a result, some neuropsychological conditions, such as Broca’s aphasia (speech deficits), prosopagnosia (a difficulty recognising faces, also known somewhat misleadingly as “face blindness”) and Alien Hand syndrome (a limb seeming to act of its own volition) have become extremely well-known – at least in psychological circles – and extensively studied. However, others are virtually unheard of, even though their importance to our understanding of the brain is significant.
Neuropsychologist Alfredo Ardila at Florida International University has just published in the journal Psychology and Neuroscience an overview of four of these little-known conditions, “so rare that they are not even mentioned in basic neuropsychology textbooks”: Central achromatopsia, Bálint’s syndrome, Pure-word deafness, and aphasia of the supplementary area. This follows a paper he published last year covering four other rare but important neuropsychological syndromes: Somatoparaphrenia, Akinetopsia, Reduplicative Paramnesia, Autotopagnosia.
“In neuropsychology … there are some unusual syndromes that are found very sporadically,” he writes. “But their rarity does not diminish their importance in the fundamental understanding about the brain organisation of cognition, as well as in clinical analysis of patients with brain pathologies.”
Here’s a brief breakdown of what Ardila has to say about these rare conditions and why they’re important.
Up and down the land parents and teenagers are engaged in tense negotiation and diplomacy in an effort to maintain domestic peace. Some households are finding more success than others. Their secret, according to a new paper in NeuroImage, is a literal meeting of minds – synchronisation of brain cell firing seems to foster emotional harmony. Moreover, when parents and their teenagers display this “neural similarity”, write Tae-Ho Lee and his colleagues, “this promotes youths’ psychological adjustment”.
These are intriguing findings – in the fact the researchers claim this is the first time that anyone has compared the brain activity of parent-child dyads with their interpersonal relations. However, sceptics will baulk at the rampant neuro-reductionism and at the paper’s repeated claims of brain-based causation on the basis of purely correlational evidence.
After chemotherapy treatment, many patients say their mind has been affected. For example they describe symptoms such as feeling confused, memory problems and difficulty concentrating – a phenomenon that has been dubbed “chemobrain” (Cancer Research UK has more information).
The causes are little understood. Are these apparent neuropsychological effects due to a direct physical effect of chemotherapy on the brain? Or could it be the stress and worry involved in chemotherapy that is responsible? Perhaps it’s both. To find out more, Mi Sook Jung at Chungnam National University in South Korea, and colleagues, conducted repeated brain scans and neuropsych tests with breast cancer patients undergoing chemo and compared them with similar cancer patients not on chemo and healthy controls. Reporting their results in Brain Imaging and Behaviour, the researchers hope a better understanding of the nature of “chemobrain” and its causes will make it possible for health professionals to offer patients better support and care.
Unfortunately and often with the best of intentions, surveys have shown that a lot of teachers believe these myths (for instance, one survey published in 2012 found that British and Dutch teachers believed around half of the 15 neuromyths they were tested on). Now a study in Frontiers in Psychology has focused on German music teachers and students to see how vulnerable they are to brain myths pertaining specifically to music. Although the participants showed some ability to distinguish between true facts and myths, they still endorsed around 40 per cent of the myths, especially those that contained neuroscientific jargon.
There are some common-sense reasons for thinking that being raised without siblings will have meaningful psychological consequences – after all, “only children” are likely to get more attention from their parents than kids with sibs, but at the same time they miss out on the social experience that comes from sharing, playing and competing with brothers or sisters.
The latest study to look into this, published recently in Brain Imaging and Behavior, comes from China where the government’s one-child family planning programme has led to a huge increase in the numbers of only children. Junyi Yang and his colleagues scanned the brains of hundreds university students, about half of whom were only children and also tested their personality, creativity and intelligence. The only children outperformed the participants with siblings on creativity, but they scored lower on trait agreeableness – psychological differences that appeared to coincide with relevant structural differences in their brains.
Back in the 1960s, Nobel-prize winning research shook our understanding of what it means to be a conscious entity. Epilepsy patients who’d had the thick bundle of nerves connecting their two brain hemispheres either severed or removed (as a drastic treatment for their epilepsy) responded in laboratory tasks as if they had two separate minds.
It’s an unsettling idea that has appeared in psychology textbooks for decades. But dig into the original studies and you’ll find the evidence for split brains leading to split minds was mostly descriptive. Now a team of researchers led by Yair Pinto at the University of Amsterdam has conducted systematic testing of two split-brain patients over several years, specifically to find out whether the division of their brains has also separated their consciousness. In fact, the results, published recently in the journal Brain, suggest their consciousness remains unified. It may be time to rewrite the textbooks.
“One 60-minute run can add 7 hours to your life” claimed The Times last week. The story was based on a new review in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases that concluded that runners live, on average, three years longer than non-runners and that running will do more for your longevity than any other form of exercise. But there’s more to running than its health-enhancing effects. Research published in recent years has shown that donning your trainers and pounding the hills or pavements changes your brain and mind in some intriguing ways, from increasing connectivity between key functional hubs, to helping you regulate your emotions. The precise effects sometimes vary according to whether you engage in intense sprints or long-distance running. Here, to coincide with a new feature article in The Psychologist – “Minds run free” – we provide a handy digest of the ways that running changes your mind and brain.